88. Cash & Tailors

 

I climbed down a rope leading into the boat which would take us from our ship to the Qui Nhơn Harbor shore.  We didn’t tie up at any dock instead, the boat took us aground into the sand.  The trap/exit door opened up and we’d jump out onto Vietnamese soil.  We walked up the beach and into Qui Nhơn town.   

Being hyped up right from the start, I felt a little scared but it was certainly comforting knowing that I was never alone; we were always in one another’s company …mostly.  And as we walked, carefully at first, thoughts of what the Skipper and some of the Marines had told us, rushed to the forefront of my mind.

Absorbing the street scene crowded with men, women, children, the young and the old, I began to relax;  they were basically just people like me. There was plenty of street cooking which smelled amazing and lots of little shops and bars.  I felt eyes on me.

I’d see them waving in order to attract us into their shops.  Thinking of the families back home, I saw some things which interested me such as handmade trinkets, clothing, jewelry and the like.  

I detoured with a couple of the guys into one of these places, a tailor shop.  The tradesmen were Indians, like myself. Why I found this as a surprise, I do not know.

And perhaps we were obvious as new to the area because almost immediately, we were asked to join them in food and drink.   “Let’s talk, have something to eat and enjoy.” They actually closed the shop for a couple of hours.

After a shared meal and hearing the stories of where we came from originally, how we found ourselves in this little corner of the world etc., they asked us, “What can we do for you … what would you like to buy?”

From these Indian tailors, I would buy a couple of slacks.  As measurements were being taken I asked, ‘Aren’t you afraid to be here in this war zone?’  

The shopkeeper reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash from both pockets.  In his fairly decent English he explained, “Of course we’re scared sometimes but this is home.  If we must run suddenly, at least we have our money with us. My wife and kids do same. It’s how we handle.”   Fascinating, I remember thinking to myself.

After a much enjoyed evening in comforting hospitality of the locals, we knew it was getting late.  With the Skipper’s speech still fresh in my mind, it was definitely beach time.

Making my way there I remember looking at the sights along the way and thinking of the fun time ahead tomorrow.  At the shore we were just in time to hear a Marine’s voice blaring through a bullhorn, “Load ‘em up!”

Several of us to include guys from some of the other ships in the harbor, climbed aboard this fairly large boat and off we went.  Each various group would let them know which ship they had to return to. I called off the Trans Western.

Thank goodness for our Marines for in this dark night amongst all the boats anchored offshore, there was no way we ourselves would know which one was ours.  We arrived at our ship and quickly climbed up the rope ladder.

Myself and the other guys headed straight for the mess hall to raid the refrigerator and pantry for a late night snack before turning in.  The chef had tuna salad and fresh breads waiting to be turned into midnight sandwiches.

A full day it was and I was more than ready for some snuggling down in my bed.  That’s the sum of my first day in Vietnam. Not bad at all.

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86. Qui Nhơn Harbor

It was the 12th day and after many nautical miles into the Pacific Ocean, I’ve faced every day as a new adventure, which had up till now been spent in daily routine.  

I remember the announcement of land being spotted, blaring through the overhead speakers and my preconceptions seeping deeper into my veins, now even more than during the journey in this direction.  

We approach the 12 mile neutral zone, skirting Vietnam and the war region. I overheard, “Anything goes!” That sounded like a voice of experience talking: not comforting, yet exciting.

Entering this boundary I’m seeing lots of ships anchored off the Qui Nhơn Harbor shoreline.  Not one was docked at land and I already knew our ship would never go to shore either.  Once we received our ‘parking’ location anchor was dropped.

As our ship was one of the napalm carriers, there would be about a dozen Marine (the naval infantry) assigned to protect the cargo, us and of course the ship itself.  A couple of hours had passed before our assigned ‘on board’ armed guards arrived.  They’d stay with us now for as long as our ship was here in this ‘parking lot’.  

The Marines would rotate in 3 shifts throughout the course of the day and night.  Naturally it was our responsibility to feed these guys. They would eat in the main dining room so they didn’t fall under my care.  Remember I was assigned to my ship’s officers only.

As supplies were needed the Marines would come out to us in their boats and get what they needed at any given time.  Think floating super-store!

And as far as personal weapons already on our ship and to my knowledge, no one was armed save for our Skipper.  In retrospect I’m thinking perhaps the 1st Officers may have had guns as well, I should think. It made sense if they did but at the time I did not bother to think about it.  

As the crew and I were engaged in our duties later that afternoon, the ship’s Captain came down to into the dining room to brief us of our disposition. Remember there are no more than 30 of us on this entire ship and so the gathering was intimate.

