Posts Tagged ‘baseball in Viet Nam’

“We Got Ball Players Here”

June 1, 2017

Standard jungle fatigue shirt

In August 50 years ago I first sat foot on the tarmac of Tan Son Nhut airfield in Vet Nam to begin a year-long exploration of a small part of sunny Southeast Asia. I guess that’s made me think a bit more than usual about what happened to me all those years ago. So I’m going to delve into the strange world that occasionally saw the confluence of war and baseball. Bear with me.

Before I tell you this story, there are some things you need to know. First, there were only two places in the entire universe for someone in Viet Nam. There was “in country” and “the world.” “In country” was Viet Nam, and occasionally small bits of Cambodia and Laos (I was never in Laos). It was where you faced whatever it was you faced that day and you learned to live with that. “The world” was everywhere else. It was as if Viet Nam existed somewhere totally disassociated with the rest of the planet and if you could find someway out, you would get back to “the world” and something that at least appeared to be normal. That’s important to know because it gives you some sense of the relative isolation we felt from the rest of humanity (and it’s vastly unfair to Viet Nam and the Vietnamese) .

Raquel Welch

Second, we were very ambivalent about the USO and its tours. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t mind the people coming over from “the world” to entertain us, especially the pretty girls, but we always knew they were doing it for what we lovingly called “enlightened self-interest.” That meant that it might be good for us, but it was going to be terrific for them. Sure Raquel Welch was nice to look at and we were glad to hear her sing (but of course you couldn’t get near enough to actually touch) but we also knew that she was gobbling up a lot of positive press that was going to enhance her career (and I don’t mean to pick on her, we felt that way about most of the people who came over to visit). There were exceptions like Sebastian Cabot, the overweight, bearded actor who came over to read Shakespeare to us. As he pointed out to us when he visited our place “No one wants to see me in a bikini” and he was already on the downside of a nice enough career so we thought maybe he did just want to make us feel better. And besides, it never hurt to hear Shakespeare and, yes, he did quote the Agincourt speech from Henry V (You probably know it better as the “band of brothers” speech). Even Bob Hope wasn’t immune. We knew he’d get lots of money for one of his “visiting the troops” specials.

Sebastian Cabot

All this is by way to letting you know what was going on internally in a lot of guys when we went to lunch sometime in late November or early December (it was after Thanksgiving, but I don’t remember the day). Lunch wasn’t bad, actually the food was pretty good except for reconstituted milk and frequently reconstituted potatoes (and “rubber” eggs–powered eggs). So most of the company was chowing down when the CO (that’s the commanding officer for you civilians) showed up trailed by three guys in new jungle fatigues. Mine hadn’t been that green in a month (OD–olive drab–fades).

“We got ball players here,” I remember he announced it (funny how you remember certain phrases, isn’t it?) It turns out the USO had gotten three Major Leaguers to come to Nam on a goodwill tour. They travelled from post to post, signed autographs, talked baseball, and told stories about the big leagues to us. The stories were, all in all, pretty good and they could talk baseball so well that it put all us armchair “experts” to shame.

Well, they wandered around from table to table, shaking hands and just talking to the troops, building morale one mess hall table at a time. I got to shake all three hands, got a couple of autographs which I ended up leaving in Viet Nam when I left, and to this day couldn’t tell you who any of them were (Again, funny what you can remember and what you can’t.). None of them was from the Dodgers or Cardinals (I’d remember that) but I couldn’t tell you much else about them. They were all white guys, so Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell et.al. weren’t there. They were nice enough guys and most of us enjoyed shaking hands with them and engaging them in conversation. For instance, I learned why you never try to steal home with a left-handed batter at the plate (the catcher has an unobstructed view of what’s happening down the third base line).

They left after an hour or so happy that they’d done their bit for God, Country, the Major League Baseball Players Association, and the morale of the troops. What, of course, they never heard was the comments of a lot of guys sitting in one simple wooden mess hall in the Mekong Delta who were ultimately utterly ambivalent about what had just happened to them. It was part of returning “in country” from a small touch of “the world.”

“You suppose they think this will help their batting average?” (All comments translated from GI English, which is much heavier on 4-letter words than normal English).

“You see how good a shape those jerks were in? How’s come they’re not over here with the rest of us?”

“Wonder how quick they can duck when they hear ‘Incoming’?”

