We met, Gordon and I, in 1966 at Tiger Mountain Auxiliary Naval Communication Facility in the Republic of Viet Nam. Our station was situated in a cave the Seabees had dug into the mountain near the top where our antennae field stood. We had, with the help of a cargo handling battalion, hauled a shit load of generators, our transmitters and antennas, weapons, and a portable galley, and everything else needed for the 12 enlisted men and one Ensign. We’d busted our asses working 16 hour days and built the facility to operational status in three short months. This effort was successful due to our chief, Chief Arnold who, it seemed, could build anything, get anything, and fix everything. Because of him we were a good crew and a happy one. I was on the team that encrypted and decrypted messages then relayed them to our ships out on the line as well as the swift boats and PBRs. Paul Gordon was our first class engineman who took care of two 5000KW generators. To all of us Gordy was an old man. In the Navy for about a hundred years, it seemed, he’d served on seven ships of the line and he’d requested Viet Nam for his twilight cruise. After his year in country he’d retire and head back to the Indian reservation in Minnesota where he’d grown up.
He was intelligent, self-taught, but the beer and this odd ultra-democratic attitude of his had kept him from making chief petty officer which bothered him not in the least. He loved to talk philosophy. Years ago he’d melded the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man with his Cree Indian beliefs. No label quite fit his beliefs which included elements of Marxism, utopianism, socialism, pantheism, animism and if such a word existed — cowboy-ism. He loved nature, and animals were equal to and some better than humans. As nice and friendly person you’d ever want to meet, still he had this knack for trouble, especially with officers. The day our new Ensign arrived for duty from Saigon, it fell to Gordy to pick him up at the airfield at Cam Ranh Bay as it was Gordy’s day to make the fuel and water run in our deuce and a half truck. Stepping down from the cab Ensign Pascal looked like Napoleon: proud, short, pudgy, with a receding hair line. Gordy had shut the engine off, hopped down and headed to the cave for a cold beer when Ensign. Pascal called him back.
“Aren’t you forgetting something, Petty Officer Gordon?”
“And what’s that, sir?”
“For one thing a good old fashioned Navy salute and I’d like you to take me to the Chief?”
“Why sure, sir,” he said with a sloppy little graze to the forehead. “Hey Banana, where’s the Chief?” he yelled at one of the seaman.
“He’s down in the ville, Gordy.”
“Well get your ass over here and unload Mr. Rascal’s gear.”
“That’s Pascal, Petty Officer Gordon, not Rascal. Ensign Pascal.”
“Right, sir. Get Ensign Pascal’s gear to his quarters then get them cases of beer down in the bug out pit. Anything else, Mr. Pascal?”
“I want to know as soon as the Chief gets back.”
So right away he’d antagonized our new OINC and branded the young officer with an unshakable moniker. Like it or not, he was Mr. Rascal, but for only a few hours, then his permanent nickname would evolve as Mister Asshole.
“Dear Eric, As of today I am the new Officer in Charge of Tiger Mountain Auxiliary Naval Communications Facility is in country. You asked how an Ensign fresh out of OCS gets to be an OINC? I don’t know. Whatever reason, it’s damned good luck. I gotta tell you, I’ve got a lot of work to do. My crew is in rough shape. My Chief wasn’t on board when I arrived and when he did show up he’d been drinking at one of the whorehouses in the village. These sailors don’t get it. You’d think the threat of disease would mean something to them. No, they’re off to the damned village at every chance. Have you heard of ‘The Red Rose”? It’s some wicked strain of gonorrhea over here that they haven’t yet found a cure. Get it and they have to send you to some quarantine camp on Guam until you’re cured. Some poor bastards have been there more than a year I’ve heard. The petty officer who picked me up wasn’t even armed. When I asked him why he didn’t even have a side arm he said, “Sidearm? I don’t want to kill anyone – I just came to pick you up.” The smartass. I’ll have that starch out of him soon enough. I learned one hell of a lot about leadership from that biography of Patton you sent me – and by God, won’t I run a taught ship. My command is mostly located in a natural cave that the Seabees enlarged. But fortunately my quarters are in a steel conex box the Chief had been living in. It’s hot and smells like cigarettes and beer –P U but thankfully is equipped with an air conditioner. Rank does have its privileges. The crew has hung a BOQ sign by the conex door. Poor devils sleep in the cave next to our transmitters. Everyone says it’s plenty safe here; there has been no enemy action on Tiger Mountain. Still, I don’t trust any of these damned gooks. I sure as hell carry a sidearm. Give mom a big hug and ask her to send those cookies she promised. Your Brother, Ensign Winston Pascal, USNR, Officer in Charge, U. S. Naval Communications Auxiliary Facility Tiger Mountain, Republic of Viet Nam.”
