by Patrick Curran
I was tired, alone and on-call. It was the evening of 12 Nov. 1967 and I’d just returned from a river clearance operation on the Cua Viet River near the DMZ. The duty team was out on a call; I was the lone back-up and the cupboard was bare. I fried up a slice of Spam from a K ration can and opened my second cumshaw beer. Sure enough the field phone rang. It was Lt. Paul Derby, the Security Officer at Camp Tien Sha in Da Nang and a good friend. A sailor in the camp had pulled the pin from a live hand grenade and wanted to play a game of “hot potato.” Oh boy, I groaned, another sailor, who’d probably been drinking with a live grenade in his hand. I dropped what was left of a really bad Spam sandwich and raced across the camp.
Outside the barracks, a group of pissed off sailors surrounded Lt. Derby. He saw me, and waved me aside. Most of the sailors were deck hands who jockeyed supplies from big freighters in the harbor onto LSTs, and then into shore warehouses where they were rushed to the front–good guys.
“Hey Paul, what we got?”
“Like I said, a young sailor with a live grenade. Just returned from the Non Commissioned Officers (NCO) Club.”
“U.S., or ChiCom?”
“The boys here think it is U.S., the Mk-2 pineapple grenade.”
I felt my jaw tighten, then smiled, and pretended to relax. The Mk-2 was a deadly U.S. fragmentation grenade with a four second time delay. I paused as I flashed through a 3X5 card file in my head. Hum? The Mk-2 . . . the firing mechanism is triggered by a spring-loaded striker inside the grenade. Normally, the striker is held in place by the striker lever on top of the grenade, which is held in place by the safety pin. *1
“So, the pin is out?”
Paul frowned. “They say he pulled the pin and was waving the grenade around.”
“So, the pin is out, and his hand is around the striker lever?”
Again my mind was a blur of 3X5 cards in my memory bank. With the pin removed, there was nothing holding the spring-loaded striker in position, except the boy’s hand. If he lets go of the lever, the spring throws the striker down against the percussion cap. The impact ignites the cap, creating a small spark. The spark ignites slow-burning material in the fuze. In about four seconds . . . Kaboom!
“He’d been drinking?”
Paul winced. “Oh yeah. He threw the pin at one of his buddies. That damn sure emptied the barracks.”
“How long has he been in country?” I asked.
“Hard to say,” Paul whispered. “Maybe four or five months. He may be homesick . . . lonely . . . afraid . . . you know . . . they all are.”
Paul and I were like dorm counselors for young sailors. We knew a lot of them. We’d see them at the mess hall, or coming home drunk after a night of, a variant of backgammon, at the NCO Club, or at mail call clutching a letter from a sweetheart, maybe a Dear John.
“Did you get a name?” I asked.
“You know him, it’s ‘Freddy Fender.’”
Freddy Sanchez, nicknamed Fender, was a Tex-Mex cowboy-sailor from San Antonio, Texas, who played a mean guitar. Wringing wet he was maybe a hundred and twenty pounds with a damn nice tiger tattoo on his forearm, a man-child. Hell no, Freddy was no fragger he was a flamin’ patriot.
My only Spanish was bad and profane, but I’d give it a try. This was long before political correctness neutered street language. Shit any gangster callejero knew foul language was essential: for humor, for acting macho, for pissing off the other guy–so maybe, he’d crack up and not kick your ass. Viva the language of the street–el lenguaje de la calle. (il-ling-gwa-he)
“Hey Paul, is Freddy up for R&R?”
“I think so,” Paul sighed.
“Okay, I’m going in, keep everyone out.”
“Hola Freddy, it’s me Patricio, usted ano-amigo (your asshole friend).”
“And your cojones? (Your balls?)
“Fuerte! Like steeleys.”(Strong, like steel balls)
“Bueno! Bueno! So Freddy, I am coming in, so do not fucking let go of the cojone in your hand, por favor!
He was wedged in a corner of the barracks with a lost-look in his eyes–the look of someone who wanted to be saved. I’d seen it before. Shorty Lyons had just given me a picture of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam boy. Doctor Dinsmore, Shorty Lyons, and Chief Bureker risked their lives for Nyguyen Van Luong, a twenty-two year old ARVN soldier with an armed mortar in his chest. Perhaps, to make the world free for Democracy, more likely, because it was what they did, and it was the right thing to do. The picture was taken after Doctor Dinsmore removed a live mortar from the boy’s chest. There was a look in the boy’s eyes. Freddy had that look now.
As I edged into the room my mind was buzzing . . . four seconds from the release of the striker lever . . . tick . . . tick . . . the striker snaps down against the percussion cap . . . tick . . . tick Kaboom! Had I missed/failed this lesson in bomb school? What should I be doing? Then an image of Rob Bond, my good-time buddy and a grand-prankster flashed in my mind. He was coming in to relieve me in couple of weeks. Rob’s message was crystal clear . . . find humor in your fear, grasshopper. Shazam! The jester in me took hold.
“Hey Freddy, you ever hear the Alamo Mission bells ring in San Antonio on ¡Feliz Año Nuevo!(Happy New Year?)
Freddy chuckled. “You fucking gringo. The bells are broken, gone, vámonos con Pancho Villa!”