“How much you wanna bet at least one of them is 4-F? He can play ball but he’s 4-F. You watch.”

“Wonder if they get a raise for coming over here and seeing us?”

“Hey, Top, you think we can change places with some of them?”

The first sergeant in an infantry unit is the “top sergeant” and he’s frequently called “Top” by the guys. Ours was an old guy (he was in his late 30s) from back water Georgia who’d been around since Korea and was by now a first rate cynic about war, women, politicians, and people in general. He’d remained in the mess hall after the officers and dignitaries left for the air conditioned comfort of the local officer’s club.

“You can’t hit a Cong with your damned rifle. What makes you think you can hit a ball? Now shuddup and eat you’re damned chow.”

“Sure thing, Top.”

Welcome back “in country.”

 

 

 

Shell Shock and Pitchers

May 11, 2017

A mortar. Simple looking isn’t it?

One of the more terrifying moments in Viet Nam was the mortar attack. They came without warning, usually at night, and rained shrapnel down on unsuspecting people and property with a deceptively innocent looking device. A mortar is essentially of long tube with a nail at the bottom. You drop a shell down it and the nail triggers the shell and sends it into the enemy to explode. They are more sophisticated than that, but that’s basically the way it works.

There were two ways the Viet Cong mortared our base. One was to simply start dropping shells on a target, which did a lot of damage to the target, but after the first couple of rounds didn’t do much damage to people, who could duck. The other way was to “walk” the shells to the target. This entailed dropping a round on a spot, then moving the next shell up 50 or so feet and dropping it, then another 50 feet or so until they hit the target. Then they’d pound on the target for a while before “walking” the shells back out. This could be done by either walking the shells on out the other side of the camp from where they started or they could simply “walk” the shells back the way they came. “Walking” tended to inflict more random damage, which made it more frightening, and could catch more people unaware.

We got hit one afternoon. For some reason they decided on an afternoon attack rather than the standard night attack. The first round hit well away from us and by the third round we were all safely in our bunkers. The fifth round (I think it was fifth) hit about 20 feet or so away from our bunker. This was a big pile of sandbags with metal sheets interspersed among them that provided pretty good protection, provided you could get to it.

Kinda like this, but without the windows

All of us were safe, but then we heard the sound you never wanted to hear in a mortar attack, screaming. The next shell was well on beyond us, so four of us went dashing out to see what had gone wrong. About 20 or so feet away three guys were laying on the ground screaming. We got to them as quick as we could. Two of them were bloody with obvious wounds. One had, I remember, a big jagged piece of metal shrapnel sticking out of his back. The third guy was down beside them whimpering but we couldn’t find anything wrong with him.

“Shell shock,” McDermott said to me. Mac was my best buddy in the unit.

Let me be blunt; today we call it PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I hate that. It sounds antiseptic, clean, clinical. Hell, it sounds like you’re having trouble finding a stamp. Shell shock may be less clinically correct, but it’s brutal, ugly, awful, and is just as terrible as it sounds. It’s the phrase I prefer, the phrase I still use, the phrase we all used in sunny Southeast Asia.

The base hospital was a couple of blocks away so we sent one guy to get help and the other three of us tried to aid the two wounded guys. Frankly, we blew off the shell shock guy. I remember Mac pulling out the big piece of shrapnel and applying a big bandage to the place. We all carried a bandage pack on our belts and we got yelled at by the medics for doing that (pulling out the shrapnel, not wearing a bandage pack), But in our defense, we were trying to help. We just didn’t know what we were doing.

A couple of medics showed up with a pair of stretchers. They loaded up the two wounded guys (after checking them out to see they could be moved and yelling at us for doing stupid things) and they and the two other guys from my unit lugged the wounded to the hospital (they made it safely I found out later). By this point the mortar was being “walked” back our way, so Mac and I grabbed the shell shock guy and ran as fast as we could drag him back to the bunker. Inside he, the two of us, and a handful of other guys in the unit waited out the attack. He whimpered the whole time and the rest of us sat more or less silent, not quite knowing how to calm him down.

After the rounds moved on back toward the tree line, Mac and I grabbed the guy again and pulled him to the hospital, one of us on the right with his arm around our shoulder and the other on the left doing the same thing at the same time. We had to cross a paved street and I remember looking down at his boots thinking the toes were going to be shredded by the dragging and the asphalt (strange what you think about in times like that). There were several casualties at the emergency entrance to the hospital when we got there, so we brought the guy around to the front entrance and went in.

