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THE VALLEY OF HOPE
By DAVID N. SANDERS
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2012 David N. Sanders
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFIRST FLIGHT
Sherrard's childhood desire to be a helicopter pilot had been temporarily sidetracked during Marine Corps boot-camp training. Sherrard and a fellow recruit had gone 'over the wire' on a secret midnight mission—to them—to locate a sympathetic hooker who worked the San Diego suburbs bordering the marine base. Returning to base after completing a successful mission, they were ambushed by their senior drill instructor. As a result, Sherrard had been disqualified from Marine Corps flight training. Despite that bitter disappointment, his desire had been revived and reinforced by a significant incident that occurred during his tour in Vietnam.
The dirt-encrusted USMC M60A-1 tank clanked through the hostile terrain at a speed that would place it in certain jeopardy if the tank's crew failed to heed the warnings implied by the burnt-out hulks of vehicular landmine victims. Plumes of fine red dust spiralled upwards from its tracks. Exhaust fumes trailed like ebony shadows from its armour-plated flanks.
Sherrard gave it an uneasy glance, backed on to the shoulder of the road, and stuck his thumb out. His companion, LCpl. Mike Mottley, followed suit.
If a tank could come to a screeching halt, then this one did. Tremors shook the ground, and dirt piled up in front of its tracks. When it had come to a complete stop, it waited patiently, its engine idling with a pulsating throb. An aura of sinister alertness hovered about its dark-grey exterior as the two weary hitch-hikers trotted up behind it. As they were trying to figure out the best way to climb on top, its turret hatch flew open, and a grinning tanker popped up and flashed them the finger. Roaring with laughter, the tanker, a black handkerchief wrapped around his forehead, slapped the side of the hatch. As if responding to its cue, the tank rumbled onwards, leaving the hitch-hikers choking in dust.
Mottley cursed and unslung his M-14. Jacking a round into the chamber, he took aim at the departing tank.
Sherrard grabbed his arm. 'Are you outa your fuckin' mind?' he asked. 'Those bastards are crazy enough to shoot back, and we're seriously outgunned.'
The tankers, as if hearing his words, maintained their speed and cranked the gaping muzzle of its turret cannon ominously rearwards.
Mottley quickly slung his rifle and held his hands in the air. 'You bastards,' he muttered under his breath as the tank disappeared over a rise. Turning to Sherrard, he said, 'It's your fault that we can't get a ride, Sherrard. They probably think you're a damn VC from the state of that sorry-assed uniform you're wearin'.'
Sherrard glanced down at his uniform. His green-faded-to-grey herringbone utility jacket looked as if it had been worn during the storming of Iwo Jima, whereas it wasn't that old or worn out; it had, in fact, been worn by his uncle during the Korean War fifteen years earlier. After the war, it had spent the intervening years draped over the block of a partially dismantled Ford flathead engine, which his uncle had never quite got around to finish overhauling. His trousers, although of more recent vintage, had suffered the ravages of the Chu Lai base laundry. The knees were covered with blue-denim, iron-on patches that were such a mismatch to the trouser's tropical green colour, that Sherrard was suspected of being either colour-blind or blessed with mammoth gonads. Whenever an officer or NCO would confront him about his uniform, he'd grin like he had no idea what the officer was talking about and juggle a fragmentary grenade from one hand to the other as if he wasn't quite sure what to do with it.
'What the hell's wrong with my uniform, prick?' he asked defensively, lifting his helmet to wipe sweat from his brow.
'What's wrong with it?' Mottley said. 'I've seen Tijuana car park attendants with more military bearing than you have.'
A pair of CH-34 helicopters passed low over their heads. A door gunner wearing a flak jacket waved. Sherrard gave him a peace sign and watched the two aircraft bank to a heading that would put them parallel to the coastline and on final approach to their destination, Ky Ha helibase. The marine helibase at Ky Ha just happened to be Sherrard's and Mottley's destination, also. They were on their way to VMO-2, a UH-1E helicopter gunship squadron, to volunteer for helicopter door gunner duty.
