I awoke the next morning and saw that Jerry was gone. I didn’t hear him get up and I was instantly disappointed. I wanted to continue our conversation of the previous evening but now, that wasn’t going to happen. I got up and walked over to my bunk and saw lying there a note, which I picked up and read. “Sorry to bug out on you this way, but duty calls. I’ll be back at my unit before you read this and involved with a tricky mission. I hope to get in touch with you when I return, but security demands that I not reveal when that might be. Give my regards to Frank (on second thought, you should probably stay away from him). Your friend, Jerry.” I put the note in my footlocker and began to pull on my fatigues and boots. Once dressed I went outside to join the morning formation.
At the conclusion of the formation and head count Top Sarge told me to fall out and stay behind after the day crew departed for Newport. Oddly, I was not surprised at this. Nothing was surprising me much these days. I lingered in the mess tent and then returned to lounge on my bunk and wait to see what was about to happen. I didn’t have to wait for very long. Vince, my friend who was battalion clerk, came to bring me word that Colonel Bannock wanted to see me.
“What’s going on man?” Vince asked. “You two are blood brothers or something? People are going to start talking.”
“Screw them” I said. “I’ve got no idea what this is about.”
I was sort of lying at that point, but there was no way that I could explain anything that had happened in the last couple of weeks.
“I was on the convoy to Cu Chi, and maybe he wants to be debriefed. I don’t know why the MP’s or G-2 couldn’t do it, but maybe he wants to hear it from eyes that were there.”
“Yeah, I heard about that” Vince said. “It’s about time that we gave the bastards a little of what they’ve been dealing out to us.”
We arrived at the headquarters building and I went over to the Colonel’s door and gave it a rap. “Come in” was the command, and once again I was soon standing in front of the Colonel. He didn’t waste any time with pleasantries. “Durden! You did a magnificent job. I think you’ve found your military calling. The initial after action reports are painting this convoy and follow up as a smashing success. I was hoping for a reduction in our losses and you’ve turned this into the worst hit that the VC has taken in that sector for some time. You’re still a sorry excuse for a soldier but you do have some skills. I don’t suppose that you would be up for a reassignment to where you could do some real good?”
My knees were nearly knocking together as I digested that, and I replied quickly. “No Sir, I would not be up for that at all. One time was more than enough for me. I’ll be glad to give up Saigon or Vung Tau or just about anything to not sit in that lead truck again. If I could be so bold Sir, you said that this would be the only time that I had to do this. I hope that’s true Sir.”
“Don’t get nervous Durden. I remember what I said. You’re going back to work at the port tomorrow, like you will for the rest of your tour. In fact, that’s not what I really wanted to talk to you about. I received this communication yesterday informing me of a change in Army policy. It says that people who will be discharged from service upon their return to the States may receive a three month early out. That means you would be leaving in July instead of October. What do you think of that?”
” I would love it Sit. Getting out of here alive and as soon as possible are pretty much at the top of my personal list.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that, because it gets better. I have instructed Vince to submit a request to grant you an additional two months early out for services rendered. I will be rotating home soon myself, but I’ll stay at least until I get that approved.”
I stood in front of Colonel Bannock with my jaw hanging down, unable to fully comprehend what he was telling me. Finally I stammered out “y-you mean I’m going home in May?”
“If I can help it you are, and I’m pretty sure that I can help it. Now go and kick back for the rest of the day. Oh, and Durden, try not to get killed in the next four months. That will be all.”
I completely forgot to salute as I turned and walked out of the Colonel’s office in a daze. Vince, who knew all of this before he came to bring me to the Colonel, was grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I went over and slugged him in the shoulder, but not too hard. “Vince! You punk! Why didn’t you tell me?”
Vince giggled and said “Colonel’s orders. He wanted to tell you. I don’t know what you’ve got going on here, but it’s the best scam that I’ve ever seen. I knew that you were good, but this tops everything. How’d you do it?”
“A magician never explains his tricks” I told him, and then walked out through the screen door and back into the Vietnamese sunshine.
After I left Colonel Bannock’s office he received a phone call. General Abramson from the 25th Infantry Division was calling to express his approval of the results of the convoy. “I heard that you were responsible for making the changes in the convoy protocols, and I want to congratulate you. That was a brilliant piece of work. I’ve been talking with Bulwer and Gordon over at USARV and we’re wondering why a man with your talent is jockeying a desk at a supply battalion. If you’re interested I will see what I can do about getting you out from behind that desk.”
“Thank you Sir” Bannock replied. “I would appreciate that very much.
A reassignment to an infantry unit, the possibility of advancement, it all danced in his mind like a drug! Bannock felt the tug of old dreams and ambitions, and he sat back in his chair with his feet on the desk for the first time since he landed in this dead end post. His thoughts were pleasantly engaged in this manner when the land line rang again. This time it was Long Binh G-2, calling to offer their pats on the back and ask if he would be interested in reviewing some readjustments to security at various points on the perimeter of the post.
