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as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

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~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Monday, June 16, 2014

FNG Initiation and Humor: Michael Lansford

Michael Lansford's "Home" In Country

When you first get in country, there is no doubt everyone there knows you are an FNG.

Opening the door, the first thing that hits you is the heat, then the smell. It smells like death and that smell is still with us to this day. Any time I open some of my old things up, that smell is still on them, even after all this time.  

An FNG is easy to spot -- you look too clean, clothes too new, skin too soft, and there's no 1000-yard stare. You have that lost puppy look and they're right. 

I landed at 5:30 a.m. on Friday 13th, December 1969. Lucky? As we landed, the base came under attack and we were the only ones standing around not knowing what to do. You learn fast and watch what a long timer does and follow his lead. 

Flying up north, we were in a C-130 with no seats, just nylon straps across the floor that we put across our laps. We couldn't see a thing outside and all the crew knew we were new, so upon landing, they banked the plane straight down, wide open.

I thought we were going straight into the ground when suddenly he pulled up so sharply you felt like you would go through the floor. As soon as the plane was level, the wheels touched ground. It was great flying I learned later on. That's how they got in and out of tight spaces without drawing too much fire. It made for a harder to hit target.

As we landed, the pilot called out to us, "Welcome to the Nam FNG's." It was one of our first welcomes.

As we got stationed, we drew all our gear and got on our first chopper. The pilots knew that too. They threw the pitch in so hard, I thought we were being sucked up by a vacuum, then nosed over for a fast run. We got up to speed and suddenly dropped like a rock down towards the Perfume river.

We thought we were nosing in, but the pilot put runners just above the water headed straight for the big bridge over the Perfume. I thought we would lift over it, but Nooooo. We went straight under it, then straight up. I thought I was gonna die. They all laughed and it was the same story, "Welcome to the Nam."

Michael with "Bad Boy in the Valley Cobra"
Flying out to the fire base, they suddenly went up so high I thought I would freeze. It's cold up there. I found out why the crew always wore long sleeves and gloves in that heat. The pilots and crew started looking at each other and shrugging their shoulders like something was wrong.

We as FNG's had no clue. We thought we were about to fall out of the sky. Suddenly, they cut the engines and we dropped like a rock, seemingly forever. They kept fidgeting with the controls overhead and then they threw their hands up.

The ground was coming up faster and faster when suddenly, the pilot pulled the collective in the Huey and did a hard bank, putting us parallel to the ground. I thought I was going to fall out, but the G-force kept you in. It was just something you learned the hard way. The pilots and crew were howling and we got the same answer,"Welcome to the Nam FNG's."

When you're first there, no one even gets close to you, talks to you, nothing, as you are too new and you haven't put your time in and paid your dues.

One of our guys used to play a game with new guys. He somehow took the firing part out of a grenade and every time he was around new people, he would accidentally pull the pin to see who froze, who ran, who picked it up and tossed it, or who would fall on it. That cleared up the fear factor real fast, and you found out who would do what in a crisis.

Michael and "The Mule"
We had this four-wheel buggy we called a Mule and we used it to move things around on the fire base. Well, we would put sandbags on the back and do wheelies to see how far we could go on two wheels. That was low cost humor for us.

Living out on the fire bases, we lived underground like Charlie did. Depending on how safe you felt, that was also how deep you dug your home. We covered it with sheet metal, or PSP as we called it, then sandbags, then a rubber mat to keep water out, then more sandbags. Our entrance was always like a maze to get in. It kept Charlie from throwing satchel charges in.

Our FDC center used a generator to run the computer to adjust coordinates and at night, any light drew fire. So I made a trip, one of many to base, and procured some commo wire, and a light outlet with a bulb.

I spent most of a night digging a trench from our hole to under the generator to hook up the wiring and light to our hole. Just like that, we had lights. We just had to be careful no light leaked out anywhere. That way we could write home or whatever we needed, then turn the light out when we were done. We had the only light there was out in the Valley. Pretty cool, we thought.

On one trip in, Sarge sent me to shop for supplies, so I found this very upscale hooch facility with way too much stateside stuff for the Nam. Turned out, it was some general's place. Hell he had A/C and everything. So when he and his aide left, I shopped.

I didn't touch any personal stuff, just things like steaks, veggies, other meats and snacks, but the best of all was the ice machine. That thing pumped out blocks of it! I got an idea as to how to relocate the ice before it melted. I procured some rocket boxes from the Cobra area, lined them with ponchos, and filled them with block ice. 

That stuff lasted about two weeks out there, as long as we kept it out of direct sunlight. The thing about living underground was, it made the jungle cooler so things would keep longer. Hell, we had ice, so we were living large.

Outdoor Movie Screen
The next trip, a few of us went to the base and some of the guys went over a hill where headquarters had an outside theater, so they decided to enjoy the movie which headquarters didn't take to. They beat them up but they made one fatal mistake. They let one get away.

Sarge got us together, had the choppers crank up and as we left, we procured all the supplies, clothes, food, beer, burned down the movie screen, and best of all, we took the projector. We left them a note saying if they wanted it back, we were out in the Valley and they should feel free to come get it. Man, we had a fine projector, assorted movies, but no electricity, or screen. Still, it was too cool.

At night on the fire bases, we used to have what they called Mad Minutes, where everyone just fired weapons straight out in the jungle. We kept our fuel, water, and munitions in a deep hole just outside of our first perimeter for safe keeping.

