We were taken to the eastern exit a little past dusk – time is difficult to tell from the bottom of a well – and released near the Ben Hai River, which bifurcated the DMZ. The Chinese nationals were an odd pair: Sin was older, maybe 25, and amazingly industrious, always coming up with a suggestion, idea or condemnation. He clearly was the driving influence on his young protégé, Chan, who looked all of 17, yet carried none of Sin’s seething racism, at least to the best of my understanding of a language I don’t understand in the slightest. As neither of them spoke American or French and as I spoke no Mandarin, our communications were limited to facial expressions and mad gesticulation. I no more knew what they were doing there than they knew what I was doing there and we operated from a bond of disinterested ignorance.
Chan was an interesting fellow, remarkably spry and quick on his feet, more dancer than warrior. While deadly serious around Sin, he would often smile at me when Sin couldn’t see, making rubbery faces at me, trying to lighten my mood. This was a serious challenge as I was starving, physically exhausted, racked with agony and an emotional shambles. While still without boots, one of the subterranean villagers offered me some sandals, which provided at least some protection in the jagged, metal strewn death trap that was the DMZ. My clothes were a write off and the holy folks of Vịnh Mốc offered me some of the popular black pajamas worn by many of the locals and VC. As I exceeded their height limitations, these came just past my elbows and just below my knees which, when cinched to limit crawlies, appeared as capris with a blouse with short balloon sleeves. As it was about a million degrees with 400% humidity, I readily disposed of the sleeves, reducing my ridiculous to tolerable levels.
We traveled throughout the night, slowly and with considerable difficulty. I followed Sin and Chan because they at least offered direction – I was literally lost in the dark. Forsaken by my country, tortured and brutalized by Western authority, hunted in this terrifying place, following the Commies became my only option. I began to understand the perspective of oppressed people everywhere – it didn’t matter what the person who helped you believed, only that they helped you. But the person who harmed you, who oppressed you, their beliefs took on new resonance as they directly led to your abuse. What the killer believed seemed very important indeed.
As dawn threatened to break we came to a ford in the Ben Hai River at No Luk – I believe it was a ‘68 Fairlane – where we crossed into North Vietnam, continuing north/east into the Annamite Range. These mountains were verdant and steep, rocky points creating a barrier between Laos and Vietnam and particularly difficult to negotiate, especially in flip flops made of vegetation. We traversed desolate terrain, a verdant paradise reduced to odious rubble, every step something defoliated, displaced, devastated and/or deadly; a nightmarish creep in daylight; in the darkness avoiding the unexploded ordinance, mines, craters or corpses was a horrifying and awful challenge. Human capacity expressed can be a terrible thing realized.
Half a click outside of No Luq I collapsed in exhaustion. We had been clawing through a dense thicket when I stumbled into a crater and couldn’t muster the wherewithal to move further. I was utterly spent. Chan realized my predicament and made a plea to Sin. They debated quietly for a moment then Sin, who carried an AK-47, made his way deeper into the jungle. To my surprise, Chan returned and helped me from the crater, setting a small campfire in a clearing, even giving me some of his water. Chan and Sin both wore the requisite black, carried packs and canteens, but while Sin was fire armed, Chan carried only a walking staff and a razor sharp Kitana knife on his belt. He appeared genuinely concerned about my wellbeing, which offered me a comfort unknown in this land. I passed out.
I awoke to the smell of meat cooking. As an omnivore with a deeply ingrained taste for flesh, even my exhaustion couldn’t overwhelm my hunger. Chan offered me some reddish cooked meat with some leeks and rice which I consumed ravenously. He smiled at my enthusiasm, and returned my nods of praise and appreciation, though Sin viewed me with suspicion and something bordering on disgust. Had not Chan advocated for me, I suspect my final moments would have been in that crater. With so many intent on destroying me, it was a rare treat to know one who actively worked to redeem me.
After eating I passed out again, only to awaken to a fierce case of the shits. So fierce that it drove us from the clearing and back into the thicket; Sin, repulsed by my personal debasement, keeping well ahead of me. As we proceeded, I left a land mine or ten of my own, certain that if anyone was tracking us, they’d give up and flee in revulsion, horrified at what they’d encounter at the other end of such a trail. I struggled to keep up but as we were moving up mountains through jungles, our progress was necessarily slow regardless my gastric discontent. When they had gotten about a hundred meters ahead of me, across a field of tall grass, Chan became embroiled with Sin, gesticulating wildly, clearly displeased. This culminated in Sin storming off ahead while Chan stood his ground, clearly distressed. I continued my arduous path toward them.
