Chop-Chop for Baby-San
by David Allen Bright
A family of Vietnamese nervously emerged from the ramshackle little hootch as we rolled up in our tanks and armored personnel carriers around midday. There were a mama-san, a feeble old papa-san and several kids. The mama-san seemed a little nervous -- annoyed even -- while the papa-san's face showed worry and uncertainty, perhaps senility. The kids milled around a little, but in general waited quietly. Although we hadn't yet been told why we were there, we knew we had to be careful since the hootch was only about two clicks from the feared No Loi Woods, scene of many firefights. All sorts of danger might have been lurking about. VC or NVA armed with AK-47 rifles and rocket propelled grenades might have been hiding in tunnels right under the hootch or nearby; you never could tell.
Second Lieutenant George, the tall, thin, black, platoon leader, stayed atop his tank for a little while getting instructions from the CO over the radio. A man of sensitivity, intelligence and reason, he had gone through the ROTC program at a fairly good Midwestern college primarily because it paid for his tuition. Upon graduation, he was sent to infantry school at Fort Benning for a few weeks, allowed a thirty day leave, and then shipped over. I kind of liked Lieutenant George, and felt bad that he had been thrust into a position in which he was obviously too awkward and uncomfortable. His eyes would grow larger behind his glasses and take on a surprised look whenever he was confronted with a problem, was asked a question he couldn't answer, or had a decision to make, and he was constantly attempting to transform his jerky, angular movements into fluent, confident motion. A desk job would have been more up his alley. Despite his nervousness, however, everybody seemed to accept him. He had no hate in him, no animosity, and it was clear that he simply wanted to get this awful, ridiculous year over with and get on with his life.
After awhile the lieutenant climbed down from his tank to join Sergeant Hopper, who was already talking to the mama-san with the aid of our interpreter-scout, a very willing-to-please little guy who had previously been an NVA soldier. I liked him also, but never totally trusted him. In contrast to the lieutenant, Hopper was gung-ho about everything he did. He was in his early twenties, maybe a year or two younger than the LT, but powerfully built from years of playing football and other contact sports and lifting weights with a crazed, almost religious conviction. Since he seemed to view the war as sport -- Block that shot! Kick the shit out of that motherfucker! you could almost hear him yelling -- it was no surprise that he had volunteered for this, his second tour of duty.
Hopper and the scout kept pointing at the hootch while the mama-san shook her head and motioned with her hands as if to say, "I don't know."
Hopper grabbed Mississippi and Cluster (the type of guys who never volunteered for anything), and the four of them headed over with their M-16s to search the hootch. Something was apparently amiss. Mama-san stood in their way but couldn't stop them. Three or four minutes later the four of them came back out; between them, Mississippi and Cluster lugged a large, dirty brown bag of rice which looked like it must have weighed close to a hundred pounds. They plopped the bag onto the ground, puffing up a little cloud of red-brown dust. The scout said something in Vietnamese to the mama-san, whose anger was turning into fear, and she responded by screaming something in Vietnamese. Hopper sent Mississippi and Cluster back in; they returned with another bag and went back and forth a few more times until there were about a half dozen bags sitting there. Six or seven hundred pounds was a much larger supply than one would have expected a family to have. I climbed down from the PC and moved a little closer to make sure I could hear.
"You VC?" Hopper asked mama-san.
She was crying now, and shook her head. He pointed to the pile of rice.
"This for VC?"
"No VC!" she cried. "Baby-san!" She picked up one of the smallest kids, probably her grandson or something, who was about two years old. "Chop-chop! Baby-san!" In GI-Vietnamese dialect, chop-chop meant food. According to her, the rice was for the kids.
"Bullshit," said Hopper. "You lie."
The scout translated this, and mama-san kept crying and yelling. This was one of those instances when Lieutenant George simply didn't know what to do. To be fair, however, most people would have had trouble making the right decision -- and making it quickly -- in a case like this. He conferred with Hopper, who no doubt wanted to blow the place and the mama-san off the face of the earth, and then walked over to his tank to speak with the CO on the radio again. Somebody on the tank handed the mike down to him and he waved everybody away so he could hear better and discuss the situation with his superior in relative privacy. During this break, I walked over to my buddy Boom-Boom's PC. A laid back individual who every month spent a good deal of his money on the local whores, Boom-Boom was sitting on top of the PC eating some C-rations out of the can and washing them down with water from his canteen. It seemed a little strange for somebody to be having a leisurely snack in the midst of all this.
