Spearfish Lake Tales logo Wes Boyd’s
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Joe/Joan book cover

by Wes Boyd
©2015, ©2016

Chapter 26

A few days later I got a letter from Joey, who had been in Germany since the first of the month:


Mom wrote and told me what you and Cat plan on doing. I think both of you are crazy as hell. But then, I’ve known you were crazy as hell ever since you started doing your mountain climbing, so what’s new?

A word to the wise: sometimes donut dollies and the USO girls don’t have the best reputations and hang around with officers instead of the grunts. Most of the guys don’t like that. Never forget us enlisted guys, and keep your noses clean.

I am just as proud as hell of both of you. Keep your heads down and do the right thing. Send my best wishes to Cat, and my thanks to her as well.

Love, Joey

*   *   *

The rest of our time at Venable that spring seemed a little surreal. While we were still working on our classes and preparing for finals, I think both Cat and I were more focused on what would be coming after the end of the semester. Whatever happened, we were sure that it was not going to be like the last two summers.

For almost a month, Cat and I had been thinking about some way to make our mark when we left Venable College at the end of April. I think it may have been the death of Martin Luther King at the first part of the month that helped emphasize to us just how isolated from the real world the place was. Race riots, draft protests, and that kind of thing just didn’t exist there; it seemed a little if it were caught in a timeline of its own, an eddy off of the main current of events.

On the Wednesday of our last week of classes Cat and I were walking across the campus on the way to the gas station so we could go somewhere to have a decent cup of coffee and avoid chapel. As always, the pealing of the bell on the admittedly large and beautiful chapel irritated us. “I wish there were some way we could shut that up,” Cat remarked.

“Yeah, it would be nice,” I agreed. I thought about it for a moment, and an idea came to me. “Cat,” I said, “that might be an idea.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking you’re thinking?”

“Maybe,” I smiled, and explained what I had in mind.

“That has possibilities,” she grinned when she’d heard me out. “But if they caught us, we could be in trouble.”

“What are they going to do to us if they catch us?” I snorted. “Send us to Vietnam?”

The next week was finals week, and the schedule was all goofed up, but not enough to cancel chapel on Wednesday morning, of course – the college would never have allowed that. We had been told that they even did it when classes were out in the summer to force the staff to attend, something that would have touched off all sorts of civil rights lawsuits fifty years later.

On Tuesday night Cat and I set our alarms for two in the morning. Almost giggling with excitement, we put on dark clothes, picked up our rucksacks, and dangled a rope down from our second-story window. We knew the dorm was all locked up, and in theory we could have used a door with a crash bar, except that there was an alarm on them that rang in the housemother’s room in case someone tried to sneak in or out after curfew. That was no problem for us; it was a simple matter to rappel down to the ground and we had done it before.

The campus was about as dead as it could be at that hour, and though there were few street lights, we just stayed in the shadows until we were behind the chapel.

We had scouted the place out thoroughly in the past few days, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. It was clear that we couldn’t get inside the building, and even with our climbing skills the brick walls seemed close to unclimbable – there just weren’t the holds that we needed.

But climbers always look for weak points in a seemingly impossible pitch, and usually there are some to be found, be it granite wall or red brick chapel. In this case the weak point was a ceramic downspout that led up to the eaves, much more solid than the light aluminum ones normally seen. There was a similar downspout on a classroom building across campus, and we had used the rope out of our window to sneak out and work out the details of how to handle it.

We had worked everything out carefully beforehand, so there was no need to talk about it. As soon as we got to the downspout, I started to shinny up it. Our trial run on the classroom building told us that our pants would slide on the slick pipe, but our friend at the gas station had given us an old inner tube, and we had cut it up and sewn the pieces to our pants legs. That and rubber gloves made it simple, and we didn’t even bother with a belay, not as if there were any belaying points available anyway.

With that aid it only took me a minute or so to get to the top of the pipe. Getting on the roof itself involved getting over the building’s eave, but it was a simple overhanging move we had done while rock climbing several times. Within seconds, I was on top of the not-too-steep roof, and I could hear Cat coming up after me.

