Sunday, April 5, 2009

Da Nang

Sunday, April 5 - Reentry

I could see light through my eyelids this morning, wiggle my toes, and feel a pulse in my carotid arteries, so I knew I had survived. I felt like shit when I came home in July, 1972, but that was from a lousy diet, bad habits, and no exercise. That was less intense but lasted longer (six months or so) than this. I think I'm turning the corner, but since leaving Taipei on the second leg of the journey home, I have felt the struggle for Hamburger Hill being reenacted in my gut. Traveler's Diarrhea? Uncle Ho's Revenge? I don't know...I have not had diarrhea, just stomach cramps and fists of gas grinding right at the bottom of my sternum. With the stomach stuff, I didn't want coffee, so I had caffeine withdrawal headaches, and coupled with a biological clock a date line out of synch, it has been a lousy four days. Like I said, I think, with the help of Cipro, green tea, very little food, and some TLC, I'm about to normalize, so I need to finish the description of the last few days of the trip.

When the little road south out of Hue merged with Highway One, Joe had us load the bikes onto the van. Not only was there a lot of traffic and no shoulder, but we were headed up toward the Hai Van pass, a series of three steep climbs overlooking the South China Sea to the east and agriculture to the west. We were glad we weren't climbing this. I know a lot of people have done it and written about it, we saw one western woman pedaling up, but trucks, cars, and motorbikes were having a difficult time making the grade. At the very top of the third and highest point is a rest stop where travelers are surrounded by pearl and trinket hawkers. The stuff looked nice, and the women selling it told us, "You buy from me and I will never forget you," so John and I dropped a wad of dong up there. The prices are low, and the quality is not bad, so it is very difficult to say no. We took the bikes out of the van and rode down the 5-7km descent into Da Nang. John passed a tourist bus on a blind curve, so I did not see him until we hit the flats. That end of Da Nang and the suburbs leading into the city are somewhat barren and littered, not very attractive. We stopped for lunch at small cafe and had the first of several table top sterno cooker seafood hotpots. They brought out the fish, squid, scallops, oysters, and vegetables to dump into the broth once it reached temperature, but John, thinking the plate of oysters was there for the eating, sampled a couple. I told him that's how I contracted Hepatitis in Vera Cruz, in '74, and he said, "Oh, shit," and then Joe did start adding the oysters into the hot broth. I told John to wait 12 hours or so, and if his stool turned white and his urine turned bright orange, he would know. Luckily, these oysters were clean. We put the bikes back into the van and continued south on the coastal road. We were heading for Hoi An, the ancient town that acted as the primary seaport for Vietnam before the 1800s. Along the way, we passed the remnants of the old American air base, with hardened, bunker-like hangars for F4s and helicopters, still there. I told Joe that I very much would like to see if we could scout the hills above Da Nang to look for remnants of what was called Freedom Hill, the large base where hundreds of thousands of GIs mustered out, before heading home from the Da Nang air base.

Freedom Hill is where I spent the last four months of my tour in 1972. When A Battery stood down in late January, 1972, we packed up the guns and vacated Bastogne, heading south to Da Nang. In Da Nang, while the guns were decommissioned (turned over to the ARVN) and the clerical work was done to determine who stayed and who went home, we hung out on China Beach for a week or so, not doing much but partying and a little swimming. Back then, the beach was littered with concertina barbed wire which you had to navigate through to get to the water. My orders came through to report to HQ & HQ company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. They put me at a radio in a control center, surrounded by starched uniforms, big brass, spit and polish. I was to take reports from the field and compile records of what was being reported, body counts, wounded, various actions. After living underground and in the mud of Bastogne and Barbara for four and one-half months, with no brass, no protocol, no bullshit, just a job to do, I did not fit in to the clean and orderly environment and political correctness of that post. I'd had all the radio communications with forward observers, reports of damage and death and destruction I needed. I asked my CO for a reassignment. He made me the company mail man. Behind the command post (his office) was a little room where mail was sorted and handed out once a day. This gave me access to a jeep and three-quarter ton truck which I had to drive to the other side of the hill to pick up mail, and to the air base to deliver bags of outgoing mail. So many of the intended recipients of this mail were gone or reassigned, that it was a difficult job. More than 70% of the in-coming mail had to be returned, there were no records of where to forward anything. On Freedom Hill we lived in a sprawling field of half-plywood, half-screen, tin-roofed hootches, with a decaying, cockroach infested sandbagged bunker between every two shacks. We had hootch maids who did laundry, shined boots, cleaned up. It was a very boring four months.

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