Tim O’Brien’s fictionalized memoir of his service in Vietnam, The Things They Carried, is very descriptive of the areas of Vietnam in which he served. Sometimes those areas are designated with proper names, other times, as in the case of the “Rocket Pocket,” they are labeled according to their significance to those who fought there. O’Brien explains the moniker “the Rocket Pocket” as follows:
“In February we were working an area of operations called the Rocket Pocket, which got its name from the fact that the enemy sometimes used the place to launch rocket attacks on the airfield at Chu Lai.”
While the” Pocket Rocket” is so-called because of the practice of the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army to use it as a staging location for rocket attacks, O’Brien notes that the area also happens to be particularly nice relative to other regions:
“But for us it (the Chu Lai area) was like a two-week vacation. The AO (area of operations) lay along the South China Sea, where things had the feel of a resort, with white beaches and palm trees and friendly little villages.”
Viewers of the late-1980s television series “China Beach” would recognize the scene: a pleasant respite from the fighting with nice beaches and surf and the facilities associated with rest-and-recreation sites. In “The Dentist,” O’Brien also describes the site’s us as a medical and dental facility, where “tough soldier” Curt Lemon fainted out of intense anxiety at the thought of letting the dentist who had been flown in work on his teeth (“He fainted even before the man touched him”).
In contrast to the idyllic picture of the airbase near the Pocket Rocket, O’Brien’s descriptions of the areas through which he passed tend more towards the mundane and often terrifying, with references to “meadows and paddies,” the “elaborate tunnel complexes in the Than Khe area south of Chu Lai,” and the surrealistic scenes common to those whose jobs involved patrolling dense jungles and potentially hostile villages (“The land was haunted. We were fighting forces that did not obey the laws of twentieth-century science. Late at night, on guard, it seemed that all of Vietnam was alive and shimmering – odd shapes swaying in the paddies, boogiemen in sandals, spirits dancing in old pagodas. It was ghost country and Charlie Cong was the main ghost. . . He could blend with the land, changing form, becoming trees and grass. . . He could pass through barbed wire and melt away like ice . . .”)
In the chapter titled ‘Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” O’Brien provides one of his more descriptive observations of the land in which his unit fought:
“To the north and west the country rose up in thick walls of wilderness, triple-canopied jungle, mountains unfolding into higher mountains, ravines and gorges and fast-moving rivers and waterfalls and exotic butterflies and steep cliffs and smoky little hamlets and great valleys of bamboo and elephant grass.”
This was the description of the areas in which the men with whom Tim O’Brien served spent much of their time, patrolling, setting up ambushes, securing areas, and so on. It presents a stark contrast with the scenery he describes near the Pocket Rocket.