After chow the next morning Chief Arnold had everyone field day the cave and put on clean uniforms. At 0930 the Chief formed us up in ranks then fetched the ensign from his little can. Only things missing were a monocle and swagger stick. His helmet bore a freshly painted oversized gold bar. Of course we failed the inspection and he rescheduled it for 1600 and we failed that inspection too, and he rescheduled another for 2200 and we failed that too. After that inspection, the Chief went into the Ensign’s little steel box. I don’t know what he said, but the inspections ended.
From then on Mr. Asshole pretty well stayed holed up in his can except for morning quarters. The first time he did morning reports at quarters, he gives us all this talk about why we are here in Viet Nam and the nature of the Domino Theory, bla, bla, bla. It was hot; everyone wanted to get back to work in the cool, comfortable cave – we had a shitload of traffic to relay. Nobody gave a flyin’ fuck about his real politik bullshit until he started in about how on his first day at Tiger Mountain he heard a petty officer here make the statement that he “didn’t want to kill anyone. “Sailors,” he said, “that’s our main purpose here, in case you didn’t know it –to kill communists.” I saw the chief roll his eyes, and Gordy muttered something about “kill a Commie for Christ.”
Then Ensign Pascal asked if there were any questions and Firpo asks, “I thought our main purpose was to relay traffic, sir, I mean we ain’t goin’ on patrol like Marines or the Doggies. Are we?”
“You’re missing the big picture seaman, uh, what’s your name there?”
“Seaman Firpo, sir, Randall Firpo.” Does this mean we’re gonna start goin’ on patrol? If we do I want one of them M3’s.”
Then Schlosser chimed in. “Mr. Pascal, if we’re gonna start patrols – I think the Navy ought to give us a corpsman. Right now we gotta go down off the mountain anything happens like when Stevens broke his wrist. You reckon they’ll give us a corpsman when we’re on patrol…”
“At present there are no plans to go on patrol. That’s not a concern at this moment. I just want to give you an idea of the big picture of why we’re here, men. We’re part of a larger effort. Chief Arnold you may dismiss the men.”
The days rolled by and Ensign Pascal seemed to do everything he could to fuck up the good routine we’d established. He made us fire the two girls from the ville we’d hired to do our laundry and clean up. He wouldn’t eat with us and made Willy, our cook, bring his meals to his air conditioned can. Then he pissed everybody off royally by making us dig and build his own private officer’s latrine. At morning quarters he’d stand before us with a .45 in its holster and his helmet on his big round melon head and every morning delivered a little lecture about the commies and his fucking “big picture” To get his chop on the message boards I had to knock three times on the door to his can and wait until he’d yell “Enter.” Then often as not he’d say “Put it down on the desk there and wait outside.” The only things that made him happy were the nightly movies and letters from home. He spent an awful lot of time in his can writing letters home. We use to speculate about the war stories he probably made up.
At nights we sat around a small fire outside the cave, drank beer and shot the shit. On Friday nights most of the talk was about the fuel and water run – which on Saturdays meant a three hour stop at the ville, a compound of dirt floor bars and brothels. Most of the places in the ville were Army, but one place, Madam Binh’s, was exclusively Navy. Each Saturday half the crew hopped in our deuce and a half and had a trip to the little Army PX, then time for jollies in the ville with Ba Muy Ba 33 beer and taking turns at a lovely romantic tryst with a sweet little Vietnamese or Cambodian on an army cot in a charming little cubicle behind the bar partitioned off by hanging bed sheets.
One night Firpo said he’d like to kill a communist and Gordy asked him why. “Well it’s like Mister Asshole was sayin’, if we don’t kill ‘em here, they could be in California and New York eventually. Besides they wanna kill us. I say, bring ‘em on.”
“Shit, Firpo, the good thing about bein’ here in this little cave on Tiger Mountain is we don’t have to worry much about Charlie. Mister Asshole don’t know how good he’s got it. And for me, I don’t wanna kill nobody and I don’t give a shit whether they’re commies or Martians or zombies from hell. “
“You tellin’ me you wouldn’t kill these bastards if we was attacked?”
