June 8, 1970
Wiley waved to me from across the ramp as I stepped off the C-130 shuttle plane from Bangkok. I lifted my hand in response, then raised it to my brow, shading my eyes against the Thai sun, merciless still at midafternoon. The hop from Bangkok was the final leg in my journey to Nakhon Phanom Air Base, where I was to begin my assignment with the 606th Special Operations Squadron, flying C-123 cargo missions around Thailand. Wiley's presence heartened me. I'd heard that most guys who arrived in Vietnam were unceremoniously dumped on the ramp in Saigon or Da Nang and left to find their own way to their unit.
Welcome to the war, buddy, such a callous reception announced.
Maybe my war would be different.
Wiley leaned against a blue Air Force pickup truck parked before a large billboard that shouted:
violators punishable under ucmj
All I could think was, why would anybody care if I snapped a few pictures of cargo transports to send back home to Sharon?
Other than that puzzling note, my arrival at NKP was wholly different from what I'd heard of most Vietnam receptions. I felt I was being welcomed to some country club. Wiley ambled toward me wearing a big smile. "Hi, I'm Wiley. Welcome to the Candlesticks and NKP. I'm your sponsor. Let me help you with those bags," he boomed cheerfully. Relaxed smile. Happy eyes. An easygoing way about him. Definite Midwestern accent. Maybe Rockford or Madison. Huge, calloused farmer's hands. Probably grew up playing high school football and driving his grandfather's tractor during the summers.
Wiley looked much older than me, but I figured we must actually be about the same age. After all, every pilot assigned to the Candlestick squadron was probably in his early twenties like me. But Wiley seemed years older.
I wondered if something about this place had caused him to age more quickly, but I forced a smile to make a good first impression. "Hi, I'm John Halliday. Thanks for coming to meet me."
"C'mon, let's get you out of here and into someplace cool. Nobody here wears that flightsuit during the day. It's too damn hot."
He was right. My flightsuit was about to melt into my skin. The northeastern Thailand heat was a blast furnace. A real inferno. I took a breath, but the heat singed my nostrils. I shifted to mouth breathing, but the heat boiled down my windpipe.
Wiley helped me with my bags and then dropped them into the back of the six-pack. I tried to open the passenger door, but pulled back when the handle scorched my hand. "Use your sleeve," he suggested. We jumped in the air-conditioned truck and drove down the flightline. Impressive. My own driver. I thought I was going to like this place better than Vietnam.
"How hot is it?" I complained as we passed rows of parked planes.
"It's one hundred and eight, with the humidity a pleasant ninety-five percent. We run from air-conditioned spot to air-conditioned spot," Wiley explained as he did a series of double takes at me, staring far too long and then looking away when I noticed him sizing me up.
"I thought you guys called this place Naked Fanny," I said, an attempt to break the ice, which failed.
"We hate that," he scolded. "Bob Hope pinned that on us when he came for Christmas last year. The name is Nakhon Phanom, but we call it NKP."
I thought, so much for my good-first-impression idea.
There! He did it again . . . the long look . . . checking me out.
As we drove down the flightline, the scene seemed caught in a 1940s time warp. The Andrews Sisters should have been singing in the background about the "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B." There wasn't a modern jet aircraft in sight. The ramp was littered with propeller-driven aviation relics that belonged in someone's garage sale, not out here fighting a war. I could see A-1s, A-26s, C-123s, OV-10s, and Jolly Green Giant helicopters. Hand-me-down, cast-off airplanes no one else wanted. I figured the Air Force sent them way out here under the title "special operations" to make people feel good about having to fly these old rattletraps.
I realized I'd landed in aviation's backwater.
I noticed the ramp we were driving acrossno, the sensation was more like riding a boat over small waveswasn't even concrete. Instead, it was corrugated-metal sheeting, in which dead star-thistle weeds poked up through six-inch-round holes. Even the ramp was a castoff nobody wanted. I thought, ought to be slicker than owlshit taxiing on it when it rains.
Wiley pointed to a building. The sign over the door proclaimed:
606th special operations squadron
Wiley said proudly, "That's us." Beside the front door hung a six-foot oval wood sign, emblazoned with a winged candle burning bright above a black, mountainous background. The abbreviation "606 SOS" wreathed across the logo's top. "Our squadron patch," Wiley explained, handing me a stiff, new Candlestick patch.
I ripped my existing "Military Airlift Command" patch off its Velcro strips and replaced it with the golden-winged candlestick.
Wiley smiled, patted me on the back, and said, "Welcome to the Candlesticks. Now you're official."
