Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Haircut

Jim looked up at the calendar in the platoon office. He was waiting for Sgt. Black to arrive so together, they could take care of some business. It was Friday, January 23, 1970; he had a little over three months to go, and he would be finished with his tour of Vietnam. Then, with any luck, by June, Jim would receive orders to return as a flight instructor at Fort Wolters, and he could finish out his army career in Mineral Wells, Texas. This was his second time in Vietnam, and on this hitch, he was assigned to the 610th Transportation Company, stationed at Camp Viking on the coast of Vietnam, about 8 miles north of Da Nang. It was a good outfit, and Jim had the opportunity to do a lot of flying. The 610th was responsible for servicing and repairing helicopters, and in addition to flying the big Chinooks, Jim, as a senior aviator, also served as a test pilot on many of the repaired aircraft.

Jim really didn’t want to come back to Vietnam. During his first tour, back in 1966, he’d served with the 1st Aviation Battalion, attached to the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. He did a lot of combat flying, and Jim had his share of some hairy missions. However, during the monsoon season, on a routine nighttime flight to pick up a wounded soldier, a fatal accident occurred. Faulty equipment caused his aircraft, the Bell Huey, to crash land at 100 mph. Jim was the only survivor of the accident. He once showed a pal of his a picture of the wrecked chopper. The friend marveled, commenting that it was “a miracle by the hand of God” that Jim survived.

After a year of recovery and rehab, he was sent to Wolters as an instructor. Jim figured he’d seen the last of Southeast Asia, but as the war dragged on, helicopter pilots were in high demand, especially experienced pilots. In addition, there were officers, Captains and Majors, and the like, with flight experience returning from tours of the Nam, and everyone had a pal who wanted a posting at Wolters. Those commissioned officers, no matter how much Army experience Jim had under his belt, outranked him, a Chief Warrant Officer (CWO). Nevertheless, he was not without friends of his own, and up to about a month before he was to leave for Vietnam, there was still a chance that Jim would not have to ship out and would stay at Ft. Wolters. In the end, things just didn’t work out. Now, with a few months to go, he was just trying to do his job, do it well, and return home in one piece. That was a challenge for anyone who set foot in Vietnam, especially in 1970.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad in Vietnam, and this assignment had its perks. Each day he would marvel at the beauty of the South China Sea as he jockeyed out of the flight line at Camp Viking and began to gain altitude with an aircraft. Jim’s unit provided general support to more than 1,000 aircraft, as well as reassembling, test flying, and issuing all Army aircraft arriving in Vietnam through Da Nang. That meant there was always something to do and fix, and there was always aircraft needing flying. The Cau Do River appeared like a giant snake winding its way through the countryside and through Da Nang, finally emptying into the sea. Often, clouds and mist lingered over Monkey Mountain and Marble Mountain, shrouding them like some hidden house of the Gods. Sights like that almost made him forget for a moment, if only a moment, that he was in a war.

While Jim enjoyed his work, the constant motion of flying and his assignments in the air, he found himself greatly bothered by apathy on the ground that seemed to prevail among some of the enlisted men stationed in and around Camp Viking. It wasn’t like that in 1966. Then, every man kept himself wired tight, but he also realized that in 66 he was attached to a combat unit. However, even then, in the rear, soldiers still at least put on the pretense of Army discipline. Four years later, Vietnam was a different place, but the Army was still the same Army, and Jim was an Army man, through and through. At his core, he believed that maintaining discipline was essential in Army life, especially in a war zone. As far as he was concerned, there were no exceptions to the rules, especially when you’d been given a chance to make things right, yet discipline seemed to grow more and more lax with each passing day.

Recently, he’d been having some problems with a Specialist 4 aircraft mechanic Malcolm Green. For two days now, Jim had mentioned in passing to Green that he needed to get a regulation military haircut, and each time they had crossed paths since then, Jim had noticed that Green’s hair was still not cut to Army regs. Finally, earlier that day of 23 January, after morning formation, CWO Jim Alexander had a word with Mr. Green.

