I thought I had life figured out, I went to high school, even though I wasn’t a scholar I was no mouth breather either. I played second base on my high school team, had a girlfriend whose daddy thought I was a good kid. Worked in the summers at the local filing station and had my eye on a 1964 Ford Galaxie in red. I had graduated and moved up from pumping gas to changing oil and brakes. I was on my way. I always liked working with my hands and I liked just the excitement and nervousness that came with the first summer after I graduated.
I should have known for a poor white boy in the south, my hopes and dreams didn’t mean much of anything to the rest of the world. My birthday was October 18th, that gave me a lottery number of 005. A five, what chance did I have, none. All I wanted was to have my own garage someday, a wife and kids, house, just to be normal.
I walked out that hot June afternoon to pump gas for my Mom as she pulled up but I knew my number was up. I could see tears in her eyes as I walked up and I could see the white letter of death in her hand. She didn’t say a word as she handed it to me. I just looked down and read it.
ORDER TO REPORT FOR
ARMED FORCES PHYSICAL EXAMINATION
LOCAL BOARD NO. 151
SELECTIVE SERVICE SYSTEM
205 WATER STREET
OXBOW, AL 34341
DATE OF MAILING
JUNE 3, 1967
To: JIM BLEDSOW. SELECTIVE SERVICE NO
BOX 5 RURAL RTE 4 401-XX-91XX
OXBOW, AL 34341
You are hereby directed to present yourself for Armed Forces Physical Examination to the Local Board named above by reporting at:
Southern Line Railroad, Oxbow Court Station, Oxbow, Alabama
At 7:58 am, on the 15 of July, 1967.
Member or clerk of Local Board
I just stood in the afternoon heat staring at this damn piece of paper. I didn’t have a chance and I knew it.
“What are you going to do Jimmie?” Mom asked with tears still on her face.
“I guess I’ll go to Vietnam Momma.” It was all I could say.
I pumped her gas and about ran the tank over just thinking I only had a month of my life left. I finished the day and hopped in daddy’s ‘ol 54 ford he let me drive. All the way home I wondered what he would say. I passed field after field, with the head and dust wrapping past my open window and into my nose. I just sighed, things I had seen for my whole life that didn’t seem to matter before, seemed like huge milestones now. The cornfield I had my first kiss in, the stretch of woods I killed my first squirrel in, it all seemed for nothing now.
Daddy had been in Korea and never spoke much of it, even when he happened to bother to cut the TV on and heard of the war that seemed to be picking up there, he’d just get up and switch the set off and go set on the porch and drink a beer. Just sitting there staring across the cotton field past the road, almost like he was looking into time, seeing something I couldn’t see.
When I pulled into to the yard, he was already parked in the swing on the porch, a leg thrown up on the rail and a beer dripping humidity down his hand.
“Boy! You check the oil in that engine before you started home?” He yelled as I got out.
“Daddy, I suppose Momma showed you my notice?”
“Yeah! Now did you check the oil?”
I just kept walking towards the porch. We both knew I did, it was just his way of seeing how I was doing.
I sat down beside him but he didn’t say a word, he just kept sipping on his beer and looking across the field like something was there that I just couldn’t see. He finally reached in Mommas fern she kept beside the swing and held out a beer. Now normally this would have been a big deal. He usually let me sneak one on my birthday or maybe on the fourth of July if Momma was running around with her “Church Hens” as he called them but not this day. I could hear the radio on in the house and I could smell food cooking so I knew he wasn’t worried about what Momma thought today. It kind of made me sick to my stomach but I didn’t want to show fear to him.
I took a sip, almost afraid he would say something now. We just sat and stared across the field in silence half way into my bottle.
“Son….” He started to say but just shook his head and took a deep breath. I whipped my head around, thinking he was waiting on me but what I saw next was something I had only seen when Grandma passed on. It was a tear in his eye and I swear to God, that scared me more right then than any draft notice ever could.
“Daddy?” I said with concern but he just held up a hand.
“Son…..Shit!” And he took another sip. There again was something new, I only heard him curse when he hit his finger or tripped over the dog, something like that. I just sat still.
“I’d liked to tell you its ok, I’d like to tell you it aint no big deal boy but…” And he just shrugged and kept staring across the field.
“What’d do you think I should do, you’ve been here before.” I asked.
“Well, boy, you know and I know, you’re going. We are poor and your chance of going to college is about as likely as it is for to snow tonight. You can enlist, that might buy you something but odds are you’ll be infantry, 11 Bravo and it won’t matter much how you get in. I’ll give you three pieces of advice. One, never believe anything the Army says. Two, volunteer and three, listen to the old guys that have been there and done it twice, you understand me?”
“Yes sir, I do.”
