by John Redmond
61,000 word novel follows a reluctant group of Americans thrust into the Vietnam War.
3260 Stonegate Drive
Huntingdon Valley, PA 19006
At 1300 military time, a crowd formed in the outer office of the headquarters orderly room for the daily show. Major Akio Tanaka was the executive officer of the 240th Intelligence Detachment and had just completed a generous lunch and settled into his swivel chair. Within two minutes he was loudly snoring.
"It's like one of those medieval German clocks with dancing figures that regulate the lives of a small town," explained Specialist Bernie Rodgers, the all-knowing unit clerk, to the gathering men. . A large lock of hair fell over his forehead to merge with his prominent black GI-issue glasses, both of which he continuously adjusted as he looked up at the giants in the forest. He was only five feet two inches tall.
Adam Nussbaum had just reported to the 240th and was conscientiously filling out forms when, without further ceremony the balding major fell out of his chair landing awkwardly with a loud thud. The spectators in the outer office then feigned other business and slowly evaporated having just seen another performance of "old faithful."
Major Tanaka was a reserve officer who had a long career of placeholder assignments to fill out unit organizational charts and found himself in Vietnam for his last assignment before retirement.
After the major had reassembled himself, Bernie whispered to Adam, "The major is like a boron rod in a nuclear reactor, he prevents meltdowns."
Adam stepped outside of the headquarters with Bernie and surveyed his new home. The base area was called the plantation and was part of the American corps headquarters complex, which was part of the vast installation of Long Binh, the headquarters for the entire American army in Vietnam. A granular red dirt blew through the streets between the many sandbagged buildings and living quarter-huts that made up this community. A complex odor-cloud of humidity, petroleum, human excrement and mess hall food permanently sat over the vast base.
"Why do they call it the plantation?" Adam asked Bernie.
"I guess at one time there must have been trees here, but that was before Agent Orange and industrial bull dozers leveled everything. There is one area with green grass and a tree."
"Lieutenant General (LTG) Burt Wacker's house. Follow me and I'll show you." They walked up a small hill to the quarters. Perhaps this wasn't part of the normal tour, but Bernie seemed to enjoy the time away from his desk. Wacker's 3,500- square- foot house sat on a carpet of grass with a carefully watered single cherry tree,
The 240th was attached to his headquarters. Adam guessed that the house was built to reassure him and the troops that there was still a connection to the real world. The house was dark and Adam wondered where the general was.
They walked back to the intel unit to a more extensive complex of huts with the pungent smell of burnt paper wafting from the rear of the building.
"What's the smell?" asked Adam.
"That's from the furnace in the photographic imagery interpretation section." Every day the air force flew photo intelligence missions over Vietnam. They were immediately classified Secret or Top Secret and multiple roles of film had to be burned and recorded after interpretation. Mostly, the film showed showed the tops of triple canopy jungle, providing no clues about enemy activity. The "secret" was that there was no intelligence from these missions.
"So this is a classified document crematorium?"
"Adam, I just work here, let me introduce you to the section."
Adam walked into the hut, which was about five degrees warmer than outside, where it was 92 degrees Fahrenheit. The men were all assembled around benches stripped down to olive drab green undershirts and shorts, which were soaked through with sweat. Tables were filled with elaborate stereoscopic photographic viewing devices which had the appearance of giant microscopes. Rolls of film were carefully stacked along the walls. A Teac boom box blasted out the strains of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In." Adam heard:
"When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars"
He mused it would take some very heavy acid to connect those lyrics with what he saw around him. He couldn't quite see the Fifth Dimension making the trip.
Bernie introduced Adam to the men, and Jamie Sailor, one of two warrant officers in the unit. Jamie held this rank between commissioned officer and non-commissioned officer (sergeant) and usually held by individuals with a technical skill. Jamie was deeply tanned, handsome, and young.
"Where are you from, Jamie?"
He replied in a slow, lyrical voice, "The low country in South Carolina. My dad was a commercial fisherman, and I was raised on red fish."
"You ever seen anything up there?" asked Adam.
"No NVA , but last week I saw an elephant family strolling through the bush, and once several months ago I saw an Asian tiger." Jamie volunteered this with a little more animation.
"That's an expensive naturalist adventure."
Their conversation was abruptly interrupted by the noise of a speeding vehicle suddenly slamming on the breaks outside the hut. They both ran out of the building to see a jeep covered with camouflaged netting and a fifty caliber machine gun mounted on a turret with a ribbon of ammunition. The driver was wearing a non-issue reticulated camouflage uniform with a matching bush hat. A leather belt had two thirty-eight caliber western style pistols with ammunition carefully filling the slots. He was short, tanned and had a wild Teddy Roosevelt style mustache. Central casting could not have come up with a better Halloween costume. Most important and not immediately obvious in the shadow of the costume, there was a dead NVA soldier tied over the hood of the jeep in the style of a just hunted deer. The corpse had multiple gunshot wounds.
"What's going on here?" asked Major Tanaka who hastily emerged from the headquarters as Jamie. Bernie and Adam watched in front of the hut.
"Well, Sir, I'm Sergeant Carney with the long range reconnaissance patrol, and we just bagged this slope. I thought you intel guys might want to check him out." The LRRPs were rangers attached to major combat units who led missions into the jungle for reconnaissance. The sergeant exhibited the demeanor of a Georgia hunter presenting a prize six point buck at the state game station.
"Where did you kill him?"
"About ten miles from here in the bush. We got in a small fire fight. His buddies ran for it but we carried this hombre out."
"Any documents or equipment?"
"No, just his AK47 rifle and a small bag of rice. No documents."
The major pondered what to do. He mused that the good sergeant might be planning to take his capture to a taxidermist after the intel clearance. He could then augment a collection of horned mammals in a VFW lodge or perhaps the dead NVA soldier might be offered to General Wacker to mount in his office to further emphasize the importance of body count.
"Sergeant, take this prisoner off the hood and place him in a poncho in the back seat of the jeep. We've got to show respect for the dead, even NVA dead. Then take the remains to the hospital down the road about five miles from here. They'll debrief you and put him in the morgue. And while we're at it, why don't you join the rest of the army and get out of that ridiculous costume?" The major could only say that because of his rank.
While this was going on, a group of ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers, who had been playing volleyball, gathered around the jeep. They were led by a tall Vietnamese major and had suspended their game to silently approach the scene. Their attention and concentration seemed out of proportion in a country where NVA soldiers were killed in large numbers every day.
Sergeant Carney smirked at the young man next to him, who was a slightly less flamboyant clone of the sergeant, slumped in the seat of the jeep, defiantly smoking a cigarette. The message was clear. What did he expect from rear echelon pukes who never ventured into the bush? They did as they were told and removed the body from the hood before racing off in a cloud of red dirt.
Adam's personalized tour of the new neighborhood ended. He tried to digest the sights, smells, and people that had just raced in front of him. This was a long way from Manhattan and NYU. Major Tanaka walked off shaking his head.
Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Robert "Bull" Basham was feeling mellow. He sat al fresco at a small table at the Hotel Majestic with his mistress on Tu Do Street, which was formally the Rue Catinat under the French. He was enveloped in a cloud of cigar smoke dampened only intermittently by sips from his third gin and tonic. His mistress, Lien Mai, sat formally in a white high-necked ao dai accented with a pearl necklace and earrings. Like an egret she perched in almost total stillness at the table quietly viewing her big fish. They inhaled the frenetic activity on the street and on the Saigon River. The Hotel Majestic was the "holy see" for rear echelon mother fuckers (REMFs), who were known to almost all the troops in Vietnam. Only the boys in the bush missed out on the big show on Tu Do Street. The Majestic also had a reputation as the center of the CIA clandestine war throughout Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
"You know, Lien, this is a very special place, and you are a very special and beautiful woman."
"Thank you, Colonel. I feel good to be here with you tonight."
Bull knew there was no permanence to any of this - the hotel, Lien, or the war. She was one of those pretty sexual fixtures who always emerged from the earth at the confluence of money and power. He couldn't explain why it was important to him in the midst of a war to make the effort to be in Saigon with this woman. Maybe it was because so many other middle aged American officers were doing the same thing. Lien had other attributes not associated with figurines. She was smart, and she had a kind of patient wisdom which sprung from years of observed folly. Bulls ruminations were broken by a white jacketed bellhop who handed him a Western Union cable.
"Ah shit, I've got to get back to the base," he declared.
"Something with the war?' Lien asked
"No, it's the damned Christmas tree farm. I've got to get in contact with my manager. I've had a wonderful evening, but I have to go." His impulse was to take the short drive to Tan Son Nhat airport and catch a military hop back to the States, but then he recalled he was involved with a war, and the trip would probably be considered desertion. He stewed on the thirty-mile drive back to Long Binh and went directly to the MARS station. Several younger soldiers were involved in calls with wives and girlfriends. He knocked on the door of a booth with a private, who was startled to see the massive colonel.
"Son, I have an emergency. Could you let me have the phone?"
"Yes, sir. Honey, I've got to go. I'll call you later this week." The soldier jumped out of the booth, jumped to attention and saluted.
Bull pushed himself into the phone booth and squeezed the phone like a boa constrictor. "Hi, this is Robert Basham, I got your telegram, what's going on? Over."
A long pause followed and then Bull said, "I can't fucking believe it, I leave you guys for six months to serve my country and an entire spring planting goes down the shitter. Over".
"I want you to contact Bill Parnell, you know the Agriculture Extension Agent and have him look at those trees and see what we can do to de-fuck things. You got that? Over?"
Bull's dominant voice boomed out of the booth and partly overwhelmed two soldiers in the adjoining booths trying to keep girlfriends on the hook. Bull didn't care. After all this was business that had the highest priority. Any healthy soldier could get a girl any day of the week. He certainly had.
Finally, his jeep pulled up to the headquarters hut, and he slowly walked to the back of the building, midway through the showing of Easy Rider. Something about the whole evening and the movie caused him to snap.
He yelled, "Major Tanaka! Can't someone call this unit to attention when the commanding officer comes into the area?"
"Yes, sir!" Major Tanaka jumped from his deck chair, turned and loudly commanded, "Attention commanding officer."
The men jumped to attention
Bull barely glanced at the group of young men in front of him in the outdoor theater. He sank his massive carcass into a deck chair to soothe his troubled soul. It had not been a good day in the land of Bull.
Specialist Rogers sharply called the headquarters to attention as Bull exited a jeep and walked into the hut.
"At ease gentlemen" he mumbled as he walked straight into his office and shut the door with more than a little force.
In the outer room, just outside of Bull's office, a new officer, Captain Peter Savory, waited to be introduced to the commander. He heard a soldier whisper, "Bull". He leaned over to Bernie and asked, "Why does everyone call the colonel 'Bull'?"
Bernie discreetly turned to Peter and said just above a whisper, "You know the character Bullwinkle, who could remember everything he ever ate? He has a unique approach to the war."
"What do you mean?"
"Every couple of days Col. Basham gets up at 0200 and goes to the MARS station, which is about a mile from here. There is a military short-wave radio tower which attempts to connect with HAM radio operators in the states. They connect the calls with landlines. There are a lot of variables including Pacific Ocean atmospherics and the availability of HAM operators. He's running a Christmas Tree business from Vietnam."
"How does that work, running a business from a war zone?"
"I think you'll have to ask the colonel about that."
At that moment a sergeant walked into the office with a case of Johnny Walker Red Label. "Captain Savory let me introduce you to Sergeant First Class (SFC) Tom Westbrook, some people consider him the most valuable person in the unit, if not the war. He is the acting first sergeant of the detachment."
The sergeant had longer hair than one might have expected of a senior NCO, and a certain air of inherited nobility. "Thanks, Bernie. Got this case of Johnny Walker in Can Tho. Traded it for five sheets of plywood," proudly reported Sgt. Westbrook.
Bernie told Peter that the sergeant left each morning with a deuce and a half (two -and a -half ton truck) filled with "tradable goods" and returned each evening with teriyaki steaks, whiskey, beer, movies, jeeps. "You name it, you want it, he gets it. The sergeant brings the detachment a little something extra to help get through the war." Bernie winked.
At that moment, the commander's door opened and LTC Basham appeared. An unlit cigar dangled from his mouth and his fatigue uniform was draped loosely over a grossly overweight body, more of a dust cover over a giant pear than a military uniform. "Come on in, captain" he said while extending his hand.
Peter walked into modest office, walled with plywood. An ancient walnut desk, much nicked and scarred added a small suggestion of martial grandeur. It was covered by a thick layer of unremitting plantation dust. "Welcome to the 240th, Peter. Where did you come from?" Bull asked with mechanical indifference obviously distracted by other far flung considerations.
"Fort Holabird, sir, I just finished the six-week imagery interpretation course in Baltimore. Before that I spent two years in Bad Aibling , Germany, with an ASA ( Army Security Agency) unit."
"This is a long way from Bavaria. How did you like that assignment?"
"I loved it, but unfortunately my wife hated it. She found Germany to be permanently cold and overcast and the people to be arrogant and aloof, and she hated the army. Come to think of it, I don't think she liked me much either. We divorced six months into the assignment. Bad Aibling didn't generate a lot of love in our lives."
"Sorry to hear that."
"Probably for the best. There were some rough seas, but I got over it and am doing ok now. No kids."
"Where did you go to college, Peter?" Bull unwrapped a Dutch Master cigar, in an exercise to keep busy while he went through the motions of appearing interested.
"The University of Maryland, where I was a history major. In fact, my area of interest was Asian history. I was thinking about becoming an academic and pursuing graduate school, but I had an ROTC commitment to pay back."
"Interesting," Bull mumbled as he ground his unlit cigar into his molar teeth. That was an expression he used for subjects which utterly held no interest for him.
"Sir, what can you tell me about the unit?"
"Well, the detachment is kind of the bastard child of the corps headquarters. We're looked down upon by a group of officers who are themselves regarded REMFs by the small band of warriors who are actually out in the bush. We take pictures and interrogate prisoners and make briefing materials to support the dog and pony shows that are put on for General Wacker".
"As they taught you at Fort Holabird, the unit was conceived to support a conventional corps fighting a Russian tank army in Germany. Your section is supposed to be looking at convoys of vehicles rolling down the autobahn, not squads of infantry in the jungle. What we have here in 1969 is an extended game of cat and mouse. The mouse resides in Laos and Cambodia where we're not allowed to go. He comes in at night and lets all the cats know he's been here. The next day B-52 ARC light strikes are requested and the bombers lumber over the jungle from Guam, which is 2000 miles away. They unload unbelievable ordinance, usually into empty jungle, but the mouse is back in his house. We're required to alert the native communities before the strikes, and guess who else gets the message? Your section identifies some of the targets for these missions."
"It doesn't sound so good, sir."
"It's not. Nixon inherited this mess and concluded there was no future for this wartime partnership with the South Vietnamese government and army. So naturally we've started a program of Vietnamization to turn the war over to them, to lose. The catch is he wants to do it with a face saving exit, the face he has in mind is his own. Meanwhile the tuition is being paid by our friends next door in the infantry."
"Sir, what do you want me to do here?"
"Staying alive would be a good start, then do your job, take care of your troops and think about what you are going to do after this year. In the meantime, we'll try to have some fun, this is a very nice group."
"Sir, thanks for the honesty. I'll do my best." With that Peter saluted and left the office having concluded this most unusual command welcome.
A major called the room to attention. The assembly of mostly three and two star generals jumped from their seats out of respect for the lion who was now commander of all US forces in Vietnam. The contrast between Abrams and his successor and West Point classmate, William Westmoreland could not have been more striking.
Abrams was rumpled, soft spoken, a good listener, deliberate and very thoughtful in his approach. He surrounded himself with fine liquor, gourmet food, cigars, and classical music. But when a certain line was crossed he could erupt in rage, screaming profanity and pounding his fist on the table. His combat lineage was a legend. Seven years out of West Point, he was the commander of the 37th tank battalion which was the spearhead for George Patton's Third Army relief of Bastogne. He personally led the breakthrough at the head of his battalion. After that battle Patton called him the best tank commander in the army.
Westmoreland was the polar opposite. He was ram rod straight in appearance and outlook, an airborne "pretty boy." For four years in Vietnam, he pushed ahead with large unit search-and-destroy operations supported with massive firepower, requiring increasing numbers of American soldiers. He was convinced that he would win a war of attrition, and fed LBJ a steady diet of euphoric statistics based on body counts and questionably manipulated intelligence reports. It was a source of wonder that the small nation of North Vietnam didn't capitulate under this continuous barrage, but it didn't. After Tet, Westmoreland's days were numbered. Only Burt Wacker continued to carry his flag.
The meeting was called the Weekly Intelligence Estimate Update (WIEU). Once a month it included all of the major commanders in Vietnam and began with a detailed intelligence presentation by Major General William E. Potts.
"Sir, you see the intelligence situation in South Vietnam." A briefing officer pointed out the unit dispositions of NVA and irregular forces throughout the country. Intelligence at this level had significantly improved with interception and decryption of radio message traffic as well as high level agents in the NVA command. Potts was punctilious to a fault, as he sat arranging and re-arranging a stack of classified briefing papers.
"General Potts, what was the size of that unit in the Parrot's Beak?"
"Major, put on slide 209 for General Abrams." He had memorized all four hundred slides in the briefing. It was hard to find fault with this very gifted man.
Abrams stood up, "Gentlemen, we are making progress. The country is relatively quiet, that allows the South Vietnamese government to find its foothold and the villages to return to some kind of normal. Our mission here is to help improve the ARVN and promote the pacification of the population. We're not here to kill people or destroy things for the hell of it. I don't give a shit what the body counts are, in fact I'd prefer that they were lower, that means fewer civilians. We also must keep the American casualty rates down. I don't have to tell you that our own country is on fire over this war." The general chewed on a worn cigar as he delivered this message.
Burt Wacker was boiling. He knew some of that was aimed at him. "Sir, I'm completely onboard with the pacification program. But sometimes that's not so easy. My troops go into the bush and by day see smiling farmers and their families, who at night become VC and harbor the NVA, who then butcher the same troops. Besides, how do we measure 'pacification'?"
"Burt, the old days are gone. We can't win this thing with firepower and attrition; we tried that for the last four years and it didn't work. We just can't grind these guys down, they're un-grindable. We're not going to be here in a few years, and we've got to build up the ARVN and convince the people, who are mostly rural, that we're on their side." As General Abrams said these things, his voice got softer but more resolute. He handled Burt with measured respect. They were both of the old breed.
"And gentlemen, look at this My Lai mess. Based on what we know. A platoon went into a village and massacred around 500 civilians, mostly women and children about a year ago in Quang Ngai province. The 11th Brigade of the Americal division then covered the damned thing up for the last year. This is a disgrace, and I won't tolerate it. The massacre is a textbook example of what we shouldn't do. It will take years to repair the damage, if it is repairable. I want to make it clear." The general pounded the table for emphasis as he made these points. "I demand the truth, good or bad. Retribution will come to the deceivers." Moses had descended from the mountain.
Burt Wacker jumped from his seat as General Abrams left the room. He walked straight for the exit without speaking to any of his fellow commanders. They knew he had transformed into molten lava.
"The whole thing is bull shit! This whole war is bull shit," he mumbled to himself as left the building and entered his jeep.
General Abrams spoke to General Potts in his office as he poured them both a Jack Daniels neat.
"Burt just won't sign on to the program, and his corps runs the most important region in the country."
"Sir, he and Westmoreland both belonged to the parachute fraternity. You know he parachuted into Normandy."
"I know, the damned parachute boys completely fucked up this army and this war. I guess they landed on their heads too many times. Anyway, Wacker may not be the man for the job, but I've got to let him down gently. He paid his dues." Both men had a long draw on the whiskey.
First Lieutenant (1LT) Mike Dempsey sat on the tarmac resting his 70-pound pack and M16 rifle on the asphalt as he waited for the distinctive thwat of the Bell UH1 (Huey) helicopters to take him and his platoon to their work-place. He had reported to the 123rd Airborne Infantry Brigade two weeks before and was about to launch his first operation with his new platoon. Before that he had attended West Point and graduated with the class of 1966, followed by Airborne and Ranger schools at Fort Benning Georgia. He had been assigned for two years as platoon leader with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg North Carolina, and he was among the last in his class to see duty in Vietnam. He was lucky, a number of his classmates had been thrown into the war immediately after graduation and several were already dead.
SFC (sergeant first class) "Big" Ben Tenata walked down the line inspecting everyone's equipment with an eye for minute detail. This was his third rotation in Vietnam and he had the respect of the entire platoon and company for his competence and toughness. He was originally from the island of Kauai, and Mike imagined this six foot four bronzed warrior leading his tribe in an outrigger canoe in the blazing Hawaiian sun. Sgt. Tenata was also the law. There were no court martials or formal disciplinary actions in his platoon. Those that stepped out of line had "counseling" behind the troop hooches, and the infraction was rarely repeated. He was a stickler for all of the details of soldiering and could do any task better than any man in the platoon. Big Ben was indifferent to the history or politics behind the Vietnam War. He was here to perform his mission and take care of the troops, including Mike, that was it.
"Sergeant, our plan will be to secure the landing zone (LZ) and then move about one half mile to meet the second platoon on this ridge as he pointed to the map." Mike said this as much to reassure himself as to communicate with Big Ben. He studied the map with the intensity of a high school student before a big test. Big Ben looked at him with the amusement of a high school coach watching a freshman start his first basketball game.
"Yes sir, we don't have much intelligence on the area do we? I wonder if we'll come in hot."
"We'll keep our eyes open" offered Mike.
As he sat on the hot asphalt, Mike recalled his military history classes at West Point. The classes were filled with enthusiastic captains in the early 1960's, who had never heard an angry shot. They waxed about the many lessons learned from the first Indochina War, which would be applied in Vietnam.
The French had returned to the jewel of their colonial empire to regain la gloire of French civilization after the national humiliation of the Second World War. They had remained in Vietnam through the war in the Vichy government. Harry Truman had allowed them this scrap of colonial meat, in hopes of preventing a communist takeover in France as well as Indochina. . All of that ended in 1954 with the Vietminh victory at Dien Bien Phu, masterminded by General Giap.
The momentous snow ball of war had started its inexorable thirty year roll down the mountain. Nothing could stop it. General Giap was still the master of this war and seemed to hold all the cards. How odd that American involvement in Vietnam was partly propelled by the hubris of American victory in World War II, and the French by the sting of humiliation in that same conflict.
West Point instructors pointed to major differences between the two wars- the French fought a largely static defensive series of engagements, mainly in the north and failed to interdict lines of communication for the Vietminh. The Americans now had mobility through the use of helicopters and vast firepower which could be rapidly applied through an advanced system of communication and intelligence. It was argued that the United States had a more professional armed forces with a tradition of winning. It also had 540,000 uniformed Americans in-country as compared to less than half that number for the French. Of course only one in seven were actual fighters.
He recalled these things as he sat on the runway sweating through his field uniform. He remembered old Colonel Kirbey, a veteran of the American China, Burma India campaign who had fought with Merrill's Marauders in the horrendous battle for the Myitkyina airfield in Burma, which no one had ever heard of. The marauders though greatly outnumbered and completely isolated in Burma prevailed with huge loses.
Colonel Kirby said, "Don't kid yourself, boys. Indochina is quicksand. It will be very tough." The colonel retired shortly after, probably encouraged by a history department filled with war enthusiasts, who considered him a dinosaur.
Mike looked at his troops. One third of them were black, and to a man none had ever seen the inside of a country club. Clearly the Vietnam war was being fought with other people's children. But these men had mostly volunteered and were largely motivated, an exception to the larger "draft army". The "big picture" didn't effect most of these guys, just the mission ahead of them and their foxhole buddies.
The helicopters arrived in a line. Big Ben boomed, "Mount up men," and the troops loaded into the Hueys. Mike prayed that he would do his duty.
Adam Nussbaum had a sinking feeling. It was what he felt when he took the wrong subway and ended up drunk in Harlem instead of on Court Street in Brooklyn where he lived. He had been in the detachment for two months and was still trying to figure it out. It all started with his bizarre orientation on the first day. Who were these people in this aberrant unit, and most important what was he doing here? Unlike most military units in Vietnam there was no clear distinction between enlisted and officers in terms of intelligence or educational background. The officers had taken ROTC to pay tuition and enlisted men had usually been drafted after college, scored high on the army aptitude exam, and landed in the detachment.
It was an eclectic group. Adam had majored with honors in history at NYU and was applying to law school when he was drafted. He was ambivalent about the many ruses used by his classmates to avoid the draft, and he was caught by his indecision. He did qualify for an intelligence unit and here he was. He felt a level of anger toward his former NYU classmates, which had to do with their superior wit in avoiding the draft, more than any higher sense of duty or moral obligation toward service in the war. After all this was Vietnam.
"Where are you off to, Adam?" cheerfully asked Bernie in the headquarters.
"I'm headed to the hospital to interrogate prisoners, or at least what's left of them," he said in his thick Brooklyn accent. He didn't speak Vietnamese, some said he didn't speak English. He then left for the other side of Long Binh, home of the 24th Evacuation Hospital where he would meet a translator and interrogate prisoners.
He strolled into the prisoner ward in the hospital and saw his translator patiently waiting for him. "Hi, I'm Adam Nussbaum from the interrogation section."
"I'm Xuan Loan and I'll be your translator today. Very nice to meet you, specialist." Xuan bowed to Adam as he spoke.
"Who do we have to interrogate today, Xuan ?"
"We have a female, unknown name and no papers or possessions. She was found unconscious in Tay Ninh with multiple abdominal shrapnel wounds. She is three days post-operative and still has a feeding tube. I talked to her briefly and got nothing: not her unit, her rank, her mission, nothing."
Adam walked over to a bed and stared at a small woman of indeterminate age in hospital pajamas. She had a feeding tube and was receiving IV fluids. There were multiple surgical drains flowing into bags beside her bed. She had a urinary catheter. She stared straight ahead not making eye contact with Adam or Xuan. There was no outward sign of pain or discomfort.
"I'm Specialist Nussbuam, and I'd like to ask you a few questions." Xuan translated to no response or acknowledgement that she had heard the statement. She continued to stare straight ahead.
"I understand you were wounded in Tay Ninh province." There was still no response. Adam went through the checklist of questions and to each there was silence. After 15 minutes he discontinued the interrogation, sat down at a small desk and filled out the interrogation report. He would soon learn that this was a recurring drill. Were these space travelers from another planet?
"You know, Xuan, I can't figure it out. If you asked Americans to make that thousand-mile journey down the Ho Chi Minh trail, live through artillery and air attacks, subsist on a small ration of rice and fish heads, and sleep in caves filled with snakes, and did I forget push a bicycle loaded with four hundred pounds, they would refuse. I suspect the same would be true for the South Vietnamese. But it seems like there is no sacrifice too great for these northern folk, and they just keep coming. What do you think?"
"The north is different. Maybe because it's next to China and it has such a long history of brutal occupation by China, the French, the Japanese and then the French again. Maybe it's because the French war was mostly fought in the north which created a special hatred of colonialism and maybe it's because their leaders have a vision, which has been embraced by many of the people. They are also not corrupt in the way that almost all of our leaders have been and continue to be. You know the key is not communism, although that assumption is a major reason you and your friends are here. I know that Ho joined the French communist party in 1920, but he's always been more anti-colonial and nationalist then communist. He finds himself surrounded by sharks all looking for a meal: the Chinese, the Russians, the Americans and the South Vietnamese, and by the way Ho and the other members of the politburo are also a sharks with a taste for American meat."
Adam listened intently then said, "It also gets me that we provide all of this medical care, feed the prisoners, and give them a comfortable place to sleep. They don't seem to be interested in any of it. We assume we could capture their hearts and minds by sharing all of this. They don't seem to care. "
"Please understand, specialist, from the prisoner's point of few, they are in the hospital because you invaded their country and attacked them. They think Vietnam is none of your business, and you are the source of their misery. They just can't figure out why you are here."
Adam shook his head and said goodbye to Xuan and walked out to the parking lot. He slowly drove the jeep back to the detachment, and when he arrived, the ARVN 1600 hours volley ball game was starting. There it was -the stoic NVA women warriors playing for keeps versus the ARVN men's volleyball team.
The year 1969 brought Richard Nixon to the White House with a campaign promise to end the Vietnam War with honor through an undisclosed plan. The strategy was peace negotiations in Paris matched with the bombing of North Vietnam and the secret bombing of Cambodian sanctuaries starting in March. At the same time to counter massive domestic peace demonstrations Nixon announced the withdrawal of 25,000 troops in a program coined "Vietnamization" by Defense Secretary Melvin Laird. In the spirit of Vietnamization, a 15-man Vietnamese intelligence detachment reported to the unit and was housed in a hut separated, but adjacent to the Americans. What they did was a matter of great mystery.
Adam pulled his jeep up to the volleyball game and watched. After a while he approached their leader, a tall, smiling Vietnamese major interacting with the men like a coach.
"Sir, I'm Specialist Adam Nussbuam from the interrogation section. I don't believe we've met. "
"Very nice to meet you. I am Major Ang Dung and I command this detachment which works with the 240th to gather combat intelligence."
"If there's anything I can do to help you, please let me know." Adam then drifted toward the headquarters hut guided by the smell of Teriyaki steak.
"Major Tanaka, the steaks smell mighty good. Could you share the recipe for the sauce?" asked Adam.
"Sorry, son, that recipe is Top Secret, No-foreign dissemination. If I told you I would have to kill you and that would detract from your dining experience."
Adam grabbed a Budweiser which had been supplied in quantity by SFC Tom Westbrook. The tub of beer was at the end of a long support chain which ran from the artificial harbor at Cam Ranh Bay and the Saigon docks to Long Binh. Each day hundreds of military flatbed trucks raced up and down Highway 1 to distribution centers to supply the beer. Meanwhile the NVA, if they were lucky, were settling into a gourmet dinner of rice and water in a cave or tunnel. After steak and beer, the men positioned their lawn chairs to watch John Wayne in True Grit. A 16 mm projector again supplied by SFC Westbrook projected the film on a screen set up against the wall of the headquarters.
"Did you hear that?" somebody yelled and then eventide was disrupted by explosions from the rocket belt which surrounded Long Binh. The rockets were launched from crude platforms in the jungle and aimed in the general direction of the base. They rarely hit a target and even less often produced casualties, but the real aim was to disrupt the tranquility and pseudo-normalcy of the sprawling American bases, and if possible never allow a movie to be completed. At least they had the courtesy to not interrupt the steak dinner.
After the first blast, Adam found himself going to the officer's quarters and dawning a flak jacket and M16 rifle with ammunition bands. He and his comrades then spent most of the night in the bunkers which surrounded the perimeter of the base.
Since the Tet offensive one year before, it was never clear if these attacks might be the overture to a full scale assault. He was anything but casual about these exercises. The week before a soldier with the headquarters company entered a bunker at night and confronted an Asian cobra, but the real danger was the other members of his unit who would be lumbering around the perimeter in the dark with live weapons and no combat experience. An M16 was much deadlier than cobra venom.
After arriving at the sandbagged bunker, a deuce and a half truck drove in front on the perimeter road with a quad-50 gun mount on the truck bed (four-50 caliber machine guns synchronized with each other). The weapon had originally been designed as an anti-aircraft gun but had been redeployed as a defensive anti-personnel weapon, since there were no enemy aircraft in the south. The crew had stenciled on the side of the truck, "judge, jury, executioner". The court was in session.
Mike was mildly reassured by the sense of order in the helicopter. His squad was strapped in, the door gunners wearily surveyed the jungle with M60 machine guns attached between the doors, and the pilots professionally flew the helicopter to the LZ. The constant stream of radio traffic was reassuring. It spoke to control and normalcy. Normalcy was good as one descended into a warzone; he and his small platoon were the tip of the spear.
Suddenly the crew chief gave a thumbs up as the plane floated into a clearing which had been marked with smoke. The helicopter blades blew up a storm of dirt and plants as Mike and the squad jumped from the skids of the helicopter and were met by a wave of crackling AK-47 fire. A rocket propelled grenade (RPG) flew by but missed the helicopter. A private instantly crumbled to the ground having been hit in the orbit with an AK47 round. Half of his face was gone leaving a bloody cavity from the orbit to the occiput of his skull. Sergeant Tenata had been in the third helicopter and ordered the platoon to form a skirmish line and move toward the woods in alternating fire teams covering the movement. Men dragged the screaming wounded with them. Mike didn't even notice that the helicopters were quickly gone.
He turned to his radio telephone operator (RTO), who carried an AN/PRC 10 radio which weighed 24 lbs. in addition to his other equipment. Mike called in an artillery fire mission against the NVA unit firing from the wood line. The radio had an effective radius of five miles which was within range of an artillery fire support base, Fire Support Base (FSB) Baldy. Vietnam was dotted with artillery FSBs designed to provide artillery throughout the country to infantry units in the bush. It was part of the grand strategy to overwhelm the NVA with firepower. A few minutes later, 155 mm artillery rounds came screaming overhead and landed in the jungle. He adjusted the fire over the radio and a shattering barrage arrived to upend trees, vines and people. AK 47 fire, however continued despite the artillery.
He called his company commander, Captain Mike Nichols. "Six this is one. Under small arms and automatic weapons fire. Moving out of the LZ. Need medevac. Multiple dead and wounded, over."
"One this is six. Received SITREP (situation report). Medevac ordered. Please advise when LZ is cool, Over"
"Six, will comply. "
Mike felt the swish of bullets on either side as more men fell. The scream of "medic" came from several directions. The weapons fire decreased and he radioed the artillery battery to cease fire while he moved forward with his now depleted platoon. Big Ben crawled over to his position.
"Sir, we only have 15 effectives, 10 wounded and 5 dead." Mike's mind raced, he imagined a regiment of NVA overrunning this small band. He called Cpt. Nichols again and requested reinforcements and updated his casualty report. The captain was non-committal on the reinforcements but agreed to call in the medevac. However, it would not come until the next morning.
Mike ran through a mental check list for the night with Big Ben. They registered pre-planned artillery fires around their perimeter though the radio net, they positioned their single M60 machine gun, laid claymore mines in front of their lines and the men dug hasty fox holes. He checked the supply of ammunition, grenades and water and made each man take salt tablets. He helped the surviving medic tend to the wounded. The two administered morphine, inspected tourniquets and changed compression dressings. The work distracted him, for the moment, from the feeling of impending doom. There was little else they could do in the bush. The five dead soldiers were wrapped in their ponchos. One nineteen-year old soldier's head rolled out; the familiar face hadn't changed much except that it was absolutely fixed and still. This was the terrible sacrifice offered to the gods-dead teenagers.
