Secrets of the Wire
November 14, 1971
Nguyen watched the American column labor along the trail toward a banana tree grove bordering the swamp. Oppressed by the pre-monsoon heat, he took a warm soda from the case and sipped it, while squatting at the water's edge.
He'd been shadowing this American patrol all morning, hoping to make a sale. The GIs stopped in the shady grove, now resting in its understory.
Nguyen smiled; a thirsty Ed Lansky appeared in the saw grass across from him.
Lansky waved Nguyen over, holding a roll of military pay certificates (MPC) in his grimy hand.
"Hey, GI Number One," said Nguyen.
Swinging the case of Coke cans to his shoulder, the eleven-year-old plunged into the knee-deep swamp. Each step released a rancid, sour-smelling gas. His feet sank into the muck and made popping sounds as he pulled them out. A trail of bubbles rose to the surface of the coffee-colored water each time he put his bare foot down.
Looking at Lansky on the bank made him smile in anticipation of cash in his pocket.
He even smiled at the GI back in the trees, aiming a weapon at him.
Pausing on the slippery bank, Nguyen picked several leeches off his ankles then struggled up to solid ground.
Lansky looked over his shoulder, then down at the boy.
"How much?" The towering American with the curious foreign face smiled at Nguyen.
"Tan." He held the fingers of both hands up and said it again. "Tan."
"Too much! Ohhh, okay." Lansky stuffed two orange notes in the kid's hand. Grabbing the case, he sliced through the saw grass and was gone.
Nguyen felt pride and elation as he waded back across the swamp. He'd made enough in a few hours to keep him in candy, rice, and cigarettes for a week. Life would be easy for the next few days. Much better than the time right after he lost his family. During the months after their deaths, he had nearly starved to death.
He survived by stealing and begging, until he learned how to deal with the Americans. Bartering on the black market, Nguyen bought peace medallions, film, soda, and other comforts of interest to the Americans. The price they would pay for things astounded him.
His hardworking rice farmer family rarely had any money. Most of the people in his village only had cash after the sale of their crops.
Yet it spilled out of the Americans' pockets like a monsoon-swollen river. He was making more money than his parents had ever dreamed they could make.
His hard, bare feet found the trail back to the village. Lighting a cigarette, he took a deep breath and swung his arms like a marching soldier.
"Won, two, tree, four."
Approaching the main road, the sound of truck traffic came to his ears. Scrambling up the bank, he walked along the shoulder in a dust cloud kicked up by the trucks.
The road passed the American firebase at Nam Phat Lam. Soldiers referred to it as "Fat City", an ugly scar on top of the only high ground on this plain of rice paddies. Shabby black sandbagged structures broke the horizon at the top of the hill. An American flag unfurled itself occasionally in the slight wind. A chain of bunkers surrounded the hill, shielding artillery positions. Row after row of concertina wire stretched down the hill toward the road, then curved off to surround the perimeter. Some of it was strung two or three rows high, supported on metal posts.
Nguyen slowed, discreetly studying a section of wire he had secretly marked to see if anything had changed. He could see spots where careful clipping and crimping made it possible to open and close the wire like a door.
It was difficult to notice the cuts because of the care with which it was hooked together. The wire appeared whole. Only Nguyen's trained eye knew where to look for the nearly imperceptible breaks.
The metal chopper pad at the base was empty now. Three days ago, it had been crowded with GIs in full field dress. Another rotation of platoons was being made from the field to guard duty at the firebase.
Buddha had favored Nguyen. The changing of the guard brought forty new customers to his territory. He smiled at his good fortune: a fresh set of squads on patrol thirsty for a Coke and green guards on the perimeter meant he could try his trick again.
His hunger hurried him toward the village. The sharp briny odor of nuoc mam greeted his nose.
Entering the village, Nguyen stopped at a flyblown hut with an open front. An elderly mama-san spat betel nut juice and smiled as he held out one of the orange bills. The boy squatted next to the huge wok with a fire burning under it. Steam rose lazily from the stew as she filled a bowl with the rice and fish head mixture. She gave him his change, the bowl, and chopsticks, then squatted to watch him eat. Flashing brown betel nut-stained teeth at him, she asked how he had come by so much money.
As he lifted food to his mouth, he explained how he had sold Coke to the Americans. She warned him about the danger of being out there.
He responded that it was no problem for a brave man. Thanking her and returning the bowl, he ambled into the street and lit a cigarette. His Zippo lighter closed with a metallic chimp.
