Taz and Kodak
by Rick Beck
Thanks you Tracy for wanting to help with this tale.
Paul Anderson, photojournalist, wants to cover a war. First he must do battle with Taz, an irregular soldier. War seems a simple affair to Paul, nicknamed Kodak by 1st squad, when compared to the verbal jousting Taz foists upon him.
Always irreverent, sometimes poignant, war has never gone so far out of bounds.
© OLYMPIA50 2016 all rights reserved
For my soul mate David
Help save lost and lonely kids:
Give your time, give a buck,
Save a life like Robby's
For Robby Kirkland, dead of hate and intolerance, forever 14:
In memory of Sean Flynn, photojournalist, missing in the Vietnam War
Taz and Kodak
A Rick Beck Story
What War is
The big bellied transport dropped out of the sky shortly after the announcement:
"We're now entering the airspace of the Republic of Vietnam."
It was 05:30 and the activities on the ground were mostly directed at the incoming flight. There were 248 soldiers and one wide-eyed young photographer, Paul Anderson, who'd come by way of Berkeley, California, to photograph a war.
The proposition was irresistible to Paul, once the journalism professor began telling stories about his experiences in WWII. Searching for a paper to credential him for Vietnam, the closest he could come was as a photographer, independent of, but not devoid of journalistic privilege.
His father fought in WWII and now Paul would see first hand his generation's war. He didn't know what it meant yet, but he was ready to document on film the actions of whatever group he could become attached to.
His editor said, "Be professional. Be accessible. A unit that isn't opposed to your presence is a unit that will get you into the fray with the least effort. Everyone's a ham, son. You can offer them a record of their exploits. Irresistible, son, irresistible.
"You'll be fine but do not risk your own life. There will be plenty of shots that will make you famous without sticking your neck out. Never get so far out in front of yourself you can't get back. Do what you're told and never argue with the man in charge. Be of service to him but never get in the way. You'll do fine."
These words rang in Paul's ear as he put his gear back into the one canvas type gym bag he was told to bring. This meant he had to travel light. Two pair of underwear, two pair of shorts, two shirts, four pairs of socks, and two war novels he'd selected for their authenticity.
Paul was ready for war.
He also brought two twenty-four packs of Kodak film to fit the older model Kodak camera that took his best pictures. He'd collected it in a pawn shop for five bucks. Once he started using it, he never went back to his more expensive fancier foreign models. Comfort and confidence in his equipment were essential. Anyone could do flash and dash.
The plane made one sharp banking move before it dropped directly down onto the tarmac. First light had just begun peeking into the plane's windows. As fast as the tires screeched against the runway, the plane vibrated as it slowed sharply.
Coming almost to a stop, it maneuvered like the behemoth it was, being directed by a man on the ground to a spot off to one side at the end of the runway. There were jeeps, three quarter ton trucks, and an unbroken chain of deuce-and-a-half trucks lined up like on a car lot in Oakland.
Paul pulled himself out of the window to go back to securing his bag, anxious to get his feet on solid ground. An excitement surged through him. He had made it into a war zone. He wasn't sure what that meant, but he wanted to get busy finding out.
The sergeant in charge ordered his troops to fall in to deplane. Paul saw a mixture of tall and shorter, wide and thinner, dark haired and light haired. For the most part the soldiers were youthful, with a beauty that comes with youth.
Each soldier had a rifle slung on his shoulder and a pack on his back, carrying a duffel bag in his right hand. They looked to be apathetic to their arrival in Vietnam. Each face was like a blank slate yet to be written upon.
Paul snapped pictures as the men stood still, moved a few feet to wait some more. There was a face now and again that Paul needed to capture. Other shots were random, just getting accustomed to using the available subjects to ply his trade.
The sergeant barked out orders as two lines of soldiers marched past him, onto the ramp, and out into the bright morning light.
Once the plane was empty, Paul walked down the ramp as other soldiers came up the ramp toward the stacks of supplies anchored to the sides of the cargo plane, and the rear ramp became a hub of activity as Paul exited through the big open doors at the rear.
He stood watching the forklifts moving into place, as piles of supplies towered above him at the back of the plane. More forklifts moved piles of pallets toward what looked like huge hangars. Jeeps came and went constantly. The empty airfield where they landed came alive with activity.
A stiff breeze blew dirt around and onto everyone and everything. Men yelled disapproval, protesting crates of shiny M-16s, helmets, and ammunition, broken open. A forklift leaned awkwardly off one side of the ramp, having dumped its load.
