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By E. C. Streeter
Not long ago I happened to be in a supermarket when I heard the song "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" played on the public address system. For a commercial establishment presumably intent on encouraging its customers to remain long enough to make at least a few impulse purchases, it would seem an odd musical choice, but I guess the nostalgia factor of its having been a hit in the 1960s tends to override such concerns. While I distinctly remember the version by the British band the Animals when it came out in 1965, it did not make that much of an impression on me. It was not until the year 1970 that I began to enjoy it in its more, shall I say, literal sense. At that time I was a medic serving with an infantry platoon in the northern part of Vietnam, and I would occasionally hear it played on the transistor radios that some of my fellow soldiers carried in their rucksacks.
Armed Forces Radio was one of the few sources of entertainment available to those of us "out in the bush" as we referred to the wilderness areas where we spent most of our time. The disk jockeys played the same songs as the "Top 40" radio stations back home, but there was one regularly noticeable difference: Whenever they identified themselves, they would always give their ranks as well as their names. Every so often they would play older songs, and that's how I became reacquainted with "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." Its popularity was, of course, hardly a surprise, given the circumstances of every single one of the station's listeners.
Our favorite radio show by far was The Sergeant Pepper Hour (pretty much the only instance of wit on the part of a military institution that I encountered during my entire hitch). It featured the music of some of the more alternative bands like Pink Floyd, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and what we particularly liked about the show was the feeling it gave us of being connected, if only in a tenuous way, to what we imagined was the underground culture "back in the world," as we referred to home. The only problem was that the show aired on Sunday nights, which meant that I had to share an ear bud with someone who carried a radio because we had to be as quiet as possible in the evenings to avoid revealing our location.
I didn't carry a radio because my rucksack was already stuffed with things like glass bottles of saline solution for intravenous injections, tubes and jars of medications, scissors, rolls of adhesive tape, and a variety of bandages, of course. "Make sure you always keep a supply of these," my sergeant at the 101st Airborne Division base in Phu Bai, a town near the city of Hue in the northern part of what was then South Vietnam, said to me somewhat cryptically as he handed me a half dozen tongue depressors in the course of preparing me to join my platoon shortly after my arrival in the country. My training as a medic had not covered the use of tongue depressors to determine the health implications of the color of the rear of the mouth, but I was in no position to disregard any of the suggestions of someone who clearly had more experience in these matters than I did.
I also didn't carry a hunting knife. Most of my fellow grunts did, though, in spite of the fact that they had very little occasion to use them. There wasn't too much we could do in the way of accessorizing our outfits, and hunting knives in leather sheaths on their belts were one of the more glamorous options in that area. It might have also had something to do with the fact that carrying a knife helped them imagine that they were on the kind of camping trip where they might be required to do a little whittling, perhaps, rather than the one they were actually on that required carrying a gun to protect them from other people carrying guns.
The guys who did use their hunting knives on a regular basis were our two squad sergeants who had the unenviable job of preparing mechanical ambushes, as they were known. Each night they would set up trip wires attached to claymore mines on the paths leading into and out of our encampment. They used their knives to cut strips of metal from empty C-ration cans that they then bent around tongue depressors and somehow stabilized with cloth adhesive tape that I also provided. When the pieces of metal were pulled together by someone activating the trip wire a circuit would then be created. It was an absolutely terrifying situation. Each claymore mine was filled with thousands of tiny ball bearings; "If you get in the way of one of those things, you'll be turned into instant hamburger," was how one of my platoon mates put it. When the sergeants left with these contraptions at night and then retrieved them in the morning were by far my least favorite parts of the day.
I also carried a Kodak Instamatic camera, but only for a short while toward the end of my tour of duty. Most of the shots I took were of my platoon mates when we were guarding the fire bases that were scattered around the region that we were patrolling. About once a month we would be helicoptered to one of them, and we would spend a few days living in sandbagged lookout stations along the fire base's perimeter. This was our opportunity to take showers and to eat hot meals. The rest of the time we would eat canned C-rations. One fire base had quite a large underground room, and I remember being shown the documentary film "Woodstock" one afternoon by way of a 16-millimeter projector and a bed sheet.
We all carried wristwatches because we had to do guard duty each day and needed to keep track of the time. Mine had a second hand so that I could take pulses. I bought it at the Anchorage airport during a stopover on the way to Cam Ranh Bay, our destination in Vietnam. I also chose it because the dial had a small window that showed the date. First thing each morning I would look at it and then pause for a moment of solace at the sight of a new number; our tours were for exactly a year, and the number of days you had left in-country was never far from your thoughts. Just before I was scheduled to leave, I gave it to a friend who still had some time to go and haven't worn one since.
We were not allowed to keep diaries, ostensibly because of the possibility of their falling into enemy hands and revealing information about our recent movements. We still did a lot of writing, though, but in the form of letters home, of course. One platoon mate was starting one to his girlfriend when another guy happened to look over his shoulder and notice the words "Dear Sugar…" From that moment on, he was never called anything but Sugar.
I disobeyed the diary rule, but only to the extent that I would occasionally jot things down in a small green loose-leaf binder that I'd kept since boot camp. One of the pages contained a list of some of the paperback books I read. Cutting paths through the jungle was slow work for the point men wielding machetes, and so the rest of us had regular opportunities to read, when it wasn't the monsoon season, that is. I remember passing "The Godfather" on to a number of my platoon mates, but the book that was read by almost everyone was "Love Story" by Erich Segal. It was the ideal medicine for anyone yearning for his girl back home or for someone like me who only imagined being in that situation. One of the books whose title I particularly regret not recording was a large format paperback sent by my father that had photographs of music festivals. The Woodstock and Isle of Wight festivals had happened the year before, and there was also a section on the 1968 Monterey Pop festival. When I began passing it around, my platoon mates poured over it with even more eagerness than the centerfold in Playboy, the reason being, of course, that it was the perfect complement to The Sergeant Pepper Hour.
There was also a page in the green binder with a list of some of the places I hoped to visit if I managed to survive this particular travel phase of my life. Ironically, none of the dozen or so destinations—Paris, Rome, and Vienna were some of the highlights—were nearly as exotic, as where I was right then.
More interestingly, there were notes I'd made of some of the sights along the route to An Khe. This day-long drive was my first mission with the platoon. Our transportation was a truck with an open-air bed known as a deuce and a half, and we sat on a layer of sandbags, awkwardly reclining on our rucksacks. I noted, for instance, that the houses all had corrugated metal roofs, most had plywood walls, and very few had doors, and that there were quite a few bicycle repair shops. One thing I didn't write down was that on the side of the road just outside of Phu Bai I saw what appeared to be two large sacks of rice. I briefly wondered why anyone would abandon something edible until I realized that those two ovoid shapes were, in fact, bodies. They had clearly been lying there for some time because they were horribly bloated from the heat and were covered in brown dust kicked up by the traffic.
That was the last time we traveled anywhere by truck. About a week later, helicopters took us north to an uninhabited region near the Demilitarized Zone where we remained from then on.
I kept the loose leaf pages but discarded the binder to save space when I was packing for the flight back to the States. I also left the camera behind. I kept my dog tags after my discharge but eventually lost them in the course of multiple moves over the decades. All I have now is a handful of yellowing sheets of paper, a few photographs, and a lingering memory of a song.
E. C. "Middy" Streeter teaches English and is the author of "Solving the Solar Enigma." He served in Vietnam from June 1970 until May 1971.
E. C. Streeter against a backdrop of
elephant grass near the Demilitarized Zone.