Stories 10

Story by : Bob Curtis


Of the over 10,000 helicopters that served in Vietnam 43% of them were destroyed. Of the names on the Vietnam wall over 5,000 are helicopter pilots and crewmen.

The black lacquer plaques with the enameled squadron patch in the center and the flags of the allies participating in the war across the top were hung around the walls of the bar in the Playtex Officer's club. They were just about at eye level and below each plaque was a Polaroid picture of the pilot that owned the plaque, the man that would have it presented to him when he left country. The plaques were hung in order of "shortness". That is, the newest man had his hung at the far end of the room, next to the door out onto the patio. Around the wall back toward the bar itself they were ordered until, over the bar, there were only five left.

In the center of the bar, over the chrome and red vinyl barstools, stolen from who knows where, was the plaque of the next man to leave. When that man received his plaque from the CO and took the jeep ride over to the Phu Bai airfield to catch the C-130 south to Cam Rahn and back to the States, the next man in line would move all the plaques up until his was in the center.

If you were killed the XO would go to the club that same day and remove the plaque. It would be placed in the boxes containing the personal effects of the man and mailed to his family with the date not filled in. The photo was never mailed, it was just discarded or put with the other small things that were the un-official company history. By the time the pilots came back from that day's missions no sign would remain that the man or his plaque had ever been there.

Most units gave out plaques when you left but not "C" Company, 159th Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) in 1970. The radio call sign of "C" Co was Playtex (unofficial motto, "We give living support") and the day you checked in you were presented with your plaque and had your picture taken with the safety officer's Polaroid. As soon as the gook shop down the mud street from the officer's area got the steel plate engraved with your name and in-country date the plaque was put up at the end of the line.

The officer's area in Playtex consisted of SEA (South East Asia) Huts. They were plywood, gray painted, single story buildings with tin roofs, built quickly by combat engineers. The club was a rectangular room that occupied the southern half of the eastern most shack. It had been built two years before when C Co moved into the compound. The walls were varnished plywood, an attempt to make it seem more like some of the real world officer's clubs the older pilots had seen in their travels. The floor was covered with those one-foot squares of linoleum that everyone that ever served in the Army spent so many hours pushing a buffer over. The northern half of the club building contained two rooms, the one next door was a single room occupied by the company XO and the one on the far end was home to two of the company Warrants.

Along the wall of the club that adjoined the XO's room was the bar. The builders had done a good job on the wood work, very professional looking carpentry amid the squatter's camp look of the rest of the company area. The mirror behind the bar reflected bottles of liquors, mostly unfamiliar to the pilots since they were mostly too young to drink state-side. Draped over the top of the mirror was a huge bra, made by the flight equipment troops in honor of the company call sign. Under the counter were the cabinets where the hard liquor was supposed to be locked up, but these shelves stayed empty because the club never closed and no ever bothered to lock the booze up. To the right of the mirror was a door that led to the store room where the extra beer and soft drinks were kept.

To the right of the store room door were the two refrigerators that held the beer and soft drinks ready for consumption. The freezer compartments of both held long stainless steel trays from the mess hall that were used to make ice. An ice pick was usually handy on top of the refrigerator so that the pilot who wanted ice could break some off. The water the ice was made from was potable but only just. When frozen the water had swirls of dirt, like marbling in praline ice cream. The pilots just broke the ice around the swirls and left most of the grit in the tray until someone got disgusted enough to throw it out and start over again.

Because the club was an "unofficial" one it received no support from the official system of alcohol distribution. To buy the hard liquor the pilots pooled their ration cards and gave them to the club officer. This system insured plentiful booze because each officer was authorized two quarts of hard liquor each month and the non-drinker's cards provided for the heavy drinkers. The club officer took them to the Class 6 store in Da Nang once a month or so and bought the booze. The beer and soft drinks mostly came from the small PX over by the runway at Phu Bai. Both soft drinks and beer were in steel cans and were often flat from the long shipment from the States and the months in storage.

Near the ceiling, to the right of the two bar refrigerators, was an exhaust fan with bend blades and a motor that made a labored sound as it turned. The wall around the fan was scared and stained from being a target. Once a month or so the company would order and receive a shipment of bar glasses and just as regularly break them all that night. The game was to see who could get a glass, or at least most of the glass, through the fan without stopping it. If there were no glasses, beer cans were tried, but since they were steel cans, the fan usually stopped when the first one made it into the blades.

Below and to the right of the fan among the stained and drooping Playboy Playmates of the Month hung two rocket propelled grenade launchers, one a Russian RPG-7 and the other a Chinese RPG-2. Scrounged from the grunts, they were operational weapons but only served as decorations since no one could get any of the grenades to fire from them. The Chinese one was more like a piece of pipe with a crude trigger hanging on the bottom than a weapon. The Russian version was more advanced and even had the telescopic sight still attached. The bell-shaped exhaust of the Russian RPG looked like one of the blunder-busses in the old drawings of the Pilgrims.

Around the walls, below the plaques were bookshelves, two and sometimes three high, full of paperbacks of all kinds. Textbooks, sex books, westerns, science fiction, novels, non-fiction, all types of books, mostly supplied by Special Services, these books generally represented more sophisticated taste than that held by the members of C Co. Westerns, pornography, and science fiction were the favorites, easy to tell by the worn covers and falling out pages. Among the bookcases were stereo speakers in varying stages of disrepair from the hand-pumped fire extinguisher water fights that were a semi-regular feature of company life. The stereo itself had disappeared, probably thrown away after being soaked and shorted out by the water.

