Sunday, May 08, 2005


On February 1, 1963, I was sent to a small chopper base far down the Mekong Delta. It was near a small town called Soc Trang. The field there had been built by the Japanese. They had used it to attack Singapore 22 years before. My job was to rebuild the landing strip so Air Force fighters (prop fighters) could operate in support of the U S Army helicopter company that was already there. When I heard the helicopter company called themselves the tigers, the Soc Trang Tigers, I didn’t think anything of it. A lot of combat units adopted nicknames.

I landed before noon in a C-123 with a native survey crew and a Jeep pickup loaded with equipment. The plane had been specially equipped with rockets to assist taking off from the short strip. I found quarters for the crew and I was assigned to a tent alongside the flight line.

I asked the location of the latrine and was told to follow the concrete walk around. It was the next building beyond the Officer’s Club. Following the directions, just as I passed the Officer’s Club, I came face to face with a large tiger. It occurred to me in a flash that this might be a new method of controlling diarrhea. I discarded the notion almost immediately because it seemed to be having the opposite effect on me.

The Officer’s Club and latrine were each about 80 feet long and parallel to each other with about 30 feet between. The tiger was chained to a manhole in the middle of that area but the chain easily reached beyond the concrete walks which ran past each end of the buildings. No one was paying attention to the tiger and the tiger didn’t seem to be paying much attention to me. But why take chances. I walked through the club and crossed to the latrine on the side away from the tiger. I thought they might as well lock up the latrine at night.

The tiger’s name was Tuffy. He had been given to the company about two weeks before, shortly after several unarmed choppers had been shot down in an action. Morale had been at its lowest and the presence of the tiger had given everybody a big boost. He was just a cub, I was told, little more than a year old. But I was unconvinced. When a tiger reaches my weight, as this one had, he would be treated with respect no matter what his age.

Between the latrine and Officer’s Club, in the tiger’s area, were a couple of horseshoe pits. Some of the most thrilling matches I have ever seen took place there. There was one Warrant Officer in particular who was obviously as nervous as I around the tiger. But his love of horseshoes was greater than his fear of the tiger and he played regularly.

The tiger sensed his fear because every time the Warrant Officer took his eye off the tiger, Tuffy went into a crouch and stalked him. That made playing in a twosome difficult because the W. O. had to walk from pit to pit and it was awkward to watch the tiger while walking away.
Occasionally the W. O. would forget Tuffy, hard as that may be to imagine, and the tiger would stalk right up behind him and spring at him.

Tuffy would rear up with his forelegs outstretched, but the W. O. would manage to turn just in time to slap him on the nose. Tuffy would then sulk off to wait for another opportunity.

Once he didn’t turn in time and the tiger draped both forelegs over the Warrant Officer’s shoulders while he playfully gnawed at the back of his neck and head. It took three men to lift the tiger off, but there was no harm done and the horseshoe game continued as if nothing had happened… almost.

That W. O. was one of the bravest men I have ever known. To be as afraid of the tiger as he obviously was, and yet play horseshoes in that area was an act of great courage. He was not the only man the tiger stalked. Anyone in his area Tuffy considered fair game. It was just that he had singled out the one man for special attention. I would pay to see horseshoe matches staged in similar circumstances. Or even croquet.

After work one evening I was heading for a shower in the latrine when I met the Company Commander and Tuffy taking their daily walk. The tiger had me sized up correctly because he took one look at me and went into his stalking operation, even though I was facing him. He glided along the ground, advancing on me step by step, dragging the C. O. behind on the end of a chain.

I don’t know what I would have done a few days before but I had had time to size up Tuffy by then also, and the situation struck me as ludicrous. I laughed and asked the C. O. of the tiger intended to eat me. Tuffy came out of his crouch and paid no further attention to me from then on… unless my back was turned. In that way he treated me as he treated almost everyone else in the company.


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