Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Vetting For Veep

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD – “He’s a danger to himself. The best thing for your friend to do is, stop writing his own material, and have you do it,” said George, my advisor and sounding board.

But George thinks all my stuff is funny, which I know isn’t true, because some of it is supposed to be serious, so I know he’s just being kind, since that big on-stage fiasco in Milwaukee several years ago during a promotional tour that didn’t pan out.


Before we proceed any further, uh, there uh, is something I need to clear up right away in case they tap me for the VP slot in the upcoming election.

I’ve been advised to get this out of the way to free up my delegate support, and so there won’t be any ‘Swift-Boating’ by the opposition, or, like John Edwards, be faced with embarrassing lies during the vetting process. On down the line, I don’t want someone later asking, ‘What qualifies him to be horseshoe champ?’

Those ‘fell-on-a-grenade’, ‘got shot down five times’, ‘shivering in a rat cage’, ‘got shot out of a helicopter and fell 500 feet through triple-canopy jungle’, ‘division horseshoe champ’ stories simply aren’t true.

Okay? I was a clerk’s assistant, pay grade E-3. 1200 air combat hours? Horseshit. That was Wayne Marshall who did all that stuff.

That photo of Brig. General Davis shaking my hand? That was a ‘cut and paste’ job of my head on the body of another guy, with magic marker touch-up. Gen. Westmoreland and me in Saigon? Same same. Cut and paste.

Despite the widely-circulated story that launched my undeserved heralded vet status, I never went down behind enemy lines, and never organized the escape from VC rat cages deep in the jungle near the Cambodian border. That was Rambo. John Rambo. I never even got close to Cambodia.

Besides saving the officer’s mess hall from those two rampaging monkeys* and retrieving Yogi’s I.D. from a Vietnamese whore,** the most noteworthy thing I did in Vietnam, as an assistant to the company clerk, was to illicitly promote every enlisted man in the company by one pay grade.

This was possible because of a number of interwoven and ironically circumstantial factors; first, the slots were available. Next, our company commander had received an emergency leave back to the U.S. for treatment of a rare tropical rash on the backs of his hands, so before his replacement arrived, we were commanded by a Captain who liked to fly and didn’t care for administrative work.

He shortly thereafter rotated back to the States, and before an official commander, a major or above, arrived, we were in the hands of a lowly 1st Lieutenant Webster who didn’t know shit from shine-ola, administratively speaking.

He was however, a gifted and accomplished, but dangerous pilot. Greedy for flight hours, and having a reputation for ‘a magnet-ass’, he too, preferred flying over office work, and kept his name up on the flight duty roster.

Thus, Rosie and I simply took all forms and documents in for a sign-off, which we eventually stopped doing altogether, when we began forging the necessary signatures.

With an absentee commander, rule of the company then fell to our ranking sergeant, who somehow got an emergency reassignment to Saigon, quite a feat to begin with, and then to Belgium, even more astonishing. Not bad. We never knew the hows or whys. One day, he was just gone. They said he knew somebody.

So there was a period of several weeks, between the departure of our ranking officers and NCOs, none of which was combat-related, mind you, and the arrival of their replacements, where we experienced a command power vacuum, which really isn’t all that unusual in a combat zone, where for one reason or another,*** lesser beings are suddenly thrust into positions of responsibility. You can probably see how that could happen.

Accordingly, the operations of our 12-helicopter Company, fell into the hands of Rosie, a short-timer E-5, and me, a lowly Private First Class, a PFC. Sad Sack.

The war churned on of its own inertia with people talking about ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’, and everybody continued doing what they were supposed to do, flying medevac missions day in, day out, except me and Rosie.

We got right to work right away and sent off the necessary paperwork on up the line to guys like us working the other end at battalion headquarters, and a couple months later, after the arrival of a new company commander and a new 1st Sergeant, who, fresh from the States, didn’t know squat, we had an enormous awards and promotions ceremony, which made everyone extremely happy that day.**** BIG-ass party in the compound that night.

I got a set of wings, a DFC, a CMB, a Vietnamese Cross and a promotion to Specialist 4th Class, ‘Spec 4’. A couple months later, a Purple Heart and some air medals and a Presidential Citation rolled out of the pipeline. All of the new people didn’t know shit. They just sort of looked at you in awe.

For their gratitude, people gave Rosie several bottles of Johnny Walker Red, oscillating fans, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a pair of Converse All Stars, a Nikon FTN, an AK-47, a Swedish 9mm pistol, and two new ping pong paddles. I gave him a 40 ft. parachute.

In the absence of any authority, it was a fantastic idea, a great move. Everybody went up a rank. A bunch of us got decorations. All the Warrant Officer pilots got medals. The ‘newbee’ commander and first sergeant must’ve thought they’d just joined a unit of for-real, gung-ho, John Wayne-in-the-sky guys.

They must have also wondered about our motto above the HQ entry: ‘We Fly The Shit, Every Day’.

“I can make you E-4, no higher,” said Rosie, looking up over the old Remington typewriter***** on which he was hammering out an original with three carbons from the First Sergeant’s desk. “You’ll need four months time-in-grade to make E-5. You want some awards?”

“Sure,” I said. “They’ll look good later in a run for congress or any judge I might have to face. Make me a hero.”

I never knew Rosie’s first name. His last name was Rose, and he had four big roses on his chest, and a huge heart with ‘Linda’ under it, tattooed on his forearm, with some slinky babe over the heart, who I presumed, must have been a representation of Linda.

Besides me, he was the only one in the company who knew how to type. Rosie was a ‘short-timer’, with only a few weeks remaining on his tour, and as such, he didn’t give a damn about anything anymore, ‘cept going home, like any short-timer. I was there in training, to act as company clerk until Rosie’s replacement arrived from the States, an acting job.

