The Unquestioned Order

 

As the saying goes, be careful what you ask for….

A few years ago a group of Vietnam veterans returned to Vietnam on a mission of peace and reconciliation.  During the war, most of these men had been stationed near Saigon, and so they planned to visit and work in the vicinity of what is now Ho Chi Minh City.  But one of them had spent a year up near the demilitarized zone, and so he left the others for a few days and traveled north to Quang Tri Province.

 

When he returned to the group, he told a remarkable story about a large monolith that has remained a mystery to the rice farmers of Quang Tri for over thirty years.

 

When that veteran told his story to a close friend of mine months later, my friend said, “I know the guy who’s responsible for that whole thing.  I didn’t believe him when he told me his story, but you’ve just confirmed everything he said.  It must all be true.” 

 

The storyteller that my friend was referring to is I, and this is that story.

The monolith sits in what used to be the U.S. military’s Quang Tri Combat Base, situated on a small arm of island-like land in the Trach Han River, three miles north of Quang Tri City on QL1, the main north-south highway in Vietnam. 

 

On a relatively peaceful morning in the late spring of 1970, I was out in a remote area of the province when I received a call on my radio in cryptic military jargon.  Translation: report to the company commander, immediately!

 

Leaving my sergeant in charge, I drove my jeep the few miles to the combat base and proceeded to our company headquarters shack. 

 

The only person in the shack was our company clerk, whose formal identity was Specialist Wesley Townsend, but everyone called him Weasel.  Weasel was our company’s expert in all matters administrative. 

 

It was Weasel who, in the name of the company commander and without his knowledge, had ordered my immediate presence.  He was clearly upset that I had not properly filled out some obligatory but useless form the Army typically required in triplicate. Weasel insisted that I fill out the form again, immediately, and this time correctly and completely.  His implied threat to me and all other lieutenants was something to the effect of:  Treat me with respect or I’ll call a buddy who’s a brother clerk in Saigon with access to your personnel file.  One word from me and….

 

This particular day I wasn’t in any mood to play Weasel games.  “You called me in from the field for this?  Damn it, Weasel, couldn’t this have waited a few more hours?”

 

“No Sir.”  Did I detect a smirk, something beyond his normal expression of distain for junior officers?

 

“All right, Weasel.  Hand me a pen and let’s get this over with.”  I liked calling him Weasel and I did so frequently.  It fit.

 

“We don’t have any pens, Sir.” 

 

No surprise there.  Since we were so close to the DMZ, we were at the very end of all supply lines.  We were always out of just about everything but bullets.

 

“Well then, Weasel, give me a pencil.”  I held my hand out in expectation.

 

“We don’t have any pencils either, Sir.”  Now it was clearly an out-and-out smirk. 

 

And now I was annoyed.  “Well, surely someone in this god-forsaken place must have a pencil, Weasel.  Call around for one.”  Did I have to tell him how to do his job?

 

“I already have, Sir.  No one has any pencils to spare.”

 

Obviously this had to be a company clerk’s idea of a joke.  In point of fact, I was looking at the stub of a pencil right there in plain sight on his desk.

 

“What’s this?” I said, reaching for the stub.

 

He snatched it to his chest with both hands and then, as that smirk mutated to a sneer, he declared, “This is the only pencil in the company, Sir, and I need it for the MR.” 

 

The MR—the Morning Report—is the single most important document in all of military paperdom. Think of it as the military equivalent of a workplace time card, but with a kicker.  If you aren’t ‘clocked in’ on the Morning Report each day then you don’t get paid AND what’s worse, you’re AWOL.  The MR is the mother of all reports.  A commander can lose his job if he doesn’t submit his MR on time and correctly every single day.  Therefore, the need to fill in the daily MR made Weasel’s pencil stub absolutely untouchable. 

 

No pens.  No pencils.  If I were to do any writing, I was going to have to find my own instrument.  And I was in desperate need of an instrument with which to write—not to fill out Weasel’s inane forms or for any other military purpose.  I needed a pencil so that I could (1) write letters home and thus (2) get letters back and thereby (3) hope to maintain what little sanity remained of my miserable life in this miserable place.

