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by: Hank Ortega, PA/C
(© Copyright, 1998)
I was short, only about 30 days left to go before I could load up for home. I was in a reflective mood and had been thinking about all the friends I had lost in the field, and of all the things I had done and seen. I could not believe that I was going to escape this awful place with out injury. I had decided that the war was over for me. Laduha was dead, Mc Kinney was dead, along with so many others that had meant so much to me. I just wanted to go home now, and in a few weeks I would. I also felt that since nothing else had happened to me in the worst of possible situations, that nothing was going to happen to me now. I somehow felt as though was under some protection now. I had turned in my rifle, but still carried two .45 pistols under my shirt in shoulder rigs.
I was, by now the senior aidman for the Battalion Aid Station, at the Battalion CP, near Phu Loc. For some reason, the Battalion had been moved out of the Camp Eagle area while I was in the field and relocated outside a special forces camp on the outskirts of the village of Phu Loc. I worked there with the doctor and a couple of medics, like “doc” Roach (Cammer).
I found myself with a little time on my hands so I decided to go into the village, which was just a few miles away. I had never been exposed to the villages, or the people like so many others had and wondered about what was there. I caught a ride with a jeep from the other camp, and was dropped off at the edge of the village. I walked into the village, on a dirt road and found the market place in the center of town. It was a rather small market, but there were people selling vegetables that they had displayed on wide flat baskets, including heaps of those tiny red peppers that were so hot. There were live chickens hung upside down, and other animals and lots of fruit and vegetables.
A small boy came up to me and said, “Coke?”
Now that sounded like a good idea, so I followed him into a house on the edge of the village. It was a nice place built of stacked rammed earth blocks (like adobe). I made my way out to the back yard, a wide expanse of packed dirt, with widely separated trees.
A stream bordered one side of the area. Beyond was open country. There was a large tree in the center of the yard. On a lower limb there hung a large pulley, with a rope running through it. Beneath the pulley system there was a 50 gallon barrel of water, sitting on a big fire. The back of the house was open showing the insides, and all their property. The kid, about 6 years old, introduced me to his father and mother, and to the real wage earner of the house, his 17 year old sister. Inside the house coming in and out of sight, was the grandmother, small and brittle, wearing black pajamas.
I accepted the cold soda can, declined the services of the sister, and settled down against the family bunker that sat next to the house. The sister ducked into the bunker with another GI that came in, who left later without speaking to me. I drank a couple of more sodas and sat looking over the back yard, pondering my eminent return to what would pass for a normal life. I reflected on these peoples lives, and how they lived what they thought was normal for them. These folks were what passed for the Cleavers, Vietnamese style.
As the afternoon wore on, I ate some food that the kid brought me from the marketplace , and drank a few more sodas. I watched the kid walk off into the open country off to the east, then return walking behind a huge white pig. He swatted the pig’s rump with a switch and it trotted up to the house.
The bedroom area was about 10 x 12, open to the rear, with an elevated earth floor about 2 feet high. On top of the raised area was the bed, The bed was made of dark teak wood, and stood on thick legs a few inches high. The bedding was rolled up to the head board exposing the plank deck. Both parents came out to meet the kid, and the girl came out of the bunker that was apparently her bedroom as well as place of business.
The kid herded the huge pig into the bedroom, and up onto the bed. The boards creaked with the weight. I sat up straighter to see what was going on. The family crowded into the small room, and took up positions around the pig. The huge animal lay on it’s side, quite calm.
Pappa-san lay on the pig’s neck, momma-san on the pig’s body opposite the young girl. Baby-san (the kid) stood at the head on the ground. He held a large metal basin. Grandma came up to the group, fishing with her right hand in the front of her black pajamas. As she arrived at the group, grandma pulled out a long sharp knife about 16 inches long, that curved to a point.
I stood up in a crouch, ready to take out of there, or some other action as called for. I tensed to make ready and also to see what was going to transpire. Pappa-san pulled the pig’s head back by the snout, and all the family leaned on the pig. Grandma stuck the knife up to the neck of the animal, and sunk the blade to it’s haft with one swift lunge. The pig reacted by arching it’s body, and squealing for all it was worth. I stepped a few steps closer. The kid was catching the blood that gouted out of the pig’s neck, slopping blood all over the place. The parents and older girl strained and fought with the huge animal, as it’s squeals and struggles grew less and less. The grandmother kept working the knife handle up and down, sweeping the long blade back and forth in the pig’s neck, cutting arteries, veins and windpipe, again and again.
Finally the pig relaxed and died. The heart pumped it’s last few times, and the kid caught the last of the blood. The father got up and stretching his tired muscles, took the pan from the kid. He held the pan up to his face and drank deeply, the pig blood running down his bare chest. The father passed the pan to his wife, who grinned and took a big drink also, the daughter and the kid also took a turn, then the grandmother.
Pappa-san took the pan, and turned back toward me, offering a drink. I held up my coke can and shook my head. I must have had some kind of look on my face because they all started laughing and passed the pan around again. The girl wrapped a rope around the pig’s neck, and gestured to me to help pull the animal off the bed. I grabbed the rope, and wrapped it around my back, then leaned into it, pulling the animal off onto the ground, then across the yard toward the tree that stood in the center of the yard.
We tied the pig’s rear legs to a home made gambrel and I helped the father pull the pig into the air over the 50 gallon drum. The water was rolling in a brisk boil, as we dipped the pig in and out of the water 2 or 3 times. Finally we stopped and the momma-san began to use the back of the knife to start slipping the skin.
I helped and watched them butcher the pig until there was nothing left. They washed the intestines for use as sausages and took the head to the neighbor’s house. The dogs that came around ate the contents of the intestines, and the mother and daughter wrapped the meat in paper, to take to the village smoke house. One other thing....the flies were absolutely horrendous. They landed on everything. I thought that these folks must either have terrific resistance or they were filled with parasites, and disease.
The kid had gone into his sister’s place and gotten me a bar of Dial soap. He handed it to me with both hands like it was something fairly precious. I gave him a short bow, then I walked to the stream and washed up, then air dried. I put my shirt back on then walked through the house. I left the soap on the table in the front room. I walked out to the road where I flagged down the first jeep that went by for a ride to the camp.
Although the guys asked where I had gone, I kept my experience to myself. This pastoral moment in the lives of these simple people, was something special, and the fact that they shared it with me without rancor and indeed without much in the way of spoken words, made it more so. Having the opportunity to reflect, and to rest quietly then join in with them in their family routine was a moment of healing that helped in my return to the world.