Thursday, October 15, 2009


John Wayne and Carol

The South China Sea was rolling us side to side, side to side, with a slight swell. In flat-bottomed amphibious landing craft, a slight swell is enough stomach-churning motion to get everybody except the swabbies seasick. Even with the open top, we were breathing a thick soup of diesel fumes and vomit stench. Our nausea was amplified by the gut-wrenching terror we felt as our amphib churned toward the beach.

Those celestial military powers who decide such things had sent us in on a moonless night. It was about as dark as a night can be except for a zillion stars blazing down on us and the little red caution lights that, optimistically, kept the eighteen assault boats from running into and sinking each other.

The first machine gun opened up and was immediately enjoined by every piece of ordinance the NVA had emplaced for the defense of Chu Lai. The small caliber rounds pinged off the armored front doors of the landing craft and we waited for cannon or heavy caliber fire to smash into us. As we got closer, pre-targeted mortar rounds began to hurtle down. All we could do was crouch a little tighter and hope the shells landed somewhere else, anywhere else. An earsplitting explosion, followed by a shock wave, meant that the amphib on the starboard side had been hit. Tough. Not us.

We felt the tracks find purchase on the bottom. The swabbie driving the boat gunned the motor and we lurched up onto the beach. Thank God he didn’t chicken out and stop short, leaving us to wade ashore under fire. Not our swabbie! Good swabbie. The front gate slammed down and we got out of that thing about as fast as a scared-to-death platoon can move. My fire team went right and up to 2:00 o’clock as planned. We hit the sand and started to return fire.

We were in Viet Nam!

We were at war!

Well, not really. That was a scene from Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne. If you want that kind of war story you should rent it on Netflix, or maybe The Boys From Company C or Platoon. If you want a movie that more closely approximates my combat tour in Viet Nam, you should maybe rent Catch 22. No, I didn’t arrive in Nam in the guts of an amphibious landing craft. I landed in Da Nang in the bowels of a Pan American 707. Whoop de doo. But I get ahead of myself. My actual voyage to Southeast Asia was even more capricious and bizarre.

Here’s what really happened.

Gunny Cunningham handed me my pay record and orders and told me to get my ass to Bravo Battery, 2nd LAAM (Light Anti-Aircraft Missile) Battalion, Chu Lai, Viet Nam, as soon as possible.

“By when, Gunny?”

“Still hard of hearing, Jenkins? As soon as you can get your lazy ass over there.”

By this time Gunny had taken a real liking to me which was why he was talking so sweet. The C.O. (commanding officer), Lieutenant Mike Stevens actually came out of his office to shake hands and wish me luck. He offered this advice:

“Volunteer for everything. Maybe you’ll see some real action.”

“Aye, aye, Sir, I will. And, sir, thanks for the transfer.”

“Get the fuck out of my Battery.”

Like Gunny Cunningham, the Old Man had a soft spot for me and was fighting to hold back his tears.

“Now, Jenkins, now!”

That was it. My departure ritual. Pomp and circumstance. No expense spared.

I had no reason to hang around Cherry Point, and my North Carolina kin were not much for ceremony, so I thought what the heck? I might as well head on over to the war. In those days, military men on their way to Viet Nam just showed their orders at the ticket counter to get a seat on any west-bound flight. Even if the plane was full and they had to pull some civilian off the aircraft, soldiers and Marines got a seat. Not stand-by; priority seating. If there was an empty chair in First Class, we got that, too.

From Cherry Point I finagled my way on a patched-up DC-3 to Raleigh, then commercial to Sacramento, and a bus to Travis Air Force Base which was the hub for MATS (Military Air Transport). The main attraction to Travis AFB was it’s proximity to San Francisco. The main attraction to San Francisco was the Twin Peaks.

The Twin Peaks of Carol Doda.

Carol Doda and her “Twin 44s” were already legendary by 1966. I considered it my patriotic duty, my obligation on the eve of my departure to defend America by ogling the largest bosoms to ever be displayed upon the national stage. Or at least upon a grand piano in the Condor Club up on San Francisco’s North Beach. For an eighteen year old Southern boy who had never been in a bar, much less a strip club, Doda and her “Girls” were a really big deal, or deals, to be precise. A large warm mammary, I mean memory, to comfort me in the hell of mortal combat. Had to have a look, didn’t I?

MATS ran a free liberty bus into San Francisco with a return bus late in the evening. I arrived downtown about mid-afternoon and realized I had made two critical mistakes. First, I was wearing a pair of light weight slacks and a short sleeve shirt. As the saying goes, “I spent a frigid winter one evening in San Francisco.” Damn, it was cold. And windy. And foggy. What the hell? The weather was great at Travis. My second mistake was arriving with about fifteen dollars in my wallet. I spent about ten bucks on a butt-ugly tourist sweatshirt, leaving me about five for my Dodaquest. I started walking, asking directions, and eventually arriving at the Condor Club where Carol’s bosoms were about ready to make their second or third appearance of the day. They had that girl flying in from a hole in the ceiling about fifteen times a day, and I am not making the number up. I call her a girl, because Carol Doda was not much older, in years, than I was. Please, do not dis-respect Carol Doda; the girl worked hard for her money.

My problem was also money. There was a cover charge and you had to buy drinks while you were there. I talked my way past the cover charge with a guns, guts, and glory tale of my impending heroism, and spent the last of my cash on a couple of whisky sours. Whiskey sours. I told you I was naïve.

Down she came from the rafters, this Rebel Without A Bra, trailblazer for many things pornographic and prosthetic yet to come. Carol Doda was quite pretty, if you actually looked at her face. But that was not the point. She danced around and maybe sang a song or two. My memory is shaky on the singing part. She smiled and shimmied and shook and swayed and swung her huge fleshy bags. Men whistled and yelled and starred at large breasts. Something was wrong with me. After a few salutary whistles of my own, I shut up, and started feeling bad. I just sat there, getting more and more depressed. It was just so . . . weird. I was not aroused or sexually excited in the slightest. My main feeling was discomfiture. I was embarrassed for the other men in the club, and for myself. What’s a nice boy like me doing in a Frisco strip club?

I was not embarrassed for Carol Doda. She was in charge. I looked at her eyes, way, way up behind those plastic bumpers. Her eyes were alert, moving around, working the room. Pro, no doubt about it. And nice, I thought, basically a nice girl. In the flush of youthful righteousness, I wanted to save her, redeem her, get to know her, be a pal, take her away from all this.

But before I could put a rescue plan in motion, the manager sidled up and whispered that I had to leave. There was a line outside waiting to come in, he said, and that I had long since slurped down my drink. He nicely whispered the news of my ouster, and that was fine with me, because I was done. I re-emerged on the cold, hard streets. Took a deep breath. Somehow I found my way to the pickup point to meet the bus back to base. It was over two hours before the bus arrived, and I will tell you, that was one damn cold wait. When it finally arrived and I climbed on board I saw that there were already several Marines and a few mismatched service men from the other branches quietly talking and smoking. The bus was warm and smelled like a barracks. I felt comfortable, at home, peaceful, right where I belonged.
I didn’t recognize at the time that I was already leaving the “World” and sliding inexorably down into a strange new land, a truly strange new land.

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