Humor saved my life.
This is me at age 20, after several months in the Mekong Delta of the country that was then known as the Republic of Viet Nam. I appear exhausted, sleep-deprived, demoralized. Appearances deceive, although it’s true…I wasn’t sleeping a lot in those days. We were usually on nocturnal patrols and slept in shifts, on-and-off guard duty at the intersection of earthen dikes that kept water within the rice paddies.
Our mission: To disrupt any nighttime activity among the local natives, many of whom were Viet Cong, or, the invaders from the north in the form of the North Vietnamese Army regulars.
We were the invaders from America. And our mission was accomplished, on the micro- level of having disrupted any semblance of quiet nights in the tropics. There were no dark hours that didn’t have a soundtrack of Huey gunships flying near and away, .50-caliber machine gun fire from the horizon, 105mm artillery rounds exploding out of howitzers on the perimeters, and the distant rolling thunder of the Arc Light, our B-52s disrupting the Ho Chi Minh Trail just over the border in Cambodia. If the monsoon season had not yet arrived to blacken the night with constant rainfall, we could see the glow of the 500- and 1000-pound bombs as they were programmed to detonate a couple hundred feet above the target, to maximize the concussion and dispersal of steel fragments among the foot soldiers on the ground. Closer, we watch the animated dotted line of orange .30-caliber tracer rounds connect the airborne Cobra gunships to their target hidden among the mangrove palm along the river banks and canals. If we’re fortunate enough to get to pull duty within the base camp, there’s the crackling static of the radio telephones relaying status updates to battalion HQ, and the booming WH-O-O-SH of the mortar tubes pitching 81mm containers of destruction a quarter-mile into the night.
Sleep-deprived, Roger that. But exhausted, demoralized? Nah… we were appreciating too much humor in the absurdity.
Many of us had already read Joseph Heller’s CATCH 22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, comparing the authors’ personal experiences in the European Theater of WW2 with our day-to-day fears and hijinks. We claimed the absurdity of killing in order to win the “hearts and minds” as a daily mantra.
Daytime for us in the Mekong Delta included strolls through village markets and the street vendors of the Long An provincial capital, Tan An. We found amusement with the barefoot boys outside their dirt-floor huts. And often copped sealed baggies of finely chopped local weed from silk-pajama’d cowboys on Lambretta scooters. I’d hitchhike up Highway 4 for a night in a Saigon hotel built during the colonial French occupation. One morning I awoke to see a lizard scaling down the plaster wall by the open window.
We witnessed the out-of-the-ordinary as a common occurrence. Once we found a severed hand. Often some barefoot boys called out to get our attention, “YOU-YOU,” to show us how they tethered a foot-long centipede to a length of twine, as if to walk their pet bug on a leash, almost as long as this…
But the humor, for me, began before I arrived in-country, while I was in the air, October 31, 1968, en route to Cam Ranh Bay with over 200 other GIs. It was a somber bunch, very little conversation was heard, just sporadic jokes, subdued in volume. We all hoped that in 12 months we’d be in flight again, returning to “the world,” as our homeland was called. But below the grim surface of our expressions, we knew some would be shipped home in caskets, a statistical certainty.
Except me. The flight was longer than any I’d ever flown, 18-hours or so, so I packed a book. The comic, Lenny Bruce, had not been cold in the ground for long, and his reputation as a martyr for free speech was still fervent. I brought along THE ESSENTIAL LENNY BRUCE, a compendium of his various nightclub shticks, and one in particular send me into convulsive guffaws and repetitive cackling. Lenny wrote a stand-up bit titled “Goldwater Talks to Negroes,” a verbal confrontation between a militant black activist and Senator Barry Goldwater, with Lenny mouthing the lines of both characters. It was hilarious, even when I re-read the script two, three, four more times, and every trooper on that Boeing 737 flying us westward to the East focused on my uncontrolled laughter.
But I’m convinced that my ability to laugh and see humor in the mundane served as my guardian angel for the next seven months, until I was sent skyward by a the eruption of a buried grenade as I walked point on a daytime patrol in a clearing a little too close to resting NVA regulars and/or a hidden arms cache. I left some of my flesh in the dirt and got choppered out to a field hospital for treatment, but it was what we called a “Million Dollar Wound,” injured, incapacitated, but not maimed. My ticket back to “the world.”
Within two weeks of my plane ride with Lenny Bruce, once I was settled into my combat unit, one of my seasoned platoon-mates who had been in-country since the historic Tet Offensive that sucker-punched the US Armed Forces assured me one morning, as we returned to base from an overnight ambush patrol, that I’d be ok. “You’ll make it,” Dan Tycer confidently comforted me. He was right. Tycer had a sense of humor, too. On January 1, 1969, as the sun was just minutes shy of a New Year’s dawn, I lain on a paddy dike behind my M-60 as a column of 8-9 Vietnamese peasants approached our position. They seemed to us to be on the way back to their nearby hamlet. They were dressed as the local farming populace dressed, silk pajamas, long-sleeve tunics, straw hats. And they were armed with older rifles. One carried an RPG on his shoulder, a rocket-propelled-grenade effective as an anti-armored vehicle weapon. As they walked, they probably observed there were about 10-12 of us, most of whom were still sleeping as I was pulling guard duty. I’ll always wonder how they calculated their chances, as each and every one of them had to literally step over my machine gun, since I was at the junction of a Y-intersection of 3 dikes converging.
The patrol passed. My squad slowly stirred, but only one, Tycer, was aware of the potential peril that we just witnessed. I knew I didn’t want to pull the trigger, but I wondered if the Vietnamese would share my caution, once they walked far enough away to safely fire upon us. I was never sure of whose allegiance they held, Saigon’s or Hanoi’s. And Dan Tycer giggled, “I think they’re VC,” as he rolled over for final minutes to snooze.