The captain of the Air France Boeing 707 announced, in a friendly but muffled growl, that they would be landing in Saigon in about fifteen minutes. Thank God, Dave thought. The big 707 got smaller by the mile as it flew on hour after hour. Dave stared out the window for hours, seeing nothing, not even the distinctive puffy, white and gray tropical clouds now dotting the horizon. Dwelling on the fateful events of the last few months, he was oblivious to his immediate surroundings.
He looked drawn and tired which wasn't surprising since he'd lost fifteen pounds. He ate like a horse, but even so his flesh melted away. He hadn't slept through an entire night since he left Janette. He'd rollover in bed in a deep dream expecting to feel her warm body and awakening with a jolt when she wasn't there. Covered in cold sweat, he'd shiver between the clammy sheets in his small bed, alone in his tiny dormitory room. And over and over he'd relive those last terrible moments.
He wanted desperately to forgive Janette, to again bask in the comfort of her arms; again feel the security of a home and the expectant pleasure of watching Brian grow up. In the morning he'd pick up the phone and dial the lawyer's office to cancel the divorce proceedings. But before anyone answered he'd completely change his mind and hang up. Day after day he went through this exhausting routine, with never a respite from his agony.
He'd loved Janette to the marrow of his bones. The thought of her had always ignited an inner glow within his very being. From the first moment he saw her it was that way. He thought he knew her so well and that she felt the same for him. How could he have been so wrong? He'd loved her more than he could have ever dreamed, and was hurting more than he could ever imagine. Love was just a joke, he thought. Just a bunch of meaningless bullshit.
Concentration at the language school had been almost impossible, but Dave passed, barely. His peers noticed his weight loss but were unaware of his anguish. They thought he was staying with his wife and child when he went to Los Angeles on his free weekends. But resting from what had happened, he spent the time alone in a Motel 6.
The no smoking light came on and the flight attendants scurried around to make sure everyone was buckled in. The vibrant blue sky contrasted brilliantly with the clouds that were now at window level. No longer could Dave ignore them as the plane descended. Below, the landscape was lush emerald green, except for the shimmering ribbons of brown water that slithered through it. As they got lower he could make out palms, ferns and other tropical shrubs. There were square cultivated areas, rice paddies, he guessed, interspersed between the thick jungle growth. Occasionally, he saw what appeared to be thatched roofed dwellings clustered together in small villages.
"What is that down there?" He asked the attendant as she walked by.
"That's the Mekong Delta. The northern part. Beautiful, isn't it?"
A few minutes later he got his first glimpse of Saigon. It was sliced up by water. The Saigon River flowed in from the north, the Dong Nai from the west, and there was an estuary to the southeast whose waters flowed out into the South China Sea.
As they got closer, Dave noticed there were no tall buildings and the city looked smaller than he thought it would be. But everything looked small from the vantage point of the 707. His spirits began to lift as he felt a surge of optimism, like an electric current, run through his body. Perk up, Goddamit, he thought. Deal with your personal misery later. Right now you've got a new job to attend to.
The 707 bounced once, then once again. The tires squealed in protest as the plane settled onto the runway at Tan Son Nhut Airport.
"Damned Navy pilot," grumbled the man sitting behind Dave. "Thinks he's got to bounce in like he's landing on a carrier. They do it every time."
Dave smiled to himself, thinking the man must be ex Air Force or something. Who else would know the difference?
His lungs filled with hot humid air as Dave walked down the steel gangway ladder. His legs were wobbly after the long flight so he grasped the hand rail to balance himself, but it almost scorched his palm before he let it go. Jesus! he thought. Why don't they keep this thing in the shade? He looked around. There was no shade! Glancing back up the ladder he saw other passengers making the same mistake and felt guilty as he smiled inwardly. It was a funny sight and broke his tension for the moment.
Dave diverted his thoughts to the task of gathering up his luggage and getting a taxi. He'd made up his mind to see some of the city before having the driver take him to his new office.
Dave felt like a giant among the bustling throng of Vietnamese in the terminal. He was a foot taller then the tallest. At school he'd often heard his instructors refer to the Vietnamese as Tonkin Chinese so he assumed they'd look the same as Chinese. Not quite, he thought. Their skin was a shade darker. Other than that he couldn't discern any major differences. What really caught his attention was their high degree of animation as they laughed and conversed excitedly with their relatives and companions.
