“Don’t ya love her madly.
Don’t ya need her badly.
Don’t ya love her ways.
Tell me what you say…”
– ‘Love Her Madly’, The Doors
§ § §
The manager bade us farewell, “Good to see you, Franklin. Enjoy your evening,” and left us in the company of an Army sergeant who proceeded to lay his weapon down on the bar and mix us drinks for the remainder of the night. A more surreal scene I could not have conjured.
At one point Frank excused himself to go to the ‘head’ and D.B. leaned in toward me in that way that can only mean one thing: I’m going to convey some information here that Frank would probably rather I not talk about… but what the hell.
D.B. told me that Frank had become quite the media source after his discharge from hospital those many years ago. Because he had been part of a Special Forces team and stayed on in Bangkok, the various news outlets sought him out for counsel whenever they ran into a dead end, journalistically speaking. The Army also realized Frank’s usefulness as an ‘un-named source’, as they call it. They would give Frank information that the U.S. government wanted released but couldn’t be seen as releasing through otherwise normal means. Sometimes it was factual data, sometimes it was a fabrication – disinformation. According to D.B., Frank never knew which. To that day Frank continued his uneasy alliance with the government that sent him to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia, although the service he was providing ten years after the war had officially ended was anybody’s guess.
D.B. stopped and looked at me. “You don’t believe any of this shit, do you?” he said. “An open mind is a terrible thing to waste,” I answered.
Everything I’d seen and heard about Frank and his cronies in the last few days was shrouded in a healthy skepticism. I didn’t so much care whether any of what I saw and heard was fact, as much as I considered how I would utilize it in my story, which was fiction. But, if this was all some kind of elaborate game, being played out simply for my entertainment, I was quickly buying in.
Thus began the second epiphany of my relationship with Frank.
“Frank’s KIA, you know. He doesn’t exist anymore,” D.B. said.
As in any war, when your tour of duty was finished you either returned home or you were listed as MIA, Missing In Action, or KIA, Killed In Action. There was a third category that no one really talked about – it had no official sanction. It was DA, or ‘Don’t Ask’. The DA moniker was reserved for those personnel who decided after they arrived in Vietnam to become ‘conscientious objectors’, or, more in keeping with army-speak, deserters. There were over seven hundred American deserters during the Vietnam War, not including draft dodgers and resisters… where are they now, I wonder.
According to D.B., Frank was KIA. This needed explanation. I was about to question him on it when Frank returned to the table. Apparently he’d overheard D.B.
Frank suddenly became quite animated, like he was unloading information he’d kept hidden for years. He told everyone at the table that in ’68 when he went ‘covert’ the government erased all traces of his prior history – including his life. Okay, now we’re on to serious ‘Willy Wonka’ territory, I thought. But still, it made for a great yarn.
He told the story about how one rainy morning he and several dozen of his fellow regular army privates were gathered around a faulty camp stove drinking awful coffee and force-feeding themselves RTE’s, Army slang for food (Ready To Eat).
There was a ‘hiss’. Someone yelled, “IN COMING!” The RTE’s went flying to the ground as every enlisted man reached for his weapon and dove for the best piece of cover they could find from what was sure to be a mortar attack.
Out of the blue a black UH-1B ‘Baby Huey’ helicopter swept into the small clearing and landed quickly with a thud.
Frank said the helicopter was all black – no markings. The pilot cut the engine and feathered the rotors, just in case a rapid extraction was necessary. They were just 30 kliks (kilometres) from the DMZ and no one was supposed to know Frank and his cavalry unit were there.
Frank described what happened next as like watching Liberace take the stage in Las Vegas.
The side door slid open and a perfectly polished black combat boot came to rest on the chopper’s starboard skid. Then another. Standing there, looking at the rag-tag group of grunts, was a Special Forces colonel with a handlebar moustache. He was decked out with a pearl-handled .45 pistol, a white silk scarf and a black beret. The rest was regulation khaki. Frank told me that when he first saw the film Apocalypse Now and watched as the Robert Duvall character came on screen he laughed so hard the theatre manager wanted to throw him out.
The colonel shrugged, smirked and stepped off the skid onto the wet grass. No one spoke. No one even saluted this superior officer, so mesmerized was everyone in attendance.
He grabbed a couple of food boxes and placed them on top of a crate, then asked for assistance as he climbed atop his hastily prepared pulpit.
“Here’s the deal,” he said, in a deeply southern accent, as Frank recalled it.
“Cav units such as yours have a mortality rate of about fifty percent. Take a look around. That means that half of you ain’t gonna make it home to your cushy little beds. And while you’re waitin’ for some gook to put a pungee stick in your eye or a bullet in your brainpan, you eat shit, drink shit, live in shit… you ARE shit! Well, ladies, I offer you an alternative.” According to Frank, this colonel couldn’t have held their gaze any stronger if he’d been painted blue. The colonel continued.
“I run a small group of Special Ops into areas of this war that you don’t know about and into territories you haven’t even heard of. It’s secret, it’s dangerous, and it pays ten times what you shit-eaters accumulate for your family’s estate. I’ve been authorized to tell you that I’m recruiting and I’m in dire need of a couple of replacements – now, today. Come with me and I guarantee you’ll drink the best booze, eat the best food and fuck the best pussy this side of the lower forty-eight.”
The interest level of those in attendance continued to grow.
