Volume 8 | Spring 2018
by Timothy Sever
It’s been some time since I left the military, but, through the years, I came to realize the military had never left me. This realization was manifested in different ways.
I would be walking somewhere and notice I was counting cadence in my head. And then I would sing to myself phrases I learned while training. Phrases like:
C-130 going down the strip
Airborne daddy gonna take a little trip
I don’t know why I did this. I guess because it felt good and the training had stuck with me even after I was discharged. I never mentioned this to anyone—they wouldn’t understand and they would probably wonder about me. The point is, I could be anywhere and unexpectedly find myself counting cadence. It occurred randomly. Then maybe another phrase would come to my head:
Oh here we go, we’re at it again
We’re moving out, we’re moving in.
We’re on our way, to Vietnam…
I guess it could drive you a little crazy—counting cadence while walking in the mall—but for me, the training and the many experiences carried over into civilian life and left me with many memories. Most were good. But some weighed on me.
I’m still haunted by one memory in particular.
It happened my first week in Vietnam. I had just arrived in Bien Hoa, a short helicopter ride from Saigon. The CH-34 blew hot dust into the humid air that surrounded the LZ. The Tet offensive was a week old and some of my combat group, the 101st Airborne Division, also known as the Screaming Eagles, was being dispatched to northern US Army camps to assist the ARVN. The landing zone was already a busy network of our guys from Company D, First Battalion. I slid out of the door of the CH-34 carrying my M-16 rifle and rucksack with forty pounds of gear including: extra rounds of ammo, c-rations, bug repellant, rain gear, OD socks, shorts and tee shirts, plus a carton of smokes.
I already had a full clip of ammo in my M-16 and four grenades with safety clips on the finger pins that I had checked several times on the chopper to make sure they were secure—the pin comes out and you’ve got less than five seconds to dump the grenade before you eat the big weenie.
The guys were amped. Everyone started yelling and waving their M-16’s in the air as we strode across the LZ. A couple guys fired rounds in the air. First Lieutenant Mackey approached and introduced himself. I saluted and reported, “Second squad reporting for duty, sir.”
“None of that shit here, sergeant,” Mackey said with a look of dismay. “That salute is like pointing your middle finger for Charlie Cong to identify me as his next target. You see any ‘chest candy’ on my uniform?”
“No sir.” Christ. He was beginning to irritate the shit out of me.
First Lieutenant Mackey continued, “Follow me to check-in. Two days and you will be in the jungle looking for Charlie.” He did an about-face and marched off.
Like Mackey said, two days later we were on a recon mission pushing our way single-file through a narrow, well-used trail. It was hot and humid and shitty. The insect repellant had zero effect on the bugs and sweat irritated our bug-eaten skin. The heavily-overgrown trail gave a false sense of security from the Vietcong. The enemy couldn’t see us, but then we couldn’t see Charlie either.
Mike “Whizzer” O’Reilly knew all about humidity and insects…and rats. We called him “Whizzer” because it seemed like he was always stopping on the trail to take a leak. We told him he had a bladder smaller than the rats that crawled over our sleeping bags at night.
Whizzer had been with our group back in the states. Like most of the guys, he liked to drink beer, lots of it, but never seemed to lose control. One beer or sixteen beers, his personality never changed. But you could see a sadness that pulled at the corners of his eyes like something inside him was releasing memories he wished to forget. There was also a light in his eyes that somehow made you want to get to know him and be his friend.
Everyone liked Whizzer but he had no close friends. Never confided with anyone. He might be considered a loner except for the fact he was always joking and laughing with the guys. Still, there was an unspoken barrier that hung in the air like a thin veil when you were around him.
Knowing this, I was somewhat surprised when he came to see me the day before we were to move out.
“Sergeant,” Whizzer said. “Got a minute?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
He held his hand out, palm up, and there was a small silver pocket watch in his palm. “Take it,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’d like you to hang on to it until we get back from ‘Nam.”
“Why?” I asked again.
“Just in case I don’t make it.” He looked down at his extended palm and added, “It’s the only thing I own that’s worth anything.”
“If it brings you luck, you should keep it.”
“See, that’s the thing, Sergeant. I got it a long time ago and never have had any good luck.” Seeing the look on my face, he said, “I know what you’re thinking but don’t worry. It is only bad luck for me…and my family.”
I said, “If it brings bad luck maybe you should just get rid of it.”
“No, I can’t do that. It’s been in my family too long.”
“Maybe you should send it back to your family. They could keep it for you until you’ve finished your tour of duty.”
“I don’t have any family left,” Whizzer said.
I didn’t know what to think about that. I didn’t want to pry into his family history. Sounded like he really did have a run of bad luck.
He moved his hand closer to me and insisted, “Take it.” A pause and then, “It would be good to know someone I like has it.”
Someone I like?
Tentatively, I plucked the small pocket watch from his palm. It was smaller than other ones I had seen. Almost delicate. There was no chain attached to it. Felt like I was holding a fifty-cent coin.
An odd request—how could I refuse?
“I’ll hold it I said…as a favor to you. But remember this. I expect all of us to make it back, and that includes you.” He nodded, breathed “thanks,” turned and walked away.
Trekking up the trail, we checked for booby traps. Charlie filled coconuts with gunpowder, hid tripwires under leaves and brush. A Bouncing Betty was the worst. If you stepped on one, the explosion would rip into legs and arms…and kill. Charlie especially liked to dig holes in the trail and install punji stakes laced with feces.
And then there were the fucking snipers. Charlie would climb a tree that overlooked the trail and wait patiently with a sniper rifle. Some snipers could make an accurate shot at five-hundred yards. Some further. Point is, we never saw them—we would hear a zap and knew right away what that was. Everyone would drop to the ground and look for the shooter. Guys would fire wildly into the jungle. Every man turned and looked behind him to see if someone had been hit. That was how we spent our time on the trail: Alert for booby traps and invisible snipers.
After four hours on the trail, we pulled off to rest and drink from our canteens. I saw Whizzer standing in the open trail pissing into the thick brush. “Hey, Whizzer,” I shouted. “Get-the-fuck off the trail.”
“Fuck you,” Whizzer shouted back. “I’m taking a…” And ZAP.
The round went right through his helmet and killed him instantly. Some of the guys started yelling and shooting at the trees, but it did no good. Whizzer was gone.
We carried Whizzer to a small clearing and called in a chopper and they took him away.
I kept Whizzer’s pocket watch with me for the rest of my tour in ‘Nam. After my discharge and return to civilian life in California, the watch was my connection to Whizzer and other guys that weren’t lucky enough to make it back. I found comfort reaching into my pocket and touching the watch—a reminder of the essence of Whizzer.
The watch had turned out to be a good luck charm for me—I made it back unscathed. At least, physically.