Saturday, November 14, 2009

IF 6 WAS 9

If the sun refused to shine,
I don’t mind, I don’t mind.
If the mountains fell into the sea,
Let it be, let it be.

Now if a 6 turned out to be 9,
I don’t mind, I don’t mind.
Alright, if all the hippies cut off all of their hair
                 I don’t care, I don’t care.
                           Jimi Hendrix, 1967

My previous post “Shattered Mind,” might have left you with an incomplete, incoherent, or at least unbalanced sense of what the life of an infantryman in war resembled. Even in the worst of conditions we still managed to find or create humor. Some might say it was a coping mechanism to stay sane in the insane, disassociated world in which we unfairly (of course) found ourselves. After a month of fear punctuated by brief, sudden firefights, rocket attacks for no good reason, accidents, the unremitting war within a war between the enlisted men and the officer cadre, and the other enemy, the lifers, we were all nuts.

Sandrigo was in my squad. He was a twenty-one year old from San Francisco due to rotate back to The World about six months into my tour. His favorite possession and obsession was a photo of himself the day before he went into the army. He had a big toothy grin, a tie-dyed shirt, and long, black, straight hair that was about three inches below his shoulders. He showed it to us at least once a day. As his time to leave approached he began to whip out his photo four and five times a day. He loved to show it to me because I still had six months to try to survive after he left.

“Hey Adin, mah man! Look at this shit, will you?” He'd be holding the photo up about foot in front of my eyes. “Six, seven months from now, that’s they way I’ll be lookin’ again.” He was wearing that shit-eating grin that wouldn’t stop. I really liked Sandrigo. He would be twirling the tips of his out of regulation moustache with extravagant glee.

“Nobody grows hair that fast, Sandrigo. Not even you!” I said. At that weak retort, he’d poke me in the chest and backpedal, laughing, “Then I’ll get me a fookin’ wig until it grows in, nice and long and straight.” We would both crack up, and he’d turn around singing a rambling ditty. It was about women, showers, flush toilets, and clean sheets. I lost his voice as it faded into the din of a departing flight of Hueys , kicking up clouds of dry, red dust.

The same pattern was repeated until the night before Sandrigo was going to leave. He wanted to have “an important” meeting with the squad, all seven of us. At zero dark-thirty that night we clustered in a bunker to hear what Sandrigo’s big deal was all about. We gathered around him as he spoke in a hushed voice. “I really love you guys. You know you are all brothers to me. I know I will probably never meet any of you guys again, but I’ll always remember the all the days we spent together, no matter if they were good or bad.” I looked up at Smitty, East St. Louis Smitty, whose future plans included joining the Black Panthers as soon as he got home, and I didn't know whether he was about to laugh or cry.

“HAH!” He yelled in his outside voice, startling us all for a moment. Sandrigo laughed as he continued. “But when I get back to San Francisco, I'm going to find six tabs of the best LSD I can find and send it to Adin. I’ll taste-test it for you first, of course. You think this place is some shit, wait ‘till you get this shit!” Now, he was beside himself, melting into his inaccessible giddiness. He was going home. He had survived.

We were momentarily amused by his idea. I don’t think any of us had taken acid before, but the idea intrigued us. We all smoked some weed, told stories, and eventually, just before daybreak, shuffled back to our assigned bunkers at a fire base near Dak To.

As the days and weeks passed we forgot about Sandrigo and his acid. Things happened. It rained for days, it got cold, and tiny scrapes or cuts quickly became infected with some awful fungus known affectionately as “jungle rot.” We ate our cold C-rations out of tin cans. I traded three small cans of beans and franks for a tin of angel food cake and a tin of fruit cocktail. It was my favorite combination.

One dark, windy, late afternoon, we gathered for mail call. My name was called out, and there was my daily letter from my mother, and another letter with my name on it. The return address was printed in tiny letters; I couldn’t make out who it was from. When I got into a bunker I read the return address: Mr. Frank Zappa, One World Circle, San Francisco, California. It was from Sandrigo. I carefully opened the letter. Inside were two index cards and between them was a white piece of blotter paper, with two rows of three light blue dried drops of some liquid. On one index card were four words. “Blue Owsley. Be careful.”

I ran over to the six other squad members who were lingering around waiting for another letter or package. I found Sanders first. A proud Alabaman, he was due to go home in a couple of months. I told him about Sandrigo’s letter. Sanders said, “Cool. Let's drop it now. Times a wastin’.” I reminded him that we had a three-day patrol beginning tomorrow, and Sandrigo said the LSD could last for twelve hours. We had to wait.

