We send Mimosa to a lot of places, but not to Asia (well, there is actually one recipient: a Canadian who resides in Australia, and is currently doing relief work in Pakistan). Possibly because of this, we have yet to publish, until now, any fanzine articles that have an Asian locale. We now break personal new ground with an article about one of the most inhospitable locales in all of Asia, Vietnam of the early 1970s. The writer, better known as a fan artist (under a slightly different name), has most recently been awarded a Hugo in the fan artist category.
title illo by Sharon Farber for 'The Horrors of War and 
  Other Morbid Clichés' by David Thayer
I've never killed anyone, at least no one I know of. In Vietnam though, I came close several times, the closest one night when I briefly confused fantasy with reality. But that was months after I arrived, months after my initial fear had turned into a blasé attitude toward life and death, at least that of others. It was an accepted survival technique.

Unlike the beloved GIs of earlier eras and the characters in war fictions, few of the soldiers I knew in Vietnam had endearing nicknames (Rock, Killer, Animal, Goldbrick) that succinctly captured their personalities. With staggered tours of duty of only a year, we weren't with each other long enough to bestow many nicknames. Most went simply by their last name (Nolan, Dietz, Padilla) or rank (PS4, Sarge, LT). We did have a few nicknames though, like Broadway Beak, Marvin the ARVN Killer, and Snow White.

Broadway Beak was the company RTO (radio/telephone operator), a slight New York Jets fan from New Jersey. He had a large nose and one of those unpronounceable Eastern European surnames with seemingly randomly placed consonants and virtually no vowels. One day during a discussion of the upcoming football season he remarked that Joe Namath, the New York Jets quarterback, was his hero for having won the recent Super Bowl.

Namath earned millions throwing a football up and down an open field. We earned a fraction of that humping rifles through dense jungle. Bad knees exempted Namath from playing war. A lack of physical defects tagged us for the deadly game. A buddy remarked, "The only thing you have in common with Broadway Joe is your beak." An irony of the capitalist system I mused. Ever after he was Broadway Beak.

When later I ran into another soldier who went by the name Broadway, I immediately assumed it too was a nickname. I was surprised to discover it was his real last name. He was a cowboy from Oklahoma and somehow on him the name lacked the glamour.

illo by Sharon Farber Marvin the ARVN Killer was a husky machine-gunner. One of the few creature comforts we grunts had in the field was our air mattresses. (We lived with numerous creatures, mosquitoes, leeches, horseflies, ants, but few comforts.) Those whose mattresses thorns or shrapnel had punctured or over-inflation had ripped a seam suffered. The ground was hard.

But one of the hardships was having to inflate the mattress after humping miles through the jungle with 70 pounds or more of equipment. What little breath we had left we wanted to save for more important tasks, such as talking about what we'd rather be doing, uttering profanities, even breathing. Marvin came to our rescue. A combination of heredity and a life of outdoor living had blessed him with a powerful set of lungs. To supplement his meager private's income, meager even with combat pay, he inflated other guys' mattresses. He often finished in less than a minute. Merely watching him perform was worth the dollar we paid.

Like the rest of us, Marvin was not fearless, but he more than made up for his fear with firepower. In the field he carried inordinate amounts of belted ammunition for his M-60 machine gun. One night he opened up. When the platoon leader sensed that the M-60 was the only weapon firing he ordered Marvin to cease fire, fearing that he might hit my squad which was out on ambush. We wondered at the shooting, but it was not in our direction, and we had confusion of our own (but that's another story).

Marvin finally stopped, but only when the weapon jammed and after several hundred rounds. He swore, literally, that someone had shot at him, but no one else had heard. The other grunts laughed at him for letting the echoes of distant artillery in the jungle spook him. The LT fumed until dawn when daylight revealed that the M-60 had jammed on a link broken and twisted by an AK-47 round. Awe turned into respect when they found a blood trail leading off into the jungle.

