Air Conditioned Splendor
by: Hank Ortega, PA/C
(© Copyright, 1998)
For some reason or the other I had the opportunity to go to the rear, from Veghel, before I went out with the Tigers. These breaks were rare, and I’m sure that the company that I was working with was resting for a few days on the firebase, giving me the chance to go and come back before they left again. The memory dims with time, and it has been 30 years.
I had caught a helicopter in, went to the medic tent for some supplies, then went to take a shower over at C company, where I wouldn’t be noticed. I had been out in the field for months straight, and was taking a much needed 24 hour break in the base camp.
Since getting a change of clothes meant going to the company headquarters area where the odds of running onto a REMF officer or Non com were just a little too high I went to the C company shower hut, where I wouldn’t be noticed. I showered with my fatigues on, until I had scrubbed them clean, then took them off to hang in the sun from the eaves of the shower house. I finished my shower after about an hour, and went out back to find my clothes had completely dried. I dressed and walked back toward the HHC area, joining the dirt road that came from the headquarters row of tents.
A field ambulance was coming my way, so I waved him down. The converted M-151 jeep had the usual green canvas top with a bright red cross on the side. Inside was a headquarters type medic (as opposed to a field medic);corpulent, clean, uniform with patches, a small long stem pipe hanging from his lips. He wore purple granny glasses. I stood in the hot sun, in my baggy faded jungle fatigues already sweating in the humidity. I don’t remember this guy’s real name, but he knew me. He rarely spoke, but answered or commented with the words “Ti ti, mon” to almost everything. Ti ti means little, or small. He greeted me with “ti ti mon.” I asked him where he was going. He replied that he was going to an Air Force compound to pick up supplies and afterwards would get lunch. He invited me along. Since I didn’t have to catch the chopper back until the next morning, I said sure, and jogged around to the other side of the converted jeep.
We drove through the gate and joined a larger road that went east, through the Navy compound skirting the southern edge following the concertina wire, until we exited that compound as well. We drove south east for a while then came to a small compound that was made up of a cluster of Vietnamese buildings (brown stucco and tile roofs) and 12’ wide trailers that had been joined side by side, three wide and three long There were several clusters of these trailers, as well as clusters here and there of huge satellite dishes of various sizes pointing in several directions, including straight up.
I ignored most of that, as we pulled up to the gate, since my attention was on the reception that awaited us. An Air Force security guard, blue beret and all, was checking vehicles going in and out, and we had joined the line. The guard wrote down our bumper number, then asked Ti ti what we were there for.
Ti ti said ; “Supplies.”
The guard replied “Supplies?”
Ti ti replied in turn “Ti ti, Mon”
We were waved on through.
I thought; "That went rather easy considering we were an Army jeep going into an Air Force compound." The branches kept a closer watch on each other than they did the natives. I looked at Ti ti and he looked at me... "They know me here." was all he said. Ti ti pulled up at an old school building and got out. He asked me to wait in the FLA until he came back saying that they didn’t know me in there. In just a few minutes he returned with a small package. He eased his huge body into the driver’s seat and threw the box into the back. “Now for lunch” he shouted to no one in particular. Ti ti drove around in a circle, and pulled up at the end of one of the combined trailer buildings that were in place all over the compound. He shut down the motor and we both climbed out.
“Get ready for a real treat, “Doc”, Ti ti said, as we walked around to the side of the building. There we found a small set of wooden steps at the center of the first trailer. I could hear the roar of many air conditioning units on top of the multiple white mobile home-type buildings that lay attached side by side in the hot sun.
Ti ti opened up the door, with a flourish and gestured me in with a grand wave of the hand. As I stepped to the threshold, I was amazed to be standing in an absolutely frigid blast of air. I felt as though the air should be the consistency of Jell-O as I stood there for a second in disbelief. The shock was not over however.
I stepped into the subdued lighting from the blinding glare outside. I was standing on carpet. Real carpet. Thick and springy, dark blue carpet with the Air force symbol repeating across the expanse of floor that stretched out before me. There was a small counter top there at the entrance. Beside it stood an airman, with jungle fatigue pants and a white mess jacket, his hair long for service standards, and combed neatly. Muzak played softly overhead. This began to take on an air of surrealism.
He escorted us to our table after a short whispered consultation with Ti ti. We were seated near the far side of the room, a considerable walk. Table after table we passed, all heavy dark wood, covered with a white table cloth, set with crystal goblets and heavy white china marked with the Air Force emblem.
The smell of food was heavy in the air and my mouth began to literally water with expectant delight. I sat at the table selected on the chair that the Maitre’d held out for me, and slowly unrolled the heavy linen napkin. I looked around in wonder. I had been in the field for over 7 months, nearly the whole time bathing in streams, and eating cold “C” rations. I had thought that getting the chance of actually heating my food over a heat tab was a pretty good meal. Now, here I was, unexpectedly sitting in glorious surroundings in air conditioned splendor contemplating a wine list that had been handed to me by Ti ti. I had a hard time thinking what to ask first.
Except for the staff of 3 in the dining room, there was no one else present.
I will never forget what I had that day. A waiter (a waiter in a mess hall!) brought out onion soup, and a pitcher of clear ice water, followed by a huge bowl of salad with two types of lettuce and tomatoes with garlic croutons.
This was followed by a sorbet, then a glass of red wine with the entree.
The entree was brought out by an new waiter. He laid before me a plate that was covered with a thick steak. Mushrooms and onion rings smothered the whole thing. Peas and carrots were on a small plate next to the main one and a baked potato with sour cream, chives and butter were on hand next to that.
I asked for a final boon.... did they, by chance have any milk. Perhaps just one glass? I had had an unnatural craving for milk for over a month. The waiter chuckled and brought in a glass pitcher containing at least a gallon of milk, rich and foamy at the top, sitting on a bowl of ice. He set two thick glass mugs that had been frozen in front of both of us. I felt as though tears were coming to my eyes.
With out further adieu we fell to our feast. We ate in silence for at least 15 minutes before I could stop long enough to ask Ti ti, how in the heck he had found this place, and could we expect to be thrown out of here at any second.
Ti ti laughed and explained that this so called “mess hall” was a special dining room for the operators of the radio dishes that were all over this small compound.
The other buildings that looked the same as this one where the control rooms and barracks’ of the crews. They were all versions of the mess hall unit, and had been flown here as a package the previous year. He guffawed “You don’t think the Air Force is going to go to war like a bunch of savages do you? This compound is full of officers for the electronics and secret projects that go on here. You can bet that they aren’t going to starve.” He also explained that we had come in after most of the crew had eaten since this was a 24 hour mess hall, and only served about 200 people per meal. Finally he told me that he knew most of the guys that worked here and had an arrangement. I knew better than to ask what that arrangement was.
We finished our meal, and sat smoking cigars that Ti ti had produced from his shirt pocket. I really didn’t like them, but this dining experience definitely called for the complete package. We finally left sated and for me truly in wonder at our privilege. I was driven back to our area, and slept the afternoon away in the medic bunker.