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Part 7: Meet Chris Sakell and Mai the Monkey

Written by Jeff Drake
6 · 23 · 24

During the 73 years that I’ve been roaming this planet, I have had the good fortune of having been able to make very close friends and somehow managing to keep a few of them around. Although we have fun with our friends, the closest friendships are often forged in the flames of hardship. Nowhere is this more evident than in the armed forces and specifically for those veterans who have endured the tests of combat together. The men of Pr’Line Mountain were no exception.

Friendships were made and sometimes broken. Enemies were also sometimes made, and sometimes eliminated. As I write about the men I knew in Vietnam, be aware that as I recount my memories of the 19 months I spent in Vietnam, I am missing significant tracts of time. Psychologists at the VA say it is due to trauma. All I know is that I wish I could remember more about these men, because some of them were truly special. This memory issue may make my descriptions of these men seem a bit haphazard, I’m afraid. It can’t be helped. I can only remember what I remember. Periodically, when I have a sudden memory pop up, I may add it to the blog post I am currently working on, so the person I am writing about here may show up again in another post.

I will only use full names for the men I know are gone from this life. I will reference living people by their first name and last initial. There may be a couple that I don’t name at all. I am not planning on writing about these people in any specific order. It might just boil down to who is on my mind. If that sounds odd, you need to remember that one of the signs of PTSD is you think about the war every single day you are alive. And it’s true. You do. Not a lot, of course, but there is always something that reminds you about it. So yeah, I think about some of these guys frequently. Others, not so much. I do wonder sometimes whether they remember me?

Part 7: Meet Chris Sakell and Mai the Monkey

Chris Sakell on Road Recon (circle)

Chris has always held the title of being one of the most unforgettable men I met during my two tours in Vietnam. This is no doubt, due to several factors. First and foremost is the fact that he took me under his wing from the moment I set foot on Pr’Line Mountain. He didn’t have to, and honestly, I don’t remember him doing that with anyone else. Somehow, I lucked out.

Chris was a sensitive guy, actually, with a big heart. He somehow took ownership, more or less, of a female Rhesus monkey that he named, Mai. I was told that Mai had been saved from a local Vietnamese soup pot, although I don’t know if Chris himself was involved in that rescue. The Vietnamese ate monkeys and their brains were considered a delicacy. They still do today.

I got to know Mai for a few months while Chris’s tour was winding down. Chris taught me how to handle her and she and I became close. In case you’ve never dealt with any monkeys, be aware that they require a firm hand. If they sense weakness in you, forget it. They’ll take your hat and shit in it. Literally! You definitely do not want that to happen.

On Pr’Line we had two monkeys. One was Mai, the other was Pete, a male Rhesus monkey. Pete was owned by John F., a wire-puller from New York. He was a really nice guy. I got high with him frequently. Time for some monkey tales…

Somehow, prior to my arrival on the Hill, Pete must have been introduced to Mai. I knew this because occasionally Pete would get loose from the wire-puller’s compound and I would see Pete racing past the CP (command post, where the officers worked). Like a monkey on a mission, he was heading straight for the hooch where Mai was often tied up to a beam on the roof. Believe me, no one kept a monkey in their room. They were not toilet trained!

Once there, Pete only had one thing on his mind! Sadly, for Pete, Mai did not share his unadulterated lust. I remember one time specifically, as I rushed to save Mai from what might turn out to be a brutal rape (Pete was easily 3 or 4 times the size of Mai). I got to where Mai was chained up late, and Pete was already trying to mount her.

I remember seeing Mai reach around and bite him with all her might on his inner thigh! Ouch! That had to hurt! Pete screeched and got off of her. Then he grabbed her, lifted her up by the back of her neck and with a fist punched her in the face. She was dazed. Someone then marched Pete back to where he lived and Mai was left to lick the blood off her nose and recover whatever dignity she had left. I was both appalled and fascinated by the exchange! I never knew monkeys could make a fist! I can tell you this – Pete never again bothered to escape and visit Mai! Instead, he focused on masturbating when he could, or mounting whatever dog happened to wander too close to him. Male, female, he didn’t care! After a while, the dogs avoided him like the plague. I can’t blame them!

Mai the Monkey

I loved Mai, as did Chris. I enjoyed feeding her fruit from our C-rations. She especially enjoyed pineapple. Chris taught me to groom her like another monkey would. This involved standing behind her and using my fingers to pick imaginary fleas from her fur and pretending to eat them. Monkeys do this to each other in the wild. She loved it! As soon as I attempted it, she would purr with deep throat sounds and turn around, glancing at me occasionally over her shoulder, then sit patiently, waiting for me to finish. Once I was done, then she would do the same, climbing up on my shoulder, running her fingers through my hair and eating imaginary fleas, making the same sounds. It was very cool, and definitely a bonding exercise. I will never forget her.