The forklift operator made an attempt to explain. The crew stood with hands on hips in despair. Men in green pants and white T-shirts righted the forklift and began pushing the equipment back inside the ruptured crates. The disruption ended as the men were busy cleaning up the mess.
Paul turned back to snap a couple of pictures of the operation as the mess disappeared and like a colony of ants, they were making short work of the distributing the piles stacked on either side of the rear doors.
He let the Kodak camera come to rest on his chest. Reaching into his pocket, he followed the directions on the paper, looking at the line of hangars to find a sign reading Journalist's Headquarters.
Stepping through the proper door he found himself inside a room with a counter with filing cabinets behind it. There were two long wooden tables with wooden chairs in front of the counter. One lone civilian type hefty male was seated at one of the tables.
"What's your pleasure," a sergeant asked from behind the counter.
"I was told to report here for credentials. I want to hook up with a combat unit."
"Photographer?" he asked, looking at the camera.
"Here you go, Sport. Fill this out for me. I need a form of I.D. and your Social Security Card."
"Yes, sir," Paul said, taking out his wallet and removing his California driver's license and Social Security Card.
"Anyone with stripes just say, yeah, you bet. You'll get their attention faster that way. Sir is for the people in charge of this war. You aren't likely to be running into many of them if you hook up with a combat unit. We're just hey you and what's your name to civilians."
"Oh," Paul said.
He returned the paperwork to the sergeant.
"Stand over there and scowl. It'll make you look like the rest of us. Besides, it's what you'll look like after a few weeks in this place.
"On the floor. That green block. Stand there and look at the camera. Smile, say cheese, and I'll make you look like Errol Flynn."
Paul followed the instructions. The camera clicked off a shot. The sergeant disappeared in between the filing cabinets and returned a few minutes later.
"Here you go. Wear this around your neck. If anyone asks who you are, just flip the official credentials at them. This other badge is to be worn with the official identification and it indicates you are cleared to be in a combat zone as a journalist. Your decoder ring comes later."
"What?" Paul asked.
"Never mind. Read this. It covers the rules of the road. Follow them. If you don't you'll be on your way back home faster than you can say Jack Robinson. It's not complicated. Your transportation will meet you at the front door. Give him this paper. Please don't tip the help. He'll get you where you want to go," the sergeant said, handing him a piece of paper. "Welcome to Vietnam. Any questions?"
"If you need any assistance, call this office and ask for the sergeant on duty."
Paul hadn't been able to find a paper that would sponsor him as a journalist, but a Sacramento paper offered to send him as a freelance photographer. The credentials really didn't specify anything but journalist.
He was surprised how easy it was to get credentials. He examined the identification after stepping outside. It was a warm day. A jeep zipped up to the building with a sleepy looking GI at the wheel.
Paul liked courtesy. He sat down in the front seat. The driver held out his hand.
"Where to, Mack? You got yourself a pass for me?"
"I'm a photographer. They said to hook up with a rifle squad. Here, he said give you this."
"That explains the camera. One rifle squad coming up," the driver said, and the jeep lurched into action. "These boys don't see a lot of action but they protect our perimeter out thirty miles from the airfield. You never know where Charlie will pop up."
Speeding across the blacktop, they hit a dirt road that took them into the jungle that surrounded the airfield. Looking back, Paul saw a billowing smokescreen of dust as the jungle grew closer. Paul didn't protest the excessive speed.
"Here you go, Mack. There are several rifle companies bivouacked up this hill. Check in each tent until you find what you're looking for. If you run into trouble get a message to the airfield and I'll come get you."
"What's your name?" Paul asked.
"Anthony P Wallingford, sir," he said.
He poked out his chest for Paul to read his name tag.
"Well Wallingford, Anthony P., thanks. You be careful now."
"Yes, sir, likewise I'm sure," the soldier said, making a tight u-turn and leaving in a cloud of dust.
' Hi-Ho Silver,' Paul said, as the jeep charged off leaving the dust screen in its wake.
Looking up the line of tents, all with flaps wide open, he climbed the short rise, looking into each empty tent. The third tent had a group of soldiers sitting around a table at the other end of the wooden planking the tent was constructed on.
There was one cot complete with a sleeping soldier near the opening. The rest of the cots were lined up neatly deeper inside the tent. Paul stepped up on the wooden flooring to make himself seen. He ran his sales pitch through his mind. 'Make you famous,' he thought, which made him smile.
