Vietnam: Meeting My New Squad

This is a good shot of the bunkers. I don’t remember the names of these two guys, but they were good guys.
An open bunker on the right and our stylish, Marine-made toilet in the back.

Hill 52, about the size of a football field, wasn’t exactly a paradise. It was pretty much just a pile of rocks and sand, made into a fortification: with barbwire mesh all around it, and a few bunkers and barricades made of sandbags. I suppose it was typical of all the Marine-made fortifications in Vietnam, made in the early years of the war.

We also were fortunate to have a very stylish toilet (pictured), a bit larger than your typical outhouse. But instead of digging a pit for the excrement, as was the case for your typical outhouse, someone came up with the idea of catching the waste in cut-out metal barrels and then burning it: a process of simply pulling out the barrels full of excrement, adding some kerosene (or gasoline), and then lighting a match to it—a duty that I fortunately missed. Or, now that I think back on it, I believe I did do it one or two times. A nasty job.

Gumbi on top, radio man middle left, Che middle right, Frank lower middle, and Denise lower left with t-shirt. I was taking the picture. We were cooking up something to eat.

Almost right away, after arriving, I was introduced to the squad that I was assigned to. There were about eight of us (pictured). Denise was the squad leader. I can’t say enough good things about Denise. He was a natural leader, yet quiet and just an ordinary guy. When we went out on patrol, he always knew just what to do and how to lead us. But if he wasn’t sure about something, he would never shy away from getting ideas from Frank or Gumbi—two other great guys. One thing I remember most about Denise—as well as most of the other guys—is that, his top concern was always for our safety. In fact, sometimes I felt a little overprotected. It was my inclination, when we went out on patrol, to want to engage the enemy. Maybe that wouldn’t be the case if I had experienced more action, as I think some of the other guys like Denise and Frank experienced. That’s probably why they were quite protective of me. They didn’t want me to go through what they had to go through.

Frank, a Corporal in rank, like Denise, seemed to be quite combat wise; and, as I noticed, Denise was conferring with him constantly. If we were ever to lose Denise, Frank would unquestionably be his replacement. I liked Frank and so did everyone. He was always upbeat and a natural leader. I found out a few months later, after I had been transferred to another unit and ran into Frank, that he had been promoted to Staff Sergeant. I was surprised, but I should not have been.

Gumbi had no teeth, hence the name Gumbi. He also, like most of the guys, had been in Nam a while and were combat-wise. He was a valuable member of the squad.

Che was usually our point-man. When we went on patrol, he would typically be the one to see danger ahead, either enemy troops or some sort of booby trap or trip wire. Unfortunately, he was also the most likely to step on a booby trap. So, I guess you could say that he was the most trusted and also the most in danger. It was usually hard to get anyone to volunteer to be point man, but Che time and time again was that man.

The tall guy on the left (in the picture) was usually the radio man. You had to have certain talents for that job. When we were in a situation where we needed airstrikes or mortars, the radio man had to know where exactly to call it in. So, he had to be able to accurately read a map and to know precisely where we were and where the enemy was—so that we weren’t the ones being bombed by friendly fire! He also had to be willing to carry the radio, which wasn’t light. Now, I don’t want to be too negative, but I could tell that he was more than ready to go home.

This is me, shooting off a few rounds from my M79.
The M79 with various rounds. I mainly used the round pictured on the top row, second from the left. It exploded upon impact just like a grenade.

The first thing I remember after arriving, even before being introduced to the squad, was being handed the M79 Grenade Launcher. Denise told me that its previous handler had left (transferred or killed) and that I was his replacement. He also pointed out that I might want to clean it up a bit; it had been neglected and was rusty and dirty. Wow! How did that happen? Why? So, I cleaned it up as good as I could. And Denise also took the time to instruct me on how to shoot it—even though I had a little instruction and practice in boot camp. I was also given a 45 Cal. pistol to go with the M79.  Now I had three weapons, including my M16 rifle. And they didn’t want me to leave my rifle behind when I went on patrol. That didn’t make sense to me. You would think that if I got another weapon, they would take the M16 off my hands. But anyway, I didn’t ask why. At least now, I thought, I was fully prepared for anything, even though I was quite weighted down, especially since whenever we went on patrol, I had to carry with me many M79 rounds, each being the size of a grenade. And I wanted to carry as many as possible just in case. Sometimes I would carry as many as 65 or 70 rounds (with a total weight of up to about 30 pounds). I guess they knew I was in good shape and could handle it. I never complained.

