My Shot Card Was Up To Date

By Joe Holt

  In 1967 our Marine Corps had no social grace.  No etiquette.  No political correctness at all.  Everything was simpler that way.  There was never any question as to how a fella felt about something.  If a guy said anything that another guy might not agree with, nobody ever said, “I beg to differ with you.” or “I disagree”.  It was more like, “You’re fulla shit!” or even better “You’re so fulla shit you can float!”  It wasn’t uncommon to hear the simplest, “You’re a lyin’ sack o’ shit!”  This particular response tended to be perceived as more hostile in nature, but nonetheless the atmosphere was uncluttered with doubts about the speaker’s feelings on the matter.  Rebuttal arguments tended to be equally as brief.  It was generally understood that there was no need for further explanations. 

I’m only mentioning this to remind you how barbaric we all were back then.  None of us put up with any shit at all.  Were we ever insulted?  Yup.  Did we ever feel the need to retaliate for our embarrassments?  Occasionally, but rarely.  We just got on with our lives, immediately ignoring most of those outrageous verbal confrontations, particularly if we were wrong…especially if we were wrong.  It’s just the way we were.  It’s difficult to imagine how simple minded and thick skinned we were, especially in these days where lawyers are the most common defenders of our sorry, fragile egos. 

This is a small story.  It revolves around one tiny event in my life.  We, the guys who rotated home from Vietnam, can understand this eventual situation, the ultimate confrontation, and the lack of retaliation on my part, but few civilians (anybody who isn’t one of us) understand at all.  You judge.  This story may take a while, but I’ll get there in the end.  It all leads up to one moment, one comment, one perfect example of our common understanding,

April of ’67.  I’m going home.  My tour of duty is over.  The evening before Bill Shaffer and I were to rotate home we turned in our gear, rifles and all. (Those newfangled M-16’s)  He and I were both uneasy seeing as how this was the first time we’d been unarmed in quite a while.  We sat in a squad tent all night, regularly nipping at a bottle of Silver Fox whiskey, listening to the only record he had on a battery powered record player.  “Wild Thing”.  This was to me, even after all these years of rememberin’, a magic, almost surreal night.  I reckon the Silver Fox had something to do with that, but you gotta remember how excited we all were to be going home.

Dawn.  Bill and I bang on the door of the CP shack.  The Company clerk is none to excited about us wakin’ him up this early, but we want our orders.  We’re goin’ home!  He gives us our manila envelopes.  On the outside was paperclipped a card, a card that stated we’d served proudly with the First Battlion, Fifth Marines in Vietnam, signed by the battalion CO, Lt. Col Hilgartner. (I’ve still got that card around the house somewhere.)   As Bill and I clomped down the dusty road off the hill to Highway 1 we were smilin’ all the way.  Neither one of us had much we were taking with us.  My meager possessions consisted of a photo album one of the locals had given me, a bone sculpture of a pagoda (considering it only cost me a couple of bucks I knew it wasn’t bone, but it was neat anyway.), and my only other jungle utility jacket, all in an old WP bag I’d scrounged from somewhere.  I’d given all my other accumulated stuff away to the guys the day before.  I wouldn’t need it where I was goin’.

We hopped on the first vehicle to come by, a diesel tanker truck.  We dangled off the back of that damn dusty truck till we got to Chu Lai, only a few miles.  We somehow managed to get to Air Freight, signed up for a flight to Da Nang, and only a few minutes later a C-130 came swoopin’ down, landed, then did a quick 180 just a hundred yards or so from the shack.  The ramp came down, guys got off, and a bunch of us jumped on.  I don’t think the plane actually stopped rollin’ for more than a minute.  Guys were still walkin’ toward the ramp when it started to roll away again.  A minute later we were airborne.

Fifteen minutes later(?) we landed in Da Nang.  Somehow we’d heard what we were supposed to do, where we were supposed to go.  Transient Barracks.  Part of the procedure was to sign in at Transient Barracks, a maze of hardback shacks near the airbase, and theoretically wait your turn, first come, first served, to catch a flight to Okinawa.  In reality there weren’t many guys who actually stayed there for the night because flights were leaving all the time.  We signed in, they issued us a blanket each, and they assigned us to a hut.  I eventually found my assigned hut.  I stepped up the step or two, opened the screen door, saw that it was vacant, walked in and sat down on a cot.  Bill had wandered off somewhere.  I hadn’t been sittin’ there a minute when I heard the screen door open, and behind me, a familiar voice shoutin’ my name.  It was Gurbal, one of my best friends from India Company, my original outfit.  There has never, ever been a better reunion than at that moment.  It had never occurred to me that I would ever see any of my original India guys again.  When I’d gotten transferred to Charlie Company, 1/5, I’d felt like an orphan.  I never dreamed I’d see these guys again.

