NATHANIEL TRIPP GREW UP fatherless in a house full of women and he arrived in Vietnam as a just-promoted second lieutenant in the summer of 1968 with no memory of a man’s example to guide and sustain him. The father missing from Tripp’s life had gone off to war as well, in the Navy in World War II, but the terrors were too much for him, he disgraced himself, and after the war ended he could not bring himself to return to his wife and young son. In "some of the best prose this side of Tim O’Brien or Tobias Wolff" (Military History Quarterly), Tripp tells of how he learned as a platoon leader to become something of a father to the men in his care, how he came to understand the strange trajectory of his own mentally unbalanced father’s life, and how the lessons he learned under fire helped him in the raising of his own sons.
"Not since Michael Herr’s Dispatches has there been anything quite as vivid, gripping and soul-searing," raved the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune said "the description of combat in the jungles of Vietnam are authentic and terrifying, as good as any I have read in fact or fiction."
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Father, Soldier, Son
Memoir of a Platoon Leader in Vietnam
By Nathaniel Tripp
Steerforth PressCopyright © 1996 Nathaniel Tripp
All rights reserved.
I will always remember the evenings at An Loc as very still and beautiful. The air was clear and sweet smelling, and the last rays of sunlight seemed to reach the darkest places inside of us. From our muddy knoll outside the north gate of the village we looked out upon a rolling landscape of hills which could have been Vermont except for the rice paddies in the valleys and the melodic voices of Vietnamese villagers drifting like smoke in the air. It was a time when the war seemed to hold its breath. It was a time of horseplay, or of reading, or of writing a letter home.
After the bad times we'd been through down south, this outpost was like heaven. Hot meals were flown in to us by helicopter twice a day from brigade headquarters in nearby Quan Loi and dished out of big green thermos containers. We were awash in C ration sundry packs; cartons of cigarettes, chewing gum, candy bars and toothpaste. Our daytime duty was to sweep Highway Thirteen south from An Loc each morning looking for mines. There were never any mines, and our sweeps were accompanied by vendors with pushcarts selling Coke and French bread. Best of all, we didn't have to pull ambush duty at night.
For most of us, the war was nearly over. We were getting "short." I was expecting my own orders any day; I had almost fulfilled the alloted six months as a platoon leader and was looking forward to the MACV advisor assignment I had requested. Most of the old-timers who had been with me all along were going home soon. Every day brought this closer.
We were not much older than my own children are now, and we still had a child-like innocence, even after all we had seen. It was an innocence which for most of us would not finally end until we returned to the "real world." For the time, our language was the jargon of radio protocol. Our names were our coded call signs. Niner Two, our artillery officer, had a guitar and sometimes we would sing while the sun went down; innocent mid-sixties stuff. I did a rendition of "Tell Old Bill" by the Kingston Trio myself, Tell old Bill, when he gets home, to leave those Viet Cong alone. Once, the advisors in An Loc even took part. Two of them took the L-19 observation plane up into the darkening sky and flew above us in lazy circles with a recording of "This Land is Your Land" by Pete Seeger blaring from the aircraft's Psyops loudspeakers. The little plane hummed and danced beneath cloud puffs. The last of the day's sunshine grazed the hilltops and the valleys filled deeper with shadow.
The artillerymen who shared our perimeter used the last of the light to check their aiming stakes and swab the long 105 howitzer tubes with oily rags. They would be up all night firing H&I's, or "harassment and interdiction." Several times an hour they would send salvos of shells crashing into a random selection of trail intersections, suspected base camps, and resupply routes to the north. This was designed to keep the Viet Cong from getting much rest, if nothing else. But for us, the sporadic eruption of howitzers just a few meters away was merely the tympanic accompaniment for our dreams.
We had a couple of dilapidated tanks assigned to us, which in retrospect remind me of the tractors I own now, and the mornings began shrouded in mist, just as they do in Vermont in the late summer. My men would have a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes, but I preferred two cups of black coffee and a package of M&Ms from a sundry pack. Then the tanks would start, spewing exhaust smoke into the damp air, and I'd climb aboard the lead tank. I'd sit astride the main gun while my men found places around me, and I'd alternate sips of coffee with mouthfuls of M&Ms as we started out. The hot coffee swirling around them made the M&Ms cook off in my mouth, bursting sweetness while we rode through the drowsy town toward the south gate. The tank tracks clattered on the cobblestones and the exhausts resounded off stucco walls in this village half a world away from the villages we had left behind.
An Loc, the illusion, An Loc, the impressionist's canvas screen, a veneer of dappled light and shadow concealing the war within. Our tanks, with their thick armor and heavy guns, would grind to a ponderous halt in front of the south gate, which was made of thin bars with cast iron flowers on them. An old man dressed in black, who had stood guard alone at the gate through the night with a rifle older and taller than he was, would then ceremoniously unlock the gate and swing it open. He'd graciously bow to us, very aware of the irony of our respective security measures, and we'd flip him a pack of cigarettes. Often, there would be a couple of civilian vehicles waiting for us at the gate as well, the three-wheeled lambrettas or a motorbike or two. As soon as the gate was open they would rush past us and head down the highway intent upon their missions of commerce; they knew a lot more about mines than we did. Day after day, they knew there were none.
We'd dismount and send the tanks back. The lovely raven-haired Co Dep would maneuver her pushcart into our ranks, and we'd begin our leisurely stroll south on the hard red clay of "Thunder Road." It was August of 1968, and there were tanks and armored personnel carriers in the streets of Chicago. We were still unaware of the irony of this, still unaware that to many at home it seemed their city gates had been stormed by brigands. For us, for a while, Thunder Road south of An Loc was mysteriously silent. The devastating mines, the rocket attacks, the ambushes which had given the road its name had evaporated like the morning mist. Sunshine spilled down in shifting patterns as the fog lifted, shimmering on the leaves of the rubber trees which lined the road. After an hour or so I'd buy a Coke and some bread from barefoot Co Dep and try to look in her eyes, but she would always look away too quickly, reaching into her purse for change and speaking English carefully, with a slight French accent.
We went south about six kilometers, just past the Montagnard village, to where we would meet another unit sweeping north. Then we would hire taxis to take us back to An Loc again, instead of walking back the way we were supposed to. That allowed some time for a beer or two at one of An Loc's sidewalk cafés where we could relax and watch the full flow of midday traffic surge past: lambrettas loaded with vegetables, beautiful girls on bicycles, old women carrying ammo cans full of water on chogie sticks. After five months of sweeps and eagle flights and night ambushes, it was the first time any of us had really seen the country, or seen it without a sense of imminent danger. I felt my own strength, felt my platoon as my arms and my legs. And Highway Thirteen was becoming a river I was just beginning to explore. It beckoned with swirling eddies and deep holes.
Sometimes I would leave my men at the cafés and wander over to the advisor's compound. I was drawn by that bizarre world of decaying colonial infrastructure, Kennedy-era idealism, and CIA operatives. That part of An Loc could have been the Casablanca of movie fame, filled with intrigue, and I had begun to learn my way through the rabbit warren of red tile roofs and mossy walls, scrounging medical supplies for the Montagnards, whom we were trying to befriend. Then I became acquainted with the province's intelligence officer. Under the slowly churning ceiling fans, over the slightly yellowed linen tablecloths, just beyond earshot of the lingering waitresses, he shared his reports with me and I saw the distant hills in a new light. An Loc was an illusion, but still, we clung to the illusion, because it was so beautiful.
An Loc, the capital of Binh Long province, was an island of nineteenth-century colonialism riding high above a sea of chaos. It had been built during that era by the French, carved out of what was once a wilderness populated only by primitive tribesmen. Now it was the center of the vast Michelin rubber empire, built on the high ground like the walled fortress towns of medieval Europe. Thin though the wall was, just brick and stucco with four gates guarded by four old men at night, it seemed a totally effective barrier against the constant battering reality of war. In fact, the communist revolution had started here in the 1920s, amid the squalor and near slavery of the rubber workers, with attempts to organize labor unions. And forty years later, great tides of Viet Cong and even greater tides of North Vietnamese regulars were sweeping past us every night, going back and forth between their Cambodian sanctuaries and the fighting to the south on well-trodden paths that ran parallel to Thunder Road. Yet a truce of sorts really did exist, allowing the French to keep harvesting their rubber trees, and allowing the Vietnamese soldiers to remain dapper and evanescent while the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong staged battles to the south and rehearsed for the inevitable assault on Saigon. The ARVN battalion stationed at An Loc stubbornly maintained its responsibility for security in this part of the province. Every day they patrolled the outlying countryside, finding nothing. Every night they furnished the advisors with a map liberally sprinkled with red circles showing where their ambushes were. Such diligence was a deception. The local Viet Cong were kept better informed than we were.
The illusions were elaborate and well constructed, like the cobblestone streets. In all my time in Vietnam, sliding down hillsides, digging fighting holes, rooting through Viet Cong tunnels, I never saw a native stone. Not even a pebble. Just red clay, mostly, or sometimes grey clay or sand, so these stones must have been quarried a great distance away and brought here at considerable expense in order to complete this canvas of serenity. And the streets were lined with pastel-painted stucco buildings with long, brightly painted shutters and elegant balconies to further invoke memories of France. There was even a statue and a fountain in the center of town; the traffic ran in circles around the fountain and shade trees drooped above the sidewalks. "White Mice," which was what we called the immaculately uniformed national police, rushed back and forth trying to direct the traffic, waving their white-gloved hands like orchestra conductors. The traffic ignored them. Commerce took precedence over everything else, with a palpable vitality which was fun to watch from a sidewalk table with a bottle of Ba Mui Ba, the local beer. The voices and the traffic noise seemed to rise above the town like a song. Everything had to be accomplished by day, for at night, after the gates were swung closed, the world turned inside out. This was the matrix in which we found ourselves, and it seemed to invite insanity.
Military ritual and discipline were continually enforced from above; in the afternoon we might take a short patrol out into the countryside to the north, but more likely we'd work on improving our own fortifications, building ever more elegant bunkers out of sandbags, engineer stakes, and the wood ammunition boxes the artillerymen discarded. Our firebase, called "Camp Alpha," had been a revolting mess when we first arrived. The red clay knoll was strewn with garbage and infested with rats. The fighting holes were collapsing and filled with putrid water. It was hard to imagine an infantry outfit so demoralized and undisciplined that they could live like that. Within our first week there we had rebuilt the base, hiring local kids to help fill the sandbags. Then we went on to design elaborate sleeping quarters, command centers and clubhouses, all with the mandatory three feet of earth on the roof.
Always, no matter what we were doing, there were the fantastic clouds overhead, coming in off the sea in a slow parade. These must have been the same clouds my father saw while he lay at anchor in the harbor at Saipan, suffering his "nervous breakdown," an event which was offered to me as an explanation of his absence, an event which characterized him, an event of such humiliation that I never was able to find out much about it although I kept trying, searching for myself in him, looking for the weak points in both of us and building defenses as a military man does. My inquiries were taken as attacks. His loneliness and mine went forever unshared, as is so often the fate of men.
I knew that his breakdown had taken place at the same time of year that I was in An Loc, with the great Pacific monsoons forming, eclipsing everything below with the play of heat and light and water. Then, I was just ten months old. Then, the sun would beat down day after day upon the glassy stillness of the harbor as he sat in his repair ship, surrounded by the wreckage of war and spirits of the dead, while at An Loc, the sun beat down upon the jungled hills and endless rows of rubber trees, but we were both waiting under the dome of sky: he to go home from a war he had never quite reached, and I was waiting for the war to resume. The wheeling of the day overhead was the same. Clear midmorning skies would gradually give way as the day wore on, first to little puffs of white, then later to great ballooning, mushrooming shapes, billowing ever upward, sometimes just like the bomb clouds that had ended his war. By midafternoon there would be hundreds of clouds, even thousands, stretching to the horizon and beyond, taking on fantastic shapes, lifting the waters of the Pacific skyward.
Entertainment, for men waiting, is generally simple and close at hand. At our knoll at An Loc, for example, there was a very short dirt runway beside our perimeter which ended right at the north gate to the village. The runway was just long enough for the twin-engine Caribou resupply airplane that came in once or twice a day, in fact it had at times proved not quite long enough. The wreckage of two Caribous lay at the foot of a steep slope which marked the other end of the runway. Whenever we heard a Caribou coming we would stop filling sandbags and watch the air force play "Let's see if we can get the White Mice to run." Three or four White Mice took over guard duties at the gate during the day, and the air force pilots enjoyed landing a little hot and heading right toward them, reversing their props and jamming on the brakes at the last possible moment. Such were the highlights of long afternoons.
Then, late in the day, when the shadows grew long, a couple of advisors would come out to the runway and check the tie-downs of the L19, which was the only airplane that stayed there. The last of the villagers would wander up the road and pass through the gate, and the White Mice would go away. Sounds would carry very far in the still air, and the ripening sun played on the huge towers of benevolent cloud drifting in from the South China Sea. I felt as though I were seeing the sunshine for the first time in many months. Surely, there must have been days of sunshine before we came to this place, surely there must have been sunsets ribbed with red and gold, but I couldn't remember them. I only remembered the gray-green wetness. I was not like my father. In the struggle to distance myself from him, and at the same time get closer, I had achieved a great victory on the distancing side. He would never forgive me for my strength. I would never forgive his weakness.
Camp Alpha was where units were sent to recuperate, although of course we were still at war, and in fact our firebase was perched on the edge of a strategic precipice. From where we stood, outside the north gate of An Loc, all the land northward was in Viet Cong hands. Of course this gave the rolling hills we looked out upon a deeper sense of mystery; it was a forbidden place as well as a beautiful one. There were no permanent firebases beyond ours. Highway Thirteen continued its course across French Indochina, but it crossed a different landscape. Above An Loc the flanks of Thunder Road had not been bulldozed back into a tangle of mud and tree stumps. Instead, the trees still enclosed the road with their spreading limbs overhead, all the way to the Cambodian border and beyond, keeping out the sunlight and shutting secrets in. Sometimes in Vermont, when the sky is clear and the sun is setting, I still see that road and those hills as though I am seeing the light for the first time. The place where a hayfield meets a deep wood becomes the edge of the rubber plantation, and on our neighbor's dairy farm I even see the place on Bad Vibes Hill where the helicopter went down.
Excerpted from Father, Soldier, Son by Nathaniel Tripp. Copyright © 1996 Nathaniel Tripp. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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