People were scurrying about, but not in retreat.
There were no bunkers, no sound of canons or weapons, no booby traps to defeat.
No snipers in trees taking a peek.
Didn’t see any bodies without arms, legs or feet.
No helmeted men with AK-47s jumping from the heat.
No smell of sulphur in the air, none in the street.
(Some words above from: It’s A Pretty Good Day So Far.)
Finally, I had made back it to the Promised Land. I was on United States soil!
Judy In Disguise (With Glasses) played as I rushed through the corridors at SFO for a commercial jet that would get me soonest to Wilmington, North Carolina. With the unpleasant reception, I got at the airport, I’m not sure that I would have worn my uniform on the flight, had it not been required to get the substantial military discount.
When I called Marty from the airport, she didn’t recognize my voice; hadn’t heard it in more than a year.
Knowing the date and scheduled time of my arrival, members of Marty’s family and local citizens (remembering I‘d worked in Wilmington) had assembled a group of one-hundred or more at the airport, where they gave me a hero’s welcome.
I awoke from that dream not long after I touched down. It was just Marty at the airport, and that was good enough for me, the girl I’d been dreaming of my entire time in Vietnam.
After more than a year apart, the girl who had waited for me was now standing in front of me, even more beautiful than I had remembered. Marty was tall and thin with sparkling blue-green eyes, short bleached blond hair, and was in love with me. She was 18, I was 20.
We were wed the next afternoon, one day after my arrival. The ceremony was conducted in a spare bedroom of the preacher’s house who married us. There had been no bridal or wedding shower, no gifts of any kind, just advice.
All of three people attended. Unfortunately, one was Marty’s aunt “Hill” who kept squawking in her shaky ninety-year-old sounding voice, “Don’t forget to pay the preacher.” In my ear, one minute later, “Don’t forget to pay the preacher.” To get her to shut up, I palmed him a five-dollar bill before the vows.
Marty was not in a formal gown, but radiant. She had a nice yellow gold wedding band for me. For her, I had a small silver-gold ring to match the engagement diamond she had already lost. She said it was swept up by the surf, on the shores of the Atlantic, while playing with her little niece.
We headed south out of North Carolina and began our mini-honeymoon with our first stop at a new Holiday Inn in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (The city still had a way to go before it would become a trendy tourist attraction that it is today.)
On the way to see my parents in Mississippi, we drove west through South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama searching the airwaves for our songs (while 9,305 miles apart). Hits like You’re My Soul & Inspiration, Happy Together, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, and Dedicated to the One I Love.
No shower or wedding gifts in Mississippi either, just advice. But we were given the use of Aunt Dara’s unoccupied house, sans indoor toilet. Quite a way to make an impression on a new bride, but it was otherwise nice and a free place to extend our honeymoon.
Seven days after leaving North Carolina, we had gone through the small amount Marty had and the $200 or so that I brought with me. For my one year in Vietnam (where my income was less than $3,000) I spent money on my R & R, paying off Marty’s engagement a ring, savings bond debit, a small allotment sent to my folks back home and to Marty; still, I managed to save $300.00 which the bank sent me before our cross-country trip continued.
We extended our honeymoon, enjoying the benefits of sleeping together as husband and wife, and resting in cheap motels, along the 1,958.3-mile route to California for my next assignment.
We’d already driven 900 miles from North Carolina in Marty’s Springtime Yellow 1967 Mustang GT hardtop, with little room for all our worldly belongings, no A/C, threadbare tires and a broken gas gauge (we ran out somewhere in Oklahoma).
Actually, it was a pretty nice car, but somehow she had managed to get saddled with a monthly payment of $105 (about $778 in 2019 money) on a car costing less than $3,000.
Angel Of The Morning, Young Girl, played as we motored through Arkansas, Kind Of A Drag, Magic Carpet Ride, rang out in Oklahoma, Green Tambourine, I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight, in Texas. Itchycoo Park, Bend Me-Shape Me, Spooky, in New Mexico and Arizona and all the hits of January 1968 played as we searched for stations on the long trip west.
