Preface

Udorn

The Klong

The Routine

The Monsoon Season

One More For the Ditch

A Disappointment

Samchai

The Morning After

Family

Udorn

 

Descending into Bangkok was like descending into the sea. As the C-141 let down, its cooling system strained against the increasing heat and humidity and its overhead ducting began to throw fog streamers and water spurts that landed on Cass's khakis. By the time the giant aircraft taxied to the ramp and shut down he was soaked. The door popped open, its outline diffused by the ten o' clock brightness, and heat began to flood the airplane in earnest. Cass heard a loud discussion outside in a mixture of English and Thai. He caught a few "chai's" and "mai's", "yes's" and "no's," two of the few Thai words still stuck in his memory. A pert, dark-eyed, black-haired young woman stepped into the airplane. With hardly a glance in their direction she called off his name and the names of the other colonels. "Will you come with me please?" She'd pronounced his name, "Cat." He sighed, reminding himself that to the Thai, his name, "Gus Cass," with its terminal sibilants, was unpronounceable. He led the pack down to the asphalt and walked beside the girl while the others trailed behind. Her name-tag said "Pat."

"Welcome to Bangkok, Colonel" she said.

"Thank you." He rummaged in his memory and surprised himself by coming up with the phrase he wanted. "Khawp khoon, khap" He said. Thank you, ma'am. He'd said it badly, he knew.

"You have been to Thailand before," Pat said.

"Nine years ago."

"And then, you were where? Bangkok?"

"Ubon. But I used to come to Bangkok sometimes. Everything looks different now."

Cass was astonished at the changes in Don Muang airport since he'd last passed through it. The old, tile-roofed buildings had been water-stained and shabbily exotic, his vision of what turn-of-the-century Siam might have been. Now there was a lot more concrete on the field and he and Pat were walking toward a flat-roofed, concrete-block military passenger terminal that would have seemed more in place on a base in the United States. He could see the old civilian terminal a half mile down the ramp and he remembered the feeling of adventure that old building always had given him.

The air and the countryside fit his memories though, the crushing heat, the faint fragrance of myriad flowers, beyond the tarmac a tracery of lacelike foliage leading the eye out and out, plane by plane, until distance vanished in an accumulation of haze. To understand Asian painting, he thought, one had to see Asia. Rising planes rather than vanishing-point perspective to symbolize distance wasn't a "primitive" device. It was an accurate rendition of this reality.

Pat led the way through a small courtyard dingy with unfinished construction, and through a second door into a dark, air-conditioned room. As Cass's eyes began to adjust he saw that the furniture was of the schmaltzy "decorator" style standard for "Distinguished Visitor" lounges all over the world. But this particular furniture was made of Thailand's ubiquitous teakwood.

"How long do you think it will be before we board again?" Cass asked Pat.

"Probably about twenty minutes."

"Was that a little exchange I saw next to the terminal when we came in?

"Yes, sir. If you want to go there I will come for you when it is time to board. You may leave your briefcase here. I will watch it for you."

Cass went out through the half-finished courtyard and along a flower-fringed walk. He remembered arriving at Ubon on Sunday without towels, soap, or shower clogs and scrounging uncomfortably for a day and a night before the tiny base exchange opened. He hadn't expected it to be that primitive. This time he'd be prepared.

The little store was crowded with passengers and he had a hard time finding what he wanted. He'd just finished checking out when Pat came through the door. "Time to board, sir," she said, handing him his briefcase. They walked together to the airplane and at the door Pat put her hands together in front of her face and bowed in a wai, the graceful Thai expression of greeting, farewell, and obedience. "Sawadee, ka," Good-bye, sir, she said. "Have a pleasant trip,."

"Sawadee, khap," Good-bye, ma'am. Cass swung aboard the dark, brutally hot airplane, and took a seat next to Chuck Harper who looked up, grunted, and went back to reading a newspaper. Cass opened his briefcase and got out a novel. During the flight from Clark Cass had tried to talk to Harper but he'd found the exercise difficult to the point of futility. Harper was a caricature of the all-business military officer, the kind of straw man you thought of when someone used the phrase, "military mind." He was to be the new base commander at Udorn.

