In the Mess Hall


Jerry A.G. Ericsson

© Jerry A.G. Ericsson 8/23/00


Specialist Underwood woke up, his mouth tasted like someone had shit in it, his head throbbed.  He looked around the room,  the floor was littered with beer cans, Stroz beer, the worst America has to offer.  Well he thought nothing but the best for the American fighting man.


He called Lee, his cute little Vietnamese house girl, she brought him his freshly laundered jungle fatigues (heavy starch) and spit-shined boots.  He dressed, while Lee turned her back to him, and giggled at his nakedness in the mirror.


“Lee, you lovely little wench,” he called, “Come over here and give me a little sugar!”


She came to him, and gave him a quick kiss on the lips, then ran giggling from the hooch, leaving him to finish dressing in peace.


Underwood left his room, out through the door, then walked down the pcp steel planking, between the wall of the barracks and the fifty-five gallon drums full of sand, with row after row of sandbags on top.  The drums and bags to protect the residents of the hooch from the shrapnel flying from the incoming rockets thoughtfully launched every night by the local cadre of the Viet Cong.  He walked across the compound to the mess hall, and followed the line of soldiers into the building, where he picked up his breakfast in the chow line, and joined Smitty and Robby at their favorite table, near the bay side window.


“What’s the good word,” he said as he sat at the table.  The morning conversation was well underway.


“Urich is fuckin  nuts, had to ride over to DBT East with him today, he was count’n cadence to the god damn three-quarter ton!” Smitty  shouted, taking his dew rag from his back pocket, and mopping the sweat from his forehead, catching  his pick and dropping it noisily to the floor.


“I know, saw him taking red sand and rubbing into his boots yesterday, and after Lee spent two hours putting just the right spit shine on them, the stupid SOB wants everyone in the House of Jacks to think he spends time in the boonies.” Replied Robby.


“I  wouldn’t screw around with those guys, they spend half their time in the field, and the other half in the ville screwing the whores, man, they would kick the living shit out of Urich if they thought he was trying to hide the fact that he is a REMF!’


Underwood sat down, trying to get a word in edgewise between his two breakfast buddies.  “Man, you see the  new 36K that checked in yesterday, man that dude must have been in the jungle for a long time, the Major came unglued when he saw that necklace the dude had on.”


“Necklace, what kind of fuckin necklace did he have, come on man spill it!” Smitty said.


“The dude was wearing a fucking necklace made of human ears he claims he cut one off each dink that he iced. There must have been a dozen of the damn dried up things, kind of looked a little like dried pig ears that the old man used to give the dogs when we went hunting.”


Robby reached over and mock-slapped Underwood on the right cheek, “What the Major do man?”


“Why he told that dude that those ears weren’t military issue, and that he had better dispose of them ‘promptly’ and get with the program if he didn’t want a free trip back to the boonies.”


Robby wiped the sweat off his forehead, the temp was already over a hundred degrees, and while he was acclimated to the heat, he still broke a sweat when it got that hot early in the morning.  “What unit did he transfer in from?”


“Big Red One!” Underwood replied, “Heard that they were so damn mean in the jungle that Tricky Dicky pulled the whole unit out of the Nam, just left the men to be transferred to other units where there were shortages, keeps him from having to draft more poor college boys!”


The three finished their powdered eggs and fried  Spam™, then leaned back and each made a show of how cool they could light up their cigarettes, Smitty drew out his Zippo and passed it around the table, then they leaned back and enjoyed the smoke.  Underwood looked out over Cam Rahn Bay, he could see the ships moving up to the docks where the navy would be busy unloading supplies for use in the war.  It looked so peaceful, he could almost forget that there was a war going on in this little corner of Indo China.


The breakfast now done the three soldiers left the mess hall, and reported off to their sections, Underwood to the Comm Center, Smitty to the Tactical Operations Center and Robby to the Switchboard room where he was an operator for Crane Switch, the telephone central for the 18th Engineer Brigade.


At the Commo Shack, Spec 4 Andrews reported to the Major, he left his necklace in his room at the commo hooch, just to satisfy the Major. He had no desire to go back to the boonies, hell he wanted to be a Remf, he knew he stood a better chance of living the next six months in the rear.


“Andrews, just wanted to welcome you to Brigade Commo, I think I will put you with the Switchboard crew, you remember how to operate the SB-86?” The Major said.


“Yes Sir, if it is anything like we learned back in commo school at Ft Lenordwood, I can.”

“Well we have it set up a little different, but I think you will get the idea, just join up with Specialist Robert’s, he will show you the ropes.  Remember, this is a Head Quarters unit, so there is a lot of brass around, from General Schroder on down, and they expect you to behave in a professional manner.  None of that boonie shit around here, and forget about the ears, damn, if the General saw that he would just shit!”


