By Mike Austin (196th LIB 71-2) &
Don Dunnington (101st Airborne 69-70)
Copyright 1993

Author note: The following events were taken from my unpublished memoirs Talons of Fire, and happened when I was flying a Cobra helicopter gunship with the hunter-killer teams of the air-cav in 1972 in Quang Nam province. It illustrates that combat and bad weather weren't the only concerns for the pilots and crews. Sloppy maintenance could kill as easily as a bullet. Again, I have changed all names except my own to protect the innocent or guilty.

"Three fuel loads and nary a dink," Captain Small lamented as we hovered into POL. In fact, I had grown so bored during the last recon, I only half-watched the Little Bird (scout), while putting my heavy attention on daydreams about the World. My body was buzzing around a few thousand feet above Quang Nam Province, but my mind was back in Denver last August.

"I still can't believe you're going," C.J. had said for the fifteenth time, pouring my glass brim-full of Blue Nun. She and her sister Laura were throwing a going-away party for me at her house on Cherry Street. The living room was crowded with hippie types who went out of their way to make me feel welcome, despite the disfigurement of my military haircut. One girl, dressed in a revealing mini-skirt and halter top, hung a strand of beads around my neck and planted a big kiss on my lips. A stocky black man named Bub flashed a peace sign while he danced to a bluesy tune. His woman was wearing an outrageously huge Angela Davis hairdo. I still wonder how she ever squeezed all that hair through the neck of her tie-dyed tee-shirt.

Reaching behind the couch, I opened the window to dilute the haze of cigarettes, strawberry incense and marijuana, a typical atmosphere for just about any party I'd been to since 1968. Laura plopped down on the sofa beside me and put her arms around my neck. I was enjoying the attention as guest of honor.

Since meeting her and C.J. two years before, I had developed a close, but so far platonic relationship with the sisters, even bunking over at their place a few times on my frequent visits to the city, which I took every chance I could get away from the farm in western Kansas. This was to be our last get together for a very long time, and Laura looked especially spicy in her tight jeans and skimpy black lace top. I pulled her closer as we shared a goblet of wine.

C.J. was sitting in the corner, obviously annoyed with her boyfriend. I had ignored the tall, bushy-haired hippie with staring eyes, finding him downright unpleasant to be around.

"How'd she get hooked up with that prick anyway?" I asked Laura.

"He's just some bad news that drifted in from Houston awhile back. I hate him, but C.J. still hangs on."

C.J.'s voice grew loud. "I said he's COOL, so what's your fuckin' problem, Rob?" she demanded. Embarrassed at the abrupt silence in the room, Rob glanced nervously at me and then said something to her in a harsh, low voice before swearing and walking away. The background murmur resumed as C.J. came over to refill my glass.

"Hassle?" I asked.

"Don't pay any attention to him. He's just paranoid because he..."

"C.J.!" Rob's shout caused her to pause mid-sentence, but the party drinks had loosened her tongue too much to stop now.

"...he deserted from the Army last fall while he was on leave to go to Nam. Now he's paranoid 'cause he knows you're an officer and all. He actually thinks you might turn him in!" she laughed. My eyes shot involuntarily toward the man, who pivoted away and pretended to converse with Bub, still grooving in his own little world. I suddenly felt very sober. And angry. And I definitely didn't want to remain in the same room as Rob.

"Thanks again for the party, but I need to be going," I said as warmly as possible.

"Mind if I get a ride home?" Laura asked, grabbing her purse to follow me out.

C.J. gave me a long hug at the door. "It's Rob, isn't it?"

"You deserve better."

"I know... take care of yourself. See you in a year or so." There were tears in her eyes.

I waved one last time as we drove off, sneaking a long look at Laura. "You up for a cruise to the mountains?" The pretty, brown-eyed brunette smiled, and, without speaking, cranked up the stereo volume as we sped out of town on I-70.

Finding a pull-off on the side of Lookout Mountain, I shut off the ignition and walked over to sit on a boulder. I was perched precariously close to the edge of a cliff face, overlooking the city below. Laura joined me with a bottle of wine. Denver's blanket of lights shimmered in the warm August night, setting an electric blaze across a thousand miles of plains. A thousand million stars pierced the thin, clean air. I grabbed her hand. It was a perfect night. In a perfect place. With a perfect woman.

My thoughts kept wandering to a place I had not yet seen. A place where I'd be counting the next 365 days of my life, until the day when I might return to a moment like this. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but the feeling of perfection came from that knowledge seldom revealed to nineteen-year-old boys that there may never be another moment for me like this.