When he stopped he was overcome with a feeling of profound fatigue and adrenalized anticipation. The NVA consisted of hardened combat veterans who studied and understood American tactics, and he suspected had his shrinking band of paratroopers in their sights. The days of the amateur Viet Cong had disappeared a year ago during the Tet offensive. This was the NVA varsity. Suddenly his reveries stopped. The jungle became completely quiet and then he heard whistles and shouting followed by automatic rifle fire and the explosion of hand grenades. The fight was on.
"Hold your weapons fire, "Mike whispered to a squad leader next to him and the order was passed down the line. He took the radio phone from his RTO and called in the pre-planned artillery fire mission. Rounds quickly whistled into the jungle in front of his position illuminating the night with explosions, parachute flairs, and then fires. He heard screams and saw strange faces but only for seconds in the explosions and the light of the flairs. Whistles blew again and the remaining soldiers charged.
"Fire," Mike shouted at the top of his lungs.
A wall of fire was unleashed from his position from M16 automatic rifles, grenades and the M60 machine gun. An M79 grenade launcher also fired volleys of grenades. Then claymore mines exploded releasing hundreds of ball bearings into screaming flesh as the lead elements of the attack reached the outer perimeter. The attack wavered and then retreated, it was over.
"Cease fire," he ordered thus concluding the first small battle he had ever lead. He checked with Sgt. Tenata for casualties, thankfully there were none. His heart raced and he felt the most intense stimulation of his life. For a few seconds he could hardly move his adrenalized body and then slowly the engine cooled. He was slightly ashamed that something so violent, and so destructive could be so exciting.
Brigadier General Gus Whalen was sitting in his large office in front of a polished mahogany desk highlighted by a red flag with a single prominent white star. The floor was carpeted and the air conditioner maintained a constant temperature of sixty-nine degrees. Several comfortable imitation leather chairs were positioned in a circle in front of the desk, but few of their recent occupants derived any comfort from them. General Whalen was the corps chief of staff whose job was to execute General Wacker's every wish, that is to be the bad guy. A general officer was a kind of deity in the army surrounded by a legion of aides and sycophants. The general had recently made the extremely competitive promotion to brigadier general, after a career as an ambitious climber who had punched all of the right career tickets. He had climbed from platoon leader to company commander, to battalion to brigade commander. His portfolio contained just the right mix of military schools and staff assignments. A military talent agent couldn't have done it better. His climb was unlike General Wacker's, a true warrior, who had stumbled into a succession of bloody wars. This was General Whalen's first and only war, and he didn't plan to waste it.
An aide announced General Wacker and General Whalen sprang to attention. "Sit down Gus, we need to talk" said General Wacker. They moved to the ring of seats in front of the desk. "Gus, you have anything to quench the thirst?" General Whalen reached into the large drawer of the desk and pulled out a fifth of Jack Daniels and two glasses.
"Neat, right sir?"
"That sounds good, Gus."
Burt Wacker had grown up in the hard drinking, hard working world of the Great Depression, followed by the Second World War. In between he had attended West Point just in time to join the big fight in Europe. While still feeling the afterglow of victory, in 1950 he was sent to Korea as a battalion commander. There he experienced unremitting combat in a cold and forgotten place. He didn't need to wear his many combat ribbons, the wars were etched into the deep crevices of his face. The whiskey slightly burned as it slid down a well-worn path in his esophagus.
"Gus, I just met with Creighton Abrams, who had a meeting with Nixon and Kissinger last week." Abrams and Wacker were very much of the same vintage and the same wars.
"Interesting, sir, may I ask what he said?"
"Not good. Nixon thinks the war is hopeless. Kissinger says President Thieu is totally obsessed with expanding his power base and marginalizing Nguyen Ky and his allies. The South Vietnamese Army is just a vehicle to secure his power. The North Vietnamese are a distraction from the real war against his political enemies. He assumes we'll take care of the NVA. The system of government is corruption. He's just better at it than some of the many generals who have led juntas over the last decade, since the assassination of Diem."
"Well where do we 540,000 Americans go from here? What's his plan for us?"
"Nixon is really feeling the heat from the anti-war movement. Tet changed the game last year and the press is now recording every American casualty on TV. We know that Tet was a fucking disaster for the NVA, but Americans don't. We never should have let these press bastards into the country. Nixon also has other things on his plate and wants to get out in the worst way. He just can't face a communist victory. There's the rub, Nixon just wants to leave this whore house with his suit pants still pressed."
"But what are our marching orders?"
"We're supposed to hunker down, avoid casualties, and pass the torch to our Vietnamese allies. To move things along Nixon plans to bludgeon the Vietnamese with airstrikes in the north and Cambodia to get them to the peace table. He's convinced Ho will cave."
"But that's not what Washington is saying publicly."
"Of course not, the public version of this is that everything is just fine, so good that we're turning the show over to South Vietnam. Nixon hopes to have a couple of quiet years after we leave before the sand castle collapses."
"It would all be ok except that our troops our still dying out there in the bush."
"Well, Gus, I'll tell you what, this soldier ain't gonna play dead. We're going to keep killing gooks until they carry me out in a box."
"I'll bet Creighton isn't happy."
"He's apoplectic, and remember his every move is being micromanaged by those superior beings in Washington that got us into the shit hole in the first place."
"Another thing Gus, our intelligence has been shit. We're going through the motions with no actionable intelligence. We've got no more idea where the NVA is than the man on the moon. Bombing and spraying the jungle forever just doesn't cut it and I'm tired of playing whack a mole. We've got to find some gooks and kill 'em. Basham and his intel outfit are a joke."
"Yes sir, I will address this immediately" said General Whalen.
With that General Wacker got up and left to plan the next move in a game with no objective other than to end the game.
Adam sat down with a new prisoner, a small man who had undergone a traumatic amputation of his right arm and leg from a mortar explosion. He was an officer according to his information card, although he had no rank insignia on his uniform.
"Where did you learn to speak English, Mr. Trong?'
"The same place you didn't learn to speak Vietnamese" quipped the prisoner.
"Again where did you learn English?"
"I took my degree at the Hanoi University of Education where I studied English, Mandarin Chinese, and French, all the languages of our oppressors."
"Did you teach?"
"I taught foreign languages at the Chu Van An High School for several years. In 1967 I left to fight for unification. Both schools have a long history of struggle against colonial occupiers like America."
"May I ask why you and your comrades are in South Vietnam which is a sovereign country and far from your home?"
"I would ask why are you Americans in South Vietnam. At least I speak the language and understand our history. And by the way you are much farther from your home."
"We are here to help the Vietnamese people establish a democracy and economic prosperity. President Nixon offered to rebuild the north if you would withdraw." Mr. Trong feigned coughing.
"Are you serious? Do you think the last twenty years of government by generals has been a democracy? You are here to control and exploit us. Your mistake is that you thought it would be easy. First a few advisors, then bombers, then ground troops and now everything. You're leaving because you've failed. All of the troops and firepower from America haven't made us budge. Most of you don't even know why you're here." Mr. Trong was now the interrogator.
Adam paused. Here was an articulate double amputee with absolutely no regret or self -pity debating the US war effort. Didn't he have something better to do like suffer from his wounds? Adam was slightly angry and defensive. It wasn't that Trong was entirely right, the roots of the conflict were extremely complex and the NVA were anything but good guys. In fact, their government was a rigid Stalin inspired dictatorship, responsible for countless atrocities. But there was enough truth to what he said to make Adam uncomfortable and he knew he needed to back off the interrogation. He was losing his objectivity. He walked to another area of the ward and sat down at a small writing desk to stew.
A pretty twenty-something female officer approached him. "'Hi I'm Katie Dolan. I'm an RN on this unit."
He looked up and there in this sea of olive green was an angel. Her hair was an understated red, set in a bun. Freckles were joined by the most intense blue eyes he could imagine. A smile completed the tableaux. Was this a dream, Venus in jungle fatigues?
"I'm Adam Nussbaum from the intelligence detachment. I've been interrogating Mr. Trong. Tough rock to crack. "
"I know, I've only been assigned to this unit for three days. They're not like any patients I ever cared for in the states. They come in here with the most horrible wounds and act like they could care less whether they live or die. They want no contact with the medical staff, even if they speak English, like Mr. Trong."
"I'm going to be talking with Mr. Trong some more in the coming days. He actually talked, well, actually delivered a political speech. That's a lot more than I usually get, and he gave it in English."
"I think I know exactly what you mean. Even though they don't say much there's a lot going on in their war-ravaged souls. Sounds like your English speaking patient gave you a glimpse into the interior. Good luck getting more out of him. I've gotta get on, nice to meet you." And with that Katie walked to another bed. The apparition vanished as quickly as it had appeared and Adam sat slightly dazed, with the first positive surge of emotion since he had come "in country." The gods were playing with him.
Major Tanaka sank into his swivel chair after a full breakfast, anticipating the mundane job of approving supply requisitions, the sexually transmitted disease report, the sick call roster and other easily forgettable bureaucratic bread crumbs of the unit's stay in Vietnam. The job was predictable and totally inconsequential, which brought him great comfort. Predictable was good, but this morning was different.
Bernie Rodgers knocked on the door.
"What do you need Specialist?"
"Sorry to bother you, sir, but would you be able to speak with Private Grady Davis, he says it's personal and very important."
"Sure send him in" said the major, not sure what he was getting into.
Grady Davis entered the office straight from an oil change on a two-and- a- half ton truck. His hair was slicked back, probably with forty weight oil from the last oil change. He was missing two incisor teeth on the lower jaw. His uniform and boots were filthy with dirt and oil stains to which he was oblivious.
"What's up private?" asked the major
"Sir I would like to get married to a Vietnamese girl," he said, beaming proudly.
"Who is she?"
"Her name is Huong and I met her around the motor pool, and I love her."
"Well, why was she around the motor pool?"
"She's a shit burner. We really hit it off and I want to marry her." A shit burner played an important role on the base. Each morning a regiment of Vietnamese women entered the base to clean the hooches and burn the human excrement from the outdoor privies, aided by oceans of diesel fuel. No one knew whether they had been vetted or whether they constituted an NVA sapper team planning the next attack inside the wire. It seemed like a small risk to take to get clean rooms, washed uniforms and the shit burned.
The major shuddered in his swivel chair, this time while awake. Military regulations were strict and paternalistic in Vietnam and required the blessing of the commanding officer for marriage to a Vietnamese national.
"Does she speak English or do you speak Vietnamese? Do you even know her last name? Have you met her parents?"
"Well, no, but we both kind of understand each other and we want to get married. I'll get her last name before we get married."
"Have you met her family or talked to them or your family about this?"
"No, but Huong says her mother is A-OK with a wedding and her mother's all she's got. My folks are dead-killed in a car crash when I was a kid. I've got an older brother but he would want my happiness."
The major paused and tried to imagine Huong, the shit burner, with her betel leaf black stained teeth, no English, and for now no last name, in rural Alabama. He personally liked Grady a lot. The motor pool was a key activity in the unit and Grady worked twelve hour days to keep the vehicles on the road. His innocence and excitement about the whole thing touched him, and who knew if such a union might fly. However, this was clearly not in the Army playbook and he had to attempt to delay the game.
"Private, this is a very big decision. I hear and respect your request. Let's think about it now and we'll talk some more. A lot of things would have to be done before you get married. For now, figure out if you can really communicate with a girl who doesn't speak English. Is she really the right girl for you or is this an impulse move?" Grady got up and shuffled off to the motor pool, a little dejected.
First Lieutenant Joshua Christiansen dragged a large duffel bag into the headquarters, causing Bernie Rogers to look up from his desk.
"May I help you, Sir?"
"Thank you, specialist, I am Lt. Christiansen reporting for duty. I would like to meet the commanding officer."
"Sorry sir, LTC Basham is on an intelligence coordination visit to Saigon. Second in command, Major Tanaka might be available." A minute later Lt. Christiansen was saluting Major Tanaka.
"Welcome to the detachment Lieutenant, please have a seat" said the major as he surveyed the new guest. He couldn't help noticing a completely shaved head, a heavily starched jungle fatigue uniform and highly polished boot tips. The jungle uniform had been designed not to be starched and the boots not to be polished. He also felt a very intense gaze through ultra -thick glasses, made more prominent by the bald scalp.
"Tell me a little about yourself."
"Yes sir, I was raised in St. George, Utah and attended Brigham Young University where I was the student brigade commander. I was on the college marksmanship team and tried to go into the infantry, but was disqualified because of myopic vision. I thought that was unfair since I was a good shot with glasses. I graduated first in my class from the army intelligence school interrogation course and was assigned to this unit, to run the interrogation section. I am so grateful to join this war; I was afraid I was going to miss it."
At that moment the major saw Adam in the outside office and invited him in. The contrast was so dramatic it could have sparked lightening. Adam's hair had not been cut for three or four weeks or maybe never, he wore a wrinkled fatigue uniform and his boots were covered with geological layers of Asian earth. He slouched in front of the officers as he introduced himself.
"Sir, I'm Adam Nussbaum in the interrogation section."
"Specialist, I am Lt. Joshua Christiansen and I will be commanding the interrogation unit. I would like to sit down with you and review your job description in the next several days. I understand you are the only member of the section."
"Yes sir that's true and I look forward to briefing you."
"Again, nice to meet you Specialist and very nice to meet you, Major." With that the lieutenant saluted, did a sharp about face and left the office with Adam. The major let out a long sigh. A unique aspect of the war was that replacements were continually coming into units to serve their mandatory year as others left. Thus the human chemistry of units was constantly changing, a revolving door. The intelligence detachment was a unique family and the lieutenant didn't seem to be from the right blood line. He suspected this was not the last he would hear about this enthusiastic young man.
The troops were milling around the barbecue pit as Chef Tanaka once again produced the "miracle of plantation cooking," compliments of Sergeant Westbrook who had scoured the province, much in the tradition of William Tecumseh Sherman in the Carolinas. Bull was present for a rare Vietnam War appearance and various officers formed concentric circles around him based on levels of self-interest. Lieutenant Christensen appeared once again, resplendent in his starched field uniform, including a forty-five caliber pistol. He approached Bull, sharply saluted and said:
"Sir, we haven't met. I'm Lieutenant Joshua Christensen and I've just reported to your unit for duty."
Bull surveyed the new officer through a cloud of Dutch Master smoke while holding a newly popped Budweiser. "I understand you're taking over the Interrogation Section. Did you just finish the course at Fort Holabird?"
"Yes sir, I finished four weeks ago. I may be blowing my own horn, but I was the honor graduate. I already have some ideas for improving our intelligence product and kicking the section up a couple of notches."
"Have you met Adam Nussbaum who comprises your section?"
"Yes sir, I met Specialist Nussbaum earlier when I met Major Tanaka. I plan to meet with him tomorrow to review the interrogation operation."
"Son, I sense your enthusiasm, but I would take it slow until you get the lay of the land. Adam is very bright, but a draftee, as are many of the men in the unit. This outfit is a long way from the regular army and requires special handling."
"Thanks for the advice sir, which of course I will follow."
Several yards from that conversation and slightly out of earshot, Adam said to Peter Savory: "I wonder if he wears that pistol all the time just in case he needs to shoot himself. If he gets to that point, I hope he has his glasses on."
"He is slightly overdressed for the occasion" observed Peter. "But Adam, be careful, this guy could bring you some real grief. You just need to roll with the punches."
On that note the evening rocket belt delivered its regular serenade of incoming rockets from the NVA, heard exploding on distant parts of the giant base. The old hands slowly marched to their hooches to grab flak jackets and rifles and spend the rest of the evening in the bunkers. This all played out in slow motion with no sense of urgency, with one exception. Lieutenant Christensen ran back to his quarters and bounded back with a full combat kit including a gas mask. His perpetual 45 caliber pistol was matched by an M16 rifle and a bayonet in a scabbard.
Adam and Peter stared at this new addition. "No flame thrower, I feel unprotected." said Adam. Peter smiled wryly and slowly marched to do his duty.
Mike Dempsey wearily dismounted from the Huey helicopter after three weeks in the bush. Miraculously he was still alive but half of his platoon was dead or wounded. He had had only a few hours of sleep, a few cans of C-rations, salt tablets, malaria pills and lots of water. He had lost 20 pounds in two weeks. After the initial attack on the LZ, the company had encountered only skirmishes and there were no additional casualties.
Captain Dick Nichols, his company commander, slowly walked up to him. Dick had graduated from Officer Candidate School (OCS) after high school and was into his second tour in Vietnam. War was his business and business was good. He was a professional soldier in the best sense. He never questioned his orders and tried to take care of his men. Like Big Ben he was a centurion.
"How is your platoon doing Mike?"
"The men are pretty low right now. We went through a rough patch".
"Mike you did good. Welcome to the Nam." said the captain.
That was it. What could you say after three weeks in hell with half your platoon gone. No ball scores, no family pictures, no vacation memories, just "welcome to the Nam." The reward for a good day's work in this company was to be alive for another day.
Big Ben approached Mike and joined him on the grass.
"Sir we've already gotten replacements and our squad leaders have started squaring them away. You know some of the NCO's don't even try to learn the names of the "new meats" until a few weeks on station. The new guys have a way of getting wounded and killed soon after arrival."
"Good we've got to get ourselves back together before our next mission. Thank you. By the way I understand you're from Kauai. How did you end up in the army in Nam?"
"I don't know. High school, then not much to do. There's just one highway around the island. Kauai looks like paradise to tourists but there aren't many jobs and it gets pretty boring. Whatever you say about Vietnam, it's not boring. Plus, I really like the troops and the excitement. It's my second loop through the neighborhood. How about you, Sir?"
"I came from a small coal town in Western Pennsylvania. My father died of lung cancer - maybe from the mines and maybe from smoking. My mom held all four of us kids together. She was a Catholic saint. I played football, which after the church was the second and in some quarters the first religion in town. It gave me my only shot at moving on and out. With some help I got appointed to West Point. A lot of people were proud of me, the hometown boy for that and here I am. This is the first payment on my student loan."
"Is this what you expected?"
"Honestly, Sergeant I didn't know what to expect. I had a lot of summer military training and went through Ranger and Airborne schools, then two years of garrison duty, but nothing prepares you for teenagers being blown apart. Maybe I thought this would be like a football game with guns, I'm not sure."
"Sir, my advice: keep your head down and take it one day at a time. It will work itself out. I'm going to go check on the men."
Mike dragged his gear back to the hooch and took a hot shower. He stood there for 20 minutes as the water ran over him. Nothing like a tour in hell to remind you of the elemental pleasures. He then lay down in his olive drab underwear and slept for two hours on a GI cot, which was just perfect after the last two weeks.
When he woke up he decided to write a letter to a girl he had dated at Fort Bragg named Rachel. What was there to say? If he really laid out things in the raw, she would assume he'd come back in a box and run for the hills. He couldn't ask for a date since his dance card was filled for the next eleven months. Why write at all? He needed to make some kind of connection to another human not wearing green. He wrote a paragraph but then wadded the letter up. For the first time in years, he cried. He just couldn't think of anything to say that a civilian would understand. Finally, he fell asleep again. He was really still just a kid, not a superman like the sergeant.
Adam was at the hospital staring at Mr. Trong, who was asleep, snoring. How could he crack this nut and get some intelligence?
"Hi Adam, how's it going?" Katie asked, approaching and elevating him to a new energy level.
"I guess ok, we just got a new replacement officer who couldn't get into the Wehrmacht because World War II was over so he signed up for this one. I'm getting some very bad vibes."
Just at that moment they were interrupted by, "Specialist Nussbaum?" He looked up and there was his new tormentor, the lieutenant. Adam jumped to attention.
"Sir, let me introduce Lieutenant Katie Dolan who is one of the RNs on this unit. She cares for many of the prisoners we interrogate."
"Nice to meet you, Lieutenant. How long have you been in country?"
"Only two months" said Katie cautiously, and then, "if you gentlemen will excuse me I have to take care of some patients."
"Specialist could you give me a little overview of what goes on here."
"Yes Sir. The prisoners are brought to the unit after being stabilized in the OR or in the intensive care unit. When I receive a medical OK, I begin the interrogation with a Vietnamese translator. Their possessions are all catalogued and examined and documents are translated. I then prepare a report that is sent through LTC Basham to the corps intelligence officer."
"What kind of results are you getting?"
"To be honest Lieutenant, almost nothing of value. The prisoners, many of whom are women, are very tough, rarely speak, and almost never provide actionable intelligence."
"Why can't you start the interrogation immediately after they arrive on the unit?"
"Well they're often medically unstable and in intense pain, getting morphine. I don't know how useful their information would be at that point."
"Do you interrogate them at the bedside or are they taken to another area to be isolated from the medical staff?"
"Sir we almost always interrogate them here."
They walked through the unit and drew stares from other medical personnel on the ward. Lieutenant Christensen was a source of wonderment. They had never seen a starched field uniform, not to mention a web belt with a shined 45 caliber pistol holster. They had however seen many real soldiers from the bush and they didn't look anything like this. The lieutenant had the appearance of the leader of an ROTC drill team. All he needed to complete the picture was a chrome helmet. After a very long hour he parted the unit with this final admonition:
"Specialist, it is customary to salute a commissioned officer on his departure. And furthermore, your uniform is disgusting and you need a haircut."
"Yes Sir" said Adam, saluting. The lieutenant marched briskly out of the area Adam stood there for a minute in silence when a roar of laughter emerged from the nurses and technicians who had just witnessed an excellent and unexpected entertainment.
Katie returned and said "Adam I guess you should salute me too as I walk by. Sorry, but I had to say that."
"What did I do to offend the gods. I guess we should feel lucky, he could have slapped one of the prisoners for allowing themselves to be captured."
"Maybe we should make an animal sacrifice to appease the gods" said Katie.
"I think you can save the animal , I am the sacrifice. Katie or should I say lieutenant, I know this seems like a big joke, but this is the army and people like that can do great evil. I've got to figure this out and remember I work for this character". He had a sinking feeling about his new boss.
Grady Davis and Leroy Jones were about to explode with anticipation. Every soldier in Vietnam was allowed one week of rest and relaxation (R&R) complements of the US government and they were about to get theirs.
"What are you men doing here this morning?" asked Major Tanaka in as official a voice as he could muster.
"R&R sir, we're going to Hong Kong." Blurted Grady.
"Hong Kong, son, I thought you were getting ready to marry the Vietnamese lady. Aren't you saving your money?"
"It won't cost us much to get married, and Leroy and I have been saving our script since we got here. Between us we've got one thousand bucks" proudly proclaimed Grady! Soldiers in Vietnam received what looked like monopoly money called MPCs ( Military Payment Certificates) in place of US dollars. This was to discourage currency manipulation on the black market. The two men had stuffed all their script into their pillow cases for six months and they were now ready to live large.
The major pondered all of this. He had never met two more genuinely happy, carefree and clueless souls in his entire life and the detachment was very lucky to have them. They were the least educated and the hardest working troops around. But he felt like fifth graders were being sent on a school trip to a town composed of hookers, con artists and thieves. But then should he protect them by keeping them in a war zone composed of murderers for their safety?
"Listen men, I hope you have a great time in Hong Kong, but be careful. There are a lot of people who would like to separate you from your money and maybe everything else. Look sharp and keep your eyes wide open." He couldn't think of anything else to say. A GI truck pulled up filled with other clueless fifth graders to carry them to a new world of wonder. Little did he imagine that clueless was so much the operative word.
Lieutenant Christensen glared at Adam as he tried to tease information out of a small wiry Vietnamese man in a tent near the prisoner medical unit. A new translator sat next to Adam and slowly relayed the prisoner's words in English. The prisoner had shrapnel wounds from an artillery round, which had penetrated his chest and abdomen. Two chest tubes drained into vacuum bottles and there were abdominal drains as well as a gastric feeding tube.
"What is your name?" asked Adam.
"What was your unit?"
"I can't remember. I lost my memory with the explosion."
"Where is your home? Is it in North Vietnam?"
"I can't remember."
The lieutenant was squirming in his chair in the corner of the tent as the interrogation continued its slow trajectory. His face became more contorted with each answer. The kettle was boiling. Finally, he jumped up from his folding chair, and grabbed the small prisoner by his pajama top and in the process pulled on the chest tubes and IV tubing. The prisoner screamed as the lieutenant ripped the 45 caliber pistol from its holster:
"You, son of a bitch, tell us what we're asking or you're going to sit in this tent and rot. No medicine, no nurses, no doctors, no feedings. And if you still won't talk, I'm going to put one of these rounds into your leg. Get it?"
The translator was stunned but slowly translated. An expression of horror and surprise appeared on the man's face as he winced in pain from the assault.
Adam leaped from his chair and said, "Sir, you just can't do this. This man has rights. There's the Geneva Convention."
"Specialist let's step outside."
They both walked outside the tent and faced each other in the manner of duelists, except only one carried a pistol.
"Stand at attention, specialist."
Adam snapped to hyper-rigid attention as the sweat dripped from his forehead.
"Never, never question me in front of a prisoner. It completely breaks down the momentum of the interrogation. Nothing says you can't create the threat of all kinds of bad things with a prisoner. The Geneva Convention prohibits carrying through on the threat. You understand, specialist?"
"Yes, sir," said Adam reluctantly as he thought that's not what the Geneva Convention said at all.
"Specialist, if you don't want to work in the interrogation unit, I'm sure I could arrange to have you reassigned to a unit with a little more hands on exposure to the war. Infantry units are always looking for college graduates to place on point." Little could Adam imagine how prophetic this was.
"Yes, sir," said Adam still standing at attention.
"I'm going to excuse you from this interrogation, which I will finish, and I want you to reflect on what just happened."
Adam saluted and walked back to the prisoner unit and the lieutenant returned to the interrogation tent. He saw Katie with a patient as he walked through the ward.
"What's wrong, Adam?"
"I just had my butt reamed by the good lieutenant and in the process saw the face of evil, but otherwise it's been a good day."
"In the midst of the usual non-productive interrogation, Christensen went nuts and threatened to withhold medical care and nutrition if the man didn't talk. He then pulled out his 45 pistol and threatened to shoot him in the leg. I complained and he took me outside the tent and screamed about having me reassigned to the bush, if I didn't get on board. He took over the interrogation and for all I know the prisoner is on the rack by now. I really hate this man, it's not a joke anymore."
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," said Adam shaking his head. "Maybe I'll go to Bull or maybe I'll go to the Inspector General or maybe I'll do nothing. The problem is that there's no one on my side in this game."
"I guess I could tell the Head Nurse or one of the doctors, since there was a threat to remove medical care."
"Thanks, Katie, I appreciate that, but not right now. That would bring in separate commands, and escalate the whole thing into a nuclear war that I'm not sure I'd win."
"Look my shift is over. Let me sign out to the next nurse, and we'll have a little happy hour and we can all sing the blues?"
"That sounds like my best offer today."
They walked over to the hooch area where doctors, nurses and technicians were standing around a large beer tub. Adam popped two beers and said: "Here's to many happy interrogations."
"To happy interrogations" replied Katie.
Adam slumped into a deck chair and began to feel a little more mellow. The rage meter had crept down to a "moderate hate" reading.
"You know, Adam, be careful, I think he's just trying to bate you into an ambush. He's not going to get any more out of these prisoners than you. After all they're willing to walk through artillery fire. Do you think the threat to cut off their health insurance is going to cause them to fold? They don't even want our medical care. Trust me I provide it."
He was starting to get a very mild buzz from the beer, and this beautiful woman made him feel a lot better. "You know, Katie, I should really disguise myself here. If the lieutenant discovered I was socializing with officers, I could face a firing squad."
"Don't worry, Adam, none of the doctors here ever tried to get into the infantry." She gently squeezed Adam's hand. That felt good, real good.
Bernie Rogers was intently reading the Vietnam Stars and Stripes newspaper which had a front page picture of the Saturn V rocket on its forty-meter crawler.
"Major did you see this? The Saturn V is scheduled to launch three astronauts to the moon on July 16th. Can you believe it? We're Here in the Nam and astronauts are going to the moon. I wonder if they'll be able to see us."
"Amazing! Will the launch be on Armed Forces Television? We could organize a moon party for the detachment. Maybe signal them from the plantation," said the major.
The conversation was interrupted as two MP's pulled up with Grady Davis and Leroy Jones in handcuffs. They had been absent for a week past their scheduled return.
"What's all this?" asked Major Tanaka.
"Sir, these two men were found unconscious and buck naked in a seedy hotel room in Kowloon with no identification and no money. When they came around, the shore patrol figured they were GI's on R&R, and after many cups of coffee, the men remembered their unit. So here they are."
"Men, this is serious. What did you do in Hong Kong?" asked the major.
"Sir, we can't remember anything that happened," Sheepishly replied Grady.
"Well do you have anything like souvenirs to show that you were in Hong Kong?"
"There's one thing," volunteered Leroy as he pulled a set of chopsticks from his pocket.
"Chopsticks! That's it. Really?"
The senior MP said, "Sir, we're going to hand them over to you and not press charges. It's up to you to take care of this. Could you sign for them?"
The major signed several papers and the MP's could be seen laughing on their way to the jeep. The two soldiers stood at rigid attention in front of Major Tanaka.
"For now I want you both to return to the motor pool and do your jobs. One of the jeeps broke down while you were AWOL. You men are dismissed."
The major then walked down to the dirt field next to the intel hut. Bull was standing with SFC Westbrook as a massive Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter slowly lowered a completely assembled golf driving net onto the field. This was clearly the piece de resistance for Sergeant Westbrook, master forager.
"The Sergeant procured this down in the delta of all places and arranged to have the helicopter deliver it. He has offered to build a putting green with artificial turf next to the net. This will go a long way toward maintaining my golfing skills while in-country," said Bull. Major Tanaka watched and listened in amazement. Slowly but surely Bull was building a wartime resort on the plantation. And thank goodness his golfing skills wouldn't decay.
"Sir, we've got a problem," said the major.
"What else is new. I've got a lot of problems. The corps G2 just chewed my ass out over the quality of our operation and threatened to fire me." The threat had obviously only mildly dented Bull's enthusiasm for golf.
"Well sir, the MP's just delivered Grady and Leroy in handcuffs. They were found buck naked in Hong Kong with no ID or money. They blew a thousand bucks, and they don't remember anything. All they have to show for the trip are two chopsticks."
Bull thundered with laughter. "You're kidding, you made that up, right?"
"Sir, could I make that up?"
"Good point. Sounds like they had a great vacation to me."
"But now what do we do with them? Press charges? firing squad? Article 15 or nothing," asked the major? An Article 15 was an administrative punishment short of a court martial which usually resulted in a fine.
"That's easy," said Bull. "We don't do anything other than scare the shit out of them and let them fix the jeeps. They're too valuable to lock up in the Long Binh Jail and an Article 15 wouldn't accomplish anything." With that Solomon had spoken and both returned to their places of duty: the major to start the evening barbecue and Bull to confer with his golf resort consultant.
Major Tanaka jumped to attention and commanded "attention the commanding officer." It was a historical moment - the first and only officer's call ever held by the detachment.
Bull rolled into the room with his best impersonation of Douglas MacArthur.
"At ease gentlemen, we've got a problem. I've just had my ass reamed by the corps intelligence officer, who had just faced the wrath of General Whalen about the poor quality of our intelligence work. They feel we're just going through the motions, and they want something solid to build an operation around. I need your help; we've got to produce something."
Peter Savory considered Bull's example for the moment, the Jack Nicholson combat golf skills camp, the Christmas tree farm, and of course leisurely hours at the Hotel Majestic in Saigon. Talk about a commander who leads from the front. Now he wants intelligence. He figured for once General Whalen had Bull sized up about right.
Two days later Peter was in the imagery interpretation hut with the aroma of burning film in his nostrils, as he mechanically started reviewing rolls of film taken from an RF4B reconnaissance jet flying in repetitive sectors over an area called the Parrot's Beak. This was the part of Vietnam where Cambodia protrudes into the country about 40 miles north-west of Saigon. The Cambodian part was an assembly area for the NVA and was outside of the operational combat area allowed for American or ARVN forces. It was the final "off ramp" for the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia. Aerial surveillance always showed extensive military activities with no attempt at concealment on the Cambodian side.
Peter was drawn to an area inside the Parrot's Beak where he saw, through the stereoscopic viewing system, four Russian Zil trucks parked next to a dirt trail with palates of equipment next to the trucks.
"Jamie, I think we've got something here. Those look like Russian trucks. I assume they came down the trail."
Jamie agreed. Peter felt excitement, a little like a detective who has discovered a new lead in a cold case. He hurried to the detachment headquarters to share the findings with Bull, but was told that the commanding officer was in Saigon on a separate reconnaissance. The major was also unavailable, and Peter decided on the spot to take the films directly to the corps intelligence headquarters, since the finding was time dependent.
A major in the headquarters was more than eager to review the intelligence. General Whalen's terror had grabbed everyone's attention. The officer said he would order an OV-1 Mohawk aircraft with a side looking airborne radar (SLAR) that night. This could detect vehicle and human movement in the dark. Peter also called Jamie and laid on a visual aerial surveillance mission the next day to get further corroboration. He felt good as his jeep rolled by the intel headquarters several hours later where he saw Bull's jeep. He jumped out to share the good news.
"Colonel Basham, sir. We found some NVA trucks in the Parrot's Beak on the Vietnam side. I have never seen trucks in Vietnam." He anticipated warm applause, but immediately saw the wrong body language from Bull.
"May I see the films, Peter?"
"Sir, I already took them to the corps G2, and they are going to set up a SLAR mission tonight to confirm the activity. I also set up a surveillance flight with Jamie for tomorrow. I came by the headquarters, but you and the major were unavailable, and I thought this was time sensitive."
"Damn it, captain, I always want to know when there is significant new intelligence."
Peter pondered this. He guessed that Bull wanted to run to the corps headquarters and present the films as his own product. Unfortunately, Bull hadn't left the forwarding number of his mistress on the detachment bulletin board. "I'm sorry I disappointed you, sir."
Bull paused in deep thought. "You know what I'm going to do? I'll conduct my own aerial recon mission tomorrow. Tell WO Sailor to arrange for the Bird Dog at 0900 hours".
"I don't think that's a good idea, sir. You are the commander; you shouldn't put yourself in danger." It was hopeless. The more Bull talked the more energized he became. The gleam in his eye became intense. The hound had the scent of the fox. Peter excused himself and walked to the intel hut where he saw Jamie.
"Bull wants to fly a recon mission tomorrow to check out the trucks. Could you set it up?"
"Sure" said Jamie, "but I think it's a very bad idea." Little did they know just how bad.
It was an almost perfect morning as Jamie drove Bull to the airfield. He briefed the pilot on the coordinates of the finding. The night before the SLAR mission had detected "possible vehicular movement". Jamie handed Bull a pair of binoculars and a camera with a 400 mm telephoto lens.
