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By Pat Lisi – Southern Utah Vets Aid

Next week on December 14th I’ll celebrate my 64th birthday.  Not a big deal by any means, but I sit here today and try to remember ANY of my birthday anniversaries.  They all seem so … uneventful.  I mean, how meaningful can a birthday be, anyway?   Usually, it’s simply the same old crap.  Your wife gets you a card, the kids forget to get you a card, you go to work that day and come home, maybe there’s a cake or a special meal.  But, that’s it.  Further, what do you expect, a marching band perhaps?  How about a parade?  Hell, it really doesn’t matter all that much, because all a birthday anniversary really does is to let you know that you’ve made it closer to being dead.  I’m 64 next week — how far do I think I’ll go before I keel over?

I clearly remember only 4 birthdays.  One was the day I turned 7 in 1955.  My mom threw a birthday party for me and all 3 of my friends were there, Steve Schwartz, John Schneider, and Ray Kurth.  It was stupid – cake, ice cream, chicken supper, games.  Another birthday I remember was the day I turned 18.  In Wisconsin this signifies the date one can legally go out and buy alcohol.  So I celebrated my 18th birthday at the Anchor Inn in Madison, Wisconsin with a different set of friends.  There was Bill Gilbertson, Joe Jerzewski, Tim Johnson, and a few others.  The outcome of that night is not so memorable, as the beer flowed without interruption and somehow I ended up at home by the next morning.   But, clearly I recognize my 18th as one to remember.  Another really memorable birthday was the day I turned 50.  It was depressing and I felt like shit, and that’s about all I care to say about that one.

The birthday that stands out the most to me was my 20th. 

On that December 14, 1968 I was a young Marine infantryman (grunt) stationed in An Hoa, South Viet Nam with the 5th Marines.  I had been in the country for about 5 months by December 14th and had seen a lot of shit happen.  I was a Lance Corporal at the time which is an E-3 in the Marines.  I was squad leader material  but lacked the rank and some of the particular leadership skills to take over a squad of Marines and lead them to, and out of, battle.  So, the Corps sent me to NCO (Non-commissioned Officer) school in DaNang, Vietnam.  The 2-weeks of classroom mixed with mock patrols was a great way to spend some time away from the daily hardships and rigors of hiking with the regiment out  in the ‘toolies’.  Besides, I might even learn something in school and end up promoting to E-4.

But, this story isn’t really about what I added to my knowledge base and leadership skills as a Marine NCO.  That would be painful for me to write and really boring for you to read, simply because there’s nothing new or exciting about what goes on in a leadership course whether it be military or civilian.  This story is about December 14, 1968 and my 20th birthday.

It would seem very strange that a person could actually remember, with detail, what he or she did on one of the drunkest day-binges of their entire life.  Most of these events are completely non-memorable, because at some point the drinker usually black out and everything is erased from memory.  I’ve had lots of drunken adventures that ended up just like that — unconscious.  But, this one was so bad that I clearly recall  it all, even 44 years later!  Here’s what happened.

Classes let out that day at 1700 (5 PM) and a couple of us headed to the NCO club on the base.  We were not interested in going into Da Nang to look for drinks or ladies, because the next day would come soon enough and we’d have to be standing at attention out in front of the classroom area at 0800, ready to go.  This would have to be an intense evening of power drinking, the likes of which would, out of necessity, need to be memorable.  By the way, December 14, 1968 was a Saturday.  However, NCO school was a 10-day assignment that did not take any days off for anything.  We’d all be back to our units by Christmas Eve!

At any rate, the NCO Club in our immediate area of the base was within a two-minute walk to the tent I shared with 20 other Marines.  We weren’t actually NCO’s, yet, as that’s what were doing in DaNang in the first place — studying up to become NCO’s.  But, they allowed us the privilege to use the club just in case any of us lived long enough to actually attain the rank of E-4 or above after we graduated.

The club was very simple.  It was a wooden hut with a steel roof upon which were stacks of sandbags to help take the impact of rockets or mortars from the NVA who lived just outside the compound.  The inside was dimly lit with the help of a couple of light bulbs hanging from the ceiling on cords.  The bar was a few feet long with stools on the patrons’ side, and perhaps a half dozen tables with chairs.  There was a jukebox that never stopped pumping out the sounds of the 60’s, and it didn’t take anything to operate it for it was free.  There was always someone smoking in the club, I was one of them, and a haze hung all throughout the ceiling until, I suppose, way after bar time when the only door to the place was left open to air out the joint.  The stink of booze and smoke was strong.

We drank all night, beers mostly.  I liked Schlitz at the time.  The bottles were drawn from huge horse watering tanks filled with ice behind the bar.  They were almost painfully cold, but that made them go down easier and faster.  The tall bottles of beer, regardless of the brand, were a quarter, the ‘shorties’ cost a dime.  A pitcher of draft beer could be had for 75 cents and we went through many of those as well.  There wasn’t much to eat at the club.  An NCO club in a combat zone is not quite like the ones you might find on, say, a military base in the United States.  But, there were the traditional bar munchies like peanuts, beef jerky, and the like.  It didn’t matter that much to me for I was content to feed myself a steady barrage of beer and cigarettes.

By bar time which was midnight, I was plastered.  Now, at this point in the story on a normal night of drinking I would have simply left the tavern, drove home drunk, and then passed out in a bed until morning only to wake up completely oblivious to the past evening’s fun times.  I should probably let everyone know that I have been “dry’ since September 10, 1988 so I speak now only from past experiences.  Anyway, myself and another Marine lance corporal left the NCO club and headed for our sleeping quarters not two minutes away up the earthen street.

Just then we started getting rockets from our friends, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) who were as I said earlier stationed outside the wire.  Our compound was more or less “lit up like a Christmas tree” and anyone with any sense was racing for a bunker to use as protection while shrapnel whizzed and whirled throughout our encampment.

But, I was too drunk to react.  In fact, I was so friggin’ hammered that my legs barely worked as it was, let alone try to get them to hurry me to a bunker!  My friend had long since bolted off into the night which surprised the hell out of me since he and I pretty much guzzled beer for beer inside the club.  But, he was gone and I was alone there in the street like a drunk-ass hobo, helpless and UNAFRAID.  I guess that’s the part that I remember best; I didn’t give a shit if I got wounded, killed, maimed, whatever.  I was a happy drunkard, maybe glad to know that if I got killed there on the street that I’d go down as a happy Marine.  I basically didn’t care either way. 

Instead, I hit the dirt of the street and lay there for a few moments while I tried as best I could to guess where the next rounds would splash.  I couldn’t walk, anyway,  so I then began to belly crawl in the general direction of our sleeping quarters as I knew there was trench behind the large tent that maybe I could get to in time.  I was starting to realize that getting killed on my birthday would not be so cool. 

I crawled a few feet further and then simply gave up.  I was so annebriated  that it was completely useless  to try, and it was about then that I finally gave up control and then fell asleep.  I guess “passed out” is a better way to put it.  But, it wasn’t a total blackout.  I remember waking up from the ‘dead’ a few times and looking around to see if I was making any progress for the tent, and then blanking for awhile again.  The shelling had stopped somewhere in between my moments of lucidness, but I felt numb when I was awake.  I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or not, but in time I did make it back to the tent and was able to crash for a couple of hours before we were all rudely awoken by the senior NCO at the school and told to get out on the road for PT.  I was still under the influence but able to function, which is one of the rewards of youth.  Today, I would have been long dead earlier in this story.  For real.

Other nights at the school were spent at the NCO club but with way less liquids.  It was about all there was to do during your off time.  I made it through NCO school and never got chewed on for being so drunk the night of my birthday.  But, it did turn out to be one of the most memorable birthdays out of the 63!  December 24th, Christmas Eve, I arrived back at our combat base in An Hoa and reported to the Echo Company headquarters.  I’d be heading out the next day on Christmas to rejoin the company up in the mountains on Operation Taylor Common.  We put on a pretty decent bender Christmas Eve, but that’s a whole other story!     


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