There was a medic standing there and we sat the guy, still whimpering, down on a chair.

“Shell shock.”

The medic looked him over and nodded. He prodded a little, did one of those tests where they wave a hand in front of the eyes and see if there is a reaction. There wasn’t.

“He’s in shock. His eyes look like he’s just seen a Gibson (Bob) fastball thrown by him,” the medic told us.

“The Indians could use him.” It was the first coherent words the guy said.

We all stared.

“You an Indians fan?” the medic asked.

A weak nod. “Yeah.”

It was the break the medic needed. He helped the guy to his feet. “Never been a Cleveland fan. Like the Mets. You from Cleveland?”

“Erie, Pennsylvania,” he guy replied.

The medic started walking him slowly toward the back part of the hospital. Mac and I were more or less dismissed.

When we got back to the unit we told them what had happened. Most guys just nodded. One wag had to announce “Can’t stand the Indians.”

 

Evermey6r’s Glove

September 26, 2016
A glove

A glove

Sometimes you just love a game. You can’t play it well, but you love it anyway. You get a chance to play it, you go play it. You don’t care what people say about your skills, you just want to play. I had a friend like that in Viet Nam. His name was Evermeyer and he was the kind of guy they talk about when they say about his batting that he “couldn’t hit the floor if he fell out of bed.” Or when fielding that he “couldn’t catch a cold.” But we all loved him.

To explain the kind of guy he was, let me tell you this story. When you arrived in Viet Nam you got new jungle fatigues. Those were the normal uniform you wore, not the fancier green or khaki uniforms with all the fancy ribbons, bells, and whistles. They fit loosely, were always baggy (which in Nam heat was a good thing), and of course they came with nametags. The local populace provided girls who would sew on your name over the right pocket and “US Army” over the left pocket. Of course the American names meant nothing to them, so you got some odd spellings. In Evermeyer’s case one of the girls didn’t quite cut off the stitching on the two lower lines of the last “e” in his name and more or less sewed them together. That made it look suspiciously like a 6. Of course that led to a name tag that looked something like this: Evermey6r. If it was wrong, you could take it back and they’d fix it, but Evermey6r loved it, so he kept it and made sure to wear it when he was going to be in what passed for formal surroundings in our unit (that means when some bigwig was around). Someone always took the bait and the conversation generally went something like this:

“You got a six in your name?”

“That’s what it says, sir.”

“How do you pronounce it?”

“Evermeyer, sir.”

“What happened to the six?”

“It’s silent, sir.”

Worked every time. So we loved him.

But he couldn’t play ball at all. He tried. I gotta give him credit, he tried. He was awful at the plate, worse in the field. We always stuck him in the outfield and told him to play deep. That led to him coming up with the following gag.

When someone asked him where he played, he’d tell them “outfield.” And of course they all took the bait and he just reeled them in.

“Which outfield position?”

“Way out.” See, I told you, we loved the guy.

So one day we’re playing on the field I’ve mentioned a few times before. It was dusty, not much of a field, and that day we had only a handful of guys on either team. Evermey6r was on mine and stationed well out in the field (I was at first as usual) when someone hit a long one. It wasn’t all that high, but it was going over Evermey6r’s head for a lot of bases. He must have been tired or disgusted or bored or something because he simply tossed his glove in the air at the ball.

And for the first, and probably only time in its life, the glove made honest-to-God contact with a ball in anger. Not only did they collide, but the ball stuck in the webbing somehow and the two of them, ball and glove together, fell to the dirt pocket side up so the ball wasn’t touching the ground. They landed a couple of feet from Evermey6r who stared at them. And all the rest of us froze.

Quite simply no one knew what to do. Today I know that it’s not a legal catch, because you can’t throw an object at the ball, but none of us knew that back in 1968. None of us had a set of the rules (we didn’t play well enough to need one), but here was a ball that was caught by a glove. The glove simply didn’t happen to be attached to a hand at the time. So we argued about whether it was an out or not. My team, the one in the field, said they guy was out, after all the ball was in leather and hadn’t touched the ground. There was no dirt in Evermeyr’s glove, he’d never managed to catch anything that would make it dirty, so you could obviously see the ball was in the glove. The other team was sure he was safe, but wasn’t quite sure where he was safe (first, second, third, maybe a home run?). After an indeterminate amount of time and argument common sense prevailed. There wasn’t much of that around or none of us would have ended up in Viet Nam, but someone finally came up with a solution. We gave the guy a ground rule double and went back to playing (and no, I don’t remember if he scored or not).

