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Alabama Slim: It All Started in Korea

Chapter 2
Hey, I Thought the War Was in Vietnam!

August 1969
    Let me back up to what South Korea was like back then. It was a different world then, with Vietnam roaring on and always full of alerts and the constant threat from the north. When you went to Korea in those days, you actually received the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for service in a threat zone.
    I was a nervous nineteen year old specialist on a Big Red Tail out of Sea-Tac when I entered Korea for the first time. (Translating G.I. jargon, that’s a Northwest jet out of Seattle-Tacoma International). The landing at Kimpo brought much trepidation as we taxied past OD green, sand-bagged bunkers and camouflaged planes. I said to the soldier in the seat next to me, who had a similarly worried look on his face, “Hey, I thought the war was in Vietnam!”
    An old sergeant looked over at us and said, “Didn’t you get the memo, this war’s been going on since 1950, boys. There’s been no peace treaties signed here.”    
    As the door opened and we began to deplane, the guy next to me said, “What IS that smell?”
    “That be kimchi and human manure,” said the sergeant, further providing us with a lesson on Korea. “Kimchi you eat. Crap is the fertilizer of choice here.”
    Well, they both seemed to be something I wanted to avoid while I was here. As we filed into a large hanger, a sergeant shouted, “All those going to the 508th ASA Group, step over here.” As some of us headed that way, I heard another person shout, “Officers and senior NCO’s get on the bus through that door, the rest of you start boarding those deuce and a half’s over there right now!”
    Well, we get the same treatment as officers and senior NCO’s, my first introduction to the benefits of the intelligence branch. I glanced again at my orders to make sure of the unit number and went over into the corner where a few were gathering to get onto the Army bus designated for the 508th. The sergeant glanced at our orders before each of us boarded.
    This was my first trip to a foreign country, so as we pulled away I soaked it all in looking out the windows at buildings, pedestrians carrying impossibly large loads on A-frame backpacks, rice paddies, strange three-wheeled trucks piled high and loaded until their axels seemed to sag, and other scenery and new sights along the way. In those days, Kimpo airport was in a more country setting than today in the eighties, where now the megalopolis of Seoul stretches everywhere. Twenty years can make a lot of difference here in Asia.
    Buildings began thickening alongside the road as we finally entered the suburb of Yeongdeungpo, our destination. The bus turned left into the gates of our unit (see cover). We were boarded by another sergeant who, in addition to the MP brassard, also wore our branch unit insignia.
    This insignia was commonly referred to by those outside our unit as the ‘Lightening Fast Chicken Fucker’ patch), an eagle’s claw around a bolt of lightening. We gained that negative nickname because we monitored and sometimes turned in those soldiers in Vietnam who violated radio security protocols. Turns out decades later, I read a briefing that the best intelligence the North Vietnamese had was from our own lax radio procedures. So our unit was actually saving lives by correcting these lazy guys. There was always a certain pride in our mission that caused us never to take offense at this designation—which turned out to be justified in time. The unit was revamped later because of its spying on Congressmen during the Nixon era.
    The MP checked our ID’s and orders, then got off the bus and flagged it on through. I was expecting the worst, having just gone through basic training and two military schools for almost a year of training before arriving here. But, we were greeted pleasantly by a sergeant first class who welcomed us and showed us to a Quonset hut complex door with a sign outside saying “508th ASA Group Korea Personnel”. We were brought inside and told to sit.    We gave up our packets and a copy of our orders. One at a time, we were called in to be interviewed and processed. When it came my turn, I entered the office and a staff sergeant with a Southern drawl called me over to his desk, “McDonald? Over heah and have a seat.” I followed his instructions and sat up straight, trying to make a good impression. I learned earlier back in the States how much power these personnel guys had and did not want to anger one.
    “I see ya’ll from back home—Alabama, right?” he asked.
    “Yes, sergeant.”
