Driving the Garbage Truck. Friday 13/8/71 Now here’s a job that should keep me out of trouble, garbage truck driver. There were however a couple of things to consider, A. I didn’t have a driver’s licence, at all. B. It was a left hand drive and they drove on the right in Vietnam. (I had been given a few lessons in my Mum’s ’62 Holden sedan, on a mountain road, where a school bus met a disastrous end, and in Australia we drive on the left.) ‘No worries,’ said Lee with more confidence than I felt, ‘the vehicle’s crap you won’t hurt it.’ That’s okay for him to say. This was the same vehicle they picked us up in, attach a trailer – gasp – look at the little map they’d drawn and away I went. Screech, rattle. ‘Err, where’s the dump?’ – ‘Oh that’s on the other side of Nui Dat.’ Brilliant, bloody brilliant, Nui Dat was big and humming with trucks, jeeps and armoured vehicles. Sucking in a deep breath, hmm not too deep that trailer stank, I made my way manfully out to my first stop.
The day didn’t go well at all, lesson learnt, don’t go by the fuel gauge on an old vehicle, dip the tank. I ran out of fuel half way to the dump with the first load. I didn’t have to show a bare leg for too long when a kind soul fetched a little fuel for me. I continued my rounds of the unit Kangarooing the Land Rover as I tried to get used to a gear box that had no discernible pattern to it and singing ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman.’ After collecting the remainder I headed back to the dump where I became bogged on the roadside getting out-of-the-way of a convoy of trucks. Wonderful, bloody wonderful, pardon my French but there was mud from arsehole to breakfast time. I had a shovel, dug myself out and because it was hot took my shirt off. Hmm, that feels good, so I left it off for
a while too long. Finally dumping all the garbage I headed home and got a flat. At least it had a toolkit on board, so change the wheel over and make a beeline for the compound, the Spanners sorted the repair for me. I put my shirt on and ouch, yep, sunburnt. I kept that one quiet, you could be charged if you went sick with it. It was classed as a self-inflicted wound. By the end of the day I had mastered the vehicle and managed not to collide with every second vehicle I saw. In the end I picked a position in the gear box and went with it. Apparently I performed such a majestic job that they gave me the job the following day. Happy to say that nothing untoward happened. Add another valuable work experience to the list, Garbage Collector.
There are two possible reasons for my day being crap, 1. check the date, yes Friday the 13th. 2. The Land Rover was cursed. From what I gathered this vehicle once belonged to a French rubber plantation owner. The Viet Cong took it off him and traipsed around the jungle in it, obviously without insurance and registration. It ended up being repatriated by one of our Troops after a contact with the V C and brought back to camp. My own view was this: the V C wanted it to be captured so it could exasperate the many soldiers who would drive it. In a parlous state of frustration they would run screaming into the rubber never to be seen again.
Breaking Rocks. For those who haven’t been to the tropics, well it’s HOT. Even for young Laurie – transplanted Pommie and late of God’s own country southern Queensland where it gets a tad hot – South Vietnam took the cake. The sun didn’t shine on you, it broiled you in your own juices like a roast chicken in an oven bag. Monday morning back to the orderly room, Terry, with a sinister smile on his face informed me, ‘You’re working at the Sergeant’s Mess today, see Sergeant Whatshisface.’ The Mess, like every other building was constructed of wood with a tin roof and like anywhere you go in the army it had painted rocks around it. A pile of granite rocks each the size of your head were heaped nearby, Sarge pointed at them. ‘There you go Corporal, they’re all yours.’ – ‘Where’s the paint and brush?’ – ‘Oh you aren’t painting them,’ he handed me a 14 pound sledge-hammer, ‘you’re making gravel.’