Evermey6r was ecstatic in a way only an incompetent who’d lucked into doing something right can be (dumb luck takes care of its own). He’d made a play. Well, sort of a play. Somebody suggested we let him keep the ball (which we did) and he could bronze the damned thing and his utterly useless glove so they could be together for all time.

I lost contact with Evermeyer (OK, I’ll spell it right this time) after I left Viet Nam. I ended up in Virginia and he went to Colorado (I think) to finish his tour of duty. I hope he still has the ball and the glove. If not, I hope he sold the glove for a goodly sum, after all it was only used once.

Captain Foul Ball

September 6, 2016
Not our field, but it looked a lot like this

Not our field, but it looked a lot like this (without the trees)

A few times I’ve mentioned the baseball diamond that we cobbled together when I was in Viet Nam. It wasn’t much of a field, but it provided a place to play, to unwind from the day, forget the war. We had fun there. We met some interesting people. We also met Captain Foul Ball.

We were playing one of those games we played frequently. There weren’t enough guys to make two teams so we were working without a catcher and probably short an outfielder that day. My team was at bat. Waverly was at the plate. I was in the hole when Waverly fouled off a pretty good pitch.

Now back a ways behind the third base foul line was a classic three hole Army wooden latrine. It wasn’t much to look at, and the smell wasn’t something you wanted to be around too long, but it did its job well. So Waverly banged one off the side wall. We had several balls so while one of the guys went after the ball, we tossed another to the pitcher and he let loose another pitch. Waverly swung and again fouled it off, again striking the latrine with a good solid “thunk,” which got the guy going for the ball to back up and grab the second while we flipped another ball to the pitcher. A third pitch, a third swing, a third foul. You know where the ball is going don’t you? Yep, right against the wall of the latrine.

So of course we go through the same routine again, but this time Waverly rolls one out to an infielder (short, I think) for an easy out. That brought up a new batter, put me on deck, and put Waverly back on the bench.

By now you have a pretty good idea what’s coming, right? About this point out of the latrine comes screaming this captain that, fortunately, none of us knew.

“What the hell are you people doing?” He shouted. (All conversation semi-cleaned up from GI English and approximated after the better part of 50 years.)

While the rest of us looked on stupidly, some genius managed to blurt out, “We’re playing ball, sir.” We had some really bright guys down in the Mekong Delta.

“Does that include throwing the ball at me in the latrine?”

“Geez, sir, were you in the latrine? We didn’t know that, sir. Besides we just had a run of foul balls.”

And of course most of us were thinking by this time that if we’d know the jerk was in the latrine it would have been a lot more than three balls.

“Fouls? You had somebody foul off that many?”

“Yessir.”

“Who the hell was it?”

We all hesitated. We all liked Waverly and besides he’d just hit three balls in a row. OK, so they were foul, he’d still put the bat on the ball three straight times and that was pretty unusual for the group of never-was types playing on our field. But Waverly stepped forward and took credit for the swings (You’re a better man than I am, Waverly).

“You foul them off purposefully to taunt me?”

Waverly looked at the captain like he was a total fool (which most of by this time were sure was true). “Captain, I swung for a hit. We got a man on second,” he waved vaguely toward second, “and my job is to get him home.”

The guy out on second waved back. To be honest, no one had called time, so he’d been smart enough not to leave the base. I have no idea where the ball was at this point, and I doubt he did either.

“You didn’t do it on  purpose?”

“No, sir, no body fouls off three in a row on purpose if there’s a runner on base.”

The captain looked around, more or less snarled at us, or at least attempted the best snarl he could manage. “Well, pay more attention next time.”

And he stalked off without waiting for a salute. We went back to the game but before an inning was up we were already calling him “Captain Foul Ball.” I’d like to take credit for the nickname, but somebody beat me to it. I’d come up with another nickname, but it was a litle more off color. OK, it was a lot more off color. We also figured he was probably a football fan.

I saw the Captain again a time or two. I never knew his name or his unit, but we crossed paths a time or two. I saluted, he returned it and went on his way. He didn’t recognize me at all or hear my snicker.

