“What?” I asked.
“Ester of wood rosin. It says that’s one of the ingredients.” He was holding a bottle of Orange Crush, a virtual delicacy in Phan Rang, the Vietnam base of the 101st Airborne. The place was overflowing with Dr. Pepper, referred to as ‘prune juice’ by most of the troops; not a favorite and downright repulsive when warm. But Orange Crush was wonderful. Even when it was air temperature, the flavor seemed to intimate coolness and besides that, it was good stuff.
“What the hell is ester of wood rosin?” I asked him. He shrugged and up ended the bottle and drained it in three gulps. I was drinking a Coke and feeling jealous at Frank’s luck in discovering the only Orange Crush in the limp cooler of the PX. The PX being a huge tent stacked with a bizarre array of products from expensive stereo components to cases of soft drinks and beer. There was a little kind of bar on one side where you could sit on a stool and eat and drink single servings of the food inventory. I happened to be alternating between the Coke and a Hostess Sno Ball. At home I didn’t like coconut all that much, but in Vietnam, a lot of things we soldiers would turn our noses up at were delicacies beyond price.
Frank burped enthusiastically and slid off his stool. “Let’s go.” he said. I gulped down the last of my drink and shoved half a Sno Ball in my mouth and followed. We had come back to the base camp from the forward area to act as gunners in a convoy heading north. For the most part it was boring duty. Gunner is a malaprop. We basically sat shotgun in a duece and a half truck with an M-16 assault rifle. The transportation guys were lunatics in our book. They all seemed to listen to country and western music on little Japanese tape players. Cassettes had yet to be invented. They drove their trucks, duece and a halfs, flatbeds, three quarter ton Power Wagons and the like as if they were drunk. I don’t think I ever ran into one who didn’t have a southern accent.
“So, whar y’all from?” asked today’s driver. I told him I was from Connecticut and asked where he was from. “Vermont.” he replied. Like I said. The guys were nuts. He was playing something that sounded like a wounded cat howling about trains and prisons and I was thinking two more hours of this? Jesus take me now. Apparently Jesus heard me and tried to help out because an MP jeep we were behind suddenly turned into a orange ball of flame and the windshield of our truck shattered. My driver took his foot off the gas long enough to lift his leg and kick the laminate glass out of the frame and then floored it, shoving the burning jeep out of the way. I blinked as we passed, momentarily wondering where the two MPs that were in the jeep had gone. Of course, they’d been vaporized. I heard another explosion behind us and wondered if Frank, a couple of trucks back was okay. The vehicles ahead and behind accelerated as we did, as though we were rail cars of a train. It suddenly dawned on me that I was there for a reason and it wasn’t being a passenger. I chambered a round and started to lean out the side window looking for someone to shoot at. The driver reached over and yanked me back down and said that it wasn’t much, but the truck offered some protection from shrapnel and he doubted if I would be able to see the Charlies that were firing mortar rounds at us. I took his word for it but kept looking into the foliage that nestled up to the roadside. A few minutes later the convoy came to a halt. It was time to count noses and assess the damage. I immediately ran back toward Frank’s truck, relieved to see him climbing down out of the cab.
He saw me coming and smiled. “Jeez. I thought that was your truck that took the first round.” Frank called to me.
“Nah, it was a jeep in front of us. They were there, then whoom. All of a sudden an empty jeep was burning like crazy. My driver …huh, I don’t know his name. Anyway, my driver just rammed the jeep and knocked it out of the way and kept going. It was like he took it all in stride.”
“These guys get shot at all the time. All they can do is just get away from the area as fast as they can. The only weapons they have are their .45 automatics and us. The guys are pros, man. I’d slam on my brakes and try to figure out what happened. But they know what to do and they do it.”
“Maybe that’s why they listen to that awful music.” I said.
“What was your driver listening to? Mine was playing bluegrass something. Sounded like banjos and accordions or something. I can’t understand the words they sing. If they’re words.”
“My guy was playing some country stuff. I’d rather listen to AFRTS.” That was the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. They played a lot of Montavani and Ray Coniff, but every now and then they played rock and roll. Those were the moments most of us waited for. A lieutenant came walking up from the rear of the convoy and asked us what trucks we belonged in. We pointed and he told us to get our butts back in. He wanted to get the show back on the road.
We rolled into Bha Luc –or as we all called it, Bad Luck, two hours later. Bad Luck was actually just a village of friendlies that sat at a crossroads of sorts. There were three roads in and out, but there must have been twenty footpaths that intersected there too. It made a great place to resupply units in the field. It wasn’t large enough to bring helicopters in, and thus the convoys. Plus that, a few trucks could carry a lot more cargo than a similar number of helicopters. We grunts also well aware that the loss of a few trucks didn’t add up to the loss of a single chopper.
Frank and I were lounging by the trucks when the lieutenant came up to us. “You guys are from Headquarters Company?” he asked. We nodded in unison. “Okay, some Special Forces guys are going to ride up further north with the trucks you were on. They need to show the drivers the route and they’ll provide operational security as well. You two need to find a ride back to Phan Rang.” Frank and I looked at each other and then back at the lieutenant.
“Uh, a ride from who, sir?” I asked.
“This is a waypoint for a lot of traffic. I’m sure a couple of intelligent and ambitious grunts like you can find a ride.” replied the officer. With that, he turned and strode off.