As I approached Chan, there was a nearby explosion sending shrapnel hurling past us, some of it very grim indeed. Sin had had the misfortune in his frustrated haste of stepping on a landmine which launched him, well, parts of him, in multiple directions simultaneously – quite horrid really. Curiously, his AK-47 was launched as well and landed bayonet first, sticking out of the ground at my feet. If I had been a single step ahead, it would have impaled me. Chan and I looked at each other astounded. Chan’s repudiation of Sin nearly killed us both but ultimately led to our salvation.
We salvaged what could be saved from Sin’s grisly possessions and by we, I mean Chan. Vietnam is no place for the squeamish, certainly not in early 1970, and I hold no pretensions at a hearty constitution, at least when blood and guts are involved, or nasty, stinky death – I’d never make it in the medical or mortician arts beyond as a subject or object of study or practice.
I am just too pukey. So I spent a good deal of my time in Wretchlvania as we traversed the horrific playing fields of the Great Game in Southeast Asia. Chan gave me Sin’s pack and canteen, but he seemed understandably concerned about the rifle. Grabbing the stock, I pulled it from the ground, examined it, brushed it off, then offered it to him. This made him more comfortable and he declined it, preferring his own methods of defense and aggression.
For Chan was a master of martial arts. Even at his young age, he could move with agility and speed like no one I had ever seen. He was far more dangerous with his knife and staff than I was with the AK-47, and I came to respect the importance of never underestimating anyone, never supposing you can know what another is capable of. As we traveled through the jungles and mountains trying to find our ways home, we befriended each other and I learned of his journey and amazing ability, as he learned of mine. We traveled close so we could talk quietly as we walked; we taught each other our languages. I learned upward of 50 words in Mandarin while Chan learned the same words in American English.
He had been dumped in the China Drama Academy in Hong Kong when his parents moved to Canberra, Australia, to cook for the American embassy. He wasn’t a commie. After 8 years of rigorous training, he was tempted by Sin, a former instructor, to join him in his get-rich scheme. Chan didn’t realize Sin had planned to smuggle heroin, for Sin kept him in the dark. Chan was just a boy. He missed his parents and the lure of enough money to help them from their drudgery and reunite the family blinded him to the reality of acquiring it, just like it does adults. Easy money is always easier talking about than attaining and usually easier attaining than keeping.
Now that hard reality smacked us both in the face: in ‘Nam there were no heroes, only heroin. In mainline Indochina, War Bonds were in fact Junk Bonds and the fix was in. The apologists and pundits could moralize till they were horse; this was a war about injecting profits, cooking up funding and feeding black budgets, Communism be damned. Vietnam wasn’t the first place shot up by the U.S.A. for that sweet hot rush of income, nor would it be the last. We were hooked.
The players were well known in the right circles: in the jungles of Burma, General Kuhn Sa oversaw the production of heroin from the heart of the Golden Triangle. He would ship it south to Bangkok where independent dealers would smuggle it into the U.S. from, among other places, Jack’s American Star Bar. To the east, heroin enriched Hmong leader Vang Pao in Laos as he transshipped it to CIA assets through Air America, the Agency’s clandestine airline in Southeast Asia. Of course, nobody knew any of this at the time, just as nobody really cares presently, but Vietnam was fought in part to provide heroin for the Central Intelligence Agency’s chemical social engineering program of the citizens of the United States of America. The heroin came in, the social undesirables started dying, the prisons filled up – just as with alcohol prohibition, the stroke of the pen created a criminal class and the system that owned that pen created a law enforcement class to combat it. The War on Drugs. Users, the War on Drug Users.
We came upon a village called Bing Bang that was abandoned. Unlike most we had seen, its structures were all intact; they hadn’t been shot up, burned out or bombed, at least in any conventional sense. A helicopter supporting a force of Laotian Hmong soldiers had bombarded the village with severed heads. This inspired the locals to leave rapidly, en masse, as some of the heads came from their friends or relatives, which made it far too emotional in the midst of the horror for even the stoutest hearted to endure. These were savage brutes and I had heard the name whispered by some we passed: Tow Nipo.
