THE SPOOK (part 1)

Discussion in 'Vietnam Stories: By John H. Wilborn' started by Guest, Feb 25, 2003.

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    J. Wilborn
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    (2/17/01 1:38:59 pm)
    Reply THE SPOOK (part 1)
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    The stories had begun as most stories of this type do, with a candid remark or a personal opinion, listened to and passed on-- sometimes with an added twist by that story teller, until a myth or legend evolves......popularly accepted, to be praised by some and villified by others----a crusader or a villain.
    Most of the stories told about the man were heresay, for so little was known about him. He was seen only occasionally; and sometimes it was said he dressed as a military person while other times as a civilian representive for a large American construction company in Vietnam. Some of the things that were spoke of regarding the man, were downright errie, scary, almost supernatural, but I suppose that is what legends are about. The U.S. Marines claimed he was one of theirs, but noone knew from what outfit or what his rank might be; the Army and Air Force personnel who talked about the man, surmised he was surely one of their temporary additional duty (TDY) people---in and out, not really belonging to any unit. The Navy was a different story, especially the Seabees, for he was just too different to be one of them....Surely the man must have known he figured into the mystery, for as he would pass by other military personnel, silence would erupt and open stares would follow his passing, and then the whispers behind raised hands about some new speculation.
    The man was unimpressive to the extent that, following an introduction, one would probably not remember features, mannerisms, or speech.....He was white, not black-----not tall but not short-----not very skinny but yes, scrawny, and he never sweat. Oh yes, I remember that talk, when everyone else sweat, he never did-----strange. Most times he wore odd looking clothes, especially when he carried that big gun ----the Marines said it was an M-21 snipers rifle. Sometimes he had it slung over his shoulder with the muzzle pointed downward, other times ‘at the trail’, and still other times he stowed it in a carrier made from a poncho liner. The scope on the outdated M-14 rifle, along with the sound suppressor or silencer made it a formidible looking weapon, adding even more for the curious onlookers to marvel about.
    During that time period --the late ‘60s, olive drab greens were far more prevalant for the military than camouflage clothing. The man wore a special issue, reversible style clothing---jungle green on dapple -green camouflage out and a desert tan on dapple-brown in---long sleeved jacket with thick, padded elbow patches and a padded shoulder patch where the rifle butt would fit when being aimed. The floppy jungle hat matched the pants and jacket colors, also reversible. The band of the hat was a special point of interest---the man had filled the entire circumference of the floppy hat with small, finned metal darts called flechettes. Some munitions were loaded with these flechettes instead of conventional fragmentation or buckshot; most noteably was the M-79 grenade launcher and the 12 gauge shotgun. The stories told of the man using a hand made sling-shot to launch these finned darts at small animals and birds.-- the purpose was speculative, but it was said to scare them from an ambush site---when the rifle was fired, birds being frightened up out of the tree tops would not give the shooters position away. The man had no buckles or metal snaps anywhere on his clothing---clothing was pushed through button-holes and held in place with a small sharpened sticks---explanation; no noise of metal against metal. Pack and web gear had the same, no noise feature. One juicy bit of information about the man were the shoes he wore out in the bush....fashioned after footwear the Japanese troops wore during WW ll. They were a style of a tennis shoe or sneaker, with a separation between the big and second toe---to grasp the branch of a tree was offered up by one ‘know-it-all’ The grease paint that was smeared on to enhance camouflage, made the mans complexion appear unnatural and monster like; yes, strange and wierd. It was almost like an afterthought, on the part of the kibitzers, when a remark would be made that the man had the eyes of a cat, you know instead of the round pupils humans exhibit, his had slits-----yes, that shook their confidence even more about him, but that point was never verified, like so many of the other tales regarding the man....the man who was known as ‘The Spook’. It was noted by most American personnel in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, that there were no domesticated cats roaming about, and very few dogs. It become a foregone conclusion, for these well-fed Americans, that these creatures were part of the food chain, and further concluded you would see more ducks and pigs, out and about than ‘puppies and kitties’.
