The outdoor movie was a welcome diversion. This week’s entertainment was Jane Fonda in Barbarella. The movie “screen” was a wall of plywood sheets, painted white. On good nights with a breeze from the south, the viewers were spared the aroma oozing out of the nearby latrines.
The projector usually started rolling at 7:00 p.m., and for this particular event all of the good seats had been occupied by 4:30 in the afternoon. Film aficionados ranking to full colonel occupied lounge chairs they had carried over from their quarters. Beer coolers were everywhere, and the place was as raucous as a Rolling Stones concert.
No one was disappointed. Jane was at her vacuous, bosomy best. Marwick was particularly enthralled by the scenes of her crawling around on all fours in outfits designed to showcase her pendulous talents. The story line escaped him. He tried to imagine Roger Vadim’s direction, “Crawl a leettle more to zee right zees time, Jane babee.” The high point, of course, was the scene where she ended up half naked inside some kind of futuristic organ which, when played, provoked never-ending multiple orgasms. He wondered if faking orgasm was something one learned in acting school or if it just came naturally. The crowd of mostly young officers went wild.
Marwick remembered his father showing him his collection of black-and-white photographs of Ingrid Bergman, taken when she visited his battalion in Munich, following the end of the war in 1945. His father had talked little about his combat experience, which Marwick now regretted, and it suddenly occurred to him that there were real benefits to serving in popular wars. They got Ingrid Bergman. In Vietnam, the troops got Bob Hope, Martha Raye, and fake porno films. That made him angry. He was eager to get home and talk to his dad about each of their respective wars, and he realized that this reunion would now be delayed thanks to the senator and the meddling of his mother. That made him really angry.
The movie finally ended, but a group of inebriates began chanting for a replay, “Organ! Organ! Organ!” And for a moment Marwick was afraid that the skinny Signal Corps specialist who was running the projector was going to need an armed escort to get back to his unit alive with the film canister.
Cléo sat in the front of the open jeep next to the driver. She wore a simple sleeveless cotton dress, and her hair flipped back and forth in the wind. To Marwick she seemed in an effervescent, lighthearted mood as they began their two-day visit to Saigon. She must have found a guidebook somewhere because one evening earlier that week she had entertained him by describing the details of the French-designed city with its wide tamarind-lined boulevards, its luxurious private villas with rooftop gardens of brilliant crimson and yellow bougainvillea, its quiet public parks. Marwick’s joy at the thought of escaping with her from the suffocating confines of II Field Force matched her mood. He looked forward to sitting with her at a sidewalk café, visiting a bustling marketplace, enjoying a leisurely lunch.
He dropped her off in front of the Red Cross headquarters compound, and she agreed to meet him later that morning at the Continental Palace Hotel downtown.
On the arcaded terrace of the hotel, the overhead ceiling fans churned lazily through the heavy polluted Saigon air. Marwick tried to ignore the heat, sipped his beer, and watched the listless tempo of the pedicabs and bicycles on Tu Do Street. Beggars and pimps attracted by the seemingly unlimited supply of ready American cash patrolled nearby. “Hey, GI, you numba won. You want nice girl? Do big boom-boom.” Once again Marwick found himself worrying about the diplomatic mission he had agreed to undertake for his stepfather. How many other Asian cities would he have to visit? How many more times would he get propositioned? What kind of danger would be involved? How long before he might get home?
“Take the 50, Lieutenant. Short bursts. Aim low,” Jorgensen shouted at Marwick over the noise of the mortars, the machine gun, the ak ak ak . . . ak ak of the small-arms fire all around them. Marwick climbed up into the turret, grasped the double handles of the weapon and found the butterfly trigger. Just then two rounds, bing . . . bing, hit the gun shield in front of him. He ducked reflexively, punching the trigger as he did. Three rounds flew off into space.
He had only fired a 50-caliber once, briefly, at Ft. Sill. Now he stood again and squeezed off five or six rounds without really aiming. He looked over the barrel and saw a puff of smoke in front and slightly to the left. He thought he saw a face behind the smoke, hidden in the dense foliage. He swung the barrel, but just as he prepared to fire, the puff of smoke turned into another RPG which exploded on the embankment just in front, rocking the vehicle, and filling the air with dirt and dust. He cringed again but stepped back up quickly this time, determined not to panic. He fired into the jungle in the direction of the smoke. The gun tended to elevate by itself, and ten rounds at once was all he could control. He re-sighted the weapon, and fired off another burst.
It took less that a minute for Marwick to become entranced by the destructive power of the 50-caliber. Banana trees truncated cleanly, and he imagined the green blood-sap oozing out from the denuded stump. The trunk of a small coconut palm exploded grotesquely when a single round hit it solidly, the top third of the tree shooting upwards and seeming to float back to earth in slow motion, like a parasol in a summer breeze. Foliage shredded in all directions, and dirt and debris were kicked up into the air.