 

And so, in the finest military tradition and with clear intent and steadfast resolve, I set off on a mission to secure a pencil and with it my sanity. 

Uncertainty regarding my sanity had become an obsession with me.  How does one calibrate one’s own sanity in an insane world?  And there is nothing more insane than armed combat.  For several weeks I had been bothered by the unanswerable question, “Am I sane?” 

 

The moment of truth came on a night that the combat base was under attack.  In that moment I was running across a sandy patch fully exposed to enemy fire.  As I ran, the question kept repeating itself.  “Am I sane?”  “Am I sane?”  “Am I sane?” 

 

I was approaching a foxhole with two of my men in it, and just before my right foot hit the sand a bullet ricocheted beneath it and ZINGed on past; if I had been a tenth of a second quicker I’d have been shot in the foot.  Clearly, in the next moment I should have the answer my question.  If I had lost my sanity, I’d continue running forward.  If I were truly sane, I’d dive into that foxhole.

 

I had on my steel helmet and flack vest, and I was running with my M16 rifle.  And I dove into that foxhole head first.  The foxhole was about four feet deep and not much wider than the two soldiers who were in it.  I was upside down and rattling around trying to right myself, making a huge clatter.  Finally after what seemed like several minutes I was finally standing facing the two wide-eyed 19-year-olds.  I grabbed one of them by the collar and shouted into his startled face, “I’m sane, goddammit, I’m sane!”  To which he replied, “Wulll… that’s real good, Sir.”

 

I still needed a pencil.

First Lieutenant Michael D. Stone was our battalion supply officer, and Mike could always be found in the supply tent next door to the headquarters shack, when he wasn’t out working some lucrative deal. 

 

As I entered the tent I found Mike in his favorite work position: feet up on his desk, hands locked behind his head, butt securely anchored to his polished oak swivel chair—he was the living embodiment of whatever-it-is-you-may-think-you-need-you-ain’t-gonna-get-it-here.  A well-educated Tennessean with a studied drawl/twang, he was constantly working my northern biases to his advantage and delight.

 

As military gentlemen always do upon greeting one another, we exchanged the usual salutations from a junior officer (“Hey, Stone!”) to a slightly senior junior officer (“You address me as ‘Sir’, you maggot”) …because, as he was wont to remind me often, he outranked me by three weeks.

 

Once the pleasantries were dispensed with, I made my formal request for a pencil.

 

In response, he flashed me his most maniacal grin.

 

“If you want a pencil, you’ll have to order one yourself,” he said.  “And don’t expect any help from me.  I’ve been out of pencils for over a week now, and this is the very excuse I’ve been looking for ever since I arrived in this hellhole.”

 

Stone was always working some angle.  Judging by the intensity of his self-righteousness this time, he had cooked up an exceptionally good one.  Despite my best effort to appear cool and disinterested, my eyes widened in anticipation of the coming explanation.

 

“I can’t order anything because I can’t fill out a requisition, because I have nothing to fill one out with.  I have neither a pen nor a pencil, the only two instruments the Army will accept for handwriting on documents.  If I can’t fill out any requisitions, I can’t submit them.  And if I can’t submit requisitions, I can’t receive any shipments back, and therefore I won’t have anything to stock or keep track of.  Eventually I’ll be a Supply Officer with no supplies.  I will have achieved my personal and professional Nirvana by creating the most efficient inventory system possible!  I will pass every inspection with an ‘excellent’ rating because nothing will be out of order.  I will be praised and honored in the pantheon of history’s greatest supply officers!” 

 

“Sounds to me like you’re creating the opposite of a perpetual motion machine,” I said.

 

“Precisely!” he shouted triumphantly with a finger in the air, acknowledging my firm grasp of the perfectly obvious.

 

It was clear that my personal mission stood in direct opposition to Stone’s.  If I were to achieve mine, I was going to have to take subversive action.  Stone held the high ground in this skirmish because success for him required that he do nothing, a goal toward which he was naturally inclined.

 

It may seem strange that I would be obsessing about a pencil with a war going on all around me.  However, if you find yourself trapped in an insane world it becomes vitally important to continually calibrate your sanity by focusing on something immediate and real as an anchor point.  You can convince yourself you’re sane as long as your anchor remains in sight.

