A couple of weeks had passed since my basic training when I began my trip to Japan. I hadn’t received anything specifically naming the cozy minesweeper I’d be cruising around in yet, but I did have travel documents to Japan, so this was really going to happen!
I don’t recall the precise route, but when the last flight touched down I was at a sprawling air base somewhere in Japan… not on the ocean though. No ships in sight and an odd mix of military personnel …. Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force…. Hmmm. I was assigned a bunk in a dormitory style building and told to regularly check a large board for my name. In between checks, there was decent food and cheap beer to be infused. I didn’t socialize much and checked the postings frequently. I was anxious to get off the base and assumed I’d be heading to Sasebo, a large naval facility apparently nearby. It was only a few days before my name appeared with my flight number and take-off time the next day.
I was wearing my dress whites with my tightly packed duffle bag slung over my shoulder as I approached the large military plane. Curiously, there were the same mix of services boarding with me. This was not a commercial aircraft and the “seats” were web slings without seat belts. It took forever to get airborne and I already needed a bathroom. I asked a Marine seated next to me where the bathroom was located. His reply was loud and broadcast throughout the plane. “Hey guys, the squid wants to know where’s the bathroom”, he bellowed. The plane erupted with laughter. “This must be your first tour. You just have to hold it”, he told me.
We were soon in the air and over the roar of the engines I could hear snippets of conversation around me. The word “Nam” came up frequently so I assumed some of these poor slobs were heading there after I was dropped off in Sasebo. “So long, suckers”, my inside voice snickered. There were no window seats. We sat with our backs to the wall (turns out it was actually a bulkhead… and the bathroom was a head) facing one another. The same Marine jabbed me with his elbow and asked if this was my first tour. I told him I’d be meeting up with my ship, probably in Sasebo. He laughed and told me I was on the wrong plane because we’d be landing at Tan Son Nhut in less than a couple of hours. “Tan Son Nhut?”, I croaked. I sounded like it could be Japanese, but my mind had been doing it’s best to filter out all the Nam talk that had been going on around me. “Hell yeah”, he said with some glee. “We’re goin’ in country, boy. Veetnaam”
Panic had fully engulfed me now. I couldn’t believe I’d boarded the wrong plane. Or maybe there was some mix-up and someone forgot I was in the Navy….freakin’ idiots!! How could they be so stupid? There were no Navy personnel in VietNam. This became my mental mantra for the remainder of the flight. I scanned the plane in desperation… I was the only one in dress whites. My mind was reeling. I imagined the hassle this was going to cause and hoped there’d be a plane leaving soon to get me back to Japan and that I might escape any punishment because of my inexperience. A sharp pain in my bowels temporarily took my mind off this major screwup. At least I could find a
bathroom…. head when we landed.
Heat and humidity were not new to me, but it was like stepping into an oven when we exited our still running aircraft. My mind was focused on only one thing… .find a
bathroom…. dammit….. head and then find the next flight to Japan. Clenching my buttocks tightly and moving as fast as possible while avoiding the embarrassment of a premature release (particularly white pants), I saw what I believed to be a head (that’s right… not a bathroom). Peering into the darkness it didn’t look like a bathroom, but certainly smelled like one. There were no stalls, toilets or urinals. Instead there were a series of holes in the dirty tile floor and a railing bolted to the wall. A few rolls of toilet paper were scattered on the floor. What was left of my mind slowly digested the concept of squatting over one of those holes as the procedure. I dropped my pants, grabbed the rail and just as I assumed the position, noticed a rat the size of a large cat watching me from the corner. “Welcome to my world”, it seemed to be saying with it’s demonic red eyes.
There had been a serious mistake, but it didn’t involve getting on the wrong plane or an administrative screw up. It was me believing that sack of shit recruiter. In my desperation to find a solution to being drafted, I believed what I was told and wanted to hear. Still squatting and keeping an eye on Ratzilla, I imagined how idyllic an Amish colony in Canada might have been. Sure, they probably had an outhouse, but at least there was a seat to sit on and the toilet paper wouldn’t be wet… maybe they use old newspapers. It felt as though my mind and soul had plunged into the dark abyss of the dank squat hole along with 6 pounds of my intestines. Ratzilla’s sudden movement snapped me out of my dark reverie.
Sitting outside on my duffle bag in the blazing sun, feeling as though I’d just had a turbo physical and emotional enema, I replayed the events that had brought me to this intense and vivid moment in my life. The rewind was all the way back to my childhood. I think of my schooling as indoctrination as much as education. The Red Scare certainly coloured the cirriculum. It’s fair to say we were taught the world revolved around America, the greatest country on earth, just as the ancient prophets believed the Sun revolved around the Earth, the greatest planet in the Universe. Respect for authority was well ingrained and anyone in a uniform, be they police or military, garnered a certain level of respect. Waving flags and military parades brought lumps to our collective throats.
Our presidents were beyond reproach and we could rattle off their names and recount stories about their honesty and work ethics. This was particularly true of the highly revered “Founding Fathers”. No mention was made of owning slaves or amassing small personal fortunes. Everyday during my elementary schooling the class would stand next to their desks, hands over hearts, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. It had then been less than 5 years that JFK had been gunned down followed by the plethora of conspiracy theories that challenged the doubtful Warren Commission “lone gunman” premise.
My scepticism was about to be unleashed as strongly ingrained beliefs were exposed as exaggerations and some as outright lies. Being one of the last kids in your class to still believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy may have been somewhat humiliating, but normally not traumatic. The intensity of the months to follow would alter the direction of my life dramatically. It was a coming of age that I had not expected, but was overdue. In retrospect, it would combine the best and worst experiences of my life.