Westward we drove, Arthur and I spelling each other at the wheel of my '55 Ford convertible. We were both new civilians, just discharged from the infantry at Fort Benning, GA. Arthur was headed for a good job in Alaska, via San Francisco, and had agreed to split expenses for the trip. We chose the route across the Great Plains and through the Rockies, a thousand miles out of my way, because we wanted to see this part of the country. At 20 I was not anxious to return to Los Angeles, where I would have to find a job before trying to get into college in the fall.
In 1962 the Interstate Highway system had yet to compress and homogenize the vastness of the West. We drove narrow National Highways that were well maintained but built to a different scale than the mighty concrete ribbons that would link the coasts by the end of the decade.
Somewhere in western Nebraska, three or four hours before an April dawn, Arthur pulled off the road and woke me up. He snored in the backseat while I breathed in the cool night air and watched bugs splatter on the windscreen. The Ford ate asphalt until, far ahead in the darkness a flashing red light appeared. I took my foot off the gas pedal, watched the speedometer needle drop. A good thing; a speed zone sign, partially obstructed by a tree, announced a town. I braked to 15, the limit, and drove carefully past fields of corn and wheat. I stopped at the light, noticing the two-story red brick courthouse on the corner.
Past the intersection I crawled down the unlit blacktop until the darkened houses dropped away, and the rising moon illuminated pastures dotted with livestock. I eased down on the accelerator. Instantly a siren wailed. I glanced in my mirror and caught the patrol car's headlamps and flashing red light as they came to life.
"You were speeding," said the cop through my window. "It's 15 mph in town."
"I thought the town ended about a mile back," I replied, flustered.
"Naw. You'll see the 'resume speed' sign a ways up ahead," he said. "I've got to cite you, but I'll give you two choices. You can plead guilty and pay the fine now, or you can appear before the magistrate and plead not guilty."
I opened my mouth to say that I would take my chances with the magistrate, but before any sound came out the officer continued. "If you plead guilty, the fine is $50, plus a dollar a mile over the speed limit. That would be, oh, $63," he said.
I drew in a breath. The Army had screwed up my mustering-out pay, and the fine represented nearly half the cash I carried. "What if I plead not guilty?" I asked.
"Well, that would be your privilege, and it would then be my duty to impound your vehicle and take you into custody until the judge is available to hear your case," he said, a touch too smoothly for my taste.
"Put me in jail and Impound my car for a traffic offense?"
"I have that authority. You can ask the judge, if you decide to go that route."
"And when might I ask him?" I asked.
"Probably not much over a week, soon as he gets back from his hunting trip," said the officer. "Assuming that he isn't delayed."
"And what happens if I'm found guilty? Is it the same fine?"
"Same fine. Plus court costs, including the expense of your confinement. You're looking at several hundred dollars, I 'spect."
"I don't have that kind of money with me," I said.
"Then you'd have to work it out. Dollar a day in the county workhouse."
Pretty nifty setup, I told myself, steaming mad but maintaining my composure. The cop probably worked nights only, protecting citizens from dangerous speeders like me. But he had me dead to rights; I followed him back to the courthouse. "Put cash in this envelope, sign the form, then put it through the mail slit in the door," he said, and watched me do it. I simmered until Nebraska lay far behind.
Approaching Cheyenne, Wyoming, the land became rough and wrinkled and rose toward the Continental Divide. Long before we crossed the summit of the Lincoln Highway in an April snowstorm, the Ford's pneumatic wipers, vainly trying to compress the thin air of that rarefied altitude, fell comatose. Every few minutes I had to stop and scrape the windshield.
We descended from the Divide as snow faded to rain, then mist. At Green River the sun broke through, and for half an hour I enjoyed spectacular views of snow-capped mountains. Speeding down a long stretch between worn-down, mile-high buttes, the Ford crept up toward 80 mph; gently I pressed on the brake pedal.
My foot went to the floor. Our speed increased. The front end began to shake, and I fought the wheel to stay on my side of the road, grateful that there was little traffic. I struggled against the panic welling in my chest as we bounced across a dry wash at the bottom of the butte, the speedometer pegged at 110. Arthur chose that moment to sit up in the back seat. "What are you doing?" he said, grumpy with sleep.
"No brakes!" I shouted, sweaty-palmed but exhilarated, sure now that I had things under control. Gravity slowed us as we rolled up toward the far summit. Near the mesa the speedometer dropped below 20, and I was tempted to stop. We were miles from nowhere, however, and there were no cars in my rear view mirror. Somewhere ahead, I knew, was a service station. I shifted into second and used the engine as a brake down the next slope, hoping that it wouldn't blow the head gasket.
After roller-coastering up and down a half-dozen buttes we rolled into Little America. On billboards for a thousand miles in every direction it advertised itself as the world's biggest truck stop. A kindly mechanic hoisted the Ford on a rack and examined the underside with a flashlight. "Brake line's burst," he announced. "You boys are lucky to be alive."
They stocked truck parts, he said, but none for cars. It was early on Friday evening; the best that the mechanic thought we could do was to wait until Monday, call the Ford dealership in Salt Lake City, about 125 miles ahead, and get them to put a part on the next eastward-bound Greyhound. "There's probably a bus Monday afternoon," said the mechanic. "If they don't have the part in Salt Lake, you might could try Cheyenne. Or they'd have one in Denver, for sure," he added.
Arthur and I exchanged glances. His ship sailed from early Wednesday morning. If we didn't get back on the road until late Monday, there was little chance that we could reach San Francisco in time.
The mechanic must have seen something in my face. "Or maybe I can fix the line good enough to get you to Salt Lake," he said.
He wrapped the line with thick silvery duct tape, sealed it in epoxy, suggested that we get some dinner while it hardened. "That ought to hold," he said. Should last you to Salt Lake, even if you have stop a few times to add brake fluid." He gave us a gallon can, almost full. I offered to pay him, but he shook his head. "Can't take your money, boys," he said. "Good luck."
We ate dinner. The line burst the first time I touched the brakes.
For twenty more miles we slowly climbed uphill at the head of a line of honking motorists, then plunged into a frantic race to the bottom as I prayed over the Ford's head gasket and its transmission. Half an hour before sunset we limped into Granger, Wyoming, on the rim of a worn-down mesa. Years later I learned that we were not the first Ford to seek mechanical solace in Granger. Fords competing in the first transcontinental auto race stopped here in 1909 for repairs. They carried spare parts.
We knew none of this as we rolled into the lone service station. When the attendant had put the car up on the rack for a look, he repeated the wisdom of Little America: call Salt Lake Monday, hope that the dealership has a brake line and would ship it up on a Greyhound.
Arthur and I conferred. If he missed his ship, he'd lose his new job. But he had money enough for a bus ticket to San Francisco, and undoubtedly a westbound Greyhound went through Salt Lake daily. In the morning, he said, we would have to decide whether to risk driving a hundred miles in weekend traffic without brakes, or split up. That was easy: I would drive no further without brakes. "Then I'll hitchhike down to Salt Lake," he said. "Even if the next bus is Sunday, I'll make San Francisco in time."
That would leave me with under fifty dollars for gas, food and the brake repair. "Maybe my dad could wire some money to Salt Lake," I said. But I had sent part of my paycheck home every month that I was in the Army; another reason that I had so little now. I thought about pawning my camera, or finding some kind of temporary job in Salt Lake. Maybe I was not meant to go to college this year, I thought.
Granger's only lodging was at the other end of its main drag. Arthur and I grabbed a few essentials from the trunk and hoofed it, three-quarters of a mile or so, watching the coppery sun sink below the mesa, turning rocky outcroppings, trees, brush and more than a few unidentifiable objects into silhouettes.
The hotel was squeaky clean and dirt cheap. We shared a one-bed room, toilet down the hall, bath downstairs, on our chest-of-drawers two thin towels and a basin of water that by morning would grow a thin layer of ice. But we were warm under flannel sheets and a buffalo robe with an embroidered label claiming that it had been sewn in 1888. The bed was wide, and I hardly knew that Arthur was in it.
We went to sleep at 8:00. Drifting off, my mind's eye returned to the last moments of sunset. Among the myriad mesa silhouettes, one shouted for my attention. There was something familiar about it, but I could not discern what it was.
I awoke about midnight. The silhouetted object that I had seen as the sun went down was an auto laying on its side — a '55 Ford. I lay half awake until daybreak, then gazed shivering out the window as detail slowly emerged from the twilight. A mile out, give or take, was the rusting carcass of a '55 Ford!
After breakfast, I borrowed a crescent wrench from the café and with Arthur hiked across the prairie through a riot of wild flowers. Grouse scattered before us, prairie dogs whistled, a hawk wheeled overhead. I was too anxious to enjoy the show.
