The Jungle Gliding Darkly By - Part IV

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 In memory of that fateful year—1968—I’ve decided to share excerpts here from my unpublished memoir and his Vietnam diary throughout the coming weeks.

4.

My first marriage proposal came from someone I didn’t know.

He was the nephew or perhaps the great-nephew of elderly identical twins who attended the church my grandparents had helped establish in the 1930s. The twins were tiny, gray-haired spinsters, fragile as songbirds, but interested in the younger generation. Their nephew—I don’t remember his name—was visiting before reporting for basic training, and then probably shipping out to Vietnam. He hadn’t been drafted; he’d volunteered.

“Could he drive out to meet Pam this week?” they asked my grandmother. “We want him to meet a nice, Church of Christ girl before he leaves.”

So, one soft and sunny afternoon in 1972, my parents, sister, and I waited for my first gentleman caller. I was eighteen.

From the living room picture window, we watched him get out of his car and walk toward the front door—a trim and fit young man with dark, short hair. A white shirt carefully tucked into khaki pants. The pants were a little short and revealed white socks and brown loafers. Dad pronounced him “clean-cut, a good-looking kid.” Mom agreed. He looked to me like he’d stepped out of my parents’ generation.

I answered the doorbell and invited him in. We must have gone through the obligatory introductions. Mom probably offered him ice cream and unsweetened iced tea. My sister may have played the piano for him. I don’t remember. But I do remember that he wanted a tour of our property—the barn, the pond, the pasture.

I was suddenly alone with the Nephew.

I don’t remember what we talked about; it seems to me now that he did most of the talking. He was nice enough, but I couldn’t get past the short hair and white socks. And the fact that he’d volunteered for service in Vietnam. Didn’t he know the war was immoral?

At the end of the tour, as we stood in the front yard, he asked me to marry him—before he left town. Before he reported for basic training. The diplomacy required of a preacher’s daughter failed me in that moment. I was speechless, shocked. How long had we known each other? Half an hour? Forty-five minutes? Certainly, no more than an hour.

When I found my voice again, I said the first thing that popped into my mind. “No.” He nodded, maybe shook my hand, and walked to his car. I watched him pull out of the driveway, then went inside.

“Well?” Mom asked.

She recovered quickly from her surprise and reprimanded me for being ungracious. “You could have at least offered to be his pen pal.”

We learned about a week later that the Nephew had met Someone Else and had already married her.

So much for Mom’s idea. I counted myself lucky to have escaped that brush with Vietnam, to have refused what was clearly a desperate proposal of marriage. But Vietnam wasn’t finished with me. Seven years later, after accepting another proposal of marriage, I sat propped up in bed, reading about Vietnam from a white, imitation-leather diary: “Capt. Whitehead & Mr. Jones were killed when their copter crashed. Had our pay on board.”

*****

That helicopter crashed on June 30, 1968, and marked the beginning of weeks of inactivity for Richard at Plei Djereng. He fought off nausea and diarrhea, smoked more than a pack of cigarettes a day, and honed his artillery skills on the big six- and eight-inch guns.

His only hand-to-hand combat in Vietnam was against rats in his hooch. “The partitions under the floor,” he wrote, “make perfect hiding places for them and other unwelcome guests.” While he watched the “Nancy Sinatra Show” one night, a rat played footsie with him. “I’ll wear boots from now on,” he vowed. And later: “Jordan got bit by a rat on the arm while he slept in his bunk.... Rats are nothing to mess with.”

Richard traded two cartons of cigarettes for a mongoose and called it “Racoon.” While it lived, the mongoose was Richard’s weapon of choice against rats. Racoon slept on top of the radio and Richard combed it every other day. But the hooch was a dangerous place. It ultimately met an untimely end: “Daniels stepped on the mongoose and killed it dead,” Richard wrote. “Daniels is indeed a sorry individual.”

To fill the long hours in Plei Djereng, Richard played volleyball and temporarily “wrecked his ankle” during an aggressive basketball game. He saw movies and watched TV. He read avidly and widely— from Alexander Solzhenitzyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; from Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, which he especially admired, to Robin Moore’s The Green Berets, which he did not. Over a dozen entries in his diary relate exclusively to books he read and his impressions of them. In late June, he and his friend Bullwinkle installed a reading light over Richard’s bed. “Can read without leaving bed,” he rejoiced, adding that the new light also diminished his anxiety about rats.