Well as luck would have it, and coincidentally it was the 4th of July, someone accidentally fired a tracer into the ammo dump. The first thing it did was set fire to the fuel, which in turn spilled into the rocket and ammo pit setting them off. The rockets were for the Cobras. Man that stuff was flying everywhere! No place was safe as the ammo and rockets had no direction, but what a show! The best fourth of July ever. 

Hanoi Hanna got wind of it and all we heard on our radio was how the Peoples Republic of Vietnam had overrun and destroyed the American camp with all personnel. Now that made our day. Hell we blew up our own stuff. I still wonder who put the tracer round out that way. No one was suppose to fire tracers anyway, but with that light show, it must have been seen and heard all the way into space.

Which reminds me of Neil Armstrong's walk on the Moon. We looked up there when he was there and each of us said, "How can they put a man on the moon and not end this war?" It was a question without an answer.

This one base in the Valley had a stream running through it right beside our perimeter, so we used it to wash. Eventually it became a water hole, swimming hole, and a diving contest aqua-marina. Two boxes of grenades made for a deeper stream for diving.

The downside was, Charlie had it zeroed so we had to work fast before the mortars hit, but all he did was make the swimming hole deeper and better -- we could hear the mortars leave the tubes anyway. Plus, someone was always on watch for snipers. Still, it was a cool place to get clean, except for the leeches, but we adapted to them too.

Another thing I just remembered.  I noticed every time we loaded up the chopper to fly somewhere, the crew would ask if anyone checked the Jesus nut, before cranking up. I thought this was one of those new guy (FNG) tricks. 

It turns out, it was a real nut and that was it's official name. It's the big nut that holds the rotor blades onto the chopper. That was the only thing between you and Jesus.  Every time we landed, the crew said, "Thank You Jesus," with real feeling. It gave a whole new meaning to comparative religion. Truer words were never spoken. That got me to saying it also, and it really worked.

Sorry, I forgot one more humorous thing we used to do. We would take the C-4 out of claymores, roll it up and play catch with it, or just throw it at each other. As long as there weren't any blasting caps in it, it was harmless. The only rules we had were, if you lit it, let it burn out.  Stomping on it got your foot blown off. Once lit, it burned fast. We heated our food with it. It was kind of like 60-ish microwaves, but without the oven. 

You always had to throw away the shell you took it out of. Claymores don't work well empty. We would play marbles with the ball bearings at times. The main rule when setting up claymores was be watchful for bad weather, or choppers close by. The static from the blades would be all the spark needed to set them off. Bad weather always had static, especially up on a mountain top.

Our lives over there took lots of ups and downs every day. We somehow found humor in whatever situation we were in. We had to.

For us, our greatest joy was seeing the sun come up every day and knowing we lived another day. That was how we measured our lives. I still do that to this day

The most exciting thing I did was when I got enough seniority to go on R&R to Sydney, October 7, 1969. Seven days and six nights of another world. They were just building the Opera house back then. The people there were very gracious to us and treated us like family.

Day one, you learned they drive on the other side of the street. I nearly got run over, but I learned that if a pedestrian steps off the curb you are suppose to stop. We picked up on that fast and just like being new in Nam, the locals knew we were from out of town. Gee, I wonder how they knew that?

They loved my Texas accent and I loved theirs also. It was a trade off. I learned what Tea Time meant, too. No matter what was going on, when it was Tea Time, everything stopped, so I learned how to drink hot tea with crumpets.

I never did understand their monetary system. What the hell are quid, bob, six pence, crowns, half crowns, shillings, and on and on. If I bought anything, I just handed them what I had and they made the change. Sydney to this day still is very vivid to me. I still have the address where I met two sisters and where I stayed.

I couldn't believe the hotel. I must have turned on every light a million times, took several showers, and then I realized just how dirty I was. I never slept in the bed. I made a pallet on the floor facing the door, with the lights on. I do that a lot now days too.

The sisters took me everywhere. Most of the guys wanted to go to the clubs, but I wanted to see things I would have never seen. One lesson about Sydney is you can insult anything you want, just not the Queen, or you had problems. We went to see the Queens Palace, an opera, a ballet, museum, and a zoo with exotic animals that were nowhere else in the world. Here I thought we had all the exotics in Nam.

I also got to see the original version of the stage play Hair. Now in 1969, you just didn't see naked people running around and that's when mini skirts just came out. Too cool! Much less, round eyed women.

I made the mistake of getting in a cab there. It was kind of like the Cobra ride, only we just never left the ground. I thought I was riding with Mario Andretti. We made several blocks and I got out fast. I should have known when I saw the scarf wrapped around his neck that he liked driving fast.

I got to see Bandai Beach, where years later, the summer Olympics were held. I noticed these nets stretched across way out in the bay and asked what they were. "Shark nets", was the reply. They kept the sharks out so they could surf. It was a great idea, but I believe sharks could just roll over them. But hey, it made them think they were safe -- kind of like The Nam at times.

I don't think I slept at all during that time. I knew that was my one and only chance to see that place and I didn't want to miss anything. A beautiful place, and people, and cherished memories always.

The sisters wrote for a while and even sent me a Christmas card but I had already come home by then. I still have the cards and letters, along with all the fond memories. I always thought I would go back some day but life needed me here and here is where I will be.

Over the years I miss the guys most of all, both the living and the passed. I miss the humor, brotherhood, jokes, everything. I guess we all do in so many ways.

Just like I said, when I first landed, when one of the old timers said, "You can leave The Nam, but The Nam will never leave you. Welcome back to the world FNG's".
Michael "Surfer" Lansford
Viet Nam 68-69.

A Bob Hope quote: "Thanks for the memories", both good and bad. God bless and protect us all always.

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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