At 50 yards I saw that I was mistaken. The hulk was a '55 Mercury. Made by Ford, I recalled. Many of its parts would fit my Ford. Scavengers had taken all four wheels, as well as many other small parts, but three brake lines remained.
At the station, the owner scratched his head in wonder when I handed him the parts. He installed a line, filled the brake reservoir, watched amber fluid drip through a crack. The second line's test yielded the same result. The last one held, held again when I pumped the brakes on a full reservoir, and was still working when I sold the Ford in Los Angeles nearly a year later.
"Where'd you get them lines again?" asked the station owner, and when I pointed out the hulk near the horizon, he shook his head. "Lived here since I was in short pants, and we don't take kindly to people using our mesa as a dump. But I don't recall seeing that car out there before. Must have been dropped off recently."
I thought about the tall weeds growing through the Mercury's rusted chassis, the bird nests in its headlamp wells, but held my tongue. "What do I owe you?" I asked, anxious to get back on the road.
"Seems to me, something like this happens, you must be living right—the good Lord looks after you," he replied. "No charge for my labor, but if you ever decide to go to Las Vegas, give a holler. I'll come down and bet along with you, dollar for dollar."
For the next thousand miles, until I dropped Arthur at a San Francisco wharf, I reflected on life's improbabilities. Even when Justice sleeps, I decided, one can hope that Mercy will appear in her place. Or that she will dispatch a message via Mercury.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
I felt like I’d been flying forever. Finally, somewhere west of Wake Island and far beyond exhaustion, I fell asleep. I awoke with a start: The C-130’s engines somehow sang a different tune. And the deck, littered with jeeps and ammo pallets was not quite level. Then a wing dipped and we circled, descending through the inky night. I was headed for Vietnam with 20 other cavalrymen and our next stop was Okinawa; realizing that I must have slept at least seven hours, I felt better immediately.
We leveled off as the pilot completed the turn and I saw below a single point of light against an irregular shape infinitely inkier than the darkness behind it. Why was Okinawa blacked out?
The hydraulics screeched. Our descent slowed. My ears popped as the engines growled and props changed pitch to become speed brakes. Abruptly, we were on the ground, taxiing.
We stopped near a hangar and as the engines whined into silence the Air Force crew chief huddled with one of our officers, a colonel. “Leave everything except headgear and weapons,” he said.
Something was wrong.
We jumped down to the runway and waited. Usually a bus came to take us to the terminal; this time the runway remained dark and empty. In the distance a single bulb burned. We marched single file, following a white line until we came to a hangar, atop which burned that one, lonely light. There was a sign below it:
Welcome to Iwo Jima International Airfield.
Elevation: Dry season +1 Rainy season -1
The colonel gathered us into a semicircle and explained that an engine had caught fire and was shut down. The four-engine C-130 can fly on three, if necessary, but ours was loaded to the maximum and extended flight would push the remaining engines to their limits, inviting another fire or failure. Returning to Wake Island meant a five-hour flight; continuing to Okinawa was two hours. Our pilot had opted for an emergency landing on Iwo Jima.
The fifty-some airmen manning this airfield, whose sole purpose was to provide an emergency landing spot in the Pacific vastness, were overjoyed at our arrival. Months had passed since anyone dropped in, months since they had reason to believe they served any purpose on their lonesome bit of volcanic rock in the middle of nowhere.
Tumbling from their beds to greet us, they asked, many times, if there were any women on our plane.
Nope. Just us grunts with rifles.
Just us grunts.
Just 20 G.I.s with rifles.
“Not even a BAM?”
Sailor-speak: “Big Assed Marine” — a female Marine.
We stood around in steel helmets, explaining, again and again, that we were bound for Vietnam: no women.
Their disappointment was obvious: As a lonely airman explained, this Pacific paradise’s delights included a woman behind every tree.
Alas, no trees on Iwo Jima.
Nevertheless the airmen were perfect hosts. They gave us their bunks for naps and served us cold chicken, hamburgers, sandwiches and anything else they had, from milk and coffee to Scotch, vodka, bourbon or gin — and refused to take our money.
Then they showed us two films: Combat footage shot by John Ford’s Navy cinematographers of the actual conquest of Iwo Jima, and the John Wayne movie, “Sands of Iwo Jima.”
Seven thousand American Marines died taking this volcanic island; 22,000 Japanese gave their lives trying to stop them. We Americans wanted it for emergency landings by shot-up B-29s returning from bombing missions over Japan. By VJ DAY some 800 such air crews had landed safely on Iwo Jima; many if not most would have died had it not been for those 7,000 marines.
And now they had saved another plane and more Americans. I felt humbled. What would we have done in that empty sky over thousands of square miles of water with no place to land? How many of us would survive a water landing? Or shark-filled waters?
By the time both movies had screened, the sun was up; we went outside for a look around. I saw rocky beaches and sharp coral. No sand. “John Wayne musta took all them ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’ back to Hollywood,” opined one of our hosts.
At mid-morning I visited the hangar where a half-dozen men worked on our C-130. A scorched nacelle and wing marked the engine that had caught fire. Mechanics had removed it and were busily fitting a new engine to its myriad connections.
When our ride was ready, we lined up to board. As our crew chief, a man of about 35, passed me, I stepped out of line.
“Tell me the truth, Sarge,” I said. “How much danger were we actually in? Could we have made it to Okinawa?”
He thought for a long moment. “We’ll never know. But I’ll tell you this: if there was no Iwo Jima, I’d have been on my knees praying the whole way. And if the skipper had decided to try for Okinawa on three engines, I, for one, would never fly with him again.”
All the way to Okinawa I kept thinking about Iwo Jima’s marines. I tried to imagine what it was like in one of their landing craft, tossed by waves, shells bursting all around, inexorably headed toward an entrenched, fanatical enemy. Were they seasick? Fearful? What were their thoughts on that long, scary ride to the beach? Did they know they might die?
Seven thousand dead. Seven thousand mourning mothers. Seven thousand grieving fathers. Thousands upon thousands of orphaned children, shattered wives and sweethearts.
I was barely out of diapers when those men hit Iwo Jima’s bloody beaches, yet surely I owe them something. Surely they fought and died for me as much as anyone.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
My first night in Vietnam: I hardly slept. I was a combat photographer with the First Cavalry Division’s advance party; the next morning we would assault an unimproved airstrip at An Khe — 900 feet of packed red clay abandoned by the French a decade earlier.
We’d been briefed: enemy ambushers might allow the first aircraft to land unmolested, then attack the second as it lands. They'd try to block the runway or landing zone to prevent reinforcements, then kill or capture everyone on the ground. I would be on the second plane — and for all we knew, half the North Vietnamese Army was hiding in the triple-canopy jungle surrounding the airstrip.
That was plenty to think about. But I also kept thinking about Iwo Jima, where, two days earlier, en route to Vietnam, our Air Force C-130 transport made an emergency landing. While repairs were made, our hosts showed us combat footage of the WW II amphibious invasion that cost the lives of 7,000 U.S. Marines. The Japanese had allowed the first wave of Marines to land, waited until the second wave was almost on the beach, then unleashed heavy artillery and hidden machineguns. A massacre.
After viewing that sobering combat footage, we watched the Hollywood version: “Sands Of Iwo Jima,” starring John Wayne. Although he’d spent World War II making movies, to me and most Sixties soldiers, Wayne stood as a symbol of manliness and American values, a larger-than-life character whose ethos we might emulate. That’s why we called any reckless act of combat courage “pulling a John Wayne.”
Throughout that sleepless night I thought about what might await me at An Khe. How would I handle the stress, the confusion? Would I keep a cool head, do my job? Would I die or be horribly maimed? I thought about all the Marines who left Iwo Jima in body bags. Had they worried about death? What was on their minds as they climbed into landing craft? When they headed for those bloody beaches? When enemy shells blasted the sand, sea and skies around them?
I tried but failed to put such thoughts out of my mind.
At breakfast we were issued salt tablets to compensate for the heavy perspiration expected while acclimating to sweltering heat and stifling humidity. I washed mine down with metallic-tasting canteen water.
After chow everyone was issued 200 rounds of ammunition. We boarded C-130s in full combat gear — rifle, bayonet, steel helmet, pack, canteen, compress bandage, entrenching tool, etc. I found a space on a bench that ran the length of the fuselage, tucked my huge, heavy camera bag under the bench and slid my M16 between my knees. Then I looked up: on my left sat the division command sergeant major; on my right was General Wright, the advance party commander.
The last guys any private wanted around if he screwed up.
It was a short journey but a long flight: There was room on the ground for just one plane; after landing, each pilot had to turn his ship around, backing and filling like a semi-trailer trying to get into a compact’s parking space. Then he taxied to the far end and laboriously turned around again to take off into the wind. Only then could another plane land.
