Dolan's first weeks as a correspondent hit him hard. Not the work, but the weirdness of it all. He kept thinking it was scripted somehow as if Vietnam in '72 was written for him as a parade of absurdities Rod Serling would love. Flashing him back to ironic situations he'd seen throughout his life.
The best, he supposed, was the one about the plumber. Working late in a fire station closed for renovations, the man threw away what he thought was a dead cigarette – then died in the resulting fire.
Dolan was getting pulled into the works now. Not in a funny way but the only one that mattered for a soldier. And his new posting guaranteed nothing. If anything, he was at greater risk than ever. Back at the fire base, there were only so many ways he could get taken out. Now he traveled routinely. He was halfway through his tour now, and odds that had been chancy at best kept getting lower. He couldn't dig a foxhole in a Huey. This realization was his most sobering yet.
So what else did he want? Really?
You volunteered, asshole. Suck on it.
In the end, he'd get home, on his feet or in a bag. Every second now might be the one when he went from the one state to the other.
In the past, whenever he saw something that defied belief, he would consider it for a while, then move along. He never froze or scratched his head or turned into a slack-jawed cartoon character yelling, "You ain't gonna believe it!"
To be fair, it was never arcane bullshit that stood out. He'd never seen a UFO or met someone then learned afterward the guy had been dead for years. But, even if he did, he doubted his day would come to a grinding halt. By then, he had seen enough illusions and magic tricks not to be paralyzed by them.
Pop took him to a carnival once when he was nine, and his strongest memory was a gag faucet suspended in the air. An endless stream of water poured from it into a bottomless barrel. After studying this briefly, he turned to Pop and asked if they could go on the roller coaster first.
Now it was happening all the time. Finding himself in moments where two events that shouldn't occur in the same place at the same . . . did. There were contrasts all over the place. Some were so extreme he found no way to document them, let alone comprehend – and once he started seeing them, he couldn't stop.
There was the time he went out with an ARVN patrol. As one, they had jumped from the road into the ditch as the artillery came in, tearing up the village ahead of them. The ditch was an open sewer. Redolent with mud and rotting vegetation and shit of every kind. A handy dumping ground for the locals, wise enough to place it downwind and down the road.
Dolan made out all right. He'd managed to keep the slop from filling his boots, but the kid next to him was less lucky. He'd gone face down in the mire, then struggled back up, spluttering mud and manure. This amused his friends no end.
When the incoming cleared, the village was nothing but flames. As they got back up on the road, the kid saw he'd cut his leg badly on something sharp in the ditch. Bending close for a look, their medic was the only one of them over twenty, yet he looked closer to Pop's age than Dolan's own.
The others giggled and pointed and poured water over the miserable kid's face. Making jokes that Dolan, with his slowly improving Vietnamese, just about understood. He did his best not to laugh while the kid groaned, and the medic declared he would need a tetanus shot but no stitches.
With this tableau before him, Dolan reached for his camera – then froze.
The kid and the medic went on examining the wound while the squad watched them both. Backs turned to the burning village. Indifferent to the shrieks of the dog vanishing in the flames.
Then there was that time at Tan Son Nhut when Dolan looked to see a VNAF C-47 making a wobbly approach. Dolan had been driving in a jeep, alone for once, to the MAC-V press office when he saw the plane coming in. Pulling over, he jumped on the hood and raised his binoculars with the cracked lens, and as he got a clear look, his mouth fell open.
Half the plane's rudder had been shot away and one stabilizer dangled like a thread. There was no sign of smoke or fire, and whoever was at the controls was a master. With wheels down, landing lights on, the plane shifted slightly to the left, then back again as it cleared the fence, touched the runway, and rolled smoothly to the end.
Then a stairway truck drove past him and up to a gleaming Pan Am passenger jet. Then the cabin door opened, and a blonde stewardess appeared. A supernatural vision in blue. Garrison cap perfectly in place and gloves so white they glowed. Then the passengers emerged. Over she nodded to them, waving and smiling. Through his binoculars, Dolan followed it all.
Her smile was perfect.
Then there was that Air Force officer from Kentucky. The one who sounded like Yosemite Sam. Explaining in minute detail to a dozen South Vietnamese pilots the components of the latest cluster bomb. If "serviced" via the right pattern, they could take out a battalion of mechanized infantry. Then he added with regret that such opportunities were rare, given the North Vietnamese habit of maneuvering under forest cover, with vast gaps between vehicles.
Dolan spoke briefly with him afterward, then took a last look around the base. It was a realm where everything was smooth and clean and looked so utterly real. In every direction, the sky was a vault of perfect blue. He said as much, adding that it seemed like a vault worth exploring. Then he shook his head, admitting it was a flight of fancy, and he regretted saying it.
To his surprise, the man agreed, saying he had minored in English Lit at Rutgers. Then he reached into his flight suit and pulled out a beat-up paperback, clearly read many times.
Utopia by Thomas More.
