Randy Ford Author- Revised R&R
Jack went back to the temple where he saw a reclining Buddha lying down and welcoming death, and it seemed smaller than he remembered it. He rarely went back to tourist sites, but this site hadn’t been accessible since the war began. Still it hadn’t been neglected.
Jack hadn’t planned to go inside the temple because he hadn’t planned to be in the region, which said as much about his situation as anything. He never knew where he’d be sent. In the covert world of Laos he wasn’t even supposed to be in the country. He always said that he’d someday return to Laos as a tourist, but he knew better than to hold his breath.
Now he was in an isolated region of Laos, controlled by someone he only knew by his first name. Landed not far from there and wanted to see if the temple was still there. He had to do something to kill time. Because everything didn’t always work out smoothly he had time to kill.
Thinking about the time he’d spent in Laos, Jack couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t drawn the short stick. He was used to getting dangerous assignments, so he respected fear. And this was one of those times … when he was short everything … short of information, short of light, and short of a place to land and take off. But more than anything else he didn’t have control of the situation.
Now there were a few places that he was itching to get back to. They all had their appeal, and that was why he kept going back to them. So when he got back to Udorn he was heading for Bangkok. He hadn’t lost anything in Bangkok, but he certainly had in Manila. For obvious reasons, he preferred Bangkok to Hong Kong and Manila. It was time for a little R&R, past time, and he aimed to get some as soon as he got back to Udorn. Jack luckily didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. He could just take off. But on this day he was more concerned about getting off a mountaintop.
He was killing time, when he didn’t have time to spare. It wasn’t his choice and as usual he was waiting on other people. He’d gotten used to it. People were rarely on time. Today, with a greater distance to cover than usual, timing was crucial.
Like all Ravens, American pilots, all volunteers, Jack carried no identification. So there would be no way of identifying him if he were shot down, which meant his family wouldn’t know what happened to him. So he had to be careful.
It was early afternoon, and he couldn’t wait to get back to Udorn. There was nothing particular waiting for him in Udorn, but he still wanted to get back. He loved flying, unrestricted flying, so he didn’t relish the thought of being stuck on the ground. He volunteered, knowing the risks and that he’d have to transport food and medicine and refugees, but there was nothing worse than coming under fire on the ground and losing a plane.
Back in Udorn Jack would sip cold drinks and swap stories with old cronies in khaki bush shirts and trousers. Although they were old hands (a lot of them fought in Korea), they always had new stories to tell. This year the dry season was unusually hot. There was no mistaking it, although Jack tried to remain cool. He was cool under fire: that was why he was recruited.
There was nothing special about the Buddha. It of course was a copy of a copy that hadn’t been inlayed with gold like other Buddhas he’d seen. They were basically the same everywhere. And he? Why had he taken time out to see it? He naturally felt restless and not in the mood for seeing the sites. He usually never left his plane. They were all big on security, so he didn’t get many chances to exercise. And too often he did parachute drops, which meant he didn’t get a chance then either.
He left the temple and jogged back to the landing strip. So far so good, for there was now activity around the STOL airplane. It wouldn’t be long now before he could take off.
Jack thought that the beauty of Laos was that it was small and its capital was manageable. It was beautiful from the air … with thick forests and rugged mountains, and a few plains and plateaus. You felt like you were in a tropical Colorado, with the highest peak higher than 9, 000 feet, and that’s high for the tropics. There was now massive bombing in Laos near the Vietnam border. Everything now depended on Vietnam, and Jack was often expected to come to the rescue of people trapped on mountaintops. So it was logical that he would be waiting for human cargo, and waiting logically because he couldn’t land on a nearby mountain.
He’d know more about the cargo once he saw the people. So he was glad to see that some of them had arrived, women, children, and elderly men mostly … he was glad he could help … and when he reached the edge of the airstrip he was relieved to see that his co-pilot was helping them climb onto the plane.
Jack was both astute and athletic, so he ran to the plane and helped his co-pilot. When they reached their weight capacity, there were still more people waiting to board. It was always sad when they didn’t have enough room, and Jack always hoped that it wasn’t too late for those he left behind. It was such a dicey situation that Jack never knew.
To be honest, Jack volunteered more for the excitement than for the money, and he wasn’t disappointed. From dodging bullets to dodging ridgelines, it never let up. Runways were rarely paved and never long enough, and Jack narrowly missed the top of trees this time. With the plane overloaded it was a miracle. Yet he would’ve felt like a fool had he crashed.