The first C-130 landed an infantry platoon while we orbited above, just out of small arms range. Waiting for the strip to clear, bumping up and down, sliding left and right in the rough air, my stomach grew more queasy with each passing minute. I shouldn’t have taken both salt tablets! My pulse raced. My face flushed. Sweat stained my uniform. Never before had I been airsick — but now, desperate to retch, I obsessed about getting vomit on the general or the sergeant major.
That scared me more than getting shot.
To distract myself, I imagined myself on a landing craft among WWII Marines as they approached Iwo Jima’s rocky beaches. Some must have felt just as sick I did now. What did they do?
Puke over the side, I supposed.
No help there.
I flashed on the other film, “Sands of Iwo Jima.” What would John Wayne do if he got airsick?
Right: John Wayne doesn’t get airsick. But what if he did?
I was wearing a steel helmet. Aside from its intended use, soldiers in the field often shave and bathe in their steel pot. Some use it to boil eggs or make soup. I thought it might serve still another purpose.
Beneath the steel was a liner with an inner nylon web that kept liner and helmet from slipping down over my eyes.
When I could wait no longer, I whipped off the helmet, pulled the liner out, plopped it back on my head — and upchucked into the steel pot.
As if they had rehearsed, the men on either side of me simultaneously reached out and patted my back.
“Good thinking,” said the general.
“Smart move,” echoed the sergeant major.
Suddenly the nose dropped and we fell like a stone, side-slipping and jinking until we were almost in the trees, then pulling up sharply to align with the runway. We bounced twice, then shuddered down the rutted strip as pilots applied brakes and flaps. Before we rocked to a halt, the cargo door dropped, an airmen kicked the wheel chocks free and a machinegun jeep rolled off. Everyone grabbed their weapon and dashed after it.
Everyone but me.
Struggling with a helmet full of puke, I awkwardly retrieved my camera bag, slung it over one shoulder, slung my rifle over the other, and, still clutching my reeking helmet, stumbled down the ramp.
As I topped the berm rimming the runway something zipped past my left ear. Not too close, but close enough; I was acutely aware that my helmet liner wouldn’t stop even a thumb tack.
Descending the berm, I dropped to my knees. Another bullet crackled past. I buried my breakfast in the sands of An Khe, put my helmet back on, returned to the safer side of the berm, broke out my old-fashioned press camera and began taking pictures.
A mortar round exploded near the jungle’s edge. Then another, closer. A few more sniper bullets chirped overhead. An officer found and disarmed a booby-trapped artillery shell concealed in a tree.
And that was it. Fifty more C-130s landed and took off without further resistance; by dark we had secured the airstrip and the jungle around it.
Not exactly Iwo Jima, but I wasn’t complaining.
* * *
Two years later, in 1967, John Wayne’s Batjac Productions filmed “The Green Berets” at Ft. Benning, Georgia. On his first visit to the headquarters building, the Duke attempted to walk the long, office-lined corridor between the public information office, where I worked, and the commanding general’s suite. As he passed each door, it opened and someone popped out to stare. He paused at every door, extended his hand, introducing himself, signing autographs, unfailingly gracious and humble. It took him an hour to reach the general’s office.
By then I was a lieutenant. Captain August Schomburg, Jr., became the liaison officer to Wayne’s company; I was detailed to assist him. When Batjac needed 200 Asian female extras, I called around and rounded up Army wives and daughters. When they wanted a bridge to blow up, I arranged it. And when they sought an old plantation house for a night scene, I found one in nearby Columbus.
My kitchen window offered a perfect view of the plantation house across the street, so my tiny apartment became Batjac’s temporary production office. During a lull in filming, I found myself, for the only time, alone with the Duke in my kitchen.
“Mr. Wayne, may I ask you something personal?” I said.
“Fire away, lieutenant,” replied Wayne, costumed as a Special Forces colonel.
“Uh… have you ever been airsick?”
Just then an assistant director burst in with something urgent. Wayne, who both starred in and directed the film, rushed out without answering and remained on set till the shoot wrapped at daylight.
Fast forward to 1978, four years after I left the Army: entering a Costa Mesa, California, camera shop, I bellied up to the film counter next to a tall, stoop-shouldered gent who was leafing through an envelope of snapshots. He glanced at me.
John Wayne. Emaciated, balding, deathly pale but undeniably the Duke. He lived nearby.
“Don’t I know you?” he said.
“The Green Berets,” I said. “I worked for Augie Schomburg…”
“That’s right! We used your apartment the night we shot the kidnapping scene,” he said.
We shook hands and he scooped up his pictures and turned to leave. I laid my film on the counter.
“What was it you asked me, Lieutenant?”
“Captain,” I said without thinking. “I didn’t say anything, sir.”
“I mean, that night in your kitchen. Something about getting seasick?”
It came back in a rush.
“If you ever got airsick.”
“Huh. Well, maybe a time or two.”
“Did you throw up?”
In a heartbeat, the years fell away; a healthy flush replaced Wayne’s sickly pallor. He stood taller, seemed somehow bigger. For a long moment he was once again tortured Tom Doniphon, the man who shot Liberty Valence. He was Rooster Cogburn — and he was Stony Brooke and Lieutenant Commander Duke Gifford and Quirt Evans, and Green Beret Colonel Mike Kirby and fighting Seabee Wedge Donovan and Marshall Cahill and Davy Crockett and the Ringo Kid and Deputy Sheriff John Steele and Capt. “Rock” Torrey, USN, and Genghis Khan and Sergeant Stryker, USMC — the names and costumes changed, but through all 171 of his movies, the man born Marion “Duke” Morrison had played only one character, the singularly indomitable John Wayne.
It was an amazing transformation.
“That’s a mighty strange question, pilgrim,” he drawled.
Feeling foolish, I shorthanded: Iwo Jima, the movies I saw there, the Vietnam air assault, vomiting into my helmet to avoid hitting the general or the sergeant-major.
“What would I have done? That’s what you wanted to know?”
The moment passed. Before me again slumped the wan wreckage of an icon.
I nodded, sorry that I’d ever raised the subject.
“Never would have thought of using my helmet,” he said. He paused to peer at me in a strange, almost wistful way. “But I never made an air assault. Nobody ever shot at me with real bullets. I’m just an actor — you’re the soldier And I’m doing chemo now, so I puke plenty.
“Sooner or later everybody pukes,” he continued. “I guess, maybe, if I’d been in your shoes, I’d have just let it fly, and the hell with it.”
Of course I’d always known John Wayne was an actor, that his heroics were mere movie make-believe. Now, for the first time, I felt it. Felt the difference between a two-dimensional celluloid image and a soldier’s reality. I was no hero, but I’d done a tough job under brutal conditions. I’d put my life on the line. I’d ducked real bullets. Bled real blood the time I couldn’t duck. Saw too many real and forever dead friends.
I watched the actor leave, feeling somehow diminished by the reality of his mortality: John Wayne, the man, now confronted death as surely as I had in Vietnam, and no cinema magic could save him.
He died a few months later of stomach cancer.
Everybody pukes — even the Duke. And the hell with it.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
Cold may hold hostages, but it takes no prisoners. Cold retreats, but it signs no armistice agreements. Cold has no conscience, attacking women and children as fiercely as men. It slams you from all sides, infiltrates any hole in your defense, seizes extremities, penetrates to the core of your being. Cold is silent as a shadow, deadly as a bullet, relentless as a new missionary.
Cold is more treacherous than heat because it turns your body against you. When things get hot, clothing comes off to prevent overheating. But when the temperature falls to single digits, we grunts, we infantrymen, emulate onions. We wear wool and cotton socks inside ungainly vulcanized Mickey Mouse boots. Over skivvies we pull two sets of long johns, heavy wool pants and a shirt, thick cotton-twill field trousers, then a poplin field jacket with insulated lining, and finally a hooded parka with its own fleece liner. Steel helmets cover fur-lined pile caps. Scarves are twisted around necks. Thus cocooned while hauling a Garand or a Browning, a load of ammo and sixty pounds of field gear over steep mountains, we are soon drenched in sweat. When we are so exhausted that we can barely stand and word comes to take five, perspiration crystallizes to ice.
Now we must expose our bodies to the elements, change soaking underwear and socks for dry ones — or risk losing toes, or even a foot, to frostbite. Even after such precautions, crotches chafe and blister under the constant friction of the march.
Humping those rugged mountains consumes calories. We are always hungry. Playing at war against the time when such games become real, we eat field rations and hope for one hot meal a day, maybe breakfast. At midday we munch on the march or during brief breaks, prying out a chunk of ham-and-lima-beans or tuna-and-noodles or some other pathetic concoction with the tip of a bayonet, warming it on the tongue until it goes down without frosting the gullet. When we stop for the night, Sterno® thaws cans until we can gulp their half-frozen nutrition. We pack canteens under parkas to keep them from icing.
Despite two years in Southern California, I am a Midwesterner, and after sixteen Chicago winters, I had supposed that the Korean seasons would hold no surprises — after all, Seoul is well south of Chicago. But the peninsula is surrounded by seas that retain heat, elevate atmospheric pressure, trap cold air above the land. The Land Of The Morning Calm is scored by deep mountain valleys between almost parallel ridges running toward Manchuria. Siberian cold barrels down these natural ducts, freezing stubble in the paddies and robust mountain rivers and the tiny hairs inside our noses. Even thinking back to my boyhood and an unexpected urban hike through a Great Lakes blizzard to pay a family debt, nothing I experienced in Chicago came close to preparing me for the Korean winter of 1960-61.
In such cold, coping with bodily functions requires extraordinary effort. Voiding our bladders, the steaming yellow freezes as it reaches the ground. Our sergeants describe fastidious Wermacht soldiers on the Russian Front who pulled down trousers before squatting over slit trenches, then incurred frostbitten anuses that turned gangrenous. We pray for constipation. We hope that daylight will bring warmth enough to find relief without freezing our asses. Sometimes we are forced to emulate the Russians, who knew that filling one’s pants is uncivilized and uncomfortable but probably won't kill you.
Gangrene can kill you. When it doesn’t, you’ll wish that it had.
At dark we fan out by squads to take up defensive positions along a ridge. The wind is a knife and the earth is frozen concrete-hard so we can’t dig in. We spread ponchos and canvas shelter halves on the ground and climb fully dressed into sleeping bags — but can’t stop shivering long enough to doze off. About 9:00 the thermometer bottoms out near thirty below, plus severe wind chill. In pity, perhaps, orders come down from HQ in Seoul: training is suspended. "Units will implement administrative field procedures," comes the word.
Squad fires are ordered; there is little to burn: Decades of woodcutters from tiny villages crouched in even the most remote valleys have cleared the ridges of trees. The farmers winter in their thatched huts, heating floors with homemade charcoal or the twigs and branches so laboriously cut in autumn.
We grunts circle a pile of stones and after exhausted men haul up jerry cans of diesel, slop it on the stones, light it with our fake Zippos. The wind fans the flames; two feet away, our hands thaw — but our backsides stay frozen. Turning back-to-front every ten minutes, no one sleeps. At dawn the fires are extinguished. We return to mock attack, simulated withdrawal, to pretend battle, to our all-too-real war with winter.
Days later we return to garrison, to drafty steel huts barely heated by oil stoves, to rats skittering beneath shaky plywood floors, to latrines and showers dispensing murky, undrinkable water.
To an earthly paradise.
Dante got it wrong: The damned are not doomed to sweat eternally in a toasty hereafter. Hell, as every grunt who survives a year in the Land of the Morning Calm knows, is almost as cold as Korea.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
I reported to Ft. Benning, GA and was assigned to the Ranger Combat Conditioning Committee. We were attached to the Ranger School, but not part of it, and that was good: Rangers earn their elite status by learning to fight under the most difficult conditions. That meant nine dirty, weary, hungry weeks patrolling swamps and mountains, eating berries, rodents and rattlesnakes and playing at war while supervised by "lane graders" who took pleasure in finding ways to challenge their charges.
My arrival coincided with the first day of a training cycle, when new students, all volunteers, are introduced to the weary weeks ahead. The students assembled in a U-shaped formation and the Ranger sergeant major introduced them to Lightning, his six-foot timber rattler. Then he put a white rabbit into the snake's cage. Lightning coiled. The rabbit froze. Finally it twitched — and faster than the eye could follow, Lightning struck. The rabbit jerked, twitched, quivered. In two minutes it was dead.
"Before today is over," bellowed the topkick, "Every one of you will handle this killer snake with your bare hands."
At that moment a staff car turned the corner and drew to a halt behind the snake cage. The rear door opened and a tall officer emerged. He wore a lieutenant colonel's silver oak leaves, and the distinctive yellow-on-brown shoulder tab that identified him as a Ranger. He strode angrily toward the formation.
"Sergeant Major, I thought I warned you about trying to scare these men with that sick, old snake," he said.
"No sir, you never said nothing about it," said the sergeant major.
"I know that snake, and he's had his fangs removed," bellowed Lieutenant Colonel Denham. "What did you do, put a drop of atropine from a gas mask kit on the rabbit, so he'd go into convulsions?"
"These men are never going to learn a thing about handling snakes until you use a rattler with all his equipment," said the colonel.
"I'm telling you, Colonel, that Lightning's got all his equipment. He's a killer. He'll croak you or me quick as he did that rabbit."
"Bullroar. I'm no more afraid of that old snake than I am of the bogeyman."
"Well, if you feel so strongly, Colonel, maybe you'd like to put your money where your mouth is."
I stared at the colonel as if he was nuts. So did every one of the 200 students.
The sergeant major reached into his pocket and took out a wad of bills.
"Right," said Denham. "I'll wager a hundred dollars that I can put my leg in that toothless, sick, elderly, worn-out snake's cage and let him bite it, and be no more bothered than if I was bitten by a mosquito."
"You're on, Sir," returned the noncom.
"How about another on the side? I'll bet every man here a dollar. My two hundred dollars against your one dollar each," said Denham.
"What do you say, Rangers?" bellowed the sergeant major.
The ranks responded with a raucous cacophony of derision.
"Let's get the snakebite kit out here," yelled the sergeant major, and a medic came forward with a canvas bag adorned with a red cross.
"We better let someone hold the bet, because after Lightning bites him, the colonel will be on his way to the hospital," said the sergeant major, looking around. Just then a field ambulance, emblazoned with a huge red cross, turned off the blacktop and onto the gravel street. The sergeant major stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. The ambulance stopped and the driver's head poked out the window.
"Bring that meat wagon over here, Specialist, I'll have a load for you in a minute," bellowed the noncom. The driver rolled up, then unbuckled a canvas stretcher. I stepped out of the shade to see, and the sergeant-major yelled at me to come over.
"This damn-fool has just bet these Rangers a dollar apiece that he's not afraid to stick his leg in the cage with Lightning. Will you hold the bet, young sergeant?" he said.
I was speechless.
"Won't take a minute, Sarge. Help us out here." So I walked up and down the ranks, collected a dollar from each man, then took the sergeant major's money. Colonel Denham handed me three crisp hundred-dollar bills.
An almost palpable hush descended on the ranks as Denham strode resolutely toward the wire mesh cage. The sergeant major took out a key, broke open the heavy steel lock, pulled it off the hasp. Then he hesitated.
"You really want to do this, Colonel? Ol' Lightning could kill you."
"I'm not afraid of being gummed by that senile, toothless snake," roared Denham.
The sergeant major shook his head in disgust. He took a big forked stick from the top of the cage, then opened the door a few inches. Someone in a back rank coughed, and then it was dead quiet. Denham put his right leg in the cage.
Lightning had flowed to the center of the cage, where he wound himself into a huge coil. When Denham's leg moved, ever so slightly, the snake struck at the khaki trousers, recoiled, struck again.
Denham didn't even twitch.
The sergeant major forced the huge snake to the rear of the cage with the forked stick, then jammed the lock on the hasp.
Four hundred unbelieving eyes followed Colonel Denham as he strolled over to me and stuck out his hand. I handed him the money.
"Sergeant-major, I'll be back at the end of the course, and I expect to see a healthy, poisonous rattlesnake by then."
The sergeant major's mouth hung open. He snapped his jaw shut and swallowed.
"Yessir," he said.
The staff car rolled up and the driver scurried around to open the rear door. The sergeant major exchanged salutes with the colonel, then turned back to the company.
And as Lieutenant Colonel Ernie Denham, who had left most of his right leg behind in a blazing Sherman tank during the Battle of the Bulge, got into the car, he carefully rolled up his pant leg to reveal the wooden prosthesis that had replaced it.
"See you in nine weeks," he said to the sergeant major, who as a teen-aged PFC had pulled Lieutenant Denham from the burning tank.
The sergeant major turned back to the troops. "Today, Rangers, we have learned about the dangers of making assumptions, the importance of planning, and the powerful effect of surprise," he said. He went on to say that after Denham lost his leg, he spent years in hospitals, learning how to walk. He could have retired on a nice pension, and spent his life mourning his lost limb. Instead, Denham fought to stay on active duty. Anybody who ever spent an hour around him would never again believe that having only leg is a handicap if you don't want it to be.
So I'll bet $200 that after stumbling around swamps and mountains for weeks, sore, exhausted, bug-bit and ravenous, what kept some of those 200 students from quitting Ranger School was the thought that one-legged Ernie Denham became a Ranger AFTER he lost his leg.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
It was late; I adjusted the Coleman® lantern until the mantle barely glowed, checked my M16 on a hook near the door, noted where I’d left my helmet and flak vest, then removed my boots, loosened my belt, and stretched out on the canvas cot. I closed my eyes, let myself drift off.