Below the plaques and books was a bench that went around half the club. Like the varnished walls and well built bar, someone had put a lot of time into building it. Even the upholstery, of red vinyl from the paraloft, was of a high enough quality to be mistaken for a cheap professional job.

Opposite the bar, at the far end of the rectangular room, were two Plexiglas picture windows, made from sheets of the plastic intended to cover someone's desk top. The windows looked out on the wooden deck and the yard of the officer's area. The tin roofing that made up the privacy fence around the officers compound prevented anyone inside the club from seeing the two-hole outhouse or the pipe stuck in the ground to serve as the piss-tube (urinal) just beyond the fence.

From inside the club the sand volleyball court, horseshoe pit, and the barbecue grill made from real stone like those grills in the better national parks, were invisible. Even the few sickly banana trees planted to give the yard a green look could not be seen. The smoke from the diesel fuel used to burn the shit from the outhouse could be seen when the weekly cleaning was done by the hired Vietnamese cleaning crew. Even when you couldn't see it you could smell the shit burning.

To the right of the windows were more bookshelves and the poker table. Boxes of chips and the dirty packs of cards used by the casual players were stacked haphazardly on the shelves among the special service books. The hard-core players used new decks for every game. Used decks of cards and $500 or $600 poker hands mixed no better here than anywhere else such games are played. Unlike the mythical old west of the movies, everyone here really did carry a gun.

The windows along the wall by the poker table were screened but contained no glass or even Plexiglas, only a sheet of plywood over each that could be lowered to keep the winter wind, such as it was, out. The covers were almost always down since no one was ever in the club during the day to need the ventilation they were supposed to provide.

The door was a sheet of plywood cut to the size of a normal screen door. The spring that was to hold the door closed nearly always dangled loose, since the wood where the screw attached the spring to the wall had been pulled out so many times that no wood was left and the door stood open or closed, depending on which way the wind was blowing.

Between the door and the bar was another sheet of plywood, painted white and covered with Plexiglas. A grease pencil on a sting hung on the left side of the board. The board listed the rules under which the Playtex club operated:

Rule 1- There are no rules.

Admission free, Exit $50

Broken Cherries, $50

Drink Prices- Mixed drinks $.30, Beer $.25, soft drinks $.20

Operating Hours- 24 Hours per day, 365 days a year.

Some clubs operated with rules that mimicked the rules of the real world officers club- enter with your hat on and buy the bar, entered armed and buy the bar, throw six aces when playing one of the dice games and buy the bar, hat on the bar- buy the bar, step on the mascot painted in the tile floor and buy the bar. But Playtex held no such pretensions. Because the you had to pass the bar to get to the showers it was not uncommon to see a naked pilot with a towel over his shoulder having a beer with a pilot just back from flying, still wearing his hat embroidered with his wings and rank insignia and his .38 pistol in the customary cowboy holster from the gook shop.

The "Admission free, Exit $50" reflected a local custom. On their first night in the company new pilots drank free, were expected to drink a lot, and were expected to still be able to show up for work in the morning. They would be hung over badly at the least and more likely, still drunk when they reported to the XO for their job assignments. On their last night in the squadron, before they took the ride to Cam Rahn and on to home, they were expected to put $50 on the bar for those whose time was not up yet to drink on.

"Broken cherries, $50", meant that the first time a pilot had bullet holes in his aircraft, he had to put $50 on the bar. It was to celebrate a passage, from new guy to real squadron member. After the first hits no one owed any thing. Unless of course they were promoted or made aircraft commander or had a birthday or a child born back in the world or just felt like it.

Below the rules were the names of all the pilots and a line for grease pencil marks. The bar ran on the honor system so each time a drink was taken a mark would be made under the appropriate column. Once a month the club officer would total up the marks and bill each pilot. Even with those prices, some would have a large bill. Some of the high bills reflected events, promotion, birthday, etc., but most just reflected an early tendency toward alcoholism produced by stress or whatever causes alcoholism anywhere.

Next to the rules was another Plexiglas covered plywood board. This one had a two-column list of names, on the left was the aircraft commander, on the right the copilot for the next day's missions.

Playtex was a Chinook company, flying the CH-47C, the big, twin rotor, twin engine helicopters made by Boeing in their plant just south of Philadelphia. The number of aircraft Playtex operations had determined were required for the next days' missions could be seen by the number of crews listed, with those on standby at the bottom. Being number one through number four always meant you would be flying from between eight and ten hours the next day, but from there on down you might or might not have a mission. Usually there were two standby crews. Standby crews were listed at the bottom and were required to at least preflight and start their aircraft so that when one of the primary birds broke, as the they always did, the HAC (Helicopter aircraft commander) could jump in and make takeoff on time. Those crews drawing missions such as aircraft recovery standby or flare drop standby were noted on the very bottom of the board.

In the evening the assistant Ops officer would walk up from the ops bunker down the street from the officer's area and grease pencil in the names. Sometimes he would tape a stenciled sheet of paper with names on it over the board but this didn't work too well since it was likely to be covered in thrown drinks and be totally unreadable before the evening was over. In theory, the pilots looked at the board before they turned in but since the crews were formed on the basis of flight time (the man with the least in the last 30 days would fly the longest missions and the man with the most would not fly) the pilots usually already knew whether or not they would be flying. In any case, the duty clerk would wake them in time to get ready for launch if they were flying.

The lights were always on in the club. That is, they were always on unless the generator that provided power to the entire company ran out of fuel or broke down or was shut down for maintenance. And the light they provided reflected off the black lacquer plaques and the already fading Polaroid's of their owners, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year during 1971.

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