There was a loud thunk as the heavy knife, with its seven-inch, razor-sharp blade, slammed into the plywood deck. If he were sober, he might have been alarmed, but First Lieutenant Ron Desmond, The Floop, looked at the knife and simply said, “Shit,” since it was his foot through which the knife had passed, impaling him to the floor.
Vietnam’s heavy monsoon rain had cancelled flight operations and our helicopter squadron was enjoying a rare day of boredom. Beer was available, although we had no way to chill it, and by evening many pilots were drunk. The tin-roofed, plywood hooch, standing on legs about a foot above the muddy slope, was home for most of the first and second lieutenants and the site for the poker game. There was a crowd at the table.
Second Lieutenant John Casey, known as Head Case because of his habit of talking about the intimate details of sex with his wife, which interested no one, was deemed to be too drunk to play cards and he was bored.
“Hey Floop, you and me,” he challenged. “A game of Spread Eagle. Twenty bucks!”
Spread Eagle is a simple game: opponents stand, facing each other about six feet apart, feet together, and take turns trying to stick a knife into the ground within a hand’s distance of the other person’s foot. The first player throws, the other slides his foot to the knife. Then the second player throws. It continues until one of them flinches or can no longer stand because his feet are spread too far apart. It is a game usually played with a pocketknife—by adolescent boys. Except for the knife, Head Case and The Floop qualified.
The Floop had gone first and, hoping to end the game with a flinch, pounded the knife into the wooden deck with enough force for the impact to be felt by everyone in the hooch.
“Jesus, you guys are nuts,” someone said.
Unfazed, Head Case slid his foot out to the blade of the knife, grunted with the effort it took to pull the blade from the deck, then took aim and let loose with his errant throw. He looked with some admiration at the foot that he had just nailed to the floor and conceded, “Well, I guess you won, you bastard. You didn’t flinch.”
There was a round of laughter and jeers from the other pilots who paused the poker game.
Someone hooted, “You shit-for-brains! You shouldn’t have been playing in shower shoes.”
Another called, “Don’t move!” and ran for his camera. The towel that had hung around The Floop’s waist had fallen off and the sight of him stuck solidly to the floor, stark naked except for his dog tags, was a photo not to be missed.
Head Case bent over to survey his handiwork.
“You’re lucky; it went in parallel to the bones. You’ve just got a bad cut. Nothing to worry about.”
“It’s my foot, you asshole. Just pull the fuckin’ knife out.”
Head Case began to wiggle the knife loose and for the first time, The Floop yelled in pain. “Goddamit! Don’t wiggle it. Just pull it straight out.”
“Can’t. It’s stuck in too deep,” Head Case said nonchalantly as he rocked the knife away from blade and gave a pull that finally pulled the knife free.
Blood now gushed from both sides of the foot.
The pilots who had gathered around were not sympathetic, “Jesus F. Christ, get something around that foot before you bleed all over everything!”
Someone cleared off a nearby cot.
“Lie down and elevate your foot.”
The Floop laid back and raised his leg. Head Case wrapped the towel around the foot, but it did little to staunch the flow of blood that streamed down in long rivers of red against the pale, hairy leg. Four hooch mates who were not involved in the poker game picked up the cot, shoulder high, and used it as a stretcher to carry the rapidly sobering Floop out into the rain and down the muddy hill to the field hospital.
We watched as The Floop disappeared into the night, on his back, butt-assed naked, waving a bloody towel overhead on the end of a leg. The stretcher-bearers, slipping in the mud, were singing the Marine Corps Hymn. The poker game resumed but the mood of the evening turned sour. Our new commanding officer was going to be pissed.
The All Pilots Meeting the next morning was memorable. Our ready room, a heavy, green canvas, fifteen-by-thirty foot tent, set close to the perimeter of the prefab metal landing pad, was where we assembled early each morning to receive the day’s briefing and flight assignments. The operations officer called, “Attention on deck,” and several dozen pilots jumped to their feet as our C.O., The Owl, stormed in.
“Why didn’t one of you step in and stop those idiots?” Owl thundered. Whether we had been present or not, we were all guilty by association.
We remained at attention and waited for his wrath to pass. After all, we were living in the mud of the monsoon season, behind a barbed wire perimeter, eating C rations, and flying choppers in Viet Fuckin’ Nam. What else could he do to us?
