The Sanctuary of the Hootch was more than magical – it was a reality for me and those who shared this space with me. In order to unlock the door to insanity, you have to understand that the only way to do so is with the key of imagination. Nothing is real and everything is crazy. Being sent to this war put a man into another dimension – a dimension of sound, sight, and sometimes a mindless head game that moves you into a ‘twilight zone” kind of status.
Here, inside the sanctuary of your hootch, you can avoid all negatives substances and shadows of evil. Darkness can only exist if you let it and many of us would not allow the darkness to put out the light that kept us out of the dark.
Living in this small wooden framed and steel corrugated steel roof was about as good as life gets while in Vietnam. What must have been a 30 by 15 box, it housed and kept everything we had and owned while we were assigned there and worked out of there as duty called. Made and constructed over three ago for Marines who lived here before us, it had 12 of those flimsy military green folding cots precisely lined up and evenly spaced apart to house up to 12 men if full. Lately, there was only 5 of us living there and the same was for the other 5 hootches. None of them were ever full to our recollection of being there for the whole year.
Critically low staffed, we did the best we could with whatever they gave us to work with at the time. There was only one row of hootches built on 3-foot high wooden stilts to prevent the water from coming in during the monsoon season and held 6 of these hootches allowing 72 men to live under one roof of the 23rd Medical Battalion that supported the Americal Division Headquarters.
Down the stretch of the endless silver sandy ground was the beach where the staggered and isolated sandbagged bunkers sealed together with razor wire kept us safe at night as the beach was fully lit by the moon when the sky was clear and portable lights set up by a large generator to keep the area clear of intruders including wild animals.
A weak perimeter by all military standards, it appeared to satisfy the brass as being sufficient to protect the seaside of the port and perimeter of what we called Chu Lai.
A beach adjoining miles of waterfront that was both deep and beautiful. On some days, there are hundreds of men celebrating life with games of volleyball and beer. There were at least 4 NCO huts serving the men alcohol whenever the occasion called for celebration. Although those times were sparse and few in between, they did help boost morale when so far away from home.
These beaches were only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles. Many of those have gotten stuck in the deep sand as there are pockets of sinkholes that swallow up anything that comes near them. Under the moon, these beaches were amazing, pristine and had the serenity that would capture the heart of a loved one if she was fortunate enough to with you in mind and spirit.
Turning my head back to the hootches, it was clear as day and night of what was ugly and what was unspoiled. However, these hootches gave us all that we needed for the time being. The company was allowed to have up to 120 men to serve their needs as medics. Due to attrition, losses and shortages of the war, we were lucky to have 60 or more medics and support staff on a good day.
In the Army, as in other branches, idle hands make for an unproductive helping hand so it was during your off days that you were assigned to scoop, stir and burn the poop of all those who went to the outhouse before the day’s end. The compound had 6 outhouses and 6 showers. The showers were merely wooden stalls with a half door and a large water drum kept on a steel bar that tips the water when you pull on the chain attached to the drum.
Archaic, it served the purpose for taking a shower and the water was only as warm as the sun allowed it to be – on rainy days, the water was somewhat cold but it was good to take a shower even when it rained.
Burning shit didn’t take much talent. Using diesel fuel as an accelerant, you would be assigned to pull out the cut-in-half 55 gallon [drum which contained the human shit and piss] and drag it out into the open space, lining them up so you can pour the fuel on every drum and not be in the way of the smoke as the wind was the main factor how you lined up your drums.
Stirring shit and burning it for half a day of your day off can be frustrating but necessary for the good of all. Having s towel to cover your face helped not gagging on the smoke and crap floating in the air around you.
Extraneous activity is nothing more nor less than sloppy time spent doing nothing, in a manner of speaking. Some chose to go to the village near the base and find a prostitute to give them the pleasure sought under these weird and sometimes awkward conditions.
The hootches all had girls assigned to them to do the housekeeping (dusting, sweeping, laundry etc.) but these girls were off limits for sex. You had to be an officer to screw one of the hootch girls and none of us rated in that manner of speaking. Thus those with sexually related hormone problems set their sights on the young promiscuous prostitutes and girls in the distant horizon and away from any harm as the buddy system was the only way to do this kind of activity in the village.
