Foreword by David Morrell
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THE LAUNCH SITE
A sheet of paper was tacked to the wall over Hanson’s bunk:
Every day in the world a hundred thousand people die. A human life means nothing.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander-in-Chief, North Vietnamese Army
“In order to despise suffering, to be always content and never astonished at anything, one must reach such a state as this”—and Ivan Dmitrich indicated the obese peasant, bloated with fat—“or else one must harden one’s self through sufferings to such a degree as to lose all sensitivity to them: that is, in other words, cease to live.”
Hanson stood just inside the heavy-timbered door of his concrete bunker, looking out. There was no moon yet. The only sound was the steady sobbing of the big diesel generators, but Hanson heard nothing. Had the generators ever stopped he would have heard the silence, a silence that would have bolted him wide-awake, armed, and out of his bunk if he were asleep.
He stepped from the doorway and began walking across the inner perimeter toward the teamhouse, a squat shadow ahead of him in the dark. His web gear, heavy with ammunition and grenades, swung from one shoulder like easy, thoughtful breathing. The folding-stock AK-47 in his right hand was loaded with a gracefully curving thirty-round magazine.
As he got closer to the teamhouse, he could feel the drums and steel-stringed guitar on the back of his sunburned forearms and against the tender broken hump on his nose. Then he could hear it.
Hanson smiled. “Stones,” he said softly. He didn’t have enough to pick out the song, but the bass and drums were pure Stones.
He slid the heavy, light-proof door open and stepped into the bright teamhouse. The song, “Under My Thumb,” was pumping out of Silver’s big Japanese speakers.
Quinn was pouting and strutting to the music, one hand hooked in his pistol belt, the other hand thrust out, thumbs down, like Caesar at the Roman games sending the pike into another crippled loser. His small blue eyes were close-set, cold and flat as the weekly casualty announcement, as he mouthed the words.
Hanson shrugged his web gear to the floor, shouted, “Let me guess,” and pressed his hand to his freckled forehead. He pointed at Quinn and shouted into the music, “Mick Jagger, right? Your new Jagger impersonation.” His snub-nosed combat magnum glinted from its shoulder holster.
Quinn ignored him, pounding the floor like a clog dancer.
The battered white refrigerator was turned up to high in the damp heat, and gouts of frost dropped to the floor when Hanson opened it to get a Black Label beer. The seams and lip of the black&red cans were rusty from the years they had been stockpiled on the Da Nang docks. Years of raw monsoon and swelling summer heat had turned the American beer bitter. But it was cold; it made his fillings ache when he drank it.
Hanson took a flesh-colored quart jar from the top of the refrigerator, screwed off the top, and took out two of the green&white amphetamine capsules. He knocked them back with the icy beer.
Beats coffee for starting the day, he thought, smiling, recalling the double-time marching chant back at Fort Bragg: “Airborne Ranger Green Beret, this is the way we start our day,” running the sandhills before dawn, the rumor that one team had run over a PFC from a supply unit who had been drunkenly crossing the road in front of them. The team had trampled him and left him behind, never getting out of step, chanting each time their left jump boot hit the ground, “Pray for war. Pray for war. Pray for war.”
He sat down on one of the wooden footlockers and began thumbing through the Time magazine that had come in on the last mail chopper.
The Stones finished “Under My Thumb,” paused, and began “Mother’s Little Helper.” Quinn turned the volume down and walked over to Hanson. He moved with ominous deliberation, like a man carrying nitroglycerin. People got uncomfortable if Quinn moved too close or too quickly.
“Keepin’ up with current events, my man?” he asked Hanson. “How’s the war going these days?”
“This magazine says we’re kicking shit out of ’em. But now,” Hanson said, tapping the open magazine, “what about the home front? They’ve got problems too. Take this young guy, a ‘Cornell Senior’ it says here, ‘I’m nervous as hell. I finally decide on a field—economics—and then I find out I’m number fifty-nine in the draft lottery.’ Rough, huh? Just when he decided on economics.”
Hanson thumbed through the magazine, singing softly, “. . . My candy man, he’s come an’ gone. Mah candy man, he’s come an’ gone. An’ I love ever’thing in this godomighty world, God knows I do…”
To the west a heavy machine gun was firing, the distant pounding as monotonous as an assembly-line machine. Artillery was going in up north. Three guns working out. They were good, the rounds going in one on top of the other, each explosion like a quick violent wind, the sound your firestarter makes when you touch off the backyard charcoal grill. Normal night sounds.
