Living With Tom

I was really lucky to have lived with Tom for so long.  At the time I last saw him in April 1971, we’d lived together for just about five percent of my life.  That’s a long time.  Tom was a good guy.  I bet he still is one.

He was from Michigan, I was from Washington, and we’d entered Air Force Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base about the same time.  That was September 15, 1969, for me, but I don’t know that date for Tom.  After six weeks of Basic, we were both plunged into the abyss of Casual Control with no definite exit time, but that dark cloud of “going to Nam” hung over both of us.  With 1,500 people in Casual, we never ran across one another.  Or, we may have, but never knew it.  Like frogs, we all looked the same in green.

Then, in late January 1970, we started to move through the training pipeline by being placed in Personnel Awaiting Training (PAT) status.  We first met during our initial day in PAT at Lackland.  We were out of the brain-numbing boredom and tediousness of Casual’s mundane details, highlighted by the occasional kitchen police (KP) duties, the dreaded meat packing, and the ol’ fallback keep ‘em busy activity of weeds and seeds.

We were finally in training.  Good news, bad news.  As long as we were in Casual, we weren’t getting closer to going to Viet Nam.  By entering the training pipeline, we could start the clock counting down to going in-country.  It would be two weeks of PAT, eight weeks of English language teacher training technical school, perhaps two weeks of leave, then on to Viet Nam.  Well, okay you could not DEROS (Date Estimated Return OverSeas) until you went there.  May as well get going.

I got that going and kept it going with Tom.  We moved out of our respective Casual barracks, World War Two two-story wood, rectangular open bay buildings, into 1950s era barracks.  These newer types were shaped like a two story block I with semi private rooms with their own bathrooms on each end and a common use day-room in the center on each floor.  They were still white, they were still two stories, but the rest of the differences made a real difference.  Though our family names were consecutive in the alphabet, it was still a bit of luck that I got Tom as my roommate.

Regardless of who got in there first, we were both comfortable with the bunks we had.  All the rooms had two double bunk beds, but just two people per room so we could choose to sleep on the bottom or top of our respective bunks.  Both of us choose the bottom.  Perhaps it was based on comfort and ease.  Perhaps it was to use the top bunk as shelter from the stuff of the present and future over which we had so very little control.

We cleaned our room and scrubbed our mold-encrusted shower space.  It was nice to have that bathroom as a welcome change from the open-bay latrines in the Casual barracks.  It took some real work though.  It had to be cleaned for inspections as well as to be tolerable.  That day was my first exposure to the “fragrance” of pine oil cleanser.  I can smell it even as I write, just like I can smell JP-4 aircraft fuel whenever I think of an airfield flight line.  People may get most of their sensory input visually, but, wow, those two memories are so strong for me and totally olofactorially induced.

Tom and I got that latrine clean in a day and night.  Got our bunks set up with fresh linens and blankets and had our stuff stowed away in lockers before going to sleep.  I’d sleep with Tom almost every night for well over the next year.  A broad smile was on my face as I wrote and reread that line.

It’s weird what you talk about in the morning and evening with a guy you’ve just met and don’t know how long you’ll continue to be around.  It begins as small talk and the basics of our lives.  You don’t want to expose yourself too much too soon to anyone.  He had a wife about whom he cared very much; I had a fiancé with whom the rest of my life was pretty well planned (but, not).  We both intended to be teachers after our USAF obligations.  We were both shocked to learn our shared Viet Nam avoidance initiatives had resulted in heading us directly there.  We both like to eat, but weren’t fussy about what it was.  We both missed home.

Basic and Casual were new worlds and both were transitory.  PAT smacked of reality.  We started to settle in.  Tom was a great person to talk to, to use to assess ideas, to give feedback without judgment.  Well, I could tell when he did not agree with a direction I was going, but he didn’t use the word “wrong.”  He made it safe to think and to talk.

After PAT, it was on to the Defense Language Institute English Language Center technical school.  I think we moved to another set of barracks, but they were in the same Block I configuration as those we had in PAT.  Tom and I roomed together again.  Good.

With a set schedule for classes that wasn’t very robust (something like 8 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday) we started to live lives that must have been what it would have been like in a college dorm.  A few of the married guys in our class decided to move their families to San Antonio and were allowed to live off base with them.  Tom and his wife chose not to do that.  I think it was because she had started a career and this eight week school in San Antonio would be short and disruptive.  I got lucky again:  Tom stayed in the barracks as my roomie.

Tech school was fun and easy for us.  It was also our last bulwark before facing the inevitable PCS (Permanent Change of Station) to the unknown, though a little less-feared Viet Nam.  In a way, the long pipeline served to acclimate us a bit to a tour of duty in a war zone.  However, we also got smarter.  We learned where we would work and live (Saigon and hotels).  We learned we’d have short work shifts (8-1 or 1-6, I think).

We had drawn together the scuttlebutt as to why we were stuck in Casual for so long.  It wasn’t Air Force mismanagement and it wasn’t entirely because of the US withdrawal of forces we had come to know as Vietnamization.  A lot of it was because so many of our predecessor teachers in Viet Nam liked the duty there so much that they were extending their assignments, obviating us showing up as their replacements.  Hey, it couldn’t be all that bad if guys just like us were choosing to stay longer!  Well, we used that as a tool anyway with ourselves, each other and our families.

