Colonel Bannock had not been smoking weed when I entered his office to tell him of what Jerry had pointed out to me on the tower. The red eyes that I had noticed were the result of a sleepless night and no small amount of bourbon. The Colonel was not in a happy place just then, and mail call the day before did nothing to improve his state of mind. Once again there was no letter from home, and Bannock had good reason to fear that once a letter came it might not be one that he would enjoy reading. Bannock had made “full bird colonel” at the relatively young age of 39 and had every reason to expect that a promotion to brigadier general would be in his near, if not immediate, future. That was before the New Year’s Eve party at Ft. Lewis in 1967.
Bannock’s wife Carole was a pretty and bright girl who married her high school sweetheart when he graduated from West Point in 1948. Carole’s father had been away from his family for much of World War II in the Pacific, and then returned to work for the Santa Fe railroad, which kept him away from his family for extended lengths of time. This trained Carole to accept the absences of the husband and father from the family dynamic, and so her early years with Arthur were exciting, and she loved that she was now free to order her nest and her life pretty much the way she wanted to, and when Julia and Clyde Bannock were born in rapid succession she now had the children’s lives to pour herself into.
Arthur Bannock was in Korea when Julia was born, and he soon achieved the rank of Captain through acts of valor and obvious intelligence, leading first a platoon and then a company and, during a concerted drive by Chinese and North Korean forces towards Seoul, temporarily leading a battalion when its commander was killed. The Communist drive towards Seoul was stopped north of that city and Bannock’s battalion was in the thick of the fighting. The Korean War ended shortly thereafter and by the time Captain Bannock was rotated back to the United States and his family, the rank of Major was in the works.
Soon-to-be Major Bannock was happy to be home, and Clyde was one of the results of that happiness. The Bannock family’s quarters , first at Fort Bragg, and then Fort Irwin, and then Fort Benning, was always a warm and comfortable place, with the barbecue grill frequently going in the back yard as other officers and their families gravitated to this happy couple, and when the Bannocks were not entertaining, they were very likely being entertained, frequently in the company of people whom it was good to know in order to secure promotion.
This life began to weigh on Carole however. As she moved from the bloom of youth into the maturity of motherhood, and as her children grew and first Julia and then little Clyde left the nest to begin school, Carole began to tire of this merry-go-round, and longed for a house that she could live in and grow old in for the rest of her life, a husband who came home every day at five o’clock in the afternoon, the luxury of choosing friends for their friendship rather than their utility and a career for her husband that didn’t include the possibility of being shot or blown up on some foreign battlefield who’s name she couldn’t even pronounce.
At first Carole could fake it, but at length she just got tired of the act and began to withdraw, evading the social scene whenever she could and indulging in too much alcohol to deaden the pain when avoidance was impossible. Arthur couldn’t understand Carole’s behavior and hoped that she would “snap out of it.” He loved Carole and his kids and the Army, pretty much in equal measure, and while he genuinely cared for Carole he couldn’t understand why she was not as committed to his career as he was.
The rank of Lieutenant Colonel came along in due time and, by 1963, after a series of very successful exercises in areas as diverse as the winter mountains of Alaska, the summer desert heat in California and the always steaming jungle of Panama, Arthur was made adjutant to the general commanding Fort Lewis in Washington State. This resulted in another move for Carole and the family and very shortly after that promotion to Colonel.
By this time Carole couldn’t care less whether Arthur was promoted to President or busted to private. She had grown to hate the Army and the nomad life that it generated for her and Arthur. The promotion to Colonel was approved in late December of 1965 and the New Year’s Eve party at Fort Headquarters was going to be his personal celebration and coming out as a full bird colonel, one step away from a general’s star.
“This is going to be a big deal Carole” Arthur said on the night of the party. “All of the brass will be there. We’ll be able to finally get where we’ve wanted to go.”
“No. You’ll get where you want to go” Carole replied. “None of this is about me or the children. If you were going to announce your retirement and intent to take a position at the bank or something like that I would go, and with a brass band playing. We’ve been through all of this before. I’m tired of the moving. I’m tired of the ladder you’re climbing. I’m tired of being the ‘little woman’ and I’m tired of sharing you with the Army. You keep talking like this is an ‘us’ thing but it isn’t. It’s a ‘you’ thing, and now I just wish that you would leave me out of it.”