Cat joined me very quickly, and we clambered silently up the roof to the peak, which was slanted up toward the steeple of the chapel, but it was much like walking a narrow mountain ridge. In seconds we were at the steeple.

The steeple’s bell chamber was still several feet above us, but it only took two or three tosses with a rope to get the line up through one of the openings and out another. It was no trick to get up the rope, and soon we were in the room with the bell.

What we had planned to do was to muffle the bell by wrapping some old blankets we had found at a thrift store around the clapper, and tying them off with some cheap rope we had bought at a hardware store. With the blankets in place, the best the clapper could do would be to give the bell a dull thunk. However, to do that we had to get under the bell, but it was no great trick to rock it to the side and tie it off.

I ducked under the bell and shined around a little AA cell flashlight to figure out how to tie the blankets off, but to my surprise I found out that the clapper was held onto the top of the bell by a simple hook. “Cat,” I whispered. “I’ve got an even better idea.”

The clapper was very heavy, and it took both of us with our climber muscles to unhook it and lay it on the floor. Shining the little flashlight around carefully, I found the trap door that was normally used to access the bell for maintenance, and we slid the clapper over onto it. There was a little lip around the base of the room – I have no idea what it could have been for – but we jammed the clapper under it so it blocked the door, and for good measure tied it into place with a couple of pieces of our cheap rope.

The bell would not be ringing in the morning, or, I suspected, anytime soon.

 It was no problem to rappel down the steeple and the front of the building. We retrieved our rappel rope, and on the dark side of the building stuffed it into one of our packs, then walked back to our dorm, climbed the rope we’d left hanging from our room, got undressed and went back to bed feeling very satisfied with ourselves.

The next morning we had our last final exam at eight in the morning. It was French, with Professor Reynaud, who still chain-smoked his way through class. We got through with the test early, so sat outside on a bench until it was time for chapel, then slowly walked toward the gas station savoring the sweet sound of silence.

Once we’d had our last cup of off-campus chapel coffee, we drove the Karmann Ghia back to the dorm and loaded it up with the last of our things; we had moved most of it back home in the previous weeks and didn’t have much left in our room. Not until we were in the car and off campus did we break out in laughter that stayed with us for miles. We had made our statement: goodbye to Venable College. We knew it would be over two years before we came back if we came back at all. We might not; we had the option of transferring somewhere else if we wanted to.

I drove Cat home since it was the middle of the week and her parents weren’t available. “Well,” I told her as I pulled into her driveway, “I guess there’s no turning back now.”

“I guess not,” she laughed. “They’re bound to figure out that someone had to get to the bell from the outside of the building, and that means it would have to be someone who’s a climber. We’re the only ones leaving the campus, so I don’t think it would take Sherlock Holmes to figure that one out. Maybe in two years they’ll have forgotten about it.”

“We’ll know in two years, I guess,” I shrugged. “Maybe it won’t matter by then.”

It only took a couple of minutes to haul Cat’s things inside. “All right,” I said when we were finished. “See you Sunday.”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “Part of me is looking forward to what’s going to happen, and part of me is dreading it.”

“Same here,” I said. “I guess we’re just going to have to go and find out.”

I got back into the car and headed for Simsville. I wasn’t quite as worried as Cat about what was to happen in Vietnam; after all, I had been there as Joe, over fifty of my years before. My memory was fuzzy in spots after that long, but I still remembered quite a bit. I knew that it would be hot and uncomfortable, and perhaps a little dangerous. I sometimes wondered why I was so drawn to go back; after all, when I’d been there as Joe I’d had all I needed of the place and a whole lot more. But I had no doubt that it was the right thing to do.

There really wasn’t a great deal for me to do at home but wait out the next several days. It didn’t take me long to pack what I would need for Washington, and then for Vietnam; the Red Cross had provided a list of suggested things to take, and Joe’s memory couldn’t add much to it. I packed up a box of things that I would want shipped to me in Switzerland if we decided to go there directly from Vietnam. Even that wasn’t much; I figured on buying new clothes when I got there a year from next fall since I would have the money to go shopping.