The rest of us took advantage of catching a nap or two or we went to the PX and bought souvenirs to send back home or to hang on the wall. Living in the hootch was like living in a time filled period with photographs and memories in a tin box.
The same tin box that your family sent you the fruitcake in to celebrate Christmas or any other holiday that might have passed. In every hootch, there was a perceived noisy man; always, one of a breed to cover up his fear of dying.
As for having any significance, there was none as we all feared to die. Some of us used our voices to shout out loud the frustration experienced or felt at the moment. An apparent phenome most common to use and express frustrations. Others used their silence and take long lonely walks to deal with the emotions of being homesick and away from our loved one.
To violate one’s personal space was an act of desecration that had serious consequences. There were no thieves in our hootches. We shared what we wanted to share and we kept what we wanted to keep to ourselves. That was the code, that was the manner we lived there together.
If one was to take anything that didn’t belong to them, there was an idiosyncrasy of revenge and expulsion that was quickly turned into an obsession. Justice was quick in these hootches and everyone was aware of it.
This insistence of running a household like a clean ship without disruption was part of how we dealt with this kind of problems. We all knew this was a proper combination where the act of stepping on the toes of others was quite impossible without some sort of retribution coming from all of us – and this was a rule that we could all live with.
Sometimes we whispered. We whispered to see if we could hear the bombs in the distance falling. We could see the light in the sky as these bombs exploded many miles away and we could hear the echo of their thunder.
You know, in our hootch, we always had cookies and we always had fudge brownies send from home. We loved them and it kept us connected to reality in more ways than one. When someone’s time was up and he was going back to the free [real] world, we would say, “good riddance man, we never liked you” showing respectful salutation and disbarment and know very well, they would be sadly missed.
We simply could not suffer any more than we already were, making friends were taboo and it was an obstruction to your own sanity. Just another excess of wasted emotion and more inflammation to the friendships developed on a temporary moment in hell.
Living here was absolutely incredible. It was always ‘mind over matter.’ Hooked onto a miserable occupation where death was often and misery was always near, the noises of the war had been literally planted and seeded in my head as well as the heads of others. The whole business was dealt with mind over matter – if you didn’t mind the inconvenience, it didn’t matter.
This war was indeed being beyond in another dimension, a dimension of sound, of sight and of mind. We had to deal with awful things and came up with some terrible ideas in order to survive this ordeal in hell. Crossing over from heaven to hell and hell to eternity was something the human mind had trouble with most of the time. It always left you confused and desperately seeking an answer to an unasked question.
During the bad weather, we were imposed on remaining inside our hootch. To go out there during inclement weather was risky as the swollen waters moved rapidly like a snake and swallowed you up with ease. It was during the monsoon season where we had the most difficulty maintaining our good sense. It was like the pounding of tons of water on the steel corrugated roofs drove us crazy as the wind blew the rain sideways into the hootches drenching us and our stuff as we had no windows and no glass barriers – only screen doors and screen windows to keep the elements out of here.
Our wooden folding cots had mosquito netting covering our bodies when we slept. The next best thing to sunshine was the ending of the rain for it brought millions and millions of mosquitoes into our world, no matter where we were, they would follow us. There wasn’t a day that we didn’t take our malaria pill for the risks of catching the fever was greater here than anywhere else in the world or so it seemed.
Turning off the lights at 10 pm was mandatory. Before the lights were turned out, you could tell the generator’s pulse by the flickering of the lights. After 10 pm we were allowed to keep the fans going but no lights except those provided by batteries and flashlights given.
In many ways, turning off the lights was like finding another hiding place. Between the darkness and the silence, it was like a sanctuary to many of us and that was the most appreciated thing about the hootch- it served us well as a place for peace, solace, and sanity.
So all in all, it was quite a place to have in this hell-hole of a war. When assigned to the convoys, it was a matter of routine to come back here every night after a 12 or 16-hour tour of duty. Sleeping all but 4 or 5 hours a day was all we needed.
When assigned to a field unit, we didn’t come back to these hootches for up to several weeks if not months. Coming back weary and worn out, you would find your mail stacked on your cot and a shower was the first thing on your mind. The adjustment was irreversible. It was the way the war had been set up for us here assigned to the headquarters company.
