Thursday, July 23, 2020

Batch Plant

     I cover my mouth and face, thin surgical mask first then cloth mask on top, extra protection, just in case. You never know, right. I take off my indoor shoes and put on my outdoor shoes. They say the bug can live on cement up to nine days. I don’t’ want to bring it into the house on the soles of my shoes. My wife and I are a little more casual with grocery bags and food wrappings, stuff like that. We found it nearly impossible to wipe everything down, so we toss the wrappings and bags as soon as they’re empty and wash our hands.
      The latest update is that scientists suspect the virus passes mostly through person-to-person contact and not so much by surface contact, but nobody knows one-hundred percent. That’s kind of what bugs me about some people. If they can’t get a hundred-percent guarantee, they reject everything else, or they say people are lying to them, to the detriment of themselves, and others.
      So, I strap Phoebe and Rocky into their harnesses, pick up the leashes, place a hat on my head, and take off for the evening walk, protected, as if walking into a combat zone. It’s sunset, the sky an orange hue, clear, and beautiful, yet, a hidden enemy in each stranger's breath, under every footstep, or around every corner.
     Most people walk by wear face coverings, some don’t but stay distanced. I am aware in California, a population of about 40 million, a few hundred thousand people are infected, many sick, and, in some cases, dying, last count close to 8,000 dead, but, fortunately, the vast majority are well.
      I pass a 1950’s stucco home, nothing fancy, clean, well-maintained, house and garden. The guy who lives there is in his 80s, white hair combed back like a 50s country singer, and he’s always piddling around the place, fixing stuff.
     One day, he opened a side gate, and I saw an old cement mixer, just like my dad’s, years of hardened cement caked on the sides, but the inside clean as a whistle.
      “Don’t see many of those anymore,” I’d said once when I saw him.
      Turned out he was in construction, like my dad. He was the guy who mixed the cement. We talked for a while, reminiscing about the old days on L.A.’s westside, before the dot-commers, techies, and entertainment industry-types changed the face of the neighborhood.
      As I walk by with my dogs, the side gate is open. I see the old cement mixer. It raises a flurry of images, as a kid working with my dad, and the Batch Plant at Cam Ranh Bay. Just then two young people jog past me, a few feet away. One wears a mask, the other doesn’t. I step farther away, in case the heaving runner blows the corona my way. A thought comes to me. Right now, people in their homes are sick and quarantined, some are in crowded hospitals, on respirators, some are dying, and the business of living continues. This isn't new to me.
     My orders hadn't reached me when I arrived at the replacement center in Long Binh, about twenty miles north of Saigon. There were about twenty of us in the same predicament. Without orders you don't exist.
     After two weeks in the same clothes, no laundry, bad food, a rare shower, dust, and the worst work details, they asked us if we wanted to go work at Cam Ranh Bay, to help engineers build the new military base, at least until our orders arrived. Some guys chose to stay behind, fearing their orders might never catch up with them. About a dozen of us, mostly guys I knew from jump school, chose to stay together and try our luck at Cam Ranh Bay.
     It was past midnight when we landed at the Air Force base. They shuttled us on a deuce-and-a-half to our temporary home, a brand new two-story wooden barracks. The first morning, I stepped out onto the second-story landing and looked out across a massive military complex in various stages of construction, nothing but sand everywhere.
      After breakfast, everything moved quickly. Guys with construction skills worked alongside the engineers, drivers got assigned to transportation, and the rest of us marched up a sandy dune where, at the top, we looked into the dark mouth of the largest cement-mixer I had ever seen. The thing was at least ten feet high and held fifty shovels full of rock, sand, and cement with each mixing.
     I’d recognized the smells and sounds right away. My dad worked in construction. He had an old mixer at home. Sometimes, he’d take me along on weekends to help him on side-jobs. Compared to the cement mixer he hauled behind his truck this was a monster.
     Eight hours a day we worked mixing cement, the sounds of shovels hitting rocks and sand, the groan of the cement mixer’s motor, and our own grunts and hollers, an hour break with a sack lunch in between. By day’s end, we were “done”, exhausted, so what if we were in the best physical shapes of our lives. That’s why Bert Jacobs named the place, the “Batch Plant,” because of the perspiration drenching our bodies all day long.
     Jacobs, a corporal, outranked us. He’d been in the Army five years. He had a Combat Infantry Badge stitched into his fatigue shirt. He’d fought with the 82nd Airborne in Santo Domingo, in ’65, barely a year ago. At 24, he was also the oldest, married, and with a kid, so we, 19 and 20-year-olds, our first time in a combat zone, looked up to him.
     At Long Binh, water and good food were scarce. This was paradise, showers and clean fatigues. At the mess hall, after downing all the chow we could eat, Bert would stand proudly and announce, to the annoyance of the marines, sailors, Air Force guys, and army engineers, “Another day, another dollar!”
