Today’s Short Story

Some years ago while teaching guitar at the VA in Albuquerque, an older man told me this story. I don’t remember if it was his story or one that he was relating to me or even if it is true, but I’m pretty sure that I am remembering it correctly. At any rate, it’s a good story and one that accurately reflects the mission that our veterans have carried out again and again over the decades. Thank you for remembering our veterans today, especially those who never made it home.


In Vietnam, there were no winners. Neither the American or the Vietcong soldiers and certainly not the Vietnamese people. It was simply a place for the two superpowers, the Chinese who supported the North Vietnamese government and the Americans who were looking to stop the spread of Chinese communism, to duke it out. It wasn’t like we hadn’t been living with the communists for at least a decade. All that happened was that a country and a people were near destroyed and the other, smaller dictators in the area were emboldened to commit genocide on their own people. Politicians, in my opinion, should be the ones to fight the wars, not young men and women.

            In 1966 I was 20 years old when my lottery number came up and, despite my status as a college student, I was going to be drafted. Like other guys before me, I knew I was headed to Vietnam and the only way to have a say in where I might end up was to enlist, hoping to keep myself out of the infantry. I chose the Army because I had two years of a college education and that gave me the option of becoming a Non-Commissioned officer as long as I gave the Army an extra year. (At the time, the standard tour of duty was two years.) Furthermore, I would be eligible for helicopter pilot training, something that intrigued me. I figured it was better to be above the fighting then on the ground in Vietnam. Boy, was I wrong.

I went through basic training, passed my aptitude tests, and was sent to helicopter school in Texas. I was so green, I didn’t even know how to buckle my seat belt, but I had tested well, and the U.S. was desperate for pilots. After a year of accelerated training, I found myself in Vietnam. The grasshopper-like Huey’s I would be piloting were nothing like the machines we trained on in Texas. The Hueys were studier and dark green, but usually ended up closer to black after months in the jungle. There were 12,000 helicopters that flew during the Vietnam war and nearly 5000 were destroyed in combat. Over 100,000 pilots were needed because it was said that the average lifespan of a pilot was 30 days. A door gunner’s life expectancy was half that. Nearly 5000 pilots and 3000 door gunners lost their lives over the eight years that America was involved in the war. I was one of the lucky ones. I came home.

            As new helicopter pilots, we were eased into combat, starting out at first transporting troops and supplies in country. We flew out of Tan Son Nhut near Saigon. After about six months, our unit was assigned to escort Army and Marine troop transport ships, the larger Sikorsky Jolly Green Giants, as well as doing a little bit of everything else. We might be called upon to transport a platoon or re-supply a forward operating base. On occasion we would haul a jeep or a swift boat to its destination. The more serious tasks involved evac from a hot zone, medivac or simply as attack vehicles. In high school and college, I’d been an amateur magician. Surviving Vietnam would take something more powerful.

            Over my three-year tour of duty, there had been a mix of daily chores, complete boredom, and intense danger. Most days, I would spend looking after my chopper, keeping the rust at bay in the humid jungle by oiling and greasing every nook and cranny. After every mission, no matter how routine, a complete inspection of the bird had to be made looking for any damage from combat missions, tightening loose bolts and checking for wear on things like the rotors, skids, doors and even the windshield. The guns had to be disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled. On down days there was really nothing to do in country, except re-read mail, play cards, play basketball or football or just lie around breathing in the hot, humid jungle.

            All of this was interspersed between search and destroy missions, air support, and other adrenaline pumping events where the bullets came fast and furious. Over time, I learned how to dip and weave my bird to try and avoid getting hit and over my time there, I did a pretty good job. The Hueys were tough old birds.

            Part of our function during the war was to present a friendly face to the Vietnamese people by providing medicine and medical assistance, food and supplies and protection from the North Vietnamese guerrilla fighters. It was a strategy referred to as “Pacification” or “Hearts and Minds.” It was hoped that we would win the popular support of the Vietnamese people to help defeat the Viet Cong insurgency. This meant giving political and economic aid to the South Vietnamese government in addition to the U.S. military presence in an attempt to reestablish South Vietnamese government control over rural areas and people under the influence of the Viet Cong. In the end, hearts and minds became hold and protect, and then even that wasn’t enough to stop the crushing wave of Viet Cong and the fear of reprisal that would follow the war.

            As part of the hearts and minds initiative, we would fly deep into the thick, green jungle to rural villages and distribute food and medicine, toys for the kids and more. This is where my background in magic came in handy. I would entertain the kids while they stood in line to get inoculated or while their parents gathered to receive food and other aid. These small, barefoot kids would stand there, their dark almond eyes wide as I made coins, scarves and even small pets disappear and reappear. All simple tricks, but to these kids, isolated from everything, it was, well, magic. It helped to keep me sane in an insane situation.

