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With the lives of millions hanging in the balance, these four characters struggle through the worst of times. The clash between a Texas White House surrounded by high-powered, ideology-driven bureaucrats and a hardy band of Vietnamese nationalists creates a thrilling narrative, one that boils with intrigue, mayhem, and betrayal. The disquieting engine that drives Diverting the Buddha is the antipathy many Western officials feel about grassroots movements that are springing up all over the world.
Specialist Blake was high: in less than two hours his guard tour would be over. Wired from drinking coffee all night he was having trouble focusing on his fields of fire. His eyes kept moving -- first peering into the neighboring garden's inky blackness, then up the deserted side street and finally out across the large rice paddy directly across from his perch. The night's half-moon was down, but some of its few scraggly rays still flittered about. It was this feeble illumination that kept making objects flash into and out of existence. Blake felt sure that come daylight each moving object would prove to be no more than a banana tree, a palm, or some spiky fern. The entire city of Hue lay covered in what he called snail slime, that heavy dew common before dawn along Vietnam's coast. This morning there was something extra dimensional about that glaze that made things sparkle and jump about: made animate that which could never move, just stray photons bouncing off goo.
He knew the terrain well. In full daylight he had sat in this exact spot studying the wide variety of shrubs and trees below, writing a letter home filled with abundant detail about many of the exotic specimens. He had hoped to please his mother an avid gardener and grower of blue ribbon zinnias. His letter had been a success. Her reply came back in eight days, a round-trip military post office record: one only achievable if Mom replied the same day his letter arrived.
She had updated him on the home front. Blake's former girlfriend had announced her engagement to a University of Wisconsin football player, a former all-state guard from Madison. Their wedding wouldbe June eleventh, in Cassville, at the Lutheran Church. Cindy Hoak and Jim Pope had sent an invitation for Dave and the family.
He was beginning to relax a little when something jumped on the periphery, beyond centerfield, and he totally lost track of Mom, the home front, and tropical flowers. Forcing his eyes to find something before it found him, he went in a heartbeat from idle to full steam ahead. Still unsure of anything, he kept his eyes moving, realizing the more he stared the less he saw.
There! Near the far wall, a quarter-block away, something did shift. He could swear to it. Breaking into a cold sweat he slid down, making as little sound as possible. In Nam any movement, between nine and five, required immediate attention. Any hesitation and a lot of guys might die. Blake summed up his response to just this sort of situation in General Rule Number Eleven, an item he'd appended to his own Military Advisory Command's Code of Conduct. He religiously carried the little card in his wallet ever since some officer handed it to him during in-processing at Tan Son Nhut Field in July. Shoot first and often, he'd written in blue ink on the back of the card that General Westmoreland himself had signed.
Blake jumped and twitched, his nerves pumped full of mainlined adrenaline. Sliding out of the high fan backed chair, his throne for over five hours, he slithered along until he reached cover behind a sandbag wall, a squat layer of protection against small arms fire that might be incoming any second. Breathing hard, struggling to regain some composure, he stretched up, extending his neck enough so only his left eye showed. He no longer saw movement by the wall or anywhere else. All seemed quiet on the garden front.
He felt foolish for allowing jittery nerves to jerk him around. Part of him was agitating for getting back to normal and another part voted for one last garden check. He went with option two. His recurring nightmare always began down there. In it a VC assault always came right before sunrise while Tropo House lay fast asleep and whoever was on guard didn't sense trouble and gave no warning. First an explosion would turn Blake's two-man room arc welder white, and he would wake flying through mid air an instant before crashing down into a jumble of footlockers, shower shoes, ammo packs, and boxes of Sony recording tapes. While somersaulting, he'd hear sounds: wood snapping, then glass shattering and finally Sergeant Anderson hollering.
"Gooks in my compound. They are past the wire! You're on your own; everyone's on their own!"
He would sit up in a daze half a room away from his bunk starring at Private First Class Campbell of Little Bend Forge, Georgia, as Campbell came crawling out from beneath an overturned wall locker. Struggling to his knees, the Georgia bulldog would raise a heavy machine gun, one that came from God only knew. Swearing and cursing Campbell would swing his huge weapon towards the door, moving in slow-mo with his arms locked tight. Before he got halfway around something would blow the door, and Campbell's face would implode into a rubbery Halloween mask, a smashed-in bloody thing with no discernable structure. Then his roommates' head, just the back of it, would explode in a plume of red-hot plasma and cover everything in an oily pink and gray slime.
