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APRIL 6, 1961, FORT CAMPBELL, KENTUCKY
Chief Warrant Officer Bob Parker held the receiver to his ear and counted the telephone rings. When it reached twelve, he hung up. Stroking his chin, he stared for a long moment at the mute black instrument on the corner of his desk.
Why the hell didn't his wife answer? He had been on duty since yesterday morning and had called several times last night just to check in with Marilou, but with no success. This was the third time he had tried reaching her this morning. Even if she had gone somewhere, there should have been someone at home. The twins were only four, not yet old enough for school, so someone would have to be there looking after them. Unless Marilou took them with her.
And that, Bob knew, was very unlikely.
Marilou made no bones about being a reluctant mother. In her own words, she "had not planned to get pregnant and certainly had not planned to have two kids at once, like a bitch dog bearing a litter." Because of her unwilling parenthood, Bob found himself doing many of the tasks mothers normally did. He bathed, changed, fed, and put to bed Teddy and Timmy. He was the one who got up in the middle of the night with them. And they never left the house unless he got them ready to leave. So where were they now? Why didn't someone answer the phone?
Of course, Marilou could well be home but just refusing to answer. If she was angry enough with him, she could easily let the phone ring without picking it up. Bob could never do that. To him a ringing phone had a sense of authority to it. Marilou not only could do it, she could revel in it.
The question was, if she was angry withhim, what had escalated her enmity between yesterday and today? Hell, she was already being difficult because of the amount of time he spent with his work. Bob was certain she'd be even angrier after learning about the orders he had received this morning. But she didn't know about them yet.
He picked up the mimeographed sheet and read his orders for at least the tenth time:
DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY 101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION Fort Campbell, Kentucky
SPECIAL ORDERS 5 April 1961 NUMBER 68 EXTRACT
PARKER, ROBERT R, W2214390, CWO W2
671A 101 Trans Company, 1st Aviation Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, Ft. Campbell, KY
Rpt to: LT COL Jarred Hawkins, MACV, Saigon Post
Asg to: MACV, AVN SPT DET Saigon Post, Rep of Vietnam
Rpt date: 24 Apr 61
Tvl data: Commercial flight voucher to be issued
Sp instr: Immunization rec. Individual will remain on TDY for a period not to exceed 90 days. Per Diem, Overseas Pay, and Flt Pay (crew member) authorized. POV not authorized. HHG not authorized. HOLD BAGGAGE not authorized. PERSONAL BAGGAGE limited to sixty-five (65) pounds.
FOR THE COMMANDER:
REED L. SAMUELS Colonel, GS Chief of Staff
OFFICIAL J. A. SWINDELL CWO W-2, USA Asst Adj Gen DISTRIBUTION 2-MACV Saigon Post 10-MACV AVN SPT DET 10-101 Trans, 1st Avn Bn, 101 Abn Div 20-Individual 3-Pay Br 3-Director OPD OPO 3-TAGO ATTN: AGPR-WO AVN 3-Ft Campbell TO
Translation: Bob would be going to Vietnam for three months, where he would be in charge of making flight-ready several helicopters that had recently been shipped to the Aviation Support Detachment at MACV, as the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam was called.
Bob was excited by the idea. He'd been reading a lot about Vietnam lately and knew the U.S. was getting increasingly involved in what was going on over there. This assignment would have to be interesting. Of course, Marilou wasn't going to care much for the idea. He'd have to present the news to her in the best possible light -- provided he could present it to her at all.
Where the hell was she?
Though he knew it was irrational to call again so soon after the last attempt, he picked up the phone and did just that.
He got only repeated, unanswered rings. "Mr. Parker?"
Bob looked over. Sergeant Branchfield, his technical inspector -- the person responsible for the final inspection of aircraft after they came out of maintenance -- was standing in the office doorway. Bob sighed and hung up the phone. "Yeah, Brandy, what is it?"
"Two-two-five needs a test flight, sir. Can you take it?"
"I thought Mr. Lumsden was going to fly it."
"Yes, sir, I thought so, too, but he's nowhere around, and the Colonel wants his bird back by thirteen hundred. It's eleven-thirty now, and we need an hour's test flight before we can release it. If Mr. Lumsden doesn't get back in time, there'll be hell to pay."