About eleven the monsoon returned and the roar of raindrops on a sheet tin roof woke me. I set the field phone buzzer to maximum volume. Pulling a poncho liner over myself, I tried to sleep. I’d been in Vietnam for nine months, however, and had seen terrible things. Sometimes I had nightmares.
Somewhere in the twilight between sleep and awareness, during a lull in the storm, I heard a single Click! from the buzzer — as if some errant electrical impulse had passed through it, perhaps only a single electron, just enough to nudge the striker against the bell once. I pried the receiver from its spring-loaded clamps and put it to my ear.
"First Air Cavalry Public Information Office," I said. “Sgt. W___ speaking.”
A faint voice danced on the crackling line. The static receded and I heard a voice, and then another, tinny but clear and urgent in the darkness.
"Golf Course Tower," said the louder voice. "Use two-one right."
The Golf Course was the nearby division airfield.
"Copy two-one right," echoed the fainter voice. "Got a load of stiffs for the morgue."
Every hair on my body stood up.
"You'll see the field hospital on the right, halfway down the runway. The morgue is just beyond. Taxi over. Try not to blow it down."
"Hello!" I shouted into the phone. "Golf Course Tower, do you copy?"
I heard only the snap and hiss of an open line. I was on a telephone, and, amazingly, listening to a radio conversation. How could this happen? Again I shouted into the mouthpiece. Again I listened.
"Copy a load of stiffs?" said the Tower.
"Roger. Nineteen KIA. Mortar platoon got overrun."
My testicles shriveled, my guts churned and I choked back bile. A mortar platoon. A mortar platoon. Oh God, I thought. Not Paul. Not Sam.
The voices faded. I jammed the handset against my ear but heard only static, like grease writhing on a distant grill.
A year earlier, Paul and Marie Harrison had been my next-door neighbors. Paul was the All American Boy, ruggedly handsome, muscular, well grounded in common sense. He laughed often, worked hard, made friends easily.
He got drafted. Soon afterward, for complicated reasons, I decided to re-up. By chance we both wound up in the First Air Cav. Paul became a mortarman. I was a combat photographer.
Marie wrote me often, urging me to look after Paul. There was little I could do; he was in a rifle company; I was in PIO. We both spent most of our time in the field. We met twice, spoke on the phone a few times. But Marie wrote regularly; I knew how much she needed Paul.
A mortar platoon overrun. There were dozens of mortar platoons shi
But if it was — what about Sam Castan?
Sam had appeared four days earlier, at dusk, a slender man in his early thirties. Hardly had he introduced himself when the first Vietcong rocket screeched overhead. A moment later a muffled thud rose from the airfield. Then another screech, and another thud.
We spent the night in a bunker that doubled as my darkroom.
By morning I had come to know an admirable man. Castan was a rising star at LOOK, the picture-heavy newsmagazine. With his Roman nose, penetrating eyes and open, charming way, Sam was a gifted raconteur. He made me feel that he'd been everywhere and done everything. Self-deprecating, worldly, he perched comfortably at History's elbow to record what passed before him with wit and insight. I saw in Castan exactly the professional that I aspired to become.
The story that brought him to the Air Cav, his own idea, was the effect of a single American death. At that time about 200 GI coffins left Vietnam each week; he wanted readers to see the magnitude of that loss by illuminating the effects of just one death. Sam's plan was to join an operation; if someone was killed, he’d follow the body back for burial, along the way interviewing the deceased's buddies, family and friends. While treading close to the macabre, Sam felt that his story would provide the profound personal dimension lacking in faceless casualty lists.
I suggested that Castan join a brigade-sized foray called Operation Crazy Horse, set to kick off the next day. Paul's Charlie Company would be part of Crazy Horse; by escorting Castan I could spend time with both.
But as we were about to leave, my boss, Major Siler called me back.
"Castan’s cherry was popped a long time ago," he said. "He doesn't need babysitting, and I've got things for you to do around here." Siler had in mind a pile of paperwork that I'd been avoiding for weeks.
I drove Sam to the Twelfth Cav, introduced him to Charlie Company's topkick and hung out with Paul for a bit. That night I wrote Marie, assuring her of Paul’s good health.
And now this weird telephone call. I was spooked.
I called Graves Registration, woke an officer and asked what he knew about 19 dead in a mortar platoon.
"This can't wait until morning?" he growled.
I explained about the radio conversation on my field phone. The officer’s voice grew thick with sarcasm.
"Give Major Feldman a call in the morning."
Feldman was the division psychiatrist.
I sat, thinking. Was I nuts? Had the war finally got to me?
I called the Tactical Operations Center and a sergeant I knew. I said I had an inquiry about an overrun mortar platoon with 19 KIA. What could he tell me?
He promised to check; when he called back he said that nothing like that had been reported.
I’d been dreaming, I decided. It seemed real, but it was absurd that I could have overheard radio traffic on a telephone. Worried about Sam and Paul, my mind had played tricks me. Exhausted, I lay down and slipped into deep, dreamless sleep.
The phone rang, loud and clear, and a sergeant with a deep, almost sepulchral voice said he was calling from the morgue. He had a body that he thought might be a civilian.
"Any newsmen you can't account for?" he asked.
I fought for breath, a fish jerked from a lake. The only reporter I knew about was Castan. Calm down, I told myself. Some newsie might have joined a unit in the field without bothering to check in; it wouldn't be the first time.
The morgue sergeant said they’d need an ID on the body. I pulled a poncho over my head and ran a few yards to Siler's hooch.
"I met him for two minutes," said Siler. "You spent hours together. This one's yours."
The morgue was a mile’s march; my dread grew with every step. From time to time I tilted my face skyward and let falling drops wash away my tears.
My mind cowered behind a wall of numbness as I stepped inside the morgue tent and identified myself to a staff sergeant. He shook out the contents of a plastic bag.
"Recognize any of this?" he said.
I saw Hong Kong coins, keys, a folding knife and a Zippo lighter engraved with the LOOK Magazine logo. On the other side were initials: S. C.
"Might be Castan's lighter," I said.
I followed him down a canvas corridor to a chamber cluttered with wooden tables. Naked bulbs dangled from overhead cords. Each table had a body bag. The sergeant consulted a zipper tag, glanced at me, opened the bag halfway and stepped back. Somebody moved in behind me to work over another body. Squinting, I hunched forward.
I was empty, spent, unutterably weary. Why Sam? What a waste, I thought. I tried to pull myself together.
"Need you to sign the death certificate, identifying him," he said.
Turning to leave, I glanced at a body on the table: Paul Harrison. Gruesome wounds marred his chest, limbs and abdomen but his face was unmarked and strangely peaceful. A sergeant put two pieces of paper in front of me, and I signed them. I don't remember walking back or telling Siler what happened, but somehow I did.
Later I learned a little about how Sam and Paul died: Helicopters had dropped Charlie Company on LZ Hereford, a jungled slope 20 miles east of our basecamp. As the rifle platoons moved down the mountain, looking for the enemy, the mortars remained to support their advance.
But in the thick elephant grass just above Hereford waited 100 heavily-armed men of the North Vietnamese Army, so well concealed that the rifle platoons passed right by them. When these platoons were far down the mountainside, out of sight, the NVA fell on the lightly-armed mortarmen. They radioed for help but by the time the rest of Charlie Company returned, the fight was over. Three badly wounded men hid in thick brush; everyone else was killed.
Several weeks later another Air Cav unit fought this same NVA regiment; among the gear and equipment we recovered from the battlefield were Sam's cameras and exposed film. Sam’s last photos included several of a mortarman using a bayonet and a shovel in desperate hand-to-hand combat. The very last exposure shows this soldier’s death:
It was Paul.
When I returned from Vietnam, I went to see Marie and her toddler daughter. Many years later we reconnected. Marie was still teaching third grade. She had remarried and borne a second daughter, but I soon realized that as much as Marie learned to love her second husband, she never entirely got over Paul's loss. We stayed in touch until her death two years ago.
Memories of Sam haunted me for decades. I felt complicit in his death; if I hadn’t wanted to see Paul, Sam would have accompanied another unit. With the arrival of the Internet and other research tools, I discovered that Sam had shortened his name from Castagna and that a plaque in New York's Overseas Press Club honors his memory. I wondered how his death had affected his wife, Frances, who had remarried and was known as a gifted poet and writing teacher.
Thirty-three years after Sam’s death, I was finally able to meet Frances. I told her how Sam found himself at LZ Hereford and asked her forgiveness for sending him to his death.
"There’s nothing to forgive," she said. "You couldn't know what would happen and you only were trying to help Sam."
