from Hanoi to Saigon. Many dreadful happenings have blotted
this road for over a hundred years. It is truly a street without joy.
It is named
There is a perennial military insult by real soldiers about those behind the lines.
For each frontline hero, there lurks ten Rear Echelon Mothers
who supply and support them.
This story is about some of those Rear Echelon Mothers.
Meet a comical group of mechanics and clerks,
a wonderfully inept gaggle of men who goofballed
and occasionally graced the margins of
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Que Ell OneA War Satire
By Skip E. Lee
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Skip E. Lee
All right reserved.
Chapter One"We are all going to die."
A young man heard the voice but knew not from whence it came.
The 707 jet plane finished its taxiway maneuvers on the runway of an air force base near Sunnyvale, California. It was raining cats, mice and dogs.
At the end of the runway, the aging chartered aircraft began to spool up its engines, which coughed, hesitated and sputtered, until they seemed to catch some vestige of power. Jammed inside the aircraft were 180 soldiers six abreast. The plane had been loaded front to rear according to rank. A superannuated general sat in the front, just behind the locked door to the pilot's cabin. At the back hunched a highly forlorn 18-year-old private draftee. In the middle of this panoply of ranks were the middle level officers, the company grade commissioned types, captains and lieutenants.
A thin reedy voice came over the cabin intercom to announce with an obvious Pakistani accent, "Thank you so very muchly for flying Air Guami. We are now leaving sunny California. After a brief layover in scenic Anchorage, Alaska, and a short stop in beautiful Yokohama Mama, Japan, we shall deliver you to the garden spot of Southeast Asia, gorgeous Saigon. We hope ever so muchly that you enjoy your flight and that you enjoy your splendid vacation in Vietnam."
The jet plane then shuddered forward. An ominous belch of blue smoke blew from a starboard engine. The ill maintained aircraft lurched forward, stumbled slightly and then flapped uncertainly into the rain-pelted air.
"We are all going to die," Remphelmann heard from somewhere.
Second Lieutenant Ronald Reagan Remphelmann, newly minted Lieutenant Remphelmann, newly ensconced in the ordnance corps as a mechanical maintenance officer, was a motor pool functionary. Remphelmann sat back with satisfaction as the airplane lurched itself bloatedly into the sky. For Remphelmann this seemed like the beginning of a great and historic adventure. The dreary past of a inconspicuous youth in Keokuk, Iowa, the faceless young life on the corn fed plains of the American middle-west were blown away as the uncertain trumpet of ill maintained jet engines launched him into the unknown.
Remphelmann settled back. He was a tall yet scrawny young man, who still sported an occasional pimple. He stroked his peach fuzz moustache, which he fancied made him look older than his nineteen years. He adjusted his army issue clumsy black-framed spectacles. His thick coke bottle lenses obscured his dark gray pupils, but in his own mind's eye he could see the true look of incipient glory standing before his gaze. He waited to go forth to make the world safe for democracy. The heroic speech newly issued from the late great John Fitzgerald Kennedy reverberated though his mind.
"Ask not what your country can do for you,
Ask what you can do for you country!
We will pay any price, bear any burden,
Meet any hardship, support any friend,
Oppose any foe, to assure the survival
And the success of liberty."
"We are all going to die," Remphelmann heard again. It was a whiney little almost infantile whisper. Remphelmann scanned discretely for the source of the voice.
Lieutenant Remphelmann looked at his seat passenger. That was the source of the noise. Next to him sat a fat pudgy pasty-faced captain. The captain lurched forward, fumbled for a plastic lined brown bag in the seat pocket before him. The captain hurriedly vomited into the convenient bag, a sick sack, a barf bag, as it was popularly known.
"We are all going to die," the bloated captain intoned sotto voce to Remphelmann.
Remphelmann could not overcome his recent etiquette training at an impromptu officers school. "Begging the captain's pardon," he proffered, "we are on to our way to the sovereign Republic of Vietnam, to offer assistance to the heroic South Vietnamese in their struggle against the horrible menace of communism. We shall prevail and return victorious."
The bloated captain retched again. "We are all going to die." The fatso repeated this phrase in an even more child-like voice.
"Begging the captain's pardon, again," said Remphelmann, as he tried to approximate the stylized language he had imbibed in his brief military career. "I am Lieutenant Ronald Reagan Remphelmann, but I haven't the pleasure of the captain's name."
The captain puked again into the plasticized bag, and wired it uncertainly shut. "Captain Roscoe Arbuckle Falstaff Manteca III, quartermaster corps, at your service, you little twerp." He attempted a retch again. Remphelmann rummaged his military decorum for a fit answer but found only a thankful silence.
