Excerpts from:

Paul A. Scipione. Shades of Gray. Princeton, NJ: Prometheus Press, 1988.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Friday was the 13th and Sandy dragged himself through camouflage training with zero energy. He was pinching himself to stay awake during the light anti-tank weapon class when he got called out by an instructor who had a jeep waiting to take him for a two o'clock interview with Major Kells, the division finance officer. As Sandy jumped out of the jeep and dusted himself off before nervously walking up the PSP sidewalk, his heart felt as if it would burst through his chest. This was it! Either he was going to be able to talk himself into a "safe" administrative job in the rear or his ass was probably going to be blown away running an 81 millimeter mortar squad out in the bush.

"I'm Sergeant Militello," he stammered. "I have a 1400 hours appointment with . . . "

"That's two o'clock, cherry," the overweight Spec5 clerk laughed. "No one's too fuckin' mil'tary around here, so don't be a brown nose. Just act like a fuckin' civilian and you'll fit right in around here. Go ahead, the Major is expecting you."

Comments: In a war zone, some jobs are a lot shittier than others. Militello was desperate to take action to save himself and this was his big moment. Most people in life rarely experience a moment where the doors are so clearly marked "life" and "death". It was impossible to escape your own mortality in the Nam.

* * * * * * * * * * *


"Welcome to Personnel, M-i-l-i-t-e-l-l-o. Did I say your name correctly?" asked the little Captain.

"Yes, sir. Perfect."

"Good. Relationships can start off shitty when names aren't pronounced right. Wanna cigarette?"

"No, sir, I smoke a pipe."

"Yeah, that's what Sergeant Romeo tells me. A real intellectual type, huh?"

"Sir?"

"Don't mean nothin', Militello," the little captain winked. "Actually that's a compliment, being an intellectual type."

"We ain't got too many of them," Sergeant Romeo joked. "Maybe we oughta call him The Professor."

"Hey, I kinda like that," Captain Munson agreed, looking for Sandy's reaction. "Mind if we call you that?"

"I guess not, sir, except that my nickname back home was Sandy - for Santo."

Munson and Romeo looked back and forth, sharing a little joke on their cherry. "This ain't the fuckin' World, Professor," Romeo lectured, "so over here we all get new names. Capeesh?"

Sandy didn't understand, but he shook his head in agreement anyway. He was getting nervous about the conversation, concerned that he had in some unfathomable way offended his two new supervisors. But he sensed that they were dangerous and somehow dishonest. "Sir, could you tell me about my work in Personnel?"

"Hey, a real hard charger!" Captain Munson smiled. "Romeo, why don't you fill the Professor in while I pick up the Colonel and take him to lunch at the Loon Foon."

"Yer gonna be replacin' the mysterious, long-lost Thompson. Yer gonna be runnin' our special actions department. Sounds excitin', don't it?"

"What's Thompson doing now?" Sandy pressed.

"It seems yer predecessor didn' dig trackin' down AWOL sky troopers, so he went AWOL hisself and found a more excitin' line of work. Now he's running a first-class whore house in Cholon. And when he ain't busy selling pussy, he books Aussie strip shows in partnership with the Green Beanies and also launders money for the various Families."

Cautiously Sandy felt it was time to ask some questions he already felt he knew the answers to. "These Families - what are we talking about, Romeo? Back home in Bergen County, New Jersey, we have Families of what we call made guys. They wear pinky rings and drive fancy, dyed-blond ladies around in black Cadillacs, the trunks of which may or may not contain bodies. Some people call it the Underground Economy. Am I getting hot or cold?"

Romeo almost fell off the desk he was perched on, laughing so loudly that his whole body shook. "Very goddam hot, P-r-o-f-e-s-s-o-r. Man, you sure are one smart cherry, paisano. But back to your new job. Does special actions sound interesting, Professor?"

"It sure sounds better than running a mortar squad out on some firebase."

"Fuckin' A!"

Comments: Sergeant Santo "Sandy" Militello knew exactly what he was getting into, the Khaki Mafia. You see, if wars go on long enough, it's almost an American birthright to show a little entrepreneurial spirit. For Militello, membership in the Khaki Mafia Family of the 101st Airborne Division was both profitable and a welcome diversion from the boredom of trying to survive a 365 day sentence on a large American base camp in sunny Vietnam. He was so good at his after-hours "craft" that he was appointed Consigliere of the Family and then briefly Underboss. But that's getting ahead of the story.

* * * * * * * * * * *


"Let's git goin'" Sergeant Romeo bellowed. "Time's a wastin'. I wanna start educatin' you cherries into the ways of our World."

Down the narrow macadam road the four men walked single file -the old timer Romeo and the three cherries, Militello, McNatt and O'Sullivan . . . . It was 106 degrees Fahrenheit in the Army sector of the giant Bien Hoa Airbase, 20 miles north of Saigon.

"There it is, gents," Romeo pointed a hundred yards ahead. "Wherever you go in the frickin' Nam, the library's the best place to get an e-d-u-c-a-t-i-o-n."

Some library, Sandy Militello thought sarcastically as he waited behind the others to climb cinder block steps into the Bien Hoa Post Library. It was a decrepit, windowless, forty-foot Army trailer, jacked up on a shaky cinder block foundation, sandwiched in between the Red Cross headquarters and Post Education Center, almost like an after-thought.

"Welcome to paradise," Romeo gestured. Sandy was the last in and closed the door. He found himself enveloped in a cloud of bluish-gray smoke. Layers of it hung throughout the place, making the library seem more like a pool hall. But hadn't there been a "no smoking" sign posted at the door? But just as Militello felt like escaping from the smoke he noticed that the air was dry and cold. Wow, the goddam library is air conditioned!

"Hey, Sarge, what's with this funny smoke?" Sully O'Sullivan inquired in his squeaky voice.

"Keep the noise down or go jawbone somewhere else!" the Spec5 librarian admonished in an effeminate voice. "We like it nice and q-u-i-e-t here."

Sandy's eyes became accustomed to the haze and now he could navigate around. He walked through tiny aisles lined with half-filled metal bookshelves. Most of the books were paperbacks - a few legitimate science and fiction books mixed in among hundreds of fuckbooks. Sandy rounded a corner and confronted an odd sight - a dozen GIs sitting around a tiny reading area on battered old couches upholstered in tattered olive-drab Naugahyde. They sat like miniature Buddhas, silently puffing on cigarettes and then blowing circles of smoke upward in decorative patterns. No one was reading.

"Hey, Sarge, this smoke sure smells funny," Sully complained. "Sure don't smell like Camels or Marlboros, man."

"Either you dudes keep the noise down," the Spec5 librarian warned, "or out you fucking go. You're disturbing our calm and concentration here."

"I'm not even going to bother asking where there's a copy of Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front," Sandy couldn't resist laughing.

"Real cute, fucking cherry," the librarian smirked. "Here, take a free toke, since you're such an intellectual."

Maybe Sully, who had been drafted right from high school couldn't quite place the smell or bohemian atmosphere, by Sandy and Greg, both drafted following four years of college, had no such problem. It was the smell that transported Sandy back to the living room of his fraternity house at Rutgers. The sweet smell of man's best friend, Mary Jane, the sine qua non of the Psychedelic Generation. Just breathe it in, baby, feel the tingle in your lungs, and trip out.

"Yoh, gents," Sergeant Romeo smiled at his new colleagues. "See, I told you it's worth gettin' a library card in the Nam. You kin really get yer head t-o-g-e-t-h-e-r at the fuckin' library!"

Comments: Wow, so that's why Dr. Scipione has always sought out the local library, no matter where he is in the world! Of course he is also married to a retired school library director. When 101 Admin was moved 450 miles north from sunny Bien Hoa to monsoon ravaged Phu Bai, at least the smoke in the post library got better. Instead of marijuana, it was primo Cambodian hashish, laced with heroin.

* * * * * * * * * * *


"I don't know, Professor," the Boss, Mr. Cruickshank, gestured with his cigar for them to take seats in the officers hooch. "It sounds like it might work, but how'd we git enough food to run a fast food joint?"

"Easy, sir, we'd just divert food and other supplies from Sergeant Winter's mess hall."

"But then there wouldn't be enough left for regular chow."

"It don't even matter, sir," the Professor smiled at the irony of it all. "Half the men never eat at the mess hall anyway. We'll take the same food, jazz it up a little, and then make them pay for it. They'll love it."

"But why, Professor? It'd be the same damn food."

"We know that, but they wouldn't. It's all psychological, sir. They don't like it when it's served in the mess hall because it's from the Army and they're not given a choice. But when we open the burger place they'll have a choice between civilian and Army chow."

Cruickshank got up from his bunk and paced again, waving his cigar. "I like it, Professor. Maybe it'll work. But just one thing - I'm worried about running out of food. Herre's what I want you to do. Tomorrow morning you go see that E-6 in the company office and tell him to assign about thirty or forty phantom cherries to 101 Admin."

"But why should we do that?" Staff Sergeant Romeo asked.

The Professor winked at Mr. Cruickshank. "We'll just keep putting more guys on the books until we generate the kind of surplus food we need. Hey, I like your style, sir."

"Listen, Professor, anyone who spends much time workin' around you is bound to have a few good ideas rub off. Now git yer asses outta here and git that fast food place up fast!"

