The word this week is RIDE.
"Ride, boldly ride, the shade replied,
if you seek for Eldorado!"
See, this is so cool even Edgar Allan Poe is trying to get in on it!
The Dude blocked the sun.
Just as well; there really is no cool season in Viet Nam, and sitting in depot with the tank in deep overhaul, there wasn't much to do except sit in the shade until the sun chased it away.
But I'd dozed off, and I figured The Dude saved me from a bad sunburn.
He was grinning with a barely-suppressed delight. "TC, I know something you don't know." His voice was sing-song, and teasing.
"You know a lot I don't know, Dude." I was willing to play. "Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?"
He thought about that for a minute. "Mineral, I guess..and animal."
"Bigger than a breadbox?"
"Smaller than Ship of Fools?" The name The Dude had given the tank had stuck, and I secretly liked it, but the nude 'imagined' sketch of Katherine Ann Porter was a bit hard to take on an empty stomach.
"Lighter, not smaller." The Dude was honest.
There was a familiar thump-thump way down the scale of hearing, and his eyes flicked, giving it away.
"It's a Huey."
The Dude clapped his hands like a seven-year old. God, how I loved that man. "Yessss! Give that sergeant a cee-gar!"
"So did you trade something to get us our own helicopter?" I was kind of hoping he had managed to trade New Guy TC and his crew, but my luck wasn't that good, as I could see them trying to fill a diesel tank with gasoline.
When I got back, with my toes still sore from some ass-kicking, I rejoined the game. "So we have a Huey?"
"For the day...well, for a road sweep. It's been quiet, and I figured we could use some cool air. And the charlie echo thought that the pilots and crew chief might like some beer."
Helo drivers were always short of liquid courage, and the crew, enlisted always made sure they got extra...by arranging to give the occasional tank crew a ride, I suppose.
"All of us?"
The Dude shook his head. "Ell tee collared Biff and Sonny for handholding another new-guy crew on the range."
Ugh. These people were supposed to be able to sight in and shoot the main gun before they got here. Biff and Sonny had a long, hot afternoon ahead of them. Well, better them than me.
"Well,, son, let's get unassed from Mother Earth, then."
The Huey was spinning up on the other side of the depot when we got there. The pilots gave us the Pilot Look, cool behind their RayBans, boom mikes in from of their lips, nodding with a steel-jawed determination. They were probably thinking about Miss July.
The crew chief was in the left-hand pocket, slinging his sixty from a bungee. I was impressed; most Marine helo units required their door guns to be pintle-mounted, with stops to prevent the gunners from shooting holes in their own aircraft. But these guys were cowboys; they rode with the sixties in theior laps, supported by the bungee, and shot freehand. I wondered if they'd do some shooting today, and if we'd get home without shooting ourselves down if they did.
The CE was the friendliest guy there, and his smile grew even wider when The DUde handed him a bag of beers in a bag that was damp to touch, full of cool bottles and clinking ice.
The ice even thawed out the pilots a bit. The AC motioned to the left-seater, who held out a pair of helmets with headsets and mikes. We'd be able to hear what was going on, and even...if we dared...speak.
The Dude slid across the cargo deck, eschewing the nylon sling seats so he could sit in the left-hand door with his legs in the breeze, so I had to do the same on the right side. I did grab a handful of webbing as the Huey pulled pitch and the earth dropped away. The CE looked at me from the pocket and held a finger to his lips. My secret was safe with him. Beer is effective.
The AC had been talking to the tower, which was merely a wooden platform high enough to look down the flightline, with a roof and some radios. As we flew past it the AC removed one hand from the controls and waved to the tower crew, with one finger upraised. "Later, y'all" he said as the Huey crossed the perimeter wire and swung parallel to the road we were going to sweep.
The AC came in the IC to give his passengers a bit of a travelogue. "This-heah road's one-a Chuck's MA-juh ob-SESshuns in these heah pahts..."
Great. Sonny's soul brother was a pilot.
"An, when it's dun DEE-serted, lahk now...why, them little folks git reeel busy. Tha's wha we's gots us a Snake gonna meet us in a minnit, heah...ah, thar's our boy..."
He pointed, and off to our raht...sorry, right, a Cobra ripped past, slashing across our nose.
And meeting the grey streak of a B-40 rocket.