Unbeknownst to Remphelmann, Captain Manteca was on the lam from a bigamy charge, absconding from a slam dunk court-martial for officers club petty cash theft, misappropriation of Red Cross funds, not to mention a rather odd near arrest at a transvestite bar outside Fort Ord, California, his home base. Vietnam was his only escape. Captain Manteca again reached forward into the elastic pocket of the seat before him and fumbled for another barf bag. There was none. Manteca cadged another from the pocket in front of Remphelmann.
"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here," Manteca intoned. The literary reference was lost on Remphelmann.
The ill tuned 707 landed in Anchorage, Alaska, with the starboard outboard engine spewing hydraulic fluid in gushes and gurts and gaily onto the ground. The hapless passengers waited four hours in the confines of the airplane while ground mechanics attempted to repair the engine. Nonetheless the engine dribbled. When the onboard toilets were full beyond overflowing, some brilliant ground control genius in his infinite wisdom directed the plane to a nearby terminal. The 707 was greatly dripping fluid and urine as it wheezed itself to a boarding ramp.
The occupants lunged for the exit. There they were met by a bevy of military police, MP's, armed with holstered pistols, telling them that they were quarantined to the immediate boarding area. There somebody or something opened a decrepit hamburger stand. Soldiers flocked to wait in line for any sight of civilian food only to find grease burger on sale, for the immense price of three dollars apiece, a half-day's pay for a private soldier.
Other soldiers, intent only on seeking relief from full bladders and noisome bowels, headed to the toilets. The toilet rooms, labeled men and women, were declared open to all sexes, although nobody but men were present on the flight. They entered to find the toilets overflowing, no running water from the faucets and the stench of turpentine solvent disinfectant stinking the air.
Some of the men, searching for some way out of the glass encapsulated terminal, found a way that was open to an observation deck. There they were assailed by the usual swarms of mosquitoes, called the national bird of Alaska due to their immense size, and such a bevy of gnats that the insects ran up their noses, despite the smell of pine solvent and septic odor from the toilets that lingered in their nostrils.
An hour later the drips of hydraulic fluid were staunched beneath the right hand engine. The military police gleefully, sadistically, ordered the victims back aboard the aluminum coffin of the aircraft. A gruff MP voice barked, "Re-board, re-board."
Back on the airplane Remphelmann found himself reseated next to the feckless Captain Manteca. Manteca groaned again his fore bemoaned moan. "We are all going to die."
Remphelmann dismissed the captain by silently affirming, "Here I enter the paths of glory."
The voice of the Pakistani pilot of the plane came again over the intercom, "Thank you for re-boarding Air India, uh, Contract Air Kodiaki. Your next destination is the glorious Yokohama Mama airport, where we shall pause only muchly briefly for fuel and then on to the beautiful tourist paradise, Tan Son Nhut, Vietnam. We hope you have a wonderful flight and will fly Air Paki again. Fasten your seatbelts."
The hapless fat man had turned green. He attempted to retch again, but only achieved a profitless dry heave. Remphelmann sniffed and snorted silently at the gutless quartermaster. Little did either know that their paths would, sooner than later, meet again on Que Ell One.
Chapter TwoThe airplane began its descent into Tan Son Nhut.
The pilot's voice came over the intercom. "Due to the risk of enemy ground fire as we approach beautiful Saigon, my esteemed passengers may notice that our angle of approach is only slightly different than one would expect on a normal tourist flight. Please to all occupants to most kindly fasten your seat belts and cinch the belt down tight, as the negative gravity force may be disconcerting to the un-re-initiated."
At this point the jet abruptly nosed into a very steep, extremely steep, totally suicidal dive. The starboard engine, which had given so many problems earlier, began to wail uncontrollably as it again spewed horrendous volumes of blue smoke.
Lieutenant Remphelmann was unconcerned. This was part of the adventure. Captain Manteca, on the other hand, no longer having any thing on the floor of his stomach to hurl, clasped to the hand holds of his seat and muttered in that same strange little boy voice, "We are all going to die. Hail Mary, full of grace. We are all going to die. The Lord is with you. We are all going to die. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, we are all going to die."
At the last conceivable moment the aircraft flared out through the heavy mist. The runway appeared to those brave enough to look out the windows. The ground rushed up in a dizzy crazy quilt of rice paddy, jungle water hazards, small buildings and asphalt. At the end of its tether the airplane snapped up to the horizontal like a dog jerked on its leash and smacked against the runway. The starboard engine erupted in a mass of flames. The port set of landing gears poured forth a volume of black smoke as the tires blew out. The 707 lurched and dithered down the runway. At some juncture the plane settled down and came to an ignominious finish at the end of the runway. Somehow it turned onto a taxiway and limped to a building that had some simulacric resemblance of a terminal.
