Life with Bob: A Sordid But Instructive Interval At Soldier of Fortune Magazine
Playboy, March 1984
I came into the weird mercenary vortex of Soldier of Fortune magazine when the phone rang in 1980. The voice on the other end was low and conspiratorial, the vocal cords sounding as if they had been ravaged by gargling gravel. Something in it whispered of far places and dark secrets too evil to be told.
“Hi, Fred, you asshole. I need a writer. Seventeen-five and bandages. Interested?”
I had been bumping at arm’s length into Bob Brown, the eccentric Special Forces colonel who founded SOF, ever since the heady days of the fall of Saigon. Bored after Asia, he had started the magazine in 1975 with about $10,000 as an excuse to go to bush wars. The first press run of 8500 copies looked as if it had been mimeographed in his bathroom by poorly trained gibbons. The photos were badly enough exposed, the grammar wretched enough to give an impression of authenticity—a correct impression.
The first issue contained the famous photo of an African who had taken a 12-gauge blast just above the eyes—say “Ahhhh.” Horror erupted. Across the nation, every pipe in the moral calliope began honking and blowing and, exactly as the old outlaw had expected, sales went straight up. This would become a pattern. Brown played the press like a piano.
“Hmm. Lemme think about it.”
“OK. Ciao.” Click.
I didn’t think long. I was barely earning a living in Washington by free-lancing about the gray little men who run the world. A chance to be honestly shot seemed desirable by comparison. Life really hadn’t amounted to much since Phnom Penh, and Soldier of Fortune had an appealing renegade reputation. What the hell; you only live once, and most people don’t even do that. My wife and I packed the convertible.
Crossing the Beltway and setting sail through Maryland into West Virginia, I wondered what we were getting into—not that it really mattered as long as it was out of Washington. Was SOF what it purported to be? Was it really the professional journal of questionable adventurers with altered passports, of scarred men of unwholesome purpose who met in the reeking back alleys of Taipei? Of hired murderers who frequented bars in Bangkok where you could get venereal diseases unheard of since the 13th century? Or was it a clubhouse for aging soldiers trying to relive their youth? Or was it, as one fellow in Washington sniffed, “an exploitation rag catering to the down-demo extinction market?”
We crossed Kansas in the old Sixties blear-eyed, coffee-driven, unsleeping push and entered the People’s Republic of Boulder, a lovely city of transplanted East Coasters who had gone West to escape the evils of Jersey and taken Jersey with them. Soldier of Fortune had its offices at 5735 Arapaho, in a park of egg-yolk-yellow warehouses where people made things like bowling trophies. I had expected a pile of skulls, barbed wire, a minefield or two and maybe a couple of prisoners staked to the earth to dry. Instead, I found a door with a small sign: STOP! BEFORE ENTERING, FILL OUT A CARD SAYING WHERE YOU WANT THE BODY SHIPPED. OTHERWISE, IT WILL BE USED FOR SCIENTIFIC PURPOSES.
Must be the place, I thought.
A suspicious—and good-looking—secretary answered the buzzer lock in shorts and running shoes and took me through the warrenlike improvised offices to meet Brown. The walls were lined with pictures of commandos, guerrillas, and Foreign Legionnaires sweating over heavy machine guns in the deep Sahara. In an office, I glimpsed a short, weathered fellow who looked like Ernest Hemingway. Above him was a photo of a Vietnamese Ranger crossing a paddy, holding a severed human head by the hair.
Yeah, I thought, this is the place.
I stepped into bob’s office, the Moon Room, and there he was in bush hat, camouflage shorts, and running shoes, legs propped on the desk and a T-shirt that said HAPPINESS IS A CONFIRMED KILL. The office had previously been leased by a minor aerospace firm, and the walls were covered in a mural of the surface of the moon, a crater of which formed an improbable halo above Bob’s head. A pair of H&K 91s—wicked West German rifles—leaned against the wall with night sights on them.