 

In my case, a pencil had become my anchor, my barometer of sanity, and so not having a pencil put my sanity in severe jeopardy.  I was desperate.

 

To ask Stone for help at this point would be tantamount to consorting with the enemy.  I was on my own, in hostile territory, but this is exactly what the Army had trained me for.  It was high noon, time for action.

 

I left the supply tent and walked up the company street until I was out of sight, then I doubled back, staying in the shadows of buildings so that I couldn’t be seen from the supply tent.  I found a well-concealed observation point and waited for Stone to go to lunch.

 

I didn’t have long to wait.  I was well aware of his daily routine.  While the rest of us ate Army food in the mess hall, Stone partook of his mid-day repast on his bunk, in style. 

 

Per his precise instructions, his mother regularly sent him the most bizarre and resplendent care packages.  Every two weeks, through the Army’s official supply channels, he would accept shipment of an insulated wooden crate from home.  Its contents would replenish the several foot lockers in his personal area. 

 

While Stone kept his store hidden under lock and key, we knew his inventory included copious supplies of French and Italian cheeses, cans of meat cooked in gourmet sauces, packages of caviar with special crackers, escargot with shells packaged separately (to be combined and then fried in garlic butter specially packaged to withstand tropical heat), Belgian truffles (they didn’t do well in the heat), Swiss pralines, fine candies, smoked nuts and dried fruits, liqueur cakes, and of course bottles of fine wine (although six bottles of Pouilly-Fousse had been delayed three months in shipment and had arrived as fine vinegar).

 

No one doubted that 1st Lt. Michael D. Stone of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps could have taught his superior officers a thing or two about procuring, packing, shipping, storing and consuming precious cargo.

 

Stone always spent forty five minutes preparing and eating his noon meal.  That was my window of opportunity.

 

I watched him as he left the supply tent and walked toward his hooch.  Once he was out of sight, I set my plan in motion.  I entered the supply tent and found the catalog of military supply items.  It was a bound volume of computer-printed pages, about five inches thick.  It took me a quarter of an hour to locate the line item for “pencil, wood, No 2 lead, quantity gross”.  What I needed to execute my requisition was this description plus the eleven-digit Federal Stock Number, or FSN, that uniquely identified this particular genus and species of writing instrument.  But I had nothing with which to write down this vital information.

 

I spent several minutes memorizing the FSN and descriptive verbiage, and then proceeded rapidly from the tent to my destination about a hundred feet away, reciting the FSN as I went. 

Situated prominently in our company area was a big, boxy military trailer, parked on a concrete pad and standing about 12 feet high.  It was painted olive drab in keeping with ancient military wisdom that held that any object this large and rectangular should be colored in such a fashion as to stand out with distinction against the bright red clay and low grasses indigenous to the land.

 

This was the logistics trailer, and it was to this destination that I headed when I left the supply tent.

 

The trailer had a vital purpose.  All orders for ammunition and supplies for all the artillery bases and camps on the DMZ and in northern Quang Tri Province were processed through it.  Every week, requisitions for millions of dollars worth of materiel were sent south to Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay over a phone line that originated in that trailer.

 

Now it should be noted once again that the events of this story took place in 1970, a time when the Army was still using 1950s-era data processing equipment that employed vacuum tubes and punch cards. 

 

Since the outside temperature in Quang Tri sometimes exceeded 110°F for weeks at a time, conditioning the air inside the logistics trailer was an absolute necessity.  The data processor’s vacuum tubes could only work reliably within a very narrow ambient temperature range centered around 68°F.  Thus, a large generator and a large air conditioning unit were installed adjacent to the trailer, the generator pumping energy into it and the air conditioner pumping energy back out.

By the time I reached the trailer, I was no longer confident I was remembering the FSN correctly.  Damn!  If I screwed that up who knows what I’d be ordering.

 

So I ran back to the supply tent, grabbed the catalog, and carried the whole thing back to the trailer.  It took me several nervous minutes to relocate the section with information on all sorts of pens and pencils. When I finally found the line I was looking for, I dictated the FSN and description to the specialist operating the card punch machine.  He typed as I read, and each of his keystrokes resulted in a combination of holes punched in the card that was becoming my order.