Much of our travel West on I-40 ran parallel to Route 66 in many places. We went through cities like Tulsa, Amarillo, Albuquerque and towns like Shamrock, Tucumcari, and Needles. Our one tourist stop was just a 12-mile detour down old Route 66 to see the three-quarter mile wide Barringer meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona. Impressive.
Early in the evening, after three days travel, we rolled into big LA. A spectacular site, Los Angeles; by far more lights than Marty had ever seen and certainly as many I’d seen in large cities.
I’m surprised we found our way through the more than four-thousand square mile city that incorporated some 80 municipalities. Now as a passenger, I began celebrating as soon as we hit city limits with 40oz can of cold Colt-45.™ We had to traverse most of LA — Marty not infrequently stopping at service station restrooms for me — to get to our destination in San Pedro, near the Port of Los Angeles.
We settled into a “furnished” one-bedroom apartment just across the street from the hospital at Ft. McArthur in San Pedro, California. We bought new tires and California coverage for the Mustang, some Melmac® dinnerware and a 23″ B&W Emerson® TV that came in a wheeled cart.
After getting my travel pay, we decided to celebrate a bit. After all, we had made in cross-country and me from Vietnam. And oh yes, marriage. Peppy’s was a San Pedro restaurant with a reputation for excellent food. After a great dinner there, including a good bottle of wine and desert, it was $20 including tip, (over $153 in 2019 money).
There would be no more outings like that because on day one, we were underwater financially. My base pay was $226.20 per month plus a $105 housing allowance. (Average pay for civilians was around $750.) After rent, car payment, insurance, and so forth, we had just over $100 on which to subsist for 30 days.
The $300.00 we had left Mississippi with was almost gone. I procured toilet paper from work. We made love as Love Is Blue played on KHJ. An hour later, we agonized over money.
At Ft. Mac Arthur, a few weeks after I reported for duty at the 37th Command Information Detachment, the officer in charge handed me a tattered box. He smiled and said: “They must have really liked you.” Inside was a Purple Heart, Air Medal (both unexpected) and Army Commendation Medal. (Maybe someone put me in for those medals, knowing what happened with the Bronze Star, below.)
I was, of course, honored and also a bit disappointed. I’d heard from a friend in Vietnam that Lt. Blankenship, before his DEROS,* had told the sergeant responsible enlisted awards, “No Bronze Star** for Swan.” I have no ill feelings for the man, Blankenship will self-destruct all by himself if he doesn’t get his insecurities under control. As for myself, I’m disappointed for even sharing this story. Why?
Soldiers doing the real work were the men in the bush, grunts walking point , pulling Listening Post duty in the middle of the night, under constant threat from snipers, ambushes, booby traps, and punji stakes.
Infantrymen in extreme heat or monsoons, in the on-again and off-again rain, who were lugging 80 lbs or more in rice paddies, through elephant grass, mountainous terrain, and fording rivers and streams.
Ground pounders who were harassed by snakes, spiders, leaches, wild monkeys, tigers and poisonous creatures by the dozen. Frequently thirsty, not enough food, jungle rot, (infected sores, ulcers, lesions, blisters, etc., on the feet, legs, underarms, and groin from long exposure to dampness) — men who saw their friends injured and killed.
The majority of the soldiers who did the real work — the men I honor above — didn’t get a recommendation for a medal at all;*** and most were sent home as E-4s, a rank lower than I achieved.
And I carp about not getting my Bronze Star!
A 1st Cavalry trooper stationed in Vietnam with the 7th Cav wrote about a common refrain used by many GIs, “Don’t mean Nothin’.”
We said it every miserable day of our miserable lives. It became our mantra. We said it in all kinds of situations for all sorts of reasons, and we said it a great deal, most often when we were miserable, which was pretty damn often . . . . We said it when it rained, and when it didn’t rain and when it was really hot and when it was even hotter. ‘It Don’t Mean Nothin’ was said a lot.’
