Today the unlikely keyword is...wait for it...FROG. Yes, really.
The Money Frog
When 50 tons of metal moving at 30 miles per hour on steel cleated tracks is compelled to come to a quick stop, it's bad for the road, not to mention the folks inside.
And thus, on this warm and humid Vietnamese morning, our M48A3 tank tried to do a handstand as the driver trod on the brakes. Chunks of asphalt filled the air, and the protesting roar of the engine was almost drowned out by the protesting voices of the Vietnamese people with whom we were sharing the road.
They tolerated our metal monsters with uneasy grace, but come on...a tank doing a panic stop?
The loader, Biff, had been sitting on the edge of his hatch, and was now sitting, bewildered, straddling the main gun tube. I'm sure he wondered how he got there, but I couldn't get a word in between his commentary on the situation to explain. He was impressive - for a quiet Jewish kid from Long Island, he sure knew a lot of swear words.
Down in the turret, Sonny the gunner was moaning incoherently, but that wasn't too worrisome. Moaning meant that he was alive - he'd probably bashed his head on the sight - and since he was from the Deep South, he was usually incoherent, at least to the rest of us.
Which left The Dude.
Enthroned in his solitary driving compartment, on the tank's centerline, The Dude (if he had another name, we'd forgotten it) had sole control of the brakes. So it wasn't hard to fix blame.
He beat me to the punch, and I heard a hiss in my headphones, followed by, "Hey, man, it wasn't my fault!"
I sighed. Vietnamese were crowding around us, holding their bicycles and Vespas. Some looked at the shredded road, some looked at us, and an enterprising young man set up a pushcart to sell Cokes. I could only guess what they were saying, but The Dude was the only one who spoke any Vietnamese, and he was talking again.
"Couldn't hit the frog, man!" He could have called me sergeant, or sarge, or TC, for Tank Commander...but he called everyone Man, which was probably why his rank bounced from E-1 to E-2 and back. He was a terrific tank driver, but military courtesies were beyond him.
"Frog?" That was a new one. Last week he'd run down a VC RPG team, and what a mess THAT was. And now he broke a road - and some of our noses - for a frog. Interesting.
The Dude's head popped high out of his hatch, and he looked back at me. "The FROG, man! In the road!" He swept his arm out in a grand gesture that looked like it could have parted the Red Sea, or at least the South China Sea. The sweep encompassed most of the surrounding landscape.
"I see no frog." It paid to humor The Dude. When he went into a sulk, he did strange things, evil things, like eating peaches.
NO ONE ate peaches on my tank, They were bad luck.
The Coke vendor was doing a booming business with the unanticipated block party. He caught my eye, and held up four bottles, a question in his eyes. I shook my head, no. Americans frequently got Coke laced with powdered glass. Made the perennial runs a colorful experience.
The Dude climbed out of his hatch, leaving the engine running (these things could be a bear to start), stepped back to the turret, avoided a roundhouse right from Biff (the momentum of which launched him from his gun-tube perch, and onto the fender), and grabbed my shoulder.
"There! See? Ch'an chu!"
A large frog squatted peacefully in the road, twenty feet ahead of our left track. I could see his sides going in-out-in-out as he breathed. He looked happy. A half-pound frog stopping a tank, yeah, I guess I'd be happy too. "Ch'an chu?" I asked.
"The Money Frog. He's lucky. Can't run over him, man. We need all the luck we can get."
"Well, I guess, but you think he can be lucky somewhere else? We don't want to sit here too long." The crowd was thinning out, more rapidly than just loss of interest would account for. and the hair on my neck started to lift. I wanted to get moving.
The Dude jumped down to the roadway, stumbling on a piece of asphalt as he landed, and started walking to the frog. "Sure, man, I'll move hi..."
He froze. Then he said in a quiet and serene voice, "TC, get Biff into the driver's seat, and reverse the hell away from here."
Biff heard as well as I did, and slipped through the hatch. When The Dude acted normal, times were serious. I heard the engine rev as Biff tested the throttle, vibrating the tank.
"Dude, what is it?"
"I just tripped a mine," he said.
Some mines have tilt or plunger detonators that work when they return to their original position, after having been moved. The Dude was a dead man, and he knew it as we stood, four men and a tank, on a suddenly empty road.
"Can you see what it is?" I asked. If it was a toe popper, he'd only lose a foot, and maybe his balls.
The Dude looked up at me, his expression a mixture of pity and scorn. "TC, what kind of mine is Charlie going to put on an MSR?"
He was right. It had to be big. "What can I do?" I asked. Biff's head was out of the driver's hatch, and he was listening, too.
"Do what I told you. Back the hell away. And button up."
"I'm so sorry," I said. And I was.
Biff dropped into the seat, and pulled his hatch shut. I took one last look at The Dude. He was looking into the distance, a slight smile on his lips. And then I dropped down, closed my hatch, and closed the loader's hatch as well.
Biff gingerly started the tank moving backwards as I guided him, looking through the aft vision blocks on my cupola. He couldn't see anywhere but ahead.
The explosion, when it came, rocked the tank with a ground-swell, and punched at its bow with concussion. It was like a small boat taking an unexpected wave on an otherwise calm sea.
Looking out the forward viewing block, I could see a smoking crater spanning the road, at least ten feet deep, and I wondered what happened to the frog.