The airplane cooled off during the hour's flight to Udorn and the letdown was a repeat of the descent into Bangkok. Chuck Harper had fallen asleep and on the way down and Cass used Chuck's newspaper to shield himself from the water, but the water soaked through and by the time the airplane taxied toward the ramp his khakis were drenched and smeared with ink.

The airplane door opened and a ramrod-straight senior master sergeant stepped inside and came down the isle to where the two colonels were sitting. "Colonel Harper?" he asked.

"I'm Harper," Chuck said.

"Sergeant Withers, sir. I'm your first sergeant. I'm here to pick you up."

Harper stood up. "Let's get going then, Sergeant."

"It'll be a few minutes before your luggage is off the airplane sir, but if you'll come with me I'd like to introduce you to a few people." Harper stamped off the airplane followed by Sergeant Withers.

As Cass stood up, a young three-striper boarded the airplane. "Are you Colonel Cass, sir?"

"Right."

"If you'll come with me, sir, we'll get your luggage. We've called a car to take you wherever you want to go."

"No need to do that," Cass said. "Some of the people from my outfit must be here to meet me."

"Are you coming in PCS, sir?"

"I'm the new commander of the 621st."

"Gee. . ," the boy fumbled. "I… I wonder if they knew you were on this flight. I didn't see any of them in the terminal."

"Maybe they didn't know. I'll give 'em a call when we get inside." Cass stepped out into the staggering heat, paused, and looked around the airfield before he began walking toward the passenger terminal. A single glance was enough to tell him that his Don Muang shopping trip had been a waste of time. When he'd arrived at Ubon nine years earlier the "base" had been a sleepy community of screened huts that housed a radar site and a token support unit, a tiny neighborhood of screen-walled, tin-roofed "Bambi hut" barracks, a grove of palms, orchids, jasmine, many snakes, mostly poisonous, and a few streets, mostly dirt. Until the bombing began in north Vietnam life at Ubon had been pleasant and laid-back, but during the first two months of the buildup the base had expanded from 150 people to over a thousand as an F-4 fighter squadron settled in. But even when Cass left to take over a radar site in the Vietnam delta, the atmosphere at Ubon had remained unhurried and the facilities primitive.

What Cass saw now defied belief. Udorn Airbase stretched in front of him as far as he could see, a great plain of concrete, studded with steel bunkers, antennas, jet-blast shields, buildings, Cyclone fences, all shadowless and shimmering under the noonday sun. Fuel trucks, fork lifts, tugs, pickups, armament trailers, oxygen carts, plied back and forth on the ramp like traffic in a city street. As he watched, a flight of jet fighters took off with a roar that shook the concrete under his feet. Across the runway he saw three large, white radomes that must house the antennae of Brigham Control, one of the radar sites in his new command. The bubbles were impressive but they were overshadowed by a collection of Brobdingnagian, open antennae that looked like construction derricks and whose purpose he couldn't even imagine. A section of buildings farther down the runway looked less industrial than the rest. That must be the living area. Some of the buildings in it were several stories high!

He followed the airman into the passenger terminal. "There's a phone in that office, sir," the boy said. Cass sat down at a desk, found a telephone book, looked up the 621st orderly room and dialed the number. There was no answer. He looked in the book again and tried the number for Brigham operations. After the first ring a harried voice said, "Brigham, Sergeant Wellman."

"This is Colonel Cass, Sergeant Wellman. Isn't anyone in the orderly room today?"

"No sir. They don't work on Sunday. Is there anything I can help you with, sir?" He sounded in a hurry.

"I'm the new 621st commander. I'm in the passenger terminal. Do you suppose somebody in our outfit could come over and pick me up?"

There was a long pause. In a moment Sergeant Wellman said, "Sir… I… Can you stand by one sir?" Cass stood by. A new voice came on the telephone. "Sir, this is Captain Allen. I'm not sure Sergeant Wellman got what you said. Who did you say you were?"

Cass sighed. "I'm Colonel Cass. I'm the new commander of the 621st."

