18th Surgical Hospital, Lai Khe 1967–Prelude to TET

It had not been thirty days since we moved the hospital down out of the highlands near Pleiku.  Ah, Pleiku. We did not want to leave the land of the cool night air and the Mountainyards whose cherry wood pipes yielded intoxicating aromas. We landed in the pressure cooker called Long Bien–Lai Khe, to be exact. That is where we set up the 18th Surgical Hospital–mobile now–right in the middle of a rubber tree plantation.

It is the home of the Big Red One, and knowing that there are thousands of infantry and armor close by gives us this fuzzy feeling that they are definitely going to protect us medical guys. We are here a month setting up this inflatable, expandable, jet fuel guzzling medical marvel called MUST, when Alan Trinkle comes up with this wacked out story.

A few of us are standing in line at the mess tent at shift change at 7:00, and he says, “Guys, I’ve got to talk to you.” He looks as pale as the oatmeal the cooks are dishing up, and he is fumbling with his fatigues and looking around in all directions. His upper lip is a mushy platform for lazy drops of sweat to roll off of. And then he drops it on us. “I saw two gooks in our tent last night.”

MacDonald and I look at each other, our incredulity concurring. Mack says, “What are you talking about, man? Don’t joke about things like that.”

“I’m not joking.” He grabs our arms and leads us out of the line and around the corner of the tent. “Two gooks were in our tent last night. I saw them with my own two eyes.”

“But, Tinkle, that’s crazy talk,” I say. Tinkle was what everyone called him.

“Groovy, listen to me, please. I couldn’t sleep, and I was laying there, and I, and I heard one of them step on some leaves. So I froze, and I just laid there and eased my eyes open a little to catch them in my peripheral vision. I was facing straight up, but I could see them to my left side near the opening of our tent.”

I looked past Tinkle over toward where our GP Mediums are pitched in between rows of forty foot tall rubber trees. Their leaves are a rumpled carpet of crunchy brown patches that would sometimes move and come alive at night after our evening toke break. “Gooks in our tent, huh?” I say.

“Yeah, and they were armed. They had rifles and held them with both hands in front of their chests, and they moved slowly into the tent. But it was like they weren’t taking normal steps. They were gliding sideways. And then they’d look around, and when they looked at me, I’d  close my eyes. And then I’d take a peak again after a few seconds.”

“Stop it, Tinkle. You are as full of crap as a Christmas duck. Pull yourself together. There was no gooks in our tent last night.” I look at MacDonald, and he is shaking his head, smiling.

“Yes, there was!” Tinkle yells, dropping his head a bit when he sees the two captains walking by.

“No, you listen up. If there’d been gooks in there, they would have killed us. Plain and simple. That’s what they do. They kill dumbasses like us.”

“No, I saw them.”

“So why didn’t you try to kill them?” MacDonald asks. “Your rifle’s right by your bed, loaded and ready to go. Hell, you owe it to us to kill them if you have the chance.”

“I was afraid to,” he says. “Groove, you’ve got to believe me. They were there.”

He’s gone off the deep end; it is getting to him, I am thinking. And I’m suppose to train him to cross match blood so he can take the other twelve hour shift. “Hey, we are all wigging out with all the blood and guts, but you got to hang in there. Tinkle, I know that we are on a steady diet of insanity for breakfast, fear for lunch, and loneliness for supper, but we got to stay in there.”

“You been hitting the bottle too hard, Tinkle,” says MacDonald. “How much you drink last night?”

“I drank some last night, but I  wasn’t that drunk!” Tinkle’s face is glowing red, and he turns and goes back toward our tent.

And I’m thinking there’s no way they could have been in our tent. How did they get there? There are guards posted everywhere. And the perimeter, though only a click away has got hundreds of troops on the alert there. Did they float in from above the trees in parachutes? Did they just materialize out of another dimension? Yeah, the dimension of Tinkle’s alcohol soaked brain.

Later I see him in the tent and he says to me, “We gotta do something. They could have killed us all last night.”

So I start playing along and say, “Why didn’t you wait till they left the tent, then open fire on them?”

“There could have been others around, and all they would have had to do is throw grenades into all the tents, and we’d all have been wiped out.”

“So where did they go after they left our tent?” I ask.

“I don’t know exactly. I was afraid to move my head to the side. They just slipped out and vanished.”

“I don’t know, Tinkle. I think you’re just imagining things. You’re tripping out.”

“No, I saw them. We are in danger. All of us. What if they come back tonight?”

