Sure We Had Air conditioners!

Will Stafford

Vietnam is one of those places in the world where an air conditioner will always fetch a premium, if you can find one.

In 1970 I was back for another tour and had been assigned as a pilot in a Chinook company with the 101st Airborne (Airmobile) Division. I thought I had landed in the lap of luxury when I arrived at the company. They had real wooden two man hootches for the officers and four man hootches for SSGs and above (well, the First Shirt and CO had one man hootches). My previous tour had been as a gunship pilot down in II Corp and for practically the entire tour we lived in some really rag patched tents. As far as I was concerned, these living conditions were as close as you get to luxury.

They put me in a hootch with a guy named John McGraw. John was an interesting character. He was on his third six month extension in-country and had the paper work in for a fourth. This told me right away that I was rooming with some kind of hero or he was a flaming nut. It turned out that the latter was the case. John was really a good guy to room with though. He had a world-class collection of Playboy magazines, a great tape deck with four speakers, hated Ike and Tina Turner's version of Proud Mary, a well developed sense of humor, didn't mind sharing his booze, and he kept his two thirds of the shack clean (since I was the new guy, I only got a third of the place).

John only had two faults. First, every night before we turned in, John would recite the things of his I could have when he didn't come back the next day. He was certain he was going to get shot down every time he went out. We would even go through the ritual when he and I were scheduled to fly together. I asked him once why he kept extending and his answer was that the money was great, he liked flying, he didn't have any family and every time he extended he got thirty days R&R. For his R&R, he always picked places where there were lots of hookers. John didn't just like hookers, John LOVED hookers. The part about hookers is not, in my opinion a fault, perhaps some may say it is a character flaw and I will grudgingly agree, but it certainly isn't a fault. The fault was his constant talk about crashing.

John's second fault was his obsession with air conditioning the hootch. I learned from some of the other pilots that his obsession had started when he and his crew had gotten weathered in at some Air Force airfield and they were put up in an air conditioned Quonset hut for the night. That was it for John. He had to have an air conditioner. He was no longer satisfied with fans. I even tried to help by rigging a Rube Goldberg looking cooling humidifier. Leave it to a pilot to come up with the bright idea to make a humidifier in a place with 98% humidity. It took us less than a week to figure out that I had actually invented a mildew factory right there inside the hootch. Look, I said I was a pilot, not a rocket scientist.

I had been in the company for about a month and a half when John asked me go with him to battalion headquarters. He had located an air conditioner and was going to buy it. Actually you hardly ever bought stuff like that. You traded for it. In this case, John gave up a highly prized flight jacket which some people may find surprising, but during the rainy season it gets cold. OK, relatively cold for Vietnam. He also had come up with three cases of LRRP rations. Now it shouldn't surprise anyone, especially the guys on fire bases where some of their rations went. For these, John became the proud owner of an air conditioner. When I say air conditioner, I use it in the broadest terms. It was a metal box with a motor, squirrel-cage fan, some condensing coils and wires that at one time had been an air conditioner. This thing probably hadn't seen any Freon in the past two or three years. It was shown to us in an air conditioned medical facility (the battalion flight surgeon's NCOIC was selling it). I tried to convince John that it was just blowing the cool air around that was already there in the building. It was no use. John felt cool air blowing in his face and when his eyes glazed over I knew he was in love. Naturally when we got it back to the hootch it didn't work. There was a short period of trying to get the bartered flight jacket back (no need to try for the LRRPs, those were easy to come by) which failed.

John's next idea sounded more promising. He said for his next extension R&R, which was coming up in a couple of weeks, he would go to T'aipei where there were some really really great hookers and while he was there he would buy an air conditioner. He figured a few bribes and he could get it back to the company and we would have an air conditioned hootch. At this point I guess I had probably been in country long enough because I began to believe it might work.

After announcing his intentions, he settled down and I didn't hear anything more about the air conditioner. No, he didn't stop giving me all his stuff before he'd go fly, but I was pretty use to that by now and who knows, maybe he would go down and it was a hell of a collection of Playboys.

Finally McGraw was off on his R&R and life settled down to the daily routine of trying to stay alive. It seemed like John was gone forever but one day I came back to the hootch and there he was and damned if there wasn't a big box in the floor with the picture of a Whirlpool 8,000 BTU air conditioner on the side. He'd done it! He had an honest to God air conditioner. We worked it out so he didn't have to fly for three days and could work on getting the beauty installed. Watching old McGraw work was a real education. He had figured out that he needed a separate line off the electric pole before it went to the hootches. He made a small cross arm out of a two by four, put two big spikes on it and then made insulators out of the necks of glass bottles. He also rigged a separate pole and cross arm with insulators to bring the electric cables down to the hole we cut in the side of the hootch. He tried to find some real electrical wire but couldn't come up with any so he substituted the GI's wire of choice, commo wire. This stuff may not have been made to carry 110 volts AC but who was I to tell John it wouldn't work. I thought it probably would and what the heck, he had a plan and so far it had worked. We got a roll of plastic, some ponchos, and a ton of cardboard and sealed the inside of the hootch. All that was left now was to splice into the electrical wire and then wire up the air conditioner.

I was scheduled to fly resupply to fire base bastogne and then do a foo gas drop out in the middle of nowhere the next day so I wouldn't be there for the maiden voyage or whatever the first gust of cold air from an air conditioner is called.