Holding onto one another, we talked about everything on our minds, sharing our intimate dreams, our fears, until the sky brightened with dawn. As I drove her home, I was surprised at myself that I could spend such a pleasurable, even exciting, night with a woman without having sex.

The only excitement today had come while waiting at LZ Baldy for a B-52 arc light to go into the nearby Que Sons, after which we were to perform a bomb damage assessment, BDA. We had been standing out on the pad killing time in the usual grab-ass fashion, when the ground began to shake. We looked up to see 500 pound bombs rippling along the side of Nui Ral Lua barely three miles away. The steep terrain gave the explosions a Fourth of July air-burst quality, magnified a million times over. It was the most awesome man-made event I had ever witnessed.

We were cranked and on-station in moments, flying through the smoky aftermath, hoping to find a mess of dead NVA or VC. Instead, all we found were craters of raw earth sprinkled with vaporized flora and fauna. There was no way to tell if they had hit anything. As the saying went, B-52's didn't leave bodies. Only tiny pieces of bodies.

In POL, I opened the front canopy door and made sure the fire-extinguisher was ready before taking the controls and rolling the throttle back to flight-idle while Small crawled out the back to refuel. The backseat always did the "hot" refuels, when the engine was left running, because the filler cap was on the right side near his hatch. Had he remained seated, he would have to exit through the flames if there were a fire. The copilot was better protected, being further forward and with a left hand exit.

I was glad we had finished the boxes early and looked forward to going back to the hooch for a nap before heading off to the club later in the evening. For the first time since the drunken binge over my twentieth birthday February first, I felt like having a few cold ones. Small twisted and snapped the lock down on the fuel cap, pounding it lightly with his fist a couple times to make sure it was seated. Then he unclipped the ground wire from the skid-toe and dragged the cumbersome, heavy hose back to the side of the pad in sections; a chore many compared to moving a pregnant python. A burst of engine noise, accompanied with the thick smell of burning kerosene, blasted from the back of the cockpit as he opened the canopy and climbed in.

"Take us to parking," he said, still adjusting his harness.

By now, I enjoyed the challenge of hovering using the stubby controls in the front seat of the Cobra, and nothing was as difficult to do in a helicopter as the hover, where airspeed and altitude met as close to zero as possible; yet it could still be called flight. The day was unusually warm for February, and the Snake rose heavily, gorged with fuel and ammunition. After turning on the taxiway that led to the revetments, Small took control again. A slight downwind breeze nudged our tail, causing the Snake to settle toward the ground. Small pulled more power into the blades to hold us up as he slowed and started the left pedal turn into the revetment. I heard a pop from the rear of the aircraft. Suddenly my helmet smashed into the side of the canopy and everything started spinning.

The tail rotor had failed, allowing the torque of the main rotor blades to twist the airframe in the opposite direction out of control. The near corner of the revetment wall flashed past the nose as the turn progressed, and I felt the high-centered Cobra make a sickening sideways tilt as we pirouetted around the right skid-toe. "We're going over on our side and this sonofabitch is going to self-destruct. Cut the fucking throttle," my mind screamed as the blades whirled at over five-hundred miles-an-hour just a few feet above the ground. The twisting abruptly slowed as Small chopped the throttle back to idle, but we continued to dance around the skid for another quarter of a turn before the ship rocked back hard on its heels.

After shutting down on the taxiway, we crawled out to have a look. A deep circular gash exposed the honeycombed aluminum interior of the vertical fin at the end of the tailboom. The blades swung freely in my hands; the 90-degree gearbox having been stripped by the sudden stoppage.

"I'll be dipped in shit, maintenance must've rigged the pitch wrong," Small said, as he poked a finger into the cut and examined the pitch-change links which were still safe-tied. They had been adjusted with too much angle in the blades. That allowed the tail rotor to hit the side of the fin it was mounted on when full left pedal was applied, as Small had done during the left turn in a downwind hover. Staff Sergeant Holden and two of his men trotted out from the maintenance hangar.

"Hate to tell you two sirs this, but that there qualifies as a major accident," Holden said after inspecting the damage. "She's gonna' need a whole new tailboom."

Accident ratings were based solely on the dollar value of their repair, and it would be expensive replacing the tailboom on the Cobra. Even though it wasn't our fault, we would have the stigma of "major accident" stamped on our flight records to follow us around for the rest of our military flying careers.

"Gordon, Cortez, grab a dolly and get this pig to the shop," Holden barked. The two maintenance specialists trotted back toward the cavernous hangar for the ground-handling equipment.

