“Wait a minute! We’re landing in a park in Danang, and people are barbecuing? What kind of war is this? We’re Marines!” I shout to no one in particular. Only minutes ago the thought of arriving in war-torn Vietnam had worried me half-out of my mind—not the fear of going into battle but the lack of bullets for my rifle. What am I supposed to do? Throw my rifle at the Viet Cong and hope I score a direct hit . . . or use it to club’em to death?
We’ve been snookered, not by the Marine Corps but by the crew of the USNS Walker, a Merchant Marine troop carrier responsible for this sissy amphibious landing. Don’t these contract sailors know that we just finished the most intensive training ever—Brainwashing 101? We were taught to fight and die for our country, or somebody’s country, and these sea-going bellhops leave us at a picnic. I look out into the South China Sea as the Walker’s crew stands along the deck laughing and waving at us. This surrealistic, city park port of entry fails to hint of war taking place, but we all know there is skirmishing on the other side of the smoking barbecue pits.
The hundred-odd Army soldiers accompanying the Marines on the three-week voyage from San Diego are not processed at the park but are herded into trucks to be transported elsewhere. Some of these guys are probably taking their last rides in a vehicle, realizing, like me, that they may soon be dressed in fashionable plastic, body bags stuffed into airtight tin-containers for the silent trip home.
The Marines fare no better. We’re processing right then and there in the park, next to picnic tables and smoking pits. What a fine how-do-you-do— coming 10,000 miles to die from smoke inhalation! Only a military mind could plan such a farce. We stand there coughing.
“PFC Pancho, front and center! Pancho! Pancho! Answer up, Asshole!” The redneck sergeant pauses briefly to spit out a mouthful of tobacco juice. “Where the fuck are you?”
The tanned, unshaven sergeant, about 30 years old, wears a flak jacket over a green, spit-splattered T-shirt. He walks with a noticeable limp which he attempts to disguise as a shuffling ditty-bop by swinging his Devil-Dog tattooed arm in a big arc from front to back. Helmet cocked on one side of his head, he looks as if he’s swatting flies on his butt.
“Pancho!” the sergeant shouts. Pausing in front of each Marine, he looks at the name printed on the breast pocket of each utility shirt. Who the hell is this Pancho guy anyway? I grin as an image of Pancho Villa comes to me. I can almost hear him say, “What do you want, you dirty Gringo dog?”
I’ll bet Pancho was the Marine who had the heart attack right before we landed at the park. What a way to go—didn’t even get to hear the sound of gunfire. That thought is fleeting, however, as Sergeant Spittoon ditty-bops over to where I’m standing.
“There you are, you damned idiot,” the sergeant shouts in my face. “Answer up when I call your name!” I almost gag at the smell of his breath. He must have eaten some of that Vietnamese barbecued meat. During our jungle warfare training at Camp Pendleton, California, an old-salt instructor told us that the Vietnamese were known to eat dogs. The sergeant’s breath validated that story.
“You talking to me, Sarge?” I ask.
“Yeah, you, Pancho!” the sergeant barks. He spews pellets of spit past my face.
“My name isn’t Pancho, Sarge!”
“Well, you’re Pancho to me. Get in line over there.” He points to a small group of jarheads lined up in front of the table next to the largest pit.
“My name isn’t Pancho!” I shout. I ball my fists as I get ready to kick the shit out of this indignant peckerwood.
Spit starts to run down the side of the sergeant’s mouth as his jaw drops slowly. He looks surprised as hell. He places the pen he’s holding behind his ear, then brings his hand down to rest atop the .45 strapped to his waist. “Get over there, Marine!” he shouts. “I ain’t going to tell you again!” His calling me “Marine” is supposed to excuse his bigotry. Sarge knows he’s stepped in some deep shit. I spit on the ground and move toward the line.
I had lost my appetite two days out from Danang. The combination of rocking in a roiling sea and the thought of getting closer to the killing zone had made me too jittery to want food. Now I was getting hungry just standing in line and smelling the meat cooking in the pits. Funny. Who would’ve thought barbecued dog could make a taco bender’s mouth water?
After a long wait in line, I finally reach a young Marine sitting on a box behind the processing table. He uses his bandaged left arm to hold down the pages of a name roster. My first thought is to ask him about his arm, but I decide against it because in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.
“Name, rank and serial number!” The private never raises his head to look up at me.
