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1. Ozarks Mountains—February 1996
Death came creeping. Crawling, clawing, anxious to consume; the way it was, the way it always is. Death slithered under the ratty quilt, over the old soldier's distended belly, the final assault on a heart under siege. He stood helpless beside the knotty-pine bunk, feeling impotent, asinine. Knees hit the hardwood floor. A solid, icy jolt from the chunk of shrapnel still lodged behind a kneecap, up through the thigh into the base of his brain. Deal with it. Drive on. Face this death as he'd faced too many others. The End. Now drive on.
But a prayerful posture betrayed him. Words bubbling up from an artesian well dug years ago in a Lutheran Sunday School. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil ...
And the old soldier would finish it ... as he always had when times were tight. Because I am the meanest motherfucker in the valley.
An eye popped open and rolled toward him. Red, white and blue in a single socket. The flag still waves at twilight's last gleaming.
"Checkin' out ..." The old soldier groaned. "Almost there ..."
"What can I do, Gus?" Death in the wire now, bayonet fixed, ready to rush. "Is there anything ..."
"Charlie Mike ..." Flag furled. Last transmission. You may be suffering under a shitstorm but you will Continue Mission.
Dropping his head on the old soldier's chest he heard a final volley of defiance. Hollow thumps from the last howitzer still firing. And death overran the old soldier's position. Gustav (No Middle Initial) Quick—crown prince and once heir apparent to the Sergeant Major of the United States Marine Corps—was now just another fucking stiff, a routine medevac.
* * *
Mid-winter dawn devastated the eastern sky as Shake Davis carried the corpse toward a pre-selected grave site. He'd dug the hole through frozen turf as ordered three days ago, in a shallow basin atop a pine-crusted knob behind the cabin. Sergeant Major Quick had fought off war demons from this mountaintop. Here he wanted to remain; planted high, a sniper commanding a broad field of fire. Here he'd perch, a gargoyle lurking in ambush, waiting for the Japs, the Koreans, the Chinese, the Vietnamese or the ghost of any gook he'd fought all his long life.
His shroud was a camouflaged poncho liner. Appropriate as the issue entrenching tool Shake used to spew rich mountain loam over all that was left of the man who taught, nurtured, kicked, cajoled, saved and salved him over a lifetime in uniform. When the hole was full, he folded the entrenching tool into a pick and dug the blade into the earth. There it stays; no nonsense, a grunt's gravestone.
Routine disposition of remains in accordance with the wishes of the deceased. Everything beyond the carcass—the detritus of a soldier's life: medals, citations, rifles, records and writings—packed and waiting inside the cabin. A few condolence calls—the list was mercifully short—and then haul it all back to the museum at Quantico. Just that and then handle his own baggage. There might be life after death but the larger mystery was life after the Corps.
Maybe I'll be back, Gus. He meandered down off the high ground, watching the pastel morning sky over spiky Ozark pines swirl like citrus in a blender. Maybe this is a good graveyard for dinosaurs.
* * *
Shake ran east on Highway 70, vaulted the Mississippi at St. Louis and bolted into Illinois. An overhead sign announced Effingham and by the time he slewed onto the bypass, wheels began falling off his resolve to escape. Run, but you can't hide. Death is light as a feather; duty heavy as a mountain. Or words to the effect that he was a procrastinator, coward, shirker; a shit-bird without much sense of the honor and ethics he preached to young Marines.
On the far side of town where the bypass bit back into an eight-lane exfiltration route, he spotted what was needed. Top Hat Motel had a vacancy and phones in every room according to the neon. More importantly, a package liquor joint was just across the parking lot.
Halfway through a double-knuckle of Old Busthead, he found the phone book. Scrawled stars in the margin indicated those with a need-to-know. Two, three ... four old Corps cronies. Couple of very salty, very senior NCOs, Medal of Honor colonel, former lieutenant general living in Hawaii. Familiar names from the Marine Corps family album, all retired, all scattered.
He punched his glass into an ice bucket near the phone, poured painkiller, then cut it with cool water from the bathroom tap. Long night ahead, and he'd traverse many time zones to keep from blasting people out of bed with bad news. On the list were a few civilians from the Sergeant Major's other family but the gene pool was shallow this side of the grave. One and only wife dead of a stroke in 1970; she dwindled and then died after son—Marine First Lieutenant Kendall W. Quick—disappeared with helicopter and crew somewhere along the Annamite Cordillera.
There was a sister in Missouri who peddled antiques from a shop in Sedalia. Daughter-in-law Mindy, Ken's wife, somewhere in St. Louis; no number listed. And a grand-son ... Greenpeace, Puget Sound ... not a big Sergeant Major fan. When Gus raised the subject of his grandson it was usually from the bottom of a glass.
"Kid needs a reality check ..." They sat by the fieldstone fireplace cauterizing pain with whiskey and wood smoke, carving up what amounted to the Sergeant Major's estate. "Shoulda chased his ass down to Parris Island right after high school ..."
"He might have been inclined to enlist if you hadn't retired when you did."
"Doubtful. His mom wasn't no big fan after Ken went missing."