 

 

The Babe of the Delta

November 11, 2014
Mekong Delta

Mekong Delta

Back in the 1960s I got one those all expense paid trips to sunny Southeast Asia courtesy of the U.S. Army. For reasons known only to Uncle Sugar (Uncle Sam) they decided I would do wonders for the war effort in the Mekong Delta (or could cause less confusion; I’m not sure which). So there I went down to the Delta where, like everyone else I tried to figure out what the heck was going on.

One of the things that was going on was baseball. I’ve mentioned in a couple of other posts the baseball diamond we had. It wasn’t much, just a bunch of tubes of aluminum and iron welded together to form a backstop and some chicken wire to cover the backstop. The field was all dirt and when a chopper came over, which was frequent (we were in the normal glide path for the hospital), the dirt became dust and the game had to stop. If there were lots of choppers, we knew it was bad and the game stopped so we could help unload wounded. We had a shed painted Army olive drab that I’ve talked about before. It contained three bases, an umpire’s chest protector, a couple of bags of chalk, an olive drab grass spreader, and the pin up I mentioned in an earlier post. We never asked where any of this came from because we were all afraid of the answer. It wasn’t much, but you could play ball on it.

I tried to get into a game a couple of times a week, my job permitting. We’d get a bunch of guys together, head over to the diamond, then play “work up” until enough guys showed up to make something like a real game (occasionally we had enough people to have umpires). As almost everyone wanted to play, we didn’t have much of an audience.

Every unit on the post (except for a couple of super secret units) had “house boys” or “house girls”. These were locals who lived in the surrounding villages and towns who were paid to work for us. They did standard “gofer” jobs like shine shoes, sweep floors, do laundry, work in the mess halls, fill sandbags. Everyone in the unit chipped in a few bucks and I understood from talking to the house boys that the pay was better than they could get on the local economy. They’d show up early in the morning, do their work, then head home in the evening. A big deuce and a half (that’s a two and a half ton truck for all you civilians) would head out in the morning, pick them up at various places and bring them home (I never did it so I’m not sure of the exact way it worked). Sometimes they would be done a while before the truck came to take them home and a few of them would wander over to see the crazy Americans playing this silly game.

His name was Pham and he worked for one of the other units. He was thin, about my age, and had gotten past the pigeon GI English of a lot of the workers. “Hey, GI, you want to screw my Mom, she’s a virgin”–Honest to God I heard this a time or two from kids who knew GI English but had no idea what it meant (And btw “screw” wasn’t the word used there, but this is a family site.). We could communicate in a broken English and his English was a lot better than my Vietnamese. We noticed him one day standing behind the backstop trying to figure out how to grip a ball. So one of the guys decided that if he was interested, we’d show him how the game worked. So we showed him how to hold the ball, how to throw with your right arm while your left foot came forward (he was right-handed). He knew so little that it was like trying to teach the game to a four year old. There were some old gloves around and we gave him one then showed him how to close the mitt when the ball got into the pocket. It took a while but he got reasonably good at catching and could throw a little. He understood that to run the bases you went to the first big white sack and began making lefts until you got back where you started. He wasn’t quite sure why this was so great (after all, you hadn’t actually gone anywhere), but we assured him that he’d scored something mystical called “a run” and that was good.

He couldn’t hit a lick. He tried, God, how he tried, but he couldn’t hit a 30 mile an hour toss let alone a 60 mile an hour pitch (which was about as fast as any of us could control a fastball). But he worked at it and finally in April he got lucky.

I was at first when Pham came up. The pitcher lobbed one in and he swung. Magically, almost miraculously, the bat found the ball. It not only found it, it found the absolute center of the “sweet spot.” The ball arched up, went way over the head of the outfielders, and kept going. There were no fences so it rolled forever. By the time the nearest fielder got to it, Pham was around third and came home standing up. Everyone, even we guys on the other team, were cheering for him. A couple of guys picked him up, carried him around the bases on their shoulders, and everybody shook his hand. Bats were at a premium, so we couldn’t give him the bat, but we did have extra baseballs so we gave him his home run ball to take with him. We immediately nicknamed him “the Babe” and had to take a long time to explain to him who Babe Ruth was and why he mattered. Pham got several more hits, but it was his only homer.

