The Jungle Gliding Darkly By - Part III
Note: Fifty years ago this month, the man who would become my husband—Richard Lowell Hill—landed in the Republic of Vietnam. He was twenty-three years old, a college graduate who had been drafted into the army the year before. His experience in Vietnam launched a chain of events that would shape and change our lives. In memory of that fateful year—1968—I’ve decided to share excerpts here from my unpublished memoir and his Vietnam diary throughout the coming weeks.
“Arrived Cam Rahn Bay 12:45. Hot and dry,” Richard wrote on March 3, 1968. “Moved to 244th replacement co. Boardwalks on brilliant white sands connected buildings. A great deal of standing around even for the army.”
The next day, there was even more standing around—until night fell: “Got mortared by Charlie. No casualties,” Richard recorded. “They were after the planes and choppers. Don’t know if they got any or not.”
On March 5, he boarded a C-130 and flew to Pleiku, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. “Unbelievable poverty and filth,” he wrote. “People eat rats here.” Richard was issued an M-14, one hundred rounds of ammunition, and the rest of his gear. He pulled guard duty almost immediately—“for about ½ hour at dusk,” he recorded on March 9. “Spooky.”
During a week of intensive training, Richard “attended some pretty interesting classes about war, Charlie, and RVN” (the Republic of Vietnam). He was sent to a gas chamber where he was blasted by CS—tear gas. Richard called it “wild stuff.”
On March 12, a Chinook helicopter flew him to the village of Plei Djereng, where he was stationed with Battery A of the 6th Battalion, 14th Field Artillery. “Btry is located on hill,” Richard observed, “just downhill from special forces camp of about 9 U.S. troops and 400 odd Montagnards.” He came to respect and admire the Montagnards, the indigenous mountain people of the Central Highlands. Years later Richard told Emily that “they were good people. They weren’t corrupted by money or alcohol. They were noble.”
Richard began training with Special Forces at the Fire Direction Center in Plei Djerng on what he called eight-inch guns, probably M110 8-inch Howitzers. They fired a two-hundred-pound explosive and had a maximum range of ten miles. He also trained on and fired M-107 175-mm Howizters, with a range of twenty miles. The “175 mm,” as he identified it in his diary, could be temperamental. During a training session, a recruit on Richard’s team mishandled the igniting powder and received third degree burns on his right arm. “He lit the primer powder,” Richard wrote, “and in one moment his arm was a peeling, blistering, seared piece of flesh.”
Just four days after Richard’s arrival at Plei Djereng, he ran his first fire mission on those big guns. His job: calculating how much powder was needed and at what angle the guns should be positioned to hit enemy targets. He never saw the people he fired at—not on his first mission, not on his last, not on any in between. “It was artillery so we didn’t see them.”
Richard wrote in his Vietnam diary every day— sometimes just a line or two, sometimes a full page. The diary itself, bound in imitation white leather with feminine gold accents and gilt-edged pages, is small, just four inches wide, five inches tall. On the inside front cover, Richard wrote his name, detachment, serial number, and three bases of operation: Pleiku, Plei Dejereng, and Oasis, Republic of South Vietnam. On the same page, he listed fifteen locations from Cam Rahn Bay to Camp Oji—places where the Army sent him during his tour of duty. On the facing page he listed the rifle numbers for his M-14 and M-16, and on the back inside cover, where calendars from 1967 through 1972 were printed, he counted down his days in Vietnam, inking them out one at a time, starting with March 1, 1968.
That’s also when the diary begins. Richard used a ballpoint pen, forming words in his angular, cramped but usually readable handwriting. The longer he was in Vietnam, however, the more angular and less readable his handwriting became. Some passages in the diary look like random scrawls. After his death, I sometimes reached for a magnifying glass to help me untangle words and find meaning in what he’d written.
His first two months at Plei Djereng were filled with tension. “Guard was doubled tonight,” he wrote, “on reliable information that something is going to happen soon in either our battery or 2 others.” Later he noted that “Charlie has extended his road,” and it leads “right through us or should I say over us.” On April 1, 1968, Richard turned twenty-four. “Happy birthday,” he wrote. “What a place to spend it.”
Two weeks later, Richard reported that the eight-inch guns “went on a destruction mission” to take out the “Charles Autobahn,” as he called it. The guns knocked out two bridges, an embankment and several staging areas, but the threat continued. “2 V.C. captured, two killed by a special forces patrol 4 clicks to the south of us,” he wrote in late April.