“Article 115 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” he read from a manual. “Malingering: Any person who, for the purpose of avoiding work, duty, or service, intentionally inflicts self-injury shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.’ Do I make myself clear, gentlemen?”
He left us standing at attention and glared at us. Finally, he turned to the Operations Office, snarled, “Carry on,” and stalked out of the tent.
The Floop was medevac’d to a hospital ship that gleamed white just offshore. A couple of weeks later, he returned on crutches with reports of clean sheets, decent chow, and nightly movies. He told improbable stories about Navy nurses. But a few days later, a contingent of Navy medical personnel came ashore to see firsthand what life in the mud looked like. The Owl, decked out in clean, starched khakis with three rows of ribbons, was hosting a tour for a covey of nurses when two of them spotted The Floop and called, “Hey, Ronnie!”
The Owl glowered and The Floop wisely, but reluctantly, retreated.
At the poker game that night, our flight surgeon, a Navy lieutenant, told us “just as soon as the nurses headed back to the hospital ship, The Owl stormed into sick bay.” Doc imitated the C.O.’s Georgia drawl: “Ah don’t cay-ah if Lt. Desmond can’t walk. As soon as that peckah head is capable of pushing a pedal, ah want him back in the cockpit!”
Still limping, The Floop was soon back on the schedule board.
At the morning APM, The Owl got into his face. “Ah don’t give a damn if you hurt. You will not fly one of mah helicopters spaced out on pain killers, is that cle-ah?”
Climbing up the side of an H-34 and swinging into the cockpit must have hurt, but The Floop sucked it up, didn’t complain; he was happy to be flying again.
But Doc, who was semi-autonomous in carrying out his medical duties, was p.o.’ed. “The Owl wouldn’t know a pimple from a pig’s ass,” he said. “He’s not qualified to question my medical opinion about a pilot’s flight status.” None of could have guessed that Doc would use a circumcision to make a statement about his independence.
Our commanding officer, Col. Stenstrom, was a piece of work. Almost forty, he was an old man to us junior officers in our mid-twenties. Prior to Viet Nam, he’d been flying a desk in Washington, D.C. A jet jockey by training, he had probably been logging in just enough hours each month to qualify for flight pay, hoping to get in his twenty years and retire. But the war caught up with him; the Corps needed senior officers for the expanding air wing, so he was trained in helicopters and sent to relieve our outgoing commander. We didn’t fault him for any of that; after all, none of us was there by choice, but we bristled at his inference that because he had flown jets, he was a better pilot than any of us. He claimed, “Flying a jet is as good as sex.” We thought, if that’s so, then flying a chopper is like having sex standing in a hammock while leading a rock band.Different levels of skills.
When he arrived, we could have accepted a commanding officer who was in his first combat command. And we could have accepted that he was new to choppers. On some level, we could all empathize about the challenges he had been dealt. But because it had life and death consequences, we couldn’t accept his false bravado. So, we did what warriors have always done when faced with a situation they can’t change: we laughed at our predicament and argued among ourselves about the perfect name for Stenstrom.
In the squadron, nicknames were bestowed, not chosen by their owners. Sometimes names were given, and accepted, in good humor, but a nickname could serve as a joke that everyone, except the honoree, understood. Our executive officer, the number two in command, had resoled his flight boots with lugged soles and became known as UIT, our inside joke for Ugly Individual, Tracked. The entire squadron referred to him as “The U-it,” although many, him included, never knew the origin of the nickname. But we were split over an appropriate tag for our commanding officer. “Old Man” didn’t feel right: he was too young, and it would have inferred a certain respect for a father figure—which was hardly the case. “The Owl” was a name favored by many because of his habit of asking “Who?” during briefings when pilots were often referred to by nicknames he didn’t recognize. Others proposed “Ricochet Rabbit,” since he was often indecisive, bouncing from one thought to another. Once, he overheard Crash, a first lieutenant who had rolled a chopper, refer to him as RR.
“You, lieutenant, what did you just call me?”
“Sir, sorry, sir,” Crash bullshitted. “Some us refer to you as Red Ryder, after a cowboy hero who arrives in town to kick ass. No disrespect, sir.”
Ricochet was pleased by the cowboy imagery and, to our delight, had R.R. painted boldly on the back of his helmet.
There was no solid reason why a commanding officer should have been leading combat missions, but Ricochet Rabbit must have thought he had something to prove. As the Squadron Commander, he was in charge of whatever mission he flew, but the operations officer was smart enough to always pair him with one of the best pilots in the squadron, usually a captain known as The Deacon, so that in dangerous situations, Ricochet would have a skilled copilot at his side. At least, that was how it was supposed to be. After only two combat missions, Ricochet figured he was ready and wanted to be on the controls leading the initial landings of Operation April Moon.
The entire squadron was airborne, nearly two dozen green choppers loaded with heavily armed Marines, strung out in a loose formation behind Ricochet Rabbit. It was a major offensive. We expected a hot landing zone. The crew chief and gunner were cleared to return fire. All preparations done, we flew on, every man lost in his own thoughts. But as we neared the point where we would drop from altitude, a single word broke radio silence: “Ping.” A few moments later, a different voice: “Ping.” And a third: “Ping.” Then, those pilots who preferred the “The Owl” added their voices to the commentary: “Who…” “Who…” “Who…”
The tension was broken. We were having a spontaneous referendum about what to call Stenstrom: Ricochet Rabbit or The Owl. It remained a split decision. We called him by both names. There was no confusion.
One night, during a lull in the poker game, First Lieutenant Deshawn Washington, known as The Chief because of his claim to being part Cherokee, said, “Hey, Doc, what’s involved in getting circumcised?”
“Simple procedure, takes a few minutes, doesn’t hurt a baby any more than getting a shot.”
“Naw, I mean for me. Would it be a big deal?”
“Chief, I’ve seen you in the shower and contrary to what you might think, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Why?”
“I’ve always heard that sex is better if you’re circumcised. I’m rotating back to the States soon and seeing as I can’t use my tool here, I thought this might be a good time to get it done. Can you fix me up?”
“Yeah, sure, whenever you want,” Doc said from behind his stack of chips, more concerned with making his flush than in discussing The Chief’s foreskin.
It turned out, both The Chief and Doc were serious. A few nights later, The Chief sat gingerly at the poker table, carefully placing a bag of ice over a much-bandaged penis.
“Oh, fuck, man, that’s disgusting. Would you at least put a towel over that thing?” Floop said.
The Chief just grinned. “Swelling should be gone by tomorrow.”
Waste of ice, we all thought.
But the following morning, the Chief had been scratched from the day’s missions. The Owl wanted to know why.
“A circumcision? Are you fuckin’ kidding me? Mah flight surgeon performed a circumcision and now Washington is unable to fly because his peckah’s in a bandage?”
Thirty minutes later Doc and the Chief were standing at attention in front of The Owl. The tent that served as his office provided little privacy and the fury of his tirade, even by Marine standards, was epic—and great entertainment.
“Ah’m going to write you both up. You will each have a permanent mark against you in your service file. Ah have a good mind to file charges of malingering against both of you. Now get your sorry asses out of my sight!”
Those who were nearby said Doc and Chief wore their poker faces as they left, giving away nothing about what they were feeling.
Chief, however, walking bow-legged, raised an index finger in front of him, where the C.O. couldn’t see it, and swirled it in the air: Big Whoop.
He flew a few more missions, rotated out, and would not have given a rat’s ass about whatever was in his service file. We never found out if he liked his modification.
War humor cannot be judged by stateside sensibilities, but we never doubted that Second Lieutenant Daryl Dawson, our squadron hypochondriac, set himself up. The combination of his initials, his preference for a flight suit so large that it sagged from his frame, and heavy eyelids, giving him a slight resemblance to a cartoon character, tagged him as Droopy Dog. The Officers’ Club was his undoing.
The club, better suited to be a prop for South Pacific, was a dirt-floored, bamboo frame structure with palm mats for walls and a thatched roof that leaked so badly in the rainy season that we wore our ponchos inside. But beer could be purchased at a fraction of what we paid back home. Lucky us, our government was subsidizing the drinking man and D. Dog didn’t want to miss out on a bargain.
It was inevitable; when he stepped on the scale during a routine flight physical, he weighed more than he did when he left the States. He promptly put himself on a diet, cut back on his drinking, and pestered us to see if we noticed a difference.
He was too tempting a target to resist, and Womb Broom, a first lieutenant with an oversized mustache, would carefully cut off just a bit of D. Dog’s web belt once or twice a week and replace the buckle. Soon, Dog stopped asking our opinion about his appearance: his ever-tightening belt was his daily tape measure. He ate breakfast, skipped lunch and dinner, gave up drinking, and practically lived on black coffee and water. He became a man possessed, his face gaunt, but the belt kept getting tighter. Finally, when he started complaining of dizzy spells, Doc told him to stop by sick bay. The scale confirmed that he had lost nearly fifteen pounds.
“Get a new belt and start eating again,” Doc told him. “Start slow! Your stomach needs to adjust from the starvation diet you’ve been on.”
“God damn,” Dog said later. “I was sure I had some kind of tropical edema.” He celebrated with a double helping of meat and potatoes at the evening mess and at least six cans of lukewarm beer at the O Club. In the morning, he was back in sick bay with abdominal pains.
The Owl, oblivious to what went on among the junior pilots, saw that Dog had been scratched from the flight schedule.
He rang sick bay for an explanation.
“Stomach cramps! That he brought on by eating too much!? Ah don’t care if he’s having his period, get his ass down here! Ah’m not running a home for the sick, lame, or lazy!”
Half an hour later, Dog was standing at attention in the C.O.’s office. There was no mistaking his misery was real, but that didn’t stop The Owl.
“Do I understand, Mr. Dawson, that you cannot fly because of something you have done to yourself?”
“It’s not like that, sir…”
“Yes or no, Mr. Dawson.”
“Yes, sir, but…”
“You will get hold of a copy of the Marine Corps Manual, copy out the entire section about malingering, sign it, and have it on my desk by the end of the day. And if you ever miss a flight again…”
Dog had been braced at attention for the tirade, but the stifling heat in the closed tent became too much. His stomach rebelled.
“Hell, I didn’t know what to do,” he told us later. “I barely managed to turn my head in time, up-chucked all over his deck, and came back to attention with barf dripping down my chin. The old man was furious but didn’t know what to do. I looked like shit but was there at his orders because he didn’t believe the Doc. Funny thing, though, as soon as I heaved, I felt better, would have been fine to fly, but The Owl scratched me from the day’s missions. ‘Ah don’t want you messing up one of my choppers!’”
Womb Broom felt bad about what had happened and insisted that Dog have a place at the poker table. He smiled happily as he lost almost a month’s pay while trying to catch up on all the beer he had missed.
Subic Bay in the Philippines, however, provided another, more formidable, problem for The Owl than knife wounds, ill-timed medical procedure, and self-imposed starvation. The small city of Olongapo, just outside the gates to the U.S. Navy base, was an intoxicating witches’ cauldron of bars, booze, and b-girls. The squadron had departed Viet Nam aboard the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship, essentially a small aircraft carrier, to join up with a fresh battalion of Marines that was arriving from the States. We were to do some joint training before returning to Viet Nam. The chance to fly without being a target was welcome relief and most evenings were ours to enjoy the vices of Olongapo, so we treated our time in port as one long party.
However, Lieutenant John McIntyre, Dagwood, habitually late for meetings, made the mistake of falling in love with a girl who worked at one of the countless bars. As long as he showed up for the morning APM, no one cared if he spent his nights ashore with his girlfriend. But on the morning that we were pulling out of Subic Bay on a training exercise, Dagwood overslept.
“I was desperate,” he told us later. “So, I commandeered a jitney and waved a fistful of money at the driver to have him drive non-stop to the main gate. The four passengers already on board howled as we sped past where they wanted off, but I handed out money all around until everyone was yelling at the driver to go faster. They cheered when I sprinted through the gate, but the boat was already clearing the harbor.”
He was resourceful enough to make his way to the airstrip and hitch a ride on the mail plane that caught up with us that afternoon. The arrival of the plane was routine, and Dagwood might have been able to sneak aboard if he had been in uniform and acted nonchalant, but he was in his liberty clothes and stood out like a Waikiki tourist. Within minutes, he was standing tall before The Owl who was torn between charging him with being AWOL or malingering. Dagwood, dressed like a pineapple in sunglasses, only made things worse when he asked to be excused because he was about to have an attack of the runs.
