(Vietnam Legacy Project)
The Saigon Post, September 18, 1971
Steel Pot in a Marijuana Convoy
On the road in Vietnam
Riding convoy on the main paved highway is all right, so far. The dirt road coming later is what you think about. To reach the Firebase you travel through ten klicks of first-class ambush country along that dirt road. The mud and dirt will be good for mines, too.
Outside the main gate of the base camp, along the big paved highway, the vehicles are lined up, ready to go. Everybody has a weapon, a steel pot and a flak jacket. The machine gun jeep up ahead is ready to give the signal. The morning sun is getting hotter and heavier. You're riding shotgun in a deuce-and-a-half truck with a 19-year old Spec 4 named Steve. He is friendly, a little jumpy and nervous, and in his way very innocent.
You don't expect him to spring a joint on you right out here on the road. Steve comes from a Chicago blue collar family, a strictly non-hippie background, you might say. He seems very young, but not without a certain maturity. He knows about ambushes and mines from personal experience. Acne blemishes parts of his face and his turned-up nose. He swears he never had those pimples till coming in-country.
Steve drives this supply truck every day---mornings out to the Firebase, afternoons back to base camp. He goes home in two months. His manner of talking is jumpy and intense.
"Some guys count each day," he says, reaching for the rolled joint in his pocket. "Not me. It's better not to think about it, not get your mind in a bind. I just do my job and try to hang loose with the lifers."
At the wheel he gestures. He says something cheerful, as though concerned for your welfare. "Want a drag?"
No, you didn't smoke this early in the morning, but thanks anyway.
He seems disappointed, but just a little. Despite his unsophisticated working class background, a certain politeness or innate discretion keeps him from asking whether you really smoke the weed or not. He tends to be jumpy and restless, but you find him sympathetic.
Up ahead the jeep escort with machine gun decides everything is ready. The motors of seven two-and-a-half ton trucks roar. G.I.'s insert ammo clips into automatic rifles. Some hastily finish a can of cola.
Steve holds back from lighting up until well after the convoy starts rolling. You don't know whether anyone else in the other vehicles is smoking 'grass' on this trip. Maybe yes, maybe no. Many are smoking what look like conventional cigarettes.
Forty klicks, or kilometers, to the Firebase in the forest. The highway here is well-paved and full of military traffic, motorbikes and three-wheeled Lambretta mini-buses that carry Vietnamese civilians. The convoy's first thirty kilometers will run along this good highway. It's considered secure by daylight. There are no commercial billboards around here. One of the few signs is a message to the Viet Cong, calling on them to join the Government's chieu hoi program, i.e, to defect. You don't know whether the Viet Cong read that sign mainly by day or at night.
When the convoy halts for a short while, Steve lights up.
"Sure you don't want a drag?" he says, offering the joint.
You play the resisting square again. A sweet pungent odor floats through the cab.
"Steve, the folks say they want to know why guys like you smoke it, especially in this kind of neighborhood."
"Man," Steve says, "you got to. I might go psycho if I didn't."
He says it in that nervous jumpy way, as if he's also trying to convince himself.
He is supposed to put on his steel pot and heavy flak jacket despite the heat. He doesn't. That would be too hot, stifling, uncomfortable.
"The Army has all kinds of stupid regulations," he says. "Nobody can hack it all. Not me, anyway."
You've heard about stupid Army regulations, but you're not sure that this is one of them. Your own helmet feels too heavy and umcomfortable, but you keep it right up there, on your head.
The last ten klicks will be mud, off the highway and into the woods. It can never be as secure as a paved highway. But that's still far away. Right now the only pot Steve wants is the kind you smoke. We have to raise our voices because of the grueling motor noise. Everything in the Army seems extra noisy. Steve holds the big steering wheel with one hand and reaches for his steel helmet. He sets it between us, suddenly remembering something. He turns it upside down so that it's like a bowl. He puts two grenades in the 'bowl'. These are six-second hand frags.
"Know how to use these?" he says, as though looking out for your welfare.
You get a ten-second refresher course. You listen and watch carefully.
Behind us in the truck is a little old mama-san, laughing. Some other Vietnamese folk are in there with her, crowded and snuggled against the supplies. Her head is pressed aganst the opening in the truck's cab. She works out at the Firebase. Mama-san no smoke pot, Mama-san chew betel nut. She smiles and eyes us, her face in a mild betel-nut glaze from the strong mixture. Red juice from what she's chewing stains her mouth and gold teeth. She smiles that big gold-toothed smile and talks to us. She talks as though we can understand what she's saying. Then she breaks out in an impish Vietnamese giggle.
Steve hollers above the noise. "Stop your playing, Mama-san, and give us some chocolate milk."
Steve puts away his unfinished joint, tries to watch the road, grapple with the gear stick and make her understand, all at the same time. Mama-san seems to understand. She gropes around, finally comes up with two quart cartons of chocolate milk. She puts them through the opening for us and giggles again.
It's cold, but how to drink it in this vibrating monster vehicle? We shake, rattle and sip. Will have to wait till the convoy stops again.
Soon it stops and we don't know why. They don't tell us anything. Somebody might have spotted something in the rubber trees, or in that banana grove. Maybe the LOACH helicopter radioed something to the RTO. Maybe it's just part of a start-stop pattern. Nobody tells us. But Steve decides to put on his flak jacket and stand his rifle upright against his door. You hope he's not stoned.
(To be continued)
Escaping Politically Correct
Escaping Politically Correct