Down In The Highlands

“A bedraggled paratrooper came stumbling out of the trees at the far side of the clearing. The man had been wounded in the previous days action but had evaded the NVA. As a medic treated his wounds Bodine asked him where the rest of Bravo was.

“Just a little way down the trail,” the youngster said in a quivering voice.

Bodine took his platoon forward. A short distance beyond the clump of trees he spotted the mass of bodies. Bodine, ignoring the carnage, moved beyond the site and set up a protective line. Then he radioed to Captain Leonard to come forward.

A few minutes later, Captain Leonard brought the rest of the company down.

No one could comprehend the horrible scene. Dozens upon dozens of American bodies laid sprawled in death’s grotesque grip. A heavy veil of black flies swarmed over the swollen corpses and the thick pools of blood and gore. The smell of death hung so heavily in the jungle that many of Charlie’s paratroopers were unable to control their stomachs. They staggered behind trees to vomit.

It was immediately apparent to Lieutenant Harrison that many of Alpha’s men had been executed; a large number of their bodies bore ghastly exit wounds in their faces. Other corpses had been mutilated, their features destroyed, rings fingers cut off, and ears removed.

The scene was almost too much for Harrison to handle. He’d never expected to encounter something like this on his third day in the field. He couldn’t deal with it on a human scale. His mind and body began functioning solely on their five years of extensive military training. Oblivious to the carnage, Harrison started searching for his classmates, Judd and Hood. He found their bodies within minutes.

Helicopters brought in stacks of body bags. Charlie Company’s grunts began the gruesome task of filling the rubberized green canvas bags with the remains of their comrades.

Three members of Alpha’s decimated platoon had survived the slaughter. One was the man Specialist Patterson had witnessed changing his M60 barrel with his bare hands. Another man had been shot three times in the back but survived. Lieutenant Harrison found a man who, while he played dead, had had his ring finger cut off by a machete-wielding NVA. After the NVA left the battlefield, the man in his delirium, tried to reattach the severed digit to its stump with the tape that wraps around a smoke grenade’s cardboard canister. Then he stuck his injured hand in an abandoned canteen cover.

Bravo company finally arrived at the site at about 1500. They immediately pitched in to finish policing up the ground. Within minutes of his arrival, Lieutenant McDevitt heard the news about his friend Don Judd. It didn’t seem possible; just two weeks earlier they’d been making plans for R and R. How could Judd be dead?

Back at Dak To, Captain Milton began the grim task of positively identifying the dead. The NVA had been known to switch dog tags on American corpses, causing untold agony for family members when the deception was uncovered. Assisted by 1st Sergeant Deeb and Sergeant Nichols, who knew the members of 2nd platoon, Milton spent the next two days positively identifying his men.

The final toll for Alpha Company was shocking. Out of 137 men in Alpha on 22 June, 1967, 76 were killed. Another 23 were wounded. Of the dead 43 suffered fatal, close range head wounds.

Captain Grosso, the brigade surgeon, signed all the death certificates. Those for the executed Sky Soldiers listed the cause of death as “fragmentations wounds to the head.” A few weeks after the incident Grosso was given a statement, prepared by an unknown source at brigade headquarters, which confirmed the executions. However, Grosso never read it. He was so disgusted by the brutal realities of war he simply scrawled his signature on the document.

On 0845 on November 15 the NVA dumped a dozen mortar rounds on the airstrip. This time they were much luckier. Three C-130s received direct hits. One was slightly damaged but the other two erupted in huge balls of flame. The nearly full fuel tanks on the two transports burned furiously for hours, the intense heat driving off several attempts to douse the fire. Finally somebody decided to just let them burn.

Just across from him, not more than ten feet away, Sergeant Sandstrom writhed in agony. Both his legs were gone. Next to him lay the mangled corpse of a paratrooper. A third man had been blown about ten feet away. One of his legs was gone.

Mescan crawled on all fours to Sandstrom. While he applied tourniquets to the torn stumps, Sandstrom grabbed his arm. Between gasps he asked, “Will I walk? Will I walk?”
“Sure,” Mescan lied.

