Chapter 6 We Encounter Max Perdiem, Wonderingly
In the twilit triple canopy of IV Corps near the Lao border, a lethal region where men tended to disappear without a trace, or would have if they had, a stream splashed and chuckled through the cathedral gloom of the immense vegetation. Thick vines the color of bamboo vipers dripped from the trees in great sworls. On the broad surfaces of leaves, leeches like fat green sausages waited in the brooding murk, ready to drop down any passing collar. This was Special Forces territory.
Thirty feet above the dancing water, the foliage was parted furtively. A pair of piercing brown eyes peered into the gloom. The eyes rested deep in hollow sockets in an emaciated face, emaciated by hunger not physical but of the soul. The forehead rose like sunburned leather to a shaven head. A thin white scar snaked down his face like frozen lightning.
The scar belonged to Major Maxwell Perdion, universally known to his compadres in Third Special Forces Group as Max Perdiem. He had gotten the scar by slipping on a plate of barbecue left by a drunk on the floor of the Officer’s Club at Won San, Korea, and falling into a floor lamp. It made him look like an alert but puzzled skull en route to a Halloween party, an appearance much esteemed in the Special Forces. At the moment he was crouching in the crotch of a tree, preparing to cross the stream on a bridge of vines. Perdiem was on a secret mission.
Squatting low on the vines, he emerged as silently as the shadow of death into the sunlight. He held a Stoner carbine, loaded and ready, the coppery points of bullets glinting dully in the magazine. As he started across the gulf he motioned stealthily. From the green dimness three Montagnard’s sitting on a branch of the tree prepared to follow.
Just as Perdiem reached the midpoint of the bridge, a badly tied knot parted and the bridge sagged sharply.
“Ooo-oo-aaaaaaaaaaaagh!,” hollered Perdiem, flailing wildly. The bridge collapsed further.
“Waa-aaagh!” shouted Perdiem, waving one leg for balance. The carbine dropped.
Oh, hell, Perdiem thought, it was happening again. He wasn’t paranoid. All evidence accumulated over a long career indicated that the world really was out to get him. By now he expected it.
For a moment that seemed endless he stood on the toe of one foot, arms outspread in a desperate quest for balance. He looked like Apollo poised for flight, or a ballerina attempting a new and demanding movement without enough coffee. Then he teetered frantically and toppled in the manner of a collapsing obelisk with a long quavering shriek.
He hit the water with a gargantuan splash. A moment later he surfaced, coughing and spitting water. “Goddamit it all!” he shouted and kicked a tree stump, “It worked in the fucking manual!” The Montagnards watched patiently. They knew him well.
At the Special Forces base nearby, several men sat around the campfire fiddling through cardboard for the edible parts of C-rations. A lieutenant with the lantern-shaped features that come out of the hollers of Kentucky drawled, “Sounds like Boo Boo did it again.”
“Yeah. Poor dumb sonofabitch.”
“Goddam Army oughta issue him a mother.”
Boo Boo Perdiem was a legend in a service replete with legends. His ineptitude for war was boundless. So far as living memory could recall, Max had never done anything right. No one was sure why. He was physically fit. He was brave. A psychiatrist had attested that he fell withing the admittedly broad mental limits considered normal in Special Forces. He was eager. He had all the credentials, including the scar. The Special Forces didn’t worry about the source of a scar, as long as it was prominent.
Still, it was well known that Boo Boo couldn’t get a drink of water without breaking his leg, losing his rifle, and setting off NORAD alarms. He invariably went north when he was supposed to go south. If he parachuted, he got caught in a tree and hung there like a Christmas ornament until rescued. On night scuba missions, he got his compass bearing wrong and bubbled off into mid-Pacific. No one understood why. Nor did anyone care.
As long as he looked like a skull, he was welcome in the Special Forces. Perdiem had shown a flair for special warfare from early in life. In his small Oklahoma town of Tusker, where his father had been half of the police force, Max had begun collecting knives—hunting knives, fighting knives, kitchen knives, strange triangular combat knives from Java that were advertised in the backs of men’s magazines. He hung them on the walls of his room, fondled them, and occasionally sat on them and got cut. Max was not then sure why he liked knives, but when he went hunting during his adolescence, he always carried several with him.
Somehow Max hadn’t quite fitted with the other boys of the town. He had declined to play baseball in the weedy overgrown lot at the edge of town, preferring instead to stalk the third-baseman in the high grass in left field. He gave up the practice after Johnny Huston had gone back for a pop foul and stepped on his hand, breaking three fingers.
When compelled by the school authorities to join the team, he had devised an exploding baseball. It blew up in his back pocket on the school bus, necessitating an undignified trip to the doctor and a curious bandage. He had almost been thrown out of college when the night maid had opened a linen closet and found him standing inside like a fierce and scrawny owl, apparently practicing lurking. Actually he had read that remaining still and silent for hours was a major difficulty for elite reconnaissance units, which by now he had decided he wanted to enter.
