Summer Camp characters and universe© 2006 by Nick Scipio.
Red stopped hacking through the bushes, and wiped his florid face with his handkerchief. "Damned heat," he said in Vietnamese. He waved at Tam, his guide, who was standing in the shade of a tree. "I know, I know, this is normal."
"I think it's warmer than usual today," Tam replied diplomatically. "At least the monsoon hasn't started."
Red resumed hacking at the bushes on the slope of the valley. "You say the villagers don't come near this place?"
"They told me there are bad spirits around here," Tam said. "That's superstitious nonsense, of course."
"Of course," Red said. Tam's words had parroted the official party line, but his tone said something else. Red wiped his face with his sleeve and chopped away a large bush. "Is there any reason they might think that?"
"Who can know the mind of a peasant?" Tam consulted the paper in his hand. It was a magnetic scan of the valley, and it showed a magnetic anomaly somewhere in this grove. The young man compared it to the aerial photograph the US Air Force had provided of the area.
"A little more to the right, I think. We're right on the edge of the disturbance."
"Back where I come from, we have people like your peasants," Red said. He stopped chopping and took a much smaller magnetometer out of his pack. It pegged as he swung it over the ground.
Tam seemed astonished. "You have peasants in America?"
"Not peasants," Red said, "just people who believe things that aren't true." He thought he saw a hint of white in the shadows under a bush. That color shouldn't be here, not in the middle of the bush, not unless...
He chopped the bush apart, exposing a white piece of metal. He used his knife to loosen the dirt so he could brush it away. The metal was white-painted aluminum. Red loosened more of the dirt, widening the hole he was making. When he did he could see a number; it looked like a 6.
"Definitely a crash site," he said. He pushed his bush hat up and wiped away the sweat trickling down his face. "Any chance we could get the local villagers to come out here and do some digging?"
"Perhaps." Tam's thin face was unreadable. He wiped it with his arm, and then consulted the GPS unit Red had given him. He jotted down the coordinates, and gave Red a smile. "We'll have to get permission. If this is another crash site, the authorities in Hanoi will be glad to help."
The local village showed no interest in clearing the site. Tam called Hanoi, and that night the village elders changed their minds. The next day a sullen group of men followed Red uphill from the end of the road.
"Clear the site first," Red told Tam. He spoke reasonable Vietnamese, but found it better to let the directions come from the younger man.
"What kind of airplane do you think it is?" Tam asked after telling the villagers what he wanted done.
"An A-4," he told Tam. "One was shot down over this valley, and I think this is it."
Tam nodded. "My uncle was part of the crew of an antiaircraft gun. He said one of the guns in his battery shot down an American here. He called them Yankee Air Pirates."
"And what do you call them now?" Red asked quietly in English.
"Not all of us believed what we were told," Tam replied in a low voice, also in English. "The situation back then was ... complex ... not what we were told it was." He gave Red a strained grin and lapsed back into Vietnamese. "Did you fight in the war?"
"For a time." Red glanced at his younger friend. "I imagine you were too young for it."
"I carried ammunition for the guns near my village. Everybody fought, even the children. My father died in the war. Last year I visited where he died. That was north of here, near Hue."
"The war was long ago, my friend," Tam said, keeping his voice low. "There were old men on both sides who wanted it. And we won, for what that's worth."
"Winning has many meanings."
Red stepped aside as two men carried a load of brush down the hill. The clearing was going faster than he'd expected.
"So we have learned." Tam's voice sounded bitter. "I have studied in France. I think the cruelest things you Americans did was to let us win." He looked away, scowling. "We learned our beloved leaders had no idea of how to run a country despite all of their words." He kicked at a clod of dirt. "Before you Americans returned with your trade we were headed directly into Lenin's famous 'dustbin of history, ' where we were supposed to send all of the capitalists. That has changed now, and we are turning into good capitalists."
Red shot Tam a look. "I thought we agreed: no politics today."