“Fred! How the fuck are you?” he bellowed, his only way of talking. Bob is deaf—artillery ears—and seems to figure that since he can’t hear himself, nobody else can, either. Actually, when he talks in his normal voice, people in Los Angeles can hear him. He is also so absent-minded that he is lucky to remember who he is. (This brings out the maternal instinct in women. As a staffer put it, “I never know whether to salute him or burp him.”)
“Sit down. Listen, I want you to brief me about some things in Washington.” He didn’t talk so much as bark. “This is close-hold, real sensitive, but we’ve got some stuff out of Afghanistan that’s going to blow…Washington…open.”
The “stuff out of Afghanistan” lay on his desk: shattered instrumentation from a Soviet MI-24 helicopter gunship downed, if memory serves, by Hassan Galani’s men and smuggled out through the Khyber Pass into Peshawar. Brown is always getting terribly important trash from odd places. A staffer once brought in an emptied Soviet PFM-1 antipersonnel mine—the butterfly-shaped kind they drop by thousands on the trails near the Pak border—by wrapping it in a plastic bag and telling Customs that it was a broken asthma inhaler. Anyhow, part of today’s booty was a bright-red box, bashed up by the guerrillas in tearing it out of the wreck, with a 13-position switch labeled ominously in Russian.
“Probably the central weapons-control computer for the MI-24,” Bob growled. “The intel agencies will pay a lot for this. We beat the Agency hollow on this one. Hehhehheh.” Splash.
Bob splashes. He chews Skoal and spits into a water glass—sometimes, inadvertently, into other people’s water glasses. You keep your hand over your coffee cup.
Why, I wondered, was this den of caricatures selling more than 170,000 magazines a month at three dollars a copy?
Popular myth notwithstanding, there aren’t any mercenaries today in the accepted sense of the word: small bands of hired white men who take over backward countries and fight real, if small, wars for pay. The reason is that any nation, even a bush country consisting of only a patch of jungle and a colonel, has an army too big for mercs to handle. The pay is lousy, the world being full of bored former soldiers. Brown himself is not a mercenary but an anti-Communist Peter Pan and, for that matter, has never killed anybody (although he once shot an escaping Viet Cong in the foot.)
True, there are shadowy categories of men who might be called mercenaries, but the word is hard to pin down. Are the hit men and cocaine pilots of South America mercs? Are the Americans who joined the Rhodesian army and served with native Rhodesians? Men working under contract for the CIA?
You do find a few men such as Eugene Hasenfus, recently shot down flying cargo runs in Nicaragua. Pilots are in great demand as mercs because, while training soldiers is fairly easy, even for backward nations, flight training is hard to provide. Finding out who these men really work for is not easy: the employers tend to be curious corporations, possibly but not provably owned by intelligence agencies.
So who reads SOF? Marines, Rangers, and unhappy men, mostly blue-collar, who are weary of the unimportance of their lives. What the magazine sells is a hard-core smell, a dismal significance, a view of life as a jungle where the brutal stand tall against the sunset and the weak perish. SOF may be the only one-hand magazine whose readers hold a surplus-store bayonet in the other hand.
The magazine understands this and fosters it. The stories are mostly first-person accounts of scruffy little wars or how-to pieces on various techniques of murder but always with an undercurrent of approval and written in a low, throaty whisper as of old mercs talking shop. The classified ads in the back, for example: “Ex-Marine lieutenant requires hazardous employment overseas….” “Merc for hire. Anything, anywhere….” “Pyro supplies.” “Young man seeks apprenticeship under master spook….” “Uzi accessories.” “Merc will do anything, short-term, hi risk.” “Laser weapons, invisible pain-field generators….” “Ex-platoon leader, dependable, aggressive, fearless….” “Night-vision scope.” “Chemical lance.” “Savant for hire, an expert on weapons and demo. Prefer Central America.”
Most of these ads are nonsense. A journalist who once tried answering them found that most were placed by poseurs. A few are real. Dan Gearhart, a would-be merc killed in Angola in 1976, got his job through Soldier of Fortune. At this writing the magazine is being sued because some mercenaries placed ads (“Gun for hire”) and, apparently, were hired to kill a law student at the University of Arkansas.