    Speaking of out and about, when ‘Spook’ wore his odd uniform attire, he was always accompanied by a dog. The dog was as pretentious as his Master was the opposite. Except for that difference, it was assumed the two belonged together. The animals appearance matched it’s jaded pedigree--- generations before there may have been a pit-bull in the mix and that accounted for the animals massive jaws, strong mouth and bulbular shaped skull. The dogs eyes were a pink color, not unlike those of albinos. The very close cropped hair was a dapple-grey and rusty looking brown; exceedingly long toe claws made one think of a bears paw. The dogs front legs were extremely bowed, with toes turning inward, supporting a torso that could only be described as barrel-like, but with slim, almost delicate hips and flanks. Like Spook who did’nt appear to sweat, the animal for all it’s massive lung capacity, did’nt seem to pant as all dogs would do in a hot, humid enviroment. Strange, though Americans always seem to exhibit the trait of talking to and attempting to touch small animals such as dogs, no one ever appeared the least bit friendly with this animal.....no whisles or mutterings of ‘nice doggy’, or other endearments. Room always seemed to be made for the passing of Spook and the dog, with remarks and stares after their passing.
    As I stated earlier, the man called Spook must have known or sensed, the furor he caused amongst his fellow countryman. Earlier, I had mentioned the term strange, as I pondered some of the peculiarities noted about Spook and the dog, the least of which is this....unless Spook was garbed as the armed and uniformed personage, the dog was never seen...remember I had mentioned the man Spook was also a representive of the American construction company stationed in Danang. Times then, Spook would appear in khaki slacks and a colorful, Hawaian style shirt, with a richly bronzed complexion, and no evidence whatsoever, of the grease paint from the camouflage junk that made Spook’s skin appear so wierd and scary. I repeat myself, strange.
    In combat- era Vietnam, personal vehicles were unheard of...oh sure, Generals and VIP’s had theirs, but most times bummed rides were plentiful, be it a couriers jeep or a 10 ton cargo truck; waiting areas, almost like bus-stops, were used by the troops on the move. During mid April l969, my S-2 yeoman, Jimmy Walker was in Hawaii on his honeymoon, the battalion military advisor marine Gunny Gawyne was up country, and Lt. Sell was at the Phu Loc rock crusher site, so I had to go to Divisional headquarters for the daily intelligence briefing. At 0800 in the morning, outgoing Battalion vehicles were there for the choosing, especially for the S-2 Senior Cheif. The young supply driver dropped me off at the Marine generals bunker where the intelligence briefing was to be held and roared off in the battered truck to his assigned duties.
    About an hour later, I was back on the dusty, rutted roadway waiting at a marked area for a ride back to Camp Hoover. The early morning sun was brightly shining and the entire area was bathed in a warm pleasant glow. Looking eastward into the sun, I saw the Spook and his dog approaching in the distance. As a variety of military vehicles rumbled by in both directions, the cadence of the approaching man and animal never varied...the dog outboard of the traffic, hulking head lowered as if appraising the grounds surface, looking where it placed its feet, plodding along, not at all like a dog.
    The slouchy bush hat appeared to veil the Spooks eyes and from the angle of his head, one would assume he too was surveying the ground, much like the animal that trudged along side him. The camouflage garb, trousers and jacket were the green on green, matching the slouch hat; the big sniper rifle was in plain sight, slung on the right shoulder, muzzle pointing downward, with the scope and sound suppressor in place protected by his arm and side. About every fourth step, Spook looked up as if to gauge, then down----as he came closer, I found myself staring---staring and recalling all the things I’d heard. I knew that I had to look at the eyes to see what the pupils were like, and I had to check the shoes to see about the strange toe arrangement---I looked away, almost embarrassed of my behaviour, but I could’nt refrain from another furitive glance, and another and still one more. The distance shortened between us as thoughts and plans raced through my mind of what I was going to do; was I going to say good morning; if he saluted me, would I return the gesture...what... what.... A marine AMTRACK sped by, much too fast for road conditions, but about the missions of the war, discretion today was in the will of the operator. A 5 ton cargo truck, towing a two wheeled water container called a water buffalo was next, and then no traffic at all ----- Closer the two come, and my staring eyes were drawn down to the Spooks feet. His boots were very dusty, with the pants legs bloused up around the boot tops--- they were the typical military style jungle boots with leather uppers and green woven nylon inserts sewn into the sides. What a letdown; no sneakers with the double toe feature, but he was wearing the long sleeved jacket and I could readily see the elbow patches and the thick shoulder pad on the right chest area where the rifle butt would fit.