            Then Tet happened. That was the day the North Vietnamese made their move, launching coordinated attacks on key installations in the south. It was masterful and the Americans and the South Vietnamese Regular Army was caught flat-footed. My unit was called in to provide air support for units that found themselves suddenly overrun and under attack, having to evac platoons out of a hot zone but more often just swooping in with guns blazing hoping to provide some relief. I don’t remember how many sorties we flew that first day, but as the mid-afternoon sun blazed down, my port side gunner informed me that his barrel had gotten so hot, it was starting to warp and as such, would no longer function. The war was still on, and we were needed in the field.

            I got on the horn to base and requested a replacement for the .30 caliber machine gun, but I was told that there were none to be had. What about something I could cannibalize, I asked. I knew I couldn’t go back into the fray with only one gun and even if we did, who knew how long that gun would last? I was ordered back to base. I would be given other duty until a replacement gun could be found.

            My crew and I were re-assigned to protection and evacuation of non-combatants, a long-winded way to say that we were to bring some of the rural villages in the line of fire to the nearest base where they could better be looked after. It was risky with only one gunner, but safer than going into full blown combat. We set out for the villages that we thought the Viet Cong might be bent on retribution for cooperating with the U.S. or might soon be over run. We made a half dozen sorties out and back, picking up mostly children and women and old men and brought them to a designated area some distance from the fighting. The children were terrified, and the mothers did their best to keep them calm. Still, even in the safe zone, the ground shook with every explosion and as the sun set, the sky was aglow with the dozens of fires in the near distance.

            During our seventh or eighth drop off, we needed to refuel. All of our evacuees had been herded into a hangar regularly used for maintenance and the aircraft usually stored there had been moved outside onto the tarmac to make room for our guests. I made my way to the hangar to find someone to get us refueled and re-stocked with ammo. As I approached, I could see the small faces of frightened children, crying. Most of them had their hands tightly clamped over their ears to block out the sounds of war. Still, they stood there, transfixed by the chaos around them. Soldiers shouting, vehicles whizzing by on the tarmac and the sky on fire.

            I spotted a crew chief on the fringes of the large group. He was someone I recognized, a Sargent whom I regularly reached out to for parts and supplies related to my bird. I shouted and waved until I got his attention.

            “Dan. Dan! I need to feed this bird and get back into the war. Can I have my guys fuel up? We can do it ourselves.”

            “Sure thing, sarge. Just make sure that they put everything back where they found it. It’s chaotic enough around here as it is without me having to go looking for things,” he replied.

            I saw that his attention was on the kids and trying to keep their focus away from the war by handing out treats. He wasn’t being very successful. A huge blast went off behind me, far enough away to not be a threat, but close enough to worry the civilians and further frighten the children. A dozen high pitched squeals went up. In the glow of the explosion, I could see the silhouette of a .30 caliber machine gun. Just what I needed.

            “Hey,” I shouted again distracting Dan, “I need that thirty. The barrel on my port side has melted down.”

            “I can’t give you that one. It’s spoken for,” he said.

            “We really could use it. We need to go back out and evac more of these folks. I’d rather not do it with one broken wing.” I could see him mulling over his choices.

            “Tell you what. I’ll trade you.”

            “Anything. Just name it.” Dan left the crowd of children and walked over to me and pulled in close.

            “These kids are really shook up. I need something to distract them and maybe calm them down. If you’ll put on a magic show for them, I’ll have my guys mount that .30 and fill you up. Heck, I’ll even have them wash the windshield. Just do what you can to keep these kids distracted.”

            I didn’t have to think about it. “You got it,” I said. Dan waved his crew over and began to give instructions while I headed over to the kids huddled toward the rear of the hangar.

            I started with a few coin tricks, first flipping a half dollar from finger to finger on the back of my hand and then making it disappear. That got their attention. I pulled my neckerchief off and made it dance in mid-air and then I made it disappear and re-appear. I took the coin and buried it into the handkerchief and made it disappear again and then pulled it out from behind a little girl’s ear. I took the same coin and seemingly pushed it into my ear and had it pop out of my mouth several times.

            I was trying hard to remember every trick I had learned in high school. I made things vanish, turned a one-dollar bill into a five-dollar bill. I tied a knot in the neckerchief and untied it without touching it. I tied it around a little boy’s arm and then untied it without touching the knot. I took the shoelace from my boot, cut it into thirds and restored it before their eyes. Little by little, their worries began to subside, and they became more focused on my hands, my voice and the magic. Their faces went from frightened to fascinated and finally, smiles began to show.

            After about thirty minutes, Dan returned to tell me that my chopper was ready to go, and he thanked me for taking the kids’ minds off of the war for a few moments. I did a couple more tricks, making a quarter appear from behind a little girl’s ear and then placing it in the palm of her hand. Before standing, saluting her, turning about, and walking away. As a walked toward the helio, I heard the kids cheering and talking excitedly, and I shook Dan’s hand as I exited the hangar.

            Of all the sorties I flew, all the soldiers we supported, all the wounded we evac’d, my most important mission took place on the ground in a hangar at the edge of war. It was magic.

Copyright 2023 by Jose Antonio Ponce