Chapter 7 An Engineering Solution
The Air Force 707 approached Danang at high altitude to avoid the cloud of F-4s taking off to drop napalm on railroad tracks. Then it corkscrewed down to the airfield to avoid ground fire. Life in Viet Nam, as even the airplanes seemed to know, consisted chiefly of avoiding one thing or another. As the plane taxied up to the passenger terminal, a jeep raced toward it with an American flag fluttering on the bumper. Colonel Billy Joel Walther, press secretary to General Grommett, leaped out and waited while sweating marines put the ramp in place.
“Don’t forget proper military courtesy,” Walther fussed at his driver. “The Marine Corps will be judged by our actions.”
“Yessir,” said Corporal Hearn, waiting with helmet, flak jacket, and burgeoning pride. The engineers on the 707 were coming to investigate his very own invisible airplanes, in which he had come to take paternal pleasure. Almost daily he described their endlessly varied exploits to Feinstein, who put them in the paper, which disturbed General Grommett, who alarmed the Pentagon, which was now sending engineers to see Hearn’s airplanes, which by their nature could not be seen. Now Hearn got to see the engineers. He was immensely satisfied with his hobby. He regarded himself as an important part of the war effort.
“Wait here,” snapped Walther with what he hoped was just the right mixture of authority and cordiality for dealing with enlisted men. He had learned in OCS to regard soldiers as wily but essentially helpless. They could dig holes if told where, and could do mysterious blue-collar things to trucks, but could not be trusted to change their socks. That was what officers were for, he had concluded, to make sure the men changed their socks.
“Yessir,” said Hearn, wishing that Walther would cut the crap. He suspected that Walther really wanted him to say, “Yes, Bwana.” Hearn had come to the conclusion that officers were essentially helpless, especially this one. Mostly they just told you to change socks when you didn’t need to, but they couldn’t fix trucks.
The forward door of the 707 opened like an aluminum sepulcher. Two radar engineers from General Dynamics stepped blinking into the sunlight, wearing blue jeans and fruit boots. Colonel Walther frowned with sudden disapproval. They looked like hippies or dangerous dissidents, or maybe even godless atheists. Perhaps there was some mistake.
Mark Lehrner was a tall rangy engineer with the luxuriant red-brown mustache of a Mexican bandido and a great hawkish ski-slope of a nose. He peered around him with the sardonic curiosity of a sane man forced to visit an asylum. In fact, this was precisely how he regarded himself. His companion, Dick Potter, was rounded and pink with his hair receding from a forehead that looked like an incompletely evolved beach ball. There was something haphazard and undisciplined about the pair, something profoundly unmilitary. Colonel Walther decided to request that they not set a Bad Example for the men.
“This is it, John Wayne. Keep your head down. Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” Lehrner said in a staccato Jersey accent. He pulled his head down low under a floppy duck-hunting hat. Lehrner was fundamentally unimpressed by everything except good engineering. He surveyed the sprawling haze-enshrouded expanse of Vietnam, all bright greens fading to misty blues in the distance.
Potter looked calmly around. He too suspected that he had arrived in a vast peninsular looney bin, but he also suspected it would be amusing. The officious man waving his arms by the jeep had potential, he decided.
“It looks as if that guy with the cretinous grin is waiting for us,” said Potter. “At least, I’m afraid he is.”
“Answer me, Lehrner. Are we really here to look for invisible airplanes?”
“No shit, Kemo Sabe.”
They clattered down the steps. “Hello, gentlemen!” said Walther with a firm military handshake. This consisted in slapping the other’s hand as if swatting a ping-pong ball and squeezing firmly, like a machine tool. He had seen it done by the Rangers.
“Welcome to Danang, Republic of Viet Nam. We can take ground fire so do put on the flak jackets in the jeep. The ride to Monkey Mountain takes about half an hour. As you know, General Grommett regards your mission with highest priority. He is very worried that these mysterious airplanes may be threatening the common soldier. As you may have read in the media, the General is deeply concerned with the welfare of the common soldier. The general would like to see you afterwards and….”
“Goddam pretty scenery,” said Lehrner as they scrambled into the jeep. He found it hard to focus on what Walther was saying, if anything. The metal of the jeep was so hot it was painful to touch. He was looking at Marble Mountain rising in the distance like a square green thumb.
“…of course, we’ll provide you with all assistance needed to accomplish your mission and….”
It was not hard to ignore Walther. In fact, it was hard not to ignore Walther.
“That lumpish grey object would seem to be a water buffalo,” said Potter. “I didn’t think they really existed. What’s a buffalo doing on an air base? Do you suppose we’re training them to fly?”
Lehrner said, “That one is eating and defecating. Simultaneously.”
Colonel Walther stopped talking for a moment. Eating and….? He began to suspect that Lehrner wasn’t On The Team. He would have to warn General Grommett.
