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In early 1968, the huge Long Binh compound north of Saigon swarmed with activity. Helicopters rose and descended, raising clouds of red dust. Trucks and jeeps and boxy ambulances scurried here and there on various errands, adding more finely ground laterite particles to the air. Troops in from the field crowded exchanges and wandered the tangle of roads with thumbs out, seeking rides. Even this early, nearing noon, the NCO and Officer's clubs were busy dispensing food and liquor to off shift soldiers. Inside other buildings, nurses and doctors labored with the wounded and field laboratories were busy processing blood and body fluids. Generals and Colonels gave orders, Majors and Captains fleshed them out and Sergeants and Privates typed and distributed them. Logistic and Engineering units were working busily to keep the compound supplied and maintained. The war was approaching its high tide and all the activity reflected a surge of optimism that with just a little more effort, the war could be won. All of Long Binh seethed with activity. Almost all, that is.
North of the main compound, separated from it by several miles of jungle but connected to it by a laterite road like a baby amoebae pinching itself off from its parent lay a much smaller compound, fortressed by enough barbed wire to fence off half of Texas. Inside this isolated ring of wire lived an oil-tanker battalion that transported aircraft fuel all over southern Vietnam. Here also lived the medical dispensary, which saw to the illnesses of the oil tanker drivers and their supporting staff and headquarters.
The tankers had driven off before daylight and sick call had been over foran hour. The compound was at low ebb.
Inside the dispensary building, Sergeant First Class James Williard was taking his ease. He was leaning back in a battered office chair with his feet propped atop a rickety folding desk, a relic of WW II, or perhaps even the First World War. Williard didn't mind the uncomfortable furniture. He had his fatigue cap pulled down over his eyes to block out the light and was letting the monotonous drone of generators in the background lull him to sleep, where he hoped the last residues of his hangover would dissipate. He was just dropping off when the hesitant sound of the screen door swinging open brought him back to awareness.
"Doc?" Williard recognized the tone of voice. An after-hours supplicant who was certain he would die horribly if he had to wait another day for treatment.
"Sick call's over. Come back tomorrow."
"Doc, I can't wait." The voice was plaintive.
Williard used one finger to tilt the bill of his cap up enough to see whom he was talking to. It proved to be a skinny, pimpled private in wrinkled fatigues and jungle boots. He approached Williard hesitantly, hands poised protectively near his groin. He looked as if he was a lone deer at a hunter's convention, more worried than ill. Sgt. Williard's reputation was known and feared throughout the compound for deferring malingerers and inhibiting the imagined sickly, regardless of the hour of day or night. The tanker drivers worked long hours, and stood guard duty every third night besides. They constantly looked for any good excuse to get out of a tanker run and catch up on some sleep. Since this boy wasn't driving, Williard deduced that he was probably on KP or pulling some other extra duty; otherwise, he would have already been gone for the day.
"Well, what's your problem, soldier?" Williard glared his worst glare, letting the boy know exactly how he felt about him coming in so late in the morning.
The young hero fidgeted and turned pale, but stood his ground. "I got something wrong."
"Why weren't you here for sick call?"
"I didn't notice it til just now, Doc."
"Bullshit. You just didn't want to stand in line out in the rain. What's the matter? Did you think you might melt?"
"Honest, Doc, I really did just notice."
"Well, spit it out then. I ain't no fucking mind reader."
The young private was about to cry. "I think I got cancer."
"You think you got cancer, huh?" Williard sneered. "You don't look old enough to have graduated from medical school yet. You let me tell you what you got, understand?" He noted that the young soldier's lips were beginning to tremble and moderated his voice. "Awright, settle your young ass down. I ain't going to hurt you. Not yet anyway." Once Williard had his patient's attitude adjusted, he was always willing to listen. Gruff manner aside, he really did care about the health of the men. Besides, it had been a dull day. Maybe the kid did have something interesting wrong with him, though he doubted very seriously that it would turn out to be cancer.
"Where do you hurt?" He asked.
"I don't hurt, Doc. I just got like a growth."
"Damn it, soldier, I told you I ain't no fucking mind reader. Show it to me, for chrissake."
Reluctantly, the boy began unbuttoning his fatigue trousers. Williard's interest collapsed. Aw shit. Venereal warts. He had already seen enough of them to last a lifetime.
The boy pulled the foreskin back from the glans of his penis. The glans was no longer smooth. It was covered with pink cauliflower-like growths, mushrooming wetly over it in irregular clusters like a badly tended garden.
"Kid, you shoulda been in to see me a couple of weeks ago," Willard said, feeling sorry for the boy now.
"I didn't notice it until a while ago."
Williard wondered briefly what sort of hygiene they were teaching in basic training nowadays. Venereal warts were epidemic in uncircumcised males over here. They could be easily treated if caught early, but apparently, the young man had never been taught to pull his foreskin back and wash it every time he took a shower.
"Is it cancer?"
"Naw. Son, you just picked the wrong truck wash to dip your wick at. You've got an advanced case of Condyloma acuminata." Williard liked to use medical terms to impress his patients.