Which proved easy.
At Fort Polk he had been immediately recognized as Special Forces material, meaning that he could hike with staggering loads for unreasonable distances, but did so many things wrong that the company commander was willing to do anything to have him go somewhere else. This was not unusual, as the real Army generally regarded the Forces as an internal asylum.
Perdiem had promptly shinnied up a parachute tower to do chin-ups at 100 feet, an act conveying high caste, but had gotten stuck and couldn’t get down. The base hook-and-ladder team had saved him. In Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, he had hidden in a Dempster Dumpster during infiltration training, unfortunately just as the garbage truck arrived, with the result that he was very nearly compacted. But he jumped out of airplanes with abandon and looked death in the eye without flinching, like one skull peering at another. He said things like, “It’s a good morning to die. Let’s go jump.”
And so he prospered, leaving behind him a trail of disaster.
His talent for catastrophe was why he had been assigned to this particular unit in the thin salient of jungle, known as the Annamese Finger, that ran from the highlands almost to Au Phuc Dup Hamlet. There were no VC for miles in any direction, for the straightforward reason that there was nothing in this remote jungle to interest the VC, or anyone else. There wasn’t much to interest the Special Forces, either. They were there because they were trained to fight in jungle, and there was no other jungle nearby. The Army had wanted them to come down to the lowlands where the VC were, but the commanding general of Special Forces had said that it never paid to let the enemy dictate your choice of ground.
The absence of VC meant that they controlled their area, suffered no losses as long as they stayed out of their own mine fields, and were never attacked. Since very few outfits controlled their areas, the command in Danang was delighted and wouldn’t think of moving them. They had recently received a Unit Commendation Medal. In fact, not having men in the Annamese Finger was perhaps the greatest tactical mistake the VC had made. They could have guaranteed that no unit whatever controlled its area.
McNamara himself, the Secretary of Defense, had noticed them on the computer printouts and pointed to them as evidence that well-trained troops could pacify Vietnam. He had showed up at a press briefing in the Pentagon several times, waving long swaths of computer printout. As usual he looked like a successful banker from a medium-sized city. His small steel-rimmed eyes gleamed from his small, steel-rimmed mind. The result was to provide the only place in Asia where Max Perdiem was unlikely to hurt himself.
And now he was in the jungle with his Montagnards on a secret mission. He was puzzled himself. Earlier that week, a helicopter had flown in, staying high to avoid ground fire from the VC who weren’t there. Since the VC hadn’t attacked, it was assumed that staying at altitude was tactically effective. The chopper had landed in the small clearing that served as air field, and a dozen rangy men had watched as a rear-echelon motherfucker had gotten off, a sad pogue without a scar to his name. Colonel Billy Joel Walther had flown in as a special emissary from General Grommett. Colonel Walther’s instructions were to have the Special Forces comb the jungle for the runways used by the invisible airplanes.
A jungle didn’t seem a likely place for a runway, but everywhere else had been dropped by a process of elimination. Besides, who knew what a runway for invisible airplanes might look like? It might itself be invisible. In fact, you might not know when you had found it.
Major Perdiem had walked into the headquarters hooch with the poised grace of a great cat. His eyes glittered deep in their sockets. Colonel Walther had watched with unease. There was something of the outlaw about Perdiem, common with the Special Forces.
“Major, I am here to assign you a mission from General Grommett himself,” said Walther importantly.
“What is it, sir?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Uh…how’s that again, sir?”
“I know it sounds strange, Major. There is… there are things going on that are classified. At the….” He paused significantly. “Highest level. The very highest. General Grommett has reason to believe that certain…things relating to other things may be found in this sector. Your job is to go out and find them.”
Perdiem stared. He was used to the military, but this was excessive even for the Army.
“Can’t you give me a hint?”
“Come on, just a little one.”
Colonel Walther looked at him solemnly, then said, “Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo,” in a rising tone, like a jet coming in on a strafing run.
“Ah,” said Perdiem after a moment.
“Yes. You are to report immediately upon finding…what you are looking for.”
And so Perdiem had gathered the things he needed: a week’s rations, coded radio, jungle hammock, blowgun and three boxes of poisoned darts, a compass disguised as a button, infrared night scope, a garrote, and a small Special Forces hymnal containing the words to all of Barry Sadler’s songs. With his three Montagnards, he had set out into the trackless wastes under the impression that he was looking for trains. Colonel Walther had made a sound just like a train whistle. Perhaps the North Vietnamese were trying to improve their logistics with a rail line.
Later that afternoon at the Special Forces camp there was heard a faint, “Yeeeeeee-aaaaaaaaahh!” followed by the crump of a grenade.
One of the men relaxing at the base camp said, “Musta found that big ravine.”
“Wonder why the grenade?”
“Probably figured he was ambushed.”
“Poor Boo Boo.”