Since I knew squadron names and patches attempt to capture a unit's mission, this name and patch seemed inconsistent with transporting boxes. I made a mental note to ask Wiley about it later.
As we made a right turn off the flightline, headed toward the officers' quarters, I said, "I noticed the razor-sharp security fence all around the base as we flew in and the guard towers manned with automatic weapons. I thought these Thai bases were secure."
"Well, the place is pretty safe," he chuckled. "There've been a few local skirmishes. But if you're a runner, I wouldn't recommend jogging along the perimeter fence."
"Oh, thanks," I answered weakly.
That too-long look came again. I knew what was coming. He asked, "Say, did anybody ever tell you that you look like a young version of Pat Boone, the boyish-looking crooner? You know, 'Love Letters in the Sand' . . . the white shoes . . . the clean-cut image . . . all that crap?"
"Yes," I groaned. "All the time. I had to live with that sappy image all the way through high school and college. I'd rather not start that here if you don't mind."
Wiley was perfect. "Sure. No problem, John."
As we drove down the block, I noticed the place seemed deserted. Where was everybody? The base should have been hopping with activity. Strange. An eerie feeling came over me. I should have asked Wiley what the big deal was, but kept my mouth shut. No sense asking more dumb questions, confirming my ignorance.
After three blocks of driving past rows of shed-type buildings typical of Thai bases, Wiley parked. I picked up my gear and we walked across a wide grass front lawn to the quarters I'd been assigned.
Grass? The dead, brown grass blades crunched under my boots like broken glass. "The rainy season doesn't start till November," Wiley explained.
I saw maids along the long front porch, cleaning rooms as if the place were a resort. This assignment is going to be okay, I reassured myself. My unease over what to expect from NKP and the fatigue from the long flight both began to fade.
I asked Wiley how much the maid service cost, because I didn't have a lot of money to spare and I would rather clean up after myself to save the fee. But he said not to worry . . . the Air Force paid the maids as part of the deal with the Thai government in Bangkok for letting us fly out of their country.
A man our age resembling Robert Redford was sitting on the porch drinking a beer under the mercilessly hot sun. Waves of sweat sheeted down his face. Why was he outside in this blast furnace?
Wiley introduced me. "Mark, this is your new roommate, John Halliday."
I offered a handshake, but Mark did not look up from what he was doing. I could see by his blank, distant expression he was off in some private world all his own. He had the plastic rings from a six-pack of something in his hands and was s-l-o-w-l-y pulling them apart. Mark took each ring and carefully stretched it until it was about to break. Just before the plastic failed, he held it up within a fraction of an inch of his eyes to focus on something I didn't understand.
"Nice to meet you, Mark. How are you doing?" I asked.
"Ninety-six down and two hundred and sixty-nine to go," he mumbled slowly.
I didn't understand. "What are you doing there?" I tried again.
"Watching . . . the . . . bubbles." Mark stumbled over each word.
I tried again. "What?"
"Watching the bubbles. Just before the plastic breaks, a whole bunch of little bubbles form. I stretch them out to see how big and long I can make them before the plastic fails. It's really neat to watch the bubbles pop." He did it again. Snap!
"Where'd you get all those plastic . . . holes, Mark?" I didn't know what to call those . . . things. They don't have a name. Back home, they're trash, but they seemed important to Mark.
"Drank it," he said proudly. "I drank it."
I stared at him, then climbed the rest of the wooden steps and walked into the room.
The room was a dungeon. Gray, chipped paint peeled from the walls. One lightbulb hanging from an ugly ceiling fixture cast a harsh light in the windowless room. Filthy, gray linoleum floors. No wonder Mark was out in the hot sun.
An old 1950s window air-conditioner, about to jump out of its crudely cut hole in the front wall, was trying unsuccessfully to beat back the wall of heat. I was getting a sinking feeling.
"The open-bay shower and johns are in the middle of the building, about seven doors down." Wiley pointed down the porch to continue the tour. "The Thai maids will walk in on you in the middle of a shower, put their hand over a smile, and giggle while they pretend to be on their way to clean out a toilet. But, don't worry . . . you'll get used to it. It's harmless sport for them."
More sinking feeling. So much for any shred of privacy.
Mark's bed was closest to the door. He had crudely taped a large monthly calendar on the wall beside his bed. My new roommate had scratched big, black X marks through all the previous days. He had scrawled large red numbers inside each remaining block to tally the number of days left before he returned to the States. Yesterday's number was 269. That meant Mark had been here only three months and his afternoons' entertainment was exploding plastic bubbles . . . Great.