The sound Mai made was a sign of contentment. I heard Pete make the same sound, but only when he was out on one of the bunkers with John and a few of us, getting stoned. Pete could smoke a pipe and really enjoyed getting high. Occasionally, he’d get so stoned. We’d be sitting there with him and one by one, we’d call his name quietly. “Pete.” “Pete.” He’d be off in la la land and not respond. Then someone would say much louder, “Pete!” He’d jump and look at whoever said that and grunt loudly. We were pretty sure that was monkey talk for, WTF? LOL. Hilarious. Once in a while, he’d bare his teeth at John and get aggressive. John would use the flat of his backhand and knock him over on his back. Pete would then get back up and go to John for a hug of reassurance that things were still good between them. Monkeys respect strength, and this behavior would have been similar in the wild. John was alpha Rhesus.

Like all military bases, Pr’Line was a microcosm of the Army at large and so our little slice of heaven had it’s share of assholes, some of whom didn’t like Mai at all. One guy was always teasing her, although no one fucked with Mai when Chris was around.

The chain Mai had attached to her was long enough so she could swing around on it, down to the ground and then back up to the rafters visible under the roof of the hooch. Well, one day the asshole was walking by and Mai swooped down, took the hat off the asshole’s head, and swooped back up into the roof. Ha! The guy ranted, cursed and shook his fist. LOL! Somehow he recovered the hat and turned around to leave. As I was watching this event transpire I noticed Mai was rolling something up in her fingers in a little ball. In a flash, using her fingers like any human would to flick a cigarette away, she sent that  ball several feet across the boardwalk and it hit him in the back and stuck to his shirt. He didn’t notice. I was in stitches! Later he’d discover that she had just pasted him with a stinky ball of monkey shit! Monkey shit is one of the worst smells in the world! Served the asshole right. Mai was so smart and she had a sense of humor to boot.

Reminds me of another monkey story.

Occasionally, we’d have some Army brass (officers) come to visit the site and we had to take all the animals off the hill until they went back to wherever they were from. If we didn’t do this, they’d force us to get rid of them. The men of Pr’Line Mountain, for the most part, liked animals. We had easily four or five dogs. No one ever had cats. In fact, I can’t really remember seeing any cats. Hmm. And yes, the Vietnamese eat dogs, but not cats that I know of. They are too stringy, I heard. In any event, we had to get the animals off the site, so we’d take them with us on a road recon.

Pee Wee (beret) and one other at Checkpoint Charlie

One such road patrol had me carrying Mai on my shoulder. Behind us at some distance was our armored personnel carrier (APC or track), either Snoopy I or Snoopy II, I don’t remember. Pee Wee was driving the APC. Pee Wee was this little Puerto Rican guy, if I remember right. Or maybe he was from Mexico? I don’t remember. I really liked Pee Wee. I’ll talk more about Pee Wee in a later blog. He was an interesting guy.

Pee Wee gradually moved the APC closer to me and then suddenly gunned the engine. You’ve probably never heard an APC rev its engine, but they can get “really” loud. It was, after all, a Greyhound bus engine! The result of Pee Wee being a smart ass was well known to the guys around me, because Mai freaked out and shit all over my shirt! I had to remove the shirt immediately. I don’t remember how I got it back to the hill. Pee Wee and the boys had a good laugh about that! It was all in good fun, so I laughed too, I’m sure.

Back to Chris. I mentioned in an earlier blog post in this series that I was told by Chris one day, not to ever touch his weapon, because he killed a man with it. And he wasn’t kidding. The story goes – and this happened a couple of months before I arrived and is 2nd hand, so it may not be correct – that some of the men were setting up a night ambush, somewhere in the vicinity of the town of Cau Dat, a well-known hangout for VC and their sympathizers.

It was late afternoon and as the sun was fading, several VC inadvertently walked down the trail and surprised them. They were surprised, too. One guy, if I remember right, was caught without his weapon and had to get his M-16 which was leaning against a nearby tree. The shit hit the fan, so to speak. In fact, I heard at least one man shit his pants. I’d be surprised if it was only one. This kind of thing, by the way, which is never portrayed in war movies, happens in real life and it’s nothing for anyone to be ashamed of. It never happened to me, but I could easily see that it might. Fortunately, when the dust settled, the VC were all dead and the ambush team was unharmed, physically, at least. One of the men, in a fit of post-combat rage, cut an ear off of one of the VC. (Later, after I arrived, I was given a cool pair of sandals made from jeep tires. I found out later, that the sandals had belonged to one of the dead VC. I wore them for months when off duty. The dead VC had some big feet!)