Arthur was incensed by this, not that it was the first time that he had heard it, and uncharacteristically fired back. “You knew that I intended an Army career when you married me. I’ve never acted in any way that was inconsistent with what I offered you from day one. Now you want to change the contract and chuck everything that I have worked for into the dumpster because you think you’re better than this; better than all of the other wives and families of officers here at Lewis. I’d like to know how in hell you think that’s fair?”
Carole’s blood was hot by the time Arthur finished that outburst and replied without pausing one moment to count the cost. “I had no idea what this would be like on day one. I was a little girl with a fantasy, and that fantasy has turned into a nightmare. We aren’t a goddamn contract; we’re a married couple with two children and I have played my part as best I could while you ran all over the world playing G.I. Joe and polishing the generals’ shoes. The kids and I have played our parts, lived our lonely lives, running to meet you at the airport and then counting the days until you’re gone again. I think the Army is your marriage and we’re your career, or else just some damned project to get accomplished before you move on to the next challenge. I’m tired of being ‘the little woman’ and helping you schmooze to the next level.” Carole paused for a moment to draw a breath and then gave her last shot. “And I don’t want to go to your fucking party.”
Arthur had no idea what to say. A good part of what Carole had just said to him was unfair, if not completely untrue. He had been clear from the beginning that he intended a military career, but he also tried to be a good father and husband when he was home. Neither Arthur nor Carole understood that what in later years would be diagnosed as depression was dogging Carole’s life, and that the stresses which were inherent in a military life, which were not entirely absent from non-military lives as well, were being magnified and coming to torment Carole, and now, through her, Arthur. Arthur didn’t understand any of that and, gritting his teeth so as not to explode, said “you’re coming to the party. We’ll discuss this later.”
Carole was seething but said nothing. She walked over to the liquor cabinet and extracted a bottle of Arthur’s bourbon, poured herself a shot which she tossed back in a single gulp, poured another and repeated the process. She then returned the bottle to its place and turned and snapped off a salute. “Yes Sir!” she simply said.
The drive to the ornate old headquarters building was a silent one. Arthur’s mind was divided by his fight with Carole and his intention to continue his cultivation of the people who could grease the way to his general’s star. The war in a little corner of Asia was looking to grow into something that a man could use to catapult a career to another level, and if he could somehow secure a star before going there, which he most certainly intended to do, then a second star could more easily be obtained in a shorter time than usual. Wars were good for such things if you were an infantry officer.
Arthur determined to take some time off and get things right with Carole though. He really did still love his wife, and even through the filters of his ambition he could see that she was hurting. They just needed to get through this night and he would see to it that things would get better. Arriving at the parking lot he pulled into a space and turned off the ignition. Arthur put his hand over Carole’s and said “We’re going to work this out. We’re going to make it better.” Carole didn’t answer. She just slid her hand out from under his and exited the car.
Arthur heaved a deep sigh and joined his wife who was already walking across the gravel of the parking lot towards the headquarters. There seemed to be nothing to say as they approached the broad steps that led up to the big double front doors. Sharply dressed doormen opened those portals and the music of an eight piece swing band poured over them. Arthur felt no pleasure in hearing it and it was uncertain if Carole heard it at all. The doormen saluted and Arthur reflexively returned their salutes.
Inside, Arthur attempted to be attentive to his wife. He led Carole to a table for eight with only one other couple seated there; a major and his date, by the look of their ringless fingers, and asked her if she wanted anything. Carole nodded her assent and said simply “whiskey.” That was not Carole’s usual drink and it was confusing to Arthur, but he wanted everything to go smoothly and so he went and ordered two whiskey and sodas. Upon returning Carole took the drink and downed it in two gulps. She turned to Arthur and said “This time, just bring whiskey.”
Arthur didn’t like that. He had commanded under fire; faced wave after wave of Chinese and Korean soldiers under a hail of small arms, machine gun and artillery fire, and he knew how to cover, move and parry. But this was territory that he didn’t understand and it left him feeling unsteady and indecisive. “OK, but then hold off for a while. This stuff will catch up to you quickly.” Carole nodded and he went to obtain her second whiskey.
