It started out as fun and involved a girl.
I was in the Army. It was my twentieth birthday. We were on a weekend pass before graduating from Snake School.
My best friend, Face, assured me we were going to get more than just lucky. We were going for quality.
After fourteen months of celibacy and six hours of drinking, I was more than ready.
Fourteen months of celibacy makes me sound much more experienced than explaining that I had finally lost my virginity while on leave after Basic. She was a nice girl who was one year ahead of me all through High School. She was very patriotic and knew I was going to end up in Vietnam.
Looking back, it was out of pity. But at the time it was real and it was sweet. This wasn’t the first time she had been patriotic and she taught me a lot. She was very kind. I won’t embarrass both of us any further except to say, “Thank You.”
Since then the Army had kept me pretty busy training to be a helicopter pilot. The twenty-four hour leaves in the local towns allowed for competition with 5000 horn-dogs over a couple dozen locals, the majority at least semi-pro’s. The kind of girls that Face predicted, “will someday have viruses named after them.” Face was our secret weapon and my best friend since the fourth grade. Face could charm the pants off a nun.
Snake School was formally known as “AH-1G Cobra Transition.” We were transitioning from slow, fat, wallowing Huey’s to the fastest, baddest, helicopters in the sky.
The Cobra had a Fourteen Hundred Horsepower jet engine. It was about thirty-six inches wide. The pilot sat behind the co-pilot like in a fighter jet.
Cobras came screaming out of the sky at 219 miles an hour, and did so while firing four thousand rounds a minute mini guns. Four thousand rounds a minute equals sixty-six .30 caliber bullets each second. Every fifth bullet was a yellow tracer. All you could see was a steady stream of tracers. You didn’t aim so much as walk the tracers to the target.
But wait, there’s more. We also had a 40 mm grenade launcher on full auto. That was like throwing three hand grenades a second at a hundred miles an hour. You could thump out grenades to the front and both sides through a rotating turret. Very handy.
Then there were the closers, 2.75-inch wide, solid fuel rockets that traveled at 1,200 miles an hour. They were armed with a variety of high explosives, flechettes, and white phosphorous warheads.
If you’re going to be in a fight, it’s hard to beat a Cobra. Cobras beat tanks. Cobras beat everything. They were the winners in any kind of close combat.
We tried to act modest but it wasn’t easy.
Getting into a Cobra required Basic Training, then Advance Infantry Training which was your fate if you failed out of the next intensive, and sadistic, nine months of helicopter school. The first ninety percent of Flight School was pure harassment.
Before the Army was going to give a 19 year old several million dollars worth of machinery they did everything possible to make us ‘military’, no matter how petty. Polishing floors with toothbrushes, six people screaming in your face at once. You’ve seen it in the movies. It was 24/7. I know some guys thought it tightened up their shit and made them better pilots. I personally thought it was all pretty pathetic but I also knew that I really wanted to fly.
To be perfectly honest, I also really, and I mean really, didn’t want to be in the infantry in Vietnam. Everyone was going to Vietnam in 1970. Everyone that didn’t go to college, graduate school, Canada or have the political connections to get into the Reserves or National Guard that is.
Our Basic class consisted of mostly minorities, rednecks and other folks, like Face and myself, who wanted to learn skills they couldn’t afford in civilian life.
They tried to scare us in helicopter school that one in three wouldn’t be coming back. This was from guys that were in Vietnam in ’67 and ’68. By the time we were in flight school it had been decided that we would be rapidly turning things over to the Vietnamese. President Nixon and Kissinger called it Vietnamization. Things would be winding down by the time we got there.
Besides, both Face and I were in the top 10% of flight school. We were better than 90% of those other guys and we were in Cobras. We figured the odds were in our favor.
I had wanted to fly all of my life. Face and I took pilot lessons when we were 16. We had both had private pilot’s licenses before we joined up. The cost of further training in instruments and multi-engines was more than we could afford.
We were going to be airline pilots. They traveled all over the world, got lots of girls and made great money. At eighteen that seemed like a fair trade for a few years in the Army.
Face and I are like brothers. I’ve known him since the fourth grade. I lived with his family from the time I was 12. My folks died in a car crash and Face’s folks took me in. Betty and Jake treated us both the same. Face was always cool about it. Face’s real name is Francis but no one has called him that since we started chasing girls.
The lottery told me I was going to be drafted anyway and the Air Force and Navy required a college degree for flight training. Face’s lottery number was borderline. We lived in a boring little farm town in Illinois, which was the reason Face gave for going in with me.
Face and I went in on the buddy plan. Since we both had pilot’s licenses the recruiter said fixed wings would be our natural path. No one in our training class went to fixed wings. The Army only needed helicopter pilots.
They were surprised that we were surprised. We were asked if “we got it in writing,” which of course we hadn’t. I doubt that would have made a difference to the Army anyway. They probably would have just torn up the paper. Or given it to some clerk to have it magically disappear.
They made it very clear that they owned our asses and we had already passed Advanced Infantry Training. The Army was never big on subtlety but they were effective. We lined up for helicopter school.
Flying helicopters was still flying, even if they had none of the grace or ability of a real airplane. In an airplane if something happens to your engine you coast in for a landing. In a helicopter you plummet from the sky. Planes are made to fly, to soar like a bird. Helicopters aren’t.
Helicopters have a giant engine that not only spins the blade but also tries to torque the whole aircraft into a death spin. The amount of this torque has to be perfectly counterbalanced with each change of wind, or direction, or altitude, or speed. At least five powerful forces, each pulling in different directions. None of them will keep you in the sky on its own. Any one could send you to your death.
