My brother-in-arms, Keith Nightingale, sent me this piece for publication. It’s a story about Jack, an Army infantry soldier, who is assigned with his squad to guard a critical intersection on a major highway out in the countryside. Today was a special day. It was his turn. He would join others on a day trip to the local ville. It was his first and one he’ll never forget. This tale has a happy ending.
By Keith Nightingale
Tien Shah was home. It was an old French road outpost still full of the bullet holes and shrapnel wounds from various encounters with the Viet Minh and the French on QL 1-Road Without Joy. It hovered over an intersection between QL 1 and several smaller village tracks. The Army had decided it was an excellent observation and defensive post along the road. Accordingly, it placed a small squad of Infantry on a rotating basis to occupy it.
The squad was uncertain as to what its mission was other in the vaguest sense. As a result, the men erected jungle hammock shades, sat on lawn chairs and generally enjoyed the constantly changing traffic and its transiting occupants.
At night, the men retreated to the concrete confines and with the aid of a single Starlight Scope, surveilled the now deserted land. It was an ideal bullet magnet-a thought not unlost to the occupants. On occasion, the local Washy Washy guy would park at the entrance and provide some local Short Time for Salems, gasoline and the better C rations.
During the day, a military shuttle truck would pass by taking men to the local ville and back-much like people commuting to work and back, but in this instance, commuting to play.
The shuttle was a classic military improvisation. A ¼ ton jeep with extended benches in the rear with a ¼ trailer with bench seats for six behind. A sign on the hood instructed all occupants to have a weapon and to look out. The right front seat was occupied an MP with a polished helmet and a bright white MP on the brim.
When it stopped by the OP for a check of the area, if there was space, one of the guard detachments might join to pass the boredom. Such as happened today.
Jack was a barely 18 years old high school dropout who volunteered for the draft hoping that he could manage his assignment. Unfortunately, neither USAF or Navy would take him. He selected Army over Marines as he had recently seen a lot of nightly news about the Marines on the DMZ. Ironically, the Army made him a 11B (Infantry) and temporarily assigned him to a concrete DMZ-like position. This would be his first sojourn into Vietnamese society-or at least the local version.
The drive was highly exotic to him and brought sights and smells he had never experienced. Thatch huts with beer can second sheets for roofing. Old ladies squatting with betel-stained teeth and loud rock music. In some thatch huts, a bevy of young women in mini-skirts would flash the group and make obvious signs as to the local occupation.
A Mama-san would stand in the street as the jeep passed shouting in a high pitch-“Number One Short Time G1. Boom Boom. We love you too much.”
The jeep continued down the road and finally stopped at what was the most consequential village complex. As the passengers got off, the driver, another MP went through his script.
“No dollars or MPC can be used. Vietnamese Dong only. Use a condom. Use a buddy system to keep out of trouble. Do not let go of your weapon at any time. Even when doing it. You must be here by 1700 for return. If you do not make the shuttle, you will be considered AWOL. Any questions? Have fun and stay safe.”
Jack awkwardly hopped off, stood in the street oblivious to it all and went through his roll of MPC and Dong. He counted each denomination by currency and placed them in descending order of value into separate rolls. Once done, in plain sight of everyone, he then placed them in his fatigue pants pocket and looked up.
The main street was dirt, rimed in mud and garbage and of the universal laterite red ochre that was everywhere. The air was rank with smells of festering garbage, damp straw, burning thatch and the omnipresent blue haze of black-market gasoline.
The sounds were highly mixed. There was the snapping of arc welders repairing motorcycles and cars or forming some indescribable piece of work. The bars competed for the most volume and the least separation throughout the main street. The cyclos coughed and sputtered their way past him. It was a constant cloud of noise that soon became a steady but not overwhelming effect on his mind. The sights were equally strange and at the same time, mesmerizing for a neophyte.
The shops were not of a Western construction. Rather they reflected a combination of locally available material and the transient materials of a combat zone. The walls were usually palm thatch. The front and roofs were sheets of tin beer can seconds-those 2 feet by 4 feet slabs rejected in manufacture due to spelling, painting or production issues. Cheaper than galvanized tin and much more available. Most every commercial beer was readily identifiable on either a roof or fronting façade. All were held together by locally procured limbs, untrimmed and irregular as framing.
The shops that lined the street were a mélange of options and opportunities. Cyclo repair shops, inner tube repairs, chop shops with Pho and Ben My displays, coffee stands, welding shops, vegetable and fish stands, furniture making shops, plastic and tin pot shops, candy and cigarette stores and a number of GI centric souvenir stores and drinking establishments.
These were usually hosted by a waif-like girl in a colorful ao dai who, in pidgin English, would attempt to entice Jack to enter and be enthralled by the variety of choices-jackets emblazoned with “I Spent My Time In Hell-Danang” (or wherever one wished to memorialize), poorly forged zippo lighters, scarves, badly embroidered local US unit patches and a large variety of possibly local handicrafts. Several of the stores had a deeper recess where the waif or her friends would provide a momentary souvenir at a price.
But, by far, the most prolific store fronts were reserved for the bars. Almost every other front in the ville was some form of bar & “entertainment” node.
Ladies in various exotic forms awaited outside dark doors on the street providing a variety of incentives to venture inside. They wore miniskirts exposing a thin leg whiter than any GI. Their tops were enhanced with copious quantities of padding advertising a fantasy well removed from the fact. All together, these served to provide the ladies as much of the soldier’s MPC or dollars-Dong’s were a last option, as could be wrested from him. The MPC was to be used within US facilities and strictly forbidden for the Vietnamese economy.
The beginning of the enticement process for Jack and his somewhat dazed wanderings, involved a lady grabbing his arm and seductively suggesting a glass of “Saigon Tea.”
Both entranced and bewildered, he sat down at a small table. The major domo brought the tea to the lady and handed her a pink chit which she slipped into her shoe. She placed her exposed leg across his and grasped his arm. Whispering with a half laugh she said: “We do short time. You love too much. Twenty MPC. OK” licking his ear.
Jack had never encountered any female on such terms and while scared, was consumed with both anxiety and anticipation. Quietly he dug into his MPC roll and stripped out four 5$ MPC notes. The girl immediately grasped his hand under the table, pulled out a 5$ note, arose and gave it to the major domo.
She then came back, placed her hand on Jack’s neck and pulled him toward the back. The plastic shower curtain separating the rear from the front revealed the nature of the place.
The room was separated by a dozen small cubicles lining the walls, each concealing smaller billits with shower curtain enclosures. Inside Jack’s room was a single black-market US mattress, a plastic tray and a water jug. As Jack disrobed, so did she. Despite the relative darkness, Jack’s initial clothed expectation was not met by the reality of the reward, but that was irrelevant at the moment.
Finally, Jack unslung his M16 and lay on the mattress with the lady expertly protecting him. This was jack’s first experience and was truly a Short Time. Regardless, Jack was exhilarated by it all.
He dressed, slung his rifle and walked out the door truly feeling like a new man. He walked down the street and for the first time began to actually see what he was viewing. He walked and surveilled in a new state of hyper alertness. He made an internal decision to be more choosey as to his stopping.
Loud music bars ranged from primitive beach style to more elaborate plywood carpentry offered libations for the thirsty trooper. “33”- Ba Muoi Ba, and Bier Larue, Tiger Piss, were the predominate choices. Black market US beer was also available, but rarely better than the issue stuff. Some of the more primitive, but less offensive establishments allowed a troop to sit in the shade and relax absent accosting’s. Mamasan would bring out a large tea glass, fill it with just rinsed ice chunks and pour beer over it-voila, cold beer. Soon, Jack, after several stops, would recognize that “33” stood the taste test and LaRue less so.
Jack slowly walked the length of the street absorbing the sights and sounds. He spotted an unusual structure and moved toward it. The front and sides were constructed from de-constructed ammo boxes. The labels were quite visible with 105mm, 106mm and 81mm markings. The front of the shop had a large sign, painted in black with red highlights- “Ammo Box Bar.” As much out of curiosity as thirst, he decided to stop and have another beer.
He chose to sit on the small porch under a plastic beach umbrella, resisting a particularly alluring red Ao Dai with a Chinese slit opening on the leg beckoning from across the street. As he sat down, observing life, the hovering mamasan brought him a “33” in an ice filled tea glass and offered him a Ben My sandwich of chopped cabbage, tomatoes and peppers which was extraordinarily delicious.
Such a difference from his C rations and mess hall food. After the first exploratory bite, he devoured the offering and then slowly ingested the second with the beer-a perfect combination. Pulling on a Pall Mall, he felt a sense of calm and mental respite. It had been a good day and a far distance from his previous life.
As pickup time approached, he began to rise and was approached by an older man, dressed in black pants and a white shirt-highly incongruous clothing for the environment. He held a small clear plastic bag holding five roughly rolled cigarettes. They were twisted on each end and somewhat thicker than standard cigarettes.
He came very close to Jack and said: “First class grass. 3$ US or 5$ MPC.”
Without negotiating and acting on impulse, he pulled out 5$ MPC and surreptitiously handed it to him. He stuck the bag in his cargo pocket and somewhat dazed, walked toward the shuttle pickup.
As the jeep rolled up, he climbed onto the last seat. Several of the passengers were smoking the same roll and a heavy odor hung in the air despite the speed of the vehicle. The two MPs appeared oblivious to what must have been obvious to them.
Jack pulled out his bag with new found macho masculinity and lit one, taking a long deep draught. His first. He had seen his bunker mates doing this and practiced his new found awareness. The shuttle stopped and the MP prodded him, half dazed, to get off, which he did.
Jack went inside the bunker, found his position and joined a game of cards. The air was heavy with the scent of recent purchases. The grass became green as Jack cleared the table. His bag for the night was not only a life experience, it included 8 rolled cigarettes and 25$ MPC. It had been a great day for a young man.
Keith Knightingale is a former US Army Colonel and served in Vietnam with the 1/502nd Screaming Eagles and the 75th Ranger Battalion. He has submitted several other articles for this website. If you are interested in reading more of his work, direct links are provided below:
NOTE: To return to this page after reading an article, please use the “back arrow” at the upper left of this page.
Hill of Angels: https://cherrieswriter.com/2022/03/26/hill-of-angels/
Fort Benning during the Battle of the Ia Drang: https://cherrieswriter.com/2018/10/29/fort-benning-during-battles-in-the-ia-drang-guest-blog/
A Night in the Jungle: https://cherrieswriter.com/2021/02/27/a-night-in-the-jungle/
My book review of his published book, “Just Another Day in Vietnam”: https://cherrieswriter.com/book-reviews-titles-i-m/#s6
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