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Excerpt from The Last Ghostrider

(Part of)
Chapter 25
Border Hopping
     The sun had barely come over the horizon when we lifted off the next morning as part of a formation of three slicks and two Avenger gun ships. When we crossed the border into Cambodia we were loaded with hash and trash and a single passenger, a curious silent non-military type in tiger fatigues with long hair and a goatee. His gear consisted of only a small pack, one small and one large knife on his belt, and a pistol with a silencer attachment nestled in a shoulder holster. The odd thing was he was oriental but bigger than most, in fact, he was a good two or three inches taller than my own five-eight. Someone later said he was Taiwanese, another speculated he was Chinese, a mercenary. Someone else even said he was a hardcore converted chieu hois now working in the Phoenix program, an assassination program that targeted Viet Cong leaders and organizers. It was hard for me to believe that an enemy soldier could be turned in such a way until I was told that most of them used the job to become one man mafias, stealing and extorting whatever they wanted from the small hamlets and villages where they found their targets. What I noticed most was what he didn't have - an assault rifle, and more importantly a radio, which meant he was rigged for silent running and once we dropped him off he was on his own with no chance of rescue or pick up if he got in trouble, but from the looks of him I didn't think that was likely.
      Midway between our destination and the border he tapped Chief Chief on the shoulder and pointed to the ground. While the other choppers orbited above, Chief Chief dove the aircraft to the deck, buzzed along for about half a mile at treetop, then hovered for a few seconds in a small clearing of high grass where our mystery passenger jumped from the ship and quickly disappeared into the jungle. He had never said a word, never even looked us in the eye. He just showed up with the cargo and then disappeared like a breath of steam on a cold morning. Maybe for him it was just another day at the office, but I would always wonder who he was, who or what was his mission, and if he succeeded.
      We were no sooner flying back in formation than Chief Chief started to chatter.
      “Hey Fusco, Dillinger tells me you guys had a little excitement yesterday. A couple mortars up by the hanger,” said Chief Chief.
      “Yeah, a close one,” I said.
      “You won't believe this Fusco, but I slept through the whole damn thing. Slept like a baby,” laughed Chief Chief. “Even had a dream about this bodacious busty Cajun chick I met in New Orleans. Said she was from Baton Rouge. You know, at first I could hardly understand a word that girl said but then there's more ways to communicate than just words. Know what I mean? You ever been to New Orleans, Fusco?”
      “Not really. Just drove through it once,” I answered.
      “Well, personally I think New Orleans is a real shit hole. Let me put it this way, if North America’s lower forty-eight had an anus it would be New Orleans, at least what I saw of it, but if you're just looking for sin and satisfaction then I guess that's a good place to start.”
      Just then another voice came over the radio.
      “Red Six to Ghostrider leader. Over.”
      “Ghostrider leader,” answered Chief Chief.
      “Ghostrider what's your make up and ETA?”
      “We are two hogs and three slicks with hash and trash inbound about one-niner miles from your location. ETA about six minutes. Over.”
      “Be advised Ghostrider, we've got wounded and chieu hois for your back haul.”
      “Roger Red Six, dust off and POWs, no problem. What’s your LZ status? Over.”
      “LZ secure but suggest you approach from the Southeast to avoid snipers and suspected .51 bunker. Our FAC can direct your hogs on assaulting the bunker. Over.”
      “Affirmative Red Six,” said Chief Chief. “Pop smoke on our visual.”
      “Roger Ghostrider. See you in six.”
      “Avenger guns did you copy that?” asked Chief Chief.
      The ACs on the gun ships acknowledged and Chief Chief resumed his on-board conversation.
      “So you guys never had any Cajun boom boom?”
      “I dated a chick from south Alabama once,” said Dillinger. “Does that count?”
      “Not even close,” said Chief Chief. “Gotta be a hot and spicy garoontee swamp queen. Ain't that right Fusco?”
      “Guess so,” I said, leaning out on my gun and watching the vast Cambodian countryside pass below. In the far distance I could see rising smoke.
      Chief Chief glanced back over his shoulder toward my gunwell then back forward as he continued in a more serious manner. “That shit yesterday with Half Wrench is over, Fusco. You couldn't help it and you can't change it so put it out of your head. My guess is you're gonna see worse in a couple minutes. You with me?”
      “Affirmative,” I answered. “And when we get back I want to here more about that swamp queen,” I smiled.