To connect scattered Hmong outposts separated by mountains, the CIA had built a chain of airstrips, and Jack had flown into each one of them. Some were better than others, but most of them weren’t very level because the people who built them didn’t have adequate equipment. Sometimes at mountain airstrips, they were refueled with buckets. It was unbelievable that there weren’t more crashes than they were. Near crashes loomed in his memory each time Jack took off from one of these landing strips. In many respects it was an unforgiving profession. The weather was often a significant factor, and there were no air traffic control or navigational systems. Yet Jack flew with confidence.
Moving among his Hmong fighters he could see that many of them were young boys and that many of them already bore scars. This was the army they relied on, and it seemed to Jack that they should’ve been in school instead of fighting in the jungle. These were the fighters who would come to his rescue if he crashed. They were also the ones left behind when the dominos fell and Jack and his colleagues were pulled out of Laos.
The Hmong weren’t the only ones left behind. Jack was caught up in the accelerated exit and he couldn’t pick up all of the pieces of his life or face ghosts that haunted him. It hit him like a thunderclap when someone he loved was taken away from him. He wasn’t ready and didn’t know if he’d ever be ready to accept responsibility for a child he left behind in Manila. How old would she be now? He didn’t want to think about her because when he did it brought back painful and sad memories of her mother.
She had to sneak off. Penny’s grandmother was very protective and wouldn’t have approved of her going to Ongpin Street. She knew the risks but considered herself a big girl. She was mature and didn’t have to dress provocative to look sexy. Neither was she careless in her dress or in the way she presented herself, because she didn’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute.
She went to Ongpin Street to talk to American GIs, Penny explained. There would be American GIs hanging out around Ongpin Street, there would be American GIs looking for women there, she rambled on as she explained why she went to Ongpin Street. Standing on a corner, she stood out because she didn’t look like a prostitute. As a young lady with fixed roots, she was curious about all sorts of things. She explained, “I won’t give up until I find him.”
But Penny didn’t know where to look for her father. Not because he was hiding from her … that wouldn’t have occurred to him … it was something far worse. He forgot about her because he was trying to put his past behind him. He didn’t want to be reminded of it, and it was just possible, if he acknowledged her, he’d have to acknowledge the part he played in her mother’s death.
“The real reason, sir, was that he didn’t want to be tied down with a child. You know how that goes?” He knew … had to have known because he was a responsible adult, but Penny didn’t know how he felt. What if he hadn’t wanted to fly? What if there hadn’t been a war? If Penny had stopped to think she would’ve realized that he left the Philippines before the war. She was going to be eighteen soon, which meant that she didn’t need to listen to her grandmother. She couldn’t wait to be eighteen when she’d be considered an adult. She was confident, very confident. There wasn’t any doubt in her mind about her ability to handle herself. It was only a question of her age, since she was mature and didn’t want to hurt her grandmother. It was her grandmother who raised her. Now she was going against everything her grandmother taught her, but if this stunned people, maybe they didn’t know there was a precedent. Penny’s mother was no angel.
This was never discussed. It seemed like her grandmother had modified the story for her benefit. And she never said anything about her disapproval of Penny’s father. What memories Penny had of him were pleasant, but then tragedy struck, and she was deprived of both parents. Now sitting in a cramped jeepney on her way to Ongpin Street she knew that she couldn’t turn back. She thought that she could find someone who knew her father and knew where to look for him. A hint of nervousness was detectable. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, but neither was remaining in the dark.
But she had to have been kidding herself. Out of all the GIs who came to Manila for R&R what were the chances of finding one who knew her father? And her father wasn’t in the military. Maybe she should’ve thrown up her hands before she wasted her time. He was dead for all she knew. There were thousands upon thousands of GIs, and she knew it. And many of those GIs would take advantage of a young Filipina, and she knew that too. She was prepared to be careless and wild, and she thought it would be worth it if there were a chance of finding her father. Anyway, she thought she could handle herself. She had been to Ongpin Street before (with her grandmother and on a scouting exhibition) and knew she that she didn’t have to commit herself if she didn’t want to. And maybe it was its seaminess that drew her to Ongpin Street.
Penny was the essence of carefreeness when she walked into a bar. Not that she was unconcerned about how she would be perceived. She never stopped to consider what she was doing, and there’s no doubt that she felt invincible. From out from behind the bar, the bartender approached her.
“May I help you?”
“I don’t think so.”
The bartender never left anything alone, and he knew that Penny didn’t belong in there. That didn’t matter. She was determined to follow through with her plan. There were other women who did belong in there, and they all looked at Penny. There was something unpleasant about the way they looked at her. But if she hadn’t gone in there, she wouldn’t have met her GI.