“Certainly” he responded. “When should I report?”
“Now would be good if you can manage it.”
Manage it he did. Turning HQ over to Major Smithson, Colonel Bannock walked up the hill to G-2. This time his arrival was a more welcoming event. The specialist at the desk stood up and saluted, and then led Bannock straight through the door, back to the room where he and Captain Perkins had analyzed the information that I had brought to him after Jerry’s visit on the water tower.
This time there were two other Colonels and General Gordon of USARV also in the room. Salutes were given, and handshakes around, and then maps were unrolled. The next couple of hours were spent pouring over the placement of minefields, wire obstacles, forward observation posts, reinforcement units and the state of the readiness, and the rotation of all of these assets so as to not present a too static defensive posture for the enemy to analyze and exploit wherever weaknesses were found.
Lunchtime came, and in another room fare much more savory than that found in the mess tent back at battalion covered a table. Bannock was not a true desk jockey and the common mess of the grunt foot soldier was adequate for him. He found the elevation of his circumstances intoxicating however, and ate his roast beef and garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus – where the hell did they find asparagus? – and washed it down with a glass of a very good red wine.
Lunch concluded, Bannock suggested that he would like to see the perimeter defenses from inside and out, and the next several hours passed with him being driven around the perimeter road, stopping to advance to the wire on foot and occasionally be guided out by an infantry team to see the most forward positions, sometimes accompanied by one of the Colonels who decided to come along for the show. The hours passed, and the other Colonel and the jeep driver were sweating profusely by the time Bannock completed his inspection. Sweat was staining Bannock’s armpits and back too, but he was scarcely aware of it as the driver motored back to G-2.
Inside the rome again the party reassembled over the maps, and Bannock and the other Colonel, with whom Bannock connected very well, proceeded to point out deficiencies that didn’t show up on the two dimensional maps on the table. General Gordon mostly watched the performance of Bannock, but on occasions found himself drawn into the actual work at hand, his own infantry roots being nourished by this concentrated brainstorming.
At length the conference came to a conclusion, and Bannock noticed to his surprise that it was almost 5:00PM. He was invited to a dinner with some of the brass from USARV and 1st Logistics but he declined, to their considerable surprise. “Thank you for that offer, but I must return to my unit. My day crew will be returning soon and I want to be present when the buses roll in. I have mess with my officers and then a short briefing with the NCO’s while the men eat and get cleaned up. It’s important that we all know anything that’s worked well that day and anything that didn’t, and make whatever adjustments we deem necessary. My unit is my first priority. I’ve been honored to be a part of this exercise today and I hope that I have been of service. I am at your disposal if I can be of further use to you. Now I must return to look after my men.
After Bannock’s departure the officers discussed his performance and determined that he had a natural ability to assess situations as the existed, and how his suggested changes could anticipate any number of wild cards that might be thrown at the post.
“Why was he stuck in supply?” asked the Colonel that had accompanied Bannock on his close-up inspection tour. “He must have pissed somebody off, but good.”
“Actually, it was about his wife, who got drunk and insulted the 4th Division Commander’s daughter. ‘A man who can’t control his wife can’t control a division’ that General said. He’s a pompous ass anyway, but the label stuck and Bannock went into the twilight zone. He is likely to retire when he rotates out next month, but this performance of his has caught a few people’s attention. What do you men think? You’ve watched him all day.”
The group agreed that Bannock demonstrated capabilities that were being wasted at a supply battalion, and agreed also that his declining their dinner invitation in order to be faithful to his men was entirely to his credit.
“Then you agree that a reassignment to an infantry division, possibly the 25th, and a promotion path to a General’s star would be in order?”
All present agreed, and then they departed to shower and change clothes and prepare for the dinner that Colonel Bannock had declined to attend. A congressman on some Armed Forces Subcommittee or other was on a fact finding tour and would be in attendance, and each officer knew that his career could be enhanced by making a good impression.
Bannock walked back to his battalion and almost began to whistle. He had not felt this good for a very long time. He, too, would shower and change clothes before joining his officers in the mess tent. Upon arriving at his hooch he saw a couple of letters on his bunk. Sitting in a reclining chair he picked up the letters and saw that one was from his wife and the other from his daughter.
A spasm ran through his stomach as he looked at the handwriting on the envelope. His relationship with Carole was very valuable to him, but the shoals and uncharted waters that they had strayed into had left him apprehensive of their future. He was committed to restoring the relationship with Carole to health if he could, but he knew that this was not like fixing a perimeter defense or leading men into combat. This struggle was partly within his control but also very much out of his hands and he felt helpless; a feeling that Colonel Arthur Bannock never had enjoyed.