In May, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong launched the May Offensive (it was 3 months after Tet). I was one of the people sent to hold Cholon (a northern suburb of Saigon). We did our job and got back to the Delta a couple of weeks later. I was in no mood for baseball for a while, so it was probably late June before I got back to the diamond (it was also the wet season and games were more infrequent). It was another week or so before I noticed Pham wasn’t around.

“Hey, where’s the Babe?”

They looked at me and shrugged. “Don’t know. He hasn’t been back since the Offensive.”

Pham was gone. We never knew what happened to him. It was possible he was a VC spy, but we decided that wasn’t very likely. Maybe the VC found his ball glove or the home run ball and got rid of him as a collaborator. We hoped that wasn’t true. I think we’d have almost preferred he be a spy than be killed because we gave him a ball and a glove. A lot of the villages around were devastated by the battles and our best guess was that he’d ended up displaced (a lot of the house boys disappeared after May) and was now somewhere far away in another part of the Delta.

I never knew what happened to him. I’d like to think his son or grandson still has the glove, but I wouldn’t bet on it what with “re-education” and everything. Maybe they missed it and it’s still safe. Maybe he made it to the States in the 1970s boatlift. If he did, I hope he still enjoys the game.

“They Nuked My Girl”

January 24, 2014
This was "my girl"

This was “my girl”

When I was in Viet Nam in the late 1960s we had this open spot on the post where we’d set up a ballyard. It wasn’t much of a ballyard. It looked out toward some barracks and a helipad. The helipad was in use and we had to stop more than one game while the choppers kicked up dust all over the field. Someone found a bunch of old metal poles that weren’t in the best of shape, but were more or less round. We found a guy who could weld them together to form a backstop frame, then somebody scrounged some chicken wire (and we all had enough sense not to ask where he got it) and managed to create a reasonably acceptable backstop. There wasn’t a lot of grass so we didn’t need a mower, but we still needed a shed. So lumber was found (again I knew not to ask where it came from), nails were procured and we put together a really ugly-looking shed that had four wall, a roof, a door with a couple of rusty hinges holding it on the shed. We found some paint, of course it was Army olive drab green, painted the thing, and we had our version of a baseball Taj Mahal. Inside we stored three bases we’d gotten through the USO, some chalk that someone had appropriated from a supply unit, a spreader that looked a lot like those grass spreaders you see used on suburban lawns all over the country (except it was also olive drab), and an umpire’s chest protector. And that was it.

Well, except for one thing. Moses (his real name) taped up a Playboy centerfold on the inside of the door. It was some obscure actress that never amounted to much in the movies. I don’t even remember her name. But, as he pointed out, it was nicer to look at than the spreader.

We played ball there for a while then came a big mortar attack that shredded a lot of the post (I wrote about the incident and its fallout in a post titled “They Mortared the Ballyard” on 30 May 2012), including my tent and the ballyard. After cleaning up our own messes, a bunch of us headed over to the ballyard to check on things. Moses was with us. There was shrapnel imbedded in the backstop, a mortar round had landed squarely on the spot where third base would normally reside, and of course the shack was a wreck. We figured it had been hit at least twice.

Moses got to the shack first and started pulling it apart. The spreader was in pretty good shape, the ump’s chest protector was a wreck, there was chalk everywhere, and there was a big piece of shrapnel stuck right in the center of one of the bases. It was awful. Then we heard from Moses, “They nuked my girl.”

This was a  crisis. We only used “nuked” when something was beaten up beyond repair. All of us ran over to him. He reached down, pulled up the remains of the centerfold, and started crying. There were three holes in the paper, one up around her head, one down close to her feet, and a third somewhere around her staple. (None were in a place for an off-color joke, which I would have lovingly stuck in at this point.) Moses was crying. “They nuked my girl,” he repeated.

Now you have to understand the position of the pin-up in the life of a GI in Viet Nam. Everybody had one. My unit officially allowed two, one attached to the inside lid of the footlocker, the other on the inside door of the wall locker. I had both. Mine inside the footlocker was Ruta Lee (picture above, but not the same shot I had). I met her at some event or other (a USO tour I think) where she’d signed a bunch of pictures, personalizing each, and I got one. The one in the wall locker was some centerfold whose name I don’t recall. But for us the pin-up was “my girl.” (and if you had pictures of two only one was “my girl”)  It didn’t matter you’d never met her (although I’d actually met Ruta Lee), or that you were never likely to meet her, or that she never even knew you existed, she was still “my girl”, and a curse could be leveled on anyone who said anything about her. And now someone had “nuked” a “my girl” We all knew at that point that the Viet Cong were the epitome of evil. (You can get a sense of this if you watch the movie “Stalag 17” and pay attention to “Animal” and his love affair with Betty Grable.)