Blake added the Technicolor to the dream's brain burst recently, after seeing a similar mixture of brains, blood, and bone chips covering the walls of a Vietnamese National Police pillbox three blocks away. Andy had led the whole team over there on the morning after, before the cops could clean up their own mess. Inside lay fifteen broken, moldering corpses, who were caught in the act of sleeping by a Viet Cong sapper team that came slinking through three rows of rolled barb wire and a boatload of claymore anti-personnel mines. The VC did their grisly work without a single casualty.
"Not even a blood trail," Sergeant Matson remarked, to nobody in particular. He was the site's most experienced infantry combat killer.
Sergeant Anderson wanted to wake up his men by showing them the carnage inside that small concrete coffin. He wanted them to smell, see, taste, and feel real death, real close. Andy had put the fear of God in them; as if they needed it, when he swore he would take down any man of his who lived through such a fuck-up.
Blake's dream always accelerated after Campbell's head popped. It would be running at full speed by the time a Vietnamese wearing baggy black peasant pants, a dark purple shirt, and a red headband jumped into the room. The VC carried a Russian assault rifle. He'd wave his AK-47 around, making practiced arcs before zeroing in on Blake. Then the nightmare would end, with Blake hearing screams and feeling rounds tearing in.
Still unsure if anything was up, Blake stopped thinking about his damn nightmare and started sliding sideways, to get well away from his former chair. He wanted to get some distance between where he might have last been seen. Better safe than sorry... or dead. After getting away, he pitched sideways up against another pile of weepy sandbags. Semi-automatically, dragging down his right thumb with a banjo plucker's practiced motion; he flicked the safety switch on his Colt AR-15 rifle. His fingers moved across the weapon's black plastic pistol grip and found its magazine. Assured he had a weapon with twenty rounds in its clip, he slowed his breathing and chambered one live round. Only when fully armed did he squirm and squiggle up and over the five-high pile of sandbags and become 'Blake the cobra' ready to strike.
Peeking down, keeping both eyes sweeping left and right, he now saw a single mottled pattern. It looked like a carrousel horse, moving not around but up and down, and coming his way. Sneaky bastards! The VC probably thought he'd fallen asleep and hoped to get him by using one man and a single grenade. He smiled. They'd made one big mistake. The lone Viet Cong would be moving into his kill zone any second and he would need only one trigger squeeze to create some oblivion. But holy shit! The guy was covering a lot of ground. Twisting furiously to zero in, Blake banged an elbow on the balcony's concrete rail. In spite of the pain, he maintained fire control, holding back, keeping the faith, waiting to rock and roll. He recalled a piece of advice he'd learned from Roy, Gene, or Hop-a-long on Saturday TV.
"Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes, partner."
When those Oriental whites became visible his index finger would caress the trigger, and then it was lights, camera, action, squeeze, fire. And, as taught in basic training, he pulled gently, not flinching, fully prepared to absorb his weapon's sharp recoil. But nothing happened and he pulled harder and still felt no report, no pain in his ill-positioned clavicle. With a growing sense of dread he started jerking the trigger off, committing the worst sin in his Army's list of shalt nots.
He let out a sigh; a we-who-are-about-to-die acknowledgement that the new weapon he purchased from an Air Force sergeant for the royal sum of two hundred fifty dollars was locked on safety. His casual flicking motion had not done the trick and things were speeding up, just as in his dream. In a flash the enemy would get him. He kept groping for the safety, but the Goddamn thing had vanished. He'd wasted a lot of money on his little black weapon, betting it could help him stay alive. Very soon, he'd be dead, just another Killed-in-Action statistic rolling off Walter Cronkite's silver tongue on the CBS Nightly News. If he only had the M-14 rifle his army had issued him in July, he would be sending some VC commies to gook heaven. Would it hurt? Would he be conscious all the way down? Who would take charge of his AR-15? Probably nobody. Everyone would see it as bad ju ju.
