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During Vietnam’s dry season there is not a lot of water. It is rationed. As the dry season progressed our water turned yellow. In the communications center we had a five-gallon plastic jug. We used to fill it for our drinking water. We would take a pillowcase and fold it in quarters and put it under the opening of the five-gallon jug. We used it to filter out sand. One of the things that was down on the list when it came to rationing was showers. It might have been at least a week since I had taken a shower. You can imagine the odor of the average guy when we did not shower for a week and the temperature was over 100 degrees.

One day someone came to the communications center and announced the water was on in the enlisted men’s shower. I asked the captain if I could go and shower. His response was, “Please do.” That told me I was pretty ripe. I went to my hooch and got my soap and towel, then headed for the shower. Once I was all lathered up, the water ran out. I dried off, but sure did feel uncomfortable. I felt all sticky after I got dressed. The temperature was 100 degrees, so I was sweating. Specialist 4 Woburn heard me complaining and asked, “Do you want to take a bath?” I thought he had lost his mind or was goofing on me. I asked, “How is that going to happen?”

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He told me to be outside my hooch that night with flipflops and a towel. I was desperate enough so I was there and waiting. He showed up with a towel and flipflops himself. We went to the motor pool and snuck past the guard.

Soon we got to the “water buffalo.” The water buffalo is a GI slang term used for a 250-gallon water tank mounted on a two-wheeled trailer. The trailer is small enough to be dragged by a jeep or a three-quarter-ton utility truck. Woburn told me if I squeezed my shoulders and crossed my arms, I could fit through the top of the water buffalo’s manhole. I did as he said and in I went. He followed me in. It felt great. We soaked in the water. It was cool and I got all the soap rinsed off.

The next morning I went to the motor pool to dispatch a truck for the communications center. When I got there, I was alarmed to see that the sergeant from the motor pool was filling his coffee pot from the water buffalo. I said, “Hey, that says ‘Non-Potable’ (i.e. not for drinking water) on the outside of the water buffalo.”

“It is okay,” he replied. “I fill the tank myself from the water tower.”

“Yeah, but you don’t know what was in the tank before you filled it,” I answered.

He was not concerned. “I have been filling the water buffalo for months, so I know the water is clean,” he assured me. “Come on in and have a cup of coffee.”

I declined his offer.

After leaving Vietnam in 1970, James Vaughn became a CPA and ran his own tax practice.

This story appeared in the 2023 Autumn issue of Vietnam magazine.

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