Northwest of Bing Bang we realized we were being tracked: a platoon of Viet Cong were a half click behind us and closing fast. We traveled a barely distinguishable trail – the main road between Bing Bang and Bada Bing – and the canopy became dense and overgrown. Many exotic birds and distressing snakes inhabited this lush paradise, and the absence of sunlight made it increasingly dark and foreboding. As we neared a clearing, Chan held up his hand and we listened: ahead, likely the same distance as our pursuers, advanced another group toward us. We were trapped in a classic pincer move; it would be impossible to avoid them.
I looked at Chan and shrugged, pointing upward. At first it seemed as if he thought I was pointing to God, but as soon as I grabbed a branch, he understood and fairly leapt into the trees, clambering upward almost ape-like, reaching down to pull me up in the particularly treacherous areas. About 7 meters up, I stashed the rifle in the branches as Chan continued upward, ever up. I followed gamely but with little of his mad enthusiasm. This did not bode well, for when the separate forces met below us, up would be the only direction we could have gone, and they would come, right into the trees after us. Or find us and shoot us down.
Chan found a veritable hammock of branches and vines about 20 meters off the jungle floor where we were able to sequester ourselves and still see unobstructed below. We lay still and breathed shallow in anticipation. We had been traversing the area north of the DMZ for weeks, avoiding patrols, bombings and tigers, which prowled the densest foliage, coincidentally the only areas even marginally safe for us to travel in. (The tigers made them less so.) We were able to come up with food from the rivers and streams as well the fecund forests and jungles teeming with life in this realm of death. As we struggled to find a good way out of hell, I was able to regain my strength. With that accomplished, Chan taught me many very effective hand to hand combat moves: he taught me Kung Fu. Some days, when we felt safe from the predations surrounding us, he would train me and practice himself as we labored to find a way out. If Sin had an exit plan, it wasn’t shared with Chan. We were on our own.
The birds around and below us stopped their squawking; the jungle became deathly still. The VC behind us appeared first, moving silently with remarkable cover. They were upon our position before either of us heard a thing, their point man stopping at the spot where we entered the trees, looking around suspiciously. He backed up then looked into the branches we had clambered up.
Looking around he began to track the route we had taken into the trees with his eyes, hesitating at the point I’d left the rifle. We had been made – by the first fucker to come upon our position. I might as well have left a neon arrow pointing upward and felt my position as a military tactician was secure. As the little asshole scanned the canopy, he backed up to get a wider view, smug that he had captured us single handedly, without lifting a finger. Of course, in a place riddled with unexploded ordinance and landmines, one does not wisely step backward without careful observation. But he was looking up, not down, at least until the click. He had spotted one of his confederates and pointed into the trees when Bouncing Betty popped up and shred hello.
Then the clearing exploded. The VC tracking us were not meeting the group heading their way, not by their design anyway. It was the same group that saw the military as a way to get a head, or several: the Laotian Army of Hmong warriors. The jungle below rapidly filled with smoke, the stench of cordite heavy, as the antagonists opened mad explosive fire on each other. Soon, all we could see was smoke and through it, explosion after explosion: gunfire, grenades, claymore mines, RPGs, the verdant green in flame being blackened and charred. Then as if this didn’t offer sufficient peril, the trees around us began falling, explosions and bullets shredding their trunks, branches collapsing, vines toppling. Chan looked at me, distressed – we were in trouble.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was in fact 3 minutes and 27 seconds, the explosions stopped. While thoroughly shaken, our position was not stirred. We laid back and fought for air from above as the clouds of smoke billowed around us from below where death had demanded its due. After about 25 minutes the smoke had cleared sufficiently to allow us a view below – it was not pretty. The Hmong had prevailed and were busying themselves harvesting the dead, gathering weapons, food, medicine and ears from the corpses. Then among them strode a stocky white man, in full military regalia, who directed their actions. He seemed satisfied at the outcome and removed a brutal machete from his belt and took a trophy, the head of a VC soldier, maybe 24 years old. He called out, then tossed it to a Laotian soldier, who caught it in a sack and cinched it shut. This was not someone I wanted to meet.
He scanned the area, then, as did the VC point man before, he looked into the canopy. He scanned it deliberately, even considered our position, but the rising smoke acted as a barrier of fog between us and we were thankfully obscured. His attention became focused upon two of his soldiers arguing over the ownership of an ear. He stepped up, and in crisp Hmong, resolved their dispute with dignity and aplomb by shooting the whiniest guy and taking his head while offering his ear collection to his disputant, who accepted the gift with appropriate reverence.