"You're right," Tam said a moment later. "I apologize."
"Just remember, my friend, what we're doing will help heal some of the wounds of the war. That's why we came here."
The villagers finished clearing the site, and Red and Tam walked over it with a pair of magnetometers, mapping what was buried in the dirt. Finally Red outlined where he wanted the villagers to start digging. He retreated to the shade of a tree as Tam organized the work.
With the sun directly overhead, Tam called a halt for lunch. Red had brought food and beer for them, and they ate enthusiastically. While they were eating, Red climbed down in the hole the villagers had made to inspect the wreckage uncovered so far. Tam, hands on his hips, was waiting for him when he climbed out.
Red knocked the dirt from his hands and wiped his face again. "It's a plane from the USS Hancock, an American aircraft carrier. Before we do any more digging we're going to someone who can defuse explosives."
"Bombs?" Tam edged back. The villagers exchanged looks, and two of them started down the hill.
Red shook his head. "No, the pilot had already dropped his bombs when he was shot down. But the ejection seat is still armed," he added. "There's a rocket behind the pilot's seat. When you pull the handle, the rocket shoots you out of the airplane. But the fuel in the rocket gets unstable over time, in this case, 30 years. If it's not handled properly, it may go off accidentally. An explosives expert will know what to do."
"Ah." Tam's dark face brightened. "I'll call the nearest army base. They know what we are doing. They'll send someone here." He walked down the hill to the truck, pausing to have words with the villagers. They started to move back, still cautious, but Red waved them away.
"No digging for the rest of the day," he called out. "We'll dig tomorrow."
The villagers broke into grins and filed down the hill, shovels on their shoulders, food still in their hands, chattering happily.
"The man we need will be here in two or three hours," Tam said when Red joined him. "He has done this many times."
"While we wait," Red said, "I have to call my people." He took out his satellite phone and called the American Embassy in Hanoi.
"No sir," he told the man at the Embassy as he gazed up the hill, "I only have part of a tail number. But it's definitely an A-4 from the USS Hancock. I'll call you when I have more information."
"Problems?" Tam asked when Red tossed the satellite phone back in the truck.
Red smiled. "The man I talked to is sitting in an air-conditioned office with a cup of tea in his hand. I doubt if he's ever set foot outside of Hanoi except to go to the airport. If he causes problems, I'll speak with the Ambassador."
"I know people like that," Tam said. "They have no idea what it's like in the countryside, and yet they claim to speak for everyone." He chuckled sourly. "I fear some things are universal."
He gazed up the slope at the fresh dirt. "How did you know it did not carry bombs?"
"I was flying nearby when it was shot down." In his mind's eye he saw the A-4 leveling out at the bottom of its bomb run, its bombs already gone, and the sudden burst of flak that blew the right wing away. The plane had gone into the side of the valley at nearly full speed.
"You were..." Tam paused for several seconds. "It would be best if the villagers did not learn that. They would refuse to work for you."
"Don't worry. To them I'm just a Yankee who's paying them to dig up a wrecked plane." Red settled in the shade of the truck. "In the meantime, here we sit." He shook a cigarette out of his pack. "Smoke?"
"A filthy habit," Tam said as he lit one. He took a deep drag and slowly blew the smoke out. "I should never have started."
"Me neither." Red lit his own cigarette and leaned against the truck. "Now, here's what we should be doing, sitting in the shade telling stories."
"I am sure our superiors would object." Tam took another drag and studied the glowing tip of the cigarette. "This is much better than what we can get, even in Ho Chi Minh City."
"I'll send you a few cartons." Red closed his eyes, reviewing what had to be done to get at the ejection seat. He'd need his shears to cut away the crumpled skin of the fuselage, and duct tape so nobody would cut themselves on the edge of the metal. And he had a hacksaw in the truck for the tubing and wiring in the way.
