By Charlie Wyatt
In Vietnam, the Swift Boat base I was assigned to was near a village named Cat Lo Five miles up the same muddy river from our base was a small detachment of Australian artillery. What they were doing there, nobody, including them, seemed to know. The captain in charge was required to send to his superior officer in Saigon a weekly action report and a monthly summary. Since absolutely nothing was happening near them, this required a fiction writing ability which everyone in this writing group would admire. I saw one of these reports and marveled at it. I asked the captain what would happen if he just reported nothing going on. He looked at me in horror.
“Gad, mate! They’d most likely send us someplace where the bloody Cong could shoot at us.”
As it was, every Saturday afternoon or sometimes just for the hell of it, they would fire off a number of rounds at the mountainside across the valley. A certain amount of ammunition had to be expended, not the same amount each week, of course, to support the fictitious action reports. After a time they got bored with just firing at random and tried to make patterns with the white smoke from the explosions. These started as simple geometric designs but evolved. The most ambitious attempt was supposed to be a caricature portrait of Ho Chi Minh, although it came out looking a lot more like the Disney character, Goofy, than anything else.
The reason for my visits was that on the Swift Boat base at Cat Lo, there was no way to buy beer. You could go into Vung Tau, but that was a longer and sometimes dangerous trip. Plus the only beer you could buy there was Ba-moui-ba or “33”. It seemed to vary from not particularly good to downright terrible. The Australians had tons of beer, something about a daily grog ration, which I didn’t fully comprehend, but they seemed to always have a surplus of Swan Lager. What they didn’t seem to have enough of was cigarettes, particularly American cigarettes, which I could buy dirt cheap at the PX.. We had worked out an exchange rate: one pack for a beer or two cartons for a case.
So there I was for the umpteenth time, in our army assigned jeep with my gunner’s mate driving, exchanging cigarettes for beer. It was not considered neighborly to just take the beer and go. Especially if it was after working hours, you were supposed to share a drink or two with the down under guys before loading up and bringing home the bacon, or in this case, the booze.
Another thing the Australians didn’t have any of was refrigeration. They themselves didn’t seem to mind chugging the beer down warm, but I guess somebody told them that Americans had a hard time with that. This time the Master Sergeant charged with overseeing the swap had a surprise for us. One of his guys had discovered that if you dipped a bottle into some gasoline, careful not to get any around the top and set it out, the resulting evaporation would cool the glass and consequently the contents to some degree. Not as good as chilled but not hot, at least. He proceeded to demonstrate, dipping some dozen bottles of Swan Lager and setting them along a bench for the gas to evaporate and cool them.
What nobody told him, apparently, was that when the gasoline evaporates, it becomes a colorless cloud of fumes spreading out along the ground from the source. That wouldn’t have been so bad but for the other Australian walking up just then.
This guy proceeded to flick his Bic to light a cigarette. Whoosh!
Instantly the bottles resembled so many Christmas candles flaming away, along with a few of the Ausssies. In no time, a bunch of people were rolling on the ground, some of us trying to put out smoldering Australians, while others were laughing their butts off. The Master Sergeant was not amused. In the melee, the bench got knocked over. Some of the bottles broke and the rest were not fit to drink, Worst of all some of the cigarettes got incinerated.
Since it was basically their doing, he felt obligated to replace for me the ruined beer. Luckily just two Aussies got minor burns, which I would bet were going to be the least of their miseries before the Sergeant got through with them. In the jeep on the way back to our base, my gunner’s mate said, “I got a question for you, skipper.”
I said, “You mean why did he dip the beer in gas like that?”
He shook his head. “No, how come they talk all funny like that?
I had to tell him I had no idea.