“Specialist Green, I need to speak you. Remain after dismissal”
Green lingered as the rest of the company dispersed, going about their morning duties. Jim waited with Green until everyone was well out of earshot, and then he began to speak.
“Specialist Green, I instructed you, two days ago, to get a regulation Army haircut, and you have yet to do so.” Jim paused, eyeballing Green for a moment to gauge reaction, and then he continued.

“If I didn’t know any better, Soldier, I would think you were directly disobeying an order. That would be a big problem, Mister.” Green said nothing, starring forward blankly. Jim continued.

“Now, …you will get a hair cut, Mister, and…you will report to me at 1330 hours today with that haircut. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir” answered Green in a flat voice. There was something eerie in his tone.
“Dismissed!” barked Jim, and then the CWO turned and walked away.

Now, Jim waited in the platoon HQ area for Sgt. Black, Green’s squad leader, to arrive. It was 13:00 hours. The sound of Black coming through the door drew Jim’s attention away from the calendar.

“Master Sergeant Black reporting as ordered, Sir!” Black ripped off a sharp salute.
“At ease, Sergeant. We need to talk about one of your troops. You want a cup of Joe?”
“Thank you, Sir.”

Jim leaned back in the swivel chair and Black poured a cup of coffee and sat in one of the empty camp chairs scattered around the room.
“Tell me about Specialist 4 Green.”

“Well, Sir, I have been having some minor difficulties with him, Sir. He has a problem doing what he is told, and he has no drive. He is pretty much a loner, and I do not see him socializing with the other men very much. Lately, he has become even more difficult.” Jim was silent for a moment, and Black waited for him to speak.

“Well” said Jim, “I have directed him twice to get a hair cut, the last time this morning at formation. He has been instructed to report to me at 13:30 with a military haircut, and I want you to be here when he arrives.” Jim paused, “We are going to take care of this together.”
“Yes Sir! What will we do when he arrives, Sir?” Black seemed a little nervous, but Jim just smiled at him.

“Relax Sergeant; let’s just see what happens when he gets here.”

At 13:30, Private Malcolm Green entered the platoon shop area. He was a skinny kid, a draftee, from Jersey City, New Jersey. He was just two months shy of his twenty-first birthday. Green said nothing as he entered the shop, saluted, and silently he stood before the two men. Black immediately noticed that the soldier did not appear to have his hair cut.
Jim spoke first.

“Private, it appears you still have not gotten a military hair cut.”

Green said nothing. He just stood silently. Jim sat quietly for a moment, mulling over what the next course of action would be. Finally, he rose up from the chair and spoke.

“Well, I’ll tell you what, Private; you, me, and Sergeant Black are going to all take a little stroll over to the camp barber shop and get a quick trim. What do you say Sergeant? You wouldn’t mind going over to the barber shop with me and Green, would you?”
“No Sir” answered Black. Finally, now shifting from foot to foot like he was uncomfortable, Green spoke.

“I have gotten a hair cut.” His voice was flat and emotionless. Something about the sound of it made Black a little uneasy, but this was CWO Alexander’s show, and he was calling the shots.
Rather than argue, CWO Alexander, an Army man through and through, just gave the soldier an order.

“Let’s go.” and he headed out of the shop door. As Black moved to follow, he turned to Green.
“Let’s move it, Private.”

Green reluctantly followed.

The three men moved across the open common area of the Viking compound in a staggered line. It was a beautiful afternoon. Nearby, a group of off duty soldiers played volleyball on a makeshift court, shirts off, sweating and laughing loudly, bantering about the score and who among them had the hardest serve. Other soldiers moved here and there between the shops and offices that circled the area. After about thirty or so paces, Jim heard a shrill voice cut through the air. It was Green’s. This time, there was emotion.

“I have been to the barber, and I do not want to get another haircut!” It was almost a scream.