"Can you cure them?" The private asked, looking anxiously down at his ravaged appendage.
"Yeah, but it would have been a hell of a lot simpler a couple of weeks ago. Wait one." Williard got up and walked the few steps to the screen door and pulled it open. "Hey Mop!" He called, loud enough for his voice to carry around the corner of the dispensary and into the enlisted hooch. A moment later Williard's records clerk popped inside.
"Yeah, Sarge, whatcha want?" Mop was a young swarthy mixture of Italian and Mexican ancestry, short and rapidly building a respectable belly from the beer he consumed in enormous quantities. He was married to a young plump wife whom he corresponded with irregularly between bouts of the clap, which was why he was called Mop.
"Pull this young hero's records for me, Mop."
While Mop got the private's name and began searching for his records, Williard picked up a bottle of black oily fluid, podophyllin in oil, and cotton swabs from a Conglomeration of his most used ointments and salves residing on a small table by his desk. He turned back to his patient.
"Keep the foreskin pulled back." The private flinched at the first touch of the swab, then relaxed when he found that it wasn't going to hurt. Williard carefully covered the rampant growth with the podophyllin then told the boy to button back up.
"You gotta come in twice a day for treatment until it clears up," Williard said. He began writing on a standard army Rx form.
The private's eyes brightened. Twice a day meant no convoy duty. No driving. And maybe -- "Will I be on light duty?"
"Hell, no," Sgt. Williard said disgustedly. "What you think, we give light duty to every warty dick we see over here?" He handed the boy the RX form. "Here's your excuse from convoy duty, but you tell your field first I said to give you something to do in the compound, and don't try any horseshit about you ain't able to work. I get around, you know. If I don't see your young ass out stringing wire or pounding stakes, I'll be over to talk to your first sergeant. You hear?"
"Yes, sir," the private said, forgetting momentarily that he was addressing a sergeant. "Thanks, Doc."
Williard waved him away while he entered notes on the chart. The faint popping sound of a beer can being opened told him Mop was already back in the hooch so he tossed the chart into a basket for him to file later. He sat back for a moment, reflecting that being in a war zone was certainly nothing like he had imagined it would be. Before coming to Vietnam he imagined war as a glorious business and himself a heroic figure, treating the wounded under fire, saving lives, fearlessly leading his men against the villainous Viet Cong whenever they got close to his fallen patients. It wasn't like that at all.
The rear area army was like nothing he had ever imagined or heard of. He was appalled at the waste and inefficiency, the inordinate amount of time troops and officers alike spent drinking and chasing hookers and nurses, the wheeling and dealing and trading of favors and goods for their own benefit and the huge amount of army supplies funneled into the black market. And, he admitted to himself, he wasn't much better, even though he still did retain a certain amount of idealism. Some of the things he saw and did caused a degree of guilt, but he found it easier and easier to shrug it off. If this is the way a war was run, he could run with the best of them. He often wondered how it would all end. Most especially, he wondered if his own little empire would survive the inevitable shakeout but he wasn't about to give it up just to sit and look at dirty dicks every day. Not right now, anyway. He was having too much fun.
Williard got up and wandered through the length of the dispensary, past the records section, pharmacy (where he pocketed a bottle of penicillin), treatment alcoves with their Spartan cots, empty except for one young driver shivering under blankets from a malaria attack, through a niche sporting a huffing antique autoclave sterilizing instruments used in the morning sick call, the X-Ray section, a supply room and on back to the lab, located at the very end of the building.
Heavy, the laboratory technician, was still there, standing in front of an old single ocular microscope propped on a chest high stand. Heavy's nametag read Baker, but no one ever called him that. He was squinting one eye and using the other to peer into the eyepiece of the microscope. He heard Williard's footsteps and looked up. "Malaria, all right," he said, then wove unsteadily to where he had an alcohol lamp burning beneath a water bath filled with test tubes. He checked the thermometer jutting up from the water bath and moved the lamp from beneath it.
"I told you that this morning," Williard said. "Is it falciparum?" Falciparum was the worst species of malaria.
"Naw, malariae," Heavy said, naming a milder form of the disease.
"Good. Well, if his fever don't break in a couple of hours, you better take him in the cracker box over to the hospital." The cracker box was the boxy army ambulance Williard referred to. The dispensary owned two of them.
"OK, Sarge," Heavy said. Heavy got his name because of his weight. He was tall enough, but slim and weighed not much more than 130 pounds, soaking wet. He was a handsome young specialist five on his second hitch with an unfaithful wife back home who never wrote him except to ask for money. He also drank almost constantly, keeping his beer stacked in the same cooler used for blood plasma. When he ran out of money for beer, cheap as it was, he supplemented it with ethyl alcohol. He got the alcohol by telling Captain Harkness, the medical officer, that he needed it to carry out laboratory tests. Harkness didn't know enough about laboratory tests to argue with him so he signed off on the alcohol without argument.
