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Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle
By Doug Bradley
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Doug Bradley
All rights reserved.
Everybody said the reason Murphy tried to frag Lieutenant Colonel Fraser was because of the chewing out and the court-martial. They talked about how Fraser's face got right up next to Murphy's the morning after Steve Ward's DEROS party and how it changed colors when he let Murphy have it. Everyone agreed: that incident was what damn near did in the old Lt. Col.
I know different. I know because I dropped by Long Binh Jail during my last day off and got the real low-down straight from the mouth of Private Dwayne Murphy. He didn't try to off Fraser because of the ass chewing or the extra duty the Lt. Col. gave us for the bathroom graffiti. It wasn't the curfew restrictions or even how he busted Murphy with a court-martial after Ward's DEROS party.
"It was the dogs," Murphy told me. Everybody forgot about the goddamn dogs.
"He was fucking crazy," he explained to me and the darkness. "Out of control."
The two of us sat with a large black MP between us in the bowels of LBJ, Long Binh Jail, thousands of miles from our former lives back home.
"Every fucking thing he did was part of some weird master plan, just like this goddamn war. All Fraser and the rest of the brass understand is winning, getting ahead. They don't know a goddamn thing about life. Only death." He paused. "When he told us to kill the goddamn dogs, I knew that was it. He had to be stopped."
Things had been strange around our office ever since Colonel Brock left a few months before the shit went down. Back then, our IO unit ran like a well-oiled machine—we ground out the weekly newspaper, press releases, hometown tapes, and public and command information, all without a hitch. Not a week went by without the tiny, bald Brock strutting into our office, smiling around the room and congratulating everyone within earshot: "Damn fine newspaper this week! Damn fine paper!" He made us feel good about the jobs we were doing, even if we were in the Army.
Then Brock's tour was up and he headed back to the world. And Lt. Col. Walter Fraser arrived. It was like the air had gone out of our balloon and we'd landed smack dab in Vietnam. Things changed for all of us, but especially Murphy. He and Col. Brock were tight. They'd spent some time together stateside—attended the same university before 'Nam. Everyone had their own version of the story about the savvy, fatherly colonel and the eccentric freshman from Minneapolis together at the radical hotbed University of Wisconsin.
I'd never been anywhere near the Midwest, never been to college, but I'd heard about the riots and antiwar activity. And right there in the midst of it all was good old Colonel Brock. A helluva place for an Army lifer, but that was the kind of guy Brock was. Hippies, teargas and all, he had Uncle Sam send him to Wisconsin to study public relations. Damned if he and Murphy didn't end up taking some of the same classes!
By the time I'd been in 'Nam long enough to know my ass from a hole in the ground, the Brock-Murphy bond was common knowledge. Every time we had a DEROS party or holiday bash, somebody would egg them on to talk about their "student radical days" together in Madison.
There was a lot of good-natured joking and some intense political discussion—Murphy didn't buy into Brock's analysis of Ho Chi Minh's propaganda strategy; Brock thought Murphy's capitalist theory of Southeast Asian exploitation was naïve—but Murphy and the Colonel shared a real affection. They might have held very different ideas about the Army and the war, but they had a helluva lot of respect for each other. You couldn't miss it.
So, when they transferred the old man to the Army War College to teach the art of military propaganda or some shit, Murphy missed him way more than the rest of us. It seemed like part of him left. Maybe if they hadn't been so close, Murphy might have been better able to deal with Lt. Col. Fraser.
So much has changed. Since Fraser took over, the paper's gone to hell, guys have gotten transferred or reassigned, half the old gang's DEROS-ed, and their replacements don't know shit. Makes it pretty tough for us short timers.
We figured we were in for it even before Fraser arrived. Sgt. First Class Kennedy had given us a background briefing, and it wasn't pretty. Fraser didn't have any journalism or information training; he'd never been near an IO office during his two decades in the Army. In the last six months he'd jumped from Da Nang to Quang Ngai to Soc Trang. It seems he was obsessed with earning a Legion of Merit citation and his colonel's silver eagle. Even Kennedy, who prided himself on his commitment to military command and control, was a little apprehensive. Brock's laid-back policies made his job easier since we all behaved ourselves and he didn't have to get on our case.
For the first couple of days, Fraser faked us out. Somebody must have tipped him off because he came on kinda low key and friendly. But it didn't take long for his true character to assert itself. It all started on a fateful Friday–July 19 to be exact—when Sgt. Kennedy walked across the hall to our office.
"Men, I've got some new directives here from Lt. Col. Fraser. I'll put them up on the bulletin board where I want you all to familiarize yourself with them. Don't bother me with any bullshit questions. Just follow the rules and do as you're told." He turned on his heels and walked out.
We sat there, feeling a little woozy from Sgt. Kennedy's out-of-character curtness. Finally, Conroy walked over to the board.
"Jesus Christ will you look at this," Conroy slammed a fist against the wall. "Commencing 1300 hours today, 19 July, all enlisted personnel in Command and Public Information will fully acquaint themselves with the barber shop down the hall.