      “Oh, I could tell you things that would make your hair curl,” laughed Chief Chief. He then kicked in with a melody and the partial lyrics from a song in Elvis Presley’s movie King Kreole, “…with a black eyed baby from the old bayou.”
      Chief Chief had a way of putting everyone at ease when he flew. My guess is it was as much for his benefit as ours because no matter what the rank or the training, or the experience, there was no way in hell anybody with half a brain could do this and not think about all the danger and negative possibilities, real possibilities, that we knew occurred somewhere in II Corps and all over Vietnam each day, and were occurring now in Cambodia. It was the down time and the empty fly time at altitude when you had to avoid dwelling on it or it could tie you in knots, and who was more aware of what could happen than the AC. From simple mechanical failures to enemy action, just flying in a chopper over Vietnam was a crapshoot, and the unfamiliar turf of Cambodia was no different. We were kids flying high priced complicated aircraft that were being maintained and fixed by other kids, and we were too young to realize it, just too young and dumb to fully appreciate the danger, yet not so young we didn’t feel it. Some of our choppers had already gone down in the Cambodian offensive, including that of a General who was killed along with the entire crew when his ship was hit by enemy fire. Always suspicious of the motives of Generals and other higher ups, we weren't exactly sure how to take the news other than a sincere empathy for our crew. But it wasn't only this I had on my mind, it was as Randy put it, the hoocho curse; the room curse that delivered lightning bolts, made a guy stick an M-16 in his mouth, and gave us oversize rats and suicidal roaches, or as Roabley had put it, “…created a spooky unlikelihood of survival.”
      The day after they kicked off the Cambodia operation I played host to two civilian journalists. They were photographers up from Nah Trang who came in on a hop. We met at the club, had a few drinks, and they ended up spending the night on the floor in my room where we all had a good time talking about the Nah Trang shit cloud, the antics of Pully Johnson, some of the weird things they had seen, Fred Blurtz’s black clap, the Flying Nun, and assorted other wartime oddities. They were okay as war zone civilians go, but I got the impression they were more interested in furthering their own careers than understanding the war. They were body shooters, looking for the shot that would get them the brass ring. They talked about past assignments on combat assaults like they were recalling an outing between the Orioles and the Yankees in Memorial Stadium. I could see the other guys from the hooch were fascinated by their conversation as was I, but like me I could also see they found it distasteful. Our guests were talking about photographing wounded and hideously mangled dead soldiers, and wrecked and twisted aircraft like it was an art form and a professional challenge. About getting the right angle and light, or catching the fatality at the moment of impact. One even suggested the upcoming Cambodia assignment could make his career – if he was lucky.
The next day they went in with the Ghostriders on one of the large CAs thinking, I'm sure, that this was the day they'd get that Pulitzer Prize winning shot, but instead their chopper was shot down and they, along with the entire crew, came back in body bags. Possibly they’re death was photographed by someone else, and I wondered if that someone else thought maybe he was taking the lucky shot of his career. Back home their fellow journalist would probably call them heroes, and the anti-war crowd would probably call them seekers of truth, which was far different than what they were calling us. The simple truth was they were here for the jazz and the fame, and maybe a piece of the bank via some damn distasteful coffee table book about their war. What they found instead was a severe and final dose of reality.
      After that Randy suggested I might want to move out of my room. I asked in return if he wanted to trade and of course I got a quick NFW. But I can't deny that the hoocho curse played on my mind and seeing how casualties were as much a fluke or pure fate as they were the intention of the enemy, I began to see it as a real possibility. Nor could I shake the fact that if I had decided to stop and pick up my cigarettes it might have been me and not Half Wrench who caught that mortar. For some reason, putting my trust in luck or defying fate, I chose to stay in the room. It wasn't much, I thought, but for now it was my damn home and superstitious bullshit wasn't going to chase me out. In addition there was this odd feeling somewhere down in my gut that someone or something was taking care of me, that I would be okay no matter what happened. An unexplainable feeling, as though I were going through preordained motions and events of which I had no control.
      “Ghostrider. Red Six. We've got you in sight and are popping smoke. Over.”
      “Roger Red Six,” acknowledged Chief Chief. “I see goofy grape smoke. Confirm?”
      “Affirmative Ghostrider. Again I suggest a southwest on a short approach and there's room for the whole family.”
      “Roger, three on approach, Red Six.”
      “Be advised, Ghostrider, I have six wounded, two KIA and all the chieu hoi you can carry.”
      “Roger that, Red Six.”