"Where you calling from, sir?"

"From the passenger terminal."

Allen put his hand over the mouthpiece, but Cass heard him yell, "Tell him to stand by." There was some background noise and Allen shouted: "Call Blue Chip and tell 'em if they don't give us the tanker they can write this guy off." The background noise faded as Allen put the telephone back to his ear.

"Allen," Cass said, "If you've got trouble over there, I'll drop off."

"We've got two emergencies in progress, sir."

"Okay," Cass said. "Go back to work. I'll bum a ride across the field and find some place to flop. When things quiet down, get hold of whoever's the acting commander and tell him I'm here. Okay?"

"Yes sir," Allen said. The phone went dead.

Cass got up and went out to the counter. "I'll take that ride," he said to the three-striper.

"Yes sir. The car'll be here in a minute. Your baggage is over there." The man pointed to where Cass's two bags were propped against the wall of the terminal. Cass sat down on them. His uniform was wet, his pants were streaked with black ink, sweat was rolling off his forehead into his eyes. It was an inauspicious beginning.

He looked up and saw Sergeant Withers coming toward him. "Sir," the sharp-looking NCO said. "Colonel Harper went on with the Wing Commander. I'm headed across the field. Can I drop you somewhere?"

"I'm headed for the billeting office, sarge. You going that way?"

"Yes sir. group headquarters is right next door."

"Let's go." Cass told the Airman at the desk to cancel the car and he and Sergeant Withers threw his bags into Withers's pickup. "Whew," Cass said as he got in. "I'd almost forgotten how hot Thailand can get. Three days ago I left Colorado in a blizzard."

"It's gonna get worse before it gets better," Withers said. "Yesterday we had a hundred eight. Today it's supposed to get hotter. It's up to a hundred already. You been here before, sir?"

"Ubon," Cass said. "In nineteen-sixty-four. I can't believe what this place is like. How many people you have here?"

"Over seven-thousand. Ten, maybe, if you count Air America, and the State Department people, and the missionaries, and the various and sundries. Oh… And the dependents."

"Dependents?"

"Yeah. A lot of 'em. there'll be more when school's out back in the States."

"How can they get in?" Cass asked. "When I was at Ubon, if you got caught bringing your dependents into Thailand you lost credit for your unaccompanied tour."

Withers eyes never left the road but Cass could feel the sergeant sizing him up. "How long's it been since you were a commander, sir?"

"Since I left Can Tho… About seven and a half years."

"Things have changed. Like the dependents. They come in on tourist visas. We can't keep 'em out. It isn't Constitutional or something. If we try to keep them out we violate their civil rights. Wait'll you have to give somebody an article fifteen or a court martial."

"What happens?"

"You can hack it if you're careful as hell, but it's not the offense or the evidence that matters. It's the technicalities. All the paperwork's got to be perfect. It takes a lot of work by the commander and the first sergeant."

"You know my first shirt?"

"Yeah. Elton Rafferty. He's a good first sergeant. He understands what bugs the youngsters."

"What does bug the youngsters?"

"These aren't the same kids we used to see, even eight years ago. One thing they don't take… They don't take chickenshit very well. But they're smart. Probably smarter than we were when we were green. They do a good job, but they want to know why. There are some dummies in the bunch. Some troublemakers. But most of 'em want to do a good job. And they do."

They crossed a taxiway and passed a half dozen Thai bungalows set on stilts in front of a deep grove of tall, cool-looking deciduous trees. "That looks like the Thailand I remember," Cass said.

"Yeah. It's changed a lot. This is my fourth tour."

"How long ago was your first?"

"Nine years. Here at Udorn. You must have been at Ubon at the same time." Withers drove silently for a minute. "My wife's Thai."

"You take her back to the States? Between times?"

"Yeah. It didn't work out so well."

"She missed having other Thai around."

"Right." They drove down a long, straight stretch of road, past a baseball diamond where a game was going on. The stands were full of people. At least a third of the fans had Thai girls next to them. "When it folds up here," Withers said. "I don't know what's going to happen. We've got two kids."

