This all got started in: I was a prisoner in a Mexican whorehouse,
followed by: A long time gone, how to brush your teeth in a combat zone,
Libber and I go to war, and fate takes a piss.
Chapter 7 in an E2 nightmare called REMFS.
Twenty-five seconds after it hit the trees, rotor blades scraping uselessly for sky, Mac’s slick exploded. His co-pilot, Whatshisface Donofrio, unlucky till the end, was already dead in his seat. The first burst of tracers rasping out of the jungle like hungry green snakes had breeched the canopy and blown his shit away.
Sucking it up, running on guts and instinct, Mac had popped his harness and dragged the badly-wounded gunner clear.
After that there was the small matter of putting out the fire that rearranged his face forever, evading the gooks—which took the better part of the night—and calling in the righteous fires of hell American-style after they dusted the two of them off the next morning.
More than two months to recoup in Japan, and on his first day back in the AO I bump into him down at the 91st Evac beach.
A nod, cool, and a hand extended. His left, the one unbandaged. His face looked like a big angry pink and black Brussels Sprout, but I could see his eyes back there and they were the same. Motherfucking Mac, back in the shit.
“Geezus, man,” (small talk, anything to keep the words from sticking at the sight of him, a human strike-anywhere match, walking) ”I thought they sent your ugly ass home!”
He shook his head, back and forth, slip-sliding in the middle of some private rhyme, smiling:
“They tried.” Shrugging: “Sin loi, GI.”
And that was the overture, the very first notes, actually, to Slick McHenry’s famously operatic career with my little in-country rock n roll band, The Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was the finale, the sad slow decline, however, that made you want to cry.
Mac’s father was a West Point Colonel running some kind of Top Secret Electronic Warfare R&D back at Fort Huachuca
. Little Spookhouse in the desert
. Mac Senior had an ax to grind with the Army I guess, ‘cause 85 per cent of the GI’s assigned to his section were Brothers. Spades. Spear-chuckers and porch-squatters. Inner-city ghetto geniuses who wore doo-rags on their days off, shared a taste for collard greens, and had IQ scores that shot through the roof
Mac Senior had complicated sniff-em and ship-em strings of officers and enlisted men running all the way back to every Basic Training Brigade in the Army. He, unlike most, didn’t believe in young men of any color getting wasted in dubious service to somebody else’s country. Vietnam was a crime in his eyes, but he was a lifer, Regular Army all the way, and after all, Nam was a helluva place to field-test your new electronic toys.
Mac Junior turned down a legacy West Point appointment because he was hungry for action, had a taste for weed, and didn’t like rules all that much. Basically all you had to do to fly choppers in Vietnam that late in the war was have reflexes like a mongoose and carry a death wish in your hip pocket next to your stash.
By the time he’d had his third bird shot out from under him, Mac was, you might say, in love. He couldn’t get enough of Nam. The light. The heat. The booze, the drugs, the women. The death. It isn’t something you can actually explain, and I’m not going to try to do that here either, but Mac loved that third world shit hole the way Clapton loves the blues. Who the fuck knows why?
His flying days were over by the time we hooked up again, but there was no way Mac was gonna go home. And I guess it was Mac Senior who had a lot to do with that too.
It was his right hand that was gone. His fingers were basically fused together, more or less, so Mac wedged his Ernie Ball Custom guitar picks into one of the extra cracks Charlie had given him for living and blasted out some of the sweetest tuneage this side of Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery. Hell, I’d have hired him for the band even if Capn Rock hadn’t ordered me to. It was like heaven must’ve sent him from above in 4/4 with a backbeat.
We changed our whole repertoire when Mac signed on. After what had been a steady diet of Grand Funk Railroad and Iron Butterfly, Kyle started doubling on organ (we had a little Farfisa Compact Duo with reverb that needed constant attention cause of the humidity) and pretty soon we were knocking back Motown riffs like eight balls in the corner pocket.
The highlight of Mac’s tour was a set we played with Miss Black America in front of eight thousand brothers and about two and a half hundred M.P.’s. I guess the brass was worried about a riot. With good reason. The brothers were pretty much out of control in Nam, particularly in the rear, and who could blame them? You’re 18, young, black and THERE, you know?
The Army made little nods of…acceptance…in their direction; I mean they had Black Grooming Products in the PX, for whatever that was worth. Stocked Hot Buttered Soul and Pharaoh Sanders. The problem was MOST of the bro’s were in the bush, trying to keep their asses intact; they needed pomade, styptic pencils and the latest grooves like geeks need steroids.
But assigning Mac to the JCS? That was genius. Today you’d call it WIN-WIN. Except for the way it ended.
The band won, cause we got a great new player. The GI’s won cause our music got better and we played more gigs, up to three a day before Laos got going and made choppers hard to find. The Brothers won because they felt like they were represented now, in this flaky garage band made up of lucky fucks who’d somehow gotten out of the bush alive.
And Mac won too. At least in the beginning.