Passing some of the other shops, a handsome gold watch in a tiny display case caught his eye. He entered the shop and extended a polite greeting to the proprietor. He'd long dreamed of owning a watch like this. It would give him extra status among the children of the village. He could see himself showing it off and being a "big honcho". The watch was a Seiko from Japan.
Nguyen tried it on, held it out at arm's length to admire it. Putting it next to his ear, he noticed the shrill sound of the battery. He began to barter with the merchant. Their voices sang and clucked for several minutes. It was too much. The boy smiled and bowed as he left thinking about how he might steal it. He really wanted it, so he would have to steal it or do his trick on the Americans.
Back at the firebase, Sergeant Gordon H. Tippler inspected the guard positions his squad would man that night. After thirteen years in the Army, he remained an E-5, the lowest grade of sergeant. His wife never wrote him anymore, but the bank did. They were repossessing his Chrysler Imperial. He wondered what his wife was doing—especially with the money he'd been sending her to make the payments.
Worst of all, his squad had no respect for him, nor did his commanding officer, Lieutenant Halvorsen. The squad mocked him openly for the way he scrambled the English language. He wasn't permitted to forget about the large words he attempted to use but could not pronounce.
When he had a spare moment, Tippler read Army manuals kept in his pack. He attempted to quote memorized regulations from the manual. But somehow it always broke down.
His squad set him off for entertainment. Even when the consequences were extra duty and dirty details, they just couldn't resist getting him going.
The latest problem occurred on the platoon's last day in the bush. Two of his men fell asleep on guard duty.
LT found them wrapped in their ponchos, snoring at their perimeter guard positions. One entire flank of the night logger was unguarded.
Halvorsen stomped off to Tippler's sleeping position and roughly kicked him out of his poncho.
"Hey, shit-for-brains, did you know both men at your guard position are asleep on the perimeter?" said LT angrily.
"Sleep? Huh? Well, I better get down there."
"Yeah, you better get down there and make sure your squad covers its position at night. Have them see me today to sign their Article Fifteens. Next time it happens, you get one too."
Tippler didn't need another Article Fifteen on his service record. His face got red as he approached the squad guard position. Davis and Bohanan were snoring innocently. He kicked them rudely.
"Hey, Sarge, why ya breakin' foul on us like that?" cried Bohanan.
"Because yer sleepin' on guard duty."
As he chose his words, the pages of the Army manual turned in his mind.
"You'll be reportin' to the lieutenant today to sign your AR-15 papers. This is clearly neriglection and deliction of duty."
They were half-asleep.
Tippler noticed his error. "I mean it is clearly deliction and relection of duty."
Slow, sleepy smiles crept across their puffy faces. They looked at each other.
"What was that again, Sarge?"
"Hey, you know what I mean. Now don't fall asleep again!"
"Didja hear that one? Haw haw! Neriglection and rediction? Oh, brother! That's a good one."
"Give him a break; he's not fluent in the English language." Davis coughed up morning phlegm while laughing.
The sarge stormed off.
"Hey, Sarge! Did you mean dereliction and neglect?"
They sat around the LZ waiting for lift-out to the firebase. Davis and Bohanan mock lectured each other about neriglection and deliction of duty. Lansky reclined, reading, on his rucksack. For a while, he found Davis and Bohanan entertaining. But it got old soon. He almost felt sorry for Tippler.
Eventually LT said, "Knock it off. You're in enough trouble as it is!"
Tippler suffered silently. Halvorsen noticed how upset Sarge was, and in a rare moment of compassion, attempted to counsel him about "not letting them get to you."
Sergeant Tippler now walked between the rows of concertina wire to place his claymore mines for the evening. He found an elevated piece of ground with four holes drilled into the hard-baked clay. The same spot he had placed his claymores the last three nights.
"Okay, Bohanan, put one of your claymores on this mount."
"Gee, Sarge, putting it in the same place every night seems so predictable. Shouldn't we change the position? A dude from Echo Company says he had one of his claymores stolen here." Bohanan seemed genuinely concerned.
"Steal a claymore? No way anyone is gonna make it through a hundred yards of wire and steal a claymore sitting in front of a machine gun."
"Well, that's what the dude said."
"Just put it where I said, Bohanan!"
"But, Sarge, it's so obvious sitting up there."
"Put it where I said, and don't bug me."
The private unfolded the metal legs on the bottom of the green elliptical mine and plunged them into the holes. He grumbled while inserting the blasting cap and stringing the detonator cord back to the sandbagged firing position. Using a screwdriver, he wired the cord to the clacker. The pliers-like firing device was called a clacker because of the sound it made when compressed.
