Tuesday, February 2, 2010

INTO THE GREEN WOOD--PART SIX

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Jenx


Crisp walked me over to the hooch where I’d be living. He told me to take the unoccupied rack (cot) in the middle, along the back row, the least desirable location as befitting a newly-arrived FNG (you already know what that means). My hooch mates were still at work, so I had the place to myself for a while.

Hooch. These temporary quarters, also called “hardbacks,” had been built for us by the Seabees (Navy Construction Battalions). More like Jarheads than Squids, the Seabees can also fight on foot when necessary, so we Marines respected them. Military lore holds that Seabees, in timed contests, can build a hardback hooch from start-to-done in less than forty minutes. Snappy salute to those guys who can put it together fast and get it right the first time.

Our hardbacks were 16 by 32 feet with raised plywood floors and screen doors at both ends. Plywood walls about waist high provided the rigidity. These solid walls were topped by screen all the way up to the roof plate. The roof itself was a waterproofed (mostly) tent with the sides rolled up and tied so that whatever confused breeze might accidentally wander by could blow right through the screen walls. If it rained hard enough, the tent sides could be rolled down. The brick barracks at Cherry Point alternated between equatorial swelter and tundral permafrost. Let me tell you, Seabee hooches are a lot more comfortable.

The guys in my hooch had decorated their personal spaces with lamps, hooks, end tables, footlockers, closet poles, souvenirs, and posters of women. One Marine had an enormous lizard on a string that watched me unblinkingly from its perch up on a rafter. The hooch had a homey feeling about it. Cool.

As I started unpacking my sea bag a stench wafted upward, rank and fetid, like the gasses that seep out when grave robbers open an ancient tomb. I felt like I was on an archeological dig. “What the hell is this,” I queried, unearthing the first repulsive artifact. “Ah. Primitive humans of the Twentieth Century called these objects . . . socks!”

The guys started drifting in and introduced themselves. I knew a couple of them from Delta Battery. They advised me to get my shit together before the next morning’s formation and then pitched in to help me.

“We have a new Gunny.”

“You do NOT want him on your case.”

One of the Delta Marines added, “Cunningham.”

“Yeah. He already knows I’m here.”

“Shit.”

Another Marine asked, “You know Cunningham?”

“Like Janet Leigh knows Norman Bates.”

It went right over their heads.

“Who’s Janet Leigh?”

“Just a girl I left behind.”

“Well she’s probably already fucking your brother.”

Marines. Always ready with a kind word. But I laughed, acknowledging that he had won this small verbal engagement. The same Marine told me to give him my belt. What? Shrugging, I took off my belt and gave it to him. He procured a can of paint, took my belt outside and sprayed the buckle and tip black. No reflective brass. Right.

One of the benefits of membership in the Corps is the help freely given by your brothers. Everything I owned was either on me or stuffed into my sea bag, wrinkled and filthy, so one guy loaned me a clean T shirt, another guy loaned me an iron so I could get my least dirty pair of trousers into presentable shape. I washed my cover (fatigue cap) by hand, borrowed a cover block (imagine a four-inch length of stovepipe) and starched my cover into the personal style I had artistically evolved back in “the world.” The blocking process required the sheet metal block, spray starch, and several clothes pins, all of which I borrowed. My personal style featured hard, straight sides terminating in a sharp rim that encircled the crown of the cap, creating a small crater on top, a shallow declivity into which a mother sea bird might construct her sturdy nest. Every Marine had his own cover fashion, the goal of which was to make the starched cap as outlandish as possible without forcing one of the officers to call you on it.

I also noticed that most of the Marines possessed sexy, canvas-topped “jungle boots.” I sinfully coveted a pair for myself so that I could launch my style journey from FNG to “salty.” But that would have to wait.

Supply guys are good to know. Every hooch should have it’s own Supply Buddy. Our “procurement specialist” arrived with a blanket, a canteen cup and a few other odds and ends for me to begin building my kit.

In quick time my hooch had me sorted out enough to survive the morning formation without you-know-who embellishing my rear end with a new asshole.

The guys started getting out of their fatigues and into swim suits, flip flops and Hawaiian shirts.

“He can’t go like that,” complained Newcomb, a Motor T ape. Bert Newcomb and I would later collaborate on several enjoyable, if stupid, excursions out in the boonies.

John Boocher, on whom I would eventually hang the nickname, John-The-Baptist-Boocher ordered me to give him my worst pair of trousers. Well, OK. I tossed over a pair of fatigues.

“Nurse Davis, scissors!”

Private Roger-Dale-Davis-from-West-By-God-Virginia moued like Betty Boop and obeyed with a falsetto giggle.”

“Yes, DOCTOR Boocher.”

Taking the scissors like a melodramatic surgeon, Boocher cut the legs off my trousers and proudly presented me with a rather uneven pair of cut-off shorts.

“OK. Let’s hit it!”

“Hit what?”

“The fucking Club, Jenx! The drinking lamp is lit!”

Jenx?