The army works in mysterious ways. Millions of dollars were being spent daily on the war; they had an Engineer Corps who possessed magnificent machines for making roads and breaking things. Every road in the place had a blue metal base, so why did the Sergeant have granite rocks delivered? He gave me the hammer; I looked at it then back at him and then the granite. The look on my face must have spoken volumes, his face split in a grin when he said, ‘No, I’m not joking.’ Images of all the old prison movies I had seen came flooding back, the lines of convicts chained together along country roads. Hammers falling in unison to some deep voiced Negro tenor singing, ‘Coming for to carry me home’ in the background. The rattle of chains and the chorus of, ‘Water here Boss.’ The reality, me grunting in time to the impotent whack of the hammer as it sent sparks flashing off the stone. Did you know that blisters make a tiny sound as they form? It’s a squeaky type of noise as the skin expands and fills with fluid. The Sergeant’s face appeared on every rock as I managed to split a few. A Land Rover pulled up behind me, I kept hammering – whack, crunch – then Lee Bonser’s voice, ‘Just what have you been convicted of in my absence young Smithy?’ Turning, I leaned on my hammer and wiped a pint of sweat out of my eyes, ‘Being in the wrong place I think, Sir.’ – ‘I’m not having anyone working like a convict in my unit. Put your shirt on and follow me.’
We entered the Sergeant’s Mess, Whatshisname sat behind the bar basking under the Antarctic conditions of his air conditioner while sipping on an ice encrusted can of Coca Cola. Lee took me to the bar, pointed at a stool and said quietly, ‘Sergeant, give the good Corporal a tall glass of orange juice then join me in your office.’ Oh the bliss, a cold drink had never tasted so good. Lee came out and left the door open, I glanced at the Sergeant, damn I’ve pissed someone else off. No I didn’t get away scot-free, the rest of the day was spent in the kitchen bashing dixies. (There must have been a note on my personnel file that read, Smith LW really likes to bash dixies and get a detergent navel). I can’t say it was any cooler in there. I must have impressed somebody because I had another two days of cracking rocks, and my saviour nowhere to be seen.
A night on the wire. For those who stayed in camp, whether you were part of the rear echelon or in between tours out bush you had a crack at doing a little guard duty in the perimeter bunker. Each unit in Nui Dat had their own area of responsibility on the wire, we were near the main gate. The bunker was a beauty, a couple of sandbags thick and built extremely well, with an all-weather roof containing every thing that crawled, bit flew or slithered. At least that was my experience when I stuck my head inside for a look. Oh boy, the smell. Musty, mouldy sandbags have a unique aroma. It’s a damp earth – rotting hemp smell that probably had enough deadly legionella spores in it to coat your lungs. Successive guards farting in there through the night tempered the aroma, although I don’t know if it was for the better. You could stand up straight inside it and it had a sandbag bed against the back wall for the runner – me. A Browning .50cal machine gun was mounted and pointing out through the slit into our area of responsibility.
The job went something like this, front up at orderly room to retrieve list of that night’s personnel, receive broom handle, ‘What’s this for?’ – ‘To wake the blokes up, you don’t want to get within punching distance of anybody.’ Wander around and find the hut and bed the blokes are in, have dinner and locate first guard. Make my way to said bunker and arm the claymore mines.
They sat out there amongst the barbed wire entanglements come rain or shine. Making sure that the cable wasn’t connected to the firing device I rolled it out and inserted the fuses into the mines. That is after walking back and forth through the wire like a lost chicken. In the bunker again, attach wire to firing device and put device (or clacker as we called it) on a bag next to the fifty. Load said fifty and wait for the first bloke to turn up. Fifteen minutes before the end of each rotation I had to round-up the next candidate, this was okay except if the bloke was in the boozer or watching a movie, then they’d whinge. It wasn’t like they didn’t know. The hard part came after bedtime when you had to stumble through the huts with your torch and stick. Nobody wore pyjamas or undies. I wandered into one hut and shone the light around, everybody had a mozzie net up. It didn’t hide the fact that the place looked like a test centre for Viagra. Now I’m no prude but there’s something a little unsettling about waking a man up who has a roaring horn. I touched the stick against his foot and he came up swinging and cursing, ‘Err, it’s your turn on guard.’