Hanson read the ads out loud. “ ‘There’s a Ford in your future.’ ‘Tired of diet plans that don’t work?…’ ”
“Then come to Vietnam, fat boy,” Quinn shouted, “and get twenty pounds blown off your ass.”
A short, wiry man came into the teamhouse. He wore round wire-rim glasses and had a thin white scar running from his lip up to the side of his nose like a harelip.
“Silver,” Hanson yelled to him, then almost said, how much weight did you lose on the Vietnam high-explosive diet plan, but changed his mind. Silver had lost half his team, and his partner was in Japan with no legs.
“How’s that hole in your ass?” Hanson asked him.
Silver couldn’t talk without moving, gesturing, ducking, and jabbing like a boxer. He talked fast, and when he laughed it was a grunt, like he’d just taken a punch in the chest. “I like it a lot,” he said. “Thinking about getting one on the other side. For symmetry, you know? Dimples. A more coordinated limp,” he said, walking quickly forward then backward like a broken mechanical man. Then he stopped and stared at the reel-to-reel tape deck.
“Listen to that,” he said, cocking his head slightly. “Background hiss. And that tape’s almost new.”
“How much longer you gonna be on stand-down, you skinny little gimp?” Quinn asked him.
“Couple weeks. I’ll fake it a little longer if I have to. Captain says he’s gonna try and get Hanadon up here from the C team for my partner. I don’t want to go out with some new guy.”
“. . . Candy man,” Hanson sang to himself as he leafed through the magazine, “he been and gone, oh my candy man, he been and gone. Well I wish I was down in New Or-leens…”
“And look here,” he said, holding up the magazine. “President visiting the troops over at the Third Mech fire base.”
Silver had a slight limp as he walked over. He looked at the two-page color spread. “Shit,” he said, then laughed. “I was there. After they fixed me up, but before they said I could come back here. The troops down there? They spent three weeks building wooden cat-walks around the guns so the Prez wouldn’t get his feet muddy. Of course, huh, they weren’t able to use the guns for fire missions for three weeks, but they looked good. Issued all the troops brand-new starched fatigues an hour before The Man was supposed to get there, and made ’em stand around at parade rest so they wouldn’t get wrinkled.
“So our main man, the Prez, gets there…”
Silver went over to the icebox and got a Coke, then put a mark next to his name on the beer&pop tab on the wall with a red grease pencil. He pulled the pop-top off, put it on his little finger like a ring, and took a long drink.
“The Prez gets there, and they start moving the troops, processing the troops past him, and he, like, asks ’em, ‘Hi, son, and where are you from?’
“The troop says, ‘Uh, Waseca. Minnesota, sir.’
“ ‘Yes,’ the Prez says to him, ‘beautiful state, Minnesota. They’ve got a fine football team at the university there too.’
“Now, I’m hearing all this over the PA system they got. They’d, you know, put me and some of the other people from the hospital out of sight. I wasn’t looking too good. Didn’t look like I had enough, uh, enthusiasm for the mission.”
Silver looked down at his baggy fatigues. “At best I don’t look like soldier-of-the-month. Anyway, the Prez gives the guy a big handshake and says, ‘I just wanted to personally let you know, Private, uh…’
“ ‘Private Thorgaard, sir,’ this boxhead from Minnesota, this cannon loader, says, and turns so the Prez can see his name tag, but there ain’t no name tag, ’cause somebody forgot to put out the word that name tags had to be sewn on the new fatigues. So now, some supply officer’s military career is over. Poor attention to detail.
“But the Prez says, ‘I’m here, Private Thorgaard, because I wanted to let you boys know…’ ”
Silver pulled himself up tight and began strutting and jabbing his finger at the floor, talking angrily to himself in a black street accent. “Boy? You boys? Fool up there best not be talkin’ ’bout boys, one of the brothers up there.
“That’s the motherfuckin’ truth,” he went on in a slightly higher voice, “that ain’t no boool-shit. Say, gimme some of that power now.”
Silver took a sip of Coke and went on in his own voice. “The brothers started doing the power handshake and all the white boys moved away.