Then, they were gone. It was as if they simply disappeared one by one till the clearing was still. I didn’t even see what direction they left in, something one would imagine as useful information in such a circumstance. To my relief, Chan had been able to track a couple of them – they had returned the way they came, north, back into Laos.
The only sign they had been there was the presence of about 20 earless or headless corpses in various stages of explosive deconstruction, strewn about the jungle below, itself torn and shredded by human killing machinery applied. It was eerily quiet, the surviving fauna watching in mute amazement at what the hairless apes had got up to. We remained stationary upon our perch until the birds returned to their respective squawkery, content that the menace had subsided, if even only temporarily. I made it clear to Chan that I wanted to return to the ground away from the carnage below, lest I join it in wretched vomitism. He appreciated my delicacy and we moved through the canopy for 500 meters before climbing lower. It was a fascinating experience, walking through the tree tops. I had forsaken Sin’s firearm in favor of free handed climbing; I had carried it for two pages and never fired it once – it was useless to me.
What Chan had taught me was invaluable. While nowhere near his level of deadly proficiency, I was quicker and stronger than I had ever been – I was a weapon. Perhaps a baseball bat to Chan’s fully loaded AK-47, but still, a baseball bat beats being brutally beaten bareknuckled by big bunches, baby. We made the ground about a kilometer from the Trường Sơn Strategic Supply Route – the Hồ Chí Minh trail. We clawed our way through some dense foliage and came to a forest of tall white thin trunked trees which opened into the wide valley below us. We were on the west face of the Annamite Range and high enough to watch from a terrifying vantage how the U.S.A. applies its resources: 10 B-52 bombers appeared high in the sky above us, a distant deadly rumble portending doom. As they found their targets, their bellies opened and gave birth to hundreds of tons of high explosive offspring, a thousand monstrous bomb babies bursting the lives and realms below into shearing, searing horror, bomb after bomb burning, mangling, destroying all they touched. We watched silently, astounded, appalled, as the quiet valley of small hamlets and farms was turned into a smoking, incinerated wasteland.
I marveled at the lengths Capitalism would go to maintain its monopoly on human degradation. These Laotians, they posed no threat to the U.S.A. and yet the U.S.A. spent billions of dollars to incinerate them, to turn them to ash, all because some other people promoted the notion of social equality. In this threatening form it was called Communism. The idea of social equality has always been the threat of Communism, Socialism; the classless society always viewed askance by those with class.
This stratification didn’t exist because there wasn’t enough money to raise the lower classes up from their disgusting poverty and squalid lifestyles, no. As money is an invention of man to give him primacy over other men and women, its only fundamental limitation is in seeing to it that too much doesn’t accumulate in undesired areas. Beyond that, there are no limits upon it – one can make/take as much as they can. Equality necessarily eliminates primacy. There are no kings where all are equal, no peasants either – just human beings. Capitalism is a caste system, much as in India – a very capitalist nation – where the upper caste cast themselves in roles of power and superiority while casting the lower castes to the cats. Or dogs.
Ideological struggles cannot be won militarily. The best that can be achieved that way is a Pyrrhic victory, which is nothing but a universal defeat. The only way to change an ideological system is ideologically. Which has always been the threat of Communism, stated and implied.
There was never the proffered or even imaginable prospect of the USSR moving en masse to the USA, thus relegating us to refugee status in the land stolen by our forefathers; it was always the idea of social equality that provided the greatest menace to Capitalism. Communism wasn’t the threat of a nation – as they existed perpetually on the defensive owing to Capitalism’s burgeoning military empires – but the threat of a notion: the idea that the worker is equal in importance to any system as the manager, the idea that a life is a life and should be treated as such and not on a sliding tiered scale of importance decided by those on the top tier, reducing those on the bottom tier to tears. In the U.S.A. a middle class of muddled middle-managers was constructed to provide a voting block which would supersede the power of the lower labor class, knowing that as long as the illusion existed that the middle could move to the top, they would continue supporting the top so it would be strong when they got there.