The sad thing is I was supposed to sleep between doing my wakeup calls but the blokes on guard always wanted to talk so they’d stay awake. Come five o’clock the last one would leave and I did the next hour. Of course my eyes were hanging out of my head and I think I even drooled at one stage. Tired eyes straining out into the early morning gloom can play terrible tricks on you like, ‘What is that deer doing walking through the wire? Hang on, why is it barking like a dog?’ I found out later it was actually a barking deer, at the time my concern was it would set off the trip flares. The call came through on the radio to stand down, so it was a reverse order from the start of the shift. Unload the fifty, disconnect the clacker, wander out, remove fuses from mines, roll wire up go to breakfast. Hello, here’s a few familiar faces ; The Beast, Woody, Fish. Not only were the faces familiar they were tired, yet beaming with the afterglow of a peaceful yet active Rest and Convalescence in Vung Tau. Actually they all looked shagged out.
Induction. 21/8/71 I actually enjoyed this, everybody who found themselves posted in country had to go through an induction: It covered lectures on the enemy, what they wore, black pyjamas and straw hats for Viet Cong and a green uniform with a pith helmet if they were North Vietnamese regulars. There were displays of b(.)(.)by traps, *not that kind Laurie* enemy weaponry, getting to shoot your own weapon in, your responsibilities, the locals. What they didn’t say was that a lot of Vietnamese wore black pyjamas and straw hats. We were taken on a leisurely drive around the base to see where everything was, at least I knew where the dump was now. One booby trap that intrigued me was the old grenade in the bottomless can of coke or beer trick. If you want to see the whole range of devices just Google it, the can I thought to be particularly nasty. In the bars the Viet Cong would leave the can on the counter, with a grenade, minus the pin inserted up inside. So when your half drunk soldier out for a good time grabs what he thinks is his can and picks it up, boom. They didn’t care about the civilian casualties. Although I never found one, that trap stayed with me for years. Even drinking in a quiet country pub I always slid my can off the counter and put my hand underneath it.
The next induction (a personal one) involved the Boozer, or the Other Ranks canteen. All canned drinks were 25 cents a pop and I think a nip of scotch cost about the same. No glasses or mugs here, want a scotch and coke? Open the can pour out the first half-inch, top up with scotch. The hardest part of drinking at the club turned out to be a lack of Australian beer at times, and then we had to drink American beer. No disrespect to my US readers, your beer has a lower alcohol content, although I didn’t mind Schlitz and Colt .45. Now and then the artillerymen from the US army detachment behind us would come over for a brew. Invariably they would be wheeled home after drinking the same amount of our beer. They would get their own back, I’m sure they waited until movie time to begin their fire missions. Nothing interrupts a movie more than a section of 155 Howitzers blasting away over the top of your open air cinema. The rounds sounded like a train passing a few feet away, it cut out the retorts of those watching the movie. I won’t defile your senses with the comments. War is Heck.
Yes we had a few comforts, notably an above ground swimming pool donated to the unit by a town back in Oz. The liner eventually died and the empty pool became a colosseum for gladiatorial battles between whatever strange, dangerous insect or reptile brought back into camp. Our unit emblem was the scorpion, a big black one. Large centipedes would be pitted against scorpions or even larger woolly spiders, the stuff that nightmares are made of. Naturally there would be gambling. One enterprising lad captured a centipede and kept it in an empty vodka bottle. (some blokes took grog out with them) Out came the scorpion, into the pit it went with the centipede. Well over a foot long, dark green on the back with a yellow belly and legs. I don’t know whether it was the indignity of being cooped up in a bottle or maybe it had drunk the vodka dregs, whatever it was that centipede latched onto the scorpion and tore it a new one. Within half a minute our mascot was dead.
Next week: Sunday in a rice paddy.