Moses was inconsolable. We offered to find him another picture of the girl, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “Wouldn’t be the same,” he told us.

“What? We can find another copy of the same shot.”

He shook his head. “Doesn’t count. It wouldn’t be my girl.”

Somebody finally found him another copy of the same girl in the same pose (Actually it was me and this other guy. We stole it from a stack of Playboys to the USO Club.) and he put it back up in his locker. He never looked at her quite the same and eventually took it down and put up a centerfold of another woman.

We finally got the ballyard back to its former “glory.” We even put up a new shed and patched the ump’s chest protector. Chalk was harder to find, but someone did. We made sure to put up another pin-up shot. We had to find one and someone asked about my Ruta Lee shot. No way I was giving up “my girl” as a target for Charlie (I did give it up when I met my wife). So they stuck up a shot of Annette Funicello, which was still there when I left.

They Mortared the Ballyard?

May 30, 2012

Times change

I’m taking a short break from the Triple Crown posts to talk about way back when I got one of those all-expense paid trips to sunny Southeast Asia. I even got paid to take it. In fact the US Army decided I would have so much fun they let me stay an entire year in Viet Nam under their Fun, Travel, Adventure (FTA) program.

I spent a few months as a grunt (infantryman) then managed to pick up a transfer to an intelligence unit (Don’t say it. I’ve heard every joke there is about Army and intelligence.). As a grunt you have some free time, but not a lot. In intelligence you had more, but it tended to come in spurts. Some days there was just nothing to do, other days you worked your backside off. When we had time off one of the things we did was play ball at a field some engineers had constructed in the middle of the post. There was a backstop, a couple of benches, and a little shed where they kept the bases and the chalk to line the base paths. That was all there was, but it was good enough for us (What? You were expecting Yankee Stadium in the Nam?).

Enter the 1968 Tet Offensive. We got hit hard. The Viet Cong launched an attack on the base that turned out very badly for them (8′ guns will do that to you). Preliminary to that we were mortared heavily. It was about 1 in the morning when the rounds started falling and we were all in bed. Everyone made it safely to the nearest bunker where we waited out the mortar attack. Try envisioning a half-dozen men, some of them kids trying to be men, sitting around in a sandbagged dirt bunker in nothing but their t-shirts, undies, boots (no socks), and steel hats holding onto an M-16 and a clip or two of ammunition and you get the drift of what it was like. With the mortar rounds done and the attack repelled, we ended up back in tents where we normally slept. The tent where I slept (with 5 other guys) was shredded. I had shrapnel on my bunk, inside my spare boots, on top of my footlocker. One guy’s locker was trashed but his baseball glove survived. In fact there was a big piece of shrapnel nestled in the pocket. Trust me, a ball looks better in there.

The next morning we wandered around trying to assess damage and a bunch of us ended up at the ball field. It had been hit too, the shed was ripped to shreds, the chalk blowing out onto the field. There was a big hole at third base where a mortar round was “safe” on a close play. The outfield boasted a couple of holes, the backstop had a piece of shrapnel hanging on it. All this led one of the guys with me to ask ,”They mortared the ballyard?”

Of course they mortared the ballyard, you idiot. Hell, they mortared the whole damned post, including my bunk. But somehow it was more awful that they’d hit the ball field. Me? I’m a legit target, but the ballyard?

Turns out that we captured one of the mortarmen a few days later. I got to sit in on the interrogation (and, no, we didn’t waterboard). We had a good translator and midway through the interview he started laughing. Well, that threw everybody else. Want to let us in on the gag, slick? According to the prisoner they had managed to mortar the base so effectively because one of the members of his unit knew that the distance between bases in baseball was 90 feet and they were able to gauge the distance between points on post by comparing it to the baseball diamond (apparently they had pictures).

So there we were enjoying ourselves in a happy ball game and all the time we were assisting the Viet Cong in setting their mortar ranges. Mortar the ballyard? Of course you mortar the ballyard. Damned traitor of a ballyard.