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Drill Sergeant Ch. 01

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The irony still lingers.

I was aboard a lemon yellow 707, one of the famous “jelly bean fleet” launched by Braniff Airlines in the 1960s, or more precisely, dreamed up by one the reigning ad agencies of the era, to give their client an edge in aero-hipness. The fleet was so named for the colors Braniff adopted, a palette including lime green, orange, and powder blue.

It was January 1969, one year after the Tet Offensive debacle that changed the course of the Vietnam War. Though peace talks had begun a few months after Tet, the war raged on, and fresh troops continued to pour into the country as others completed their tours and rotated home. Many made the journey on chartered civilian aircraft. Thus it was that I found myself going to war, at the very height of the war, aboard an icon of that groovy, let’s-get-it-on decade.

I was not in a party mood, though, and found no amusement in the irony as I was experiencing it.

Having spent most of my service doing light clerical duty in and enjoying the pleasures of Frankfurt, West Germany, and having spent wonderful furloughs in such locales as Zurich and Vienna, I was, at 21, entering my third and last year in the U.S. Army. I thought, somehow, miraculously, I had managed to dodge a tour in Vietnam. But no. I was about to be one of the four million or so Americans who ultimately served in that inglorious “conflict.”

We were on final approach to the giant Cam Ranh Bay military depot 180 miles north of Saigon, a merciful end to a flight which had lifted off twenty-four hours earlier at McCord Air Force Base in Washington State. Seventeen of those hours were in the air, the rest at stopovers in glamorous Anchorage and exotic Okinawa. Seventeen miserable fucking hours. Loud and profane dice games. Bland, gas-inducing food. A cabin filled with the sour smoke of unfiltered Camels, the cigarette of choice for many soldiers. Two hundred GIs, whites and blacks and Latinos, country boys and rich kids, some volunteers, most draftees, all of us pitting out newly made jungle fatigues as stiff and coarse as corrugated cardboard. Most of us hadn’t been near a shower in several days.

Throughout the flight I had made a concerted effort to speak as little as possible with my seatmates. Fitful sleep and reading filled most of the time for me. I didn’t want to get to know anyone, not even in passing. I was willing myself into a mind-set that I hoped would carry me through the 12 months of my tour. Grit your teeth. Keep your head down. Work as hard as possible to make the daylight hours fly by, drink enough to numb yourself every night. Get through it. Get home.

That this was not an extended nightmare, that I was actually in Vietnam, became abundantly clear as a stewardess swung open the forward bulkhead door. gaziantep escort Into the cabin rushed a wet, heavy, foul-smelling heat. Mingling with the already fetid air we were breathing, I knew in that moment I had arrived in hell. It was all I could do not to puke my guts out.

We began the slow shuffle up the aisle. I stretched my arms above my head, did quick knee bends, working out as many kinks as I could. I tried not to breathe too deeply. Approaching the stewardess as I was about to step through the bulkhead door, I glanced at her blue eyes. They registered an extreme, bone-deep weariness. She was no doubt relieved that all those hands were no longer grabbing at her ass, but her eyes did not diminish her beach-blond California beauty. I hadn’t taken much notice of her during the flight, but now I looked carefully and longingly at this goddess of the air, from her tawny, coltish legs, to her curvy figure, and back up to a face right out of a Coppertone ad. It would be many months, I knew, before I would see another ’round-eyed’ woman.

I stepped out onto the roll-a-away stairs, into a milky white, blinding, sun-fed haze baking an ocean of concrete, the heat so oppressive that I was drenched in sweat before I walked fifty yards from the plane. The next 48 hours at Cam Ranh were a blur of recuperation, more exhaustion, jet-lag sleeplessness, and choked down food. They don’t call it mess for nothing. Post-flight, we had been allowed to shower, eat and grab a night’s sleep. But at six the next morning, I was on a grinding, make-work detail, filling sandbags for use on the base’s perimeter defenses, until in-country travel to my permanent assignment was arranged. Being born and bred in the Northwest, I didn’t know from searing, literally breath-taking heat. Working in it, shoveling sand for ten hours at a time, I came to more fully appreciate my choice at enlistment: clerk typist.

After two days in Cam Ranh, there was a cramped, ear-pounding, bone-jarring C-130 flight to Bien Hoa, another temporary stop. More sand bag duties ensued. Nearly five days in country, I finally found myself in the “Paris of the Orient”–Saigon–as it was known before Americans replaced the French in defending South Vietnam from those godless communist devils. This was where my assignment was to be, my home for the next year. To my eye, initially, it was more the “Paris Sewer of the Orient,” such was the squalor I observed on the bus ride from Tan Son Nhut Airbase to my quarters.

Barracks space was scarce at posts around the city, so rented villas and small hotels were also used to house newly arriving troops, two or three per room. This was how I met Sergeant Antoine Dexter (not his real name). We were assigned a room at a fairly decent villa, with its own bathroom. Two beds, in opposite corners, had been crammed into a space meant for one. A large wooden table with an ancient hotplate, two tattered cloth chairs, an old armoire, a couple of foot lockers, and bare plaster walls completed the decor.