“You’ll go for 8 weeks to Fort Jackson, it’s a piece of cake. Do what the NCO’s say, when they say it and don’t whine about it. Keep your head down and always do you best, never give up and never stop. Then, you’ll probably head down to Fort Benning for Advanced Infantry School for another 8 or 9 weeks, then off to you unit. Either way, just do your best and don’t volunteer for crap! You understand me?”
“Yes sir, I understand.” Was again about all I could mumble.
That was the last time I had a real conversation with daddy.
That month flew by and the next thing I knew, I was stepping off a bus before daylight getting screamed at in South Carolina by a NCO that was smaller than me but built like a bear. Daddy must know the future I thought and grinned. First lesson I learned, don’t grin without permission. Those drill instructors started on me with that grin and didn’t let up for two months. My name was smiley from then on. I placed first in my class but I was still Smiley, the name stuck. Unfortunately, being from the South and born with a rifle in my hand, that didn’t help once we got into weapons training. I just came natural. Some of these kids had only seen a rifle on the movies. The rest was hot, tiring and boring. I mean for Pete’s sake, I knew how to dress, how to walk and talk but I had to tweak it for the Army. Some of these guys had a hard time but not me. I was high and tight as they kept telling me.
I thought I’d get to go home for a few days before I went to guess where, Fort Benning, but nope. All of us ground pounders went straight down. No breaks and to my surprise with no allowance in courtesy for making it past basic training. Apparently the NCO’s at AIT still considered us all not human. Shockingly to the point that I was told repeatedly I’d never make it home. I was apparently, “too stupid for my own good”. I heard that for weeks until finally I worked up the nerve to ask what that meant. It earned me a smack across the head but he got down beside my ear as I pushed out one push up after another for asking at all.
“Your stupid Bledsow, you know that, you do what we say, when we say, you never stop on me, you take it all and never a moan, you seem like nothing scares you. You, Bledsow! Are a dead man walking, you hear me!” He screamed so loud I swear my ears bleed.
I just kept doing my job, wondering how I was stupid for doing what they told me to do when they said do it. All the NCO’s seemed mad at me at the same time they held me up as an example to the others on how to do things. I just did my job, I just wanted to get passed this and go home, nothing more, nothing less.
It passed in a blur, but seemed like a thousand years at the same time. It seemed like time speed up and slowed down all at the same time until that January morning of ’68 when I stepped off that plane into a green hell. I felt like I was getting off that bus in South Carolina again. Not that anyone yelled at me, frankly, most of them didn’t even acknowledge me. I just went into a hangar with the rest of the lost souls I was with and waited my turn for some lifer, some piece of paper or some other line to go stand in. Lunch was a scrumptious c-ration with a 1946 date stamped on it but I ate it, what choice did I have anyway.
As the day dragged on into what seemed an eternity, I ended up standing in front of a Captain that didn’t look much older than me. He just looked over my folder, then he’d look at me.
“Send this one down to 2nd battalion, I think he’d fill the spot Jones needs, you read me?” He spoke to a corporal at his side.
As for me, I only understood that my fate had been sealed once again by some college boy with a pen in his hand.
A jeep ride, a few more pencil pushers looking at my folder and boom, I was dropped off at a tent that looked like it was a left over from WWII and told to report to Sgt. Jones. No directions, no help, just me, my bag and the folder of doom I carried.
I walked into the tent and entered a world of twilight compared to outside. All eyes turned to me and no-one spoke. I snapped to and said I was to report to Sgt. Jones. What I really wanted to do was run, these guys look serious, way serious.
“I’m Jones, You must be my new guy I was promised a week ago. I’d introduce you to the guys but frankly I doubt you’ll hack it long enough to matter so put your gear on the bunk in the back corner and come with me.” He said as if I didn’t matter to him one way or the other.
We made our way down the hill to another derelict tent to get my gear.
As the quartermaster started piling stuff up, Alice Pack, canteens, socks, knife, compass, you name it, Sgt. Jones started tossing stuff back at him.
“He’s with me, he don’t need this shit man!”
He started stuffing things in my pack, I just watched and hoped I could keep dealing with all of this.
Next we went to the armory, and again I just let Jones hand over my folder and do the talking, I was out of my element.
“He man! Don’t give him this worn out crap! Look at the bcg(bolt carrier group) on this rattle trap!” He yelled as he pooped the back pin out and releases the bcg handle and pulled it all out of the receiver. He pointed to grooves of shiny aluminum inside that meant something to him and the armorer but not to me.
“Give him something high and tight, you get me? And don’t even think about pulling that one bottle per grunt of LSA crap on me! Give me a new rifle and four bottles!” I just watched and let him deal with it.