My copilot the next day was one of the funniest guys I ever met in Vietnam. His name was Sterling Beauregard Karmer III and he was from Biloxi Mississippi. Sterling had the most pronounced Southern drawl I've ever heard and talked so slow that by the time he'd get a call in to GLA for an artillery activity report, we'd already be flying under it. OK, I admit, that isn't funny but other things Sterling did were. It never seemed to matter to Sterling what was going on around him. If we were taking fire, or the weather was really bad, or we were in some kind of hover hole in the middle of the jungle, he maintained the same slow pace. Sterling talked and acted pretty much like the cartoon character Fog Horn Leghorn.

At any rate, we knocked out the resupply of FB Bastogne but during the last delivery we kicked up some cardboard, empty sandbags, ponchos and who knows what else. Several pieces went into the forward rotor and we began to pick up a pretty good lateral vibration. The Flight Engineer said we needed to take a look at it but the commander on the FB told us firmly and not very politely that he didn't want us to land and shutdown there. Stationary Chinooks on a FB were mortar magnets. So, we took her back home to look things over. This postponed the foo gas mission which didn't make us the least bit sad. None of us liked to drop that stuff. We weren't squeamish about dropping it on the bad folks, it was just that, seeing the fire it caused after the Cobras rolled in and set it off with WP rockets reminded us.......we had been carrying sixteen 55 gallon drums of the stuff in a sling beneath the aircraft. The bad guys knew what it was too so they tried to shoot holes in it. It was just one of those types of missions that takes the fun out of war. OK, so enough about the intrepid airmen and our dangerous missions. Grunts gave us very little sympathy.

We landed at Liftmaster pad and you know it, not only have we got some pretty good blade dings, we've thrown a tip cap too. We're down for the rest of the day and lucky us, no replacement aircraft. Happy faces all around. Take the stuff out of the aircraft and sneak back to the hootch. You sneak back because you're going to get your ass chewed over the blade strike. If, however, you can postpone it long enough maybe something worse will happen to take the XO's mind off the dinged up blades. As we slink past the back of the operations shack we can easily hear the company's generator going (it's a big monster).

Sterling's hootch is the first one we come to and he goes inside but comes right back out and says the power is off. Well, we know the generator is running because we can hear it. Sterling looks over at the electric pole and sure enough, the knife switch is in the off position. The logical thing to do is go turn it on.

As soon as the switch is turned on, there's a terrible racket in the direction of my hootch. It sounded like someone was beating on the corrugated roof. Sterling quickly yanked the switch off. There was a loud crash and then some softer thumps followed by a pretty loud thud as something hit the ground. Sterling and I were looking at each other, not sure if we should go look or not. It's one of those quick combat decisions pilots make when there on the ground. Do we pull out our trusty pistols and beat whatever it is to death or maybe we should just run away. While we're still trying to make up our minds to fight or flee, McGraw comes around the side of the hootch. John's lips were moving like he was trying to say something but he was just making sort of screeching, hissing noises. It was kind of funny because you knew he was trying real hard to talk but couldn't quite get his lips, teeth, and tongue to line up. There was one other problem, smoke was coming from the back of his pants.....he was on fire.

It took a while to figure out exactly what happened because McGraw wasn't any help. Anyway, we finally pieced it together. John was doing some last minute fiddling with the wiring and was on the roof of the hootch. Now old john was smart enough to turn the electricity off but not smart enough to mark the box so no one would turn it on until he was ready. He was having some trouble controlling the commo wire (that stuff does have a mind of its own at times) so he coiled the loose ends and stuck them in his back pocket. When Sterling turned he juice on, John began doing his Fred Astaire impersonation and judging only from the sounds we heard, he did a fine tap dance until......... When the electricity was cut off old McGraw collapsed and rolled down the roof which accounts for the loud crash and thumping noises we heard. When he hit the ground, that was the thud. The smoke coming from his hind side was from the still smoldering back pocket. John didn't even know he was on fire until we went over and put him out. Now, for a guy who had just been electrocuted, well not completely, John came through it pretty well. I'll admit, he was having some trouble focusing and tended to walk one step sideways for each three or four forward, he kept making funny little low volume screeching sounds, and he would occasionally tighten up all over like he was constipated. Most of these things went away in time.

John's memory of the incident never did return or at least when he finally left country six months later it hadn't come back. He could only recall being on the roof working on the wiring and then he remembered things that happened three days later. That's a little scary since he was flying as pilot in command two days after the incident. The flight surgeon looked John over and cleared him to fly but then that isn't saying much. If I remember correctly, an in-country flight physical was to open your mouth, the flight surgeon looked in and if he couldn't see daylight out the other end you were termed fit-to-fight. If there was a question about your ability, he would check to see if you could hear thunder and see lightning. If you could, then you passed so get out there, "kick the tire, light the fire, and put it in the air".

The air conditioner? Oh, we finally managed to get it working though not with commo wire and I've got to admit, life sure got a lot better with air conditioning. We also noticed that we had a lot more friends and the weekly poker game (I think it was weekly, but then it was hard to keep track of the days over there) moved from the First Sergeant's hootch to ours.

I never heard from or about John after he left country. I've always wondered if those little screeching sounds he'd occasionally make ever went away. Well, I guess on balance, semi-electrocution is a small price to pay for the comforts of air conditioning.

Copyright © 1996 Will Stafford

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Added 12/8/96