Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior
OUR NATIONAL ANTHEM
12 September 1967
I knew it was going to be a malevolent day as soon as I woke up and saw that my socks were missing again. That meant either one of my roommates borrowed them or else the Thai houseboy left them in my shoes outside the door on the front porch. The Bangkok sun heated the floor all right but still I didn't like walking across the floor in my undershorts and bare feet, especially since my room was visible to our Thai neighbors over the fence. But I did. And, sure enough, there they were stuffed into my shoes on the porch. The houseboy sat hunched over a boot which he was shining meticulously with a toothbrush full of shoe polish. He looked up, brushed his tousled black hair away from his eyes with a shoe‑polish-stained brown hand, and saluted: "Sawasdee krab," he said with a big Thai grin. He was wearing shorts and a Buddhist amulet around his neck. His T‑shirt had a 'Grunt‑Power' motto and a multi‑colored picture of a GI throwing everybody the bird. I gave him a quick salute and said good morning to him too. I don't know what the hell he always saluted me for. I was only a Specialist Fourth‑Class finance clerk in the Army and about as unmilitary as any other ex‑Hawaiian beach boy who joined the goddamned service because he knows wearing costumes and saluting lifers is inevitable anyway.
Taylor always said the houseboy was happy because we were stuck in the Army and he wasn't. But that's bull, because he was only about 17 and a pretty good guy even if he couldn't shine shoes worth a damn. I never did learn much about him because he didn't speak much English and I only learned about a hundred Thai words during my whole 18‑month tour of duty in Bangkok. And most of those hundred words were swear words. You know how GIs are. They go to a foreign country and learn about a hundred words and then quit learning. Fifty of those words will be profane curses, and forty will be words to get a girl to bed for almost nothing; so that leaves ten picked up by accident. But I figured if I was going to finish changing this diary into the first memoirs ever written by an enlisted man, I'd better spend a lot of my spare time at it. So I decided the hell with learning Thai.
But I kept my notebook up to date. I can remember our room now as if I were standing in it right this minute waiting for Major Thompson, known as Blinky, and his sidekick, First Sergeant Boogle, known as Bumbles, to inspect us. There were four single bunks, wall lockers, foot lockers, one bookshelf and a small bathroom. Books, magazines, articles of civilian and military clothes and beer cans were scattered about. Several small ant‑infested stuffed animals in poor condition (one-eyed rabbit, snake fighting a mongoose, birds with torn wings, etc.) were piled on a cardboard carton next to a floor fan which didn't work for shit.
On the wall were taped hand‑written signs in various colors of paper and cardboard. They read: ‘Fuck the Army,’Happiness is watching a GI who just kicked it for six more years get dicked away by a lifer,’Death before Re‑enlistment,’ and ‘The shortest distance between two PX’s is a lifer's footprints.’ A large banner with a humorous drawing of a Vietcong was affixed to one wall proclaiming: ‘Good iron does not become nails and good men do not become soldiers.’
Taylor had hung a large sheet of cardboard above his bunk with a drawing he did of a three‑storied outhouse. The waste pipes of the outhouse were so constructed that when the top toilet was flushed, all the shit emptied onto the guy sitting on the seat in the room directly beneath it; and the pipes from the middle toilet bowl emptied all the shit onto the man in the one below. The top outhouse Taylor had labeled ‘Congressmen,’ the middle one ‘officers,’ and the bottom outhouse which collected all the shit from the two above he had labeled ‘Enlisted Men.’
A large foldout map of Vietnam was on another wall with the printed words, ‘1967 Foldout Map of Vietnam.’ Taylor had crossed out the word ‘Foldout’ and written in the word ‘Pullout.’ There were also calendars and movie posters of Chinese sword fighting films on the walls, the kind with sexy young Chinese starlets in tight‑fitting silk outfits holding phallic‑symbol swords in their hands. And I remember a collection of Chinese and Thai Buddhas was on a table next to a can of Brasso and another stuffed animal that was too ant‑eaten to identify. The top of a fake ivory Goddess of Mercy statue usually had somebody's olive‑green fatigue hat draped over it.
Besides myself, three GIs shared the room; or, more accurately, slept in the room. The one nearest the door, Eugene Gillis, was nicknamed (by those he didn't owe money to) 'Butterball,' which pretty well described him. He had the distinction of being the only man in the unit to outweigh Hogbody, although Hogbody's appearance was actually more ursine than porcine, and it was all muscle. It was in fact Butterball who deserved a porcine epithet, and the cigarette burns in his fatigue shirts matched his permanently bloodshot eyes so perfectly, he had been voted 'best‑dressed man in the unit'. Butterball was the archetypal and rapidly disappearing type of real regular guy without pretensions that you'd like to take home to have dinner with your folks ‑‑ when he was sober ‑‑ which wasn't very often.
But it was in the world of the gourmand that Butterball had made his name forever. Rumor-control had it that he would tie three strands of thread around his enormous belly just before he started eating. It was only upon the breaking of the last of the threads that he would finally stop. And although it was a fact that he was always the last to leave any table, except for an occasional burp, a horrific belch and a satiated grin, Butterball himself refused to confirm or deny the charge.
Hogbody, Dick Branch, slept on the bunk nearest the wall, next to Taylor's paintings. Not paintings exactly. Our room was never without massive armies of ants which prowled the walls despite the losses of entire battalions to the waiting tongues and fat bellies of Thai wall lizards, known as chinchooks. Taylor regularly stole Scotch tape from the supply room and taped the columns of ants in place as they marched, along with mosquitoes, moths, millars, centipedes, spiders and whatever other living things he wanted to ‘collect.’ The entire wall looked like a miniature mock-up of the city of Pompeii trapped and frozen in time exactly as it might have appeared on August 24, 79 A. D., except that where, until our era, twelve feet of Vesuvian lava and ash presented problems for group tours, Taylor's transparent strips of Scotch cellophane tape allowed unhindered panoramic views of the incredible variety of anthropod armies which frequented our room.
Hogbody was as tall as Butterball, but surrounded by layers of muscle, not fat. He was the well-built, disgustingly virile, silent type whose masculine physique and obvious strength belied his extremely gentle, pacific nature. And where drink transformed Butterball's joviality into mean-spiritedness, with Hogbody, it could do absolutely nothing.
He had fallen asleep, as he always did, while reading a copy of a body-building magazine. The effort of his exercises, which he performed regularly in the Bangkok humidity, never phased him. But when it came to books and magazines, any page without a picture on it immediately put him to sleep. But from somewhere in his varied life of 28 years, he had gained insights into the fine art of living which is seldom if ever gleaned by a pair of eyeballs skimming over a printed sentence. Hogbody's reputation came from the way in which he would listen to others discuss important aspects of life and then make a comment which showed beyond any shade of doubt that he knew life as did few other men.
The other roommate was Rick Taylor; not tall, not short, not fat, not thin. Just a small unkempt mustache, incredibly hairy arms, legs, chest, and back, contact lenses he was always losing during inspections, and the biggest hate on for the Army that I saw during my entire four-year enlistment. Taylor had been a GI in Asia so long he seemed unaware that a man could meet girls outside of bars as well as inside, and that not every girl expected a man to buy her a drink as part of a conversation.
According to Taylor, when he was still quite young he experienced what was for him something of a religious conversion. His apostasy took place not in a cathedral or chapel, but at an American drive-in theater in the back seat of a Desoto convertible parked in heavy shadows several rows behind the concession stand. While his girlfriend waited for him to change from his missionary position to one of a less conventional nature, he happened to glance toward the screen just as three Thai girls made a brief appearance in "Bridge on the River Kwai." His mouth fell open and his heart, along with his other functions, came to a sudden halt.
From that moment on, he was never the same. He later ascertained that the girls were "Siamese," from a place called “Siam.” He addressed dozens of envelopes enclosing passionate love letters to the "Siamese girls in the movie, Bridge on the River Kwai," and sent them to the manager of the drive-in movie to be forwarded. Although he never received a reply, he never forgot them.
And then one day, years later, he learned something so incredible that his life was altered irrevocably. He learned that there were not merely the three Siamese girls whom he had seen in the picture, but literally millions of them, and that in a country called "Thailand" there were cities and towns and villages and streets and lanes and squares and avenues and marketplaces and ricefields and klongs (canals) brimmed and glutted and sated and gorged and crammed and cloyed with girls just like them. And it was Taylor's sworn intention to brim and glut and sate and gorge and cram and cloy with them. All of them. And from that moment on, Taylor knew that whoever had said that "beauty is not confined to any one nationality" was a madman.
When I returned from the porch with my socks, Taylor had woken up and he was now searching for his socks. In addition to his swearing, the only other sound in the room was the incredibly loud snoring of Butterball.
Taylor was his usual self. "Christ...Jesus Christ...Damn it to hell!" He finally stopped emptying everything out of Butterball's footlocker and attempted to roll Butterball over. "So help me God, Pineapple, if Butterball took my socks again, I'll kick his ass. So help me God.”
I sat on my bunk eating an imported apple stolen from the messhall and watched him trying to move Butterball. "Saying 'So help me God' with your right hand raised is what got you into the Army for four years, isn't it?"
He thought for a moment before continuing his struggle. "You got a point there, Pineapple. But where the hell are my socks? Butterball: Wake the fuck up!"
Butterball continued to snore. Taylor continued struggling to move his limbs and roll him over to see if his socks were on the bed. "Christ! How much does this clown weigh? If I find my socks his ass is grass and I'm gonna be the mower.” Taylor suddenly saw the three broken threads encircling Butterball's waist. He started fingering the threads first in astonishment and then in disgust. "Oh, for Christ's sake! Not again.”
"Better be careful," I said. "That's Guinness' Book of Records material you're handling."
"Yeah, Pineapple, I know the asshole's a living legend. But if he took my socks he's going off the balcony. I don't give a damn how many threads his fat gut can break."
Taylor finally acknowledged the unyielding, immovable nature of Butterball's corpulence and began searching his own wall lockers. "Damn Butterball. Some hooker on Patpong Road is probably wearing my socks right now. I'll probably find them on the black market." He grew suddenly thoughtful, the germ of an idea arresting his attention so suddenly that, for several moments, it seemed as if he too had been Scotch-taped in place. "Wait one olive-green minute. Where the hell did I find them the last time?"
I decided to be helpful. 'The houseboy put them in your shoes."
He headed for the front door with the focused determination of a lifer who has just learned there's a new PX in town. "Yeah. The houseboy, bless his ass.”
I followed him out just to see if the houseboy had struck -- like sadistic lightning -- twice in the same day. On the porch, in front of the door, boots, shoes and belt buckles were lined up next to cans of shoe polish and cans of Brasso. Taylor stood in front of the houseboy, holding his army belt as if it were a garrotte. Taylor was at his patronizing best. "Hi, Somnuck. How's it going today? Everything all right?"
Somnuck again brushed his hair out of his eyes, smiled, and saluted. Taylor returned the salute. "Good. Good. We wouldn't want anything to go wrong for you now, would we?" He sat down beside the houseboy and put his arm around him. "Brown-skinned buddy, you remember last time when I was late to work because I couldn't find my socks?"
Shallow lines of perplexity furrowed Somnuck's forehead bringing his unruly hair even more into his face. "Socks?"
“Yeah. Socks. See, your English isn't bad at all." Taylor jovially patted the houseboy's back and looked to me for confirmation. I nodded. "All right, then. You remember I told you never to put my socks in my shoes again? And you remember what I said I would do if you ever hid my socks like that again?"
Somnuck continued to smile. Taylor walked two fingers across the floor to his shoes and reached in. He hesitated, then slowly pulled out a balled-up pair of socks. He held them up and smiled at Somnuck. "Socks."
Somnuck smiled. Taylor continued to smile but shook his head. Somnuck rose and started to move backward. Taylor grinned. "Always smiling, aren't you? 'Cause I'm in the damn Army and you're not, right?" He jumped up and began moving forward with the belt. "That's why you always salute us, right? Anybody who salutes a Spec-4 is being a wiseass, right?"
Somnuck began laughing and running at the same time. Taylor ran after him. "I'll have your ass for this, mother. Come back and face it." They ran down two flights of stairs and across the second floor landing. Taylor began panting heavily and stopped without catching Somnuck. He began yelling after him. "I'll make you marry my sister for this, you hear? A vanilla-skinned, round-eye! And you're going to have to marry her!”
As Somnuck disappeared I caught up with Taylor. We were both a bit out of breath, and we leaned on the rail and looked below at the activity in the court area. As most of us kept a close countdown on the exact number of months, days and hours left until discharge, we usually referred to the court as Court Countdown. The officers' three-story office building was about 150 yards straight ahead. To our left was a swimming pool and basketball court. To our right was another four-story barracks including on the ground floor -- motor pool, laundry, day room, mailroom, and the enlisted men's club, Club Victory. GIs and Thai workers were bustling about in small groups and some were entering Army vans. Thai houseboys were gathered in a circle on the lawn and using their feet, shoulders and heads to keep a rattan takraw ball in the air while passing it to one another. On all sides of the court, beyond the wooden fence patrolled by weeds, the wooden roofs of Thai houses and the fronds of palm trees loomed above us.
Army vans, jeeps and buses roared under our building and out of the court, bypassing a Thai guard shack with one sluggish, torpescent Thai guard and a vehicle barrier set permanently in an upright position. The rotund, middle-aged guard's state of alertness was such that he was known as Corporal Comatose, and his only activity seemed to be to smartly salute every moving object that passed his position, and, once or twice a day, to prevent aggrieved, incensed and choleric bargirls from entering the court to seek vengeance on unfaithful GIs whom, they believed, had done them wrong. Beside the seldom-used vehicle barrier was a messhall -- a one-story wooden building from which American GIs stole imported apples to offer to Thai bargirls and mama-sans and taxi drivers in lieu of cash. As Thais loved apples but could not grow them in Thailand's climate, apples surpassed both cash and credit cards in buying power. Directly below our landing was a small grassy area where GIs were playing horseshoes.
Taylor yelled to Warren Freeman, a diminutive, black GI, about to pitch a horseshoe. "Hey, Spearchucker, you gettin' better at horseshoes every day in every way?"
Freeman looked up from his hunched-over position then looked back at the stake and steadied the horseshoe in his hand. "Bite my ass," he yelled.
“Move your nose over," Taylor yelled back.
Freeman yelled again without looking up. "I want that five dollars, Rick. I'm on to something really fine downtown."
“Who's the lucky boy?" Taylor asked.
Freeman threw him the bird. Taylor and Freeman were the kind of friends who are so close they can't say a kind word to each other. But where Hogbody accepted his Army interlude with good grace, Taylor and Freeman fought it every minute of every day. After many unsuccessful ruses, Taylor had finally joined the Army when he realized he was about to be drafted.
Freeman had reported immediately to an Army doctor at a recruiting center and confidently expected his story of a bad trick knee to keep him well clear of military service. The smiling, red-faced, Norman Rockwell physician listened to Freeman's complaint with a sympathetic ear and an understanding nod, and then in a friendly manner asked when the last occasion was on which Freeman had had trouble with his knee. Freeman replied: 'October 1963' and the doctor immediately wrote in large letters across his medical records 'condition terminated October 1963', thereby facilitating Freeman's entrance into the armed services and eventual transfer to Court Countdown.
Taylor went back upstairs, but I stood for a while leaning over the railing of the landing looking down into the court. It was about five minutes to eleven. I knew that because the chow truck left at eleven to take food out to the old house, known as the ‘site,’ or ‘compound,’ where we worked, and the messhall in the court opened at 11:30. The truck was almost loaded so that meant I had slept about 14 hours but still felt like hell. I waved to Corporal Comatose, blew a kiss to Noy the Laundry Girl, and studied the tall, lanky figure coming in the gate. It was Roy Patterson. His clothes were all wrinkled and as he got nearer I saw the stubble on his lean and sunburned face. That meant he had shacked with a Thai girl for the night. He looked groady as hell.
At one time, Blinky had actually encouraged his men to ‘shack’ with a Thai girl as he had felt that men living with the same girl were less likely to catch venereal disease. However, when the number of men present during inspections and other formations dwindled from nearly three hundred down to twenty-three, he reluctantly abandoned his V.D.-prevention policy for his men and ordered everyone to move back to the barracks.
"Hey, Roy, where you been, boy? What's a fine young Christian boy like you doing coming in the court this time of day?" Roy was from Louisiana. I never missed the chance to harass him about his accent. Although he claimed he didn't have much of an accent and that if you're from the South you can tell one southern accent from another right down to which street a person came from. He had just been transferred to Bangkok from ‘upcountry’ a few weeks earlier but, of the three hundred or so men in our unit, he'd been in Thailand longer than anyone except Taylor. I especially liked to call him "boy" but he was always pretty good-natured about harassment.
“You did say 'Roy,' didn't you, Pineapple?" he asked with a big grin. He and everybody else called me Pineapple because I'm Hawaiian. "Cause for a minute there I thought you said 'boy,' then I'd have to hit you so hard you'd starve to death from bouncin' and your shirt would run up your back like a window shade. What are you doin' up so early? Hurry up and get dressed and I'11 see you in the messhall."
“Ok, Roy, hang loose. I’ll be right down." I put my army belt buckle out for the houseboy to shine, got into some wrinkled civilian clothes and went down to the messhall. I walked through the chow line, filled my tray with nameless, shapeless, boneless, odorless, tasteless masses which the black market had obviously rejected, and walked over to a table.
Taylor had managed to tear Hogbody away from his body-building magazine, and together they walked through the food line with their trays and over to Patterson's table. The room was about half full. Teenage Thai girls in dainty blue-and-white uniforms were cleaning in both the officers' section and the enlisted men's section. Ceiling fans were spinning noisily. Signs read: 'Officers' Mess’ and 'Enlisted Men's Mess'.