Carole drank this one more slowly and Arthur began to relax just a bit. At length he spied the Commander of the Fourth Infantry Division and asked Carole to join him in paying his respects. Carole agreed sullenly and arose, just a bit shakily after her four whiskeys, and walked with Arthur to where the General and his wife were standing. Carole didn’t say much as introductions were made and after a short, mostly silent period of playing the wife she excused herself and returned to the table. Arthur was speaking of the likelihood of the U.S. becoming more deeply enmeshed in that splendid little war in Vietnam and hardly noticed her departure.
Upon arriving at the table Carole sat down and stared at the dancing couples and swirling conversation, but didn’t really see them or hear anything after a little while. As Arthur continued to talk up his fitness to lead a brigade in the war against the ragged Communist rebels in that little country, Carole turned her attention to the handsome Major who was seated a few chairs distant. He had brown, curly hair, what there was of it, and he wore his uniform with an easy, less starchy manner than many of the other officers who were present
The Major was giving his full attention to his date, and this observation both pleased and annoyed Carole. She was pleased because it reminded her of when Arthur paid such attention to her, although it is questionable how much Arthur ever really did. It was annoying for Carole though because she assumed that once this dashing Major made his conquest he would probably either forget about her or marry her, thereby throwing her into the same sort of mess that Carole felt like she was living in now. In a moment, without really thinking about it, she moved over to the chair next to the Major and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Excuse me Major, but would you be so kind as to get me a shot of bourbon, straight up?” The major was surprised but remembered that this attractive lady was the wife of a Colonel, and readily agreed to do so. After he arose and began to walk towards the bar Carole turned her attention to the Major’s date, a prettyish girl who looked to be several years younger than the Major.
“Do you like him?” Carole asked bluntly.
“Yes, as a matter of fact I do” replied the girl, somewhat surprised by the frankness of Carole’s question.
Well, get ready for a cage if you marry him. Every man in here is licking somebody’s boots in order to climb the ladder, and the guy at the top of the ladder’s tongue is still black from all of the boots that he licked to get where he is. You want some advice honey? Go find yourself a teacher or a carpenter or a fireman, or maybe a lawyer. Well no, forget the lawyer. But you can do better than any of these.”
The girl’s face turned a little red and she replied “Actually, I don’t want any advice. Not from you anyway. I’ll give you some though. Maybe you had better stop sucking down the booze and mind your own damned business.”
Carole laughed for the first time that evening, and it was a genuine laugh. The delightful trill of her laughter and the warm smile and twinkle in her eye surprised her partner across the table, and threw her off guard. The young woman was tempted to smile back when Carole’s laughter was bitten off and a voice as hard as granite said “You can shine me on if you’d like, but you remember that I warned you this night of what you have waiting for you. He isn’t worth it honey. None of them are.”
At that moment the Major returned with Carole’s drink, which she thanked him for and tossed back in one gulp. She then leaned forward to thank him properly by putting a kiss right in the middle of the flabbergasted Major’s face. Carole giggled again and arose, even more unsteady on her feet by now, and wobbled back to her seat. The Major turned bright red with embarrassment while the girl turned a matching color with fury. “You’ll thank me later, honey” Carole said to the young woman, and returned to gazing sightlessly at the throng of merrymakers.
The throng was not similarly sightless however. Arthur and the Major General Commanding were both looking in the direction of the table when Carole placed her drunk, wet liplock on the startled Major. “What in the hell does your wife think she’s doing, Colonel?” asked the General.
“I have no idea Sir” Arthur replied. “She’s never done anything like this before. She’s been drinking a little more than usual and I think that and the heat in here have just gotten to her.”
“Well, I would appreciate if if you would remove your drunk wife from the table with my daughter and her friend. I would expect a little more restrained behavior from the wife of any of my officers.
Arthur didn’t even consider pointing out that he wasn’t one of the General’s officers. He was not unaware however that there was little chance that he would ever become one. “I’ll take care of this Sir. Right away.” He walked through the crowd, trying to be as invisible as possible, and rejoined Carole at the table. “I think it’s time to go home dear.” he said as calmly and patiently as he could.
