surfing the stardust

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Into the Country – September 1966

AnKhe Pass – 2005

I arrived in Vietnam in the middle of a September night, having stopped for refueling in Japan after departing my folks from Travis AF Base north of Vallejo.  My Dad had driven me up from their home in Menlo Park.  We didn’t have too much to talk about.  It was 1966

I had graduated from University of Santa Clara sometime in Mid June; then on to Fort Eustis, Virginia for Basic Officers Training for 10 weeks.  On the way back home I had gotten drunk in Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas to the point where I dumped all my money on scotch and soda and baccarat.   A well meaning guy, who picked me up as I walked with a blinding hangover out the road to the Airport, bought me a coffee and the $25 plane ticket to San Francisco.  He saw me in 2nd Lieutenants uniform and figured out where I was going pretty quickly.  My only send off was with Mike and Lou and Dan in Lou’s dorm room in Walsh Hall.  Lou always liked to room with Asians – he said they were quiet and didn’t hassle him when he pee’d in the sink.  But his roommate had seen us taking over the room and had left.  Mike pulled out his brothers pot and we got high…it was my first time and I hallucinated a lot.  We ended up in Campisi Hall lounge with some of the girls; Lou playing the piano. It was grand.

3 nights later, as the chartered jet descended through the massed thunderheads into Ton Son Nhut parachute flares hung in the dark.  They look still, suspended, seemingly purposeless from the window of a 707 at 5000 feet.  There was little electricity then in country and pretty much all was dark.  I have flown into Ton Son Nhut many times since 2003, when I started doing business there.  The first time in 2003 it still had traces of that night in 1966, with a small stucco, 1930’s era, one story building and a couple of quonset huts.  We were herded in the tropical midnight heat to tents with cots where we crashed in our first night in “Nam”.

We had been issued towels and soap, and after a mid-morning shower I went out of the gate and caught a ride in a “putt-putt”, 3 wheeled motorbike taxi.  The gate guard told me about motor scooters throwing grenades into putt-putts..he said it’d been quiet lately. Through the masses of bicycles and horse carts, down the  Nguyen Kiem Road to the Rue Catenac and the Opera House.  I went into the famous old Hotel Continental and out onto the verandah restaurant where I had “steak-frites” and a glass of red.  Eating in the hotel where Graham Green wrote The Quiet American was a treat.  That was the last restaurant meal I had until R&R in Bangkok 8 months later.

We flew up the coast to the small port town of Qui Nhon in a C-123 2 engine prop freight transport plane.  We flew with the rear ramp door open to keep cool.  The loadmaster stood on the door looking out like he was standing on his porch at home.  The jungle hills and rice patties seemed empty of towns and people;  they were intensely green and beautiful.  There was little conversation but it was obvious that I was the only new guy on the plane.

My orders were for the 2nd Transportation Company (Truck) and a sergeant met me in his jeep and we drove west into the Phu Tai Valley – about 10 miles west of the beach town.  We were part of the 27th Transportation Battalion which had been operating since WW2 where it had worked North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, and up the Italian Peninsula through the Po Valley and into the Alps. It had been the first dedicated convoy battalion in Vietnam – it and the 2nd had arrived in October of 1965.

Starting out from QuiNhon – 2005

Our mission was to link up with the beach clearance operation, load our trucks with the cargo coming off the ships, and then take the cargo “up country”.  By this time there were various military operations groups through out all central II Corps.  We’d run convoys north to DaNang, south to TuyHoa and Nha Trang, but 90% of our business was daily run convoys west to Pleiku and then north to Kontum or south toward Buon Ma Thuot.   Those destinations were only 10-15 miles from the Cambodian border.  The famous battle of Ia Drang Valley had take place just 10 months before and we’d run down there to Plei Me  which was about 20 miles out of Pleiku.  The supplies we were taking were for a variety of outfits we supported during my year including the 5th Special Forces, First Cav, 4th Infantry Division, 25th infantry Division, and the Korean Tiger and White Horse Divisions.  Also of course various ARVN outfits too.