    “Good, good. I thought I was going to have to assign one of those damn Yankees or niggers to our post here, but thank God you came along. I like to keep all us Southern boys together, you see? Makes the place feel comfortable, more like back home.” He paused while he looked over my file. “Damn boy, with scores like yours, you should’a gone to OCS! What happened?” he asked, “Your score for OCS is a top score.”
    “Yes, I made a good score and was shown a film and asked to sign up. However, I was told by the ASA recruiter that I would not be able to get my choice of branches and could end up in the infantry. I wanted to get into intel, so, I turned them down.”
    “Yeah, I did some ground pounding my first tour, it really sucks. You’re probably right ‘bout that. Anyway, young guy like you as a Lieuy in the grunts would’a been chewed up or fragged in the ‘Nam, depending on your attitude. Young officers don’t seem to live long there,” said the sergeant, pausing and looking straight ahead like he was having an old memory.
    “Well, we gotta keep the smart ones, especially good ole Southern boys like yourself, around the headquarters, so I am assigning you to this unit. You gonna like it heah.”
    I was not sure how to respond, but realized he was probably doing me some kind of favor, or thought he was, so I answered, “Thank you sergeant.”
    “Rogers!” he shouted, “Come heah and take Specialist McDonald over to the temporary quarters to change into fatigues, then show him to the mess hall.” Looking back to me he said, “Welcome to the 508th and you stay out of trouble, OK?”
    “Thanks and yes sergeant,” I managed to get out.
    “This way,” said the a Spec 4 from the door of the office. I was led off to another Quonset hut. To my surprise, I found some of my classmates from the last school there. They had arrived ahead of me and I was happy to see their friendly faces when I walked in.
    “Slim!” they hollered simultaneously.
    “I see you know some of these new boots,” said the personnel Specialist, “so just take a bunk and locker. These are transient quarters until we find a place for you. These boys can show you to the mess hall if they hurry before it closes. I’ll have the houseboy bring ‘round the bedding and... stay out of trouble.” the personnel specialist finished, heading out the door. Having heard that same admonition twice in five minutes led me to believe it must be real easy to get in trouble around here. Interesting.
    I hurried over to drop my bag on an empty bunk and shake hands with my friends. “It’s sure good to see you guys again.” I’d dropped my ‘Ya’ll’s’ after training with Yankees for almost a year and getting tired of the smirks and laughter they caused. It wasn’t cool to be Southern or country in the units that I had trained in, which were made up mostly of Yankees and West Coast folks.
    “Houseboy?” I asked.
    “Yeah, we got it made here. The houseboys take care of everything. They shine our boots, make our bunks, and I was told they even take out our laundry and set up our gear for inspection,” said Top Cat, who got the nickname for showing up with a different woman every weekend, sometimes two. His real name was Jack.
    “Did you guys eat? I should get over there before the mess hall closes.” I said.
    “You won’t make it, it closes in two minutes and we were planning on getting a burger at the NCO club later,” Top Cat said. “Let’s do a little catch up before we go eat.”
    “NCO club? But we cannot go there can we?” I asked.
    “All the same here, just one club for all.” Boo answered. “The officers, of course, have their own club. Quite a few around here, it being a headquarters and housing some pilots”.
    “What about the rest of the class who are assigned here, see any of them?” I asked.
    “Johnson got here earlier and they’ve already sent him off.” said Boudreaux, my Cajun friend from New Orleans. We called him Boo because most of us can’t pronounce his name right, and his last name of Smith just didn’t seem to fit. “They sent him up to a detachment near the DMZ, you know what I mean?”
    “Good riddance I say.” said Top Cat. “He probably let them see the same charm he showed us the last few weeks and got what he deserved, the cocky bastard.”
    “Yeah, Slim, everyone knows you woulda gotten the E-5 stripe if’n you hadn’t tied one on because of that Dear John the night before the final,” said Boo sadly, “Hell, I didn’t know you never drank before, I shoulda stopped you.”
    “Don’t worry Boo, it ain’t nothing but a thing.” I told him copying the slang of the day.