The only thing keeping you up was the centrifugal force of the rotor blades. If the blades stop turning they are nowhere near strong enough to hold you up. They fold like straws and you plummet to your death.
Helicopters have about three thousand moving parts. Each one fighting the others. Each one capable of the aforementioned plummeting. Each part of each helicopter built by the lowest bidder.
It took me and Face a while to warm up to helicopters. We called them ‘Plummetcopters’ for the first few months, but only to each other.
Even though the war was “winding down” people were still getting killed. Worse, they were still getting crippled and maimed by the dozens. We decided that if we were gonna' go, we wanted a quick explosion in a ball of flames. Spending months at a time wading through swamps waiting for a booby trap to cripple you for life seemed less attractive.
Face and I made a pact that we wouldn’t let each other come home crippled. Death before wheelchairs. We swore on my mother’s grave. I know a lot of people use that as a figure of speech. We did it for real. Graveside at midnight under a full moon. Did the blood brothers thing first. We were serious. We were also seriously drunk. We still meant it when we sobered up.
I buckled down enough to get in the top ten percent of my class, Face made top five.
We had all our Cobra check rides complete and would be graduating the following weekend. Then it was 30 days at home before Vietnam.
Face was going to get me a “nice girl” for my birthday. Face always was offering to get me girls but I thought there was some things a man should just do for himself, at least the first time. Now that I was past the first time, and the second time had been a long time not coming, I had a much more flexible attitude.
I was becoming increasingly flexible as the afternoon drinking extended into the evening. We didn’t want to waste our money on food.
It was Face’s idea to rent a car and travel away from the base to some classy place where we could meet, “Sophisticated women who weren’t pro’s.” We were both way too cool to have to pay for it. Actually Face was way too cool and I was way too scared.
We traveled about twenty miles and the best we could come up with was a Holiday Inn. We rented separate rooms based entirely on our faith in Face. There was a lounge band that started at eight which somehow failed to draw in hordes of sophisticated women. The band played country rock.
They did attract a few women of the big hair variety but they were looking a bit old. They were in their thirties and forties. “Ex-wives with tattoos,” according to Face. They checked out Face a lot. A few even sent over drinks.
All I wanted was a girl who was pretty and willing and not old enough to be my mother. After the fourth drink I was looking for a willing girl who was almost pretty but I still clung to the same generation rule. I was about to waive pretty all together when she walked into the bar with her friend.
She was even better looking than my fantasies. Teased out hair, lovely face with just a touch too much make-up, silk blouse, short skirt, long legs, high heels on knee high boots and a Playboy body. Think, “Slutty Barbie.” Worked for me, big time.
Her friend dressed from the same catalog but didn’t pull it off quite as well.
They said were they Stewardesses for Pan Am. We told them we were pilots. I thought it strange that a Pan Am Stew would be based in the middle of Mississippi but who am I to puncture a woman’s fantasy?
They might have gotten the idea that we were pilots for United rather than the United States. We were pleased to find out they had been drinking before they arrived. We laughed at each other’s lies.
Usually Face got the alpha female and I got the girlfriend. I called on my birthday gift while the girls held their conference in the ladies room. Both groups arrived at the same conclusion and we paired off over several more rounds of drinks.
The fact that we already had rooms impressed the girls. After a few more rounds, and another conference in the ladies room, the girls decided they would like to check out the view from our rooms. It was a two-storey motel.
She told me her name was Connie. I told her everyone called me Mac, which with a name like John Mack was closer to the truth than most of the lies I told that night. The Army had been calling me by my last name for over a year. Even Face called me Mack now.
Connie and I had 6 hours of mutual fantasy fulfillment. What we lacked in experience was more than compensated for by sincere enthusiasm and what President Kennedy would call, “youthful vigor.” Everyone went home happy, very happy.
She gave me her phone number and wrote her name with a little heart over the i. She put 5 stars next to her name, “So you won’t forget me.” Connie, darling, wherever you are, I can assure you I haven’t forgotten.
I called Connie mid-week, both to be polite and to tell her that my morning pee felt like someone had shoved a burning wire up my penis.
I told her how I had been very cool with the Doc. Told him I just knew her name as Jane. I told him we met in a local park so they wouldn’t place the bar off limits. He didn’t seem particularly shocked.
The Doc told me he’d keep it off my record. “No sense staining a budding career,” was how he put it. My gonorrhea became “non-specific urethritis.”
The way he said it you expected background music. He was a believer even though he was just in for three to work off the school loan.
The idea of becoming a lifer was scarier than the upcoming trip to Vietnam. I didn’t laugh and nodded sagely. He gave me a 10-day supply of penicillin pills.
I also received a lecture on using rubbers, particularly in Vietnam. He repeated the Hygiene lecture he had given our whole class weeks before.
We were told Vietnam had more VD than VC. They had types of VD that we never heard of in the States. One kind could make your dick fall off. There were guys that they wouldn’t let come home because of the diseases they carried. They were kept in a place off the coast called Black Island, their families were told they were dead. They said that a lot of the prostitutes were Commies and they put razor blades up their pussies that sliced your dick in half. I think they were trying to scare us. It worked for me.
I knew the responsible thing to do was tell Connie so she could get treatment. I tried to be a grown-up and not pissed off that she had done this to me.
Connie wasn’t as cool as I remembered. I had to point out that my enforced celibacy made it not my fault. I wasn’t as cool as I remembered either. I have since found out that this is a common side effect of alcohol-fueled sex.
Connie was not impressed with my smooth handling of the situation. She started babbling about her church choir, her father, her high school and “damn Billy.”
High School? Stewardesses don’t go to high school!
Hysterical screaming followed, some of it hers.