We said it to keep from crying, we said it when we stopped moving and when the bloodsucking insects attacked in swarms, and our faces swelled and our hands swelled, and our lips swelled, and our ears swelled and when we thought we were getting malaria, (should we quit taking our pills?) and we thought about how good that would be because you got out of the boonies if you got malaria unless you died from it. Dying from malaria sucked . . . but the prospect of staying inside the wire, sleeping on a cot off the ground, under a dry tent at the hospital, with hot chow, clean sheets and nobody shooting at you made the risk of a slow agonizing death from a deadly tropical disease seemed totally worth it. How bad could it be? We were kids. What did we know? ‘It don’t mean nothin.’
Something just don’t feel right. So shout up and saddle up, Trooper. Your night on LP, your turn on point, but ‘It don’t mean nothin.’ Jack “Boz” Parente.
*DEROS: Date Estimate for Return from Overseas.
**Most soldiers serving in a similar job as me, in PIO, were awarded the Bronze Star; higher than the Army Commendation Medal I received.
***There were two medals (“Vietnam Service & Vietnam Campaign,”) that were automatic for those who served in Vietnam, needing no recommendation. In addition to those medals, Infantry soldiers who spent the required time in the field received the Combat Infantry Badge, not an insignificant award.
I had nightmares, about Vietnam, most every night during our honeymoon and month’s thereafter.* And I had turned into a wimp, a side Marty had never seen, and a disposition I never had. One day, we were having a get together with some of my buddies from the post; Marty was acting a little testy, and one of the guys turned toward her and said, “What’s the matter you on the rag or something?” I laughed with them instead of telling him to knock it off, not to talk that way to my wife.
I was acting like a wuss (Marty called it cowardice), and she was very disappointed in me. It was a problem in our relationship. In a few years, I did and an about-face, eventually to the point of wanting to rip off somebody’s face. (Marty called it backbone.)
Just back from Vietnam, I wasn’t trying to live high, but after the mess I’d been in over there; maybe dinner with drinks once in a while.
But that wasn’t to be. After the $20 outing when we first arrived in LA, the luxury of dinner and drinks was over. Der Wienerschnitzel™ once in a while, maybe.
By the 20th of most months, down to just a few dollar bills, we were looking for change in the sofa and between the car seats. One day while leaving our apartment, I found a five-dollar bill lying flat on one of the steps. Nobody was around. With that five, I got four sacks of groceries at the commissary.
Then a week or two later, I was on gate guard duty (graveyard shift) at a satellite location of Ft. Mac, primarily used for Reserve training. Listening to (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of the Bay on 93 KHJ, at about 0200 a carload of reservists, who had apparently taken advantage of being away from home, appeared at the gate. I was about to motion them in when the driver palmed me a twenty-dollar bill. I assume he thought I was overlooking a missed curfew or their state of inebriation, if not both. My only orders were to determine that a vehicle and its occupants were authorized on post.
Twenty-dollars; that for me was a lot of money, especially when you’re broke. Did I feel guilty (no) or tell anyone? No. I splurged with a fifth of Canadian Club®, and Marty got her hair done at a salon, and I still had money for groceries for over a week.
We had been in California for just a few months, and Marty kept saying she’d been out with girls again and “Everybody’s Pregnant.”
I had a pretty stay at home Mom and no baby. Stay tuned.
We had work duty on Saturdays at Ft. MacArthur, though sometimes we were relieved at noon. We were also on constant alert because of the incendiary nature of 1968. Think: Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assignations, the Weathermen, Black Panthers, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, SDS, Vietnam War Protests, as is oft said, “To name a few.”
There was a rotating on-call system for soldiers like me. Those living off base were required to arrive at our assembly point, within a half-hour of notification. Even if not on ready-alert, one could be called and told to remain in place for standby. The Army required that you be reachable at all times, unless on leave or pass; check in with the Command Post before going out to a movie.
Not for those restrictions; I had a chance (after an audition) to be an on-air DJ covering two six-hour weekend graveyard shifts at the Number 1 Rock station in LA, 93 KHJ, and a check for $48. With that gig, I’d have had a better chance at securing a prime-time slot — although still a long shot — in the highly competitive LA market,** the third largest in the U.S.
I’d make it from AFVN An Khe to LA; just not to KHJ. It could have all ended right there.
*Still do sometimes.
**Los Angeles became the second-largest U.S. city in 1984.