Marvin was his real first name. ARVN (rhymes with Marvin) was the acronym for Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam. Individual soldiers we called ARVN's. They were our allies, although we often wondered. Differences in language and culture and their uncanny resemblance to the VC (Viet Cong) sometimes lead to clashes, always in the rear because we never saw them in the field.

After one encounter, a GI joked, "Let Marvin kill them." Ever after he was Marvin the ARVN Killer. New guys, confused by the long nickname, sometimes naively dropped the Killer at the end. Old-timers quickly corrected the breach of etiquette before it reached Marvin's ears.

Finally we had Snow White, me. Unlike Broadway Beak and Marvin the ARVN Killer, I gave myself my nickname, and before my first exploits. Name changes were a personal tradition with me. In the sixth grade, when my family moved from Texas to Ohio, I switched from my first to my middle name. In my age group in Texas, David seemed the popular name, there being six in my class. I yearned to be unique. In Ohio I was the only Mike. At the first parent-teacher conference, my mom wondered who the Mike was my teacher was talking about. What had happened to her David?

Shortly before high school we moved to Oklahoma. There I encountered numerous other Mikes and I again became just another name in the crowd. In college, away from family, last names took precedence over first names and I became Thayer. I was unique again. My second year an upperclassman, because of my pale complexion, started calling me Spook, after the 'Wizard of Id' character. It was my first firsthand experience with a nickname. I accepted it, not that I had much choice.

When I dropped out of college and went into the Army, I reverted to Thayer, sort of. For 16 weeks, 8 basic training, 8 advanced infantry training, I was simply one of countless other privates. Around drill sergeants with a penchant for yelling at anything that moved, being just one of the crowd had its advantages. The final week of training, we received our orders. I learned that David Thayer was going to Vietnam.

My buddy Kramer suggested that if I didn't want to go, I should send Snowball, the name one of the juvenile wiseguys in our training company had nicknamed me because of my close-cropped blond hair. Kramer had a way with names. The first words out of his mouth when I met him were that his name spelled "remark" backwards (my first experience with the possibilities in rearranging the letters of one's name). I never saw Kramer again. We went separate ways to Vietnam.

illo by Sharon Farber I didn't like the name Snowball, with its negative connotations (such as "Snowball's chance in Hell of surviving"), but Kramer started me thinking. When I reached my ultimate unit in the field, I, with my penchant for literary allusions, had mutated it into Snow White. Subconsciously perhaps, I thought that a nickname might protect David Thayer from getting hurt in Vietnam. One look at my pale complexion, blond hair, and blue eyes, and my new buddies asked no questions.

They did, however, challenge me to name the seven dwarves to prove my identity. "Sleepy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Doc, Dopey, Happy," I said. "That's only six." I easily remembered the five ending in 'y' and Doc, the nickname of every 18-year-old medic trusted to same lives under fire. I kept forgetting Bashful. For weeks I struggled memorizing his name and recalling it on command.

Finally after a couple of months in the field, I could name the dwarves in my sleep. At the base camp PX, I had a Vietnamese seamstress sew me a name tag with my nickname for my jungle fatigues. She faithfully copied my handwriting, totally ignorant I'm sure of the Grimm fairy tale that had inspired it.

illo by Sharon Farber Later a Lt. Whiteknight (his real name) joined our unit, only serving to reinforce the naturalness of a PFC called Snow White. He was short and thin, a typical new bumbling and inexperienced officer, hardly the dashing character his name implied. My face had tanned and my hair, dirty and disheveled, at least between infrequent showers, had grown.

One hazard of my nickname occurred several weeks after my arrival, when my mail from home finally caught up with me. I had failed to tell my family and girlfriend. The company mail clerk had no idea who David Thayer was and was on the verge of returning my mail. Only Broadway Beak saved my family the trauma of having their letters to me returned 'Addressee Unknown'. He remembered seeing the name David Thayer on orders at the same time Snow White arrived and put two and two together.