They botched the job, several times. Almost all mercs who get publicity prove to be clowns. The trade is notorious for attracting neurotics and cowboys and people who think they are James Bond. Being a merc is not a reasonable way to make money. You could do better managing a Burger Chef.
The intriguing thing is the glorification of unprincipled ruthlessness, not of killing per se but of sordid, anonymous killing. The readers do not imagine themselves as knights jousting for damsels in fair fight, or as lawmen in Amarillo, facing the bad guy and saying, “Draw.” They want to shoot the bad guy in the back of the head with a silenced Beretta. Brown had discovered antichivalry. There’s a lot of it out there.
Yet, although the idea was brilliant, the magazine barely hangs together. Despite Brown’s proven capacity for doing the impossible, as for example starting a magazine about mercenaries, he has a boundless talent for mismanagement. The staff stays in a state of turmoil and turnover, mistreats its writers and loses them, and barely gets issues to the printer, largely because Bob doesn’t pay attention. He won’t run the magazine himself, and won’t hire a competent editor who will.
Although it may seem odd in a man who sneaks into Afghanistan the way most people go to McDonald’s, he is too insecure to delegate authority yet is unwilling to stick around and exercise it himself. For example, at one point, Bob insisted on approving cover photos, but did not insist on being in the country when it was time to do the approving. Typically, everything would halt while frantic messages went out to the bush of Chad. The result made chaos seem obsessively organized.
Time and again, Bob would meet some drunk in a bar who wanted to write for SOF. “Oh, yeah, sure, sounds great. Send it to the editor. Terrific idea.” Then he would forget to tell the editor and would go off to Thailand for a month, whereupon it would turn out that the guy couldn’t write, and Brown couldn’t remember what the assignment was anyway, and the editor wouldn’t know what the hell was happening. Any adventurer with a good line of bull can con Bob out of airfares to distant places and live well for months at his expense until somebody finally figures out that the magazine is being taken for a ride.
Bob doesn’t really read SOF. He once told me, “Hey, Fred, I really liked that Spectre gunship story you did. We could use some more like that.” The story had been published a year before.
Bob misses appointments. He doesn’t answer his mail—not surprising, because he doesn’t read it. Mail requires decisions and he can’t make decisions, preferring to put them off until the problems go away. Sometimes they don’t. If the office were burning down, Bob would want to think about the fire for a few days before putting it out (“Yeah,” he would say in that hard mercenary voice, eyeing the flames. “I don’t want to be hasty. Let’s kick it around in our heads for a while, see what comes out.”)
As I stood looking into that crafty face pocked by shrapnel wounds, lined by many wars, some of which Bob has been to, I began to recognize the horrible truth. SOF is not phony exactly—the staff members really do the things they say they do—but neither is any of it exactly real. The magazine is a playground for half-assed adventurers, and Brown was having fun, that was all. I had come to work in Colonel Kangaroo’s Paramilitary Theme Park: Step right up, hit the Kewpie doll with a throwing knife and win an Oriental garrote for taking out those troublesome sentries. Cotton candy at the next booth—in camouflage colors, of course—and…. That was the key to understanding SOF—realizing that Bob is not in the business of putting out a magazine. He is in the business of being Bob. He likes being the international mercenary publisher, likes playing Terry and the Pirates, and the magazine is merely a justification. Trying to understand SOF as journalism merely leads to confusion.
This explains the odd pointlessness of most of what the man does. For example, take the time he and the green creepers sneaked into Laos to see the anti-Communist brigands. In bush wars, they’re all bandits, so you choose which bandits will be your bandits. It was a short trip, barely across the border. All that came out of it was photos of the rebel village with a huge satin SOF flag (DEATH TO TYRANTS) floating over it—silliest goddamn thing I ever saw. They really went, but it really didn’t matter.
On the other hand, they have the guts to do it.