     Each morning before breakfast, an engineer, Sgt. Sackett, our squad leader, made us exercise and run five miles in the sand. We were strong, fresh out of advanced individual training and jump school, some of us enduring Georgia’s 100-degree summer. Sgt. Sackett ran right alongside us. He did whatever he asked us to do. The guy never faltered. When one of us wised-off or started our “Airborne-crap,” he’d challenge us to a run. “You call it, 5, 10, 15 miles. I’ll leave the lot of you in the dust.” The thing was we knew he could.
     In the enlisted men’s bars at night, we could be loud and obnoxious. We’d tease the marines, engineers, quartermasters, and clerks who, we thought, would never see combat. What we didn’t know was many of engineers had been in the jungle, clearing paths, blowing up tunnels, and building bridges in enemy infested areas. They were here because of their expertise in building a large complex, and to ride out their final days in relative safety.
     At the time, something like 7,000 Americans had been killed in Vietnam, and even then, many in Washington and the Pentagon knew the war was unwinnable, but nobody listened to the experts. Ten years later, the number would reach 50,000.
     Sackett let us know airborne meant nothing to him. The days of large airborne drops had gone out with WWII. He once barked at us, “You know why you are infantry and artillery-airborne?” We looked at each other. “Because you got the lowest scores on the intelligence tests, dummies. Engineers get the highest scores. Where you guys are going, you’d better start eating some humble pie or you’ll never make it back.” He had a way of bringing us back to reality, and he understood, it was for our own good. Hubris kills giants.
      After work on Saturdays, we’d put on some shorts, grab our towels, and follow a trail over three or four sand dunes to the top of the last one and look out over the South China Sea, warm, aqua-blue water, like a postcard, mountains far off in the distance. We’d spend hours in the warm waters and lazing about in the sand. We’d watch the American donut dollies who volunteered at the Air Base as they sunbathed and swam. Most had already been claimed by the officers. Then, there were always a few Vietnamese families, usually those who worked at the Air Force Base. They stayed a short distance down the beach.
     Sometimes, Sackett gave us afternoon passes, and we’d race to the Village, a maze of Vietnamese streets, to shop, drink, and forget about home. One day some of us got our friend Leroy Delgado, an Indian from Denver, so toasted, we had to carry him back to the barracks. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but it changed that day.
     At night, we’d hit the EM clubs and drink until we could barely stand. I once remember hanging out with Australian commandos, a flap of their caps buttoned up on one side, and South Korean marines, tiger insignias on their sleeves, who were returning from R & R, and getting ready to go back to their units. We listened to their harrowing tales of combat, reminding us there was a war going on. Death surrounded us. Something that seemed so remote from us here.
     After the Koreans had left, an Aussie told us, “Tough bastards. Charley fears them. If a ROK gets caught sleeping on guard duty,” he made a movement like holding a gun to his head, “they execute him on the spot.”
     Hungover or not, each morning, Monday through half-day Saturday, it was back to the Batch Plant.                                                                               
     A month passed. Still no orders. Our muscles grew firm, as if we’d been lifting weights. Our skin shone golden, and no matter how many trucks they sent up for us to load, we’d have the cement waiting, never letting anybody see our exhaustion, or to say paratroopers couldn't carry their weight.
     After a while, we forgot all about our lost orders. To us, this was the war, our new way of life. Cam Ranh Bay and the Batch Plant became our haven, our home. There was no suffering and death, at the worst, just arguing, sometimes fighting with the marines, engineers, and each other. Somebody in our group had one day mouthed-off to an officer. Sackett ordered that we stay in the barracks, and he banned alcohol, no EM club, no Village, and no beach for the weekend.
     At our age, most of us had barely learned to drink, mostly high school stuff, but we really started liking the brew and the "hard stuff" in the army. Uncle Sam and the tax payers provided it by the plane loads. Booze was everywhere.
     Ban or no ban, we weren’t going a weekend without booze. We bitched and griped to each other until Leroy, the only leg (non-paratrooper) among us, said, “I know where they store the beer, cases of it.” He was tall for an Indian, light skin and a bright smile, a really nice guy, and smart. He volunteered to lead a squad to liberate the booze. James Simmons, a black kid from Detroit, thought about it. “Man, the army don’t just lock up merchandise like that. My bet is they got a guard on duty watching it. But if you guys go, me too.”
     Delgado, Simmons, and Jacobs sat down and planned a raid. We all pitched around different scenarios, you know, the “what ifs.” They said the raiding party couldn’t be more than four guys. Alfred Martinez, a muscular, high school wrestler from the San Fernando Valley, wanted in. Wearing dark, olive-drab t-shirts, fatigue trousers, and boots, they traipsed down the back stairs and disappeared into the night, Delgado at the point.
     An hour later, they returned with four cases of beer, which we nearly polished off while listening to Tommy Samaniego’s Motown collection, on a portable record player he bought in the Village. We bullshitted, laughed, and had a good old time. Once drunk enough, Leroy said he wished he’d gone to jump school, said he liked the way the jump wings looked over our pockets. Somebody came up with the idea to make Leroy an honorary paratrooper.
     For his daring raid on the beer depository, we quickly devised a jump school for him. Of course, we were all pretty drunk, so we had a hard time trudging out on the sand making him run a mile and back in the dark. We had him doing exercises and jumping from a four-foot wall to learn how to land as if he was jumping from a plane. Can’t say he didn’t deposit most of what was in his stomach on the sand, but he wouldn’t quit, kept at it.