Chief Warrant Officer Cruickshank gave them an impossible deadline - get the fast food stand up and operating in less than two weeks. For those 14 days, the 101st Airborne Division experienced a 90% reduction in the management of 201 files, pay vouchers, and the awarding of Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars. Curtailment of the latter operation was a real sacrifice for the 101 Family, since it make considerable money selling unauthorized, unearned military ribbons and medals to GIs going back to The World with largely ribbon-less uniforms.

Romeo found an ideal location for the fast food place - a ramshackle wooden storage hooch, just behind 101 Admin's outdoor movie theater, that the Champlain used to store folding tables and chairs. The Family had no trouble finding the wooden fixtures, electrical wiring and paint needed to spruce the place up. Since the Family ran the supply room, supplies were taken and false vouchers were signed. More exotic equipment like the milk shake and soft ice cream machines had to be bartered for with the Marine and Army Families down in DaNang. The hard part was finding a steam grill. There was talk about white-slaving a Vietnamese girl to a restaurant supply distributor in Hong Kong, but that plan failed when they found the guy liked boys better than girls. After days on the phone, Mr. Cruickshank finally located an old buddy at an airbase in Thailand and a mutually agreeable deal was struck - three stereo systems and a jeep in exchange for the half-ton steam grill. Through the good auspices of the Air Force Family at Bien Hoa, the merchandise was flown in both directions in a C-130. They had their steam grill.

From the night The Eagle's Nest first opened, the 101 Family had an instant success. The new food stand drew everyone, even the officers. No one was eating the miserable food in Sergeant Winter's mess hall anymore. Especially long lines formed before the outdoor movies started every night at 8pm. Screaming Eagles who had guard duty out on the Phu Bai perimeter were even able to call in their orders via field telephones.

One week to the day after The Eagle's Nest opened, McNatt sat down with Mr. Cruickshank and Sandy Militello over a fifth of Jack Daniels. "We grossed $3,500 during our first week, sir."

"OK, McNatt, but what kinda profits did we make?"

"Nearly $3,400, sir."

"That validates my original concept, sir," Sandy Militello smiled. "The best way to make a profit is to get all your raw materials for nothing."

"You guys are fucking beauties!" Mr. Cruickshank boomed. "You know what we gotta do next - open more food stands."

Within two months there were six more at Camp Eagle, Dong Ha, Camp Evans and LZ Sally. Everywhere the Family operated, there were GIs who hated the food they were getting in their mess halls, and lifer mess sergeants who were only too eager to get retribution for all the abuse the finicky GIs were giving them.

Out in the bush, only a few klicks away from the Family's fast food restaurants, infantry men and artillery men from the 101st squatted under ponchos to shield them from the monsoon rain as they heated C-rats over bits of C-4 plastic explosive. In their precarious situation almost anything tasted good. In the Nam there was no balance and no justice."

Comments: It really happened folks - juicy cheeseburgers, golden french fries and creamy milk shakes just miles from the battle scenes that you saw in the movie Full Metal Jacket. The reality is that in Vietnam there were at least 5 to 10 chairborne rangers for every one fighting man. Most of them had plenty to spend and longed for the comforts of home. It was a Business Model that guaranteed success to the several dozen Khaki Mafia Families that dotted the Vietnamese landscape from the Delta to the DMZ.

* * * * * * * * * * *


"Each week, every month, we read the list in the paper and we glance at it for a moment and then continue on to the sports and funnies and want ads. Sure, we all feel sorry, but the names and faces aren't familiar and we are relieved that we really have no reason to grieve, no reason to wonder and ask why. But for most of us, eventually, a name and a face which is familiar comes along and then it does hit us and we do grieve and wonder and ask why. But then it is too late, because the familiar face is just as dead as all the unfamiliar faces." (p. 302)

Comments: This passage came nearly word-for-word from one of the columns I wrote as war correspondent for the SUNY Geneseo Lamron campus newspaper in 1969-70. It explains how I felt when I opened a special issue of Life Magazine in June 1969, which published photos of the more than 250 Americans who had been killed the week of Memorial Day in Vietnam. Among all those faces was Tom Jackson, who had been one of my closest friends during Pre-Airborne Infantry AIT at Fort Gordon, Georgia, just a few months before. His death hit me like a ton of bricks. After that, my weekly ritual of reading the Nam obit list on the back of Army Times, became ever more painful. The names of six more of my friends would join Tom's on the Memorial Wall in Washington.

* * * * * * * * * * *


"For me, this year in the Vietnam War has been more than a personal effort to survive. It is not enough merely to survive at the total expense of curiosity and the quest for meaning. Of what use is it to live if when you die you are no further ahead in answering these questions than when you were born. We must leave more than the imprint of bullets in each other's flesh and the stench of blood in the sand."

Comments: Amen!