After the ambush, when the APC came to pick up the men, they threw the bodies of several dead VC on the top of the track and then drove through the town of Cau Dat. This was a clear attempt to rub the deaths in the faces of the locals, most of whom were VC sympathizers. I don’t know if it worked, but that’s the way the men of Pr’Line Mountain rolled, or so I was told. I suspect I would have done the same.

Later, I would refer to our two armored personnel carriers affectionately as, “eleven tons of rolling death.” I called them this, because that’s what they were. Eleven tons is how much they weighed. They were made out of something called, homogenized aluminum. It was soft enough that you could scoop if out with a sharp knife, but very heavy. They were designed that way to stop bullets, which it was pretty good at, as well as shrapnel.

View from the top of the APC

The top of the APC looked like a tank turret, without the big gun. Instead, we armed each APC with a 50-caliber machine gun. Technically, the 50-caliber was not supposed to be used against humans, but that rule was ignored completely. Behind the turret, the APC had door flaps that would open up and we had a guy with an M-60 machine gun on each side of the track, covering both sides of the APC. Inside there was room enough for the driver, a lot of ammo boxes and a few passengers. I loved being on the track team and later driver.

Sorry, I want to get back to Chris. Let me step back in time to just after I got on the Hill. I mentioned that Chris took me under his wing. We would do a lot of drinking together. Chris, me and Doc, our medic, spent a lot of time in the dispensary, getting hammered when we weren’t on duty.

Remember, that when I arrived in Vietnam, I was still a gung ho military policeman. Although I was in a combat unit, I shared my desire with Chris to bust some of the potheads I’d heard about back in the States. I knew some of the men smoked weed, but I didn’t know those guys. Chris let me talk about it and never said a word. Not a word! Later, a few days after I’d survived a friendly fire incident at Claymore Alley (see here), Chris and I were drinking in his room and suddenly he pulls out this very long marijuana cigarette. I was like, “What?” “You smoke weed?” I was so stunned! I had no idea.

He then introduced me to what was called the “Dalat 100” joint. This was a play off a well-known American cigarette label at the time. This joint was machine-rolled and packed tight. The Vietnamese would make them and sell them to the GIs. The joint was also laced with opium. You could see the brown streaks painted on the joint.

Snoopy 2 (one of our APCs) circa 1968

So, Chris lights it up and offers it to me. I thought, “Why the fuck not?” I was already starting to think that I was probably not going to survive my time on the Hill.  And Chris was someone I respected, and if he was okay with it, I wasn’t going to argue. So, we smoked part of it, on top of being drunk.

I don’t know where Chris went, but I woke up on the floor of his room. LOL! I was feeling sober, as I remember, but very stoned! I was floating. I then proceeded down to the EM Club (enlisted men’s club) for some more drinking. However, when I went into the club, it was very busy and I was quite high. So, I sat at the bar and simply watched what was going on around me.

I was truly appalled! Everyone was so drunk, loud and obnoxious, and I did not like what I was seeing or hearing at all. Although the club had become a haunt of mine after arriving on Pr’Line, it was like I was seeing the place for the very first time. And I did not like what I saw. And I concluded that I did not want to be part of this. So, I left and went to find Chris. In fact, I was so turned off by what I was observing at the club, that I didn’t have another drink again until I’d left the Army! I decided that I preferred the feeling I got from getting high on marijuana, and after this, I hung out with the group that had been designated as the “potheads.” True, some of them still drank and smoked weed, like Chris, but I stuck with pot. Looking back, it was a good decision.

Having been on Pr’Line for 19 months total, I watched a lot of men come, spend their entire tours, then leave. Somehow I can barely remember any of my friends leaving. I think it was perhaps because it was painful to see them go. So, I don’t remember the day Chris left Pr’Line, but I am certain I felt bad about it.

Years later, I located Chris in New York and talked to him on the phone. He had actually had Mai shipped home with him! Mai lived for many years and had a good life. Later, Chris, due to PTSD, no doubt, ended up on the streets of New York, another homeless Vietnam veteran. More years passed and I tried to reach him again. His sister told me he had died on the streets somewhere.

I will never forget Chris, or Mai the monkey.

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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