    Still the road was empty of vehicles from both directions; only the man and animal trudging along, seemingly oblivious to the world around them. Around the bend in the road to the west came a large, multi-fuel cargo truck, laboring hard and blowing black clouds of smoke from stacks behind the open cab, approaching the scene----that truck, probably a deuce and a half (2 1/2 ton) had it’s cargo area covered by an olive-drab canvas tarp, tied down to protect the load from the elements. The man and the dog were now not more than 20 paces from me, and suddendly the sounds of downshifting by the big Army truck approaching meant a ride was going to be shared with us--great billowing clouds of exhaust belched out as the operator changed gears----10 paces now from the slow moving pair and the anxiety of what to say or do clouded good judgment----and yet , dwindling to 5 ---yes, for sure the driver was going to share his wheels with us----
    Three paces now from the man and animal, and I copped another furitive peek toward them....our eyes met, the dog glanced up with those pink-rimmed albino looking eyes and Spook looked right into my face; friendly eyes on both man and beast. I swallowed hard from the lump that had risen in my throat...the sound I had uttered must have sounded like a croak but that sound was overwhelmed by the metallic screech and grinding of the trucks brakes as it slid to a stop in a cloud of dust.. Spook had’nt heard the attempt at my ‘good morning’ to him and his dog for the croaking sound I had made must have been drowned out by the halting truck. Well, if he did hear the greeting--he never let on, for his salutation was not only clearly stated but it sounded normal and friendly. ‘Good morning Senior Cheif’ he exclaimed, as a hint of a smile fanned out across the broad, friendly looking face; ‘going to be a nice day for the races’, he continued on, smiling wider now and showing clean, even teeth---’the human race that is’ he remarked, as if he had coined the expression himself. Why did he keep smiling---were my emotions showing---were my eyes bugging and the size of Volkswagen hubcaps? I swallowed that lump again and muttered something that was intended to be a retort to his pleasant good morning. The dog continued looking up in my direction with those rose colored eyes.....Somehow the dog looked different now- ---was that mutt laughing at me and my flustered looks-----the pink rimmed eyes were almost colorless-- very pale and so moist looking--- as if the eyes were shedding tears from the gales of dog laughter being graciously contained; as if my alarmed expression entertained his dog sense of humor. I looked up quickly at the Spook and he remarked tactfully, ‘we better get aboard Senior Cheif or this ‘grunt’ truck driver is going to leave us here in the dust’--- his comments obviously prompted by the gunning of the big trucks engine by the young ‘hot-rod’ operator. It was then I looked right into Spook’s eyes. They were a warm, chocolate brown with flecks of a lighter color brown surrounding the pupils---not a sign of slits in those honest looking, normal eyes.
    All this had transpired in an extended moment-----the truck had no tail gate so entry would be easy.
    Spook uttered a command to the waiting dog-- ‘up Glory’ and in a single muscular bound, the short haired dog landed lightly 4 feet up in the truck bed. Almost with the same springing type bound, Spook followed the waiting animal. up onto the steel surface. My surprise came when Spook turned and extended his left hand and arm down to where I was standing---his right continued to hold and shelter the big M-21 rifle---’Give you a hand up Senior’ to which, I extended my own hand up and grasped his.... It was like being propelled upward from a trampalene. The dog named Glory had already laid down on the metal decking as the truck ground gears and accelerated off. The noxious odor of diesel fumes permeated the canvas covered compartment blending with the creosote smell of the heavy canvas. . The slatted wooden seats of the cargo truck certainly did not provide much creature comfort, as the heavy vehicle wallowed and lurched ahead on the washboard textured roadway.
