An Ugly Place by: Jim Holman The base where I lived my first six months in Vietnam was ugly. Bare sand, no trees, standard fifteen-by-thirty-feet green hootches laden on top and sides with sandbags. The hootches were connected by wooden sidewalks. You could walk to the beach, but the hot wind made it uncomfortable. This was Cua Viet, a navy base on the mouth of the Thach Han River, four kilometers south of the Demilitarized Zone. Our base in 1969 contained part of the armed forces to help protect the river, which was a logistics channel for supplies headed to support the Marines. Marines were tasked with this northernmost part of South Vietnam, all the way to Laos. Besides the four officers in charge of my ten river patrol boats, navy intelligence officers, supply officers, staff for Task Force Clearwater (the group overseeing the logistics channel) came on and off the base. We had a small officers club, more a bunker than a hootch – a bar, couple tables in a fifteen-foot by fifteen-foot air conditioned space completely enveloped in sandbags. An issue that came up early in my stay was the six-man crapper. One of the senior officers did not want to share crap time with the junior guys, so pretty soon we had a one-seat outhouse for commanders and above next to the six-man structure. Seems to me we always ate with the enlisted men, but afterwards went to an officer’s hootch to drink Rusty Nails – drambuie, scotch, and lemon peel. Sat on the porch listening to the senior lieutenants talking about shipboard life. My roommate was Doug, a warrant officer. He had worked his way up the ranks. I think he started out as an engineman. His right forearm bore a one-inch by two-inch scar, where Doug had tried to remove a tattoo. Doug and I had our own fridge, and he didn’t complain if I listened to Handel and Vivaldi. Our senior chief petty officer was from Georgia. He taught me to like Johnny Cash (“I Walk the Line”) and Tammy Wynnette (“D.I.V.O.R.C.E.”). This music seemed more lyrical and moving than the Fugs or even the Beatles. One afternoon a couple of our chief petty officers invited me over to chiefs’ quarters. They said they wanted to see if I would help them with the three-man lift. The challenge was to lie down face up and put a guy on either side also face up. We locked legs and arms and then a fourth guy was going to try to lift all three of us by lifting up on my belt. The lifter started to lift my belt, then suddenly undid the belt, dropped my pants and shorts, and covered my exposed parts with ketchup and mustard. The chiefs laughed, I had to laugh. During November the river was still running swift from monsoon rains. One of our chiefs got drunk and decided he was going out for a ride in one of the ten-foot skimmers. Something happened and he drowned. You can see his name as one of KIAs (killed in action) on the river boat memorial in Coronado. Because our patrols on the boats were twelve hours, we got used to the C-rats. My favorite was chicken with noodles. During the day we would catch fish with concussion grenades and cook up ramen with cilantro. This was before ramen came to the U.S. or cilantro became common. Now it seems strange that we didn’t worry about contamination of the fish. People had outhouses near the river, women washed clothes in the river, we peed in the river. Across the river from Cua Viet was the refugee village. I think there may have been five or ten thousand peasants moved off their land in or near the DMZ into plywood shacks. There was a village chief, but the leader with the most authority was a Buddhist monk named Ong Ha (Mr. Ha). He was about 25, but his shaved head and small size made him look about 12. For some reason I was assigned to work with Ha, and he seemed to like me. He told me, via an interpreter, that the village chief was corrupt. He demonstrated this by kicking the cement floor of some civic building to show the cement was mostly sand, the implication was that the village chief had stolen much of the cement. To show his appreciation, one day Ong Ha invited me to a villager’s hut for lunch. It was mostly vegetarian, but the center piece was a chicken with bones and meat all chopped up to make it easy to eat with chopsticks. The problem was what to do with the cut-up bone pieces in my mouth. Someone finally told me to spit them on the floor. My hosts seemed to sense my discomfort with the flies and one of the kids was assigned to fanning flies away from me and my food. To get away from Cua Viet and the bleak refugee ville, somehow my buddy Doug and I got permission to take a skimmer on a southern tributary of the Thach Han to Quang Tri, province capital. French buildings, bamboo on both sides of the river. It was like paradise. We ate at a small café – some kind of pork cubes cooked in banana leaves. In spring, 1972 I was riding on a boat on the Rio Atrato in Colombia run by someone who had been a officer under General Patton in North Africa. He said he wanted to recruit me for the CIA. All of a sudden he called me to his cabin to listen to the radio. I got an empty feeling in my stomach when I heard the radio saying Quang Tri province had fallen to North Viet tanks. Bernard Fall, author of books on Vietnam, including Street Without Joy, went back to Vietnam in 1967. He was on Highway 1 between Hue and Quang Tri when he stepped on a Bouncing Betty mine and died. Now there is a study on the internet saying 1.2 percent of Quang Tri province inhabitants have died from left-over land mines.