The following is an excerpt from a book I wrote with my dad. The full title (shown in the image to the left) is, “If You Can’t Pay Attention, Take Notes: A Navy Brat Reflects on Brathood, the First Line of Defense, and Why You Don’t Wash the Chief’s Coffee Cups.”
That title almost constitutes a whole chapter by itself. Dad would have approved.
Dad loved the Navy. He was a natural storyteller, and sea stories were his favorites. He retired as Chief Radioman in 1978, and he died in 2017. A lot of sea stories were told between those years.
Here’s one of them:
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My dad always had a way with vehicles. A magic touch, you might say. And it wasn’t just a matter of making it run smoothly; his ability to acquire vehicles for little or nothing was an art.
Take that time he found a jeep in perfect running condition. Not bought, not borrowed: found. And then he got to keep it, courtesy of the U.S. Army. It might have been his best auto purchase, considering there was no purchase at all.
But I’ll let him tell the story his way:
I had been transferred from the main communications centers to the harbor entrance control post. That post controlled all the shipping and boats, including fishing boats, in and out of the harbor of Da Nang.
Transportation from our barracks to the post was “iffy” most of the time. The buses were usually broken down or if they worked, then they couldn’t find a driver. We ended up walking the three miles almost every day.
After I’d been there about three months, I found a jeep.
I was walking to work with Bill, a guy who worked in Operations. Same building where I worked, down the hall from my office. We stood watch together a lot, so we usually made the trip to the post together.
This one day, we were walking along, and as we rounded a corner, we saw an Army jeep on the side of the road.
We thought it was odd. Here’s this jeep out in the middle of nowhere, just sitting there. Bill and I walked around it and looked it over good just in case it was booby-trapped. We didn’t find anything, so we got in and hit the starter. What luck – it cranked right up!
We didn’t know why anyone had abandoned the jeep, but we were going to take advantage of the free ride.
Then we went about two feet and realized why it was just sitting there abandoned. The tie rod had come loose, and the front wheels were headed in different directions.
Good thing we had left the barracks early that morning – since it looked like the bus wasn’t going to make it again – because we had time to run back and get some bailing wire to tie up the rods. We did, and we fixed it up.
But then Bill and I got to thinking. The Army might be coming back for it, possibly with their motor pool – or worse, with armed guards – and it wouldn’t do for us to have it in our possession. So instead of driving off with it, we left it there.
When we got off work the next morning, we saw it was still there. Now most of us in the Navy didn’t have a terribly high opinion of the Army, but we knew that even they wouldn’t take twenty-four hours to fix a jeep. So we drove it back to the barracks. We figured they’d come looking for it and we’d let them know we fixed it.
They never did, though. We drove it back and forth for several days until it finally ran low on fuel.
We took it over to the Navy fuel depot. A supply clerk filled it up and noticed that it was an Army jeep, not one of ours.
I started to pay for it, but the fellow said he’d charge it to the Army.
“No, that’s all right,” I told him. “I’ll pay for it.”
“Nope. It’s the Army’s jeep. They’ll pay.”
What the heck, I let ’em pay. Who am I to argue with military protocol?
So we kept driving it. Then about a month later, Bill took it into town. He stopped in at the club, had a few drinks, and ended up staying out past curfew. The MPs arrested him, and he called me for help.
By this time, he was in deeper trouble than just staying out past curfew. He was a sailor driving an Army jeep with no papers, and no one believed his story about finding it on the side of the road and fixing it.
I caught a ride over there after my watch was over, and I explained everything to the provost marshal.
At first the provost marshal didn’t believe me either, especially when he found out I was a radioman. Not that a radioman can’t know how to work on cars, but this man just wasn’t buying the story.
I told him all about my background working on cars and all, and he finally took my word for it. But he was still fit to be tied.
Turns out the jeep had already been marked as transferred stateside and taken out of their inventory. It would create a lot of paperwork and probably start an investigation if they acknowledged that it was still in Vietnam.
He sat there, his face getting redder and redder, and he glared at both of us. Finally, he passed sentence.
“Just keep it!” he said. “But don’t tell anyone around here where you got it.”
We agreed. He closed the case. Then he had his motor pool fix the front end for us.
And we had free gas for the rest of our tour. All we had to do was pull up to the depot and tell them to charge it to the Army.
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Want to read more? You can find it here.