I followed the guys out of the hooch, down a path heading south, around a little hill to a ramshackle open-air shack fondly known as the E Club. Some one (not a Seabee!) had whacked together a bar of sorts and a few benches. Up-ended cable spools served as tables. A few bare light bulbs, assorted posters of women, and a South Vietnamese flag completed the décor. That was it except for . . . the view.

Bravo Battery occupied a point that jutted out into the South China Sea. Stretched out below us was all of Chu Lai, a James Michener wet dream vision of Old Hawaii. Miles, I mean MILES of sandy beach, palm trees, and surf. As I was taking it in, a mellow tropical breeze blew across my face. I took a deep breath. One of my new buddies walked up and handed me a cold (cold!) Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Bravo. Breeze. Beer. Beauty. Buddies. Bobby.

I’m starting to like this war.

The E Club filled up with all the lower-ranking Marines, everyone who was not on duty. One guy showed up with a guitar and began to play (appallingly). We joined in, singing along with the few songs he almost knew. The beer was cheap, but not free, and you could run a tab. The proceeds were designated for club “improvements,” the specific details of which were a closely guarded secret of the Club Committee. We started drinking, seriously drinking, to support the Club improvements, of course. We drank, and sang, and told stories, stories about Nutcase fragging the CO, stories about Cunningham, the baddest of all bad-asses in the Corps, stories about the women we left behind, and the women were going to meet on R and R (Rest and Relaxation) in Hong Kong, or Tai Pei, or Kuala Lumpur, or . . . Bangkok. Bang. . . cock! Just the name, Bangkok, brought a smile to every face.

Eventually the noise died down. We told stories of home. Some of the guys were homesick.

Not me.

I asked the “musician” if I could borrow his guitar. He passed it over. What a piece of shit, a no-name junker from Da Nang or Saigon. It was de-laminating and buzzy. The keys were corroded, but they worked, after a fashion. I was able to tune it, more or less. The strings were so rusty they left brown lines on my fingers. I ran through a couple of fast scales and a few chord progressions. The club was dead quiet. Everyone was starring at the FNG.

Show time.

At Cherry Point I had perfected a couple of recent tunes that the guys seemed to like. I hit the opening chords of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum
Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum
Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum
Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum

I can’t get no . . . o . . . satisfaction . . .

The Club went nuts. Every swinging dick was on his feet or on the benches or on the tables screaming the song at the top his lungs. When the song was finished, after many repeats of the chorus, the Marines yelled and clapped, howled and stomped.

“More! More! More!”

This was 1966, and most of the songs I knew, the ones that could actually be played on a single de-laminating Vietnamese guitar, were folk songs, and that was just fine with these brothers. I plowed through my Peter, Paul, and Mary (Lemon Tree) repertoire, and slid over to The Kingston Trio (Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley) canon. Bob Dylan tunes were a big hit, especially Like a Rolling Stone and Mr. Tambourine Man for which I knew all the lyrics (and still do). I finished the first set with Wake Up Little Susie by the Brothers, the Everly Brothers. You may not know this, but the Everly Brothers were Marines from 1961 to 1963, and they are, as you can imagine, beloved of the Corps.

I had a couple more beers. By this time higher ranking enlisted men, Corporals, Sergeants and above, who had their own quiet little club somewhere else in camp, began to drift in and were welcomed with beers on the house. The great event was the arrival of, you guessed it, Gunny Cunningham who shot me a self-satisified little smirk that only I could see, (What is he up to?)

The guys were begging me for more contemporary stuff. Gunny Cunningham gave me a small public nod of encouragement (what is he up to?). I assayed California Girls, Wooly Booly, Hang on Sloopy, My Girl, and Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter. It all worked. Another get-up-on-the-table destroyer was We Gotta Get Outta This Place. Can you imagine how loud we screamed that sucker? By this point I was beyond the songs I had mastered, the guitar work was horrible, but nobody cared, and if I couldn’t hack a guitar bridge, we’d just sing it.

We gotta get outta this place
(singing) Ba da da DUM!
If it's the last thing we EVER do
(singing) Ba da da DUM!

More beers.

My finger tips were killing me so I slowed down and dropped us into the depths of melancholy with two of the best tunes by the other Brothers, the Righteous Brothers, Unchained Melody and You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.

I had reached the point where I could no longer even feel my finger tips. I thought I could squeeze one more out of those rusty strings with a simple first position C, A minor, F and G chording. I chose an oldy-but-goodie, the tune Judy Vance and I most loved for our slow dances at Florida High . . .

Moon River.

Everybody joined in, and we sung that sentimental lullaby so sweetly, with such sincerity. So beautiful. So drunk. When the last chord died away, we sat there together, silently looking out at the stars above an alien sea, so very far away from home.

I won’t speak for anybody else, but I was happier in that moment than . . . well . . . happier than I could ever remember being. I was doing something I thought was noble, in the company of my brothers, in this spectacular place. I had been fully accepted by these Marines and was already one of them. I even had a new nickname, Jenx, and a reputation. They loved me, and I loved them.

Well, maybe not Cunningham. What did he mean with that secret little smirk?
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