On one mission my platoon by chance ended up on a hilltop firebase in the middle of a broad valley, while the other platoons in the company humped through the jungle below us. Tom Dietz, the other token blond-haired, blue-eyed grunt in the platoon (everyone else seemed to be an ethic minority, black, hispanic, Indian, Italian, Irish with black or brown hair and dark eyes), and I were assigned to one of the guard towers.

Our tower was a 12x12-foot box on stilts overlooking the strands of barbed wire on the perimeter, a structure any kid would have been thrilled to have in his backyard except for the dry, rock-hard sandbags lining the walls and floor and covering the roof. Waist-high windows looked out on all sides. A crude ladder of 2-by-4s led from the ground to the open door in the back.

Another of the few creature comforts available to us was the radio, although it was not government issue and the Army frowned on its use on patrol. It provided our one real-time contact with the World back home. We listened almost exclusively to Armed Forces Radio (Radio Hanoi was amusing, but the continuous propaganda breaks between songs got old quick and the local Vietnamese stations were just so much gibberish to us).

By popular demand (of the majority of lower enlisted and drafted GIs in Southeast Asia, who didn't want to be there anyway), the stations played mostly rock-and-roll music. It reflected our rebellious attitude. Armed Forces Radio could slant the news, but it could not distort the music (it was already distorted). I still remember hearing "War" by Edwin Starr for the first time on a mountain ridge overlooking the South China Sea. "War, uh, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!" "Yes!"

On Sundays, the station played an hour of classical music, in deference to Gen. Creighton Abrams, Commanding General, a connoisseur of such finer things. Even that brief interlude was enough to drive some of us to thoughts of wasting not only the albums and D.J., but the general himself. In the summer of 1970, the station was playing songs like "Mamma Told Me Not To Come" by Three Dog Night ("What are all these questions they're asking me?") and "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum ("When I die and they lay me to rest, I'm going to go to the place that's the best.")

One night shortly after dark, Dietz and I sat with our backs to the wall just outside the door of the tower. My M-16 rifle and an M-76 grenade launcher leaned against the front wall, the business end of the tower. Bandoleers of ammunition in magazines and a vest of grenades hung from nails above the weapons. A breeze stirred the air around us but failed to dissipate the heat.

We listened to the black transistor radio I'd brought from home until the music stopped. The announcer told us to stand by for Mystery Theater. We were both disappointed. We wondered whom they thought they were trying to scare. I had first watch and Dietz started to rise to go crash for a while when the crash of thunder followed by strands of heavy organ music stopped him. A sinister voice intoned that the story for the night was Frankenstein. Dietz stayed.

illo by Sharon Farber We huddled together to hear the narrator better, momentarily forgetting where we were. We shifted our weight on the hard floor to get more comfortable but in vain. Then at a dramatic moment in the story, with the monster standing in a doorway, the tower grew darker. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tall figure filling the doorway. Dietz and I had incorporated footsteps up the ladder into the narrative on the radio.

Sweat trickled down my face and my heart pounded in my throat. My mind leaped to the weapons out of reach at the front of the tower, but I was too terrified to move. If Dietz and I had had them in hand we would have blown the intruder away.

Someone on the radio let out a scream my own voice refused to make. The figure noticing us at last, looked down. "What are you guys doing on the floor?" our LT asked, breaking the spell. His helmet and flak jacket made him look larger than life. I turned off the radio and Dietz and I stood and mumbled some inane explanation. Skeptical, the LT ordered us to keep our eyes open and backed out of the tower and down the ladder.

After he'd left, Dietz worried about getting caught goofing off on guard duty. "What are they going to do to us?" I asked. "Send us to Vietnam?" He laughed at how mistaken identity had brought us within a hairtrigger of blowing our own platoon leader away. Only the mental lapse of leaving our weapons beyond arms' reach had saved him. "They would have blamed it on friendly fire," I joked. "Yeah," Dietz agreed. "With friends like us, who needs enemies?"

Combat is often marked by weeks of boredom broken by moments of sheer terror. Sometimes is takes real veterans to tell the difference.
illo by Sharon Farber
All illustrations by Sharon Farber

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