For the past month, Sherrard and Mottley had been assigned to guard duty. Their post was a musty bunker on the perimeter that smelled worse than the rubbish bins behind the Chu Lai mess hall.
Sherrard was undoubtedly the company's stealthiest night fighter. Every night after the sergeant of the guard's midnight bunker check, Sherrard would blacken his face, silence his dog tags with tape, and assault the regimental beer dump that was situated on the beach like an enormous open-air treasure chest. To reach the dump, he had to crawl across fifty metres of sand beneath the beer-impaired gaze of a shotgun-armed sentry. Once there, he would commandeer a case of overheated and overrated Swan Lager beer. On his way back to the bunker, he'd penetrate the tank park's defenses and liberate a CO2 fire extinguisher from inside the tank. They would later spray the beer with the extinguisher to cool it to an agreeable drinking temperature. The remainder of the night they'd sit on top of their bunker and drink beer and watch nature's awesome fireworks—thunderstorms—that blast the sky over the South China Sea. When they tired of watching thunderstorms, they would turn in the opposite direction and watch mankind's awesome fireworks—a battery of self-propelled howitzers—that pound the slopes of a nearby mountain with harassment fire.
'What the fuck're we doin' here?' Mottley would say every night during the irregular intervals between howitzer blasts, which confirmed their belief that the only people being harassed by harassment fire were themselves.
'Gettin' drunk, I hope,' Sherrard would say with a grin that indicated his hope was well on its way to being fulfilled.
'That isn't what I meant ... but it sounds as good as that crap they've been dumpin' on us about protecting a democratic society and something about playing dominos and all that other noble bullshit,' Mottley said.
The guard commander, a second lieutenant, suspected they were stealing beer from the beer dump and drinking on duty but didn't really give a shit. He had recently returned from R&R with a super dose of bullhead clap. That wouldn't have been at all unusual if he'd been in Bangkok or Hong Kong, but he'd spent his entire R&R in Hawaii with his wife. Now he spent most of his time sulking around the admin tent requesting emergency home leave when he wasn't attending sick call to receive his daily injections of procaine penicillin.
One particular night they were watching Marine A-4 Skyhawks strafe the crest of a looming black mountain with twenty-millimetre cannon fire. The cannon shells exploded on impact. In the distance, they looked like strings of firecrackers igniting. As if not wanting to be overshadowed, the eight-inch howitzers opened up with a series of nightmarish salvos that caused the mountain slopes to flicker and burn with dreadful intensity. Then the mortars joined in, sending up parachute flares that twisted and turned like great swinging lanterns as they fell, illuminating the earth below with an eerie white glow. Between the reports of artillery and mortar volleys, they could hear the crackle of small arms fire and the thunder of grenades.
'Those poor bastards over at One-Four are really gettin' it tonight,' Mottley said with a subdued voice that made it absolutely clear he had no desire to be over at One-Four 'gettin' it' with them. 'It just doesn't seem real from here.'
A flame-thrower, located in the forefront of One-Four's positions, belched a silent stream of blazing gasoline at an adversary that, to them, was much too real.
Mottley belched and tossed an empty beer can on to the sand. 'What're you gonna do when you get out of the crotch, Hot Pants?' Mottley asked, using Sherrard's Navajo nickname.
Sherrard took a sip of beer before he replied. 'You ask me that every night.'
The muzzle blasts from an eight-inch howitzer salvo flashed across Mottley's face like a disco strobe that has lost its synchronisation. 'I know,' he said, 'but maintaining a conversation with you about a topic other than pussy or helicopters is downright trying. I just can't believe you wanna be a chopper pilot. It's not your style. You strike me as the type to train geisha girls how to give head. I know you're stuck on bein' a pilot, but why choppers? Wouldn't you rather fly mustangs or bearcats over the Bolivian rainforest as a mercenary and spend your leisure time surrounded by beautiful senoritas with colossal chichis who will weave ribbons of gold into your pubic hair? Why helicopters?'