I tell him. Then as an after-thought, I say, “and my name is not Pancho.” The private grins and nods his head, still not looking up.
“You’ll be assigned duty with Headquarters Company, 3rd Marines. That unit is here in Danang. Load your gear on Truck #4. God be with you. Next!” He continues to look down at the table. I almost expect him to genuflect as he sits there, head bowed. I don’t want to read too much into this, so I gather up my gear and head toward the truck, a deuce-and-a-half. I climb in the back and join about eight other Marines.
Along the way to our unit, we pass a squalid-looking village called Dog Patch. Some Vietnamese stand in the doorways of dilapidated buildings and shacks and some stand along the sides of the road. Some squat while straddling the sewer ditch to defecate. Only the newly-arrived Americans stare. Most of the buildings’ windows are covered with bamboo shades while others are covered with cardboard. A few of the windows sport old, faded Coca-Cola signs—symbols of the more successful villagers. They all stare at Truck #4 as it belches diesel fumes from its exhaust pipe. These people all look alike— emaciated faces incapable of smiling.
Camp Thien Shau, my new home, sits on the side of a hill. In contrast to Dog Patch, Thien Shau is an estate—manicured lawns in front of the officers’ billets, white painted rocks delineating pathways, and generally a pristine-looking place, like American military bases back in the world. The eight-hole outhouses at Thien Shau are modern marvels compared to the sewer ditches of Dog Patch.
I report to the 3rd Marines Command Post. After filling out necessary paperwork, Tom, the company clerk, takes four of us new guys to a vacant hootch, tin-roofed huts with plywood floors and wire-mesh walls—our new living quarters. Attached to the roof are long canvas sheets that can be rolled up or down, depending on the weather.
We are given the rest of the day to become familiar with the company’s billeting area and to square away our quarters. After spending three weeks on the Walker, this hootch looks mighty good. I stumble while attempting to climb the three stairs leading into the hootch. I still have my sea-legs. As though floating on water, I make it through the hatch without any problems.
I set up my cot, unpack my duffel bag, and hang my combat gear and rifle on nails left there by the previous transients. I lie down to rest for a few minutes. The feeling of being in motion nauseates me somewhat, but I fall asleep anyway, just like a baby in a swinging cradle.
I don’t know how long I slept when Marines yelling “Incoming!” and the sound of stampeding boots on the plywood floor shake me out of a catatonic state. Drooling and with eyes open as big as half-dollars, I get my ass up in a flash and run toward the hatch, following the dust trail left by assholes and belly-buttons, all headed into the bunkers located alongside the hootches.
Big mistake! I forget about my sea-legs. I run, half-leaning toward my right side, hit my shoulder on the corner of the hatchway, and spin as I exit. I completely miss the stairs and fall flat on my ass on the ground outside. In my current state of mind, coupled with my inability to run in a straight line, I crawl toward the bunker. This, too, becomes a problem as I try to avoid being stepped on by spooked stragglers. All the while, I hear screaming as Marines run by my crawling ass. They never once offer me a hand.
I hear the laughter of children as I make my mad dash—mad crawl—to the bunker. Children? I’ve heard that people revert to their childhoods right before they die. “Shit!” Am I dying? I’m not wounded, so I’m convinced the laughter doesn’t come from the mouths of children, but of angels. “Damn!” How pretentious even to think that angels are coming for me when I die. “I’m sorry, God.”
Once inside the bunker, we wait out the red alert. The sounds of heavy breathing and the crescendo of my thumping heartbeats pierce the silence.
“False alarm,” says one of the Marines in the bunker. “I hate this crap.” He stands up, dusts himself off, and exits the hole I later call purgatory.
I am the last one to step outside the bunker. As I walk back to my hootch, I look down the hill toward the road. Six young Vietnamese boys stand there watching me, laughing. The angels. The boys, dressed in shirt-sleeves and short pants, are barefooted. All six of them wear Marine Corps utility caps, perhaps given to them by soft-hearted jarheads prior to their rotating back to the world.
One of the boys, the only one wearing a black shirt, brings his feet together, snaps to attention, and salutes me. I look around to see if anyone is looking, and I return his salute.
The kid, leader of the pack, shouts, “Com eah, Moween!” I don’t respond to his request. Instead, I think back to Camp Pendleton during my time with the staging battalion and remember being told not to trust any Vietnamese, especially the children, for fear they might be booby-trapped. “Com eah, ese!”
