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Highway One Joyride, 1966
The Dangers of Youthful Exuberance
The Sudden Realization of Being In
(Over One’s Head)

By John Troesser
The names of the various landing zones (LZs) in Vietnam seem to blend together since they all had their separate histories. One might land at a tiny outpost with just a thinly-manned perimeter protecting two rubber “bladders” of jet fuel one month and then hear that “LZ Pony” had been “overrun” a few months later – not realizing that it was the same place.

So it may come as a surprise to some soldiers who remember LZ English as the sprawling, busy place that it became, that it was once a “Podunk” LZ – with just one street of tents and a large flat area for helicopters to land. At that time it was a command post and among the hundred or so troops stationed there, there was a token contingent of exactly two combat engineers – a captain and his enlisted jeep driver.

There were jeeps there because LZ English was on the left side of Highway 1 – which (in theory) stretched from Saigon to Hanoi. It paralleled the old French narrow gauge railroad track that connected the same two colonial capitals.

There weren’t any intersections on Hwy 1 – or signage. Just an occasional bullet-chipped milestone – reminiscent of the French game Mille Bornes. There were just rice paddies on either side of the so-called “highway” and if any side roads let to the coast, they were little more than wide dusty footpaths that became impassable morasses in the monsoon season. Villages were just wide spots alongside the road which seemed to have a pothole / firm surface ratio of 50%.

The captain attended meetings while the driver had assorted chores – cleaning the M 60 machine gun mounted on the jeep – blowing up captured ordnance that was dropped off by the “grunts” – and sweeping for mines at a site a mile or so north where construction engineers were building a bridge.

After breakfast and before the construction engineers arrived, the driver would load up his battery operated mine detector and his M16 and drive north alone. His job was to detect mines that may have been placed during the night. The bridge was actually more of a rebuilding of one that had been constructed under French occupation. Railroad rails cannibalized from the tracks allowed for single lane passage.

A few hundred meters to the left was the remains of a French armored train that because of it’s scaled-down side resembled an abandoned amusement park ride. The lead car had had a turret and the mud churned up when the trestle was blown still formed a visible berm around the wreck.

Walking alongside the black mud embankment, the driver could distinguish the boot prints of Americans in the crusty black mud. There were also telltale imprints of “Ho Chi Minh” sandals – the footwear of choice of the Viet Cong. Made from recycled tires, the imprints they left would’ve been a forensic detective’s dream (had there been such an occupation then).

After a week of not finding a thing, (but with an intense feeling of being watched), the driver / mine detector one day saw something very suspicious. Within the Iabundant litter of C ration boxes and cans, the ground had been wiped smooth of boot and sandal impressions. It was this smoothness that alerted him. A few inches beyond where the smoothness began - there were six disc-shaped objects just below the surface. They looked like large overturned saucers. He took a deep breath of morning-scented air and placed a board over the more well-trodden areas. He stretched the head of his detector over the thinly coated objects. There was no distortion in the flat steady whine he heard in his earphones.

Since he had been trained as a clerk-typist (don’t ask), his total experience with mines (beside the hurried five minute demonstration of the tool he now held) consisted of watching Vic Morrow on the TV show Combat! (The exclamation point goes with the name of the show.) It seemed that in every other episode of Combat! someone would be sweating profusely while probing for German mines with a bayonet.

It was a beautiful morning on the coastal plain of the Central Highlands, and the sun was just rising over a tree line of coconut palms. It would be ironic to be blown to smithereens on such a fine day, thought the driver. He started wondering why smithereens were always plural. Hadn’t they ever isolated a single one for research? But he snapped out of his musings when he remembered his mission. It was to detect mines and then report them on the jeep’s radio, where he would receive further instructions from the Captain – most probably to “blow them in place” with C4.

The discs surfaces had all the appearance of monochromatic finger paintings and the mud had been so thinly applied in some parts that little gleams of white showed through. He took his canteen from his web gear and poured water (actually lime Kool Aid) on the mud – revealing a French Hallmark. They had looked like the bottoms of dining plates because that’s exactly what they were.

