Wednesday, October 17, 2007


There is nothing like flying military to get the real feel and sounds of flying. There is nothing between you and noisy hydraulic systems that move at the slightest command from the pilot’s controls. The rush of air and engine noise combined with the high-pitched sounds of these systems make flying a totally new experience. It also makes it very hard to carry on a conversation or to stay awake - all that humming, whining, and roar makes your eyes very heavy.

In 1966, a noisy, but reliable, C-130 Hercules, carried me from Tan Son Nhut Airbase, near Saigon, on a 2 hour flight to my home for the next year at Da Nang Airbase. Fear of the unknown kept me awake for most of the trip, but the mechanics of the flight soon began to work on my eyes. I fought desperately to keep my head up right and back against the black interlaced nylon straps of military seating.

Suddenly, I felt something against my right shoulder - it was a head! There was a young South Vietnamese soldier relaxing himself against me. What was this? How dare he? I nudged the short green fatigue dressed troop with my elbow, only causing him to readjust his position. A second more forceful and well-placed jab caused him to open his eyes and look puzzled up at me. He then just leaned to the opposite side, rested himself on the shoulder of another Vietnamese troop, and was soon fast asleep. I could not understand this familiarity. Were they all gay?

I looked around the cramped fuselage to see if any of my friends had seen this act of defiance, and noticed that several of the Vietnamese troops were lounging comfortably, not only on each other’s shoulders, but some actually had their heads in a friend’s lap. I was too perturbed to go to sleep now! I was afraid of what might be on my shoulder or worst yet, in my lap, when I woke up!

I did not understand the cultural difference until years later, but even then, I noticed that none of the American troops on that flight took such liberties. Nobody, not even an American, better lay his head on my shoulder! This was the “John Wayne” attitude of us American Dudes!

It was simply the American “bubble.” We do not like people to get into our face or invade our space. It is ours and we do not take kindly to anyone stepping over that imaginary line. Some boundaries extend further than others do, and part of good interpersonal skills is being able to determine to what extent someone is approachable. However, here in America, men, “real men” do not take naps with their heads on each other’s shoulders or in their laps.

It rather depends on the relationship. Naturally, if men are with their significant other, that happens to be another man, maybe - depending on how comfortable they feel out in public. However, this kind of relaxed posture is normally reserved for men and their young sons, or maybe a brother in certain circumstances, but it is out of the question with total strangers.

Women do rest against each other, but it is usually a sister or a close girlfriend. However, the general rule here in America is “don’t lean on the bubble, ‘cause if it burst, I’m go’na be all over you!

Those young Vietnamese boys did not think a thing about what they were doing. They had not grown up with a John Wayne complex. They were secure in their masculinity and touching was a way of comforting themselves in hard times.

There are times in battle when a buddy will hold a buddy and comfort him when he’s wounded, but the embrace under these circumstances becomes mutually beneficial - both embrace their immortality. They are facing the fear of dying - one suspecting his wounds to be fatal, the other knowing but for the Grace of God, it could have been him.

However, what about before going to the battle, or during the battle, is that different? The comfort of knowing someone else was feeling fear might help us get through the ordeal. It would have been nice to feel someone else’s leg shaking next to yours while taking cover in a foxhole. Could we have not dealt with the horrors and uncertainties of war with just a little “bubble bursting”?

Sometimes Americans let down their guard. After victory in war or sports, they will jump around and hug each other. The adrenaline pumping through their veins momentarily makes it okay to invade the bubble space and let down the guard. Nevertheless, for the most part, it is hard to find this interaction outside the family unit.

Remember the first time we (as American men) saw the AFL teams holding hands in the huddle! It was shocking to most viewers. What? Are they gay or something? They’ll never win the Super Bowl! Maybe that was why it took “Joe Willie” and the AFL so long to overcome the NFL!