Bill, who had also originally been a 3/5 guy, had run into one of his old friends who was with Gurbal, and when my name had come up in the conversation Gurb immediately started a hunt for me.  We were all standing there in this hot hut, yellin’ and laughin’, acting like a bunch of fools.  Gurb told me some of the other India guys were around somewhere so we went lookin’ for’em.  Only then did it occur to me that since we’d shipped out from the States together, it was only natural that we’d be rotating back at the same time.  Duh!

We immediately ran into Messmore, then Ussery at the showers.  We kept bumpin’ into India guys till we had a gang of about eight of us.  Golly it was great.  As it got towards 1300 we all meandered over to the muster area.  When we arrived there must have been a couple of hundred guys waiting for whatever was gonna happen next.

Our only required task, once we got to the Transient Barracks, was to attend this muster to have our seabags checked before we could sign up for a flight.  The muster took place in a huge outdoor, thatched roofed, structure.  On one end was a wooden stage, and behind it, hung from the roof beam, was a massive plywood, hand painted, sign with a list of all the items considered contraband. 

These were things that we weren’t allowed to bring home.  Most of it made sense.  No firearms, ammo, explosives, stuff like that.  There were a few things I hadn’t reckoned on. One item on the list that surprised me was “pictures of dead people”.  It hadn’t occurred to me before, but I guess it would be in bad taste at home to break out snapshots of disemboweled gooks.  At least somebody was thinkin’.  Another taboo item on the list was “bone sculptures”.  Damn. 

Attached to the display board was a dazzling array of stuff that had been culled from seabag inspections of the recent past.  All sorts of rifles, grenades, and even a claymore. (Who’d need a claymore in San Jose?!)

At exactly 1300 some Sergeant walked to the center of the stage and started talkin’.  Considering he was educating us on the proper procedures for us to go home we were the most attentive audience on earth.  His speech was short and sweet.  He told us there’d be multiple seabag inspections at the various stops on our way home.  First here, then Okinawa where we’d get squared away for the final trip home, and finally in the States.  He said that if we were caught with any of the contraband items in our possession we’d be forbidden to go home.  We’d be bumped from our assigned flight and delayed by any disciplinary procedure deemed necessary.

He then pointed to a large circle on the dirt floor to the rear of the building.  It was outlined in chalk, about twenty feet across.  He told us that we could throw any contraband items in that circle and no questions would be asked, but from this point on we’d be held responsible for any forbidden items found in our possession.  He finally told us that after our seabags had been inspected by his men, we could sign up for a flight to Okinawa.  As he dismissed us there was only a second or two of silence, then everybody started to move at once. 

I walked over to the circle and threw my sculpture in a rapidly expanding pile of stuff.  I was almost sure it wasn’t made of bone, but I wasn’t gonna take the chance.  A fella on the opposite side of the circle reached down deep inside his seabag and pulled out an old rusty grease gun!  Where in the hell did he come up with that?    A moment later some guy stepped past me and threw his whole seabag in the circle.  God knows what he had in there, but I guess he was thinkin’ along the same lines as I was.  In those first few minutes that circle got piled with an astonishing assortment of neat stuff.  I’ve always thought it funny that anybody would even imagine that they could casually go home with a weapon of any kind, and here were guys throwing in all sorts of firearms.  Some I’m sure were momentos, being rusty and dirty, but there were more than a few that were obviously serviceable, not to mention all the grenades, blocks of C-4, and every imaginable combination of ammo belts and bandoliers.  By the time the frenzy was over the pile was about three feet high and completely filled the circle, my innocent bone sculpture lying at the bottom.

I stood in a line and gave’em a copy of my orders.  We India guys relocated each other and went to chow.  I can’t remember why, but we went to chow at some distant chow hall rather than the one at the Transient Barracks.  We jumped on a cattle car and one of us seemed to know where we were going.  The cattle car transportation system was pretty darn efficient as I remember it.  There’d be a route around the base, and guys could hop on or jump off wherever or whenever they wanted to. 

After we ate we went back to the Barracks to see if we had been signed up for a flight.  We found that we had all been signed up for a flight to Okinawa that was supposed to take off at midnight. (“The Midnight Flight From Da Nang.”  Doesn’t that sound like it should be a movie or somethin’?)  Damn, were we excited!