Yes, he saved her from the bartender. He almost didn’t come over to her table. He wouldn’t have noticed her had the bartender not given her a hard time.
GIs could choose to go to Bangkok, Manila, or Hong Kong for R&R. Colonel Schumaker began to explain it, as though by choosing Manila he had made a smart choice. Most of his buddies who had one thing on their minds chose Bangkok. He made it clear that he was looking for something else and that he could tell that Penny was a “nice girl.” It was as if they were meant for each other. They were both happy about it..
Yes, it was too good to be true. She also knew that he could be false. She’d disappoint him if he were. She wouldn’t sell herself, and he’d be disappointed, if he thought she would. But if she weren’t a prostitute, why was she there?
The chemistry was there from the start. He began by talking abstractly about America when she wanted to know specifics. She was full of questions. He could answer most of them, but he was more interested in her. He liked her. He knew it instantly.
She began asking him about the war. He didn’t want to talk about it. This was why she wanted to talk to a GI. He hated it. He never got away from it, so it was the last thing he wanted to talk about. So each time she brought up the war he grew more uncomfortable. Everytime he told her something, he felt disappointed that she didn’t see how it affected him. Otherwise they got along perfectly.
She knew that he couldn’t tell her anything specific about her father. She didn’t know enough to even ask specific questions about him. As far as she knew there hadn’t been any recent communication between him and her grandmother, and if there had been she wouldn’t necessarily have known it. She had no more to go on than his name.
He went along. He could see that she was obsessed. At that time it wouldn’t have occurred to him to say, “Penny, let’s talk about something else. I came to Manila to get away from the war,” which was the truth. He couldn’t say it because he was subject to the dictates of his desire.
And as they talked, with opposite agendas, they couldn’t avoid what brought them together. As for the war, peace was nowhere in sight … mistakes were being made, people questioned why so many boys were dying, and the lack of practice didn’t make Americans good losers … Colonel Schumaker noticed something about Penny’s mind that was the opposite of his. There was a singlemindedness about her that baffled him. He noticed that she wouldn’t easily let go of something once she got it in her head. Wanting to know everything about the war was one of those things. Another was, wanting to know about Indiana.
But the one thing that fascinated Colonel Schmaker about Penny more than anything else was that though she was a Filipina she reminded him of a girl back home. “You have fair skin.” This seemed unusual to him. Most Filipinas were darker. He’d always heard that the Philippines had beautiful women. Here was a beautiful woman, and she didn’t look like other Filipinas, and she had an American name. At first he didn’t allow himself to think that maybe she was a mixture. That would’ve bothered him. He didn’t understand. Maybe there was no such thing as a pure Filipina.
Penny never had to paint or powder her face like her grandmother did. Men found her attractive without her doing anything. It wouldn’t have been the case had she come from China like her grandmother did. In those days conversations were brief. Bargaining had to be quick. After having chosen someone on the spot, men had to then convince themselves that they had bought true love. In their mind there was an affinity between love and slavery, where love meant possessiveness. Then how many women surrendered and thought they were free? But in Penny’s case, here was a young lady who listened to her inner voice and didn’t have to worry about powdering her face.
He was disgusted with the way the war was going … defeat would look the same in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In October of 1974, Dr. Henry Kissinger said to a journalist, “It is difficult to win on the negotiating table what you have lost on the battlefield.” Lose! Time was running out for Penny’s search. Constant fog draped many of the jungle peaks; and perhaps fog obscured the war to such an extent that the young lady would never find what and who she was looking for.
“What are you trying to do?” he asked.
“I’m looking for an American pilot named Jack. There must be a million American pilots named Jack.”
They went over all she knew about her father, while she wasn’t optimistic about finding him. She didn’t have enough information. He was from Indiana. She knew that much. Colonel Schumaker eyed her with astonishment. Was she nuts? Out of all of the Jacks who flew in Nam, how could she expect him to know her father? She didn’t even know if he was still flying. And he wasn’t in the military. There was no way that he could’ve narrowed it down, and she should’ve known it. It bugged Colonel Schumaker. He didn’t need to be bugged.
“At 1430 hours, Fire Support Base 31 received an attack. Six airborne troops killed, three wounded and one bulldozer damaged. On the following day, towards noon, Fire Support Base 31 fell under an attack again. This time by 122-mm rockets. Killed two and wounded four.” Whenever he tried to forget the war, something reminded him of it. It had always been a balancing act: forgetting and remembering. Now he wasn’t thinking about himself. He wasn’t thinking.
She had every reason to believe that there had been a conspiracy to keep her away from her father. At an early age she was shipped off to a Catholic boarding school, where they assumed she’d find herself. A course was mapped out for her, but she had no interest in following it. There wasn’t much they could tell her. She had already made up her mind that she wanted to live in America with her father. And she considered herself more American than Filipina. People in America were rich. Six and she already had her sights set on America, and she was waiting for the age when she could claim her citizenship. When you’re six you’re easily impressed. This was even more so for Penny. She thought that she could find in America what she lost in the Philippines. Anything was possible in America. She had grandparents somewhere over there. And an aunt named Margo. Bits and pieces of information fueled her imagination. Fragments made up her world, and she no doubt enjoyed them. In this special American, everyone played basketball and everyone made lay-ups. In American there was a gas station on every corner, and her grandfather own one of them.
The war was hours away by plane. Getting totally away from it proved impossible. A little R&R he hoped would help. Then he chose a girl who wouldn’t let him forget it. He hoped that it would help him shed, even for a little while, his sense of terror. Killing dulled the soldier’s feelings.
“The V.C. enjoyed the underbrush and could disappear anytime. That meant that we were never safe. They were in every village; and we may have thought that we were tightening a noose, but we never knew when we were walking into a trap. More and more we relied on our fighting instinct. Superior soldiers have to respect a den of ants.”
They knew that they’d never see each other again. But why was this so certain? Perhaps it was because both of them knew the realities of war. He wanted to make a career out of the Army and enlisted; but neither basic training nor OCS prepared him for Vietnam. The top of his class, Colonel Schumaker came out of it all psyched up. He was not only considered a good officer but a damn good man.
Due to how he related to his men, he was command material. He was highly trained, a tough son-of-a-bitch. Unfortunately sometimes he acted as if the whole shooting match was his private war. In short, Schumaker was simply your-best-dumb-shit ever, because of his gung-ho attitude. But according to him, the son-of-a-bitching war turned his country into a nation of pansies. “Nobody gives a rat’s ass anymore.”
Penny continued to pump Schumaker for information. She listened for specifics, which might relate to her father. As far as she knew, her dad could’ve been dead, because she knew he risked his ass in enemy territory near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. She suspected a conspiracy of silence.
Alpha never showed. What now, Cisco? Why, how now!”
In a driving rainstorm, a chopper flew Schumaker out for R & R. In flight didn’t they trace the Laotian border and see the trail? He was sorry to have to tell Penny “no, he didn’t see the trail”. He really didn’t want to talk about the war but she kept pushing him until he exploded, and what he gave her was a cleaned up version of a noisy, dirty, dangerous hell.
Some veterans talked about Operation Ranch Hand and the effects of herbicides. Not that any of them could give Penny the information she wanted. “Many who thought they could closed their eyes looked in vain in the wrong direction. Throughout the war, if you to spent time in Charlie-Med, you wouldn’t want to see anymore.”
Schumaker said, “We do what we’re trained to do. But regretfully we can no more chase the enemy until we destroy him than he can overrun us. Can we win? Do we know how to do it? For some of us, joining was kind of a John Wayne’ thing to do.”
“All You Need Is Love.” It was a song that struck an accord.
Colonel Schumaker had just survived days of around-the-clock shelling and waiting for death. This from an enemy that was beaten into the ground by 35,000 tons of bombs. Giant B-52 Stratofortresses emptied their payloads every three hours, twenty-four hours a day. Consequently his nerves were shot. And Penny kept pushing him until he exploded.
Here was Schumaker trying to forget the war, as it was fought just six clicks from the Laotian border, when Penny kept pushing him until he exploded and Penny didn’t know that Schumanker and her father had been no more than twelve clicks apart.
He told her that Canada would’ve been a better option for him. “Considering the effectiveness of Agent Orange and napalm, there’ll be little left of Vietnam. It was no prize to begin with. It’s been like trying to save a dead horse.”
A dead horse … ”Penny Lane” was quite possibly the best song ever written. It became their song. “The pretty nurse was selling poppies from a tray, and felt as if she were in a play.”
The trouble with Penny was that she wouldn’t let go of something when she got it in her brain.
And then he plaintively sung, “I’d love to turn you on.” Against a backdrop of a diving plane, through his laughter he meant to say, “Look mom, no hands!”
Maybe her father would show up for her birthday. Or send her a card or something. What was wrong with hoping?
“Now tell me should we cheer?”
In the thick of it…. “Requesting permission to fire on 803513…. Receiving small arms and mortar fire…. Taking causalities….repeat, requesting permission to fire….can you send aircraft?”
“But it’s just a tiny Cessna.