the eighty-eighth key, chapter 5

88th key cover image

the eighty-eighth key

part one

chapter five

The various outcomes of the so-called Tet Offensive of January 1968 will be debated by historians for as long as students gather to talk about that pivotal year in America. What had been an at-best tepid anti-war movement in America blossomed after Tet into the raging inferno of anti-establishment riots that soon shredded American society – and lasted over three years. North Vietnam’s coordinated assaults on more than one hundred US bases, as well as command and control facilities throughout Vietnam, terrified the military and galvanized the anti-war movement into taking increasingly bold acts of civil-disobedience, and in the aftermath LBJ decided not to seek reelection. