Chapter 20 Vogle
Corporal Hearn dropped Zeke Feinstein off at the Piao-Lyang-de Pigu Hotel and blended into the chaotic traffic to pick up Paul Vogle, the chief of the Danang Bureau of UPI. Headquarters had assigned him to drive Vogle around for a day. It was a way of keeping reporters under a degree of control. Hearn had never met Vogle, but thought he might make a useful addition to his efforts in the line of invisible airplanes. He stopped at 19 Ngo De Ke Street and found a small colonial villa set amid palm trees. At his knock an old, low voice said, “Come in.” He did, and found himself, dear god, in dim air-conditioned coolness. At first he could see little in the dimness.
“Have a drink.”
His eyes adjusted. A thin late-fortyish man, hair thinning badly, sat at a table with a half-empty bottle of bambdebam in front of him. His face was narrow, sallow, and almost emaciated. Or maybe the eyes just made him look emaciated. He looked drunk and tired, very tired, maybe incurably tired.
“Sir, I’m not supposed to drink on duty.”
“I know you’re not. Have a drink, for god’s sake.”
“Yessir. Thank you sir.”
“Don’t call me sir. You sound like you’re in the Marines or something.” There was an edge to his voice, an impatience, as of one who just didn’t want to hear any more of it. Of anything.
“Yessir. I mean, yes.”
The thin figure pushed the bottle across the table. A cigarette leaned from the other hand, the fingers stained yellow by nicotine. An ashtray, in the shape of an elephant’s head with the top of the cranium removed, was almost full of stubs. He didn’t look healthy, thought Hearn. Nothing specific. He just looked…used up.
“Here, pour it yourself, kid. Sit down. Don’t worry. If you’re late, blame it on me.” He pushed a glass at Hearn, who sat. He poured himself a small drink and took a sip. It tasted like brake fluid mixed with cough syrup. He had never had Vietnamese liquor. The troops were not allowed to associate with the Vietnamese. The command feared that they might develop unwholesome sympathies. Consequently Hearn drank only Feinstein’s classy hooch.
When Vogle said nothing, Hearn finally said, “Uh, where am I supposed to take you, sir?”
Nothing. Vogle, who by his looks might have been a disillusioned desert father, stared at the table. After a moment, he said, “I freaking forget. No, I’m lying. I’m supposed to go look at the remains of some of your friends roasted in an amtrac.” He stopped. Then, “You think I want to?” .
“I don’t know sir.”
“They never learn, do they?”
“Why do you think the Marines have amtracs here?”
“Uh, to fight the gooks, sir.”
Vogle said nothing again. He took a large gulp of bamdebam. Hearn’s eyes widened. This guy could pack it down. One day they might put him in a jar in a museum.
“No. No, they have amtracs here because they have amtracs.” It wasn’t exactly anger that gave the voice its abrasive edge, more like the burnt-out ashes of an anger that had gnawed itself to death. “Do amtracs make any goddam sense here? Gasoline tank in the bottom, roof to bounce against, biggest target in Vietnam? No, they have amtracs here because they’re in the table of organization, and this is the only war they’ve got, so they’re going to use the amtracs.”
“Is that really why, sir?”
Vogle looked even more tired, which was an accomplishment. “How old are you?”
“How long have you been here?”
“Three months, sir.”
Vogle covered his face with his palms. “Twenty-three years for me.”
After a minute he said, “I’ll probably get thrown out of country for subverting you. Listen, kid. The military does what it knows how to do, not what it needs to do. A military man only knows how to do one thing, and he does it in response to everything. Ask a tank officer if he knows how to bake a cake. ‘Sure I do,’ he says. ‘First you adjust the track tension….’ He can’t adapt. He doesn’t know what the word means. Do you think it makes sense to have supersonic fighters doing close-air support? They can’t even see the ground at that speed. Oh, hell. Let’s go.”
Hearn sensed that he was in the presence of something new, something that hadn’t occurred to him. This wasn’t the ooorah pep-and-good-news talk of the officers. It wasn’t the cynical armor of the guys he worked with. It was something old and worn and terribly…“used up” was the phrase that came again to mind.
“Yessir.” Hearn stood up.
“No, siddown. Hell with it. Have another drink.”
Hearn did. He was about to learn about the war. He didn’t know what he would tell his boss. He would think of something.