It was a little different when Joey was in Vietnam, at least for me. Although I couldn’t tell the folks or anyone else, I had known that he was going to return safe and sound. But I couldn’t foresee my own future. I was pretty sure that things would turn out all right, but only pretty sure. It was different for Mom and Dad since they couldn’t look into the future for either of us, so while they were concerned and a little somber, at least they’d sent a child to Vietnam before, so they were a little bit used to it. Cat’s parents weren’t so lucky, and I hoped she was getting through it all right.

Sunday rolled around quickly. Cat and I met up again in the waiting area near the boarding ramp for the plane that would take us to Washington, and all of our folks were with us.

It was a rather tearful goodbye, and the folks weren’t the only ones crying. As often happened, Dad was the one that gave us some perspective. “In a way it was harder for my folks when I shipped out back in ’42,” he told everybody. “No one knew what was going to happen or how long we were going to be gone, but we all knew that it could be pretty dangerous. It’s not going to be quite like that for you girls. Stay safe, and come back home to us.”

Then, they gave the call for boarding; we said a final goodbye, and headed down to the plane. “I’m glad that’s over with,” Cat sighed as we took our seats. “I was afraid Mom was going to get hysterical before we got out of there.”

“I was wondering about it myself.”

“I wonder if they realize that we won’t be the same people we were when we left,” she mused.

“I don’t see how we can be. This is bound to change us in ways we don’t expect. On top of that, we probably won’t be home again much at all. I mean, it’s been like that since we started college, but this is more serious.”

“Yeah, that was a pretty big goodbye. I guess things like that happen to people when they get to be our age and leave home for good.”

It was not a long flight to Washington; it took us only about an hour and a half to cover the ground that had taken us a day in the Karmann Ghia a couple of months before. We caught a cab from the airport to the small residential hotel Mrs. Oldfield had arranged for us, and that cab ride cost us almost as much as the flight.

The next morning we reported to a room in the Red Cross building not far away. I was a little surprised, but not very surprised, to discover that there were only two other girls in the class going through training. Neither of them seemed to me to be the kind of girls who ought to be Red Cross recreation aides, so I thought that Mrs. Oldfield must be getting pretty desperate for help.

We’d already had to turn in a physical from our own physicians, but in the early days of our training we got physical exams. I think we were given every immunization known to man – things like smallpox, typhoid-paratyphoid, tetanus-diphtheria, polio, influenza, typhus, yellow fever, cholera, and plague, along with others I’m sure I don’t remember now. I didn’t have much problem with shots and I hadn’t had as Joe, either, but Cat and needles just didn’t get along together, and often she became sore, sick, or exhausted as a result.

We were also given lectures on maintaining our health, avoiding things that could cause things like dysentery – there was no such thing as safe untreated drinking water in Vietnam – and warned to always take our malaria pills and other medicines. I never had been much of one to get sick either as Joe or Joan, but I knew very well that this was good advice.

We had several training classes and some exercises daily. Early on we were told that the Red Cross ran several centers in Vietnam, and we would most likely be stationed at one of them. These included Da Nang, Nha Trang, Bien Hoa, Di An, Cam Ranh Army, Cam Ranh Air Force, Dong Ba Thin, Phan Rang, Qui Nhon, An Khe, Lai Khe, Phan Loc, Cu Chi and Long Binh. From these bases, we would provide recreational programs also called ‘clubmobiles,’ for the soldiers. These programs were designed to distract the soldiers from battle and to give them a piece of home.

We would not be spending all our time at those centers – in fact much of the time, we were told, we would be traveling to smaller units and smaller bases to see guys who never got much chance to get to the centers located on the bigger bases.

In other courses, protocol was taught and military ranks were drummed into our heads and how we were to represent the Red Cross on and off duty. I knew a lot of the military side of things, of course, but after fifty years in Joe’s mind some of it was pretty stale. At one point we were exposed to the slang terms the “grunts” often used, and again I remembered most of that.

We were also told how to wear the light blue seersucker uniforms we would wear on duty – in no case was the hemline supposed to be more than an inch above our knees, so these were not exactly miniskirts. We were issued several of them, and while they weren’t exactly pretty or stylish they did identify who we were. We were told when to wear civilian clothes, which wouldn’t be very often, at least when we were in contact with the soldiers.

