Whenever I hear the term “Zero Waste,” I hearken back four-plus decades when it fell to me to put this noble vision to a successful conclusion. Don’t believe me? Ah, ye of little faith, draw near to take advantage of my august experience.
When I returned to Vietnam in 1969, I was immediately assigned the title of “Base Development Officer” for the Marine portion of the sprawling Chu Lai Airbase, a hastily constructed enclave on the South China Sea, 100 or so miles south of the city of Hue. What was I to do in this new assignment? Well, for starters, it occurred to the air group commander that perhaps I could figure out how to deal with a 12-acre compound containing almost three years’ worth of accumulated trash that threatened to overwhelm its sagging-from-the-effort boundaries.
Uncoordinated piles of shipping containers, dunnage, cannibalized vehicles and construction equipment, unserviceable aircraft parts, the barely recognizable carcasses of wrecked aircraft, and ton-upon-ton of every imaginable kind of trash made further dumping all but impossible in this piece of man-made jungle that successive generations of Marines had skillfully ignored. In fact, the only attention paid it was common practice of sending a bulldozer in to clear enough space by the gate to allow for a few more truckloads of the air group’s detritus to be dumped, rendering out-of-sight-out-of-mind for everyone except the sergeant-in-charge of the bomb dump, who figured we had come to the absolute end of the road.
Filled with misgivings that my first assignment was going to end in dismal failure, I returned to the headquarters compound to find that what I had deduced to be a trash pile in the corner of the S-4 tent was actually my newly assigned desk, complete with unanswered correspondence, some of which bore the date/time stamp of the previous year. “Oh, well,” I figured, “maybe I’ll smother to death in the pile and someone else will have to worry about the dump.”
But sometimes you find buried treasure in the strangest of places.
No sooner had I started than I came upon a memorandum from our masters in Saigon, stating that all material and equipment not essential to US operations were to be made available to the Vietnamese for their use in what was termed the “Vietnamization process.” Then (as well as now) grand strategies go right past me, but oblivious to whatever impact this process was going to have on the outcome of the war, I recognized it was—so far as I personally was concerned—a potential passport to my salvation.
Access for our contribution to Vietnamization was afforded by the simple expedient of bulldozing a hole in the dump’s perimeter fence and blading a path parallel to the main service road all the way out to the gate. Before I had time to develop an action plan to help the Vietnamese move some of the heavier items, I was informed that there was nothing left in the dump but shards of useless wood and packing material. The Vietnamese had removed far and away the lion’s share of the material with a bare minimum of effort on our part. When the group commander asked at the next morning’s staff meeting, “What are you going to do with that remaining trash?” I temporized by responding that I was busy working on a plan to accomplish that very task. Here, as before, I was going to get a lesson in divine providence.
That night we were treated to a rather spectacular rocket attack launched from well within the base’s outer defense perimeter. Three of the dozen or so missiles sent to us in a “to whom it may concern” fashion landed smack in the dump, reducing the remains to a very acceptable mulch—Ho Chi Minh Tooth Picks was the proper designation for the material—that was easily scooped up and used as a road stabilizer.
But with the dawn came the realization that while mulching and recycling were grand diversion results, the element of reuse had been present as well. Among the goodies the North Vietnamese had acquired were several four-shot, 5-inch Zuni rocket pods that, while unsuitable for flight, were well up to the task of holding and providing initial guidance to a raft of Soviet-built 122-mm rockets. While I'm not sure medals were quite in order, the NVA were certainly to be congratulated on their adherence to the top section of that yet-to-be annunciated “Solid Waste Hierarchy,” though in no learned tome on the subject have I seen them congratulated for their pioneering efforts.
The moral, of course, is never give up hope. But I, however—suspecting that future ventures into the world of waste diversion might not meet with such spectacular success—took the credit and wangled my way into a cockpit as quickly as possible.