By Pablo James Earlier this month, 38-year-old Air Force veteran, Michelle...
Ernie the Airborne Spider Monkey
This story comes to us from retired CW4 Joseph Luciano, a Huey pilot during Vietnam. Though long, it’s worth the read and very funny.
A few weeks back my wife and I were wandering through a flea market through the usual collection of cast off pots, pans, tools, souvenir ashtrays and decorative spoons of people’s vacations past to places like Rock City, Branson, Dinosaur Land and Captain Spicer’s Wonderful World of Wacky Wildebeests something on the corner of a table caught my eye – an old Kodak Super 8 hand held movie camera. Long before the advent of video cams this little camera was the pinnacle of amateur recording of all events that were important for somebody to keep a record of. They were simple, cheap and easy to operate. They had one switch that said on and off. Instruction books came back then in one language, English, with easy to follow pictures. The Kodak Super 8 had been a constant companion of my hoochmate in Vietnam, Wayne “Bubbles” Conner, and he filmed just about everything that he could during his tour there. No longer a dead antique it became a veritable time machine and I felt myself being pulled through a tunnel of sound and light depositing me back through the mists of time to:
BanMeTout Special Forces Camp, 14 August, 1971
Second Platoon,” POLECATS”, 192nd Assault Helicopter Company and me, Godfather 22, were attached to the Special Forces in the central highlands at BanMeTuot. We’d been operating out of their base camp for a month and the flying and missions were “interesting” and “challenging.” Overall though, things were pretty good and although we would take occasional small arms fire on various recon missions we didn’t lose a single ship or crewman during our August missions. Back at the camp the Special Forces treated us royally as we represented a way to get reinforcements and supplies to them or evacuate them should things turn ugly.
As was frequently the case in most units, mascots were a pretty common element to camp life. The Special Forces camp was no exception and they had the usual collection of pets ranging from mangy dogs, flea bitten cats and last but not least a pair of spider monkeys. We came to know them as Bert and Ernie. Memory records that they were both male and Bert seemed to have a couple of nasty habits like spending an inordinate amount of time pleasuring himself and when stressed out displayed the annoying habit of slinging monkey feces at those who perturbed him. Ernie on the other hand was the more gregarious of the two and loved to greet you by jumping off his roost in the TOC or hooches onto your head and shoulders before settling down to his self proclaimed duty of working through your scalp looking for nits to lunch on. During his tenure at the camp, Ernie had been trained to smoke cigarettes and drink beer. Whenever he was thirsty Ernie would go to the little Sanyo refrigerator in the TOC open the door and roll out a mighty steel can of Budweiser or Miller to anyone who would open it for him.
Naps were a problem because both Bert and Ernie never seemed to sleep when we did. Frequently, you’d be sound asleep in the bunker or hooch only to be suddenly awakened by a loud riotous shit storm of monkeys chasing each other, screaming like banshees and knocking over helmets, rifles, magazines and lots of empty beer cans in the dark. You’d try to find the little buggers with your flashlight and throw a boot at them, yell, curse and then yell and curse some more when one of them would throw an empty beer can back at you (or in Bert’s case some Grade A monkey crap).
I’m not sure exactly who came up with the idea first but seeing’s how we were around all these high-speed SF/Airborne Ranger types we came to the conclusion that it would be a neat thing to get Bert and Ernie jump qualified as both an honor and symbolic Thank You from us, the visiting aviators, to our new best friends, the Special Forces. Over the course of a couple days we gave it considerable thought as to the mechanics of the concept and along with considerable amounts of beer rendered our theories down to a final plan of action in order to get the monkeys their own “Jump Wings.” What could go wrong?
To begin with, we would need to make a harness of some kind and therefore some sewing support would be sought from one of the mama-sans who would come in daily from the village to do the camp’s laundry. The harness, made to fit the small torso of the ape, would be attached to D-rings which in turn would be attached to the shroud lines of a recovered parachute from the numerous parachute flares we had dropped from our “Nighthawk” Huey while flying around the perimeter and nearby possible enemy approach lanes. The size of the chute seemed perfect to support the weight of a 15 pound monkey and allow him a soft and gentle ride down to the earth.
Within days of having everything ready we had at hand a perfect opportunity to pull this off on a mission stand down day for the camp. The SF guys had been humping hard over the weeks we were with them and needed to catch up on resupply, mail, weapons repairs and the like. In addition the camp senior NCO, an E-8 named Swartzenhauer wanted to finish a new TOC as the old one was prone to flooding during tropical mountain downpours. To that end he had started building a new one with plywood and just needed a down day for everyone to fill sandbags to provide the necessary layers of protection against direct hits by mortars, RPGs and rockets which got routinely fired at the camp like clockwork. He had already moved his bunk, personal effects, and symbols of authority befitting an E-8 as the camp’s Top Kick into the soon to be finished TOC. He was one impressive dude with a set of teeth and muscles, like a Teutonic version of Teddy Roosevelt combined with King Kong. No one would want to screw with him, period. We had even volunteered to help fill his sandbags but he graciously waved us off as not our problem. So, barring an emergency we could count on the next day as all ours to do what we pleased and he would get his TOC finished.
