Chapter 12 A Matter of Linguistics
Colonel Max Perdiem, his face coated in grave-mold green-and-black grease paint, peered lethally from beneath the thick foliage at the bottom of a ravine. At least he hoped he was peering lethally. It was hard to tell. He wasn’t sure whether his tightly focused squint looked dangerous or just near-sighted.
The forest was dim and sepulchral, the sunlight being absorbed by thick triple-canopy far above. Dense foliage muffled sounds. The rotting vegetation in which he lay was unpleasantly moist. Things crawled in it. He knew that men in Special Operations often had to lie, motionless yet alert, for hours in unpleasant places outdoors. His current circumstances undeniably being unpleasant, he felt a sense of fulfillment. He embodied the military view that soldiers should lead a life of sacrifice and hardship. Sacrifice for what was irrelevant and sometimes confusing. Still, whenever he was comfortable, he had a vague sense that something was wrong.
He could see little in the densely leafy curtain of growth. For three hours he had waited motionless, at times wishing that he had chosen an observation post without an ants’ nest. He understood himself to be on a crucially important mission in search of Viet Cong trains, or perhaps of rail crews building them. Colonel Walther hadn’t been too clear on the question. The nature of intelligence was not to be clear.
He had reflected that the bottom of a boggy ravine would be an odd place to build a rail line. He also new that surprise was the soul of strategy, and finding a rail line in a ravine too narrow for a box car would indeed be surprising.
A camouflaged radio lay beside him. He very quietly slipped the rubber face piece over his mouth, designed to muffle his voice lest enemies hear him. It made him look like a disturbed horse with a feed bag. He keyed the microphone.
“Wo shang i-hau, da bidz yo da pigu,” he whispered and waited for a response in his earphones. He believed that he was speaking Montagnard.
Back came a soft response from Ksor Ksor, his Montagnard second, “Wo hen yao chr dofu. Pi-jyou hau.”
Ah, so his team hadn’t found any trains either. The Cong must be very, very good, thought Perdiem. Trains were hard to hide. Something wasn’t right. After a week of looking for them in a small region, something nagged at him.
He got to his feet and began stealthily moving toward the creek where his ‘Yards waited.
Months before, Perdiem had been assigned the three ‘Yards of his team. They were small brown men with high cheek bones, of a breed not far removed from the Stone Age, intelligent if blankly ignorant of anything beyond their highland villages, and unsure why the strange Americans were in the jungles. They knew there was a war, though they were not sure why. It didn’t occur to them that the white men might not know either. They knew though that no Viet Cong were anywhere near the Annamese Finger.
However, the Special Forces paid them money for walking around in the woods. Money was a new concept to them. It was their understanding that money could be exchanged for motor scooters. All three had ambitions of doing just that. If the Americans wanted them to look for VC who weren’t there, they would look for them. Since they couldn’t find any, they would keep getting paid for looking. It seemed to them a reasonable or at least desirable arrangement.
From the start Perdiem had addressed them in their Montagnard dialect, which he had been taught at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California. As was usual with military students, he had learned almost nothing, and yet assumed that he was fluent. Everyone knew that Special Forces men were fluent in exotic languages, so he must be.
From this confusion, a curious and portentous sequence of events would flow.
Following his arrival at the Special Forces base camp in the Annamese Finger, Perdiem had begun holding PT sessions in the morning. These struck the Yards as little short of lunacy, but if mental disturbance was the price of motor scooters, as it seemed to be, then they would be disturbed. Nothing else the large white men did made any sense, so why should this?
And so at six in the morning, against a glowing backdrop of emerald-green hills swathed in silver morning fog, on the red scraped clay behind barbed wire of the camp, they jumped up and down and waved their arms curiously as the strange colonel shouted orders. They didn’t understand what PT was, but on the other hand they didn’t much care. The odd colonel often say something to them in, as he thought, their dialect. They found it incomprehensible. In fact they had no idea what language he was speaking.
“Wo shr-ge ben dan! Dwei-le! Gen syau gou i-yang!” the skull-faced apparition with the jagged lightning scar had shouted. Then he had begun jumping up and down while waving his arms and straddling his legs. The Yards had stared, thunderstruck. They had never seen anything of such surpassing curiousness.
“Fang-pi i! Fang-pi er! Fang-pi san!” shouted Perdiem, furiously fanning the air. Unfamiliar with calisthenics, and not wanting to embarrass him, they had nodded, smiled, and tried to guess what the crazy colonel wanted. Ah. He wanted them to jump and fan the air too. Why? they wondered. Maybe it didn’t matter. They began jumping and fanning. A motor scooter was a motor scooter.
Being bright, the Yards had gradually come to associate the sounds Perdiem made with what he was trying to say. Since they didn’t recognize his utterances as Montagnard, they were under the impression that he was teaching them another language. They began to answer him in the same words. Soon they were able to communicate quite adequately for purposes of patrolling. He thought he was speaking their language, and they, that he wasn’t.
This too would have consequences.
One day the sharp fwopfwopfwop of a helicopter had come from high in the empty blue sky. A resupply bird. It descended like some ugly ill-designed insect, the rotor wash blowing loose trash through the wire, and whined to a stop. The pilot, technically Warrant Officer Reginald F. Houlihan but everywhere known as Six-pack, climbed out with a beer in his hand and a cowboy hat on his head. Things got a little loose away from headquarters.
“Hey, Six-pack, good to see your ass,” said one of the SF men, all of whom knew Six-pack well. “You got goodies?”
“Do I got goodies? Twelve pizzas, case of Beam, bag of dirty books,” Six-pack said, non-regulation blond hair reaching his collar. He looked like an Irish motorcycle bandit. “You want maybe ammunition or something?”
“Naw. Never use it. Now, about them fucken pizzas….”
Six-pack was so called because he always flew with a copious supply of Vietnamese beer in the cockpit. It wasn’t regulation, but neither was Six-pack. Someone at the base camp asked him why the beer. “In twenty-three years in these whirly-birds, I’ve only crashed twice. Both times I was sober. I’m not going to risk it again.”
He met Perdiem, and decided that here was a man, if not exactly after his own heart, at least more interesting than most people he met in Viet Nam. They got along. Six-pack offered to help Perdiem’s team as best he could. Perdiem liked night missions as he thought these would catch the enemy off guard. Trains, he thought, might be less alert in the dark. Six-pack was happy to support these missions because he could park in a clearing and be left alone. He knew that there were no VC about. The other Special Forces troops encouraged Six-pack to take Boo Boo away, if only for a night. There was always hope that he might forget how to get back.
The chopper always inserted them in a jungled clearing and then Six-Pack would shut the turbine down and contentedly drink until morning. Theoretically he was standing ready to extract them in case they were in danger of being overwhelmed. Insertion and extraction, thought Houlihan: In like suppositories, and out like teeth. It pretty much defined the military as he understood it.
Night after night, day after day, Perdiem and his team crept through the area of operations. They found nothing, though the colonel fell repeatedly into gullies, quicksand, and arroyos. Something wasn’t right with the world. It was almost, Perdiem thought, as if the trains were invisible.