The mystery is how anyone as inept as Bob can survive while doing the things he does. In the Special Forces, he was known as Boo-Boo Brown because he couldn’t get a drink of water without breaking his leg, losing his wallet, or setting off NORAD alarms. It’s hard being a deaf commando with no memory. Bob once left an open bag full of cash in an airport in Bangkok—just forgot it, the way normal people forget a paperback book. Many who know him think he really needs a mother, or a keeper, and the incident suggested that he may have an invisible cosmic sponsor: The money was still there when a traveling companion went back, which is impossible in Bangkok.
He thrives on conspiracies, but most of them do not quite exist beyond the confines of his skull. I once spent three hours in a hotel suite while he and his ambient maniacs discussed some minor bit of information, so trivial that I can’t remember it, whose revelation they thought would prevent the re-election of Jimmy Carter. But you can’t blame Bob for not having much idea how the real world works. He has never lived there.
Neither he nor SOF can even begin to keep a secret, unfortunate in a man whose hobby is conspiring. I have seen him begin a plot to overthrow a scary foreign intelligence agency by inviting 13 people, including several strangers, into his office to talk about it. The magazine once taped some telephone conversations with me, neglecting to tell me that it was doing so. The editor then sent the transcripts to Thailand, where they ended up in the hands of a buddy of mine who was running cross-border operations into Laos—this was the attempt by Bo Gritz to free some POWs believed to be there. When my friend came back to the States, the FBI photocopied the transcripts. Oh, good. Bob is the Great Communicator, a sort of one-man CBS.
If, as someone said, the intelligent man adapts himself to the world, but the genius adapts the world to himself, Bob is a genius, living in a world he has built to his own specs. A fantasy world, yes, but Bob knows where reality begins and usually stops short of getting into trouble. He is crazy by choice, when it suits him—the world’s oldest and most successful kid of eleven, with the kid’s tribal mentality, deeply loyal to his adventuring buddies but to no one else, playing games in Uncle Bob’s sandbox, which happens to be the world. I remember his lying with his head in the lap of his wise and patient girlfriend, Mary, when someone brought up the subject of railroad trains. “I’ve always wanted to be an engineer,” Bob said, looking off into some interior distance. “Maybe I can buy a train. Can I buy a train, Mary?”
“You always want to be everything,” Mary said. She understands him.
Mary stays with the old rogue (this is going to be the only real breach of confidence I will commit in this article, for which Bob is likely to have a brigade of assassins come after me) because he is a nice guy. I once asked one of his best friends, who are very few, how vicious Bob really was.
“Well, if you insulted his ancestors, poured beer on his head, and swindled him out of the magazine,” the guy said thoughtfully, “Bob might punch you out.”
For a few days, my job was to edit the usual nutcake stories for publication, mostly human-interest stuff. There was one about how to weld razor blades to the bottom of your car so that a crowd trying to turn it over would have their fingers cut off, and another explaining three handy ways to make napalm with gasoline and simple soap flakes. Most of the staff—smart, funny people—knew the whole business was madness and enjoyed it. A few thought it was real.
The working level lunacy was plentiful. For example, glancing into red fire-extinguisher boxes, I found loaded 12-gauge riot guns with the safeties off. It seems that the SDS at the University of Colorado had threatened to storm the office, a catastrophically bad idea. You should never storm a den of armed paranoiacs when there is no back door, especially when the paranoiacs have the firepower of a Central American army.
I heard about the SDS threat from Craig Nunn, the art director, a former Special Forces sergeant and street fighter out of Chicago with equal affinities for Bach and blood. To listen to the Brandenburgs, Craig always wore headphones on a long cord in the art room so that he looked like a deranged pilot flying an easel. Speaking of the attack by the SDS he said with subdued longing, the wistfulness of a man who hasn’t shot anybody since lunch, “I think they should attack if they believe in it. God, hard times and body bags. I’d like that better than bubble gum.”
The assault didn’t take place. A local motorcycle association, allies of SOF, walked through campus in field dress—scars, missing teeth, gloves with fishhooks on the knuckles, I.Q.s dragging low around their ankles like skivvies at the dip. They announced that if any Commie pervert bothered SOF, which was a righteous and patriotic magazine, the bikers would break his arms in 14 places before getting down to detail work. One remark in particular—“Honey, you got pretty eyes. I’m gonna put’em in my pocket”—is said to have directed revolutionary fervor into other channels.