Now Bohanan stood behind the M-60 looking out across the wire and decided that Tippler was right, no way in hell anyone was going to steal that claymore.
Sundown in the village found Nguyen gathering pieces of cardboard on a side street.
The shops were closed now, motorbikes and pedicabs quiet. Most of the villagers were in their hooches hoping for a quiet night.
Nguyen dragged the cardboard into an alcove between two shops. He fashioned a bed from the pieces, as was his custom. Smoking a few cigarettes while lying on his bed helped him relax enough to attempt some sleep. As his eyes closed, he saw a gold watch and visualized the sequence of events he would undertake that night.
A few hours later, Nguyen woke up, checked his wire clippers, and walked behind the village off the road, toward the firebase.
The wump of artillery grew louder as he got closer.
Crossing the road, crawling through the ditch, he stopped next to the wire, lying there for an hour, watching and listening.
When the artillery flashed, he checked the position of the bunkers and plotted his course.
Patiently approaching his secret spot, unhooking the first row, Nguyen moved it only enough to squeeze through. Each row was left open to facilitate a hasty retreat.
Artillery rounds hissed over his head.
Pausing a few minutes at each row, looking ahead, listening, then resuming his slow low crawl, the little phantom closed on the American firing position, movements cautious and measured.
Nguyen was now less than ten feet from the claymore. Perspiration broke out on his upper lip as he inched ahead. His face was almost touching the mine. He could hear his heart pounding, freezing for a moment, worried the Americans could hear it too.
The fear passed, and the wire clippers came out of his back pocket. An artful reach around the mine allowed him to cut the detonator cord. Rolling to his side, he pulled the mine out of its anchoring holes.
With it in his shirt, he made his way back out through the wire, carefully closing each row behind him.
Morning routine at the firebase included retrieving the claymores. When Sergeant Tippler saw one was missing, he sizzled with indignation.
Bohanan and Davis had been on duty in the predawn hours at the firing position. No one was in the mood for the lecture that Tippler was about to begin.
Lansky could hear the arguing as he and Lieutenant Halvorsen approached for morning inspection.
"You guys at it again? What set you off this time?" Halvorsen wasn't happy.
"Hey, LT, someone duffed with a claymore, and Tippler's trying to blame us," yelled Davis.
"Well, you were the last ones on duty," Tippler took an assured tone.
"Wasn't our fault," Bohanan sulked.
"No one was out there during our watch," replied Davis in a rising voice.
"No one was out there during my watch either!" Tippler was shouting now.
"Oh, yeah? Well..."
"Shut up, all of you." LT jumped on the sandbagged wall. His eyes followed the cable to the spot where the mine had been.
"How come you put the mine in the same spot as last platoon, Tippler?"
"Well, it seemed so perfect."
"Told ya not ta put it there, Sarge," Bohanan said angrily.
"Shut up! You don't tell me nothin'. Why, if LT wasn't here now I'd..."
"You'd what? What would you do? Huh, what?"
Tippler was nose to nose with Bohanan, daring him to swing. LT started laughing. Bohanan and Tippler backed off to look up at the lieutenant. His chuckle grew into a belly laugh as he pivoted on the sandbagged wall to look down at Tippler.
"Ya know, Tippler, it just occurred to me that this is very funny."
"Funny, Sir? I don't get it."
"Well, you're blowing up all the time, right?"
"And these guys are always setting you off, right?"
"Well, I guess so."
"Know what I'm going to call this squad from now on?"
"Hmmm." Tippler didn't answer, braced for the insult.
"Claymore and the Clackers! Get it? They're settin' you off and you're blowin' up. Get it?"
Some of the other men smiled; Lansky looked away in disgust.
As LT walked away, he continued laughing and shaking his head.
Later in the day, Nguyen walked up to the main gate of the firebase. He showed the claymore to the guard at the gate. The guard called his CO, who came out to talk to the boy. The CO paid Nguyen fifty MPC for the mine.
Nguyen skipped into the village and bought his watch. He had enough left for rice, candy, and cigarettes for a month. He was now "Big Honcho" among the boys in his village.
They stood in the dusty street admiring the shiny watch. Nguyen held his arm up to each boy's ear to hear the hum of the battery. The boys rubbed their ears and chattered excitedly in reaction to the exotic sound. Each of them envied Nguyen. A guessing game started, inquiring how he had acquired such a beautiful thing.
He cut the chatter with a wave of his hand. Nguyen lit a cigarette. Expertly executing a movie star French inhale with the spent smoke, he gave them a gallant smile.
Turning, he swaggered down the street, never revealing the secret of the wire.