Which they never did, nor realistically, could they expect to. For the top cannot be attained from the bottom up, pushing against the powerful gravity of reality; but from the top down, invitation only, where you are pulled up by the powerful suction reserved for the elect who keep it all running as it is supposed to. Because really, why get to the top and have to share it with a bunch of boring regular people? The top is for the beautiful people and their owners: Old Money. Old Money laughs at new money, Ha! Old Money throws the wars; new money manufactures and distributes the armaments. Old Money is the bank, new money the banker. Old Money calls the shots, new money administers the injections. And no money, as always, takes it in the shorts.
We had found a fairly unexplosive course south through the forest, away from the devastation of the bombing and came upon the Xépôn River, which flowed west into the Banghiang River and eventually into the Mekong. If we could make it to the Mekong we might be able to lose ourselves among the water traffic headed to Saigon near the Mekong Delta. Chan snagged a moored sampan and we climbed aboard and floated west. The river was at places quite wide but only about a meter deep which meant antagonists could just walk up to you, which presented an odd dilemma. We made our way to the village of Xépôn unmolested and moored in some reeds.
We found ourselves at the end of a landing strip, on an abandoned PAVN base in the largely abandoned Xépôn village. In the distance an approaching aircraft could be heard. I stepped onto the tarmac and walked toward the distant structures; it was quiet. Chan looked at me amazed, “Alt! What you doing?!” I shook my head; he was right. It had been so long since I had seen buildings with foundations that I momentarily lost myself in the illusion that I had reached civilization. I looked around nervously and stepped back into cover. “Sorry. Forgot myself.”
“Damned easy place to do that in, old boy.” Chan and I looked at each other concerned. Through the trees near the river ambled a cocky and good looking American about my age. He was dressed in a floppy hat, dark glasses and a well-worn canvas photojournalist’s vest. Around his neck dangled two Nikon 35mm cameras and he moved toward us, quite pleased with himself.
As he neared, he looked toward the approaching aircraft, now visible in the distant sky. Smiling, he stepped up and offered his hand to me. “Sean Flynn. UPI. Time/Life.” I was duly impressed and offered my hand. “Art Hammer. Spending time avoiding death.” This pleased him and I continued, “And this is my esteemed colleague, Chan, late of Hong Kong.” Chan took his hand and bowed his head, “My honor.” Sean looked at us quizzically. “What, if I may ask, are you two doing out here?” Chan and I looked at each other, responding together, “Leaving.”
As the twin engine Beechnut Extractor touched down, gunfire erupted from the trees. “Well, given the circumstances, I can’t say as I blame you. Can I offer you a lift?” At this juncture we were all moving at a full run toward the aircraft which had landed and was preparing to take off again. I offered, “If it wouldn’t be an imposition.” Now, a quarter kilometer away, Pathet Lao soldiers ran toward our position, firing, as Sean ran and shot photo after photo of them, bullets whizzing wildly past us, all distressingly close, some distressingly closer.
By the time we reached the plane, it had begun to taxi away from the encroaching gunmen, coincidentally away from us as well. A door in the side of the fuselage opened and hands reached out helping Chan in, followed by me; but by the time we got to Sean the plane was moving too fast and we had to pluck him from the tarmac and into the plane, as bullets pierced the fuselage and the pilot gunned it madly down the runway. All inside, we struggled the door shut as the plane launched us into the air, our antagonists still firing at us below. We collapsed back against the fuselage, winded and exhausted. Running with people chasing and shooting at you tends to ratchet up the stress higher than, say, jogging or sprinting alone will, and we all breathed heavily for a bit before attempting further conversation aboard the noisy Beechnut.
“It takes a group to create a cluster fuck.” Sean raised his beer to a passing group of ARVN forces who openly traversed the streets of Phenom Penh, the Cambodian capital. We sat at a table al fresco, drinking beer and talking at Lim Diks Parisian on the Rue du Jour in the city center. The streets were crowded with bicycles, rickshaws, cabs and military vehicles along with the waves of pedestrians who begged, hustled or did their best to avoid the predations of the rabble and disruptions of the desperate. Sean was more than generous and got us a room and some clothing that didn’t smell of human despair. He seemed genuinely interested in my story but his was compelling indeed, not merely in word.
The only son of Hollywood heartthrob Errol Flynn, Sean had tried his hand at acting as well as numerous other ventures which ultimately left him bored, disinterested, suffused with ennui.
War zones, human tragedy, turmoil, these compelled him, as he sought a higher truth through the lens of a camera. He had taken several tours of Southeast Asia, actually parachuting in with the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division in 1966, returning in 1970 with documentary designs. He had been meeting with an insider from Vang Pao’s command when our paths crossed.
