SPOKEN IN SILENCE
We exited down the stairs of the Continental Air Jet after a 20-hour flight from Cam Ron Bay, Viet Nam, with stops in Japan and Juno, Alaska. It was 4:00 AM Pacific Standard Time. We had landed at McChord Airforce Base/Fort Lewis, Washington.
We were greeted by a tall black solider, clipboard in hand. “How do you like your steak?” He jolted me awake with his sharp military tone. I gave a quick response “Medium Rare.’’ “Medium Rare, Thirty-Four,” he repeated. Another uniformed trooper stepped out of the dark night and gently hung a lanyard over my head with a large printed number hanging from it that read: “34.”
Our DC -10-30 commercial jet had parked next to two connected Air Force hangars. I followed other soldiers off the runway pavement and in through a hangar doorway. A small ordinary doorway, which opened up to a view of a huge airplane hangar perfectly lit by hundreds of high, bright overhead lighting. It was filled with smiling civilians and the smell of coffee. I woke up.
There was the quiet hum of sewing machines, each machine in front of a seated middle aged female seamstress, who’s calm regarding of us returning warriors, now stripping down to our bright white army underwear was so calming that when the professional tailor asked me to do so, I did. Leaving, my tropical tan short-sleeved army uniform I had worn from Viet Nam on the floor. Good. However, I was now chilled. I stood on a box being measured by one of the many male tailors doing the same to others just off the plane, measured around my waist, ankle to crotch, my sleeve length, my shoulders, and my hat seize, all done very quickly and while standing still in front of these three-sided mirrors. ( Cam Ranh Bay Air Base was a blasting hot furnace and under rocket attack when we left yesterday. We ran out of the war to the plane. Five men at a time, “Go!” I ran hard through the thick hot air swirling off the aluminum matted runway, up the ramp stairs to a beautiful silver and red equally aluminum plane.)
I soon put on my cut and tailored pants and new uniform jacket at my last seamstresses station. She smiled. She reminded me of my mom. All two-dozen of these ladies reminded me of my mom. I was now dressed in a brand new Army Dress Green Uniform, as were all the other recent arrivees. I had the red and gold MACV patch of a shield and sword on my shoulder. (MACV – Military Assistance Command Viet Nam)
How did these sweet talented civilians, ladies and men, do all this? So quickly. Done so well too! It was a regular soldier people factory. All done in a fast hour, by 5:00 AM in the morning! These people where here in these hangars waiting for us to arrive and I am sure there were more planes coming. Amazing!
Before entering the next attached hangar, a tired solider, a Spec 4 in rank, seated at a folding table, a pen and contract in his hands asked each of us if we wanted to enlist in the Army for three more years and possibly go back to Viet Nam? He looked up at me and into my blank stare, mouth partially open, I am sure. He answered for me, “No! You don’t want to re-up. Move on!”
I followed the moving line of other troopers through a small normal sized doorway into the second adjacent hangar, also lit by high bright ceiling lights. This second hangar was converted to a giant mess hall. Cooks dressed all in white, spatulas and serving spoons in their able hands stood before hot smoking kitchen grills and steaming hot serving counter trays.
High on a wall above the heads of the 250 men seated at about 60 or more tables, four to a table, there hung a huge sign, with that same yellow and red shield and sword symbol that many of us wore, on our new Army uniforms… and large black letters that read:
Welcome Home Soldiers – MACV
I slid my food tray down the mess counter line. The cook looked at me and the number that still hung from the lanyard around my neck, “Number 34!” his voice rang out, and another voice called back, “34 Medium Rare.” Suddenly a white plate was in front of me with a sizzling hot juicy steak, medium rare, I was absolutely sure.
Moving further along I added all the other delicious hot foods laid out for us. Mash potatoes, lots of gravy, spinach, corn, spaghetti, pancakes, sausages, bacon, desserts, and at the end, gallons of fresh hot coffee. More and better army food than I had ever seen. Except maybe on the steam ship USS Walker, the ship that bought the 3000 members of my 7/15th Battalion to the beaches of Qui Non, Vietnam, in June 1967.
I was one of the last to get served food. My shiny new black army dress shoes below on my feet, food tray balanced in my hands, I surveyed the hangar mess hall. I found an empty seat.
Two hundred and fifty of us sat eating, MACV, First Cavalry Division or various patches on our sleeves with rank strips and breast pocket Viet Nam Service Badges, Purple Heart, or Combat medals showing. There we sat, heads bowed, eating our hot steak and egg breakfast. Steak medium rare and eggs over easy for me the way I liked them. Fresh brewed coffee. I hate airplane food and coffee. I prepared to eat away.
I could hear the scraping of the cook’s spatulas on the hot grills at the mess counter behind us. I stopped eating.
There was something bizarre and foreboding about this picture I was living. I leaned over to my left and whispered gently to the trooper next to me as he continued to eat. The scrapping noise of the cooks spatial on the empty grills echoed louder in the cavernous room.
“There is something strange here.” The soldier stopped, looked up and around. “Yeah, like what?” I continued. “No one is talking. No one!” 300 people, cooks and all silent! He listened, said nothing, looked down at his breakfast food, and continued to eat.
I was home, right? Back in the states, right? But am I dreaming a new, different nightmare? That moment stayed with me until today. Fifty years later. Had we served proudly? Sure. We had been willing to die for God and Country. All of us now home from the war. Welcome home soldier. The Hurrah! Spoken in silence.
Spoken in Silence 11B