Once we’d turned our blankets back in one of the guys proposed that we go get a beer, and of course, we all thought that was a helluva idea.  We had to do somethin’ to kill the time till our flight, and sittin’ in a slop shute was as good a way as any.  Shortly thereafter we walked into a standard Enlisted Men’s slop shute.  Board bar to the left and a bunch of picnic tables and benches spread out to our right.  It was only four or five in the afternoon at this point so the place wasn’t full, but it got that way real quick.  Hotter than hell in there it was, but that only made the beer seem better.  (I hadn’t had a cold beer in months!  Sometimes even today, when I break out a cold bottle of beer, I imagine the taste of that first beer that afternoon in Da Nang.  Ahhhh.)  After three or four beers one of our old Corpsmen from India Company walked through the door.  Another great  reunion.  It was really good to see him.  Over the course of our tour all of our Corpsmen had been wounded at one time or another so the sight of him was all the more delightful.  He plopped down on the bench between us and proceeded to catch up with our beer consumption.  We payed.

At sometime in the conversation the subject of our shot cards came up.  The Doc told us that one of the things we’d have to have done when we got to Okinawa was have our shot cards checked and our shots brought up to date.  I don’t think any of us were necessarily concerned with the thought of getting shots.  Shots were a regular occurrence in the Marine Corps, but we were concerned that getting our shots might somehow delay us in getting a flight to the States.  It didn’t take long before somebody came up with the bright idea for the Doc to just fill in our shot cards.  I mean, we were buds, right?  It was no skin off his nose if he falsified our shot cards.

Surprisingly enough, after about six or ten beers, Doc agreed to this logic.  Those few of us presented Doc with our shot cards, and he proceeded to get downright artistic in his efforts to make our cards appear authentic and up to date.  We managed to produce two or three different pens with different inks so Doc could log our shots in a seemingly random manner.  A plague shot here, a flu shot there, and before you knew it we were the proud owners of up to date shot cards compliments of the United States Navy.  We used spit and beer to smudge’em up some, hoping to make them look as realistic as if they’d been in our wallets for months.  How cool was that?  We were genius’s! (Beer makes everybody a genius.)

As eleven o’clock rolled around (sorry, 2300) we all started to get a bit goofy.  I think it finally was dawning on us that we were actually going home.  We boarded the plane.  It was a commercial airliner.  Amid all the grabass and horsin’ around we all eventually got seated.  When the engines started we all got quiet.  My eye caught Messmore’s and we both started lookin’ at each other with these stupid grins on our faces.  When the plane finally lifted off we all cheered.  I mean cheered!  We were leaving that nasty, dusty, hot, muddy, insect infested, slimy, rainy, humid, dangerous place.  We were on our way to the “world”.

I don’t remember how many hours it took to get to Okinawa, but I doubt if my hands eased their death grip of the seat arms the entire time.  (Why, oh why, was this making me nervous?) When we landed we were excited, but really tired.  Not just me, but everybody looked downright whipped.

We got off the plane, on to a bus, and we ended up at Camp Hansen in the middle of the night.  We all sorta stood around in a group, some of us smokin’, when some NCO approached us and told us to fall in.  He was wearin’ starched utilities which for some reason just tickled the hell outta me.  When he barked at us that the smoking lamp had not been lit there was a group protest, not that he wasn’t correct in saying so, but because we hadn’t even heard the term “smoking lamp” in quite some time.  The guys put their smokes out, we straightened up at attention, did a right face and marched to the gym which had been set up with wall to wall folding chairs.  We were about to be introduced to Gunnery Sergeant Brown. (“The” Gunnery Sergeant Brown)  As we entered the gym he was standing on the stage.  Once we eventually seated ourselves he began to speak.

It was Sergeant Brown’s job to school us the proper procedures and protocol for getting us on a flight to the good ole US of A.  He spoke louder and more clearly than any instructor I’ve seen since, yet it must be remembered we were the most attentive audience a speaker could hope for.  He made it simple.  He told us we needed to pick up our stowed seabags (I’d completely forgotten I’d left a seabag in storage on Okinawa so many months before), then get a paper certifying that we had all our uniforms, then have our shot cards inspected and get any shots we might need, then stand a personnel inspection which would require a standard military haircut.  Once these items had been completed we would be allowed to sign up for a flight home.  He told us we had to stand the personnel inspection last, but the other items could be completed in any order.  We could take as long as we wanted in achieving these tasks, a day or a month, but he knew that we knew he was jokin’.  We wanted to go home!