“Well, this is just great.” I said. Frank nodded. We ambled over to what appeared to be a kind of restaurant, a building made of recycled lumber and sheets of tin. There were a few small tables, a few with locals and a few with GIs eating. A single table stood empty and we walked over and sat at it. Both of us were sitting on wooden grenade boxes and we opened them and made sure they were empty before sitting down. An elderly Vietnamese woman appeared and looked at us expectantly. Frank asked her if she spoke English and she nodded.
“My speak numba one!” she said, smiling with teeth blackened by betel nut. A lot of adults chewed the stuff and got a light high from it, kind of like coca leaves. But over time it turned the teeth ebony black. Frank asked if they had hamburgers and she smiled widely and said yes, they did. Frank ordered one. I opted for a soup with noodles and vegetables. We started talking about the mortar ambush and hadn’t gotten many words out before Mama San was back. She set my bowl of soup in front of me and a weird looking roll with a chunk of gray overcooked meat in it in front of Frank. “You eat now.” she glowed. “You see food numba one!” Somewhere in the history of all of the forces that had visited Vietnam to colonize it, liberate it, or just mess with it had established a descriptive measure. Number one meant super great, fantastic, totally excellent. Number ten meant awful, terrible, absolute sewage.
I looked at my soup and didn’t see vegetables, I saw instead a fish head and a couple of fins floating in a yellowish fluid with an oil slick. Frank took a bite of his ‘burger’ and had to pull and tear at the bun until he was holding the bread in his hand while the meat hung down over his chin like a diseased tongue. “Theethes Tyste!” said Frank, grimmacing. He took the piece of meat out of his mouth. “I think she cut this off the tires of one of the trucks.”
“Don’t look at me.” I replied, “she seems to have confused my order with the stomach contents of a water buffalo. Probably the one she made your burger from.”
“Let’s just get out of here. You got any money?”
I looked at him. “No. I thought you did.” We looked at each other and started laughing. “On the count of three?” I asked.
Frank said “Three!” and we both jumped up and ran from the little restaurant, cutting through the little clusters of buildings that made up the town. We could hear Mama San screaming hysterically as we ran. Most was in Vietnamese, but I did recognize ‘GI numba ten’ in the tirade. We kept up the hustle and got some distance between us and the little restaurant. We slowed to catch our breath, leaning at the waist, our hands on our knees. “This place probably has white mice.” said Frank. White mice were vietnamese police. We called them that because of the glossy white helmets they wore over their khaki uniforms. That was the white part. Mice was because most Vietnamese people are short.
“You know, it’s getting pretty late in the day. We don’t want to be stuck here at night, especially without any money.” I told Frank.
“Yeah, well we can’t exactly stroll down the main drag looking to bum a ride. Mama San or someone is likely to see us and I have no interest in getting stuck in jail.” he replied. “We need to come up with a plan.” We kept walking, thinking to ourselves. After a block Frank stopped short. “Hey, look.” Frank was nodding toward an old Honda step-thru 90cc motorbike. There were thousands of the things in Saigon and other larger cities, usually carrying females Vietnamese students wearing a white bib dress over black silk pants and topped by a pointy topped straw hat. We looked closely at the bike and saw that whoever owned it was either a trusting soul or stupid. The key was in it.
“We’re already criminals.” I said to Frank, smiling. My face fell. “Of course, it could be that it’s broken and so it doesn’t matter if the key is in it or not.” Frank looked all around and so did I. No one seemed in evidence. Frank straddled the scooter and turned the key. The lights on the little instrument cluster glowed brightly. He flipped out the starting crank and rested his boot on it.
“Here goes…” he said. He gave it a strong kick and the scooter made a kind of metallic farting noise. He kicked it again and the same thing happened. He was setting up for a third kick when a young man came hustling out of a hut about fifty feet away.
“Choi oi!” he shouted, and then spat a whole bunch of Vietnamese as he started running towards us. Franks leg kicked down the third time and the motor came to life, sounding like someone had captured a bee in a tin can. I hopped on the back of the scooter and Frank twisted the throttle. We sedately moved ahead, accelerating at a pace a sloth might have regarded as embarrassingly slow. I felt a tug and realized that the young man had grabbed my shoulder. I struck his hand and knocked it loose and at the same time the guy tripped and fell. Frank made a couple of turns and we’d lost him. Holding the throttle wide open, Frank navigated some back streets and came to where the little road we were on intersected with the large road we’d come in on. Frank didn’t slow for the corner, he kept the throttle wide open. The little restaurant where we’d dined and dashed -or at least dashed- was catty corner to our left and I expected Mama San to come bustling out with a gun. But no one paid us much heed and soon we left Bad Luck behind us. Literally.
Absolutely nothing awful happened as we made the trip back to Phan Rang. The little scooter was able to go about 45 miles an hour or so, more than twice the speed the convoys traveled the skinny roads. Still, it took us an hour and a half to reach the outskirts of the town. Fate had smiled on us, it seemed. From surviving the mortar blasts to escaping the Mama San and then the poor guy whose bike we stole, to having the gas to make the trip back and do so without further incident. We walked through Phan Rang to the gate of the 101st’s massive compound and waved to the lounging sentries at the gate. One of them gave a half wave in return.
‘Ester of wood rosin.” I said, looking at the bottle of Orange Crush I held in my hand. It was chilled and condensation dripped down the glass. Frank had a bottle of it too and peered at the ingredients with me. “I wonder what that is.”
“It’s good.” replied Frank.