Music also fed Richard’s spirit during those long, deadening days and nights at Plei Djereng. He listened to the Doors’ first album on a friend’s tape recorder, and wrote, “The organ is like blades of silver pulsing and stabbing against a darkened sky.”

From that moment on, he was determined to find the ultimate stereo speakers and receiver when his leave to Hong Kong came through. Everything was cheaper in Hong Kong, even with shipping factored in.

His shopping list grew: a Canon FT single-lens reflex camera with an F/1.2 lens, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a turntable, suits and shirts from a Hong Kong tailor, maybe even an Omega watch. “I’ll be one broke son of a bitch by the time I’m discharged,” he wrote. Yet imagining those luxuries served as a lifeline to his future, an imagined existence beyond rats, the tedium of the hooch, the prospect of dying in the jungle.

Richard never completely lost sight of civilian life or what was happening beyond Plei Djereng. His diary from June 5 through 7, 1968, tracked the unfolding story of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. “America seems to be going insane,” he observed. “This is undoubtedly one of the great tragedies of American history.”

When John Steinbeck died later that same year, Richard wrote, “It doesn’t surprise me or shock me but I feel as though an old friend is gone.” From Plei Djereng, Richard registered to vote in the 1968 presidential election— “Humphrey has won Democratic nomination,” he grumbled in September. “What a choice. Nixon and Horatio.” In between artillery missions, Richard even wrote his Congressman to voice an opinion about a proposed wildlife refuge.

Yet he rarely recorded any personal feelings about the war. As close as he came was a comment on the mind-numbing routine of life at Plei Djereng: “The effects of being in a rut are beginning to manifest themselves. It deadens your mind and its ability to be flexible and active…. Good God! I’m degenerating at an alarming rate.”

Richard was promoted to Specialist 4th Class on August 27, 1968. Three weeks later, he received orders to transfer to the Oasis, a landing zone (LZ) twenty-three miles from Pleiku. “This place is casual as hell,” he noted. “Almost bearable place to live except no decent sleeping quarters....” His assessment was dead-on: two days later he killed “a small boa or python” in his hooch.

Richard’s temporary assignment at LZ Oasis marked the beginning of his new role as part of a Special Forces advisory team that traveled throughout South Vietnam’s Central Highlands— often near the Cambodian border— training artillery crews. During the fall of 1968, he flew or convoyed to Ban Me Thout, Tieu Atar, Nunh Co, Mang Buk, and Bu Prang.

His diary includes glowing descriptions of travel and the South Vietnamese countryside. On October 26, he boarded a fragile aircraft that “looked disarmingly like Charles Lindberg’s plane.” He landed briefly at an obscure firebase “which was situated near a clear lovely stream. On way to Mang Buk we followed river up mts. Got some beautiful shots [with his new Canon FT] before we turned back due to weather.” When the clouds lifted and it was safe to resume the flight, the plane continued along the same “wild white water river. Near the top it became a placid, clear winding stream that we followed very closely. A thrilling ride dodging trees and the jungle gliding darkly by.”

Nowhere in the diary did Richard record anything about Agent Orange. Nothing about herbicides. Nothing about dioxin. But he was clearly in the right place at the right time for significant exposure—in the Central Highlands, near the Cambodian border, an area which received heavy concentrations of spraying from 1967 through 1969. Traveling from fire base to fire base with Special Forces perhaps deepened Richard’s exposure. Simply pulling guard duty, as he often did, would have put him in contact with Agent Orange—and a variety of other herbicides: Agent Blue, Agent Pink, Agent Purple, and Agent White. The Army used these herbicides around the perimeters of fire bases to kill vegetation and give soldiers who’d pulled guard duty a clear line of sight. The herbicides kept the jungle from encroaching on fire bases and landing zones throughout the Central Highlands and beyond.

But in 1968, the primary health issue in Vietnam for Richard—or any other American solider, for that matter—was simply getting out alive. By late fall, Richard wasn’t sure he was going to make it.

Holly Atkinson