"Okay, sure, I'll do it," Bob said, opening the bottom right-hand drawer of his desk to pull out his flight helmet. He put his TDY orders in the middle drawer.
"That your orders to go to Vietnam?" Branchfield asked. "Yes."
"I heard you was goin' TDY over there. You don't need a tech inspector, do you?"
"Why? Do you want to go?"
"I'd love to go."
"Well, why don't you call Personnel and check into it this afternoon?" Bob asked, getting up from his desk.
"Yeah, maybe I'll do that soon as we get back from this flight."
The two men left Bob's office, which was located in the northeast corner of the large hangar building that made up the 101st Transportation Company. The 101st Trans provided field maintenance support for the helicopters of the 1st Aviation Battalion, which, in turn, provided aviation support for the 101st Airborne Division. As Bob walked across the hangar floor toward the helicopter to be test-flown, he briefly glanced at each of the numerous HU1As that sat in various stages of repair, groups of mechanics crawling all over them from bright yellow maintenance stands. Cowlings had been removed from the engine and transmission compartments, inspection plates had been opened, and doors and seats had been removed.
Bob really loved flying the HU1A, the newest helicopter in the Army inventory. It was powered by a jet turbine engine, which gave it more speed and power than anything he had ever flown before. Despite the Army's best efforts to get everyone to refer to it by its official name, the "Iroquois," the helicopter was universally called the "Huey."
Two-two-five had been rolled out of the hangar and now sat on the large concrete pad just outside the door.
"I don't mind telling you that I'm glad to see this son of a bitch out of here," Bob told Sergeant Branchfield as he watched the maintenance crew remove the ground-handling wheels, allowing the helicopter to squat on its skids.
"You and me both," Branchfield agreed. "By the way, I've got an engine analyzer hooked up to it. I'm goin' to make damn sure it's perfect when we release it."
Bob nodded. "Yeah, that's probably not a bad idea." Two-two-five was the helicopter assigned specifically to the battalion commander, and it had been in maintenance for much longer than usual due to some difficulty in getting replacement parts. In fact, it had been down for so long, for the last week Bob had been required to give twice-daily briefings to Colonel Colby regarding its status.
He was just starting his walk-around inspection when three enlisted men came up to him.
"Can we go along for the ride, Mr. Parker?" one of them asked.
Bob shook his head. "It'd be better if you didn't. This is a test flight, and you know the regs are very specific that only those performing necessary duties should be on board during a test flight."
"Mr. Lumsden lets us go."
Bob reached up to twist the blades of the tail rotor back and forth, examining the pitch-change rods. "I'm not Mr. Lumsden," he said flatly.
"I know, sir. I just meant -- Oh, here's Mr. Lumsden now," the young man said.
Bob looked around and saw Warrant Officer Ray Lumsden walking across the flight apron toward him, smiling broadly.
"What are you trying to do, steal my thunder?" Lumsden asked. "I plan to personally land this son of a bitch just outside the old man's window."
"I'd like to land it on his desk," Bob muttered. "The way he's been crapping about it."
"Mr. Parker, you're wanted on the telephone," one of
Bob's clerks suddenly called from the hangar doorway. "Who is it?"
"I think it's your wife, sir."
"Damn! I've been trying to get hold of her all day." Bob looked at Lumsden. "Okay, Ray, looks like you're going to get the flight after all, if you don't mind."
"No, not at all. I want this one."
"Thanks," Bob said, starting inside the hangar. Lumsden watched Bob's retreating back for a moment, then opened the right front door. "Let's go," he told Branchfield.
"You aren't going to preflight?" the sergeant asked.
"You pulled the tech inspection, didn't you?"
"And Parker's already pulled the walk-around. The colonel wants his bird back. Let's get it to him. I don't want to spend the rest of my life looking at this son of a bitch."
Lumsden climbed in, strapped into his seat, then began moving switches. The turbine engine whined into life.
Hearing the Huey's turbine starting up, Bob glanced out his office window as he picked up the phone. "This is Mr. Parker," he said into the mouthpiece.
