Chapter One

“Send us a picture of you in your Army costume.” —In a letter from my mother

I watched the Crew Chief throw his shoulder violently against the door. Three, four, five times. It wouldn’t budge. I said “door,” but I guess they called it a “hatch.” It was the way we got in and out of this Air Force C-130 that carried about sixty of us to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, in August of 1971.

It was so hot, the rubber seal on the door—the hatch—became tacky and nearly glued shut. The Crew Chief continued to hammer away at it. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” I thought, “if we can’t get out. If we’re trapped forever inside this stinking cocoon, never to help protect South Vietnam from the creeping tyranny of Communism.” But soon I heard as it started to give and finally opened with a sucking sound, like pulling a boot out of the mud.

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It was as if he opened the door to hell. A shaft of brilliant, blinding sunlight shot through the opening and ricocheted back and forth off the bare metal walls. The intolerable heat rushed out to make room for the much worse heat that rushed in. It brought with it the smell of war—acrid smoke, exhaust fumes, jet fuel, and spent gunpowder. And the racket of war—aircraft engines, trucks, generators, and men shouting to be heard over the din. The heat, stench, noise, confusion—it was hell all right. Even more than I knew.

Insecurity, uncertainty, inadequacy, fear, anxiety, phobia, and human frailty washed over me like an avalanche. Who would think they’d send me to Vietnam? What use could a brand-new high school graduate be?

Weeks ago, in boot camp, a rumor said you shouldn’t do well at the rifle range. If you scored well, gossip had it, you went right to Vietnam. Our drill sergeant laughed it off. “That’s a G.I.’s rumor that’s gone around since Christ was a corporal,” he said. “Just do your best. It’s got nothing to do with your assignment.” So, I scored really well. Now, here I was. Army humor.

I never before heard of “MAC-V”—the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. I first heard the word as I checked in at the Tan Son Nhut Orderly Room. A clerk looked through my personnel folder. “Private Albert Costas?” he asked and looked at me for confirmation. I nodded. “Not much here,” he said, leafing through the skinny sheaf of papers. “New to the Army, eh? And assigned to MAC-V Headquarters, no less. Beginner’s luck.” He assigned me to a “hootch,” which he said was what they called the barracks. “Drop off your duffle bag and gear at your hootch,” he said, “and then report to the MAC-V compound.”

“What’s a MAC-V?” I asked.

The clerk smirked and shook his head. He turned to holler to a guy at the other end of the room. “Hey, Lou! This kid wants to know what’s a MAC-V!” Lou, the clerk, and several others in the room enjoyed a good laugh. A Master Sergeant in a small adjoining room got up from his desk and looked in through the doorway to see whom they were talking about.

“Just go to the compound,” the clerk said. “It’s at the southeast corner of the base. They’ll tell you what a MAC-V is.”

I decided not to ask him which way was southeast.

Next, I enjoyed another nugget of Army humor. When you saw a new guy carrying a duffle bag, it was considered high comedy to give him bad directions. By the time I zeroed in on my hootch, I walked through most of Tan Son Nhut. My duffle bag seemed redoubled in size and weight. Some of my own body weight turned into sweat, which soaked my clothes and did not evaporate because of the humidity.

The “hootch” was a wood frame with a roof. If you threw together the quickest, cheapest possible structure to give marginal protection from insects, partial cover from rain, little relief from heat, and no thought to privacy, you had yourself a hootch. Window screen covered the frame to keep out bugs. The lower half had slats angled out to shed rain and spaced for ventilation. A two-by-four propped open a hinged steel shutter. Remove the prop and the shutter closed against rain, which sometimes moved sideways. The floor of the hootch was about four feet above the ground to keep us dry during monsoon season flooding and to keep snakes, centipedes, and scorpions from getting in.

These were also good Army jokes. Air at Tan Son Nhut did not move. The air inside and the air outside were, as the Vietnamese said, “same-same.” Monsoon floods routinely reached five feet. I often saw snakes, centipedes, and scorpions inside hootches, and I never saw them outside. Centipedes and scorpions simply climbed the stilts that supported the buildings. Snakes were driven to more heroic efforts—driven by their appetite for the rats and field mice that hid in storage areas above the ceiling. The rats and field mice were there for the cake and cookie crumbs that fell out of packages from home.

My hootch was empty except for one guy asleep under a blanket. Why would anyone want a blanket in this heat? It seemed that hammocks hung over the eight bunks, but it turned out to be mosquito netting. At night, you draped the netting down and around your bunk and tucked it under the mattress. Holes in this Korean War-era netting let the smarter mosquitoes find their way in to bite you and maybe give you malaria. But they were not so smart they could find their way back out, so they were trapped inside to dine on you until you set them free in the morning.

Four metal bunks on each side of the room formed an aisle down the center. At the foot of each bunk was a wooden box, appropriately called a “footlocker.” The bunk with a bare mattress and empty footlocker was obviously for me. I put my duffle bag on the bunk and pried my fingers from the grip. A crisscross pattern from the canvas strap embossed my hand for several hours afterward. I then set out to find out what a MAC-V was.

I liked the sound of the title “Assistance Command.” I imagined it meant the organization helped the South Vietnamese in some way like building roads and schools. I soon learned our “assistance” was to do only with killing enemy soldiers, because MAC-V was the in-country tactical headquarters for combat operations.

As I wandered around looking for the southeast corner of Tan Son Nhut, I flashed on a poster I saw in my recruiter’s office. It showed an erect, square-jawed soldier in a crisp uniform. From across the street, a pretty girl looked him over. You could see the Eiffel Tower in the background.