Mike Derrig: The Road from Cambodia to Portland, Maine

Mike concluded his story with a final burst of email:

“Before the litter basket dropped through the jungle, and I was hoisted to the medevac bird, some of the guys came by and said, “You lucky bastard. That’s a million-dollar wound and you’re going home.” Little did I know they were right. It wasn’t long before I was in Saigon.

“The first thing the doc’s did was X–ray my stomach because the lead from the bullet was stuck to my skin. The X–rays showed a piece of metal in my guts. The surgeons needed to remove my large and small intestines and find the metal before it punctured them. They did that, and couldn’t find anything.” [Afterward, Mike’s large and small intestines were put back in place].

“A week later, as I’m lying in a hospital bed, I ran my finger across my stomach and felt a little bump. The impact of the AK bullet had popped a rivet from the M60 into the muscle wall of my stomach. After that operation, before I was shipped to a field hospital in Japan to remove the bullet in my elbow, a nurse in Saigon asked me if I wanted that bullet for a keepsake. Stupidly, I said ‘No.’ Fortunately one of the guys in my platoon had walked over to the tree where the NVA had hidden and brought back the AK cartridge, which I still have today.”

“In Japan, all the wounded guys—and there were plenty of wounded, stayed in a big, open barracks-style ward. The surgeon who removed the bullet from my elbow—a major, said I was lucky. When the bullet hit me, it was spent. I said I didn’t think it was spent, because at that time I didn’t know yet about the second AK round nicking off the machine gun. He said a bullet fired at that close range would have blown my arm off. Here was another opinion—from a major, that the bullets were not fired from 70 yards away. Not like what the cocksucker Lieutenant Green had said.

“While I was healing up, I met another wounded guy, Richie Muscatello, a really good dude, and an 11 Bravo, from Brooklyn, New York. I said, ‘Richie, where’d you get hit?’ and he said, ‘I didn’t get hit.’ I said, ‘Then what are you doing here?’ and he said, ‘I had my hemorrhoids removed.’

“I almost fell out of bed laughing. No shit. All these wounded guys, and he’s in Japan getting his hemorrhoids fixed.”

“After a couple of weeks, one day a lifer lieutenant colonel came to the ward. He said to me, ‘I’m sending you back to Vietnam.’ I said, ‘Really?’ I told him a grunts pack weighs 70 pounds, and I just had stomach surgery a couple of weeks ago, blah, blah, blah. He basically said ‘Tough shit, you’re going back.’ I told the major who operated on me what the lifer said, and the major, who was not a lifer, said,  ‘I’m your doctor and your going home.’ Needless to say, I was thrilled. I had a bad feeling about my chances if I was sent back.”

“My next stop was a hospital ward in Ft. Devens, Massachusetts. I got there no worries, checked in, and had an automatic thirty-day leave due to getting shot. A month later I went to my bunk and locker, and spent the next two months hanging around in hospital PJs, basically doing anything I wanted to. On weekends I hitched home to Portland, Maine, one hundred miles away. Pretty quickly, I found out that being a short-haired GI in New England was not easy. I hardly ever got a ride thumbing in my uniform. No shit. Even without the uniform, my short hair was a dead giveaway, and it took six-hours for a three-hour ride. Even at home, nobody gave a fuck—where I’d been. That was very disappointing. But that’s the way it was.

“One day at Devens, a Spec 4 came to me. He said an E-7 sergeant wants to see me and he’s pissed. I go to the sergeant’s office and he says, ‘Derrig, you’ve been fucking me for three months and I’m going to stick it up your ass.’ I asked, ‘Fucking you how?’ He said after my thirty-day leave I was supposed to report for a fitness-for-duty exam, and I never did. I said, ‘With all due respect, how the fuck was I supposed to know that I had a fitness-for-duty exam? Nobody told me jack shit.’ I said, ‘You’re only a two-minute walk from me. Why didn’t someone tell me this shit?’

“For real, I had no idea about a fitness exam, so needless to say my ass was out of there shortly, and I was sent to Ft McNair, Washington, DC. Still, I’d had a thirty-day leave and two months of gravy, and I loved it. At Ft McNair, my orders were to go to Ft. Myers, in Arlington,Virginia, to join the honor guard. But an E- 7 sergeant said, ‘What am I going to do with you now? You can’t go.’ I asked why.  To my surprise, he said I had an Article 15. I said, ‘An Article 15? For what’ He said I was three days late for my arrival time in Vietnam. I said, ‘You’re shitting me.’ Infantry, Vietnam, and they’re busting my balls with an Article 15 for being three days late? Fucking bullshit is what that is.”

“A Spec 4, listening in, said, ‘Since I’m out of here in a week, Derrig can have my job.’ The E-7 said to me, ‘Okay. You take his job until I straighten this out.’ Turns out this Spec 4 was in charge of the BOQ, the bachelors officers quarters, for the National War College, which is located at Ft McNair. I was in charge of a four-storey brick building which housed big shot brass who were never home. I had my own room, just like them. I had two maids who did all the cleaning—all I had to do was buff the floors.”