The cheerful south Asian voice came over the enunciator. "Ladies and Gentleman, we have make a successful landing here at the very muchly high techno golly airport at Tan Son Nhut. In a very muchly few moments we will arrive at the terminal. All ladies and gentleperson men are to keep their seat-less belts securely fastened until we arrive at the mushily desired point of debarkation."
The amazing landing thrilled Lieutenant Remphelmann. It exceeded any roller coaster ride he had ever experienced at the Cook County fair. He turned to Captain Manteca in a burst of youthful enthusiasm. "Begging the captain's pardon, sir, that was one heck of a landing!"
Manteca, on the other hand, was less than impressed. Manteca's voice changed from a whimper into something of a growl. "You little piece of shit, we are on the ground in Vietnam and not only are we all going to die, we are going to die a horrible death."
Remphelmann tried to dispel the negative thought train of the esteemed captain. "Sir, Captain Manteca, sir, we are here to win a glorious victory for the forces of freedom. JFK's speech ..."
Manteca stormed, "Idiot, holy mother of god, we are going to die." Then again in a voice that reverted to a child-like whimper, Manteca said more to himself rather than the lieutenant. "Why in god's name am I invoking Catholic prayers and phrases? I'm not only not Catholic, I'm an atheist. Our father who art, hail mary, pass deep into the end zone, please."
The invalid aircraft made a clumsy zigzag onto another taxiway. The blown out tires on the port side thumped and bumped. The cloud of blue smoke from the starboard engine and acrid smell of burnt rubber tires made its way into the air conditioning system. Men passed out. The 707 collapsed to an ignominious halt in front of the terminal. Out of the mist two boarding stairs appeared. They were marked Air France and Bon Voyage.
The hapless passengers bailed for the exits and the stairs, hoping for a gasp of fresh air. There they were met by a blast of superheated air and the most intense humidity a human could imagine. It was like walking into a steam engine exhaust. The soldiers stumbled down onto the tarmac. Captain Manteca immediately disappeared into the vapor and gathering sundown.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," Remphelmann relished. "The fat slob is a disgrace to the officer corps."
An air force sergeant with a bullhorn was repeating over and over again to all concerned. "You guys go straight into the terminal. Sit on the frigging floor. When your frigging duffle bags appear on the baggage line, grab your luggage. Look on your frigging boarding pass. There is a two-digit alphanumerical code there. When you get your frigging duffel bag go out the frigging blue door at the end of the terminal and you'll find a frigging bus. On the side of the frigging bus, you guys will see a chalked alphanumeric code scribbled on the side of the frigging bus. Alpha-numeric to you frigging jarheads and you frigging ground-pounders means just that. If your boarding pass is marked A-1 that means go to bus alpha-one. If your boarding pass is marked C-3 then go to the bus chalked up charlie-three. Can I make any simpler to you frigging idiots?" The air force sergeant's voice instantly changed. "However to our esteemed officers, would you gentlemen please retrieve your luggage and kindly exit out the red door? There are there waiting for you three buses chalked up O-1 through O-3. Your ground transportation awaits. You will be whisked away to your bachelor officers quarters awaiting assignment. Now for you frigging jarheads and ground-pounders, I frigging repeat ..." The man with the bullhorn did repeat.
Remphelmann dutifully did as instructed. He retrieved his 80-pound duffel bag and trudged out the red door. He checked his boarding pass and maneuvered himself and his luggage onto bus oscar-three. The bus was a cramped vehicle of Japanese make, painted a glorious olive drab. What amazed him was that the windows of the bus were covered with expanded metal mesh. A rather dispirited major struggled in and sat silently next to Remphelmann. The young lieutenant could not remember his military courtesy but he tried.
"Begging the major's pardon," he began.
The major instantly cut him short. "Cut the military courtesy crap short, lieutenant. This is my second tour and I've seen shave tails like you before. Can it!"
Initially Remphelmann did put his thoughts back in the can. However as the bus filled up he could not restrain his errant question. "Begging the major's..." he stopped in mid-sentence, and re-began. "Uh, major, this bus has metal mesh welded on all of the windows. It's like a prison bus."
The major sighed. "The mesh is not to keep us in, it's there to keep the Viet Cong from throwing hand grenades through the windows and disturbing our peace."
Remphelmann waited a long pause. "But sir, we are at Tan Son Nhut, isn't that safe?
The major sighed. "No, lieutenant, Tan Son Nhut is air force, we have to go to Long Bien, which is army. That means we get to drive through Saigon to the army base on the other side of town."
"I don't really understand," said Remphelmann.
"You will soon enough," said the major, who laced his fingers together and clamped them over his eyes and proceeded to take a nap.
Excerpted from Que Ell One by Skip E. Lee Copyright © 2009 by Skip E. Lee. Excerpted by permission.
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