The OH-1 Bird Dog was the aerial equivalent of a Volkswagen beetle and could barely hold two passengers. Bull made the equivalent of three passengers. His generous size, greatly constrained his field of vision in the tight rear seat. The plane slowly made the commute to the Parrot's Beak at a leisurely eighty-five miles per hour ground speed. Initially the pilot didn't see any activity, and Bull ordered him to descend from the five-thousand-foot altitude, which made the slow, loud plane a succulent target for automatic weapons.
Several flashes appeared in the jungle, followed by the thumps of bullets hitting the plane's fuselage.
"Damn I'm hit! They shot me in the ass," Bull screamed. He looked down and bright red blood oozed around the seat, and started to drip on the floor.
"Sir, I'll return to Long Binh right now, and we'll get an ambulance at the airstrip."
"Hurry up, I'm really hurting! I'm bleeding! I'm going to die if you don't move!"
Fifteen minutes later the pilot smoothly landed the plane on the airstrip where an ambulance awaited. Three corpsman and the driver slowly raised Bull's massive body from the rear seat and carefully transferred it to the ambulance.
Jamie and the pilot carefully examined the plane and observed multiple AK47 rounds in the fuselage and wings, but the most significant finding was under the passenger seat where a round had shattered the large battery. Bull had been wounded by battery shrapnel which had penetrated the large target of his buttocks.
At the hospital, the colonel was attended by the hospital commander and the chief of surgery in deference to his rank. The surgeon patiently explained that Bull would be debrided under anesthesia. Under the glow of intravenous morphine his final request was that the injury be described as a "combat wound." He was already thinking of a Purple Heart decoration.
During the entire American Civil War not a single award was given for valor or service to any confederate officer or soldier in the Army of Northern Virginia. Robert E. Lee opined that the honor of service was sufficient recognition. In Vietnam decorations were lavished at a rate that approached all given in World War II. This occurred despite tours in theater of only twelve months for most servicemen. Awards disproportionately found their way to officers over enlisted men.
The awards were not limited to service in the bush. Many officers assigned to rear echelon headquarters, left Vietnam highly decorated. The key was proximity to an awards and decoration clerk. Bull saw to it that Bernie Rogers, the unit clerk, was his enthusiastic liaison and champion to the corps awards clerk and rapidly submitted a proposed citation with appropriate witness and medical attestations. In addition to the purple heart, Bernie submitted recommendations for an Air Medal, and the Bronze Star with V for valor. To help focus the mind of the awards clerk, Bernie supplied a case of Jack Daniels, which had been procured by the ever resourceful Sergeant Westbrook. He returned to the intel headquarters where he greeted Bull, who had been released from the hospital and was sitting in his office on a gel surgical donut thereby minimizing pressure on his sore battle wounds.
He then pushed Bull in an extra-large wheel chair to the back of the headquarters where the entire ARVN detachment was standing in formation surrounded by several American members of the detachment. Major Dung stood at attention in the front of the ceremony smiling. American and South Vietnam flags formed the backdrop. A Teac tape recorder was set up on a table with a long extension cord into the building and blared out the Star Spangled Banner and the South Vietnamese National Anthem, both played with appropriate background static. .
Major Dung then read a citation lifted from Bernie Rogers, extolling the colonel's heroism in the recent air battle. Achilles could not have asked for a more triumphal oration. The major then awarded Bull the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Vietnamese awards could be obtained much more rapidly than American decorations.
"It's amazing to consider the unexpected benefits that come from the humble battery," said Adam.
The colonel proudly wore the medal for the rest of the day, even while practicing his drive at the new golf driving net. It was quite a sight, Bull in jungle fatigues, Dutch Master cigar, Vietnamese cross of gallantry and a three wood driving the golf ball.
Adam was going through the motion of filling out prisoner reports at a small field table in the hospital ward. However, he was also watching Katie perform her rounds and hoping they would include him, which they eventually did.
"How are you soldier?"
"Better now that I've seen you, Lieutenant."
"I heard about your commander and his grievous war wounds. How is he recovering?"
"Milking it for all it's worth," said Adam. "Running the war from a gel donut. I'm surprised he didn't request stateside reassignment to participate in a war bond drive. Isn't that what most war heroes do? The colonel has a good nose for opportunity, and he knows it only knocks, well you know."
Just as he whispered the last sentence he jumped from his chair and stood at attention.
"Good morning, Lieutenant Dolan and Specialist Nussbaum. Sit down, please."
"Good morning, Sir."
"Specialist, I've made a proposal to Colonel Basham, which I understand has been approved by the corps headquarters."
"What's that, sir?"
"As you know there's been a lot of activity in the Parrot's Beak, and our commander was wounded conducting a reconnaissance."
"So I've heard, sir."
"The corps is planning an operation in that area with the 123rd Airborne Brigade next door, and I've proposed that the two of us join an infantry company to participate in the operation. This would give us a better feel for the NVA in the bush and also allow direct interrogation on the scene."
Adam had never been thrown off a twenty story building, but he suspected the feeling would be similar. Sweat broke out as he imagined not just this operation, but many in the future. His impulse was to blurt out that he hadn't signed up for this extra-curricular club activity, but he restrained himself.
"We'll pick up our combat issue this afternoon and report to the 123rd tomorrow for the operation. "
"Yes, Sir," Adam slowly said as he watched the lieutenant walk through the unit.
"Katie, do you have something that would induce uncontrolled vomiting. Can you believe what he just did? Is there anything that this guy can't fuck up?"
"Adam, just do it. Keep your head down and it will all work out. Lots of people go out into the bush and most of them return." Her hand briefly rested on his back. He felt a little better.
Adam surveyed his new web gear in his hooch. It was no longer a costume. He was going to be in a real war, and it scared the shit out of him. He pondered all of the ways one could die in the bush: rifle fire, mortar rounds, booby traps, friendly fire. None of the equipment would prevent that. He was now going into the big casino where the only law, was the law of averages.
"Lt. Dempsey, I'm Lt. Christensen from the intel unit and this is Specialist Nussbaum. We're attached to you for this operation." The introduction drew a long skeptical stare from the lieutenant and his entire platoon. Adam wasn't sure, but he thought there was some smirking in the back row of airborne soldiers waiting for the Huey. Both of the guests looked absolutely and transparently clueless. Adam at least understood this.
After a short but extremely stressful ride, the helicopter landed in a clearing that had been marked with smoke. The two house guests jumped out with their weapons and followed the platoon through the clearing. Adam was hit by a wave of heat, humidity, dust and insects.
Mike huddled with them along the wood line. "OK so the company is going to come together and move toward the Cambodian border, which is about five miles from here. You men keep your weapons on safety and stay behind Sergeant Tenata. Adam took his first of many sips of water from one of four canteens. He was so nervous, he fumbled opening the canteen top.
Lieutenant Christensen was still feeling the glow of Bull's warm reception to his proposal for the mission. He naturally presented it as the logical sequence to the colonel's now famous reconnaissance mission. He had achieved his dream to join the infantry, even if he was in no way an infantryman.
Big Ben came up to the pair and said, "Men just stay behind me and keep your eyes open. Keep your weapons locked on safety and do exactly what I tell you." He didn't ask them to hold each other's hand as they walked, but it was close.
Adam blurted out "Yes, sir" even though the sergeant was not an officer. It was pretty clear who the adult chaperones were on this camping trip. They stayed off the roads and trails to avoid mines and ambush positions. They hacked through the very dense bush with machetes. After several hours, Adam felt something wet on his neck. He almost freaked out. A five-inch leach engorged with blood was sunning itself. It had consumed so much of Adam's blood, that it could claim paternity. He quickly returned it to its biosphere. There was no talking as they dragged on with the patrol, just sweating and blood sucking.
Mike halted the column as it approached a village. He carefully inspected it for activity and then sent a squad to check it out. Adam saw only an ancient, withered Vietnamese lady in the village boiling water.
Big Ben turned to Lieutenant Christensen and said, "Lt Dempsey would like your team to search the village for documents or other intelligence. We have an interpreter with the squad who can help you."
The lieutenant was ecstatic at the invitation to actually perform a function on the team. Adam's impulse was to just wait in the car, but the Lieutenant turned and said, "Let's go, specialist and check out these gooks." He was exuberant; Adam checked to see that his M16 rifle was still on safety. He wanted to be certain not to accidentally shoot somebody.
They walked through the village following the lead squad. The infantryman searched the huts with meticulous attention to detail. This was their day job. The rest of the platoon stayed along the wood line crouched and watching like African cats for an attack. Adam recalled training films about booby traps and was determined to be cautious, having seen too many prisoners with traumatic amputations. In contrast Lieutenant Christensen bounded ahead and ordered the infantryman to search several hooches. They complied but the troops squirmed and smirked as they responded to this this poseur in an officer's uniform.
Adam was ordered with the translator to interview the old lady. He wondered if her chronological age matched her appearance which would put her just south of one hundred. Her skin was baked through with dirt, sun and ruts which twenty years ago were mere wrinkles. When she opened her mouth, there were no teeth, just muscular gums. The appearance spoke of a life of unrelieved poverty, always on the cusp of starvation and surrounded for thirty years by warring armies. There was only one system of government in this poor village: survival. This was clearly not the place to discuss geo-politics.
"I 'm Specialist Nussbaum. What is your name?" Adam asked.
After a pause with no answer, the woman continued to stare ahead with no eye contact.
"Are you VC? Where is everyone in the village? Where are the men? Have there been trucks around here?"
Again the questions drew silence with no eye contact. He shrugged and started to walk away from the old woman with the translator.
Twenty yards away an infantry private found a trap door underneath a steel plow. Mike and Big Ben quickly approached the discovery.
"Looks like the entrance to a tunnel complex," Said Big Ben. "We'll need to send some tunnel rats in there to scope it out."
Adam tried to imagine crawling through the dark, dirty and narrow tunnel wondering what would be around the next bend. The NVA extensively used tunnels for supply depots, rest and assembly areas, and field hospitals. Some American bases sat directly over these complexes. Two infantry privates immediately volunteered to take the tour and stripped down to their green GI underwear, with flashlight, canteens, forty-five caliber pistol and several hand grenades.
Mike was on the PRC-10 radio. "Six this is one. Have found a tunnel complex and am exploring. Sitrep will follow, over." He also sent a squad out from the village to explore the surrounding fields. Captain Nichols had ordered another platoon from the company to reinforce the village.
"We'll set up a perimeter here tonight so we can do a complete recon of the village." This was exactly what Adam didn't want to hear. He was hoping the school bus would return him from this great adventure in time for dinner at home and maybe a movie.
Adam was standing about twenty feet from the old woman, when he heard a loud boom and was knocked to the ground. A sudden stabbing pain shot through the deltoid muscle of his right arm and blood was soaking through his sleeve. The woman had set off a grenade, concealed in her clothing, blowing herself into the air and seriously injuring a young infantry soldier standing a few feet from her.
The wounded soldier was having a seizure as blood gushed from his carotid artery. For a minute, he frantically screamed, and then there was silence as he became unconscious and unresponsive. A medic applied a compression dressing, started an IV, and administered medicine for the seizure. At first there was a weak pulse and just obtainable blood pressure. A medevac helicopter was called in and panels were placed in an adjacent field to direct the chopper. However, a cascade of blood loss and organ failure rapidly led to his death. CPR was desperately attempted for about twenty minutes but was futile from the outset. The helicopter was cancelled and the young man was slowly, reverently placed in a body bag with his dog tags and paper work.
Big Ben shook his head. He just reported to us last week. I didn't even catch his name."
Adam stared at the scene, tears streamed down his face.
"The kid couldn't have been nineteen he repeated". Big Ben put his arm around Adam and said, "Son, you just bought a chopper ride back to the hospital to fix that arm." A black soldier ran up to Adam with a field medical dressing and began wrapping it around Adam's wound.
"High, I'm Kenyata Martin. This should take care of this until you get to the hospital.:
"Thanks, Kenyata," said Adam still crying. The two would shortly meet again under very different circumstances.
Mike also watched from a short distance as he reported the soldier's death on the radio to Captain Nichols. He inspected his platoon's firing positions. He had to prepare for the next act.
Adam's wound was debrided, and he was on the ward getting IV penicillin. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Lieutenant Christensen talking to Katie and was just able to hear the conversation.
"Lieutenant Dolan, may I call you Katie?" asked the lieutenant
"Sure, Joshua. You had a rough time in the bush I hear."
"Yea, and by the way call me Josh. An old Viet Cong woman blew herself up with a grenade, and Adam was slightly wounded. One of the infantry soldiers was killed. The place had just been vacated by the NVA; there was a tunnel complex underneath. It was all kind of exciting."
"Not for poor Adam, and not for that very sad young man," said Katie.
"Goes with the territory. I'm sorry for the soldier, but Nussbaum has a major attitude, this may be a wakeup call for him. He's not my favorite soldier."
"Don't you think you're being a little harsh?"
"Look, here's where I'm coming from. This war's not going so well and we're not going to win unless we get serious. A lot of draftees aren't serious, especially college draftees like Adam. If South Vietnam collapses, a lot might go down with it like the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand. I know a lot of people around here think I'm crazy, but I'm just trying to stay positive and help win the war. Many people here have other agendas, but that's mine."
"I see where you're coming from, Josh, maybe you just shouldn't try so hard."
"Maybe, but let me change the subject," Said Lieutenant Christensen nervously. "I wondered if you would join me for dinner at the Long Binh Chinese restaurant? They say the food is good, if you like Chinese."
Katie was amazed. Here they were in a war, and she was putting the blown apart human body parts back together, and this strange young man asks her for a date. He was the least attractive officer she had met in Vietnam and Adam's part-time torturer among other screen credits. Her face turned visibly red, highlighting the freckles, and she slightly squirmed.
"Josh, I'm honored, really honored by your invitation, but I have a fiancback in San Francisco, and I don't think that would be appropriate." Sometimes the truth could be stretched for a good cause. The tricky part was that she actually had some feeling for Adam. This might take real finesse to play.
"Well thank you for listening to me Katie. I just thought I'd try. If I may say so you are very nice."
"Thank you, Josh, now if you'll excuse me I need to take care of some patients." With that she once again spoke the truth.
She slowly worked her way down the row of beds performing her nursing duties. When she saw that the lieutenant had left the unit, she went up to Adam.
"You'll never believe what just happened."
"Actually I heard it using acoustic sensors. Lieutenant Josh asked you out on a date. How about that!"
"I didn't want to hurt his feelings, but that is something I could never do. There is a certain weirdness about him, quite apart from his comic appearance."
"I'll second that. I'm lying here because of his wild impulse to hit the bush. I don't understand why that old lady waited to pull the pin on the grenade; I could have been in the body bag. And the business of squeezing the prisoners and waving a gun to get more intel, that really bothers me. Again for the record I really hate and despise this guy."
"You know Katie, it's not every American girl who can have a date in an army jeep in a warzone" Adam smiled as they pulled up to the Loon Foon Chinese Restaurant in Long Binh. The parking lot was filled with other jeeps, each with identifying unit markers on the rear bumpers. It was as if teenagers at a hamburger joint had their home address on the back of their father's car for all to see and report.
Adam parked and walked around to open Katie's door.
"Thank you, sir"
"You don't need to sir me. Remember I'm a member of the enlisted estate." With that they both walked into the large expanse of the Loon Foon restaurant. A sea of green jungle fatigues drowned sex, age, make-up, and individuality. A wall of laughter and conversation hit them as they were escorted to a small booth by the wait staff. Eyes looked up from mountains of rice, shrimp, pork, and beer to note their presence and the disharmony of officer and enlisted socializing. On the other side of the restaurant, Adam caught a glimpse of Lieutenant Christensen, who was leaving with a group of officers, and he wondered if he had been seen. In the background Junior Walker was singing "What Does It Take to Win Your Love."
"You know, this is a small part of a giant adult entertainment complex owned by Madame Phuong, AKA the dragon lady. You remember the Dragon Lady from the comic strip Terry and the Pirates? Well the real femme fatale created an empire of bars, barbershops, steam baths and adult services throughout Vietnam, always with the support of an admiring South Vietnamese government. Last year she got permission to build a steam bath/massage parlor with about two hundred masseuses right here on the Long Binh post. She received the franchise thanks to various long term friends she had cultivated over the last decade." Adam was proud of that short course in Vietnamese popular history.
"This feels like another planet, a good planet. It's so great to escape all of those mutilated patients, and very sad prisoners at the hospital," said Katie.
"Just remember Katie, those sad prisoners are down here because they're trying to kill you and all your friends."
"And you remember Adam we're here in Vietnam because we're trying to kill them, and save them from something I can't even remember what."
"You're right. The war aims and grand strategy dissipates once you get in-country and just boils down to killing as many enemy as you can and surviving for a year. The particular problem of defining the enemy is a very tricky as we painfully learned on that last mission."
"Well enough with that, we'll settle the war and world peace later. What's up with you Katie? why are you here in the Nam?"
"Did that come from an interrogation sheet? My story. I grew up in Mill Valley in Marin County, went to Tamalpais High School and then nursing school at St. Mary's Hospital in San Francisco. My Dad is an orthopedic surgeon at Marin General Hospital and my Mother is a nurse who no longer practices. I have a younger brother at Stanford who wants to be a CPA. The family was appalled when I joined the army nurse program and got orders to Vietnam. It just didn't make sense to anybody who cared about me."
A waitress in a very short miniskirt brought out chopsticks and presented them to the coupe. Silverware was available only by special request. Two glasses of cabernet appeared as they talked. Adam paused and visually inhaled Katie. Despite the jungle fatigues, she had on makeup and lipstick, and her hair was pulled back in a cute bun, the perfect accent to her freckles. She would be a catch any place, but in the Nam she was Lt. Aphrodite.
"What's your story, Adam?"
"The usual: I'm the product of a normal dysfunctional and highly dysphoric New York Jewish family in Brooklyn. My dad is a divorce lawyer and my mother a realtor, who is much more successful than my dad. My sister graduated from City College as a social worker. She's married and has two children. Her hobby is demonstrating against the war, in fact I just got a letter from her today." Adam handed Katie the letter:
You don't know how hard it is for me to write this. It is so unfair that you were dragged out of NYU to fight this horrible war. I still don't understand why you didn't find a way to go 4F like your friends Scott and Aaron. But there it is, and now you are in the thick of it. None of my friends, like Miriam or Ruth understand what you're doing. You need to write me and tell me what you're doing. Is there something I'm missing?
When you were a little boy, I remember, that you didn't even want to play soldier with the other kids. You said "killing is bad,"as they got replica plastic automatic weapons and organized themselves into squads to defend their neighborhood. You were always in the library studying or practicing the piano or doing stuff that none of us wanted to do. Frankly, you were a bit of a nerd, actually a total nerd. You didn't even like Captain Kangaroo, Romper Room or Howdy Doody. Okay I'll spot you those shows. But how could you not like Captain Video and his Video Rangers? Frankly if you had learned to use the flying saucer ring, the electronic goggles, or the "secret ray gun," the Vietnam War would have ended long ago. This was an important part of your early education and you missed it.
Well, I want you to know I'm working hard on this end to stop the war and bring you home. Our apartment is filled with signs for a march this weekend. Protesting is not so easy with two kids and a bitching husband, but it's got to be done. I tell my friends that you were forced to go there against your will and that LBJ and Nixon are the criminals. But they don't buy it. They think you and the other soldiers are there by choice and could end it if you just refused to fight. They think you planned the war. I know it's more complicated than that. I'm no military strategist, but I think we just need to get the hell out of that place now! Again could you help me with this? Maybe Vietnam just needs some social workers to straighten things out.
On the home front, Mom and Dad are fighting every day, so I think everything is normal-completely screwed up, domestically speaking. Dad shares all the dysphoric stories of his divorce practice, maybe as a threat or maybe as a contrast for Mom. Neither of them ever say a word about Vietnam or about you. I think it's just too painful. It's like their son was sent to prison or something. Out of sight....
Adam, I think about you every day. Please keep your head down. All the medals in the world are not worth one extra second of your life. This letter may be a downer, but at least you know I'm thinking about you. Finally, I've enclosed a flying saucer ring to keep you safe. When you're in a bind, always ask yourself what would Captain Video do?
I love you.
"Get the picture. She is a direct product of the age of Aquarius." Adam put on his newly acquired flying saucer ring and flashed it.
"Your ring is magnificent, so what comes after Vietnam?"
"Good question. Work for a better world? Become a prophet in the desert? Go to law school? Maybe I'll become a video ranger after GI bill training. The Vietnam experience doesn't point to obvious vocational career paths, unlike your calling."
The waitress delivered egg rolls with soy sauce and another round of cabernet. Down that ancient and familiar path, the grape was starting to ease his pain, and for the first time in many weeks he felt relaxed and even happy.
"How are things back at the intel unit?"
"Well, our commander, who we'll just call Bull for Bull Winkle, is making the best of the war. He runs a Christmas tree business through the MARS radio station. He's even talking about starting a Christmas tree business in Saigon with trees imported from the central highlands. He claims he has business contacts in Saigon, but that's just where he meets his mistress at the Majestic Hotel. On one of those rare occasions when he returned to the unit, he had a golf driving net imported from the delta by helicopter to continue the golf experience in-country. He's a man with no self-doubt and amazing clarity of vision."
"He sounds just horrible," said Katie as she tasted her shrimp with broccoli.
"As long as you accept the complete amorality of his worldview, he almost makes sense. Bull doesn't stew about the mess he's landed in. He just tirelessly searches for opportunity and personal gain. There's no moral outrage, just opportunity and personal gain. I much prefer Bull, who is entirely predictable over my boss and true believer who currently terrorizes me."
The waitress brought out egg tarts and a third round of wine. The warm haze of alcohol was just causing Katie to slightly slur her speech.
Adam reached under the table and held Katie's hand. There was no resistance.
"You know I really like you," Adam blurted. "You're an unexpected treat in this desolate outpost. But are you a mirage?"
He paid the bill and they both left the Loon Foon holding hands for a romantic jeep ride back to the hospital. He parked near the female officer quarters and their passion fermented under a full moon.
Adam was slightly disinhibited by the wine and felt no reluctance to slip his arm around Katie in the jeep. If only it had an FM radio to belt out tunes. He leaned over for a long kiss on the lips and once again met no resistance, except from the large gear box in the center of the jeep. After a bit, he slowly rubbed her breasts through her jungle fatigue uniform and he sensed mild excitement on her part.
"You know, Adam, I think we should stop for tonight. I've really had a wonderful time and would like to get together some more."
Adam sat up and said.
"Katie, I'm happy. Thank you. You're just perfect."
General Wacker was holding court at the officer's club, surrounding by rings of staff officers more or less arranged by rank and levels of ambition. General Whalen was glued to his commander, in deference to his rank as the first sycophant among many. Both generals were clutching their third round of Jack Daniels in the great tradition of the American West. Officers were expected to match their commander drink for drink with great suspicion directed toward those who abstained or drank lightly.
"You know Gus, I've come a long way since I was an airborne company commander with the 82nd Airborne at Nijmegan during Market Garden. The Germans were a crack enemy and didn't give an inch without a bloody fight, even when the war was lost for them in Holland. The 82nd accomplished its mission, but the British 1st Parachute Division was just about exterminated at Arnheim. Can you imagine the Germans fighting like that when they knew they had lost the war. It was a grim time, but everyone understood what we were fighting for and who we were fighting.
"I've read a lot about Market Garden, and I can't imagine how tough that must have been," echoed General Whalen. Other officers politely listened as the two alpha males of the pride roared.
"Gus, the French were kind of like that in Indochina. They've taken lots of abuse over the years, but they were tough soldiers. You know the paratroopers were still jumping into Dien Bien Phu, even when it was obvious the fortress was going to fall. They lost over 100,000 men in Indochina, but fought on even when their commanders and the French government had given up. They got a lot of pressure from Ike to continue the war on our behalf, but no troops or American air power, just money to pay the tab."
"What a perspective, sir, World War II, the Korean War and now this over three decades," said General Whalen.
"I hate to admit it Gus, but the NVA have the same warrior qualities. They got smashed during Tet a year ago, but yet they still roll those bicycles down the Ho Chi Minh. They're like ants. You step on their nest and they just start rebuilding it. They have absolutely no self-pity and amazing resolution. At every stage in this fucking war, we've assumed that one more escalation would polish them off but they just bounce back."
"I wish our ARVN friends had those same qualities," mused General Whalen.
"Some of their units are great - like the marines, the rangers and the airborne. But many of the regular line units duck the bullets, let us fight the battles, and wait for the next meal and paycheck. The leadership and the national direction from Saigon is non-existent." General Wacker was starting to slur some of his words and an aide de camp was visibly worried.
"General would you like to sit down," asked the aide? The last thing he wanted to see was a "general down" scene, which he had experienced several times before.
"Hell no son, if a man can't hold his booze at the bar, he's not fit to lead," loudly proclaimed the General.
"You know, Gus, these press bastards are starting to question us on our body count numbers. In fact, they're questioning the use of body count to score what we do. How do we measure our impact without counting the dead commies?"
"I hear you, sir. Let's sit down and get something to eat and we'll continue over dinner." General Whalen was also uncomfortable with General Wacker's speech and overall appearance. The male lions gathered around a table to feast on an unlucky zebra.
"Let's start two large bore IV's in each arm, put in a Foley urinary catheter and watch the man's blood pressure and urine output," said Katie as she stared at a large abdominal penetrating shrapnel wound.
"Let the OR know it's now or never for this patient, I mean prisoner. Go ahead and type and cross him for six units of O negative whole blood." She watched his blood pressure trend down to 90/50 as his urine output continued to diminish. The prospects were not good. She watched the orderlies transfer the prisoner to the gurney and rapidly push him to the OR, from whence she assumed he would be transferred to the Graves Registration Unit. Katie sat down in a folding chair to regain her bearings and then returned to the numerous patients who were filling up the unit.
To her amazement six hours later the man was returned from the OR off the ventilator with an oxygen mask while receiving his sixth unit of whole blood. Though extremely lethargic from the anesthesia and pain medications, he was alive and even arousable. She took the report from the OR technician regarding his medical status and then carefully examined him and checked his vital signs. He was stable and had survived at least for a few hours. A sense of immense personal pride came over her. Regardless of his motivation or despicable acts, she had saved his life, and in this neighborhood that was worth a lot. She was even more determined to get him through her shift. He was human, right?
"High Katie, rough day," Adam asked as he discretely squeezed her hand. He still felt the glow from the Loon Foon date night.
"Adam. We're having a special today on battlefield trauma. This prisoner was close to the mat, but is now almost stable," she said with undisguised pride.
"A big fight is developing around Ben Cat. Let me know when the man's stable enough to be interrogated. I'd like to get some information, but only when he's in better shape. I don't won't to kill him with words or my accent."
"Will do Adam, and buy the way I had a great time the other night." She smiled as she raised her eyebrows in a playful glance.
With that Adam sat at a field desk and started completing interrogation reports. He was absorbed in his work when a familiar voice jolted him.
"Specialist, have you interrogated any of these new prisoners?"
"No, Lieutenant, they're medically unstable and I was waiting to get a clearance before I tried to talk to any of them. The prisoner in that bed just arrived from the OR."
"Specialist, you realize these prisoners were killing and wounding our troops who are also flooding this hospital? The best intel would be what you could glean right at this moment while the iron is still hot."
"Sir, I just can't do it."
"Specialist, I've had it with your insolence. Now get over to that bed and start interrogating the man who just got out of the OR. He was saved so that we might get some intelligence, not for the sake of anything connected to his own miserable, worthless life."
"Lieutenant, I won't do it. He is barely alive. If I try to interrogate him, I could kill him. He hasn't received a medical clearance. Just look at him. Interrogation would be torture."
"That does it Nussbaum. I will talk to the commander tomorrow, and I'm going to recommend a court martial for refusing to follow a direct verbal order from your superior. How does that grab you Specialist smart ass?"
"Yes sir, I understand but I still can't do it."
Adam entered LTC Basham's office with a sense of sinking dread. He was greeted by a room of serious strangers.
"I am Warrant Officer Nowak of the Criminal Investigation Detachment and I am here to investigate a complaint from your superior, Lt. Christiansen, that you directly disobeyed a verbal order yesterday to interrogate a prisoner of war." A private served as a stenographer and dutifully typed the notes during the interview. The officer read Adam his Miranda rights. The preceding had the air of a funeral. And this was the viewing.
"Mr. Nowak am I entitled to legal counsel during these proceedings?"
"Actually specialist this is just a fact finding investigation by the CID. No charges have been filed. If there is sufficient evidence, a formal Article 32 investigation will be recommended and the case will be turned over to the Judge Advocate General. At that point you would get an assigned military lawyer. This is all preliminary, do you understand?"
"Yes sir." There was then a meticulous compilation of demographic and unit information.
"Specialist, could you describe your relationship with Lt. Christensen."
"He is my superior in the Interrogation Section of the intelligence detachment."
"Would you say your relationship has been contentious"
"Yes, sir, from the very beginning. He has been extremely aggressive and even abusive with prisoner interrogations. On one occasion he threatened to cut off medical care to a badly wounded prisoner and then to shoot him in the leg. He claimed that the Geneva Convention only outlawed actual torture, not the threat of violence or torture, which of course is not true."
"Did you report the incident to Colonel Basham?"
"No, sir, he was my superior and I didn't think I had much standing."
"So there is no official documentation of this incident?"
"No but I discussed it with several members of the nursing staff at the hospital where it occurred."
"So what happened yesterday from your perspective?"
"There were many wounded prisoners brought in from the field. All of them were unstable either from their recent wounds or from surgery. One unstable prisoner had just returned from the OR. The nurse, Lt. Dolan had commented on how tenuous his status was and how surprised she was that he made it through the surgery, that is that he was still alive"
"Lt. Christensen arrived and demanded that I start interrogating the prisoner and I observed that I thought the stress of interrogation would kill him. Interrogation would be a form of torture which we were taught in intelligence school is illegal in the American army."
"The Lieutenant then ordered me again to interrogate him and I
again refused. He had not been cleared for interrogation by the medical staff. I refused to start the interrogation, and Lt. Christiansen said he would press charges for refusing to follow a direct order. "
"Specialist, did you receive any medical training?
"Well do you think you are qualified to evaluate the medical stability?"
"Yes sir, common sense. If a man just arrived from the OR and the nurse
says he almost died, I don't think he's stable."
The interview went on and at the end WO Nowak said: "Specialist, this is it
for the time being. You are not being formally charged. You will return to your place of duty and resume all your usual military duties. A word of advice: if I were you I would tread lightly with Lt. Christiansen.
"Yes sir, I understand."
Adam was slumped in a deck chair for the evening festivities. As they
started to once again pay homage to the "king of beers" they heard a roar from the horizon and a C-123 cargo aircraft flew a low level path directly over the base and then moved slowly to the north along the river. A fine spray settled on the camp.
"What the hell is that," Adam asked? "I didn't know the C-123
"Agent orange, haven't you heard of it," asked Peter? "It's part of
Operation Ranch Hand which is attempting to defoliate the jungle and
destroy crops that might be going to the NVA. The big idea is to force peasants to move from the rural villages to the cities, where they might be less attracted to the Viet Cong and the NVA."
"Maybe a secondary goal is to make US servicemen move back to
the United States."
"The British used it in Malaya during their counter-insurrection and concluded it was harmless to humans, except for the starvation it caused the local population." The herbicide, agent orange, contained dioxins which persist in the soil for an undetermined length of time. The unknown long term effects had been soaked into 540,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese. "Well maybe it will make a nice steak sauce this evening," mused Peter.
"You know, Peter, you've just given me another reason not to plan my next honeymoon in the Nam."
"Adam, changing the subject, I heard there was another blow up with Lt. Christiansen. What happened?" Adam outlined the recent incident and the CID interrogation.
"On the surface Christiansen is out of line and there should be no case for proceeding with anything. But this is the land of Burt Wacker, and there's just no predicting where this might go, particularly since it pits a gung ho officer versus a wiseass NYU draftee. If you raise too much hell, you could be reassigned to the bush. The game here is to survive, go home, drink heavily, deny you were ever in the Nam, and move on with your life. So far this has not been going very well."
Major Dung arrived and slowly circulated in the direction of the two Americans. Peter suspected the meeting was anything but random, and he continued to be curious regarding the good major and his enigmatic unit.
"Captain Savory, Specialist Nussbaum, how are you?"
"Just fine major, and what's up with the war?"
"I hoped you Americans could tell me," said Major Dung.
"No Major, remember Vietnamization, now it's your turn to tell us. We're turning this war over to you, remember?"
Major Dung laughed and then lit a camel cigarette. He inhaled deeply and paused as he stared at both men for what seemed an awkwardly long time.
"Have you Americans ever considered what you have accomplished here over the last decade? You stumbled into this place and gradually turned up the firepower from every direction. But it was never enough. That's what you couldn't understand, all of your artillery firebases, your air strikes, the elite divisions couldn't stop a tiny agricultural nation."
"But Major that tiny nation was trying to invade and occupy the south," said Peter.
"Some would say unify, but whatever it is they have not been stopped by any of us."
"Doesn't the south have a stake in all of this? You know Major you're not exactly a disinterested spectator in this war," said Peter.
"I think all of us who live here are trying to sort this out. Remember our country has been almost continuously invaded and occupied for three thousand years. We just have a new set of invaders."
"Major, here's what I don't get. Last year during the Tet offensive 80,000 NVA attacked 100 towns including Saigon. Maybe 45,000 NVA were killed and the Viet Cong were effectively wiped out. The NVA massacred or abducted between 3000 to 6000 civilians in Hue. But the NVA bounced back, they're still supported by large segments of the South Vietnamese population and they're still fighting. The North is a country with only twenty million or so people. How do they keep popping up like a snake that will not die," asked Adam?
The Major took a long drag on his cigarette, blew out a cloud of smoke and said, "they have nothing to lose but their honor and most of our brothers in the north have resigned themselves that they are going to die. You Americans thought it was going to be so easy; you didn't learn anything from the War in the Pacific or Korea." With that Major Dung walked off to talk with Bull.
"You know Adam that guy still gives me the creeps. He's not exactly gung ho about this whole thing for a field grade ARVN officer. I still don't understand what the ARVN intel detachment does besides play volleyball," said Peter. Adam shook his head. He could guess.
"Get your gear together, specialist, we're going on a mission with the 123rd in about two hours," said Lt. Christensen.
"Yes Sir, may I ask where."
"Ben Cat, there are NVA in the area and an entire battalion from the 123rd is being inserted to flush them out. Let's move on it."
Adam ran back to his hooch and carefully collected his rifle, ammunition, four canteens and first aid kit and other field gear. His field pack was already set for another extended holiday in the bush. He caught a jeep to the runway for the 123rd, where he saw Mike Dempsey inspecting his platoon on the runway.