"Craaap!" The AC was so surprised that when his escort got hammered in front of him, he didn't seven wear. His copilot was from Brooklyn, and he made up for the pilot's lapse.
The Cobra instantly trailed a thick ribbon of smoke, and the freq came alive with voices, mainly saying, "We are going down, there are beaucoup Charlie here, we are not happy, GET US OUT OF HERE!"
The Snake dipped below the trees, and a cloud of dust boiled up. The radio went silent for a year that must have lasted ten seconds.
Then the AC spoke. "Two-foah, y'all up?"
Silence. I looked across at The Dude. His face was white, and he was holding tight to a nylon security blanket as well.
"Two-foah? Come ahn, gahy..."
Squelch broke, and then a very strained voice. "Two-four. Wait one."
The AC looked across to the left-seater, and I could see surprise in the way he moved his head. Something in the Snake crewman's voice chilled him.
The next words were in Vietnamese. Chuck loved to catch gunship crews. The result was usually messy.
The tired American voice came back. "Anyone on the net speak Vietnamese?" He sounded dead already.
The Dude's voice was sharp and clear, and I had a vision of a red, white, and blue flag waving in a fall wind. "I do, fella. Put the other guy on."
There was an exchange in Vietnamese over the headset, so fast that even the few words I knew would have been swallowed by the dust of the sentences' passing. Meanwhile the Huey went into a long low oval around a small paddy. The Snake lay on its side, and on every orbit we could see a group of men in the treeline. Two of them had white faces.
"Okay." The Dude was talking to the AC. "We can get our guys back. Condition, they have two wounded. We take them too."
The AC was perplexed in his Southern way. "Whee-HOO. We gonna make a deal with Chuck? How we know he not gonna blow our...uh, bottoms outer tha skah whan we land this-heah bird?"
"We don't. It's either that or they fillet our guys on the spot, while we watch."
The Brooklyn Kid put together an impressive string of bad language, which meant that he was willing to take the risk.
No one else was asked. The AC said, "All raht, tank guy...y'alls gotter get out and co-urdinate this thang...y'all square with that-all?"
I could hear The Dude swallow as he tried to reply. It took him two attempts to get the words out. "I can do it."
The Huey flared to a landing halfway between the wrecked Cobra and the group in the treeline. The AC kept the RPMs up while The Dude doffed his helmet and stumbled across the dried mud of the paddy. A group of Charlies started from the treeline, carrying two makeshift stretchers, and prodding the two captives.
The meeting took on;y seconds, and I felt unprepared to see a group of our enemy, rifles slung, running toward us. Their faces were human, and I wanted, for some strange reason, to cry.
The stretchers were slid onto the deck, and I backed away, both to give them room and to recoil away from the strong musky animal smell the wounded VC gave off.
The Americans, looking dazed, scrambled in after them. One of the VC tossed in their pistol belts, sidearms intact.
The cargo bay was full, and The Dude perched on the skid. It would be a precarious ride for him. He put on his helmet, and when the mike came live I heard his voice, "OK, lift...no, wait."
He looked across to the Charlie Echo, and the kid threw him a bag. The Dude stepped off the skid, and motioned to the Chuck who seemed to be in charge...and handed the surprised enemy a bag of cold beers.
Then he was back on headset. "OK, let's get ourt of here."
As we cleared the field, I saw Charlie departing at a dead run. They knew we's have fast air coming in to deny them anything useful in the dead Snake, and indeed the AC was on vox, asking for that very thing.
Fast air on tap, the AC was silent for a minute. Then he asked the question that was in my head, too. "Tank gah, Ah gots sumthin on mah mahnd."
The Dude sounded very tired. "Sure."
"Waal...and Ah'm not sayin it's gonna happen, y'all, but how did ole Chuck know I ain't just gonna toss these two out the sahd, let 'em larn ta flahy?"
The Dude was silent for a long time, maybe five seconds. Then he said, "Because you're a Christian."
"How'd Chuck know that?"
"I told him."
"How'd Y'ALL know that?"
"I didn't. I had to go on faith."
The AC looked over his shoulder at The Dude, and then looked down the VC closest to him.
The man returned his stare with wide eyes, and his lips were trembling, from pain, I guessed, and fear.
Then I could hear the AC sigh over the IC. He reached into his pocket, and gave the wounded enemy a piece of Beechnut.