"Bob? It's me, Marilou."
"Marilou, where the hell have you been? I've been trying to reach you since last night," Bob said, doing his best to rein in his irritation.
"I'm at home."
"Good. I'm going to take this afternoon off; I've got some news to tell you. You're not going to like it at first, but when you consider it, I think you'll see that it's the best thing that can happen to us, moneywise and careerwise."
"No, Bob, I mean I'm really at home," Marilou said. "I'm in Ozark."
Bob was silent for a moment, absorbing what she had just said. "Ozark? You mean you're in Alabama?"
He frowned with puzzlement. "Why? What are you doing down there? Where are the boys? Are they with you?"
"Yes, they're with me. Don't try to get them back."
"Don't try to get them back? What are you talking about?" So far the conversation wasn't making much sense. "I've left you, Bob. I'm getting a divorce."
"A divorce?" Bob heard the helicopter take off; turning back to the window, he watched it climb out over the exit corridor across the base. "What do you mean, a divorce? I don't understand," he said into the phone. "We've never talked about a divorce. I mean, where did this come from all of a sudden?"
"Bob, don't tell me you didn't realize our marriage was in trouble."
He thought about his work schedule over the last few months. The company was short of officers and men and facing a command maintenance management inspection, the most demanding inspection in the Army. Sometimes, like last night, Bob had to spend the night on a bunk in the hangar. Marilou had complained bitterly about his long hours, but he had explained that there was nothing he could do about it. Evidently he hadn't gauged the intensity of her discontent.
"Well, I know the boys sometimes get on your nerves," he said. "And I admit there have been times when things could have gone more smoothly."
"Could have gone more smoothly?" Marilou gave a short, bitter laugh. "What a master of understatement you are. But then, of course, you are the writer -- not I," she added acidly, referring to Bob's two published paperback novels, Nude, Willing, and Ready and Lust Empire. Neither was exactly a literary masterpiece, but they had been published, much to Marilou's surprise, since she had always considered herself a real writer and Bob just an amateur hack. Though he had done everything he could to play down any competition between them, she had never let it die.
"Marilou, let's not go into that again," he said as he watched the helicopter grow smaller in the distance. "I told you, I'm not competing with you. Our writing styles are totally dif -- Oh, my God!"
"What?" Marilou asked impatiently.
"The helicopter! It exploded! Look, I can't talk now!"
"We have nothing to talk about, anyway," Marilou said coolly. "I'll have Daddy send the divorce papers. You just make sure you sign them."
"I've got to go!" Bob shouted, slamming down the phone. He ran outside and saw two or three men looking eastward. "Mr. Parker!" one of them yelled, pointing.
"Yes, I know, I saw it." Bob looked around. Spotting the emergency-alert helicopter sitting on the hot pad, he ran toward it. The ready pilot, who apparently hadn't seen anything, was sitting in his seat, engrossed in a paperback novel.
Noticing Bob, he put the book down.
"What's up?" he asked calmly.
"Let's go!" Bob shouted, climbing into the copilot's seat.
"A helicopter just went down!"
The ready pilot pulled the starter trigger, and the turbine began to spin. Bob, who hadn't even stopped to grab his flight helmet, strapped himself in.
"Fort Campbell Tower, alert helicopter on the pad for immediate takeoff," the pilot said.
"Alert helicopter clear to depart. Be advised there is a helicopter down in the exit corridor, three miles east of the field," the tower replied.
"Roger, We're on our way."
Lifting up from the pad, its nose down for maximum speed, the alert helicopter beat its way over the post toward a towering, twisting column of black, oily smoke. The pilot nodded toward the headset. Bob slipped it on.
"Who was it?" the pilot asked. "Do you know?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. It's two-two-five. I just turned it out of maintenance. Lumsden was taking the test flight."
"Shit. His wife just had a baby, didn't she?"
"Yeah, she did," Bob said, feeling a knot in his gut. They quickly reached the scene of the accident and circled once. The helicopter had gone down in an open field just in front of the post dental clinic, and already a hundred or more men had gathered around the crash site, watching as the ship burned fiercely.