We had no luxuries in our hootch. There was no carpet, no pictures hanging on the wall and no bed – just a folding cot that served as our bed that couldn’t be moved from its spot as it was marked on the floor where it was to be and where it was to remain. In that respect, the space provided was very limited but since the other folding portable beds were rarely filled or used, space was an adequate accommodation for the time being.
We had a wonderful view of the beach as you could hear the waves pounding at night when the sea was rough and the wind was ferociously pushing its way around the place.
When it was all said, there were worse places to spend an evening or even a whole year in – thankfully we always had the hootch to come back to if we made it through the daily grind of the convoys and the rogue assignments with various field units.
Even with the sun on our faces, we sometimes felt like we were living in a frozen jungle. Frozen because of the coldness in the air, the morning dew and the lack of emotions around us. If one could imagine the imagery of a freezing jungle, you can imagine the coldness inside you as your heart turns to ice and these conditions are most unpleasant to you and others. However, this unpleasantness was never enough to renounce my faith in God, my country or my mind and never did I try to seek asylum anywhere else but my hootch.
I knew that if I remained in my hootch, I would retain my sanity. Indeed, there were times that I felt like I was a political prisoner caught up in a political war.
I was sentenced to serve a year and a year I will serve. I arrived here with neutral feeling and unfortunately, I will depart with many more negative feelings than good ones. I will desperately cling onto the railing of the ramp that lets me climb the steps of the steel rails that lead me into the airplane and take me out of here back to a civilized world and nation.
In the meantime, I will look into the mirror and remember so many faces. Perhaps I should work on remembering their names but I can’t, I can only remember faces… I can only remember pain and sorrow. So as I dispense with the amenities, the masquerades and the fake “give a little take a little” between strangers I can only stand in the corner at times and nod, smile and accept that I went from agony to agony while stationed here in this god-forsaken land. I am sick tired and torn, but I am not insane.
Let me explain the difference between me and the others who shared this hootch. There were 5 of us – each from a different place – 1 from Puerto Rico we called “Rico” and 1 from Dallas Texas we called “Dallas.” We had 2 from Los Angeles and we called them “Hollywood and Max” but Max was his real name. There cannot be two people called “Hollywood” as that would confuse us all.
Our section sergeant was a malcontent. He hated the world but he took good care of us by making sure we got to rest and fed. He could never accept the role to which he was ordained to as a leader. He wanted to be someone else; somewhere in combat as this was his third tour in Nam.
I, on the other hand, I adapted to my situations. My role was small compared to others. My job was to save lives and that’s what I focused on all of the time. We didn’t get paid much and the job was well laid out there for me – the Army thought of everything.
Finding the wounded and suffering and then doing away with their agony or pain, and healing them if possible. I never chose to prolong it, in the process I did not procrastinate and did the best I could. It was a designed approach based and designed on my training and a challenge to my talents for I lived and fought with worthy adversaries and friends in this hell-hole of a war.
To some I was a monster, to the others, I was their savior. There was no sense of this war. At times I was weak when I should have been strong but there were times when I was strong, yet still weak. This was a soldier’s life and a medic’s woes.
There are no easy answers to hell knocking on the door of insanity and disasters. As you've probably perceived, I’m rather a gamesman when it comes to healing the wounded and sick. I have my own rules and ethics that apply, and, listen to the following quite carefully. When in war, you learn the game – this is the game, and these are the rules. You have been asleep for roughly three hours but during that time, your mind never stood still.
Inside your head, there is a time bomb – a booby trap that will catch you off guard and make you regret remaining sane. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to go insane for just a moment and return back as fast as you can to deal with the upcoming reality of death.
If you find this booby trap in your mind and cut the wire, you'll be permitted to leave the war alive. This is a guarantee, but the following conditions are of the essence, you always must actively search for this booby trap, and you must find it and render it ineffectual before it is too late and you die.
That Bible that looks as if it's been pulled out for you to see and read. I think it’s possible the answer is in the Bible. It's quite possible that the key to defusing the booby trap is in this holy book – I think I found it.