"High Specialist, thanks for joining us again. This could be a hot one. One company is already engaged with a large NVA force north of Ben Cat. The whole battalion is going to back them up," volunteered Lt Dempsey.
At that point Lt. Christensen stiffly walked down the runway, slowed by extra ammunition, grenades and a very full field pack. Perhaps he also carried a musical instrument. Adam thought to himself he also has to carry his ego which adds at least a hundred pounds to the load.
Big Ben walked up to the pair, "Morning, gentlemen, looks like we're going to see some action today. Specialist you stick with me and the Lieutenant will hang with Lt. Dempsey." Minutes later the platoon was vibrating inside a Huey helicopter, part of a metallic insect swarm headed to the jungle for a coordinated sting. Adam noticed that the door gunner, clutching an M60 machine gun, had a large tattoo on his left shoulder with a map of Vietnam. Below was an inscription which read "fuck off and die." Nice dermal message for posterity Adam thought.
The helicopter landed and in seconds emptied as the platoon formed a skirmish line and headed toward the tree line. To Adam's surprise there was no enemy fire, although artillery rounds could be heard in the distance. After establishing radio contact, the platoon formed a line to hike the quarter mile to the objective. The heat, humidity and fetid stench of the jungle were all there, but Adam was clearly becoming slightly acclimatized to it. Even the leaches and poisonous snakes were now just part of this primordial garden.
Lt. Dempsey spoke to the company commander after arriving at the objective and was directed to dig in on the company's right flank. Adam was paired with Kenyata Martin who he briefly met on the previous outing. They both energetically began digging a fox hole.
"Where are you from?" asked Kenyata. "And by the way my friends call me K-man. We didn't really get introduced the last time I saw you."
"Okay K Man. Remember I had just been wounded. I'm with the intel detachment, and have been attached to the platoon to gather intelligence and interrogate prisoners. I'm originally from New York. Where are you from?"
"Greenville, Alabama, man. I've been over here in the Nam for six months. All I can say is that killin' gooks is better than Alabama, better than pulling cotton. I signed up to stop share-cropping. Let me show you what's up. I guess you're an REMF."
"Yea, you've got that right," said Adam smiling. With that K-man described the fields of fire from their foxhole, the position of Claymore mines, the M60 machine gun, and the M79 grenade launchers. He showed Adam how to tape extra magazines to his rifle butt and the likely direction of an attack. It was reassuring to have a real warrior who was also very friendly, sharing the burrow with him.
"You guys squared away?" asked Big Ben as he made his rounds of the fighting positions.
"Yea, Sarge, just getting this new meat oriented for the big fight."
"Good cause I think it's coming down the road men. Stay sharp and stay awake."
"Kenyata, I mean K-man, how many fights have you been in since you landed in the Nam?" Adam was trying to get K-man's combat curriculum vitae.
"Man, I lost track. The gooks never stop coming at us. This is a tight platoon, we stick together and we've never been squashed. Dempsey and Tenata have both got their shit together and they'll look out for us grunts, I don't know about REMF's. You may be on your own. Shoot when I tell you to."
Adam looked down the line of fox holes. Lt. Christiansen was in with Lt. Dempsey and the radio operator in a three- person fox hole about fifteen yards away. His hatred of the lieutenant and the recent investigation were miles away in his thoughts. He was once again scared to death.
About three hours later the fetid stillness of the jungle night was broken by whistles all around and screaming in Vietnamese. Then RPG and mortar rounds began crashing from the flank of their position. Flares were fired from the company command post which illuminated the attack. Adam saw hundreds of NVA charging toward the position now about fifty yards in front. To a man they were screaming as they ran.
"Give it all you got, men," yelled Mike Dempsey and a wall of automatic weapons fire met the charging enemy. Then friendly sixty mm mortar rounds began to fall on the NVA charge and the steady clack of the M60 machine gun in the next foxhole.
"Shoot straight ahead, Adam, and aim your shots," yelled K-man. Adam watched as man after man dropped in front of his position as he carefully squeezed off rounds. At about thirty yards from the line, Kenyata detonated a daisy chain of claymore mines, which exploded and released 700 steel balls into a sixty-degree arc two meters high and fifty meters deep. Loud screams filled the night as the balls ripped through flesh. A few survivors staggered back to the enemy lines, some were shot on the return trip.
"It ain't over man," said Kenyata. "The gooks are stacked into the jungle. Reload and take these grenades. This is gonna be a long night."
Just as they were rearming, they heard the scream of 105 mm high explosive artillery rounds roaring over their heads, followed by deafening explosions and brilliant flashes in the night. More screams were heard on the other side.
"I guess the boss men are earning their pay tonight. The LT sure can adjust artillery."
For about an hour there was calm in the jungle as the two soldiers emptied their canteens and waited for the inevitable next round of the match. Whistles were heard again and screaming in Vietnamese followed by the blast of multiple machine guns. Flares were fired to reveal an even greater number of enemy warriors, in the hundreds madly charging toward the position.
Adam heard, "Aim your..." and then nothing. Multiple AK47 rounds had decapitated Kenyata standing right next to him in the mud hole. Blood gurgled from the severed carotid artery and the still intact body twitched violently. He raised his M16 and carefully squeezed off rounds as the predatory herd charged his platoon. Once again they were met by mortar rounds and machine gun fire as well as grenades. This time there were just too many. The wall of metal only slightly slowed the NVA momentum. He could make out the wave of green uniforms with the camouflaged pith helmets. The platoon fired into the onslaught, slightly slowing but not stopping what seemed like a fatal tsunami. Adam braced for the end.
Suddenly he heard a loud roar, which at first he thought was a jungle predator caught in the maelstrom. Then he saw Lt. Christiansen jump from his foxhole and charge into the NVA mass with a bayonet, firing his rifle as he ran. All of this was illuminated by the flares. The impulse shocked the attackers who momentarily stopped, and were then mowed down by machine gun and grenade fire. On signal the platoon fixed bayonets to the M16 rifles and charged the larger mass. The NVA soldiers lost the thrust of their attack and started to retreat back to the jungle where they were met by withering artillery fire. Several soldiers found Lt. Christiansen and dragged him back to the foxhole. His abdominal cavity was ripped open exposing protruding small bowel and his breathing was agonal. He had received multiple bayonet wounds. Big Ben held him as he died. There was not even the ritual of calling the medic, so obvious was his mortality. His last gesture was to smile and then slide into stillness.
The platoon returned to their holes, stunned by what had happened. An entire NVA regiment had attacked the company and come very close to overwhelming it. The heroism of Joshua Christiansen, just at the decisive moment of the attack, and with complete surprise had saved the unit.
Adam helped place Kenyata into a body bag. His death involved just common heroism, and attendance at the slaughter. He was a good man who had provided Adam a four-hour graduate degree in combat, that may have saved his life. But unlike Lt. Christiansen, whose death would be heralded, there were no trumpets for K-man.
Adam felt shocked and ashamed about the lieutenant, toward whom he had felt only rage and disdain a few hours earlier.
As he stared at the corpse, still with the outsized glasses. The men reverently placed the remains in a body bag. To the soldiers in the platoon he was not the comic caricature who had brought so much derision and laughter to the detachment and so much pain to Adam, but a complete and unexpected hero, an REMF hero. Others stood around with a dazed stare at this man, who had followed his burning impulse to glory. "He wanted to be an infantry warrior. He got his wish," said Adam.
Katie and Adam were sitting on the beach at Vung Tau in beach chairs. It was two weeks after the battle and Adam received a three-day pass. Katie had arranged for a Medevac helicopter to drop them off at the in-country beach R&R center. For the first time Adam saw Katie in something other than jungle fatigues and she was dazzling. A modest bikini highlighting her ample breasts and very thin waist. He savored the day as they both sipped Mojitos complete with parasols. Two ounces of Bacardi Rum were calming all overstressed systems.
"Let's go for a swim, it's hot in the sun," commanded Katie. Adam needed no further encouragement and they both raced into the bracing surf of the South China Sea. There was splashing and chasing for a good while and then they embraced and kissed for what seemed a very long time. They both knew that was coming. Finally, they returned to their beach chairs and resumed the rum refueling.
"How are you doing," cautiously asked Katie?
Adam paused to think. "I don't know what to say. So much violence, so much firepower, so much hate. You know we're all tenuously perched, a number of my mates were knocked off that perch. I was in a foxhole for about four hours with a black soldier named Kenyata Martin, K-man, who will never make the history books but who taught me a lot of infantry craft before the battle. It was a dirt school house but the teaching couldn't have been more intense or more relevant. We knew for sure that we were going to get attacked by a lot of NVA and he could see that I was lamb for slaughter. After four hours I felt I had known the K-man all of my life. He was kind, smart, and reassuring. I had this great desire to not let him and the platoon down. When the second attack began he was decapitated in an instant by AK47 fire, and I spent the rest of the battle in the fox hole filled with his blood and his corpse minus his head. It will take a long time to come to grips with this. He was a really good man, and now he's gone. K-man rest in peace."
"You must have been traumatized by that and everything that followed," said Katie.
"I don't know if I can convey this to someone who has never been there, but I was both repelled and intoxicated by the battle. The men in the platoon were awesome -they just wouldn't give up or crack, even when it seemed hopeless. I really thought we were all finished. At the lowest moment for us in the fight, Joshua Christensen jumps out of the foxhole makes a wild charge and stuns the attack, just enough to turn the tide. He really was the catalyst for what I guess some would call a victory and others would call survival. There was talk that the 123rd Brigade commander was going to recommend him for a posthumous Distinguished Service Cross. That's the second highest award for bravery, just behind the medal of honor."
"And all of that after he reports you to the CID for refusing to torture wounded prisoners in the hospital," said Katie. She winced as she recalled those tense moments.
"That's true, but after the battle all of that stuff, including my rage at him just evaporated. He was trapped in the box he came in, and in the end that tortured box saved my life and everybody in the platoon."
"Adam, you're not going native on me," asked Katie?
"If you're asking me if I'm about to transfer to the infantry, no, I'm not good enough. But if you ask me to compare this band of warriors to the circus performers I'm in with, there's no comparison. These guys really have their shit together, and they only measure themselves by each other's good opinion. They are indifferent to the why they are here, how they got here or who's responsible for their being here. They get their orders and do their job. It's like nurses in your hospital. They are real. They don't spend much time lying on the beach, watching movies, or practicing golf."
"Well, where do you go next with these guys?"
"Mike Dempsey asked me to join them on future operations, and if I get the OK from Bull that's what I'll do. They actually respect me Katie, and with them I respect myself a little more."
"Adam, I really like you and I don't want you to get killed or to change into a professional killer. You look better without war paint."
Later that evening they were sitting in the main dining room of the Imperial Hotel watching the sunset. Katie was made up for a date with tan, makeup, lipstick, and real clothes. She really did look beautiful. It was amazing that she still remembered how to make herself look beautiful, even in this desolate place.
This was kind of wacky in the war zone but through the blurred lens of three gin and tonics all wonderful. Adam even sported his video ranger flying saucer ring. The sun slowly sank on the horizon as it had daily over the three-thousand year history of Vietnam. The evening languidly grew into many wonders as Adam and Katie returned to her hotel room.
Bull was on the putting green with Dutch Master in hand when he called Adam to join him. Adam noticed a focus and concentration not previously seen.
"You play golf son?"
"No, sir, not many opportunities for a kid in Brooklyn and clubs are hard to get on the subway." Bull laughed.
"I'm sorry to hear what happened to Christiansen. General Wacker is going to make a very big deal out of the lieutenant, from what I understand, deservedly. You were really in the eye of a hurricane. The corps says your company was up against an entire NVA regiment."
"It was night and I lost count, but the waves of NVA just kept coming. The man in my foxhole was killed shortly after the battle started. The lieutenant changed the momentum of the battle by his suicide charge and probably saved the platoon. He deserves all the honors that he might get, although maybe the ultimate honor is to have survived the battle. You know sir, there's a real war going on outside the wire."
"That's what I heard. Lt. Dempsey was telling me you did very well, and he wants you to continue to go out with his unit. Is that something you'd be willing to do?"
"I think so sir, I have a lot of respect for those guys."
"By the way Adam, that CID thing is over, and it would probably be best to forget it. I know you must have had some very hard feelings."
"Yes sir, I understand, it's all forgotten.
"Sir, there's another subject I want to mention to you."
"What's that son."
"I'm very concerned about Major Dung. Things just don't add up with the ARVN detachment. I've talked to Cpt. Savory and he agrees. On the surface the ARVN detachment doesn't seem to do anything, which as you know in intelligence is a red light that there may be a lot going on under the covers."
"Adam, do you or Cpt. Savory have any evidence to support this hunch?"
"We don't. but I wonder if the counterintelligence guys shouldn't independently check it out. After all the ARVN are inside the wire."
"I appreciate your instincts, Adam, but I've had a fairly extensive relationship with the major and as far I've seen he is one of the few Vietnamese officers I actually trust."
Adam pondered the instant Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry recently awarded after Bull's aerial combat and wondered if that clouded his critical vision.
"Well, sir, I'll let you know if I come up with anything firm." With that Bull completed a 15 foot put and won the Long Binh Open, for the twentieth time.
"Gus, can you believe what just happened with the 123rd at Ben Cat two weeks ago? A rifle company held off an NVA regiment. Our estimates are that 223 NVA were killed with an unknown number wounded. Fifty were left behind, which is very unusual for the NVA."
"Sir, I read the summaries, and I think we should really run with this," added General Whalen.
"The most amazing part was at the height of the battle, an intelligence lieutenant with our intel detachment launched a banzai charge that single handedly turned the momentum of the battle. The kid wasn't even in the 123rd, but was attached to collect intelligence. The charge turned the tide of the whole damned battle. In fact, the kid was there with the company because he had the idea that the detachment could get better intelligence if he went out on combat operations. He actually volunteered for the mission. Talk about divine providence."
"Sadly, I understand he was shot to pieces."
"Yea, but what a warrior. A good man is where you find him, even in a fucking intelligence unit. I signed off on recommending a DSC, I hope Creighton Abrams agrees. I guess I'm going to have to make nice to that idiot Basham, since the kid was in his unit."
"You also need to congratulate the company from the 123rd that fought off the attack. Do you know anything about the unit?"
"The key platoon was commanded by a West Pointer named Mike Dempsey that took the brunt of the attack. Christiansen was attached to that platoon. We need to get them in here too. This is worth painting all over the Stars and Stripes. I'm sure our American reporters won't have the slightest interest, since the NVA lost. We also need to get the KIA stats to Saigon so we get credit for this bite out of Uncle Ho."
"You've got a point there, Sir. I'll get right on setting up the ceremony and the publicity."
Tan Son Nhut Air Base was a vast air and command center which had been a prime target the previous year during the Tet offensive. Virtually every nation involved in the Vietnam War had aircraft occupying its sprawling space, and on an average day planes were in constant motion. But at one end of the base there was reverential if temporary silence. A C-141 (US Airforce jet cargo jet) was parked in front of ten metal coffins from the 123rd, each covered with an American flag. Cpt. Dick Nichols stood at attention in front of his company with its four platoons, including the one commanded by Mike Dempsey. Adam and several officers from the intel detachment stood at attention next to the infantry company.
There was hardly space in the front for the many dignitaries who wanted to be seen in the moment. They included Generals Wacker and Whalen as well as the commander of the 123rd in addition to numerous staff officers and aides. Bull was inconspicuous in the rear of the VIP section.
"A sad day," said Major Tanaka to Adam standing next to him.
"Surreal, sad," replied Adam as they waited for the ceremony. Only the coffins sat in absolute silence.
"One of those coffins houses my fox hole mate of four hours, Kenyata Martin. It's weird. I feel like I knew him all of his life, but it was really only four hours. One of the nicest guys you would ever meet in or out of a fox hole. He taught me just enough to survive the battle. I'm sure he won't get the trumpet call, but he should."
The ceremony began with a heroic prayer from the corps chaplain and was followed as General Wacker placed the DSC on Joshua's coffin with a combat infantryman's badge (CIB) and a purple heart. The lieutenant had long craved the CIB as the ultimate recognition of an infantry warrior. All of the remaining coffins received purple hearts and various citations, mostly bronze stars for heroism. Mike Dempsey and Dick Nichols received Silver Stars as the leaders of the key platoon and company in the defense.
General Wacker shared some appropriate and totally disposable thoughts on the battle meant to inspire the survivors to similar acts of valor. At the conclusion of the short ceremony an honor guard escorted the coffins into the vast, lonely belly of the plane for the last passage to America, from this strange country so unconnected to their homes and their lives.
"You know major I disliked everything about Joshua, except for the way he died, which saved the rest of us. In the end, he had a purpose, and I suppose he's earned admittance to Valhalla."
"War brings out strange things, strange things," reflected the Major.
Grady Davis was draining the oil from a senescent jeep, and a significant portion of the effluent had found a home on his uniform. At the same time Leroy Jones was changing a tire on a two-and-a half-ton truck in the adjoining bay and was covered with the granular red dust of Vietnam and the black rubber of the tire. A radio in the garage banged out the top twenty on Armed Forces Radio. Pulsating music, oil, and motor grime created an almost perfect nest for these perpetually happy creatures.
"When's the wedding, Grady?" asked Leroy.
"I don't know, it's up to Major Tanaka to give the OK. Huong is ready to go, and I can't wait." Grady smiled as he pictured their future marital bliss in a used trailer-home in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, probably mounted on concrete blocks.
"Well, what are you going to do after you get out of the army?"
"I don't know. There are lots of cars in Alabama and a lot of em don't run, I guess I'll just fix em. Maybe I'll get a job with the school, driving and fixing the school buses. It'll all work out. Jesus will take care of Huong and me, I'm not worried." Grady's smile vividly projected the natural history of dental caries.
Without anyone noticing, Huong walked into the motor pool, having just burned ten tubs of excrement. At one point she was stirring a tub with two other burners uttering incoherent incantations. Perhaps these were prophetic curses. The incense of her job was deeply embedded in her clothing and probably at least the outer layers of her skin. It displayed the unique formula of diesel fuel and human excrement, topped off with a match. As she eyed Grady and Leroy, she giggled, exposing a discolored, cavity filled mouth with significant gaps in the blackened dental forest. Grady jumped up from under the jeep and hugged her when he heard her giggle. Young love was always forgiving.
"When we marry?" Huong asked, using 100% more English than Grady knew Vietnamese.
"Don't know," said Grady smiling and shrugged his shoulders.
Bernie Rodgers had carefully filled out all of the paper work necessary for an active duty serviceman to marry a Vietnamese woman, and now both man-children waited for the mysterious bureaucratic gods to rule on their union. Somehow this state of suspended animation was conveyed to Huong through Grady's exaggerated gestures. For the next hour they giggled, sang, danced and had a good time. Language was a recent addition to the mammalian world, but laughter and dancing had been there forever.
At the height of the unscheduled celebration, Major Tanaka walked into the motor pool, bowed to Huong, and smiled at Grady and Leroy. He took in the human landscape, including the occupational aromas. He wondered if the thick coating of engine oil, gasoline and lubricants which permeated Grady would cancel Huong's own unique industrial perfume.
"Private I've got good news for you, I guess," the Major whispered. "The command has approved your request to get married. But are you sure you want to go through with this?"
"Yes, sir," blurted out Grady. "The sooner the better."
"Well what plans have you made for the wedding? Where are you going to have the ceremony? Do you have an invitation list, and who's going to pay for it?"
"Don't know that yet, sir." Clearly none of these issues had even occurred to Grady, much less Huong, whose thoughts were even more opaque. The major didn't ask, but Grady still didn't know Huong's last name, although Bernie Rodgers had dug it out. Major Tanaka then had an idea. Why not have the unit throw the wedding, with consultation from Major Dung and the ARVN unit. Of course the key to this event was the venerable Tom Westbrook, who would find the appropriate wedding equipage and libations, as well as Bernie Rodgers who knew how to organize and plan grand unit events. They might even get some publicity from Stars and Stripes as an example of trans-cultural Vietnamization. Of course they would have to sanitize the shit burner part of the story, maybe call her part of the base environmental staff. The major had more "street cred" in this sort of thing being Asian himself. The more he rolled it around in his head, the better he liked it. The planning and organization of the event might even keep him awake in the early afternoon.
"Grady, let me work on this a little bit, and I'll get back to you in a few days. I think we might be able to help you."
"Thanks Major." And with that Grady gave Huong an extended kiss on the lips.
Bull sat nervously at an outdoor table at the Majestic Hotel in Saigon, waiting to meet an Indian businessman from Madras, who was late. For once, he was without Lien Mai. He chose to meet at the Majestic, since he was such a regular fixture there, he assumed it would raise no questions. However, on this day he was uncharacteristically nervous as he shook hands with Paresh Agarwal who joined him at the table. Paresh was dressed in a tan poplin suit with a nondescript green tie. His striking jet-black hair was held in place by what must have been half a tube of hair cream. He also sported a neatly cut moustache which harkened to the days of the British Raj.
"So nice to meet you, Colonel, I enjoyed our telephone conversation last week. I believe my firm might be of assistance to you," Paresh said in a low ultra-polite to fawning tone, which Bull assumed went with the territory.
"Good to meet you, Paresh. I understand you run a kind of bank here in Saigon, is that right?"
"Well, actually my firm is in Madras, India. Our bank is the Baker Company in Hong Kong, and I am the business coordinator for our operation here in Saigon."
"Let me explain my business," proudly volunteered Bull as he lit his first Dutch Master and sipped his second gin and tonic. "I run a Christmas tree business back in New Hampshire, in the states, and I've been thinking of starting a holiday tree business here in Saigon. I'm looking for locals with the business and financial connections to help me make that work."
"That's very interesting, Colonel. Let me try to explain how my firm might help you. But first, you need to understand the currency situation here in the south. There are actually four different currencies: the dollar, the official Vietnamese piaster, the unofficial Vietnamese piaster, and the Military Payment Currency which you know as the MPC.
"The South Vietnamese government pegs the official exchange rate at 118 piasters to the dollar, but the black market exchange rate is between 200-300 piasters to the dollar. In other words, the government over-values the official piaster to stimulate the economy. The MPC was introduced to protect the dollar in the Vietnamese economy, but it is readily exchanged for dollars in local banks. As you know, the American authority changes the MPC currency from time to time without notice, so you don't want to be holding MPC dollars for any length of time."
"So what does all of this have to do with my Christmas tree business?"
"I'm getting there, let's just say your American company sends a money order for $1,000 to buy trees and market them in Saigon. My associates can exchange that for say 30,000 piasters instead of 10,000 at the official rate. You then take 20,000 or whatever is leftover and we will convert that into dollars which can then be wired to your bank in the states through our Hong Kong bank."
"So for my $1,000 investment, I make $ 6-700 just off the currency exchange?"
"That's exactly right, and for many businessmen like yourself, that often becomes a greater profit source than the original product itself. In addition, our company can help you get almost any supplies, including Christmas trees at a greatly discounted price, so that your actual overhead could be very small."
"Why have the Christmas tree business at all?" blurted Bull, intensely absorbed by the proposition.
"Well, the business provides an excellent cover for the money transfers. From time to time, the South Vietnamese government and the American Army go through the motions of investigating currency manipulation, but the practice is so extensive, about a billion dollars a year, and so central to the small South Vietnamese economy that the investigations all die an early death. Also many senior South Vietnamese politicians and generals as well as American officials are involved in these transactions. Another benefit of our association is that we can provide you the manpower at very low labor costs to run the business here in Saigon so that you won't be distracted from your military duties. You must be very busy fighting the war."
"Yes, that's very true. Paresh, I want to make sure that everything we've discussed and any transactions in the future are strictly confidential."
"Of course, Colonel, our firm runs on total discretion in all aspects of the business. Let me give you a special telephone number where you can reach me twenty-four hours a day."
"I'm very interested in this. My sergeant told me you might provide some excellent opportunities, and I think he was right."
"Was that Sergeant Westbrook? I've met him on several occasions throughout the region."
"Yes, Sergeant Westbrook is my personal ambassador to Vietnam."
The two shook hands and Mr. Agarwal disappeared into a cab and into the city, which was bustling with pedicabs, bicycles and humanity.
Excitement filled the detachment. Bernie Rodgers and Sergeant Westbrook were on ladders applying the last decorative touches for the festivities. Red, white, and blue bunting hung from the rain gutters of the headquarters building hung over two large American and South Vietnamese flags which were taped to the building wall. A small statue of Buddha shared a field table with a plain protestant cross supplied by the base non-denominational chaplain. Folding chairs went back four rows and were filled by the unit. Finally, an army jeep was parked in front of the headquarters, and had been converted into a float by bunting and with ten cans tied to the rear bumpers. Leroy assured Major Tanaka that it would run without breaking down, at least for a couple of miles.
A private from the Stars and Stripes newspaper was interviewing Bull in front of the headquarters. He looked like a high school kid who had been given the last set of jungle fatigues in the warehouse, which were four sizes too large. An arsenal of ball point pens hung out of both jacket pockets. He continuously pushed his black GI glasses over the bridge of his nose as he conducted the interview. They were also probably obtained from the same warehouse. Obviously the paper did not rate this event as equivalent to say, the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.
"This wedding between one of our servicemen and a Vietnamese national, who supports us each day on this great base, is emblematic of the very close relationship that has developed between this unit and the Vietnamese people. We are lucky to have the ARVN intelligence detachment working closely with our unit and in attendance at the wedding," Bull proudly proclaimed. "They are now actively participating in all of our intelligence operations." The Americans in the audience assumed that referred to volleyball competition.
Peter was sitting in the third row, and he immediately noticed the impact that the absence of the smoke from the imagery interpretation furnace and nitrogenous smoke from the shit-burning operation had on the air quality of the plantation.
"If they would just discontinue the agent orange spraying and the ARC light strikes for a day, birds would sing again," he said to Adam who was sitting next to him.
Grady and Leroy stood in the front, now joined by the Chaplain and a shaved Buddhist priest garbed in a yellow saffron robe.
"I hope the Buddhist priest doesn't set himself on fire today. It would be a big distraction," quietly observed Adam.
The groom and his best man wore clean jungle fatigues, their only concession to wedding pomp and vanity. Without warning, the workhorse Teac tape deck started the Mendelssohn wedding march, and a parade of shit burner bridesmaids came down the aisle. Each of the four women was wearing a white ao dai, as was Huong, who was escorted by her mother. Two of the women had recently assisted Huong in the witch's curse ceremony. There was a certain elegance to the wedding party, in marked contrast to their usual occupational uniforms.
The priests exhorted their gods to bless the couple, for health and long lives. The military chaplain added a hope for victory on the battlefield. Major Dung then gave a short speech in Vietnamese, which was not translated into English, leaving most of the audience staring blankly. There was a long pause after the speech.
"That might be the signal for a general uprising," said Adam, and Peter smiled.
Bull then delivered a short speech, which included an inappropriate allusion to the now legendary R&R in Hong Kong, and a heartfelt thank you for keeping the jeeps running. There was no thank you for Huong, but that might have been included in Major Dung's speech.
Grady presented Huong with a ring he had purchased on the black market for ten dollars. They kissed and the unit wildly clapped as the wedding party walked into the headquarters building. The ceremony, now sanctified, turned into the reception. Tubs of beer appeared along with the signature aroma of teriyaki steak. Major Tanaka was ahead of the game as thirty beer cans popped to mark the occasion. The wise men of the unit sat back to ponder what they had just experienced.
"Major, first congratulations for conceiving this and putting it together. Wouldn't it be something if they moved back to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, had lots of children and lived happily ever after?" asked Adam.
"Stranger things have happened, and Grady is fundamentally a good person, very good. Huong I don't know. Maybe the language barrier will work in their favor. God knows, there have been plenty of fluent couples in the same language who have created living hell for each other. Perhaps this will be a new path for marital bliss," the major uttered those words not believing them for a second.
Bull walked up to the trio with his now famous cigar and can of beer.
"Gentlemen, a beautiful day for the detachment, I think you would all agree."
"Yes, sir. Those boys and girls clean up good, don't they?" said Adam. "By the way, sir, how is your plan for the Saigon Christmas tree business coming along?"
Bull paused and then replied, "Very well, thank you, I am in the process of developing a business plan for the project, and I think there's real opportunity. Adam, I'd appreciate it if you would just keep that between us."
Little could they imagine just what that meant.
After two hours of celebrating, the newly married couple entered their heavily-decorated jeep and drove around the plantation to the cheers of the detachment and many curious spectators. The drive was a parade route rather than a journey, since it ended up back at the detachment where both Grady and Huong would return to their premarital routine. There were no heart shaped beds available in Long Binh, no honeymoon, no house, and no money, but they were married. For the moment they were happy.
Mike Dempsey was once again butt-parked on the runway, resting his seventy- pound pack and rifle. Big Ben sat next to him, having satisfied himself that the platoon was tight for yet another operation.
"Lieutenant, it will be tough to top that last outing, what with Lt. Christiansen and ten coffins."
"Ben, you didn't mention the two hundred dead NVA, or the entire regiment that we put out of business. That was the Super Bowl."
Mike's spell was broken as Adam appeared, once again loaded with his combat kit and rifle. With each mission, he seemed more together. He almost looked like a soldier.
"Lieutenant, I've got to be honest, I hope this mission is a little less exciting than the last."
"Amen to that, Adam. Do you still remember how to use a rifle?"
"I think so, sir. So what's on the menu for today?" Adam shook his head and swept his hair back as he replied.
"Fairly simple, we're going into Fire Support Base Jody to lend a hand to a battery of cannon cockers and provide them a little neighborhood protection. Once we settle in, we'll be sending out patrols to meet the neighbors and build democracy and peace in our time."
Two hours later Adam was standing in the center of what seemed like Fort Apache in the old west, well Death Valley. Four 105 mm howitzers were arranged in a square. Each weapon was dug into a position and surrounded by sand bags with piles of spent artillery casings from hours of blasting. Buildings were carved into the ground including a tactical operations center, first aid station, helipad, and communication bunker. The landscape was mud and months of discarded debris. This was a community that would never win the tidy neighborhood beautification award. A broad plain had been cleared by Rome plows and defoliants beyond the perimeter but was covered with snake grass. Mike Dempsey surveyed the base with the artillery battery commander and Big Ben. They then distributed the platoon and its weapons around the perimeter.
"Adam, you mind playing an infantryman again? We're a little short on college educated grunts." Big Ben smiled. "You really did good on the last outing."
"Sure, Sergeant, just point me in the right direction, and pass the ammunition. By the way, when do I qualify for the Combat-REMF badge?"
"Well, you already meet the requirements for the REMF, all you need is the combat. We're also going to make you bring back some intelligence, or they'll stop sending you on these school trips."
The platoon checked into the hotel, for an all too familiar routine of gun emplacement, Claymore mines, concertina wire, and flares. What distinguished this visit, was the almost continuous boom of fire missions called into the artillery battery from outposts throughout the province.
Adam slumped into his foxhole with yet another African American private, Alphonso "Al" Wilson. He was tall, maybe six-five, with a shaved scalp.
"Hey, weren't you with us on the last mission?"
"I shared a hole with Kenyata Martin, you know K-man, a hell of a nice guy. It's so sad what happened," said Adam. "They took his head off with an AK47."
"Yea, I heard. There's just no tellin' what goes down when they turn the lights off. But I don't mind havin' these cannons close by."
"Where are you from, Al. I mean before you were swallowed by the green machine?"
"Hattiesburg, Mississippi. How about you Adam?"
"Brooklyn, New York, and I didn't enlist, I was drafted and look we're both in the same foxhole and we didn't get here by parachute."
Al laughed. "You're in the intel detachment on the plantation, right? Don't see many of you guys out here in the bush."
"Yea, it's been a long winding road to this foxhole. But at least I get to see the game from courtside seats." Al laughed. "Courtside, yea."
As the sun set, they both watched an AC-130 "Spooky" gunship continuously firing four 20 mm mini-guns from the left side of the aircraft as it leisurely banked in a wide circle over the jungle. The whirring rattle of the guns was reassuring to the two infantrymen and did great harm to its targets. Intermittently, flares would be fired out of the plane to illuminate the dark scene below and to confuse heat seeking antiaircraft missiles from the ground.
"That spooky is our friend, I hope he stays around all night," said Al smiling.
Adam doubted that Spooky or his friends would be enough to calm the determined creatures of the Vietnam night, but what did he know?
Bull was sitting at the bar of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. It sat close to the edge of Victoria Harbor, and some thought it had the best view and the best accommodations in Hong Kong. Although servicemen could choose to join their wives on their one week of R&R, Bull had never even considered it. He would go for days without remembering that he even had a wife. In fact, during four months in country, Bull hadn't spoken to his wife, despite numerous trips to the MARS station to run his Christmas tree empire. He simply sent a few pro forma letters which could have been, and in fact may have been written by Bernie Rogers. He felt no guilt over this marital oversight, but still anxious, anticipating the unchartered waters he was about to enter. Hard time in a federal penitentiary had never been part of his retirement plan.
Finally, Paresh Agarwal appeared with three other Indian men and an attractive Chinese woman. They spotted Bull, a target not easy to miss and walked up to the bar.
"Robert, may I call you Robert? Let me introduce you to my associates. Shall we sit at a table?"
The group retreated to a discrete table against the wall and ordered a round of drinks. Bull suspiciously surveyed this unknown team, but the ancient urge for riches overwhelmed his critical instincts.
"Robert, all of us have studied the papers you provided regarding your Christmas tree business, and we feel there is real opportunity. The expansion of your business into tree sales in Saigon is logical and should not draw suspicion. We will need to make one of your civilian associates the manager, since it wouldn't look well to have an active duty senior officer too prominent in this."
"Understood," said Bull.
"We will ask you to have your associates wire the Baker Company in Hong Kong monthly money orders for one thousand dollars to begin with. We will take care of the rest and wire your associates money orders for the balance each month. It would be best that this not be officially recorded by your company, but be kept in a separate accounts book. Just consider us a broker for foreign business. Simple as that," said Paresh with a wide smile.
"Sounds too good to be true. What's your cut in this, and how much experience do you have with the currency business in Vietnam?"
"Our fee is twenty percent of the net profit from the operation. Keep in mind that over one billion dollars a year is exchanged in Vietnam in currency transactions. Our firm conducts operations from a large network, which includes a number of American Servicemen's clubs. This network is controlled by ranking senior American enlisted men and officers. We have considerable experience with Americans and South Vietnamese. All of this is possible because the Vietnamese government is artificially over-valuing the Vietnamese currency to create the illusion of financial prosperity. Our firm is simply trying to capitalize on this error and in the process contributes to the economic vitality of South Vietnam. The currency transactions result in goods and services entering the South Vietnamese economy in great quantities."