All the time, throughout the war, there were guys coming and going like that as their 12-month tours expired, and probably more often than not, there were gaps of manpower in various capacities. I don’t think our unit was an exception.

If you were to ask, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ everyone would have said, “Lt. Webster, I guess.” If they asked, ‘Who knows what’s going on around here?’ they would say, “Rosie”.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“How about a Congressional Medal of Honor?” I suggested.

“No way,” he said. “You’ve got to fall on a grenade or charge a machine gun nest. You know what ‘CMH’ stands for don’t you?” he asked. “ ‘Casket with Metal Handles’. You have to die.”

“Screw that, then. How about some Silver Stars?”

“No can do,” he said. “Those go to pilots.”

“Then, what have you got?” I asked. “Make me a medic. Everybody loves medics. Fabricate some missions under hostile fire. Hot LZs (Landing Zones). Juice it up.”

“That, I can do,” he said, making notes. “I can get you a DFC, a Distinguished Flying Cross…easy…a top award for an aviator…‘for demonstrating complete disregard for his personal safety, urged the pilots to proceed through concentrated enemy fire to evacuate the seriously wounded U.S. troops on the ground.’

“Hey. That sounds fucking great!” I said, imagining myself in a parade with a chest full of ribbons and decorations, people applauding my run for the senate. My head started to swim.

Rosie continued, “That’ll be automatic promotion to E-4, and we can toss in a Purple Heart, a Vietnamese Cross, a Combat Medic’s Badge, some routine air medals, and a set of wings.”

“All from one mission?”

“No,” Rosie replied. “We’ll have it spread out over six or seven months, back-dated. We can cook up some shit. It’ll look good.”

“Don’t I have to get hit for a Purple Heart?” I asked.

“We can make it something small,” he said. “like frags…‘while attending to the wounded , the corpsman then suffered wounds from an exploding B-40 rocket’…or an incoming mortar round…something along those lines. Out-patient. Ambulatory. We can doctor your personnel records to reflect anything…get Harrington to sign off… Nobody’ll ever know. This is the fucking ‘Nam.”

“I like the idea of falling through triple-canopy jungle after being shot out of the helicopter on a dangerous hoist mission into Laos or Cambodia,” I said. “You know, some really phenomenal shit that stretches the limits of credulity. Can you do that?”

“Sure,” said Rosie. “We fly the shit. We fly the shit, every, every day.”

“And how about some dramatic story of escaping?” I continued. “No…directing an escape…from enemy rat cages, deep in the jungle, near…near…the DMZ…no…The Plain of Jars…no, the Ho Chi Minh Trail...everybody knows the Ho Chi Minh Trail…after being shot down.

“And toss in some believable shit for face validity,” I added, “…like…‘division horseshoe champ’.”

“You’re not that good,” said Rosie. “That would be too easy to uncover.”

“Ok. Skip that,” I said. “but have me doing all that other stuff. Make it look good.”

“Sure,” said Rosie. “Give me an outline of what you want, with all the important elements, and I’ll work with it.”

- end

*“What the hell’s going on in here?” I said, stumbling onto them ransacking the officer’s mess. It was wholly circumstantial, not heroic. Anybody in the same situation would’ve done the same thing. One of those ‘place and time’ coincidence kinda things. I didn’t think it deserved an award, but it got me a special commendation.

**Yogi was trying to use his I.D. as barter in a transaction. As interpreter, I said to the girl, “G.I. I.D. same same money on payday,” thereby spontaneously and quite unintentionally inventing a fractured English euphemism, ‘same same’, that caught on like wildfire first in the Central Highlands, then Saigon, then throughout all of Southeast Asia.

***Guys were dropping like flies.

****That was that day. Several weeks later, a Colonel Haskell from battalion HQ came up-country with an aide, conducting an inquiry into the inexplicable sudden spike…‘rash’, he called it… in promotions and awards from our unit that wasn’t reflected in correlative enemy activity in our AO (Area of Operation).

Our commanding officer and first sergeant weren’t even in-country at the time under investigation, and like I said earlier, didn’t know squat. Rosie had long since gone back to the States, on the street in civvies, and I guess I was the only one, wearing those big, thick, black-frame, geeky, army-issue glasses, who they called up from the horseshoe pit and grilled on the spot one afternoon in the commander’s office.

I was praying they wouldn’t ask me how I got all those combat awards as an assistant company clerk. Had they looked at my records, I’d’ve been dead meat. Fortunately, they were looking at our unit records collectively and didn’t examine too closely any particular individual. My knees were shaking when I left there.

“What do you do here?” asked Col. Haskell.

“Pay strict attention, Sir,” I said honestly.

They all laughed except the Colonel, who looked at me quizzically like he wasn’t certain if I was an imbecile or a wiseass. “No, Specialist,” said Haskell. “I mean, what is your duty?”

I wasn’t sure. My brain raced for an answer while they waited. Finally, I said, “To fight communism, Sir…defend America’s freedom…uphold the code, Sir?.”

“No. No. No, son,” said Haskell, shooting a glance at his aide that said, ‘Can you believe this fucking bottom-of-the-barrel idiot draftee? No wonder we’re losing the war.’

“It’s not a multiple choice question, son,” he said. “What is your job here, at the company?” he asked.

It was paramount to act like a befuddled interim trainee company clerk moron, which was fairly easy with those glasses, steamed up and sweaty from the run up from the horseshoe pit. I told them I didn’t know anything, that I was pretty much a gopher, and that during the time in question, Rosie had handled all the paperwork.

*****the very machine from which you received those early tales from the ‘Nam.