“Aw shit, of course, all of us would defend ourselves. Sure. But Asshole’s ‘big picture’ is a crock of shit. This whole war is a fuck story. It’s an unholy, perverse celebration of propaganda and demagoguery. All these little people wanna do is bring in their rice crop, screw their pretty little darlin’s, and play with their grandchildren and most of all to be left the fuck alone. They don’t give a rat’s ass for communism or democracy. And this stupid war is keepin’ them from their rice, their ladies and their grandchildren. When this shit’s all over and we’re back home the only thing they’ll remember is how many innocent little people got zapped in the name of Mister Asshole’s ‘big picture’.”
“Well, Gordy, I’d bag me a commie in a New York minute if I got the chance, and feel good about it too.”
“I believe you, young Firpo, I do. Then 5, 10, 15 years from now, if you grow up, you’d feel shitty about it, ‘cause I know you got a brain, and I know you got a heart too, mate.”
Then I asked Gordy what he thought the solution to Mister Asshole’s “big picture” was.
“Best thing we could do would be pull out, go home, and let these people settle out.”
“Just quit – like that? Shit, Gordy, the North Vietnamese would be down on these people like a hard rain.”
“Yeah, just pack up and head back home – but sooner than you’d think they’d sort it out – and whatever the North would do it sure as hell couldn’t be any worse than napalm, Agent Orange, or Puff the Magic Dragon, or fletchette bombs, land mines, or booby traps. If we quit, it’d be takin’ the fuel from the fire. It’d burn out in a week.
“The North would have big ole prison camps and torture.”
“And the ARVANS and ROKs don’t torture now?”
“But then Charlie would win! Damn Gordy whose side you on?”
“I ain’t on anyone’s side. I just think my ‘big picture’ makes a whole lot more sense than Mister Asshole’s.”
“What about freedom and democracy, Gordy.”
“Hey Gordy, you gonna join them hippy protesters when you get back?” Firpo asked.
“Which is more important to you, Spence, freedom and democracy or your mom, your dad, your brothers, your land, your children’s safety?”
“If everyone thought the way you did, we’d never got our independence from England. And maybe we’d all be speakin’ German now.”
“Way I see it,” Gordy says, “eventually England would have given us our independence anyway — how many English colonies are there now? And look they’ve got about the same freedoms as us. Anyway this here is a civil war that us and the Russians and Chinese have come in and taken over usin’ these little people as pawns. If the big countries had stayed the fuck out of the mix from the beginning, the Vietnamese would be plantin’ rice and flowers instead of buryin’ their dead and relocatin’. In the long run people have to settle their political affairs their own way. What works in Minneapolis ain’t gonna work in Saigon or Hanoi. Democracy is way overrated. And freedom, freedom is a wonderful ideal, but it only comes after full bellies and comfort. This war gonna bring freedom to these people? You bring up Hitler – well your Hitlers, your Napoleons, and your Atillas they’re like some recurring disease or plague, when people get too greedy things get out of whack and they come along every once and a while and, then yes there has to be a war, sorry to say. Then you have a real case for war. Yeah, any sonofabitch like Hitler has to be taken out. But that ain’t the case here, and old Uncle Ho up in Hanoi ain’t no Hitler. Shit, the man’s a poet fer Chrissakes. When this shit is over you wait and see who the heroes are. You think it’s gonna be General Abrams? General Westmoreland? General Ky? Ha, not fuckin’ likely.”
“Gordy, you are one fucked up Indian, but I still love ya and no matter what you say I’d still kill me a commie ever the chance come,” Firpo said.
That next day was our Friday to make the village run. Me and Gordy and the rest of our section went down to have a sweet time at Madam Binh’s. Before we left, I sent Firpo to ask the ensign if he wanted us to pick him up anything to drink at the Army’s PX. Turns out Mr. Pascal was a Mormon and didn’t drink. But he did ask Firpo to get him some Orange Crush and chewing gum. Well, we did have a jolly time and drank a shit load of beer, and Gordy cracked open a bottle of gin to enjoy in the truck on the way back up Tiger Mountain. Just as it turned dark, our duce and a half finished the slow grinding climb up the mountain and rolled to a stop at the mouth of the cave. Ensign Pascal had heard the truck and come out of his can just as Gordy, trying to navigate over the tailgate, fell and flopped down, face up, laughing, hands grasping his gin bottle at the feet of Mister Asshole.
