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and the Lesson of the Sandbags

If there had only been some animals or insects,
this could've been a fable

By John Troesser

There's a reason people no longer live in dugouts (or bunkers). They're very high maintenance for one thing. Our bunker walls were made of sandbags and sandbags being made of cloth, they would fray with wear and the "filling" would spill out. If a damaged sandbag was close to the ground, its shrinking size will weaken an entire wall - resulting in a collapse. During the monsoon season this would happen two or three times. We'd hear a deep earth-shaking thud and muffled cries and we'd find ourselves excavating somebody buried under a literal half ton of sand. This would usually happen at three a.m. when it was darker than inside a cow. Instead of gratitude from the rescued victim - what was usually heard was something along the lines of "Get off my damn neck!" Because the bulk of our men were usually on assignment, we never had enough men around to replenish our bank of replacement sandbags. Therefore the work was subbed out to Vietnamese laborers.

On sandbag detail a single American guard would oversee a group of ten Vietnamese workers ranging in age from ten to eighty years. The older ones probably weren't over forty-five, but they looked eighty to us. The "guard" would carry his loaded M 16 but it wasn't necessary to have much more than that and a canteen - not even extra ammunition. There was very little threat of being attacked and no worker was about to "break and run." In areas like ours, the people desperately needed the 80 piasters the Army paid for a day's work. (One piaster [or Dong] was equal to one cent.) But the workers didn't want to be seen aiding the Americans, either. Therefore, we were performing a ruse so that if the workers were reported to Charley as having helped the enemy, they could easily say they were forced. "Didn't you see the gun?"

We'd meet the "crew" about ten o'clock and load them up on our truck and drive to the river bed. The truck would leave to come back later. In the dry season the river bed had more sand than water. I had driven, loaded and unloaded, but I had never yet been a guard.

At breakfast one morning I learned that that was about to change. I was told I'd be on sand bag detail - filling in for someone who was on sick call. In fact the guy I was replacing was sitting next to me at breakfast, shaking from Malaria and spilling his powdered eggs down his front. Between violent shivers, he briefed me on "his" crew - the one I'd be overseeing.

He told me that one of the workers was called "Hole-in-the-Head." He said I'd have no trouble recognizing him. A veteran of Dien Bien Phu, he had been shot directly in the face point blank by an automatic weapon and survived. Well, make that a partial tongue and one eye survived - there wasn't much more. No teeth, no jaw. His profile was that of a scooped out melon with a rind formed of scar tissue. His condition may have been described as a "concave" profile. No one was going to mistake him for John Barrymore, lets put it that way.

Another, less-disfigured worker was called "No-nose." You can imagine why. It was said that syphilis victims will sometimes give birth to children in that regrettable condition, but all we really knew was that No-nose didn't have one.

It was as plain as… well, the nose that wasn't on his face.

It was quite a distraction if you were talking to No-nose. You couldn't keep from looking. Luckily, the language barrier prevented any embarrassing small talk that would've been made had he spoken English. "Oh, that. I hadn't really noticed." But No-nose had long ago adjusted to his misfortune, for I remember him as one of the happier members of the crew.

One day turned into two and then three. As we got to know one another, I learned who was related to who (they were all related to each other). The average Vietnamese didn't travel more than fifteen miles from his place of birth during his lifetime. If I had an interpreter - I could've traced the family tree back to The Big Bang.

All of them wore those cliché conical bamboo hats that everyone is familiar with. As cheap as those hats were, a person's status in the community could instantly be assessed by the condition of their hat. The hats of my crew were thin enough to read through but I assumed they weren't wearing their dress hats to work.

If you can imagine a group of ten tiny people, in loose black "pajamas" squatting on their soles, in teams of three, you'd have a picture of my crew. One would hold the bag, one would fill the bag and one would tie the bag which was then nudged to the side. After some time, they would rotate positions and move away from the pile they had created. The oldest (or youngest) worker would turn bags inside out for filling. This bag turner was the tenth crew member - the one left over from the three groups of three.