“But there’s one small thing,” he continued. “Our mortality rate is ninety percent! That means the odds of you living through this are one in ten. Agree to come with me now and the tour on this duty is six months… unless, of course, you’re stupid and die. In which case you’ll be home all the sooner.” He pulled an expensive cigar out of his fatigue pocket, bit the end off and lit it with one flip of his Zippo. “So, what’s it to be…? Rust, or blaze of glory?! You’ve got five minutes,” he said.
Frank had been ‘in country’ for almost a year and seen most of his friends die in combat – most of it vicious, some of it hand-to-hand. He hadn’t waited for the draft – he’d enlisted. He’d done his six weeks of basic, got handed a rifle and told he was going to Vietnam to make the world safe for democracy. Frank knew he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. What was he going to do when he went back stateside? What if the colonel was right and he was the next body bag filler?
The colonel looked at his Rolex President (Frank now had one just like it), turned and walked toward the chopper, and with a swirl of his hand signalled for the engines to start-up. Frank looked at his sergeant and then at the lieutenant who had been wounded earlier in the day. He followed the colonel to the helicopter and reached him just as he was getting in.
“What do I need to do… now, I mean?” Frank inquired. The colonel looked at him and sucked on his stogie. A couple of seconds later he said, “Where you from, son?” “Louisiana, sir,” came the less than regimental reply. Another second, then, “Gimme your gun.” Frank handed him the regulation issue M-16 carbine he’d had since basic and the colonel looked at him again. “You sure you want to do this…?” he asked Frank. Frank turned and looked at his cav unit. “Yeah,” was all he said.
The colonel threw Frank’s rifle to the ground and told him to get in. “You won’t be needing this where we’re going,” he said. The chopper was already airborne and turning into the wind when the colonel added, “…or these.” He ripped Frank’s dog tags from around his neck, chucked them outside and slid the door shut with a bang. Frank was dead. Long live Frank.
That’s the way Frank told the story that night at the Bangkok Press Club, almost verbatim, with asides from D.B. I tape recorded most of our conversations and transcribed them when I returned to Vancouver, so I have most of the story correct complete with the inflections Frank added.
Now, I didn’t know much about the American armed forces, but I knew that the purpose of dog tags was to identify you in case of death – the sole purpose in fact. It was said that if you had the option of losing your balls or your dog tags you’d choose the former. You’d have them personally removed by your superior officer anyway if you lost the latter and self-determination was the last thing they beat out of you in army!
Frank explained that the group he joined was so covert the government didn’t want any record of ANYTHING they did. So, if you joined this force, you ceased to be accountable to your original unit. Also, if you happened to be captured the enemy couldn’t use you for propaganda purposes if they didn’t know who you were.
This type of covert operational procedure, although not common, has a history dating back to post-war, OSS days (pre-CIA) and the reign of über-spy ‘Wild’ Bill Donovan.
The super-secret groups were colloquially known as SOG, or Studies and Observations Group. This was an innocuous little term that fit the acronym perfectly, but in fact obfuscated the actual role of the group. While sounding like it might refer to someone ‘auditing’ an operation, in fact SOG stood for Special Operations Group and ‘observing’ was the least lethal activity involved.
A recent TIME magazine article elaborated:
“If a soldier is assigned highly clandestine work, his records are changed to make it appear as if he resigned from the military or was given civilian status; the process is called ‘sheep dipping’, after the practice of bathing sheep before they are sheared.”
With the exception of two men who were seriously wounded and air lifted back to the United States, his entire original cavalry unit was wiped out in a booby-trapped village some three weeks after Frank ‘went black’. The dog tags that had been jettisoned from the helicopter were picked up by a buddy of his and pocketed for safekeeping. During the heated exchange at the village, this particular buddy was killed and the dog tags were found.
“I’m on the wall, apparently,” Frank said wistfully. “There are a lot of guys on the wall who don’t deserve to be there,” D.B. added, not so wistfully. Another story, perhaps.
The two warriors exchanged a long knowing glance that spoke volumes and I was just about to interject with, “I don’t mean to question your memory, but…,” when Frank jumped up and said, “C’mon, we’re leaving. ”
“Where to now, master? ” D.B. joked. We all giggled, the alcohol combined with the heat and humidity starting to take effect. Frank looked at me and said, “Wanna meet some real spooks…?”
D.B.’s eyes widened. “The Thermae…?!” he said. “You’re takin’ them to the Thermae? Are you nuts?! I can’t be seen there, you know that!”
Frank continued to look at me. “When do you go back to Koh Phi Phi?” he said. “I don’t,” I said. “I go to Hong Kong in two days, then home to Vancouver.”
Frank looked at D.B. and weighed the options. “We’re goin’ to the Thermae. I’ll see you later,” he said pointing to D.B.
“Watch your back and don’t be seen smoking nothin’ funny,” D.B. said to me. “You know what I mean… funny…?” “I get it,” I said. But I didn’t. I still don’t know why D.B. couldn’t ‘be seen’ at the Thermae. Considering his line of work it could have been anything. I didn’t want to know.
I said goodbye to Jesus – not by name of course – nodded and smiled at the heavily armed bartender as we exited the press club, and then the three of us hopped into an air-conditioned taxi and headed out into the hot fetid extremes of the Bangkok night.
Most of the short drive was accomplished in silence, but I could see Frank was excited. He was riding shotgun. I leaned forward and said, “So, what’s the Thermae? A club or something?” Frank didn’t react, he just said, “Or something… you’ll see.”
End of Part 3 of 4 ~ Continued In Part 4