     Whatever we conjured up. He did it. In jump school, to earn our jump wings, we had to make five “blasts” from a C-130. As we had no plane and no parachute, someone came up with the idea to have Leroy jump from the second story landing onto the sand below, five times, to which Leroy agreed, good-naturedly. Someone else said, “That’s barely fifteen feet and not moving. He should climb up on the roof and jump from there.” We all looked up to the second-story roof, a good thirty feel high. No one said anything. Leroy looked up, “I’m game,” he said, his eyeballs rolling around in the sockets. We weren’t too drunk to nix that idea. We sure didn’t want him breaking his legs or getting hurt.
      Bob Smolarsky, the captain’s driver, said he knew how to get ahold of a jeep. We could drive the jeep at 20 MPH and have Leroy jump off the back for his final, graduating jump. “30 MPH, someone else called.” A few minutes later, Bob showed up with the jeep. He and a couple of guys got in, Leroy sitting in back, facing the rear, his leg dangling free. Bob took off, raising a little dust in the sand. He disappeared where he made a U-turn and came racing back towards us. I thought the jeep was going a lot faster than 20 or even 30 MPH. Just when Bob passed the place where we stood waiting, we heard Leroy yell “Geronimo!” and leap out the back of the jeep. He hit the sand hard, rolling and tumbling. We didn’t think he was going to get up. Then, just like that, he popped up and raised his arms. We all cheered.
     About midnight, we had a ceremony, calling in a bunch of other guys to observe. Bert Jacobs had an extra pair of jump wings, and he pinned them on to Leroy’s uniform as the rest of us watched. After, we congratulated him and finished what remained of the beer.
     The next morning, Sunday morning, the MPs marched into our barracks to arrest the guys who broke into the PX commissary. None of us admitted to anything, but Leroy took the blame. We couldn’t let him do that, so, we pulled an I, Spartacus. If they were going to arrest him, they had to arrest us all.
     The guy who had been guarding the beer commissary said he couldn’t be sure who it was because of the dark. He said someone grabbed him from behind, tied his wrists with a belt, took his keys, and broke into the commissary. An MP looked over at Simmons and hollered, "Where's your belt, trooper?"
     That was when Sackett stepped in and told the base commander our orders had come through and we’d all be heading out to our units in a matter of days. Why put us in the stockade when there was a lot of fighting to be done in the jungle? Who knows what else Sackett said, but that’s what happened? They ordered us to stay in the barracks. And as sure as Sackett had said, we got our orders, Jacobs to the 173rd Airborne at Bien Hoa, Delgado to the 17th Armored Cavalry, and Alfred and me to the 101st Airborne at Phan Rang. A few days later, we were gone, the South China Sea but a memory.
      A month or so passed. Our artillery unit was bivouacked off of Highway I, not far from our base camp. About noon, a caravan of jeeps and trucks came rolling around the bend. They pulled off the highway and parked next to us. I saw a flag I recognized as the 17th Armored Cav, Leroy’s unit.
     After they got settled and started eating C-rations, I walked over to see if any of them knew Leroy and where I could find him. I remember Leroy saying he specialized on the recoilless rifle. The sergeant pointed us to the guys in that section.
     I found them and asked if they knew Leroy Delgado and where I could find him. They said they knew him. He’d only been in the unit about a month. “The new guy,” said the guy talking. He looked down and shook his head. “He’s dead, sorry.” Everything got hazy as he spoke. Leroy would be the first close friend I’d lose in Vietnam.
     The 17th Armored Cav carried machine guns and rocket launchers attached to the backs of jeeps, trucks, and APC’s. When the rocket launchers fired, flames shot out the backs of the weapons. Guys knew to never, under any circumstances during a firefight, go behind the jeeps. The guy told me when they got hit, everything had been chaos, blinding dust, dirt, and smoke, then the noise, deafening blasts. In the madness, Leroy ran to get some ammo. Maybe he got disoriented in the dust and smoke, confused, and lost his bearing. He ran behind one of the jeeps just as a rocket launcher fired. When it was over, they couldn’t find him. The guy said Leroy was listed as missing in action, until they could identify what was left.
     I broke the news to Al Martinez. Neither of us spoke about it. We didn't know how.
     There comes a time in combat when you realize this isn’t a movie or a game. Leroy taught me to understand my own death was not only possible, but imminent--to take nothing lightly. There are nights when you must sleep with your boots on and others when you can remove them.
     Even now, after all these years, as I walk past that old cement mixer behind the man's gate, I can still see and hear Leroy, as if it were yesterday. I think of him running blindly in the fog of war, terrified, lost, and hearing the final blast, then of him laughing, jumping off that jeep to earn his wings, and I can’t help but think how death, for all of us, is just a footstep away.
     I arrive home from walking the dogs. I remove my face covering and shoes. I take the harnesses off the Phoebe and Rocky, put on my indoor shoes, and wait for tomorrow, to repeat the process, never letting down my guard.

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