"You mean the black market economy, after theft from American depots?"
"That's not how we would put it, but you have a good grasp of the opportunity."
Bull deeply inhaled a Dutch Master and a familiar plume of smoke rose over his padded leather seat. He paused to consider the opportunity, but his peripheral vision spotted two Americans who were paying more attention to his meeting than might have been expected. They were also intermittently whispering to each other. Neither of them were attached to the Hong Kong bar girls who often glued themselves to American servicemen. But then they both rose, paid their bill, left, and Bull heard the "all clear" siren. Just a little healthy paranoia he said to himself. Little did Bull know that they had paid the waiter to seat the party in the corner.
"Paresh, gentlemen, I'm game. Here's my first money order for one grand. I assume there's no contract here or paper trail."
"Colonel, we look forward to a productive business association. Is there anything else we can help you with here in Hong Kong? Perhaps several bespoke suits, a Rolex watch or a ravishing female tour guide?"
"Thank you, Paresh, but I'm all set."
Adam was taking the two AM foxhole shift and was playing with a pocket flashlight, that he just couldn't manage to work. That's what got to him in the bush, all mechanical systems ceased to function, at least as advertised. The interminable rain and mud didn't help. Al was sound asleep in the bottom of the foxhole, oblivious to the mattress of dirt and mud, in fact he was snoring. This was the mark of a real trooper, a great night's sleep in the mud. Adam thought he heard a rustle outside of the concertina wire, but it wasn't repeated, and he assumed it was a member of the giant rodent family that claimed the base as their family homestead.
Little did he know that the uninvited house guests were not rodents, but members of the 403rd NVA Main Force Sapper battalion, and three six man teams were quietly cutting the triple concertina wire to make paths into the firebase. The four howitzers and assorted defenders made the real estate a worthy target for this elite NVA commando unit. The men had undergone twelve intensive months of training in North Vietnam prior to this mission and had mastered the skills of jungle stealth and demolitions. They had been silently observing the base for two days, lying unseen and absolutely still in the tall surrounding grass. For this operation the sappers wore only undershorts and completely covered their bodies with mud for concealment. They slowly crawled toward the perimeter, taking two hours to go twenty-five yards. On arrival they would cut through the concertina wire, disarm the Claymore mines and then attack from the inside out, the North Vietnamese called this maneuver the "blooming lotus." They would then fire into foxholes and buildings with AK47 rifles and drop TNT satchel charges into the command structures and the barrels of howitzers, but total surprise and speed would be their major weapon. All of this would be just in time for the next American news cycle.
Adam heard a snap as wire cutters sliced barbed wire.
"Al, wake up. Somebody's out there," he whispered.
His hole mate sluggishly came to life, and immediately realized he was no longer in Hattiesburg. He signaled the soldiers in the next foxhole, and slowly the entire platoon was alerted. Big Ben fired a flare, and the mud soldiers were exposed and then violently came to life. They emerged from the grass like primordial aborigines with automatic weapons, all screaming as they raced for the prize.
"Fire!" screamed Mike Dempsey and a wall of ordinance met the exposed sappers, who had already partially breached the defense. However, surprise was lost, and they hastily tossed the TNT satchel charges as they were cut down by the intense fire. Their ferocity was terrifying as they ran through the camp, with complete disregard for their own safety and firing in all directions from within the compound.
Mike Dempsey assembled a squad which included Adam and Al to root through the camp and kill any remaining sappers. The two approached the communication hooch when a grenade rolled out between them. They both dove out of the path as it exploded. Adam felt intense burning in his back and a spinning sensation as a corpsman quickly came to evaluate both of the men. He removed the heavy equipment and cut off their fatigue jackets to assess the damage. Adam had taken shrapnel into his back, which was the source of the burning and Al had several shrapnel wounds in both arms. The corpsman injected a surette of morphine into each man, and they were tagged and in short order placed on a medevac helicopter. Adam was bleeding profusely from his wounds into the pressure dressing.
Mike whispered as he squeezed Adam's hand, "You just earned a life membership in the infantry fraternity, Adam."
"Thanks." Adam smiled weakly.
A surgeon was waiting for them as they arrived at the helipad for the evacuation hospital. He carefully examined each man's wounds and performed a brief mental status and neurological exam.
"Men, you're each going to surgery for debridement. We need to get some x-rays of your chest and abdomen and blood work to make sure there's nothing more we're missing. I think you're both going to do just fine."
The next thing Adam remembered was the nurse anesthetist placing a mask over his face and telling him to breathe deeply. Then the room went blank.
When he woke up, he was in the recovery unit and a blood pressure cuff was being placed on his arm.
"Hey, stranger. Looks like you got into another fight on the playground." Katie smiled.
"Katie, where am I? Is this the afterlife?" asked Adam, squinting at the bright lights that bathed his bandaged trunk.
"You're back with the good guys, Adam. You were hit by a grenade and returned with some metal souvenirs wedged into your back. Fortunately, there was no nerve or spinal involvement, and there was no penetration into your lung or abdomen. You need to close your eyes and get some sleep. But you're lucky to be alive."
On command, Adam's eyes closed, and he drifted into a deep sleep. He was flying down the East River accompanied by geese. They glided over the Brooklyn Bridge and then over Brooklyn. He looked down to see his apartment and his mother waving to him from the sidewalk. He banked to the right and flew over the new Verrazano-narrows Bridge. Work had just started on the lower deck, and he circled the bridge in wide arcs for several turns and then veered toward Brighton Beach and over Jamaica Bay. Just as he turned, he saw a Boeing 707 headed straight for him climbing out of JFK. He tried to dive to avoid collision, but it was too late. He screamed.
"Adam, Adam what's wrong?" asked Katie.
Sweat drenched Adam's hospital pajamas.
"I guess I had a nightmare. You woke me just in time to enter a real nightmare."
"Adam, you're going to be fine. You just have to stop being a soldier and bring back the old, smartass, irreverent and lovable guy I met right here in Silver City."
"Yea, I got the warrior bug. But at least it gets me away from my crazy unit."
Their conversation was interrupted by Bull and Major Tanaka walking up to the bed. Bull dominated the scene, and slightly pushed the Major out of the picture. His uniform reeked of cigar smoke.
"Adam, you really got yourself in a fix this time. I understand FSB Jody was infiltrated by sappers, and once again you were in the ring slugging it out. You've brought a lot of credit to the intel detachment, in fact you're a minor rock star on the plantation."
"Thanks, Colonel, I was telling Katie, I mean LT Dolan here, I'm hooked up with a great platoon, and I've really gotten to like these guys." He thought to himself he certainly liked them better than any of my former roommates at NYU, all of whom avoided the draft.
Major Tanaka smiled and said, "never in a million years could I have predicted that you, Adam Nussbaum, of all people would become our lifeline to the grunts. The doc said you'll be in the hospital here for at least another week, and after that might be a good time to take your R&R."
Adam winked at Katie, having heard the Major.
"Yea, Adam, I was just in Hong Kong for R&R and it was amazing. Grab it while you can." At that point under normal circumstances, Bull would have pulled out a cigar, but it didn't seem appropriate.
Adam screamed. Kenyata Martin's body was lying next to him in the hospital bed. Blood streamed from his severed neck, gushing from his carotid arteries like a wildcat oil strike. The bed sheets were bright red from the gusher. Kenyata's head rolled from the bed and landed on the floor of the hospital. His eyes then rolled up staring at Adam. His mouth opened and he began talking to him, his lower jaw knocking against the floor.
"Hey dude, see what's happens when you don't have your main man to guide you through the Nam? You meet the tiger, and he don't give a shit where you go to college. You're just educated cat meat, get it?"
Adam took a deep breath of air. His mouth felt dry. He did not understand what was happening, but he felt like he had to say something while his friend was there, though he wasn't sure how he was there. He couldn't just lie on his bed and say nothing. "Yea, K-man, where were you?"
"I was in the deep kimchi, bro, surrounded by grunts from the Nam who got wacked. About half of the guys there were brothers."
"Hell if I know. By the way, you almost made it, and you're not even a brother." Kenyata laughed.
"Were the other guys there from the platoon? Was the LT there? "
"Yea, Christiansen's there, walking around like he owns the place giving orders to everybody. The other guys were there too. Nobody owns this place, just like nobody owns the Nam. You dead, you know, nobody owns nothing."
"K-man, thanks, you saved my sorry- assed life."
"I gotta go, Adam."
"I miss you, bro. You were the best."
"Yea, yea, yea. Don't you get it? We just dust. The Nam is a giant dusticator that turns flesh into dust. It just don't make no difference." The image of Kenyata's bloodied body and head started to blur, and Adam called out his name.
"Adam, you okay?" Katie examined her love object, now a patient, and she could hardly recognize him. His skin was white, having lost two units of blood. His pupils were maximally dilated from a catecholamine surge, and he was once again sweating through his pajamas and the sheets.
Adam looked at her. "Katie, did you see him, did you see him?"
"Did you see Kenyata Martin? His head rolled off the bed, and he was talking to me from the floor. Where is he now? Did he roll under the bed? Could you look for him? This is important! You've got to find his head!"
Adam sobbed. It was all there - a stew of love, guilt, fear, horror and of course death which was the final common pathway. Katie had lived the scene many times with these twenty-five-year-old man-boys, Vietnamese and American, who crashed into these beds with grievous wounds of the body, mind and spirit. But she had never faced it with one she loved, or at least thought she loved. And now he was disintegrating.
She sat down next to the bed and rubbed Adam's arm. Tears undermined her perpetual professional game face. How did this happen?
"Adam, Kenyata's not here, you have brain fog from the morphine and the shock. But you're going to be okay. There's nothing you could have done to save Kenyata. It was fate. You're alive and you're going to get better." She rubbed his forehead as she uttered those words in a soothing, motherly tone. Slowly, Adam drifted back to a deep dream sleep, now without a dismembered bedmate.
Katie was shaken. She saw a surgeon, Dr. Jim Fidler, a few beds down, reading the chart of a patient just out of the OR. Jim was a good guy among the corps of operating room docs.
She walked over to him and whispered. "Jim, could I talk to you?"
"Sure, Katie, what's up?"
She motioned for him to follow her to the hallway, where they could speak in private, without the ears of other patients, doctors, or nurses.
"Jim, I'm reeling. Do you know Adam Nussbaum?"
"I think so." Jim looked over Katie's shoulder and nodded toward his bed., "Isn't he the intel guy who's been going out with the grunts? He used to work for that martinet, what was his name, Christiansen?"
"Yea, that's it. Well, Christiansen was killed in a banzai charge. Adam was in a fox hole with a kid named Kenyata Martin." She explained that Kenyata had been decapitated by AK47 fire, and that Adam spent the night in the foxhole with the dead soldier's body. "Kenyata probably saved Adam's life?"
"Wow, how do you deal with that?"
"That's not all. Eight other men in the platoon were killed in that charge, and Adam was tight with all of them. He's a brainiac kid from NYU, drafted into the service, who in one night experienced this incredible carnage. He's a patient over there"-she pointed her thumb over her shoulder-with shrapnel wounds from another mission but getting the aftershocks from hell."
She sighed. "There's one more thing."
She whispered, "Adam and I are romantically involved, and I see this smart, funny, irreverent guy not only coming apart, but turning into some kind of American Achilles." With that she sat down in a folding metal chair near the doorway, cupped her face in her hands and cried.
Jim grabbed a nearby chair and sat down next to her. He leaned in toward her and kept his voice low. "Medicine trains us to objectify everything. We're to be compassionate, but objective, as if we're martians visiting another planet. Well, that doesn't work too well when your heart is wrapped up in the patient." He held out his hand and she reached for it. "Time will work all of this out, but you need to step back. You're in too close."
"Thanks Jim." She squeezed his hand and tried to smile through the tears.
Cpt. Tom Shelton walked into the headquarters with a large duffel bag covered with red plantation dust. Bernie Rodgers looked up from his desk with the coiled curiosity of a cat aroused by the sound of a mouse.
"May I help you, sir?"
"Yea, I'm Cpt. Shelton and I've been transferred here from Danang to run the Interrogation Section. I understand the last officer was killed in a firefight."
"That's correct, sir. Lt. Christiansen won the DSC leading a charge against an NVA regiment. He's become famous in these parts," Bernie nodded with pride.
"Is Colonel Basham available to meet?"
"Let me check, I believe he might be."
With that Cpt. Shelton was escorted into Bull's office, which was now decorated with color pictures of his recent award ceremonies. An American flag behind the desk added to the air of patriotic gravitas.
"Captain, welcome to the detachment. I understand you've been transferred from Danang to take over the Interrogation Section. I'm certain you've heard the story about Lt. Christiansen, who you will be replacing."
"Briefly, sir, from Specialist Rodgers, but I don't understand what Christiansen was doing on the mission in the first place. Isn't that a long way from home base for an interrogation officer?"
"Well, the idea was to position intelligence assets close to the warfighter and so the lieutenant and Specialist Nussbaum were going out on combat missions. I can't say much actionable intelligence came out of the program, but the public relations value was enormous."
"The intel detachment had been viewed with disdain by the corps headquarters, which we support. You know, the rear echelon mother fucker thing. I'm sure you're also aware just how hard it is to get actionable intelligence. The NVA has been laying low in Cambodia since Tet, mostly coming in for small unit hit and runs attacks to make the evening news in the US and stir up the anti-war pot. This was a full regimental attack. The other member of your new section, Specialist Nussbaum, was recently wounded in a separate attack and is recovering in the Long Binh Hospital. At the moment there is no section, and outsiders have been filling in." Bull sat back in his chair and sized up the Captain. He was non-descript, about five feet ten, shaved haircut and GI black glasses. All of this was concealed in his jungle fatigues. "So Captain, what did you do in Danang?"
"Sir, I was actually assigned to the CID, involved with black market crime, even though my training was in intelligence interrogation and analysis. It's good to be back in an intel unit, back in my own guild."
Bull stared at Cpt. Shelton for a long moment and inwardly shuttered. The captain was poised and composed, without a trace of interview tension. Bull imagined Shelton was watching him for body language signals, and sensed that he, the commander, might actually be the subject of the interview. He decided to change the subject.
"Tell me a little more about your background, Captain."
"Well, ROTC, University of Texas, majored in criminology. Went to Fort Holabird for interrogation training and then several state-side assignments, then Vietnam. I'm married and my wife lives with her parents in Plano, Texas."
"Do you play golf?"
"No, never been bitten by that affliction, but I do hunt ducks and birds. My parents have a small cattle ranch."
"Captain, a pleasure to welcome you to the unit. Bernie Rodgers will take you on a tour of the detachment and introduce you around."
Bull took out a Dutch Master. It was too early in the day to pour a small dram of whiskey, although he felt that he needed that more than the cigar.
Bernie escorted Captain Shelton to the intel building. Outside the
ARVN detachment was warming up for their daily volleyball game. Major Dung appeared and introduced himself, and then returned to the game. Inside the intel building, the captain sat down with Peter Savory.
"Nice to meet you, Tom. I understand you're taking over the interrogation section, and you're joining us from Danang." Tom then repeated his personal history to Peter.
"So what's going on with the detachment?"
"Mostly treading water. The imagery interpretation section burns aerial film of triple canopy jungle, and the interrogation section goes through the motions with stone silent prisoners at the hospital. I'm sure you heard about the latest excitement with Lt. Christiansen who organized operations with the 123rd which is next door. He was killed leading a charge and saved the day for the infantry company. It was a shot in the arm for our unit, which had been the Cinderella for the corps headquarters. "
"Tell me, what's up with Colonel Basham and with the ARVN detachment."
"The colonel is a little easier to describe. He's a reservist who continues to run a Christmas tree farm in New Hampshire using the MARS station and is trying to keep a low profile and ride out the war. His enthusiasm for the ward is, shall we say, tepid."
"Anything else he's into?"
"I'm not sure what you mean. He plays golf and as you will see, had a golf driving net with putting green imported from the delta. I can't really comment on other aspects of his life. The ARVN detachment is an enigma for many of us. They arrived with Major Dung and have no interaction with the detachment, except with the colonel. No one knows what they do, which raises a red flag for me. The detachment appeared as part of the Vietnamization program. If the rest of the ARVN is like this, there isn't much hope for South Vietnam after we leave, unless the Vietnam war is ultimately settled on a volleyball court."
They talked for another half hour. Tom Shelton had many questions which centered on Bull. Peter suspected there was more to this story, much more.
Adam was gradually getting stronger, and had been rolled outside of the surgical ward. It was a glowing sunny day, and he sat with sun glasses and a New York Yankees hat, absorbing the solar warmth. His human battery was slowly recharging. A glass of ginger ale sat untouched in his hand.
"Hi, Adam, how do you feel?" whispered Katie as she stepped outside the hospital hut.
"Just great, how's your day going?"
"Just an average day, trying to patch you warriors back together. I got a little worried, you talking to decapitated heads on the floor and all."
"Yea, I guess I went through a rough spell. By the way how's Al Wilson? He landed here with the same disease that afflicted me, acute lead intoxication? Did he make it?"
"I heard he's on convalescent leave. He was on another ward, but I believe he's back with his unit on light duty."
"Thank goodness, Al's doing okay". Adam thought to himself that he wasn't doing nearly that well in both mind and body. "Katie, I'm still haunted by Kenyata Martin."
"I think we all get that, Adam, you had some wild hallucinations after surgery. Kenyata's head was having a chat with you from the floor. You've got to give up this combat bug."
"What do you mean?"
"The last three missions could have landed you in the Graves Registration Unit, what our docs call the 'horizontal clinic'."
"I get that, but the more I'm with these guys, the stronger the bond. I guess It's combat addiction. I've even thought about asking to be transferred to the 123rd to get away from the intel clown show. Is that crazy?"
Katie's demeanor changed. Her face contorted and she nervously began playing with her hair. She composed her thoughts after a long stare and then winced. This time she wasn't crying: she was furious at herself and at Adam. How did this metamorphosis take place and why did she fall for it?
"Adam, we were starting to have something between us. I really do like you, but I guess our relationship isn't as important to you as this warrior, testosterone storm surge. I'm not a woman who wants to spend the rest of my life pushing a double amputee to his appointments at the VA or putting flowers on a grave each month. This war's just not worth the sacrifice, and you don't have to do it. I know that's harsh, but I had to say it. We're both young and we deserve to live."
Adam looked up and took off his sunglasses. "That's an ultimatum, and it's unfair. I'm just trying to find my way through all of this. It sounds like there's more going on than just having a combat solder boyfriend. Are you seeing somebody else?"
Katie stood up from her chair and became more animated. "No I'm not, but Adam if we don't settle this, I will. You are not the person I started with."
The more she spoke the more strident her tone. She bit her lip and briskly walked backed into the ward, afraid to say even more. She had become an Irish emotional furnace, and her mouth was producing molten steel.
Bernie Rodgers and Major Tanaka were watching a small black and white television in the headquarters orderly room. It was July 20th and the Apollo 11 spaceship had traveled 240,000 miles in 76 hours to enter a lunar orbit. The lunar module, Eagle, which was manned by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had just separated from the command module and was headed for the lunar surface. Michael Collins remained in the command module watching the show from a slightly better seat than those spectators in Long Binh. The Eagle landed on the edge of the Sea of Tranquility and Neil Armstrong slowly made his way down a lunar ladder.
He planted his foot on the soft powder of the lunar surface, and uttered, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
"Can you believe this? Can you believe it?" exclaimed Bernie. "We're bogged down in the Nam and two astronauts are planting our flag on the moon in the Sea of Tranquility. How do I get myself reassigned to the Sea of Tranquility?"
On the television screen, Aldrin had joined Armstrong and together they left a plaque that read: Here men from the planet Earth first set foot on the moon-July 1969-We came in peace for all mankind."
"Well, I'm glad they decided to go to the moon in peace, and not carry the Vietnam War in their duffel bag," said Bernie.
"I've seen a lot in my lifetime, but I think this might be the most amazing thing ever," said Major Tanaka.
"I noticed the astronauts called Nixon from space. I wish we could have made that a conference call. There are a couple of things I'd like to share with him, like a progress report on Vietnamization, right here from the plantation" added Bernie.
"Just enjoy the day, forget the war for a minute. Nixon has a lot more on his plate than Vietnam."
With that Adam appeared, limping into the detachment headquarters. He was using a cane for balance and still experiencing pain from his shrapnel wounds. Bernie quickly got him a chair in the orderly room, in deference to his stature as a combat veteran.
"Adam, it's good to see you. How's the back, my friend?" asked the major vigorously shaking Adam's hand.
"Patched back up for another prize fight, sir."
"I think you'll go back to your original vocation: interrogating prisoners. No one has been attacked and killed yet at the hospital."
"Yea, I've had a wild trip. "
"By the way, Adam, you have a new boss: Captain Tom Shelton. He was working for the CID in Danang and was transferred. He seems like a reasonable officer."
"Yea, reasonable is good, but why would a CID officer come to an intelligence detachment?"
"He was trained as an intelligence interrogation officer. They were a little short on CID officers in Danang when he came in-country."
At that point Major Dung entered the room with two ARVN lieutenants in tow. His attention was immediately drawn to the small television and the astronauts on the moon, and he flashed his famous smile with the million dollar gums. "What other nation could fight a war and put two men on the moon at the same time? You Americans amaze me. You have no limits."
"Talk about limits. Do you think the ARVN volley ball team will make it to the Olympics, Major?"
Major Dung turned and smiled.
"Adam, good to see you. Everyone has heard of your battlefield heroics. We all feel safer now you are back in the base to protect us."
Major Tanaka asked "Major Dung, you must be here for business, can I help you?"
"Actually I was hoping to speak with Colonel Basham, if he is available."
Bernie knocked on the commander's door and quickly returned. "He will see you now."
With that the major and his party entered the Colonel's chambers and shut the door. Adam pondered what business this mysterious delegation might have with the famous colonel.
Adam was back at his battle station in the hospital. For once, the musty smell of army canvas mixed with medicinal aromas was reassuring. He was home again. His translator slowly walked up to him and greeted him. He was a small Vietnamese man, who compensates for his reduced size with exaggerated deference.
"Specialist, we have a new prisoner on the unit who might be interesting to you."
"What's the story?"
"He was observed outside of the plantation taking pictures from a truck on the side of the road. The MP's tried to question him and he opened fire with an AK47. They returned fire wounding him in the arm and shoulder and he was brought here. He had papers indicating he's an NVA lieutenant. His name is Lt. Tran. His film was processed and the pictures are of the perimeter of the plantation part of the Long Binh base."
Just at that point in the briefing, Cpt. Shelton appeared, walking slowly from the end of the unit and joined the two men.
"Adam, we haven't met. I'm Cpt. Tom Shelton and I will be the new interrogation officer."
Adam jumped to his feet and saluted, still experiencing the automatic reflex, beaten into him under the ancient regime. "Nice to meet you, sir. Just getting the rundown from our interpreter on a new prisoner who was wounded outside of the plantation taking pictures. I was about to go in and interrogate him."
"Would you mind if I join you?"
"Of course not, sir. Would you like for me to lead the interrogation?"
"Please go ahead. I'll just observe."
The prisoner was rolled into the interrogation tent, just outside of the prisoner ward in a wheel chair. Dressings covered his right shoulder and arm where he had undergone surgical exploration and debridement. He was alert and did not appear to be in pain. The party entered the tent and Adam offered him a water bottle, which he refused.
"Lt. Tran, how are you feeling? Are you comfortable."
The prisoner shook his head after the translation. He was mildly shaking. Clearly this young man, probably in his 20's had heard of the helicopter interrogations by the ARVN. Prisoners were taken into the air for interrogation, and if uncooperative, were pushed out of the helicopter. This was intended to motivate the remaining prisoners in the helicopter to talk. Perhaps he had seen the helipad on his way into the hospital.
"Do you feel up to talking to us for a few minutes?"
Lt. Tran nodded that he would. He was a small man, by western standards, dressed in black pajamas. When he opened his mouth, a dragon breath filled the tent, the product of years of fermenting rice, noodles, fish heads and of course unattended cavities since the age of five.
"Yes, yes," he nodded as he answered with a deferential smile.
"Lieutenant, would you like a cigarette?" He nodded and Adam continued. "You were seen photographing an American installation from your truck, and when questioned you opened fire on our MP's. Is that correct?"
"Yes" He nodded.
"Could you tell us why you were photographing the base?"
"I was ordered to by my regimental commander."
"And who is that?" The Lt. nodded and inhaled a large cloud of smoke. American cigarettes were clearly not part of his regular diet. "Colonel Dang."
"And just what did Colonel Dang want you to photograph?"
"Your headquarters base."
"What do you think he was planning to do with the photographs?"
"I don't know. I'm just a lieutenant. But my regiment has been slowly moving into the area. We spent the last four months moving down through Laos and Cambodia."
"So, lieutenant, do you think there will be an attack against the American base?"
"Maybe, but I have not seen plans. I was only told to take pictures."
Adam glanced at Captain Shelton, who stared at the lieutenant without expression. They paused to see if there would be any more discussion, but there was not. They excused the prisoner to return to his hospital unit.
"Nice job, Adam, I liked the way you interacted with the prisoner without threatening him. You know it's a delicate balance: firm but considerate. We do of course represent the civilized side in this conflict."
With that Adam returned to a small field desk in the prisoner unit and started to write up his report. He noticed Katie at the other end of the ward giggling with Jim Fidler, the surgeon. A wave of sadness ran through him as he contemplated what he thought he saw. He pretended not to notice, well aware that she was not responding to him in the small place. Finally, after what seemed an eternity she walked up to his field table.
"Adam, good to see you back at work, gainfully employed." Her voice had changed. No longer was there any eagerness or flirtatiousness in her tone. She smiled with the dutiful maternal obligation to a difficult child, not with the heat of a lover. There was no juice, no love- play in her voice.
"Katie, you look great. How are you?"
"Pretty much the same, it's good to see you patched back together and on your old job. I hope that job doesn't include combat. I noticed your new captain was with you, how's that going?"
"On first pass he seems to be an okay officer. It's odd though that he was in the CID in Danang and that he would be transferred in the middle of his tour to a unit like this." Katie quietly absorbed the update. She tried to process exactly where Adam was planted in her universe: colleague, friend, lover, or all of the above.
"Katie, any chance we might get together for dinner again?"
"I'd love to Adam, but for the next week I'm doing twelve hour shifts each day. We're a little short-handed."
Adam got the forecast for amorous climate change. A cold front was coming in with a fifty per cent chance of rain. Katie was trying to deposit him gently on the ground from ten thousand feet. He started to write a letter to his sister to distract his angst.
Sorry for the long delay in writing you back. I have had several work injuries over the past couple of months involving "heavy metal intoxication". Actually I've been wounded several times from grenade fragments, but rest assured I'm okay now, at least in body. I attribute my good luck entirely to the Video Ranger flying saucer ring, which rarely leaves my person. On two occasions I've attempted to contact Captain Video from my field radio for back-up, without success.
Seriously, I've fallen in with an infantry platoon led by a wonderful West Pointer named Mike Dempsey. They have kind of adopted me ( I assume to get access to the powers of the ring). Boys from Brooklyn are in great demand in the bush, since we communicate in a language no one else understands, friend or foe. We are sort of code talkers. I've bonded with this platoon, who take care of each other and me in a pretty intense and amazing way. My regular intelligence unit is more like a dysfunctional NYU fraternity which has been kicked off campus. They are trying to create an imaginary base which is still in America and not Vietnam. This is epic denial and it runs through a comic book list of characters including a commander trying to run a Christmas tree farm in New Hampshire from our base to a mechanic who is trying to marry one of the Vietnamese shit burners. There's a lot in between, but I'll spare you the details for now.
I'm in the dumps. I've been dating a nurse in the hospital where I interrogate North Vietnamese prisoners, and she's gone "arctic" on me. It sort of relives the high school chapter I had with Sally Goldsmith, remember? Only Sally didn't dump me because I was going out on combat operations. The nurse, Katie Dolan, is livid that I keep going out and getting wounded. She has observed in her clinical experience this sometimes leads to death. She is smart, beautiful, supportive, and by the way dazzled by my ring. Or at least she used to be.
Finally, I encourage you to keep protesting. This might seem curious from a veteran who is really in tight with his combat buddies. But after some thought and study I have concluded that this war is a null vector ( no direction or magnitude). To put it another way, it ain't World War II. After watching the Apollo 11 mission, I've applied to be an astronaut (I believe I will be the first from NYU). I hope to get a direct transfer from Vietnam.
Forgive the word-hash, sometimes I just need to talk. You know. Don't tell Mom and Dad about the combat stuff- they get enough of their own.
Your loving brother,
Adam put down his pen and felt a little better. He wondered where he might find astronaut applications in Long Binh.
Bull was sitting with Lien Mai at a table at the Royal Saigon Hotel. He was already into his third gin and tonic and second Dutch Master, when Paresh Agarwal and another Indian man appeared at the table.
"I believe you've met my friend Lien Mai, gentlemen. Please feel free to share anything with her that you would have for me. It's good to see you again. Would you like to order something to drink?"
"Colonel, I hope you're in good health and that the war is going well up in Long Binh."
"Very well on both counts, Paresh. What I found especially heartening is how well our business venture is doing. In just two months five thousand dollars have been deposited with my associates in the states. I have also reviewed your plans for setting up four Christmas tree sales centers in Saigon. Since only about 10% of the population is Catholic, the real challenge will be convincing the 12% Buddhists,the 5% Caodaists, and all the other assorted religionists to buy Christmas trees."
"Very astute observation, Colonel, but keep in mind that, though a distinct minority, the Catholics run the country and have most of the money. They also set the fashions from Saigon. Our challenge is to make Christmas a secular rather than a religious holiday as you've done in the US. My associates are working on this. So far we don't have much competition. We can also market the trees to the 500,000 US servicemen in-country who will want to celebrate the holiday."
Bull turned toward his friend and signaled her with a large cloud of carcinogens "Lien, what do you think of this idea? Is there any market for Christmas trees in Vietnam?".
"Colonel, in the south, people will buy anything. I think you need to jump from the religious to the consumer aspect of the holiday. People in the south are wild consumers. Advertising might help to convince my countrymen. The campaign would be that they need a tree under which to display their new mopeds, watches, cameras, fans, and of course televisions. Just what you have done in the states: make the holiday 'Giftmas' instead of Christmas."
"Brilliant, brilliant!" said Paresh clapping. "''Giftmas' indeed!"
"Paresh, there is one other small matter I wanted to discuss."
"What is that, sir?"
"We have a new officer, Captain Tom Shelton, who was just transferred into our unit from Danang. He shared with me that he was a CID officer involved with investigating black market crime. I wonder if some of your contacts in Danang could examine his credentials. I am a little worried that he might have been planted in our unit to look into my business."
"I certainly will, Colonel, and I'll get back to you next month when we meet."
"Thanks Paresh, you've more than exceeded my expectations."
With that Paresh and his guest excused themselves leaving Bull alone with Lein Mai. Lien sat perfectly dressed and composed. She was a living Vietnamese doll.
"Lien, tell me what you think of all of this. Should I bail out while I can?"
"South Vietnam is a menagerie filled with predators. American, Vietnamese, Chinese, you name it. Very few at the top of the food chain care about the war, except that it gives them cover to be predators. Only the North Vietnamese and some Americans take the war seriously. If you leave this country a little richer and alive, you have won the war."
"Thank you, words to live by, Lien." With that Bull stood up from the table. He helped Lien out of her chair. He wobbled slightly, the drinks affecting his gait. The pair lumbered to the elevator and took it up three floors to finish the evening with some ritualized sex. The king was back on his game.
General Burt Wacker welcomed General Gus Whalen into his office. The two had forged a bond of sorts trying to strike a course through the minefield which was Vietnam. Already twenty-five thousand American troops were returning to the states under the program of Vietnamization. American deaths had remained stable and a kind of calm had settled over the land, almost normalcy.
"Gus, I haven't talked to you in a while. I think we're doing ok. US casualties are stable and the mopeds are cruising up and down Highway One. Is that victory?" Or is the fact that there haven't been any massacres in the corps area, at least no massacres which have reached the New York Times a victory. Macarthur famously said 'there is no substitute for victory'. So what is victory?"
"Sir, in this game, victory is the absence of defeat. The problem is you can't lead a charge with lethal weapons under that banner. Swiss mercenaries might fight for it, but not American GI's, especially drafted American GI's. Remember the battle a few weeks ago with the 123rd?"
"You mean the one where Lieutenant Christiansen, lead a charge that wiped out an NVA regiment?"
"Exactly, sir. Well that battle didn't even make page four in the East Coast papers. It didn't fit the story line that Americans were losing to the morally superior NVA, who lost about two hundred fighters in the battle. This is the first war in which a significant portion of the American public are either rooting for the enemy or are indifferent to our success. And further the press has somehow created the impression that the fighters in this mess chose the war. An army of draftees chose to fight a war in Vietnam!"
"You're right, Gus. And on top of that Nixon and Kissinger don't even treat the war as the first thing on their punch list. They want to diffuse the anti-war movement and get the hell out. That was clear in our meeting with Creighton Abrams. All of the commands have been told to keep the American casualties to a minimum and no large unit operations. Let the ARVN do the dying. We're on our way to 25,000 fewer American troops. You know, Gus, if they would just leave a force, say 75,000 with air support, we could probably hold this place for a long time, and maybe the Saigon government would come around. But with the complete draw-down, we all know where this is going to end. President Thieu knows where it's going to end."
"I'm sure there was a discussion of My Lai and US atrocities."
"There was a long discussion. Creighton and the old WWII guys, myself included, remember that atrocities occur in every war, even good wars. The loudest protesters don't have a clue about war. The NVA are certainly not punishing any of their troops for the massacres on their side, and they sure as hell don't publicly investigate them."
"Sir, where do we go from here?"
"Go through the motions, try to keep morale high, minimize American casualties and leave the party in an orderly fashion. The only combat I can see in the future would be as a hammer to try to move the peace negotiations. The world is moving on."
The Loon Foon was once again filled with a sea of green uniforms, waves of laughter, and popping of beer. Katie was sitting in this protected harbor, but this time with Jim Fidler, who had transformed himself from combat surgeon to Saturday night date.
"This is an amazing place, don't you think, Katie?"
"Yea, sitting here in the command center of this war. It doesn't quite fit into the John Wayne movies I saw as a kid."
"Like how we beat the Nazis by devouring piles of Chinese food."
"Exactly!" said Katie laughing and playing with her hair. She once again had spent an hour applying foundation, blush, mascara, eye shadow, eye liner and of course lipstick. Her pretty face laughed as they went through the festival of wine and courses of Won Ton soup, Kung Pao chicken, sweet and sour pork, and Szechwan shrimp. The hall pulsated with "Bad Moon Rising" from Credence Clearwater Revival.
