Today I’m going to tell you about how I used to be an amtrac herdsman. It will give meaning to your life. It’s a service of this column.
This was in 1966 in Camp Pendleton, CA. Yours truly was a clueless Pfc. getting ready, like thousands of other kids, to ship out for Vietnam. We didn’t know where Vietnam was. We didn’t know what the war was about. To a Marine, these were technical questions. If you needed to know, you could ask someone in Admin.
Now, you have to understand that the military is the craziest, most bizarre institution known to man. Sometimes it sounds almost reasonable. It isn’t. You find yourself in weird airplanes, and perhaps jumping out of them, or underwater in submarines like aquatic starships or roaring along in strange machines with huge guns, driven by last year’s high school seniors. Usually nobody knows what is going on. That’s so the enemy can’t predict what you will do.
I was in Amtrac School. It means “amphibian tractor.” An amtrac looks like a steel load of bread with tracks. They were something like nine feet high, eleven feet wide, and forty feet long, and never worked right because the Marine Corps never had enough parts. The idea was that if you wanted to invade in island with people shooting at you, which I usually didn’t, the Navy would drop amtracs in the water, stuffed with 37 combat-equipped infantrymen. The trac would churn madly for the beach like a slow but earnest whale and drop the front ramp. The infantry would charge out and get machine-gunned. The trac would go back to the ship and get more. It made as much sense as anything else.
Trac school, like the Corps itself, was a short course in democracy. We had drawling Mississippians from the Delta, where the air turns smoky blue over the evening fields and stillness seeps from the ground. There were black kids from Chicago, from the deep city where they said the sun didn’t shine, and clean-cut suburban Anglos like muscled Boy Scouts, and a Polack kid named something extensive like Wasloski who kept getting lovely Asian women tattooed on his forearms, and then on his upper arms. By the time we graduated he probably had them running down his back.
Every morning this cross-section of truck-stop America went down to the beaches, where the Pacific sprawled off toward China and gulls hung motionless on currents of air, and practice with the tracs. Mostly we practiced driving up and down and pulling one trac with another. We must have puzzled the gulls no end. It certainly puzzled me.
Now, an amtrac doesn’t have an open top. When you’re inside one, the noise is deafening — roar of huge gasoline engine, grinding and thumping of the tracks, squealing hydraulics, metal rattling against metal, odd whining and warbling at the high end of hearing. An amtrac was like a boat that really wanted to be a railroad car. They smelled of oil and bilges. To talk to the other two crewmen, you had to wear headphones, making you look like demented pilots trying to fly a Dempster Dumpster. A machine gun poked out of a little turret with a periscope — one of those old Browning .30 cals that reportedly sometimes worked.
You don’t fully understand the word “screwy” until you’ve been in the driver’s compartment of one of these ugly suckers, high above the sand, head poking from the steel hatch, wearing the ear phones so you look like Snoopy flying a Conex box. I remember wanting a red scarf. Anyway, one day I was supposed to drive the monster down the beach. Why, I didn’t know. Things seemed fine where we were.
So there I was, last year’s chemistry major, with a crazy Polack inside covered with Vietnamese women and a radioman named Toro Sanchez who barely spoke English. Having a communications guy who couldn’t communicate made perfect sense in the Marine Corps. We were A Few Good Men. Nobody said anything about smart, sane, or, in a few cases, even sentient. (There was a tank at Pendleton with an all-Mexican crew, which I thought of as the Sancho Panzer, that nobody could talk to at all.)
So I stomped the accelerator. Wasloski was at the periscope, hollering over the intercom, “Fire One! Fire Two!” He apparently had decided that we were a torpedo boat. As it happens, “acceleration” is not the right word for the motion of an amtrac. The things are not agile. You give it the gas, and nothing happens. After a modest interval the grinding thump of the engine takes on an agitated sound: The machinery knows it is supposed to do something. The rumble becomes a howl. Black exhaust belches forth. Finally the tracks turn.
Stripling though I was, I knew madness when I lived it: Fred Reed, former student of bonding orbitals, shepherding this thundering box, a wandering scrapyard, with Wasloski firing torpedo spreads at passing tanks and the gulls wondering whether evolution hadn’t made some terrible mistake.
Taking the beasts into the ocean was the squirrelly part. They floated only a foot or so above the water. Tracs always leaked. As seawater came in, the bilge pumps took it out. Little glass vision blocks in the sides were actually underwater. Waves broke over the top. It got spooky.
Part of our job was to load up with green troops just out of infantry school, and drive them around the ocean so they could have An Amtrac Experience. We’d drop the ramp on the beach. The grunts would jam in, carrying rifles and packs, till no one could move. They always looked unhappy. Taking this iron box into the water did not strike them as a good idea. Wasloski would stand under the machine-gun periscope. The ramp closed with a hydraulic squall as if it had just eaten something.
The engine howled and the monster crashed through the surf zone and we were . . . afloat. Barely. You could feel the unease of the infantry. Water leaked in, ominously. The grunts didn’t know we had bilge pumps. The troop compartment was dim and a green undersea light came through the vision blocks. Waves washed over us. The grunts knew that if we sank, as seemed virtually certain, no one would get out.
Whereupon Wasloski, a certifiable sadist, peered into his periscope and hollered, “It’s rough up here! Take her down to fifty feet!“
The grunts turned pea-green. Some of them may have died on the spot. They didn’t know any better.