We were also taught a lot about the recreational activities we were expected to perform. These included role-playing activities, skits, and other such things. All our programs were supposed to be based on original ideas and materials, although we would be given some help with this to get us started. We received the suggestion that a lot of our programs be based on events that were happening in the States at the time. That meant that we had to keep our eyes on the news we could get, especially the Stars and Stripes, the quasi-official newspaper available to troops in Vietnam. Usually our programs would have to last about an hour, and they could include things like singing.

I never was much at music when I had been Joe, except maybe for occasionally listening to the radio in the semi. Cat could play the guitar a little, and we figured we could work out something. We were told that it might not matter how good or bad our singing was so long as it was an American girl singing it with an American accent.

We were warned to never get into a physical or emotional relationship with a soldier. We were supposed to represent American womanhood to them but only up to a point. “It’s not a good idea,” an older woman told us. “After you’ve seen men all day, you probably won’t be up for seeing them at night as well.”

We were supposed to be reminders of home, a sort of girl next door and a wholesome reminder of what the soldiers were fighting for. As such, we were supposed to be wholesome, girlish, and chaste, to remind the soldiers about their girls, moms, sisters, and wives waiting for their return.

And yes, we were told not just once but repeatedly, as Mrs. Oldfield had said, “Keep smiling. Never let them see you cry.” But one of our trainers added, “If you can always do that, you’ll be more successful at it than I was.”

There were a lot of things that I as Joe thought could have been covered in more detail, and while I couldn’t bring that experience into the classes directly, I could at least ask questions that might shed some light on the subject. Sometimes those questions were brushed off, and I knew there were things that we would have to learn the hard way.

On the whole, I thought our training at the time was thin and didn’t represent the realities of the situation very well, as least as Joe remembered them. But then, I found myself reflecting that the Army hadn’t prepared me as Joe very well for the realities of Vietnam either. Oh, they were careful about teaching me to drive a truck, and some of those lessons lasted me all my life. But I do not remember any organized orientation about going to Vietnam or what to expect when we got there, either before I left the States or when I first got in-country. We had to pick up big things and little things on our own and from the people we were working with. Sometimes we didn’t get it right – or got them with a lot of prejudice and personal opinion involved. The training we got from the Red Cross was good in comparison to that.

We didn’t have much spare time in the evenings, at least partly because of Cat’s reactions to the shots, but we spent some time exploring Washington, either just the two of us or with the other girls, who were down the hall in the same hotel. Cat and I had only turned twenty-one in the past couple of months, so we spent some of the time in bars although we never allowed ourselves to get drunk.

All in all the two weeks passed quickly; toward the end of the second week we were told we were up for assignment soon. Sure enough, within a day we were given tickets to fly commercially to Vietnam. This was going to be it; we were really going to go. Almost before we knew it a Red Cross station wagon took us to Washington National, and we were aboard a plane headed to the far side of the world.

It was a long flight. We paused briefly to refuel in Anchorage, Alaska, and on leaving I happened to notice Denali – otherwise known to some as Mount McKinley – off to one side of the plane as it was climbing out, and pointed it out to Cat. “How would you like to climb that sometime?” I asked.

“It might be interesting, but we sure aren’t going to be doing it anytime soon. Maybe in a few years.”

“You’re right. We’re not going to be doing much climbing for a while.”

We landed in Tokyo in the middle of the night, the end of the first part of our flight. We had a short layover in the terminal, but never got off the airport grounds. I had heard that Tokyo was a fascinating city, and would have liked to explore it, but once again it would have to wait for another day.

There was a lot of ocean under us for the next few hours, and once in a while – not very often – I saw the wake of a ship below us. Then that faded into the haze, and after a while I could hear the engines of the jet being cut back as we started our long descent. After a while, I could see the green of jungle below us, along with occasional habitations and raw red soil, all of it getting closer and closer.

Finally I could feel the airplane shudder and see the flaps get extended as we approached to a landing, and a very strange feeling came over me. Over fifty years before I had sworn I would never be there again – yet less than four months after I had said that on another timeline, here I was. There were a lot of things I was going to have to sort out after that observation.

<< Back to Last Chapter - - - - Forward to Next Chapter >>
To be continued . . .

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.