A Home-Cooked Meal

 

In the thirteen months I spent in Vietnam I had the opportunity to eat only one real Vietnamese meal, and even that one was half-American.  It all came about because of a hard spot, and a foul-up in orders.  A hard spot was slang for a one-night base set up in enemy territory.  We'd leave the comfort of our regular fire base for an extended patrol lasting several days.  While on the move, we built temporary bunkers for protection at night if the area was considered dangerous enough, or just set up night AP's (ambush patrols) and spent the night watching and waiting for Charlie.  These were hard spots because of the extra work and the extra risk involved.

On this particular mission we were told to bring along a box of C's for lunch.  We loaded up on ammo and Claymore mines, put the food in our pockets, and formed up to leave the wire.  Soon we were on the march.  We walked most of the morning and afternoon, searching the occasional hootches we came across, and looking for signs of enemy activity.  As dinner time approached we learned this was supposed to be a silent mission - Charlie wasn't supposed to know we were out in the field in force.  So no choppers would bring dinner to us.  That was hard news to take.  Marching through the long, hot Vietnamese afternoon had taken its toll and we needed food to keep going.  We discovered that the other units had known how long we were going to be out and carried enough food for two days.  But they didn't bring any to share with us.

That night was miserable.  On too little food, we marched for several more hours after dark, and finally set up our ambush for the night.  The rice paddies were full of water, and so we stopped at the first dry spot we found.  It was a ten-foot high dirt wall, tapered steeply on both sides.  The banks were tilted at about a 45-degree angle.  While the men drawing first guard duty found positions from which to fire, the rest of us tried to find places to sleep.

There's an old Army joke that after a while you get so tired you can sleep standing on your feet.  This night was to prove how true it could be.  I lay down on the steep bank, flat on my back, and closed my eyes.  Slowly, I started to slide down the wall toward the water.  I climbed back up and tried sleeping on my side.  I dug my boot-heels into the hard-packed soil.  But soon I was sliding down again.  I tried and tried to find a position where I could lie on the dry bank without slipping into the paddy below, but to no avail.  Finally, dead tired, I gave up and moved to the bottom of the mound.  In water up to my hips I dropped into a fitful sleep, waking regularly to see if I was still above water.

Keeping Your Interval On PatrolWhen dawn finally came, one of the other units shared their C's with us.  It wasn't nearly enough, but it was better than nothing.  For several hours we trudged across wet, muddy rice-fields, full of young green shoots sprouting from the water (We trampled the rice rather than risk walking up on the dry dikes where there might be booby-traps!).  And then our luck turned.  As we rounded a thick patch of bamboo hedgerows we heard the sound of armored personnel carriers headed our way.  A ride!  Hallelujah!

We climbed aboard gratefully.  This was an ARVN mechanized unit, with South Vietnamese soldiers driving the "tracks".  For an hour we rode in bumpy comfort, and then pulled aside to park in the shade of a tall bamboo hedgerow.   Finally it was lunch time.  The Vietnamese soldiers on our "track" brought out a large black kettle and covered the bottom with water.  Into the kettle went large plastic bags of American-made instant rice.  Next, a smaller pot was filled with a mackerel and anchovy sauce and placed in the middle of the rice.  While we sat watching nearby, the meal simmered slowly over an open fire, the aroma drifting over to us and driving us mad with hunger.  If it was any consolation, at least our allies weren't going hungry.

Soon the rice was fluffy and white.  The men filled small bowls heaping full and poured the hot fish sauce over the top.  As they started eating, they noticed we were just sitting there staring at them, without any food of our own.  Generously, they offered us theirs, and we gratefully accepted.  It was delicious!  Maybe when you're starving anything tastes delicious.  But at the time I thought it was a great combination.  I even went back for seconds.

When the meal was finished the pot was empty, except for three or four little vegetables at the bottom.  One of the Vietnamese soldiers looked down at them, then smiled and offered them to us.  After the generosity they had shown, it seemed only right to accept this friendly offer - probably the best part of the meal.  I decided to do my part for Vietnamese-American relations.  I bowed slightly, smiled, and took one of the vegetables.  I chewed on it for a few moments.  No special taste.   Puzzled, I swallowed the thing and smiled another thank you.  A moment later I wasn't smiling.  Hot Pepper!  Woweee!  That innocuous-looking little morsel set my mouth on fire.  Four-alarm, at least!  Now all of the Vietnamese were smiling and laughing.  Got one over on the Gringo.  I reached for a canteen and downed the full quart.  I reached for a second, trying to flush the fire from my flaming mouth.  Nothing helped.  Time alone brought relief.  Now even my buddies were laughing!  Or perhaps they started it in the first place.  I was really building bridges, all right!  After that, my guess is the ARVN unit went out of their way to befriend American units, just so they could offer them lunch, and a special after dinner treat. At least food was no longer uppermost on my mind.

 

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A Home Cooked Meal:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Picture Copyright 1995 Bob Lindgren
Last modified: March 02, 1995