 

Now, as the item description indicated, the minimum order quantity for No 2 pencils in the federal system is a gross, a dozen dozens, or 144.  I figured one gross should do it for our company for quite a while, so I told the specialist to put down ‘one’ for the quantity.  I watched as he hit the ‘1’ key.

 

When he was finished punching all the information into the card, he removed it from the punch machine and placed it on the bottom of a stack of similarly punched cards.  He then loaded the stack into a tray inside a card reading machine, and pressed a large red button.  The cards were shuffled in rapid succession into the reader. 

 

As each card was guided through the machine, it passed an array of electrically charged tumblers.  As each punched hole passed through the reader, a tumbler on one side of the card made contact through the hole with a tumbler on the other side. This contact created an electrical impulse that was conducted through the machine’s circuit of tubes to emerge as a signal that was then transmitted through the telephone line to a receiving machine in Da Nang, 70 miles to the south. 

 

Just as I watched the last card in the stack—my card—disappear into the card reader, three of my five senses noted a dramatic change in my surroundings.  My eyes reported that my field of vision suddenly went black.  Simultaneously, my ears, which had been subconsciously monitoring the continual din of the processing machinery, the air conditioner and the generator outside, suddenly reported that there was nothing to report.  And I sensed an immediate and remarkable rise in the temperature inside the trailer.  All was quiet.  The generator had quit, and thus the air conditioner died.

 

Generator problems were a daily hiccup for the crew in the trailer, and they obviously knew what to do.  I could hear them making their way in the pitch black through the tight quarters of the trailer without bumping into anything.  When they opened the door at the back of the trailer, I could see well enough to grab the catalog and follow them. 

 

Once the crew and I were outside, I asked the logistics officer if my order had made it to the phone line.  He said it probably had, but he’d know for sure the next morning when he received his daily status report from Da Nang.

 

I rushed the catalog back to the supply tent and placed it on its shelf just as Stone was returning from lunch.  Had he seen me running across the road carrying the bulky catalog?  His look told me that at the very least he suspected I was up to something.  I dreaded that.  With a single phone call, he could put an end to all my efforts.

Before the French and American occupations of the last century, for several hundred years Vietnam had suffered the annual invasion of marauders from the north. 

 

To escape the frigid blast of Siberian winter winds, warlords and their cohorts would caravan out of China south toward warmer climes.  Following the western coast of the Gulf of Tonkin, they traveled through the Hanoi delta then southeast along the shore, eventually arriving in resplendent Quang Tri province.  They couldn’t go much farther south without running into the formidable Hai Van mountains, a thin range which forms a sheer, fourteen hundred foot high wall extending from the Truong Son mountain range eastward into the South China Sea.

 

So, having gone as far south as they could, the invaders would spend the winter months in Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Tri provinces.  They lived in relative luxury, pillaging the local farms for food and raping the local women for entertainment.  To this day, there is a residual animus among local farmers toward all Chinese.

 

So it was something of an oddity that on our little island-like peninsula, which was honored by the Vietnamese as sacred ground, there remained intact a mausoleum that had been built by Chinese vandals and dedicated to a warlord killed in battle well over a hundred years earlier.  In fact, it had been painstakingly preserved by local families for generations. 

 

This was a building of rare grace, well deserving of exquisite care. 

 

It was perfectly round, twenty feet in diameter, with terracotta walls eight feet high.  The roof was made of woven straw, resembling the conical straw hats worn by Vietnamese peasants, and was supported by poles that held it about a foot above the top of the wall.  Surrounding the base of the wall on the outside was a brilliant white border of crushed shells, and the interior floor was white sand raked smooth.  The only fixture in the building was a small stone table resembling an altar, situated in the exact center of the room.  Around the interior of the wall was a mural depicting the warlord’s victories in battle.  It was obvious that the farmers had restored and maintained the mural through all the years of foreign invasion.

 

The most striking characteristic of the building was its ethereal natural lighting.  No matter what the attitude of the sun at any given time of day, its rays would strike the white shells outside the wall, reflect upward through the gap between wall and roof, and be gently diffused by the thatch ceiling, turning the light to a golden hue.  Thus, throughout the day the room was always uniformly, gently, warmly lit.  The effect drew the visitor into deep contemplation.  Hours could pass like minutes within those walls.