Across the restaurant Adam was experiencing a similar menu with Peter Savory and Bernie Rodgers, but when he saw Katie, he stopped eating. His systems froze and he felt like he had been gut punched. A wave of self-pity and then sadness descended. His one source of light in an otherwise dark night was going out, and he was left only with Vietnam.
Peter sensed a change. "What's up, Adam?"
"Nothing, I guess I've gotten a little sick from all the food, beer, and temperature in here. Would you excuse me for a few minutes? I'm going to get some air." He navigated through the green ocean out to the parking lot, where he vomited. After retching several times, he felt a little better, but still light headed and sat on the steps to the restaurant.
Peter walked out of the Loon Foon. "I had to check on you. Are you ok?"
"Yea, I guess so and thank you. To be honest it's just the high school broken heart thing, plus too much food and too much beer."
"So, what happened."
Adam pointed back to the restaurant. "I noticed Katie across the restaurant having dinner with a surgeon at the hospital, Jim Fidler. I guess she's decided to go up-market."
"I'm sorry." Peter shook his head and sat down next to Adam on the restaurant steps. "Having gone through a divorce myself, I know the pain. You really liked Katie, didn't you?"
"Yea, she's a fine girl, the complete package. You don't see many American women in these parts who are mature, beautiful and smart. For a shining moment, she even liked me. Maybe she was turned off by the warrior thing."
"Adam, I don't understand that either." Peter was perplexed that Adam had loathed Christensen's combat caricature, but was now evolving into that personae. "Adam how did this happen, can you explain this transformation?"
"Not very well. Combat is addictive. Once you're with these guys you lock into a fellowship and it's hard to break loose. It's like the platoon becomes an organism, and you're a small part of it. Believe it or not, I feel guilty right now that I'm not out there, that I'm here in this wartime theme park eating Chinese. I think when Katie realized how strong my feelings were for these guys, she ran for the exit."
"Part of it might be that she spends every day putting warriors back together, or sending them to the morgue. She sees the literal worst end of the Vietnam War."
"I think you might be right, Peter. But is there a 'best part of the war'?"
"Let me drive you back to the base and we'll talk about this some more. For now, you need some sleep." They slumped into the family jeep which for Adam had become a mini-hearse.
Adam was sitting with Cpt. Shelton in the hospital going over an interrogation report. The captain was still on a "learner's permit" with prisoner interrogation and Adam was trying to teach him the secrets of the occult craft, particularly the lessons not learned from the Spanish Inquisition.
"Specialist, let me ask you a question, and you don't have to answer it. What's the story on Colonel Basham?"
Adam paused, he had not expected the question. Tom Shelton had been a CID man in Danang. Was this relevant to their work in the detachment?
"It's complicated. He usually skates on the thin ice of legality, but thousands in Vietnam are doing the same thing. He runs his Christmas tree farm in New Hampshire from Vietnam via the MARS radio. It's rumored that he keeps a mistress in Saigon. He's not enamored with the war, but he plays the political game fairly well around the corps headquarters. I don't know what else he might be involved with."
"Has he ever mentioned a business in Saigon?"
"He has mentioned a business plan he had to sell Christmas trees in Saigon. I didn't know it had actually become a business though."
"Have you ever seen him with Indian civilians here or in Saigon?"
"No I can't say I've heard of any of that. Why do you ask?"
"'I'm just trying to get a feel for the unit, that's all."
"Sir, you're not still with the CID, are you?"
"Let's just say I still have a network of friends. Now let's get back to the interrogation business. By the way, you're doing a very impressive job with these interrogations."
Cpt. Shelton left the ward, leaving Adam to complete his report. He was wading through it, feeling slightly lifted by the Captain's compliment, when he saw Katie.
"Adam, how are you?" she asked smiling. Her voice registered slightly off key, more professional and less personal.
"Just hammering away with these reports, and trying to keep my head down. How about you, Katie?"
"I've been busy. The hospital is going to have an IG (inspector general) inspection come in next week. Can you believe it? In the midst of a war we're getting an inspection?"
"There's a lot going on under the table. There are tons of drugs in a hospital, and a growing market for product on the outside. Or maybe they got complaints on patient care. Maybe the prisoners are complaining about their medical care or the food. There are many reasons for an IG inspection."
"It's turned this into a frantic place the last week and we've been working fourteen hour days."
"You need to join a union."
"Right, the Combat Nurses Sisterhood of the AFL/CIO, and we could stage a work action. I'll be right behind you with a sign." Katie laughed, and for a moment Adam sensed he was back on his game. But the moment faded.
"Adam, I've got to get back to my day job, you be careful with yourself." With that Katie walked to the other end of the ward and Adam returned to his angst machine. He so much wanted to be back with Katie.
The Enlisted Man's club had been decorated for the queen. It was not every day that the unit commander announced his decision to extend in Vietnam for an additional six months. Such a choice might have been viewed as a symptom of psychosis, but in Bull's case, it almost made sense. Business was booming and the tempo of the war had slowed down. He had found his groove. Bull thought he had really found the pulse of the place. Maybe he would even buy a house on the beach at Vung Tau. Vietnam was almost habitable, at least for Bull.
A four-man Filipino rock band was doing a wild rendition of the Led Zeppelin's, "Whole Lotta Love". Fueled by an unlimited supply of beer, the unit was in a scrum, laughing, screaming and cheering. Even Grady Davis and Mrs. Davis were in the mix, all having a grand time. Huong, was a nice addition, since there were no other women in the unit or at the party.
"Colonel, congratulations on seeing the fight to the finish. Perhaps you'd like to share a few words with the men, while they can still stand." Major Tanaka laughed, signaling the band to stop their increasingly frantic gyrations.
"Certainly." Bull walked to the front and took the mike from the male vocalist. Cigar in the other hand, he paused as he surveyed his team. "Men, and Mrs. Davis. And by the way, congratulation to Grady and Huong. I never imagined the headquarters as a wedding chapel, but there's a lot I never imagined. Thanks to all of you for this party. This is very special. We don't always get credit for it, but our detachment provides the eyes and ears for the corps headquarters. And I want to thank each of you for a productive year of operations in the field. I also want to thank Major Dung and his unit for helping us accomplish our mission. You could not ask for better partners as we hand this war to them. Finally, please raise your drink in a toast to Lt. Joshua Christiansen, who I'm sure will reciprocate from points beyond."
The unit raised their beer cans in unison to the departed warrior, now legend and on the way to sainthood. With that, the band broke into "Suspicious Minds" with the lead vocalist doing an exaggerated interpretation of Elvis's original performance. He went to the trouble to unbutton his rhinestone decorated tuxedo jacket to his umbilicus, raise his collar, and then belt out, "We're caught in a trap/I can't walk out". Adam put his hand on Peter's shoulder as he laughed.
"Can you believe this? Pinch me," said Adam.
"What do you mean?" asked Peter.
"Well, I can't believe this party. Bull must be pulling MPC's or piasters or both from his Saigon Christmas tree business, while he's getting baby-sitting money for running this detachment. And what's with the bit about Dung?"
As if on signal, Tom Shelton walked across the room and joined the conversation. "Nice party?"
"What can I say?" mumbled Peter.
"What do you mean?"
"Why would a reserve officer, with a business back home, extend his tour to stay in a unit like this, in a war like this?" Adam asked.
"Perhaps to experience the full flavor of Vietnamization. Perhaps to make one last effort to build democracy in Indochina. Perhaps to be part of living history," opined Peter.
"Maybe he wants to help capitalism defeat the evil gnomes of communism," added Adam. "These southern Vietnamese guys and gals are absolutely nutso-crazy about stuff. Anything you can hold or drive qualifies. They don't give a rat's ass about communism, democracy, corruption, religion, or you name it. Bull fits perfectly into that picture. He should be the fucking Ambassador to Vietnam."
At that moment, the band broke into "Honky Tonk Women" and a stunning Vietnamese woman leaped from nowhere in front of the band into the alcohol haze. She wore a skirt that ended just below her panties and see-through blouse with a black bra. Her high heels could have driven holes into the floor, and her plans for the evening were as transparent as the blouse. She seductively undulated in front of the male herd to loud cheering and whistling. Then as the music blasted on, she focused her craft on Bull, as if to welcome him to the culture. He wallowed onto the floor into a dance, trying to synchronize his arms with her serpentine movements. It was a funny show, ecstatically received by an audience well into the throes of inebriation. He threw off his fatigue jacket in a faux-stripper act and then continued uncoordinated movements of his arms legs and legs. The layers of fat on his arms as well as a large pannus rolled with the music. The stark gap between the quivering mass of protoplasm and the petite stripper created a kind of audience electricity.
But Bull quickly lost his dance mojo and began visibly panting. The Major helped him to a seat; oxygen was not available, so a chair had to suffice. At that moment, the band started playing "Easy to be Hard', and the dancer's blouse came off. The crowd understood this took the evening to a new quantum level. The men had had no female contact for months, except with the shit burners. Only Grady Davis had found that sexually exciting. Clapping escalated to loud shouting, whistling and foot stomping. Adam wondered if the crowd would burn the building down.
Anonymous shouts were heard from the back of the room, "Fuck her, Bull. Fuck her now!"
The commander scanned the rabble with fake disapproval and a feint smirk. There was another gale of laughter, and more loud cheering.
The king lit up a Dutch Master, and absorbed the festival from his folding throne-chair. It was very unlikely under any circumstances, including his steady state, that he could have risen to the challenge of the crowd. The dancing artist was down to her bra and panties and began dancing on the lap of the monarch. She had been down this path before, perhaps even earlier in the evening, and slowly teased the crowd as she became completely nude. It was the Vietnamese version of the dance of the seven veils. Bull was perspiring and coughing, immersed in a cloud of smoke. Most physicians would not have prescribed Dutch Masters for his condition, but it was getting late for therapy. Finally, SFC Westbrook appeared, and handed the girl a bathrobe and a wad of piasters. She extended a hand to Bull who departed the party with a smile that was visible from Hanoi.
Mike Dempsey stood at attention in front of his company, for the change of command ceremony. He had just been promoted to captain and had been made the company commander. Big Ben had also been promoted to first sergeant and would be the senior NCO for the unit. The sergeant took the company flag called a guidon from Cpt. Nichols and presented it to Mike as a symbol of the transfer of command.
The simple ceremony had great importance to the two hundred men standing at attention in formation. Mike was the man who would soon lead them once again into the jaws of death, and the troops felt he had his shit together. He had been road tested.
Adam was proud to have received an invitation to join the ceremony, if only as a spectator. After the formation was dismissed, he walked over to Mike and Big Ben. Mike shook Adam's hand. "Thanks for attending. You're almost part of the unit."
"Congratulations, Captain, a well-deserved promotion. But don't officers usually get assigned to an administrative job for the second half of their tour in the Nam?"
"They offered me a job as a battalion assistant operations officer, but I turned it down. I just couldn't leave these guys. Too deeply into it, and also Big Ben was promoted to first sergeant, so this was a chance to continue with the team, my team. We understand each other."
"Did you hear, the CO of the intel detachment, LTC Basham has extended for six months?"
"No, I hadn't. There must be a story."
"Hard to say, the colonel lives in a house with many rooms."
The conversation was interrupted by a muscular second lieutenant who swaggered up to the group. He sported a shaved scalp, and exuded unearned self-confidence.
"Specialist, let me introduce Lieutenant Mason Hunter, who is taking over my old platoon. This is Adam Nussbaum, an interrogator who has been with us on many missions. He's almost a grunt."
"Nice to meet you, Specialist," said the Lieutenant, clearly staring through Adam. "If you'll excuse me, I have to take care of some platoon business." With that he walked back toward a school of enlisted men who immediately started animated laughing with the lieutenant.
"So what's his story, sir?"
"LT. Hunter's from West Virginia; he was enlisted and went through infantry OCS at Benning. I'm still scoping him out, and so is Big Ben. OCS has become a factory turning out infantry lieutenants, as they are used or consumed by the war." Adam squirmed as he listened to the bio. He felt like he was walking through a human mine field. First Christiansen and now Hunter, but he didn't comment, after all these were officers.
"By the way, to change the subject, we have an operation scheduled in two days, if you want to join us."
"Sir, if you could call Captain Tom Shelton, my new section chief. He would have to give the ok. He's less than enthusiastic about the infantry missions."
"I'll give him a call. Do you know anything about his background?"
"Yea, he was in the CID in Danang investigating black market crime. Odd that he shows up here, although he was trained as an intelligence interrogator."
"Sir, congratulations again on your promotion and the command." With that Adam saluted and returned to his unit.
The headquarters had an air of pseudo-normalcy. Bernie Rodgers was preparing the monthly report for the major, who was engaged in undisclosed activities behind a closed door. Peter Savory walked into the headquarters orderly room.
Bernie suddenly received a call from the corps headquarters and bounded from his desk to interrupt the major.
"Sirs, I just got a call from the corps G2 clerk who took a report off the AP teletype. Ho Chi Minh died of a heart attack on September 2nd. I guess the war's over."
"The last I checked we were fighting North Vietnam, not Ho Chi Minh personally," observed the major.
"Don't you think it's ironic that we're an intelligence unit, and we learn of Ho's demise on the Associated Press teletype?"
"There's a lot of intelligence that comes along that we never hear about. The food chain goes up but not down. We're a producer, not a consumer of intelligence," calmly explained the major.
"I guess we're at the bottom of the 'great chain of being' in the Nam. Ho was at the top on the other side. He reported to God," added Peter. Peter would never forget the picture of Minh at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, in a rented formal suit, as he attempted to get an audience with Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, like Minh, was an idealist, and Minh imagined he would be welcomed into Wilson's study to talk about the evils of colonialism, as a fellow idealist. Minh had actually written an eight-point proposal for greater autonomy for French Indochina, not independence just more freedom. At the time he made a living retouching photographs in Paris, and was twenty-nine years old! He got a lot tougher over the next fifty years mused Peter.
"Sir, do you think that Ho's death will change the war, will North Vietnam be more open to negotiate with Nixon?" asked Bernie.
"My guess is they will be less likely, since they'll want to show how determined they are to continue his legacy. Lately Ho has been more of a hood ornament than a leader or strategist, anyway."
"So I guess this means the war's not over." Peter smirked and Bernie raised his hands in the air in mock resignation.
That night the unit gathered for a teriyaki steak-beer-movie trifecta. A large picture of Minh had been drawn with magic marker on a white sheet and was pinned next to the movie screen. Several of the enlisted men had already organized a dart game with the late leader as the target. All in all not a gesture of great respect for the "father of the north" at his wake.
"I'm going to nail the king gook on the nose," boasted Grady Davis, already slurring his speech as he took aim.
"The king gook held off France, China and now most of our army. He's done that with a country of less than 20 million for the last twenty years. Don't get me wrong, he's not my favorite person, but you've got to give him his due," observed Adam.
Major Dung was standing about twenty feet away and glaring at the spectacle. The intel detachment continued its celebratory mourning for the late Minh, oblivious to all of this, except for Adam.
Adam was roaming the aisles of the Long Bing Post Exchange, examining the vast displays of all matter of "stuff" to make the non-combat experience a little softer for the 60,000 men and women who called Long Binh home. There were shelves of stereo receivers, speakers and tape decks, to fill the air with pulsating American hits around the clock. Down the aisle were all variations of fans to move the always water saturated air and attendant insect life through the thousands of hooches which dotted the giant REMF community. Toward the cashiers, cameras with collections of interchangeable lens to record all aspects of the experience, were safely displayed in locked cabinets. None of these objects really improved the miserable experience for the thousands of REMF's who frequented the store, but their possession created a certain feeling of pseudo-normalcy in the dusty red air. Sears and Roebuck had come to the Nam. An entire industry had emerged in the bowels of Japan and Korea to produce and distribute these treasures for displaced American GI's. The real legacy of the Vietnam War would prove to be the internationalization and world distribution of "stuff". In fact this might be the first American war entirely fought for "stuff".
Adam considered the specifications of three different desk top fans, when he saw Katie walking down the aisle. Her smile radiated over her dull jungle fatigues, and she walked as though she had high heels, in her combat boots. His consumer focus broke.
"Hi, Katie. How are you, my lady? How did your IG inspection go?"
"It went well. The inspectors just walked through the hospital, without finding anything. By the way, I haven't seen much of you at the hospital recently. Are you okay?"
"Would you like to have a coke and I'll try to answer that? We can sit outside on a picnic table?"
"That sounds great."
Adam grabbed two cans of Coke, paid with MPC and nervously walked to wooden picnic tables. It was less than an idyllic location. There was no grass, flowers, or plants and the ground was covered with crushed rock. It would take some work to make Long Binh a national park. They sat down, and awkwardly stared at each other in the hot sun, as Adam popped the warm drinks.
Katie looked at her soda as she played with her hair. "A lot of news lately?"
"You mean the moon mission, Ho Chi Minh's death?"
'It's amazing how little those events have meant here in the Nam. We put our heads down, do our jobs, and count the days to our R&R and especially our stateside rotation, that is except for Bull who has extended for six months. The American public sent us here, and now they have abandoned their children. We are orphans."
"Good way to put it, Adam, but even more reason not to get yourself killed on these damned missions."
"I know. My new boss, Captain Shelton, doesn't have much enthusiasm for bush missions either. But I suspect Bull does, so they'll probably continue. As I mentioned, he extended his tour for another six months."
"What was that all about?"
"Good question. I doubt it's a new passion for the war. Most feel it's connected in some opaque way with his business activities in Saigon. Bull has built a nice little nest here."
Katie continued to nervously play with her hair as she carefully sipped the coke. "So, what are you doing for fun these days, besides playing war?"
"Not much. How about you?"
"Let me put it this way. Would you like to go out for dinner again, sometime?"
Katie squirmed a little on the bench. "Maybe, why don't you make me an offer."
"Friday at seven, I'll bring the corvette."
With that Adam returned to the merchandise cornucopia and after many minutes, he emerged with a Sanyo fan with fourteen buttons with which to manipulate the unforgiving climate.
General Whalen was furious, his baseline emotional state. A LRPS patrol had been ambushed at Dong Xoai, and he thirsted for vengeance. His aide-de-camp had contacted Colonel Rod Nottingham, the brigade commander of the 123rd, on the secure phone and his message was unmistakable. "Rod, we just lost three fucking rangers with the corps LRPS around Dong Xoai, and I want to retaliate; I'm not going to tolerate this shit. I don't want more American casualties and no civilian massacres, but I wouldn't mind a deuce-and-a-half truck full of NVA body bags, capisce?"
"Yes, sir. We'll have an operation on the way tomorrow. I'll get the details from your operations staff. We're talking about a company size operation, right?"
"Yea, that sounds right. And we'll support it with Cobra gunships, artillery, close air support, the Battleship Missouri. Whatever you need to waste those guys you'll get."
Mike was meeting with his platoon leaders after landing in an open field near Dong Xoai. He assigned each of the platoon leaders an objective to perform a reconnaissance in force (RIF) and clear the area of NVA. They would move in radio contact with each other.
"Our orders from brigade are to vigorously engage any NVA in the area. Remember they killed three rangers last week. But men, I want to chase NVA, not civilians or children, and I don't want to waste any villages. Is everyone clear on the orders?"
"Yes sir!" the platoon leaders and NCO's replied in unison.
Mike's tone tried to find the balance between retribution and reason that had been so elusive in this war for so many years. He said he would follow the middle platoon with his small command group including Big Ben.
Mason Hunter returned to his platoon. His jungle fatigues were rolled up revealing a tattoo over his right deltoid muscle with a colorful parachute and the inscription "Death from Above". He clearly relished his new role as an airborne horseman of the apocalypse.
"What's up LT? Are we gonna waste some gooks?" asked an eighteen-year old private, who was rapidly absorbing Hunter's world view.
"Damned straight, boy. We're gonna lay some serious hurt on these folks. They didn't give us these beautiful killin' machines to hunt deer." He raised his M16 and gave it a double pump in the air. "You guys just wait, the bones are gonna fly." All Hunter needed to start this mission was a large supply of beer, ammunition, and a hunter's lodge.
The platoon moved down a dirt oxen path with scouts on each flank. They approached an aging Buddhist shrine in a pasture. It was riddled with bullet wounds and surrounded by craters from airstrikes and artillery. A partially intact Buddha sat in the small enclosure. Having survived innumerable attacks, it was a single arm amputee. The ancient religion didn't have a VA to provide a prosthesis. Despite this handicap, the Buddha placidly smiled, which was probably a mistake under the circumstances.
Hunter, gazed at the shrine for a long moment, with the men watching in anticipation of this new "bad-ass" leader. Something was going to happen, they could feel it. He borrowed an M79 grenade launcher from a private, chambered a round, and fired. A blast blew fragments toward the surprised spectators in the platoon, who fell to the ground. When the debris settled, there was no shrine. The show concluded for the platoon without a spoken word. A grin filled Mason's face, as he proudly viewed the destruction. He lit a cigarette, satiated and signaled to move on. "I guess they won't be praying to that little fat boy anymore."
The platoon moved down the path to a small village, indistinguishable from all of the other small villages. Mamasans were engaged in the ancient cycle of subsistence farming and grinding wheat, as small children played around them. An emaciated dog slept next to a hut, perhaps dream-hoping that a natural death would take him in his sleep.
Lt. Hunter ordered his platoon sergeant to radio Mike Dempsey and report that they were inspecting a village and would interrogate the inhabitants. Mike then dispatched Adam with an interpreter to assist in that mission. As they arrived, about twenty elderly women had been rounded up and were surrounded by the platoon.
Hunter was expertly loading a magazine into his M16 just as Adam approached the platoon. He was standing just outside the circle.
"Sir, Adam Nussbaum, intel."
"Yea, I know who you are. You're the college guy who looks out for us dumb shit grunts. Do you want to talk to some of these gooks before we finish them off?"
"Sir, these are just old women, we don't know that any of them are NVA."
"Specialist, give me a fucking break. You notice there are no men here. This village has NVA written all over it. What do you want, a neon sign that says 'gooks live here'? Go ahead and interrogate what you see, but we're not going to leave without some justice. Got it? We'll just start diggin' their graves while you're yapping at them." With that Hunter ordered several men to start digging a twenty-foot trench with their entrenching tools, a few feet from the hostages.
Adam felt an impending terror, and beads of sweat formed on his forehead. His impulse was to contact Mike Dempsey on the radio, but that was in the possession of Lt. Hunter and his RTO. He needed backup, but couldn't figure out how to get it. There was no pay phone within miles. For the first time he sensed real personal danger, not just from the NVA, who could be anyplace around them, but from one of his own. He hoped to stall the interrogation, maybe a little time would diffuse the human bomb.
He and his interrogator walked toward an old woman who looked like the village matriarch. She didn't make eye contact as she continued to grind wheat.
"Where are the men and children?" the interpreter asked.
She stared blankly with no answer and no expression. The lieutenant glared at her, still cradling his weapon, which he took off of safety and switched to the fully automatic "rock and roll" mode.
"Are there weapons or ammunition here?"
There was the same response. Other old women watched him, perhaps, for signals. Adam recalled his previous experience with the old mamasan who blew herself up with a hidden grenade. He intently scanned the women for sudden movements.
The team moved on to other villagers with the same result. He watched Hunter in the periphery of his vision, as he professionally went through the interrogations. The lieutenant was smoking a cigarette with a broad sarcastic smile. Adam imagined he was doing an inventory of the violence he could sew in the full automatic mode of an M16 in high-season in this hunting preserve.
"Okay, Nussbum, you had your crack at it. Now let me show you how to get something to take back to Mommy." With that he took the M-16 and rapidly walked toward the first woman.
Adam sensed catastrophe. "Sir, what are you going to do? These are my subjects for interrogation."
"I'm just gonna scare the living shit out of these gooksters, and if one or two go to gook heaven, so be it."
"Sir, you can't do this!" Adam jumped between the women and the lieutenant at the same time throwing his arms into the air.
"You can't just shoot innocent women without provocation. You'll have to shoot me first".
The lieutenant raised his weapon in the air and fired an automatic burst into the air in front of Adam. Some of the rounds splintered the branch of an overhanging tree and the debris floated down on them. The platoon nervously witnessed the showdown. None of the soldiers were laughing.
"Look I'm not kidding, college-fucking boy, I've got no problem taking you down. Now move the hell out of my way. That's a direct order, Specialist!"
Just at that moment, Big Ben emerged from the path into the village.
"What's going on, Lieutenant? I heard some rifle fire and came right over."
Adam stood frozen.
"Just trying to scare these mamasans into talking a little. It looks like the men have all hightailed it into the bush."
"Well, Lieutenant, what are the men digging over there."
"Just a fake grave to try to scare these old women into talking."
"Well sir, I think I'd stand down on that. You push these people too hard and it'll come back to bite you in the ass."
Mike Dempsey then appeared with the RTO and had a private conversation with Big Ben. Lt. Hunter went through the motions of positioning his men in a perimeter around the village. After a time, Mike and Ben walked up to Adam and they all (minus the Lieutenant) walked down the path back to the company headquarters.
"What happened back there, Adam?" Mike asked knowing full-well what happened.
"I'm not sure, sir. Lt. Hunter was making moves like he was going to massacre those old women. I really thought he was going to do it and I jumped between him and the women. That's when he fired his rifle in front of me. I know it's out of school, but he gives me the creeps."
"I'm going to take care of this. I'll want a formal statement from you. For now, stay away from him," said Mike firmly.
Adam was visibly shaking and his heart was pounding. He sat under a tree in the company command post and gradually cooled down. One of the casualties of the war was the quality of the American officer corps. Many things were at work: the one-year tour of duty, the massive deferments given to just about everyone in college, except for Adam, and the huge demand for combat infantry lieutenants. Fewer officers came out of the ROTC program as the war became more unpopular. Adam had seen spectacular young leaders in Vietnam, Mike Dempsey, being the obvious example, but the huge gap was often filled with very young soldiers who were sent to a four-month Officers Candidate School (OCS) and then rapidly deployed to Vietnam to fill the holes, which not infrequently ended up in the ground. By 1969 a large proportion of the army's lieutenants in infantry units came out of OCS. Adam observed that there was a very fine line that separated a combat platoon from an armed gang. He wandered if he had just met the gang leader. Mike Dempsey had the same thought.
Bernie Rodgers, ever the hawk, scanning the plain for mice, noticed two ARVN deuce-and-a-half trucks in front of the intel detachment. The entire ARVN unit/volleyball team came out on cue to unload large wooden crates that were quickly carried into the building. There was a certain urgency to the mission, which had not been previously seen.
"That's odd," observed Bernie.
"What?" asked the major.
"The ARVN detachment is unloading crates into their intel hooch from two ARVN trucks. What in the world could be in those crates? Wouldn't the crates need to be inspected by the MP's at the gates?"
"Furniture, filing cabinets? Maybe they got new Volleyball uniforms. ARVN trucks wouldn't be inspected as long as they had their ID papers."
"It's also weird that Major Dung didn't coordinate this with anyone. Not that he has to."
At that moment Cpt. Savory wandered into the orderly room. "What's going on with the ARVN detachment?"
"We were just wondering about that. We don't know," said the major.
"Sir, I've said it before, and I'll say it again, there's something strange about this ARVN unit. No mission, no intel activity and now the mystery cargo. I think we need to alert counter-intelligence. This could be an inside-the-wire NVA operation."
"Peter, the problem is the old man. Col. Basham is in tight with Major Dung. He would have to sign-off on something like that. It's also touchy with Vietnamization and everything. We're supposed to stay out of their operations and let them fight the war."
"Or not fight the war," added Peter. "As long as they're sitting on top of us here in our little village, we have a lot at stake." Peter's voice mildly rose, and he found his arguments increasingly self-convincing.
He slowly walked back to his own building where top-secret photo imagery was being prepared for incineration.
"What's going on next door?" Jamie Saylor asked Peter.
"I just don't know. The ARVN unit is unloading wooden crates. Since no American has ever been in the ARVN building, no one has a clue. It could be completely innocent, like furniture, or something much darker. I asked the major to alert the counter-intelligence people, but he didn't think that would possible with Bull."
"I wonder if we could find out some other way?" asked Jamie.
"Way back, do you remember those 'methods of entry' classes we took at the intel school at Ft. Holabird? I still remember how to turn a lock. We might just be able to get in there at night during the movie and check it out," volunteered Jamie.
"Let me think about it and I'll get back to you," said Peter.
Mike's plywood walled office was simple with a desk and an American flag. He was completing some long delayed paperwork, when he heard a knock on his plywood door. "Come in."
"Sir, Lt. Hunter reporting as ordered." Hunter had a clean uniform and clean boots. He had spruced up, since the return from the field.
"Stand at ease Lieutenant."
With that Mason Hunter assumed the "at ease" position still standing in front of his company commander. Mike continued to read a papers for several minutes.
"Lt. Hunter, I have a report that you threatened to kill a group of Vietnamese women, and then threatened Specialist Nussbaum when he tried to stop you. I also understand that on the route to the village, you destroyed a Buddhist shrine with a grenade launcher. The report says there was no military target around the shrine and no provocation. True or false?" His voice cracked slightly as he became more upset.
"Sir, it is true, but can I explain?"
"My goal was to signal the natives that we were not going to stand idly by, while they murdered our troops. I never intended to kill any civilians, just to scare them, real bad. When Specialist Nussbaum jumped in front of me, it undercut what I was trying to do, in front of my own platoon. It made me look small. I couldn't tolerate that as a combat leader."
"Lieutenant, have you heard the news about the My Lai massacre last year?"
"Sir, was that the operation with the Americal division up north?"
"That was it. A lieutenant led his platoon to massacre five hundred civilians. There was then a cover-up that went right up to the division headquarters. All of the officers are being investigated for a court-martial. Do you see how what you did might have resembled the start of another massacre to the specialist?"
"Sir, I think this stuff about massacre is all bullshit. These women are all NVA. At night they're probably out with their men trying to kill us."
"Lt. Hunter, I can't believe you just said that. We're not here to exterminate the South Vietnamese population. We're trying to defeat the communists in a war, and we play by the rules, even if they don't. Your attitude and behavior sends exactly the wrong message to these heavily armed nineteen-year-olds in your platoon. Lieutenant, I'm giving you an Article 15 and a five hundred- dollar fine for your action. I've made a note of the incident, which I'm sending to the battalion commander for review. If there's ever anything like this again, I'm going to relieve you on the spot and recommend a court martial. Is that clear?"
"You're dismissed, Lieutenant."
As Lt. Hunter left the office, Big Ben quietly entered and shut the door. His physical presence devoured the space in the small office.
"What do you think, Ben? Is there any hope?"
"Sir, I don't think he's officer material. I've had bad vibes from the minute I first saw him. He's a 'shake and bake' instant officer. He's cocky, stupid, inexperienced, and has no self-doubt. I think he's dangerous. You might talk to battalion about getting him reassigned."
"The problem is that he'll be replaced with another 'instant lieutenant', who might be worse. These kids, are just out of high school with no troop experience, no maturity and no judgement. They're being asked to lead a platoon in combat, many of whom don't want to be here. Hunter is trigger happy and stupid and is trying to lead the platoon like a street gang. I'm going to give him an Article 15 and send it to the Battalion commander. Right now I'm not going to relieve him, but I hear what you're saying."
"Your call, sir." That was as close to a vote of no-confidence as Mike has ever heard from Big Ben.
The sun had already set over the base and the unit had settled into an evening behind the headquarters. Jamie Saylor walked cat-like to the front door of the ARVN intel hut. He took lock-pick tools out of his pocket and carefully examined the pad lock on the front door while he held a small flashlight in his mouth, and inserted a tension pin and then a pick against the back wall of the lock and ripped it back. The lock popped open in about ten seconds. He was proud that he had retained this skill from the intel school, and wondered if this would qualify under the "join the army and learn a skill" slogan. He felt the excitement of a clandestine operation, and was proud to have earned the breaking and entering merit badge.
The door led into a large room that was in total darkness. The windows were blinded with newspapers. He took out the pocket light and surveyed the property. To his surprise the room was empty except for the wooden crates piled in the center. Folding chairs were scattered throughout the rest of the room. A single picnic table was present at one end of the room with two volleyballs. A toolbox was sitting on one of the folding chairs, possibly to open the crates. There were no file cabinets, books, typewriters or other equipment that might be found in an intelligence unit. The walls were free of posters, Vietnamese flags, maps or pinups. The wooden crates were tightly nailed shut, and there was no writing in English or Vietnamese on the boxes. This was a warehouse, but for what? He thought it best not to try to open one of the crates, lest he compromise his mission.
His task completed, he retraced his steps, locked the padlock, and slowly made his way back to the officer's quarters. Small bed rooms had been made out of plywood to fill the hut. He knocked on Peter Savory's door and entered.
"Hi Jamie, come on in."
"Peter, you won't believe what I found in the ARVN hut."
"Tell me," Peter eagerly said.
"Almost nothing, just the wooden crates. No maps, books, filing cabinets, flags, posters or anything, just the crates piled in the center of the room."
"Was there writing on the crates?"
'Nothing, no writing in English or Vietnamese. There was nothing else in the building, other than chairs. What do these guys do?"
"Jamie, that's the question. What do they do?" Peter tried to imagine the ARVN detachment spending each day in the empty hut as they waited for the volleyball game.
"So Peter, where do we go from here?"
"I'm going to bounce this off Tom Shelton. He has a CID background and might have some suggestions. We obviously can't go through Bull who has a 'special relationship' with Major Dung."
"For now, let's keep this between us, and remember entering the ARVN hut is probably illegal, so don't mention it to anyone else." In the back of his mind Peter thought about how much trouble this could cause in the age of Vietnamization.
"Got it." Jamie returned to his room in the hut.
Peter stood up and wandered down the hall in his olive green underwear and knocking on Tom Shelton's door. "Tom, you got a minute?" Tom was sitting at a field table reading a letter with a fan blowing in his face. Peter summarized Jamie's findings, and his own suspicions, which had grown over the past several months.
"Weird, very weird," observed Tom shook his head.
"More than weird. We have a foreign unit with no activity and no mission, nestled in the center of Long Binh. It's commanded by an enigmatic Vietnamese officer, who at times defends the North Vietnamese. The problem is I just don't know where to go with this."
"I have some counter-intelligence contacts in the area. Let me talk to them in confidence. It still could be nothing, but it deserves more investigation." Tom raised his arms in the air and stretched as he yawned.
"I'll get back to you Peter, and of course we need to keep this completely confidential."
"You got it, Tom." Peter walked back to his room shaking his head in deep thought.
