The First Latrine

I pulled guard duty our first night in Vietnam – just my luck.  There in the rain and the black, my partner and I were fired on by a sniper hiding in a nearby rice paddy.  Could've been the old papasan we arrested coming out of the water the next morning – or not.  In Vietnam, you never could tell who was the enemy.

I was pretty shaken up.  Sugden, with his dry sense of humor, tried to get my mind off of it the next day by taking me on a tour of Dodge City, which was already shaping up with all the comforts of home...

I followed Sugden down the pallet sidewalk.

"Looks like I missed all the fun," I said, pointing to the mess tent.

"That's not all," Sugden said, stopping between two GP Mediums.  He pointed at thirty military jeeps parked in the mud.  "New motor pool.  Town patrols start tomorrow.  They're teaming us with the outgoing MPs."

Terrific.  My first interaction with the locals hadn't gone so well.  What would town patrol bring?  "Can't wait," I muttered.  My mouth felt dry.

"Yeah, me too," Sugden said.  "Guess it beats filling sandbags, though."  We started walking again.

Sugden pointed beyond the mess tent.  "Look over there."  I could see a pair of large metal shipping containers, the kind that fit onto the back of a semi truck.  "Our new ammo and supply sheds."

Definitely a  surprise.  But a good one.  Back at Gordon and Bragg, the simplest things – getting new uniforms, requisitioning equipment – took forever.  "Already?" I said.  "This an army camp?"

As we neared the end of the pallets, I could see a couple of crude structures.  To the left was a simple lean-to made of two-by-fours and a plastic tarp, with a plywood bench inside.  Holes – butt-sized holes – were sawn into the plywood.  Metal oil drums cut in half sat under the holes.

"I give you... the latrine," Sugden said, waving his hand with a mock flourish.

"Nice," I snickered.  "Phew!  Smells like it's been broken in already.  Or is that the mud?"

Sugden fanned the air in front of his nose and turned toward the other structure.  Sheets of plywood were fastened together into a screen.  Corrugated metal tubing hung over it.  My eyes followed the tubing back about fifty yards to a hillside, where I could just make out what looked like a small stream.

"And, behold... the shower," Sugden said.  He reached over and opened a valve in the tubing.  Brownish water trickled from a handful of perforations in the tin.

I chuckled.  Back at training, we'd spent days, even weeks, out in the field with only water from our canteens to wet our faces and rinse our mouths.  Now we were stuck in a stinking mud flat in the middle of Southeast Asia, but we had a shower stall with running water – such as it was.  Pretty darn hilarious.  And ingenious.

It felt good to laugh.

"Who came up with this idea?" I asked.


I shook my head and grinned.  "Should've known."

We heard bootsteps behind us.

"Privates First Class Kohler and Sugden!  Hate to bust up the coffee klatch, ladies, but there's work to do."  Sergeant Hall, our platoon leader and the company's top sergeant, dropped a stack of empty burlap sacks at my feet.  "Get shoveling."

Rock 'N' Roll Soldier: A Memoir by Dean Ellis Kohler with Susan VanHecke, foreword by Graham Nash  •  © 2024