Dak To: America’s Sky Soldiers in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands
Edward S. Murphy. 1988.


Men in War Series   Why do they do it?  Because they love it.  Let’s take a break.

It’s coffee time.

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Beach Avenue

I didn’t realize until I saw for myself. They put a monster building on the site of the old Black Top taxi lot and disappeared the “Beach Cafe” coffee shop at 701 Beach Avenue. The coffee shop was in the old style with round stools with red vinyl padded seats at a counter and a few booths where generations of hard-driving cab drivers tried to drink enough coffee to obliterate the miserableness of their lousy cab driver existences.  

The walls of the coffee shop were adorned with a few old, framed black & whites of extinct Black Top cabs and their extinct drivers.  The taxi offices, such as they were, were connected to the cafe.  The shift dispatcher, the formidable and indomitable Ella Read, took and made calls from an office the size of a closet.  She sat in there all day working the phone and smoking cigarettes.  When I didn’t have a steady car, that is the same car with the same number for the same shift five days a week, I worked “spare”, as it was called.  

The call would come from Ella in the early afternoon asking if I wanted a car for tonight.  If she was calling and I hadn’t already worked five days that week as a spare it was a good idea to say, “Yes” or Ella would come through the phone line and bight me.  I think, though, that inside her hard exterior was a soft interior.

She’d give me the car number and I’d come down to the lot at the appropriate time, pick up the keys in the driver’s room with the sheet, being the legal-sized “trip sheet” with the carbon copy where you were supposed to record every “trip” involving a paying customer or customers and the time and the pick-up and drop-off location, and then I’d head out to the lot to find the car.  Sometimes it was on the lot, sometimes it was parked on the street somewhere near the lot and sometimes there was no car because the day driver had a longer last trip than he’d planned on.  If he was more than a few minutes late he’d give me a couple of bucks to make up for it.  I remember only two lady cab drivers. 

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The gas station next door at 711 Beach Avenue is history too although the shell is still there with the old pumps. The fleet used to be all gas powered then it went to natural gas. It was common on the afternoon shift which was 3:45 p.m. to 2:45 a.m. to drive two or three hundred miles and go through at least two full tanks of gas.  

If I got low on gas and was far from the lot gas station I bought gas at a gas station and put the receipt in the cash envelope at the end of the shift, deducting the amount of that gas as well as the gas from the lot pumps from the car owner’s take for the night.  The split was 50 – 50 after that between the owner and the driver with two per-cent deducted from the driver’s share and held back for income tax.  

Unless a trip was dispatched it didn’t necessarily have to go on the trip sheet.  This was when you picked up a “flag” fare, somebody waving at you to pick them up if there was nobody but you in the cab.  It was a hard-scrabble hustle business and if you were getting lots of flags on a busy night you wouldn’t record them all and the cash was yours. Everybody did that within reason.  It was a cash business.  Only a fool of a cab driver would ever accept a cheque for a trip.  There were credit cards, and taxi vouchers and company accounts, but no debit cards.

Few gas stations at the time also dispensed natural gas so if the cab ran low it could still be switched to run on gas.  When I was out of natural gas and had a trip downtown I could make it into the lot to re-fill on natural gas.  Driving a cab for ten or eleven hours wasn’t necessarily a gas.  

On the afternoon shift I didn’t have to stay out until 2:45 a.m.  I could park the car around 2 a.m. especially if the night was slow.  Graveyard shifts were 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. with the expectation that the cab would be in service the entire 12 hours.  Some drivers only worked graveyard, some only worked day shift.  In my career I worked all three shifts, most of them afternoon but occasionally I’d opt for the thrills, chills and spills of graveyard.  Cool. Graveyard.

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This sign wasn’t in place during my career.  It’s at the northwest corner of the taxi gas station.  The chain link is new too, much newer than the sign.  That pole has to go.