After a few hours of watching them fill sandbags, things started to get dull. I was looking down at all these pale yellow hats and couldn't see a single face. I wasn't bored, I was lonely.

It had just rained so the sand had clumped into what we used to call "sand bombs" as kids. Little nuggets that look not unlike something you might find in your cat's litter box. You could crush these sand bombs with the slightest pinch - but it was much more fun to throw them.

I picked up a handful of these little silica grenades and tossed one onto a hat about eight feet away. It was a delightful sound - the soft puff of concussion and then the rain of the sand granules down the paper hat. Immediately a face looked up and made eye contact with me (the only eyes in sight). I looked as serious and sympathetic as I could and pointed to another hat about five feet from the victim. I got a smile and a nod for a "thank you" and the victim lost no time in exacting revenge. He threw a sand grenade and was back to work before the bomb hit its innocent target. The new face looked up and I pointed to a third "perp."

It was like that old experiment where they cover the floor of a room with rat traps - with a Ping-Pong ball on each trap. Then a single ball is thrown into the room. It was a lot like that. Sand bombs were being thrown everywhere. Hats were bobbing up and down and everyone was laughing at the absurdity of the situation. In the heat of battle I saw one lowered hat and threw a bomb to get that slacker started. But just as the missile left my fingers - he hat was thrown back and there was No-nose laughing with the rest.

Oh, no! No-nose! The bomb was already on its trajectory and nothing could stop it - in less time than it takes to read this, the sand went right where No-nose's nose wasn't. He sputtered and spit, getting the sand off his tongue and I felt so bad I called for the local Coke vendor to come over. I bought a drink for the poor guy.

Then I felt guilty the others were dry (more than one had sand in their mouths) so I bought drinks for the "house." Hot Coca-Cola for everyone!

Years later, back in the states, whenever I would see those Coca-Cola ads with the costumed actors on the mountaintop singing "in perfect harmony," I'd remember "my" crew and how I was already implementing the Coca-Cola plan for world peace.

After our midday nap while the crew ate their sad lunches - there was more talking than usual and I soon found out why. At a given signal they all started pelting me with sand bombs, laughing and screaming louder than they did during the first battle.

Our diversion was cut short by a truckload of soldiers who pulled alongside us. They were from an aviation company judging by the painted numbers on their truck. Their bunkers were collapsing too and they were there to make their withdrawal from the vast reserves of the riverbank. Since they hadn't made a deal with the local workforce, they were left to do their own filling.

They immediately started mocking my crew and their relaxed way of working. They were all shirtless and some of them were well on their way to a sunburn. Their overall skin shade of what designers call "dusty-rose" would soon become "beet-red."

"How long ya been here?" They asked.
"About three hours," I said.
"Shit, we can fill more bags than you got there in an hour!"

I didn't tell them that we had already sent two truckloads back to the company.

I said that my crew seemed slow but their output at the end of the day was impressive. "Shit" was their reply. Evidently that was the word of the day.

The soldiers started working - in two men crews - one bending over at the waist reaching for bags and stopping to turn each new bag. They threw the heavy bags into a common pile and indeed - it started to rise. After ten minutes they stopped to rest and wipe the sweat away. They ordered cokes and then smashed the bottles - as they would back home. The price of a coke was 10p - and the deposit on the bottles was 10p (since there weren't any replacements being made during the war). That set the coke vendor into tears - since she was now seriously in debt to the distributor.

I explained the situation and the soldiers sheepishly paid the girl for the broken bottles - saying they didn't know.

After their break they had another surge of work and then another rest. They still took time to mock my crew - sometimes squatting Vietnamese style and imitating the slow pace.."Hey Papa-san, you workee hard or hardee workin"?" That was one of their more witty remarks.

At three o'clock we were breaking up after sending another two truckloads of bags back to camp. The bags that wouldn't fit on our last truck we left for the soldiers to use - to top off the truck - with their first and only load.

Aesop would've loved to have been there.

June 29, 2014 Column
© John Troesser
More Columns by John Troesser

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