Sherrard looked at Mottley with the newly acquired respect.' Damn, Mottley, that was quite a speech. That must have had you scrapping the dregs of your vocabulary. In reply to your question, helicopters are required all over the world. I'll be able to take my pick of places to go to have ribbons of gold weaved into my pubic hair. If nothing more, this war is promoting the useful aspects of helicopters.'
'Ah, but you don't even have a license, and if you do get one, who's going to hire you when they can hire an ex-military pilot with plenty of experience?'
'Aha, I've looked into that. I'll use my GI Bill to get a license,' Sherrard said, undaunted by Mottley's discouraging statements, ' ... and an instructor's rating. Then I'll give flight instruction until I have enough experience to get a good flying job. I have less than two years of my enlistment left, and this war looks like it could go on forever. I'll be discharged and instructing before the market gets flooded with ex-military pilots.'
Mottley held his hand out. 'I'll bet you a case of Coors that you never get a license.'
'You're on ... and I'll bet a second case that I have a job waiting for me the day I get my license.'
Mottley grinned as they shook on it. 'Goddamn, marine. You better take a side-job training geisha girls if you're gonna buy me all that beer.'
'Have you ever flown in a helicopter, Mike?'
Mottley shook his head. 'Nope ... and I'm not sure I want to.'
'I haven't flown in one either, so let's try it. Let's hitch-hike up to Ky Ha tomorrow and volunteer to fly as door gunners. A buddy of mine is a gunner with VMO-2. He says they're always lookin' for volunteers.'
Mottley hoped that the darkness wouldn't diminish the intensity of the 'fuck you!' expression he was presenting to Sherrard. 'Doesn't it make you suspect there's a reason why they're always lookin' for volunteers?'
Sherrard ignored Mottley's 'fuck you' look. 'So ... what the hell? It's less boring than lyin' around the beach getting a tan for no reason at all.'
Mottley belched. 'I just happen to enjoy lyin' around the beach being bored. In my humble opinion, skin covered with tan looks a whole lot healthier than skin covered with blood.'
'Yeah, but they fly to Da Nang, Mike,' Sherrard said, resorting to desperation. 'We could go up there and get laid.'
Mottley stared in disbelief. 'Are you completely out of your mind, leather dick? We could go up there and get killed. And if we didn't get killed, that nickel-and-dime fuckhead we have for a CO would come all over his jungle boots if he could run us up for being AWOL. I'm goin' on R&R next week ... so forget it. I can wait.'
Sherrard moaned. 'I can't! I haven't been laid in six months. I keep havin' dreams about nipples and asses, nipples and asses. I don't care—I'll go to the brig for life if I can just feel some nipples and asses for a day. This is the second horniest I've ever been in my life.'
Mottley eyed Sherrard's moonlit face with suspicion. 'Second? When was the first?'
'The period between the ages of one to thirteen,' Sherrard said with lament in his voice. 'You know, it's hard for me to accept that before I left the States I was gettin' more pussy than I could shake a stick at. Now, I don't even have a stick.'
Mottley, accepting defeat, put his hand up. 'Okay! Okay, damn it, okay,' he said. 'I'll go to Ky Ha with you. But if we end up in the brig, you're gonna be on my shitlist forever. I swear to God, Sherrard. If this goes bad, I'll come find you wherever you are when we're both shrivelled-up old men just so I can tell your grandchildren what an arsehole you are.'
Shortly after the CH-34s disappeared beyond a ridge on their approach into Ky Ha, Sherrard and Mottley were picked up by an amtrac, an amphibious assault vehicle designed to transport marines from ships to the beach during combat landings. Rough riding on ground and unstable in water, the kindest complement that could be paid to amtracs was that their crew were refreshingly more sympathetic to the plight of hitch-hikers than tank crewmen were.
The amtrac's driver was a furloughed Hell's Angels biker from Sacramento with a 'Born to Lose' tattoo on his forearm. Although he'd only been in-country for two months, his major complaint focused on resentment for his lack of opportunities to kill someone.