It took the rest of the day for the ordnance officer to come out and examine the ejection seat. When he finally came down the slope he had a smile on his face and a roll of wire in his hand.
"Tell the Yankee that it is safe," the man said.
"He speaks Vietnamese," Tam replied.
"What did you do?" Red asked in Vietnamese. He held out the pack. "Cigarette?"
The man eyed the pack longingly, and smiled when Red handed it to him. "Thank you." He lit one and sat on the truck's running board. "Fortunately, an American ejection seat is similar to the Russians'. I had to insert the safety wire. Before I did that I had to clean the dirt away from the mechanism. Then I removed the charge. It is not safe to move, so I will have to destroy it here."
"I'll dig a hole for you," Red said. He picked up a shovel and climbed back to the wreck. The ordnance officer waited until the hole was a couple of feet deep, and then put the charge in the bottom. He placed a small wad of C-4 next to it and inserted a firing cap. The three men backed away, the ordnance officer unrolling wire behind him. He connected it to a detonator and gave the handle a sharp twist. The explosion pattered dirt around the three men.
"I always thought pilots were crazy to sit on top of one of those things," the ordnance officer said as he brushed dirt from his shoulder.
"People do many crazy things," Tam replied. "What is one more? May we proceed now?"
"Do what you like," the ordnance man said. He gave Red a sharp look and walked away.
"Not all of the wounds will be easy to heal," Tam said quietly.
Morning came, and with it the villagers. Red had brought a box, and when the hole was deep enough, he sent the villagers away.
"This is a difficult moment for you," Tam said from the top of the hole. "Would you prefer to be alone?"
"I'll be fine," he told Tam. "It's just that this part gets very boring."
A sergeant with the Graves Registration detail had shown him what to do. He laid a boxed screen on the edge of the hole. As the sun crossed the sky he took scoops of dirt and dropped them one at a time onto the screen. He sifted out pieces of metal, a corroded pen, fragments of paper, parts of a flight suit, and pieces of bone. When he found the wedding ring he climbed out of the hole and stood looking out over the valley, remembering, and trying to control his emotions.
He finished just after dark. He hadn't found any bones in more than an hour, and the box he'd brought was nearly full. The noisy night of Vietnam had descended on the valley. Graves Registration should have more than enough to identify the remains, but he had the tail number, and that was all of the proof he needed.
Tam was full of plans as they drove back to the city. The wreckage would be taken to a warehouse in Da Nang. Most of it could be melted down and reused, feeding the growing industries in Vietnam. Red nodded from time to time, his mind years away. The easy part of his job was behind him.
"You seem quiet, my friend," Tam said at last. They'd reached the end of the dirt road and bounced through the last ruts and onto the newly paved road that would take them to Da Nang.
"You asked me earlier if today was difficult," Red replied quietly. "It was, in more ways than you know."
"When I found where my father died I felt his spirit near me," Tam said. "I know it is superstitious nonsense to say that, but I could feel him. I could not speak for more than a day. Was this man a relative, your brother, perhaps?"
"A friend," Red replied. "These last hours brought back memories of him." He paused to blow smoke into the night. "There were good times, times we listened to music and enjoyed life, and times when we got stinking, falling-down drunk."
"My uncle and I did that," Tam laughed. "We got so drunk we were almost arrested. Fortunately the police officer knew why we were there. He had lost a brother in the war, and he understood."
"I'm done here, at least for now," Red said. "I'll take him and the others home. I may be back, I don't know. I hope so."
"That is a political decision," Tam said. "Your Ambassador Peterson, he is very eloquent. He said every one we find builds a bridge between our peoples."
"The Ambassador was shot down near Hanoi," Red said. "Did you know that?"
"So I am told. That was very important in approving your mission."
"Then it's possible I may see you again, my friend."
That night Red called his boss in Washington, D.C. "Jay? Red Stevenson. It was a successful trip. I'll have to stay in-country for at least a week. Our friends here have inherited a love of paperwork from both the Russians and the French. I have a whole pile of bureaucratic garbage to wade through before we can leave."