“Never underestimate the damage a dedicated group of humanitarians can inflict given sufficient time and resource.” I shook my head at the madness of the street show unfolding around us while Sean nodded at my observation and Chan looked at me quizzically. “Many people with guns, few with brains.” Chan looked very sincere but returned our smiles when we reacted to his youthful wisdom. We had been talking about Sean’s meeting with Khan Su, Kuhn Sa’s cousin, who controlled the cartel contiguous to Kuhn Sa’s Golden Triangle, the Platinum Octagon.
The Platinum Octagon was not as well-known as the Golden Triangle but infinitely more profitable than the Iridium Rhombus, which the other cartels mocked openly at trade shows and conventions. Khan ran the Platinum Octagon with an iron fist, a steel resolve and a barium enema, as his health weighed heavy on his mind. Sean had learned that Kuhn Sa had been displaced from power creating the vacuum which inspired the influx of entrepreneurs and other gangsters into the region, all trying to corner the multimillion dollar market of human despond while avoiding getting blown up in the process.
“Vang Pao is making a killing off the heroin market, this is common knowledge. But Vang is the Agency’s guy and I find it hard to believe they don’t know what he’s up to.” Sean had stumbled onto fairly indisputable evidence that the CIA was not merely turning a blind eye, but actively engaged in the heroin trade, even opening banks which laundered the money they profited. Sean didn’t have the benefit of East’s big mouth which eliminated a lot of my questions as to just what they were doing here. I knew better than adding to it. “It’s amazing what one can miss just looking for the wrong thing.” Properly cryptic yet concise and accessible, Sean clearly appreciated it and tipped his beer to me.
The South Vietnamese government had set a press conference for April 6, and journalists from Phenom Penh gathered in limos for the trip to Saigon. Sean and Dana Stone offered us their seats in one of the limos, opting to ride motorcycles instead. “You can join us you know, old boy.” Sean offered to let us ride with them, but at that point the lure of adventure for me was pretty much diminished for 8, 10 decades and we agreed to suffer the indignity of the limos. We embraced, he gave me a wink, “then, see you in Saigon,” and they were gone.
In Saigon, we checked into Sean’s room at Le Vivaneau Rogue, anticipating his arrival at any moment. When the word came that he and Dana were MIA, we were crestfallen. Hearing of a VC checkpoint on Hwy 1 they broke off from the convoy to get some shots and that was the last they were ever seen.
Owing to his generosity we had made it out of the jungle and closer to our objective of somehow getting home. He had risked his life for us. And now he was gone. I had a hard dazed night. Next morning I awoke to find Chan staring out the window at the distant water. We had been in the jungle for months; we had fought our way through hell to this place, the Westernized capital of a war ravaged nation. We were spent.
Saigon was a crazy active place, not unlike Phenom Penh, industrious and predatory. A city in turmoil; its people in transit, on the move, refugees in their own land with no place to go, so they came here. Saigon: the hard capital of a hard country.
We needed a way out but had serious limitations. Chan was Chinese in a nation particularly unfriendly to China at that juncture. I was still on the Agency’s list of people to fuck with in brutal perpetuity and we were all but destitute. Sean had given me $25 American, which was a life saver, as was the good Mr. Flynn, but it could not last indefinitely, especially with all the cute little girls offering boom-boom for such reasonable rates. I knew we couldn’t stay at the hotel any longer because eventually they’d kick us out of the room, perhaps call the local constabulary on us for not paying and then I would be made. We moved to the street. With my hat, dark glasses, beard and long hair, I was fairly difficult to recognize. But as I was white, not military, and sported no official affiliation, I stood out like a nude beach boner regardless.
“Hope is overrated.” Two scouts from Bravo Company walked past lost in conversation. I considered their nihilism in the face of this madness, then realized what I had actually heard. I followed them and continued listening. “Well, he always brings some sexy girls with him.” The original soldier responded, “Miss Jill Saint John.” My eyes lit up. I put my dark glasses on to conceal it – I looked strange enough without that crap.
I located the USO tent near the Ranger base south of the city. I well understood the means to gaining access to pretty much anyplace is to approach it as though you are expected there and any delay will cost dearly, whether money, position or wellbeing. Your absolute certainty that you belong where you are trying to get will call up the indignation of being challenged, umbrage at being questioned and the assured demand to speak to someone in charge. This will usually sell it to all but the highly experienced, who can be moved with the shared tedium of going through the usual channels, again, the commonality of haranguing those who can never get it right, leading to such annoying delays in the first place.
