War of the Martins and Sparrows (honorable mention Houston Writers Guild Press 2017)

In my side-yard, there’s a birdhouse we put up for purple martins.
We like hearing them chatter and burble,
seeing them soar and swoop and
land like fighter jets on an aircraft carrier.
The sparrows came; they built a nest,
then two martins returned from South America
and they built a nest, side-by-side with the sparrows.
Now it looks like there are two sparrow nests,
one on each side of the house,
and both sparrows and martins have cropped,
and there are birds all over the house,
both house sparrows and purple martins.
They fight all the time,
on the porches, even inside one of the holes with feathers poking out,
these two tribes of ex-dinosaurs.
Why can’t they live like humans, in peace and harmony?
There’s plenty of room for all,
twelve holes, six to a side, and two floors.
But the agile and vocal purple martin
(not so pretty a specimen)
and the common sparrow, who only chirps and chirps and chirps
(but the male is quite striking seen up close
and tenaciously holds his ground—
and breeds prolifically),
they, the martins and sparrows,
waste their time and energy fighting over this one house
that we bought just for the martins.
And there’s danger to both:
the hawk giving its piercing call above,
the snake that coiled its way up the pole at my former house
and cleaned out the martin nests
and not even the sparrows would come back.
If they had complex brains and thought and religion,
each tribe would probably justify its claim to the house
by some divine right,
a gift from some god for who knows what reason,
and rationalize their instinctive struggle for nesting turf and survival
by some mystical, mythical divine dispensation.
But this god, who put up the house for the martins
and wanted the martins to come,
and they did come,
wishes they’d all just shut up the infernal racket
and share the damn house already.

Letter home, March 11, 1970 (to Jan)

Thank you for the package. It’s really “out of sight” to get a surprise package. … I don’t know why but the hot days over here are nothing like summer days back in the world. … What’s spring like there–I remember–but write and tell me every detail.
When I get out, let’s go wandering together–I want to drive for hundreds of miles.
Oh, yeah, an ARVN is a Vietnamese soldier that look [sic] mostly like Amer. teeny-boppers.
Would you believe we now have four dogs and one monkey as pets. We’re talking about getting a water buffalo but it will cost $50.

Thank you for the sand from O.D. You know, I’d forgotten all about that Sunday, but when you mention it, it comes back, you had my car. … I remember a lot of times we had together … the night you sat with Tony B. and me down at the Moose Lodge looking at a Playboy, going to the drive-in in Hickory, your birthday out at the river, the time I lost the boat keys, the time you “crowned” me with half a canteloupe [sic] in the boat, and the beach. … I also think of the Saturday night before I left–a vision of Cold Duck (when did you play the album of the rain?) and playing a game of “Life” or whatever it was. … That seems like ages ago but it still seems like yesterday. Time is really funny. You know there are some things that really frighten me–like growing old, death–and not having done or created anything that will stand against them and time. … Know that I’m thinking about you. Buy a bottle of Cold Duck and I’ll be there faster than a jet plane.

Letters Home

Before writing QL 4, I dug through my memorabilia drawer and found stacks of letters that I had written home from Vietnam. Most were to my brother and mother, but there also a few to a former girlfriend who had returned them to me years later. She had driven me to the airport in Charlotte when I left for Vietnam on December 2, 1969, and while we weren’t seriously dating we kept up with each other during the next year.

Letter (undated) — probably late December 1969

This place is enough to make a believer out of you. I’ve pulled duty four times and we hit some touchy situations the first time out with my patrol (3 MPs). We were called to a landing beach near the airbase here to protect some men aboard LST’s from South Vietnamese troops who were threatening them. About five ARVN’s went into the bushes on the far side of the road when we arrived. You could hear them clicking their bolts on their rifles as they chambered rounds. Everything turned out okay and we took two in. The ARVN’s are more dangerous to us than the V.C. The problem at the LST got started because about 35 or 40 Vietnamese girls (prostitutes or whatever) actually hit the beach when an LST comes up the river. The ARVN’s don’t like the idea that the GIs are with their women. That’s where a lot of problems start.

Yesterday we busted one guy for marijuana on his person. I found another pack under the seat of a lieutenant’s Jeep. It was probably his but we couldn’t make it stick because the kids that told us to search it may have planted the pack (unlikely since the stuff is worth $3- $5 a pack). I really felt sorry for the guy we busted though. Guess I’ll never be hardhearted enough to be a cop.

My patrol partner is though. He’s a good cop but he is rather ruthless. He wants to be a hired killer for the Mafia. He told me about one guy he killed in Milan, Italy. He also wants to get his ex-wife killed by a friend of his. He admires the Gestapo and he is a self-proclaimed Nazi. He’s not the only one, though, who says he would like to see how many Vietnamese kids (who steal rocks off the road) he could wrap around his bumper if he could get away with it. We try to prevent the kids from stealing the gravel by taking the bags they use. Last night we actually caught three and took them to the station. The mama-sans were P.O.’d to say the least. I don’t like the idea of scaring kids even though they are “stealing.” I don’t call it that. I call it self-preservation.

Last night we were called to a barracks because some sergeants were working over a private. More bad news. We took four of them in eventually and had their C.O. (a major) and our C.O. down at the station until 2:30 AM. My partner was going to press charges against the first sergeant for using profanity at an MP, interfering with an MP, and assault, but agreed to drop them because we can get quite a bit of equipment from them — it’s an air cavalry division— and also quick assistance in case of an attack.