I realize now that things started to go south around the Miss Black America show. There was a USO handshake tour in the audience for some reason. A gaggle of good-looking girls I didn’t recognize, models maybe, or celebrities who are famous for being famous. I don’t know how they got there, cause they didn’t go through Special Services. Flew in as a favor to somebody maybe.
That was the thing about Vietnam, you know? Shit just happened. With that many helicopters and fixed-wings in the air 24/7, you could be in Saigon for breakfast and some no-name dump of a ville north of Da Nang by lunch.
These little foxes were creating quite a fuss down in front, one black chick and maybe half a dozen white girls in miniskirts and tie-dye. Nobody ever introduced them from the stage or anything, and only a couple hundred guys seated immediately around them knew they were there, but it was enough. The MP’s had to start escorting some of the rowdier dudes away. With sticks n shit. You know how cops can be. Imagine Military cops. In a combat zone.
We finally had to cut the show short, which pissed the grunts off even more. Mac single-handedly (no pun intended) brought things back to order when he came back out and played a riff-for-riff version of Jimi’s Star-Spangled Banner. That kinda got peoples’ heads back on straight. Nothing like patriotism and rock n roll in a delicate situation.
After the show, some doofus Major brought the girls backstage. When the black chick was introduced to Mac, she pulled away, nervous. Couldn’t look at him. No hand. Fucked-up face. I mean everybody was cool, cause Mac was cooler, but, shit, here’s this young black girl and she can’t handle it. It was a USO hand shake tour! What the hell had they been doing in-country if they couldn’t handle a little collateral damage on the best guitar player they were ever likely to meet?
Well I’m an idiot too, you know? Always giving people the benefit of the doubt. I figured that laid-back kind of slooow thing that Mac had going was just his style, right? Black. Rock n roll guitar star. Seen a lotta shit. Nothin’ to prove. It was about three weeks after the USO incident that Kyle comes up to me:
“So we’re startin’ to get worried about Mac.”
“I mean I don’t wanna bum you out or anything…”
I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop:
Kyle takes a long drag on those chest-busting Camels he smokes:
“You know he uses, right?”
Ah man, I think to myself, don’t tell me that’s what this is gonna be about.
“Well…smoke, yeah. Little acid maybe. Speed—”
“No, man! Christ, Stover! What are you, blind?”
“No, Kyle, I am not blind. So he’s into—“
“Smack, man.” Big time. I been seeing it comin’ on since he got here.”
Now I have got a problem. This isn’t like, you know, your college roommate has a bad habit and you need to save him from himself.
This is the sort of thing—in the Army—that can rapidly get out of control and end up with everybody being court martialed.
I’m worried about Mac, of course, and I’m REALLY worried about the band, this sweet gig, and ME. I’m way worried about me, cause I don’t know what the fuck to do.
Kyle stubs out his Camel on the floor of my hootch, kind of in an accusing way, right? Picks up the butt and brushes at the remaining ashes there with his boot:
“Just thought you ought to know, NCOIC. He hurts.”
Non-commissioned officer in charge. Another name for asshole in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but heroin was all over Vietnam. You could buy it from twelve-year-olds who’d just as easily sell you a boot-legged Let It Be or ten minutes out back with their sisters.
Whatever the fuck you want, GI. Numbah One! You’re an American. You’re used to having things your own way. Here. Shoot this.
There was no shortage of death-delivery systems in Vietnam. In addition to the obvious weapons the likes of which the world had never seen before, there was a little pack of cigarettes in every box of C-rations we ate, for crying out loud. You could kill or die quick, or you could drag it out as long as it felt good to you.
Maybe it was all the drugs we were ALL doing—the alcohol, the Marlboros, the pot, the opium—the coffee, man, but I don’t think any of us were thinking straight. It’s for damned-sure I wasn’t.
I could’ve gone to Mac, confronted him, found a simpatico officer, a Doc at 91st Evac, maybe. I could’ve looked around for a professional at the very least. But I’m afraid what I did, instead, was cover my ass. Maybe I’d been in the army too long by then, and all I wanted was out.
I kept the band together as long as I could and then, one day, after he just couldn’t make a 0600 flight to LZ Waterloo, I got Mac fired. By his old man. I ratted him out to the one person who loved him more than anything.
Mac Senior sent a hand-picked Captain—black, handsome, straight as an arrow—to accompany home the unfortunate son who once upon a time had the whole world laid out at his feet.
“It’s all right, Stover,” he said to me, long distance from some place safe. “The only people who aren’t rats are in prison.”
I served out the rest of my tour uneventfully. The days ran together like sour milk on bread. Pretty soon there weren’t many GI’s left who even needed to be entertained.
I can’t tell you whether that was a good thing or not. My judgment’s never been the greatest anyway. All I know, after my year in hell, is that once you’re in the shit, nothing ever smells the same.
Next: LZ Waterloo
Back: Thanks For the Memory
- I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
- A long time gone
- How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
- Libber and I go to war
- Fate takes a piss
- Thanks For the Memory
- Back in the Shit
- LZ Waterloo
- Saturday Night, Numbah Ten
a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate
Combat Infantryman Badge
Firebase Mary Ann
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?
A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers