Tom first met Useless in the rainy, damp, stinking quagmire of monsoon season in Vietnam, where you could and did remain wet for weeks on end. Useless was normal looking except for his overly blond hair, Mid-western accent and acne face. The Vietnamese girls use to say he was funny looking because of his hair, " you funny looking, you got yellow hair, you number ten" and giggle.
Although he was a corporal, he carried no weight as a leader. He had reduced himself to just a private with corporals pay. The people in charge would exacerbate this image by having him do many of the menial and shit jobs usually reserved for new guys and privates. Tom at first called his new friend by his real name Bill, but when Useless refused to recognize or respond to this name, Tom said. "ok, Useless it is," although Tom reeled in revulsion at the name, especially when he found out how he had gotten it.
Useless had been like this since he was in charge of a minesweeping team clearing a road south of Da Nang of mines and booby traps. Unfortunately the team missed a mine and a truck hit it later that day, killing and wounding fifteen. Fifteen dead and wounded was too much for him, and he blamed himself. The story goes that the officer in charge of his platoon had chewed him out pretty bad over the incident and had called him useless and thus renamed him Useless. Everyone called him that and after a while it became a self'fullfilling prophecy.
Useless was bitch'in, "all the lifer's are gone. They went to Da Nang to celebrate the birthday. They're all getting boom-boom,drunk and gambling, and we're stuck in this stinking place with no beer or dry clothes and I stink like the jungle and it won't stop raining."
Tom knew about his friends plight, feeling the same way he claimed to smell worse. "I smell worse than the scum between your smelly toes and I'm so gross that I can smell myself. Did you see me yesterday morning after guard duty in the mud hole with the bugs?" I woke up covered with mud and bugs all over me and I walked around like that until I was told to clean up."
Otis says to Tom, "you ain't the smelliest one around here, I am. I smell like a water buffalo, and I don't brush my teeth because that way no occifer's will come close to me, never mind tell me what to do personally." Tom always tried to raise Useless's morale. "If anyone called me useless we would tangle. If it was an officer I would tell him to kiss my ass, and if a big stupid six foot five incher called me that I'd make him beat me up so I could bleed on him."
Useless always just smiled when Tom started bragging, and lying and chuck'n and jive'n. He knew Tom was a scoundrel and just like to show off, he really wasn't the violent type.
Otis and Tom were friends also. Otis like the way Tom packed his cigarettes. He would always mix Winston's with Salem's to please his friends if they ran out of smokes and besides he enjoyed all types of cigarettes himself. "Useless is right on about those lifer's and their partying. Only real losers would stay in the service for twenty years, and that's because they couldn't hack it on the outside in the real world," Otis lamented.
"I'd drink to that if I had a beer to drink." said Tom.
Tom liked the way Otis wrote letters to his girl friends. He started one off by writing, "Time permits me and pleasure demands me to write these sweet words of blissmentality to you." Otis was from Virginia. "Tom's the company scrounge, you'd think he could find some beer or something." Useless said in a taunting and daring way. That's right Useless, Tom's always messing with the man and getting away with it although that's why he's still a private, ha, ha, ha." Otis said in an admiring and joking way.
Tom's forte' whether off duty or on was mischief, partying and in/out competence. He applied that competence creatively in his demolition work and his private adventures._
November 10th is a very special day in the Marine corps. Tom grimaced to himself, "they brainwashed us in boot camp to never forget the day in 1775 when in Tun's tavern in Philly the Marine corps was born. That why all the lifer's are partying in Da Nang. Why don't we go down to the lifer's bunker. I hear that they have about 30 cases of beer down there. Lets steal some and celebrate the birthday. If we give a beer to everyone in the squad no one will snitch and besides if we get caught we could play up to the lifer's and their love of the corps and how we wanted some beer to drink to celebrate the birthday." "And besides" said in a truly twisted attempt at justifing his stealing to his friend's, "you don't know how bad they screwed us up yet. They call you Useless and you don't care, and I'm told am untrainable like I'm some dog or something. Lets do it."
"Ya man, remember when the Gunny told Tom, this is the United States Marine Corps and not your private street gang, you 18 year old maggot."
Useless just shook his head because he was amazed at the way Tom could make up excuses to justify his illegal acts. He also knew that things happened when Tom acted that way.
The fire base was a sandbag and barbed wire town with lots of mud and mosquitoes. It was cleaner than some and dirtier than others. Things had been quiet for a while since the bombing halt and "the V. C. always seemed to attack on their holidays and not on ours" thought Tom. "Besides the base is big enough to hide in and have a party."
Tom was scheming. "I helped build that sandbag monument that the lifer's live in. Every sandbag is perfect and it could take a direct hit and the people and the beer inside wouldn't even know it. The base is practically deserted except for essential personnel and all the officers are gone too. So lets get some beer. Tom didn't know it at the time but he had leadership ability. Little would he know that a year later and much more mature he would be a real leader.
"Useless, you keep an eye out, Otis you help me carry the beer and Mike you too.
Mike was from Connecticut, "probably from the dumbest family in the state" thought Tom, because of the way Mike's demeanor and vulgar ways always got him in trouble. Mike and Otis loved to verbally joust, like the time when Mike said to Otis "come over here so I can use your head for a Brillo pad to clean my rifle." Otis would call him a "White Jackass" and a "Fool."
The entrance to the bunker was paved so the lifer's could keep the inside clean and control the always present mud. Tom entered first, shining his light. Spit-shined boots glistened in the lights beam. "Shined boots in this place," Tom thought to himself in a contemptuous way. Naked women adored the place, sharing the wall space with State and American flags, and the cots were made up neatly with hospital corners on them. Tom shined the light to the far wall. "Look at all that beer, look, at all that fuckin' beer, look Budweiser too!" There was a mountain of beer, all perfectly stacked, neat like everything else in the place. "Lets just take four or five cases. Let's not be greedy. Maybe there'll be confused or accuse each other of drinking too much. I'll grab two cases you and Otis grab one."
"Its all clear, move out now," said Useless standing up on his tip toes looking like a mongoose or a big prairie dog."Ha ha ha ha ha I can't believe this is happening" Tom thought as he sneaked back to his area.
" I'm good at sneaking around and being quiet and moving fast," he told Otis later. "I learned that from growing up in the city and in all them brick building's where you 'd never know who or what you'd run into. I could sneak around and over trouble by speed and silence and in my Desert boots no one could hear me."
"Man you are different. I always wore Italian shoes that made a lot of noise. What are these Desert boots you always talk about," asked Otis. Mike butts in, "Desert boots wouldn't match your shark skin suits and funny looking hats with feathers in them."
"Hey man shut your face, I'm talking to Tom, not you Jack Ass."_
"Let's get a fire going to get warm and if it stops raining maybe we can get dry tonight for a change. Otis give some beer to everyone so no one will fink on us. I'll open the first one, where's the church key. Hey Useless lets have a beer drinking race, ready, set, go." Useless sucked down the beer like a suction pump. "Useless beat me, I can't believe it, two seconds for a can, your the new champ. Hey Otis, can you get some sounds. You know I like the Beatles but I never hear them on the radio here. I like John Lennon the best because he's got an attitude problem just like me. He likes to play on words in songs you know, but I like your music too. Play some tunes bro."
The cheap record player still worked and the needle was good. Otis had mostly soul records but the songs went well with the beer. "Who's making love to your old lady while you were out making love." Useless changed the words to the songs, "Who's making love to your old lady, while you were out with Mama San" and "Wild Thing you make my heart sing, he changed to, " Wild Thing you make my thing spring."
It was fun to watch Useless bite the tops off beer cans. Useless loved to open cans with his teeth, especially when he had a few too many beers, as was the case tonight. The beer was flowing and the party growing. The music played, "Expressway to your heart," "I bet you wonder how I knew about your plans to make me blue, I heard it through the grape vine."The beer was having it desired affect. People were relaxing and their tongues were loosening.Tom was talking, "Hey Useless you know I screw up a lot, I got caught sleeping on guard duty. I could have had my throat slit by some V.C. or they could have gotten in the base and killed a lot of people, but I was lucky. I got off lightly because the dude I was with had done the Captain a favor in a law suit when he was stationed in California. He was sleeping too, so they couldn't punish me to badly without doing the same to him.
You know don't you that of all the road sweeps I've been on we've only found one mine the easy way, the rest were found by tanks and trucks blowing up. We rechecked a road after a tank hit a mine and found a rock mine. They look like big twenty pound rocks and there's no metal in them so the mine detectors won't pick them up, and sometimes the civilians put them in the road after we go by. I told the lieutenant about it, but he won't listen to me, so when the road traffic goes boom I blame him. The road sweeps I was involved in destroyed one tank, one amtrack , a jeep, a five ton truck and an oil tanker truck, all American." Did you ever notice that no officer's ever go out on a sweep, maybe they think it's too dangerous or something," making unfair remarks about officer's fitting to his rank of Private.
"Hey Otis the fires going out and I can't find anymore wood so why don't you burn that book of your's Soul On Ice by. Eldridge Cleavage, he's going to be rich and then he's gonna be one of them, he'll be the "man". Just like my daddy told me before he ran away, it don't matter who you are, if you got the money, because money talks." The beer was talking now and not Tom. Otis shot back. "If all those white folks that went to Harvard University and places like that are all so dammed intelligent how come the world's so screwed up?"
"Intelligent but savage, burp," snarled Tom._
The party waned as the last of the beer was consumed. The rain had stopped and the fire had dried their clothes as they stood around it, and Useless was acting strange.
"Happy Birthday Useless" yelled Tom.