'Hey, man, don't get me wrong. I'm not complainin',' the biker complained with a cigarette dangling from his mouth while glancing up at Mottley and Sherrard, who were sitting topside on the amtrac's heavily sandbagged roof. 'My horoscope for this week says I'll have a "rewarding experience with strangers and my life will be greatly enriched as a result". I interpret that to mean I'm gonna waste me a fuckin' dink—or maybe two if it's a really rewarding experience.'
When they arrived at Ky Ha, shaken but alive, the biker dropped them off at the top of a hill overlooking Ky Ha and the South China Sea.
As they jumped down from atop the amtrac, the biker flipped his cigarette on to the roadside and said, 'Man, I wish I were in your boots—free to walk around the countryside and kill anybody who fucks with you, you lucky bastards.'
The hill was actually a slug-shaped peninsula with a gently rounded plateau at the summit. Olive-drab tents, resembling a mass of partially collapsed parachutes, encompassed the hill. The summit—the site of operations, flightline parking, and the refuelling area—was covered by an expansive matting of interconnected steel planks larger than the combined area of several football fields. With the exception of the isolated refuelling area, the summit was completely occupied by parked helicopters.
Equipment and support vehicles, tanks, amtracs, and helicopters unable to find parking space on the overcrowded flightline were disbursed everywhere. Men in green uniforms swarmed around the staggering variety of mechanised objects as if theirs were the most important item on the hill.
The appearance of the flightline invited comparison to a used-vehicle parking lot—a huge inventory of well-worn military helicopters parked in one convenient area. There were dozens of helicopters in a space so confined that one rocket, one satchel charge, one mortar round, or simply one suicidal infiltrator armed with a Zippo could have destroyed the entire fleet. In their dull forest-green camouflage with their drooping rotors, they resembled rows of huge overripe zucchini squatting in a sun-baked field patiently awaiting harvest.
Under the cloudless sky, the heat was oppressive—almost suffocating. The sun beat down like an enormous hammer, battering the sweat-drenched men with lethargy and fatigue. There was no wind, no fans, and no air-conditioned tents to seek refuge. To obtain even a small degree of comfort, it was necessary to keep the body moving and hope its passage through the air would provide a few moments of welcome relief.
They found Sherrard's buddy, 'Pete' Peterson, working on a gunship which was parked on the refuelling pad. He was rigging belts of 7.62-millimetre ammunition into the externally mounted machine guns of a UH-1E 'Huey' gunship. Peterson was even taller and skinnier than Mottley, who was taller and skinnier than anyone Sherrard had ever known. Peterson's Adam's apple protruded from his neck like a wind-sculptured outcropping jutting from the side of a limestone cliff.
'What? They aren't takin' volunteers?' Sherrard asked, his face reflecting his disappointment after informing Peterson of the purpose of their visit.
Peterson didn't appear to be pleased. 'Volunteers? That's the problem—nobody volunteered. Now the maintenance crew are required to fly as gunners. Since there're more maintenance crew than door gunner positions, they stopped accepting volunteers. Figure that one out, devil dog.'
Sherrard tapped the ground with the butt of his M-14. 'That isn't fair,' he said.
Peterson fixed him with a frown. 'How long have you been in the crotch, boot?' he asked sourly. 'You're so damn gung-ho. I wish you could have my job.'
Sherrard figured that he was going to have to reply on his flair for connivance. 'Look, Pete,' he said as he followed Peterson around the Huey as Peterson started filling it with fuel. 'If we can't be gunners, we'd at least like to hitch a ride to Da Nang to get laid.'
Peterson stopped the fuel flow and glanced into the filler neck. He remained silent as he withdrew the nozzle from the helicopter's filler neck and coiled the hose on the ground.
Wiping his hands, he looked at Mottley, who'd been following their conversation with half-hearted interest. 'If I were you,' he said to Mottley, 'I wouldn't listen to another word this guy says. He's trouble.'
Mottley nodded in agreement. 'You ain't wrong there.'
Sherrard's face reddened. 'What the hell, Pete? We've been buddies for a long time. I thought I could count on you.'
Excerpted from THE VALLEY OF HOPE by DAVID N. SANDERS Copyright © 2012 by David N. Sanders. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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