Colonel Clark stood over an eight-by-ten quarter-inch thick plywood board held up by three wooden sawhorses. The layout in front of him had been decorated with a jungle, tall grass, small hills, a river, and a village with tiny bamboo huts. But instead of scale model trains, the battlefield diorama featured tiny toy tanks; machine gun pillbox emplacements, concertina wire, and blackened craters where pretend aircraft had dropped pretend bombs from the sky.
There were two distinct uniformed armies on the board–Americans and North Vietnamese regulars. The Colonel was busy poking over enemy soldiers with a long stick and muttering, “Bang. I got you, so fall over, because you’re dead. Ha, I got another one.” He ducked, and then quickly popped up, blowing a raspberry at a line of soldiers. “You missed me, you evil little Commies.” Clark then grabbed a toy tank and ran over several soldiers, while chanting, “Squish, squish, squish.”
His aide-de-camp, Carlos, stood nearby, wondering why this lunatic hadn’t been locked up somewhere by now. The Colonel, in his early fifties, stood about five-foot-five, with dyed black hair, sported a noticeable bald spot, bit of paunch, and a retro handlebar mustache from the era of flappers and bathtub gin. It amazed Carlos that he had survived working for this man for nearly two years without the two of them killing each other.
The Colonel looked up after another decisive victory. “Why, Carlos? Why can’t I earn one crummy star after twenty years of dedicated service? It’s because I’m locked away in this lousy boot camp, isn’t it? An Infantry Colonel is supposed to lead men in battle–not deal with new recruits tripping over their own dicks.” He sighed. “I need to be where the real action is–Vietnam. What can I do to escape this hell hole?”
Carlos shuddered at the thought of this maniac being in charge of a battalion in Vietnam. He wouldn’t last more than a week before his own men shot him. “I don’t know, sir. Do you have any ideas?”
“Damn right I do. I found out that somebody is stealing ammunition from the base ammo dump and then selling it to gangs in New York City. Did you hear anything about that?”
“No, sir, but I understand you can make a lot of serious money that way.”
“That reminds me, Carlos, aren’t you from New York…and how in the devil did you afford that new Cadillac on what the government pays you?”
“I’m very thrifty, sir.”
“Oh well, never mind. I have a brilliant plan to catch the thieves, which will make me a hero and guarantee my promotion. Meet me here at twenty-four hundred hours in camouflage uniform and black face. We’re going undercover.”
Carlos forced a smile. “I can’t wait.”
Sarge had us up bright and early, issued weapons at the armory, loaded on a truck, and headed out to the firing range faster than you could say, dead soldier. Today we got to fire the M-16–the weapon of choice for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. I had hunted rabbits before with a twenty-gauge shotgun, but the M-16 was a frickin’ machine gun. Visions of “Baby Face” Nelson blasting his way out of a robbed bank rippled through my head.
I smiled enviously at one of my platoon mates who had fallen asleep curled up inside the truck’s spare tire (mounted inside the canvas cover on the back wall of the cab). I had a hard time grabbing a catnap, unlike most of the others, who seemed to nod off at every opportunity.
Arriving at the range, we lined up to receive our instructions. Today, instead of a traditional fixed bull’s eye target, each rifleman would face human-shaped cardboard targets that would pop up on a random basis, either obscured by vegetation or out in the open, anywhere within a twenty-foot wide individual shooting lane. The targets, spaced out from 50 to 300 yards, were of an enemy soldier standing or kneeling and pointing a rifle at you.
Before starting with the targets, the instructor had us set the assault rifle to a single shot with the switch on the right side of the mid-stock area then squeezed off a few rounds to get a feel for the M-16. The weapon fired like a dream with very little kick. The instructor had us then switch to fully automatic. I pulled the M-16 tight to my shoulder, held my breath, and squeezed the trigger. My barrel started to rise as a steady stream of bullets kicked up dust in a straight line a hundred yards out. What a rush!
Test drive over, we dropped into a prone position. “Lock and load,” commanded the instructor. I dropped out the empty cartridge and shoved home the second clip I’d been given. “Firers, watch your lanes.”
I peered down the sightline. A soldier’s torso sprang up about 75 yards away on the right in some tall grass. I squeezed the trigger and smiled with satisfaction as the target dropped. Not everybody got lucky, so after twenty seconds the missed targets went back down on their own. The instructor told us the most important thing was to take out the target, so we should fire as many times as necessary. Armed and ready, we waited for the next command. “Firers, watch your lanes.”
This time, a full-length soldier popped up about fifty yards away, half-hidden behind a tree on the left. One quick burst and down he went. Tex hollered from the next lane over, “Way to go Eli. Show no mercy.” I nodded as he took out his target.
I impatiently waited for the next cue, because I knew what was coming next. “Firers, watch your lanes.” Up popped a new target, but this time, instead of a North Vietnamese soldier, each target had Sergeant Wolinski’s face pasted on it. A thunderous explosion of bullets shredded Wolinski’s picture in all twenty firing lanes. When the dust cleared, not a single target remained standing.
Sarge raced over to my position and bellowed, “Goddamn it, Jones.”
I looked up at him. “But Sarge, we just set a firing-range record. You said you’d do anything to improve the platoon’s shooting.” Wolinski clenched his fists, and from the color of his face, his blood pressure must have hit 200 over 80. None of the platoon members dared laugh, but I’ll bet the guys were all grinning on the inside.
We finished the training and vastly improved our overall scores. But instead of getting praised, Sarge forced us to run back to the barracks. Once again, I was picked to jog around the formation. Wolinski rode beside us in the truck all the way home, offering a steady stream of curses, mostly directed at me.
When Carlos arrived, Colonel Clark sat behind his desk, a glass of whiskey in his hand, staring out the window. The only light in the room came from a small lamp on the desk. Carlos could tell the Colonel had been there for a while from the half-empty fifth of Jack Daniels sitting next to the lamp.
“Ah, there you are, Carlos,” Clark remarked with more than a hint of slurring in his normal speech pattern. “Why do you have black all over your face? Are you appearing in a minstrel?”
“No, sir, I’m here to help you on a mission, remember?”
“Of course, I always have a firm grip on what’s happening. I’m the division commander.” Clark leaned too far back in his swivel desk chair, which shot out from under him, causing the good Colonel to crash hard to the floor. He quickly pulled himself back up to a standing position. Using the desk for support, he tried to look composed. “So, tell me again, why are we here so late?”
“You told me that we planned to go undercover tonight and discover who is stealing from the ammo dump.”
“That’s right, you fool. Why do you think I sent for you? Let’s going get.”
Carlos raised one eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to do this tonight? Maybe we should wait until you’re feeling better.”
“Nonsense, I haven’t felt this relaxed since I got a “happy ending” massage at a bath house in Kyoto…and I’ve waited too many years already. Come on, Carlos, you wimp. Let’s go catch a thief.” With that pronouncement, Clark marched straight into the closet and closed the door behind him.
Carlos muttered under his breath, “They don’t pay me enough.” He sighed and then knocked on the closet door.
A muffled voice came from inside the closet. “Yes, what is it?”
“You are in the closet, sir.”
“I know. Any moron can see that I am in the closet. I thought it might be cold and I wanted my coat.”
“Your coat is out here, sir, lying on the couch.”
“Fine, excellent, let’s go then,” said the muffled voice.
Nothing happened. There were a few moments of silence, and then Clark stage-whispered, “Carlos?”
“I’m still here, sir.”
“I seem to be stuck. Would you mind helping me?”
“Not at all, sir.” Carlos opened the door and there stood Clark entangled amongst the hangers, outerwear, and uniforms; his face buried in a wool overcoat. The Colonel quickly leaped backward–sucking in as much air as possible.
“Thank you, Carlos. You may have saved my life.”
“No problem. Shall we go?”
The colonel nodded. Avoiding direct eye contact with Carlos, he turned and stormed out of the office, with his aide-de-camp a few steps behind.
Want to read more?