    “’Cept that cocky bastard got the stripes and tried to lord it over us the last few days.” said Top Cat. “I heard from one of the guys here that they always send the shake and bakes to the isolated areas because they don’t want some dumb sonabitch in charge of people when he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
    “Makes sense to me.” I said, “Maybe not getting that promotion was a good thing. I have to send Cindy a letter and thank her for dumping me!”
    “That’s my boy,” said Boo, “Well, what we standing ‘round heah for, let’s check out this NCO club and see what’s happenin’.
    As we entered the NCO club, I could hear the sounds of a Korean band butchering Creedence Clearwater Revival with “Lolling, lolling, lolling on the liver...” and a strange noise from the back room which turned out to be slot machines being pumped by several old sergeants and a couple of Korean girls I found out later where prostitutes. This was my first introduction to these gambling machines... and to whores. We headed to the back near the slots and Top Cat tried to ordered up a pitcher of beer for us, but the waitresses didn’t hear him for the noise of the band.
    Boo said, “No sweat, I’ll go to the bar and grab three beers,” and left as Top Cat and I settled at a table.
    “We did better than the rest. Ol’ Boo and I are off to the south to a place called Camp Humphreys tomorrow.” said Top Cat. “From what I hear, the farther from the DMZ the better. By the way, Jock was sent up to Camp Casey, which is up north not too far from the DMZ, but a lot safer than where Johnson is sitting right now. They both left the day after we got here and are in the same unit, but Jock got a nice, air conditioned and heated comm center, instead of a metal box on the back of a truck like Johnson at the detachment. At least, that’s what folks around here are saying about their assignments. Wonder where they’ll send you?”
    Boo returned with three Budweisers and had a seat.
    “Well, you already know where I wanted to be, so it didn’t really matter until now.” I responded. “Seems I am staying right here. Kind of wished I could have gone with you.”
    Boo answered, “Ooowee, you still on that crap about wantin’ to go to the ‘Nam man. You don’t want that. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. The guys here call this place the “Army’s Best Kept Secret”. You already know about the houseboys. Cheap beer, cheap women, great food in the mess hall, which you find out ‘bout tomorrow. They use Korean cooks here, not Army, so the food’s good, you bet! They even got a swimming pool here they call the ‘reserve water supply’. You Alabama boys always wanting to go to war, shiii-it, talk some sense into this boy T.C.”
    A girl came up to the table, “Fresh meat I see, you wanna buy lady drink I think?”
    “Move on sweetheart, we don’t have passes yet to take care of you and I need my beer money for me,” answered Top Cat.
    “’Sides, cherry boy here,” Boo pointed to me with his glass, “wouldn’t know what to do with you if he had you and I gotta wife back home.”
    “I’m not a cherry boy,” I lied with attempted indignity.
    “You no worry ‘bout that, I teachee cherry boy just right, I can,” she answered, but Top Cat swatted her on the butt and she moved along to the next table looking back once and winking at me.
    The band slowed down for “Moon Liver”, as some ass-grabbing GI’s pulled some ladies of the evening to the floor for a little foreplay. It was all surrealistic and the buzz I was getting on from the beer was making everything even more bizarre than it really was. I knew that going overseas would be a different experience, but had now stepped into another world, as I am now violating everything I saw myself becoming. Not only am I drinking the devil’s brew, but I am finding Asian whores strangely attractive. I recall in high school being polite but completely unresponsive to those labeled “bad girls”. And, this was just a club on a very closed, very safe military compound. What strange experiences lay before me elsewhere in the coming months?
    Then, I realized they were looking at me, so I changed the subject, “Seems the personnel sergeant has quite the prejudice for Southern white boys and likes to keep most of them right here,” I said. “You know that guy actually winked at me when he said the words ‘nigger’ and ‘Yankees’ like I would understand him and agree with him completely,” I continued, frowning.
    “Top Cat being a Yankee makes sense, but I guess he don’t count Cajuns as good ole boys either, since we’re both headed away from here. Anyway, Slim, you ain’t that far away from being a bigot yourself,” said Boo.