He imagined the NVA in their little inverted peanut-butter-cup hats splitting their sides laughing and fighting over their binoculars in the distant tree line. It was, a good practical joke, even if the perpetrators couldn’t be there to enjoy it.

High on relief he started gathering up the plates for a future “show and tell” when he stopped and thought – “that’s exactly what “they” had planned.” So he left the other plates where they were and walked back to the bridge where he shot the remaining plates and the ground around them with his M16 – anticipating an explosion that never came.

He was about to turn the jeep around when he looked at Highway 1 heading north. Like the Saul Steinberg drawing of New York, he saw a simplified map of Vietnam with few landmarks. There was Hue, the Marines at Da Nang, the DMZ and then Hanoi (not that he was considering seeing even one of those places).

But like any teenage boy with a full tank of gas and time on his hands, the pull of the “open road” was too strong. He was, after all, driving his “first car” (this jeep was, in truth, the very first four-wheel vehicle he had ever driven). And what’s a first car without at least one joyride?

The area was considered “secure” although no one at LZ English had ventured north of the bridge – except by helicopter. The all-jeep First of the Ninth Recon unit with their little black flags (No Mercy, No Quarter) flying from their antennas, had surely been there – or so he thought.

After matching his tires to the loosely gathered railroad rails, he crossed the bridge and headed north. After a few miles he passed a few thatched huts close to the road – a sign that he was nearing a village.

The houses became more frequent and he started seeing the faces of villagers going about their errands. There were tiny women carrying impossible large loads on flat bamboo slats and bicycling schoolgirls in their spotless white ao dais. A few children (ever alert for the unusual) stared – and DID NOT ask for candy – his first inkling that he was indeed on a road less traveled.

But he was here – and the war was far away. The rearview mirror showed that he needed a haircut. He saw a barber shop and pulled right up to the door – what they now call “Hollywood” parking. Although it was a one barber operation, there was no waiting.

The conversation wasn’t what you would call “chatty.” It was pidgin English with a lot of sign language. If the truth was known, it was more like him holding his hand near his head and making the V for Victory sign – while opening and closing his fingers. The barber smiled and nodded and then walked to the front of the shop and looked south – perhaps hoping for a convoy of troops – all needing haircuts.

The soldier sat in the chair and held his M16 in one hand as the cloth was thrown over his torso. He then raised his other arm to cradle the weapon over the cloth – just in case anyone tried any funny business with the jeep.

Had it not been in pantomime, the conversation could’ve gone like this:
Barber: “We don’t get many Americans in here.” Or are you French?
Soldier: “No, the French have all gone home, haven’t you heard?
Barber: “I thought I smelled Old Spice!”
Soldier: “Yeah, well, I was just out sweeping for mines and I said to myself, what the hell, I need a haircut.”
Barber: “Well, you came to right place.”
Barber: “So you must be the advance man for an American convoy.”
Soldier: “Uh, yeah, that’s what I am.”
Barber (sharpening his straight razor): “So how many troops will be coming?”
Soldier: “Well, it probably depends on what kind of haircut I get, ha-ha.”

There were a lot of exchanged glances in the opposing mirrors and perhaps both men were trying to remember what the bounty was for American soldiers, jeeps, M60 machine guns – or all three.

The haircut and shave went well although the soldier passed on the hot towel treatment since it would block his vision. The going rate for a haircut and shave was about 10 Dong and since it was doubtful the man took military scrip, the soldier gave him a 50 Dong coin – the one with the bamboo on it. It’s funny how the tone of “keep the change” is universally understood.
Courtesy art-hanoi.com

It was an uneventful trip back to the landing zone and the captain still hadn't returned from his briefing. He looked at the small pile of mortar rounds and hand grenades that had accumulated in his absence and crossed Highway One where a pit had been dug specifically for "ordnance disposal." One of the good things about Highway One was that you needn't look both ways before crossing.

June 8, 2014 Column

© John Troesser
More Columns by John Troesser

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