Considering it wasn’t dawn, and the various offices wouldn’t open till seven, we were all directed to an empty squad bay to get some sleep.  I made sure the duty NCO would wake me up at about six thirty, then laid down on an empty, unmade rack, and conked out in about ten seconds.  I wasn’t the only one who wanted to get an early start on my tasks.  At six thirty some PFC came in and woke up the whole herd of us, but he really didn’t make much of an effort.  If we wanted to get up, we would.  If not, we could sleep till noon as far as he was concerned.  I woke up immediately.  (A habit I fully intended to break once I got home.)

The whole bunch of us wandered over to the mess hall and downed the first real breakfast we’d had in months. I walked over to the milk machine and downed about a half gallon, one glass after another.   Some eggs, some bacon, and I was charged and ready to go.  I was bright eyed and bushy tailed as I went lookin’ for the place to get my shot card validated.  Considering that Doc had done everything that needed doing, I was pretty sure it would only take me a minute or two to accomplish this.

There were signs everywhere.  Big signs.  The object being to eliminate confusion as to where we had to go and when they were open for business.  I followed the signs to the appropriate building and stood in the appropriate line, which got longer by the minute.  At seven o’clock exactly, the door opened and a Corporal stuck his head out and told the first thirty guys to come in.   I trailed along behind the guy in front of me as the line disappeared into a large room.  We were directed to stand along the walls, facing inboard, until we formed a circle.  Sure enough, thirty guys tended to be the perfect number of guys to form the circle.  Obviously they had this down to an art by this time, processing how many hundreds of guys a day.  More like thousands really.

There was another, smaller, part of the room that stretched out to the right of our circle.  This section of the room contained a couple of long tables, one on either side forming a path towards an exit door.  These tables were jam packed with all sorts of syringes and air gun types of arrangements for shots of every conceivable type.

The Corporal strode to the center of our room and inquired,

“Who doesn’t think they need any shots?  Who’s got shot cards that they know for sure are up to date?  Raise your hands.”

I know I had a small smirk on my face, as did the two other guys in the room who shot their hands in the air.  This was gonna be a piece of cake.

The Corporal walked over to one of the tables and picked up an empty coffee can.

“Everybody who knows for sure they have a complete shot card…put it in the can.”

He strolled around the room as those few of us dropped our shot cards in his coffee can.  Never did it occur to me how odd it was to use a coffee can.  As usual I didn’t have a clue.  His next actions took no more than thirty seconds.

He put the coffee can down on the end of the table, reached into his back pocket, pulled out a yellow can of Ronson lighter fluid, and proceeded to squirt a ten second squirt into the can containing my shot card!  He produced a book of matches from his pocket and, with a flourish, dropped a lighted match in the can.  The three of us had our mouths open, but before we could get a complaint out of our mouths he loudly announced,

“All you lyin’ mother fuckers fall in over here,” as he stood at one end of the shot table gauntlet.

More than one thought went through my brain in that instant, the first being… “How dare he call me a liar!  Who did he think he was?!  Somebody should deck his sorry ass!”  Simultaneously I admitted to myself, “Shit!  He knows.”  With all this calamity goin’ on in my head there was not a peep comin’ out of my mouth.  The majority of the guys in the room were hootin’ and hollerin’, some laughin’ out loud.  I, along with the other two guys, defiantly and with much indignation, walked over to the shot tables and prepared for the worst.

There was an irony to this situation.  As I was getting my shots, some with a needle, some with the air gun, the other guys in the room were turning in their shot cards to be inspected.  At the far end of the shot tables there sat a Corpsman who issued me a new shot card.  I think the four or five shots I received didn’t take more than two minutes from the moment I approached the table til I walked through the door with my new shot card in hand.  Meanwhile the other innocents remained in that room going through a relatively lengthy process of having their shot cards evaluated.  I folded up my card, did thirty or so pushups to get my blood movin’ through my perforated arms, then proceeded on my next mission to get my uniform issue up to snuff.  Not a feather was ruffled.

As I sit here writing this tale I wonder how many men today would put up with being called a liar, particularly if they are?  Very few I’m sure.  Our fragile egos would rather whine, or perhaps retaliate, than understand the value of men being true to other men.  Does anyone appreciate how easy it was back then to be totally honest with one another because we were men who understood the brutal boundary between  right and wrong?

The Marine Corps of 1967 was brutal, but it was honest.  Because our lives were hard we held little value in social grace.  Life was so much easier that way.  Most people would not agree.  But most people don’t have the golden memory of sittin’ in a Da Nang slop shute, two thirds shitfaced, thinkin’ they’re clever by spittin’ on their shot cards.  I do. 

Go on, call me a liar.  See if I care.