One day I was sitting in the office with Harry, a hulking right-winger who worried a lot about the Trilateralists. Oddly enough, most of the staffers were liberals. Harry was a prop. (I divided the staff into workers and stage props, the latter being those who twitched, usually couldn’t spell, and arrived in the middle of the night. The workers, mostly women, put out the magazine.) A glass wall separated the secretary from Harry’s office, where he spent the day roaring and fuming like a volcano. His office was stuffed with guns, one specifically for fending off the SDS.
“Look at the bullets,” he said. I did. Green plastic.
“Hollow. Filled with oil and tiny buckshot. They kill but don’t penetrate glass. If a left-wing shit-head comes in and I miss him, I won’t kill the secretary.
Harry was ever a gentleman.
After much negotiating, we got a Russian language expert through the university to come translate the writing in the red weapons-control computer. She was a tall, horsy lady, obviously unsettled by being in the lair of these horrible killers. We all sat around expectantly, awaiting an intelligence coup of a high order. It looked like a Big Deal. The MI-24 gunship was largely a mystery in the West. The translator picked up the red box and read, with solemn emphasis:
“In case of fire, break glass.”
It was a fire-control computer, sort of. Oh, well.
Harry, the savior of secretaries, was strange, but he wasn’t alone. The staff crawled with real lulus. There was Derek, a brilliant fellow who had been in a spook outfit in Nam (S.O.G., Studies and Observations Group, death-in-the-weeds people. Those in it are called Soggies.) Derek talked to Saint Michael, the patron saint of warriors, and Saint Mike answered. You would be driving along with the guy and he would be saying, “Mumblemumble, Saint Michael, mumblemumble,” with his eyes rolled skyward, and you would say, “Ah, er, nice day, huh, Derek?” “Mumble…yes, quite true, thank you, we are blessed, mumble mumble, Saint Michael….” Vietnam is a hot, sunny place, and maybe there weren’t enough hats to go around.
At nine P.M. at the Scottsdale Hilton Resort and Spa, under the puzzled skies of Arizona, the annual Soldier of Fortune convention flowed in full throbbing lunacy. The locals were upset: You could see it in their eyes. Across the city, police were alert, parents no doubt sitting up with .22 rifles and the family spaniel to guard their daughters. After all, Soldier of Fortune reeked of mutilated bodies in Oriental hotel rooms. It was the trade journal of lurching men with knife scars across their faces and faint German accents. One expected terrible things from it.
And got them. Sort of.
On the parking lot, lit by strategically placed headlights, several hundred conventioneers in jungle cammies gathered to watch Dave Miller, a tiny, fierce martial artist, pull a pick-up truck by a line tied to spikes through his biceps. The conventioneers, by and large, were the biggest collection of hopeless dingdongs to trouble this weary earth—twerps, grocery clerks with weak egos, various human hamsters come to look deadly in jump boots, remember wars they weren’t in and, for a weekend, be of one blood with Sergeant Rock and his Merry Psychos.
On the tarmac was a cluster of shave-headed Huns, martial dwarfs, and minor assassins—the staff. The hamsters watched, agog. The conductor of this mad symphony was John Donovan, a muscular 270-pound skin-headed ex-Special Forces major who, it was rumored, manually broke up motorcycle gangs for a hobby. Miller stood with his arms upraised for the spikes, which were actually sharpened bicycle spokes. Nobody asked why he was going to do this. It would have been a hard question to answer. The crowd wanted deeds of desperation and sordid grit, not intelligence. An Oriental guy—of course—swabbed Miller’s arms with alcohol.
That afternoon, I had gone with Dave to get the necessary paraphernalia. Dave was the kind of little man who figured that if he couldn’t be big, he could be bad and went at it systematically: the Army, Ranger School, Pathfinder School, Vietnam, a dozen martial arts with names like Korean breakfast cereals, knife fighting, all the trinkets. SOF attracts large, tottery egos. Dave and I got along. He explained that you couldn’t use rope to pull the truck because it stretched, and somehow tore the muscles. You needed fabric. So we sent to a fabric boutique, where the nicest young man, appalled, asked, “What do you gentlemen need?”