“So the Prez shakes some more hands, gives out a few medals, and says what a fine job we’re doing, and that he, your president, was doing everything he could to get us boys home. Then he climbs in his chopper and flies away, all the officers on the ground up there kind of crouching at attention, kind of like ducks at attention, trying to hold their hats on in the rotor blast.”
“And you sat through the whole thing?” Quinn asked, “you enjoy the show that much?”
“I was afraid to leave. I was afraid to move. I’m glad I didn’t have to shake hands with that fucker. I didn’t want to get within a hundred feet of him. That was Mr. Death standing up there shaking hands. They had gunships flying patterns around there I couldn’t fuckin’ believe. Then you got MPs all over, trying to look sharp, nervous and trigger-happy as hell. And then there were these guys. Secret Service, I guess. All around the Prez. Skinhead haircuts, mirror shades so you can’t see their eyes. They didn’t look—rational, you know. And they were all packing Uzi’s on assault slings under their coats. Anything move too fast or the wrong way, it would’ve got shot a thousand times. Half the camp would’ve got wiped out. Would have been like a bunch of Vietnamese in a firefight, shooting at everything.”
Silver looked at the wristwatch hanging through the buttonhole of his breast pocket. “Better get down and take the radio watch,” he said, “end of the month. Gonna be clearing artillery grids all night. They gotta blow up what’s left of the old monthly allotment or next month’s allotment will be smaller. That’s logical, right? The U.S. Army is logical. It’s a logical war.
“Hey,” he said, “you want anything blown up? Third Mech’s set up a new fire base. ‘Fire Base Flora,’ in honor of the commander’s wife. Got everything on it—one five-fives, one seven-fives, eight inch. Want me to have them plow the ground for you?”
“How about that ridge?” Hanson said.
“You know the one,” Hanson said, “about eight klicks north.”
“The one where Charles ate up that company of dumbass Third Mech?” Silver asked, “just this side of the border?”
“That’s it. Might as well put a little shit on it. South side, kind of walk it from the valley halfway up the side. We’ll probably be over that way in the morning.”
“Okay,” Silver said, “you people watch your ass over there. Charles has got you by the balls when he gets you in Laos. I fuckin’ know.”
He walked to the screen door, stopped, and turned around. “Listen,” he said, pointing his finger at Hanson, “listen,” he demanded. Then he smiled and sang, “You must remember this…’ ” spinning around on one foot and slamming out the door, “ ‘a kiss is still a kiss…’ ” and tap-danced out into the dark, “ ‘a sigh is just a sigh…’ ”
Silver went down into the underground concrete-reinforced radio bunker and relieved Dawson. He sat at a small desk surrounded on three sides by banks of radios, some of them as big as filing cabinets. They all hummed slightly, each at a different pitch, radiating static and heat like little ovens.
He spent his first few minutes studying “call signs,” code names for fire bases and infantry units. The call signs were composed by computer and changed each month in an attempt to confuse the enemy as to what name the units went by. Each call sign was composed of two words, such as “broken days,” or “violent meals,” and at times the random combinations sounded ominous. Superstitious soldiers were glad when they were changed.
His glasses flashing in the dim yellow and blue dial lights, Silver looked demonic, his face the color of someone dead, as he bobbed his head and shoulders to the rhythm of some stray phrase of code only he could hear.
Up in the teamhouse Hanson was standing next to the bar. “You know,” he said, holding a bullet in each hand between thumb and forefinger, “you can get an idea of a country’s national character by the bullets their armies use.”
“Oh yeah,” Quinn said, turning on the bar stool to look at Hanson. “I guess you’re gonna tell me about it.” He got up and took a beer from the refrigerator, pulled the top off like it was a thumbnail, and drank it all, foam running down his cheeks and neck.
“Now you see,” Hanson said, “here’s the standard American small-arms round,” and held out the bright bullet toward Quinn. “It’s slim, lightweight, and fast, but unstable. Look at it,” he said, shaking the pencil-thin round. “It’s the bullet equivalent of a fashion model—sexy-looking, thin, glittering. But if it gets dirty or damp or overheated, it’s liable to jam on you. Temperamental, a prima donna.
“Now here’s the Russian bullet,” he said, holding out the dull AK-47 round. “Short, thick around the middle. The peasant woman of bullets. Sturdy and slow, not easily deflected by brush, dependable at long range. You can stick it in the mud, put it in the gun, and shoot it.
