1 • Not the Beginning Yet
Gearheardt and I were having lunch next to a pile of dead Laotians when he came up with his scheme to redeem ourselves with the Marine Corps and settle the score with the Cubans. The sincerity in his baloney-muffled voice made me listen when I knew that I shouldn’t. Listening to my best friend had always led to disaster, if not for us then for a number of innocent and perhaps not so innocent bystanders. Gearheardt was one of those people who never looked in the rearview mirror. Causing the Tet Offensive, prolonging the Vietnam War, and getting the President fixed up with the girl who showered in her underpants in Olongopo were hijinks quickly forgotten by the boyish pilot who sat alongside the dusty Laotian airstrip listening to the small-arms fire and distant thump of artillery.
Gearheardt threw the crust of his sandwich away and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Jack,” he said, “this plan will at least get us killed in a real war. Do you want to end up in a pile of dead Laotians?” He gestured toward the pungent stack and grimaced.
“Is that my only choice, Gearheardt?” I asked.
Gearheardt turned toward me, adjusting his shoulder holster and then licking the mayonnaise from the butt of his pistol. His thin blond hair was smashed wetly against his forehead, creases from his flight helmet still visible.
“I’m not kidding, Jack. This is the poorest damned excuse for a war imaginable, and you know it. Look at those poor bastards in that pile. Waiting for us to haul their raggedy asses back to Vientiane so their raggedy-assed families can wail and piss until the government gives them fifty bucks or something. I’m embarrassed to be in this sonofabitch.”
“You’d rather be sitting next to a pile of Vietnamese?”
“Wouldn’t you?” He was serious.
A mortar round hit the embankment across the runway, blowing dust and grit over us and causing the stack of Laotians to shift and settle. Gearheardt and I ducked and shielded our eyes.
“Jack, this scheme will get us back into Vietnam. I’m sick of this pussy-footing around. We’re Marines, damn it. I didn’t become a Marine to haul dead Laotians up and down the countryside.”
“It’s live up, dead back.”
“Very funny, Jack. What about my scheme? Are you up for it?”
“You don’t have a scheme, Gearheardt. You have an idea,” I said.
A second mortar hit in front of us and Gearheardt stood up and peered at the hills to the east. “Isn’t anybody going to take that bastard out?” he asked rhetorically, pointing to the hill from which the mortar rounds seemed to be coming.
“A scheme is when there are elements of a plan,” I continued. “Like some details of how things are going to get done, you know. That’s always your problem. You confuse an idea with a plan.” I slid lower against the wall of the shallow ditch. Gearheardt dropped back down beside me. “And technically we’re not Marines anymore. I think we belong to the CIA.”
He looked at me. “Okay. We take an airplane to Hong Kong. We find that numbnuts Cuban that screwed us around in Hanoi. We shoot him until he’s dead. Then we take an airplane to Danang, march our asses up to wing headquarters, and get our commissions back. Those are details.”
“You’re a planning genius, Gearheardt.”
Gearheardt bit his lip and squinted at me, pissed.
“Your sarcasm is wearing pretty thin, Jack. Will you ever get off my ass about Hanoi? I’m carrying that to my grave, aren’t I? We had the Barbonella plan. Sure it was missing a few details, but if you hadn’t lost the damn thing out of the window …”
“You lost the plan out of the window, jackass. You were supposed to be flying us to Hanoi, not grabassing all over the cockpit trying to eyeball the paperwork.”
A volley of mortar rounds hit the bunkers along the opposite side of the airstrip and I heard the CIA officer who ran the war in this part of Laos bellow from within.
“Would somebody please call some fire in on that frigging mortar position?”
Moments later the 105 howitzer, almost hidden in its heavily sandbagged slot behind the command bunker, fired a series of rounds. I watched the jungle near the suspected enemy mortar tube explode and fill the air above it with dirt and then black smoke. My ears rang. Gearheardt shook his head as if he were trying to dislodge something from his ear. The Laotian artillery crew climbed atop the sandbags and began shoving sticky rice balls into their mouths. The little artillery sergeant gazed toward the still smoking hillside and began to pick his nose.
From inside the command bunker the voice of the CIA officer sang, “Thank you.”
I looked behind where we were sitting and saw the flight mechanics resume refueling the helicopters that Gearheardt and I piloted. Serafico, my flight mechanic, looked my way and gave the thumbs up signal to indicate that we were ready to go. I rose by putting my hand on Gearheardt’s shoulder. Standing, I brushed the dust and debris from my trousers and turned to him. He was still staring, unfocused, at the smoke drifting along the hillside. Without looking up at me he spoke.