Taylor looked at Patterson and smiled knowingly. “Well, Roy, how was she....Now that's a mighty wide grin."
Patterson dangled his long arms by his chair and leaned back. "Son, I can't begin to describe it to you because you probably never had the experience. But if I get a case of the clap off her it will still be worth it."
Freeman slammed his tray on the table and sat down. "Clap? Didn't you take any precautions?"
"Sure, Freeze. I always insist that the girl be extremely beautiful. Otherwise, I keep my pecker right in my pants."
"Sounds like a safe method, all right," Hogbody said. "Where'd you take her, house or hotel?"
Patterson leaned forward again and chased a defiant formation of ants across the table with his fist. "I went to her house figuring to save the price of the hotel. But she didn't even have a mosquito net around the bed. They got me all over.“
"Didn't you use Doc Spitz's Kill-the-Clap Techniques?" Taylor asked. "’A strong rubber, a thorough wash and a good piss'?"
Patterson took a piece of liver out of his mouth, looked at it, and placed it on his tray. "Kill-the-Clap my ass. First the rubber broke. Then there wasn't any damned soap. And third, she was so good I couldn't get up from the bed, let alone walk three blocks to a damned latrine.”
Taylor looked at Hogbody and grinned. "Every time I hear the adventures of the Superstud of the South my cheeks ache from laughing."
"It might not be so funny in a few days when he starts dripping pretty green dew off his petal," Hogbody said.
Freeman looked at the food on his tray. "I don't know which is worse. This food or having to listen to you animals talk. Let's get some beer and potato chips in the club.”
As we left the messhall, Taylor grabbed an empty apple carton and carried it in both hands. Patterson turned to him. "Rick, what the hell are you always carrying empty boxes for?"
Taylor gave him a long hard look before answering. "Roy, how long you been in this man's army? If I pass an officer and I've got my arms full I won't have to salute. Whore House Charlie taught me that trick just before he fought the computer. While you were still pissin' Stateside water.”
Whore House Charlie was Taylor's hero, his idol, his godhead, his debauched dingansich to whom he paid undying homage and about whom he told unending (and unverifiable) tales of virtue and daring. The picture Taylor painted of the theanthropic being known as Whore House Charlie was that of a baby-faced GI who had been stationed many years before in Thailand, and who had used his time and considerable talents to build up and manage the most extensive system of whorehouses in the country, all rated for price, feminine pulchritude, strains of V.D. available, and the odds on avoiding them. Whore House Charlie, Taylor would inform those who were interested as well as those who were not, had caught the clap 18 times checking out various brothels for his customers while deciding whether or not to incorporate them into his chain.
Charlie was the Colonel Saunders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Ray Kroc of McDonald's, the Walt Disney of animated films and a combination Walden Books-B. Dalton chain all rolled into one. Despite vigorous but futile attempts on the part of an equally legendary enlisted man known only as Dirty McCurdy (whose affairs with supple young girls were said to have made even Charlie blush) Charlie's record of 18 cases of gonorrhea was never matched, and he remained the Babe Ruth of whorehouses as well.
Like many successful men of vision, Charlie's genius lay in seeing what was, and of immediately conceiving of what could be. It was the power-of-positive-thinking philosophy taken to its ultimate extreme. Where others saw only broken-down, mosquito-infested, rat-infested, ant- infested, spider-infested wooden houses with holes in the roofs and one or two over-the-hill prostitutes, Charlie saw not whorehouses, not even cleaned-up brothels, but brothelariums. Where others saw sunlight streaming through holes in the ceiling as too expensive to repair and completely intolerable even to GI customers, Charlie saw neatly squared-off or feminine-shaped holes with screens, allowing (at no extra charge) the beneficial rays of the sun to warm and caress the two (and often more) bodies writhing in ecstacy on the bed or mattress below. Charlie's redecorated and refurbished solarium-and-brothel houses were converted into a string of modern and healthful brothelariums which, combined with his meticulously researched Duncan Hines-type rating system of brothels, employees and diseases obtainable, were an instant success.
Taylor's hero also proved to be a genius in the field of public relations, as far from attempting to conceal his brothels from the police, which would inevitably have kept them safe but sordid, Charlie paid off the police, gave discounts to men in uniform of any kind, and personally officiated at elaborate opening ceremonies of every brothelarium branch, no matter how remote, allowing the 'mama-san of the month' to cut the ribbon. Taylor's was a euhemeristic tale in which not only was the mythological god a deified early hero, but around which a certain unorthodox liturgy had arisen. Whether or not a situation in which each ejaculation could be construed as a libation is a heinous desecration of religion or a desirable purification of iniquity is difficult to say. And while Charlie and his exploits were usually passed off as merely part of Taylor's overworked and incurably noxious imagination, even those who doubted Taylor's narratives the most reluctantly admitted there was a modicum of proof for Charlie's existence in the legendary Whore House Charlie--Computer Death Duel, which, if mentioned at all, was usually spoken of only cautiously and in whispers.
The five of us walked to Club Victory. Four of us entered the Club while Patterson remained behind to check the bulletin board. Just as Patterson was about to open the door, Blinky approached from the direction of the swimming pool. I could see what was happening from a window next to our table. Patterson couldn't make it into the club without saluting. Blinky returned his salute and then Patterson entered the Club.
Blinky was standing near the window, which had been cracked the day before by a Singha beer can, and I could hear him talking to himself. He took out a small notebook and began writing "That man is one of the best saluters in the unit. Definitely officer material." He put the book away, rubbed his hand along his regulation haircut, and stared meditatively. "If only all enlisted men saluted like that this war might have been over a long time ago.”
The enlisted men's club had a bar to the left of the door. Thai bartenders and waiters worked in the club while American GIs -- some in fatigues and some in civilian clothes -- sat around tables playing cards, drinking and talking. A jukebox was usually playing and all three slot machines were constantly in use. The noise level was always loud.
Wat, a Thai bartender, walked in carrying a tray of beer. "Quiet everybody!" he shouted. "Meeting of the Tennis Elbow Club!"
As soon as Wat gave out his call, everyone stopped what he was doing and moved tables together and positioned a chair in the center of the room for Patterson. Taylor walked to the bar and picked up a small black book which Wat had placed on the counter for him. I reached into the drawer next to the cash register and pulled out the large, wrinkled, black-and-white illustration of Abraham Lincoln. None of us were certain where it had come from or even whether or not it was drawn after an actual photograph, but, for as long as anyone could remember, the photograph was hung above all sessions of the Tennis Elbow Club. The illustration showed Lincoln with his gaunt bearded face above a crooked bow tie and collar. Over the years, his visage had yellowed with age suggesting either that he had come down with a severe case of hepatitis or else was himself the product of a Thai mother and a GI father. His expression seemed to be that of a man who neither approved nor disapproved of the proceedings, but who was intensely interested in the outcome, as a bargirl might watch a fight between two GI customers only one of whom ever bought her drinks.
I stood on a stool near the quarter slot machine and taped the portrait in its place of honor, affording our welcome and distinguished amicus curiae an unobstructed view of American military justice. Several GIs crowded around Taylor as he sat with solemn countenance behind the table facing Patterson. Taylor tugged at his mustache and looked meaningfully around the room and at the juke box. A GI quickly pulled the plug out and the room went completely silent. Patterson began squirming. Taylor then, with due solemnity, opened the black book.
"Aw, Christ," Patterson said, "I was gonna' report it.”
"Like hell you were," Freeman said.
Taylor began speaking in a solemn magisterial voice. "Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye. The 16th meeting of the Tennis Elbow Club is now in session. Specialist 4th-Class Roy Patterson, finance clerk, man of olive fatigues, college drop-out, debauched devotee of Happy Hour, and known participator in PX privileges, the charge against you is a serious one." He looked toward Wat. "When did it happen, Brother Wat?"
"About 45 seconds ago, Brother Taylor.”
"What is the charge, by the way?" asked a GI new to our unit.
Taylor gave the GI a disdainful look. "Wat, would you tell this ignoramus the charge?"
Wat mimicked a serious salute. Taylor pointed to Patterson who continued to sulk. "This man willingly, deliberately, unashamedly and without justifiable cause," here he paused for effect, "saluted an officer!"
A wave of shock and indignation swept the group. Everyone gathered even closer together around the tables. Taylor raised his right hand and spoke directly to the accused. “Do you solemnly swear that every day in every way the war is getting better and better?”
Patterson raised his right hand. “I do.”
“State your name, rank and degree of inebriation.”
“Roy Patterson, Spec-4, completely sober.”
“Do you recognize the accused?”
“Fuck you talking about? I am the accused.”
“Irrelevant and immaterial. You show the wrong attitude again and this Court might well find you in contempt, soldier!”
“I am the fucking accused!”
“This Court will determine who the fuck is the accused and who the fuck isn’t the accused! Not you!”
