Left Justified: Vietnam remembered, part three

This is the third installment of reminiscences of my friend Steve Bea, a Vietnam veteran, made for his nephew’s term paper. Steve is formerly of Rockford, now in Seattle:

“A tower was just a bunch of cubes of very light metal bars like aluminum, stacked on top of each other to as much as 200 feet. It was mostly air. The cubes were collapsible, and we could get a whole tower in the back of a couple pickup trucks. They were painted red and white so we looked like a bull’s-eye driving up a mountain highway. I wondered about that and was told the Viet Cong (the enemy) used our microwave dishes for their own communications, so they didn’t shoot at us. Don’t know if that’s true, but we drove off alone everywhere, and never got shot at.

“There was a little ladder inside each cube, but it was quicker just to scramble up the outside. The first time I went up three cubes (18 feet), I nearly wet my pants with fright (the cubes felt VERY flimsy). A week later, I was scurrying up 160 feet on the outside. You get used to anything. A tower almost crashed down with me on it. I could have been killed.

“Places I went to include Nha Trang, Ban Me Thuot, Dalat, Tuy Hoa, and bases with no town. I was stationed at a gigantic base called Cam Ranh Bay. That was safer than New Jersey. Vietnam was divided into four areas called ‘corps’ by the Army. This was all in II Corps. All those swamps were down south, in the ‘delta’ of the Mekong River.

“Saigon was south of me. I never saw it. Some of the famous battles were fought in I Corps, just north of me, like Khe Sanh (but before I was there).

“The Americans in Vietnam were said to be ‘advising’ the South how to ‘defend themselves’ from the VC. Once in Dalat, our team was training our South Vietnamese counterparts to build towers. Our sergeant was treating them like they were dumb, so pretty soon, they began to play dumb. The sergeant was getting red in the face showing them how to dig with a shovel, and they would hold it upside down and try to dig with the handle. That made him so angry he was sputtering, but he was too racist to say, ‘Here, you guys know this without me telling you.’ I smiled at one of them and said, ‘Looks like I’m going to do the digging today, huh?’ So, we American boys laid the concrete that day. Days later, we passed a tower that the Vietnamese had built without us. Perfect.

“Vietnam was the first place I ever knowingly ate rice. In Rockford, there’d been a ‘Chinese’ restaurant or two that had some awful thing called ‘chop suey,’ and I think even that didn’t have rice (had noodles). Now, I eat rice most days.

“Most Army buildings were wooden-framed with walls of mosquito netting. Very airy and cool. Full of cockroaches. Offices and barracks were all like that. Showers were co-ed: local girls who did chores around the camp would shower in the nude alongside me.

“Vietnam was full of kids. I remember them in their blue-and-white uniforms in a troop marching to school, just like a school bus but without the bus. I went to a Japanese movie full of sword fighting, and every time someone got stuck with a sword, all the boys would jump up holding their bellies, go ‘Aahhh!’ and fall in the aisle.

“Too soon, after only four months, I managed to get injured and sent out of Vietnam. Our barracks in Cam Ranh Bay was a stone’s throw from a glistening sandy ocean beach. There was a small reef, and we would go snorkeling, seeing the fish and sea snakes. I told you my war experience was not a bad one, didn’t I? Well, I slipped off a mossy rock about 12 inches high, and from the sound knew at once that I had broken my leg.”

Next week, I will conclude this story of my friend in Vietnam. I hope you are enjoying it as much as I.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

from the Aug 12-18, 2009 issue

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