    ‘What base are you at Senior Cheif’ the relaxed man inquired, when the noise of the truck subsided, as the driver slowed for some Vietnamese bicyclists, half hidden under their load of tree branches to be used as firewood. I must have been looking his way for the question he had asked me did not require a ‘what did you say’ and I told him I was with the Navy Seabees at Camp Hoover. ‘Oh yes, MCB#5’, Spook remarked, ‘I have a friend in Five that I went to school with; have’nt seen him in ---oh, I mean a long time but I need to look him up-----you know Chief, I’m also in the Navy---Navy Seals’ he remarked. I’m doing detached duty up here from Saigon---I’m with the River Forces down in the Mekong Delta. State ordered me up here to do a specialized fire mission’, the mysterious man submitted, as the truck regained speed and continued plunging down the now crowded street. ‘We grew up together in a little midwestern town ---went to school, played ball, dated the same girls, just a nice guy----well Senior Cheif, maybe you know him’, he continued, ‘he’s a Civil Engineer officer, so guess that’s why he got to be a Seabee’. “Are’nt all your Seabee officers CEC’s, Senior Chief’?
    Wow, I thought, this guy is really hogging the conversation; I was so taken aback by this turn of events---I already knew more about this shadowy character than the entire population of Vietnam did, and so far I had’nt even asked a him a question, but I was preparing myself to. I had to know who the MCB 5 officer was that Spook knew----buddy from school, his long time friend. I realized it would’nt be appropriate to address him as Spook, and not knowing the name, rate or rank of this legend of a man, I used the old standby of “SIR”. ‘Who is your friend in Five, sir’, I stammered, finding my voice, wavering and faltering as it did, ‘I know all of the officers and most of the enlisteds---- I’m the S-2 cheif of the Battalion, Spooo---Sir’, I quavered catching myself before I really screwed up......A hint of a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and a web of crows-feet wrinkles materialized around and under the gravy-brown eyes---yes, he had cought the blooper, but his manner indicated he found my discomfort not the least disquieting, as he responded in his well modulated voice. ‘We used to call him PAS when we were kids----no, not just when we were kids, we called him that way up in high school, and I guess the reason for that was, he had an unusual first name for a guy from the Midwest, you know with all the Tom, Dick, and Johns, he was always PAS to us, boys and girls alike’ the talkative man explained in a rambling manner. ‘He was named after his Dad, but noone ever called him Junior; you know that sometimes galls boys and finally as men to be called Junior; guess to them it’s like they’re always little boys’. I still had’nt got an answer to my question---come to think of it, I still had’nt voiced the complete inquiry of the MCB#5 officer who was the Spook-mans boyhood friend and schoolmate. Just think, not more than five minutes prior, I knew nothing of this foreboding individual, and now I was listening to him chat like Walter Cronkite...life is strange----’and Palmer did have some sisters and a couple of brothers too---man, those were the days’ Spook bragged, and not at all in a shy way, ‘those were the days, and nights too’ Spook gushed and rolled his eyes back like he was experiencing swooning or mooning or some other erotic memory. You know, butt busting seats and all, I was really enjoying this ride, which I knew was coming to a halt soon, as the young, heavy footed driver went through his downclutching routine. That caused more rocking and rolling of the buttocks on the hard wooden slats, carelessly called seats. Had Spook said the name I thought I heard---had he said Palmer, and I thought quickly, probably the last name of some other guy, as again with the groaning and squall of the protesting brakes, the big truck slid to a halt in front of the Freedom Hill Exchange. The driver gawlked back through the opening in the canvas tarp and yelled a parting salute as Spook followed the odd colored dogs sprightly jump off the tailpeice of the truck. I jumped off immediately thereafter.