The morning brought clear but smoky skies. Perfect mid-day Airborne drop weather. Our plan was for me and Bubbles, our crew chief Jose’ and gunner Red both holding our parachute equipped monkey, Ernie, to launch in our Huey “507″ just before lunch so that at 12 noon precisely, while most of the camp was at the barbeque pit, Ernie would descend from the sky to everyone’s great surprise and amusement. To add to this dramatic moment we had enlisted another of our pilots, Magilla, as a co-conspirator and his job would be to play a tape of “Stars and Stripes Forever” loudly over the camp PA system at precisely noon to get everyone’s attention on the ground. As a final and touching flourish we would safety wire red and blue smoke canisters to the rear of our skids which our crew chief and gunner could activate by pulling cords attached to the pins. We would then fly slow wide orbits around Ernie while he descended gently from the heavens.
We could barely suppress our giddiness in imagining how much good will would soon be pouring forth as a result of this heartwarming salute from enterprising aviators to our appreciative and awed battle hardened Special Forces hosts. So together all six of us, bonded together in this extraordinary endeavor, moved forward with anticipation as the zero hour approached. At about 1115 we found Ernie asleep in the corner of the ammo bunker. Jose and Red brought him to our ship and with much yelping and struggling got him into the harness. Bubbles, of course, was filming the action with the Kodak Super 8 while periodically we would mug for the camera. We planned on just keeping the parachute loosely bunched up and would toss Ernie out in a way that the chute would open near instantaneously. With Red holding the still squirming Ernie, Bubbles and Jose’ rigged the smoke grenades to the skids. I busied myself with getting the aircraft set to start.
So far, all had gone to plan and we were now ready to go. From our revetment on the edge of the compound we could see the barbeque pit smoke rising up in the center of the camp for the beef steaks that 1st Sergeant Swartzenhauer had laid on as a reward to everyone for the down day and getting the TOC sandbagged. Our timing was going to go perfectly.
We cranked quickly and headed skyward. Even through my helmet I could hear Ernie screeching his brains out over the whine of the T-53 turbo shaft. As the AC I was flying and periodically would glance over my shoulders watching Red get scratched, bit and beat on by Ernie. Nonetheless, we were all laughing our asses off. With Jose’ doing his best to keep the shroud lines untangled from Ernie’s fury, Red getting covered in monkey bites and Bubbles filming away, I announced over the intercom that we were approaching our drop altitude of approx 2000 feet above the ground. I told the guys to wait till we were right over the middle of the camp.
I slowed to an almost hover and then gave a countdown from five and on zero, which was about 30 seconds short of local noon, Red flung a very surprised Ernie out the cargo door with the parachute trailing behind. The chute blossomed instantly into full canopy and Ernie swung below looking bewildered and moving his head around like it was on a jet fueled swivel. put our Huey into a circling descent with Ernie on the same side as Bubbles and his Kodak. Everything was going to plan and I imagined now that Magilla had started the tape of “Stars and Stripes Forever” blaring over the speakers to a now amazed and amused throng below at the barbeque pit. To help draw the attention of the camp skyward we lit off the smoke grenades and now trailed beautiful red and blue contrails. I was filled at that moment with the pure rush of a kid running through the girls locker room with a Halloween mask on and a jock strap.
That good feeling lasted about 500 feet of Ernie’s descent. The monkey quickly displayed his emotional state by letting loose his bowels thus giving up a rather large quantity of fear scented feces, urine and dignity and now all were hurtling down to the skyward facing watchful throngs below. Ernie, also, now having had time to think and totally freak out, again did the unexpected, at least the unexpected for humans. For monkeys, I suppose this made sense.
Anthropologically speaking, when danger presents itself to primates one of their genetically coded responses is to “get the hell out of Dodge”, which is to say in primate terms, climb the first freakin’ thing that takes you away from the danger. With this genetic solution warning light banging away in Ernie’s head he therefore, unwisely, as it turned out, grabbed one side of the shroud lines and to our immediate horror started pulling on them to climb up. Although the little guy may have thought he was making progress upward he, in fact, had done the worst possible thing by collapsing the canopy.
Very quickly, Ernie had an armful of parachute and although possibly comforting to him, not much usefulness to his ever increasing velocity aerodynamically speaking, not to put too fine a point on it.
