Grog All Around

Da Nang, South Vietnam, Fall 1962

“No more hotdogging on the deck trying to flush out the Cong.”

Colonel Hammer glares, willing us to attention. A few pilots sit up. The rest remain sprawled across the ready room chairs, too lazy to move.

After six months in country, we’re grizzled, jaded. Outside, the first hints of rain are building in towering cumulus clouds. If they settle below the top of the mountains we’ll scrub the flights and go back to the B.O.Q. The refrigerators are well stocked. Cargo makes a weekly booze run to Saigon and I’ve acquired the grog habit.

“They’re catching on to us. They’ve learned that one round, in the right place, even from a paddy farmer’s blunderbuss, can bring a chopper down.” The C.O.’s audience may be captive but our focus is skewed.

I’ve gone home in my mind to football season where it’s maple trees what are exploding, red and orange leaves littering the ground. Bare-bellied coeds lie on their backs holding metal reflectors to catch the last warm rays. Pom-poms jiggle and coaches vow to make amends. The war’s a long ways away.

“Get in quick and don’t mess around,” the C.O. orders. “Climb to fifteen hundred feet and stay out of small arms’ range.” He slaps his pointer against the mapboard and paces across the front of the ready room, his back stiff, stomach taut. He’s tense. We’re tired.

The ground war drags on. The V.C. are on the move. They pop out of canals and mangrove swamps, hit quick, capture guns and radios, disappear, then play hidee seekee with the ARVNs chasing them down like angry housewives stomp stomp gonna kill those fucking cockroaches too late too late they’re gone, lost between the baseboard and wall. What’s the use?

“Make sure you know where you are at all times. We don’t need any more border incidents.” He smacks the map again, slap shot of attention. It doesn’t carry far.

I’m still thinking about home, where Miz Tildy drops slops to her pet pig but unknowingly slips in a serving spoon and the pig chokes to death in the corner of the pen, all bloated and worthless, jes’ worthless for meat and it galls Miz Tildy so bad she comes up raging from a grog bender and blows out the TV with her double-barreled twelve gauge when Jonathon Winters does his hog farmer bit, making suwee suwee pig talk. Everything’s come unglued.

“Knock off the idle chatter on the radio. Keep the channel clear for important messages.” The skipper leans forward and pauses a beat, then resumes pacing.

I stifle a yawn. Fungus creeps across the walls; mold turns my underwear green. The maps and schedule boards are splashed with grease-pencil scrawls: squadron notices in black; artillery ranges crosshatched in red; friendly outposts blue triangles; Viet Cong positions boldly outlined in orange; ribald comments etched in green: Tower monkeys screw ripe mangos and feed the mush to the birds.

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