"He'd have been the most popular boot on the Island, that's for damn sure. Daddy a war hero and grandad Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps?"
"Half right ... but I wasn't gonna be no Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps."
"Bullshit, Gus. You were a shoo-in ... everybody knew that. If you hadn't quit ..."
"I never quit nothin' in my life, sonny-buck!"
"Then why'd you retire ... before they announced the new Sergeant Major. It woulda been you and you know that."
"There's shit you don't know about ... shit that ain't come to light yet ..."
"Like stuff I ain't got time to exploit or explain before I die. But you'll understand ... one of these days ... if you're half the Marine I think you are."
There were only a few more lucid moments before the honed steel glint finally faded from the Sergeant Major's eyes. None of them—and none of the circumstances surrounding Gustav Quick's final hours—shed any light on nagging questions his old friend wanted answered before he had to bury the source in black Ozark soil.
* * *
Reactions from the Corps were mostly what he expected.
"Ah, shit. Good old Gus ... he coulda been Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, you know? Ah, shit ... "
"Where'd you bury him? Uh-huh. He'll be happy there."
"Gus never shoulda retired. He'd still be with us today if he hadn't hung it up when he did."
"The Corps lost a legend. Him and Chesty Puller. There's a pair. Gus shoulda been Sergeant Major and Chesty shoulda been Commandant ... "
"Rest in heaven ... he done his time in hell."
"God bless him and thank you for calling." The three-star parked on his lanai overlooking Kaneohe Bay didn't sound ready to ring off and mourn. "By the way, have you notified DIA?"
"Defense Intelligence Agency? Nossir. Why would I do that?"
"You were very close to the Sergeant Major ..."
"Yessir, I'm the one he called to ... uh, handle it for the last few days."
"I presumed you knew ..."
"What's that, General?"
"He worked for DIA ... '72 to '76."
"I don't think so, sir. He was stationed at Eighth and Eye during that time ... the Marine Barracks."
"Eighth and Eye had his records ... DIA had his services. There may be materials they'll want to screen. Papers, files, that sort of thing. Anyway, once in; never out. You'd better let someone know."
Horizontal on a creaky double bed, Shake let his mind wander back over the past ten years. Had Gus been a spook? If so, did that have something to do with his unexpected retirement prior to being named for the Corps' prestigious top enlisted post? Gus would never talk about what made him leave the Corps he loved. Friends presumed it had to do with Ken being moved from limbo on the MIA list to KIA, the bureaucratic equivalent of a body bag; a hope-killing heartbreak the old man just couldn't bear. Enemies said it had to do with the lunatic fringe of the POW/MIA movement, a diehard gaggle of conspiracy-addicts and political gadflies using Gus Quick's high profile to keep ancient issues on the skyline. Lacking answers from Gus, he'd always sided with the former and disregarded the latter. But the spook connection—assuming there was one—cast a different light on the question.
He and Gus had both played the Special Operations game at various times in their career, but Recon Marine to Fed-level spook was a serious stretch. In all the years, at all the intimate opportunities, Gus never mentioned the biggest spook circus in the nation; an outfit that made the techno-geeks at Langley look like the slack-sack limp dicks they were generally considered to be by military shooters and door-kickers. What had he missed?
Seventy-two through seventy-six? Ass end of the war; peace talks. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho snarling over the shape of a table in Paris. Most of that time deployed one place or another, a bush-orphan except for the regular glut of angry letters from Shake's wife Jan, pregnant; feeling ugly, abandoned and betrayed. Doing domestic damage control at Pendleton in '75 when the call came from FMFPac WesPac: Vets fluent in gook required for Operation Frequent Wind, last call for loyalists and strap-hangers in Vietnam.
Red Cross rep at that refugee camp on Guam handed over a telegram and congratulations on the birth of his daughter. CO was sorry but no leave. Ass-deep in panicky zips; translators in short supply. Mail caught up a few weeks later. First photo of Tracey looking like a little prune ... and a letter from the Sergeant Major.
Nothing special. Congratulations; chatty bat-shit about this guy and that. A few profane paragraphs indicating Nixon might be able to see the truth if he'd just stick that light at the end of the tunnel far enough up his ass. All scrawled on PX stationery and not a hint that Gus was doing anything other than staging dog-and-pony shows at the Marine Barracks in Washington. Was he under cover, for Christ's sake; doing some weird shit?
Who gives a damn now he's gone? What difference does it make? So he was a spook ... so what? Wasn't a tour at Spook Central put the man's career in the toilet. So what did make Gus retire ...
Instinct and experience told him the spook connection had something to do with it. An itch for answers broke over him like a rapidly-spreading rash. Maybe Gus could provide answers. He snatched at a jacket, felt for the room key and headed for the door.
Under the tarp over his truck-bed he found the career chronicles, a neat row of puke-green government-issue notebooks. Schooled in a system that could—and frequently did—bite you in the ass over details, the Sergeant Major was an obsessive record-keeper. It was all there—notes, thoughts, anecdotes—from 1944 when he enlisted to 1979 when he retired ... except for the period in question. If the logbooks were gospel, Gus ceased to exist in '72 and magically resurfaced in '77.