Think of the how much coaching (or maybe it was pleading) it must have taken to get those big ol’ boys to reach through their bubbles and touch each other on American prime time TV. In fact, you still do not see much of that today.

There were two times that I wished I could have been like those Vietnamese soldiers.

The first time was on 2/27/67, I had just returned to my hut when the first of 56 122mm rockets slammed into the Airbase. It was the first time the VC used rockets against Da Nang. The missiles were fired almost simultaneously and when they hit the base it sounded as if only 4 or 5 had impacted. However, when the holes were counted, 56 had hit, taking out 13 aircraft and killing 11 GIs base-wide, 2 were from the Security Police Squadron!

The second time was on 3/15/67, just days before I was to leave for the home. Only 10 rockets hit the base this time, but these came in slowly, walking ever closer to my position, giving me too much time to anticipate the consequences of “being short!”

I dove, headlong, under the first bunk I came to, and lay there shaking. My eyes soon focused on a large rat shaking and hiding in the far corner under the same bunk! We watched each other cautiously, as the rounds exploded singularly, the “kachunk
“walking” ever closer to where we took shelter. Neither of us dared move until the impacts passed us.

The fear in me rose, as the explosions got closer and closer. I began to feel my legs shaking. The worst part of an incoming large projectile attack is waiting for the rounds to approach and pass you. You keep waiting for the next one to hit you dead center. Even though the attack may not be over for the guy on down range, for the moment the war has passed you by - you have survived and immediately began to relax. It would have been so comforting, had someone been there under that bunk with me. Maybe we could have just let our legs touch and shake together. If it had just been that and nothing more, I would have been less scared - just to share the fear.

Anyway, as the next round passed over us, the rat ran away. We had been spared, and he knew it too. I often wonder if it would have let me touch it during those frightening moments. It almost seemed it wanted me to.

How comforting we could be to one another, but we are afraid we will look gay or weak. We need to break some bubbles and let people know we care. We need to greet each other after long absences with sincere embraces. Life is so short and fragile. We are not guaranteed tomorrow, and it is a shame to let friends pass on without them knowing you really cared for them and appreciated that they shared your life.

The answer to Cain’s question to God in Genesis is yes, we are our brother’s keeper. We are to comfort anyone in times of trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:4). It takes a real man to deflate his bubble and comfort his fellowman.


~Fathairybastard~ said...

Damn, that was profound as hell. Deep and introspective. Hell, I can't remember a time when football players didn't pat one another on the ass and stuff, but I get your point. There is a huge difference between the way Americans or Westerners and other cultures show affection. Bet it was bizarre at your young age to be confronted by so much newness all at once.

That had to be one of your first airplane rides too, and in paratrooper seating. I flew from Diego Garcia to the PI in a C-141 slouched in para netting, about 1991. Know what you mean there.

I love the way, reading this, I'm reminded of parts of your book where you obviously used your own experience to make the work live and breathe. Good job man.

Les Becker said...

I think you'll find that circa 2007, at least, there "were" an awful lot of bloggers under that bunk with you, Mushy. You've turned the Internet into a Time Machine; you wrote us right there with you.

(Yuck. That's sounded way hokey, didn't it?)

BRUNO said...

That was one of the best damned descriptions of "makin' the best of a bad(and/or touchy!) situation" that I've heard lately!

Yeah, maybe we should "burst more bubbles" nowadays, but I'm still real particular who I let "pop" one of MINE! I should add, "ESPECIALLY-nowadays"!!!

Good ol' military transports! All it took was ONE fart, or ONE gag, and you had one of the fartin'-est, pukin'-est, fightin'-est bunch of assholes that could be held in place by nylon webbing, and one mean s.o.b. of a gunny......!

(Didja' ever wonder WHY it had wrote, "Not for inflight/preflight use" on those damned packages with BEANS...?!)

pat houseworth said...