Counseling, I thought.
There we were, in worn tiger stripes and jungle boots, bush-hatted, with vicious specialty knives hanging on our hips, all sorts of commando badges and paramilitary nonsense stuck to us. We looked like stamp collections.
“We’d like to see some cloth.”
He brought us a hank, or whatever you call it, of lavender-flowered stuff, whereupon Dave told me to hold one end and, unrolling 20 feet, began violently pulling on the other end like a frantic badger to see whether it would stretch. The nice young man nearly went crazy.
Back on the parking lot, the Oriental pushed two bicycle spokes through Dave’s flesh (“Oooooh! Ooooooh!” moaned the hamsters) and connected the cloth to the bumper. Meanwhile, a twist had been added. The truck was on boards like rails so that it would roll across some guy’s stomach to show how tough he was.
Miller went “Unngh!…Unngh!” and pulled like hell. The truck…yes…no…yes…rolled slowly onto the guy’s stomach and stopped there. Miller had guts but no mass. The guy under the truck was real unhappy. Nobody had said anything about parking the goddam thing on him. He hollered in a rising scream, “Oaaghgettitoffgetitoffgetitoff!” and Miller tried (“Ungh! Ungh!”) Nothing.
Donovan the Man Mountain walked over, gave the tail gate a little tap and the truck shot off the guy like a squeezed watermelon seed.
Not everyone took this stuff seriously. At the first convention, in Columbia, Missouri, I and the usual bunch of camouflaged impostors had walked downtown one night in search of a bar. A college girl, not too impressed, asked, “Why are you wearing that silly stuff?”
“It’s camouflage,” I said, “so we’ll be invisible.”
“Oh,” she said. “I thought you were a potted plant.”
One day I went to work and saw someone looking at a peculiar piece of wreckage. More stuff from Uncle Daffy’s Used Helicopter Lot? No. It was a Nikon, shattered in a way that didn’t make obvious sense. A piece of leather had been driven into the lens barrel and stopped where the mirror usually is.
Brown had gone to Rhodesia and left his camera bag in a shop, which you don’t do in times of terrorism. The shopkeeper, reasonably enough, had called the bomb squad. Those gentlemen had tied a long rope to the strap, pulled the bag carefully into the street, wrapped it in det cord—TNT rope, sort of—and blown hell out of Bob’s camera. He now owned the only Nikon in the world with the case on the inside.
For a while, Brown espoused survivalism. Survivalists are the folk who dream of burrowing into Utah with radiation suits and submachine guns, awaiting nuclear holocaust. The do not so much fear an atomic war as hope for one, so that they can Survive It, making them the only people on earth with a vested interest in nuclear war. There are entire colonies of these squirrels out West, filling their basements with beans packed in carbon dioxide and arming themselves.
Brown briefly put out a magazine called Survive, which didn’t. It folded partly because of amateurish management and partly because survivalists are too paranoid to let their addresses go on a mailing list. Survive croaked early, remembered chiefly for its cover photo of a cow in a gas mask.
Anyway, Bob decided to build a survival shelter. He duly found some land and had a phenomenally expensive bunker started. He did this with his patented tight secrecy, which meant that everybody in Boulder was talking about it—except to Bob, because people knew he wanted it to be secret. He began choosing people who would go into it and survive while everybody else bubbled into grease and flowed away in the gutters. He approached those elect (I wasn’t one) and said approximately, “Are you saved?” Then he told them about Bob’s Box. Someone calculated that six times as many were saved as would fit into the shelter.
Unfortunately, it seems that the floor had been badly poured. Water leaked in. And it turned out that the water was alkaline. Bob was the only survivalist in America whose survival shelter contained six inches of poisoned water.