Sgt. Williard allowed Heavy the deception with ethanol because occasionally, enemy activity closed the compound long enough for the club to run out of beer, or any other alcohol for that matter, and the lab provided an alternate source. Once, it had been closed so long that they even ran out of medical alcohol and Williard had prevailed on the old mama-san who cleaned their hooch and washed their fatigues to sneak him in something to drink. The day after his request, she had proudly produced a large bottle of root wine. It was called root wine because a large root of indeterminable origin had been squeezed somehow through the narrow neck of the bottle and allowed to ferment there. The bottom third of the bottle was filled with a milky sediment, the middle third with the root, and the top third presumably consisted of wine. Whether it could be considered wine or not, it was certainly alcoholic. His hangover the next day had been of monumental proportions.
"Are you going to be in shape to drive if we have to send that malaria patient in?" Williard asked, noticing that the lab tech was unsteady on his feet as usual.
Heavy checked his thermometer and pushed the lamp back under the water bath. "I'll get Dum-Dum to drive him in. He's had a hard on the last two days." Dum-Dum was the pharmacy technician. He got his name from references to his intelligence. Dum-Dum wasn't retarded, but he came from so far back in the hills that sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. He had come back from his first encounter with a hooker with a beatific smile on his face and a willingness to drive anywhere, anytime, so long as the cracker box stopped off on the way to and from to let him get his ashes hauled.
Williard pulled open the blood plasma cooler and grabbed a beer. Seeing him, Heavy did likewise. Drinking on duty would never have been condoned back home, but over here no one seemed to care so he allowed a certain amount of it, amounting to about a dozen or so a morning in Heavy's case.
Heavy took a church key from a drawer of chemicals and opened both brews. He liked Sgt. Williard and hoped to one day emulate him, running his own dispensary if the war kept on and his liver lasted.
"You still seeing that nurse over at the Evac?" Williard asked, just making conversation until he finished his beer.
"Whenever I can."
"You oughta forget her. Get you a nice little hooker."
"Sarge, you look at all the rotten dicks I do, you wouldn't say that. Besides, I got a hooker, remember?"
Williard shrugged and polished off the rest of the beer. Heavy was right. The two of them had lately been consorting with a couple of sisters in Binh Hoa who only hooked on the side. He sniffed. "Is something burning?"
"Ah, shit, I done cooked the serum again," Heavy cursed, pulling the lamp from beneath the water bath. It was too late. All the test tubes full of blood serum, which he was testing for syphilis, were coagulated as firmly as well cooked egg whites.
Williard gave his empty can to Heavy to dispose of. "You need to call the troops in for more samples?"
"Naw, I've learned to draw enough blood for two or three runs, but crap! Can't you find me a modern water bath, Sarge? This is ridiculous. Back in the world they've had them for forty years."
"The army concentrates on how much oil we got in our jeeps, not water baths, but go ahead and put in a requisition. You may even get it sometime after we've finished fucking around in this country. Don't get your hopes up, though. The government is going to have to buy my brother another new plane."
"Did he get shot down again?"
"Yeah, I got a letter from him yesterday. This time he went down over the water and spent two days just laying around on a raft and catching up on his sleep. Luckiest bastard I ever heard of. If he wasn't family, I'd think he had a deal with the devil."
"Was he drunk again?"
"Probably, but what the shit. Them marines drink more than you do."
"Impossible," Heavy said. "You want another?" He shoved aside some blood plasma and pulled a second beer from the cooler.
"No thanks. I've gotta get going. Don't forget your patient back there. If you and Dum have to take him in, get Mop to cover the duty. In fact, do it regardless. You ain't going to last the afternoon, the way you're going."
"OK," Heavy said, gratified. Screw the tests. He could do them again tomorrow morning. Syphilis wouldn't get any worse before then.
Williard tooled out of the dispensary, confident it would be left in good hands. Mop might tap Heavy's beer supply, but he never seemed to get too drunk to function, regardless of how much he drank. In that way, Mop reminded him of his brother Jason, who managed to fly Marine F-4's all over north and South Vietnam with a load on. Sometimes he worried about his younger brother, but not too often. He was filled with shit-house luck, regardless of how many planes he lost. He just wondered how much longer the government would put up with it. This latest made four fifteen million dollar jets he had bailed out of and he was still only a third of the way through his tour.
That reminded him, there was a regulation which forced the services to let relatives serve at the same station under certain conditions. He could request a transfer if he wanted to, up north to Chu Lai where Jason drank and flew and fucked as if there were no tomorrow, but he wasn't certain that such a move would suit his own career, even though it might be a nice change of pace. See some new country, see his brother, check out the hookers and nurses up there. It was even possible he might get to see his other younger brother, Jerry, an ensign on a destroyer which plied the coastal waters and sometimes came into a port near there. They could have a real family re-union. It was a thought, but not one to be acted on just yet. Right now, he had to see Captain Harkness and tell him he was going to be gone for the afternoon. He needed to raise some money for poker tonight.
Copyright © 2003 by Darrell Bain