The day went like this, just over and over. I didn’t have a clue about half of was happening and no-one I met seemed to care. It was like I was there and not there at the same time. I mean, it wasn’t like anyone showed animosity toward me, it was more like I didn’t mean any more to them than a bug, a nothing that had to be tolerated.
This went on for days. We went to the edge of the wire once for a ‘mad minute’ to fire our weapons but other than that it was days filled with different duties, latrine, kp, wire duty, you name it. Mainly, it was ate up with skull busting boredom. I wondered how I was going to get my time in with this boring stuff. This wasn’t like the movies, the smell, the boredom combined with the terror of not knowing what was happening next was almost more that was tolerable. It wasn’t constant action, it was hot, nasty and dull. I started to settle in and wonder what all the worry was about. At this rate, I would never have to worry about a thing.
It went on like this for weeks but I started to notice a change. Where as before, all the guys laid around in their off time, now they all as one seemed to be cleaning gear. Retapping things that rattled, checking and rechecking everything. Something had changed but I wasn’t for sure what. I just tried to imitated them like daddy had told me to do and seem like I knew what was happening.
I finally had enough of the worry and asked why the change, all I got was blank stares.
“The battalion is getting ready to kick off an operation and in case you didn’t notice with the sign over the hootch, we are last in and last out!” Some grunt that never even looked at me said.
“Combat!” I said back looking worried like I never had before.
“Just wait until you see, just you wait.” Was the only answer he said.
“QRF cherry, we sit and wait, when the call comes we go into a hot area, we are the back up group. Some guys hump around out there day after day and never see a thing. We sit in the heat or the rain and wait in boredom and then when the call comes we go straight to hell. Those that engage the enemy and get in trouble call us. So bottom line is this, if we get the call it is for blood, not a milk run.” Another guy that never said a words spoke up from the back of the front of the tent.
Occasionally someone came over the rest of that day and helped me tape things together. I had my Alice pack rearrange about four times by separate guys. I was told where to carrier things, how to carry them, what I needed, what I didn’t, all different from each other. It dawned on me that each did it a little different but I had never done it so I just split the middle of what they told me and hoped for the best.
The next morning, or rather later that night, it depends on how you looked at it, we made our way to the other hill and waiting until dawn all around flat top areas on the hill. Heat built as the sun climbed in the sky and so did the number of ants that seemed to be finding their way into my fatigues. No words seemed to be said, just silence, with the smell of dust and sweat in my nose.
As one group of birds after another came in, loaded and rose to circle with the others, it seemed to me that the sky looked like something of humor, all these helicopter lined up, moving back and forth, how could any enemy see this coming and not run for their lives. Beats me, the more I thought about it, I mean, I was on the winning team and I wanted to run.
As the last four helicopters landed and shut down I payed more attention to all those in the sky moving to the west into the purple of the sky. I glanced around and I was the only one of my group holding a rifle or with their pack on. Most lay back using the pack as a back rest either smoking or sleeping. The heat climbed and so did my worry. I glanced at the bird closest to me, staring at the door gunner with helmet on and visor down looking at me. He must of sensed I was new because he just shook his head and started to do get down and walk around to where the pilots stood.
I was so nervous I was about to be sick but as I looked around everyone else seemed to be more laid back than normal. Either they knew something I didn’t or they just didn’t care.
Time passed like this, people trying to find shade, crews sleeping under the helicopters in the shade, a jeep coming and going up the hill. I wondered how ling we could sit out here like this. Sweat ran over my whole body, it seemed like some being in the sky had a magnifying glass and I was the ant. It wasn’t any fun to say the least.
“You stroking out new guy?” It was Jones making his rounds.
“No sir, just waiting.” I replied.
“Enjoy it while you can.” Was all he said as he walked off. Enjoy what? I felt like I was going to explode from the heat.
I was beginning to wonder if all of this was how my time here was going to be but maybe I shouldn’t have had that thought. No more than I had thought this thought when I heard the whine of the engines starting. I moved my helmet to take a look but it seems I had fallen asleep and all those around me had come alive.
What happened over the next eleven months made me the man I am now. I bet right now you’re wishing I would tell you more of what happened that morning but to be honest, some memories are best kept to yourself. The point of this story is that just remember, all it takes is some pencil pusher about ten seconds to change a mans life forever.
Yeah I made it in those jungle so far away and so long ago. I sit here now on my own porch, no wife anymore, kids I haven’t seen for years, looking across a cotton field much like my dad and I did almost fifty years before.
One difference is I know what he was staring at back then, the same thing I look at every evening now. I wait, watching the horizon, looking back in time at things that are as real to me know as they were then when they happened. Waiting for my friends that walk this earth no more to come swooping in out of the sun on the birds with blades that beat the air into submission, smiling at me with dust, blood and fire in their eyes to take me to one more lz with charley waiting.
Until then, I sit here waiting on QRF just like then.
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