Five Firebases: I was very pleased when I got the materials for the "Hammer’s Slammers" role-playing game…. I like the art as well, but that leads to a different question: does it look the way I meant it to? The truth is that I write from the mental pictures I formed in the field in 1970 with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and I wasn’t thinking much about US equipment then. An M48 tank (for example) was something I rode on, having generally mounted by climbing the bow slope. I spent much more time looking from tanks than at them. Therefore I write from the viewpoint of people who don’t think much about the appearance of their own vehicles or fellow crewmen, and whose view of the surrounding landscape is primarily concerned with potential ambush sites and whether the fellow with the hoe in the rice paddy has a Kalashnikov hidden nearby….
I was an interrogator at squadron level (what would be battalion level if we’d been infantry or armor instead of armored cavalry). That meant most nights I was in the firebase with however many of the six self-propelled howitzers (Hogs) were operational, along with Headquarters Troop (which included support as well as combat vehicles) and one of the squadron’s line troops or (more often) the tank company for additional security….
You see things in the field that you don’t expect…. I’m going to mention five thingst…. You won’t find them or their like either elsewhere this booklet or in my own fiction….
Particularly during the monsoon season, the sunsets in Southeast Asia were gorgeous…. One evening I was sitting outside our six-man tent, writing a letter…. As the sun set, it shone through holes in the clouds to the west to throw three enormous keyhole-shaped patches of red on the eastern cloudbank. Then it went below the horizon. The sky almost instantly became blacker than you can imagine if you haven’t been in a Third-World jungle.
We generally travelled by road…. One night I walked out of the tent in the dark to take a leak at the piss tube…. [S]omething jabbed the big toe of my left foot. I yelped and hopped back inside to lantern light: there was a cut an eighth of an inch long in the toe. I was sure I’d stumbled into a coil of barbed wire…. There wasn’t any barbed wire, but large ants had worn a visible trail in the clay….
One of our firebases had rats…. So we set rat traps…. We checked it. It had flipped upside down, but there didn’t seem to be anything in it…. The tent started to smell musty. Then very musty. We weren’t, as I say, fastidious, but very musty. Eventually we took everything out to find where the smell was coming from. We found nothing until we removed the last item, that overturned rattrap. Beneath it, in a liquescent pool, were the delicate, still articulated, bones of a rat’s severed tail….
One of the firebases was full of wolf spiders with leg spans of three inches and more…. Mitch said he was really afraid of spiders. I thought, well, who isn’t?… An unusually large spider ran across the dirt floor of our tent. We all–except Mitch–jumped to our feet and shouted. Mitch froze…. “Please, please. I’ll die. Please.”… I felt bad about joking. I’d never met anybody face to face with a full-blown phobia before.
During the days in the field, I often sat outside the tent reading or writing letters. It was the closest thing to privacy I had at the time…. A mantis at least six inches long landed on my left shoulder. Her body was bright green, but her wings were brown and barely translucent. I turned my head to look at her, but because of the angle I had to close my right eye to focus on her with my left: otherwise I got a headache. She cleaned herself and waited. Eventually I went back to reading. It was painful to try to look at something so close, and nothing much was happening. She flew away after a few minutes.
So: there are five memories I brought back to the World with me….
I wish the only vivid memories I had of that time were those involving the natural phenomena of Southeast Asia.