Sorry ‘Bout That: Humor in the Throes of the Vietnam War

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By The Reverend

When I was growing up Vietnam vets were still feeling the sting of the jungle. The government had fucked its bright-eyed boys by sending them out to die in the name of some faceless authority figure’s agenda.

To add insult to injury, they’d dumped foul chemicals on their own troops so that those who survived life in the shit came home to discover that public shunning was the least of their problems; they’d also have to cope with ashen skin, liver disorders and chloracne.

As a teenager, my mother would often joke that it was a minor miracle I didn’t come out with a conehead and webbed feet. My brothers and I would laugh, but it was a laugh with a definite edge to it. We knew Pops didn’t like to talk about ‘Nam nor did he ever volunteer any information about the rock hard lumps that would expand and contract on his calves, a deformity that could be traced back to Agent Orange.

One day when I was about 12-years old and at the peak of my morbid curiosity, I asked my father in a breathless whisper, “Did you ever shoot anybody?” His answer took the form of an affirmative grunt. He didn’t look at me or expound any further and I didn’t press the issue. It was obvious to me, even in adolescence, that war was something painful, awful and serious.

What I didn’t take into account was that veterans like my Pops didn’t like to talk about ‘Nam because they didn’t want to remember the bad stuff. As many people who have been through a traumatic experience can attest, it’s not always therapeutic to wallow in the grim details of that trauma. For some of us, it is far more cathartic to focus on the fun that was had in the margins of that misery.

This notion first occurred to me when I saw Stanley Kubrick’s landmark war comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The film was based on a very dramatic work of war-based literature (Red Alert by Peter George) and the adaptation was initially intended to be an epic drama that would be at least somewhat faithful to its source material.

However, as pre-production played out, Kubrick alighted on a simple fact which would change the narrative trajectory of the story and yield one of the finest Hollywood satires of all time. What Kubrick realized was just how absurd war really is. Lo, the manic dark humor of Kubrick’s cinematic send-up of nuclear holocaust was born.

The film resulted in Peter Sellers’ very best comedic characters, Group Captain Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and Dr. Strangelove, respectively. While marveling at the risque allusions to Nazi salutes and pubic hair, I suddenly understood the value in making light of devastation.

Later in life, after my father had moved to the wilderness and retired from his job, I went through the large oak desk that he’d kept in his home office throughout my childhood. I remembered it as a bit of a command post for Pops, a place where he could go to fill out his daily invoices, balance his checkbook and relax with a good novel.

Above the desk was a large glass cabinet which housed a king’s ransom of mass market paperbacks, virtually all of them concerning different aspects of the military experience. Whether it was a guide to wartime aviation, a ground armament assembly manual or simply a cheap work of fiction about P.O.W.s, it was all neatly organized as if it were one historical library.

Obviously, the old man hadn’t forgotten about ‘Nam nor did it seem like he really wanted to. But on that night in his new Upstate cabin, as we emptied out the desk and prepared to weed out old or unwanted items, I came across an envelope full of photographs. They represented the only actual record of my father’s time in the service aside from his official government documentation and medals.

When my father saw me holding the photos, I thought he’d snatch them out of my hands and return them to the drawer. Instead, a smile cut across his face and his eyes brightened. Inside the envelope I didn’t find any pictures of mushroom clouds or mangled bodies. I didn’t find any grim keepsakes whatsoever.

Instead, the photos I leafed through were photos of young men in uniform goofing off. With warm beers in hand, these squinty-eyed baby soldiers, not one of them more than 19-years old, hammed it up for the camera, throwing one another in headlocks, pouring their drinks on each other’s heads and flexing like beach-bound fools for the ladies who might have been seeing these photos back home.

One picture in particular caught my eye—Pops as a scrawny 17-year old kid with a Beatles haircut…except it was hard to make out his black bob beneath the brassiere he was wearing on his head. In the next photo, the boys were Conga dancing and Pops was wearing the bra on his emaciated chest.

After looking at these pics, I was at a loss for words. Fortunately, my father seized the opportunity and quickly interjected, “You want something I bought when I was there?”

I nodded.

He reached into the cabinet that housed his personal historical library of Vietnam and fished out a small paperback book. The book was Sorry ‘Bout That.

The book’s by-line is credited to Ken Melvin, some sort of pseudonym that represents the several servicemen who collaborated on this collection of cartoons, limericks and other GI-related “diversions.”

As the introduction states, “This book is no War and Peace. You might call it a piece of war—its lighter side. It isn’t meant to motivate, to win minds, cause defections, or sell a way of life—but it does point to that part of the American way of life which enables us to search in the darkness and come up with the light that is laughter.”

Sorry ‘Bout That breezily explores the bars, boondocks, cyclo girls and “dinky dau” of ‘Nam in a bite sized spread of easily digestible and often gut-busting vignettes. The “Numbah ones” are lampooned just as brutally as “Cheap Charlie.”

In much the same way that ‘Dr. Strangelove’ was able to find a sharp gallows humor in nuclear holocaust, Sorry ‘Bout That finds levity in rations, jitters, landmines and lousy juke joint grifters. It’s a fun read for vets and civilians alike, one that reminds us that the funny bone is the hardest one to lose in battle and, indeed, the most important bone in the human body.

Included in the book is a one-act play about a lonely soldier’s encounter with a woman of the night, one whose message is evident straight away. As mascot Asia Bird puts it, “It’s not the Saigon Tea you have to worry about. It’s the Saigon Tease.”

My copy came with a 1000000 Hell Bank note in it because Pops was always the frugal type. That cyclo girl would have to fleece another john because daddy was heading home with something in his wallet.

Also included is the “Sorry ‘Bout That” board game which starts at Tan Sun Nhut Air Terminal and may end with a return to your country of origin…if you play your cards right. If not then the instructions are quite clear. You land on the last spot and it’s back to the terminal with you. Have two ba me mas and call me in the morning!

As for that unfortunate Agent Orange situation, “Sorry ’bout that.”

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