They were passing the main gate. Vehicles were lined up waiting to be checked through by a combined Thai-American guard team. Pedestrians streamed in and out: GI's in fatigues and bright summer sports-clothes, a hodgepodge of women, most of them in miniskirts, some carrying parasols against the sun. Just outside the gate a line of wet, muddy, giggling urchins threw water from tin cans at passers by.

"Songkran," Withers said. "The lunar new year and the water festival. Today's the third day."

"Oh no," Cass said. "Tomorrow too!"

"Yeah. It isn't too bad when it's just kids with tin cans, but downtown, people are going around with buckets and hoses."

They swung into the heart of the cantonment area, where a steady stream of people flowed up and down the wooden sidewalks. Sergeant Withers pulled up in front of a small wooden building edged on both sides by high bushes. "I'll wait for you, Colonel. They'll be putting you in the trailer area for senior officers. It's a long walk with baggage."

The little building was air conditioned and cool. Cass stepped up to the counter and caught the Thai clerk's attention. "I'm Colonel Cass," he said. "I'm coming in PCS."

"Yes, sa," the clerk said. He put a form in front of Cass. "Fill out please, sa. You hab lesevation?"

"I sure hope so. I'm here for a year."

"What unit, sa?"

"621st Tactical Control Squadron."

"Oh… Chai." Yes. The clerk examined a large Plexiglas-covered diagram of the living area. "You lib taila numba one tee zelo. You stay D.V. taila tonise."

"Why can't I go to trailer 130 if that's where I'm supposed to live?"

"No can do, sa. Eh conditiona you loom need fix. Hab fix maybe tee, fou day."

"Anything else wrong with trailer 130?"

"No sa," the clerk examined the diagram again. "Colonel Asfod stay taila one tee zelo, loom A."

"I don't want to move in twice."

"Solly, sa. No can do. Billeting offica say you go D.V. taila tonise."

Cass was hot, tired, rumpled, and his body was still on Colorado time. In Colorado it was about one in the morning. He decided he'd had enough for one day. "You have a key to trailer 130?"

"Yes sa."

"Give me the key to trailer 130." The clerk rummaged in a set of pigeonholes and handed Cass the key. "Who's the billeting officer?"

"Lieutenant Bud, sa."

"Where is he?"

"He go hab chow, sa."

Cass looked at the man's name tag. "Okay, Prakhet, thank you. When Lieutenant Bud comes back, you tell him I made you give me the key to trailer 130. If that's a problem he can come over this afternoon and we'll discuss it."

The clerk grinned. "Yes sa."

Sergeant Withers drove down a narrow, blacktopped road with deep ditches on both sides. They went past the buildings that had appeared from the other side of the runway to be high-rise hotels. The tallest was five stories. "Company grade BOQ's," Withers said. "Not bad, but pretty dark inside. Two men to a room." They turned into an area crammed with small trailers. "Field graders. Each officer has his own end. Bathroom in the middle. It's a little cramped, but private." He pulled up at the edge of a white fence. In front of them a wooden walkway ran for a couple hundred feet through pleasantly landscaped grounds full of clipped, green grass, palms, bushes, short trees bursting with flowers.

"That's your trailer. Second on the right." Eight, sixty-foot trailers with side extensions were spaced out along the boardwalk, four on each side. They looked cool and inviting. Cass and Withers carried Cass's bags down the walk to trailer 130. There were slots for two name signs next to the door. One was empty. The other said: "Ashford." Cass knocked on the door, but no one answered. He got out his key and unlocked it. Sergeant Withers helped him dump the bags on the living room floor.

"Thanks, Sarge. I guess I'll be seeing you around. How long you still have on this tour?"

"Five months," Withers said. "I'm working on another extension."

"Good luck."

"Thanks, Colonel. It was good to meet you. When you're ready to eat, the o' club's back the way we came. Start going in that direction and ask somebody. It isn't far."

