Power to the People

“Shut up, man!” I hissed at Frank. He kept laughing while we were trying to sneak through the MP billet area in Phan Rang. We’d learned that they had a generator they weren’t using, but holding it in reserve in case theirs broke down. So many companies and platoons had no power except for what could be snagged from the main power lines. The mains weren’t reliable because they were overloaded and so brownouts and outright failures were consistent. Such were the conditions at a base camp during the Vietnam war.

“Fedder is gonna owe us big.” whispered Frank. Fedder was a huge black man from Philly. He stood six foot six and weighed in at 270 pounds, not a bit of it fat. He ripped the sleeves of his jungle fatigues off at the shoulder because his biceps were just too big. One flex of his arm and the double seam was history. His thighs matched my waistline and his calves were at least four times bigger than mine. Barrel chested and simply huge, he was intimidating to see. Whenever he was a part of our group as we went bar hopping on our time off, we never got into fights and never were denied entry into any bars, even those ferociously defended as the reserved area of this or that unit. Any challenge would cut off with a gurgle when the challenger got a look at Fedder. He was a monster.

But Fedder was also a pretty cool guy. Streetwise from growing up in North Philadelphia he was nobody’s fool. But he was a decent guy and pretty philosophical in spite of his background. He liked to read just about anything, you could often find him with his face in anything from a magazine to the classics. He had a very extensive stereo system and a huge collection of blues in boxes and boxes of reel to reel tapes. We intended to steal the generator from the MPs as a favor to Fedder -as well as to get some consistent light.

Our target was a Briggs and Stratton 5 hp generator that put out 1800 watts of 120 volt power. It was more than adequate to power our billet; a wooden platform with a frame that held up a 12 man tent. It was a little after 11 pm and most of the activity of the base for the 101st Airborne Division had wound down. There was still noise, there always was, what with unceasing sorties and cargo aircraft coming and going from the major airstrip run by the Air Force, the distant booms of mortars or sporadic gunfire from activities klicks away, all set to the soundtrack of competing officer, NCO and enlisted club music. A weird mixture of country and rock and roll.

In our favor was the steady noise level, the deep shadowed and dark areas coupled to our own sense of entitlement to equipment we needed that was being hoarded, unused, by a unit not particularly appreciated. Cops are cops, no matter the color of uniform. It’s not like we saw MPs as real cops. Their job seemed to be getting in the way as we real soldiers just tried to get by.

We were hunched over now and jogging through the shadows, headed for a storage tent that sat removed from the main MP cluster of hooches and op tents. We had to stop short and freeze a few times as MPs came and went, but we made it to the supply tent undetected. Frank pulled a Buck knife from his pocket and cut a five foot slit top to bottom on the backside and held it open while I slipped inside. Totally dark, I couldn’t see a thing. I stuck my hand back out through the slit and made a grabbing motion. Frank picked up on my need and handed me a flashlight with a red lens. It didn’t make a lot of light, but that was a good thing because it was less likely to attract attention.  Stuff was piled in shelves that ran front to back and I spotted the generator on the bottom shelf, basically the ground, a of third set. I grabbed it, holding onto it by its tubular steel frame and pulled it into the aisle. It was heavier than I thought it would be. It weighed more than a hundred pounds.

Still, I dead lifted it and shuffled to the back of the tent and tried to step through the slit with it. I caught my foot on the canvass and fell forward. It hit the ground with a loud thud and I fell on top of it.  Frank clamped one hand over my mouth in case I was gonna yell in pain, and scooped up the flashlight and shut it off with the other.  He let go of me and each of us moved to opposite sides of the tent to scout for anyone who might have heard the commotion and was coming to investigate.  Neither of us saw anyone, so we both grabbed onto the generator and jogged from the back of the supply tent to the next structure and then the next.

It stunk where we had chosen to rest and figured out right away we were hiding behind the MP latrine.  “Jeez Louise,” mumbled Frank. “What to these guys eat?” I suppressed a laugh.

“Who’s out there?” asked a voice from inside the latrine.

Frank and I looked at each other, mentally debating whether we should answer. We apparently decided because we both grabbed our end of the generator and took off towards a cluster of another unit’s billets. We heard the door to the MP latrine slam shut and a shout asking what we were doing. Already losing our wind, we ran even faster, the heavy generator trying to pull our arms out of our shoulder sockets.  We could hear the running footfalls behind us and knew that  Latrine Guy was in pursuit.

We dodged around the corner to cut through the unit’s collection of tents and sandbag walls trying to lose the guy chasing us but he was gaining. “In there.” grunted Frank, nodding towards the door to a Conex shipping container that was being used as a building. We ducked inside and closed the door gently but quickly. Standing there trying to control our breathing in spite of a deep desire to pant from exertion, we heard Mr. Latrine stomping past our hiding place at double time. We both breathed a sigh of relief -and then realized we weren’t alone.

Slowly turning around, we saw that there were eight guys in there, sitting on crates and cases as makeshift chairs. An empty cable spool made a table they were playing cards at. The Rolling Stones were singing about getting no satisfaction quietly from a Japanese boom box, one of those new cassette machines someone must have picked up during R&R to Hong Kong.  They were boonie rats, infantry like us, killing some time smoking dope, drinking warm beer and playing poker. “So, what do we have here?” asked one of the guys, standing.

“Just passing through.” I said. “We’ll be gone in a second.”

“What’s your hurry, man?” he asked. His tone wasn’t unfriendly, but he was looking at us the same way the others were. Like a pack of dogs who just realized a rabbit has wandered into their kennel. “You should stay a while and be friendly, you know? It’s kinda impolite to bust in on a game.”

“Yeah,” said one of the other guys, rising. “If you’re in too much of a hurry, maybe you should, you know, pay some kind of toll.”

“We got nothing, guy.” Frank answered.

“Nothing? I’m sure you must have something. I mean, how about that generator?”

“Screw that!” I barked. Okay, I get the protocol. We should cough up something -it’s only fair. But it wasn’t going to be the generator. My arms hurt, my chest hurt, and by now we had a bunch of MPs looking for us. We didn’t know whether or not the guy who chased us got a look at us, at least beyond seeing that we were GIs. “Man, we just went through the shit to get this. I don’t mind paying some respect for the hospitality, but not the generator.”

“So, what else you got then?”

“I got a fifth of Seagram back at the hooch. How about that?” said Frank. “Seems like a fair trade.”

“Okay, we’ll take the booze but we’re gonna come along with you to collect. You know, in case you get lost tryin’ to find your way back here.”

“Fair enough.” said Frank.

I stuck my head out the door and looked around to see if any MPs were around. I didn’t see any, so we all filed out of the Conex container and headed back to our area. The grunts were nice enough to help carry the generator. We made it to the billet without bumping into any MPs.

“Hey, Fedder,” called out Frank as we came in the door. “Lookit what we brought ya!”

The boonies crowded in behind us and most of them gasped when they took a look at the monstrous man who towered over them. “Holy shit,” someone said.

Fedder looked at the generator and got a wide smile on his face. Frank went to his footlocker and fetched the fifth of whiskey he promised. Looking nervously at Fedder, the lead boonie said that payment wasn’t really necessary. Amazing. It’s like Fedder was our own personal credit card with no end of the month payment. But Frank and I both told them it was cool and handed over the booze.

An hour later it was going on one in the morning, but the group had managed to scrounge up some gas, hook up Fedders stereo, and we were playing poker for cigarettes and listening to some smooth blues from Fedder’s gigantic speakers.

“War is hell.” said the boonie. We all nodded in time with the music. I bid two Marlboros and took two cards.