“Shall I head for Monkey Mountain, sir?” asked Hearn. He liked the newcomers. Only ten minutes in country, and they understood the war.
“Yes, and drive carefully,” Colonel Walther replied.
They bounced through countryside peppered with thatched villages, past gray stolid buffalo wondering what it would be like to gore a Caucasian, past wizened mama-sans thinking their unimaginable wizened thoughts, past swarming yellow children yelling “Gimme chop-chop.”
Lehrner watched the alien landscape with interest, beginning to sweat beneath the luxurious overhang of his moustache. He wondered what the United States thought it was doing here. He also wondered what he himself was doing here. Lehrner had a low tolerance for fools. He had a strong premonition that he had encountered one in Colonel Walther. Something was wrong, he thought. But what? This invisible airplane business was embarrassing. The United States was far ahead of the Soviets in radar, and if Lehrner had no idea how to make an invisible airplane, neither did Ivan.
Besides, there was something weirdly unserious about the whole business. He hadn’t been in-country long enough to decide that there was something weirdly unserious about the whole war. Nobody at the Pentagon had seemed to know or care anything about the invisible airplanes. Two weeks earlier an Undersecretary of Defense had called Lehrner’s boss from Washington and asked for someone official to go do something symbolic about the headlines appearing across the country. Before that, nobody had given a goddam about…about whatever they now seemed to care about.
“The world is full of lunatics,” Lehrner’s boss had muttered dispiritedly to himself, holding the receiver away from his ear with a persecuted expression. “But why do they have to call me?”
“Perhaps you haven’t seen the papers,” said the cultivated Ivy League voice from the capital, a voice obviously sheathed in an expensive suit and awaiting its opportunity to advance to a full Secretaryship.
“I try not to.”
“Ah. Haha. A wit. Well. The Pentagon has come under, ah, pressure from Congress about stories in the AP regarding, um, certain invisible airplanes that seem to be, um, making trouble of a military sort. The Secretary of Defense, a very busy man, wants you to send someone to, um, study the problem.”
“Invisible airplanes are impossible,” said Lehrner’s boss. “There ain’t any. How’s that for a study?”
“Not good enough, I’m afraid,” said the voice, managing to apologize and condescend at the same time. “The Secretary is not interested in their existence, but in having them studied.”
“How do you study something when there ain’t any?”
The distant expensive suit thought briefly.
“Perhaps by setting up instruments. By taking notes. Perhaps you could, ah, measure some things. You know, wavelengths and things like that. Perhaps you could do it for, er…about three months? Remember, General Dynamics has a contract coming up….”
Hearn nearly wrecked the jeep dodging a small girl who chased a scrawny chicken into the road. When he had backed and filled and gotten back on the road, Colonel Walther said, “Corporal Hearn has seen the invisible airplanes, gentlemen. Perhaps, Corporal Hearn, you could brief our guests on the threat.”
“Lots of ‘em,” said Hearn. “Bunches.” He enjoyed his position as an authority on invisible airplanes. In fact, he regarded himself as the combined Orville and Wilbur Wright of invisible airplanes.
“How many of these alleged airplanes have been sighted?” asked Lehrner sardonically, wondering what the hell was going on.
“None of them, sir,” said Hearn.
What? Lehrner corrected himself. The kid was right. These were, after all, invisible airplanes. “I mean, how many of them haven’t been sighted?”
“All of them, sir. All of them haven’t been sighted, sir.” Hearn peered down the road like a bespectacled beagle, looking for mines.
Lehrner grinned. A patch of sanity, this fellow was. He tried again.
“How can you tell when you haven’t sighted one?”
“Because you can’t see them, sir. When you can’t see them least, they’re there the most.”
“Hmmm,” said Potter, whose extra flesh made him quite comfortable in a bouncing jeep. He was gratified that he had been right: Vietnam was an amusing place. “You are saying that their thereness is proportional to their absence. Then it follows that, when you see them most, they must be least there.”
“Yessir, that’s sort of how they are. Or aren’t.”
“So if you could make them completely visible, they’d disappear entirely.”
“That’s what I think, sir,” said Hearn. These guys were fun, just like the fellows in his old dormitory.
“Then the solution would seem to be to find where they are, because then they won’t be. It should be possible.”
Walther almost forgot his dignity. His brow was furrowed with effort. “Wait. Wait,” he erupted. “I think I see…You’re right! You know, why didn’t I think of that? It’s so obvious.”
“You get a knack for it after a while,” said Lehrner. “What else haven’t you observed about these planes, Corporal? Aren’t they jets, or aren’t they helicopters?”
“I figure they aren’t jets, or they wouldn’t maneuver so fast,” offered Hearn.
“Or,” said Potter meditatively, “Maybe they aren’t something entirely different. There are many things they might not be.”
Colonel Walther gasped. “You mean something …we don’t know about? Something—advanced?”