“Well, am I the fucking accused or not?”
“That will be determined according to the time-tested methods of military justice. Anyway, moving right along, whether you’re the accused or not, how do you plead?"
Patterson swallowed his anger and managed to speak contritely. "Guilty.”
"In that case- “
"With extenuating circumstances," Patterson added in a tremulous but loud voice. His plea was met with an immediate outburst of raucous jeers and obscene gestures.
Taylor held up his hand. "Remember, brothers, this is military justice. We must hear the extenuating circumstances and all the evidence before we dick him away. You may proceed, Specialist Patterson."
Patterson was at his plaintive best. His southern accent reeked with ingenuous sincerity. "I didn't see him coming until it was too late. I wasn't carrying anything. There was no way out.”
Taylor looked around the room. "What do you say, brothers?”
"Why him no pretend to faint!" shouted Wat.
Immediately everyone agreed and began crying for blood. Taylor made an entry in the book. "Guilty as charged. Free drinks on Roy." Cheers filled the room.
"Shit," Patterson said. He climbed unsteadily onto a chair. "Wait one olive-green minute. Out of the 16 sessions of the Tennis Elbow Club this is only my second offence. And Rick is a hanging judge. He's never found anybody innocent of anything. I demand another judge review the case.”
Freeman ran over to Taylor's seat and pushed him out of it. He began speaking in an exaggerated black accent. "All right, bo'. Here de' judge. How you plead?"
"Not guilty," Patterson said.
Freeman looked at him for several seconds before speaking. "Brother Patterson," he said at last, "you are aware are you not that this is a military court and any plea in a military court must be relevant.”
Patterson seemed confused. “What's relevant?"
"Anything that aids in dicking away the accused," said Freeman. "In this case, you. Anything that doesn't is irrelevant. So, Brother Patterson, if you're not going to help hang your ass, you’re no friend of this court. So pay for the goddamned beer and shut your goddamned mouth.”
"But I didn't even have a goddamned lawyer!"
Taylor was thoughtful. He leaned over and spoke to Freeman. "Maybe he's right, Freeze. He called to Wat behind the bar. "Brother Wat, you have just been appointed as Roy's lawyer. Raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear that every day in every way the war is getting be and better?”
"How should he plead?"
Wat's face broke into a broad smile. "Him guilty!” Patterson's protest was drowned in the applause.
Patterson was adamant. "If he's my lawyer, he can’t testify as a witness; so you got no witness. So there!"
Freeman thought for a moment. He looked at Patterson. "Does the accused have his own lawyer?”
Patterson became confused. "Of course I got a lawyer. You just appointed him.”
Freeman continued. "And does the accused have his own witness?"
"Have a witness? What the hell you talking about?"
“Very well. This court will appoint a witness for the accused. Hogbody, you have been appointed as witness for the accused. Please raise your right hand."
Patterson was too nonplused to speak. Hogbody stood and raised his right hand. Freeman continued. “Do you solemnly swear that every day in every way the war is getting better and better?"
"Please be seated."
“I am seated.”
“Are you showing contempt for this court? Because if you are-“
”I’m saying, moron, that I am already fucking seated!”
"Fine, be a hostile witness for all I give a shit. In any case, you are now a court-appointed witness in a court determined to seek out justice, that is, military justice. The court assumes, therefore, that you do, in fact, agree with the prosecution."
"Specialist Patterson, both your lawyer and your witness say that you are guilty. Therefore this court has no choice but to find you guilty as charged. You will not converse with any person whatsoever outside this courtroom regarding the proceedings inside this courtroom.”
“Fuck you and the horse you road in on! Hogbody’s right; you’re a moron.”
“Hearsay is not admissible evidence.”
A GI in khakis opened the door. He was working for the orderly room as charge-of-quarters for the day. For a few moments he watched as everyone called for free beer on Patterson while Patterson screamed obscenities at the court's "witless witness." He finally shouted above the noise. "Hey, Rick! Blinky wants to see you.”
"Oh, Christ," asked Taylor, "now what?" Then the C.Q. spotted me. “You too, Pineapple. He said he wanted to see both of you. On the double!"
Taylor and I followed the C.Q. out of the Club. Halfway across the court, I spotted the Thai neighbor’s kid hiding in the leaves of a jackfruit tree on their side of the fence. His grenade (always some kind of fruit depending on the season -- this time a banana) finished its wobbly arc and tumbled near me. I quickly shoved Taylor to the ground, threw myself to the ground, and drew my imaginary .45.
I shouted. “VC!”
Taylor immediately joined in, drawing his own imaginary .45. He spoke to the C.Q. “Get down, you fool! VC!”
The C.Q. was new to the unit and apparently hadn’t gotten the word that a few of the kids in the neighborhood enjoyed hiding in palm and jackfruit trees and picking Taylor and me off with their fruit-flavored weapons. He panicked and hit the dirt. His glasses flew out and landed several feet from him. Taylor and I made appropriate sounds of weapons being fired as we aimed at the kid who also made appropriate sounds of a weapon being fired. As the kid drew back to throw another grenade (banana), we got off several imaginary rounds and he screamed and fell from the tree out of sight, hidden by the fence. Taylor and I knew the kids had set up a mattress there specifically for the purpose of happily being shot dead by America finance clerks.
Taylor stood up. “Got the sucker.”
I stood up, grabbed the banana and started peeling it. “How many’s that?”
“Body counts sure do add up.” I chomped down on the banana and offered some to the C.Q. “Thai bananas are good, man!”
The C.Q. stood up, retrieved his glasses, and brushed off his now dirt-streaked khaki uniform. “Jesus Christ, you people are nuts!”
Taylor shook his head and walked toward Blinky’s office. “War is hell.”
We crossed the court and walked up the stairs to Blinky's office with the self-pitying attitude of a prostitute who's just learned her biggest spender's being transferred to another duty station. I was silent but Taylor swore all the way. We sat in the orderly room outside Blinky's door.
"Now what did I do?" Taylor asked, more to himself than to us. The C.Q. shrugged his shoulders. "Beats me. Taylor spotted a chinchook lizard on the wall and began sticking his tongue out at it whenever the lizard stuck its tongue out. He continued this for a few minutes. I happened to glance behind us and noticed that Blinky had his door open and was watching Taylor.
Taylor spoke to the clerk. "Hey, I think I've learned to communicate with Bangkok's lizard population.”
Blinky exploded. "Specialist Taylor!"
Taylor jumped up and turned around. "Yes, sir!"
"If you're finished!"
We entered Blinky's office and stood in front of his desk as he sat down behind it. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sgt. Bumbles smirking at his desk.
Blinky was short but not excessively fat. He just looked pudgy. His accent and build always reminded me of George Wallace. Blinky was only slightly less abdominous than Butterball, and when he smiled, which was only to an officer of higher rank, his teeth reminded me of an uncooked corn-on-the-cob; small, even, close together and in alternating patterns of white and yellow. There was also one tooth which had a greenish cast to it, which may have confirmed Taylor's claim that Blinky had become so enamored with the olive-green color of fatigues that he had olive green fillings placed in his teeth.
Except during inspections and sessions in which he could give vent to his hatred for enlisted men, the only time we saw Blinky out of doors in Bangkok's heat and humidity was when he put on his enormous red, white and blue swimming trunks and climbed into the pool. Blinky always wore his oak leaves well-polished and perfectly positioned and, occasionally, after an evening of little sleep and a great deal of booze, he would show up wearing enormous aviator spectacles, the type designed for use when witnessing atomic explosions or when forced to gaze upon an enlisted man.
Bumbles was a bachelor and a First Sergeant, and his sign of rank, which appeared on each of his sleeves, was a diamond located midway between six yellow stripes; which for us always represented a GI at bay surrounded and hounded by Army Regulations. He was thin to the point of emaciation with a long nose, a prominent forehead, and a nasty pair of hard black eyes that were constantly on the lookout for "discrepancies" which he would write up in his discrepancy book. Bumbles was the only Vietnam veteran who was actually stationed with our unit. Not that he had ever fought in Vietnam or anywhere outside of a bar; rather, every month he would hop a military flight passing over Vietnam or making a ground stop in Saigon on the way to Taiwan. Then he'd come right back again. In that way, military personnel could get out of paying taxes for the month. Bumbles was a veteran of thirteen trips passing over or briefly through the war zone. His increased take-home pay appropriately reflected his valor.
In addition to the military, Bumbles had delved deeply into other areas of life as well, including political science, philosophy and theology. As far as political systems were concerned, socialism was "a pain in the ass" and communism was "a royal pain in the ass." Regarding the possibility of other forms of life in the universe, Bumbles was very open-minded on the subject, although he was heard to say that "man for man in a fair fight, the American fighting man can whip the ass of any bug-eyed being or space-man stupeedo on any planet, gravity or no gravity." (Steven Spielberg take note.) And, of course, his faith in the Almighty was absolute although he did feel our unit had more than its share of "dickhead chaplains" whose "candy-ass sermons" were so vague that sometimes one could hardly tell whether they were "serving in God's cause" or "rooting for the gooks." And even his enmity toward "the gooks" was tempered with a modicum of respect. Whereas Dr. Kissinger was later to describe Vietnamese as "just a bunch of shits; tawdry, filthy shits," Bumbles once praised "the gooks" because they fought well even though they "couldn't even speak bargirl English."
His often-expressed views on abortion were simultaneously diametrically opposed to one another. On the one hand, he would often end a discussion by shrugging his thin shoulders and murmur, "that's the way the cookie crumbles." On the other hand, he often bemoaned the fact that "if some of those kids had lived they would have made fine soldiers." Apparently, everyone deserved a chance to live to kill.
Wherever Blinky went Bumbles was sure to go. He was so often peering over Blinky's shoulder to give us menacing looks that we began to think of Blinky as a dicephalous ogre having one pudgy body and two heads.
Like all American military officers, both would pronounce Vietnam to rhyme the 'Nam' with 'slam'. And, of course, Thailand became 'thighland'. Blinky's voice was even deeper than Hogbody's and he had a southern accent besides. He was a master of barely controlling his nearly uncontrollable anger. The angrier Blinky became, the more he spoke from the side of his mouth until finally, as he approached apoplexy, it seemed as if a disembodied voice was speaking from somewhere off to the side and to the rear while Blinky himself only pretended to be pronouncing the words.
Whenever one of us was called before him to account for our actions, he worked his emotions like a puppet show -- first red-hot anger entered stage left, then a trace of sympathy. Next came the man-to-man, "you-can-talk-freely-to-me" discussion, and, finally, the concluding delivery wrapped in no-nonsense, military bearing. It was the Blinky symphony, in four unvaried movements.
Whenever he talked to enlisted men not only did his accent get deeper -- his grammar got worse. I guess he figured that way we'd feel he was on our level, so that we enlisted men could identify with him even if we could never hope to understand the crises he faced and the solutions he found on our behalf. His blinking was probably the result of a nervous condition, although he gave the impression that only by blinking frequently could he hope to keep the necessary but regrettable sight of enlisted men from forming too lasting an image on his brain.
Taylor saluted. "Specialist 4th-Class Richard Taylor reporting as ordered, sir." I also saluted and just started to speak.
He held up his hand to stop me. "One at a time," he said, "one at a time." Which was exactly the phrase used by upper-class prostitutes in Bangkok's Chinatown area when rejecting innovative GI proposals for group-tour "special service." He began drumming his fingers and searching for words. He was looking through a file on his desk. Finally he began to speak in an I-loath-you-but-am-too-fine-an-officer-to-ever-show-it voice. "Specialist Taylor, I see you have a university degree in Chinese Studies. That right?"
Blinky continued as if uncovering a particularly insidious communist plot. "Took a lot of film courses, too, didn't you?"
Blinky finally closed the file with a nod that clearly indicated that whatever we had done hadn't fooled him. Not by a long shot. He folded his hands on his desk. "Specialist Taylor, it has been brought to my attention by another member of this command..." he looked toward Bumbles who continued to smirk, "...that you have been spreading the idea of changing our national anthem from the 'Star Spangled Banner' to 'America the Beautiful'. Is that correct, Specialist Taylor?"
Taylor seemed bewildered. His luxuriant chest hair sprouted above his civilian shirt in disordered confusion. "Well, yes, sir, but I just thought that we could demonstrate our loyalty better by-“
A red-faced Bumbles erupted from behind his desk. "Demonstrate! Did you hear that, sir? He admits he wants to demonstrate! Of all the communist stupeedos I've ever-“
Blinky spoke firmly. "Sergeant, I will handle this matter.”
Bumbles continued to glare at Taylor but reluctantly resumed his seat.
Blinky continued his interrogation. "Specialist Taylor: I am fully aware that you have never had officer training but don't you see how your suggestion plays into the hands of the communists?"
"Communists?! Sir, I-"
"Have you given any thought, Specialist Taylor, to what the consequences would be if we changed our national anthem to America the Beautiful?"
Taylor turned to me for assistance but I had already put my mimetic ability to good use by becoming a pen-and-pencil set, or water cooler or desk and chair, which was what I became in any potentially volatile situation involving military officers.
Even for trained soldiers there are only four human responses possible to serious crisis situations: attack, retreat, paralysis and manipulation. As Blinky made it clear that enlisted men are unable to see the Big Picture, it naturally followed that we didn't know when to attack and when to retreat; hence, attack and retreat were not for us. The ability to manipulate one's surrounding was also clearly not for those expected to unhesitatingly follow orders from above; hence, manipulation was only for officers and civilians. That left only one possible reaction for an endangered enlisted man; also the one most common employed by Thailand's ubiquitous wall lizards -- paralysis; and we had become adept at it. Hence, our situation was not a tetralemma, or even a dilemma, as our only hope during such crises was to remain absolutely still and to noiselessly transform ourselves into innocuous inanimate objects which might escape the notice and, hopefully, the wrath, of our superiors.
Taylor turned again to face Blinky. "Sir-"
"No, Of course you haven't." His tone varied between unspeakable anger and unutterable sorrow, promising both spittle and tears. He looked down at his desk, scratched the back of his red neck, and gave an I-try-my-best-but-can't-seem-to-get-through-to-them sigh. Then he looked up at Taylor and spoke in a bombs-bursting-in-air voice. "As you're not an officer, you're not in a position of command authority and so you're unable to see the big picture. But, God, man, think before you make such statements! If we change our beloved anthem to one which is easier to sing, then just about anybody could sing it. Right, Specialist Taylor?!"
"Right, Specialist Taylor?"
“Isn't it possible," continued Blinky, "that under those conditions even -- even -- even enlisted men would be able to sing our national anthem! Didn't think of that, did you? GIs singing our national anthem! You didn't, did you!"
Taylor's mouth opened and closed several times before any words came out. Unnoticed to anyone else in the room, I had transformed myself from a pen-and-pencil set into the most unobtrusive lamp in the entire court. I was convinced that my camouflage rendered me completely invisible to all enemies -- foreign or domestic.
"No, sir, I-"
Blinky nodded and held up his hand to cut off any apology or defense Taylor might have offered. It was a now-you-see-what-I've-been-trying-to-tell-you nod. "Of course you didn't, man." He tapped the file. "You're educated but untrained. But let that be a lesson to you to leave the decision-making to your superiors. There's a war on, you know.”
For a moment, Blinky's eyes began to cloud over, and his expression was that of a man who knew he was equal to a great task set before him, like a prostitute who has just learned that her bar is once again on limits to the military. "Fortunately, every day in every way that war is getting better and better." He placed his hand on a book on his desk. It was The Power of Positive Thinking. Next to the book was a red, white and blue sign which read: ‘He can who thinks he can,’ and his name plate: 'Major John Thompson.’ He continued to speak with his nervous habit of blinking frequently. "Now, raise your right hand and repeat after me," he said. "Every day in every way....”
After a split-second hesitation Taylor raised his hand and responded, "Every day in every way....”
"The war is getting better and better.”
Taylor spoke as solemnly as Blinky. “The war is getting better and better.”
Blinky then stared at Taylor for a few moments, like a mama-san might stare at one of her bargirls who forgot to ask for money after a screw, infuriated but still capable of giving absolution. Finally he shouted: "Dismissed!"
Taylor saluted, turned and exited. Bumbles's eyes followed Taylor out the door with a long you-commies-think-you're-smart-trying-to-fuck-with-our-national-anthem-but-God-and-the-Army-will-show-you-in-the-end glare.
Blinky patted the book a few times. Then he turned to me. His blinking increased. "Specialist, it has been brought to my attention that you failed to salute an officer last Thursday at the operations compound, is that correct?"
"Specialist, you may be a finance clerk and Bangkok may not be the center of the war, but there is a war on and we've got a job to do, is that clear?"
Blinky began shouting. “You men are soldiers first and finance clerks second. I suppose you think this war isn't vital to the security of your country, is that it? Is that why you didn't salute?"
“No, sir,” I said. “As a matter of-“
“You may not respect me but you've got to respect my uniform and by the same token you may not respect the men fighting in the war but you got to respect the war. Is that clear?"
“Yes, sir, I do respect the men fighting in the war very much, sir.”
"Good." Blinky continued to speak with more than a trace of spittal. "It's not the glove that counts, it's the man behind it. When the going gets tough the tough get going. Now repeat after me." Blinky again placed his left hand on the book and raised his right hand. "Every day in every way....”
I immediately raised my hand. "Every day in every way...."
'The war is getting better and better.”
“The war is getting better and better.”
Blinky managed a smile. ”That's the spirit, soldier. A little positive thinking. I know you're doing a fine job, checking the finance records of our boys in Vietnam, but remember, there are no boys in my outfit only men -- and men salute! Is that clear?"
