"Who's hungry?" The Dude's voice came over the sidetone in the headphones, and over deep metallic rattle of the tracks, and over the background rumble of the V-12 engine. Tanks are not quiet.
I almost spoke, and then thought, well, let the kids decide. We were just finishing a road sweep, showing the Vietnamese the flag, and letting Charlie know that Uncle Sam was not averse to putting a large steel target on the downrange side of the Great Southeast Asian Shootin' Gallery - bring your RPG's, and have at us! But the run had been quiet, and we'd be back inside the wire soon, to face the kind of breakfast that could qualify as a war crime.
"Ah am. Ah've been hungry evah since ah got heah." Sonny's voice reminded me of fried-chicken evenings and watermelon Saturdays. "They messmen cain't fix nuthin' good, nohow."
Biff, sitting on the edge of the loader's hatch to my left, atop the turret, looked at me before answering. I nodded.
"I could use something different," he said hesitantly.
The Dude's voice belied his smile. "All RIGHT! Coming up on the right, ladies and gentlemen..."
"Ladies? Where?" Sonny was stuck inside the turret, in the gunner's seat, his only view through the gun optics/
"Look in a mirror," said Biff.
"It's a metaphor," I put in. "He's talking about the female side of us. Don't you read Psychology Today?"
"Psycho…uh, Psyco-logic today? It got cennerfolds?" asked Sonny.
The Dude was slowing the tank. "Sure it does. Sigmund Freud in a leotard.”
“Sigmun…she Swedish? Swedish broads?”
“Nope, Swiss. Blonde, everywhere.”
“Y’all got one I kin borry?”
“Sure, Sonny, in my footlocker, soon as we get back.”
“Oh, man,” said Sonny.”Swish!”
Biff looked at me, nonverbally asking permission to roll his eyes.
The Dude changed the subject. “Okay, on the right you'll see the finest culinary establishment in I Corps...the one...the only...'Tran's Villa Italiano'."
Biff and I looked right, as the M48 started pulling onto the shoulder, tilting a little as the right-side tracks left the pavement. Tran's was a run-down concrete building like a dozen others lining the approach to the wire, open at the front, with rolled-up steel shutters for nighttime security. The proprietor lived in the back with his family.
Sonny asked, “Hey, TC, kin I come out and git some air?” He had no hatch, and spent most of his time looking through the sight. Only dedicated shooters wanted to be gunners, and Sonny wouldn’t trade with anyone. I slid out of the hatch to perch on the gypsy rack that held our personal gear, on the back of the turret. Sonny popped up, and perched on the edge of the commander’s hatch. He pulled off his helmet, and upended it to let the seat drip out. “Hooeee!”
As the tank bucked to a stop - smooth stops aren't easy - a Vietnamese man of indeterminate age, wearing blue shirt and trousers, sandals, and, incongruously, a tall white chef's hat, stepped from the shadows. He beamed. "Dude!"
The Dude shut down the engine, and answered in Vietnamese. The conversation sounded at once like a feverish market-haggle and a joyous reunion.
It was more of the latter, actually. When the Viet went back into his eatery, The Dude came up on the intercom. "Tran's an old friend. When I was on my first tank, before I came to Ship Of Fools, we used to stop here all the time. You guys are in for a treat, and it's on the house. Spaghetti!"
Ship Of Fools? That was the first I heard that our tank had a name, and I wasn't thrilled with the choice.
Sonny beat me to it. "Ah ain't no fool. Mah momma allus sed she dint rise up no fools."
"Exactly," said The Dude. “So we’re naming the tank to pay homage to Katherine Anne Porter. That was her book.”
“She were Miss March, weren’t she? An’ she done wrote a book? Man, I’ll pay ‘er…how much?
“Homage,” said The Dude promptly. “Ten bucks. Just give it to me, and I’ll send it to her. She’ll send you an autographed picture.”
“Ohhh, man,” said Sonny.
"Right!" In my mind's eye I could see Sonny, the best gunner in the company, smile in satisfaction.
I sighed. Ship Of Fools. It could be worse. I guess.
Tran came out, with four steaming plates of spaghetti, and…my heart caught in my throat, four cans of Miller High Life, the beads of water on the outside telling of their welcome chill in the sauna that was Viet Nam.
He handed the plates up to the Dude, amid a flurry of Vietnamese…which suddenly sounded a lot friendlier to me.
The Dude bowed formally, and turned to hand Biff a plate, then Sonny…and as TC, I was served last. It smelled perfectly delicious.
Then Tran handed up the beer. The Dude said, “Hey, Sonny, I can’t drink and drive…want mine?”
Sonny looked like he was going to kiss the man, and that wasn’t pretty. “Well, golly…thanks!”
Biff looked at me, and winked. “Miller’s not kosher. My rabbi would kill me.” He offered the can to Sonny. “Here.”
Sonny shook his head. “Hey, how’s he gonna know? He in the Nam?”
“Rabbis know everything.”
To put a bow on things, I said, “And as TC, I really shouldn’t drink. Command responsibility.” And I felt as if my heart would break, as I gave Sonny my can. “Your lucky day, I guess.”
Sonny looked around at all of us, and there were tears in his eyes. He tried to say something, and choked.
“Better drink it now,” said The Dude. “Fresh and cold.”
We’d have to pour Sonny out of the tank, when we got inside the wire.
But at least he’d be ready to meet Psychology Today.