I had told that to myself for years, but I needed to hear it from Frances. A great burden lifted from my soul.
Only then did I stop dreaming about my awful night in the morgue, and only then did it occur to me that if Siler hadn't prevented me from escorting Sam, surely I would have died with him at Hereford.
I don't know if I’ll ever find meaning in the lives of those who died in Vietnam, but from Marie and Frances I learned that hearts heal and lives go on. I have researched radio phenomena and learned how it was possible to pick up nearby radio transmissions on a telephone, especially in wet weather.
But I will never understand how, at precisely the moment when a pilot radioed the tower that he was bringing Paul and Sam's bodies to the morgue, a single chirp from my telephone summoned me to listen.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
When my turn for R&R came, I chose Hong Kong, primarily because my photographer pals assured me that shopping for cameras there was cheaper and required less hassle than in Tokyo.
After a few hours of air-conditioned splendor, our 707 charter dropped down out of the clouds, threading the gap between mountains and skyscrapers to land with a roar at Kai Tak Airport. I might have found the approach exciting if I hadn’t made too many assault landings in C-130s.
Herded off the plane, we were whisked through Customs and onto Army buses, officers on one, senior noncoms on another and the rest of us enlisted swine on the third. We drove slowly past a row of hotels, stopping at each as a beefy Special Services—not to be confused in any way with Special Forces—noncom bellowed out hotel room prices, meanwhile suggesting that the lower-ranking among us should choose one such place or another. I remained until there was no one but me and the burly Special Services sergeant. “What are you waiting for, the Ritz?” he bellowed.
I strode the length of the bus and sat down in the front row.
“I wanted to ask where you’d stay, if you were here for a few days and didn’t want to be around a bunch of drunken snuffies dragging whores up and down the hallways all night long,” I said.
He looked at me like a long-lost brother.
“A man after my own heart,” he said. Ten minutes later he dropped me at a backstreet Kowloon hotel; after a shower and a late lunch I found the camera store that Henri Huet had suggested and spent the rest of the afternoon happily trying to decide what to buy on my limited budget. I came away with two Nikon lenses, a tiny, half-frame Olympus with wide-angle lens, and, because PIO’s aged Remingtons were worn-out relics, an Olivetti portable typewriter.
After dropping my treasures at the hotel I was ready to play. Sure, I wanted a girl. Hell, I needed one. But I had done my homework, interviewing several guys returned from Hong Kong; I was looking to avoid the flocks of whores working the R&R hotels and the Suzie Wongs bleeding sailors in the storied bars of the Wan Chai District. Surely, I thought, there had to be at least a few Hong Kong girls who could sustain the illusion of a doomed romance for three or four days.
I found her the next day in an out-of-the-way restaurant in which my fair hair and pink skin stood out. She was dining with several half-grown children, running back and forth to fetch them dishes from the kitchen with an easy familiarity and when I caught her eye she gave me a dazzling smile.
I started for her table but she intercepted me. “Not here,” she murmured, pressing a card into my hand. The card directed me to exactly the sort of Nathan Road bar that I’d been avoiding: loud, smoke-filled and crawling with girls dedicated to vacuuming the pockets of visiting American servicemen.
She called herself Caroline Lee— not her real name, I’m sure—and she was really quite special for a working girl anywhere—and I don’t mean just her looks. We spent three lovely mornings sight-seeing and hand-holding; afternoons she disappeared for several hours—perhaps, as she explained, to care for an extended family that included siblings, elderly parents, an aunt and young cousins—and then found a good restaurant for a leisurely meal, followed by a night of gentle sex and much holding. I’m not sure which I needed more.
Her story, which even then I supposed might have been partly true, was that, desperate for money to support her siblings when their parents died, she had gone to work in a bar. Finally she had saved enough, with partners, to open a restaurant—but still needed to work as a bar girl several nights a month. With such a history, marriage to a respectable Hong Kong man was out of the question. A GI had proposed to her, she said, but she couldn’t leave her family and move to America.
We parted as old friends; I gave her the sum she’d asked for and all my remaining my cash. On the flight back to Vietnam I regretted not taking her address, before accepting that I would never know what became of her.
Later, back at Tansonnhut and drowning in the stifling heat, crushing humidity and stomach-churning stench of jet fuel, I waited hours for an up- country flight. Returning from a latrine call I found a young GI, dressed in civvies for R&R, squirming with anticipation in the next chair. He was perhaps nineteen, fair hair cropped close—a strapping, eager kid from the Big Red One, the First Infantry Division, who wanted everyone to know that he’d volunteered for an extra ninety days on LRRP—long range recon patrol—just to get a second R&R and return to Hong Kong and the girl he’d met there.
Before I could refuse he thrust a packet of photos at me. I recognized with a start the colorful logo on the envelope as twin to one in my AWOL bag. He pulled out pictures of his Hong Kong fiancée, the girl he was going to marry and take back to Kansas or Oklahoma or some such place—and I found myself looking at the lush curves, the long, shiny dark hair, the flawless olive skin, Eurasian eyes and the slightly off-kilter and unmistakable nose of Caroline Lee.
“Her name is Caroline,” he gushed. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
He’d met her on her very first day as a hostess in a bar on Nathan Road, he said, and he’d been sending money every month so she wouldn’t have to work there. His Mom was okay with him marrying a Chinese girl who might be a little bit Portuguese on her mother’s side. He didn’t care if she’d maybe been with another man before they met because she was special. They were in love.
“Very pretty,” I said, biting my tongue and agonizing over what, if anything, I should tell him. I settled for keeping my mouth shut and hoping that when he got to Hong Kong he wouldn’t be able to find the lovely Caroline.
It was a long flight back to An Khe.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
Suddenly Richie Davis wanted to be my friend. He was the neighborhood bully, at once my nightmare and my secret idol. Bigger and tougher than any other kid at Blackstone Elementary, every child in the neighborhood feared Richie — and wanted to be just like him. He had punched me and bitten me, he had spat on me, pulled my pants down, shoved me into a puddle, pushed me into a snow bank. He had pelted me with ice balls, tripped me, commandeered my scooter and broken it, ridiculed my clothes, my haircut, my name. He had turned a hose on me, swiped my Popsicle, stolen my lunch. And he had called me a dirty Jew and a Christ killer.
Now he wanted to be my buddy.
I was seven and I knew something strange was going on, something was wrong if Richie was being nice to me. But I also knew that if Richie was my friend, nobody else would bother me. Harold Kaufmann and the other guys who worshipped Richie would stop picking on me. Better to be Richie's friend, I reasoned, than his enemy.
"Let's be buddies," Richie said, resting a forearm on my shoulder.
"Buddies?" I responded.
"Friends. You and me."
Mom had always said to avoid Richie, but if I refused now, he’d surely punch me in the face. Or worse.
"Okay, buddies," I said.
"Good!" he said, smiling. We shook hands, and I turned to go. It wouldn't do to have Mom look out the window and see me with Richie.
"Hey, I've got a nickel to spend at the store," he said, and held out his hand to show me. "You like ice cream?"
Ice cream! I loved ice cream, but Mom gave it to us only on birthdays and special occasions. It was a warm summer day; suddenly I was almost crazed with ice cream lust.
"How about an Eskimo Pie?" offered Richie. "Vanilla ice cream with chocolate outside."
"Okay," I said, marveling at my good fortune.
"Where'd you get that cane?" asked Richie as we walked toward the store.
"My uncle gave it to me," I said.
There were two canes, gifts from Mom’s favorite sibling. Uncle Duke was a furrier. He had a factory in the State and Lake Building downtown and lived in a big house in the suburbs. Every summer, when business was slow, he took Aunt Marge on vacation. This year they brought us souvenirs wooden canes from Mexico: one for me and one for Freyda, my big sister. Each was carved with pictures of wild animals — monkeys, lions, camels, and elephants — but her cane, longer and thicker, was bright red, yellow, and green. Mine was of dark wood, more delicate. Richie took it from me, whipped his arm and wrist, smiting air, listening to the swoosh.
"I need a cane like this," said Richie.
"You could have that one," I said.
"I want the other one," Richie said. "The colored one."
Freyda and I were playing with our canes on the stoop earlier, before Richie stopped to talk to me.
"That belongs to my sister."
"I want that one," Richie said. "I don't want this brown one."
Surely no kid in our neighborhood had ever seen anything so beautiful, so different and exotic as Freyda's cane.
"I'll ask her," I said. Maybe Freyda would swap with me. I started thinking of reasons that I could give her, but it was hard to concentrate. All I could think about was ice cream, the delicious cold on my tongue.
"Don't be all day," said Richie, scowling. "Or I'll give the ice cream to someone else."
I found Freyda in the kitchen with Mom, peeling carrots and potatoes. She had just celebrated her tenth birthday and Mom said that she could start learning how to cook. I wanted to help, too, but Mom said I was still too young.