“Almost assuredly something we don’t know about, I should think. Practically by definition,” said Potter. His vast forehead was beading with moisture. It itched.
“Actually,” said Hearn, wondering how much he could get away with, “I met a corporal who said he saw one near China Beach, and it went “eeeee.” Real high-pitched.”
“Eeeee?” said Colonel Walther.
“Like an L-pad dihedral Eddington oscillator,” offered Hearn experimentally.
“Wow!” said Lehrner. That was gibberish, absolute gibberish. He liked this kid.
“Where did you go to school, corporal?”
“Iowa, sir. Chemistry.”
“Obviously you were an able student,” Potter said. “I’m surprised the marines don’t make you responsible for the invisible-airplane investigation. If you aren’t already responsible for it, as I begin to think.”
The jeep had been climbing steeply. Now it ground to a stop outside the sandbagged entrance to the Monkey Mountain Hawk sites. Vietnam stretched away below them in luminous viridian and brown, lovely, frightened, and unsure what was happening to it. The Marines who clinked about in the residual mud of the rainy season were not lovely, but they also were brown and green and didn’t know what was happening to them. They didn’t care as long as they didn’t get shot.
To one side a battery of sleek Hawk anti-aircraft missiles stood ready to shoot down airplanes the enemy didn’t have. The site commander, an angular major with a wad of tobacco in his cheek, came out to see who was intruding on his life this time. Walther leaped from the jeep and spoke briskly.
“Major Minter, these are the experts from General Dynamics. They want to talk to you and your men about the invisible airplanes that are worrying us all and endangering the common soldier. They already have some ideas.”
“Why, Ah’m delighted,” said the Tennessee-born battery commander sourly. He was not delighted at all. He was getting sick of this invisible airplane business. “Come right in.”
Lehrner hesitated. Colonel Walther made him uneasy. The major on the other hand looked to be in his right mind. On impulse he said, “Uh, Dick, why don’t you and the colonel keep an eye on the air space while I take a look at the equipment? That way, if anything happens, we’ve got our bases covered.”
“Anything to help,” said Colonel Walther dynamically. “The general is very concerned. He worries that one of these mysterious planes might kill a common soldier.”
Lehrner and the major stepped into a bunker filled with perfectly ordinary radar screens of sorts familiar to both men.
“Major, level with me. What’s this crazy bullshit?”
The major propped himself in an angular column against a radio-frequency amplifier, leaned over to spit copiously in a trash can, and picked at his front tooth for a moment. His lean face fell into the expression of sardonic helplessness in the face of cosmically mandated lunacy.
“Jest what you said. Crazy bullshit. There ain’t no fucken airplanes. This here’s good radar. Ah’ve been in radar seven years, and Ah know.” He spoke in an agonizingly deliberate drawl, as if dictating to a stone cutter. “There cain’t be no airplane on high elevation out of clutter that I cain’t see.”
“Yeah, I know. But something’s got everybody upset. We’re here because the Pentagon is bent out of shape.”
“What it is, some fucken pilot comes out and Ah guess practices fighten, or maybe he’s a goddam commonist and hates my guts and jest wants me to answer a lot of damn fool calls from that brainlocked colonel out there that acts like a queer.” He meant Walther. “It’s a F-4, that’s all it is. Dives and rolls and all that good shit. Fucken Air Force don’t know who he is, or won’t say, or probably don’t care.”
“Can you get him on radio?”
“He don’t answer. Me, I reckon he’s crazy. Probably buck nekkid and wearing a goddam red scarf and gigglin’ and all.”
Lehrner was thinking. “I think I’m supposed to come back with some kind of solution. But there’s no problem. Great.”
“If I get about one more phone call from that dumb colonel, I’m gonna put me a fire-control solution on that F-4 and drive a Hawk up his ass. Then there won’t be no problem.”
“Damn. Potter an I gotta come up with something.”
“If I was you, Mister, I’d catch me a hop to Bangkok and get me about two week’s worth of poontang and hangovers, and then I’d tell the Pentagon the fucken sitchyation needs more study. Then they’ll send some other poor sonofabitch and then it’s his problem. I know. I used to work at the Pentagon.”
“Is the military always this nuts?”
“Then why are you here?”
“Everbody gotta be somewhere.”
The sergeant at the search screen hollered, “Major, here he comes now.”
“Oh hot dawg,” said the major laconically. “That’s just fucken peaches. You wanta see a invisible airplane? There he is.”
Out over the paddies a dot circled briefly at high altitude, and then plunged toward the earth. It then twisted violently, leading the Major to say, “He’s gonna pull a wing off that sucker. Be a good thing too.”
Colonel Walther watched in fascination. Why, sure enough, the other plane really was invisible. Some heroic Air Force pilot was fighting an invisible foe. It was splendid.
High over the paddies Major Egglesby was turning hard, watching Togo Fuji grow inexorably in his windscreen.