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Vietnamese Joy Ride

At Sea — February 2000

The infantry company I belonged to in early 1969 was spending about a week in Qua Viet, a little R&R port near what was then the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Vietnam. Prior to our arrival in Qua Viet, we'd talked about the place for weeks. It had a wondrous reputation. Showers. Soap. Movies every night. Hot chow served on paper plates in a Navy mess hall. Cots. Tin-roofed hootches with screens to keep the bugs out. And all we had to do to earn our keep in this riverine paradise was provide our host, the U. S. Navy, with a three-man ambush team every evening. Each team would ride up the Qua Viet River onboard a Navy patrol boat, get dropped off at some predetermined spot, bushwhack to another predetermined spot or ambush position, and wait all night for some hapless Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars to fall by. If none did, which was quite likely in this relatively secure area, the team would come back to Qua Viet by boat the next morning, safe and sound.

Although I was a medic and technically a noncombatant, I volunteered to be an extra on the first ambush team, partly because I was new in the company and wanted to prove myself and partly because of the boat ride--I'd always loved boat rides. Sergeant Kirstedder, the noncom in charge of the first team, went along with me, believing having an additional guy along--especially a medic--on such an operation was cool.

So four, instead of three of us, assembled alongside the olive-drab patrol boat that first evening: Kirstedder, a crack-shot from Kentucky named Davis, a muscle-bound soul brother from New Jersey called Suggs, and me. The trip up the river was both dramatic and dream-like. A farm kid from northern New York State, I was enthralled by the patrol boat. The hull and decks were fiberglass, a novel material to me at the time and a far cry from the riveted-aluminum skiffs and jonboats I was used to on the lakes and rivers of the Adirondacks. Propulsion was derived from two big Caterpillar diesels bolted to monster waterjets that made the riverbanks sweep swiftly past like the backdrop to some exotic, green and golden travel documentary with the occasional grass hut or sampan thrown in. The armament onboard was impressive as well. One of the Navy guys demo'd his twin, stern-mounted .50-caliber machine guns for us, firing into the trees, the shell casings cascading onto the deck like chiming bells.

The sun settled onto the horizon and the shadows lengthened as the jungle gave way to broad fields that stretched off toward distant mountains, somber and ethereal. As we reached our "insertion point," the coxswain nosed our bow up into the reeds at the water's edge, and we jumped off the foredeck into the smelly mud and slogged ashore. The boat withdrew quietly and headed back down river, leaving us alone. After briefly checking for leeches and waiting while Kirstedder examined his topographic map, we set off for the place where we were supposed to set up our ambush, a Buddhist graveyard a few "klicks" or kilometers to the east.

"A graveyard?" inquired Suggs accusingly. Laying in wait for enemy soldiers in a cemetery, especially a Buddhist one, had no appeal for him. Bad karma.

"Yeah, a graveyard," replied Kirstedder, a man for whom orders were orders.

Buddhist cemeteries in Vietnam are unlike most cemeteries in America: the graves are circular and scooped out, like eight-foot rice bowls in the ground, with mounds in the middle. When we finally got to where we needed to be, we set out our portable Claymore mines across a likely trail or path, ensconced ourselves in one of the graves directly behind the mines, and came up with a typical roster of watches. Each man would keep a two-hour vigil, with the Claymore detonators at the ready, while the others tried to sleep. I drew the first watch, as luck would have it, and my time passed uneventfully. Suggs took over from me, and I nodded off about 10 o'clock to the sound of him calling in a situation report on our radio.

"Everythin' cool, man," he whispered into the handset.

The next thing I remember, somebody was shaking my arm. "Wake up, Doc...gooks," whispered Kirstedder hoarsely, using a stupid racist term I didn't care for then--and I include it now only for the sake of historical accuracy.

Other hoarse whispers filled me in. Something out there in the night was throwing stones into our grave, apparently with explorational intent. Suggs and Davis were of the opinion that the source of the stones, which were coming in every 15 minutes or so with a mysterious "tunk," was a monkey or "rock ape" with a twisted sense of humor. Kirstedder was convinced that the stones were being thrown by an enemy point man trying to draw fire. One muzzle flash would be enough to give away our position, a potentially fatal mistake when dealing with an opposing force of undetermined strength--a force that might conceivably be intent upon ambushing the ambushers.

My state of mind soon became a paradoxical one. On the one hand, I was terrified, way beyond any terror I'd ever known. On the other, I was absolutely, self-forgetfully focused, almost ecstatically obsessed.

Tunk. Tunk. Tunk. It went on for maybe an hour or so. Then finally, anticlimactically, the stones stopped coming. Eventually all we could hear were the whirrs of insects and the sounds of our own shallow, highly controlled exhalations. With dawn came enough light to conduct an examination of the surrounding ground, an exercise that produced no tracks or traces of enemy soldiers. Although there was no way to determine the source of the stones that had heckled us during the night, the most plausible explanation seemed to be the monkey/rock ape scenario proposed by Suggs and Davis.

The boat ride back to Qua Viet that morning was--and remains to this day--about the best boat ride of my life. It was a veritable joy ride, a scene from a heroic movie with me as the star. I felt like I'd proven myself to those around me, under conditions pretty darn close to combat. The abject horrors of the real firefights and battles would all but wipe out our whole company over the next few months and show me how grossly naive I'd been. But this day I reveled in my illusion on the gorgeous Qua Viet River and the beauty of the long sinuous wake we were leaving upon its lime-green surface.

This article originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.