 

It was here that I went after my encounter with Stone to find peace of mind and to renew my resolve.

The next morning, before heading out to my regular duties, I stopped by the logistics trailer and asked the officer if he had heard anything from Da Nang.  Yes, he said, they reported that they received the entire transmission intact.  I asked how long my order of pencils would take, and he said he expected them to be on the next shipment north, possibly the following day.

 

I spent the rest of the day in a warm state of mind having achieved my goal.

 

First thing the following morning, I stopped in to see Stone in the supply tent.  For maximum effect, I casually asked if my order had arrived.  He stared at me with curiosity and defiance.

 

“What order?”

 

“My order for pencils that went out yesterday,” I grinned triumphantly.

 

“No order went out from here yesterday.  Who sent an order?”

 

“I did,” I said, confident that there was nothing he could do to stop me now.

 

“Dammit, Willis, you went behind my back.  That’s dirty pool.  That’s un-American.  That’s un-Christian.  That’s… that’s… just plain wrong!  Now everyone’s gonna have pencils to fill out requisitions with, and I’m gonna have to process all of them.  You fool!  Do you realize what you’ve done?”

 

“I’m sorry, Stone.  I needed something to write letters home with.  That’s all.  How about if I hide the pencils from everyone else.  It’ll be our little military secret.”

 

He thought about that for a moment, saw the opportunity inherent in a cornered market, and finally declared, “Those pencils are military property, and no one can own military property.  When that order comes in, I’ll be the one to receive it in my official capacity as battalion supply officer, and I’ll issue you your one pencil.  I’ll put the rest into my supply inventory.  Anyone who needs a pencil will have to come see me.”

 

Ah, a compromise.  A win-win.  We were once again best buddies, co-conspirators jointly sharing missions accomplished.  I would be getting the single pencil my sanity craved, and he would control the other one hundred forty three, most assuredly to his advantage.

 

Now he was suddenly jumping into action, picking up the phone and calling a contact in Da Nang who would know the status of my order.  After a brief conversation in which he did little talking, he hung up and reported that there was a slight problem with the order, something about transportation, and that they were anticipating a further delay of a day or so.  Understandable.  This was a combat zone, and often convoys were delayed by ambushes on QL1.

 

I left the supply tent confident that Stone had my back, and would do whatever it took to see that my, or rather our, order was fulfilled.

Over the course of the next week, I checked with Stone each morning and received the same strange report: down south they continued to have problems with the order of pencils but, not to worry, they were still working on it.  The only new development occurred mid-week: Stone was told that responsibility for fulfillment had been shifted from Da Nang to Cam Ranh Bay, the largest port facility in Vietnam. 

 

Word began to spread through our company that pencils were on the way, but that they were delayed for some unexplained reason.  As each day passed with no appreciable change in the news, curiosity and speculation grew.

 

Finally one afternoon I received a radio call from Stone that my pencils had arrived.  I hopped in my jeep and headed for headquarters. 

 

As I rounded the corner onto the company street, I had to slam on the brakes.  A large flat-bed trailer was taking up all the space in front of the supply tent in the narrow company street.  This was highly unusual.  I couldn’t ever remember a trailer being left there.  In my excitement at finally achieving my mission it barely registered that there was a number of very large wooden crates strapped to the trailer.  I hopped out of my jeep and ran into the supply tent.

 

Stone was in his usual position at his desk.  He had an unfathomable expression on his face, neither triumph nor defeat… more like detachment and denial.  Clearly something was not quite right.

 

“My pencils are here?” I asked with optimistic excitement.

 

“Oh, yes.  Yes, they are.”

 

Looking around, I saw no unusual packages in the tent.  “Where are they?” I asked.

 

“On that trailer out front.  The one you almost ran into.”

 

Ah, the trailer with all the big crates. “But which crate are they in?”

 

“All of them.”

 

“What?”

 

“Yep.  All those crates are full of pencils, every single one of them, and they’re all yours.  You really screwed up this time.  I don’t know how you did it, but you managed to order a gross of grosses of grosses of pencils.  I did the math.  That’s one hundred forty four times one hundred forty four times one hundred forty four, for a grand total of… are you ready for this?... two million, nine hundred eighty five thousand, nine hundred and eighty four pencils.  And if you open one of those crates and take possession of even one pencil, you own the whole shipment.”