By early May, the VC were just two clicks away. “We got hit by 120 mm mortars and 75 mm Recoilless Rifles,” Richard wrote on May 15, 1968. “About 40 incoming altogether and more of them inside the perimeter.... We all watched the ground explode outside the hootch much like the civilian spectators of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Was pretty sight but probably....”
Richard didn’t finish that journal entry. It was the only one he left incomplete. On the next day, he confessed that he was becoming distracted. “Forgot 2 things today.... Must work on remembering....” Yet remembering underscored just how fragile life had become at Plei Djereng.
“Word has it Charlie will move our direction,” he wrote on May 21. The next day he observed, “Morale is becoming very poor here.” He felt a growing responsibility for his comrades. He’d recently been appointed shift leader, “against my will and good judgement,” he fumed. “This job will create nothing but trouble for me.” It added to his anxiety.
Then Plei Djereng took another direct hit. “Don’t know how many rounds we received, but it was plenty,” he wrote on May 30. “The ground was soft from recent rains so the projectiles penetrated quite deep before they were detonated.
“This undoubtedly prevented some casualties including myself.”
On April Fools’ Day, 1968—when Richard turned twenty-four in Plei Djereng—four eighth-grade girls in Mrs. Simmons gym class at Hickory Hills Elementary and Junior High observed the day by putting their gym suits on backwards and their socks on their hands. I wasn’t one of those girls, but I wrote about their antics in the school newspaper. “April First Turns Hickory Upside Down,” I wrote. I even got a byline for the story. That issue of the paper—April 1968—focused on P.T.A meetings, the Honor Roll list, and the annual talent show. The war in Vietnam wasn’t on our school’s radar. Or mine.
But later that year, my romance with Richard L. Hill unofficially sparked to life—at a New Year’s Eve party in a farmhouse near Stockton, Missouri. By then, I was a freshman in high school. Fourteen.
My friend Elaine McKeever had gotten a Ouija Board for Christmas, and together with Roberta and Kathy, we gathered in Elaine’s tiny corner bedroom to ask the inevitable question: “Who will Elaine marry?”
The Ouija hand moved aimlessly across the board, spelling out nonsense. It did the same for Roberta and Kathy. Then it was my turn. Slowly, deliberately the oracle spelled out: L-O-W-E-L-L.
This was devastating news.
Because I already knew an L-O-W-E-L-L.
I went to church with him, and he was—uncool. Barely as tall as I was. Just as thin. Clumsy and asthmatic too. Almost, almost, he could have been the sensitive-artist-type, which might have made the Ouija’s prediction half-way bearable. Once he’d told me that I gave off a yellow aura, and it would be interesting to paint me. But he never explained that yellow aura, which, the more I thought about it, sounded unattractive. And he never got around to painting me. Besides, he threw a baseball like a girl, an unforgivable sin in my book—because I threw a baseball like a boy, thanks to my dad.
So the Ouija Board’s prophecy was crushing, especially when Elaine, Kathy, and Roberta stopped giggling and started talking about my future as if it were inevitable. What was worse, I couldn’t disagree with them. After all, how many L-O-W-E-L-Ls could I meet in my lifetime?
I thought I’d cheated the Ouija’s fate six years later, when at twenty I married a Robert Mark. He was everything Lowell wasn’t—long, blond hair that drooped over his forehead, blue-gray eyes. He was into body-building, canoeing, hunting and fishing. Not an artistic bone in his body. He never looked at me and saw yellow auras. But maybe that was the trouble. Not that he didn’t see the aura, but that he couldn’t imagine one—of any color. One night he stormed over to our bed, where I sat propped up reading James T. Farrell’s Judgment Day. He stripped the book from my hands, and shouted, “How can you read that pornographic filth!”
So the marriage began to crumble.
But the Ouija Board wasn’t finished with me.
In 1976, I found myself living and working in Pierre, South Dakota. The town’s population, combined with Fort Pierre across the Missouri River, couldn’t have been more than ten thousand. It was an isolated place, where everybody knew everybody else, one of only three state capitals not connected to an Interstate highway. And that’s where I found him, the L-O-W-E-L-L the Ouija Board had predicted—Richard Lowell Hill. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome with a passion for music and a gift for wordplay. He’d burned candles in memory of his Granny Hill when she died, planted snapdragons along the edges of his vegetable garden, and decorated his house with pots of wild grasses and prairie sage he’d gathered himself.
He could imagine auras, and he threw a baseball like Willie Mays.
What we didn’t know then: a slow-moving toxin was already at work, oozing into his cells and tissues and arteries like a sluggish river through a jungle gliding darkly by.