“It was time to go home before we came.” Carole replied, looking upon her husband with a sweetness usually reserved for mothers looking at their newborn babes.
“Excuse us, I’m sorry for the scene” Arthur said to the Major and the General’s daughter.
“Oh, it’s alright” said Carole. “He really enjoyed it and she learned something, whether she wants to believe it or not.”
Carole rose up but caught her foot on the leg of the table. Her balance wasn’t nearly what it should be and it was only Arthur’s grip that prevented her from planting her pretty face right into the hardwood floor. “Oopsydaisy” she giggled as she regained her feet. “We mustn’t make a scene, must we?” Carole continued to giggle as Arthur led her back through the big double doors and out into the cold night air. It had begun to rain, as it usually does in Washington State, and Carole protested “Oh, I forgot my wrap!”
“Forget it” growled Arthur. “We’ll get a new one. And maybe a little cold water in your face will sober you up.” Carole giggled again as Arthur led her to their car, unlocked the door and sat her in the seat in a less than gentle manner.
“My, my, my. An officer and a gentleman!” she mocked.
Arthur went to the driver’s side and fired the car up. He was too angry and embarrassed to say anything, and the quiet suited Carole just fine. So fine, in fact, that she shortly fell asleep. When they got home Arthur went inside and got a blanket off of the spare bed. He took it out and covered his inelegantly snoring wife and left here there to sleep it off.
“What’s up with Mom?” asked Julie. The kids were surprised to see them home so early.
“She didn’t feel well and wants to be left where she is” Arthur lied. “I’ll go back out in a couple of hours and see if she wants to come in. Why don’t you two go off to bed now?” Both Julia and Clyde knew that things weren’t right between their parents and sensed that now wasn’t a time to protest.
“OK Dad” they said as they turned off the TV and retreated to their rooms.
Arthur sat down in the chair that had just been occupied by his son and reviewed the damage incurred that evening. Word of the incident would get around in no time at all. “An officer that can’t keep his house in order can’t keep a brigade of infantrymen in order either” was what would be passing from lips to ears all over the fort, and indeed had already began to spread. While his children crept uneasily into their beds and his inebriated wife snorted in the front seat of their car his career was going down in flames like the Hindenburg. His mind raged at the idea but only in one corner of it. In the rest of Arthur’s mind there reigned the odd calm that comes when you know that you are about to die and there’s not one damned thing that you can do about it.
And so Colonel Bannock, rising star in the U.S. Army, came to be the commanding officer of a supply battalion tasked with running five companies of men who unloaded ships at a port on the Saigon River and convoyed some of that material out to real Army units whenever they requested it. This command should rightly have been that of a lieutenant colonel and Arthur knew that it amounted to rubbing salt into his wound.
Carole had begun to receive treatment from medical and psychological specialists back in the U.S. and Arthur had begun to seek advice from counselors and chaplains as well. It was clear that his Army career was over and so he planned to retire as soon as this tour was finished. Maybe he and Carole could regain something of what they had once enjoyed; he would certainly give it his best shot.
And so it was that after an evening of medicating his pain a knock on the door and a command of “Come in” produced one of the most irreverent and annoying goldbricks that he had ever had the misfortune of commanding. The scowl and red eyes came from a large reservoir of pain rather than the use of the powerful marijuana that was so familiar to his current visitor.
A few minutes after I left to return to my perch on the water tower, Colonel Bannock walked out of his office to the communications bunker which was positioned behind the supply room and next to the covered area which housed an outdoor kitchen clean up area, and I, the eagle-eyed watch dog on the water tower, simply missed his going. The commo bunker was thickly padded with sandbags many layers deep and it would take a very lucky shot with a very large rocket to put it out of action. Our higher headquarters was in Saigon almost twenty miles away across the Delta, and it was to that headquarters that Colonel Bannock placed his first all. The radioman transmitted the Colonel’s description of what I had told him, and while he waited for a reply he studied a map of our portion of the perimeter along with that of adjacent units. After a short while a message crackled back over the radio saying “Acknowledge receipt of report. Message passed on to G-2. Suggest report to local G-2.” G-2 was short for Army Intelligence, and a report to local G-2 was exactly what Colonel Bannock had in mind to do next.