"What do you think?" I asked.
"Shit, man. Let's take that fucking rice and get the hell out of here."
"Suppose they're not VC?"
"Yeah? Well suppose they are. Who the fuck else do you think was gonna eat all that rice. It would take mama-san and the rest of them forty years to eat it all."
I heard a hydraulic, whirring nose and knew that the back door of one of the PCs was being lowered. The order had apparently come down to take the rice. Mississippi and Cluster started swinging the bags into the PC, and Hopper enthusiastically tossed one in there all by himself.
"Chop-chop! Baby-san!" shrieked mama-san even more loudly than before while the kids all wailed unintelligibly. The papa-san still looked worried, but remained standing there, doing and saying nothing. Amid all the noise, the PC door whirred shut, making the confiscation of the rice seem more final.
Although it was now time to move on, nothing happened. Lieutenant George talked to Hopper and the scout for awhile, then walked over by his tank, walked back and talked some more. The three of them looked around, talking, waiting, as time dragged on. Boom-Boom and I were anxious to meet up with the rest of the company and set up somewhere for the night, because before having chow (not C-rations, but a good, hot meal sent out to us from the mess hall at the base camp) we would have to go through the ritual of filling sandbags for protective barricades, placing claymore mines outside the perimeter, encircling the camp with concertina wire, and so forth. Although I felt confused and uncomfortable about the rice situation, I had no say in the matter.
"Let's go, LT," called Boom-Boom not quite loudly enough for Lieutenant George to hear. "I don't want to be shoveling no dirt in the dark."
Lieutenant George glanced over at Boom-Boom but didn't say anything. He had the tortured look of someone being pulled in thirty different directions at once, and I wouldn't have been surprised to see him throw up his hands and cry, "That's it! We're going home!" I also half expected him to curl up on top of the tank and go to sleep, just detach himself from the whole stupid mess.
We still had plenty of time, of course, but there was no sense just hanging around doing nothing. During the wait, the cries of mama-san and the kids diminished considerably, but every so often the volume and intensity would increase. It was bothersome. Disconcerting. At last, a small, red faced guy on Lieutenant George's tank called him over. The CO was on the horn again. Looking official and proper, the lieutenant stood nearly at attention as he held the mike. He did much more listening than talking, then handed the mike back up. He looked at the ground, then walked over to Hopper and mumbled something.
"Say again sir?"
Apparently irritated that Hopper hadn't understood, he fixed his eyes on a speck in the distance and paused for a couple of seconds.
"The captain says the hootch has to be destroyed," he finally said clearly and firmly, still looking away.
Hopper raised his eyebrows. Now that he had his mission, I could tell he was pleased.
"Roger that, sir."
He called to Mississippi, Cluster and Gomes, pointing at the hootch and then at his tank. Mississippi unstrapped a five-gallon can of diesel fuel from the back of the tank and carried it over to the hootch. He unscrewed the cap, tipped the can a little, and walked around the hootch, spreading the diesel along the sides as he went. Since this was the dry season and the hootch was mostly made of scrap wood, it would go quickly. Everything but the corrugated tin roof was flammable. The shrieking and wailing intensified.
"Goddamn, man," said Boom-Boom. "They're really gonna do it."
I tried to imagine what would have happened if Boom-Boom or I had been ordered to do any of this. Would we have taken the rice? Would we have prepared to burn the kids' house down, even though it hadn't been completely proven that it was a VC house? I just didn't know. And prior to this incident, Mississippi and the other two guys probably couldn't have predicted their reactions either. I knew these guys well, had spent a lot of time with them in the field, smoked grass with them, drank with them. Mississippi was a Ford mechanic -- a quiet, hardworking kid who had grown up on a farm. Cluster was a fat beekeeper from Kenosha, Wisconsin -- goofy but honorable. Gomes, from Brooklyn, had graduated from college and taught high school history for a year -- taught history and now was making it. They were okay, just regular guys who normally wouldn't hurt anyone. Here, though, they had to follow orders.
Hopper handed them some rags; they ignited them with a cigarette lighter, spread out around the hootch and dabbed at the lower areas where the diesel had been spread.
"No!"cried Mama-San. "No!"
The fire started slowly, merely smoldering in some spots since diesel is not as volatile as gasoline, but bright flames came to life in other spots. They combined and gradually danced higher and higher up the sides of the hootch. This was crazy. I wished we had just taken the rice and left. Before long the whole thing was ablaze, snapping and popping like a Fourth of July bonfire. Mama-san was holding the baby again, and the family's caterwauling competed with the crackling of the fire as if they thought they could stop it through sheer noise. Papa-san's face was all contorted and it looked like he was going to cry too. Meanwhile, Lieutenant George stood there like a bronzed statue. Mississippi, Cluster and Gomes -- the ones who had carried this out -- stood as still as reluctant, life sized GI Joes. Nobody else in our platoon said or did much of anything either, except look at their feet or at one another. Even Boom-Boom, the chatterbox, was uncommonly quiet. The fire was now a separate, living entity, and we were merely spectators. I had half expected Hopper to whoop it up as if his team had just scored the winning touchdown, but even he just watched.
And now papa-san started crying too. His eyes were squeezed shut -- tight little asterisks in a dried-up cartoon face. Watching him, I thought of my grandfather who just the year before lay dying in the hospital and wanted nothing else in the world but to go home to die. He argued with the doctor and finally got his way. This poor old guy -- VC or not -- probably wanted the same thing but because of us now had nowhere to go. Should you have mercy on a dying old VC? I asked myself. But even if anyone had wanted to have mercy, it was too late. I forced myself to look away. I forced myself to think of something else -- anything else. Hockey -- that was it. I forced myself to think of the black and gold of the Boston Bruins.
"LT! LT!" came an urgent voice from Lieutenant George's tank. It was the little red faced guy, holding up the mike. His face had gotten redder. "LT! It's the CO! He says don't burn the hootch! Wrong village! Wrong village!"
The lieutenant spun around.
His eyes were popping out of his head. I had never ever seen him mad before and now he looked like he was ready to explode.
"Don't burn the hootch!" He waved the mike in the air. "Don't burn the hootch!"
He sprinted to the back of his tank, desperately pulled at the belt securing the five gallon water can and finally yanked the can free. "C'mon, let's go!" he shouted, at last sounding like a real military man. He ran to the edge of the fire and started jerking the can toward the flames. The water came out in pitiful little splashes. "C'mon!" he ordered. "Get those water cans over here!" Crazy thing was, while his tank had a fixed fire extinguisher up in the turret, all the tanks and PCs also had removable fire extinguishers. All you had to do was unstrap them, pull the pin, point the nozzle and shoot. Suddenly he remembered: "Fire extinguishers too! Fire extinguishers!"
No way could I fault him for grabbing a water can instead of a fire extinguisher. I instantly understood why he was confused: That war just threw everything out of synch; nothing fit together the way it should have, nothing ever went smoothly like you hoped. And nothing was going to magically restore that little hootch.
Boom-Boom rapped me on the arm. "C'mon, man. Let's get this shit over with." Just as we jumped down one end of the tin roof fell with a crash a couple feet from the Lieutenant. He sprang backwards as sparks sprayed his fatigue pants.
The howling immediately grew louder. Louder than the fire. Louder and more terrifying than anything I had ever heard before. Boom-Boom, Gomes and I moved in with extinguishers and even as the stuff whooshed out of the nozzles they howled at us as if we were doing something evil. In less than a minute most of the fire was out. Now the hootch was nothing but charred, smoldering rubble, parts of it still glowing, little flames flickering here and there. The howling shifted to a funereal sobbing, which to me seemed even worse. I looked over at Lieutenant George and thought I saw some moisture in his eyes. Maybe not, but it was hard to tell for sure because of his glasses in the way and because he turned his head when he saw me looking at him. Maybe he was thinking of his own grandfather. Maybe he was thinking he should have skipped ROTC. He climbed back onto his tank, and everyone else followed suit. The rice remained in the PC. It is possible that none of us even thought of it at that point.
"Let's move out," yelled the lieutenant, sadly sounding like a character in a Western movie. The diesel engines of the PCs whined and the tanks roared and belched smoke as we slowly drove back up onto the hard-packed dirt road, leaving a thin cloud of reddish-brown dust in our wake.