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Flying's Easy

Flying's Easy

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Flying's Easy

Longueur:
527 pages
8 heures
Sortie:
Dec 16, 2011
ISBN:
9781465972842
Format:
Livre

Description

In the turmoil of Southeast Asia, aviator John Hale discovers that facing an armed enemy is easier than making choices about morality, money, friendship, and love. In the air, he foolishly feels invincible. Life on the ground turns out to be less simple, because he must evade foes and deceive friends. Flying is easy, whereas lying is even easier...and that’s what makes his life difficult.

Sortie:
Dec 16, 2011
ISBN:
9781465972842
Format:
Livre

À propos de l'auteur

Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.

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Flying's Easy - Thomas Harrington

Flying’s Easy

By

Thomas Harrington

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2011 Thomas S. Harrington

*****

Discover other titles by Thomas Harrington at

http://www.harringtonbooks.net

All rights reserved. Without limiting the copyrights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

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This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.

*****

Flying’s Easy

Is there a difference between individual morality and government morality?

Is an act immoral, if no one knows about it?

LAOS

Chapter 1

Humans must learn to fly; lying comes naturally. Aircraft help to satisfy an innate urge to move—farther, faster, and higher; falsehood is protective camouflage provided by nature.

Most people think that flying is difficult, whereas everyone knows that lying is effortless. Anyone can lie and everyone does...frequently. Many are untruthful because they believe—correctly or incorrectly—that falsehood benefits the other person, while everyone is certain that dishonesty is good for them. Few suffer remorse or even mild unease. Minor untruths are insignificant, unremarkable, and often even expected. Then again, to lie convincingly is difficult, and fooling everyone takes talent...and constant effort.

Lies are a daily ration of soldiers at war. Big ones start in the office of the President, occasionally swing through Congress, always travel the express lane to the Pentagon, gain scope and momentum as they roll down the chain of command, and finally swamp grunts at the bottom. These liars sometimes mean well, but usually do not. People in large organizations dread failure, hope to cover mistakes, think they are doing something for the job, want to help someone, or fear being dropped from the team.

If you are intelligent and in the military, you learn to live with lies—yours and others—like a boxer learns to roll with punches. Although you must be wary, you should also be selective about calling lies. Despite too many casualties, no one questions the lies that caused the losses. If some pilot dies, the default reflex is to say that it must have been his own fault. Shoddy briefing, withholding information, and outright deceit play no role in the military blame game. Peoples’ lives matter less than mission accomplishment—no matter how questionable or legal. Legality, like truth, tends to get blurred in any extension of politics by other means. Might not only makes right: it determines those other means. A well-educated pawn can recognize facts, although that rarely does much good...

*

My name is John Hale.

I had managed to stay alive through two tours in Vietnam as an Army aviator and going on one year as a contract pilot in Laos. My guess was that some combination of skill, knowledge, and luck had kept me alive. Luck probably played the biggest role; then again careful preparation and healthy skepticism remained key weapons against friend and foe—often the classification blurred. I knew that enemy bullets, as well as friendly fire, favored no one in particular. If anyone ever thought about them, most knew the odds...or thought they did. Flying was a job that I enjoyed, and any job came with people you liked and people you did not like; people you tolerated and people you tried to avoid; and people you trusted and people you did not trust. In a war zone, especially a secret one, knowing distinctions could save your life. Few Americans knew that the country of Laos even existed, and even fewer knew about the war being waged to prevent dominoes from tumbling. I had figured out that little lies bothered me less than the big ones. After all, I was confronted with government lies every day...and had been since joining Army.