So we were based in the Phu Tai Valley,  west of the port.  It was a long narrow thing, running north to south – maybe 5 to 8 miles long and with a flat valley floor only a half mile wide.  There were scrub hills on either side that rose up 300 feet or more.  On the south end of the valley was a pass with the main road headed down towards Nha Trang.  The main ammo dump for the whole area was there – it was a continuous target for the Viet Cong “sappers” and was blown several times while we were there.  Our company camp was on the west side of the valley…snug up against the hills.  It was a dumb place to have a camp.  There were incessant forays of snipers, harassing fire from the brush, occasional small attacks.  Well no wonder – less than a thousand feet away was a high hill covered in thick brush and as the motto went “the night belonged to Charlie”.

Phu Tai Valley – home of the 2nd Trans Company

The company was made up of about 150 men, mainly divided into three platoons.  Each platoon had 20 trucks and about 40 men.  Charlie Trompler, from Oklahoma ran one platoon; Win Luther ran another;  I was to head the third.  Our Company Commander was Captain Gorman and later a nice guy named Capt Jim Becker.    The company had rolled its trucks off of LST’s onto the beach in town less than a year before…the first transportation truck company into Vietnam.

The battalion had a number of different types of trucks:  “Deuce and a half’s (2 1/2 ton tare weight integrated truck and bed) – it could carry men and small loads but with all wheel drive and 10 gears could go over the roughest terrain; there were 5 ton integrated and also 5-ton tractor-trailers..those were 10 wheel Freightliner tractors which had been converted to multi-fuel engines which ran on kerosene ( jet propellant), gasoline or diesel ; they could pull either a “stake and platform” or tanker trailers with double axle 8 wheels; each company had 2 five ton wreckers; also we could call on a ten ton wrecker if needed.  I once was sent on a mission to retrieve a tractor trailer which had gone down to the bottom of a 100 foot ravine off the AnKhe pass. I took us all day to rig it…as the ten ton wrecker’s extended cables and multiple pulleys pulled the truck up the cliff side the strain on the cables was immense..I imagined them snapping and taking our heads off.  Our convoys mixed all the various truck types together regardless of company.  Convoys could have as many as 30-50 trucks or as few as 4-5, which was the size of the one I led on an April night up into Pleiku when it was under siege.

Our camp was a rough thing..about 8 large canvas tents pitched on the dark clay.  In the dry season the clay turned to thick dust and in the rains it became a foot deep mud wallow.  We had rudimentary cots – some wood, some metal with mosquito netting over a ramshackle frame.  We slept in down sleeping bags or under thin “pancho liners”.  The bases of the tents were stacked with sandbags to catch shrapnel.  There was a wash tent and open air washing racks with aluminum bowls, but little hot water – we’d only take a shower every week or two.

Base Camp

Around the perimeter was triple stacked concertina wire and beyond it mines under low slung array of razorwire.  There were machine gun towers along the west side which was open to the scrub hills from which the VC would come for harrassing fire or sapper incursions.  Also on the west side were the latrines – open air 4-6 holers.  One of the daily chores was to take the cut open bottoms of 55 gallon steel drums which were the recipients of the waste and burn the waste by pouring kerosene on it – it was a horrible stench.  Most of us preferred not to go out to the latrines at night due to sniper fire.  We pulled our own guard with about 6-8 guys on the perimeter each night.  The GI’s spoke and acted just like in the great movie “Platoon”.

27 Trans Battalion truckers in camp

My Vietnam experience had been very lucky in several ways.

The army has a classification of  6 “combat arms” corps..that is how the various outfits are connoted.  The 3 core combat arms corps are Infantry, Armor, Artillery; then there are 3 ancillary combat arms: Transportation, Engineers, Signal.  These are corps whose main missions are to take place in combat areas and in combat situations.  Other rear echelon corps like quartermaster, ordnance, medical, adjutant, etc are generally not meant to see combat.  At our ROTC summer camp we got to “put in” for the corps we wanted – we had 3 choices.  I put in first choice Armor, second Artillery, and third Transportation.  I definitely wanted to be in a combat corps but was not crazy enough to want to be a grunt.  I was and am disappointed that I got Transportation instead of one of the first two.  But in retrospect, running 300 convoys and putting up 30,000 miles driving all over Vietnam let me soak in the lovely rice farming life of the Vietnamese and the cloud-jungle village life of the montagnards.  And gave guys like Charlie, Win, me, and the other convoy runners ring side seats to watch how our war was destroying it.

I was also lucky that a massive SNAFU about my desire to go to Ranger/Jump school and helicopter flight school prevented me from doing either and sent me on to my assignment in as a convoy commander right after basic.