What gets me, though, as I told the C.O., it’s a breakdown in justice when something can’t be done about men in the position of a ranking NCO actually using physical terror against their troops. Last night was the first time I felt “scared.” It was also combined with quite a bit of anger, seeing someone being beaten by four or five people and not being able to do anything about it. It’s kind of tight in a dark corridor when there are 20 or 30 strange people around you. Now I like my club and M – 16.

The country(here in the Delta) is beautiful, palm trees, wide rivers, green fields, lumbering water buffalo, and lovely people. The ARVN’s as I said are no fun. Just before I came two ARVN units on either side of us opened up on each other with machine guns and mortars. It’s sad to be at the My Thuang [sic] ferry (another of our duty stations) and watch trucks carrying wooden caskets covered with South Vietnamese flags roll by. They burn incense to cover the smell of death but you can still catch it in your nostrils.

I adore the South Vietnamese children. They are beggars and thieves but they’re as cute as can be. Two of them grabbed me by either hand in Can Tho and talked gibberish to me for about a block until finally I gave them a pen to go back. One little girl(about four) who lives in a shack out behind the compound is a little doll. Long black hair, light olive skin, big black eyes, and a perpetual laugh. I just hope I don’t have to become more cynical to cope with the sad things I see over here. It is sad to see kids playing in garbage heaps on the main street along with pigs, chickens, dogs, and flies. Those who have been here for six months say you start swatting the kids and kicking the papa–sans.

We live in an old French hotel. It has flush toilets and running water. The food is excellent. We have a bar and a TV set. What more can you ask. As the sign above one “restaurant whorehouse” says: “G.I. are King — Olga’s café is warmfull like home.” Then the MPs have it best of all. All the girls downtown want MPs for boyfriends. Several MPs have been here for 2 to 3 years and are married to local girls(who have not worked in houses of ill repute). The MPs also get free service at the local “houses” since they have the power to close them. We enter all the bars and go to all the dark upstairs rooms to check on GIs. After 7 PM there are not supposed to be any GIs in town so we go after curfew violators.

Be sweet and say hello to everybody for me. If you talk to my mother don’t say anything about what I’m doing — though I know you won’t. …

Letter home, March 11, 1970 (to Jan)

Thank you for the package. It’s really “out of sight” to get a surprise package. … I don’t know why but the hot days over here are nothing like summer days back in the world. … What’s spring like there–I remember–but write and tell me every detail.
When I get out, let’s go wandering together–I want to drive for hundreds of miles.
Oh, yeah, an ARVN is a Vietnamese soldier that look [sic] mostly like Amer. teeny-boppers.
Would you believe we now have four dogs and one monkey as pets. We’re talking about getting a water buffalo but it will cost $50.

Thank you for the sand from O.D. You know, I’d forgotten all about that Sunday, but when you mention it, it comes back, you had my car. … I remember a lot of times we had together … the night you sat with Tony B. and me down at the Moose Lodge [swimming pool] looking at a Playboy, going to the drive-in in Hickory, your birthday out at the river, the time I lost the boat keys, the time you “crowned” me with half a canteloupe [sic] in the boat, and the beach. … I also think of the Saturday night before I left–a vision of Cold Duck (when did you play the album of the rain?) and playing a game of “Life” or whatever it was. … That seems like ages ago but it still seems like yesterday. Time is really funny. You know there are some things that really frighten me–like growing old, death–and not having done or created anything that will stand against them and time. … Know that I’m thinking about you. Buy a bottle of Cold Duck and I’ll be there faster than a jet plane.

QL 4 Background

Sign_entry_sm
The entrance to the MP compound outside Vinh Long in December 1969, before completion of the sandbag fortifications and bunkers. The “MP villa” in QL 4 is based on this compound, although the book’s version is different in some respects.


While the story told in QL 4 is a product of the author’s imagination, the setting and some of the incidents described are based on fact. In 1969–70, the author was stationed outside Vinh Long, the district capital of Vinh Long Province, located on a major branch of the Mekong River. The location of the novel is loosely based on Vinh Long and the area around it, but with much literary license to fit the story.

The MP Villa

compound_sm
A view of the compound from the roof of the “MP villa.” Note the road to the canal, the perimeter, bunkers under construction, and the V-100 in a revetment.

View_from_roof
View from the roof of the villa, toward the rice paddies to the east.

Cambodian_flag_sm
The author with a Cambodian flag following the invasion of Cambodia in May 1970. The flag prop was provided by a returning ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldier at the cost of a case of beer. More than flags disappeared from Cambodia during the invasion.

basketball
The exterior of the “MP villa” and our basketball goal.

The Ferry

vendors_sm
Vendors at the My Thuan Ferry (if I remember correctly) on a branch of the Mekong River. In QL 4, the ferry is recast as the My Linh Ferry and Vinh Long is replaced by Van Loc, to avoid having geographical limitations on the descriptions in the book.

A bridge, completed in 2000, has replaced the ferry. Also, the road known as QL 4 is no longer. Instead, it is National Highway 1.

MP_kid
On the ferry—greeting the passengers. The MP relationship with the Vietnamese public was generally quite friendly, although there were some rough moments, some of which are described in QL 4. Unpleasant contacts included confrontations with Vietnamese soldiers (involving firearms and grenades) and terrible traffic accidents, such as a boy being bisected by a deuce-and-a-half.


From_ferry_sm
More photos from the ferry, taken with a small Brownie Instamatic from an MP patrol jeep.

kid_cig_sm
Street toughs at the ferry, my guess about ten years old. It wasn’t unusual for one of them to tell you, “GI, tomorrow you die,” or some equally encouraging remark.