“Listen,” I tell him. “Come on. Let’s walk behind the latrine.” We slide out of the tent, and I am already feeling like a joint, so I make sure I got one so I can blow it when we get behind the bunker near the latrine and shower. I look and nobody’s around. Either they’re sleeping or eating, but the coast is clear. So I lean on the sandbags facing the endless rows of rubber trees and light up.

Tinkle don’t smoke weed. He’s a dyed in the wool alkie. Jack Daniels. That’s the way it is around here. There’s about 100 guys in our unit and it seems like 80% are grassheads, and 20% are alcoholics.

So I’m taking a hit, savoring those fun-giving fumes, and I’m looking at Tinkle. His round face looks at me intensely, his eyes all watery and red and bulging out like they are about to pop out of their sockets. His mouth is just a slit, his lips closed up tight like a kid’s mouth when you’re trying to shovel some cough syrup down him. I say to him, “So what are you saying?”

“I’ve got to tell the C.O.”

“Wait. Wait now. You don’t want to do that.”

“Why not? I’ve got to.”

“Think it through, Tinkle.” I’m trying to reason with him. He’s got this one imagination that he’s holding on to. “You don’t think that if the gooks were walking around inside our compound last night that the grunts and tank dudes out there wouldn’t know about it?” I point out to where the rubber trees end. “You can see our tanks firing at night eight or ten football fields from where the trees stop.”

“Maybe the grunts haven’t seen the gooks yet.”

“You mean that you are the very first G.I.–a medic at that–who has been privileged enough to see Charlie in our midst–when no one else has?” I take another hit. I need more smoke because Tinkle’s such a hard head.

“I know what I saw.” He looks me in the eye. “Groove, if I don’t tell the old man about it, they may come back and kill us all tonight.”

“You go tell the Colonel and your ass will be out of here on the next chopper. They’ll send you to some psych ward in Saigon. The Colonel’s no dummy. We talk when I cut his hair. He may look like a dummy, but he’s not stupid. He’s a doctor, and he’s gonna know your brains are boiled in bourbon. Hell, he may put some heat on all of us.”

Tinkle doesn’t say another word. He turns around and stumbles on down toward headquarters.

I take another hit, and I’m feeling no pain now and laugh a little at what the colonel’s going to say to Tinkle. Son, everything’s going to be all right. We’ll get you fixed up in no time. First Sergeant, see that his straight jacket doesn’t fit too tight because he’s a damn good soldier and he needs to be treated right.

So I go on to the lab to relieve my night man, and I don’t see Tinkle the rest of the day. After my shift, I go back to our tent, and he is sitting on his cot, head in hands, and he’s moaning, “Oh, no. Oh, no.”

“You just get off?” I ask. He just rocks a little, back and forth.

“They didn’t believe me. They said it was delirium tremens. Gave me two days off to dry out and take it easy.” He reaches under his cot and grabs the fifth of Jack Daniels. He’s past pouring it into a glass and turns it up and takes a couple of swallows. “To hell with it,” he says, screwing the cap back on and tossing it onto his cot. “If they don’t give a damn, then why should I?”

I’m perfectly fine with his resignation and say, “Just get some rest. I’ll train you in a couple of days.”

Two days later we were overrun by the Vietcong. The TET Offensive had started all over Vietnam, as we found out later. The officer quarters were blown up with many dead at the 1st Infantry Division headquarters right near where we saw Bob Hope and Raquel Welch joking and dancing not two weeks prior. We immediately packed the hospital up and loaded it into C-130’s and, just like that, we roared off into the steaming black night to God knows where.

If the levels of hell are measured in the depth of the rivers of blood that oozes out of young men’s bodies, then we had arrived at one of the inferno’s lower pits. Our destination that dark night was Quang Tri, fifteen miles from the DMZ, where we set up shop on a sandbar.

I did train Tinkle to take the other shift, and we never talked about the gooks in the tent again.

Eight months later I’m a single-digit-midget with a week to go before I derosed to go back to the world. Tinkle was in Hawaii on R and R, no doubt sipping a drink with his wife on Waikiki. That’s when we got word that they had found tunnels honey-combed all through the rubber tree plantation.  I remember saying, “Ain’t that a bitch,” and then that was that because I was going home, and that was all that really mattered to me at the time.   Kenneth Wayne Hancock

[I tell my Vietnam stories, for the Vietnam experience helped prepare my heart to be touched later by God. Everything that happens to us–good and bad–is a prerequisite for that which is ahead. Some details of this story I remember; some I don’t. I lost a few brain cells there, I am sure.  I’ve used some poetic license to fill in the gaps. I have the upmost respect for all those I served with and for all the patients we helped patch up. If any of you read this, please share your recollections with me. For more stories go here:   https://immortalityroad.wordpress.com/?s=18th+surgical+hospital ]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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