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A Phoenix Fiction Writer Rising From The Ashes of Nonfiction



Beer  &  Stuff 
by Michael T. Martin

Farm outside Phu Bai airbase

Flying saucers supposedly don't exist, but I saw one in Vietnam. A few friends and I left the Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) club one night walking towards the barracks. After a short walk everyone suddenly stopped and looked in unison toward a group of circling lights in the distance. It looked exactly like you would expect a flying saucer to look like. In the darkness, we could see the lighted windows of the saucer as they rotated on a flat disk hovering in the sky.

We watched amazed. But then something began to bother me. I moved a little and the flying saucer changed its position. Despite having had a few beers, I realized that this indicated the lights were not in the distance but somewhat closer. I soon concluded they were hovering about thirty feet away, rather than far off in the distance.

I then recognized something that I didn't even know existed. I had seen gnats swirling in a flat circle at times, but these were apparently fireflies doing the same thing. I'd never heard of that, nor have I heard of it since, but once I recognized the phenomenon I could change my focus to confirm that the flying saucer was actually only fireflies. They blinked off and on so that it looked like they occasionally went behind the saucer, and circling dark insects gave the impression of a solid disk.

I pointed this out to the others, debunking the flying saucer. So we continued on to the barracks a little chagrined. But it sure looked like a flying saucer and to this day I wonder whether some UFO sightings are really just circling fireflies.

Carling Black Label beer wasn't very popular in Vietnam. In fact, it caused a riot one night. I was walking in the dark towards the NCO club when I saw multiple Military Police (MP) vehicles with lights and sirens driving rapidly toward the enlisted club. The next day I asked some of my lower ranking colleagues what that was about.

They told me that the enlisted club had only been serving Carling Black Label beer and the troops had repeatedly complained. The manager of the club told them that this was the beer they had received in the last shipment. He said they would have to wait until that pallet of beer was consumed before he could reorder.

So the troops began buying two beers at a time: one to drink and one to pour down the drain. They did that so they could get rid of the Carling Black Label and receive a shipment of better beer. The night of the riot, a new pallet of beer had arrived.

It was Carling Black Label.

Stealing beer wasn't something I'm proud of. I didn't really want the beer. I gave it away. But one night at the NCO club they asked us to go out back and help unload a pallet of beer. The pallet was on the ground near the rear door piled high with cases of beer. There was a light over the door that illuminated the area.

So we started case by case to unload the beer and hand it to someone to take inside. However, it bothered me that the club had several people that could have been helping but instead were walking around keeping an eye on us. They apparently thought without these watchers we might steal a case of beer.

I resented that, so I decided to steal a case of beer. The group was working methodically and the watchers watched, but I noticed an opening and hid one case of beer in the wheel shadow of a parked vehicle.

After everyone went back into the club, I went back out to retrieve the case and put it in the center of a bush near the path we took back to the barracks. And later when a group of us left the club to walk back to the barracks I paused the group and pulled the case from the bush.

The group was confused, wondering what I pulled from the bush. I gave it to a corporal and told him to put it in the barracks refrigerator for people to drink.

They were astounded that I had been able to do that. I think I gathered a little esteem from my colleagues over the audacity of stealing a case of beer right from under the eyes of the club.

The Phu Bai Base Basketball Tournament pitted teams from each of the military units on the base. Our Marine Air Traffic Control Unit had very few people compared to the squadrons on the base. I suspect we had fewer than 50 Marines, made up of tower controllers, radio techs, radio operators, generator mechanics, and radar techs.

A few of us were at the NCO club one night when someone mentioned that our basketball team was playing the Army reconnaissance squadron. That squadron had the largest number of people, which meant our team had little chance against them. But we decided to go cheer on our basketball team.

The game was played on a concrete basketball court out in the open in our recreation area. Lights on poles illuminated the court and both teams played hard. Our team wasn't doing well, so I decided they needed louder encouragement. Only I also included a lot of discouragement for the Army team.

We didn't know any of the Army players, other than Joe Don Looney who was an All American football player for Oklahoma State before joining the Army. I gave each Army player an unflattering name. I called Looney the "muscle bound idiot" and a blonde player the "surfer dude."