"Personnel are to pay particular attention to Army Regulations (AR) 614-30, table 7-2 which pertains to the length of hair and sideburns. All mustaches are to be trimmed and should not exceed the length of the upper lip. Boots are to be well polished and cleaned. Pressed fatigues must be worn at all times."
Sitting in the back of the room, Nevin gulped back a nervous laugh. Nobody said a word. Being in Vietnam was shitty enough. Now Fraser was ordering us to act like we were still in the fucking Army.
That night we sat around our hooch, letting off steam about the memo. Everybody except Murphy. Locked in silence, he took his share of lousy mess hall food, folded it up in his napkin, slipped it into his fatigues' pocket, and took the grub to feed the dogs.
To the rest of us, the dogs were a bunch of dumb mutts. With Colonel Brock gone, they were Murphy's only real source of companionship. There were hundreds, probably thousands, scattered around the base. Growing up in a "civilized society" you forget what it's like in the jungle where everything runs wild. What with Sir Charles roaming the countryside doing what he fucking pleased, no one had the time, energy, or inclination to keep the dog population down, so there were packs of half-starved mutts all over South Vietnam. We were lucky that only three or four of them had taken up permanent residence in the living area outside our hooch.
Mostly we tolerated the mutts. Sometimes we'd feed them scraps from the mess hall or grab a Frisbee and teach them to play catch like we would've with our pets back in the world. Murphy loved them. He fed them. He sheltered them during bad monsoon rains. Damned if he didn't even try to train them.
And, of course, he gave them names—Kilo, the biggest one, an off-yellow cross between a cocker spaniel and a German shepherd; Lifer, the short, scraggly pug that looked like a drill sergeant; and Tripod, the part collie/part everything who'd lost a leg somewhere along the way. Those damn dogs loved Murphy too. Everybody knew it.
Most guys didn't think much about it, because they never saw Murphy "talking" with the dogs. I did. Every night he'd walk the three mutts down to the little footbridge by the 45th Medical Evac Chapel, feed them a midnight snack, show them a few new tricks, and then hold their attention with a slow, pronounced speech.
The more the pressure from Lt. Col. Fraser escalated, the more Murphy sought solace with the dogs. We'd been suffering a daily barrage of bullshit memos. We didn't look right, so he harassed us about our appearance. The paper didn't read right, so he changed the layout. Our hooch area didn't look right, so he harassed us with police calls and inspections, even though he had zip authority in those areas. The fucker was hell-bent on making full-bird colonel. The rest of us be damned.
It was Nevin who figured out that Sgt. Kennedy had been taking some of the heat for us, a fact that became crystal clear during the third week of the Fraser regime when Kennedy abruptly transferred to MACV in Saigon. His replacement was First Sergeant Bobby Lee Baker from South by-God Carolina, whose nose would've been broken if Fraser ever backed up. The two lifers quickly formed a united front, criticizing our looks, job performance, IQ, parentage, patriotism, and the rest.
That was when the graffiti started appearing. It didn't take long to spin out of control, like everything else in this friggin' country. Every day some comment about Fraser appeared magically in the office latrine. One day it was: "Fraser's Emancipation Proclamation—All turds over six inches must be hand lowered by the Lt. Col." Another asked: "How is this toilet paper like Walter Fraser? Tough as nails and can't take shit off nobody."
The best one was: "Lt. Col. Fraser is a thespian." I laughed when I read it and then forgot about it, like everybody else. Little did we know that Sgt. Baker was copying these daily messages and showing them to Fraser. A few days later, Baker hauled us all into his highness's office.
The Lt. Col. was standing with his back to us, rehearsing his speech when we walked in. He spun around, pissed as all get out. Most days he looked like a ruffed grouse, all puffed up and preening, but today he was a raging bull.
"GIs, atten-hut!" he shouted at us. "Let me get right to the point. Some of you assholes have taken to scribbling slogans about me on the latrine walls. I thought it was funny at first." He paused for effect, and his face moved from scarlet to crimson. "But it's crossed a line and will not be tolerated. Sgt. Baker, will you read the 'messages' from the past few days?"
Baker took a deep breath. "Lt. Col. Fraser is in love with a nig-crow-filly-ache." Everybody in the room started to giggle as we translated the word necrophiliac from South Carolinian into English. Baker continued: "Lt. Col. Fraser thinks Vietnamization is a shot you take for gonorrhea."
We burst out laughing. Everybody except Murphy. He just stood there twirling his dog tags and smiling.
Fraser and Baker were righteously pissed off. Fraser was a deep crimson as he told us all, slowly and deliberately: "These slogans represent the ultimate in disrespect to the United States Army. No one is going to leave this office until somebody is man enough to own up to writing this bullshit. NO ONE! It's 1700 hours. We'll stay the whole fucking night if we have to."
I felt like I did in third grade when Freddie Lambert had thrown a spitball at Sister Francesca Regina and we all had to stay after class. We'd still be standing at silent attention in Fraser's office if General McCaffery hadn't come by. Not wanting his commanding officer to think he'd lost control of his troops, Fraser immediately dismissed us.