Most lucky was my decision to volunteer for Vietnam.

Having been prepared since childhood to be an army officer and intensely trained with two years college at The Citadel, it was a forgone conclusion that I wanted to get to to the war right away.  This was despite the fact that by the middle of my senior year at SCU I was openly opposed to the war and helped in the beginnings of the campaign against it as the campus representative of SNCC.  So with the SNAFU on flight school, and my volunteering,  I was probably the first of my SCU class to get there.  What that meant was that I had finished my one year tour of duty in September 1967, 5 months before the NVA invasion in the First TET offensive of Feb 1968.  If I had tried to put off going, or proceeded to one of the advanced combat schools, I would have been running the “Street Without Joy” in 1968 when the NVA had come down and the tables were turning.

This unplanned timing good fortune is shown in sharp relief by the fact that 8 weeks after I returned to “the world” our convoys got their first serious ambushes with rockets, machine guns, sappers, landmines, and NVA professionals.  It happened on 11 November and then again on 16 December.  It happened just above the AnKhe pass, which was one of my most traveled stretches – having led convoys and other missions over the killing ground at least 500 time in my 12 month.  In those two battles our outfits lost 30 trucks,  7 dead and 17 wounded out of probably 60-120 men in the convoys.

During my time on the road our enemy was largely the Viet Cong, lightly trained militia with simple light weapons.  While our convoys had had some light ambushes, land-mines and lots of sniper fire, I had never lost a man dead or wounded.  We had lots of action and excitement and some hair raising experiences and bullets flying around me.  But the attacks on our camps were light, the VC were not good shots, and except for the siege of Pleiku, we had never faced the NVA.  Five months later the world had turned and death was all around.  God has been good to me.

.                        On the road to the Cambodian Border – 2005


Return from the Void – part 1

the old master – Pericon de Cadiz: “Nombre artístico del cantaor gaditano Juan Martínez Vilchez. Nacido en Cádiz en 1901 y fallecido en 1980. Ha dejado valiosas grabaciones; su repertorio fue amplio y se le considera uno de los últimos maestros del cante de su tierra.”


I looked fixedly at the beat up linoleum knife laying in the dust amid wrinkled cigarette packs and nuts and bolts on the dashboard.  I reached out and took it in my hand and turned to the pervert behind the wheel of the dusty pickup and said:                                                                                                                                                                              “I’d be happy to cut your balls off.  I’ve done worse than that in Vietnam.  But I’ll kill you as well.  So you better pull off and let me out. NOW! “

We were somewhere in the middle of nowhere between San Antonio and San Angelo.  It was desolate hot brush-land.  This plump and prosperous looking cowboy had picked me up 40 or 50 miles back and we’d been having a nice chat until he pulled some crazy stuff                                                                                                              (Him) “You know I am terribly unhappy.  I think I am a woman trapped in this man’s body.  I’m a queer and I can’t live like this.  Particularly out here in the country.  I know this is strange to ask but…would you cut my balls off? ”                                                                                                                                                                                     (Me – thinking) “Holy shit – this guy is nuts.

I guess my bluff worked because the 40 something guy pulled over onto the gravel I grabbed my guitar and bag and climbed out he said:                                                                                                                                “I’m sorry.  I’m all screwed up. … But would you mind just pulling your shirt up?

I figured if that was all it cost me to be rid of him I was ahead so I pulled the old tee up and let him look at my upper torso – scrawny after 14 month living on the road from hand to mouth.  I felt a bit tense as he took off in his Ford pickup; hoping he would not come back and precipitate a really sweaty situation.

As the minutes ticked away and cars began to come by sporadically I relaxed and stuck out the old thumb.  After 20 minutes a car pulled over..I looked in. The Roman collar was unmistakable.  I climbed into the sedan and we took off…a catholic priest.  We introduced ourselves and it turned out he was headed to Lubbock which was a mere hundred miles from Amarillo and Route 66. .

Things were looking up.

I’d left Madrid at the end of August, catching a train to Toledo, and the last 7 weeks or so had been bare bones hitching and busing and trampsteamering; but it had also been scenic, interesting, warm, and lush – good travel – it would be a shame to spoil the atmosphere now.

At this rate I might be home to Menlo Park in 3 or 4 days!