Whenever an Army player made a mistake I jeered him and the next time the Army team had the ball I called out to throw the ball to the guy who had made the mistake. The Army players became so self-conscious that they made more mistakes.

The Army team became so flustered over my jeers that our team actually kept the game close. I became inspired and maintained a constant stream of jeers against them. Once when I insulted one of their players he angrily shouted from the court that he was going to kick my ass. I yelled back: "Maybe you can fight but you sure can't play basketball."

Our team lost anyway, but I received a little esteem from my colleagues just for the sheer audacity of my performance.

Several years later there was a person who received national notoriety for being an obnoxious fan doing what I had done. I wonder sometimes if maybe he learned it from me at that game.

Sergeant of the Guard is a temporary duty assigned to an NCO for organizing a shift of guard duty. At Phu Bai our base was surrounded by barb-wire fences, but we also had troops patrolling just inside the perimeter. One night I was Sergeant of the Guard and I didn't think the guards were taking the duty seriously.

Sure they walked their rounds, but they walked together talking and ignoring everything else. Granted, ground attacks were rare, but we could still get attacked by saboteurs getting through the wire. I also didn't think the base leaders had really thought this out. The runway was well lit at night so that it provided a backdrop against which our guards were easily seen as silhouettes.

I decided to shake things up a little that night. While the guards patrolled along the end of the runway, I snuck out into the darkness, traveling low while keeping their silhouettes in view.

About every 50 yards next to the runway there were sand-bags arranged in a double layer circle so that the guards could dive for cover if there was a rocket or mortar attack.

I hid in one of those circles and waited for the guards to walk by. I could hear them coming. They were deep in conversation about bullshit and not really keeping alert. They walked right past me in the dark without seeing me. So I just called out, right behind them, "Hey, dudes, what's happening?"

They just about went airborne as they jumped in panic, fumbling with their rifles, but I called them out. Seeing them spook was one of the funniest things I experienced in Vietnam. I told them to stay more alert and went back to my duty station. At least I wasn't bored.

The Resident Radical became my informal title in Vietnam. I arrived in country in November 1968, right after the Presidential election. That year stands head and shoulders above others in American history.

The Vietnam War in 1968 escalated dramatically in January with the siege of Khe Sanh seemingly reprising the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu. Then the Tet Offensive showed the Communist forces were strong and capable of attacking the cities, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and seizing the old Vietnamese capital at Hue.

In April, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, prompting widespread urban riots against racism. Later that year Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California Democratic primary for President.

The sitting President, LBJ, had dropped out of the Presidential race due to protests against the Vietnam War. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago the police rioted against protestors, violently attacking people at random.

The two main Democratic Party candidates, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Eugene McCarthy, didn't really impress me. Publicly I endorsed Black Panther candidate Eldridge Cleaver.

Even after the Presidential election occurred, I taped an over-sized Look Magazine picture of Eldridge Cleaver on my wardrobe locker in the barracks at Phu Bai, the airport serving Hue.

I also regularly wore a silver peace emblem on a chain around my neck. Somebody put Stokely Carmichael's book "Black Power" in the unit library and I carried it around for about a week while reading it. The unit commander heard about it and called me into his office to dress me down about reading "communist" literature. I endured his tirade and then responded, "If you're done, I've got work to do."

Toward the end of my tour in Vietnam the Marines consolidated operations, transferring our air traffic control unit from Phu Bai to Marble Mountain. The air traffic control unit in Quang Tri closed with their people sent to other units, including ours.

We knew they were coming and expected them to fit in. One day while sitting on the steps outside my Quonset hut in Marble Mountain I saw a Marine I didn't recognize walking down the street towards me.

He called out to me, "Are you Sergeant Martin?" I remained seated but answered in the affirmative. As he reached the walkway to the Quonset hut he stated, "I hear you are the resident radical." I acknowledge that and he announced "Me too, I supported McCarthy all the way!"

As he walked toward me I replied, "I supported Eldridge Cleaver."

He stopped suddenly, turned around and as he walked away, I heard him mumble "I'm not that radical."


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