R & R
by Randy Ford
Jack went back to a temple where he saw a reclining Buddha, a Buddha lying down and welcoming death. It seemed smaller than he remembered it. Before it hadn’t overwhelmed him. Jack was rarely impressed. He had been in Asia too long to be impressed by a Buddha. Over the years he had seen many Buddhas. Then why had this one attracted him? Why had he come back? Why had he come back to this one? He rarely went to tourist sites, but this site hadn’t been accessible since war began. Still it hadn’t been neglected. Why hadn’t it been neglected? Why had this Buddha survived?
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 they would send him. He never knew. He wasn’t supposed to be there. In the covert world of Laos, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the country. He always said that he would someday return to Laos as a tourist, but he knew better than to hold his breath. Laos was small, manageable, and beautiful, so he always said he would someday return as a tourist.
Now he was in an isolated region of Laos, controlled by someone he only knew by his 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 time he’d spent in Laos, Jack couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t drawn a short straw. He was used to drawing short straws. 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 ideas. But more than anything else he didn’t have control of his situation. If he didn’t have so much time he would feel better.
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 go. 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 was used to it. People were rarely on time. Today, with a greater distance to cover than usual, timing was crucial.
Like all Ravens, all volunteers, Jack carried no identification. So there would be no way of identifying him if he were captured, which meant his family wouldn’t know what happened to him. So he was careful, very careful.
It was early afternoon, and he couldn’t wait to get back to Udorn. There was nothing waiting for him in Udorn, but he still wanted to get back. He volunteered, knowing risks involved, but there was nothing worse than the idea of getting captured.
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 this Buddha. He had seen others like it. Of course it was a copy of a copy. All Buddhas were copies. It was covered with gold in lay like other Buddhas he had seen. They were 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 sites. He usually didn’t. Too often he did parachute drops, which meant he didn’t get a chance. He usually didn’t take chances.
He left the temple and jogged back to the landing zone. So far so good. It wouldn’t be long now before he would be picked up.
Jack thought that beauty of Laos was most evident 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.
How long would he wait? How long could he wait? He would know more when he saw a small plane circling. 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 landing zone he saw there was no plane or a pilot helping them. They were waiting as he was waiting. It was dicey, and it remained dicey while they waited for plane.
To be honest, Jack volunteered more for excitement than for money, and he wasn’t disappointed. From dodging bullets to dodging ridge lines, it was never dull. Runways were rarely paved and never long enough, and planes narrowly missed top of trees more times than not. It was always a miracle when they got off the ground.
To connect scattered Hmong outposts separated by mountains, the CIA built a chain of landing zones, and Jack knew each of them. Some were better than others, but most weren’t level because people who built them didn’t have adequate equipment. Sometimes they were refueled with buckets. It was unbelievable that there weren’t more crashes. Near crashes loomed in Jack’s memory. In many respects it was an unforgiving profession, if you could call it a profession. Weather was often a factor, and there were no air traffic control or navigational systems. Yet pilots 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 an army they relied on, and it seemed to Jack that they should be in school instead of fighting in the jungle. These were the fighters who would come to his rescue. They were also the ones left behind when Americans left 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 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. He wasn’t ready for it. Jack didn’t know if he would ever be ready to accept responsibility for a child he left behind in Manila. How old was she now? He didn’t want to think about her because when he did it brought back painful and sad memories.
Penny had to sneak off. Her grandmother was very protective and wouldn’t have approved of her going to Ongpin Street. Penny’s grandmother knew the risks. Penny’s grandmother knew the risks for a young woman on Ongpin Street, but Penny thought she knew what she was doing. 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. Penny was not an Ongpin prostitute.
She went to Ongpin Street looking for Americans, looking for Americans on R&R Penny explained. And yet she wasn’t a prostitute. And she was also looking for a specific prostitute. There would be Americans on Ongpin Street, there would be American men looking for women there, she rambled on as she explained why she went to Ongpin Street. Wandering around, she didn’t want to stand out because she didn’t want to look like a prostitute. As a young woman pretending to be shopping, she looked as if she had fixed roots. And it fit her personality because she was curious about all sorts of things. She explained, “I won’t give up until I find them or find out what happened to them.”
But Penny didn’t know where to look on Ongpin Street. She knew her mother was on Ongpin Street, but she didn’t know where to look for her. Not because her mother was hiding from her … not that her father was hiding from her … that wouldn’t have occurred to them … it was something worse. Penny thought it had to be something far worse. They forgot about her. They dropped her off at her grandmother’s house and forgot about her; Penny was sure of it. Penny thought they forgot about her because they were trying to put their past behind them. They didn’t want to be reminded of something, and it was just possible, if they acknowledged her, they would have to acknowledge it. But what was it?
What was the reason? What was the reason they dropped Penny off at her grandmother’s house and forgot about her? Or seemly forgot her? What happened? Did her father not want to be tied down with a child? Did her mother not want to be tied down with a child? You know how that goes. It was the same in the Philippines as anyplace else. So Penny went to Ongpin Street every day.
And Penny’s grandmother 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. What happened? Where were they? Why was she drawn to Ongpin Street? It was something her grandmother said. Something she overheard. Something she wasn’t supposed to hear. All Penny had to go on was a picture of her parents, the three of them she always carried with her. All she had to remind her of her parents was an old, crinkled photograph.
Now sitting in a cramped jeepney on her way to Ongpin Street. she knew that she couldn’t turn back. Now sitting in a cramped jeepney she knew she couldn’t bring her father back. He was an American and was no doubt in America. Still she headed for Ongpin Street hoping to find her father and mother. She headed for Ongpin Street because she thought she might find her father there. She headed for Ongpin Street because she thought she might see her mother there. She wanted to talk to her mother. She wanted to be with her father. She headed for Ongpin Street because she would find American men there. But was she kidding herself? Out of all American men who came to Manila what were her chances of finding her father? And where would she start, start looking for her mother? And her father wasn’t in the military. How would she know where to start? Why did Ongpin Street come to mind?
Ongpin Street! Anyway, she thought she could handle herself. She had been to Ongpin Street before, with her grandmother and on her own. She had been to Ongpin Street many times. She had explored all the side streets and alleyways off Ongpin Street. Penny was the essence of carefreeness when she walked through Ongpin Street, as she bought a few things, as she shopped for gold that she didn’t buy, as she was tempted by Eng Bee Tin (a famous Chinese delicacy) … and finally bought kinds of fruit she couldn’t buy anyplace else in Manila. But she tried to avoid tenacious venders who competed for her attention. Then after a visit to Binondo Church (an excuse she used for going to Ongpin Street), something always drew her to a specific alleyway. She didn’t know what it was, but there something about a specific alleyway that reminded her of mother and father. And there was a specific doorway that she seemed to remember. She often approached the door but was always too afraid to knock. Whenever she watched this doorway, she often saw American men come and go. More than once Penny resisted entering this doorway. Then one day, while sitting and praying in the back of Binondo Church she heard the voices of her mother and father say, “Tell the world we’re dead.” Penny told her grandmother.
GIs could choose to go to Bangkok, Manila, or Hong Kong for R&R. More chose Bangkok than Hong Kong or Manila. More chose Bangkok because they had one thing in mind. If a Filipina were seen with an American male, she was most often seen as a prostitute. And with her father, Penny’s was prepared to pay the cost. With her father, she was willing risk it.
When Penny’s father left Manila, Penny’s mother’s world collapsed. She felt she had little chance or no chance of seeing her lover again, little chance or no chance of seeing Penny’s father again but to go to Ongpin Street and contact American men, or so she thought. Only then did she feel she had a chance of running into him again. He was part of the war effort. She knew he was part of the war effort. He may not have been a GI, but he was part of the war effort. There was a secret there. She knew there was secret there. She knew it.
The chemistry was there from the start. He liked her. He knew it instantly. She knew it too. She knew men and knew instantly that he liked her. He began by talking abstractly about America when she wanted to know specifics. She was full of questions. Jack was from Indiana. He didn’t like talking about Indiana. She wanted to know everything about Indiana. Every time he told her something, he felt disappointed that she didn’t see how it affected him. Otherwise they got along.
And as they talked, with opposite agendas, they couldn’t avoid what brought them together. As for 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. They thought they were good lovers. He became a regular. He wasn’t a brute.
He heard that the Philippines had beautiful women. Here was a beautiful woman, and she didn’t look like other prostitutes. He wondered why she was one. He fell in love with her, and he took her out of a brothel down an alleyway off Ongpin Street. At first he didn’t allow himself to think that she was a prostitute. Yet he found her working in a brothel off Ongpin Street. That would’ve bothered him. He didn’t understand why it didn’t. Maybe there was no such thing as a pure Filipina.
She never had to paint or powder her face like other prostitutes did. Men found her attractive without her doing anything. It wouldn’t have been the case had she come from China. In those days, conversations were brief. Bargaining was quick. A quickie was cheap. After choosing someone on the spot, some men 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 mother’s case, here was a woman who listened to her inner voice and didn’t worry about powdering her face. When she didn’t have a customer, Penny’s mother looked out a window down an alleyway off Ongpin Street. She looked out a window, watching who came and went. She watched many people come and go, and most of them were Philippine women (women she knew) escorting American men. Every day she looked out the window, and she recognized Penny when she saw her. She recognized Penny, and it worried her. And what would she do had Penny entered the front door?
Jack was disgusted with how 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.” Constant fog draped many of the jungle peaks; and perhaps fog obscured war to such an extent that the young lady would never find what and who she was looking for.
“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.
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 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 realities of war. Did he want to make a career out of war? But was he prepared for defeat?
Alpha never showed. What now, Cisco? Why, how now!”
In a driving rainstorm, a chopper flew him 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’s mother that he wasn’t coming back to Manila. “No, he didn’t see the trail”. He really didn’t want to talk about war, 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 information she wanted, or they wouldn’t say they knew they knew Jack. “Many who thought they could close their eyes looked in vain in the wrong direction. Throughout war, if you spent too much spent time in Charlie-Med, you wouldn’t want to see anymore.”
“All You Need Is Love.” It was a song that struck an accord.
Jack survived days of around-the-clock shelling and waiting for death. And Jack didn’t want to talk about it. Non-stopped shelling … 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. Jack’s nerves were shot. And Penny’s mother kept pushing him until he exploded.
Here was Jack trying to forget war, as it was fought just six clicks from the Laotian border, when Penny’s mother kept pushing him until he pushed her away. And Penny didn’t know it.
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’s mother 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 none came.
“Tell the world I’m dead.”