It’s so hot here in July and August that the Madrilenos leave the city and head for the higher towns and beaches. A sense of lethargy blankets the old center.  I was able to find some refuge in the wonderful Retiro Park, lying in the cool grass under the chestnut trees and reading,  and sneaking into the university swimming pool on Sunday afternoons.  Thinks had worked out well.  I knew by the beginning of August that I was going to be able to raise the money to head home and actually get there.  It might take me a couple of months, hitchhiking, buses, a tramp steamer, but I now had a plan that could work.  I felt good, real good.

The crux had been getting a part on the permanent company of a spaghetti western called “Cannon for Cordoba”, a Mirisch Productions film starring George Peppard (cigar chomping leader of the TV series “The A-Team”).  A bunch of us had hopped a train up here from Almeria on the Costa del Sol in June as the work dried up on Patton and Sledge.  We had made the casting call at Estudio Espana the week after we got here and I had made the cut.  Paying me $300-400 for 6 or 8 weeks of work made catching a freighter possible.  I just needed to put the plan together.

I got a cheap room in a nice pension north of the Gran Via, where I was the only non-Spaniard. The set provided lunch for day shooting and dinner for night.  I had a cafe con leche and a small baguette other wise.  One night, after getting my weeks pay, I went to a restaurant in the narrow walking lanes off the Plaza Santa Ana and had a pork cutlet and fresh peas – first restaurant meal in months.  We sat in the small living room of the pension on July 20 and watched Neil Armstrong jump on the moon.  I was the only American in the pension – it felt good.  I had a bit of kif left from the Dave Kramer trip to Melilla and sold it to raise some more money. By this time I had stopped smoking but still had my sebsi pipe to take home a souvenir.

The movie days were long, catching the bus by about 0630.  They had built an 1890 border town about 40 miles out in the rolling plains of La Mancha, south of Madrid.  If you’ve watched movies being shot you know that for every 10 minutes of action there are hours of set up.  We’d sit and watch George Peppard, Don Gordon (Steve McQueen’s partner in Bullitt) and Elizabeth Ashley play poker all evening.  They burned the town down after several nights of gun fights.  I had a good part in one of the fights as Cordoba’s bandits raid the town – I was in the street shooting a Winchester lever action rifle as 3 horsemen tried to ride me down, running out of bullets I ran back to the wooden storefront sidewalk, throwing the rifle to a compadre to reload, spinning and drawing my pistol, shooting up at a mounted bandit, who then drilled me – his shots pushed me into the wall where I slowly slid down dead.  I got an ovation from the whole set…but, things being what they are, as Mom would say, “the best parts of my role ended on the cutting room floor”.

I spent several weeks researching how to get a freighter back to the states.  I finally found one headed out that belonged to the Transatlantica Espanola shipping line – La Transatlantica.  There is a postcard of the ship in one of the boxes of my junk.  It looked great..leaving from Cadiz then through the Canary Islands, Venezuela, Curacao, Santa Domingo, Puerto Rico, and ending up at Vera Cruz Mexico.  It was leaving about 3 weeks after the movie shoot was to end.  It would take 20 days, cost about $10 a day including 3 meals and all the wine you wanted. Perfect.

As the few weeks went by and the filming ended I had gotten some decent sandals and a lovely but inexpensive flamenco guitar ($35 I believe), packed what little stuff I had into an old airline style bag,  rolled the cotton sleeping bag on top and caught a train down to Toledo, headed for Cadiz.  Hitching out of a big city is always a pain and Madrid was no exception, so a 2 hour train ride for 30 pesetas made sense.  Forty years later, Margo and I would take the bullet train down – 20 minutes – $60.  But plenty of time for a days site seeing, a lunch of Carcamusa at the Casa Ludena, and a few glasses of wine sitting in the shade of the cathedral. The best way to appreciate this ancient town is to climb down into the gorge of the Rio Tagus then up to the old Infantry school on the bare southern hillside and watch the sun set on the towers of the Alcazar.  The waves of yellow, tan, red, ochre, terracotta tiles seem to sing in the clear light of the late sun –  Toledo – probably the most picturesque town in the world.

I spent 4 or 5 days hitching and sleeping in the fields.  The summer days were long and I took the back roads where curious truck drivers were more likely to stop for me.  The countryside in midday was swimming in a blinding white yellow haze.  The sound of insects ceaseless; small birds swooping endlessly gathering them in for a meal.