Blinky saluted and I returned his salute, and on a scaffolding, outside the window behind him where he could not see, smiling, dark-skinned, male and female Thai workers in wide-brimmed hats and sarongs also saluted.
I turned to go, walked to the door, opened it and walked into the C.Q.'s office. The door remained slightly ajar and I turned to close it properly. Just before I did, I saw through the crack that Blinky was now standing in front of the mirror on his office wall. In his hand he was holding the book: The Power of Positive Thinking. He was staring intently into his own eyes. I could barely hear the words: "Every day in every way the war is getting better and better. Every day in every way the war is getting better and better. Every day-"
No freelance prostitute stealing the wallet of an inebriated, snoring GI in a short-time hotel room ever closed a door more quietly.
18 September 1967
Jack's Off' bar was about the same as all the other bars in Bangkok catering mainly to farang, or foreigners, except that there were paintings of buxom nude Asian girls hanging on the wall. And Jack, the owner whom no one ever saw because he was always "off," apparently paid the local police enough so that he could ignore the latest police ordinance which insisted that people's faces must be recognizable at a distance of six feet. New lights had been added but they were still kept lower than Blinky's I.Q. We would crowd into one of the booths inside the dimly-lit room, and imbibe several quarts of Singha beer as bargirls and customers crowded around the bar or sat around in other booths. On the wall behind the bar was a large rectangular sign which read: “Free Beer Tomorrow!”
Each and every time we visited the bar, Taylor would approach the obese middle-aged mama-san and point to the sign. “Hi, Mama-san, how about some of that free beer?”
The mama-san would always turn around to look at the sign, lines of puzzlement appearing on her forehead, as if she and Taylor had never indulged in this ritual dozens of times before. She would turn back to Taylor and say -- not without a certain amount of irritation at his inability to understand simple English -- “Tomorrow!”
Needless to say, the day never came when we got the free beer, but, according to Hogbody, there was a valuable life lesson to be learned here.
I especially remember the night we had Wat with us. He walked up to the booth, arms laden with beer. "Why we celebrate?" he asked.
Taylor punched Roy in the shoulder. 'This lucky son-of-a-bitch is going on leave tomorrow.”
Patterson hesitated. Despite his indifferent shrugs his handsome, narrow face creased with concern. "Oh, I might not go," he said.
"Why the hell not?" asked Taylor. “You've been saving for six months.”
Patterson began to squirm. "Well, I haven't really got enough."
"How much you got?" Hogbody asked.
Patterson sighed. "It's a matter of 'how much did she get'.”
Freeman began laughing.”Jesus! Don't tell us Superstud got rolled!"
"It's all Doc Spitz's fault," Patterson said. "I decided to try his kill-the-Clap theories so after I finished I went into the shower to 'wash thoroughly'. That's when she made off with my wallet.”
Hogbody was incredulous. "You went to a short-time hotel with your savings in your pocket?"
"And his head up his ass, no doubt," Taylor added.
"I was smashed," Patterson said in defense.
"Which bar did you take her from?" Freeman asked. "We can find her.”
Patterson slunk lower in the booth. "She wasn't from a bar.”
Hogbody was more incredulous. “You took a freelancer to a short-time hotel with your leave money in your wallet?”
Patterson repeated his litany with no hope of salvation. "I was smashed."
"Jesus Christ, Roy," Taylor said. "How could you keep that much money on you? I mean everybody has an asshole, but not everyone is one. You may qualify for the flying, gaping, screaming, diarrhetic, dripping asshole award."
"Nice of you guys to try to cheer me up," Patterson said.
Suddenly a bargirl walked quickly by the booth. Butterball grabbed her and pulled her onto his lap. Her name was Dang and she was one of our favorites -- learned, wise, cagey, foul-mouthed, hot-tempered and unable to hide a heart of gold. Dang's only problem was that she was something of a schizophrenic. Like many Bangkok Thais, one of her parents had actually been a Chinese who had immigrated into Thailand, and one had been a native-born Thai. Dang would wake up one day and, even before climbing out of bed and starting negotiations with her bed partner, she would be consumed with a sudden and intense hatred for Thailand's Chinese community as they had taken complete control over the country's economy and, as everyone knew, were grasping, cunning and treacherous. Every other day she would wake up seething with a fanatical and barely controllable loathing for the Thais, whom she said wouldn't even have an economy at all if it weren't for the country's Chinese population, and, as everyone knew, the Thais were unsophisticated, ignorant and downright obtuse.
Butterball began the usual question-and-answer opening. '"Where's Jack-"
Before he could finish Dang completed the sentence, "Off." She began feeling Butterball's stomach. "God, Butterball get fatter all the time. Hey, when you tell me what you do?”
Taylor spoke up, "We're freelance latrine inspectors temporarily attached to the T-69th messkit repair squadron. We unbend spoons, sharpen knives and count forks.”
Butterball began fondling her ass. "Listen, why don't you and I-“
Dang pulled his hands away. “Never happen, GI. You number ten butterfly. Butterfly he go flower to flower but no love any. Same same you. Go girl in bar to girl in next bar but when come time to make your mind, you no can do. Butterfly same same Butterball."
As both bargirls and GIs are relegated firmly to the lowest point on any society's totem pole, any sustained relationship between members of the two groups encountered more than the normal share of male-female entanglements, including consecutive and even simultaneous displays of genuine affection and intense loathing, unshakable fidelity and casual betrayal, cunning deceit and childlike candor.
Butterball mustered his most pained expression. "Dang, you know I'm always on standby for you.”
“Yeah, that your problem," she said. "It can only stand by." She yelled to another bargirl. "Hey, Noy. Bring one beer." Then she turned to Hogbody. "Noy just come this bar. She got big tits. You like her, I know. She married Air Force but he go States now. Send her money sometimes. She got baby by him. Name Robert.”
"I suppose he sends her money to help buy medicine for her poor mother up north and to help put her younger brother through school," Taylor said.
Dang tilted her head and looked at Taylor suspiciously. "How you know she have sick mother up north and brother in school?"
"Every bargirl has a sick mother up north," Taylor said. "How else can she get money from her boyfriend to buy lots of new dresses? Right?"
Dang punched toward him but missed. "Shit! GIs know too much.”
"But not Air Force?"
Dang smiled maliciously. "No. Zoomies believe everything pretty face say.”
Noy brought the drink and sat on Taylor's lap. A fight between R&R GIs broke out near the door. Everyone turned briefly to look. Although there was little contact between R&R GIs and GIs stationed in Bangkok, the inevitable brawl did occur. For our part, we were seldom happy to see GIs from Vietnam in Bangkok because with their (sometimes accurate) ‘today-we- live-tomorrow-we-die attitude,’ they spent so freely the bargirls became used to Big Spenders, making us look like “number ten Cheap Charlie Bangkok GIs.”
But the main war was less overt and far more deadly, in that it was not the threat of physical violence that made us shudder when GIs on leave from the 'Nam entered our favorite nightspots; rather, it was the knowledge that the venereal diseases they passed on to the girls we screwed would undoubtedly reach us. And as Doc Spitz had said on more than one occasion, with a mixture of pride, defiance, and bewilderment, "I don't give a damn how many new miracle drugs they come up with, some of the strains of V.D. coming out of this war are fantastic, and no son-of-a-bitch, candy-ass, test-tube analyst will find a cure in our lifetime. You can bet your ass on that."
It was, of course, a different part of our anatomy that lay more directly in the line of fire, whose fate, as it were, hung in the balance. But like the VC, V.D. was now presented as a kind of familiar, old-world underdog struggling heroically against an insentient scientific adversary, and its persistence in the face of all odds seemed, to Doc Spitz, at least, if not cause for rejoicing, at least deserving of respect.
"Shit! Another fight," Dang said disgustedly. "Why they no save fight for the war?"
"Cause Charlie won't fight in bars," Taylor said, "only in jungles.”
"I think that why Charlie win," she said.
The fighting behind us increased in intensity as American MP’s and Thai police arrived to break up the brawl. Taylor was upset because a German tourist had taken one of his favorite bargirls to Pattaya Beach for the weekend just when he wanted that particular girl the most. A German tourist on Patpong was a rarity then; little did we know that in the years to come, when the last American GI was long gone from Thailand, Germans and Swiss would not only crowd the bars as tourists, but would also jointly own most of those same bars with their mandatory Thai partners. But it was Patterson's long face that caught Dang's eye. "Why Roy sad tonight?"
"Some Superscrew took Superstud for all of his leave money," Butterball said.
"How much he lose?"
"About four hundred and fifty dollars."
Another bargirl called for Dang and Noy to take care of new customers. Dang got up. “We go now.”
Butterball was outraged. "Hey, our two girls are deserting us for somebody else because we're broke.”
"Yeah," Patterson added. "Number ten girls and number ten bar."
Dang was indignant. "This number one bar!" She said proudly. "I number one girl. We come back." Her shapely hips and sexy legs carried her off into the darkness of the bar.
"Goddamn women," Wat said. "All butterfly." Wat's engaging coprolalia was not his only benefit from American GI-Thai bartender acculturation. In no time at all, he began exhibiting other identifiable traits of the American enlisted man: a studied interest in and obsession with the size of mammary glands; the ability to both recognize and dispense with untruths with a terse and somewhat common one-word description of taurian excrement; and an attitude toward military officers which matched and, perhaps, even exceeded our own in antipathy. Hence, "big tits," "bullshit," and "lifer puke" were now the mainstays of his conversation.
"How come every Thai around American GIs swears more than I do?" Taylor asked.
"Goddamn!" Wat said. "I never swear on the farm. Only after I come to goddamn GI camp to mix your goddamn drinks. My father want me to be monk or teacher or farmer. Now I bartender. Shit. I had to go, anyway. Goddamn."
"Why?" Taylor asked.
"My father want me to marry goddamn ugly girl. But maybe after working bar for goddamn American GIs, I be ready to marry anybody."
"Come on, Wat, knock it off," Taylor pleaded. "If I laugh too hard I miss my period."
Dang, Noy and the bar's mama-san suddenly returned to the table and handed Patterson a fistful of Thai money. "Here money for your trip," Dang said. "All no good number ten girls got most and number ten bar put up the rest. You pay back when you get, OK?"
As Dang sat on Patterson's lap, Taylor took the money and thumbed through it. "Well, come on, Roy, what do you say?" Taylor asked. "This fistful of play money is worth about four hundred and ten real dollars."
"I love you, Dang," Patterson said. He leaned forward to kiss her.
"Hey!" she pushed his face away. "You can bullshit some bargirls all time, and you can bullshit all bargirls sometime, but you no can bullshit all bargirls all time.”
Patterson spoke more to himself than to us. "Haven't I heard that somewhere before?"
Taylor got up. "Whiz time.”
"Good idea," I said. "I'll join you.”
Dang yelled to us just as we went in the door. "Mention my name and you get good seat."
We stood in front of the urinal pissing. My eyes were on a level with the largest of the wall's graffito, three meticulously printed words in blue ink informing all who presented their johnsons that, "dinks don't bleed."
Two young Americans entered the men's room behind us. They were neither very old nor very drunk but there was something about their eyes and even their movement which made them appear as old men made up to look young. Finally, as they moved closer, the cumulative effect of their pallid, grey skin, the fixed gazes, and the invisible but almost tangible aura of death and decay embalming them spelled out what disease it was that separated and isolated them from others: too much war.
And they were threatening; not in a physical sense, but because they looked to have traveled beyond the pale of human values and seen how delicately those values were constructed and how easily they could be unraveled. Although they couldn't articulate their psyche's voyage through the obscenities of war, they had been irrevocably altered by it. It was a hideous perversion of Maugham's reflection: "I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took." What we saw of them was only what was left.
One took a place beside Taylor and one beside me. They also began pissing. The first one had a beer can in his hand. He was thin, wiry, and a nervous twitch tugged at one side of his mouth. He looked at Taylor, then spoke across us to his friend. "That's one of them, all right. Bangkok Warriors." Then he spoke directly to us. "How long you been here?"
"A long time," Taylor answered. “R&R?"
"On R&R from the big, bad war," said the first GI. "And I'm supposed to try to make up for a lost year in five fucking days." He stared at Taylor. “Yeah, I know. My hair turned white and I'm supposed to be shell-shocked. All fucked up!" He hadn't pissed but he flushed his urinal by pulling a chain. He put his tool in his pants and zipped up. "I was sitting in a Saigon bar feeling up a bargirl and I heard a clump on the other end of the bar near the door. So I turned to see what made the clump and it was a grenade that done that."
The second GI walked toward him. "Fred," he said. "I'm all set if you are. Let's call it a night."
But the first GI ignored his companion's advice, and continued. "It rolled down between my beer bottle and glass. I said: 'I'll be damned. A grenade.’ The bargirl froze up with fear but I figured Charlie had my number so I just picked up my glass, took a swig, stood up and walked out. But the damn place didn't blow until I was outside. The bargirl-" before he could finish his sentence his throat and face tightened and he rushed to the sink to vomit.
His companion held his shoulders in a way that suggested he'd done it a lot of times before and turned to Taylor to finish the sentence. 'The bargirl got hers ducking behind the bar. She didn't have a face left.”
The first GI turned around. "And she got it because she had been near me; because of all of us over there!" Then he spoke more quietly. "I guess I snapped after that. They told me I ran around screaming and swearing." He put his arm around his companion's shoulders. "Bill, here, had to tackle me. Didn't you, Bill?"
"But you remember what you said?" Fred continued. "About how I didn't scream 'that bastard gook' or 'those bastard Charlies.’ What'd I scream, Bill? Tell him. Tell the Bangkok Warrior what I said."
"You said, 'that bastard, Johnson,' Fred. Now let's-“
Fred interrupted. "And who'd I say I was gonna' kill when I got back to the real world? Tell 'im, Bill. Come on.”
"'John Wayne', Fred. You said you was gonna kill John Wayne.”
Fred looked at Taylor, and then at me. "Can you imagine that?" He attempted to take a drink from the beer can but his hand began to shake violently.
Bill spoke softly. "Fred.”
Fred tried to steady himself. "You know, it's a joke. We can't find Charlie." Bill began leading him out. Fred continued speaking as Bill helped him toward the door. "Fighting for peace. Do you believe it? That’s like fucking for virginity." He crushed the beer can in his hand and threw it across the men’s room.
When Taylor and I returned to our booth, Fred was just following Bill out the door. Fred stood for a moment in the doorway like an illusory spectral warrior, turned to us and gave a slow salute. Taylor and I returned the salute and the door closed. We sat down again at our booth which, thanks to more rounds of beer, and an influx of bargirls, was now the liveliest in the bar. No one had noticed Bill or Fred. I suddenly felt the need to celebrate being alive. I raised my glass of beer and said: "A toast! A toast to the Bangkok Warriors!"
In the sudden silence that followed, Taylor picked up his glass and held it high. “The Bangkok Warriors!"
Among officers it is not necessary to know the strategic value of a village in order to bomb it, and, among enlisted men, it is not necessary to understand the meaning of a toast in order to drink to it. Hogbody followed our lead immediately. “Bangkok Warriors!" And in the wake of Hogbody's booming voice we all drank up.
THE CHAPLAIN'S LAST SERMON
25 September 1967
Those of us stationed in Bangkok during the 1960s did not have the advantage of a plethora of books, plays and films to interpret to us the Why and Wherefore of “our" Vietnam experience. But we did have one great advantage over those who have never experienced military life: we had the complimentary (and mandatory) service of an interpreter who alone, in the face of doubt and confusion, understood fully, and, in the presence of ignorance and error, revealed patiently why America had decided to challenge the process of Vietnamese nationalism.
And perhaps it is precisely because those of us stationed in Bangkok during The War were merely on the edge of the action, that I can see clearly that multi-media coverage of America's longest nightmare -- then and now -- has failed to do justice to the one man whose task it was to interpret the slaughter to men no longer open to interpretations. I mean, of course, the chaplain. The man who succeeded in splicing together the ultimate feature-length Gothic of Christian faith and saturation bombing into one meaningful and desirable double feature. The assistant director who helped advance God's celestial plan with its celluloid layers of light-sensitive emulsion by means of interpreting and defending the paradisiacal pull-down claw as it locked onto the sprocket-holes of 58-thousand American, and one million Vietnamese, hearts. The running-gag narrator who promoted the story line, approved the shooting script, applauded the rushes, defended the answer prints and successfully engineered a B-grade exploitation film into a box-office spectacular. The undespairing adjudicator and supernal connoisseur whose swish-pan promises provided smooth transitions between more than one million wipes. The man who told us -- who dared to tell us -- why.
But the chaplain -- at least, ‘our’ chaplain -- always seemed prepared for disaster. And, in its immediate absence, he was well prepared to give detailed notice of its malignant effects. He would begin training sessions by discussing the dangers of bacterial inflammatory diseases of the genital tract which resulted from indulging in sex with Bangkok bargirls. Although he never actually suggested any concrete alternative to male-female relations, sometime during the session, he would invariably shuffle his notes, look us over for several seconds, and finally, speak confidentially, soldier to soldier, sinner to sinner; "Remember, men, you don't get this kind of stuff from just looking at girlie magazines. Magazines can't hurt you. Think about it.”
Even as we thought about it, curtains were closed, lights were dimmed, doors were locked, and the chaplain expertly prepared and projected what we dubbed ‘blue movies,’ slides of the faces, breasts, arms, mouths, lips, tongues and intimate anatomical parts of both men and women who had contracted particularly horrible and presumably incurable sexual diseases. The chaplain never mentioned where or when the slides had been taken but we suspected they actually portrayed the effects of some great epidemic which had struck an especially sinful and hedonistic European community in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, for those tempted to abandon magazines in favor of more perilous forms of stimulation, the wrath of a righteous, no-bullshit God was clearly in evidence.
At one session, three of the newer members of the unit fainted during the first ten minutes. As Hogbody, Butterball, Taylor and myself sat well toward the back of the day room, we seldom had a clear view of the screen. But unlike during the sermon itself, the chaplain took consider- able interest in what effect the blue movies were having on his congregation. As he knew Hogbody was a ‘breast man’ during the screening of one disease-ravaged breast enshrined in a colorful but slightly unfocused closeup, the chaplain turned to him and said, "What do you think of that breast, eh, Hog? I wouldn't be very anxious to get her bra off.”
After several moments of observing the screen without any visible emotion, during which we assumed he was asleep, Hogbody turned to the chaplain and said, with unaffected dignity, "It has been my experience, sir, that a breast in the hand is worth two in the bra.”
The chaplain never spoke to Hogbody again.
As for the quality of the chaplain's sermons, it was never easy to judge. What does one look for in a sermon -- correct grammar, ironclad logic, eloquent appeals, mass conversions? But, as it was ‘in’ in the ‘Real World’ at the time to be "relevant," the chaplain often tailored his sermons -- and God's plans -- to his military audience. Unfortunately, he often traveled to Vietnam and some of his sermons had obviously been designed for those about to be blown away in battle zones. He never did understand that for GIs stationed in Bangkok, The War might as well have been on the far side of the moon.
Thanks to a very banged-up tape-recorder which Taylor swore had once belonged to Whore House Charlie (so corroded that even the Black Market refused to take it), I can give the reader an accurate account of what was to be the chaplain's last sermon.
It was usual for the chaplain to ignore his inattentive and inconsiderate audience. He habitually spread the Word of God in the face of hostility, derision and other obstacles painstakingly prepared by the Antichrist such as Butterball's burps, Hogbody's snores, Taylor's running comments on the sexual proclivities of chaplains, and heated arguments over both clandestine and overt card and dice games, none of which ever once caused him to shoot a glance in our direction.
Indeed, each time he returned from Vietnam, his sermon was shorter, less audible, and less coherent -- and his concern for our salvation less evident. His eyes seemed less able to focus, his face appeared more drawn and pallid, and his uniform seemed both too big and too small for him at the same time. He would prop up his notes, place his Bible on the lectern, blow his nose repeatedly, clear his throat nervously, shift from one foot to the other as if trying to keep warm, and address himself to the few pairs of eyes which remained open.
It was only during this last recorded sermon that there was no blowing, clearing or shifting. It wasn't until years later that I realized why this particular discourse had seemed so singular and unnatural. It was that it was missing the one ingredient a congregation always expects to find at even the most soporific sermon -- an attempt at communication.
A speech delivered for humorous effect which fails in its goal results in embarrassment. A serious speech which produces hilarity may be even more embarrassing. But this was not the resignation of one who has tried to share an important message with an insolent audience and failed; rather the ingenuous manner and sincere tone of one whose speech conveys utter madness with an excruciating ignorance and unspeakable equanimity surpassing, in horror, despair and shame, the most deliberate obscenity, the most catastrophic defeat and the most poignant embarrassment. It was precisely this unexpected abeyance of resolve and unintended display of humor that, only moments into this speech, achieved for the chaplain's last sermon both total silence and rapt attention.
“Men, I want to talk to you today about prayer. I know many of you -- as professional soldiers -- may feel ill at ease when humbling yourself before God. But I have a pleasant surprise for you. Because praying to God is not unlike stepping on a land mine. Yes, that’s right: there is nothing more explosive than faith in God. Now, I know you cannot always tell a good gook from a bad gook. But God can. God knows which gook plants rice and which gook plants mines. I do not have to remind you that planting rice is Good and planting mines is Evil. And God wants you to recognize Evil when you see it; that is why He created land mines in such a way that when you step on them they blow you away.
“Of course, I do not mean to imply that land mines planted in His name are Evil. (But, don't forget, those too can blow you away.) But, remember, all personnel blown away in His Name have Life Everlasting.
“You cannot see God -- and you cannot see a land mine; but both are there and both are capable of responding. This is because both have power. Enormous power. But God has far more power than ordinary land mines. Land mines can blow you away when you step on them. But the power of God is unlimited: He can blow you away anytime, anyplace, under any conditions, war or peace, out on patrol or while cleaning your rifle, standing in the chow line or marching in a parade, engaged in a firefight or walking to the latrine, combatant or non-combatant, officer or enlisted man, mama-san or baby-san, soldier or queer. Even, somewhat unfairly, perhaps, in a demilitarized zone.
“Now, men, I want you to think of God as a powerful weapon. Because God is smarter than the smartest bomb, more powerful than the most destructive artillery, and don't forget, He can see in the dark.
“Think of God as a Great Being looking at us all through an infra-red starlight sniperscope. Wherever we are, the eyes of God follow. We are forever lined up in His sights. And one day this Supreme Being will peer through those sights, squint through that scope, slowly squeeze the trigger and neutralize each and every one of us -- regardless of race, color, creed, sex, age, I.Q., name, rank and serial number.
“God needs no illumination rounds or saturation bombing to rubbish His chosen targets. His rifle never jams; His ammunition is Everlasting. The day will come when each and every one of us will be trapped in one of God's multi-divisional search-and-destroy sweeps, or by angels deployed by God to mop up. And let me assure you that God's angels are perfectly able to bomb and strafe any pockets of resistance that hold out, however briefly, against them.
“Let there be no doubt about it, the day will come when God will frag all of us. And when that day comes, when God in His wisdom springs His ambush, when God booby-traps your trail, when God chooses to evacuate you from the battle zone forever, when He discharges you from our army to reinforce His own celestial combatants, be absolutely certain that you have been adequately briefed for your new mission.
“Because on that final Day of Judgement, when what we call our universe is finally and utterly defoliated for all time, God will gather the elite troops of his most crack division around him, while those soldiers who surrendered to temptation, or who performed unnatural acts, will be condemned to a free-fire zone forever.
“And of those who still feel they might escape God's Incoming Rounds, remember, even Jesus was not issued a flak-jacket. Quite the contrary. Out of His Great love for the world, God fragged His own son. And that is something to think about.
“Now, men, even after the war is over, people will still have faith in God -- and they will still have children, some of whom will become soldiers themselves, and some of whom will be blown away by stepping on leftover land mines -- regardless of race, color or creed, boy or girl, tall or short, military dependents or draft resisters, students participating in R.O.T.C. or deserters, applicants to O.C.S. or queers. God calls everyone. And he who steps on a land mine hears the Call of God. But how many who have ever stepped on a land mine have actually paused to consider...consider how one path can lead back to base -- and how one path can lead to Life Everlasting.
“As I've said, men, land mines cannot be seen, neither can God; but both exist, and both are waiting -- Out There. Now, you may never step on a land mine, but that does not mean God does not love you. Let us pray.
“O Lord our God, Thou who art greater than any weapon yet conceived by man, Thou who exist in greater depth than any land mine yet planted by man, Thou who has blown away more soldiers on more battlefields, than even we are able to do, give us this day the power to tell good gooks from bad gooks, and to know which gooks serve in Your Name and which gooks should be neutralized...in Your Name. Give us the firepower to destroy Thine enemies. Give us the strength to understand Your Wisdom, to glory in Your Plan, and -- when that time comes -- to readily and gratefully allow our bodies to be rubbished in Your Name.
“When you call us back to base, oh Lord, when we stand before you in Divine Interrogation, lead us not to report that our mission was aborted or that our air-strike against Thine enemies was canceled because of unfavorable weather conditions. Let us salute proudly and smartly and with confidence our Supreme Commander-in-Chief; and let us never stoop to inflating a body count in order to make a favorable impression.
“And give us this day the ability to recognize that beseeching Thy aid is -- if we sincerely and humbly request it -- as simple and as uncomplicated as stepping on a land mine. We ask this in Your Name and in the Name of Your Only Begotten Son. Whom You saw fit to rubbish on our behalf. Amen.
At the following training session, a more conventional chaplain delivered a more conventional sermon. After he'd finished, Hogbody asked him what had happened to our usual chaplain. The man smiled knowingly, and said that our “usual" chaplain had apparently become quite unusual in many ways, and had deliberately walked across a minefield in Vietnam; when, before he could be rescued, he had stepped on a land mine. But he added that it might have been just as well that God had called him home: The man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he did."
Hogbody fell silent for several seconds, but when he spoke it was with the quiet confidence and artless candor of a man who knows he is stating a Truth: "I think, sir, that a chaplain who believes that praying to God is as easy as stepping on a land mine, is worth two chaplains who don't.”
The chaplain never spoke to Hogbody again.
Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior is available in your local bookstore or else they can quickly order it for you. The novel is also available on line at such sites as www.Amazon.com.
The year 2007 marked the book's 25th year in print.