It was cool inside the trailer. The front door opened into a large living area with a kitchenette off to the right, where an air conditioner purred over the sink. The floor was carpeted in green. Green drapes over a large picture window saturated the room with soft, green light. An eight foot, vinyl-covered sofa filled the space beneath the picture window. Above the window a lovely, almost life-sized nude girl lounged on a rock by the sea. The picture was mounted under Plexiglas, bolted to the wall, and it dominated the room. There was a coffee table in front of the couch, a telephone on an end table, a leather-covered easy chair next to the telephone, an empty study desk just inside the door. A second desk with neatly stacked books and papers stood at the far side of the room next to a hallway. Cass went down the hall. The first room was a bedroom, occupied. An open closet held several short-sleeved blue uniform shirts on hangers. The one in front had silver oak-leaves on the collar.

The second room was the bathroom. Beyond the bathroom the hall ended in a door that opened into a second bedroom. The bed was made up neatly and the room was unoccupied. A sheet of plywood covered a large cutout in one wall. The missing air conditioner. Cass lugged his baggage down the hall into the end room and began to unpack. While he was unfolding his bulging B4 bag on the bed the room closed in around him for a moment and he felt a rush of fatigue. He was tempted to move the bag and lie down, but he knew that the quickest way to adjust to the time inversion was to sleep, get up, and eat, according to local time rather than to his body rhythm. He decided to eat.

He locked the door and went off in the general direction of the billeting office. Wooden walkways through the back areas made the trip shorter on foot than it had been by car. The boardwalks spanned green-banked ditches that crisscrossed the housing area. Buildings, lawns, and flower beds stretched out before him, lethargic in the afternoon sun. People in shorts, covered with suntan oil, sunned themselves on lawn chairs. He passed an Olympic-size swimming pool surrounded by a chain link fence, crowded with people, many of them American women in bikinis. At a corner near the billeting office he asked the way to the officers' club and found it a block farther down the main street: a low, brown building behind a circular driveway fringed with trees and shrubs.

He climbed four steps to a porch, entered the building through a heavy double door, and found himself in a foyer with a cashier's window at one side. An archway to his right opened on a dark, cool bar. A second arch on his left led to the dining room, a huge room carpeted comfortably in green. On one side there was a long row of windows that looked out on a landscaped and manicured patio, and in front of the windows a row of nearly empty tables, each one covered with a tablecloth bearing a different unit insignia. Not quite so large, but more fully occupied tables with plain tablecloths were scattered around the rest of the room. Cass walked half way to the back and sat down at an empty table. As soon as he was seated a trim-looking Thai woman of about thirty came up, flashed him a warm smile, and handed him a menu, a two-part slip of paper that looked like a restaurant check, and a pencil. "Sawadee, Colonel," she said. "You want bar wait-ress? Today Sun-day. Free bloo-dy mary."

"No Thanks," he said. "I need to eat." He leaned sideways to look at her nametag. "Jariya," it said.

"Oohoi." she giggled, covering her breast with a slender hand. "What you look?"

He laughed. "Look at your name. How do you say it?"

"Jariya." She pronounced it without an accented syllable.

"Sawadee, Jariya. What do I do with this?" He waved the check.

"Fill out," she said. She picked up the pencil and slip. "Club card number?"

"I don't have a club card number yet. I just got here."

"T… D… Y. . ," she said, writing the letters carefully in a block on the form.

"But I'm not TDY. I live here."

"Mai pin lai," It doesn't matter, she said, matter-of-factly. "No club card num-ber… T.D.Y. What you eat?" She flashed him another broad grin.

He grinned back and opened the menu. "What's the soup?"

"Beant ba-con soup."

"Good. I'll have bean bacon soup."

She finished taking his order, smiled at him again, separated the two-part check, put one copy on the table, and went off with the other. He watched her walk away with a springy, athletic step. She had nice legs.

In a few minutes Jariya came back with his soup and some crackers. While she was filling his glass with iced tea a heavyset waitress ran past Cass's table with a young man in a sport shirt carrying a half-full water glass, close behind and gaining. He cornered the girl at the back of the room and drenched her with the water. She screamed and began laughing. He ran away and she scooped up a glass of water from a table and ran after him. They thundered past Cass's table and disappeared through the archway leading to the foyer. "Lao lao, Ubolrat," Quick quick, Ubolrat, Jariya shouted.