With Bubbles filming away I bottomed the collective and went into a spirally death dive to keep up. Even with a maximum dive angle of 30 degrees, bank of 60 degrees, collective full down, and the aircraft out of trim we weren’t even staying close to the rate of Ernie’s ever increasing speed downward. This was getting ugly fast. But, One thing WE HAD done real well was lining up Ernie on the geographic center of the compound.
His meteoric descent was going to be pretty much dead center on the roof of First Sergeant Swartzenhauer’s brand new plywood (and as yet, un-sandbagged) TOC. As Ernie continued to plummet like a crazed white condom filled with lead B-Bs we did our best to keep up behind him screaming out of the sky at 3500 feet per minute. I think I did this as a combination of guilty conscience and not leaving Ernie to his impending and soon to be arriving doom, alone. At least we would be there with him when he reached monkey martyrdom. Although this fiasco had seemed to be going on for an agonizingly long time I have been since told, by those who are aeronautical engineers and beer drinkers themselves, that for Ernie the elapsed time from chute collapse till impact was 9.68775 seconds.
A little monkey math here:
Ernie, (monkey) = 15 pounds.
Altitude AGL, = + 1500 feet.
Max velocity at impact= 309 feet per second or 210 Miles per hour.
Energy of 15 pound monkey exerted on plywood roof of the TOC = 30157 joules or 22,200 foot pounds of force.
Impending UCMJ Article 32 hearing and Court Martial for me = Priceless.
In the final second prior to impact I swear I saw Ernie look up in my direction and with the look in those brown eyes of his showing only what the condemned must know at the moment of their departure from this planet and arrival at paradise seemed to be telling me to go and, technically speaking, have sex with myself.
As Bubbles recorded it with his trusty Kodak Ernie disappeared into the new TOC in a mushroom cloud of red dust. Of course, although we couldn’t have heard it, I imagined his breakthrough coming just as the cymbals were crashing on the final tuba blatz of “Stars and Stripes Forever” as if, Ernie’s landing hadn’t been dramatic enough. I also pictured “Charlie” applauding our accuracy and holding up Olympic grading cards with straight 10s from his hiding places near the camp.
What certainly was not comforting and now clearly apparent was our own death spiral now sickeningly close above the camp. At the same time as Ernie was bursting through the roof I must have snapped out of my hypnotic or target fixation induced trance and pulled the bejeezus out of the collective to prevent us from being a greasy stain across the compound. Pulling pitch felt like the controls were filled with concrete and we were dragging anchors, rocks and a thousand bowling balls of momentum and inertia. We came out of the dive with only feet to spare and “507″ screamed across the camp furiously dodging antennas and Mama-san laundry at 120 knots++, 50 pounds of torque (+ or – 25 pounds, + mostly), and pitchconed coupled ourselves off of the express train to Hell all the while trailing a graceful swirl of red and blue smoke.
As we passed over the barbeque pit I caught sight of 1st Sergeant Swartzenhauer’s Teddy Roosevelt teeth. My immediate impression was he was less than ecstatic. He was also, however, the only one still standing, everyone else scattering for the bunkers or gone to ground like demented prairie dogs. Paper plates and beer cans swirled around on the ground like Titanic’s deck chairs on the ocean after the ship went down. We looked at the new hole in the roof at the TOC and said something hopeful like it didn’t seem too bad, maybe Ernie would be seen emerging this very minute dusting himself off and going over to the boys to get a beer. Although we chuckled, I began considering defecting to the North Vietnamese.
We landed and shut down. Before the blades had even stopped First Sergeant Swartzenhauer pulled up in his jeep amongst a cloud of more red dust. I thought to myself, how bad could this get? The Army had already condemned me to Vietnam. What else could they do to me? Maybe First Sergeant Swartzenhauer was only there to welcome us with “Nice try guys, we appreciated the effort.” His face revealed nothing but those teeth. I began to feel light headed.
After Red finished tying down the blades and me and Bubbles fumbled with the log book like nothing had happened I saw Swartzenhauer wiggling his finger at me to come over to him and I couldn’t ignore him, I had already made eye contact. My crew pretended not to notice and in a great show of support to me moved to the opposite side of 507, as far away from me as they could possibly get. I suppose I should mention at this moment that I also became aware that, “Stars and Stripes Forever” was still blaring over the speakers so wiggling his finger at me was more effective than trying to call me over the million decibel music of this John Phillip Souza classic pouring out over the compound.
He immediately, and with great waving arm motions and no shortage of saliva delivered unto me a nonstop soliloquy not unlike the one given by Gunny R.Lee Ermey in the movie, Full Metal Jacket. The only difference was 1st Sergeant Swartzenhauer’s was even more colorful, louder, moister and involved a few more body parts that I hadn’t known we possessed. Rather than bore you all with the grammatical details, and as small children may be about, suffice to say that following this most impressive communication from this Top Sergeant I willingly agreed to his suggestion that I might want to consider starting to clean up the mess we had in fact perpetrated. NOW!