Ese? I am surprised by his calling me Ese. This kid has been speaking to people from the Brown nation. In the barrio, ese means many things—guy, man, dude. I walk a little closer to the kid, then stop a few feet away.
“My nam Nguyen. You nam Vato!” the kid says and breaks into loud laughter.
I’m amused by this young boy, who looks to be about eight or nine years old. The other urchins seem to be about the same age as Nguyen.
“My nam Nguyen, you Vato!” he repeats.
I laugh. It’s evident that some Chicano Marine has been this way before me. Nguyen starts rattling off all the words he knows in Spanish, as if engaged in a real pachuco conversation with me. He succeeds in his attempt to impress me. I hadn’t had a good laugh since leaving LA, two weeks before boarding the Walker. I laugh again.
Back in LA, my buddies were “Red” Bayless from Detroit and “Bop City” Marman from North Carolina, two black dudes I met at staging battalion in Camp Pendleton. Both “Red” and “Bop City” knew a few phrases in Spanish—¿Que pasa? was one of them.
“¿Que pasa, Half-Breed?” they greeted me, pleased with themselves. I told them hundreds of times that ¿Que pasa? was a Puerto Rican term and not a Chicano one. Chicanos, at least in my barrio, always said ¿Que pasó? “Red” and “Bop City” didn’t give a shit. They said I was half black and half white. It was okay. At least they didn’t call me Pancho. And I had a nick-name for them, too.
“You bunch of ignorant cotton-pickers,” I’d say, each time they called me “Half-Breed.”
“¡Piscadores Negros!” Bayless invariably retorted. “Black cotton-pickers!” We’d always laugh.
The last time I saw Bayless and Marman was from the back of Truck #4 as it left the Welcome-to-Danang barbeque. They were eating C-rations crouched in the shade beneath the tailgate of #8. They waved
“¡Vayan con Dios, Amigos!” I shouted. “May God be with you!” I waved back; Spanish is wasted on them.
Not so with Nguyen and his gang. They all try to learn by imitating him. These kids remind me so much of the kids in my barrio, Las Colonias, in San Antonio. The street was their playground. Always dirty and dusty from our dirt driveways, those kids, like these, shared muddy smudges on their smiling faces. I start to get homesick. I stand there staring at the Vietnamese boys. Nguyen steps toward me.
“Hey, Vato? “Me, you, same-same!” Nguyen grins from ear to ear.
“What?” I don’t understand what the kid is trying to tell me.
“You, me, same-same. Com eah,” he said. He waves his hand in an up and down motion. It’s like waving good-bye but at stomach level. “Com eah!” he says again, waving his hand, more pronounced this time.
I walk over and stand right next to him. I am not afraid of him anymore.
“Same-same!” he keeps saying again and again, touching me on the arm, then touching his arm, then mine, then his.
I get it! I think Nguyen’s trying to tell me that he and I share the same skin color—brown. So I say, “Same-Same!” I touch his arm, then mine.
“Ya! Me, you, vatos, same-same, brudders!”
“Yes, Nguyen. We same-same, vatos, brothers!”
Nguyen grabs my hand and attempts to pull me toward the road. I balk.
“No, Nguyen. No can do. No can go across road. Captain say no,” I claim. I feel like an idiot talking like Tarzan. But I don’t know how else to say it. I feel like I’m making fun of the way Nguyen talks. Nguyen doesn’t care.
“You com my home, Vato. Mudder. Brudders. You eat. They same-same you. They like.” Nguyen continues to pull on my hand. “They same-same you, Vato.”
I like this kid. There is a war going on and he invites me to his home for dinner. But what Nguyen doesn’t know is that I wouldn’t go to his place for all the money in the world. No sir. Brainwashing 101 is too fresh.
“No, Nguyen. No can go. You stay here.” Nguyen squats down on his haunches and waits by the bunker. The other children run away, scattering in different directions along the many elevated berms lining the rice paddies across the road. I go into my hootch and return with a couple of cans of C-rations—Lima beans. I use my P-38, military-issued can opener to open the beans and show them to Nguyen.
