Monday, November 13, 2006

An Idiot Abroad, or, Lost in the Gulf of Fonseca

Hard to believe, innit?

That the portly grizzled author of this blog was once a slender youth, at once jaded and innocent, in what Mojo likes to call his "Latin queer-bait" days.

Ah. Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait...

It's been twenty years; so long that it's hard to remember the Eighties. Back when Arnie Schwartzenegger was still an actor (and a pretty bad one...). Back when Prince was still called Prince and actually wrote pretty catchy songs - remember "Raspberry Beret"?. Back when we still worried whether the Reds would nuke us all in our beds. Back in the days of President Ronnie.

Remember Ronnie? Ronnie liked a lot of things. Shiny medals. Jellybeans. War movies. But what Ronnie didn't like was dirty ol' commies. And back in the Eighties it seemed like Latin America was full of those dirty ol' commies. Commies in El Salvador. Commies in Nicaragua, especially. Ronnie sure didn't like those brown Reds, nossir, he didn't. And by golly, he was going to do something about them.

Well, the Chief was an Indian back in those days. Just a sergeant medic in a line infantry battalion, the old 2nd Battalion (Airborne) 187th Infantry, working out of Fort Kobbe in the Panama Canal Zone. My battalion was tasked to provide guards for a little post waaaay down in the Golfo de Fonseca, that arm of the Pacific that stretches up between the countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Out in the Gulf is a island that was (and probably still is) part of Honduras. That island is called Isla Tigre (Tiger Island) and is really just an old volcano sitting in the middle of the gulf. The island is dominated by this extinct and well-worn volcano, now called Cerro Tigre, or Tiger Hill.
It was (and probably still is) a pretty, unpeopled place. There was a little town (I don't remember the name now, but I seem to recall it was something ridiculously grand like "San Salvador") down at the bottom of the hill with narrow streets and tile- or tin-roofed adobe houses. Straggly fields of bananas or plantains climbed the lower slopes of Cerro Tigre. Occasionally you'd come across a little wooden campesino's shack back in the tules, overrun with liana vines and swarming with chickens or pigs and the random goat or cow. Our one trip down to San Salvador (or whatever) was to deliver a package to the local Peace Corps volunteer, a young American woman who was busy helping the local Hondurans to chlorinate their water (I dunno - we never did find her). To give you an idea of how grateful the local Hondurans were for this, they referred to her only as "La Gorda" - "The Fat Girl". I got the feeling that she had not endeared herself to the townsfolk...

Above the bustle of Honduran farm life was a thick, wooded cloud forest. Hot. Noisy with animal and bird life, abuzz with insects of innumerable variety (although mosquitos did seem to be a speciality of the house). Bright with large, venereal-looking flowers. Exotic.
At the very top of the hill sat a tiny military outpost that was usually simply referred to by the name of the geographic fragment it sat on: Tiger Island. (How self-centeredly perfect that the U.S. Army called its' microcosm the name of the entire island, as if only the goings-on inside the wire gave the entire existance of the volcano, the island, the village, the chickens, pigs and people any meaning). And inside that outpost

Here's my house: the medic shack up on Tiger Island. The place was pretty OK as a pied a terre; it didn't leak too much, and if you kept your boots near your cot you could chase the palm rats away by nailing the first, boldest one with a flung jungle boot that would keep the more timid types up in the rafters (where they would rustle and squeak all night - you learned to ignore it).

One thing you can say for military medicine - it's one of the few places where a young man with a high school education (or, in my case, with a BA in geology) can be a walking pharmacy and primary care facility and not get hauled up in front of a judge for narcotics distribution or practicing medicine without a license. For the gang on top of Tiger Island, we WERE the local hospital, dental clinic and maternity ward...

As one of the two medics for the platoon of infantrymen charged with securing the place, I (and Doc Sully, my partner) were responsible for treating the bumps, scrapes and general health of thirty-five-or-so GIs, from the youngest private to the platoon daddy, including our support "element" consisting of a cook (to re-hydrate the dehydrated B-rations, that's cooking?) and a forklift driver/aviation ground crewman who was responsible for helping with our resupply birds, big CH-47 twin-rotor helos out of the army airfield near Tegucigalpa. Oh. And my most consistant and inevitable daily job:

Burning shit.

I'm serious. The red clay soil of Tiger Hill wouldn't absorb anything. Indoor plumbing was a fantasy. So we disposed of our used food the old fashioned way: we crapped in a cut-off half of a fifty-five gallon drum (and pissed into a tube - don't mix the two, guys!!) and every morning Doc Sully and I would haul out the old barrel (shove in a new one), add a combination of diesel and mogas, a match - and, voila, ze poop flambe'.

Human waste, if not saturated, will burn down to a fine ash. Which we did. Every morning. And then scooped into plastic bags inside empty C-ration cartons for the flight back to Tegoos and eventual disposal.


Anyhow, the real point of "Tiger Island" was at the very top of the hill. Two nondescript white commercial-size shipping containers (what the Army calls "milvans") cabled to a handful of olive green antenna dishes.

Tiger Island was snooping on Nicaraguan communications.

That was the reason for our existence. Inside the vans, which us lowly grunts never saw and were told never to even think of looking into, a farrago of intel types (NSA? CIA? who knew?) listened patiently to the conversations of those dirty ol' commies that Ronnie was hatin', Ollie North was plottin' and Bob MacFarland was cake-and-Bible-totin'-to-Tehran-to-fix-the-wagons-of. And Doc Chief, with his flaming tub of digested GI chow, was helping topple the Latin proxy of the Evil Empire.


Next: Tropical Fun, with spies.


walternatives said...

You sure can tell a good story, Chief! And I appreciate the visuals to go with it, especially Latin queer bait and le poop flambe; I might not have believed either without the photos. Who knew not to mix...?

FDChief said...

In a perfect world there would be a booby-trap that would maim or kill spammers on contact.

Yes, that means you, you little oxygen thief.

Shane O'Neal said...

I was a medic at Tiger Island for 3 weeks in 1988 as a reservist. Highlight of my trip: accompanying MPs and SPs on a trip down to the bottom of the hill in "civilian clothes" which consisted of a ratty T-shirt, cut-off blue jeans, a pistol belt with canteen and .45, boonie hat and combat boots. We went to a cantina in the village, drank some Pepsis, visited the home of an American official of some sort, then hiked back up the hill. When we got to the top, there were more Pepsis, courtesy of some local boys who carted a case up on their backs. Didn't treat much except for trench foot, one Airman with a HUGE hemorroid (evac'd to Tegucigalpa) and my own finger after I nearly sliced it off pulling out my knife to show off how sharp it was.

I know it is 11 years since you posted this, and I hope you are still around to read this. Thanks for the photos and the memories of Tiger Island.