"It doesn't look good," the pilot said, pushing the collective down to land.
They descended through their own rotor wash, the blades popping loudly. As soon as they set down, an infantry colonel came running toward them, ducking under the blades.
"What are you doing here?" the colonel shouted. "We're rescue!" Bob shouted back.
"Rescue?" The colonel shook his head. "There's nothing here for you. No one got out."
Even as the pilot was shutting down, Bob unfastened his harness, then jumped out and ran toward the burning wreck. The fire was so hot that he could feel the scorching heat from several yards away, so hot that it stopped him from getting any closer.
The tail cone had separated from the rest of the aircraft and fallen some distance from the main wreckage, twisted but unburned. The number was very clearly visible: 014225. Two-two-five. If any secret hope remained that somehow this wasn't the helicopter he had just left, that hope was now irrevocably dashed.
Suddenly Bob's knees felt weak; his head was spinning. He momentarily thought he was going to pass out. I was supposed to be on that helicopter, he realized.
A staff car came bouncing across the field, and a major got out, one from the general's staff. Bob saluted him as he approached.
"Do you have any idea who it was?" Major Royal asked. "Yes, sir. Ray Lumsden was flying. Sergeant Branchfield was the tech inspector, and Sergeant Beageux was the crew chief."
The infantry colonel overheard the conversation. "Who were the others?" he asked.
"The others?" Bob replied, confused. "There were no others. Just Lumsden, Branehfield, and Beageux."
The colonel shook his head. "Chief, my battalion was putting together camouflage nets when this thing came down -- nearly on top of us. That's why there are so many men out here. And before the fire got too big, they could see inside. They all agree the helicopter was full of people."
"But it couldn't. It was a maintenance test flight." Then Bob remembered the three young men who had tried to get a ride. He hadn't seen them board the helicopter, but they must have. Lumsden must've taken them with him. "Oh, shit," he said under his breath.
"What is it, Mr. Parker?" Major Royal asked.
Bob voiced his theory.
The major looked back at the burning wreckage. "You're saying there were three more, in addition to the pilot, TI, and crew chief?"
Bob nodded slowly. "Yes, sir, I'm afraid so."
"My God! You mean there were six men killed on a maintenance test flight?"
"Oh, Jesus. The general will hit the roof. Six men on board a test flight, and the helicopter goes down. There's going to be a load of shit come down on us over this."
"Yes, sir, I guess so."
Major Royal was silent for a moment; then he looked hard at Bob. "Mr. Parker, they tell me you're a writer, that you've actually had a couple of books published. Is that right?"
"Yes, sir." Bob wondered why the major would bring that up now.
"Well, that's good, Mr. Parker. That's very good. Because you're going to have a great deal of writing to do to explain this away."
"Major Royal, I don't have any idea how I can explain it. I told you, when those three EM asked me if they could go, I said no."
"They got on it some way, didn't they?"
"Yes, sir, evidently they did."
"Then you had better find some reason to justify why they were on board, Mr. Parker. I want a written report for the general by seventeen hundred hours."
"Major, four of these men have wives who live on the base," Bob said, pointing to the fiery craft. "They will have to be notified."
"That's Captain Bailey's job. He's the CO, isn't he?"
"Yes, sir, but he's on leave this week. I'm acting CO."
"All right, then. It has just become your job. But that doesn't get you off the hook. I still want that report by seventeen hundred hours. Today."
"All right, sir, I'll get it to you."
Clearly the tragedy had already taken a backseat with Major Royal. All he was worried about was how they would draft their response to the Department of Army.
"Hey," somebody shouted, "the fire's burned down now. You can see 'em -- or what's left of 'em. Holy shit, are they ever burned to a crisp!" Bob felt his stomach churn, and he turned from the crash and walked away, purposely avoiding looking at the victims. He stood in front of the alert helicopter until the duty pilot came back.
"There's nothing for us here," the duty pilot said. "You want to go back?"
"Yeah," Bob answered quietly. He wanted to feel shock -- or, at the very least, sadness for the men who had been his friends and co-workers. But he couldn't. He wanted to feel anger with Major Royal for his seeming insensitivity, but he couldn't feel that, either. In fact, he could feel nothing at all. He climbed into the left seat and just sat there as the pilot got in on the other side.