Cass laughed. "I forgot. Songklan." He dipped the ends of his fingers into his water glass and snapped them at Jariya. "Good luck to Jariya."

She giggled, picked a piece of ice off the top of a water pitcher, circled behind him and dropped it down his neck. "Sawadee pi mai," Happy new year, she laughed. "Welcome to Udon Thani, Colonel." She went off toward a table where three young men in sports clothes were seating themselves.

Cass was surprised to see how many different kinds of people came into the dining room. Most of them were young men, some in uniform but most in civilian clothes since it was Sunday, but he also saw American women of all ages, children, babies, elderly couples, a surprising cross-section considering Udorn was in up-country Thailand. When he'd finished his soup Jariya came to the table. "More ice tea, Colonel?"

"No," he said. "I have to go unpack. Sawadee."

"Sawadee," she smiled. "See you later."

He paid his check at the cashier's counter near the archway and walked back slowly to his trailer, beginning to enjoy the hot, quiet, fragrant afternoon. As Cass let himself in, a slightly younger, athletic-looking man got up from the couch where he'd been napping. "Hi, Colonel" he said, smiling out of dark brown eyes with laugh-lines at the corners. "I'm Alan Ashford. I guess we're trailer mates."

"Gus Cass." They shook hands. Alan's grip was solid.

"I see you moved into that end room, without the air conditioner. If you'd rather have the room I'm in, I'd be glad to move."

Cass sat down on the desk chair just inside the door. "How long you been here, Alan?"

"One month tomorrow, Colonel."

"My name's Gus," Cass said.

Alan laughed and flopped back down on the couch. "Okay… But I really don't care which room I'm in. I just took the first one I came to."

"I like that end room," Cass said. "And I don't care about air conditioning. I like to sleep with a window open."

"You'd better keep the door open too. It stays hot as hell around here, even at night."

"I was in Thailand before," Cass said. "We didn't have air conditioning. I'm sorry we have it now. I like to smell the outdoors."

"When were you here?"

"In sixty-four and sixty-five. We lived in Bambi huts. They had screens for walls, and tin roofs that overhung about six feet, and flaps you could drop in a really bad rainstorm. It was like living outdoors. After a while you got so you loved it."

"Fascinating," Alan said. "You and I almost overlapped. "I was at Nakon Phanom in sixty-seven." He nodded toward the kitchen air conditioner. "Day before yesterday the power was off for an hour. You wouldn't believe how hot it gets in here without that air conditioner. These trailers weren't built for this climate."

Cass looked at the wall above Alan's head. "You put up the picture?"

"Naw. It was here when I came in. I climbed up and looked close. It's been here a long time. I thought about taking it down."

"Yeah," Cass said. "It could drive you nuts after a while."

"Whoever put up that picture must have been crazy already. Having a picture like that in a place like this is… Well, it's not like taking a ham sandwich to a banquet. It's more like taking a picture of a ham sandwich to a banquet."

"I gather you've already taken in the local sights," Cass laughed.

"The place is crawling with women. Today the housegirls are off. Wait'll you see it tomorrow."

"Do we have a housegirl?"

"Annie. She's nice."

"Who assigns the housegirls?"

"Nobody. Theoretically you can hire anybody you want. Actually, each girl has her own trailers. Some of them have worked the same trailers for years. If you try to hire somebody besides Annie she'll probably put out a contract on you."

Cass looked around the neat room. "Guess I'll hire Annie. How much you pay her?"

"Fifteen bucks a month. She gets fifteen from me, fifteen from you, fifteen from each of the two guys in the trailer next door. She makes sixty bucks a month. She's rich."

Cass got up and began poking around in the kitchen, opening drawers and cupboard doors. There were a few pots and pans and a half-dozen glasses and place settings. The pots obviously hadn't been used for a long time. "What do you do for a living?" he asked Alan.

"I'm boss of the comm group. I get to live in this trailer because I'm on the promotion list."

"Congratulations," Cass said. "How soon do you put 'em on?"

"I'm not sure. I made it below the zone but I've been waiting six months. It shouldn't be long now."