Jim slowed stride long enough to yell back over his shoulder at Green.
“At ease, soldier! Don’t make a scene.” Green mumbled an inaudible response, and something in it made Sergeant Black turn and face Specialist 4 Malcolm Green.

For Master Sergeant Black, reality geared down into slow motion as he observed Green pull something from his left pants pocket. Instantly, a grim recognition shook Black, and things shifted back into full speed as he yelled out a warning.

“He’s got a grenade!”

Black, now frozen like a statue, observed as, in one motion, Green reached with his right hand and deliberately pulled the pin out of the grenade and cast it to the ground. Then, Green held the grenade up and released the spoon mechanism. The deadly ball of metal would detonate in exactly four seconds.

The reality of life and death brought Black back to life in a flash, and he moved quickly for cover around the corner of a nearby building. As he hit the deck and rolled, he could see CWO Alexander hurriedly walking back towards Green. He had closed the distance quickly, and Black saw him grab Green by the wrist of the upraised arm as Green made a motion to toss the grenade. Jim stopped Green cold. The men were face to face, and neither spoke a word. Black covered his head, hearing the loud explosion that followed the detonation of the grenade.

Acrid smoke hung in the air as Black ran back towards the two soldiers. Through the smoke, he could see both men lying on the ground. As he got closer, he spied Jim’s right arm, or what was left of it, sticking up in the air. The arm was missing from the elbow down, and some pulp that resembled what used to be the rest of his arm and hand, lay a few feet away.

Green was beside him on his back. A large pool of blood colored the sandy ground underneath him gray, and his face was blue. It was obvious, from the gaping hole in side of Green’s head, that he was probably dead. Another soldier knelt at Jim’s side.

“Sergeant,” said Jim weakly as Black kneeled over him, “Get me a tourniquet.” There was yelling and lots of activity now. The wail of the ambulance could be heard in the background. From somewhere among the crowd that had now gathered, a tourniquet was produced, but the Sergeant with Jim was struggling and shaking, trying to figure out the best way to dress his wounds. Calmly, Jim gave the soldier instructions on how to bandage what remained of his arm. The ambulance arrived as the soldier finished, and then Jim closed his eyes…

Dear Mom, January 28, 1970
As you may have heard from Dorothy, I am not now in Vietnam, but rather in a hospital in Japan recuperating from an accident.
The accident occurred when a mentally deranged soldier tried to toss a grenade into a platoon formation in my company. I attempted to restrain him but was not completely successful, and the grenade exploded, blowing off my right hand and giving me some minor shrapnel wounds on the right side of my body. Do not worry; I am in no danger, and I will be home in 4-6 weeks. In the meantime, try to keep your spirits and Dorothy’s spirits both up.
My address here is 106 General Hospital, APOSF, 96503. Just keep in touch with Dorothy and keep her cheered up. I will be glad to get any letters from any of the relatives, but they must be sent airmail to arrive in time. At least I will not have to return to Vietnam, so now maybe I can live at home together with Dorothy for the rest of our days.
Pass this information along to John and Ann, especially since John contacted the Red Cross. I am feeling fine and chipper and expect to recuperate fast. Take care now and write soon.
P.S. This letter is being written for me by a Red Cross worker.

The official Army car wound its way down the country roads of Hendricks County until it reached the small farm between Lizton and North Salem, Indiana. Gravel crunched as it pulled into the driveway, and the old collie barked at the two strangers who stepped out of the car and knocked at the door. When she opened the door, Mozella, who was wise to the ways of the world, knew exactly what was happening. The Army officer and her Methodist minister stood in the cold February air. She motioned them to follow and then turned and headed toward the living room.

She sat back in her rocking chair, and the minister put his hand on her shoulder while the Captain offered condolences and handed her a Western Union telegram in a yellow envelope. Mozella opened the it with shaking hands and began to scan the lines of the message. Her eyes quickly filled with tears.


1 comment: