It was the worst of winters, it was the best of times. I arrived at Bravo Battery in mid-July 1969. Debilitating humidity and paralyzing monsoon rains gave way to Fall’s cool weather. Winter appeared as a gentle snowfall that soon became wind-driven sleet followed by a cycle of storms, each bigger than the one before.
Penetrating cold kept men indoors where oil-burning space heaters glowed cherry red in the struggle to warm the uninsulated crew hootches.
|Security guard perches close to the space heater.|
Bravo was a hundred guys rotating up and down the mountain, two up, one down. Rain or shine, the manning truck left the admin area at oh seven hundred hours. A deuce and a half or a flatbed truck ferried the soldiers on the hour drive to the tac site at the top. The mile-high peak commanded strategic views for hundreds of miles. Army engineers had carved flattened spaces for launch pads and the firing crew’s cinder block shelters. At the mile-high summit, a concave radar antenna spun above the command van and the commo hootch, where I worked.
Commo worked at both ends of the site. The Admin Area’s sole connection to the outside world came via the telephone wire that stretched along the ground from the top of the mountain to the switchboard in the base camp. On the wire’s route, farmers harvested sections for copper. They worked in the early morning, cutting a quarter mile of twisted pair wire and hauling it to a safe place near the road, where they’d burn off the vinyl before hauling away their loot.
|Three Homing All the Way Killers are a full load on a launcher.|
One failed commo check sent the guys in the Admin Area into the field to find and replace the stolen wire. Fortunately, thieves found a favorite section near the second ford, the last crossing before the ascent.
The telephone line ran close to the road, on the far side of the alpine stream and along easy terrain. Ample vegetation streamside provided fuel for the bonfire. We used to curse the thought of the hungry farmer, squatting upwind of the smoldering plastic, reaching out his aching palms to the fire’s warmth. All we’d ever find were spirals of white and black ash lying on the cooling embers of a small fire.
There was the day the wind whipped a brittle commo line until it snapped. It was our luck, me and Concha from Santa Ana, the wire lay along a fully exposed section at the edge of the bulldozed earth. The punishing cold and buffeting gusts convinced us to remove our bulky gloves and wool glove liners and work with bare hands.
The fingers went instantly numb. We took turns on each phase of repairing the four broken wires. Strip the insulation on one strand. Re-glove and take cover. The other fellow strips the insulation of another strand, re-gloves, takes cover. With the four strands stripped, one man twists the ends together, re-gloves. The electrical tape doesn’t stick in the freezing cold so we take turns heavily wrapping the twisted pairs before wrapping them both and securing the line to anchors that hold the wire taut against the whipping wind shear.
We were out there over an hour. When we took shelter in the crew hootch, our fingers started to hurt. When we pulled off our gloves frozen blood came dripping off our fingers. We had torn layers of skin off our hands but had not noticed it in the intense cold. Another time, the wind carried me aloft off the top of the commo hootch, when I’d climbed to clear a radio antenna of ice. Unexpected adventure was the order of the day, but for the most part, Winter passed with monotonous similarity, endless days of cold and misery and being tough, and taking it.
|Admin Area after first snow.|
I’d had my fill of the romance of the world’s highest anti-aircraft missile site but more so of the relentlessness of raging elements like none I could ever have conceived, and it came day after day, then stopped. And we’d have days of incredible beauty; windless skies, sun so bright no one felt the cold and nights so black and silent snowfall made a sound when it landed, and a match held overhead reflected off millions of crystals making the air glow with the flame.
Japan was paradise.
Korea was a land of privation. Military carried ration cards limiting access and availability of anything imported, from U.S. soap to Japanese cameras, to fight the black market. The Army paid military payment certificates instead of greenbacks, to fight inflation. The first English words many GIs heard from Koreans was “you buy me soap, GI?” Or toothcream. Or booze.
Fresh fruit was entirely absent from the mess hall. One day, the cooks served up boiled potatoes and nothing else. Not all the rotted black spots had been cut away and no one walked away without a sour word for the server, who gave as good as he got. For the next two weeks Bravo ate C-rations. The battery had run out of food.
The first breakfast in the ryokan style hotel rekindled my faith in eating as something beyond mere sustenance. I went into paroxysms of joy tasting the incredibly flavorful coffee. Shiny outside delectable inside rolls. Jam, butter. Steamed fish. A silken chawanmushi. Pickles.
The tatami floors and elegant furnishings were as far from a military barrack as one could be and still be earthbound. Paradise it was.
We bought a large Go board that my wife had to schlep across the Pacific. Barbara bought a Satsuma chrysanthemum pattern porcelain espresso set. I bought things wrapped in ten. Ten tangerines in a woven fabric tube. Ten tangerines again. Ten walnuts. Ten tangerines again. Five bananas. I bought fresh fruit everyday.
We ate Kobe beef. We attended a play at the Kabuki theatre. We saw the Broadway musical, Hair, in Japanese. We saw a James Bond movie in English with Japanese subtitles. We ate street vendor yakitori under a rail bridge near Shibuya station.
We rode the subway. Taxicabs. Walked and walked.
During the Yoko and John peace event we watched the shiny helmets of youth groups snaking their way through the shadowy streets near the blazing Ginza. In a moment we were pinned against the curb and the inching traffic when a snake of black-clad youths danced into a semi-circle around us and stopped. They braced their kendo poles on the cement and at a signal lifted them and clapped them loudly onto the sidewalk. The leather clad leader stepped forward in a challenging pose. We made eye contact. I had been a pugil stick champion in basic training but I would stand small chance against one, much less all these vatos.
I tensed for a fight and a beating. “Get out of Vietnam,” the leader demanded.
I held out my right hand, three curled fingers down, the index and middle fingers pointed up, forming a “V.” I told him “Peace," and repeated his words with conviction.
The leader looked at me, his face relaxed. He turned to address the waiting dancers, shouting a command. At that, the dancers pivoted, lifted their flags and staffs at port arms we called it in the Army, and they danced out of sight into the crowd.
Two days later, Barbara flew back to California to teach high school, and I to Korea to be a soldier. We would see each other again in eight months when I got out of the Army. It was the best imaginable Merry Christmas and Happy New year. Yet, every one since then has been better.
Including this one.
Happy Holidays. Season’s greetings. Merry Christmas, raza, Merry Christmas one and all.