On the Farm: The Farmhouse and Surroundings

This is our tractor and barn in the background. I don’t know some of these people, but I think that’s my sister behind the tractor steering wheel. She looks to be about two or three, so that would put me at one, or maybe not even born yet.

My most pleasant childhood memories, up to about age 12, was my life on the farm. As I mentioned in a previous blog, we moved around a lot as a family, so it has been hard to keep all the memories straight in my mind, as far as how long we lived at each place. But the farm near Montevideo, Minnesota was the most memorable to me. And I think we lived there at three different times: from my birth to about age thee (which I don’t remember at all), then from age 7 to 8, and then also at a later time when I was about 11 or 12. In between those times we lived at 3 or 4 different houses. Don’t ask me why. But the farm near Montevideo was by far the best place, the best farm.

The Montevideo farm house and buildings were located in an area where, they say, use to be an Indian camp. If you were to look down from above on the area, you would see the farm house and buildings in the middle, surrounded by a winding creek. Then, beyond the creek, in a larger circle, the elevation steeply rises until it reaches the top, where it levels off into beautiful alfalfa and oat fields.

Actually, the creek only goes three-quarters of the way around, to leave room for the long narrow driveway which went out to the main gravel road. To the right, a little way down the road there is a bridge, under which the creek runs. To the left of the driveway the road sharply ascends and then branches off to the left and right to other nearby farms. (I should explain that none of the buildings, including the house are still there. I’m not sure about the driveway, but I’m pretty sure the creek remains. Yes, the last time I looked at a satellite map the creek was still in the same general area.)

The large, dirty white house was built on a small hill. The area was level in front, but lower in the back. It was a two-story house, but in spite of its size it didn’t have many rooms. The kitchen and dining area were all one room. The rest of the main floor was open with just one small adjoining room, like maybe a pantry or a sewing room.

And there was no bathroom in the house, but we had a three-hole outhouse outside; and in the wintertime we used a large pot with a toilet seat on top. We put Lysol in it to cover the stink. Nobody complained.

We also didn’t have running water. Oh, there was plenty of water, but not in the house. We had to walk down by the barn to get it from an artesian well. Hauling the water was usually my job. For a little guy, it was a big chore, especially since it was a long way to go, about 60 or 70 yards.

The second story of the house was where us kids would sleep. It was a large open area. Okay, I guess it was really the attic. The rafters were showing and nothing was painted; it was all bare wood. I suppose for a country house it was normal. Anyway, in the winter time it was cold up there, with only one small vent to let the warm air come up from below. I remember in the morning, after getting up, we would huddle around that opening to get warm.

The barn (pictured above) was a great place to hang out, especially in the morning when the cows were all in their stanchions, eating hay and being milked. Ah, to see those contented cows gave me a feeling that all was well in the world. Our dog brownie and the cats hung out there too, waiting to get some fresh cow’s milk. Everyone was happy in the barn, and busy. The cows had to be milked and fed; and later, after they went out to pasture, the gutters, full of manure, had to be cleaned out—scooped out and hauled outside. We had nothing fancy. We just wheeled it out the barn door into a wheel barrel and dumped it outside in a big pile. Later we loaded some of it up in a manure spreader and spread it around on the fields. We even used it on the garden—and boy did that work. We had the best watermelons you ever saw—until the pigs got into it. But that’s another story.

As with most farms, we had a silo adjacent to the barn, which we used mostly to store silage. When it was empty, sometimes we climbed up the ladder on the silo, even though we weren’t supposed to. I don’t think any of us ever got all the way up; it was a long way up.

Above the lower part of the barn, where the cows were milked and fed, was the hay loft. It was a great place to play. But I can’t remember playing there much; we had too much work to do—the chores! I will get to that later.

I want to tell you about the other places. Sort of across from the house was a shed we called a grainery, where oats were stored—mounds and mounds of oats.  Sometimes we would jump around in there and get buried up to our waste. And sometimes we would see mice in there, crawling around in the oats. I never liked seeing mice…anywhere, except in a mouse trap.

Between the house and the barn, we planted a large vegetable garden. My dad and mom planted it, and it was my job to pull the weeds. Some days I worked at it for hours. I didn’t mind it too much, but my mom would feel sorry for me. I remember one time she said to me, “Oh, you’re such a good son, you’ll get your reward in heaven.” From that point on I started to think a lot about what heaven might be like. My mom probably wasn’t aware of it, but her words at that moment became a turning point in my life; and in just a few years I would give my life to Christ.

From the garden going toward the creek was a muddy pig pen—where I remember one time my sister jumped in and was coated with black mud from head to foot. I don’t know why she did that. And she was the smart one! Next to the pig pen was the chicken coop with chickens, and then down the hill to the left was a large rickety sheep barn. At one time we had, I think, over 500 sheep.

Well, that’s enough for this post. Next time I will tell you about the chores, mainly my chores.

On the Farm: First Grade in A One-Room Schoolhouse

My school looked almost identical to this one, except there was only one door.

Life on the farm was far different than life in the city. I don’t remember too much about my life in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The main thing I remember is that I went to kindergarten there, and there were paved streets and sidewalks. I don’t recall moving to the farm near Montevideo, but I remember first grade. The little schoolhouse was white and there were two outhouses in the back on each side, one for the girls and one for the boys.

The inside of the schoolhouse was all open—one big room. And it had a large wood burning stove or furnace near the front. That’s funny, I don’t remember ever having to get wood for the furnace. I guess the teacher did that before all the kids arrived in the morning, and maybe she added wood during recess and lunch breaks. Who knows? But I know she never called on me to help. Maybe because I was only a kid—in the first grade.

I vividly remember what the inside of the school looked like. There were about four or five rows of student desks. I’m not sure how many grades of kids there were, just that there were three in my grade: Rollie, Cheryl, and me. Cheryl sat in the middle of our row and Rollie and me were in the front and back. I know that because I remember how me and Rollie would always be poking Cheryl and pulling her hair. I would pull her hair from the back, and then when she turned around to hit me, Rollie would get her from the front. But it was all in fun!

You know, I don’t remember ever getting in trouble, at least not in the first grade. I really liked the teacher. I think everyone did. I wish I cold remember her name. I do have a very old picture of her. She looks to be about 25.

I learned a lot in the first grade: how to read, write and do arithmetic. And then after the first grade I have no memories of school until 7th or 8th grade. It’s all a blank. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because as a family we moved a lot. From age 6 to age 13, I would say we moved about six times to different houses and schools. So, I had so many different teachers and class mates. I really can’t tell you what happened to me, but my guess is that all the mental confusion of moving, along with family troubles, caused me to just shut down.

I do have one school memory—a very unpleasant one. I can’t tell you what school or grade it was, but I was sitting, looking out the window, and the teacher came over and grabbed me by my ear and almost pulled it off.  She didn’t like that I was day dreaming instead of paying attention to her teaching. So, I have a feeling that that was what my school life was like all the time: sitting in class, but wishing I was somewhere else, anywhere but school.

Oh, one more thing I remember about first grade. Walking there. I don’t remember ever getting a ride to school. The three of us kids always had to walk. My sister Diane was two years older than me, and my brother Mark was one year younger. Anyway, it was a long way to walk for us kids, more than a mile I’m sure. It was a gravel road all the way, and rarely would we see cars on the road. So we usually just walked down the middle of the road. I don’t know why I did it, but I can remember picking up rocks from the road and throwing them toward, and even at, my sister. I guess at that age I didn’t have much of a sense that little rocks could actually hurt someone. I know I wasn’t especially close to my sister, but still, throwing rocks at her was a terrible thing to do, and I regret it.