    “Don’t you know it. But hey, I’ve been cured,” I said. Everyone laughed, remembering the story I told them about my bunk mate in basic training.
~ * ~

    As I entered the old World War II barracks at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, I was told to put my duffel bag in front of a locker near the back of the first floor. Next to me was the biggest black man I had ever met, not that I had met many in my 18 years growing up in the South in the fifties and sixties.
    When the sergeant went upstairs, the big guy reached out and grabbed my lapel, slammed me up against the wall, lifting me up off the floor and holding me there. He got right in my face and said, “I hear you’re from Alabama, you ain’t prejudiced are you?”
    “No, not me!” I answered in a little higher voice than I intended and shaking my head vigorously.
    He lowered me back to the floor and released me. Then, he held out his large, beefy hand and said, “Hi. I’m John, we’re gonna be good friends you and I, right?”
    “Sure,” I answered nervously taking his hand and trying not to grimace at the pressure.
    “You like the top bunk?”
    “My favorite,” I said, which was actually the truth. There’s the recent boy in me and the notion of having someone’s butt pointing at me not an appealing one as well. After the drill sergeant came back downstairs and told us to stow our gear away, he left the building.
    After putting my things away in my locker and footlocker, I climbed up to the top bunk and pulled out the small Gideon testament I had just received at the end of the clothing issue line. I opened to the 23rd Psalms and received some solace there, as usual. When I looked up John was staring at me.
    “You a Christian”, he asked.
    “Yes,” I answered without hesitation.
    “Then, we really are going to get along just fine.” He then took out his own testament and settled into the bunk below.
    Sure enough, we did become friends. He kept other people from giving me a hard time due to my lack of age, experience, muscle and weight. I helped him with some of the things we had to learn and memorize during the training. I’d say we were both good for each other and encouraged each other to get through it all. He called me “Alabama Slim” and it stuck as others picked it up. I called him John, as did everyone else, not daring to tag him with anything else. I had joined with a childhood friend, but he was assigned by alphabet to another platoon, so John became my everyday support and comrade, as well as attending some chapel services together and my childhood friend and I spent any weekends we had off together. I got through just fine.
~ * ~

    “Yeah, I would’ve given anything to see him lift you off that floor. The look on your face was probably priceless!” said Top Cat.
    Moving to quash that line of talk, I said, “On to better things. Since this is your last night in Seoul, we should celebrate, put one on I say,”
    “Woah youngun, this drinking thing is still new to you. Remember all the upchucking you did when you drank that gallon of beer and screwed up the test the next day? The last thing I want to see in the morning is you having the dry heaves. Not a good way to start the day, you know what I mean?” Boo said smiling at me.
    The specialist who took me to the Quonset hut earlier came over to the table and said, “McDonald, we got your barracks assignment. When you get done here tonight, report over to building 115. Somebody there will tell you where to bunk down for the night. Just take your bedding with you,” then he walked away.
    “Well, I guess we better turn in, we gotta get up at 5 am for the transport south..” said Boo. “It appears you have some new bunkmates to meet anyway.”
    “Do we have to?” asked Top Cat, “I am kinda enjoying the view. Maybe I can get one of these ladies out behind the hut for a good blow job.”
    “And get your ass court marshaled. Come on Jack, it’s late and I don’t want to have to lug your shit and mine tomorrow if you stay and tie one on.” answered Boo. “Really good to see you again Slim and if’n we get a long pass, we head back up this way. I wanna see this heah Soul Town. By then, you know enough to show me around.”
    “You do that. I will certainly be down to visit you guys when I get a chance.” I said.
    Boo rose, turned towards the door and looked back, “See ya Slim. Come on you old Tom Cat you!”
    “Yeah Slim, don’t let these girls screw your brains out,” said Top Cat as he followed.
    “Stay out of trouble,” I said, echoing previous warnings out of habit, then waved as they left.
    I ordered up another round and decided to finish it before turning into my new pad. I started paying more attention to the show, which had moved on to a rendition of ‘Hey Jew’ and the funniest version of that Beatles song that I ever heard.

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