"I wonder who's going to tell their families," the pilot said as he turned on switches.
"I am," Bob replied.
"I'm afraid so."
The pilot flipped on the booster pump. "That's sure not something I'd want to do."
"No" -- Bob looked out the window as the turbine energized -- "me neither."
He would have preferred using his own car to make the notifications, but Army policy required using a military sedan. Also -- and he was very thankful for this -- in addition to the driver he was given a chaplain and a doctor.
"Do you know all the wives?" the chaplain asked.
"I know Sergeant Branchfield's wife and Sergeant Beageux's wife. I've seen Specialist Harris's wife around the company a couple of times. But I know Janet Lumsden the best. In fact, Ray and Janet had dinner with my wife and me just the other night."
"Maybe it would help if you called your wife," the chaplain suggested.
"Yeah, she could--" Bob suddenly remembered that Marilou wasn't there anymore. "I almost forgot. She's down in Alabama visiting her parents."
"Yeah." Bob sighed. "All right, let's go. We'll see Janet Lumsden first." The driver started up, and all too soon the car pulled to a smooth stop in front of the Lumsden house. Bob got out and trod stiffly up a flagstone walkway lined with brightly colored flowers that struck him as inappropriately, almost painfully cheerful. Behind him he heard the chaplain and the doctor exiting the car.
He rang Janet's doorbell, which was promptly answered by a woman who identified herself as a friend.
"You're Mr. Parker, aren't you?" she asked. "From Ray's company?"
"Yes. Is Janet in?"
"She's in the bedroom. I have to tell you, Mr. Parker, she already knows about the crash."
"She does? How?"
"One of the neighbors was at the dental clinic and saw the helicopter go down. Janet knew Ray was going to be making a test flight, so she called the company. Someone there told her."
"I'm sorry she had to find out that way," Bob said, though secretly he was glad he wouldn't have to actually break the news.
Janet came into the living room then. She seemed fairly well composed, though her eyes were red-rimmed.
"Thank you for coming, Bob," she said, opening her arms to him.
Bob hugged her tightly. "I am so sorry," he murmured.
"When I spoke to Sergeant Haverkost, he told me you almost made that flight yourself."
"Uh, yes. Yes, I did. Under the circumstances, I feel guilty being the one to tell you."
"Don't be silly. Ray planned to take the flight. He was talking about it this morning. It's just a matter of fate, that's all."
"I guess so."
"Would you tell Marilou to drop by later? I know it won't be pleasant for her but..."
Bob glanced away. "Janet, Marilou is in Alabama."
Janet looked confused. "Really? My, that was sudden. I was visiting with her just yesterday morning, and she didn't say anything about it."
"Yes, well, you know how impulsive she is. She just got the urge to go home, so she went. I'm sorry."
"I am, too, for your sake." Janet put her hand on his arm. "Bob, these next few days won't be easy for you, either. You're going to be haunted by having almost been on that helicopter. It would be nice if Marilou was here for you. I think you should call her and ask her to come back."
"Yes, maybe I'll do that." He paused briefly, then introduced the chaplain and the doctor, who asked Janet if she wanted a sedative, but she declined. She did accept a prayer from the chaplain.
After a few more minutes of commiseration, the men left to call on the other wives. Bob didn't have to break the news to them, either. The NCO grapevine was far faster than the official notification system. At each house he was met by a group of the wife's friends, already on hand to offer support.
After the last visit, Bob returned to his office. First Sergeant Haverkost was waiting for him.
"Major Royal has called several times," Haverkost said. "He said to remind you not to forget the report."
"How can I? He wants me to justify why so many men were on the helicopter." Bob shook his head. "I have no idea why those other guys were on there. I told them no, but Lumsden, that dumb, dead shit, must have let them."
"Some of us've been talkin' about that, Chief, and we've got an idea if you want to use it."
"What is it? I'm desperate for anything."
"They had an engine analyzer hooked up for this flight, did you know that?"
"Yes, Branchfield told me."