That's not going to happen to me, I promised myself. I'm stronger than that. I am not going to change.
My bed was at the back of the dungeon. One beat-up, small metal desk completed the decor, except for a military-gray, portable metal closet whose doors I tried to open, only to discover them jammed shut. More sinking feeling. The place was a sewer. This could be a long year.
There was no chest of drawers for my stuff, so I threw my gear on my bed. Bad idea. The thin mattress sagged like a hammock clear down to the dusty floor. An explosion of fine dust flew up in my face. I coughed and rubbed my eyes. "Red Thai dust," Wiley explained. "You can't get rid of it . . . it's everywhere."
Any self-respecting homeless shelter would have thrown out the disgusting excuse for a mattress. I told Wiley, "Let's get out of here as soon as I can get out of this hot flightsuit. This place is depressing." I changed into the standard Southeast Asia off-duty outfit of shorts, T-shirt, and tennies. No socks. Then I asked Wiley, "Where's the club? I could use a cold beer." We turned and went back outside into the blast furnace.
Crazy Mark was still breaking bubbles, and in a neat pile beside him stood a stack of the same plastic rings. He'd been drinking a lot of something. It looked as if he was going to make an afternoon's entertainment of his sport. As Wiley walked me toward the officers' club, I hollered back at Mark, "See you later."
Mark did not look up, but he shouted as we walked away, "Don't look at everything in the BX the first day! Only look at one corner of a shelf to start. Save something for a month from now." I couldn't imagine what he meant.
"And can labels . . . read labels! The vegetable soup can is the best," Mark hollered.
"Okay, Mark, I will. See you later," I yelled back.
Mark needs to see a shrink fast, I thought. His contact with reality was slipping away. But that wasn't going to happen to me . . . I'm stronger than that, I again reassured myself.
"Is he always like that?" I asked Wiley.
Wiley looked confused. "Like what?"
"Well . . . you know . . . sort of . . . disconnected."
"Oh, that's just Mark. He's one of our best captains."
"You mean you let him fly in command like that?" I asked incredulously.
Wiley shrugged and answered matter-of-factly, "Oh, sure. He'd fly every night if we let him. We have to force him to take his CTO every month. If I remember right, he's leaving on a CTO tomorrow morning, so you'll have the place to yourself for a few days to get settled in."
"What's a CTO?"
"Oh, sorry, it's 'combat time off.' We get four days a month in Bangkok, and before you go thinking that's a good deal, don't worry; you'll earn it."
Earn it? Earn it? I thought to myself, what the hell have I gotten into? When they changed my assignment to NKP from Vietnam at the last minute, all they told me was this was an easy mission, hauling cargo around Thailand. A piece-of-cake assignment. I was thrilled at my good fortune.
Still confused, I asked, "What's the deal with the soup labels?"
"Actually, that's good advice," Wiley explained. "There isn't much to do around here, and reading canned-foods ingredients is good entertainment. I prefer the chili can myself . . . you'll see. And a trip to the BX trailer is something you'll have to plan and execute carefully, too. And Mark's right . . . don't look at everything the first day. Take one small corner of one shelf and really spend time looking at what's there."
We stepped off the curb and crossed the empty street.
"Force yourself not to look at the things on the shelf below or above or around the corner, or you'll be sorry later. You should probably have an experienced person go with you to stop you from looking at everything the first few times before you get the hang of it, or you won't have anything to look forward to. If you want, I'll take you the first time."
I stared at him, bewildered. Was he kidding?
"Don't worry . . . you'll see soon enough," he finished.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught Wiley shaking his head at my ignorance. He had that wry Vincent Price smile that seemed to say, "You'll be the next one. You can't stop it. Don't even try."
Stop what? No, I won't see. I won't be next. You're wrong. I'm stronger than that, I promised myself. The day I started reading labels would never come.
I thought we were going to the officers' club for a beer, but Wiley said, "Say, you want to stop by my trailer for a cold one? I've got a refrigerator and you can see the quarters you can move up to in about five months."
Five months? The sinking feeling grew. Five months locked in that dungeon with Crazy Mark? "Sure, thanks," I answered, trying to fight off a wave of depression.
Maybe I can find a way out of here before they get used to having me around, I thought to myself. I had heard of pilots talking their way into a different assignment right at the last minute. Maybe they needed some C-123 pilots over in Vietnam. I would keep quiet about my idea, go over to personnel the next morning, and see if I could get reassigned. I would be gone before they knew it. Good plan. I wouldn't even unpack my stuff. Knowing I would soon be away from NKP lifted my spirits and I began feeling better.
