Vietnamese ‘Scarecrows’ Noisy
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, has returned home after four months in Viet Nam. He was with men of 1st Cavalry Division during many of their recent engagements with Communist guerrillas, and his articles on the war will continue in The Enquirer daily.)
He was really sitting on a gun jeep’s seat back, leaning on an M-60 machine gun, but the bushes hid his vehicle. He had his shirt off and was sweating. The nights in the highlands are cool enough, but 10 a.m. sun in the “Pleiku area dry season” whips the mercury right up to 120 degrees.
Sp4 Venaircles was flanked by PFC Danny W. Denton, whose head stuck up above the top of the tea bushes . PFC Denton was dozing comfortably behind the wheel of the jeep. It was hard to see how he managed it because a slight breeze had raised the oddest conglomeration of sounds I have ever heard.
I walked over and climbed up on the jeep and looked toward where the noises seemed to be loudest.
A steep bank ran down to the Tae River here and a rice crop had been planted by the local Montagnard villagers in the bottomland. These Jarai tribesmen raised rice in dry fields instead of practicing the paddy culture of the lowland farmers.
They girdle big trees and cut off the smaller ones about waist high in a fine demonstration of getting the job of clearing a field done with the least effort.
Up in the branches of the dead trees in the rice field, which flanked the tea plantation, there was a collection of bamboo objects dangling and spinning and bobbing around which would have put a mobile figure sculptor into envious brooding.
Some of the bamboo gizmos were six feet long. One had a windmill, with the paddles made of palm fronds, set at each end and a collection of moving parts, also made of bamboo and lashed together with fiber, which rang wooden gongs and turned a ratchet-wheel noisemaker.
A couple of palm frond fins kept the whole thing turning around in the wind while all of the propellers and noisemakers kept operating. It was hung on a bark cord and dangled about 10 feet above the ripe rice crop.
“What do you suppose all of that is for?” I asked Sp4 Venaircles.
“The interpreter says it keeps the birds away. Look at that one across the creek,” he said.
The one he indicated was a scarecrow affair made out of old bits of rags, some on staves like pennants and some arranged into a man-form (the staff made him have five arms, if that is imaginable) and it was all topped with four different whirligigs spinning in the breeze.
The river bottom was lined with this kind of thing for hundreds of yards and the noise was a lot like every milkman in town simultaneously clinking bottles, scraping their feet and throwing rocks on a tin roof.
“Are you out here on the perimeter at night?” I asked.
“We were last night. I hope I never spend another one like it,” he said. “Look at Denton here he is a nervous wreck.”
Denton had wriggled so his head was pillowed on a box of M-60 ammunition and looked more like a limp sandbag than a nervous wreck. He opened one eye and grinned sleepily.
“It sounds like the whole North Vietnamese Army is coming across that field when the wind blows. I don’t know how we can tell if they ever decide to do it, either,” he said.
I watched some of the mountain villagers file down one of their paths toward the field. They walk from Point A to Point B in a straight line, ignoring easier routes, and their paths are beaten deep into the red clay. I marveled again at the way these primitive tribesmen keep their primitive culture intact in the midst of helicopter and aircraft fleets and all the rest of the technology used by armies.
The men are short, muscular, darker than Vietnamese men, and wear a skimpy loincloth and a long shawl-like blanket.
The women wear a kind of sarong wrapped around their waist. They both carry loads in beautifully woven baskets with shoulder straps which are slung rucksack style instead of using the ubiquitous shoulder pole of the lowland people.
They load these to a point which seems impossible, sometimes hanging smaller baskets on the big ones, and walk in single file at a pace I couldn’t follow very far without a burden.
Sp4 Paul Leonard, Sp4 Eldred Pritchett Sr., S-Sgt. Ronald G. Scott and Sp4 Thomas Coleman, all of Capt. John Drake’s Company B, First Battalion (Airborne) 12 Cavalry, had dug in along a road which skirted the plantation and were looking at the Montagnard column of three men and three women.
“Those people are real friendly. They fixed us up a shower point out of bamboo over at a little water fall up stream.” Sp4 Leonard told me.
“They made a trough to catch the water and put bamboo sections up with holes in the bottom. Six people can stand under it. First bunch of guys that used it got embarrassed, though,” he continued.
What happened was that four GIs had gone over for first trial on the village-provided shower. While they were soaping and whooping under the cold mountain stream spray, two elderly Montagnard ladies came along and unconcernedly took over the remaining two showers.
“The guys were all grabbing for clothes. Since then we see everybody in the village coming down together so we just go ahead and shower and don’t pay any attention to it. Or at least we act like we don’t! I don’t think I’ll every get used to the idea, myself,” one PFC told me.
The villagers practically adopted the 1st Cavalry Division in the weeks ahead. Scores of the brass and silver bracelets they give as sign of brotherhood and friendship after a vigorous initiation ceremony are being sported on American wrists now, in fact.
(The ceremony involves drinking rice wine, dabs of chicken or buffalo blood, incantations, etc., and is finished by the bracelet being clamped on the initiate’s right wrist.)
I went back over to the airstrip about 10 a.m. and found that the First of the 12th, commanded by Lt. Col. Robert Shoemaker, was leaving for a mission south of Duc Co near the Cambodian border.
Lt. Col. Dale Cranford offered to drop me off over there from his chopper and since it seemed like time to start the war again, I got aboard.
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