“How utterly disgusting. Spencer, get the Chief. I want this drunk written up. You, you’ll face punishment, you will.”
Gordon stood up dusting off his pants, coughed for a moment then faced Ensign Pascal and said, “So whatcha gonna do, sir, ‘send me to Viet Nam?” and laughed as he teetered off with his gin bottle.
This was an “aw shit” situation. Chief Arnold tried to reason with the ensign. It was useless and in the end Gordy went to Captain’s Mast for being drunk and disorderly and that damned shitbird ensign with less than 6 months in the Navy, never been to sea sonofabitch, Mr. Asshole, busted him to second class. Chief tried to explain to Ensign Pascal that this was a big cut in Gordy’s pay and since Gordy would retire in three months this would affect his retirement pay for the rest of his life.
“Well, Chief Arnold, maybe Petty Officer Gordon will reflect on this and mend his ways. Actually I could be doing him a big favor. He just may stop drinking; I’ll bet you didn’t think of that.”
“No sir, I hadn’t thought of that.”
Every man in the crew, except Gordy, was down. What kept him buoyed up was retirement. Gordy allowed how it was just money and on the reservation he’d be okay. His big retirement plans were to repair the little house his mother had left him, to level the floors, put screen wire on the windows, bring in plumbing and electricity, and most importantly a pool table. “My old shipmates and reservation buddies will always be welcome. We’ll shoot pool. Drink beer. Won’t be any working parties, won’t have to get underway. No early reveille. No inspections. No shit from pup dog snot nose ensigns.”
Firpo said he still wanted to kill a commie but he hoped the commie would kill Mister Asshole first. The Chief told him not to talk that way. The day after Gordy went to captain’s mast for punishment, Little Jim, our electrician’s mate, quietly did something which killed the little window unit a/c on the BOQ conex box.
The facility was protected by a 16’ tall wooden tower with a roofed platform encased by sand bags. A search light and a .50 caliber mount were fixed to the platform and we stood watches from eight at night to daylight up in the tower. Everyone but the chief, and, of course the ensign, stood watch up there. The four hour watches were boring but necessary. One night soon after Gordy’s captain’s mast, one of our radiomen took a 12” piece of plastic conduit and a sock full of gravel on watch with him. Using the conduit like a pea shooter he could bounce the tiny rocks off the conex box 30’ away. By 2:00 in the morning when the watch was really dragging, plinking the BOQ became great sport. Soon every watch section tried a hand at this and someone even drew up a plinking schedule so that the disturbances would appear random. After the sabotage of the a/c unit, Ensign Pascal had to keep the box’s door open and a fan going. But as he was deathly afraid of snakes he kept the box shut up at night. The plinking would rouse him and as soon as the watch heard the hinges of the box’s door grating, on would come the big searchlight, just as Mister Asshole opened the conex.
“Ahoy, in the watch tower what’s going on? Turn that light off, you’re blinding me.”
“Heard a noise over by your BOQ sir. Probably them monkeys again.”
After a couple of weeks of night monkeys he ordered the chief to have the trees around his BOQ cut down. After we cleared the trees out, the conex box lost all its shade, but somehow those pesky night monkeys returned. It got so hot in BOQ Mister Asshole told the chief he was going to move into the cave with the enlisted men. Chief Arnold told him he thought it was against Navy Regulations for officers to bunk with the men.
“You’re gonna have to get permission from a Saigon – I think it’s gotta
be from flag rank, too. You know sir, a request like that – you know –askin’ to sleep in with the troops – that might look kinda funny especially seein’ how you’ve got your own BOQ. Better think that one over, sir.”
Then we started with the cave snake stories. Evans and Dempsy went snake hunting in the jungle and managed to kill a dozen which they bagged and placed in the cave’s reefer. Every other day someone would drag out another dead snake he claimed to have killed someplace in the cave.
Day after day the heat wore him down. Every afternoon he’d ask the chief the status of the request for the replacement a/c.
“I was talkin’ to a senior chief up from Can Tho in the ville and he says there’s several pallets of a/c units on a barge down there. I could catch a helo ride down there and try, if you like, sir.”
“YES, YES, YES. Do it, Chief, PLEASE!”
This is how the chief got to fly down to Can Tho and spend a couple of days with his younger brother, a Marine stationed there. But, sadly, he came back empty handed.
“Sorry sir. There was a barge and there were two pallets of a/c’s but don’t you know, Charlie sunk the barge with a mortar attack the night I got there. I’ll keep tryin’, sir.”
We were half way into the dry season and it was hotter than hell. Dempsy and Evans kept the freezer stocked with throw-down snakes and Mister Asshole entered the cave only for his brief weekly inspection. The heat and loss of sleep were beginning to tell on him, he’d lost about 15 lbs. and with his balding head he was beginning to get that Auschwitz look. Once a month Commander Tripp, Mr. Asshole’s boss, visited Tiger Mountain.
“Damn Winston, you look like shit. Are you sick?”
“Well sir, my a/c went out and we’re having trouble getting a replacement. Jeeze it’s just so hot and I can’t get a good night’s sleep on accounta the heat and these darned night monkeys.”
“I’ll see if I can’t help out there. Get down to Cam Ranh Bay and get a physical anyway.”
A few days later a new a/c unit came in which Little Jim dutifully installed. The a/c was wonderful and the steady drone of its motor and whoosh of cool air covered the night monkey noises. God was back in Mr. Asshole’s Mormon heaven and all was right at the BOQ. For a week, life was bearable. A few days later Ensign Pascal headed down to sick bay at Cam Ranh for a complete physical. Seems like during his absence a freak dry season electrical storm hit the mountain and knocked out the new a/c. The doctor told Ensign Pascal he probably had some kind of allergy, wrote a prescription for antihistamines, and told him he needed to drink more liquids and to come back in a week.
Our parent command was the Naval Communications Station at Cam Ranh Bay and Dempsy, our yeoman, twice a week made the mail run there and handled any personnel business. He had served aboard a destroyer escort with Eddie Phillips, one of the hospital corpsmen stationed at Cam Ranh Bay. They were good shipmates and, for old time’s sake and a case of Wild Turkey, for which we’d all chipped in, Phillips the corpsman, constructed a duplicate health record for Ensign Pascal in which Lt. Simmons’, the examining doctor, notes were forged to include the statement “tested positive for gonorrhea 250 mg. tetracycline twice daily prescribed. Patient exhibits of mild delusion.” The notes for the following week added “continued positive results for gonococcus. Delusional behavior persists. Patient boasts of sexual prowess stated ‘so I’ve got the clap – big deal.’ – 500 mg. tetracycline three times daily — referral to psychiatrist.”
The next month Mister Asshole’s “allergies” still a problem, he returned again for a checkup and refill of his antihistamines. The third forged entry reported “continued positive results for gonococcus. Acute delusional behavior. Patient raves about heat, monkeys and snakes. Recommend quarantine at Naval Air Station Agana, Guam, until antibiotic resistant gonococcus improved, then three month observation at Naval Psychiatric Unit, St. Albans, New York.” Two days later Lt. Simmons, the original examining doctor, was killed in terrible helo crash on a medivac mission. Lt. Perkins the new doctor reviewed Ensign Pascal’s record the morning of his next appointment.
“Phillips, who is this Ensign Pascal?”
“He’s a nut case, doctor. Loco. He’s stationed up there at the Tiger Mountain Facility. His troops say he’s crazier than a bedbug. Stays shut up in a conex box and rants and raves about monkeys and snakes all the time. He keeps comin’ in with the clap. Reckon he can’t stay outta the ville. Doc Simmons thought it was Red Rose clap. Has him on mega doses of tetracycline.”
“College educated but too damned dumb to wear a rubber. Well, Phillips we’re too busy to waste any more time with this fruitcake. Get on the horn and tell Saigon we’re shipping out another quarantine case to Guam. Tell ‘em this one’s whackko and will probably need security.”
“Yessir. I’ll get right on it.”
Later under review requested by Chief Arnold, citing mental impairment of adjudicating authority – Gordy’s Captain’s Mast was thrown out, his rate and back pay restored. At the quarantine station in Guam, Ensign Winston Pascal, found to be free of the Red Rose gonococcus, resigned his commission and left the naval service to escape the rigors and stigma of military psychiatric evaluation.
© Gary Ives
First published in Rind Literary Magazine 30 June 2013