Except for a few of the passengers on his plane, there were no other Caucasians in the crush of people. Feeling very much a foreigner as he was jostled about, he felt someone persistently nudging his left arm. Turning to see where the annoyance came from, he looked squarely into the face of another Caucasian. He bore a remarkable resemblance to Paul Harkins. Sweat dripped down his face onto his dirty collar before it soaked into his tan sport coat.
Without offering to introduce himself the man asked in an authoritative tone, "Dave Rockwood?"
"Yes." Dave answered. No one told him he'd be met at the airport.
"Come with me."
An old Chevrolet sat at the curb in a no parking zone. The man motioned Dave to get in.
"Where are we going?" Dave asked.
Surprised, the man answered with a question. "You don't know?"
Dave shook his head.
"You're going out with Sneaky Pete. Didn't they tell you."
Raising his eyebrows Dave asked, "Whose Sneaky Pete?"
"Are you kidding me or what?" Dave's question irritated the man, judging by his inflection. "Sneaky Pete!" the man continued. "The Special Forces. Ok."
"I didn't know they were called that. I'm new out here. Why are they called that?"
"Cause they're always sneakin' around the jungle, that's why. You fuckin' pulling my leg. It's too goddamed hot to be bullshitting."
"No, I'm not pulling your leg." Dave said, irritated at the man's tone.
"Yeah, sure. Have it your way if that's what you want. Let's get going. I got better things to do."
Squealing the tires making a u-turn, they headed toward the other side of the airport, the military side.
"What about my bags?" Dave had completely forgotten about them.
"They'll be at the office when you get back."
They pulled alongside a flat-green H-21 Shawnee helicopter idling next to a hanger. The man motioned Dave to get out and yelled over the chopper noise, "Good luck Rockwood. If you stop fuckin' with me I'll buy you a drink when you get back."
Dave watched in bewilderment as the Chevrolet drove away. He'd been told he'd probably be bounced around from city to city as needed but he thought they'd at least let him settle in first. Oh well, he reflected, he'd been warned this was a crazy business.
Uncomfortable in his sweat soaked shirt, Dave walked toward the pilot standing by the door of the chopper. He looked too young to be trusted with this big machine, Dave thought.
"We're ready to go sir, if you are."
Dave nodded, ducked his head and climbed in. The pilot squeezed in behind the controls and began to talk into the microphone attached to his green helmet, the same green as the chopper. Two other soldiers sat in jump seats behind Dave. As the whine of the engine turned to a deafening shriek the rotor blades made a popping noise. The craft began to vibrate and shake causing Dave to feel a surge of apprehension. He'd never been in a helicopter before. But the feeling turned to excitement as the craft became airborne as it jumped off the ground.
It felt strange to gain altitude while the nose of the vehicle pointed downward; just the opposite of an airplane. Dave couldn't tell which direction they were headed. It was high noon and there were no tell tale shadows. The chopper leveled off at its cruising altitude, leaving Dave with nothing to do but gaze down at the thick jungle below.
Forty minutes later the engine changed pitch, from high to low, as they slowed down, apparently preparing to land. All around him he could see nothing but dense foliage.
Though the noise of the chopper had discouraged conversation Dave learned that the two soldiers were returning from a two day pass in Saigon. Both had fallen asleep as soon as the chopper settled at cruising speed, but like cats, they quickly awoke and were fully alert a split second after the change in engine pitch.
A small clearing appeared suddenly on top of a hill. The chopper swooped down at a steep angle like a fast descending elevator. Dave felt his stomach press against his diaphragm and he became light headed. He could see several men on the ground scurrying for cover, their hands over their eyes to protect them from the swirling dust kicked up by the chopper blades.
The chopper touched down, then rocked for a couple seconds. The two soldiers unbuckled their harnesses, slid from behind Dave and the pilot and jumped out the door, while motioning Dave to do the same. Before they were ten feet away the chopper gunned its engine and was airborne again, kicking up another cloud of dust. Dave got an eyeful of dirt before he could close them. That would not happen again, he vowed, as he dug at a piece of gravel that had temporarily blinded his right eye.
When the cloud had cleared, a soldier standing next to a sandbagged bunker, walked toward him. Like everyone else, he was dressed in green fatigues.
Looking around the compound, Dave saw that it had two lookout towers on opposite ends. A trench surrounded the camp. Razor wire was in front of the trench and in front of the razor wire was another, deeper, trench. The camp reminded Dave of a castle with its moats, but there certainly wasn't anything charming about this place. On second thought, it looked more like a prison, only in reverse. Its purpose was to keep intruders out. He estimated twenty or thirty men were milling around in the open field in the center.