– Cuidad Real, – Cordoba, – a couple of nights in a Sevilla pension, – down to Puerto Santa Maria where I went to the bullfights,

– then around Cadiz Bay to the old pirate port which sits on the Atlantic and is the oldest continuously-inhabited city on the Iberian peninsula.

…in Cordoba, late in the evening, the center of town was still lit by gas lamps….I wandered through the city park, sub tropic evening mists, palms, sago, and palmettos, just a few hundred  miles north of Africa; I crawled under some thick shrubs and slept – dreamlike…in Sevilla they hung great panels of sailcloth across the streets – Rothko like primary and secondary colors – massive sun screens to beat back the power of the Andalusian sun …Then finally into Cadiz.

This was to be the last town of the European undertaking.  The ship from La Transatlantica wasn’t coming for another 10 days so that gave just enough time for a quick last trip to Marrakesh.  Stashed my guitar at left baggage, grabbed a bus to Algeciras, a bus to Tangiers for an afternoon, then down to Rabat and on to Marrakesh – through the dry empty wasteland where we’d accidentally killed the unsuspecting guy walking on the road that January evening 9 month before…

Marrakesh was lovely as before…shopped- a copper plate for Kay, a Fez for Dad, some hash candy for a long walk through the souk…getting lost in the exotic scents and colors and sounds.  I stayed at the same old hotel, tea brewed by the owner over a small stove while we sat on the stucco floor of the roof.  Ate the wonderful shish-kabobs cooked on the small charcoal stoves in the medina; ate the oranges until my skin tingled overdosed on the ascorbic acid; sat on the ground and watched the neverending show of story tellers, drummers, magicians, dentists, and other unimaginable delights.

A crazy ride in the back of a 3 wheeled pickup standing windblown in the truckbed with 3 other travelers heading north… back to Ceuta… back to the ferry… back to Algeciras.  Then back to Cadiz for a final coda to bring 13 months bumming around Europe and North Africa to a  fitting close.

… a small rhapsodic moment:

Most people have heard the words Flamenco.

Some know it as a guitar music played by Montoya, or the Romeros, with lightning finger runs and trills – Malaguena by the Gypsy Kings. It is old gypsy music and it is the soul of Andalusia, which is where the soul of Spain is the oldest.

Others have seen it danced with clapping and heel snaps and spins and twirls of red flounced dresses and tight spangles pants over snake skin boots – perhaps in a cave outside Granada or a theatre in Madrid.

But most have never heard the true depth of the soul that is Flamenco singing.

The essence of flameno is cante – the singing.  It is deep and tough and passionate, longing, wounded, howls of liquid copper sounds hot out of a fire.  It is Arab, it is Romani, it is Mali and Algeria, it is hot lonely nights in the back alleys of Almeria, with the twin french-doors of my room in the Pension Oriental open onto the dimly lit lanes as 3’s and 4’s of men walk along with their guitars and voices uplifting the cante into the skies above the old town.  More than anything, to me, it is and always be Cadiz and a humid night with Pericon de Cadiz.  Him headlining a flamenco festival and singing at midnight in the small amphitheatre in the lush gardens of the Parque Genoves.  Here, playing in the late evening of my last day in Europe, was the 70 year old master of all masters in the style of cante jondo – the songs of profound and deep emotion, with themes of death, anquish, despair, doubt.  Songs of the wounded bull, songs of Guernica, of the white terror of the civil war, of the 3rd of May 1808. He stands grave and weighted, body still as the night air, the weight of Buddha, the gravity of a king.  And his song swirled into the park’s thick air, then through the tropic forests, and out to the west, mixing with the faint sound of the Atlantic breakers crashing on the park’s stone shore.

For me that was the a perfect way to end the European experiment that had started with Pete in August 1968 on Market Street in San Francisco in a red Mustang and had then covered so many miles, countries and adventures.. Pete the talented classical guitarist and lover of all great music and my partner in pursuit of all things fine in music.

The next evening my freighter sailed past the point of Cadiz, where the Parque Genoves sits, the last sight of land to the thousands of boats and ships that have set sail since 1000 years BC from the oldest city in Western Europe. And off I was – again on another leg of my delicious wandering.


You can hear Pericon de Cadiz on Youtube…try it you may like it

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