Walking behind Swartzenhauer’s jeep in his dust we proceeded through the camp looking very much like the condemned men we were to the not too happy throngs at the barbeque pit. We found out at that point that a good quantity of Ernie’s liquidy falling feces had pretty much ruined an otherwise nice side of beef.
As we approached the destroyed TOC entrance someone had mercifully pulled the plug finally on the “Stars and Stripes Forever” but the silence now made the scene all the more horrific. I knew then that I had seen enough to know that I had seen too much. You would really be surprised at how much stuff is contained inside a 15 pound spider monkey. We, on the other hand, had a terrific opportunity to be exposed to the answer. I can say this, though, that in my earlier fantasy of Ernie being seen to walk outside from the TOC, carefully brushing off the dust, well, the only way he would have been capable of doing that from what we now saw before us would have only been on a subatomic particle basis.
Monkey guts, fur, teeth, bone and copious amounts of blood, beer and bile covered every square inch of the TOC. All the radios, the map boards, the tables, chairs, cots, weapon racks, ammo boxes were covered in a kind of oily sheen of blood, bile, snot and God knows what. Most disturbing to me was the pleasantly framed desk picture of 1st Sergeant Swartzenhauer and Mrs. 1st Sergeant Swartzenhauer, both showing their full set of teeth, covered now, not very tastefully, in blood and Ernie’s testicles.
We were told in no uncertain terms that we only had our hands, buckets and some sponges to clean the mess up. Swartzenhauer already had his men up on the roof and they were now hard at work fixing the small Ernie hole and sandbagging the whole roof and sides as per his original plan. Inside, with everyone else outside sandbagging, made us feel like we were Egyptian slaves getting entombed in alive with the Mummy for horrific crimes against the Pharoh.
We kept at it all afternoon and all night and into the next morning, taking time only to eat. (We passed on the barbeque side of beef). Although feeling like lepers by morning the TOC was clean and presentable. I personally had cleaned First Sergeant Swartzenhauer’s and Mrs. First Sergeant Swartzenhauer’s picture twelve times, carefully. I got to know her so well I could have recognized her in the dark.
We placed (actually, poured) poor Ernie’s remains in a hole next to the camp flagpole at the new TOC in order to give the SF guys a way to get through what is now called the “grief healing process” by the touchy, feely types. At the 0700 brief First Sergeant Swartzenhauer declared the new TOC clean and once again made reference to the assembled parties of his opinion of Army Aviators in general and me in particular.
But the man was fair and the word was that we wouldn’t be seeing a hangman or Fort Leavenworth any time soon. He did, in fact, mention that although not up to the standards of Special Forces planning our meager and disastrous (for Ernie, mostly) attempt was somewhat appreciated.
Luckily there were only a few missions planned that day that our other platoon members could handle without us. We had been up straight for over 24 hours and some sleep now would be most welcome. We went to our bunkers and fell into exhausted shuteye. I remember having a fitful sweaty nightmare involving large breasted Norwegian women, bean soup and flying squirrels. (Don’t ask me, I have no clue what it meant and don’t care to know, I’ve got enough problems as it is). Hiding up in the corner was now a lonely and even more disgruntled Bert. I think he knew that Ernie had bit the big one. You could tell he was in an even fouler mood than normal. He started screeching at me waking me groggily alert and I threw a boot at him.
About a month later, after we returned to our main base near Cam Rahn Bay, Bubbles got his Kodak film developed of the “Ernie Incident” as it was now referred to. Over and over on the unit projector Bubbles would play that cursed reel to the howls of laughter from my sadistic brethren. He would run it regular speed, fast speed and slow speed just fascinated with his cinematic style while offering director’s commentary about focus and lighting. I would pretend to laugh with the others but inside I would cringe as I heard that clikkity sound of the film advancing off the spool. With cigarette smoke rising in the light of the projector and an occasional beer can hitting the floor for a brief and welcome diversion of my attention there was simply no getting away from the final ending of this reality film unreeling at 12 frames a second.
This incident was going to go deep, deep into my psyche, as if breasts, soup and squirrels wasn’t already bad enough. However, in time, the nightmare of this event would slowly fade and eventually be suppressed…. until a chance encounter with a dusty Kodak Super 8 at a flea market brought it all back.
Ernie, if you’re out there in monkey heaven and can hear this, I’m really, really sorry buddy. Those weren’t the wings we had intended for you.
Godfather 22, out.
Best regards to all our deployed gang in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and everywhere else. Come home safe.