      The LZ was in a small valley and of fairly good size, allowing all three of our slicks to come in at the same time. Just over the tops of the trees about a half-mile off I saw a formation of six other choppers rise and fly off for the border. The Avenger gun ships split off and wasted no time eliminating the NVA .51 emplacement to the satisfied cheers of some of the ground troops who stood in small groups and watched the action from afar. Two G.I.s were sitting on a stack of NVA bodies taking a cigarette brake while another was taking their picture with a pocket size instamatic camera.
      We made our approach and set down, and I could see we were coming into an action that was just rapping up from earlier that morning, a predawn assault. At the edge of the clearing was a downed medivac chopper. The nose and better part of the cockpit had been blown off, the main blades shredded, and the tail boom twisted and nearly detached. All this was the result of a company size ambush set up to cut off retreating NVA only a few klicks from an assault on a main enemy supply depot by other U.S. troops. It had started at the crack of dawn and in the far distance I could see the smoke rising and hear artillery or bombs still working the area. The ground was littered with NVA bodies and body parts that were being kicked around and picked through for documents, weapons and souvenirs. To my side of the LZ huddled about a dozen POWs, some wounded, most stripped down to their skivvies with their hands tied behind there backs. Nearby were two filled body bags and a group of wounded Americans being treated by medics. When we set the aircraft down the POWs turned away from the blast of the rotor wash of the chopper's blades. American wounded who were capable covered their faces, the medics and assisting troops shielded those that couldn't. Once on the ground we were quickly approached by the ground troops who immediately started unloading the cargo.
      No sooner was it off-loaded than others began loading the wounded. I sat at my gun looking at them as they were carried and put aboard our ship. Two of the wounded came to us on stretchers accompanied by a medic who climbed aboard and grabbed and held up both their IVs, IVs he had salvaged from the downed dust-off chopper. One was bandaged heavily from head to waste, and most all of the bandages were blood soaked. It looked as though a portion of his side was missing. I couldn't see if he was conscious because his face was covered with a mess of red gauze. The other stretcher case was stripped to the waist, his left ribs bandaged and his left pants leg had been cut away. His eyes were open but didn't seem to be focused on anything around him. I assumed he was so far gone on morphine that he wasn't even aware of what was happening. His upper left leg was covered with blood soaked bandages, as was the stump of his left arm, detached just above the elbow. Two other walking soldiers, one with a head and left shoulder wound, the other with his arm and neck bandaged, were helped on board and squeezed in wherever they found room. The medic immediately handed one of them the IV of the armless patient and began monitoring and tending the other. I tried to look back and see what was loaded on the other choppers but they were already full.
      Everyone on the ground backed away, the blades revved up and we began to lift off when I saw one of the medics on the ground waving frantically for us to set back down.
      “Hold on Chief Chief!” I said into the mike. “I think we got another one.”
      Chief Chief began to set the ship back down but before the skids had even touched the ground a medic ran to the chopper cradling something in his arms. He motioned for me to accept what he was carrying and pointed to the man on the stretcher nearest me. I nodded acknowledgment, thinking it was the wounded man's personal property and reached out and accepted it. The cloth it was wrapped in fell away. Chief Chief watched the exchange, waiting for my okay to lift off. When I looked at what had been put in my hands my mind went blank until Chief Chief's voice came through the headset.
      “Talk to me Fusco!”
      I turned and looked to Chief Chief who strained against his safety harness to look back and connect with me eye to eye.
      “Are we clear, gunner?”
      “We’re clear,” I finally said. “We're out.”
      I didn't want to but I looked at it, surprised that it felt as heavy as it did and cold to the touch. There was a ring, a high school class ring much like the one I was wearing. As the ship rose, tail up and nosed down, and flew out of the LZ, I slid from my seat and reached over and began to place the severed arm next to the bloody stump of its owner, but before I could he reached up, took possession of it with his good arm and held it to his chest. He looked at me and smiled and I’ll be damned if I know why.
      “Damnit! Oh God damnit!” I heard the medic shout over the noise of the chopper. When I looked over to the medic he was sitting back away from his other stretcher case. He dropped the IV down on the man's chest then dropped his face into his own bloody hands. The medic, who had probably saved dozens of lives during his tour, now angrily grieved over the one he had just lost. He sat back, brought his knees to his chest, wrapped his arms around them as though he were trying to shrink himself into some place safe, and stared back at me, straight into my eyes, but I felt as though he didn’t see me at all. He sat there, the front of him from his face to his boots, covered with the blood of the morning’s victims. I turned away and found refuge in the gun well and the wide space of the distant sky.