“Ha! Ha! Well anyway Freddy, my cojones are ringing right now, like the Alamo Mission bells! So please do not let go of the fucking grenade!”
As Freddy cracked up, I struck–like I’d been taught as a linebacker in high school. With my right hand, I locked-on to the wrist with the grenade, and lowered my shoulder as I bumped into him. We struggled as he fell back, finally releasing the grenade. I crushed the grenade in my hand as I teetered on my haunches. Eventually, I found a wire and jammed it in the safety pin hole. Muchas gracias bebe Jesus! To be clear, this was not an adult display of courage, more animal instinct, call it primal fear. Freddy looked relieved as he picked himself up.
“Freddy, mi amigo, pack your sea bag. You’re going on R&R.”
Lieutenant Derby smiled as I walked out of the barracks with the grenade firmly clasped in my hand.
“How’d that go?” He asked.
My eyes glazed over. “You don’t want to know.”
“Maybe,” he snapped, “but I am writing it up!”
After four years in the Navy, I landed back in San Francisco along with other returning vets. As we came off the plane, we were greeted by a group of long-haired, peace protestors chanting obscenities. I’d heard about hippies but had never seen one. Most of us vets had mixed feeling about Vietnam and war in general. The protestors chanted. “Anyone can fight in a war. It takes moral courage to resist a war.”
I smiled thinking of Freddy Fender. He’d written some funny songs about draft-resisters. Loosely translated-“Chili con carne es bueno, pero tus cohonses son suaves.” I think it was—Chili con carne is good, but your balls are soft). He played regularly at the Ace-Duecy Club and became known as “Pineapple Man.” But you see, nobody was normal in Vietnam.
I always wondered if the resisters knew something I didn’t? Hell, I wasn’t sure about Vietnam. Some said if Vietnam falls to Communism, so goes Southeast Asia–the domino theory. Others said it was just post-colonial empire building. Yet, I had seen millions of
tons of Russian and Chinese Weapons shipped down the Ho Chi Minh trail and along the Vietnam coastline. But what did I know? Maybe these enlightened hippies had a cutting edge therapy for post-traumatic stress? Maybe their protests, would help us exorcise our demons? I was reminded of my history professor back at UCSB who maintained–“Nation building is a long messy process.”
Coming home was like acclimating to a high altitude climb. I had to drink a lot of water, and climb down when I got dizzy. Oh, I learned to roll a joint and tried not to be “too uptight,” as I lived in the Haight-Ashbury and attended graduate school at San Francisco State. But I couldn’t let go of the dead and damaged comrades I’d left behind in the rice patties of Vietnam. Every time a door slammed, I crouched and reached for my .38 caliber pistol. But hey, this was San Francisco in the late ‘60s, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius! And UC Berkeley, home of the free-speech movement, was right across the bay.
There was no homecoming. I was quickly labeled a military-industrial-pig by privileged-hippie-professors and students alike. No ticker tape parade, or Johnny-comes-marching-home again welcome. Everywhere I heard Country Joe and the Fish singing: I Feel like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.
My hair grew longer; I dabbled with pot then returned to tequila shooters; I became a graduate student in Literature at San Francisco State; then moved over to Berkeley to live with law-school buddies, yet I hung out at City Lights bookstore in North Beach–ground zero for beatnik artists like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and a magnet for hippies. I lived between two worlds.
On 13 February 1969 to be precise, I received a package at our house at 9 Canyon Road in Berkeley, Calif. It was from Paul R. Ignatius, the Secretary of the Navy. It contained the Navy Commendation Medal for Heroic Achievement in Da Nang on 12 Nov. 1967. So, old Paul Derby had actually written up the grenade incident.
Heroic achievement? I don’t think so. Any do-right American would have done what I did.
Here I am, fifty-two years later trying to understand my 1968 homecoming. Meaning, it seems, is a quirky Goddess. I sit at my computer wondering. An ideologue is a person who believes very strongly in a particular principle, and claims to have moral courage. So how do ideologues decide which principles to believe in? How do they know if they are right? What is moral courage?
How about being willing to die for your beliefs? Then I thought, what did draft-dodgers fleeing to Canada sacrifice? Or, would it have taken moral courage to dodge the draft before D-Day, or after Pearl Harbor was bombed? And what earned ideologues the right to judge others? Sure it was complex. Good war, bad war? War, or peace at all costs? But still I wondered. Had my hippie friends set their house in order? Was my house in order?
All of this, here in 2019, leads me back to Doctor Dinsmore, Shorty Lyons, and Chief Bureker. They put their hearts and souls on the line for that young ARVN soldier with an armed mortar in his chest. Perhaps, to make the world free for Democracy, more likely, because it was the right thing to do.
As William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, said, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Not becoming nihilistic may be the courageous act of a life reclaimed–getting past the chaos and tragedy and rebuilding what’s broken within us–constant iterations, successive approximations, and endless acts of courage. Setting our house in order, again and again. Hoo-yah. PC
ELEVATE THE ARTS: Submit your personal story to [email protected] altitudemagazine.com. Upcoming Topic: WILD—December 2022 issue, due October 1. Stories should be approximately 250 words, and may be edited.