Howdy pilgrim: Once you leave Chugwater, Wyo., you're on your own. Just a whole lot of nothing for as far as the eye can see. They call it "out west." Two weeks ago, I took a "spring break" and went out west for our annual prairie dog shoot destination: Big Arm, Mont.
You won't find it on the map it's too small and I doubt if you'll find Chugwater on the map either. Big Arm is south of Ashland and north of Medicine Wheel; east of Lame Deer and south of Miles City. Doesn't tell you much, does it?
About 45 years ago, eight of us made a pact and we agreed that if we ever got out of Vietnam alive, we'd get together once in the spring and once in the fall for a gopher and prairie dog hunt. We pulled the same missions but belonged to different sniper outfits. The slicks took turns choppering our two-man teams into Laos, Cambodia and up in the Slot (later called the Ho Chi Minh Trail) for four day hunter-kill missions. No dog tags, no ID, no Geneva Convention card we weren't supposed to be there.
We stay out on a ranch in some very nice bunk houses enjoy the sunsets, the sunrises, drink ice-cold milk, clean water and enjoy the smell and feel of clean sheets at night. It's a great reunion and we have a ball. We shoot when we want to and we reminisce when we want to, and always, always drink a lot of coffee. We take turns shooting, make range cards and still practice judging wind, mirages and distance just like old times.
Most of my time was spent around Rock Pile, Cam Lo, Khe Sanh and Lang Vei while the other guys worked around Dong Ha, Phu Bai, Chu Lai, Camp Carroll, the Cue Viet River, Leech Valley, Da Nang and the Co Bi Than Tan Valley. Probably doesn't mean a thing to you unless you were there.
I sneaked out of Webster City on Thursday morning and stayed in Grand Island, Neb. that night, and Saturday, Sunday and Monday thoroughly enjoyed three days of gopher and prairie dog shooting. And since it was spring, we had a little ceremony of passing the canteen. Some groups have a ritual of saving a fifth of whiskey or a bottle of beer or wine for the "last man standing." The last man remaining alive out of the group gets the fifth of whiskey. We have a military canteen of Vietnam water. It's putrid, it smells, it stinks even looks bad.
In all my time in Nam, I never not ever saw clear drinking or shower water. It was always black-colored. It came in a water buffalo (large, two-wheeled water wagon). Most of our drinking water came from rivers, bomb graters, slimed over village wells, etc. In such a wet country, it was surprisingly difficult to find drinking water. The villagers relieved themselves in the rice paddies; the rivers were perpetually dark brown from silt and everything else is covered with green slime. Let me tell you something when you're 20 klicks from the wire and loaded down with 65-pound pack, riffle, 200 rounds of ammo, four canteens and a change of clothing and it is so hot like 120 degrees, and the salt from your body sweat rots the clothing right off your back, you'll drink anything if it's wet. Usually, you put a sock or shirt over the mouth of your canteen to siphon out the worms, bugs and leeches. We'd put four halazone tablets in each canteen two halazones could kill any living thing that could fit in a canteen. The canteens are like cans of soup and you shake it up to dissolve the tablets. Then you dump a box of Kool Aid in it to flavor it to drink it. Long story short be brought back one of those canteens with us.
Long story short we brought one of those canteens back with us. The thing I can't forget about Vietnam was the smell of it. Nothing smells like Vietnam smells. And the canvas cover of our canteen still smells after 45 years just like Vietnam. Of the eight of us the last guy standing gets stuck with that foul smelling canteen and its contents. He'll probably throw it in the junk pile, but we have a lot of fun with it, and pass it on to another guy each spring. We set that old canteen on a prominent spot in the bunk house to remind us of all the bad times in Nam and of how lucky we are to be alive today to eat a hot meal, a hot shower, drink clean water and to go to sleep at night and not have to worry about "incoming," sappers on the wire or going out on another mission.
Well, that's where I've been. Had a great time.
And now ... have a good weekend.