Our arriving in Vietnam almost mirrors each other(although you were there before me in wilder and more wooly times)...I as well took a C-130 from Tan Son Nhut to my South China Beach base at Nha was the crew, me, a mommasan and a couple of her goats on board....I wrote about the trip on the VSPA Story site:

The more we write Mushy, the more we seem to least in my case.

Mushy said...

I got a couple of my tales posted in Guardmount, but the VSPA never posted any of my tales. Never understood the difference.

pat houseworth said...

I think Poss ran out of room after 1999, The site/group became bigger than anybody thought...there are hundreds of stories and photos waiting to be posted, hopefully those will all be up and running in the next year or two.

I'm sure it was nothing personal...because otherwise, my little diddy, with gramatical errors would have never made the cut.

Mushy said...

Oh, I'm not bitter or anything...just always wondered.

Chuck said...

Well at least I know now how far I can go when I meet you someday! lol

Seriously though, very deep post. I can't imagine the feeling of waiting for the rounds to pass over.

You coming down for the big game this weekend?

Mushy said...

Just don't make any loud noises Chuck!

No Chuck...we didn't get an invitation...I assume it was fear of losing! What do you think!


david mcmahon said...

Mushy, I salute you. Mate, that was a beautiful post. Watershed, no less.

You speak for so many young men from so many different parts of the world ...

Shrink Wrapped Scream said...

Oh mushy, I can only echo the above. You are a powerful writer, and a wise old sage, my friend. I was very moved by this stunning, tragic piece from your memory.

The Scots are much more touchy-feely than the English. I can often make people uncomfortable (especially so when I lived in London, not so much now - I hope) as my hands frquently think they are Italian.

Victorya said...

wow, wonderful, insightful, and sadly so true.

WalksFarWoman said...

Mushy, that was a great post and very deserving of David's first choice. It started off as a tale of war yet turned into something totally different to what I expected, it took my breath away.

As a very tactile person I'm totally with you. A few years back when it became very intrusive to step inside a persons one metre space I felt so sad - so I just ignored it.You can always tell when someone wants to be hugged or is stand offish so it's not a problem.

It doesn't matter how big or brawny or brave you are - a hug never goes amiss.


Mushy said...

David - Thank you so much for your comment...I only do this for the applause - mostly!

Carol - Thanks for recognizing my Scot heritage - it fits nicely with the English and Cherokee, at least I've always felt that way.

Victorya - Thank you for stopping by and letting me know you are there.

Walksfarwoman - Nice to hear from someone from the "old country" and for the great hug! Please come back again and I'll be visiting you too.

Suldog said...

Mushy - Absolutely F'in' fantastic post, man. As a matter of fact, I think it's the best thing I've read of yours so far. Thanks for sharing.

(By the way, very minor correction - it was Cain, not Adam.)

Olga, the Traveling Bra said...

Thanks Mushy for sharing this amazing story...and reminding us how fragile our lifes really are. I'm gonna go hug all my friends RIGHT NOW! :)

Mushy said...

You are correct sir - thanks Sul!

Jose said...

Awesome post, took me back to the one I wrote about how many fathers don't kiss their sons. Much less hug a stranger. I for one don't have that problem my bubble bursted long ago and I can freely and happily show affection to my fellowman.

Buck Pennington said...

Great and interesting stuff, Mushy. On a lot of levels!

The military is usually pretty good about briefing folks on cultural differences. I remember being briefed about the Turkish (Arabs, too) custom of men holding hands with their male friends while walking down the street before I was sent to Turkey. Yet it was still a shock the first time I saw it, and a BIGGER shock the first time one of my Turkish friends took my hand. It's amazing how culturally indoctrinated we are, and how hard it is to overcome that indoctrination. Some people simply can't get around/over it.

Mushy said...

Buck - Never got a briefing, besides this was a civilian military around until we hit the base and got off the bus.

There was no de-briefing either...would have been nice to know what I gone on in the world while I was locked away!

Lin said...

Mushy, you outdid even your normal excellent writing with this one - way ta go!