The sensation of holding the 50-caliber in his hands was almost sensual. His fingers stung from the vibrations. His forearms and biceps hurt from straining to control the big weapon. The noise was ear-piercing. He had forgotten that mortars were still exploding around him and concentrated on aiming the gun at the smoke from the grenade launchers and at the AK-47 muzzle flashes he saw between the tree trunks and from behind the large elephant ear plants. He remembered how Jack Riley had described the killing, the violence, the destruction on the battlefield—and how he had loved it. Marwick understood now what he had meant.
The ramp in the rear dropped, and six troopers scurried out one at a time, creeping along the sides of the track. They dispersed and commenced firing from behind the embankment. Marwick could not believe that they were still receiving enemy fire from the tree line. The volume of rounds that Marwick, the two side gunners, and the men on the ground were pumping into the jungle in front of them was enormous. How could anyone still be there to fire back? Jorgensen shoved two boxes of ammunition into the turret, and Marwick passed him the 50-caliber.
“Bunkers!” he screamed at Marwick. “The whole hillside’s a huge bunker complex.”
To his left the dawning sun crept across Vientiane’s collection of mismatched buildings and peeked over the rooftop terrace of the new four-story Lan Xang Hotel. Marwick sat watching as the orange-yellow rays of a Laotian sunrise punctured the morning tranquility. From the balcony of his third-floor room he could see a Thai temple, shrouded in an early morning fog and rising above the distant shore of the legendary and infamous Mekong River.
The heat and humidity reminded him of II Field Force. He remembered how clammy he had always felt, even in the air-conditioned headquarters building where he spent so much of his day. It had been more than a month since his discharge, yet his army experience still permeated his emotions, especially his dreams, like the invading tentacles in some monster movie. The day he traded his uniform for civilian clothes he was certain he could will himself to tune out the past twelve months of boredom and frustration, to forget forever those brief periods of extreme anxiety and abject fear. And yet the rhythm of Vietnam dogged him like a pointless habit—waking up at 6:00 when he could have slept until noon.
He sat sideways on the balustrade in his faded olive-drab G.I. shorts and looked out over the waking city of Vientiane. A rooster crowed lazily from below, even though the sun had been up for at least thirty minutes. He remembered the guidebook quip attributed to some nameless French chronicler who had alleged that the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, but the Laotians listen to it grow. He thought he might like Vientiane and wondered if he should not extend his stay but immediately dropped the idea. Cléo was nearby. How long could he continue to pretend that he did not want to see her?
The sobriety of the early morning faded with the beginning cacophony of motorbikes echoing up from the streets below. He returned to his room and in the hallway found a pretty Lao house girl dressed in a deep blue sarong ironing his tropical suit. It was the Great White Hunter getup he had ordered custom-made in Saigon, the kind of outfit he once swore he would never wear—epaulettes, cloth belt and buckle, pleated jacket pockets that served no purpose, dull tan material. He squeezed into the tiny shower. The pressure in the water pipes produced only the slightest trickle, and he stood there for a long time wondering, once again, how a lifetime of seemingly insignificant decisions had led him inevitably to this inconsequential corner of the world, to this sleepy capital city, to this tired colonial-era French hotel with its pathetic little shower. He dressed, went downstairs, and ordered breakfast.
Somewhere in the Golden Triangle
The flight lasted two and a half hours, and by the time they landed, it was well after dark. The remote airstrip had a grass surface, illuminated by flaming oil pots lined up on either side of the landing strip. As he stepped down from the plane, he noticed young boys hurrying down either side of the runway extinguishing the lanterns one after another. The silence was eerie, like stopping and turning off the car engine aside one of those long straight roads to nowhere in the middle of the Nevada desert.
The Land Rover maneuvered along unpaved roads for more than an hour, the crunch of gravel beneath the tires the only distraction. The road wound back and forth endlessly, and even though he could see nothing in the blackness outside, Marwick knew they were climbing. At one point they came to a stop at some kind of checkpoint, and someone in uniform shined a flashlight in Marwick’s face, momentarily blinding him. A short, staccato discussion followed, the driver passed something to the official, and they departed. Almost immediately heavy braking told him that the car was descending. They had crossed a mountain pass, perhaps entered another country, but which one? He decided that asking would betray his anxiety, something Solecki’s team had warned him not to do.
The car turned left onto another road and after several minutes stopped before a massive wooden gate with a small guard house to the side. More words were spoken. Was it Thai or some other language? The gate opened, and they passed through. A few hundred meters later, they came to a stop before a small building constructed in the Asian style, with overlapping roofs and pointed adornments. It could be either Thai or Laotian, Marwick guessed. His escort retrieved his bag, walked to the front entrance, knocked, and placed the backpack beside the door. Then he bowed politely and without a word, returned to the car.
Marwick could not remember ever feeling so disoriented. Never had he traveled so long, so far, without the slightest idea of where he was going. He walked hesitantly to the door. It opened before he got there, and a small, impeccable Asian man with a flattop haircut, dressed in a white dinner jacket, greeted him.
“Welcome, Lieutenant,” he said, with a slight English accent. “I am Boonlert, Monsieur Duc’s butler. I hope your trip has not been too tiring. Please come in.”