And there was that after-hours discussion in the officers' club with that major from the 196th. Lean and easygoing, born and raised in Seattle. Talking plainly and very off the record. The bartender scowling at Dolan's stripes. The major telling him to pour the damn drinks and leave them alone. Dolan absorbing the reflections of a man who at nineteen had followed Patton almost to Berlin. Lamenting how the enemy was finally coming in force. No more guys in black pajamas sneaking through the bush now. At long, long last, they were going full convent and coming heavy.
"It's the war you've always wanted," he sighed. "And now we're nearly gone."
But it was the last one that took the prize.
A Green Beret lieutenant had made it to an ARVN field hospital after a fourteen-mile hike, most of it in the dark. The North Vietnamese had razed a village from which he'd been ordered to flee two nights before.
His tone dull and flat, he said that only three had made it out from a force of two hundred. All that remained of a four-man advisory team and six Montagnard clans. Four generations of people now dead or wounded, scattered or enslaved. And even with decades of hatred for the communists, they remained third-class citizens to the coastal Vietnamese, north and south.
Himself and two boys barely in their teens.
There may have been more, he said, but it was impossible to know. It was dark, and everything was falling apart, and the order came to get out. To head south to a rendezvous point, but they couldn't, and then their radio quit and . . .
At twenty-four, the lieutenant was an old, old man. He hadn't slept in days and, with no supplies and little ammo, had just finished a brutal trek through hostile terrain.
He said he'd been in Special Forces four years. For the last two, he lived with Jarai tribes along the Cambodian border. He had learned their customs and their language. He respected them and, in return, had earned theirs. He had gotten drunk with them countless times on their outrageous hooch. Predictably he suffered for it, yet he had always kept it together. Never doing any horseshit that would offend them, and he absolutely did not screw any of their women. Because of this and more, he got along with them fine.
Near the end, most of the Vietnamese had left, and the rest were gearing up to follow. Shouting all kinds of shit as they went. That the Montagnards deserved what was coming to them.
Among those enduring this was a tribal elder. Fit and lean at sixty, the man had been fighting communists for years. His scarred face was a mask of serenity as the "true" Vietnamese departed.
The lieutenant had tripped the night before and came down hard, breaking the fall with his right hand but violently jamming his elbow. It hurt like a bastard, and he could barely bend it now, and so it hung ramrod straight at his side.
Crushed with despair, tears fell from his eyes faster than he could wipe them away. Dolan stepped respectfully away as the ARVN doctor, a short and grandfatherly type, spoke soothing words to the man. To the wounded giant, near collapse, leaning against a troop carrier. The older and slighter man reaching up to him. Placing an assuring hand on the giant's shoulder. The giant nearly choking with sobs now. Trying to regain himself, not quite managing it. Staring at his boots and shaking his head as the doctor applied a splint to his arm.
The doctor continued to speak quietly and gently, like a father telling his son that it was all right. Yes, it had been difficult, but it was going to be all right now. The son nodding, adrift and speechless now.
Dolan took a single photo then stopped. This was their moment, not his. He lowered the camera and stepped back, keeping his mouth firmly shut.
More kind words. The doctor praising the soldier for his courage and his service to both nations. That his arm would heal quickly, and afterward, he must take a long rest. That he had earned it. The son nodding slowly, neither agreeing nor denying.
Then the doctor was bringing out his cigarettes. Gauloises. Saying it was one thing the French got right, then lighting for both of them. The young giant nodding again, grateful. Drawing in the smoke. Still staring at his boots and wiping away tears with the back of his hand.
The doctor said something else then, but Dolan couldn't make it out.
The lieutenant froze.
Then, slowly, he looked up.
The doctor hesitated, not sure what was wrong.
The giant glared down at him. Eyes burning into the man. Cutting him in half. The giant's lips were mashed together. Muscles straining in his face. Jaw clenched. Holding back a demon.
The doctor looked confused, then nervous.
The giant leaned closer to him and spoke very quietly.
Saying something cold and definitive.
Defeated, the doctor slowly turned and walked away.
The giant glowered at the man until he was gone from sight.
Then he sighed, carefully shifting his arm, and began walking toward Dolan.
"Our partners in freedom," he muttered, his voice almost a whisper.
"What did he say?" Dolan asked with surreal calm.
Laughing darkly, the man gave the question careful thought, then answered.
"The son of a bitch said he was glad I'd made it. Then he said he didn't give a shit about the Jarai. The 'decrepit hill people.' He said that by killing them, the communists had done everyone a favor."
From bitter experience, Dolan knew there was no right thing to say, so he didn't try.
"So – what did you tell him?"
The giant looked past Dolan as a jeep pulled up behind them.
"Oh, I told him to go fuck himself. I said I'd gladly trade him and his whole family if I could've brought just one more of those people back with me."
He paused, then made a weak laugh.
"Then I thanked him for the smoke."
He took a final drag, then dropped the cigarette and crushed it. Grinding his boot into it as he would for a snake. Making sure it died.
He shifted his arm slowly then began walking toward the jeep.
"It's a damn joke," he muttered. "The whole thing."