"Well, Harris used to teach the analyzer when he was at Fort Eustis. Why don't you say Harris was monitorin' the engine analyzer, and the other two were there to learn how to use it?"
Bob mulled it over briefly, then nodded. "That's pretty thin, but it'll have to do. Thanks."
"It's been a pretty rough day for you, hasn't it, Chief? I mean, first your wife leavin' you, then this."
Bob looked up in surprise. "How did you know about my wife?"
"She called again this afternoon, all pissed off 'cause you hung up on her. I told her about the helicopter crash, and she said to tell you she was sorry, but she was still sendin' the divorce papers through."
Bob ran an anxious hand through his hair. "Yeah," he sighed. "First Sergeant, have you ever read Gone with the Wind?
"No, sir. I seen the movie, though."
"You know that line where Scarlett says, 'I'll think about it tomorrow?' Well, right now that's the way I feel. I'll just have to think about things tomorrow."
"Actually, the only thing I remember about the movie is when Clark Gable carries her up the stairs to get a little. That was my favorite part," Haverkost said with a grin.
Despite himself, Bob chuckled.
Returning home that evening, Bob found the house cold, dark, and empty. He missed the sound of the boys' playing and laughter and felt an aching emptiness when they didn't come running to greet him. He walked over to turn on the TV, then sat down to pull off his boots and watch Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on the evening news. Huntley was in the middle of one report.
"...scenes outside the U.S. Embassy in London, where thousands of Britons demonstrated against the U.S. bringing Polaris submarines into English ports. However, a spokesman for NATO said the demonstrations would not halt the deployment.
"At Fort Campbell, Kentucky, today, one of the Army's newest helicopters crashed, killing all six men aboard. The cause of the crash has not yet been determined, but eyewitnesses say it exploded in midair. The helicopter was on a routine maintenance test flight, though Army officials were at a loss to explain just why so many were aboard. A spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee indicated that there would be an investigation."
"Great," Bob groused. He walked over and shut the TV off, and the picture squeezed down to a tiny, glowing dot in the middle of the screen; then that, too, disappeared.
He suddenly realized he was hungry, not having eaten lunch because of the accident. He went into the kitchen, where the sink was piled full with dirty dishes. Uneaten portions of the meal from two nights ago were still on the table -- the remains of the meal they had eaten when the Lumsdens were over. It was also the last meal Bob had eaten at home. He found some peanut butter and jelly, made a couple of sandwiches, and took them and a glass of milk into the large walk-in closet that had been converted into a study. On the chair were two small teddy bears, one named Pepper, the other Ginger. His sons kept them there so "they could write books, too." Marilou either forgot them or, what was just as likely, didn't even know about them, since she managed to block out everything having to do with Bob's writing.
With a lump in his throat and a burning in his eyes, Bob put his sandwiches and milk down, moved Pepper and Ginger, then took his seat in front of the big gray IBM typewriter. To its left was a pile of blank paper, to the right a stack of manuscript, and rolled halfway through the platen was the page he had last written on. In the upper left-hand corner of the page was the title, all in caps: DOWN AND DIRTY. In the upper right-hand corner was his last name and the page number: Parker-117.
Like his two previous books, this one was an erotic novel, in this case the story of a newspaper reporter who had discovered a call-girl ring operated by the mayor of a medium-sized city.
Marilou was right; it sure wasn't great literature. But he did believe he was getting better with each book, learning by experience more about the development of scenes and characters. He enjoyed writing. He could sit down at the typewriter and within a few moments completely lose himself in the story -- even more than he could when reading because as a writer Bob could interact with the characters. He truly became a part of their world, leaving his own behind.
And if ever he had wanted to leave his own world behind, it was tonight.
Bob moved his hands over the keyboard. Within moments he was slipping quietly down a dark alley with his reporter, Mike Carson. Ahead, a wedge of light fell across the darkness from an open door. His orders for Vietnam, the fact that Marilou was divorcing him, the absence of his two sons, even the helicopter crash slipped mercifully into the background.
When he finally got up from the typewriter around midnight, it was to stumble, exhausted, into bed. Like Scarlett O'Hara, Bob would think about everything tomorrow.
Copyright © 1995 by Robert Vaughan