My roommate Dick was still at the airfield doing maintenance flight checks, so I had the hooch to myself when I got back. I sat on the edge of my bunk, just beginning to comprehend how far we'd traveled in the neighborhood of disaster without becoming another war statistic. If the tail rotor had failed a few seconds later, when we were hovering into the tight revetment, we would have crashed into its steel walls, and who could say what might have happened after that. The adage that war was hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror described the day perfectly.

The evening was cooling off as I listened to a tape of the Moody Blues and finished a letter to a friend in college.

Dick entered the door, cradling a large cardboard box in his arms. "Guess what we got today?"

We? Who would send anything for the both of us? I walked over to examine the parcel. Former roomie Wayne's return address from the States was visible and the package seemed heavy by the way he carried it. Placing it gently on the table, he pulled the top flaps apart.

"Holy shit, a case of Michelob! In bottles no less!"

We divided the beer evenly on separate shelves of the refrigerator our hooch was blessed with. "Not a word to anybody," I said, replacing the padlock through the log-chain draped across the door. We had gotten into the habit of locking it because of camp mooches who were getting a little too generous with our food and drink when we were away flying. The worst offender was Captain Gretchan, who would ask for a beer and take three back to his hooch, even when we were home. He was so bad, in fact, I had gotten into the habit of carrying an old pack of smokes around the flightline because he bummed so many. The harsh, dried out Camels would flame and crackle like a prairie-grass fire when he lit them, but he feigned contentment as long as they were free, which irritated me to no end considering how cheap cigarettes and beer were in Vietnam on a captain's pay.

And the stuff they passed off as beer in Vietnam was truly horrendous. Packaged in steel cans and shipped by the boat load, it sat stacked in pallets, baking in the sun for weeks or months before being distributed into the system. By the time we received it in the PX or club, the flat, tasteless brew was enough to gag a man. Fresh brew in bottles was worth its weight in gold. I stripped down to my underwear and headed off to the showers while the beer cooled down.

Only one shower was running as I entered. I brushed a cockroach away and placed my shaving kit on the small wooden ledge over a sink, pulling my shorts off. A valve squeaked when the person inside shut off the water. As I turned the corner, I was stunned to see a woman drying her hair.

She was pretty, and round-eyed, and... Jesus, have to cover myself. I jerked the towel tight around my waist, feeling my face flush with embarrassment. She smiled and brushed past me on her way out. I stared at her slender legs and the tight outline of her butt until she disappeared from view. My heart was beating a thousand times a minute.

Who was she? And what was she doing in our shower?

Instead of the long soak I'd anticipated, I quickly scrubbed and rinsed, all the while keeping my back to the opening and my towel within reach just in case another woman decided to bathe. I was still dripping when I got back to the hooch.

"Christ o'mighty, Dick, you wouldn't believe what just happened to me in the shower! I walk in, strip off and run right into a round-eyed woman drying herself off!"

His crooked smile and rolling eyes said he did not believe a word I was saying.

"I shit you not, Dick! She was gorgeous, too!"

"Yeah, and there's prime rib at the club, and the movie's Easy Rider tonight."

"Damnit, I ain't lying!" Dick could see I was getting angry with him for thinking I'd made it up.

"She American?" he asked more sincerely.

"What else could she be besides Australian?"

"Heard there was a German hospital ship docked in Da Nang for awhile. Some of the guys saw their nurses drinking at the airbase club one day. Was there long hair on her legs or armpits?"

"I dunno. Wasn't looking at her armpits. Why?"

"Some European women don't shave."

"That's gross! I'd've noticed a bush under her arms, so she must be American. But where did she come from?"

"Maybe a nurse somebody brought home for the night. It happens, you know. Just not to guys like you or me, or anybody else I know for that matter." Dick opened the fridge and produced two brown bottles. "This calls for real beer."

I grabbed at the bottle, and the smooth glass slipped through my fingers, nearly falling to the floor before I managed to catch it with the other hand. Now it was as shook up as I was, thinking about the woman in the shower. I traded for another.

"Ahhh, nectar of the gods," he pronounced after taking the first pull. I couldn't agree more. This was probably the best that a beer had ever tasted in my life. We sipped slowly, relishing every mouthful of hops and barley, letting the bubbles gently caress our throats with each swallow.

"I don't give a damn what they say, that guy's all right. Here's to Wayne and The World!" We clanked bottles and drank deeply. "And to the Shower Goddess!"

Combined with the heavenly brew, Laura's sweet memory earlier today mingled with images of the Shower Goddess in my mind, mellowing me as never before in Vietnam.

What tail rotor?

Copyright 1993
By Mike Austin, Blue Ghost 23 (196th LIB 71-2) &
Don Dunnington (101st Airborne 69-70)