When the enemy broke cover, she was grinning, but only for an instant before shrieking, dropping her rice broom, and fleeing.
"Mother fucker! Some old house ba."
Blake's words roared out; propelled by pent up fear. They shattered the morning calm to the degree his rifle should have. Some old woman doing morning chores had been his entire band of saboteurs. What if he lit up that old lady? How could he ever live with that? What in hell could he have been thinking, imagining VC coming through that garden space with those high walls and no way out? Everything seemed so clear, now that he had time to think. How could he be such an asshole?
Caught in his own private maelstrom, Blake didn't notice a shadow closing in from behind. He sensed no motion until he heard a hoarse whisper and felt warm breath tickling his neck. Leaping, he headed over the rail, but a pair of strong hands grabbed his jacket before disaster struck.
"Steady mister. Your dedication is admirable."
Blake heard the deep rumbling baritone of Sergeant Anderson, the big headman of Hue's over the horizon radio unit, making a sound that could never be mistaken or ignored. Humming out each word, Andy went on.
"You, if I'm not mistaken, have been off duty an hour. Yet here you are, a lone sentinel, an extra minutes man, protecting my house. That's good, except you seem to be doing all this with your head tucked up your ass."
Andy's plump face always appeared happy. His look of indifference made him dangerous to be around, though never when the chips were down. The flesh on Andy's brown cheeks pressed up and narrowed both eyes into slits. He chuckled, making a sound loud enough to cause someone sleeping off the balcony to moan and thrash about. When he spoke again the sound rumbled up from down deep.
"What's keeping my best man up here? That is all I wonder."
Blake stumbled to catch up, reacting with blind panic and very little thought. Had he gotten Andy out of bed by calling out? With infuriating dullness he sifted clues, trying to understand. Finally, he noticed the light. The sun seemed high, or a least higher than it should be. Had Andy said off duty? With glacial speed things started coming together. He must have been screwing himself over for more than an hour. His noise hadn't gotten Andy up. In fact, the site chief didn't seem to know what had gone down. With one base tentatively covered Blake started talking.
"God, Andy! You scared the crap out of me. What if I'd jumped off this balcony?"
"Why then I'd have put you in for a Purple Heart and maybe a Silver Star... posthumously, of course. No member of my unit ever received such high awards."
"Yeah, and you wouldn't even miss me," Blake jabbed back. "Who'd align your damn traveling wave tubes?"
"You being a KIA would disturb me," Andy said, displaying his off balance sideways smile. "But this is war; everybody is disposable. I'd miss your impertinence though."
"Well," Blake shot back, dropping into the redneck slang his site chief enjoyed. "I sure am glad ah didn't vault over this here rail and get all tangled in that mess of barb wire down thar. Wouldn't want you deprived of your best common acerbic weed?"
Andy chuckled, inflating his cheeks like a puffer fish. He was on an even keel, but Blake knew he wanted something. Andy was getting control by gritting his teeth. After several false starts he got it right and went on.
"When you weren't in your bunk it crossed my mind you had gone off on a long shack up. Then I come out here to pay homage to a new day and here you are waiting for me. Is this a great world or what?"
"What you need, Sarge?" Blake said, trying not to sound upset.
"Wanted to find out how you're doing with PFC White, getting him to help?"
Blake sighed. Sergeant Matson, Tropo Site's so-called head of security, standing around flatfooted while the VC blew Andy's jeep all to hell over at Mister Dinh's Car Washy was an event with the potential to impact every signalman's life. Today might be Blake's day of reckoning. Matson, feeling like a gamecock, had posted a copy of the Military Police report clearing him of all charges on the site's bulletin board, just to rub everyone's nose in it. The whole affair had been a giant affront, not only to common sense, but Andy's authority. The formal report of the acquittal must have reached headquarters by now. That scrap of paper would add to Andy's increasing loss of face. In the past couple of months, ever since the Defense Communications Agency started digging into Andy's shit, he'd been losing steam, acting like a tire with a slow leak. Recruiting Blake to get evidence for a Matson court martial was an act of desperation. PFC White was Blake's closest buddy, but White, like Andy, was black. Blake wondered why Andy didn't play his own soul brother card, except that the younger bloods saw Andy as an old Uncle Tom.