In late March 1970, we got our orders and found out we’d be departing CONUS (Continental United States) on the same date.  On or about April 29 those of us in our class were to show up at San Francisco International Airport to catch planes for Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, in the Republic of South Viet Nam.  In mid-April Tom and I parted at Lackland, he to return to Michigan and I to Washington to scrounge whatever we could out of the ten days we had available to us before “shipping out.”

It went fast for me.  It must have gone even faster for Tom, his wife and their families.  How do you spread and share your time appropriately among so many entities?  None would feel they got enough.  Each was correct.

After going hither, thither and yon, Tom, I and the others rendezvoused at SFO.  I can’t recall if we flew out of SFO or were bused to Travis AFB for departure.  Regardless of the departure point, we got on a chartered Pan American 707 jet.  That plane was packed!  Even so, it was Tom and I together again!  We teamed up with Fred too.  Fred was at the window, Tom on the aisle and I in the middle seat, all on the port side of the plane.  We sat like that enroute to a fueling stop at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage and another fueling stop at, I think, Yakota AB, Japan or Kadena AB, Okinawa.

On to the RSV.  We must have talked en route, but I don’t recall a single word or idea until we crossed the South Viet Nam coastline.  At that point Fred announced, “Look, I can see the war!” or words to that effect when he spied the craters from bomb or cannon fire in the defoliated red clay of the coastal region.  In-bound to the war zone.  We were gonna be soldiers.  Hang on to yer ass!

After arrival, processing and all the stuff the US Air Force and Army needed to have us do, we were in-country.  Wherever Tom went I tagged along, or we were shuffled forward together.  Actually, I think we both just followed our herd of fellow Palace Dog English teachers.  After being issued our Load Bearing Equipment (LBE) and tropical weight clothes, we were bused to the hotel complex in Cho Lon, the Chinese district of Saigon where we’d be housed.  Our group was split up with some being sent to the White Hotel and the rest of us to the St. George.  Tom and I stayed paired up.  We were placed temporarily in some room on the third floor, I think, but we got put in Room 618 right away.   We stayed assigned to that three person room for the rest of our one year tours.

Tom got the bed by the window, I was close to the door and the third was by the bathroom.  Each had its own advantages and disadvantages.  I think we were both happy with our locations.  I don’t recall much about what we did or said after those first couple of days until it was time for Christmas.  We must have said a lot, though, because a lot happened.

Then, it was Christmas time.  I think Ralph joined us as our roommate just before or after that holiday.  Tom and I both got boxes of goodies from home for Christmas.  We each savored opening those boxes.  We shared all the food we kept pulling out of those containers.  My favorite was the pudding in individual cups with pull open tabs.  I don’t know why because pudding wasn’t necessarily a big thing for me as a kid.  It was great right there right then though.  My container was full of food.  Tom’s had all that, too, but I think he also had a little artificial, fully decorated Christmas tree in there.  Maybe not, but somehow we ended up with one of those in our room and I don’t think it was from Spokane.

Despite the joy of Christmas and the oohs and aahs of opening our presents, that Christmas Eve was quiet in our room.  Tom was deep in thought about his wife, family and home.  I was doing my share of yearning for family and home.  Tom and I were able to know when to talk and when not to do so by then.  We’d been together almost every day and night for a year.

Fast forward to April 1971.  It was time to DEROS.  My life and future plans had radically changed compared to a year, even six months earlier.  Tom had helped see me through it all.  I don’t think he always agreed with me.  In fact, there were times when we just sorta “took a break” in our communications.  Friends can do that.  Even so, Tom was always honest, insightful, and concerned for my well-being.  Again, I was lucky.

As much as he was looking forward to getting home, I was saddened by leaving.  Different people.  Different times.  We headed for Tan Son Nhut Air Base together with very diverse perspectives.  Even so, we were together.  Together for the bus ride, together for the out-processing, and together for the wait to board the aircraft.  Together for the flight.  How so very different though from a year earlier.  Both flights were quiet, but the thoughts prompting the quiet were different.

We arrived at San Francisco International Airport late at night.  Some of the group was able to catch flights right away so they whisked through the airport and were gone almost forever.  Tom, John and I, though, wouldn’t leave until the next morning.  It would be a short long night.

Someplace within the miles of walkways of SFO’s domestic terminal, the three of us found a dark hallway where we could stash our bags and lay down without being disturbed.  It was a quiet area and we spoke accordingly.  We were starting to decompress.  It still wasn’t real.  Tom and John both pretty much took care of a bottle of Chivas Regal.  I had a couple of pulls, but had never been much of a Scotch drinker.  Few of us used our alcohol rations in–country for drinking.  Ya didn’t want to waste your commodities on yourself!

As dawn came over San Francisco and that airport, John left us for his flight home to his wife, family and the rest of his life.  Tom and I were left there alone, together, just as we’d been in the PAT barracks fifteen months earlier.  Finally, with a hug and best wishes, we parted.

I’ve never seen Tom again, though we’ve talked on the phone a couple of time many years apart.  I now cherish more than ever our time together.  Stuff happens.

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