"Excuse me. I'm a photojournalist. I'm looking for a rifle squad."
One of the larger soldiers stood up, setting down his cards. He moved toward the front of the tent.
"How can I help you?"
"I'm a photographer, Paul Anderson." Paul said, sticking out his hand. "I want to catch on with a squad. I'll photograph you during the performance of your daily routine. I'd stay out of the way."
"You take pictures of us together, when we aren't performing our duties?" he asked. "Give us copies to send back to the world?"
"The world? You can send them anywhere."
"The World. The States, man. America!. You know, land of the free, home of the brave? 'Oh beautiful for spacious skies,' like that."
"Oh, sure, I'd be at your service. I'd document your activities on film. I'd be happy to photograph the squad. Make prints available to you. I wouldn't get in the way."
"I'm squad leader, Sgt. John Harold Jacoby. I think we can do business. You'd answer to me."
"Paul Anderson," Paul said, shaking John Harold's hand.
The sergeant looked at Paul's credentials but couldn't avoid the rolls of Kodak film strung around his neck, tangled in his ID. He looked into Paul's young face.
Paul stayed quiet as Sgt. Jacoby contemplated his proposition.
"Here's the deal. You do what I tell you. I'll keep you alive and my men will stay alive. I tell you to do something and you don't, you're out of here. I tell you to stick with one of my guys, you stay stuck, until I unstick you. You'd photograph us together. I want casual shots to show our families how good we got it here. Can you do that?"
"Sure, I can. I can't develop the film here. I send it to the States to my paper and they'll send me prints of what I designate."
"Sounds like we got a deal," the sergeant said, looking down for Paul's ID again, seeing Kodak brightly printed on everything. "Follow me, Kodak."
Going to the back of the tent, there wasn't enough fresh air to hide a strange musty odor Paul picked up on right away. Paul had smelled better bathrooms but he wasn't about to complain.
Half-a-dozen soldiers sat at the table. They looked casual. It's not quite what Paul expected.
"Gents, we got us a personal photographer. This is… ah… ah… Kodak," Sgt. Jacoby decided, once he looked at Paul's chest.
"Paul," Paul said.
"Hi yeah, Kodak," a slender black soldier greeted him. "I'm Washington. I collect stuff. If you need anything, see me."
"I'm Paul," Paul said.
"That's Temple. Cohen, Ramos, and Hale," the sergeant said, pointing out each soldier.
Paul Anderson, 1st squad's photographer of record, had become Kodak to the rifle squad. At first he checked their name tags to identify them. No one made mention of the soldier sleeping up front.
"You got any money?" Sgt. Jacoby asked.
"Yeah, sure," Kodak said innocently.
"You know how to play poker?" he asked.
"Some," Kodak answered.
"Welcome to the 3rd Platoon 1st squad. This is my rifle squad. Sit down and we'll deal you in next hand."
Paul knew an order when he heard one. He couldn't imagine what he'd spend money on out there. The game moved fast and Kodak lost the money in his pockets within an hour. The money he had put away would stay there.
He could wire his employer for money but if they didn't like the pictures he took, he was on his own. He wanted whatever money he earned to build up so he could write his book once he got home. He pushed himself away from the table once his pocket money was gone.
"Kodak, before we break to show you where we eat lunch, let's play one more hand. Pull your chair up here for a minute. Have I got a deal for you."
"I'm busted," Kodak reminded him.
"Yeah, I know. What I have in mind is playing for your babysitting talent. Call it a service contract with 1st squad. It would endear you to all of us and make you an instant VIP."
"I don't understand," Kodak confessed.
"You ever baby sit?"
"Sure, I got sisters who have kids. I baby sit for them."
"See, you're a natural. Just what the doctor ordered. You see Taz up there? He's a bit of a problem, you see. He drinks. His specialty is pissing the bed. What I have in mind is you, if you should lose this hand, get Taz. We take turns now but when we're in camp you won't have anything else to do and we're short handed at present. Washington has other talents and he's been taking care of Taz."
"What kind of service?"
"If you lose you become responsible for him. You got to get him showered, his bed changed, and him to the mess at least once a day, preferably the evening meal."
Kodak looked at the prone soldier. It was difficult to tell what was what with him. If he went for this deal he'd be stuck with the drunk, but maybe that wasn't so bad. If he was of value, once he'd gone broke, they'd be more likely to keep him with the squad. He didn't think a soldier could be that much trouble.