"Yes, sir, I found the one I was after. Thank you for making that possible."
He was sitting at a bar in a hotel in Washington DC, nursing his single malt, when he heard the stool next to him creak. He turned to see who was interrupting his solitude. With a start, he recognized David Hughes. There were a few more lines on his face, and a few strands of gray had crept into his black hair, but the smile and the face were just as he remembered.
"David," Red said quietly, inclining his glass toward him in salute. "I haven't seen you since Tailhook '94."
"You look the same, Red," David Hughes said. "Or should I say Admiral?"
"Only when I have my sailor suit on."
"I never thought any of us would make flag, you least of all."
Red smiled. "It's not all it's cracked up to be. For one thing, I don't get to fly."
"You don't? But I thought— I mean, you're in charge of all naval aviation."
"Last year I got some stick time in a Hornet, but that's it. I have to have someone along to make sure I don't screw up."
"That's a cryin' shame."
"Tell me about it. I have an Aircoupe I keep in Fairfax County, and I get a few hours in it every month. It's flying, but it's not the same."
David snorted, half-humorously. "An Aircoupe's an old man's airplane; no rudder pedals."
Red shrugged. "True, but a friend at Miramar owns a Pitts Special he lets me fly. I take it up every time I get out there."
David chuckled. "It beats hauling passengers around. The only excitement I get is when something little like an Aircoupe cuts me off in the pattern."
"As if the guys in the tower would let that happen," Red said, chuckling. "Hell, your airliner lands faster than my Aircoupe cruises." He ordered another single malt. After a glance at David, he ordered him one, too.
"So, Zuni," Red said, "what brings you to Washington? Or are you on a layover and just happened to stumble across me?"
David picked up his glass and took a sip. "I had a flight from Atlanta to Dulles day before yesterday. I bid it 'cause I wanted to see you."
"Sorry, but I was down in Pensacola until late last night."
"So your secretary told me. I bribed her with flowers, and presumed on a few old friendships to find you."
Red turned back to his glass. "So you've found me. What's on your mind?"
"Just as sociable as when you first joined the squadron, maybe even less."
"I wasn't, for a while, but that was Gloria's doing."
"I heard. I'm very sorry."
"She's in a better place now, and her sufferings are at an end." Red took a sip, rolling the liquor across his tongue.
"I also heard you went back to Vietnam."
Red nodded. "Part of it was political. We had to show the Vietnamese we were serious about recovering our MIAs. Sending an ex-POW as an Ambassador wasn't enough, so President Clinton asked me to go."
"They'd have to take the CNO/Aviation seriously," David said, "especially for this."
"Jay took me to see the President. They both understood why I wanted to go."
David gave a humorless chuckle. "Now I know you're at the top of the Navy. Nobody else would call the Chief of Naval Operations by his first name."
"Why not? Oh, I admit that while on duty his first name is 'Admiral, ' but we go fishing together, and even shoot a few rounds of golf when Congress is in session." He grinned at David's expression. "Nothing breaks the ice with a Congress-critter faster than them out-shooting you at golf, especially when they see you're not letting them win."
"Not that you care." David grinned to take the sting out of his words.
"The golf? Of course not. I'm not a Chair Force golf pro, after all. Besides, there are other things I'd rather be doing, especially if it involves flying. But the Navy wouldn't have half the toys it has today if I neglected the things I have to do to procure them."
David contemplated his drink for several minutes. "Susan thought you'd come to Jack's burial, especially since you were there when he was shot down. She was disappointed that you didn't."
"I've sworn off funerals," Red said. "After Gloria's, I decided I'm not going to another unless I'm the guest of honor." He smiled thinly and took another sip.
"A lot of the guys from VA-55 were there, the ones who knew Jack, at least. They're proud of you, and some of them asked about you."