“Yes Sir,” Andrews said, he saluted the Major, then made a perfect military about face, and marched out of the Commo shack.  He made his way across the compound, and began his orientation with Robby in the switchboard room of the Tactical Operations Center.


The next morning, the three communicators met again at the Mess Hall.


“What you think of the new guy?” Asked  Underwood.


“The guy has his shit together, but he sure don’t have no use for wanna-be grunts, hope Urich stays out of his way, man, if they run into each-other it’s gonna be one hell of a fight.”


“Saw Urich out by the bunker behind the hooch, he was karate chopping the sand bags that cover the arms of the bunker, and kicking the bottom ones, I think that dude is loosing it.”


“I think Hanson was screwing with Urich’s head, he’s been telling him how he is a back belt in kung-Fu or some such shit.  Anyhow, Urich is buying into it heard Hason telling him how he had to toughen his hands up by working on the sand bags, then once he has the calluses, he will have to break his knuckles or some shit  like that.  Urich is about dumb enough to fall for it too, wouldn’t surprise me to see Urich with busted knuckles next week.”


The three sat back and enjoyed another quick smoke before starting their day, and like the day before, and the day before that, they went off to their respective sections to begin another boring day in the rear of Vietnam.


That night, the three met outside the hooch, and decided to take in the free movie, showed on a makeshift screen between two hooch’s.  They carried their lawn chairs from their rooms to the movie area, and sat back drinking Stroz beer, smoked their Kools, tossing their cigarette butts at John Wayne, as he fought his way across the Vietnam in The Green Barrets.  After the movie they decided to take the short walk down to the House of Jacks, where they flirted with the bar girls, and listened to the  Korean band play their favorite rock and roll songs.


“Just nothing like Proud Mary, as interpreted by a gook!” shouted  Underwood, over the loud music coming from the huge speakers on either side of the stage.


They were just putting the finishing touches of their forth pitcher of draft Stroz, when Urich walked in through the batwing doors that lead from the casino to the bar area.  He strutted over to their table and turning the chair around so the back was up against the table, made a great show of throwing one leg over the back then sat down, leaning his head on the back of the chair.


“What’s going on guys?” he asked.


“Nada” replied Smitty.


“Not a mother fucking thing!” chimed in Underwood.


The four communicators sat at the table for a short time, and all was quiet.  Pizza Lea came over from her pizza corner and offered the boys a pizza, “only two bucks” she quoted but the four weren’t all that hungry. The beer was to good, and music just to bad to spoil the moment with one of Lea’s crusty pizzas if there was one fact well known across the entire country of Vietnam, it was that the locals had no idea how to make a good American pizza.


“Think I’m going to the casino and pull the arm off a bandit for a little while, said Underwood, as he got up from the table, his two buddies got up with him, and the three went through the bat-wings into the casino area of the House of Jacks.  Urich stayed at the table, after all there was at least a half a pitcher of beer left and he couldn’t afford to pay for his own beer, he took the glass Smitty was drinking from filled it with the cool beer and chugged it down.  About that time, Andrews walked in.  This would be his first meeting with the wanna-be boonie-rat, a meeting neither of them will ever forget.


Seeing Urich setting alone, drinking beer, Andrews walked over, “Mind if I sit?” he asked.


“Pull up a chair, have a beer!”  replied Urich.


Andrews sat down, and filled one of the empty glasses from the pitcher.  He looked Urich over, from boots to boonie hat, he looked like he had just come in from the field.


“Been out on a Fire Base?” Andrews asked.


“Just got in from Dodge City!” boasted Urich.


Smitty, Underwood and Robby heard Urich, and came back into the bar area to see what was going to happen.


“Nice field knife.” Observed Andrews, indicating the knife that Urich kept attached to the left sleeve of his fatigues.


“Like it?” replied Urich, pulling the knife from its sheath and handing it to Andrews.


The three communicators found a table nearby, and sat down, so they could hear the banter.


Andrews turned the knife over in his hand, checking the balance, observing the finish.


“Looks like it is brand new.” He observed.


“Had it since I got to the Nam.”


“Never had to use it huh?”


“Used it plenty, just like keeping it clean!”


Andrews turned it over again, it still had a light coating of cosmolene on it, indicating it had never been washed.  The Parkerizing on the blade was still completely intact and a light green.  He knew the knife had never been used.


“Watcha do with it, open C-Rats?”


“Na, man, use it to chop ears of the dinks!” boasted Urcih.


Now Andrews knew damn well that Urich was a fraud, but he wanted to play with him a bit.


“Oh, you kill a lot of dinks have you?”