We climbed up tipsy concrete steps to Wiley's trailer. He opened the door, went inside, and I was hit by a blast of polar air. Wonderful!
"Hurry up, come in and close the damned door," he yelled. I jumped inside, slammed the door, and looked around . . . stunned.
Wiley's trailer half had the same space I would be sharing with Crazy Mark. He opened a door and proudly showed off his semiprivate bath. I looked around in awe. Built-in closets. Fake wood paneling on the walls and a chest of drawers. Brass coach-light fixtures brightened the place so he could read. Blackout curtains covered the one small windowevidently for daytime naps. Air-conditioning from an exterior compressor. Wall-to-wall carpeting. A refrigerator! Two mattresses stacked on the twin bed for true comfort.
The place was a palace.
The room was stuffed floor to ceiling with every imaginable piece of state-of-the-art 1970 stereo equipment. It looked more like a sound studio than a place someone lived. Wiley had the newest equipment: a Sansui 5000 amplifier, an AKAI crossfield head reel-to-reel tape deck, the top-of-the-line Garrard English turntable, and four Pioneer CS99 speakers with fifteen-inch woofers. There was enough power to throb brooms marching out of the closet.
The stuff must have cost a fortune. I figured he must be rich.
Wiley opened the small Sanyo refrigerator stuffed with San Miguel beer and handed one to me. Then he jumped up and sat on his two mattresses, so trampoline-tight they didn't sink an inch. While mine sagged like a hammock? I looked around the cramped room and saw no chair, so I leaned back uncomfortably against the door.
Wiley noticed my discomfort and sprang off his trampoline-bed. "Sorry . . . you'll have to excuse my lack of manners. I'm not used to having guests over yet. I only moved in a couple days ago." Then he reached between a built-in closet and the wall and produced a garishly painted red folding chair from its niche. "Ain't she a beauty?" he said proudly. "I rescued her rummaging around the base junk pile, sanded her down, got a can of candy-apple red spray paint, and suddenly . . . I've got furniture. I can have company over!"
He unfolded the chair and said, "Here you go. Have a seat." Wiley pointed to the fridge and told me, "Help yourself to another cold one when you finish that one," and hopped back up on his trampoline mattress I eyed with envy.
"How come your mattress is so firm and mine sags to the floor?" I asked.
"Plywood," he answered seriously. "Three-quarter-inch all-American plywood."
I asked where I could get a sheet for myself.
"I'm not sure . . . it's in short supply. You have to know somebody or scrounge around for yourself to find a piece." I must have looked worried because he quickly added, "But I may know somebody who's leaving back for the States in a couple days. Maybe I can talk him out of his plywood for you . . . unless he's already promised it to someone else."
I smiled, thanked him, and sat down gingerly on his red relic. Then I waited for my sponsor to guide the rest of the conversation. After a few gulps of beer he finally asked, "So, how'd you get here?"
"Well, after jungle school in the Philippines, they put me on a C-141 to Bangkok . . ." I stopped when I saw Wiley start chuckling.
"No, no, no . . . I mean how'd you wind up in the military as a pilot in the first place?"
"Sorry . . . guess I'm nervous." I laughed uneasily with him. "I'd graduated from the University of Miami in Florida and was in graduate school in Washington, D.C., when I got a letter from my draft board saying my educational deferment had been canceled. They gave me thirty days from receipt to join some other service, or it looked like I'd be headed for Vietnam rice paddies with an M16 in my hands."
Wiley smiled and nodded as if he'd heard the story before.
"That same day a headline in the Washington Post described that the Air Force was short of pilots. So I ripped out the headline, went down to the recruiter's office, took a flight physical, and raised my hand. After that, I spent a year in pilot training, got married, spent eighteen months in California at Travis flying a big cargo plane in and out of Southeast Asia, and then got orders to Phan Rang over in Vietnam."
"You look awful young for this. Just how old are you?"
"Twenty-four," I said apologetically. "But I turn twenty-five next month," I rushed to add, realizing our talk was turning into a job interview.
"So how long you been out of pilot training?" he asked suspiciously.
"Two years," I answered proudly.
Wiley looked disappointed. "Ever been an aircraft commander before?"
"Nope." Wiley shook his head in disappointment. I hurried to explain so he wouldn't think me a weak pilot my old outfit bypassed for command. "My last unit wouldn't let lieutenants upgrade to AC. They mostly had us inventorying safety equipment, counting crew meals, and figuring takeoff data. Most of the ACs were old-fart majors and colonels old enough to be our fathers who wouldn't let us fly much."
