In-Country FAC Parties (No Party Suits Required)

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

I think most in-country FACs had different party experiences than the out-of-country FACs. First, whether Class A or B/C, we were spread all around the country or attached to numbered Army units, in ones and twos, rather than in centralized squadron-size units. “My” Province of Kontum, largest in the country, had from three to six of us, plus a similar number of Project Tigerhound “Hound Dog” FACs. For us, “partying” involved a few of us Air Force types at our MACV or Special Forces B-Team clubs, dressed in flight suits, fatigues, or casual civilian clothes. However, at least in II Corps’ Central Highlands locations, we also had rice wine parties.
I found out about these parties when one of my Special Forces counterparts asked if I had gotten a Montagnard bracelet yet. He showed me his. Each bracelet was basically a brass ring wrapped loosely around a wrist, to signify friendship with the Montagnard tribe that “awarded” it. “How do I get one?” I asked.
“Come to the rice wine party,” he said. “You can qualify for one there.”
Every couple of months, the B-Team would sponsor one of these rice wine parties, with local Montagnards supplying the rice wine, in several large jugs, ringing a campfire. Each with multiple straws, made out of hollowed bamboo. Always eager to participate in local culture and customs, I asked what I should do. My Green Beret mentor said that, whenever it was my turn, I should lower the level of one of the jugs by an inch or so (Did I mention there were several jugs?). So as each jug had its liquid level restored, there were plenty of “customers” ready to help lower it again, all in the spirit of intercultural camaraderie, of course. One qualified for the bracelet by imbibing from every jug there (of which there were several. I think I mentioned that before.)
The Montagnard rice wine tasted like a cross between champale and Hong Kong saki, I determined later. At the time, I just wanted to qualify for a Montagnard bracelet. And did so. It was awarded simply by my Special Forces buddy, while a few Montagnards stood by, grinning. While the rest of us were downing the rice wine, I noticed that the Montagnards seemed to prefer ice-cold Pepsis and Cokes. Obviously, our cultural exchange was a two-way street. Meanwhile, the occasional American trooper would stagger off into the darkness, throw up, and return to take his place again at a rice wine jug.
Over the next few months, I qualified for three bracelets, and wore them for the next ten years, never removing them even for military physicals – in remembrance of the straightforward, honest, humor-loving people of Vietnam’s hill country, categorized as “moi” (savages) by the ethnic Vietnamese and who may have been the least-known of that war’s ultimate casualties.
But that came later. As I was getting close to DEROS, one of the A-Team commanders asked over the fox-mike radio what they could give me as a parting gift. I asked about a rice wine jug. On my next landing at his camp, I got my jug. “What do I do with it?” I asked. Just add water and wait, I was told. It should last about a week, I was told (That may also have been the visit at which I was given an eight-foot Montagnard spear, which I carried back to Kontum in a rocket tube and then wrapped and successfully air-mailed home, but that’s another story).
So, once back at our MACV compound, I added water and waited. After about 30 minutes, the leaf-and-water-covered surface began to bubble. I took a taste. Good stuff. I put the jug in the corner of my hooch room, where Lee Goettsche (my FAC room mate), I, and anybody else who wandered in could take a sip. I even thought of trying to scrounge some I-V tubing to rig around the wall so I could take a sip without having to get out of my bunk, but never got that far.
After two weeks, that jug was still producing fine-tasting contents, but now I had to start packing things for home. In the meantime, I learned why one never wanted to drink rice wine out of anything transparent: when I poured some into a glass, there were all kinds of particulate matter floating, swirling or swimming around in the liquid – so I stuck with the highly opaque jug and bamboo straws. Then, as time grew short, I reluctantly emptied the jug’s still-potent contents into the latrine, let the jug dry, and packed it with my hold baggage for home.
Once established at my next assignment (Tyndall AFB, FL), I tried to replicate the rice wine recipe, but failed miserably. Nothing fermented and it tasted like sh --. Water must have been too pure, or maybe I needed a deer fetus or something as the activating agent. So the jug has remained simply as a living room ornament ever since. Nevertheless, whenever I look at it, I am reminded of how I met the standards for Montagnard friendship, not just once but several times – and without either throwing up or falling into the fire – thereby reflecting great credit upon myself and the United States Air Force.