Colonel Kangaroo and his madmen were once playing war in El Salvador. (War in Central America is great for Soldier of Fortune because there isn’t any jet lag.) They were out drinking one night with one of the Salvadoran battalions, and things were getting woozy and intimate. SOF wasn’t viewed as foreign press; it was part of the war effort, so its reporters got to go places that other reporters never saw. So pretty soon it was amigo this and amigo that, with all the intense comradeship of a war zone, and the wiry brown captain said to someone whom I will call Bosworth, “Come, amigo, I show you something very dear.”
The captain proudly flung open a long blue cabinet, revealing row after row of preserved skulls. It seemed that the battalion contained a lot of Indians who hadn’t lost their folkways—taking heads, for example. The captain grinned like a child showing his rock collection. Bosworth was charmed: This was the kind of thing he could appreciate. Why, the skulls even had painted on them the names of their former occupants. “Wonderful!” Bosworth said, warmth overwelling him.
“You like?” said the captain. “I give you!” Whereupon he handed Bosworth a pair of gaping beauties.
So Bosworth went back to the party holding Pancho and Jose in his hands and announced that he was not to be parted from the skulls. He meant to go through life with them. Brown, no fool, stared with an “Oh, shit” _expression, foreseeing problems in the afterlife. Customs, for example. (“These? Oh, I found them. No, nobody was in them.”) How do you get human skulls into the US?
Finally someone came up with an idea. They mailed them to Bosworth with a note, “This is what happens to you if you come back to our country. !Viva la revoluction! Partido Comunista.”
I once went to Powder Springs, Georgia, to cover Mitch WerBell’s Cobray school of counterterrorism for the magazine. WerBell, who died in 1983, was a legend in the mercenary racket, a veteran of obscure wars back when there really were mercenaries, and he had retired to a small palatial mansion.
Cobray purported to teach the death-dealing arts to professionals (who, in fact, would already know them.) For several thousand dollars, the student got a week or so of training in the arcana of the new antichivalry. The instructors—I got to know them—were real, but the courses weren’t quite, which didn’t matter at all to the students. In the morning, they got Introduction to Small Arms (“The bullet comes out of this little hole here. Point it somewhere else.”) In the afternoon, they got Advanced Small Arms and Sniping. Subjects like these take months of study.
So I landed and was met by a former S.F. colonel and went to watch the classes. Among the students were a podiatrist from Miami, God help us, and his wife and two bratty teenagers.
I saw what had happened. Too many years of serenity and other people’s feet had gotten to him. He, like the readers, wanted a taste of dark, adrenal-soaked desperation before arthritis set in—his quarter hour with mortar flares flickering in low-lying clouds like the face of God and the nervous click of safeties coming off along the wire, pokketa pokketa. So here he was, $12,000 poorer, with a tolerant wife and bored kids in Calvin Klein jeans, learning Night Patrolling. Women put up with a lot.
When I got there, Footman and the Powder Puffs had already studied Hand-to-Hand Death Dealing. The instructor, Marvin Tao, had told Footman that he had an unusually good radish position, or some such Oriental sounding thing. This consisted of standing sort of knock-kneed and pigeon-toed, while turning the palms out and bending forward. Marvin couldn’t have been serious. Anyway, Footman was charmed, because here was something he could do. A genuine Martial Artist from Hong Kong said so. So every time I turned around, there he was—bent over, pigeon-toed and grunting dangerously.
All this yo-yo needs, I thought, is a string.
Three a.m. at the convention in Scottsdale. Most of the conventioneers had turned in. Brown and a few cronies sat by the blue glow of the pool, drinking and telling war stories. “Remember that hooker with three thumbs in Siem Riep?….” “So Barrow stood on a moving tank at Pleiku and shot at a dog with an AK. Fell on his head, tried to get disability…” “What ever happened to Jag Morris? I heard he got it in the head north of Au Phuc Dup….” Adventurers at least have stories to tell.
Green smoke was pouring out of one window and somebody was getting ready to rappel from another. I said, “To hell with it,” and turned in. A muffled thumping meant the Brown was firing his .45 underwater.
A bit later, I woke up. Derek was handing me an FN rifle. “Found it,” he said, and walked off, talking to Saint Michael. I curled around it and went to sleep. It made as much sense as anything else.
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