Bull cruised along the well-worn path on Highway One in his one quarter ton jeep. He crossed the bridge over the Dong Nai River and then slowly made his way to the Saigon River. He thought about the upcoming meeting with Paresh Agarwal, and assured himself that when he met his financial target of $50,000 he would cash out and then put his winnings into an investment account. No need to push the envelope, he wasn't trying to run the casino. After all he wasn't greedy, just a prudent businessman in a morally ambivalent universe. He was actually starting to feel a little smug about all that he had accomplished in this fetid swamp. He was an alchemist who had turned shit into ice cream. He imagined someday returning to the states with a chest full of medals and a fist full of dollars. Perhaps he would even be a full colonel.
Bull handed the jeep to the valet at the Majestic Hotel, who immediately recognized him and quickly drove it to the hotel parking lot. The colonel entered the hotel and walked to the concierge desk. A small Vietnamese man dressed in an immaculate white suit, looked up and greeted him.
"Good afternoon, Colonel Basham, I have a note from a party who are to meet with you in one of our private business rooms. May I show you the way?"
"Certainly." And they walked through the lobby, surrounded by chandeliers, a terrazzo floor, and stained glass screens. It was a veritable architectural chorus singing the Marseillaise. In the vast room there was not a single vestige of Asia or Vietnam to be seen. The room could have been in Nice. The concierge led Bull to a small room off the lobby. He entered and had a double take. A group of strangers were sitting around the conference table harshly staring at him. Paresh Agarwal was not to be seen in the group.
"Col. Basham, let me introduce myself. I am Agent Richards of the CID, and these are my associates. Please be seated."
Bull instantly anticipated the entire script, but sat back to take in the next hour of torture. He crumpled into a leather chair and began to sweat through his uniform. His mind desperately considered escape options and attempted to mentally reverse time to prevent this occurrence. He needed to check his nightmare meter. Was this real?
"Colonel, first let me read you your Miranda rights," and the agent droned through the all too familiar script. Bull considered getting an attorney, but his curiosity was too great, and he let the process continue. He was also confident that he could talk his way out of this or anything.
"Agent, may I inquire just what I am being charged with?" Bull politely asked.
"Of course, Colonel Basham. You are being charged with money laundering, engaging in currency manipulation, starting an illegal business without permission of the command, conduct unbecoming an officer and engaging with foreign nationals without permission. In a war zone these are felonies and could lead to lengthy imprisonment in Fort Leavenworth."
"May I ask who is the foreign national?"
"You were observed meeting on four different occasions with Mr. Paresh Agarwal, an associate of the Baker Company in Hong Kong. The company has been extensively involved in black market currency manipulation and illegal black market sales in South Vietnam. We have a tape recording of the second meeting which you had with this group in Hong Kong."
"So why are we here?" asked Bull.
"The Baker Company is extensively involved throughout Vietnam in illegal activities including currency manipulation and money laundering, especially for the network of American enlisted men's clubs. Your business is small potatoes compared to the millions coming out of that system."
"What do you want me to do?"
"We ask that you agree to cooperate with the government and wear a wire at the next meeting with Agarwal. We will provide you a script to get additional leads into this criminal enterprise. Our agents would be monitoring the whole process. In return, and depending on the quality of your product, we would recommend leniency to the Army court."
"This being Vietnam, wouldn't you say this is a dangerous game?"
"Colonel, it became a dangerous game when you went off the reservation. These are ruthless people, but we will try hard to protect you."
"What would I do with my business interests?"
"We want you to continue with all of your business activities, just as you have planned, including your stateside business. You would not be allowed to discuss this with anyone, lest you increase your own personal danger and compromise the operation."
Bull stared at his assailants; this was not civilized. There was no offer of a drink, a cigar, or a room for the night with a beautiful woman. That life had just evaporated, and now the choice was a prison cell or a prison cell for a shorter stay. Bull was a man who treasured the comforts of life, even in Vietnam, and these were not good choices. He looked up at Agent Richards and stared for several minutes.
"I'll do it , what choice do I have?"
"Very well, sir, I need you to read these papers and then sign. They commit you to the course we discussed and to undertake the actions we discussed. You also admit to the crimes I have mentioned. For now, you will continue in your current capacity, but attached to the corps headquarters. You will report to me by phone every other day. General Wacker has been briefed by the CID on your status, and would be the convening authority for a future court martial."
When the meeting dispersed, Bull retraced his steps through the lobby, now much less shimmering. The helium had completely left the balloon. He took the elevator to the eighth floor and got a table at the Breeze Sky Bar which overlooked the Saigon River and the nearby opera house. He watched the continuous cargo ship traffic on the water, and contemplated jumping over the wrought iron rail. It would be a fitting opera ending, but instead decided to order a gin and tonic and plan his resurrection. It wasn't shame, and it certainly wasn't honor, it was control. Bull wasn't going to allow these small people to chart his course. As the evening lights came on, he ordered a second of many gin and tonics.
The Loon Foon was red. Red pillars connected to a red ceiling and for completeness the chairs were red. Katie had invested more than a little time with her personal beautification. Makeup, red lipstick, eye shadow, were all carefully applied. She even wore tiny diamond stud earrings, which were probably not authorized, but were partially concealed by her red hair which flowed down to her field uniform jacket. It was an interesting contrast: jungle fatigues on the red carpet.
The couple walked with much more certainty into the restaurant holding hands, and were quickly taken to a table. At this point Katie just didn't care about the officer-enlisted thing. The waitress lit a candle, all that was missing were strolling violins. They ordered two glasses of the house cabernet and inhaled the moment. Katie rubbed Adam's shin, albeit with her jungle boot, but he still got the signal.
"Adam, you look just great."
"Katie, same to you. You are beautiful!" With that she blushed and highlighted her freckles, as she squeezed Adam's hand under the table.
"Katie, I'm sorry we had that long break, I know how you felt."
"I'm sorry that happened, too, Adam. I was just overwhelmed with the fear that you would come into my hospital in a body bag. I see that a lot, you know."
"Remember, I work there too. The thing that gets me in the bush, is that death is so random. Combat skill counts up to a point, but most of the wounds have to do with luck: the luck of drawing a dangerous operation, the luck of tripping a booby trap in the dark, or the bad luck of an incoming round during an attack. K-man is sitting in the fox hole and the next second he has no head. "
"So far you've been pretty lucky, even putting yourself directly in front of the bad guys."
"I didn't share the latest."
"I'm afraid to hear."
"The company got a new lieutenant, Mason Hunter, straight out of the Fort Benning OCS factory, to replace Mike Dempsey who was promoted to company commander. Hunter is a character out of 'Lord of the Flies'."
"What do you mean?"
"For starters he has a 'Death from Above' airborne tattoo, is muscular and dumb as a rock. He lacks the basic officer skills and tries to ingratiate himself with the troops, by being just like them. You know, blood lust for gooks, a diffuse hunger for violence."
"How do you know that?"
"On the last operation he halts the platoon to destroy a Buddha statue with an M79 grenade launcher. I guess he wanted to present his credentials as a crazy mother fucker to the platoon. He then goes into a village, rounds up the mamasans and starts digging a grave while he plays with his M16 and loudly talks about revenge. Mike Dempsey sent me in to interrogate the women, and I confronted the scene. He starts acting like he's going to waste them. When I protest, he threatens to shoot me. Big Ben, who is now the first sergeant of the company, shows up just in time and puts the stop on the whole thing. There's luck again."
"This guy is clearly a bottom of the barrel officer. He's got to be an exception," said Katie.
"I wish it were true. Unfortunately, the demand for infantry lieutenants exceeds the supply. OCS is reaching deep, and this is what you get. There are rumors going around of a civilian massacre up north which was covered up. This is how it might happen."
"So what's the future for Hunter? Is he going to be reassigned to a Hell's Angels motorcycle gang?"
"I'm not sure. He met with Mike Dempsey, I plan to keep my distance from him, and I hope he gets reassigned real soon."
Katie squirmed in her red chair and shook her head in disbelief.
"Adam it's almost better not to know what's going on in the bush. That way you can assume that there's an adult invisible hand guiding events. It's important to believe that when your job is to repair the human carnage which comes in from the field each day."
Adam shook his head in agreement.
"I'm proud that you stood up to that creep. He really might have wrecked vengeance, but you stopped it and did something good. I don't know how many good things happened in Vietnam that day."
"Thanks Katie. But let's not talk about the war any more. Let's talk about us."
"What did you have in mind?" smiled Katie as she sipped her second glass of wine and nodded her head.
"Katie, I really missed you during our troubles, and I'd like us to stay together. I may not be what you had in mind for the long haul, but I'd like to get closer, see what happens and maybe continue things back home."
"I'd like that Adam , I'd like that a lot."
They paused staring at each other both smiling. Katie played with her sweet and sour pork which had just been delivered.
"What are you thinking about doing back in the world, Adam?"
"That's complicated because my previous thinking didn't include you. I want to find something close to you. Graduate school, law school, a job or a combination. You are a priority for me; higher than a job. One thing for sure, I won't make a career in the army, and I won't be extending in Vietnam."
They both laughed.
"What about you, Katie, what do you want to do back in 'the world'?"
"I'll continue nursing, maybe go into administration, maybe get a master's degree. I'd also like to figure out something together. Maybe have a family?"
After a long dinner, mostly of wine and talk, they walked out to the family jeep and slowly returned to the nurse's quarters at the hospital. Adam parked, put his hand through Katie's hair and kissed her for a very long time. They were an item again.
The early sunlight had just penetrated the detachment and Bernie Rogers, as was his habit, was in the headquarters carefully measuring the coffee for the first pot. Armed Forces Radio Vietnam was already blaring into the orderly room. Outside he heard singing in Vietnamese, and gazed out the window to see the ARVN detachment in shorts and olive drab undershirts running in formation through the compound. They were led by Major Dung, also in the same uniform. Bernie was impressed at how athletic each appeared in their exercise clothes. Their billowing jungle fatigues had concealed their true athletic form.
No man in the American detachment exercised, since there was no point in training to get on the flight home or short of that for the evening barbeque. In the interim there were no local duties which required much exertion.
After all of this time, why were the ARVNs exercising? Was there a South Vietnamese volleyball tournament, had Major Dung experienced a battlefield conversion to the religion of exercise, or was there something else in play? Bernie pondered these questions, as the coffee percolated through the filter. He poured himself a cup and started to read the Stars and Stripes. The November headline said that 500,000 people marched in Washington to protest the Vietnam war, the largest protest in US history. The spell was broken as Peter Savory walked in the orderly room.
"What are you reading, Bernie?"
"Oh, it's an article about the national peace moratorium in Washington to immediately end the war. Forty thousand of the marchers walked down Pennsylvania Avenue single file, each with the name of a dead American soldier."
"They should have taken it one step further, and had the march over here. Five hundred thousand people could have clogged up the Ho Chi Minh trail pretty well."
"I don't think a lot of those college kids would be too keen on coming to the Nam. In fact, they are able to protest there because they dodged the draft," smiled Bernie.
"Good point. By the way, did you see the ARVN detachment out running in formation with Major Dung this morning? They passed me and I almost feinted. Why do they take up running in formation like an airborne infantry company?"
"Good question, Bernie. There are many mysteries associated with the ARVN detachment, many mysteries."
Later in the day, an ARVN jeep pulled up and four uniformed officers entered the detachment hut. Later a military truck pulled up and boxes were unloaded, and quickly taken into the building.
Major Dung entered the headquarters to see Major Tanaka, who was at the corps headquarters and unavailable.
"What happened to LTC Basham," he asked Bernie?
"Sir, the colonel has been reassigned to corps headquarters, and Major Tanaka is now the acting commander. It's unusual, but we have no other information about it."
"I saw you leading the ARVN detachment early this morning on a run, is that something new?"
"Yes, this is an ARVN program to improve the combat readiness of all of our soldiers. You can never tell when even an intelligence detachment will have to fight." He broadly smiled as he said this, making Peter Savory more uncomfortable as he watched the conversation.
Later in the afternoon, Peter was standing in the back of the intel hut, next to the furnace when he noticed Huong with a camera taking pictures of the bunkers which were just behind the perimeter wire. He quietly walked the fifty yards up to her, unnoticed.
"Huong, how are you," he asked hoping to judge her reaction?
"Fine, very fine!" she said clearly startled and then bowing and trying to minimize the Nikon single lens reflex camera which she nervously placed in a worn laundry bag. The value of the camera was probably equivalent to twelve months of wages, so there was a disconnect. Why would she take pictures from the inside of the base?
The conversation didn't progress, and she started making exaggerated body language to indicate she neither understood nor could reply to Peter's questions. Finally, he bowed to her, and walked back to the intel hut.
He saw Jamie Saylor and related the events of the day including his meeting with Huong.
"Something else on the strange side happened," said Jamie.
"What was that"
"I got up this morning and noticed that two sets of my jungle fatigues were missing. I guess they could have misplaced in the laundry, but I've been here for seven months and this is the first time anything has come up short."
Peter and Jamie stared at each other, mentally connecting the lines between the expanding number of data points.
"Something's going on here, and I'm getting worried," slowly said Jamie.
"I agree, I'll talk to Cpt. Shelton again," said Peter.
Tom Shelton introduced himself to Cpt. John Cardinale, who led a counterintelligence team in Saigon. He had mainly been involved in the Phoenix program, which had identified high value Vietcong officers, who were then targeted by the South Vietnamese government for elimination. Cardinale was in his 40's with a prematurely furrowed face, and a permanent expression of deep skepticism. In a small way he recalled Sergeant Joe Friday in the 1950's television show, Dragnet.
"Captain, I think we may have an NVA sleeper cell in Long Binh, masked as an ARVN intel detachment." He then summarized the various events leading to his conclusion. "Some intelligence points toward an NVA attack in this area in the near future. You may also know that our commander, Robert Basham was recently relieved and is under CID investigation for currency manipulation. Basham was quite tight with the ARVN commander."
Captain Cardinale nervously stretched his neck as he pondered the conversation. "I'm going to send a report up the flagpole, and assign a counterintelligence agent to review the detachment."
"Thank you, Captain."
Peter Savory was uncomfortable entering the corps officer's club, a place he almost never frequented. Bernie had received a message from Bull asking for a meeting and he felt obligated to respond. Rumors were flying around the detachment regarding Bull's reassignment to the corps headquarters, and Peter didn't know what to expect. The club was filled with the haze of a hundred, twenty-five cent packs of cigarettes, so cheap almost everyone smoked. Liquor was similarly priced, and in a way the major perks of a Vietnam tour were concentrated in the atmosphere of this club.
He saw Bull enter on the other side of the room, and waved to designate a rendezvous in his corner booth. Bull waddled to the table, adding to the toxic haze with yet another Dutch Master. He looked like shit. He had gained at least ten pounds, none of it muscle. His face was puffy and drained of any spark. His normal ebullience was completely missing in action.
"Colonel, how are you?"
"Not so well, Peter, not so well. I've fallen on hard times and I wanted to talk, maybe ask for contrition, from someone who would listen."
"What happened, sir."
"I was trying to expand my Christmas tree business into Saigon, and I fell in with a group of men who talked me into a business venture, that among other things involved currency manipulation. Long story short, the CID was tipped off and now I'm being investigated. I can't talk about all the details, but I'm in bad trouble."
"I'm sorry to hear that, sir."
"Not as sorry as I am to tell it. It's hard, and I'm to blame. I guess it was greed and what seemed like a chance to make an easy buck without hurting anyone, just another business deal, this time in a war zone or at least that was my rationalization. I made a very bad decision and now I'm going to pay for it." As Bull spoke he ordered the first in a long column of drinks.
"Do you have a lawyer. Yea, all that, but I'm still in trouble."
As Bull spoke, his voice, usually so solid and confident began to break. Peter also detected tears. This truly was an act of contrition, even from Bull.
"When I arrived in Vietnam, everything was going well. Business was strong back home, I was moving up the command pyramid in the army reserves, and my golf game was improving. I hadn't paid much attention to my wife in several years, and my two sons could barely tolerate me, but otherwise I felt like I was on a good path. Now I see how wrong I was. Peter, it's so lonely and I'm a pariah."
With that Bull started crying. Peter felt compelled to say something encouraging, but what. This was a middle-aged con-artist-blob who had failed as a human being, and in the process let an entire community of men down. He thought to himself that Bull didn't have an outlet for him to plug in the empathy cord. Let him cry and talk. Peter felt mostly indifference. He knew that was harsh, but that was how he felt.
"You know, sir, all I can say is that time tends to heal all things. Take it one day at a time and it will probably turn out better than you think. You still have plenty of time to make a come-back. Just remember the Mets beat the Orioles in the World Series this year. A lot of people thought that was impossible, but the damned Mets did it in five games, five games." Peter couldn't exactly connect the World Series with Bull's predicament, but it was something to say.
"Thanks, Peter, I appreciate your time this evening. It's been very comforting and I appreciate it. I know this must be embarrassing for you. Please keep this between us. I'm not sure when I'll see you again, but I've really enjoyed serving with you. You're a fine young man."
"Good luck sir, and I'm certain I'll see you again, soon." With that Peter walked out of club, and slowly made his way back to the detachment, about one half mile away. His mind told him that justice had been served and that the bastard got what he deserved, but he still felt a little sorry for the guy. He doubted he would ever use Bull for a job reference.
When he returned, he walked into the headquarters, for no particular reason, and asked Bernie, "Is the Major in?" Soon they were sitting across from each other.
"Sir, I've got to tell you, Colonel Basham's in bad shape. I assume you know the story now that you've assumed command."
"I know at least part of it, probably as much as I want to know. He's pretty low, right?"
"Low doesn't begin to describe it. He's put on weight that he doesn't need, and clearly drinks himself to sleep each night. It's hard to tell if he's really repentant or just drowning in self-pity, not that it really makes any difference. He's very lonely, which is why he wanted to meet. I don't think he has any friends and he cut family ties a long time ago. He's just a pathetic middle aged man who is going down."
"You know, Peter, my natural inclination is to forgive and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. In this case, we're in a fricking war, and you think of those teenagers being blown apart in the bush and this man, a lieutenant colonel and commander trying to make money on the black market. I'm sorry, it makes me want to vomit. It's too bad he feels low, as he contemplates hard time at Leavenworth."
"Rumors are burning around the detachment. Is there a way to say anything to quiet things down in the unit?"
"I don't think we can go there. It's all mired in investigation and lawyers. The best course is still silence."
"Silence it is, sir."
Fire support base, Hilda was yet another defoliated mound of red dirt and mud with seven 105 mm howitzers dug into pits. Piles of discarded cardboard C-ration boxes and artillery casings chronicled the history of human waste in this unimpressive outpost. Coils of concertina wire circled the base, reinforced with sand bagged bunkers. Several command bunkers sat at the center of the base sending fire missions to the artillery and connecting to the defending infantry. Mike Dempsey's company had occupied the base for the past two weeks with the mission to protect the artillery and pacify the countryside around the base. Platoon size units were sent out each day and night on this mission.
Mike and Big Ben studied a map in the CP with the platoon leaders and platoon sergeants. He pointed to a trail winding through an adjacent wooded area about one mile from Hilda.
"Lt. Hunter I want you to sweep this area and set up an ambush position. I think this trail is being used by the NVA at night. When you get there, call in pre-positioned artillery fires to augment your ambush. We can fire illumination rounds from the base here if you need them. And remember, we're after NVA, not civilians. Take Specialist Nussbaum with you in case you capture some prisoners." Mike didn't mention that he planned for Adam to also be a combat chaperone and human rights observer for the volatile and unpredictable lieutenant.
"Yes sir, my troops will be ready. I hope to bring home some venison."
Vietnam was among the most difficult assignments for an infantry lieutenant. Several skills were of great importance: the ability to accurately read a map and use a compass in terrain which often had few landmarks, the ability to adjust artillery and mortar fire, and the ability to accomplish the mission without exposing the troops to excessive risk. Vietnam was a war of small unit engagements. Mason Hunter was shaky on all counts, especially judgement under pressure. He was a poor map reader and had been bailed out several times by his sergeants. He had fumbled adjusting artillery and mortar fire, which in part was connected to his poor map reading. The men saw that he was impulsive and wild in the planning and execution of attacks. Despite his efforts to bond with his troops, by proving that he was like them, he didn't generate much confidence or respect, and most importantly, they doubted that he would bring them home alive.
The platoon reached a ridge which Hunter judged to be the objective and then loudly argued with his platoon sergeant in front of the troops about their true location. Finally, the sergeant quietly suggested that they settle the argument by calling in a spotter artillery round to their desired map coordinate. Within minutes the round came in about three hundred yards from their location on the ridge. Hunter stood with his arms folded and looked in disgust.
"Shit, I'm still not convinced. Maybe the map's wrong." The conversation went on for about five more minutes, and he reluctantly agreed to move the platoon to the spotted location. Several of the men shook their heads. They assumed their platoon leader had his driver's license.
An hour later the unit had moved to its correct location and started to dig into night defensive position. Hunter personally positioned the Claymore mines, the M-60 machine gun and the individual firing positions. He neglected to set-up pre-planned artillery fires around the position, and through it all his loud voice boomed across the field and was probably heard all he way to Hanoi.
Adam watched Hunter with the utmost discretion. The last thing he wanted was to be drawn into a shouting/shooting match with one of the dimmer lights in the unit who happened to be its commander. The memory of the mamasan village had left an enduring imprint.
Adam helped dig a three man firing position with his entrenching tool, and then slid into the hole with two privates who had only been in-country for about one month. They both began nervously questioning him about the night defensive position and what to expect. He reeled off the mental notes from K-man, and hoped the class would have a different outcome. There was a small surge of pride. Both privates had carefully watched him on the operation and sensed that he "had his shit together", the ultimate infantry accolade.
Each man in the hole took two-hour watch shifts. Adam was taking his shift when he once again heard whistles, shouting, and mortar explosions around the position. The ambush position was being ambushed by the intended NVA targets. As always the attackers attempted a 'grab the belt buckle' assault. In this maneuver they crawled as close as they could to the perimeter in hopes to minimize the risk to themselves of artillery or air attacks. Adam woke up his hole-mates and immediately returned fire with his M16.
Mason Hunter became frantic. He hadn't counted on an attack, and didn't bother to register prepositioned artillery fire. He quickly looked at the map under a poncho with a red flashlight and called in a fire mission. The first rounds whistled overhead and landed on one of his own foxholes exploding with a loud thunder. His platoon sergeant took the radio hand set and screamed "cease fire". The sergeant also reported the platoon was under attack and would have wounded and dead. Hunter slumped into his foxhole and froze. The staggering extent of his incompetence was tragically displayed for all to see.
The platoon sergeant fired the Claymore mines, and several soldiers fired their M-79 grenade launchers with good effect. Finally, the single M-60 machine gun raked the charging lines breaking the momentum of the attack. A medic crawled to the foxhole on the extreme left flank which was now a crater. No human remains were found.
Hunter pulled himself back into the battle and walked along the fighting positions, urging the men to charge the attackers. Perhaps he thought this would expunge his earlier sins or perhaps he envisioned heroic medals. Whatever his intention, the act had the opposite effect. The men were enraged at his incompetence and his self-serving bravado.
In the confusion and dense smoke of the battle a single bullet entered the parietal area of his skull, causing instant death. It would be determined that the bullet was an American round. The origin of the shot would never be identified. The official possibilities included fragging, an enemy shot with an American weapon, or an errant shot in the fog of combat. No man in the platoon doubted the cause, and the subsequent investigation was quickly done and forgotten.
Adam shook his head. He and his two dirt mates had made it through the night, thanks to Dr. Kenyata Martin, late full professor of gruntology.
Bull nervously walked through the ornate lobby of the Majestic Hotel, this time oblivious to its considerable treasures. He walked right to the small meeting room off of the lobby. Agent Richards was sitting patiently with two of his partners. The table was littered with tapes and recording equipment.
"Col. Basham, good to see you," Agent Richards said crisply.
"I wish I could say the same. Are we ready to go here?" Bull asked nervously.
"Yes, sir. Could you disrobe down to your waste." They then began to carefully tape the small microphone and the extended wire to a miniature tape recorder laid out over his sweaty, gelatinous flesh. The equipment was carefully concealed under Bull's military uniform. They then tested the recorder.
"We're set to go, sir, do you have any questions about the recorder? We already talked about the script we'd like you to follow with Agarwal and his associates. Remember, we're interested in getting information about their larger operation and who is in their network."
"Got it," said Bull with less than full throated enthusiasm. The agents started the recorder and Bull slowly walked down the hall to the designated meeting room.
"Col. Basham, so good to see you," smiled Paresh Agarwal smiling as he introduced Bull to three associates. After pleasantries, they all sat around a conference table.
"Sir, here is a summary of the financial performance for the last month. As you see, you netted $7,000 from currency activity. We're approaching the Christmas season, so we can also expect some additional revenue from the three sales lots we have set up in Saigon and Bien Hoa. We're excited about this. We think it may be a model for future business ventures."
"That's very interesting, Paresh, what sort of future business ventures are you talking about?"
"We've considered expanding our currency exchange business to include printing MPC's. The MPC currency is crudely printed, basically like your American monopoly money. We think we could print MPC's and then introduce them into the flow of real MPC's to perhaps double or triple the value of the operation. Do you think you might be interested, Colonel?"
"Definitely, interested. But would this only involve my business, or is there a wider market for this? And what is the protection against sudden MPC conversion?"
"All excellent questions, sir. To the first question, let me say that we represent a country-wide operation. My company is extensively involved with the enlisted men's club system throughout Vietnam and serves as their exclusive currency processing resource. To your second question, the protection from Conversion Days for the MPC is simply to engrave the new series of MPC. As I mentioned, our engraving department is highly skilled and we can rapidly replace the series."
"What kind of intelligence do your people have to anticipate the Conversion Days and the CID activities?"
"Obviously, I can't reveal much on that score. But I will say that we have an extensive network of Vietnamese nationals in the USARV finance operation and also the CID. Conversion Days don't usually come as a surprise to us, and in fact we have actually been able to produce the new currency series before C-Day."
"That's very impressive. By the way Paresh, I guess you heard, I've extended my tour for an additional six months, and I might even extend it further if everything continues to go well."
"Yes, we heard that, sir and we're obviously delighted."
"Well, l guess that's it. Thanks for all your help gentlemen. I guess I'll meet with you next month." Paresh and his associates silently stared at each other as Bull left the room. With that Bull nervously rose from the table and carefully turned for the door, careful not to disrupt the network of cutaneous wires. He walked down the hall, checked for surveillance, and then returned to the small room to again meet Agent Richards and his party.
"Well, how did it go, sir?"
"OK, under the circumstances. I'm not sure there was a lot there, but Paresh did talk about their MPC counterfeiting operation and their connection to the enlisted club operation."
"We'll listen carefully to the tape," as an assistant carefully pealed the adhesive and wires from the sweaty skin.
"Col. Basham, we appreciated your cooperation in this case, I can imagine how difficult it is for you."
"Honestly, you can't Agent, you can't."
Jamie Saylor tossed his camera and binoculars into the OH-1 bird dog for the weekly photo intelligence mission in the area around Bien Hoa. The plane slowly followed the Dong Nai River and then turned north flying by the American airbase. It was a beautiful day flying at two thousand feet, above the altitude of the insect hordes that called Long Binh home. North of the base he spotted a convoy of five heavy duty bicycles loaded with cargo, which were being pushed along a secondary highway. Although single or small numbers of cargo bikes were a common sighting, this was unusual. The pilot banked the plane and made a pass at five hundred feet for a better view. Jamie snapped some pictures, but the porters disappeared into the local community.
Jamie was certain he had seen something significant. The small plane continued to make low passes over the greater Bien Hoa area for the next hour, but with no further activity.
He hurried back to the detachment and developed the roll of film and made blow-up prints of the group. He took the pictures to Peter Savory who was reviewing a roll of aerial imagery taken by the air force over Cambodia.
"Peter, I think we might have something here," said Jamie with a little excitement.
"We saw five bicycles loaded with cargo being pushed through a suburb of Bien Hoa. When we made a low pass, they scattered. I've been flying over this town all year, and I've never seen a bicycle convoy, especially in broad daylight."
"This is interesting, Jamie, good work. I'll take it to Major Tanaka and let him roll it up the hill to the Corps G2. Along with the other activity we've seen around here, this might be significant."
Peter showed the prints to the Major. "I don't know, Peter, these are probably nothing. Just Vietnamese local cargo."
"The question is, did the convoy start in Hanoi or on the other side of Bien Hoa? Taken in the context of the other activity around here, especially the ARVN intel detachment. I'm worried."
"I hear you, Peter, and I will pass this on to the corps G2."
Peter left the headquarters, discouraged. Trying to light a fire was beyond impossible. The bureaucratic inertia of the REMF kingdom was almost impossible to budge. Only an attack would convince these people that there was going to be an attack. On the way to the intel hut, Peter ran into Tom Shelton.
"Hi Tom, did you learn anything about our friends?"
They stepped into the American hut. "Peter the counterintelligence guys think that there are some suspicions, but not solid evidence with which to take action. It's touchy these days, since we're turning the show over to the ARVN's. Nobody has the balls to accuse them of being NVA, indifferent lazy bastards of course, NVA no."
Peter showed Tom the prints of the photo mission. "There are a lot of small pieces, which individually don't make the case, but taken together suggest something might be on. I really think the shit is going to hit the fan."
"I hear you, Peter."
SFC Westbrook was feeling good. He had just filled his deuce-and-a-half cargo truck with wooden boxes. The trip to An Loc had been uneventful, even a little boring. As instructed, he stopped at the NCO club to get the boxes and in addition fill the truck with steaks and whiskey. His instructions were to deliver the boxes to an NCO club in Long Binh, and then return to his base. He looked forward to a pleasant drive back and another good evening of teriyaki steak, whiskey, and movie. He skillfully drove the big truck west on Highway One passing innumerable mopeds and bicycles as well as a good portion of the US Army Vietnam, who used the road extensively for transport up and down the country.
As he drove, he relived his ten months in Vietnam. It had turned out much better than he had originally anticipated. He remembered his first feeling of repulsion at the intel detachment, not even a feint reflection of a real army unit. But he found ways to make himself useful, and then almost indispensable. In the process he had driven through most of the corps region without a scratch, and had built a network of friends and associates who made his job much easier. He had also accumulated several thousand dollars, most of it only slightly illegal. In two months he would catch the freedom bird and fly off to a new life. He had twenty-two years in the service and increasingly was inclined to cash it in, and start again as a civilian. He felt good about himself as he rolled down Highway One.
Around Trang Bom he approached a mangled Toyota blocking the highway. A moped was crumpled on the shoulder and there was no room to detour around the accident. A South Vietnamese policemen halted Westbrook in front of the accident. As the truck came to a stop, he caught the sudden movement of several men in black pajamas with AK47 rifles, as they leaped from a ditch along the highway. At that moment the policeman turned and began firing his revolver into the truck cab, as AK47 bullets flew into the truck from the ditch. Suddenly he heard a swoosh and the shock of an explosion. An RPG had been fired into the cabin followed by a second explosion. That was it. The diesel fuel tank erupted and the truck and its cargo became a fireball. The barbeque had started earlier than planned.
American fire trucks and MP's arrived within minutes and were able to pull several of the wooden boxes from the cargo area. Westbrook was burned beyond recognition and was pulled from the cab and covered with a poncho. A warrant officer with the fire department waived the MPs over to one of the boxes which he had opened with a crowbar.
"Look at this, guys. It's filled with MPC's. I wonder where he was going with this load. I think we'll need to call the CID to check this out. This GI truck was a fucking rolling bank."
A call came into the intel detachment headquarters for Major Tanaka, asking him to come to the hospital morgue to ID Sergeant Westbrook. He shook his head as he mechanically got in his jeep and drove to the hospital. In the morgue a technician was making notes as a pathologist stood in the background to perform a forensic autopsy. A man in fatigues but without rank insignia walked up and introduced himself.
"Sir, I'm Agent Burmeister with the CID. We traced this man to your unit based on the unit bumper markings on the truck. He was ambushed outside of Trang Bom in front of a staged traffic accident. An RPG and AK47 fire destroyed the cab and then the fuel tank exploded. We were able to recover several wooden boxes filled with MPC's. Do you know anything about the cargo, sir?"
"No agent, I can't say that I do. We thought Westbrook had gone out to get some steaks and whiskey for a unit party. I don't have any idea about the MPC's."
"Understand, major. I'll need to get a full statement from you. The sergeant's remains will be part of a criminal investigation."
With that another seismic crack appeared in what had once been an REMF paradise. The Major had a sinking feeling; what would be next?
Burt Wacker stared across the empty field behind his quarters, as he slowly sipped his whiskey. He had just been sacked by Creighton Abrams, well maybe not sacked, but his tour had been curtailed, and he would be returning to the states with the option of a meaningless Pentagon job or retirement. After thirty-four years of service, much of it in three tough wars, it was over. There was a knock on the door, which he slowly opened.
General Whalen smiled and walked in. "General, just wanted to drop by to celebrate your reassignment."
"Thanks. I'll admit I've been feeling a little sorry for myself since Creighton dropped the bomb. Let me offer you a drink." Burt poured a generous three fingers of Jack Daniels into a glass. No ice or fancy mixer here, just eighty-proof alcohol to ease the pain and break the anger.
"Creighton told me it was time for 'new thinking' and the tactics that beat the Germans wouldn't fly here. Can you believe that? The fucking idea that killing the gooks isn't the solution to winning this war is wrong. Gus, Creighton was handed a shit sandwich. Change the tactics to pacify a country that hasn't been pacified in twenty years, no three thousand, years of war, support a government and army that can't govern or fight, and do all of that while we draw down 540,000 American troops to nothing. Not to mention, abandon the people who believed our promise." Burt was using his hands for vigorous emphasis, and in the process spilled the holy elixir.
"Sir, let me clean that up." Gus wiped the stain from the carpet with a kitchen rag. "Sir, why don't you sit down?" Both men sat on a sofa with a color that defied any description or classification other than government issued: bland.
"All of this is being driven by the anti-war movement and the fucking press. The American public wants out, and then to deny that they ever owned this war. Johnson and now Nixon tried to fight this thing with no pain and no cost for the American public, and to leave in the dark of the night. They didn't even call up the fucking National Guard. The sad part is that with damned little help from the ARVN, we've actually created a sort of peace in South Vietnam. If the congress just had the balls to close the curtain and leave a reasonable US troop presence here, someday South Vietnam might just be a country. Korea started that way. Not that this is where either of us would have chosen to have a country, but somebody did, and we have a pile of American dead bodies, and the government denies any responsibility. In a few years we'll have absolutely nothing, nothing to show for it."
"Sir, I couldn't agree with you more. No one has better credentials to say that than you, and this is the thanks you get." Gus took a long sip of whiskey after the gratuitous pile on.