The Skipper said to us, “Now you’re entitled to the combat zone paycheck.  During our time here, if the Việt Cộng take a shot at any of us, we’ll have it made,” he said with a smirk I couldn’t forget and finished that statement with, “…if we should survive.”

There had been no conversation with any family since leaving California and the thought of what the Skipper just said was resting bittersweet on my heart.  While thinking big bucks for my family, I really wasn’t looking forward to taking a bullet!

Looking into his eyes I felt our Skipper must’ve lived this scenario many times already.  “Keep your eyes and ears open at all times. Be sensible men, this is a different world. Always look over your shoulder … watch your ass!  I’m telling you, there’s no trusting anybody!”

He looked at all of us carefully and continued, “In your off time you are free to go ashore but you’d be wise to follow protocol.  Should you go into town and act stupid, like disobeying local law and obviously our own civilized sense of behavior, you’ve then made the decision to take your safety into your own hands and you are no longer protected under these United States War Zone Rules.  In other words, your ass is null and void!”

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85. Open Sea Routine

First full day out on the ocean and with the Golden Gate’s disappearance into the now east, so to had to go my thoughts of what’s to come.  Well, at least on hold in the back of my mind.

It was time to go full steam ahead in the expected routine of my job which has only slightly varied from when we were at docks.  The transition was smooth enough as far as I was concerned, demonstrating to the CS I knew my assignments very well.

After breakfast our Chief Steward calls a meeting of kitchen staff, chef included.  “Things change a little now that we’re out to sea, you’ll find the law is different than when we were at dock.  Trash of any kind and especially cigarette butts will never be disposed overboard, is that clear?  There is a proper place for everything and I do mean everything!”

He went on, “It’s now time to get dressed up real warm ’cause we’re gonna stock the deep freeze and the main refrigerators.”  Coats, beanies and gloves were provided and we quickly bundled up.

The supplies that were loaded prior now had to be put away in orderly fashion; items must be readily available.  Bottled water, juices, milk, meats, veggies, etc., no hassles and wasted time trying to locate anything.

“Consider one of the engine room guys coming into the kitchen for a drink or snack, they shouldn’t have to waste time searching for anything in the refrigerators, so organization is always priority,” the CS spoke as he pointed out where to place the various items.

The boxes were opened, the large freezer and fridge shelves were stocked and the empties were broke down flat, bundled and placed in the holding spot.  At the next port they’d be removed.  The dry pantry was handled the same way minus the coats, gloves and beanies of course!

3rd day – our Chief Steward calls everybody to gather.  We would now receive instructions for handling a case of emergency.  An alarm was sounded. “Line up on deck and wait for the 1st or 2nd Officer’s instructions.”  

In each of our cabins there was a life jacket for every individual.  “Do not stop to put it on.  Grab it and get topside asap!  You can put it on as you go or once you are up on deck.   We will do this drill every third day.”  

I realized quick enough we’d be eating real good on this ship.  You say you feel like having a pork chop, the kitchen obliged by sending out a hot plate with about a half a dozen of ‘em!  There was no chance of anyone dining alone because someone would catch a whiff and be beside you in no time flat, sharing in the delights.

Away from the kitchen CS had the linen closet key so I always had to ask for that; seems like we had greater concerns than to worry about linens disappearing – oh well.  At least three times a week I’d change out the sheets and towels I used, all of us being responsible for our own.

Making certain the Skipper’s quarters were always clean and amply stocked with the necessities for his comfort was another factor of my duties; remember he was my personal assignment.

Daily routine breakfasts, lunches and dinners.  Once in a while the Skipper would make casual conversation with me.  I was the only Hindu person on board his ship and he asked me if I was actually from India.  I shared with him the short version of being born and raised in the Fiji Islands.  He was kind enough and for his liking, our Captain soon nicknamed me ‘Fiji’.

Coming out from one of the cabins, Nancy Sinatra’s hit single, “These Boots Are Made For Walking” sounded throughout the corridor -other tunes too but that one several times a day.  

Two of the deckhands, a middle-aged man and his son from the southeastern U.S. were the occupants of that cabin and this seemed be their favorite song.  It didn’t take long for that tune to stick like flypaper in my brain and to this day, it surfaces at the funniest of times.

My break after the lunch service was always a breeze, kickin’ it on the aft deck.  Often I’d get to see various fish leaping from the water and capturing my attention.  Otherwise I gave in to a sea of thoughts.  And in the evenings I anticipated with great pleasure, the sunset.

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These Boots Are Made For Walkingreleased in November of 1965 and was written by Lee Hazelwood.  By the end of January, 1966 it had topped the charts taking over the  #1 spot in both the U.S. and the U.K.  Cinema utilized the song in Full Metal Jacket, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and most recently in Ocean’s 8, just to name a few.