For six weeks we barely spoke. He would go off to his job and me to mine, twelve hours on, twelve off, 6 am to 6 pm. I tried to make conversation every so often, but his answers were usually terse. Sgt. Dexter was black, and I began to feel like it might be a racial thing. As in society, there were many black-white fissures in the services then. So we kept to ourselves and communicated only when necessary. I did know that he was married, and as a few weeks passed, I also learned that we shared an aversion to Saigon’s red-light districts. I preferred reading what books I could find and writing letters home to the certainty of coming down with the clap, and unless there was a movie worth seeing at the outdoor, mosquito-infested ‘theatre’ available to us, I stayed in the room as much as possible during off hours. So did he.

We were both off duty one evening, he in his corner of the room and me in mine, ignoring each other, when a fire fight erupted in the alley behind the villa. Jumping off our beds, dressed only in skivvies because of the wet heat and a barely functioning ceiling fan, we grabbed our M-16s. Sgt. Dexter turned our table on its side and we hunkered down behind it, shoulder to shoulder, facing the door. Not a word was spoken. The implicit understanding between us was that if anyone other than a GI walked through the door, we would blast away. After five adrenalin-pumping minutes, the fire fight stopped. After another 15 tense minutes of listening to eerie quiet, we stood up and righted the table.

“Probably a gang fight,” said the sergeant, his voice a rumbling baritone. “Sounded more like small arms.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Saigon cowboys.” These were notorious punks on mopeds who owned the city at night, shooting up whatever and whoever they felt like. It was said you could give a cowboy $50 to kill someone you disliked, say the dip-shit lieutenant running your outfit, and it would be done with all possible speed and not a whiff of conscience.

“You wanna drink?” he asked out of nowhere. I was momentarily startled, but said yes. By all means, a drink was called for. Sgt. Dexter went to his foot locker and retrieved a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. He poured double shots each into two glasses and handed me one. We sat in our chairs, toasted each other with a nod and tossed them back. He poured two more, and we drained them again. In that moment, in the aftermath of the adrenalin rush, in a hangover of shared fear, the barrier came down a notch.

Sgt. Dexter turned on the Armed Forces Radio Network, in the middle of a Motown tribute. A grin spread over my face as Kim Weston sang “Take Me in Your Arms,” and I allowed as how Motown was my favorite music. He grinned back. The barrier came down another notch, and for the two hours we talked and talked. We learned about our families, our home towns, old girlfriends, first cars, our dreams about life after ‘Nam.

The conversation grew more intimate after that, propelled by the warmth of Johnny Black. We talked about our need for a woman, and more explicitly about what each of us would want from a woman if we had one at that moment. The sergeant said he had a decided preference for a long, wet and deep blow job. Me, I wanted a woman on all fours. We laughed at each other, a reminder dawning that we both had ten long months left before going home. We lapsed into silence then. Minutes passed.

Contemplating my drink, I looked up to find him staring intently at me. I averted my eyes, looking down…down at the outline of an erection forming in his thin olive green boxers. I felt a stirring of my own, but I couldn’t bring myself to look back at him.

The sergeant was a big man, an inch over six feet, well on the plus side of 200 pounds. He was not what you would call chiseled or ripped. Huge arms, a barrel chest, and a broad belly, but hard, not flabby. Legs that would have been at home supporting a pier. His head was completely shaved. And he was black as wet coal. If Sgt. Dexter was all menacing, inner city Detroit, I was the very picture of suburban white-bread Portland, standing 5’9″, weighing in at 150 after a shower, fair skinned and blond, glasses, bookish. Ebony and ivory, indeed.

He began rubbing a meaty hand slowly across his chest and stomach, up and down, up and down, the piercing stare never wavering. I suddenly became terrified with the realization of what might be happening. There was much to fear. Homosexual acts between soldiers were far beyond taboo in that era. It meant brutal hard time in prison and rapid dishonorable discharges. It meant shame and disgrace. Don’t ask, don’t tell was years away.

“I need a shower,” I said, getting up on my feet. I turned and moved quickly across the room. “Too much humidity, and definitely too much sex talk,” I called over my shoulder with a nervous laugh. I moved into the small bathroom and gently closed the door. Facing the mirror, I stared at myself, shaking my head. I breathed out a long ‘phew’ as I switched on the shower, cold water only. Stripping out of my skivvies, I stepped into the bracing coolness and let it wash over me for a few long minutes.

I didn’t hear it, I sensed it. I turned to see the sergeant’s massive frame in the doorway. The partially translucent shower curtain did not obscure his nudity, nor an amazing hard-on that he cupped in one hand, bouncing it lightly, almost as if he were handling a weapon. Then he stepped into the bathroom.

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