    He now had the big rifle inside the field rigged carrying case made from the poncho liner----when had he put the weapon away---surely some kind of slieght-of-hand for I’d never seen him do it. ‘And furthermore Senior Cheif, old PAS was sure a jock-strap---hell, he was good at the base, the basket, or the foot’ and he was one rough little sucker, for no bigger than he was----he’d just mix it up with anyone and everyone’. There he’d said PAS again, and with such open admiration of his friend as the three of us walked toward the big Quonset hut which served as the combat areas department store. The uniformed goers and comers seemed to melt away--- out of our path as we trudged up the slight, rock strewn pathway---- it was true, they were frightened of this person, this misunderstood man. What if they were to know he’d been running off at the mouth, non-stop for the last 20 miles.
    ‘Hold up Senior Cheif,’ Spook ordered, as were approached a mound of sandbags that had protected an abandoned fighting position, ‘let me show you a picture of us kids, and you can see what old Palmer looked like back then’. As he perched on one of the shiny surfaced and leaking sandbags, I chose one for a seat that would accomodate my shorter stature, as the old brindle colored dog flopped down at Spooks feet. I felt innumberable eyes staring. The sea of olive drab and camouflage and occasional khaki uniforms ebbed and flowed about--the staring and whisperings to the backs of hands held up to hide whatever remarks that were being uttered. The Spook had put the big covered rifle up along his left leg, its butt obviously down, muzzle up from the appearance of the shape inside the poncho liner cover. He had commenced to digging in his back pack, and again I noted the strange fastening devices, the little wood sticks and bits of string, instead of the metal fasteners and clips that would go clank in the night. “I know I got it here someplace cause I just looked at it the other night’ Spook mumbled and as he continued to paw through the tattered, olive drab rucksack. I formulated my question with a statement of fact ‘Sir,’ I said that because I still did’nt know his name, ‘Sir, your friend PAS, and Palmer is Mr. Sell, Navy Lieutenant Palmer A. Sell, the boyhood buddy you been talking about, that’s my boss, my S-2 officer’, ----the statement and now the question, finally after all this time I almost shouted ‘IS’NT IT----IS’NT HE?’
    He stopped pawing in the bag for an instant, glinting brown eyes sweeping upward and holding mine--- almost as if to imply I was the most non-percepitive person on God’s Green Earth----the inquiring gaze held for a moment, and then suddenly he rared back his head and guffawed from down deep in his gut. ‘Hell Senior Cheif, I did’nt tell you did I ---here I’ve been running off at the face, tootin’ my own horn and you never got a chance to ask; yessirreesir, old PAS is Palmer and old Palmer is PAS, and yes, what you say is right Senior Cheif, you gotta a good boss’. Strange, even as he spoke, his hand kept pawing around in the bag, as if he could recognize things by touch, for without even looking down, he shouted ‘Here it is, heres the picture of old Palmer, and me and my twin brother, and our buddy Spike, the dumbest damn kid in the state of Wisconsin’. He passed the dog-eared and tattered photograph across the sandbags to me. The sun cought the pictures colored surface and it was reflected back as I gazed at the time textured photo of four young boys. They were young American boys---dressed for that period of time, probably the mid- 50’s; flushed innocent features with two of the smiling faces making it almost seem like a double exposure---he had said his twin had’nt he and sure enough, so close in appearance, that even the Mother would doubt. ‘Does old Palmer still look like that Senior Cheif...he was always the handsome one, gals sure liked him’ Spook volunteered, ‘and you see my twin brother in there next to Spike, he still looks like me, but I guess he should, huh Senior Cheif’ Spook inquired, boresighting me almost accusningly. ‘He’s here in Danang too’, Spook stated matter of factly, like the whole world was supposed to know---’he works over at Knutensen, you know, the big construction company, and he’s sure got his crap together’ the strange man declared proudly.....’maybe we’ll get to go on R&R together over to Bangkok Thailand soon’, Spook kind of whispered, and a dreamy, faraway look made his facial features go slack and masklike.
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