"You know those canes that Uncle Duke gave us?" I began.
"What about them?" snapped Freyda, instantly on guard.
"Would you trade with me?"
"Because," I started, and stopped. I couldn't tell her that Richie wanted the cane. I couldn't say that he’d promised me ice cream if I gave it to him. Freyda would have demanded the ice cream or told Mom that I was hanging around with Richie.
"You have your own cane, why do you need mine?" Freyda asked.
"I want to trade. This one is brown, like your hair," I said, lamely. "Anyway, this is a girl's cane," I asserted, holding it aloft to show her how slender and curvy it was.
"You keep yours, I'll keep mine."
I went downstairs and told Richie that he couldn't have Freyda's cane.
"Are we buddies?" he asked, his hand again on my shoulder.
"Do you want that ice cream?"
"Then get me the other cane," he said.
I went back upstairs and tried to read a library book, but all I could think about was ice cream. Then Ila, the baby, needed her diaper changed, while Teddy, who was three, was ready for his nap in the room we shared. Mom sent Freyda to the store while she fussed over the babies. I crept into Freyda's room, found her cane, tiptoed out the door and down the stairs. I hid behind the building, my heart thumping wildly, until Freyda came out of the store with a grocery bag. When she was in the stairwell, I dashed across the street and into the store where Richie waited.
Richie took the cane and I selected a chocolate-dipped delicacy from the freezer case. He gave the grocer a nickel. Outside on the sidewalk, I took a tiny bite.
Richie snatched the bar away. "Ain't ya gonna share your ice cream with your buddy?" he said, and took a big bite.
"Okay," I said, and he took another bite. Then another. And another.
"That's my ice cream!" I protested.
"Sure," he returned. "We're buddies now, and I'm sharing." Gnawing greedily, Richie walked away, threw the stick into the street and ran off, twirling the cane.
The enormity of my crimes washed over me. My heart sank. I had sold my friendship. I had stolen my sister's property. I had given it to someone whom Mom had forbidden me to associate with. Dad would whip me with his leather belt.
I hid under the back stairs, contemplating one wild idea after another. I would run away, find a job. I would break into Richie's house and steal the cane.
I would — I would wait until Dad got home, and face the music, as he liked to put it. I would sleep on my tummy that night, if I slept at all.
The sun was warm and my throat was dry. I didn’t want more ice cream. I wanted water and then I wanted the earth to swallow me.
When I came through the door, Freyda pointed an accusing finger and wailed about her cane. Mom swatted me, twice.
"Wait until your father gets home!" she shrieked. Go to your room!"
Dad never threatened. He just removed his belt and told me how many times he was going to hit me. He made me take my pants down and counted the strokes aloud. Waiting for the next blow was nearly as bad as getting hit.
And so I waited, knowing that I was very bad, that Dad would be very angry and hit me very hard.
Time slowed. Half an hour became an eternity.
Eventually Dad came in. "Did you take your sister's cane?" he said.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Was it right to take that cane? Is that what I've taught you?"
"No," I sobbed. Dad gave me five strokes, each more painful than the last.
"This hurts me almost as much as it hurts you," he said. When I stopped crying, he asked why I took Freyda’s cane. I told him about Richie and the ice cream and that I got only one bite before he snatched it away.
"Richie should return the cane," he said. "Let's go see Mr. Davis."
Mr. Davis was a big man who spent most days in a tavern. He was even meaner than Richie. If Dad talked to him, I was sure Richie would beat me up.
"But Daddy, if you tell Mr. Davis that Richie has to give the cane back, won't he get mad at you?"
"Then let him be mad. He has to know how his boy took that cane from you. And that it was wrong."
The rancid odor of boiled cabbage oozed through the doorway as Mrs. Davis opened up. "He ain’t here," she said, in reply to Dad’s question.
"What about Richie?"
"Both’r down the corner, maybe."
There was a saloon on the corner. Richie liked to loiter on the sidewalk in front, pitching pennies and sneaking cigarettes.
Dad walked me to our building and told me to go upstairs.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"To find Mr. Davis," he said, gently pushing me inside.
An hour later he came back with the cane.
It had been snapped in two; the wood on either side of the break was jagged. Mom shot Dad an inquiring look, and he shook his head and said something in Yiddish that I didn't understand.
"What did you learn from this, Mordechai Yankel?" he asked me.
"That I shouldn't steal from Freyda."
"You shouldn't steal from anyone. And about Richie, what did you learn?"
"That he's a bad boy and I should stay away from him."
Dad hugged me and I saw the ugly, purpling welt on the side of his neck where Mr. Davis had broken Freyda's cane.
"Does it hurt?" I asked, gently touching the spot. He flinched.
"It was in a good cause: I learned something."
"When Richie acts like a bully, he’s imitating his father. When he grows up, he'll probably be just like Mr. Davis. Too bad."
With tiny screws, a little glue and paint, Dad made Freyda's cane seem almost new. It took a while before our sibling relationship was similarly mended. Long before my sister forgave me, however, I came to important decisions: If Richie was destined to grow into another Mr. Davis, then he could never be my friend. I still feared him, but my admiration had vanished as quickly as he’d eaten my ice cream bar.
And when I grew up I would not become a bully and a drunk like Mr. Davis. I would be brave and honest like my father.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
If there really were lots of books at the library, as Mom had told me, and if I could borrow them to read, then I could carry more of them home if I put them in my wagon. That was why I left my battered Radio Flyer, with its peeling red paint and rusted axles, next to the door. It was July, but inside it was cool, like the movie theater where my sister Freyda sometimes took me on Saturday afternoons, and as Mom had promised, there were books everywhere.
Behind a huge desk sat an old woman in a long, flowery skirt. "Is it true that I can borrow books?" I said, when she looked down at me.
"Do you have a library card?" she asked, in a tone of voice that made me feel as though I had violated some terrible taboo.
"No," I said, turning to go, fighting back tears over my long walk down the scalding sidewalks of unfamiliar streets.
"Just a minute," she said, a little less frostily. "Would you care to apply for a card?" She watched carefully as I printed my name and address. "You must sign the application," she said, pushing it back across the desk. "Don't print your name, write it out. Do you know how to do that?"
"Yes," I said, and applied the fourth-grade penmanship that Freyda had taught me the year before, when I was in first grade. My teacher had told me not to write in class -- everyone else was still learning to print -- but I practiced at home.
"You can pick up your card when you are ready to check out your books," said the woman, waving a bony arm toward the shelves.
I had first encountered books in a junkyard. My father was in the cluttered office with Mr. Rushicoff, who had few hairs on his head but many growing on his big, red-veined nose, and while they haggled over Dad's load of newspaper, rags and iron, I wandered around until I found a huge wooden bin. I pulled myself up and clambered atop a pile of old books. Some were filled with pictures, and some were written in strange alphabets with tiny, odd-looking symbols over the letters, but even these called to me. Fascinated, I lugged several volumes to the office. "Just one," said Dad, and after weighing it, Mr. Rushicoff asked for a nickel.
After that I made straight for the book bins as soon as we had unloaded the truck. Each week I took home a book or two, and through them I escaped into long-vanished worlds, into make-believe universes, into adventure and romance and intrigue. I wrote down unfamiliar words, and sometimes Mom told me what they meant, but only after I had failed to find them in her old dictionary, or to guess their meanings by the context of their use.
Most days, after Freyda and I had finished our homework, Mom started supper. Ted and Ila, barely out of diapers, played or tussled on the living room floor. My mother had begun her long descent into madness; inevitably she screamed at Freyda for setting out the wrong plates, for failing to clean a skillet properly, for something said or not said, for her deportment. Denouncements soon morphed into bizarre, paranoid accusations, and as Freyda yelled denials, Mom upped the volume. Neighbors pounded walls or ceilings; the babies wailed in terror. I crept away, found a book.
Soon I was over the Channel, hurtling down from 10,000 feet with a Messerschmitt hot on my tail, shells from the Jerry's cannon arcing past my Spitfire's windscreen until I pulled up into a tight Immelman, squeezed off a burst and sent him tumbling in flames. I was with Richard Halliburton, urging our reluctant pachyderm up a narrow trail beneath the towering Matterhorn. I tamed the fierce black stallion until he licked sugar from my palm. I resisted Big Brother until he forced me to obey, and padded silently through the forest with Hawkeye and Chingachgook. I built the lamp for Tom Swift's electric searchlight, took note of a London watchdog that did not bark, joined the posse to track down a bandit gang. I did not return to the daily screaming matches on Chicago's South Side until my father had shouted my name repeatedly, and shook my shoulder, and then I reentered the frightening, disorderly world resentfully and reluctantly, as though awakening from deepest sleep.