Lying characters still resided at the top of the US Government, unchanged from when I was in the Army. I now worked for another tentacle and was a lowly link on a different chain of command. I did not deal with people in uniform, but egos were as large and self-importance seemed to be a job prerequisite. In the Army, I had served because I had to; I had chosen my current job. Army pilots seldom learned what the powers that be might be thinking. I learned that the Customer usually meant well—or thought he did—and have occasionally received a valuable tidbit of information. Still, those guys were so busy doing so much good for the world, that they did not notice the damage they caused. It was a forest-for-the trees kind of thing, fostered by lies, illusions, arrogance, and ignorance. At a selfish level, I had noticed how these people and their attitude could cause problems for me. The main problem was that aircraft and pilots were replaceable tools for people who valued only ideology and were driven by fear, ignorance, and arrogance. Although a lost aircraft or pilot might create a minor hassle and waste some time, both could be replaced. Non-tangibles, like the mission, could not be salvaged. Perhaps, that explained why half-truths and lies flowed so freely and easily, when the Customer spoke with pilots about a mission. Maybe they did not even notice, but I did.

Like flying in a crosswind, I compensated…and always doubted information provided by any organization. Invariably, you could trust another pilot not to lie about what was happening; occasionally, you could even trust someone on the ground, if you noticed no panic in his radio transmission. We never fully trusted the Customer, even if we smiled and nodded. The farther away from the front that you encountered these characters, the more fanciful became fairy tales that they spun. Survival in my line of work depended upon knowing who to trust, what information to believe, and which questions to ask. Even then, each day you discovered your own reality.

Of course, I tried to avoid lying, but no one could. I had learned that it was part of human nature. From a young age, I had known that the trick was to avoid being caught...

*

I liked Ed Gleason, the ops chief at Udorn, and even trusted him most of the time. He resembled an elderly schoolteacher and, at times, seemed like a favorite uncle, if he let you get a peek beyond his gruff exterior. His private life was stuff of rumors, which gave him a family in the States, a Thai housemate, varying numbers of children, and unconfirmed adventures during annual leaves. He had spent years in Thailand and other theaters, where shadow wars with the Evil Empire have been contested since the end of the Big One (his terms). He had done, seen, and heard it all. Although someone had once tickled a confession about having escaped a horrible childhood on a farm in Arkansas, his history officially started with flying the Hump from India into China to supply that crook, Chang Kai Shek (again, his words). The Army Air Corps introduced the excitement of aviation and the lure of Asia. He stayed to become a contract pilot—from Iran to Korea and most points in between along the southern expanse of the communist world. He could tell the Customer to fuck off and have him like it, but could also coax a pilot into flying a mission, which he had refused as being foolhardy. No one knew danger better than Ed, and no one questioned his honesty or concern for pilots. His lies were like chili in a meal: added spice that usually would not kill you.

After a milk run to Luang Prabang and back, I stood in front of the mission board and checked assignments for the next day. The aircraft number told me that I would be flying with Lee, the Korean, which made me happy. I was not pleased with the co-pilot, Jack Becker, the organization clown. He had flown in Asia for nearly ten years, staying because he could avoid child support payments, women were cheap, alcohol was cheaper, and someone 5’ 6" could feel tall. He had been an Army warrant officer, which had been another blow to his ego. Air America pilots were of relatively equal rank: seniority ruled. Only his height remained an issue, which he solved with high-heeled cowboy boots, mistreating natives, and attitude. His quick, devious mind made up for lack of education, enabling him to sound knowledgeable on many subjects about which he knew little. I had never met anyone more shameless.

Get plenty of rest tonight, boys, Ed yelled from his desk. And lay off drinkin’ and nookie. Becker, don’t smoke anything stronger than Camels.

I turned and found Jack leaning on the door jam. He grinned and winked.

You’re asking too much Ed, Jack drawled. I can’t sleep without a sleeping potion.

Yeah, Ed, what’s the deal? I asked, less concerned about alcohol than the mission.

Just do what I told ya, ‘cause it’s important.

What’s more important than a bit of fun? Jack said, winking again.

You’ll find out in the morning. Make sure you’re on time...and sober. And, stay away from bargirls—you guys talk too much.

Yes, grandpa, Jack mumbled, pulling a face before departing.

Ed glanced at me, so I smiled. He made a motion with his hand to indicate that we would be crossing the fence into Laos. When I shrugged—we did that just about every trip—he made a double motion and put his finger to his lips. I pursed my lips and nodded. On the way out the door, I smiled to myself. It felt good that Ed trusted me. How did he know that I never talked with bargirls, I wondered?

