March 12, 1966 was almost ending as the Pan Am pilot announced our steep approach to Tan Son Nhut Airbase just outside
A shiver ran up my spine as uncertainty tightened its grip on me. Anxiety quickly turned to fear as the base came into view off the right wing. Black columns of smoke rose from burning JP4 jet-fuel tanks and a few aircraft along a flight line. This is war, and it ain’t a movie? This was real and I was about to step foot into it! This was the reality and the reality was that I had just begun a yearlong tour. This was only day one.
“When you depart, go quickly to the wall of the terminal building, and stay close to it until safely inside,” the pilot announced, “Don’t let anyone take your baggage. Carry it yourself.” These “comforting words” introduced us to
As we all looked out at the rising ground below, we all wished we could be children once more and just hold someone’s supporting hand - but no! We were
With the muggy air in my face and pilot’s words repeating themselves in my head, I headed for the terminal wall. No sooner than I had touched the tarmac, than a strange accented voice shouted above the noise of the flight line, “Carry you bag mista?” I felt a tug and looked down. A strangely dressed little dark skinned, dark haired, slant-eyed, boy was attempting to take my bag.
“NO!” I shouted out of fear, and jerked the bag away. He looked puzzled at me for a short moment and then passed on by and repeated the words to the next troop. I kept hearing “no” as I hurried on for the sanctuary of the terminal.
The place was like an old Bogart movie, dimly light, very old, very dirty, and worst of all, very foreign. Even though most of the arriving troops were in civilian clothes, you could spot us a mile away, with our short haircuts and green, black, and blue duffel bags closely guarded by our sides. We out numbered the little locals running around shouting things we could not understand, in some ugly sounding language, but somehow they seemed to have the upper hand. I felt vulnerable. They stared right though you. Almost in hate, it seemed. Didn’t they know I didn’t want to be there...and not just the terminal -
That night I lay awake in my “transit hut” bunk listening to the sounds of Tan Son Nhut running. I could hear the jets, choppers, and planes taking off and landing, and voices that seemed to know their place in the distance. How do they know what to do? Who is running all this? When will someone tell me what to do? The anxiety prevailed for 3 days until my military flight left for
During one of these long nights an older troop, at least he looked older, it could have been from his experience and not his chronological age, came in from a night of reveling in celebration of his going home, and woke me from a light sleep. “SHORT! SHORT! FIGMO! FIGMO, you poor sons-of-bitches!”
Three of his rebel rousing confederates rather sloppily helped him into his bunk and left him to mumble himself off to sleep. “I’m short by God...FIGMO...hmmmmmm...”, and soon he was out.
I awoke the next morning to the word “short” again. “What’s this ‘short’ and ‘figmo’ crap we heard last night,” one of the new guys was asking the older troop? The obviously excited Airman looked up from the duffel bag he was packing and opened his locker.
“Green weenies...meet Miss FIGMO!” Stuck to the door was a fairly well drawn naked woman. “Ain’t she beautiful? ‘Course she’s more beautiful colored in than she is like this,” he said, handing out copies of the drawing. “FIGMO means ‘fuck it, I got my orders’!”
Miss FIGMO was sectioned off into 100 little numbered squares, with the last and smallest numbers ending up...well, you know where number 1 ended up. “Each day, after you get down to 100 days left, you shade in a number and then you know how many days you got left in this hell-hole!” he explained. “That’s gettin’ short, weenies! And I’m very short,” he said leaning over and coloring in numeral Uno. “I’m goin’ home today fellows, so good luck, ‘cause I’M SHORT,” he bellowed!
Later as I sat alone on my bunk, I looked over the calendar and thought how nice it would be just to have 100 days left, but the harsh reality rushed over me that I had 264 left, before I could color my first square! “My God, have mercy on me...there’s so many left!” I folded Miss FIGMO and put her in my bag, and forgot about her for almost 9 months. However, we would become very close one day from my daily visits to her alter.