What had he gotten himself into, Dave wondered as the man got closer. Then he noticed the strange head gear; not a helmet or a fatigue hat, but a green colored beret. On second glance, everyone was wearing one.
"You the agency man?" the man barked.
"l guess so. I'm David Rockwood."
"Good. Major McGuire here," He stuck out his hand.
Major McGuire, short and wiry, had a distinct military air, accented by close cropped hair and a precise stride. Another soldier appeared next to him.
"Sergeant Carter, get Rockwood outfitted. We'll be leaving in about two hours."
"Come with me, sir," said Carter, his voice gruff. "I'm sure we have some gear that'll fit you. Here's your dog tag. You're now Corporal Wilson." Carter was almost square, broad as he was tall. Even his face, set off by a broad nose and heavy jaw, had a square look. Dave had never seen shoulders that thick. Sergeant Carter directed Dave to a bunker filled with boxes piled up inside. Carter dug through several of them, tossing bits and pieces into a small pile. "These should do. Try them on. I'll get your pack and weapons. Meet you outside."
Carter started toward the exit.
"Excuse me, Sergeant Carter, but may I ask where we are and where we're going?" Dave asked in as polite a voice as he could muster.
Carter wheeled around. "You don't know?" He seemed as surprised as the man at the airport.
"No, I don't."
Rocking his head back and forth mockingly, Carter said, "for your information we're on the eastern Mekong, next to Cambodia. We're going over to catch some VC for interrogation. Did I past the test?"
Perplexed by the sarcasm, Dave asked defensively, "You mean Vietnamese communist?" His jaw dropped the second he got the words out.
"What else?" How long you been out here?"
"Just got here this morning; from California. Thought I was going to Saigon. I don't know what I'm supposed to do out here."
Carter lifted the back of his beret and scratched his head before he asked, "What's your specialty?"
"Vietnamese and French language."
"That fits. We requested a temporary language expert. Lost ours the other day, goddamit. Good man. We're all rotating through language school sometime this year but that won't help us now. Seems to me though that they're taking this secrecy thing too far when they don't even tell you what you're supposed to do. How much prisoner interrogation have you done?"
Dave's mouth dropped even further. "I thought I was going to be an interpreter. I don't know anything about interrogation. Why would they send me?"
"Beats the shit outta me. But I guess you're it. We make do with what we get out here."
"How long will we be gone?"
"Don't know for sure. My guess is about ten days. Maybe more. Could be out long enough to do some liven off the land. Get dressed! Don't want to keep the major waiting," Carter ordered.
Overpowered by Carter's forceful bearing, Dave obediently pulled the fatigues on and carefully folded his civilian clothing.
Ten men were assembling in the middle of the compound, their packs lying neatly on the ground.
"Over here Wilson," the sergeant yelled. "Wilson? Can't you hear?"
Dave looked around to see who he was yelling at. Then it dawned on him he was Wilson. Embarrassed, slightly ducking his head, he nodded toward Carter.
"Well don't forget it again. I don't have time to keep barking at you."
"Ok. By the way, why am I Wilson?"
"Cause that's the only spare tag we had for visiting spooks."
Spooks? Dave wondered but thought it best not to ask. Instead, he settled on a more general question. "Why do I need one?"
"You really are green, aren't you?" Carter was showing signs of exasperation.
"That's what I've been telling you."
"Well, Charlie will cut you up into little pieces if he finds out you're a spook. We're army, treated like soldiers. Not treated well, mind you, but not tortured like you'd be. If they found out you're CIA they'd cut your balls off one at a time and that would just be the beginning."
Dave tried to hide the shock on his face. "Why is the CIA singled out for such rough treatment?"
"Soldiers are just doing as they're told. It's a job. They understand that. Besides, there's not much they can get out of us cause we don't know much more than they do. But the CIA'S been fuckin' with them ever since the end of WW II. Aided the French.
They figure the CIA's responsible for setting up the Saigon regime and totally screwing up their plans for taking over the South. No sir, they have no love for you guys. Besides, you got a bad reputation for rough treatment during interrogation yourselves. I can't believe you don't already know all this shit.
Now cut the crap! Get over here and get your pack on," Carter ordered, then lowered his tone. "By the way what branch of the service were you in?"
"I've never been in the military, If that's what you mean." Dave's voice reflected annoyance at the way he was being treated.
The sergeant looked at Dave in astonishment. "Did you go through Special Forces training? I've heard of you guys doing that?"
"No. Nothing like that. Only language school."