Smitty and Rendon had the same reaction as Sanders. I decided to hide the acid until we could work this mission out. I found Duncan and Bamberg and told them. I looked for Waters and finally saw him near the perimeter transfixed by the sight of the new guys pouring a mixture of diesel and gas into the bottom half of a 55 gallon drum. The drums had been dragged out from under the latrine.

“Waters, what are you doing, man?” Waters looked at me as if I were an idiot. “I'm checking the prevailing wind direction. I don’t want to be on the down wind side when they torch the shit.” Waters was a tall, thin dude, with a shock of thick blonde hair that stood straight up even if he wore his steel pot all day. He was from a small town in Vermont and was the only college graduate in the platoon. He was teaching high school chemistry when he got his draft notice. He should have had some sort of deferment for teaching in a public school, but somehow it didn’t play out that way, and now he was in Viet Nam checking out the daily shit burning ritual.

He was a good guy with a sly, understated sense of humor. I told him about the acid, and he looked off in the distance. “Hey Waters! You remember Sandrigo telling us he would send us LSD, right?” Waters smirked. “Yeah, but I didn’t know it was an acid.” I had no idea what he was talking about. “Huh?” I responded. Waters sounded serious. “Do you know what the pH value of that shit is?” He laughed at my ignorance or his cleverness. “Waters, what the fuck are you talkin’ about?” Waters put his long arm over my shoulder and said, “Adin, you’ve gotta cool out and not get so emotional about everything. Bad for your health. So when are we going to take it?” He smiled as he turned back to watch the shit burners just as they were torching it. I wandered off wondering why everything had to be so complicated.

We went on the uneventful patrol, spending hours whispering about what a ‘trip’ might be like. We were lucky we weren’t ambushed.

Back at the Fire Support Base [FSB] we were each assigned to a bunker or fire tower at the perimeter each night when we weren’t out doing something else. Two troopers at each location, two hours on, two hours off. There was no way for us to drop the LSD together. It had been quiet for a few days, and nothing was going on in the area except for our continuous artillery fire, out going.

Just before we were taking off for perimeter guard we gathered up, and I ripped the blotter paper into six pieces. We all popped them in our mouths and took off.

About an hour later I was tripping. In the darkness I was watching my red, glowing blood flowing through the veins in my hands. Suddenly my wired telephone handset rang. It was Duncan. He sounded a little weird: his voice had multiple echos. “Adin, I'm trippin’.” “Yeah me too,” I answered. After that Duncan’s words poured over each other in some echo chamber, and I couldn’t understand him. Duncan’s call was followed by Bamberg, Smitty, Waters, and Rendon. I recall some panic setting in when Smitty asked what we would do if we were attacked. Someone thought it was funny and began laughing hysterically when I put the phone handset in its cradle. I was laughing so hard I was crying and was gasping for air, when the loudest crack I had ever heard in my life bounced me against the sandbag walls of the bunker. The bunker partially collapsed around me, and I was stuck in the stinking, old, moldy sandbags. Cracks and explosions followed one after another. I looked at my watch again and again, but I couldn’t tell the time because I had forgotten what ‘time’ meant. After either minutes or hours, I realized it didn’t matter. I clawed my way from under the bags, and crawled into a corner of the bunker when suddenly it was sunrise. Even the sunglasses I wore day and night couldn’t stop the sun from going into my eyes and coming out the back of my head. I looked out through the gun port and saw Sgt. Waring, our platoon sergeant, jogging towards me. I could hear the sirens, the Hueys medevacing the wounded out, and all the screams and hollering that follow a heavy rocket attack. The acid was wearing off, and Waring was coming to arrest me and send me to jail. It was all over for me and my fellow dwarves.

“Adin, what the fuck are you doin’ in there? Get out and help for chrissakes! Do something. Now, I said! Find your squad and do a headcount.” I gathered up my shit and walked out into blinding, brilliant sunshine.

A few weeks later at mail call, I got another letter from Sandrigo. At first, I was going to tear it up into a million pieces. I noticed the return address had his name on it. I opened it, and in between two index cards was a photo. The note on the card read, “It's taking longer than I thought to grow my hair back. But I'm still cooler than you.”

Sandrigo, San Franciso, 1969

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