“During this time, I went to New York and met up with Richie Muscatello, the 11 Bravo I’d met in Japan. We smoked weed, drank beer and tried to get laid. Richie took me to Fillmore East for a big rock and roll concert—we had a great weekend.”

“One day, 8:30 A.M., there’s a knock at my door in the BOQ. I answer it in my underwear. A colonel says, ‘Hey, Mike. Can you replace a light bulb in my room?’ I say, ‘No problem, sir!’ I ain’t even bull shitting. Can you believe it? Fucking A! It was beautiful!”

“Even so, I got the same brush-off in big shot Georgetown as I did in Maine, in Massachusetts, and New York. I walk into a bar with short hair and GI written all over me, the bartender fucking ignored me. Finally, I walk down to him and order a beer. He reluctantly pours it, and walks away. Fucking cock sucker’s is what they were. Sorry for the language—but they pissed me off then, and it still pisses me off. Goddamn baby boomers of our own generation is what they were, and still are. Cold shoulder is what I got. No spit-in-the-face bullshit, just the cold shoulder, which is just as bad.”

“My beautiful gravy train ended four months after it started, when I was shipped to Ft. Hood, Texas, to finish my final six months of service. In reality, it was half that—I got a three- month early out due to a college letter of acceptance.”

“Ft. Hood, in the middle of nowhere, hit all shit hole checkpoints. Killeen, Texas, the town just outside the gates, was just like every other suck-hole Army town–filled with pawnshops, used car lots, dive bars, and citizens who only want your money.”

“I was assigned to a headquarters company which I didn’t even know existed. Sgt. Briscoe told me my job was to empty the waste baskets, and to make and serve coffee to the shitload of REMF officers who each day bravely manned their desks. As I look back on it, I was kind of a dick, telling Sgt. Briscoe that I’d empty the wastebaskets, but those desk jockey motherfuckers can make and serve their own coffee. Kind of ballsy, but I wasn’t thinking straight. At that time in 1971 the army wanted to get rid of the draftees, and the draftees wanted to be rid of the army—so anything went, I guess. A bad time for all. But at least I got to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

“After three days Briscoe called me into his office and told me to get out; he never wanted to see me again. I said, ‘Where am I going to go? I have three months left.’ He said he didn’t give a shit where I went or what I did. ‘Just leave.’ So I did. I fucked around every day, playing basketball, and doing what twenty-one year olds did in the army back then: drink beer, smoke pot, and try to get laid.

One night, me and two buddies thumbed sixty miles to Austin, home to the University of Texas. We went to a college bar drinking venue held outside. We and our short-haired selves were sitting among the beautiful, peace-loving, long-haired, college students when one of us accidentally knocked over and spilled our pitcher of beer. The manager came over and said, ‘You gotta go.’ I said, ‘Why? It was an accident. No big deal.’ He said he didn’t want any trouble, and that we had to leave or he’d call the cops. We told him to go fuck himself in no uncertain terms, loud enough for all to hear. I guess those college kids didn’t like to be reminded that some of us young American’s—who couldn’t or didn’t get deferments—had to do the shit work, while they all partied.

Another time, a guy from one barracks over, from Syracuse, NY, says, ‘Mike, you want to get laid?’ I said, ‘What twenty year old in Texas doesn’t want to get laid? And just how are we gonna do that?’ This dude had a car, which was a rarity, and he said, ‘Let’s go. I’ll show you how, because I’ve been to this place before.'”

“We drove two hours to LaGrange, Texas and pulled up to a white ranch house, and he said, ‘We’re here.’ So we knock on the door, and a nice lady opens it, she says, ‘Hey y’all, come on in.” I said to her, ‘How does this work? It’s my first time here.’ And she said, ‘When you see the girl you like—you just say ‘Hi’ to her.’ We sit down in the parlor and around seven nice looking women come out. I went up to one of them and said, ‘Hi’ and she answered, ‘You want to buy me a coke?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ paid a dollar, bought her a Coke, and we went to her room. I asked her what are the prices, and she said, ‘Fifteen dollars for a date, and twenty dollars for a throw and a blow.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll have a date.’

After our date I walked back to the parlor. I didn’t see my friend, so I went outside and he was sitting in the car. I asked him how he did, and he said he didn’t, and I asked why. He said he bitched about the price so they threw his ass out. I couldn’t believe it. We drive over a hundred miles to a nice whorehouse and he bitched about the price. But here’s the thing: in the early 80’s there was a Broadway show, ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,’ that became a hit movie, starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton. It was based on the Chicken Ranch, in LaGrange, Texas, the high point of my tour at Ft Hood.

I was honorably discharged on June 1, 1971. I have a wonderful wife and four kids. I hope every person I have ever met or served with those many years ago finds peace and happiness in this life. I’m out.


top photo: On the Beach–Mike Derrig with his wife and kids and grand kids.