Colonel Bannock turned the letter over and over in his hands, and finally growled to nobody in general “Just open it, you big wuss!” Bannock ripped open the letter and held it in hands that faintly trembled. It read:
“Dear Arthur. It seems like many years since you were here, and I miss you deeply. We are all well here. Julie will be starting college at the University of Washington in fall and Clyde is doing very well in high school. He is getting ‘A’s in nearly all of his classes and is a star in track. He runs a race that goes one time around the track really fast, I think it’s called a 400 or 440 , something like that. He’s really good and hopes to get a scholarship. Clydie really doesn’t want to go into the military and I don’t want him to either. I hope that doesn’t hurt you. He may join the Navy however, if he doesn’t get a scholarship, so that he can avoid the worst of it, and if he does I will support him.
Arthur, I will get to the point of this letter. I have been talking regularly with Dr. Goldberg and the Chaplin, Father McCleery. I have been through a very dry valley and I know that you have too. I’m sorry about that for your sake but I’ve come to accept that my own valley, while desperately painful, has turned out to be a good thing for me. My needs, most of which have been met, sorely missed the greatest single one of them; the unquestioned love and consideration of my husband.
I’m not writing this to blow you off and tell you that we’re through. On the contrary, I am writing this to say that with the help of Dr. Goldberg and Father McCleery I have learned that it’s OK for me to feel this way and express myself to you clearly and openly. I already knew that you are a good man and would respect my struggle. They just helped me to take that knowledge and act on it.
So now I’m telling you that I am ready to accept your career if you wish to pursue it, and if I haven’t screwed it up too badly for you. All that I ask is that you speak with me honestly and try to feel what I am feeling and hear what I am saying. I believe that if we are both determined to make our marriage a success it can happen. I know that you love your career, and being a teacher or selling insurance would be like a death sentence for you. All I ask is that you limit the Army to being only your career. Let me be your wife.
I look forward to your thoughts about this and your return home soon. I almost don’t believe that they’ll really let you come home to me, but I guess even Colonels get to come home every now and then.
Please be very careful, and don’t let anything keep you from me for very much longer. Your beloved wife, Carole.”
Colonel Bannock sat motionless in his chair, staring at the letter and doing nothing more than breathing. The fear that he was losing his career wasn’t nearly as paralyzing as had been the fear that he was losing his wife. As the words sank into his consciousness it became more and more clear that his marriage to Carole was pointed in the direction of recovery and health.
The tears began slowly at first, but soon grew into a torrent of sobs as he hugged his shoulders and shook spasmodically in his chair. The last year and a half of physical and emotional separation were finally addressed head on, and the promise that it might be over prompted the release that reduced Bannock to a sobbing, snot-smeared little boy who wanted to hold the object of his affection and not let go until his tears were dried.
Finally Arthur Bannock got control of his emotions and showered, washing away the pain he had just released, and put on clean clothes in which to join his officers. In the mess tent he went over details of the day’s work and what would be needed for the next day. That accomplished, he invited his NCO’s to join him in his quarters. They were surprised at this but agreed. In his quarters Arthur set up a couple of folding chairs and pulled out a stash of paper cups and his bottle of bourbon. “Would you gentlemen care to join me in a drink?”
Their surprise deepened further as Bannock poured shots and handed them around. Then, sipping their drinks, Bannock enquired closely as to the needs of the men to accomplish their mission and help with their morale. Whisky was consumed and plans were laid and finally Colonel Bannock said goodnight to his enlisted leaders.
That done, Arthur Bannock took a writing tablet out of his footlocker and sat down at his desk. He began to write his letter to Carole in the following manner: “Dear Carole. Thank you for your kind offer to be my wife. I accept your offer with all of my heart. I assure you that the Army give you no competition for that position. I have been interviewed by several high ranking officers here and believe that I am once again on a path to advancement of my career. As you might guess, that gives me great pleasure and hope.
It does not, however, give me anything like the pleasure and hope that the sentiments expressed in your letter have given to me. I am willing and would be happy to get my career back on track, but I will do that only with your full agreement and support, and I promise that I will consider at every step of the way how to spend the greatest amount of time with you and the kids, and make you a priority above all other things. I will make no decision until I have been granted a lengthy leave to be with you, so that we can discuss this carefully and un-pressured. If we decide that the Army must be set aside, I will then be happy to be a teacher or insurance salesman or cook at the local hospital. It will all be worth it to me if we can be together and happy. I will make no decision on anything until I am with you again, and I swear that your needs are the very first calling in my life. If the choice is between the Army and you, there is a phrase that the enlisted men use when they think that we officers are not around, and I believe that in this case it is applicable. ‘Fuck the Army.'”