Orders for Vietnam looked to some people like a death warrant, but I took it as permission to approach life with a different attitude. I was more open to things that could happen along the way, and I chose everything. The actual trip started, I guess, in New York City. I had received the orders in North Carolina, but in the Marines Corps rush to get me into combat they also rushed the shots I needed to set foot in Asia. The list of shots is like the World Health Organization’s list of the most deadly diseases, cholera, malaria, yellow fever…You have seen the list, but I needed to get those vaccines into my body in record time. So the various nurses lined up like a debutants reception line, each with an appropriate needle aiming for the appropriate spot.
The next day the yellow fever vaccine gave me Yellow Fever, like it was supposed to, but my body was too occupied fighting off the other vaccines to snuff Yellow Fever. The doctors caught what was happening and put me in the hospital immediately to sweat and barf for a few weeks. Maybe there were a couple of diseases at work; I do not remember even the daze I was in. Anyway, after about a month, they let me out, and re-cut my original orders to leave Travis Air Force Base in California in 14 days. A week of that was leave. Originally I was to join 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines in Khe Sahn right after the Tet offensive. However, while I was sleeping, 3/26 left Khe Sahn and encountered an extremely bloody battle in Hue.
So my yellow fever probably saved my life, or at least gave me much better odds. Of course, I did not know all that during the days I was driving across the US to California.
I decided to drive across the States from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and pocket the airline fare. First stop was New York City, where I had a girlfriend staying with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s boyfriend Monte. Monte was a brilliant prodigy who graduated from the University of Chicago at age 15, and then came back to be a super at his folk’s apartment building and moonlight driving a cab. He loved driving a cab because he loved talking with people of every variety, and often chatted up potential new girlfriends who were stewing alongside drunk beaus in his cab. (People live off the land in different ways.) I usually gave my car keys to Monte every time I was in New York City because he knew everywhere and almost everyone.
Monte offered to escort me as far as Cleveland so he could see his friend who was a leading brain surgeon at Case Western Reserve. We were invited to a brain operation for a motorcyclist who had hit the pavement headfirst with no helmet. We scrubbed up, and Monte’s friend introduced us to the operating room team as visiting doctors, here for observation. We stood on little stools above the surgery for about 5 hours, while the surgeons removed the top of the patient’s head and felt around with their fingers inside his brain. Nurses as a courtesy came by and showed us an assortment of scans or something, and we both nodded and said “Very significant” a lot. Finally Monte’s friend pulled out a huge pussball with his index finger from some lower level of the brain that had been putting some pressure somewhere, and now maybe the guy could probably walk straight again. Or even ride a motorcycle.
As a souvenir, Monte’s friend gave me something to stay awake after I left them both late in the day to drive through to Minneapolis and see my family on the way. It was Methedrine or some other speedy concoction that caused all the taillights ahead to dance and merge like tracers. Certainly an ominous vision at 70 miles per hour. It was 600 miles and after a couple of hours that night I pulled into a rest area and slept in the car. I awakened early the next morning and did the last 500 miles. My days with the family were somewhat reserved, given that my mother had been through this before when my father went to war. I guess I was a little insensitive, and realized later when I had my own sons what a toll this must have taken. While I was there I called some friends in Seattle to whom I had willed my ski gear and stereo setup in case I did not return. We willed and left a lot of prized possessions when we were headed to Vietnam, and funny, I never saw most of those things again when I returned. They weren’t as important. Most of the friends were not either.
Next stop was California where I would leave my Volkswagen, and in those final days traded it, with some money, for a VW bus. My friend Dale kept my bus in his garage on blocks for the year I was away. Two years before, Dale had been a grad student at the University of Tulsa where I did some graduate work. He had been a philosophy major and a collegiate 125 pound wrestler. He and I marched in early March of 1965 for Martin Luther King in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 10,000 people marched down the streets of Tulsa on the Saturday shopping afternoon. King did not show up but we were all told by the organizers to say we had marched with Martin Luther King. (Symbolically I guess.) I had done some background material for a journalism class that I thought the Tulsa Tribune was going to use. Instead that whole march got one inch of copy on the back page of the Sunday paper. That pretty well convinced me not to be a journalist.
Later that month Dale wanted me to go to Selma for what was supposed to be a really big march, and I had a midterm the next Monday. I didn’t want to blow that test just to have something cancelled again – or so I said – so I skipped the weekend trip down to Selma. Also the image of the rednecks in overalls with baseball bats did stick with me, so I wonder to this day if a lack of courage kept me from going to Selma with Dale. (If some dates had worked out right, I could have been the only one most people knew who had been in both Khe Sanh and Selma. Could’ve been a major start on a bucket list, if one is into those.)
Cut to: two years hence. Now in Los Angeles, Dale had since been admitted to the UCLA film school from Oklahoma, and he wanted to involve me in his semester film project before I left. I was going to bus the next day to Travis Air Force base to fly to Camp Hanson in Okinawa for Vietnam staging, so the afternoon and evening were free. In Westwood, an L.A. sub-city, the UCLA film school students had a $1 double feature theater nearby, stocked with two of the more recent movies. We went in the afternoon and heard a constant buzz of movie critique that no sane audience could bear with. “Close up, now why did he do that there?” “This tilting and zooming and panning is endless, but what is it saying?” ”Hey watch for the soft focus in this next scene, I saw it yesterday.” Dale recruited extras from this crowd.
That night, the scene we were shooting was a narrow alley in Los Angeles. Dale had it well storyboarded. A car full of drunks was to roar up the alley at high speed, with a motorcycle hurtling at it head-on, but the rider dodging over the hood of the car at the last second, leaning over like some bullfighter but with no cape. As the cycle slipped through the slim gap between the hurtling car and the alley, the drunks in the car would throw out a basket of empty beers cans at the cyclist. The timing had to be perfect. Any collision would be at 80 miles per hour. But the storyboard looked great.
For some odd reason, Dale could find no one to play the motorcyclist, so I volunteered. I’d ridden a few bikes, so I thought I could handle it. In a somewhat surreal mood, I heard Dale shout action and I gunned the motorcycle and watched the car come at me very quickly and at the last second swerved my hips and leaned over the onrushing hood and slipped between the car and the concrete wall on the right side of the alley. Then the guys in the car threw the cans at me, a split-second too late.
“We’ll have to do another take.” Dale said, totally professionally and with no apologies whatsoever.
Once again, I sped toward the oncoming car, and dodged over the hood just as they threw the empty beer cans out. Too early this time. They fell in front of my wheels.
“Another take, everybody back in position.” He confided to me, “I’ll be out of film if we don’t get this one.”
I accelerated toward the oncoming car once again. In slowed-down motion somewhere in my head I thought what a wonderful, spectacular shot it would make if I kept going straight and hit the car splat. But I chickened out and dodged the car — and got a face full of empty beer cans.
“Perfect. Let’s wrap that.”
The big, full 747 from Travis to Kadena and the processing at Camp Hansen and the big, full 747 into Da Nang air base and the helicopter ride to Phu Bai, were a set of steps that disappear in the sand. I joined 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines at Phu Bai, when they were pulled back to a safe place to recover. It was a safe place except for Russian rockets brought down the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia to catch us from that backside.
There were lots of jokes about the rockets arriving before the warning sirens, and I remember that being hilariously funny in the midst of daily rocket attacks. Incoming artillery and outgoing artillery sounded the same to me and everyone laughed when I grabbed my helmet after an outgoing round and when I laughed at an incoming round they grabbed me and pulled me into a bunker. It was 115 degrees and every bit of clothing was sticky on me — and finally it dawned on me.
I was in Vietnam.