I caught up with Jack, and we left the building together. I did not violate Ed’s confidence, but did suggest checking the aircraft to prevent surprises in the morning.

Not me, Jack said, turning towards a row of parked motorbikes. My presence is required elsewhere.

We promised Ed—

Screw Ed. I didn’t promise anything, and Scooter Riley’s got a birthday to celebrate. That’s moocho free booze and girls.

His cavalier bravado surprised me little. Once I understood the organization, I had guessed that Jack kept his job because of the devil-you-know personnel policy. He was known to be a borderline worthless pilot, but talented at leisure activities, wise cracks, practical jokes, and schmoozing the Customer. Although he loved to needle men into arguments, he knew when to stop: the point where heated words led to blows. This was not a bad talent to have, when weapons were always near at hand. Women received more cavalier treatment, which usually was repulsive. He could shrug off the worst insult, especially from a woman that he had tried to hit upon. He would pity her misfortune and move to the next victim of his charm. When he failed to get it for free, he would reluctantly pay, but only after haggling over the price. Not yet 30, he had already screwed up two marriages and left a third wife and child in the States. We were polar opposites in temperament: he clowned around, but was basically miserable, whereas I was more somber, but usually content. It had not taken me long to recognize his talent for making mistakes and wrong choices…in people and in everything he did. I was surprised that he had survived this long. Then again, I had learned that fate played by strange rules.

We parted ways, and my thoughts returned to the mission. Despite his hint, Ed had been less than forthcoming with information. I suspected that tomorrow’s mission would not be ordinary. Like there was no such thing as a short beer, nothing in this business was ever ordinary. Then again, it must not be that crucial, or he would have assigned a better co-pilot.

I wandered towards the flight line to check the aircraft logbook. Although I knew all the aircraft, I was not up to date on each one’s latest aches and pains.

Captain Jack, Lee called. You got night mission?

The title displayed a mixture of respect and tongue-in-cheek irreverence.

Nope. Just checking for tomorrow.

Lee smiled upon learning that we would be flying together. He had two facial expressions: optimistic and annoyed. I had seen him angry once and would not wish to be the object of his wrath. Having impressed me with his cheerfulness, that glimpse of his Mr. Hyde-side surprised me. I realized that his anger was a well-kept weapon, to be used only in defense or on someone well-deserving. He generally preferred laughter, but was like a fire cracker in a pretty package: nice to look at until you lit the fuse.

Who fly with?

Becker.

His collapsing smile told me something that I already knew. Although he was a mechanic, I spent more time with him than anyone in Udorn, so knew his opinion on most subjects. I had read somewhere that survival in this part of the world depended upon knowing that you would never know. I would always be a foreigner, no matter how much I tried to learn, befriend, or assimilate. Although I might discover some things, I would never fit in...especially while participating in a war. I was as close to Lee as I would ever get to an Asian person, but sensed barriers to closeness.

Americans had been a dominant factor in his country for as long as he had been alive. He grew up with the lingering impact of the Korean War and had endured hardship unknown in my life. Now, he worked for an American company associated with the US Government and fought in a different war. Our friendship had grown slowly, perhaps because of different nationalities, different positions in the company, and some unnecessary sense of inferiority on his part. From our first encounter, I had treated him as an equal, because I rarely felt superior to anyone. He must have sensed this, because he sought conversation—something unusual for a mechanic. During a long wait at a remote landing site, he had asked if I played chess. I admitted to being able to get through a game without serious injury, which made him smile. He offered to teach me the Korean version, which we soon came to play frequently. This led to a meal at a Korean restaurant, where I learned to enjoy bulgogi and to hate kimchi. The final step was a ping pong challenge, at which I held a slight edge. I politely refused his offer to teach me taekwondo, which he instructed, perhaps repulsed by his bent fingers and scarred forehead.

In trying to learn details about his life, I felt like a cross between a Vietnamese trash picker, who must eke out a living scavenging through the town dump, and an archeologist, who first tried to decipher hieroglyphics. Lee would answer some questions, but only sparsely. His terse responses suggested that he had something to hide or was embarrassed about his past. His reluctance led me to be less forthcoming about my life, out of fear of sounding arrogant or spoiled. My life had been rather simple, by American standards, but was luxurious compared to his.

Lee admitted being born on a farm somewhere between Seoul and Pusan—which told me nothing. His family had struggled against nature and corrupt officials. Hard work, cold, dirt, hunger, and lack of money described his life on the farm. Only after several months had he revealed that his father had been killed in the Korean War, meaning that his mother had raised him and two siblings while working the fields. Wanting to spare her youngest child the life that she had endured, she had begged a distant relative, who owned a transport company, to take Lee as an apprentice mechanic. At some point, he had been drafted in the Army and faced the brutal life of service in Vietnam, where Korean soldiers served the Americans and filled government coffers. Once finished with basic training, he appealed to a cousin, who was an officer, to arrange a transfer to aviation. American helicopters, which had flown over his farm, had always fascinated him. He recognized a way of avoiding harsher aspects of military service. He learned to be a UH-1 mechanic. Once his military commitment was complete, he asked another relative, whose husband had connections to the secret service, to help him apply for a job with Air America.

I had never asked his age, but guessed him to be older. Like most Koreans, he was one tough nut: a mixture of race, background, and taekwondo. Few people had forehead calluses, which he had developed from breaking bricks and bottles with his head. People underestimated him at their own peril. I had seen him thrash an American Marine twice his size that had picked a fight. On the other hand, he was an unusual Korean: he read books to improve his self-taught English. Once, he had explained that he read each book twice: a Korean translation and the English original. Although not great in grammar, he had a large vocabulary. I noticed that our conversations helped to improve his grasp of the language. He complained that other pilots ignored him, too busy drinking or screwing. He left racial connotations unsaid.

After checking the bird and chatting with Lee, I strolled towards the gate and waiting tuk tuks. It was only four-thirty. Confronted by eager drivers, I was forced to make my nightly decision. Where should I go to avoid my small apartment’s solitude, I wondered? Ed’s order to steer clear of drinks and girls killed almost every alternative in Udorn. This provincial capital, now overwhelmed by a huge US airbase, sported countless establishments, which catered to various wants, needs, and desires of the American military and multitudes of hangers-on, contract scavengers, and camp followers. The many sordid streets had become like wallpaper for me: ubiquitous, but hardly noticed. Every village or town with Americans within shouting, spitting, or crawling distance sported such leisure-time magnets, ranging in size from a single shack outside a firebase to Patpong in Bangkok. Each establishment was like a species of bird in mating season, hoping to attract attention with distinct plumage and sounds...except that mating season of the horny GI never stopped. Gay colors, garish lights, and loud music repulsed more than attracted me. I considered, and rejected, a visit to one of the many massage parlors, which thrived by relaxing weary warriors, as well as many whose only contact with war was the Stars & Stripes. At the moment, my tension was mostly mental, so a massage would not help. That left me with one choice: the only hotel favored by the thinking crowd, as well as higher-ranking officers, visiting government officials, upper echelon spooks, and the occasional reporter savvy enough to realize that there might be a story in Laos and unafraid to point out truth others ignored. Tablecloths were usually clean in the dining room, and one could sit alone with a book without being accosted by girls or mocked by other guests.

The moment the veranda came into view, I spotted an old acquaintance: Paul Anderson, a British freelance reporter. Here and at various bars or restaurants in Bangkok, our rambling chats had ranged from books to history to other lands. We rarely touched upon various governmental antics or the madness raging nearby. We were equally cynical. I had learned a great deal from him, and he had received the occasional non-attributable tip. Others avoided his company and many questioned my friendship with that drunken foreigner and, worse, reporter. Outwardly, he might resemble any alcoholic, which filled various and sundry hangouts scattered across Asia. I knew that he usually nursed a single gin and tonic all night, adding ice cubes at regular intervals. Despite our age difference—I guessed him to be my father’s generation—I enjoyed his company. He was intelligent, had a sense of humor, and liked to share his knowledge about things beyond the grip of this foolish war. His mind remained as sharp as the fencing saber, which he had once wielded for the Rhodesian Olympic team. And, he was the first person, which I had encountered in the war, who knew of and could quote Oscar Wilde.

Paul had been born in 1920 to wealthy British landowners in the former African colony. At an early age, he was sent to England to attend boarding school, followed by Sandhurst from which he was expelled for punching an officer: a relic of Victorian idiocy. Because he had felt lingering allegiance to king and empire, he had allowed his older brother to finagle a job in the secret service. He fought the Second World War from an office in London, learned the tricks, foibles, and foolishness of spooks, and convinced himself of the need for a university degree. After the war, he obtained a degree in history from Oxford and then joined the Times of London as staff writer. On the side, he wrote a novel about a spy—not unlike Ian Fleming’s—but was unable to interest a publisher. When his older brother died of injuries from a tiger attack, he inherited the family fortune. Not wishing to return to Africa, he sold the family farm for more than its worth, before natives of most colonies began to question British rule and plundering of their lands. After becoming independently wealthy, he let journalism be a full-time hobby. He claimed to be separated from his wife and admitted to having a daughter that he rarely saw, but avoided more detail. The one time that we had talked about money, he mentioned having parked his fortune in Switzerland to avoid taxes and spousal access.

His appearance belied that wealth. Each time we met, I wondered if he owned a comb. I never asked, but felt certain that he would not mind. I had witnessed disapproving glances from officers and heard comments disparaging journalists and citizens of the land that produced the floppy haired Beatles. I had joked about his thick eyeglasses, suggesting that he must have good eyes to see through the smudged lenses. Unconcerned, he regularly smeared them with whatever cloth came to hand. But, his smile was kindly and could deceive anyone not noticing the shrewdness of his gaze. I felt fortunate to have learned the sharpness of his intellect.

I raised my hand to signal Paul. He nodded, smiled, and motioned for me to join him. Before I could sit, he had already signaled for the waiter.

Great, he said. You can help me celebrate my birthday.

You alone?

What better way to overlook the ravages of time.

Well, then, Happy Birthday. Maybe you’ll let me buy you a drink.

He shrugged half heartedly. Each time that we had met, he had never allowed me to pay. He always mumbled something about ‘poor American cousins’ or ‘saving our bacon in two wars’.

How old are you?

Fifty-two.

My surprise must have showed.

You thought I was older?

No. Younger.

Recognizing my dishonesty, he smiled, shook his head, and gestured to the waiter to take my order.

Beer, I said, deciding that one would not kill me.

"You’re a bad liar, mon ami…Like all Americans."

I shrugged and grinned. He reached for his pack of Gauloises to replace the one close to burning his lip.

Besides your birthday celebration, what brings you to Udorn?

Chasing the usual rumors.

Found any real stories?

Not yet. Know anything?

Nothing the whole world isn’t ignoring.

He raised an eyebrow, as he touched a new cigarette to the old one. My Singha beer arrived, and I enjoyed the first swig.

The whole world is ignoring that American beer is the worst beer ever.

The reason you remain here? he wondered out loud.

One of them...And you?

It’s about as far away from my wife as I can get and still plead work. She won’t rest until she gets her hands on my money or my soul…or both.

We sipped our drinks and retreated into thought. I wondered why he stayed married to the wife he continually railed against. If I ever found a wife, she would have to be my best friend. Not much chance of that happening in this place or with the life that I was currently leading...

It’s your birthday, and I have no present, I said, feigning sadness.

Paul shrugged.

A bit of conversation will suffice.

I might be able to give you something tomorrow.

He merely moved his eyes from his glass to appraise me. I glanced around to judge the waiter’s distance.

I get the pleasure of dropping into bad-guy-land, I whispered through clenched teeth.

His expression suggested disappointment.

Don’t you do that every day?

I made a motion with my hand to indicate farther east, which brought a raised eyebrow.

You know, of course, I could be hung at sunrise for revealing that much, but I know how discreet you are.

He nodded solemnly, and then both laughed.

You haven’t told me anything, you know?

More than I should have.

He took a longer drink and frowned. I wondered what he was thinking; his expression suggested something unpleasant.

I’ve been there, he said.

Where?

Hanoi. Haiphong. Dien Bien Phu. Other places lacking household names.

You’re kidding. When?

First time was back in the ’50’s. The last time was with the Jane Fonda circus.

I felt my mouth drop and my eyes widen.

You never told me that.

Never had a reason.

What’s Hanoi like?

In the ’50’s, it was very French colonial. Now, it’s run-down colonial and bleak. The place made me think of an Asian 1984…with air raids. I didn’t notice any smiling faces, beyond the phony ones on officials controlling us.

And Dien Bien Phu?

It ain’t Disneyland. There’s no sign of anything that had happened…just a narrow road and a few huts. They don’t erect highway historical markers, like you guys.

I guess they don’t get many tourists.

Paul chuckled. He picked up his empty glass and glanced around. Although a birthday required more than one drink, I shook my head.

I have a theory, he said. If you compare and contrast Disneyland and Dien Bien Phu, you can see who’ll win this war.

You keep telling me we’ve lost already.

Yes, but your leaders don’t or can’t admit the truth, and you guys are still here killing people.

I could not disagree, so I merely nodded.

The entire American experience in Southeast Asia is going to be one gigantic Dien Bien Phu.

I made a face. That kind of talk did not provide encouragement for what I would face the next day…or any other day of flying in this theater.

I stopped being surprised at how easily the vulnerable can be manipulated by fear, which is driven by images on a television screen or words on paper.

You mean in Hanoi?

No, your country. Although Americans have nothing to fear, your politicians have convinced people that their way of life is threatened. People in North Vietnam understand having their lives threatened. They get tons of bombs dumped on their heads.

I can’t imagine the desperation, I said, empathizing with anyone having a single bomb dropped on them.

To quote a cliché, there are two levels of despair: you can be face up or face down in the gutter. I got the feeling that the North Vietnamese can watch the bombs fall.

Are you having dinner here? I asked to change the subject. I need to eat something.

It’s as good as any place in this town.

That’s one thing the war hasn’t spoiled. You can still eat well, if you know where to look.

I’m settled in this seat, and I don’t want to look. Let me buy you a meal.

It’s your birthday, so I’ll pay, I countered. Maybe I can even talk them into a clean tablecloth.

I waved to the waiter.

I guessed that I made more money than Paul, but he had an expense account. His lifestyle suggested that he did not tap into his inheritance in Switzerland. It was not wise to flash wealth in this neighborhood, and perhaps he played a role to prevent his wife from knowing his true net worth. I knew nothing about how husbands and wives arranged their finances, beyond having observed my parents share good and bad times. Regardless, the price of a meal would break neither. The menu offered Western items, with most ingredients surely pilfered from the military supply chain. We ordered Thai, which usually proved safer. I switched to cola, and Paul ordered the cheapest bottle of Australian wine. He could sleep it off tomorrow.

How long you gonna keep trying to get killed? he asked, after the waiter had delivered the already opened bottle.

It’s a job.

Paul rolled his eyes.

I’ve told you before that this is better than the Army. I get to fly without all the other garbage officers have to do.

Paul sucked on his cigarette and watched me.

There are less dangerous lines of work.

Crossing the street in Bangkok is dangerous: they drive on the wrong side.

Not for me.

He smiled. After a drink, his expression changed.

Aren’t you ever afraid?

Not much.

My reply surprised him.

Most men would be. I’ve been on infantry patrols…

I guess it’s a combination of feeling invincible and suppressing all thought of unpleasant consequences.

Is that possible? I can’t imagine.

I read somewhere that the human brain thinks everything before it happens, you know, like delaying a television transmission to block dirty words that upset Americans so much.

Paul shook his head.

You don’t belong here.

In the Army—and even now, sometimes—I always felt more like an observer than a participant. I tried to fit in and to be a team player. My actions were more for my own survival or my own benefit than for the good of the group. Some called me arrogant, because I refused to sacrifice my individuality completely…only enough to get by and be accepted by the undiscerning majority.

Paul smiled knowingly and nodded.

I remember Sandhurst being like that, except I did try at first. There were simply too many twits, so at some point it became intolerable. Boarding school had been fierce, but I was capable of fighting my way out of most situations. That did not work in the military.

I didn’t have a problem in school, probably because I was a good athlete and didn’t mind being a team player. Once in the Army, I discovered that the majority had little education and thought differently, if at all. I was trying to stay afloat in a sea of ignorance and different interests. Of course, I drank with fellow officers on enough occasions to avoid becoming an outcast, but rarely enjoyed the time. Flying was fun…which led to this. Sometimes it is difficult to hide my contempt, and that’s always interpreted as arrogance. I simply loathed the small-minded kind, which tends to thrive in the military.

Paul nodded. His faraway look suggested that he understood.

You strike me as someone with the perfect emotional detachment for the work you do, which suggests that you were probably one step away from being a radical and potential draft dodger.

I let out a breath to emphasize my surprise.

That must be a very big step, because I never had such thoughts. I was in ROTC and tried to play the game, even when those around me showed up in white bucks or no tie for dress uniform inspection. At that time, I was still an idealist. I did not become a cynic, until I went on active duty and discovered the truth about the military.

He smiled and took a long drag on his cigarette.

Then it must be tough to force yourself to believe the lies, Paul said. You don’t belong here.

I’m a realist: it’s a job. If I had stayed home after my last tour in Vietnam, I don’t know what I’d be doing.

Paul shook his head and gazed at me.

What are you trying to escape?

Nothing, I said, surprised by his question.

Ever study philosophy or psychology?

I shook my head and made a face.

Only strange people took those courses.

It’s probably a good thing you never did.

Paul studied me for a moment.

Like I said before: you don’t belong here.

I don’t belong anywhere. The thing is I like to fly, and flying’s good here. Sure, I get shot at, and some missions are a bit hairy, but it’s basically an interesting job with good pay. What more can I want?

Paul raised an eyebrow. I guessed that he had been there a time or two, thus probably doubted my false bravado.

I can’t imagine working in an office or teaching school or...I don’t know what.

There are flying jobs that do not include being shot at.

I couldn’t be an airline pilot. I would die of boredom reading checklists and flying the same routes. The only good flying is in Alaska, but it don’t pay squat. Besides, it’s too cold; the beaches are better in Thailand.

Well, I’m glad to hear that you did not come back to save the world.

I shook my head.

Nothing virtuous or glamorous. My reason was rather banal. I like to fly, and Air America pays well. Also, it postpones the need to think about what I want to do when I grow up.

Paul raised his glass.

If you live that long. Cheers.

He drank and seemed to ponder something.

There must be a deeper reason for your staying, he said, his forehead wrinkling.

Sorry, doctor. I have thought about this. I know plenty of guys that volunteered—even for the Marines—when they didn’t have to. They signed up to fight...to die even, out of some false sense of...I don’t know what. They pretended to believe in something, which they could not explain. I was not so foolish, but still ended up being carried by the tide, too lazy to resist or even think about a way out.

That might have been true for your military service. Why did you volunteer for what you’re doing now?

I wanted to do something I thought I enjoyed.

Which does not preclude that, deep down, you must be patriotic.

I shook my head.

If you ask me, I’ve come to see patriotism as wasted emotion. Useless. It’s like religion. You’re forced to believe in something that does others good—the government, the church, the system; you name it. It does little for you, besides make demands. If you survive in the Army, you get some colored thread that ends up in a box in your attic. In church, you get a tasteless wafer, a sip of wine mingled with the preceding sinners’ germs, and a false promise of a better life.

Words like that come only from someone that rebels.

Not necessarily.

I noticed his eyes move towards the entrance and then turned to discover a group of new arrivals. I should have known that the attraction would be female and not Asian. To the regret of all but one man, this woman was taken. Anything more risky than staring could land someone in a hospital, jail, or cemetery.

She’s married.

That never stopped anyone for long, Paul observed, turning his attention back to me. Unfortunately, there are too many guns in these parts to take a risk. In London, any attractive woman is worth a try…especially a married one.

Her husband’s Air Force and a jerk…highly decorated, I’ve heard.

Ah, pretty ribbons, Paul said, glancing at the woman again. Some women are drawn to the pomp and circumstance of military honors. There’s something about a uniform…

Which I don’t get.

And decorations.

Want my opinion? I said, not concealing my disdain.

Paul’s expression showed interest.

I’ve got medals. Each citation is a fine work of fiction. Too many medals and promotions go to guys or are given by guys whose main talent is the ability to sift good news from every disaster they caused or were involved with.

Winners always write the history books.

Maybe, but I think they’ve started a bit early.

You should read some English military history. I think it’ll take some time to sink in that you’ve lost already…longer in Washington than in Kansas.

Until they do, too many will go home in a body bag and the rest with the tail between their legs.

Paul smiled.

Perhaps Americans don’t even know how to admit defeat.

The wrong guys are making the wrong decisions about the wrong strategies, I said. That’s why a lot of folks are dying, and I sometimes wonder if anyone cares.

The anti-war movement seems to be catching on. You’d fit right in, perhaps better than here.

There’s been one for years, and not much has changed.

You can always leave, Paul said. Australia’s nice.

"There’s no good flying jobs, and I like to fly. I do it to the best of my ability and take the money at the end of the month. I hope to survive in one piece. I don’t judge my ability by other’s incompetence. Around here, that would be too easy and make me one of the heroes…I’m not.

Paul pretended to applaud and then grinned.

Did you notice the civilian in that woman’s group? he asked.

Probably some visitor from Bangkok or Washington, I replied, not concealing my disdain.

Washington. I met him at a cocktail party in Bangkok. He’s here on a fact-finding mission for some senator.

I hate those jerks. Most are arrogant and ignorant bastards, who fly in to inspect something they don’t understand. They expect to have their asses kissed, while treating the natives that are fighting for their country with scorn.

That’s more emotion than I’ve heard you heap on the enemy, Paul said, grinning.

I’ve had to fly too many and been forced to listen to their guff. They’re always in a hurry to finish what they’re supposed to do, so they can get to Patpong or Pattaya. I’ve even heard some boast about helping the Thai economy, but it only enhances their prejudices about how little they respect Thailand’s contribution to defeating communism.

Same everywhere. All government officials see trips as a perk.

Perk? It’s a goddam crime. Most are too stupid, lazy, and arrogant to get the facts right. I’ve heard them joke about lying to their wives. But, that’s not the worst part. After taxpayers paid for them to get laid, they go home and deceive the American public.

Like I said earlier, I’m surprised you stay.

You can run into jerks in every job.

Those jobs do not require you to get shot at.

I shrugged.

Well, I hope you come back tomorrow with a nice story, Paul said. I need something new to write about.

I probably won’t be able to talk about it…especially after being seen in public with you.

Our meal arrived, and we busied ourselves with chopsticks.

There are rumors you spy for the English? I said, after swallowing the first load.

His chopsticks paused in mid-flight. Without taking his eyes off me, he then guided the food to his mouth and chewed…slowly. I waited for an answer, watching him carefully wipe his mouth with a napkin.

Let’s say that, in the course of my work, I observe a lot and speak with a many people. Mostly, I ask questions and write news stories. Occasionally, someone asks me something. Although no money changes hands, I have enjoyed some rather posh lunches at exclusive clubs in London.

After fruit and jasmine tea, our talk turned to Laos. Paul knew that I spent most of my time in a country that enjoyed no official American presence. It was easy to conceal a war in a place that Americans neither knew nor cared about.

Do you ever question or even think about the morality of this war—especially what’s happening in Laos?

No.

He looked askance, probably expecting more.

Why should I? I can’t do anything about it.

It’s not a question of doing something: it’s a matter for debate. That’s what one does in a democracy. Although in your form of democracy, debate means agreeing with the highest bidder.

I know I can’t change anything, so I take things as they come and do what’s best for me. I’m happy flying.

Paul shook his head.

"I have a very simple take: might makes right. The government has the power, which is why I ended up in Vietnam in the first place. Once I had fulfilled my legal commitment and my duty, the power to decide switched to me. I liked the flying and

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