Saturday, January 20, 2007

Armistead Maupin - The News and Courier

Originally posted at on Wednesday, January 20, 2007.

Every once in a while, I'll hear from a reader who doesn't dispute a headline or take issue with a story. One of those came this week from Nancy who wanted me to reassure her that author Armistead Maupin did indeed work at The News and Courier some years ago. She had a steak dinner riding on the answer. She won.

Maupin, a native of North Carolina, came to The News and Courier in 1971 after serving as a Naval officer in Vietnam. He left here for San Francisco where he launched his career as an author. The rest is easy enough to read about on-line.

But as I thumbed through his old newspaper file, I came upon one column he wrote that was so delightful that I am going to include it here. I hope you enjoy it!

Last U.S. Sailor To Leave Cambodia Tells How With Soapsuds


THE LAST AMERICAN sailor to withdraw from Cambodia was naked.
To be perfectly honest, that wasn't the way he had planned to do it.
He'd planned to leave like John Wayne, grim-eyed and granite-jawed, in tattered fatigues and muddy jungle boots. He left, instead, in nothing more than a coat of soap suds.

This is the way it happened:

IN LATE JUNE, 1970, I was stationed on a little Navy boat moored in the Mekong River at President Nixon's 21.7-mile limit in Cambodia. The craft, with a crew of 13, was the last remnant of a "Brown Water" armada that had steamed up the river May 9 to chase communists out of the town of Neak Luong and thereby open Highway 1 between Phnom Penh and Saigon.Life, since that time, had been sluggish and uneventful. Excitement consisted of impromptu swim meets, the weekly arrival of the ice boat, and occasional treks into the village to swap C-rats for souvenir flags and sarongs. During our stay, we fired a total of three shots, all of them at George, a mascot dog which had suffered a seizure and was drowning in the river. The killing of George constituted our only massacre, our only grief. Then, one day, a radio message changed our lives inexorably. The command post down the river in Vietnam told us that our 50-foot, Marine green, shoebox-shaped "tango boat" was to become the last American Naval vessel to withdraw from Cambodia. Not many days later, on the eve of the President's withdrawal deadline, ABC correspondent Steve Bell boarded the boat and offered to make us "heroes on the 6 o'clock news".

WE ACCEPTED without hesitation because Mr. Bell had not overestimated the limits of our idealism. (He bribed us with two cases of beer.) We sensed, too, a kind of tragic grandeur about posing for what amounted to the first televised retreat in the history of warfare. To capture that grandeur, we "withdrew" from Cambodia twice. That is, we pulled away from the river bank twice, so that Mr. Bell and his cameraman could get the proper photographic perspective on our war-torn vessel.

As the cameras whirred, a dozen crew members pranced Patton-like about the deck, sporting remarkably well-laundered camoulflaged fatigues and festooned with grenades, jungle knives and enemy weapons. An hour before, they had been wearing nothing but chopped-off trousers.

One man could not participate in this stirring saga of the sea. Duty required him to remain below deck in the sweltering innards of the boat, manning the radio watch.

That was me, of course, and I was mad.

Imagine the frustration! My one, clear shot at glory had been crushed by the mundane demands of the Watch Bill. I fumed shamelessly. But not for long.We had been under way for less than half-an-hour when the boat in front of us -- the one bearing the television team and a public affairs officer from Delta headquarters -- radioed that she had taken a B-40 rocket over the bow. To complicate matters, the public affairs officer had been wounded by a sniper bullet which had passed, somewhat unceremoniously, through a beer can in his right hand. He received, someone later remarked, only minor schlitznel wounds.

OUR BOAT, less than a kilometer way, went to General Quarters, which involved little more than becoming officially nervous. There was nothing else we could do. In the heat of that moment, the idea came to me. It was so idiotically simple, so solidly foolproof, I marveled it had not occurred to me before. My chance for glory had not passed. I could yet become the "last American sailor to withdraw from Cambodia."

The last American sailor to withdraw from Cambodia would be the man who was standing on the fantail when the boat crossed the border into Vietnam.

I did a little jig around the radio, then settled down to map my strategy. The border was an hour away, plainly marked by a flagpole flying the Vietnamese colors. I would get off watch in 30 minutes, leaving plenty of time to position myself. The enemy had stopped shooting. The only problem was how to stand on the fantail for any length of time without attracting attention. I didn't relish getting caught in the act of self-glorification. The solution was to take a shower. There was a hose back aft, fed by water pumped directly from the river. At night, when sea snakes and treacherous currents made swimming impossible, it had served as our shower. Soon, it would serve a far nobler purpose. Ever so subtly, when the appointed time came, I took off my clothes and strolled back to the fantail. I turned on the water, soaped down, and sang a sea ditty, deliriously confident of victory. The flagpole was less than two minutes away! Then something catastrophic happened.

THE COMMANDER, the ranking officer on the boat, appeared out of nowhere and walked aft of me. He dawdled around the stern, and I knew with sickening certitude that he was trying to take my title from me. And he knew that I knew. And I knew that he knew that I knew. It was not a time for indecision.

Steeling myself for battle, I discarded the soap and strode purposefully to the anchor winch, a metal structure extending over the wake of the boat. Passing the commander, I proffered a crisp salute. In lieu of returning the pleasantry, he made an impolite remark about my ancestry. Undaunted, I mounted the winch cantlievering my naked body over the churning white water. My grip on the oily metal was perilously unsure. The commander, who by this time, had totally reverted to his native tongue (Anglo-Saxon), grabbed a nearby line and commenced to lower himself off the stern. He was not giving up easily. In fact, he seemed to be gaining on me.
I inched out further on the slippery steel, as bits of my life began to flash before my eyes. For one chilling moment, I thought I had lost my grip. I wondered, stoically, how the Red Cross would phrase the letter to my family. Then, as the flagpole slid abeam, I arched my back and flung my left leg in the direction of Cambodia, looking, for all the world, like a figurehead installed by a drunken shipfitter. The commander, tasting defeat, uttered a single monosyllabic and unprintable word. The rest, of course, is history.

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