The battle lines were drawn. On one side of the hall sat Sgt. Baker, Baker's pretty little Vietnamese typist Miss Tran, and Lt. Col. Fraser. On the other side a dozen 71Q20s behind our typewriters, armed with bad attitudes and a fierce determination to thwart the enemy. We pretended not to hear orders. We "misunderstood" everything from A to Z. We developed terminal writer's block. We put typos in Fraser's name and messed up news items he especially wanted to include. If the asshole wanted incompetence, we'd provide it in spades.
The final crisis began on August 19, one month to the day after Fraser's first ass-salt as we came to call his daily posting of Army regulations. We'd thrown a wild DEROS party the night before for Ward who was scheduled to fly out of Tan Son Nhut at 0800 hours the next morning. As we crawled into bed after gallons of beer and bales of reefer, Ward promised, or maybe threatened, to rouse us at the crack of dawn for a farewell drink. I was sure he was kidding.
When Ward actually appeared beside my pillow at five the next morning, I was too wasted to resist, so I obediently crawled out of bed and followed him down to the bar area of our hooch. I didn't expect anyone else would have been stupid enough to answer his call, but goddamned if the whole fucking crew wasn't there —sleepy-eyed, hung over, and mostly dressed in their skivvies. Before I knew it, we were all drinking Bloody Marys—hair of the dog—and toking up. It was like yesterday's party had never ended.
I'm not sure we ever actually said goodbye to Ward, because the next thing we knew, Lt. Col. Fraser's Vietnamese chauffeur, Mr. Trung, arrived with orders to drive us all to the office. It was past 9 a.m. and we were all two hours late for work! Mr. Trung waited outside the hooch while we laughed ourselves silly. Conroy, wearing only his boxers, walked out to the car and gave the driver the word.
"Dites mon Colonel," Conroy slobbered in his best high school French, "que nous ne travaillons pas ce jour."
I doubt if Mr. Trung understood a word, but he caught the drift and drove the empty car back to the office.
By early afternoon the dope was starting to wear off, we were out of booze and it was hot as hell, so we decided to wander by the office and cool off in its AC. We dressed, hopped a base shuttle bus, and headed in.
We must have looked a sight. Conroy had shaving cream in his hair, even though all of us were unshaved and wearing yesterday's dirty fatigues. Every one of us needed a haircut. Only Murphy appeared fit for duty, but he wasn't talking much.
The second we staggered into the office, Sgt. Baker ordered us across the hall. Fraser shouted at us to stand tall, but Baker did most of the talking. Speaking in his sweet South Carolinian accent, he informed us that we were a bunch of hippy jerk-off scumbags. His ass chewing was still in high gear when Fraser burst in and escalated the verbal war. He zeroed in on Murphy, shouting into his face.
"Never in my twenty-three years in the military have I met such a sorry bunch of mother-fuckers. You're a disgrace to your uniforms. You're not fit to be called soldiers. You're not fit to be members of Uncle Sam's team. You're not worthy of being wasted by the goddamn gooks! You're a sorry bunch of spoiled, pampered, goldbricking mama's boys. You make me want to puke. I'm going to see to it personally that every last one of you hand-jobs is court-martialed and fined for this morning's insubordination!"
Before the color in Fraser's cheeks had faded, Murphy began to speak quietly. His voice had a poetic rhythm to it, rising and falling as he introduced each point with a punctuated "with all due respect, sir." At first, Baker and Fraser just stood there. We shared their confusion. No one had ever heard Murphy talk this way.
"With all due respect, sir, it was you who embarked on a sustained program of harassment through petty discipline like haircuts and shoe shinings.
"With all due respect, sir, you have never once set foot across the hall to ..." Murphy's mouth kept moving but we couldn't hear the words because Fraser had grabbed him by his dog tags and was choking him. We could make out a couple more "with all due respect sirs" but we were all stunned by the intensity of Fraser's visible hatred. If he'd directed that venom at Sir Charles, we could have ended the war in a heartbeat.
The longer Murphy kept trying to talk, the madder Fraser got. He shoved his face right into Murphy's and pulled him even harder by the dog tags, accusing him of everything up to, and including, fornication with the base canine population. Murphy simply smiled.
For some reason, Sgt. Baker didn't say a goddamn thing. He knew, like the rest of us, that Murphy had whipped the Lt. Col.'s ass, had spoken the truth about what separated us enlisted men from the brass. As we were leaving Baker's office, he mumbled something almost apologetic about not thanking us for all our hard work.
Before long, Fraser stepped up his counterattack, adding military leaves and R&R plans to his list of targets. He made sure Murphy pulled guard duty every night. Everybody felt like we should do something. None of us had a clue what.
The "Dog Days" memo came down from Fraser on August 24. Nevin pulled it down from the hooch bulletin board and read it in disgust.
Excerpted from Deros Vietnam by Doug Bradley. Copyright © 2012 Doug Bradley. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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