“We’re shooting our fashion models at them and they’re firing back with peasant women,” he said, holding the bullets out, grinning.
“You know,” Quinn said, “I’m used to hearing that kind of shit from you. It doesn’t surprise me. It even makes a weird kind of sense, sometimes. But,” he said, walking over to Hanson and wrapping his big arm around his shoulders, squeezing, whispering now, “let’s just keep it between ourselves. You don’t want to be telling that to anybody else, ’cause they’ll lock you up. And we’d all miss you.”
They looked at each other, smiled, and burst into laughter.
Mr. Minh walked into the teamhouse, smiling with teeth that had been filed to points, then capped in gold with jade inlays in the shapes of stars and crescent moons. It was part of his magic as a Rhade Montagnard shaman. He had high cheekbones, quick black eyes, and shoulder-length black hair that was tied back with a piece of green parachute nylon. He wore striped tiger fatigues and web gear heavy with grenades and ammo pouches. The little leather katha dangled from a cord around his neck. It, too, was part of his magic and could keep enemy bullets from piercing his body.
“I saw a bird fly across the moon,” he said. “It is a good time for us to go. We are ready,” he said, tapping the pouch at his chest.
“Mr. Minh,” Hanson said, “how can it be…I have wanted to ask you this—I have seen Rhade shot and killed when they were wearing katha to protect them.” Hanson called up the images of body after body like slides projected on a screen, little men sprawled in the dirt or curled up, hugging themselves, the leather pouches stuffed in their mouths. “How could that happen?” he asked.
“Yes,” the Montagnard said, nodding his head. “Was bad katha. Not like mine. Too bad.” He went out the door, and Hanson saw the shadows of the three other stocky “Yards.” Their eyes and weapons flickered in the starlight. Mr. Minh knew that he would die someday, and he had no fear of death. As long as he lived well and fought bravely, he would be reborn as a hawk, or a hill spirit. Death was only a change of direction.
Hanson began a last-minute equipment check, more a confidence ritual than anything else. He’d gone through his AK-47 the day before, checking for worn or broken parts while cleaning it, then test-fired one clip. He carried the Communist weapon instead of the standard-issue M-16 because the sound of the AK-47 would not give away his position in a firefight, while the M-16 would announce his position to Communists firing AKs. The M-16 used red tracer rounds while the AK-47 used green, and if they made contact at night, the tracer rounds would pinpoint him. On the illegal cross-border operations all equipment was “sanitized.” No insignia were worn and all weapons and equipment were of foreign manufacture, most of it acquired from the big CIA warehouse in Da Nang. If they were killed on the wrong side of the border, the North Vietnamese could not “prove” that they were Americans.
Their web gear looked much like a parachute harness. Wide suspenders hooked into a brass-grommeted pistol belt. Two pieces of nylon webbing ran from the front of the pistol belt through the inside of the thighs to the back of the pistol belt. Thirty pounds of weapons and equipment were hung and taped to the web gear. The ammo clips were jammed into the pouches with the bullets facing away from the body in case an enemy bullet detonated them.
Snap links were attached to the suspenders at the shoulders. It was called a Stabo rig. A helicopter could hover 120 feet in the air, drop nylon lines to attach to the snap links, and pull you out, leaving your hands free to fire or drop grenades. They could pull you out even if you were wounded and unconscious. Even if you were dead.
Hanson wore a small survival compass around his neck like a crucifix. In one thigh pocket, wrapped in plastic, having curved to the shape of his thigh, was a stained and dog-eared copy of The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats.
Hanson heard a rhythmic hissing, and he shouted, “Hey! Hose, come on in here.”
An odd-looking black dog waddled through the door. His skull was warped so that both his eyes appeared to be on the same side of his head, like a flounder. The hissing was the sound of his breathing through a crushed nose.
The dog walked toward Quinn until he collided with his legs, then stood there waiting to be petted. Quinn bent and scratched the dog’s ears, then said, “No time now, Hose. We’ve got to go,” and patted him on the rump. The dog waddled back toward the door in a sideways, almost crablike way, then stopped and looked over at Quinn and Hanson.
“See you in a few days, bud,” Hanson said.
“Later, Hose,” Quinn said.
The dog made a gurgling sound and went out the door.