Burt became more animated. "You can see the second-guessers and the armed chair quarterbacks are already starting to circle the carrion for a cheap meal. Very few of them logged much time in the bush, but that's never stopped them. Look at the way LBJ micromanaged the god damned war from the White House with that great non-fighting warrior, McNamara. They actually chose bomb targets and ground operations. LBJ's only combat experience was as a passenger on an observation plane over New Guinea, which was shot at by Jap fighters. He was a god damned passenger and he got a Silver Star from MacArthur as part of a political welcoming bag. That was the fucking 'genius' who directed this war for four years." General Wacker's face became a slow burning ember, as the alcohol redirected the blood supply from his brain to his skin.
"And now we've got Tricky Dick and Kissinger," proudly added Gus Whalen.
"That's right, and now our so called strategy is the hostage of Nixon's political needs and his desire to move on to other things. He's trying to be clever by hammering the north with airpower until he gets off the hook with some pretty words from the Paris Peace Conference," observed General Wacker.
"Nixon's the child of Joe McCarthy and the State Department boys who lost China. He wants to slip out of the ring with no blood on his hands. He also wants to de-fang the anti-war movement, so that he can both bomb the shit out of the north and be a man of peace."
"General, can I pour you another drink?" Gus figured more anesthesia never hurt a post-op patient, and Burt had just had his testicles removed.
The general nodded and the golden tonic once again rolled into the glass.
"Sir, what do you think you'll do when you get back?"
"I don't know, Gus. What did Joseph Hooker do after the battle of Chancellorsville? I don't see myself in a little office in the Pentagon helping to preside over a disintegrating army. The future doesn't look too good for guys like me. Sally and I bought a house in Carmel twenty years ago, and I think I'll just go back and watch the ocean and the seals, and wait to die. How about you? You're young and still have a career ahead."
"I don't know about that, sir. I think I will stay in and see what happens." Generals were demi-gods in the American army, and they mostly shared their real aspirations and feelings only with other demi-gods. No transition was more difficult than to go from three-star demi-god to an old man watching the Pacific seals.
Adam and Katie lined up for the shiny Pan Am Boeing 707 parked at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near the center of Saigon. As they walked up to the plane six metal caskets were being respectfully placed in the luggage compartment. They would join one hundred and thirty-five live GI's going to Hawaii to meet their wives, sisters and girlfriends. The occupants of the caskets would meet an honor guard and continue their journey to a military cemetery. Katie stared at the caskets for a long minute. She wondered if they contained any of her recent patients.
On the plane the couple settled into two comfortable seats toward the front of the cabin and watched the procession of teenagers, each dressed in short sleeved tan uniforms, as they politely marched to their seats. A couple of years earlier, they were boarding a yellow school bus. Adam thought he could separate the REMFs from the bush warriors just by scanning their faces. The young men who had lived in the devil's lair for the last six months were different. Most were silent and many had a hollow combat stares, stripped of the spontaneous joy that should have been the providence of their generation.
The forward Pan Am stewardess, who was the same age as these boys and on her first Vietnam charter flight, was shocked by the parade of young-old men as they lumbered to their seats. Was there anyone here from her high school class? In her short career, she had seen many passengers, but none like these. How many of these kids would survive the balance of their year in the Nam on their return from the one-week R&R? How many would survive the trauma of the war for the rest of their lives?
Adam and Katie held hands as the pilot quickly taxied to the runway. There were no commercial airliners loitering at this airport, since it was surrounded by a ring of hidden NVA mortars and rockets. The runways sat next to two bands of craters in what was once grass. The pilot maximally thrusted the jet into a rapid climb, which pushed the tolerance of its metal. He was flying the passenger jet like an F4 Phantom fighter, without the afterburners. Finally, they were over the South China Sea and on their way to better times.
When the plane leveled off, the stewardess momentarily teared up thinking about what the future had in store for these boys, as she generously supplied the first of many rounds of alcohol to the young troops. Adam and Katie toasted each other with glasses of champagne. She squeezed his hand even harder. The stewardess then passed out the evening meal of steak, home fries, green beans, milk and ice cream. There was no menu, the R&R meals never changed. There were no special diets available.
"Adam, let's try to forget where we came from for the next week. Deal?"
"It's a deal, in fact let's forget we were ever there."
"We can't do that." The Nam had been baked into us and we just have to figure out how to live with it. "Well at least the fighting is over for you Adam. I think you worked through the disease called combat."
"The fighting is over."
With that Katie put her head on Adam's shoulder and drifted to sleep. Thirteen hours later, and after a brief re-fueling stop in Guam, the plane circled Hickam AFB and the beautiful island of Oahu. They saw Diamond Head in the sunrise, and within two hours were going through the Fort DeRussy R&R center, having each been decorated with large floral leis. Then they were off to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel next door.
Each day consisted of an extended sleep-in, a breakfast starting just before noon, and then a long afternoon on Waikiki Beach. The short haired GI's and their bikini-clad wives were a caricature sprawled on the white beach.
"Katie, ain't this the life?"
"That it is, Adam. I bet that I'm the only active duty female and you're the only Jew, from the Nam on this beach."
Adam laughed and bolted upright. "So we're unique, or we're both dunces. All of our friends found other places to be in 1969. Many of them are probably attending war protests with Naomi, as we bask in the sun. I'm glad they have a hobby, less dangerous than ours." They then sank into the beach chairs and slowly absorbed the warm sun for the next hour.
Adam awoke, grabbed Katie, and minutes later the two were furiously paddling in an outrigger canoe through the warm surf and laughing without restraint. Their muscles ached in a very good way, and their skin was burned and parched despite layers of sunscreen. They followed a conga line of burned Americans into the hotel. Hours later they were drinking blue Hawaiian cocktails complete with coconut cream, pineapple, Curacao liqueur and two ounces of rum. The sun had waited to set, in coordination with their dinner reservation. The tiki torches illuminated five luau hula dancers who were joined by acoustic steel guitars. It was a perfect show, not quite La Scala, but it got better as they started the third round of blue Hawaiians.
"Pinch me, Adam"
It just couldn't be better: the weather, the beach, the surf, the dancers and the woman next to him. "Katie, I just love you, you know that." The words were just slightly slurred.
Katie leaned back in her chair, pulling her long red hair, which had been taken out of a military bun and smiling.
"Adam, I love your too, and this is perfect."
With that the evening fireworks display began over the bay. Later another show began in the hotel room. This moment of life was unbelievably sweet. Adam wanted it to be this way forever. But a thought at the back of his mind gave him a sinking feeling. Would it last? Was this paradise-oasis a mirage.
Bull was once again sitting in the al fresco restaurant of the Majestic at a table near the street. The mare d' had insisted that he take this table, which was set for five people. He was anticipating Paresh Agarwal and two associates as well as Lien Mai. He had once again been wired for the occasion by Agent Richards. This time he didn't have the nauseating wave of dread he experienced with his first meeting for the CID. This time, he felt nothing. His dinner guests were already twenty minutes late. In times past, he would have been apoplectic at this tardiness, but felony charges had brought the colonel a certain acceptance of all things. Alcohol had also contributed to his self-control and meditation.
The colonel thought about his life. What a place and time to begin self-examination and reflection, but better late than never. The cars and mopeds raced down the street weaving between the bicycles and pedestrians. Every traffic encounter on the street was a tragic accident, barely avoided. The boat traffic crawled up the Saigon River, tirelessly supplying the half-million Americans still in country.
What would he do differently, if he could magically start over? Leave his business in the hands of his partners, while he concentrated on the war? Try harder to be a leader and mentor to the young men and officers in his unit? Would he still take up with Lien Mai, a liaison well known throughout the detachment? Most importantly would he keep his distance, no completely avoid the likes of Agarwal and his ilk? He was sucked in by the promise of wealth, albeit illegally conceived in a country rotten with corruption. In fact, corruption was the glue that held South Vietnam together. It was easy to rationalize his failure in that context. Easy but wrong. The idea of "wrong" had not emerged in his life before.
Suppose he were to die today. What if he had actually jumped off the balcony after the last CID visit? What would be his legacy? He had a wife, who he had ignored for at least twenty years. He thought about her qualities, at least what he thought were her qualities when they married. She was loyal in a way, and perceptive if not brilliant. He had thought of himself as brilliant. At one time he might have loved her. She made her way through life in the rain shadow of his enormous ego. Perhaps he would try to call her tonight from the MARS station. His two adult sons didn't speak to him. What did that say? The world had given Bull a loud vote of no confidence. As he sat alone next to the sidewalk, he mentally prepared to make another installment into the stay-out-of-jail account.
It was too late. At the age of fifty, there just wasn't time to rebuild from the smoldering coals of disgrace. In every military and civilian circle, he would be a leper. The balance of his life would occur in the shadows, in hiding.
Where was Agarwal? Where was Lien Mai? He signaled the waiter for the check, when a moped drove onto the sidewalk, and its rider concealed in black leather and a black helmet leaned toward his table and threw a package at his feet. He froze, and then there was a blast as the TNT exploded sending a fireball through the restaurant. When the debris settled, the restaurant was a smoking cavity in the side of the Majestic Hotel.
An hour after the blast a swarm of ambulances, fire trucks, Vietnamese MP's, and spectators gathered around the blast site. Flashing red and blue lights and sirens created an excitement, not really merited by the all too familiar terror scene. The hotel had been roped off with police tape, and dust and smoke were still heavy in the air. Agent Richards, who had been inside the hotel at the moment of the blast, was quietly speaking to another American agent, as the South Vietnamese police started the all too familiar drill of a Saigon terror crime scene, in a process which always led to no suspects and no arrests. Process but not outcome was everything.
"Who do you think did this?" the agent asked Richards, who was covered with fine powder and dust from the explosion.
"Could have been the VC, NVA, Agarwal, the Phoenix program, Santa Claus, who knows. There were a number of aggrieved parties here." Richards looked at the South Vietnamese police interviewing bystanders and making notes in front of the rubble strewn cavity in the Hotel. "We'll never know."
Agent Richards hated that the currency investigation was now dead in the water, but as he looked at the bystanders gathered around the hotel, something else irked him.
"It's sad in a way. Nobody is going to care about this fucking guy. They'll probably send him home in a metal coffin with an American flag and pretend he was killed in the line of duty. The criminal stuff will be classified top secret in some government archive. A sad sack Army National Guard funeral detail will play taps and fire a couple of shots in the air, and he'll be deposited in a forgotten VA cemetery with two, or maybe no people at the graveside."
"Basham wasn't stupid. He had some things going for him, even after he was nailed by us," observed the other agent. "If the program with Agarwal had worked out, he might have even walked away from the crash with just a reprimand."
Richards paused and said, "There was just a momentum in everything he did that led to the next step. Each choice was slightly understandable, even rationale, but the end result was pure evil. The sum of all the parts was just bad. He'll just be another extra-large metal casket going back to the states." In a country stalked each day by massive death, this one just didn't seem to matter much.
The group slowly spread around the table with a tension which spoke to the most serious undertaking. Colonel Huong Pham was magically transformed from shit burner, perhaps witch, and American military spouse to a Vietcong regional commander. Her task was to orient the commanders around the table to the attack against the base with which she had become so familiar, from the bottom up. Her local cadre would lead the NVA regiment to their assembly areas just before the attack and guide them to their targets.
Major Dung, joined the officers wearing civilian clothes and stared intently as the commander of the sapper battalion. The command was rounded out by Colonel Dang, the NVA regimental commander. He would lead a conventional infantry regiment through the perimeter. Next to him was a political officer or commissar, assigned to insure the revolutionary purity of the operation. Together the group had well over one hundred years fighting for what they viewed as independence from the running dogs of colonial oppression.
A sand table model of the base was present on a large central dinner table, which accurately showed in minute detail the perimeter fence with bunkers, the installation buildings and the surrounding military units. Each of the attacking NVA units were represented in their assembly areas inside and outside the base. Photographs of the bunkers and the buildings were taped to the walls surrounding the model. These had been conveniently supplied by Huong during her sightseeing excursions on the base. There were also pictures of key American officers who were to be killed or captured. Each of the principals had rehearsed their units for several weeks in all aspects of the attack.
"Let me review the plan one more time," Huong said forcefully as she pointed to the specific targets for each unit. "The key to success will be surprise, speed, and overwhelming firepower. Ang Dung, your sappers will go directly for the officer's quarters and begin shooting all the occupants. This will distract the defense from the larger attack on the perimeter."
Ang hesitated. He would not meet her gaze. He turned to look at the American officer pictures on the wall.
"Do you have a problem with your mission?" Huong paused. "You have lived among many of these officers."
The major turned to her and stared. "No. Will you have a problem attacking your American husband and his friends?" Ang noticed the wedding ring still mounted on her finger, perhaps just an oversight.
"Of course not, I have anticipated this moment for a long time. Blood must be spilled for the common good, to have a united people after three thousand years of occupation." There was not even a shade of sentiment or regret. She paused and looked at each of the officers around the table. "Col Dang will rapidly penetrate the perimeter, quickly reorganize and then attack and overrun the corps headquarters. Remember the ARVN intelligence hut houses a large supply of ammunition and grenades, if needed. We would like to capture General Wacker, alive, and senior officers from his staff. We can expect a counter-attack from the airborne brigade, MP's, and attack helicopter company. We hope to be in the middle of the base and make the counter-attack very difficult. Americans don't like to kill their own troops, but Vietnamese army and civilians -they don't really care." Huong would not be going to Muscle Shoals after all.
A bottle of Mateus rose wine, procured from the extensive liquor cabinet of the late SFC Westbrook appeared, and Huong poured each of the commanders a glass. The five officers raised their glasses. "To victory, our victory. We pledge this to the honor and memory of our beloved leader Ho Chi Minh, our fathers long departed, and all of our brave comrades who have died in the cause. Our fathers would be proud of their children."
"To victory and our fathers." All raised their glasses in toast. There was no toast offered to the late Sergeant Westbrook who was once again sponsoring another party, this time from the grave.
The meeting then ended as the numerous guards outside led each of the officers back to their units. Major Dung slowly put on his ARVN uniform for the last time and returned to spend the night in the Trojan horse with his fellow Greeks.
Mike Dempsey was in the corps officer's club with several of the lieutenants from his company. He was sitting at a table when Peter Savory approached. They had met several times over the year, and Peter knew Mike quite well through Adam.
"Do you mind if I join you?"
"Not at all," said Mike. "We've become very attached to Adam Nussbaum. In fact, he's almost a grunt. Talk about a metamorphosis."
"Well don't cry for Adam, he's on R&R in Hawaii with that nurse, Katie Dolan. I can guarantee they're having a better time than we are."
The chorus of lieutenants sitting around the table politely laughed.
"By the way, Mike, congratulations I see you were promoted, and got yourself a company."
"Thanks, I'm very proud of these guys. We've been in a few scraps and they've done very well."
"I heard about the last one from Adam, what was that lieutenant's name, Hunter?"
"The less said the better. Hunter was a sad story."
Peter looked around the table at the lieutenants and noticed that they were looking away, avoiding Peter's gaze.
Mike changed the subject. "I heard Col. Basham was killed in Saigon in a terror attack."
"That's why I prefer to stay in this nice, warm, safe compound, with you guys to protect all of us REMFs."
"Peter, safety is an illusion in the Nam. One thing you learn in the bush is that bases attract man-eating hornets. The bigger the base, the more hornets. You're better off in the jungle, assuming you have the right survival skills. When you feel the most relaxed and comfortable, you're probably in the most danger. Remember in this war, there is no safe haven. Col. Basham is a good example of that." Mike shook his head as he spoke and sipped his drink. He had turned serious and a little animated.
"So Mike, what are you going to do after the Nam? You have all the chips for a long military career, but you also have other options, right?"
"I don't know. I love the troops, the bonds, the shared experience, and all the challenges. If I get out, I might go to graduate school. It would be a good break, and I know our universities would warmly embrace a combat veteran."
"How about you Peter?"
"I'm definitely getting out. I don't know what I'll do, but it won't be this. I got divorced before this tour, so I'll have to start over in everything. We learn from our mistakes, I just hope our country can do the same. I majored in history. I understand most wars for the last two thousand years have been motivated by such things as greed, royal succession, and of course political power. We just happened to fight one of the rare exceptions twenty-five years ago which had an undeniable moral center. So this is back to the norm - with no worthy ally, no strategy, and no end-game. It also happens to be 8800 miles from where I last lived." Mike grimaced as he heard this.
"My slant is a little different. We made a commitment to the Vietnamese people. I don't mean the generals and politicians, who I agree are frequently corrupt. There are real people in South Vietnam. If we pull out because their government is rotten and their army corrupt, we will leave lots of them high and dry. The North will slaughter thousands. Just look what they did in Hue during Tet. I still think a promise means something. Maybe we shouldn't have stepped into this, but we did, and I think we should see it through, and who knows maybe it will work out. America's word is very important to a decent world." Mike became much more energized as he delivered this hopeful sermon. Peter politely smiled. He had also been a Boy Scout once.
They all inhaled their beer and toasted each other. Little did they know that for some , this was the last supper.
Grady Davis was practicing his putting game in the Robert Basham Memorial Combat Golf Resort, when he looked up to inspect a full moon. He wondered if the flag was still flying on the moon surface. He thought he saw a man in one of the craters, maybe it was Ho Chi Minh. He was sad about Bull, a man who had helped Grady and Huong and celebrated their union. Grady didn't much care about the other stuff he heard. His golf history was limited to putting the ball through the clown's mouth in the miniature world. But he figured putting was something to do at eleven o'clock at night, when he couldn't sleep. Bull had thought to illuminate the putting green with flood lights, which would provide an aiming point for mortars and rockets.
Perhaps if Grady had been more observant, he would have noted the heightened level of activity around the ARVN intel hut that day. Several trucks unloaded more boxes, and there was lots of noise from the hut. Bless his simple soul, Grady, a man-child in a bad neighborhood, was oblivious to most of the world around him, and considering the world, that was not a bad thing. Little could he imagine just how bad, as Huong, his beloved wife, gave the command to start the attack. She raised her left arm, still wearing the wedding ring as she blew loudly on her whistle.
In an instant there were blaring bugles, explosions and machine gun fire. Grady froze as he watched black uniformed figures racing out of the ARVN intel hut armed with grenades and AK47 rifles. The figures ran straight for the officers' quarters just up the hill. On the perimeter of the base, satchel charges blasted three bunkers, and several American soldiers began racing from the bunkers to the center of the compound bleeding and screaming. Noise and brilliant light surged from multiple explosions, creating chaos on the base. Grady started to run to his hooch to exchange his putter for his rifle, when he was cut down by automatic rifle fire.
In the officers' quarters, a sapper team was systemically walking down the corridor and firing into each room. The sappers were all in black with pouches of ammunition and grenades. At each room, they would kick the door open and fire into the dark. Peter jumped from his filthy cot, and reflexively started to put on his uniform when the door kicked open, and he saw Major Dung, in black with an AK47. There was a pause during which each officer stared in fused disbelief.
"Major, what are you doing?" Peter screamed.
The reply came from the muzzle of the weapon and ripped into Peter. At first there was intense burning abdominal pain, and then Peter doubled over unconscious. The sapper team moved on to the next room to methodically continue their extermination mission. There was no sentiment or friendship in a revolutionary warrior. This time Major Dung was not giving out medals.
For a few minutes, the center of the base was overrun, and the attackers were organizing to move up the hill to assault the corps headquarters, the real objective of their operation. A counter-attack was hastily organized by MP's, clerks, chaplain's assistants, cooks and even staff officers. It was just enough to slow the momentum of the sapper attack.
Next door, the 123rd had been alerted, and Mike's company had assembled and was double-timing in formation to join the fight. Overhead, AH1 Cobra helicopter gunships were already airborne and circling the battlefield trying to distinguish the good from the bad.
As Mike deployed his platoons, he directed flares at the mass of attackers, which gently settled by parachute into the maelstrom. The chin turret on the Cobra fired a mini-gun which made a ripping sound as it spewed rounds over the field. Rockets were also launched from wing stubs on the helicopter at the NVA formations which were highlighted by Mike's flairs. Once the aerial artillery was in place, the captain stood up and directed an attack at the main force coming through the perimeter.
An unimaginable burst of noise and light filled the compound as waves of soldiers on both sides met in the dark, all firing automatic weapons and grenades. Death filled the air.
Mike and Big Ben directed the counterattack on the ground and in the air from a radio just behind the American company. They both heard the rumbling whistle of a 60 mm mortar round as it cruised overhead. Mike looked up but it was over. The explosion landed directly on their position and a loud blast propelled Mike ten yards down range. Big Ben was also hit and fell to the ground with a chest wound.
The company medics appeared in an instant and tried to revive Mike, but it was hopeless. He was dead. Big Ben was resuscitated and placed on a helicopter for a short evacuation to the hospital.
The small wartime village had been sacked. The smell of spent powder and cordite drifted in the air. Slowly, the growing American counterattack pushed the determined enemy back, building by burning building. The field behind what had once been the intel hut was scattered with bodies, and medics were starting to examine the human debris for life. Only the putting green and the golf driving net with flood lights ablaze survived and continued to function, untouched by the storm. The Robert Basham Golf Resort was not a target of the attack, just a beacon.
Incredibly, a few members of the detachment survived. Major Tanaka had his moment. He gathered everyone he could find, set up a small skirmish line and led a counterattack. When the fighting diminished, he re-established a perimeter, anticipating another attack and supervised the evacuation of casualties. The major had transformed himself from a narcoleptic unit hood ornament into a frenetic battlefield leader, and helped to save the day.
As the sun rose over his desolate home, Bernie Rodgers appeared out of the battle haze. "Sir, are you OK?"
"What a night. Peter Savory and Adam were right about the ARVN soldiers. We should have listened to them." The major spoke shaking his head and wiping sweat filled black stains from his forehead. There was no smile or humor in his message.
"The problem was Col. Basham. He just wouldn't listen to any talk about Major Dung. That didn't leave room for action." Bernie cleaned his thick glasses with a dirty handkerchief. His thick hair, which was usually neatly combed pointed in every direction.
"I know, but we still could have done more. We have ourselves to blame. I just couldn't imagine the fight coming to us. We were all just too busy with other things to pay attention. So many good people are gone. They were so young and now they are gone!"
The major had just seen his unit, his community blown off the map, by barbarian-traitors who had shared his teriyaki feasts each night. Didn't they understand that these fellowship bonds were sacred? His friends, his soldiers were bleeding or dead in the dirt. He sat down and cried. Bernie offered to share his handkerchief. He couldn't think of anything else to do.
At the Evac Hospital, it was just another night of death and destruction. The chief of surgery professionally triaged the wounded, as he did every day and night. The expectant casualties, who were not predicted to survive, were provided morphine and a remote cot away from the action.
The dead were taken to the morgue for identification and transferred to the Graves Registration Unit. Mike Dempsey was in this formation. He was carried by the men and officers of his battalion, some of whom were also wounded with blood-soaked dressings. To a man, tears flowed as they escorted this young prince, whose promising life had been silenced by a well-placed mortar round. Like many in his West Point class, his adult life, filled with so much promise and anticipation ended almost before it began in this unforgiving place.
Big Ben was brought into triage and placed on a gurney. His uniform was stripped by the OR nurse, exposing a large chest wound. He was barely conscious, but as two chest tubes were placed, two units of whole blood hung, and a urinary catheter inserted he was heard to whisper, "Cpt. Dempsey, Cpt. Dempsey, is he OK?" His question was answered by a nurse anesthetist who sedated him and then placed an endotracheal tube. He was sped to the OR for four hours of surgery.
Peter was already in surgery where he underwent an emergency splenectomy, abdominal exploration, and repair of penetrating wounds to his small and large bowel. At the end of the operation, he was still alive with an ostomy to decompress his digestive track.
He opened his eyes hours later, still sedated on a ventilator. Adam and Katie were standing at his bedside, politely smiling and crying. Their flight had returned just that morning after the attack. No words were said. Katie held and squeezed Peter's hand.
Two beds down the corridor, Big Ben was rolled into the nursing unit in much the same condition. Recovery nurses hovered around his gurney adjusting multiple IV's and replacing yet another unit of whole blood. This oak of a man had been minutes away from death. Adam recognized the first sergeant and ran over to squeeze his hand. How could mere bullets and explosives befall such a warrior?
After an uncomfortable time, Katie and Adam sat on folding chairs in an adjacent unoccupied tent. Adam recalled it had been Lt. Christiansen's torture chamber, but there were no historic plaques to mark the events on the deep green canvas. The waves had already washed away that sand castle with its incidental dungeon.
"Katie, this is grim. Mike Dempsey and a good part of my unit are dead. Peter and Big Ben are blown apart. And where were we? On Waikiki beach knocking back blue Hawaiians. They blew a hole right through the detachment, and just as some of us figured, Major Dung and the ARVN volleyball team led the charge. They couldn't have made it more obvious even if they came to work in NVA uniforms." Adam sat leaning forward in the chair shaking his head as he rubbed his forehead.
"This is every day for me. Teenagers brought in by chopper with their small bowels hanging out or with sucking chest wounds. All manner of human tissue rearranged and removed. What makes this different is that we, well you, knew these people. The war came home and they paid the butcher's bill. We were allowed to go on R&R. In fact, we were lucky we were not here. There's nothing noble about being blown apart in a pointless, well in this war."
"The war isn't the point. These were my mates, and at some level I wasn't there when they needed me. It doesn't make sense, but that's it and it bites, deeply." Tears were pouring out as Adam shared all of this.
"Adam, maybe I have alligator skin from nursing, and seeing so much. But we've got to pick up the pieces and move forward. We can't let this shatter our lives and our futures. Somebody has got to survive this damned war and move on."
Adam stared at her, his eyes were red and swollen from crying. He had never felt so low. He would be a dead man walking. In a day, his world, his friends and his love, had all changed.
The Pan AM 707 taxied up to the gate at Travis Air Force Base outside of Sacramento. The GI's on the plane were ebullient and mostly intoxicated or hung over, as they exited the "freedom bird" after almost twenty-four hours of travel. They had survived, and imagined they could return to their small towns to resume lives that for some had been violently altered. Some kissed the tarmac as they exited the plane.
Adam mechanically went through the interminable paperwork to process through the terminal, and then in uniform with his decorations, boarded a public Greyhound bus to start the fifty-one mile trip to the downtown terminal in San Francisco. Many of the GI's had shed their uniforms to blend into the new world that had no respect for their service. Adam was certain he wanted to wear his uniform. It was a statement of solidarity with his comrades, and at this point about the only statement he could make. He was exhausted and spent, not unlike an old man facing the end of his life. Vietnam had stolen his youth and his optimism.
He thought about Katie. It was so perfect in Hawaii. Their chemistry finally clicked. She was smart and beautiful, most important she seemed to love him. Now he was confused and uncertain, but he still hoped something would work out with the two of them. It was all churning inside of him.
He slumped in the seat of the bus and marveled at the visage. There was no sign of a country at war, no sign of national sacrifice. The country had put on the collective blinders and moved on with their new cars, new houses, new vacations. It was a lot like South Vietnam, but amplified a thousand times. Only an enormously rich country could fight a war with 500,000 soldiers and ignore and deny it at the same time.
Thirty minutes into the ride, a woman, in her early thirties, wearing a tie dye sweat shirt with a black fist and the words "Stop the War," walked down the aisle and paused in front of Adam, who was snoring. She gently shook him, and he popped to alertness. He was still in a foxhole.
"Thanks for killing Vietnamese women and children," she quietly said. "I just wanted to thank you for fighting a war we didn't want or need. I hope you'll be able to live with yourself for the rest of your life, you fucking bastard." She spit in Adam's face.
Although a gaggle of passengers witnessed the event, no one moved to come to Adam's moral aid, and most heads turned toward the window. He stared at her as he wiped the spittle from his face. It made him more determined than ever to continue to wear his uniform. It was his armor of defiance against the government, the people and even the war. No one could deny the sacrifice or the reality of the Nam when they saw his uniform. It rubbed in their face. He was now an army of one. Adam decided the woman was beyond confrontation, and he fell back to sleep, depriving her of needed fuel for her rage. Little did he know that she had made it her life's work to ride this bus from Travis to San Francisco several times a week to provide this wet greeting to arriving GIs.
When he awoke, the bus was driving through Dallas, and it was noon. As in San Francisco, there was no hint of a nation at war. Citizens shopped and crossed the street without a care. Cars passed in every direction. Vietnam was someone else's problem, a battle in a faraway galaxy. Dallas was like a village made up of accessories to a shared crime, which every resident suppressed and ignored.
At the Dallas Greyhound depot, a middle-aged man got on the bus and sat next to Adam. He had a stubble that imagined it was a beard, which matched his balding scalp. There was no baseball cap broadcasting his proud station as a war veteran, no jacket advertising his military unit or a particular war. In his pocket was a pack of Chesterfield cigarettes and he wore cowboy boots that were more scuff than design. It all spoke to a hard life, that most strangers would not choose to explore.
The man saw Adam's CIB and campaign ribbons as well the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for Valor. "You just coming back from Nam? You see some combat?"
"Yes," cautiously said Adam, bracing himself for another salvo of saliva.
"I was in Korea in the "frozen Chosin" with the 7th Marines. It was minus 35 degrees, and I lost some fingers." He held up a hand to verify his pedigree. "We were surrounded by 120,000 Chicoms, and fought them to a draw and then retreated. We killed the fuckers eyeball to eyeball in the thousands, but we lost our own men in the hundreds. They were good men."
"It's hard to imagine what you went through."
"It's all forgotten. It was forgotten when it happened and it's forgotten now. Nobody gives a damn about it. I know what you Nam guys are feeling." Adam detected the smell of rye whiskey on the man's breath. In his case it was medicinal. Almost twenty years later, he was still feeling the deep pains of that winter hell. Was this the ghost of Adam future, a lonely vet racked by the hell-dogs of his youth?
Slowly a bond emerged with this old, sad man. They had both been violently disconnected from the world outside of the bus window, and they shared some soul food. Several towns down the road, he got up and they shook hands. He was gone.
Adam leaned back in the seat and thought of Katie. He loved her, but doubted they would ever meet again. The last act of his tour had probably extinguished the fire. It was so perfect in Hawaii. At least he had that sweet memory. The negative energy of the attack, which he had missed, had sucked the juice out of him. There was no energy to fight the downward momentum of his fate, but he still hoped he would pull out of the dive.
He left the Greyhound at the Montgomery terminal and pulled his green GI duffle bag off the bus, and sat in the terminal waiting for the once-a-day local bus to Greenville. The ride was only two hours and he arrived at a very small terminal next to a filling station-garage, where he tried to find the address for Kenyata Martin in an old phone book with no success. He asked about a car rental at the garage, and the mechanic, who had a remarkable likeness to Grady Davis, offered to rent Adam his own car for twenty-five dollars. Adam accepted and then drove the 1955 Pontiac to a local VFW lodge. He figured he might find a warm welcome and some more definitive information, since he was still in uniform. The south still revered the military, right?
The VFW hall was permeated with the smell of stale beer, with origins back to 1945 or earlier. Even though it was only noon, several regulars were congregating around the bar, ready to begin the same stories they had shared almost daily for years. Adam inquired about assistance and they indifferently pointed to the stairs. The men perceived that Adam was not southern. No uniform could change that. Even in Alabama, even in a VFW lodge, the Vietnam War hardly drew any interest.
Adam found an office and an elderly man, sleeping in his chair with a newspaper propped in his lap. He wondered if he was related to Major Tanaka. He knocked on the door and startled the old man.
"Can I help you, son?"
"Yes, sir. I'm trying to get the address of a deceased Vietnam vet from Greenville, who was in the 123rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam. His name was Kenyata Martin. He was killed in 1969."
The old man pulled out a book and began flipping through military funeral announcements.
"Was this man a nigger?"
"He was black." Adam replied with an edge to his voice, more interested in an answer than a fight.
"Why would you come here to see a nigger family, son?"
"This man saved my life in Vietnam, and I wanted to thank his mother."
"No good is gonna come here, son, no good."
The old man handed Adam a street number with instructions for getting to the house, shaking his head and muttering, "Can't talk to a fool."
"Is there a phone number I could call?"
"Boy, that house has no electricity, and the last time I checked phones need electricity."
Adam thanked the man and slowly walked back to his car. Minutes later he was driving out Pineapple Highway, and soon turned off on an unmarked red clay road, passing the Pine Level Baptist Church and forests interrupted with sharecropper hovels. All the farming implements of sharecropper life were strewn in front of each house. There were no lawns out here, no lawn decorations or plants. The land was just red dirt, pine trees and shacks. Each shack looked like an agricultural fire support base minus the artillery. Adam stopped at the first house to get better directions and was sent further down the dirt road, which became a cow path filled with deep red ruts. The Pontiac barely negotiated its way down the path.
Finally, Adam judged he had arrived. He saw a house with a rusted metal roof and one chimney. The front porch was near collapse, as one of the support posts was on the ground. An outhouse was visible twenty yards from the house, and not much further, a well. No electrical wires connected the house with the world, and of course the ubiquitous TV antennae, was not to be seen. A cachectic dog was laid out on the porch, and raised its head just enough to see the visitor. Its tail wagged three beats and stopped. There was no other animal movement. Adam wondered if its name was Argos.
He knocked on the door. A barefoot teenage black girl came to the door, and invited him into a single-room house with an active wood burning stove. A pot was heating, the source of hot water for the family. Old newspapers papered the walls as a layer of insulation. An obese woman in an ancient smock was seated on a rocking chair, which was the only piece of furniture in the house. Several unmade beds filled the rest of the room. She stared directly ahead and was apparently blind. Her legs and ankles were edematous with ulcerations, probably from diabetes. Her swollen bare feet rested on a wooden box.
"Yes, who are you?"
"I served with your son, Kenyata in Vietnam."
"Lord almighty, you knew Kenyata?"
"Yes, I just returned from Vietnam, and wanted to tell you what a great person he was. I was in a foxhole with him, when he was killed. He probably saved my life, teaching me what I needed to know. Everybody in the company loved him."
"And you traveled all this way just to tell me?"
"I did, he was a special man. I wanted to give you this, it's a badge earned by infantryman. I wanted you to have mine to remind you of Kenyata." He placed the CIB in the old lady's hand.
"They buried him down the road and gave me this." She signaled to the young girl who brought an American flag, still folded in a ceremonial pattern. Pinned to the flag was the purple heart medal.
"Some soldiers fired shots, and the bugle played taps on a tape player. Then they put him in the ground," said the girl.
"I miss my son. I miss Kenyata. He was a good boy."
The young girl stood silently taking in the scene.
They both cried a lot and then hugged. The war ended for Adam.