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Then there’s this thing.  It’s hanging above Beach Avenue from the underside of a section of the famed Granville Street bridge just past what would have been the eastern end of the Black Top cab lot.  The cab lot and the high, vaulting, dun grey concrete of the bridge support arches towering directly above what at one time had been the False Creek terminus of downtown Granville Street before the bridge was built wasn’t much to look at unless you loved driving cab and lots of dun grey concrete. 

I called cab driving the worst job in the world.  I was never robbed or threatened by anyone and only ever physically removed a customer for being drunk and disorderly once. I doubt that it was the worst job in the world, then or now, but the pay was lousy considering all the hours in a shift and wouldn’t be great today either.  But it was better than nothing which is what I was looking at otherwise, at the time.  Today all the Black Top cabs still have black roofs and yellow bodies but the drivers now, who used to be all white, are all brown.  And I doubt very many of them can afford to live in Vancouver where they do most of their driving. These chandelier things and just about everything else in town costs more than it used to.

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Salal Road

It’s just weird that anybody thinks they can get away with this. But it couldn’t have been just one person. It took a whole lot of genius brains to put this act together. This is the shortest road in history. And they call this a road? What’s next around here?

I didn’t know I’d lost my mind because I’m so old but I read the story at the Postmedia site starring the so-called Vancouver Sun newspaper. There’s nothing bright about the Vancouver Sun to light up your day. Darkness blots out the sky, but that’s not what I’m talking about. And that’s not my whole opinion. Postmedia through senility or whatever still employs a few good writers. Despite itself.

It’s about according to the experts my brain disappeared a while ago. And I did my best work in my twenties. How I profoundly wish that had been the case because I did no work in my twenties. I lazed around enjoying my twenties and work intruded hardly at all. If I’d worked harder I’d be even more famous today than I already am. I just didn’t need it. My opinion.

I’m not sure what I’m driving at but it makes about as much sense as Salal Road. There isn’t even any salal on it. I don’t see any salal anywhere around here and I’m a pretty good salal spotter. I’ve been around. I even know what it is. It’s green.

It’s alive, unlike my brain apparently. By my forties I’d already tailed off significantly, according to the experts and their expert study. Now it’s really over. If you read it’s true it must be true. It’s just that nobody wants to admit it.

Why at that time didn’t I wonder more why I still walk the earth at all? Why didn’t it occur to me then that’s it’s over for me, I need to die. Because, they’re right. I don’t remember losing my mind which, according to them again, just proves what they’re saying. I lost it a long time ago. I’m glad I know about this now. It’s about time because I’ve been thinking, even now, with the advancing years, that I’m such a smart person. So brave. Pretty incredible.

That’s how hard the truth hurts. My “cohort”, the most recent stupid concept of what group I supposedly belong to, my legion of doomed legionnaires, my generation except I don’t have a generation and never strived for or wanted to be part of anything resembling anything called “generation”, it sounds so dirty, makes me wonder why we many, we who apparently are so many, in our elderliness and confusion in still being here after forty, if that was really the case and we knew we were finished, then obviously we’ve sucked it up because we function yet. We’re getting used to it and we’re not forty anymore. We timed the market. The way I have to about Salal Road.

We walked away with the picture, upstaged everybody and left town at midnight. I wouldn’t change a thing even if I didn’t have a brain, which, and now I agree with the experts, was in retrospect pretty much the case. But I was brains enough to survive and I’ll get through this news too, that my brain died a long time ago. I’m okay with it.

The days get shorter and you get longer. That’s the bit of wizardy and wisdom communicating itself to me now at Salal Road. I won’t say on Salal Road because from everything I’ve seen we’re down to a pretty much sort of private short driveway here. I need to know more about this sign. Forgive us our press passes but what is your name, please? I said to the cop on the phone, “I’m not walking past the door. I’ll come down Alder.”

The road sign. The highway to nowhere and that’s what I kind of like about it after all. Perforated steel post and a ten by six inch or so or whatever in metric metal sign, ivory white background behind block capital letters in black. Same old. Beautiful. Walking back everything is great. My mind is a basketball and I’m bouncing it around on the road and doing a little dribbling. It feels good.


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