“NO, VATO!” Nguyen jumps back as if I were holding a snake in my hand. “Number ten! No good. You eat number ten!” He covers his mouth with both hands. We both start laughing. I can’t understand why everyone seems to hate lima beans. I love them, especially with jalapeno peppers. Since I don’t have any peppers, I bring out a bottle of Tabasco sauce, just in case. But with Nguyen’s protest weighing heavily on me, I go back in and get three cans of beef and potatoes. I offer the P-38 to Nguyen to do-the-honors; he surprises me by pulling out a handful of the one inch openers from his pocket. After opening the cans, he adds the tool to his collection. As we sit on the ground sharing the military meal, he hugs me. Each one of us eats a can of rations.
“¡Oralé, Vato. Eso!” Nguyen says. I laugh. I’m amazed that Nguyen knows the meaning of eso (way to go). He never stops surprising me. “Vato, you no want?” Nguyen points to the remaining can.
“No, Vato. You eat.”
With that, Nguyen picks up one of the opened cans and runs toward the rice paddy across the road about a hundred yards away. At one point he stops running and hops on one leg as he retrieves the rubber sandal he lost as his foot hit the berm. We laugh. Nguyen runs up to an old man who squats at the edge of the paddy. The old Vietnamese tends his grazing water buffalo. Nguyen gives the old man the can of beef and potatoes. The kid turns around and points toward me. The man tips his straw hat and waves only once, and then pulls chopsticks from a burlap sack that hangs from his side and begins to eat. Nguyen runs back and sits next to me again. He continues to hug me. We sit looking at the old man as he finishes his food, puts the empty can and the chopsticks in the sack, and slowly walks away with his buffalo lumbering behind him.
“You number one, Nguyen.” I hold my index finger up.
“No, Vato. You number one.” Nguyen holds his finger high overhead as if pointing to the sky.
In the short time since meeting Nguyen, I’ve been able to relax more, and the war jitters have settled down. The kid would do well in my barrio.
I see my vato-brudder ten, fifteen more times during the coming month. Each time I give him a small gift—candy, C-rations, a few MPC—war dollars. To Nguyen, however, these gifts are treasures. They represent love and friendship, something far different from the war he’s always known in his young life. He thanks me with a hug. And he always holds his index finger high above his head and says, “You, number one!” It’s a ritual.
“You, me, vatos, brudders. Same-Same!” Nguyen never fails to greet me the same way every time. A couple of my hootch-mates like to rib me each time they see me talking to the kid. “He’s pulling the wool over your eyes, Pancho,” or “That kid is gonna kill you some day.”
I usually ignore the prophecies, but it’s difficult. Could they possibly be right? I hope not. I think about the bubba-sergeant on my first day in ‘Nam, the one who called me Pancho. That numbnuts turned out to be a prophet. The Anglo Marines, now joined by the Blacks, call me Pancho. Kicking ass and getting kicked doesn’t dissuade anyone from calling me the dreadful name given to most Chicanos. It is, however, a lot better than being called Chico, like many Chicanos are tagged.
I give up trying to stop Marines from calling me Pancho, but I don’t give up on Nguyen. Me and Nguyen are brudders—same-same. The kid’s presence gives me the feeling of having family around. The others should be so lucky, but leave it to the Marine Corps to screw things up.
Someone at headquarters decided Vietnamese are no longer welcome near our hootches. Navy Seabees put up a fence on the berm, next to the rice paddy closest to the dirt road. This is about a hundred to a hundred and fifty meters away. The area is now off-limits to Vietnamese. If caught inside the new perimeter, they will be detained. I see Nguyen a few more times as he stands by the fence saluting me. He points to his arm. I salute back. I point to my arm.
“Same-same,” I muse. I never see Nguyen again.
I have been in country fewer than ninety days, when Tom, the clerk, tells me I’m being re-assigned to the 9th Marine Regiment. “They’re moving to the DMZ in two days. Pack your gear and Hasta la Vista, Pancho.”
“Wait a minute, Tom. How did I get this primo transfer?”
“Captain Jones pulled your name out of his helmet. He said you’d be okay with it, since you been bugging him to send you out to a rifle company.” Tom shrugs his shoulders as he leans closer to me and asks, “But at the DMZ?”
“Don’t worry, Tom. I’m ready. Hoorah!”
Two days later I’m at Dong Ha with the Striking 9th. I should have taken the lightning bolt over the 9 on the unit’s logo as a hint of things to come. Dong Ha is nothing more than a large hill of red dirt. For a second, I thought I was back in South Texas. I begin to feel a little homesick. But the feeling lasts only a few seconds as the chop-chop sound of helicopter blades breaks the moisture-laden air and quickly jolts me back to reality.