The doorbell rang and Cass opened it. A short lieutenant colonel in rumpled fatigues came in, followed by a tall, thin man in slacks and sport shirt. The short officer looked at Cass's name tag. "Colonel Cass, I'm Willie Dobbs. This is Major Bob McAfee. I'm your deputy for operations. Bob's director of communications. Sorry nobody was there when you got in. We had the word you weren't coming till Wednesday." He waved toward the couch. "Hi Alan."

"Glad to meet you," Cass said, shaking hands. "Willie… Bob… I take it you know my trailer-mate already."

"Yeah," Willie laughed. "We've had a few together."

"Last night. . ," Alan started to say.

"Bullshit," Willie interrupted. "It was your guys that brought in the fire extinguishers."

"When it was over you could go swimming right in the main bar," Bob said.

"Well, hell," Willie said. "It's the water festival. People gotta expect to get wet during the water festival. Old Thai custom."

Cass laughed. "I just rode in with the new base commander. I've got a feeling couth is about to strike the officers' club with a vengeance."

"Tough huh?" Willie said. "He may have a bad time if he starts roughing up the zoomies. The Wing Commander won't like that." He looked at Cass's wings.

Cass looked down at his shirt and touched his wings and his master controller's badge. "I used to be a zoomie, but that was a long time ago. In Korea. I've been a controller for nineteen years. But you're right. If the zoomies are the same as they used to be when I was one, they'll find a way to beat the system." He sat down at the empty desk. "Why don't you guys sit down and make yourselves comfortable?"

"Thanks, sir," Bob said. "But we know you've got to unpack and everything. How about if we come back in a couple of hours and pick you up for dinner? A lot of the people will be in the club tonight. We'll start introducing you around."

"Okay," Cass said. "What time?"

"Say… five thirty?"

"You're on."

Willie and Bob left and Alan went back to his nap. Cass unpacked, hung his clothes loosely in the closets, showered, and dressed in slacks and a sport shirt. When he went back to the living room Alan was asleep. He put his briefcase on the desk near the door, got out a book, sat down in the deep easy chair, and put his feet on the coffee table. He was tempted to lean back and drift off, but he fought the temptation and began reading. He was engrossed in the novel when a sudden, loud cackle sounded in the room, a cross between a cough and a laugh. For a minute Cass couldn't place the familiar sound; then he remembered. He searched the ceiling until he found the delicate, almost transparent little lizard over the door. The Thai said it was good luck to hear a gekko laugh.

At five-thirty Willie and Bob came back. They led the way to the club through a back route and went in through a side door to a small, crowded, sour-smelling, noisy room. The people lining the bar looked as if they'd been there most of the day. "Our casual bar," Bob said. "It's usually quieter in here than in the main bar because most of the patrons are too drunk to make noise."

They went on through the casual bar, down a hallway, and as they entered the large room that was the main bar the noise that had been growing as they came closer washed over them. The dark place reeked of beer. To Cass's right a bar ran the length of one long wall and had people sitting and standing shoulder to shoulder in front of it. Round tables, seating from eight to twelve or more people, crowded the rest of the room except for a small dance floor. Bartenders worked rhythmically behind the bar and waitresses hustled in a steady stream to and from the tables. An eight-piece rock band with huge speakers hammered away from a raised platform, bathed in colored light, that dominated the front of the room. Next to the band three pretty Asian girls danced on raised, bright, drum-like platforms.

"There they are!" Willie sidled through the crowd with Cass and Bob in tow until they'd reached a table in the farthest, darkest corner of the room. The big, round table was so crowded that not everyone could reach its surface. Willie waved and shouted for attention. "Guess who I've got with me," he hollered. "This is our new boss, Colonel Cass."

A chubby, good-natured-looking young man near Willie stood up with a drink in his hand and waved it. "Let's say hello to our new commander," he shouted.

"Hellooo… asssss… hole," the group chanted in unison.

"And anybody who can't tapdance is queer." Chairs slammed and boots rumbled against the floor as everyone leaped up and ran in place for about ten steps.