"Sarge," Blake said, with too much emotion. "You only asked about the Whiteman two days ago. We haven't even seen each other yet. We are going to party at his new girl's hooch tonight. I plan to work on him then."
"Time is against me, David. Matson handed a copy of the Provost Marshal's report to some AP reporter. That fool, without any checking, sent it off. He called Matson's scrimmage a huge American victory in the ancient City of Hue."
"Next thing, Westmoreland will be sending medals up here for Matson and company."
"Oh, wouldn't that be fine?" Andy laughed. "Then our greatest general will ask me, through the proper channels, to send him my hero of Phu Cam Canal. I will, of course, resist by claiming unit efficiency might suffer."
"You got it, and then Westy takes your bait. I can see him now, bellowing 'Get me that newspaper hero from Hue. He is the light at the end of my long dark tunnel.'"
Andy lost it. He was laughing so hard that the whole balcony was shaking. With Andy jollied up, Blake decided to press for whatever advantage he could.
"Look, I'll work on White and report back tomorrow."
"Make sure you get White on board. We need him to rain on Matson's parade." Shifting his gaze, Andy said, "All right, now this makes sense. Here comes your reason for sitting out here."
Following Andy's glance, Blake made eye contact with his wet dream girl. Many guys thought she lived over near Hue City's soccer stadium. Just exactly where nobody knew, not even after sending out recon patrols. As usual, she was walking with a younger girl, perhaps a sister, both carrying bundles of books. He caught her looking at him. For maybe the third time, she held his gaze before looking away. This extraordinary girl was seventeen, eighteen, nineteen tops. She had never talked with anyone, so nobody at Tropo knew for sure. She was stunning. Rarely would she pass by, but when she did, it was in the morning and she was always showing her stuff.
Today she wore a tight white top over dark blue trousers. Her outfit the Viets called ao dai: two little words that meant pure sex in motion. Ao dai was a high-neck, tight-waist, ankle length dress cut up both sides to form long front and rear panels. The design provided choice glimpses of billowing thighs and provocative derrieres. Each panel would shift gracefully with each step. So smitten had Blake been with this national costume that "ao dai" had been the first words he learned in Vietnamese during his first visit to Saigon only a few days after arriving.
This girl was a Venus. Lurking inside that costume was a damn fine body. Looking at her straight on Blake saw her hips welling out on both sides of those slits. Her dark blue pants and off-white top made a striking contrast, much more interesting than the usual white on white outfit. Accentuation squared. She looked ahead -- moving steadily along, placing one foot in front of the other, keeping her head high, walking with polish, undulating those hips. No small trick walking like that and keeping her back straight. Clearly she'd trained with experts.
Of all her qualities, Blake liked her face best. He thought of a fine portrait whenever he saw it. Like any good artist, the painter had stressed her best and improved the rest. Instead of a slightly moon shape, her face was elliptical, almost Western. Her jet-black hair accentuated two chiseled cheeks and a high forehead. Raven locks cascaded down her back and covered both shoulders. The artist had good color sense: he'd done wonders with her skin tone, a light tawny wash several shades deeper than the more common pale Viet yellow.
Blake stopped everything, eagerly anticipating. Just knowing her fine ass would soon pass into view caused an erection. Feeling embarrassed, he pressed forward into the top row of sandbags, attempting to disguise what was on his mind.
Andy said, "Forget that."
"So?" Blake said, feeling flushed. "It doesn't hurt to look. When you stop, you're dead."
"She's a thoroughbred. You can bet her family considers all of us a bunch of low class mercenaries. Traditional Vietnamese live on a social ladder that puts soldiers down as no-shows. Scholars, they call them si, are on top; then comes nong the farmers; then the workers, and below them are business people. Down below everybody else comes binh, their word for soldiers. You know what's even lower than binh?"
Blake got out, "But maybe," before Andy continued.
"Her kind considers foreign soldiers lower than whale shit. It's embarrassing for one of my men to moon after some girl who thinks he's a missing link."
Copyright © 2003 by Bob Swartzel
Posted October 21, 2013