"Holy shit! Why in the fuck would they send you out here? We really must be fuckin' desperate!"
"You're asking the wrong person sergeant. I have no idea why l'm here," Dave said, shaking his head.
Carter twisted his face into deep thought for a few seconds. "Look Wilson, don't tell the major you're this green. If he found out he'd confine you to camp. Now maybe that's what you want but we need an interpreter and if you want to earn your pay and learn something you should go on this hunt.
I don't suppose you've been under fire before have you?"
"Under fire?" Dave asked, raising his eyebrows
"Didn't think so. But listen, if you want to go with us you might be. Want to go?"
The sergeant's stare implied a 'no' answer would be an admission of cowardice. "You've got three minutes to think it over. I'll be back." With that the sergeant spun around and walked toward the other men.
Dave weighed his sense of adventure against his instinct for self preservation. This may be a great adventure, the chance of a lifetime to go on a military mission, he told himself. And these men look like they can handle the job. Shouldn't be too dangerous. In the back of his mind another voice told him to beware, that he should get out while there was still time. But that voice faded away when he saw the sergeant coming back toward him.
"Good, you're with us." The sergeant beamed his approval. "Everyone carries their own weight, including the killing. If the time comes, and if I see you hesitate, I'll kill you myself. That's the way it is out here and I fuckin' well mean it. Still want to go? I'll give you one more chance to beg off."
Dave's second voice had gained strength with the talk about killing, but the sergeant's choice of words disturbed him. Dave didn't want to 'beg off'. His male pride cluttering up the issue, he said nothing.
"Good man!" Carter pulled Dave by the arm. "Now get this straight, stick to me like fuckin' glue and you'll make it. Don't listen and there's no fuckin' way you'll come back alive. Shit, I must be crazy for givin' you this chance."
Already regretting his choice but seeing no honorable way out, Dave subconsciously tried to break the mounting tension building in his body by blurting out, "Can I ask you a question, sergeant?"
"What is it?"
"What's with the green beanies?"
Carter's eye lids popped up.
Uh oh, Dave thought. Now I've pissed him off.
To Dave's relief Carter started laughing--a hearty laugh. "Green beanies? That's good, Wilson. Personally I don't like the fuckin things. They're President Kennedy's idea. Makes us look jaunty though: don't you think? We're his brain child you know..."
"I didn't know that," Dave said with a shrug.
"You don't know fuckin' much of anything, do you?" The sergeant's bushy eyebrows and the corners of his mouth took a downward turn.
"lt seems that way, except you like to say 'fuckin' a lot." Dave instantly wished he hadn't said that.
Carter frowned even harder, leaving no doubt he didn't think the remark funny.
Carter walked toward the major as the other men put on their packs. Dave took a step behind the sergeant, intent on telling the major he'd rather not go on this mission. But a thought halted him. What would happen when it got back to his new boss in Saigon that he'd chickened out? He made a final commitment. He'd make the best of it.
He watched carefully as the men pulled on their packs, then reached down, put his arms through the straps and swung his pack onto his back. The weight of the thing caught him completely unprepared. It didn't look that heavy. Thrown off balance he landed squarely on his back. He tried to get up but the pack held him down. His arms and legs flailed like an upside-down turtle trying to right itself. A small cloud of dust rose from the commotion as the others turned to see what was going on.
They burst out laughing, including the sergeant. The major simply shook his head. Helpless, Dave floundered on the ground.
"Jesus Christ," mumbled the sergeant as he sauntered over. "Hold still; I'll help you. Stop kicking."
He rolled Dave onto his side and helped him to his feet, leaving him to cope with a red face and pangs of humiliation. Thankfully, the sergeant turned to the others and ordered them to finish with their last minute details.
"Now remember what I said. Stick to me. Follow my every footstep. Especially around here. We've got the perimeter mined."
The majority of Jerry Hunter's career was as an Account Manager for AT&T. During the Vietnam War years, he was assigned to manage the communications activities of the Federal Government.
His clients included the FBI, the Secret Service, GSA, FAA, DEA, CIA, Civilian Logistics for the Military and other government agencies.
He also worked with the private sector serving IBM, Xerox and as the National Account Manager for Northrop Corporation.
He is now retired from AT&T and living in Hermosa Beach, California with his wife, Holly and their two cats, sisters Daisy and Chloe. As Jerry is quick to point out, Hemingway also had cats. What a coincidence! He has been encouraged by his readers to write a sequel to The Emerald Odyssey and is now working on research for the new book.
Find out more at: http://theemeraldodyssey.com