Willie clapped the cheerleader on the shoulder. "This asshole is Captain Terry Duncan, my training officer."

"Hello Terry," Cass laughed.

Willie started introducing the people around the table. There were so many names and faces Cass gave up trying to remember who they were. When Willie got to the man next to Terry he said: "This beat up, old-looking fart is Major Ben Green. He's the boss of Brigham. He's only eighteen. When you've been around him a while you'll understand why he looks sixty."

"Welcome to Udon Thani, Colonel," Ben said. He was about forty, powerfully built, craggy, balding, with twinkling blue eyes beneath enormous, bushy eyebrows. His handshake fit the rest of his image. Bob found chairs for the newcomers and everyone sat down. "We were just starting a game," Ben said. "Ever play the dollar game before, sir?"

"No," Cass admitted.

Ben fished a dollar out of his wallet, peered closely at it in the gloom, and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. "You guess the last two digits of the serial number — from zero to ninety-nine. I tell you if you're high or low. When the call gets back to me, I have to take the next higher or the next lower number. The guy who hits it buys. Ready?"

"Fifty," Cass said.

"Hooray," Ben shouted. "The Colonel wins." There was loud, prolonged cheering at the table.

"I've been had," Cass said. "Lemme see it."

Ben handed him the dollar bill. Cass looked at it. "Anybody got a light?" Willie Dobbs handed him a lighter. Cass lit it and examined the bill. "Sonofabitch," he said. "I should have guessed."

"Let's order," Ben said. "Next time you get to hold the dollar."

"How do I get one of those fifties?"

"Keep watching," Ben put the bill away carefully in his wallet. "A fifty's worth a fortune." A sexy-looking bar waitress with long legs and a miniskirt came to the table. "Sawadee, Samchit," Ben said. "Our new colonel's buying. What'll you have, sir?"

"What kind of beer do we have?" Samchit rattled off a long list. "Tuborg," Cass said. Samchit went around the table taking orders and walked off toward the bar, legs flashing, miniskirt bouncing.

Ben watched Cass watching Samchit. "Her legs run all the way from her ass to the floor, don't they. That's four hundred dollars a month."

"Expensive," Cass said.

"Some of the zoomies go for it. With flight pay and combat pay I guess they can afford it. Most of these girls end up marrying some guy and going back to the States."

"And four months later they're back."

"You been here before, Colonel?"

"Nine years ago at Ubon. It was different, but that part of it was the same."

Pandemonium broke out on the stage. The band began a deafening rock number as two girls ran out of a side door and took their places on the raised platforms. They swung into a gymnastic go-go routine under the hot lights, bodies glistening with sweat. They began to strip. In a few minutes they were down to tiny, wide-mesh g-strings that exposed everything. One girl had a crimson scar on her stomach that must have come from fairly recent surgery. The strip show ended. The girls picked up their clothes, clutched them to their breasts, and ran off the stage amidst thundering applause, whistles, catcalls.

The drinks arrived as the floor show ended. Cass paid Samchit with a ten and she went off to get change. He noticed that everyone else at the table was drinking draft beer. "Is the draft good?" he asked.

"Lousy," Willie said. He stood up with his beer, waved for attention, and lifted his glass. "Gentlemen," he said. "I propose a toast to our new commander." Everyone except Cass stood up. "Hear hear," they shouted. Willie sipped, turned, and poured beer over Cass's head. Cass closed his eyes and shivered as the ice-cold, sticky liquid slid down inside his shirt. One by one, the people at the table filed past and poured beer over his head. He was soaked to the skin.

"Let's have a hymn for him," Terry shouted. He lifted his arms and waved an imaginary baton.

"Himmmmm… Himmmmm… Fuuuuck himmmmm," intoned the group at the table.

Cass found a napkin and wiped the beer out of his eyes. "It's good to be here," he said. "But I don't know if I can take a year of this.

"You'll get used to it, sir," Ben said.

 

Aftermath

Massage

Sunday Morning

Housegirls

Sawadee (Hello)

The Island Paradise

The Drunk

The Christmas Season

Sawadee (Goodbye)

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