I stepped up to her slowly, as to not elicit a shriek – I was quite the thing to observe, and likely smell, one of the prime reasons the guard moved me through his checkpoint with such vigor. I approached her. “Jill?” She turned toward me, at first shocked and appalled, then recognizing me beneath the blood, sweat and hair, “Arturo?! My God, what’s happened to you?”
I considered my plight up to now – scowling at me at the keyboard – and replied, “It would be a shorter list telling you what hasn’t happened to me.” Remembering her elation during our first encounter when her credit checked out, she took me in her impassioned embrace. Remembering my smell and basic street hygiene she spun back away, holding me at arm’s length.* “A bath. I’m thinking a bath hasn’t happened to you.” Back at her hotel, the tony Putain pas Cher, after my requisite purging, I gave her the broad strokes of my dilemma without any of the details.**
She was appalled at my horrid mistreatment and superb at affecting my welcome recovery, offering as much attention to my pleasure as my antagonists had to my pain. We rutted into the evening until a frenzied pounding on her door alerted her that she was scheduled to go on in less than 10 minutes at the base, now completely overrun with soldiers tired of Bob Hope’s snide humorlessness and clamoring for Jill. As I helped her dress a chopper was flown in to shuttle her. Even though 17 minutes late, her set was a smash, the troops elated, her masters pleased.
I stayed in the room and availed myself of its amenities, including their delightful room service menu. It was a real treat eating stuff that I (Chan) hadn’t killed and gutted in the jungle as well as sleeping on a mattress for the first time in many months. It was nice being clean. Chan and I had slept in flop houses for weeks, scraping for income after fleeing Sean’s hotel in poverty. Finally Chan could take it no longer and he called his parents in Canberra who wired him a ticket back to Hong Kong. I had seen him off at the airport immediately prior to running into Jill. “We face death together as men. You honor me as friend. I hope in future, we again meet.” Chan looked at me like I was crazy. “Why are you talking like that?” I shook my head and took his hand. “Thank you, my friend.” His gaze softened. “My friend.” We embraced and he was gone. Well, after he left and got on the plane.
Jill returned from the performance, electrified – a problem with the stage lights, apparently – and we continued with our earlier activities, fully juiced and sparking like mad. As my hair rose owing to the high level of sexual energy emanating from her insanely beautiful body I offered, “Hope you’re not charging me for this.” Positively glowing on the stripped bed she purred, “You bet I amp. But I validate sparking.”
We had come upon a plan to introduce me as her new choreographer fresh in from Paris. My luggage was lost along with my money and passport, but I am a US citizen and am traveling with the band, so to speak, so we need some strings pulled, favors called in. It’s for Miss Jill Saint fucking John. Exceptions must be considered. Whatever she needs. We acted sure we could bully it through but I didn’t know and began to get that old feeling that I was putting Jill at needless risk. I battled that with simple self-preservation. If I couldn’t pull it off I would never leave this place alive. It had to work.
*This became the inspiration for her famous dance routine, You Reek, Ah!
**She can read the book like everyone else.
“Monsieur Marteau, n'est-ce pas?” The words cut through me like a knife – but not a nice sharp one, more like an electric knife, the kind that lazy people use for carving turkeys – slow and choppy. I was seated at a café on Phung Duk Lo Boulevard, near Jill’s hotel, drinking a beer. He read a recent Wall Street Journal, a shock of white hair appearing over the top of it as he turned the page. There was no hiding. I needed to face my tormentor. “To whom do I have the trepidation of addressing?” He was Agency and undoubtedly spoke American, no sense giving him too much of my bilinguality.
He lowered the paper. “Call me Ted.” He wore black horn rimmed glasses and appeared fairly conservative, unexceptional beyond his white hair. “Ted.” He set the paper on his table and turned toward me, leaning in, conspiratorially. “I note that you’ve gone a little long on this one.” I rolled my eyes, everyone is a fucking editor. “Yeah. I figured I’d be able to get out of here sooner.” Ted looked around, shaking his head. “Tell me about it.”
I moved it along, “Do you want something, Ted?”