The Owl put him in hack, confined to his quarters, allowed out only for meals and to stand watches. While we were at sea on our training exercise, being in hack didn’t amount to much. We thought maybe he had lucked out. But all Dagwood could think about was his girlfriend and what she would think when the ship returned, and he didn’t show up.
“If I give you a letter and some cash, would you deliver it for me?” he asked me. “I’m going to ask her to marry me. She deserves better than Olongapo.”
But Dagwood, distraught about her still working in a club, just couldn’t get his head right. A couple days later, he misjudged his lift capabilities on a routine take off from the carrier. His chopper settled just above the water, a wave of mist billowing up, and swirling back down through the rotors. We watched as he struggled to gain forward air speed, but the intake must have sucked in too much sea water because the engine stalled. Chopper, crew, and six Marines went in. Only the crew chief was able to unbuckle and make it to the surface.
He hadn’t completed his letter, so I had no name to go on, didn’t even know where she worked. His sweetheart never found out what happened to him.
Captain Len Hollister, The Deacon, had extended his tour twice. He was a lifer and combat flight time and a chest full of ribbons were a fast track to a distinguished career. There was no question about his skill as a pilot or for having a cool head under fire. We all felt better on the missions where he was in the cockpit with The Owl. Recently married, Deacon was one of the few pilots in the squadron who had not succumbed to the temptations of Olongapo. No prude, he drank and raised hell like the rest of us, but he didn’t flirt with the hostesses that were a fixture in all the bars, So, I was surprised to see him one evening having dinner at the O Club with a pretty, dark-haired girl I assumed to be from Olongapo. He saw me, waved me over, and introduced me to his wife. She had flown over from San Diego hoping she would be able to see him during our stay at Subic Bay. The look on their faces told me they considered the effort worthwhile. They were expecting a baby, their first, conceived, I calculated, while he was on leave in Hawaii.
When we pulled out, back to Viet Nam, flying missions from the Iwo Jima, inexplicably, Deacon wasn’t on the duty roster. The Operations Officer offered no information and Deacon himself was close-lipped, keeping to himself. Our most respected pilot not flying was something that had the entire squadron wondering.
Finally, the pieces came together. After seeing his wife, he got to thinking about kids, the kids in Viet Nam, and told the C.O. that he couldn’t—wouldn’t—fly any more assault missions. He had lost his stomach for the war.
We were conflicted in our reactions. Refusing to fly was unthinkable. It was as if we were addicted to it. But we respected Deacon, who had chosen a different course, one as difficult as any we would fly. His conscience had stuck him to the ground as firmly as a knife through the foot.
But the C.O. had a dilemma: he couldn’t have a pilot—no matter how decorated—choose when and how he would fly. But if he brought charges against his best pilot, it could easily reflect on his own leadership. Supposedly, Deacon said he would fly Medevacs, usually the most dangerous of our missions, but would do so only if he could fly an unarmed chopper. The Owl was wise enough to keep him off the flight schedule, so Deacon never had to disobey a direct order.
Then, without fanfare, without good-byes, Deacon packed his gear, caught a ride out on the mail plane, and was gone.
The following morning, The Owl took charge of the APM. The ready room went silent.
“At his last physical, it was discovered that Capt. Hollister has a heart condition, cardiomegaly. Flying could have been fatal, so I grounded him, indefinitely. He’s headed home to get the attention he needs. We respect his contributions and wish him well. Doctor, do you have anything to add?”
Doc stood, “You all should know that the Colonel pulled some heavy strings to make sure Deacon gets the best treatment possible.”
“What’s cardiomegaly?” D. Dog asked.
“Fancy term for an enlarged heart.”
There were no more questions.
We continued to refer to Col. Stenstrom as The Owl, now with a tone of respect.
Two months later, my tour over, I was a short-haired alien in tie-dyed California. I phoned Deacon, wanting him to know how much we all had respected his decision. His wife answered. I introduced myself, reminded her that we had met. She was polite. “Thank you. I’ll tell Len you called,” she said. But there was something in her voice that told me not to expect a call back. I understood. We all had to reset to a new reality.