He opened the log covering the short side of the gap. Familiar stuff. Most of that time they were still snake-eaters, members of a small Marine Recon detachment assigned to MACV/SOG, operating out of Danang. Log entries described how they and a few other Marines—mostly advisors to Vietnamese Marine battalions—helped trump the NVA grand-slam Easter Offensive.
Other entries were unfamiliar, revealing, irritating. It was Gus Quick that got him transferred—kicking and screaming—out of Vietnam back in '71 after a routine team extraction in the A Shau Valley turned into a shit sandwich. Shake's had enough ... can't afford to lose him ... requesting immediate orders to CONUS. So, Gus lied ... said he had nothing to do with that.
And the business of career sabotage; just letting Gus rot in Vietnam? Bullshit. Sept. 71 ... Begged off orders again ... offered me SgtMaj of 1st MarDiv at Camp Pendleton ... primo slot but I can't go ... belong here ... with Ken ... still a good chance to find him.
In the end, according to the log, it was a direct threat that finally shoehorned Gus out of the combat zone. Last entry for summer of '72 ... orders to ceremonial duty at Marine Barracks, 8th and I Sts., Washington, DC. Three years of chickenshit a la carte. Goes against my grain. Called assignment monitor at HQMC. No more slack. Told me to take the orders or take a hike.
There was an asterisk. The reference was scribbled inside the logbook's back cover. * R. A. Beal—Washington. And a phone number in the 202 area code. Maybe R. A. Beal was DIA. And maybe Mr. Beal offered Gus a chance to side-step the dreaded tour at 8th & I. Maybe the spooks wanted somebody who had been on the ground, walked the walk and talked the talk. That profile fit lots of guys. Why single out Gus? Ken, of course. Vested interest in the subject matter. Reasonable.
Logbook on the long side of the gap was a pitiful piece of work. Angry rantings and accusations; long lists of cowards and criminals Gus wanted hung by the balls because they wouldn't believe there were Americans still captive in Asia. Entries for his last year of active duty at Camp Lejeune read like the diary of a madman; a steady descent into dementia. Ken Quick terminated with extreme bureaucracy; shifted from limbo on the MIA list to long gone on the growing roster of Americans Killed In Action/Body Not Recovered.
A slew of entries were viciously slashed, x'ed out, scribbled over ... in one case, smeared with something that looked suspiciously like blood. The Whacko Brigade with promises to bring 'em back alive. They were all logged. Cheats, charlatans, shitheads, jungle-junkies who couldn't live without the war. And the lying, pitiful no-life, low-life military shoe-clerks who claimed to have been POWs and knew right on the money where we could find some more. Gus was on and off that band-wagon so many times he finally got run over by it. When the powerful people in the post-war POW/MIA picture ran out of polite responses, the Marine Corps told the Sergeant Major to shift his fire. When he refused, they told him not to let the door hit him in the ass on the way out.
So why keep me in the dark about it, Gus? What am I, the fucking enemy? He walked back to the phone, resolved to call that number in Washington when he was closer to the flagpole. Meanwhile, there was a bomb he had to drop on some folks in Sedalia.
* * *
"Mrs. Willis, Amanda Willis?"
"Yes? Can I he'p you?" The voice on the phone was Midwestern clipped, countrified. He could hear Jeopardy playing in the background.
"I'm Chief Warrant Officer Shake Davis, a friend of your brother ..."
"Yes, Gustav has mentioned you ... on the rare occasions when he calls or writes."
"Mrs. Willis ... I'm sorry to have to tell you this ..."
There was a mewling sound out of Sedalia but her voice was under control when she finished the thought.
"The Lord has called him home. I knew it wouldn't be long."
"Yes ma'am. The Sergeant Major died this morning at around seven. He was comfortable right up to the end. It wasn't too bad on him."
"I don't suppose there'll be a funeral. He said he didn't want one."
"No ma'am. I buried him near the cabin ... where he wanted me to. The rest of his things he wanted sent to the Marine Corps Museum up in Virginia. He, uh ... he left the cabin to me but there was some GI insurance in effect. It's equally divided between you and his grandson out on the west coast."
"I presume you'll be calling Bill to let him know?"
"Yes, ma'am. I have a number for him ... but I don't know ... there's no number listed for Bill's mother ... Ken's wife? The Sergeant Major didn't give me any information."
"Well, no wonder, Mr. Davis. That's a painful topic in what's left of our family ..."
He listened, remembering the pretty brunette Ken had met and married at Southern Illinois University. At Camp Pendleton where Ken was staging for Vietnam she made an impression. Unlike most of the maudlin war brides who haunted the post hoping their husband's orders to Vietnam would be magically cancelled, she seemed to understand a combat tour was not only mandatory, it was an esteemed rite of passage.
"After Ken was shot down over there, Mindy moved back in with her family in St. Louis. She grieved so hard they had to put her on pills. Years went by, you know. No information about Ken ... nothing, except she got to taking more and more of them pills. One night a few years ago, she just took too many. She's buried there in St. Louis."
Excerpted from Laos File by Dale Dye. Copyright © 2013 Open Road Integrated Media. Excerpted by permission of Warriors Publishing Group.
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