He sat back sipping his drink and considered me. “You’re a hard man to kill, Mr. Hammer.” I sucked on my beer, scanning the area, preparing for my next attack. “Let’s just say that I have an exceptional will to live. Certainly more than the will of others to kill me.” Ted considered me. “So far.” This annoyed me; why wouldn’t these cocksuckers leave me alone? “Thanks for that. You gonna kill me, Ted?” Surprisingly, Ted appeared surprised. “Certainly not. Right now, I wonder if I even could, considering your work on Ming–” “Colonel Ming.” Ted looked around a little unsettled. “That’s right, Colonel Ming and East. These are not men to be trifled with.” I casually flagged a waiter, indicating another beer, “Yet, here we sit.” Ted considered me dispassionately. “Indeed, here we sit. Owing to your unanticipated field craft, Colonel Ming is KIA and Colonel East has been compelled to head in other directions.”
I looked at him seriously. “Speaking of head, tell me about your man with Vang Pao. You know, the guy with the hearing problem.” Ted was caught off guard with this comment – had I killed his monster to the north? He hadn’t heard anything, so he played it cagey. “Hearing problem? I’m not sure I know who you’re talking about.” I leveled him with a disapproving glower. “You know exactly who I’m talking about. You want me to be honest with you, a little reciprocity is due. That motherfucker is a brute.”
Ted looked around; the café was relatively quiet for the usual midafternoon hubbub and he scooted closer to me and spoke lower – this wasn’t for everybody. “Poshepny. Anthony. Trainer for SAD, the Special Activities Division. Exceptional, really throws himself into his work.” I shook my head in disgust; this was no hero. “What’s with the ears?” Ted looked around then responded, “Now, I heard he’d stopped that. He was paying a bounty for ears, which the son of a bitch sent up to the embassy in Vientiane, got everybody all upset. Verify his body counts.”
I shook my head remembering that a century earlier the US government paid bounties for Native American scalps. We had come far. “Didn’t know you guys got paid piecework. Why’d he stop?” Ted wasn’t crazy about my tone but let it slide for a good story. “He came across a young boy near Kow Dung with no ears. The boy told him that his father had cut them off for the bounty so the family wouldn’t starve to death. So Tony stopped with the bounty. For ears.” That one left all kinds of questions hanging. “Tony?” Ted watched me; I clearly didn’t know as much as I wanted him to think I knew. I gave it a deeper ponder, then continued, “Ah, Tow Nipo. Your head guy in Laos.” Ted was impressed; I clearly knew more than he knew I knew and he knew I knew he knew it. With so much for one to know, no one could know too much.
“Tony is a scrapper; hell of a guy in a fight.” Disbelieving: “You’re telling me you got away from Tony Poe?” I smiled and drained my beer. Ted looked at me decidedly more impressed; then flagged the waiter. He pointed to me and said, “Anything the gentleman wants.” I indicated two more beers and Ted looked at me, curious. “Got caught between Poshepny’s warriors and a platoon of VC. Lucky to get out with my head. Or ears.” Ted’s eyes sparkled; this was one for the book. He smiled and smacked his thigh. “Outrageous. He’s as dangerous as a man can be. We called him in. Too much the crusader, not getting behind our economic incentives. But still…” He looked at me and shook his head. “What can I do for you?”
This caught me off guard. “Excuse me?” He sat back, scanned the perimeter and elaborated, “Listen, Tony’s type is great for a lot of the work we do, God love him, he is the bluntest of instruments. But some of us prefer to, uh...” I saw where he leaned. “Not get so dirty?” He appreciated my perspicacity. “Yes, not get so dirty in the advancement of policy objectives. Frankly, I’m not crazy about people shooting at me.” I leveled with him, “Imagine how I feel.” He nodded. “Exactly. You didn’t ask for this; it’s been imposed upon you. I’ve seen your file. Your problem isn’t institutional. It’s operational. Your problem is that it is a very big operation and one of the guys behind it is very protective of it. And, upwardly mobile. But you got some people in the know in your court; your Hoover work made you some friends. Far as I care, Clandestine Services is done with you. That is, unless you’d like to join?” He knew without pushing it. “A shame. You’d be good at this. You are good at this. Anyway, we’ll get you papers, a passport, discharge papers, whatever you need to get back home.”
All I could respond with was the single word that kept repeating in my tormented head, “Why?”
“Well, frankly Art, you’re just too damned entertaining to kill.”