Me and four other Marines are given a ten-man canvas tent. We’re told to pitch our new dream house next to the tin-roofed hootches with walls of screen mesh. The screen mesh is for keeping the giant gook ‘squitos out.
As in Danang, the hootches are separated with bunkers, dugout pits in the ground, piled high with sandbags supported by wooden beams. The next hint is a visual—there are many holes in the sandbags. Shrapnel. After we pitch the tent, we get busy filling sandbags and lining them up four feet high along the tent’s perimeter—nice and close to the heads of our cots. We roll the sides of the tent up, high enough to let some hot air in. Hot air was invented in ‘Nam, I think.
We finish stacking the sandbags. I lie down on my cot for a minute, just long enough for the hot air to blow on my sweaty fatigues, and cooling me down a few degrees. I say to myself, “Now this is a dream house.”
Kaboom! Whump! Kaboom! Whump! My cot breaks as I push down hard on the wooden frame. I jump out of it and head toward the bunker, now endlessly far away. I’ll never get there, but out the flap I go. Outside, I almost run into another Marine who’s dug his boots into the dirt, extending his arms out in front of him to brace himself for the impact. “Whoa! They’re our guns,” he says. “It’s the 12th Marines, an artillery unit, on the next hill. The shells are ‘outgoing’, Stupid!”
Tonight would be the first of many sleepless nights. I never get used to the explosions—the real ones and the louder ones in my nightmares.
About a month later I am walking across the regimental compound, I come upon a dozen or so enemy POW’s guarded by a few Marines. Some of them wear black pajama-type clothing; others wear remnants of NVA uniforms. Most of the dinks are blind-folded. The ones that aren’t stare at me as I walk by. My steps begin to slow. The dinks have a sad, pathetic, far-away look in their deep sunken eyes, made more pronounced by their high, protruding cheek-bones. The prisoners look emaciated. Each has his hands tied together, and all are tied to each other.
The sight of them standing there in silence gives me an eerie feeling. I hear no sound. I see no emotion. I imagine dead dinks as I stop and let my M-14 slide down my shoulder and into my sweating hands. I feel the anger stirring the butterflies inside my gut. I think of how much I have come to hate the gooks. I want to blow them away.
“Keep moving, Marine!” one of the guards calls out to me.
The guard’s loud, hoarse voice snaps me out of my trance. I sweat as I slowly walk away. “Lord, why am I so angry? What have these Vietnamese done to me? Please help me. I don’t know what to do,” I pray under my breath as I clear the area and return to my tent.
I’m in my dream house. Nguyen enters my thoughts. I wonder what he’s doing. I’ll bet a hundred dollars he’s saluting some Chicano right about now. I smile. Or maybe he’s dead. All bets are off. My smile vanishes.
I think of the other kids in Danang, the rest of the Vietnamese vatos whom I had befriended earlier in the year. The dirty, smiling faces of Nguyen’s gang blur together in my mind. Their biggest smiles flashed when I gave them tortillas my mom sent me in her care-packages. The boys had eaten them before, thanks to another good-hearted Pancho. Like me, other brown Marines also felt these vatitos were same-same as the kids in the barrio—our brothers and sisters. If these kids only knew.
Night comes. I can’t rest, much less sleep. I lie on my cot thinking of the POW’s I saw earlier in the day. I wonder if they miss their families as much as I do mine. Nah. How could they miss their families? These guys with the blank stares . . . the ones without emotion . . . the silent ones. The ones who hide behind blind-folds. I now feel sorry for them. I can’t help it. They are same-same me. The heat under the canopy of the canvas tent is unbearable. I am sweat-drenched. I can hardly breathe. I lie there listening to an occasional shell bursting somewhere on something or someone. “Tat-tat-tat-tat,” the sound of a Marine’s automatic weapon fired in the distance, mixes with the cacophony of chirping night-critters and the drum-roll sound of rat feet running along the sandbags next to my head.
Then, it all comes together in my mind. Never during my entire tour of duty in Vietnam did any Marine, any fellow American, military or civilian, ever declare himself the same as me. Never. Never! Nguyen, the Vietnamese-vato, was not only trying to tell me we shared the same skin color. He was also telling me in broken Vietnamese-English-Spanish that we were both God’s children—Same-Same.