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From a Letter to a Hootchmate
By John Crandell
Well hello there.
All of these miles and a third of a century later, since that morning you and I said goodbye next to the door of that hootch, below Hon Kon, overlooking the legendary Golf Course — way out there where they parked the Hueys at Radcliffe. That was May 1970. Hello, and I haven't been able to find your address in the directories in all these years. I remembered that you were from Chicago. Then, a few weeks ago on the Internet, I got a hit. So here's to say hi and will skip the personal stuff presently. I've long wanted to rework an old story written in '73 and finding your name finally induces me to proceed. (Don't laugh too hard now, hey?) As memories fade — those audible rumors nearly forgotten, thwap of rotor blades, click of adding machines, thudding clump of mortar, single crack of AK in the pitch black quietude.
These landscapes that I stare at every day, two that I found and admired at the Officer's Club in Hong Kong — of junks floating in the moonlight off of Wan Chai and the view down towards the harbor from atop Victoria Peak. Here in this wood paneled war room and the shelves beside the door lined with volumes by journalists, historians and veterans of violence — at The Citadel, in the delta, on Mother's Ridge, at Con Thien, Dak To, in the Ashau — the watershed draining westward out into Laos and the very particular Battle of Ia Drang, headwaters of which we stared across, towards the special forces camp set on the rise of jungled hardwood — with a single light burning each night and to our right lay the precipitous gorge at the southern edge of Camp Enari, Pleiku province, II Corps.
In the ten months there below Dragon Mountain I never managed to regain my bearings. Not once. The sun seemed to rise in the west and set in the east and in the final months outside of An Khe I was even more disoriented, can't recall where it rose or set in relation to Hon Kon Mountain, the eight hundred foot peak wrapped within the base perimeter. Now, surrounded by wood I sit again and stare, imagining the scene as viewed from a slick flying eastward along Route 19 — March the first, the day the entire Fourth Division hyed up and over Mang Yang Pass towards the coast. The sight of so much armor, artillery and loaded trucks, a necklace of olive drab laced across red clay cutting through green foliage. I'd ride that road as shotgun weeks later in a lone Duecenhalf with ever silent Bonjour at the wheel. He'd bunked in hootch 20. Both that and hootch 19 had been emptied and the doors boarded up by then. The latter had been the scene of the company's foremost heads sharing T at Bill Back's bunk. In presiding at those affairs he was by far the coolest, most self confident member of the Fourth Division postal unit, had maintained contact with the division's best providers supplying the most potent weed from Thailand. He and his buds lit up right there beside where I bunked and the phonograph spun and his muse always alternated between "Days of future Past" and "Abbey Road." Clouds of ganja scented the air; "evening exits from gravity's embrace" as they say. Tunes by The Moody Blues seemed odd and way out to me at first but soon came to resonate, deeply.
To wake each morning was to return to a prison nightmare. So when I eventually saw the hootch scene in the movie "Platoon" it was more than a revelation, it was a time-warp — corkscrewing downward in that twin engine Caribou, banana trees contrasted against reddled terrain, all the red dust in dry season covering every square inch of our lives, the stench of wasted men, wasted lives lined up at my window, their needing to send a package homeward, then jump a Slick in misery, back to the boonies with arms and bandoliers and monkeys perched upon their shoulders, the monstrous beetles crawling in through the doors to escape the deluge, white phosphorus exploding at the edge of that gorge.
The very last one that I could forget would be Black, he with his laconic heavy lidded air of disgust with the military, most particularly with our parents and their mores which had wrought our landing on the other side of the world. Every time that I've read of photographers Sean Flynn and Tim Page I've thought of him and the battle which erupted as he landed, ran for cover at LZ Merideth, his later reflection that any of us rear echelon commandos would give our right nut to be able to get out there and see front line reality. Having reveled in hiking and the out of doors growing up blue collar I anticipated the prospect and in retrospect, squalid and soul sucking is all that I can say of it (not a speck of violence) after spending a night there months later, near the Cambodian border. For us, going forwards wasn't mandatory. One simply volunteered. If only I'd had a camera to record faces, amid desolation, red terrain and every shade of green imaginable.
Do you remember that journalist who bunked across the aisle from us in our hootch at Enari? That small scrawny guy who was so erudite, the brightness in his eyes when he first arrived, and how his lights faded as the months rolled by. Gradually he spent more and more time in the field and the sap just drained out of him. And then he disappeared. What had he witnessed? We'd gotten there thirteen months after Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy and we couldn't have voted for the candidate even then, stuck in a war zone, in a pseudo democracy waiting for Dick Nixon to reveal his secret plan to end the whole affair.
So this is what I've remembered.
John Crandell received his draft letter on the day MLK was shot. Other than the 4th Infantry Division, he served with the Continental Army Command at Fort Harrison and the First Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, He chased Jane Fonda thru Westwood Village circa 1979 to try and thank her. She thought he was up to no good and would have none of it. John lives in Sacramento, California.