"Okay," he agreed cheerfully as the soldiers looked happily from one to the other.
The next hand went predictably, except when Kodak threw in his cards the soldiers at the table gave each other the high-five, like they'd won something big. Kodak did wonder about their reaction.
"Why do you let him do it?" Kodak asked Sgt. Jacoby as they escorted him to the mess tent.
"Let who do what?"
"The guy I'm going to baby sit. Why let him get away with it? You're his sergeant. Can't you get him to straighten out?"
"Taz don't care about my rank. Taz don't care about much of anything. One thing is as good as another to him. The stockade is vacation time to him. It's a matter of working with what we've got. I've got Taz and now you've come along to help. The Lord does provide," Jacoby reasoned happily.
"How do I pay for my meals?" Kodak inquired, thinking about the pocket money he'd dropped.
"My man, Mr. Kodak, you're my guest. Have all you want and if anyone says anything to you, tell them to see Sgt. Jacoby, and I'll set them straight."
"Oh, thanks. I appreciate that. I hope I earn it."
"You've done more than you'll ever know. Eat your fill. Keep that ID outside your shirt so no one needs to ask who the hell you are."
Kodak stayed close to Jacoby. Washington seemed friendliest, along with Hale, but the sergeant was the man he needed to please. He didn't know what to make of most of the food and took what Jacoby took, sitting next to him at a table off to one side.
"What makes him drink so much, The Taz?"
"Taz is pretty much his own man. We can butt heads constantly, or I can let him do what he wants as long as he performs while we're out in the bush. On patrol he holds his own. I got no complaints."
"What does that do to morale? Doesn't that make the other soldiers resent him?"
"Taz? No, no, they don't resent him. It's difficult to explain the chemistry. Once we go out and take you with us, you'll figure it out for yourself, so I won't spend a lot of time trying to explain it to you. I wouldn't ask you to do something that wasn't important. Just be patient and you'll find out all you want to know."
Kodak wondered about his duties as nursemaid. It seemed easy enough. Having hooked up with the first rifle squad was worth a little inconvenience. He wasn't certain anyone would let him tag along.
The mess tent was hot and humid as the sun stood up high in the sky. Kodak stayed with his squad and no one questioned his Bermuda shorts or Hawaiian shirt. The food was relatively good after twenty hours without food.
The décor was informal, with sergeants being the ranking soldiers present. The conversation was animated and some were loud. It was a large tent half full of diners.
When they took Kodak back to the tent Washington introduced him to Taz.
"Okay, the thing you got to remember, dude, Taz is going to complain no matter what. You ignore it. When the Sarge says get him up, you get him up. Do what it takes to get him showered. Get him fed. If he don't get fed once a day he gets cranky. That's not good."
"Why do you put up with him?" Kodak asked.
"Taz is an integral part of our mechanism. 1st squad don't function well if we're missing parts of our mechanism. In fact we're two riflemen short at the moment. We need Taz."
"What good is he if he's drunk?"
"That's the trick. He drinks after a patrol. We all do, except Cohen. He don't drink. Jacoby's a light weight. We rotate on patrol and go out every third day at present. He drinks that night, and then he has a day to sober up, and he's ready to rock and roll on the third day.
"What rank is he?" Kodak asked.
"That changes right regular. Taz is about as low as you can go at present. He gets busted down from corporal regularly. He doesn't particularly like being here and he figures if he's got to be here he'll do it his way. Officers don't understand him, but Sgt. Jacoby does, which is all that matters to the squad. Ain't no officer going to follow us out in the bush to chase Charlie down."
"The enemy? The VC. The Viet Cong, dude. Where you been?"
"Oh, yeah. How often does he pee the bed?"
"That is one of his most dependable things. When he drinks he pees the bed."
Taz was face down on his bunk, looking a bit like a prune as he stayed glued to his green blanket. He slobbered out of the corner of his mouth. The bed was obviously soaked. Someone had thrown a towel under the canvas cot to keep the boards under it dry.
"What good is he?" Kodak asked, needing a reason for doing what he was asked to do.
"Take my word for it, you'll find out by going on patrol with us. You might call Taz our secret weapon."
"He piss on the enemy?" Kodak asked.
"Better than that."
"I can't wait," Kodak said sarcastically, already sensing the flow within 1st squad...
"Come on, Taz, meet your new zookeeper," Washington said convincingly. "Time to rise and shine, ole buddy."