As a puppy, Hose had been run over by a Vietnamese driving a two-and-a-half-ton truck. It had been rainy season, and the deep mud had saved his life. His flexible puppy-skull bent enough so that it wasn’t fractured. Two of his legs had been broken, giving him his odd walk. The sound of his breathing was like a high-pressure air hose, and that’s where his name came from. Though he acted normal most of the time, he occasionally had fits of terror or rage and would race across the camp with wild flounder-eyes.
Hose got along with the Americans and the Montagnards, though the Yards would have eaten him if Mr. Minh had not declared that he was a powerful spirit and should be respected. But Hose hated Vietnamese and acted as a watchdog after dark when the inner perimeter was closed off to even the Vietnamese who lived in the camp.
“What an ugly fucking dog,” Quinn said, his voice full of admiration.
Hanson pulled a small tin whistle from his pack and tooted a few notes out of it. He put the whistle to his eye and sighted down it, aiming at Quinn.
“Do you know,” he said, “that they have whole tin whistle bands in Ireland, whole grade schools all playing tin whistles. Maybe I’ll go to Ireland when they decide we’ve won the war.”
Quinn threw on his pack. “I’m going back to Iowa,” he said. “One fucked-up foreign country is enough for me. Shit, we’re all probably gonna die over here anyway.”
Quinn carried a crude-looking weapon that seemed to be made of sheet metal and steel tubing. In his huge hand it looked like a cheap child’s toy. It was a Swedish submachine gun with a built-in silencer. Quinn had glued felt to the face of the bolt to muffle the clicking of the firing mechanism. It could kill at a hundred yards, the bursts of fire sounding like someone absently thumbing a deck of cards.
Hanson shouldered his forty-pound pack, picked up the AK, and tromped to the refrigerator. He dropped another cap of speed into his breast pocket and stuck a Coke in his pack.
As they went out the door, Jagger was singing “Paint It Black.”
The five dark forms crossed through the outer perimeter and headed west. Another heavy machine gun opened up in the distance, and the big red tracers floated gracefully, like glowing golf balls, across the sky. Scores of them hit a hillside and rebounded in random patterns.
Artillery rounds blinked silver and yellow and bluish white against the mountains.
Hanson watched them, his eyes slightly dilated. “Goddamn, Quinn,” he said. “It’s always springtime in Vietnam.”
Before dawn, they would be across the border.
Seven miles up, the pilot of the lead bomber was tired and bored and worried. It had been a ten-hour flight from Guam, and it would be a ten-hour turnaround, refueling over the South China Sea, always a tricky little operation when they were bucking head winds. He swiveled his chair and looked out the thick window. The light coming through had the dead glare of an overexposed photograph.
Cindy wasn’t doing well in school, his wife had written him. She needed a real father, she’d written, which of course meant that it was all his fault. She had also mentioned that she was having trouble with the car. It was hard to start now that the weather was turning cold.
Fine, that’s fine, the pilot thought. Take it to the dealer, don’t tell me about it. Even if it’s only the battery terminals. Take it to the dealer and let them fuck you out of a hundred and fifty bucks. We’ve got the money. No, you want me to diagnose the goddamn thing by mail.
Jesus Christ. I’m seven miles in the air and twelve thousand miles away. I’m flying a fifty-million-dollar aircraft and you want me to worry about the Buick. Everything goes to hell if I’m not right there on everybody’s ass.
He’d been thinking of extending his tour if they would let him fly fighters. He didn’t need that domestic shit back in Omaha. He decided to talk to the CO when they got back. That made him feel better.
The radar navigator folded back a page in the paperback book he was reading and closed it. The cover showed a cowboy standing just inside a saloon door, right hand poised above his six-gun, a cigarillo in his mouth sending up a thin plume of smoke, looking hard at something. A saloon girl with big breasts had her arm draped over his shoulder and was pressing against him. He stuck the book into the leg pocket of his flight suit, made a slight adjustment on the green radar screen, and said, “Comin’ up.”
“Good,” the pilot said. “Let’s unload and turn this bus around.”
The hydraulics groaned, and four thumps shook the plane.
“All doors open,” the navigator said, watching his scope. Two green lines began bending parallel to a central red line; three sets of numbers stuttered along the left side of the screen. He counted aloud: “Ten seconds to release, nine seconds to release…”
- "Fiction that wounds and stings.... Sympathy for the Devil is a wonderful achievement , written fluently and
- On Sale
- Jul 30, 2019
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Mulholland Books