Diesel and Smoke

 It was one of those blasts from the past as I read a Facebook posting on the 362nd group page. In the posting one of those who served during the Vietnam war remembered a Life magazine article from March 31, 1972 entitled, The Outpost is a Shambles. I immediately went down to where I had stored some of my memorabilia from my time in the Army, a year of which I spent in Vietnam and found that article, tucked away inside of a copy of a year book about Vung Chua mountain, that very outpost that was in shambles.  The article along with looking through this old, worn out book brought back so many memories of my time in that country. I was only 18 years old when I disembarked from a plane onto the tarmac in Cam Ranh, the first leg of my journey that would eventually take me to Qui Nhon and Vung Chua. Disembarking from that flight it was the heat and humidity that first greeted us feeling like a solid wall that took ones breath away. The sun shined down mercilessly as we were lined up and prepared to march to the transportation that would take us to the embarkation unit. By the time we finally reached our barracks, first I should qualify this, as barracks makes it sound like a relatively nice building, no, they were Army quonset huts, feebly cooled by an ancient a/c system chugging to keep up with the midday heat. Of course being the Army we couldn’t just relax and wait for orders, no, the old adage that idle hands are the devils workplace or something like that, we were given our various tasks for that afternoon. Papers needed to be checked, where we would be sent, what to do and not do, the restrictions and off limits areas, plus the continual need to be cleaning anything and everything. Scrubbing, polishing, washing and waxing all had to be done quickly and efficiently, well as efficient as newbies were able in this strange, alien setting. 

 What really haunts me was the smell. That smell of diesel that seemed to burn perpetually everywhere we went in that country. We would soon find out that diesel fuel was the favorite of many a “papa san” who was hired to burn human waste. It was a smell that never reminded me of victory, but the stench of death and waste, of humanity’s continued folly of believing that war will create peace. On one afternoons detail I clambered up to the roof of a building to help place sandbags, designed, not to protect from any attack but to insure that if we had a typhoon then the tin roof would hopefully stay in place. Well, at least that was the story we got that day when in fact it was just one of those Army things created to keep us busy and out of any trouble. From the top of that roof I could survey the area around our base, flat land as far as I could see dotted with buildings that looked like the one I stood on top of that day. Looking around I could see the airfield, planes flying in and out, some bringing in replacements, others carrying out the survivors who had done their time. The low horizon was smudged with black columns of smoke, from the various diesel induced fires, and in the far distance the sound of war, a sound that I can still hear in my dreams today. 

 Yes, that outpost standing sentinel over the city of Qui Nhon, was in a shambles even when I arrived there from Cam Ranh in August of 1970. Although we never talked about it, somehow there was the feeling that this war was on its last legs. We knew that peace talks were going on, we knew that somehow we had to eventually turn over control to the South Vietnamese, we definitely knew that none of us wanted to die. At night, watching out at the world from the guard post, I could see the lights in the city below, glowing like a millions stars. It could look so peaceful and yet, just beneath the aura lay a tension that could break out, the rapid sound of machine guns, the whoosh and thump of small rockets, the panicked, undisciplined counter fire in response. This was my Vietnam, on top of a mountain, looking out over the world while “papa san” continued to burn our shit, a truly fitting description.

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