“Do you ever wonder about the little sonsabitches on the other end of those 105 rounds, Jack? One minute they’re finishing a baloney sandwich, and the next they’re just meat decorating the trees.”
Before I responded about the lack of baloney sandwiches in the North Vietnamese diet, Gearheardt went on. “War is weird shit, isn’t it, Jack?” He grinned at me as he stood up.
“Where are you heading, Gearheardt?” I asked him as we walked to the aircraft.
“I’m hauling ammo to that outpost by the old Site 85. You?”
“The customer asked me to take a look over by 110 and see if I could spot signs of survivors.” Site 110, near the North Vietnamese border with Laos, had been thoroughly shellacked by the North Vietnamese two nights before, and the troops that escaped were expected to be trying to make their way to Site 36. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was between them and relative safety, and no one expected many to actually survive. But it felt good to look for them.
Gearheardt grabbed my arm and stopped me, holding my elbow.
“Look, I know you think I’m a screaming asshole sometimes …”
“ … and I know you think I’m nuts …”
“ … but we gotta get back to the Marine Corps and to our squadron. I miss those guys. I miss the real war. And before that, we gotta find that stinking Cuban and kill him. Air America is okay, but we can’t have guns—officially.”
Some might think that a silly reason not to like flying for the CIA. But I knew Gearheardt. He had thought through the concept of not having official guns in northern Laos, and his statement was solid.
“It wasn’t the Cuban that screwed up our mission to Hanoi, Gearheardt. And it wasn’t Barbonella, or Whiffenpoof, or that goofy Englishman in Hong Kong. Our ‘mission’ was doomed—”
Gearheardt jerked his hand away from my elbow.
“Jack, if you say it was because we didn’t have a goddam plan again, I’ll kill you. I’ll shoot you right damn now. We had orders! From the President of the United States!”
“—before we even cranked up. Someone had a good idea, and we tried to execute our orders without the foggiest notion of what the hell we were doing or how to figure out if we had done it after we did it.”
After a moment Gearheardt turned and walked straight-backed to his aircraft.
Centeno, his flight mechanic, smiled and said loud enough for me to hear, “You and Captain Jack discussing your Hanoi plan again, Captain?”
“Shut up, Centeno,” Gearheardt snapped.
He began climbing into the cockpit. As he strapped in he looked over at me and keyed his mike. “You all set over there, Jack?”
I clicked my radio, then turned and gave him thumbs up.
“This war in Laos is no place to win medals. The North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao are kicking the shit out of these guys, and we’re just dicking around while they do. Come on, Jack. Let’s get back in it.” I heard him on the radio and could see his mouth moving under the dark green Plexiglas eye shield on his helmet.
Gearheardt and I had been best friends since flight school. He was a great pilot and a wonderful friend except for his habit of getting us into situations where people were trying to kill us. Besides flying, he loved drinking and whores.
“People think whores are mean, Jack. These girls don’t have a mean bone in their bodies, ”he said.
I sat looking over at him in his cockpit. I felt protected by him, and protective of him. I knew he would give his life to save mine. There were times when I hated him for it.
“When we go to Hong Kong, we can talk about it, Gearheardt. If the Cuban is in Hong Kong, we’ll see what we can do. That’s the best I can promise.”
“You’re a champ, Jack. A champ. Wait until you hear the rest of my plan.”
I saw the dirt begin to swirl around his helicopter, and he slowly rose, swung the nose of the aircraft around into the wind, then lifted rapidly out of the refueling pits and was gone.
This war was sad. The “war junior,” Gearheardt called it. A “back fire” to the Vietnam War, fattening up the local populace so that we could feed them to the forty or fifty thousand North Vietnamese troops pushing south through the territory. If we won the war in Vietnam, this place-holding action would deliver a free Laos to the survivors. If we didn’t, well, as Gearheardt put it, “They’re fucked.”
I lifted off and banked low over the command bunker so the customer would know that I was back hard at work even if he wasn’t monitoring the radio traffic. I climbed into the cool, fresh sky, circling twice above the airstrip so that I wouldn’t pass over the jungle at an altitude tempting for the North Vietnamese machine gunners. A gorgeous day, and the miles of green jungle, punctured by rocky karsts and etched with muddy rivers, stretched languidly in all directions. Full of people ready to shoot me.
At five thousand feet, I could see over into North Vietnam. It seemed crazy that not long before, I had been there.