Wiley seemed shocked. "You mean you've never been in charge of an airplane and crew before?"
"Nope . . . sorry," I answered sheepishly.
"Oh, jeeeez! We keep asking personnel to send us pilots with command experience and guys like you keep showing up."
I apologized again, but defended myself, explaining there was nothing I could have done.
Wiley let me off the hook. "It's all right. We'll make it work somehow."
I changed the subject. "So tell me what routes we fly. Are they scheduled cargo runs around the Thai bases, or random stuff?"
"Nobody told you?"
"Nobody's told me squat. I don't have a clue what goes on here. After jungle school I thought I was headed for Phan Rang, but at the last second got orders here. I got on a C-141 headed to Bangkok, spent last night at the military hotel, and here I am."
"That's the way it happened for all of us," Wiley said conspiratorially. "Nobody knows they're coming here until the last second. And our mission is more complicated than hauling cargo." He chuckled to himself.
I stumbled ahead. "So exactly what is it you guys do? Nobody could answer my questions."
"They're not supposed to be able to. Nobody's supposed to know this place even exists."
"Oh" was all I could manage.
"To be assigned here, you had to pass a security check above top secret"
I jumped in, "Gee, I didn't know there was anything above top secret."
"Everything here is top secret or above, and later tonight I'll show you one of the reasons why. But as to what we do, it's one of my jobs as your sponsor to warn you right off the bat what can happen to you if you tell anyoneI mean anyonewhat we do here."
I didn't know how to respond, but began feeling frightened.
He offered, "You can tell your wife . . . what's her name?"
"Well, you can tell Sharon where you are, but you are not permitted to tell her what you're doing and especially not where we fly. You can't tell her in phone calls, letters, tapes, nor when you see her for R and R in Hawaii and you're strolling along some moonlit beach. Not even when you're back home a year from now . . . not until this war is long since over. If 'they' find out you've violated these rules, you can be expected to be prosecuted and punished to the maximum extent possible under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Do I make myself clear?"
I thought he must be pulling my chain. "You've got to be kidding, Wiley. What could be going on at this godforsaken place anybody could possibly care that much about?"
He looked insulted and his face turned dark. "I'm dead serious. As far as anyone back home knows, this place doesn't exist. You can expect your letters to be opened and sampled at random, your phone calls to be monitored, and any voice tapes you send to Sharon to be opened, checked for divulging secrets, and be undetectably resealed."
"But what happens if I make an honest mistake and blurt something out?"
"Same thing. This is serious shit we're talking about, John. Oh, I almost forgot . . . you are especially not to talk about our mission at the O club in front of the Thai waitresses. That's an easy place to slip up and get caught. Let me tell you a story."
I nodded and grabbed another beer, deciding to humor him.
"Sometime after last Christmas 'they' opened up one of those family Christmas letters from this guy's parents in which his folks had published exactly what we do . . . blow by blow. He was in deep shit."
"So what's the big deal about writing about hauling cargo around Thailand? And what could they do worse than sending him here? What happened?"
"Nobody knows. In the middle of the day while we were all sleeping, his trailer-mate heard some commotion coming from this guy's side, but rolled over and went back to sleep, thinking the guy was just rearranging furniture."
"So what happened?"
"His trailer-mate found the guy's room stripped bare that evening. Everything was gone . . . his bed, dresser, stereo, all his tapes, photos of his girlfriend . . . his cans of food and beer . . . the place had been completely sanitized."
I began feeling frightened. "So what happened to him, Wiley? People can't just disappear."
"Well, he did. Nobody knows what happened to him. He was never seen again. But the point is . . . make sure you keep your mouth shut."
I reached for another beer. "How come all the secrecy about hauling cargo around Thailand?"
"I can't tell you here. We'll have to wait till we get to a secure area."
"When will that be?"
"Tomorrow night." Wiley looked around and whispered, "When we get behind the secure walls up at TUOCthe Tactical Unit Operations Center."
"Tomorrow night! I won't be able to sleep tonight the way you've built this up."
Wiley shook his head. "I can't say any more than that. I could get in lots of trouble."
"What? Please . . . surely you can tell me something."
Wiley thought hard for a while. "Okay, I'll give you the basics . . . but remember . . . you didn't hear it from me."
I told him I promised and crossed my heart. Gawd, what a jerk I was.
Copyright © 2005 by John Halliday. All rights reserved.