Post G-2, as it turned out, was no more than a three hundred yard walk up and over the low hill behind us, through a thin stand of trees. The Colonel rolled up his maps and began to walk aggressively up the hill, through the trees and right past my friend Lee McCastle, an African American sergeant from Washington D.C., who was smoking a joint and reading ‘Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. Lee was a giant who pumped iron, studied martial arts, and read poetry in his spare time. Lee was startled by the sudden appearance of the Old Man and almost stuck his joint into his eye while fumbling to make a salute.
But the Colonel was not interested in Lee or Lee’s joint. Lee told me later that he wasn’t even sure that the Colonel even saw him. Colonel Bannock was formulating his theories and mentally moving pieces on a board, trying to anticipate what it could mean without stating in any absolute terms what that might be. His old infantry juices were flowing again and Arthur Bannock felt, in the smallest of ways, like he was whole again.
Long Binh G-2 ws a very plush operation, the benefit one got from being on one of the largest posts in the country. It rested in the USARV building which, as I have already pointed out, had many very luxurious amenities that were not available to 99.9% of the grunts in Vietnam. Colonel Bannock didn’t care about any of that today. He opened the G-2 door and addressed the Spec 5 that was seated behind a desk in the small room.
“Colonel Bannock. I believe that you were notified that I was coming.”
Indeed, both a radio message from Saigon and a land-line call from our battalion commo had alerted G-2 of the Colonels mission. The Spec 5 said “One moment Sir,” and got up and disappeared through the door to the right of his desk. A moment later he returned, followed by Captain Perkins of Long Binh G-2.
“Good afternoon Colonel” he said, snapping a salute. “I hear that you have something to show me.”
“I do indeed” Colonel Bannock replied while returning the salute. “Where can I show you this?”
“In this room” the Captain replied, and they both disappeared into a room with a large table in the middle, a desk to one side, and maps and photos on every wall.
Colonel Bannock rolled out his own map and reported the exact route that the Vietnamese “boy” and his water buffalo had taken, possible weak points in the perimeter, and how they might look from either side of the fence, and several different angles from which an attack might be launched from, most likely to least likely. He also pointed out what defensive measures he would set in motion to best react to any of the above it it were up to him to do so. Captain Perkins questioned him closely on the details of the possible spy’s path but Colonel Bannock could only tell him what I had related.
“Is this soldier of yours a credible source Colonel?”
“No, he isn’t. In fact he’s one of the biggest shitbirds in my unit. That’s why I believe him. I’m surprised that he noticed anything at all. The fact that he did notice it and came to tell me about it places this event out of the ordinary. I admit that it’s pretty shaky evidence to base a defensive strategy on, but if I might be so bold, I would suggest that the defensive deployment in this sector be on heightened alert, especially in the period of from one to three weeks. If an attack is planned it will take a week to organize it, and in three weeks anything that they observed today is likely to be changed.
The Captain stood still and thought about that, and then wheeled and walked over to a tall locker. He pulled out seven large rolls of paper and sifted through them until he found the one that he was looking for. Unrolled, it turned out to be a recent aerial photo of the camp perimeter in our sector that largely reflected the reality that existed on the ground at that moment. The Captain then pressed a button on the intercom and spoke into it. Soon a Lieutenant Colonel and a Master Sergeant came into the room and the four of them poured over the photos and maps, placing X’s and O’s on the map in the same manner as a football coach might, and then erasing and moving those symbols from one spot to another.
After an hour the Colonel was thanked for his information and told that arrangements would be made on the off chance that this was good intelligence. Colonel Bannock reaffirmed that the source was sketchy but that the threat seemed real, returned salutes, and then marched back down the hill to his office. The rest of the day he went about his duties with an uncommon light heartedness, and after a dinner which he shared with company and platoon commanders in the officer’s mess he returned to his quarters. Sitting before a fan with a cold beer on his desk he wrote the most tender letter that he had sent to Carole in a very long time. He told her that his tour was ending soon and nothing could induce him to stay in the Army. He wanted to be with his family more than anything in the world. He had written these things before but this time he meant it. He hoped that she would be able to see that.