Toby Hughes wrote the lyrics to this war story in 1967 while flying the F-4 out of Cam Ranh Bay.
Neat story, here, about the origins of the song. Toby tells me he recorded a copy on his little tape deck in 1968 just before leaving Cam Ranh at the end of his tour. Soon as Sher-babes—his bride, and the subject of another shit-hot Toby Hughes song—issues his first kitchen pass, Toby motors off down to a local waterin' hole with some of his buds to get readapted to civilized life. One of 'em says, "Hey, Tobe, you gotta hear this shit- hot song from the War." At the first note a big grin travels across Toby's face.
The song was Tchepone, and it had been bootlegged from the tape he left behind a few days earlier. The damn thing beat him back to the States.
I think it must have kicked around the Air Force for a number of years before anyone recorded it commercially. Don't know if I'm the first to do that, or not.
I do, however, have a treasured memory of Tchepone.
You can get a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) for one of two reasons. Extraordinary Achievement While Participating in Aerial Flight is one way. Most of us picked up some of these by flying combat missions in Southeast Asia.
The second reason is for Heroism. I got only one of those, and it was for a late afternoon mission to Tchepone.
I was lead GIB in a two-ship headed for southern Laos. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Strand was my nose-gunner. In the other ship was Bob Wallace, a fellow GIB upgrading in-theatre, with Major Bill Marshburn doing IP (instructor pilot) duties in the pit.
We tooled around the countryside for awhile waiting for ABCCC (pronounce it Aye-Bee- Triple-Cee, it's fighter pilot cool said that way; the letters stand for Airborne Combat Control Center) to make up its mind about what to do with the 750s and CBUs strapped to the two Phantoms' bellies. At last they directed us to a set of random coordinates and told us to contact a FAC (Forward Air Controller.)
This shrewd warrior gave us a quick, though somewhat nebulous target brief and cleared us into the area.
He finished up with, ". . . And I'll be waiting for you over there behind the karst."
Karst are rough, vertical mountains good for hiding behind. We shoulda smelt a rat with that last comment.
Colonel Strand positions the bombing pattern to bring us down the slide on an easterly heading. The low angle of the setting sun coupled with the late evening haze would greatly complicate Nguyen's aiming problem from the ground.
Being lead ship, we go down the slide first. And Nguyen opens up.
I had never seen an angry bullet so close in all my life. And there were thousands of them. Big as golf balls, and glowing an ugly flame color. Over the wings, under the wings, and by the canopy. I don't know to this day how the sunzabitches could possibly have missed.
Bob motors on around to the west side of the circle and he and Bill stick their nose down into that fire tornado. Same story. Not a single scratch.
We safe up and beat feet out of there, getting the FACs BDA (bomb damage assessment) as we depart. Hell, I long ago forgot what we killed; but, I'll always remember the FACs last words.
"And. . . Uhh. . . I'll give you 4,000 rounds of Triple-A. . ."
I can't figure for the life of me how Nguyen could have shot at us 4,000 times and miss every time. But, I'll always be grateful that he did.
It was a few years later that I ran across Toby's song, probably in one of the dozens—maybe hundreds—of impromptu song books produced by fighter jocks in flying outfits all over the world. And it would be years after I recorded it when I would find out that Toby was the guy who wrote it. If I remember right, it was John Piowaty, one of those heroic Thud jocks, who clued me in to the song's origin.
Okay. I'm somewhat sensitive myself about knowing that my songs are sometimes pirated by people who don't know any better. Or who know better, and don't give a shit. So, I sets out to hunt ol' Toby down. I knew him. He had trained in the front seat of the Phantom as one of my classmates when I was learning the pit at George Air Force Base, California, in 1967.
I finally round up an address and mail him a royalty check. A robust eight bucks, as I recall. A few days later, it comes back "addressee unknown." No sweat, I thinks; I'll just hang onto it. He'll turn up sooner or later.
More years pass, and Toby and I get reacquainted in the Incountry Group, thanks to Doctor Lydia Fish of Buffalo State College and her Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project. We do several shows with Incountry's five other Vietnam vets, cut a record together, and finally get our shot at the big-time with Austin City Limits. This opportunity, as I recall, was engineered by Toby.
On a break between rehearsals down in Austin, I remember the check. It's in my guitar case. See, I figured when and if I ran across him again, some pickin' and grinnin' would transpire. I never dreamed we would be in the company of the likes of Kris Kristofferson. Anyhow, I retrieves the check and delivers it in person.
The song is a classic. It's one of the best sets of lyrics I've ever seen or sung. Toby is that way—lots of conviction, and typically outspoken, as is characteristic of any fighter jock worth his salt.
And he's about the best stringer together of words I've ever come across.