There came a day when Dad switched his allegiance to a junkyard that dealt only in metals, and my access to cheap books ended. That was when Mom suggested the library, and sketched a map to help me find it. But no one had mentioned that there was a system in place, that each book resided on a certain shelf, that the numbers inked on their spines were mirrored on paper cards in long wooden drawers, that with author's name or book's subject one could quickly find the proper volume.
Instead I approached the library on that first day like a neat and spacious junkyard, choosing books at random and reading enough of each to decide whether it seemed interesting or not. I wandered the vast room, stopping here and there, selecting volumes from lower shelves that I could reach easily. When my arms were full, I took them to the desk where the lady in the flowered skirt waited. "Those are not for you," she said. "The children's section is over there," she added, pointing.
"But I want to read these," I replied, and she shook her head and got up and came around in front of the desk. She opened a book and held it in front of my face.
"Read this for me," she said, and I did, stumbling over multi-syllable words, mispronouncing unfamiliar names. The old woman stared at me. "What does this word mean," she asked, indicating one that I had pronounced "mono-tone-nuss."
"It means boring, like doing the same thing over and over," I said, and her jaw dropped. She opened another book and asked me to read, and then another and another. When I looked up, I was surrounded by librarians. I returned the next week to hand in the books that I had finished, and they all stared at me.
Not until tenth grade did I ask about the strange wooden cabinet with its myriad brass-handled drawers, and thus discovered card catalogs. But by then I had formed the habit of roaming the library at random, and I had read many books that I am certain no librarian or teacher would have suggested.
Each week, as I returned with new books to read, I grew more excited with every step. I could hardly wait to find a well-lit corner, to open a book, to leap headlong into a world beyond my own, a universe of vicarious experiences. Reading was not only exciting, it was safer and more ordered than the world around me.
I wanted to share what I discovered in books with people whom I loved. But my father, with six children to support, had no time for reading books, much less for talking about them. Intelligent and curious, until illness overtook my mother she was keenly interested in her children's education -- but never had the luxury of reading for pleasure.
So what began as escape from family chaos grew into a private passion. I met few children who cared about reading in the way I did, and the few times that I attempted to share the excitement of a particular book, or to talk about something that I had read, my words were taken for bragging, and I was ridiculed. I learned to keep my literary discoveries to myself.
Yet, looking back, I know that books saved me from succumbing to the madness and rage that permeated our household. What would I have missed if that first librarian, or those who gaped at my pilgrimages, had guided me to a section appropriate to my years, had explained how a library was organized, had high-mindedly denied me the freedom to explore, to choose what pleased or provoked me, to venture past artificial literary frontiers? What would have happened if my mother had escorted her seven-year-old on his first visit to a library? How then would I have escaped, even temporarily, the shame and lunacy that permeated our household, the shadow that haunted Dad even when Mom, fresh from yet another psychiatric ward, seemed ready to live in the world that in the end, the unbalanced chemistry of her brain could never abide?
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
“You’re one of Siler’s boys, right?” shouted the pilot as I strapped myself into the door gunner’s seat.
Siler was the division PIO — the Public Information Officer.
“Yes sir,” I yelled back over the whining roar of the Huey’s jet turbine.
The pilot swiveled his head to look at me and I saw that he was Colonel Burdette, commander of the First Cavalry Division’s Aviation Group.
I was a combat photographer, not a door gunner. But every aircraft has its limitations, and aside from its crew of four, the UH-1B “Huey” could carry no more than eight infantrymen with weapons and equipment. So on the frequent occasions when I was assigned to document a search-and-destroy that began with an air assault, I usually replaced the starboard-side door gunner.
The colonel, Allen Burdette, waited for me to plug in the gunner’s headset, then asked if I’d gone to door-gunner school.
I shook my head, no. I hadn’t known there was such a school.
In 1965 the First Air Cav was a brand-new division, an evolving experiment in helicopter warfare. The men who dreamed up our table of organization and equipment hadn’t anticipated that the Bell UH-1D, with sliding doors on either side of the cargo compartment, would be available so quickly. They had instead based their manpower projections on the older Sikorsky CH-34, with its single, left-side cargo door.
And they hadn’t anticipated that aviators and infantrymen would learn that a key to successful air assaults was minimizing the period when the chopper was most vulnerable: landing troops under fire. By using the Huey, instead of eight men queuing single file up to leave through one door, we removed both doors to allow four men to jump out of each side almost simultaneously.
Thus the need for two door gunners per ship. The extra man came on temporary duty from an infantry battalion. Many had never fired a machinegun from a moving aircraft, so Burdette set up a school to train them.
By the time I got back from the operation, he’d called my boss to say that if I was going to ride shotgun on his Hueys, I’d have to learn how.
The five-day training schedule was mostly a practicum in firing machineguns from fast-moving aircraft. We spent six or seven hours a day zooming over rice paddies and through mountain valleys, flying nap-of-the-earth, hugging the ever-changing foliage contour, jinking and zigzagging, diving or climbing, every so often firing tracers at sand-filled oil drums painted different colors.
It was about as much fun as a dogface GI can have with his clothes on. A million-dollar aircraft, two highly-trained pilots, thousands of gallons of jet fuel hauled halfway around the world, real machine guns, an endless supply of tracer bullets — sorry Generations X,Y, and Z, but show me a better video game than that!
In late afternoon we cleaned our guns, then spent an hour or so learning how choppers fly and how to maintain them in the field.
One day a senior crew chief, pointing out the components of the rotor assembly, casually mentioned that the shaft was attached to the rotor with a single titanium bolt, called the jesus (lower case j) bolt.
“Why is it called that?” I asked.
“Cause if it breaks while you’re flying, you’re all going to Jesus,” he said.
On Friday we flew real missions; I fired my M60 in support of twol assault landings. Afterward there was a graduation ceremony and Burdette personally pinned an air crewman's silver wings on my fatigues: I was officially an Army aviator.
A month later he called Siler and asked to borrow me for a mission; I was incredulous but flattered.
We took off in two Hueys and followed first the Song Ba River and then one of its tiny tributaries north and west, deeper into the mountains. As we approached the Cambodian border we split up to fly individual search patterns, systematically quartering back and forth over thick jungle.
“What are we looking for?” I asked the crew chief manning the other gun.
“Down there’s the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” he replied. “Anything that moves is fair game.”
A few minutes later the pilot in the other Huey shouted “Tallyho!” into his radio and fired a Willy Peter rocket — white phosphorous — that zipped down through the jungle canopy and burst with a cloud of pure white smoke.
Burdette turned the ship around and we flew toward that smoke. He unleashed a pair of 3.5 inch rockets, each with a warhead capable of knocking out a tank. A moment later he fired two more. Four dirty clouds flew skyward from their impact points.
A moment later came a series of huge explosions that sent dark smoke and glowing smoke trails every which way.
“Bull’s-eye!” yelled the other pilot. “A secondary!”
The rockets had struck an ammunition supply train.
We dropped down low for a look-see and flashed past three or four big, gray splotches — elephants, used by the North Vietnamese Army as pack animals.. Burdette circled back and set down in a clearing near the biggest pile of raw meat I’d ever seen. Only the head, neck and shoulders were recognizably that of a pachyderm.
Feeling sick to my stomach, I manned my gun, keeping watch on the jungle ready to shoot anything that looked threatening.
And then, to my astonishment, Burdette chopped the throttle back to idle, unbuckled and hopped out.
“Come on,” he said. “Bring your camera.”
So this was why I’d been invited to the party.
Brandishing an M16 rifle, Burdette rested a leg on the great forehead and struck a pose so I could snap a picture: the mighty hunter with his trophy.
Now I really wanted to puke.
The other Huey circled overhead, watching for unfriendlies as our crew chief took out a hacksaw, carried for emergency repairs, and sawed off first one tusk, then the other. I was ordered to snap more pictures; then the tusks were loaded and we flew away.
When we landed at base camp, Col. Burdette asked for the film, and I gave it to him.
War is nasty, brutish, savage. Innocent people die, and rarely for any good reason. Except for two or three psychopaths, no combat soldier of my acquaintance ever enjoyed killing. And I doubt that even the nut jobs would have asked to be photographed standing over a human corpse that they were responsible for killing.
Pack animals bearing enemy ammunition and supplies were a legitimate target in our ugly war; as much as I regret the deaths of those gentle beasts, I understand and accept why they were killed.
But to bring a photographer along in anticipation of such a kill suggests pride of accomplishment: My photos were meant to convey the colonel’s prowess as a big game hunter.
As if killing a big, defenseless creature with an aerial rocket was sport.
Allen M. Burdette, Jr., went on to wear three stars and was inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame. I knew him as a brave and compassionate commander and first-class combat aviator. He died several years ago.
If there is any justice in this universe, his soul will return as an elephant.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, and short fiction, each offering a glimpse of my life and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.