“Killed my share.” 


“So, what outfit you with?”


“Americal Division!”


“Americal, thought they were up north around I Corps, not down here in II corps.”


“Just a few of us down here on a special ops mission!”


Andrews couldn’t take it anymore, if there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was a wanna-be boonie-rat, Remfs were ok in his book, just so long as they didn’t claim to have seen action.  He jumped to his feet, and jumped over the table,  hitting Urich on the chest with his shoulder.  He sat on top of the wanna-be and slapped him across the face several times. 


“You fucking punk, you ain’t never been off this base, I can tell by your attitude.  You ain’t even gonna do this shit any more, or I’ll take this fuckin knife and push it blade first square up your ass!”


Andrews got up off the floor, turned and left the House of Jacks.


Urich pulled himself up off the floor, and walked over to the communicators table.


As he approached, the three got up and left the club.  Once outside the club, Robby produced an O-J (opium soaked joint) and lit up.  As they walked back to the commo hooch, the three smoked and joked about Urich.  By the time they walked the half-mile up the road to their hooch they had forgotten the fight, in fact they almost forgot where they were.


Three days later, Specialist Underwood walked into the Mess Hall, Smitty and Robby were already at their table, the two were quiet.  Neither said a word as Underwood joined them.  He poured some ketchup on his powdered eggs, and sprinkled pepper on the fried  Spam™, “Why so quiet?” he asked.


Smitty looked over the top of the black frames of his thick glasses.


“Ain’t you heard man!”


“Heard what, man I just woke up, it was a long night last night, I ran out of beer before midnight, didn’t get much sleep.”


“Man!” Smitty said, “Andrews caught Urich talkin shit to some FNG’s at the House of Jacks, kicked his ass then cut off his left ear with that damn knife Urich likes to play with!”


“Your shittn’ me, man, I thought Andrews was one bad dude, so what they gonna do with him?”


“Heard the Major was gonna court marshal his ass an’ send his ass down to LBJ!” chimed in Robby.


“Man! Long Bien Jail, that’s one bad mother fuckin’ place.  Knew a guy was locked up down there once.  He said they kept him in a damn Conex container with holes drilled in one side so a little air got through it, said it was over a hundred degrees in there at night, then it got hot when the sun came up!”  said Underwood.


“Just ain’t fucking right!” complained Smitty, “That Andrews is one all right dude.  There’s gotta be a way to get him out of this.


“Well, ain’t shit we can do now, gotta go to fucking work, man, lets get together after chow tonight, down at the House of Jacks, and see what we can figure out.”


“I’ll be there!” said Smitty.


“Me too!” chimed in Robby.


That night, they met at the House of Jacks.  Urich sat alone in a booth, eating a hamburger and fries, a large white bandage stood out on the right side of his head where his ear used to be.  Seems no one was able to find it after the fight, so it couldn’t be replaced.


The three communicators took a table on the other side of the room from Urich, where they could discuss their problem in confidence.


“I got an idea,” said Underwood.


“Let’s have it then,” replied Smitty.


“Now this is going to take a lot of work, but I think if we work fast we can get it done.”


The next evening,  around 8:00 PM, the company siren began to blow, and explosions rocked the camp.  Everyone headed quickly for the bunkers, except the three communicators and Andrews, who had been tipped off to the plan.


Smitty and Robby ran over to the General’s trailer house, and took up their positions behind the General’s bunker.  Andrews took up his near the entrance to the bunker, while Underwood stood near the door to the trailer.


Within a few minutes the all clear was blown on the siren, and the General along with Captain Tufts, his aide exited the bunker and walked toward the trailer house.  Smitty pulled the pin on a concussion grenade, and rolled it toward the rear of the trailer, while Robby tossed one toward the front.  Andrews came running from the front of the trailer, and tackled the General, pushing him back into the bunker.  Captain Tufts turned, and thinking Andrews was going to hurt the General, jumped on top of the two.  Underwood screamed at the top of his lungs “INCOMING” and hit the dirt.  At the same time, the two grenades exploded, completely destroying the trailer house, and putting Andrews at the top of the list of most favored soldiers in the General’s book.


Two weeks later, Specialist Forth Class Andrews stood before the company formation, the first ever in the history of the Headquarters Company 18th Engineer Brigade.  While the three communicators stood side by side in the Commo platoon, they could hardly keep the smile off their faces, as the General awarded Specialist Andrews the Silver Star with V device for saving the General’s life during an attack by enemy forces.


PFC Urich stood at the back of a duce and a half truck his duffel bag in hand while the ceremony neared completion. 

“Get your ass on the truck, we gotta get out to Fire Base Charlie before dark!”  Ordered the truck driver.