 

“Huh?  That’s not what I ordered.  This isn’t my fault.  What the hell happened?”

 

“Nobody knows.  I did some asking around.  The logistics guys think it may have had something to do with that power failure when your order was being processed.  Maybe a tube went crazy when its electrical field broke down.  Da Nang says the quantity is clear on the order they received—a gross of grosses of grosses.”

 

“But didn’t anybody down there question why we would possibly need all those pencils?”

 

“Obviously not.  All’s I know is, the Army is never wrong, and I didn’t have a thing to do with any of this.  This is all your doing.  My name isn’t on any document, I didn’t sign a thing, and I have an air-tight alibi:  I couldn’t have authorized this because I still don’t have anything to write with, and I follow regulations.  No order ever leaves this tent without my personal signature on it.  You can bet I won’t be the one goin’ to jail when the Inspector General comes diggin’ around here.  You’re completely responsible for this mess.  And I’ll be the first to testify to that.  This is what you get for trying to mess with my system.”

 

I spent a good hour considering my options.  I was so close to the one pencil I was desperate for, but was it worth going to jail to get it?  I was certain there would be an investigation.  I could picture at this very moment some general somewhere yelling at some colonel, insisting on a full investigation and shouting that, by God, heads will roll for this screw-up.  My brief military career might already be over.  I might never get to see my wife and kids again.

 

I was desperate.  In spite of everything, there was still the sanity question.  I had to have a pencil.  So I grabbed a crow bar, loosened a strap, climbed up on the trailer, pried open one crate, opened one box, and took one pencil.  Just as I began to close everything back up, I heard a click and looked down.  Stone had a camera and was taking a picture of me for the record.  Exhibit A for the prosecution.

Months passed.  The trailer sat in front of the supply tent and gradually became part of the landscape.  People drove around it, people walked around it, people sat in its shade.  No one questioned its origin anymore.  And no one came up from the south to prosecute the perpetrator of the crime.

 

Eventually, my time was up and I left Vietnam for home.  I left the Army a year later with an Honorable Discharge, and there was no mention anywhere in my personnel file of any problem with pencils.

On an evening in April of 1972 I was sitting in my living room in Corvallis, Oregon, watching the evening news.  My wife Kathy was in the kitchen preparing dinner for our little family: Kathy, me and our two daughters.

 

A report came on the TV about the latest developments in the Battle of Quang Tri.  After a month of bitter fighting, the North Vietnamese Army, under General Văn Tiến Dũng, was beginning to force the remarkably tenacious South Vietnamese troops into their final retreat southward.

 

In the filmed report I was watching, I could clearly see our little peninsula in the river, by now flattened by weeks of constant artillery barrage.  Only two recognizable structures remained in the picture.  On the far right of the screen was my trailerload of pencils.  And on the far left was the warlord’s mausoleum, that unique, sacred structure.  I stared in utter amazement.  That that delicate temple was still standing was nothing short of a miracle.

 

Excitedly I called to Kathy, “Come here quick!  That mausoleum I told you about is on the news!”

 

Just as I said that, before my very eyes the mausoleum was hit by an artillery round and disappeared in a cloud of dust.  In that moment something precious left this world.  That beautiful, peaceful place was no more.

 

Now only the loaded flatbed trailer remained standing in the picture. 

 

“What did you say?” Kathy asked as she came in from the kitchen.

 

“Never mind,” I said.  I couldn’t find words to describe what just happened.  Finally, all I could say was, “It was nothing.”

That Vietnam veteran who told my friend about his visit to Quang Tri said that the local rice farmers have not touched that trailer in over thirty years, even though it sits on their sacred burial ground.  It has weathered monsoons and blistering heat, its tires have dissolved and the undercarriage is rusted solid, but its cargo remains intact.

 

He said that, although labels stenciled on all the crates declare the contents to be pencils, the farmers believe the crates contain American bombs that could destroy them all.

 

After all, they say, why would the Americans have left a trailer full of pencils on an island, in a river, in Quang Tri, Vietnam?