Marwick stepped inside. To his surprise, the interior was furnished with early American colonial antiques, whose value he recognized because his mother was something of a collector. In one corner he spotted a simple lift-top secretary with brass hardware. In another, a dry sink, with a large decanter and hand-blown glassware. He was amazed to find a bouquet of orchids centered on a small, polished dining table. The flowers reminded him that he had once paid what seemed like a fortune for a single orchid corsage for his prom date back in high school. One wall was decorated with a dozen or so wooden and wrought iron colonial farm implements, just like the ones he remembered inspecting with his mother on her antiquing excursions into the hills of western Virginia and North Carolina when he was young. “No, no, the trip was fine,” Marwick said, “a little long, that’s all. May I ask you where I am?”
The Land Rover wove back and forth, up gently sloping foothills, around ingeniously terraced rice paddies. They drove by manicured vegetable gardens nestled between thatch and bamboo huts hugging the roadside. Marwick watched the nearly naked men in broad, circular hats, working the brown fertile earth, and wondered why he had not been born to this simpler life—that of a poor peasant in some hillside farming village in the middle of Burma. Instead, he enjoyed a comfortable, pampered existence as the son of a career military officer in America. It could have easily been different, he thought. And would he not have been just as happy or happier even, right here in this village, immune to the grip of twentieth-century materialism with its intoxicating lure—that he could become whatever he set his mind to, knowing full well that he never could? Knowing that for him, like most dreamers, ambition would necessarily be tempered by the human need that screams out from every pore to love and to be loved?
His thoughts were interrupted when the vehicle hit a rough spot in the road, bounced violently, and dislodged something that hit the back of his leg. Cléo elbowed Marwick and pointed toward the barrel of a gun protruding from beneath the seat. An assault rifle. That much he could tell. Cléo looked anxiously at him, and he opened his eyes wide, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged. He could not help thinking back to that day on the road to Kampong Cham and of the frighteningly close call with the Khmer Rouge. Cléo moved closer, and he reassured her with an arm around her shoulder. He wondered why Duc, once again, had insisted that Cléo accompany him. Was it really such a good idea to bring her?
They drove on. The road left the paddies and gardens behind and climbed higher into the hills, farther from traces of human enterprise. The wet, warm landscape behind them gave way to a higher-altitude vegetation, dominated by hardwoods and triple canopy jungle; then, with the sun mostly hidden, a chilling mood set in. They turned off the small dirt road onto a private drive that led up to a cleared promontory overlooking a valley with a view of distant Mandalay on the hazy horizon. Ahead Marwick saw a tired old colonial mansion facing west and standing alone on the top of a treeless hill. The site was wind-swept and naked and the building a relic of British imperialism, with rusting sheet-metal roofing and bare spots on the siding where the dark brown wooden shakes had fallen away. The glazing around the windows had disappeared in places, and parts of the gravel driveway had been overrun with grass. A black Mercedes was parked next to the front entrance. Marwick glanced at Cléo, who was frowning and kept looking around nervously as if searching for an explanation. He realized that the dreamy rapturous mood that had lifted him to inspired moments of happiness during recent weeks had suddenly come to an end. Something ominous had replaced it.
Heavy clouds shrouded the town; at first there was drizzle, then rain, then no mountain view at all. They seemed suspended in an unfamiliar universe of stagnant mist and silence, as if the world was waiting for something to happen. Though he tried, Marwick could not relax. The sight of Duc lying dead on that kitchen floor and his and Cléo’s near escape still haunted him. He sensed that once again he was being followed, though he knew that it was unlikely now.
At a covered marketplace they bought heavy woolen sweaters of rough handmade yarn and a multicolored umbrella like those carried by the locals. They took a room at the Central Hotel with a window looking over the street below. A down quilt covered the bed, and the sheets were Wedgwood blue. In the bathroom they found huge fluffy cotton towels, and Cléo luxuriated in the steamy shower.
Later they meandered through the narrow streets, the eerie tranquility of the patter of rain on their umbrella broken only by an occasional automobile. How strange it was, this hidden Asian city with its British adornments: a church here, an English-language library there, shopkeepers quoting prices with perfect Oxbridge diction, a cricket pitch in a school yard.
They passed a monastery and stared through the gate at the shiny-headed young monks as they arranged prayer flags and prayer wheels along either side of a long cloistered passageway, each identically dressed in striking burgundy robes with bright yellow undergarments.
The inhabitants moved about the streets at a gentle cadence, the color of their garments contrasting vividly with the ashen stone architecture and the anemic sky.
A scented air billowed up around Marwick and Cléo as they stood together at a bend in a road on the edge of the town, looking out over the fields of low-lying tea plants that covered the hillside like a gigantic green blanket, rising, then falling away into the thickening murk of a cheerless fog.
“What do you say we just take off, leave Asia, head west to Europe?” Marwick proposed. “Forget everything. Start over. Forget we were ever in Vietnam.” Forget what it had done to them, he thought. Rediscover that innocence they had brought with them when their 707′s had landed at Tan Son Nhut Airport so many months before. But he knew Cléo would never agree.