Taz made some primitive sounds, turning his head away from the disturbance, hoping it might go away. Washington shook him more vigorously with only slightly better results.
There were more instructions as Taz sat up without looking awake. Washington stripped the cot in one big yank. Taz seemed determined to go back to bed but Washington pulled him onto his feet, moving the cot to where the sun shined on it. A sudden, intense odor hit Kodak's nostrils.
There was a battle that kept him moving toward the showers. Taz would begin to crumble, Washington would support him to move him across the compound to the shower tent.
Taz did his best to stay dry as Washington held him up in the shower. Once the cold water began reviving him, Taz gave into the inevitable as all resistance ceased. Soon he was standing on his own and looking more like he was awake. Washington left him alone to dry off as Kodak held a towel out for him.
Taz looked at Kodak suspiciously as he yanked off his drenched underwear before taking the towel.
"Who the hell are you? That ain't no military issue you got on," Taz barked.
"I'm Paul… never mind. You can call me Kodak. Everyone else does."
"Why the hell should I call you anything? You ain't nothing to me," Taz objected gruffly.
"He's yo mama, Taz. Jacoby just gave you to him."
As Kodak studied the soldier, he was amazed by the muscle mass in his upper body, especially in his arms. One big bicep had the head of a panther while the other arm was marked Taz. Kodak saw a picture he'd take of each.
"What are you looking at?" Taz snapped.
"You're small but you're built really well. I mean you have a nice body."
"Thanks, but I'm not in the market for a boyfriend at the moment. Another couple of months in-country and you might have a shot, Kodiak."
"Kodak, and I don't want a shot. I was just admiring your body. I'm a photographer and it's my business to know what looks good."
"I'll take that as a compliment but when you're trapped in a place without women, you might want to cut back on admiring a mans body. It makes some guys nervous. Me, I don't do nervous. I keep my options open, just don't get any wild ideas we might be swapping spit sometime soon."
"Here you go, Taz. Fresh laundered clothes. I'll set them here until you're dry," Washington said, putting the clothes down. "I'll explain later about where to get his clean clothes."
"Thanks. Where'd the new meat come from? They run out of uniforms? That the new issue?"
"Oh, he's our personal photographer," Washington bragged. "Can't hardly beat that, huh? He's going to follow us around and shoot pictures. Send them home to the girl."
"Nice," Taz said, pulling on his undershirt and then his shorts. "You bring him along to stare at the drunk guy?"
"Nah, Taz, my man, he won you in a card game. We collect what he takes off and a Vietnamese fellow does our wash. He works cheap. I'll show you where to put the wet clothes. You toss in what you want washed and it'll be back the next afternoon. We all chip in."
"Won me in a card game? Here I thought slavery was illegal. Washington, you've been freed and now Kodiak owns me. It's all quite confusing."
"Kodak," Kodak said.
"Taz, old buddy, it's been a pleasure cleaning up after you. I never thought of it as servitude."
"I'm hungry," Taz said, getting into his military issue.
"We showed you the mess tent. Go with him and make sure he comes back to our tent. We are on patrol tonight and he knows he can't drink, but it never hurts to keep an eye on him. He's no trouble once he's got his shower. Are you, Taz?"
"I keep telling you guys I don't need no babysitter," Taz objected. "I'm an adult and I'm in the US Army."
"Yeah, you do. Jacoby says he goes, he goes. Besides, we need to make sure he doesn't get lost somewhere."
"Come on, Cujo, I wouldn't want you to get lost. Do you know where we're going?"
"Kodak," Washington corrected.
"I think so," Kodak said.
"Oh, great, I got to baby sit my babysitter. Come on, Kofu. I don't want to loose you on our first date."
"It's not my idea," Kodak objected.
"That's your story. When a guy watches me dry myself off after a shower, I think of it as a date."
"Jacoby wants this guy with us. You don't mess with him, Taz. He's okay. You'll see once he gives you pictures to send home."
"I don't have no home. That's why I joined the army."
"Taz, don't do anything to piss Jacoby off."
"Come on, Kodak. I guess we're stuck with each other," Taz said, heading for the mess tent.
Taz led the way and Kodak followed. They stood in line together as a half-a-dozen stragglers were getting the last of lunch, while dinner was being set out. Taz took mostly meat and three cobbler-like desserts. Kodak got coffee and some of the cobbler.
"Where you from?" Taz asked as he sat down.
"I work out of California. I got here this morning."
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]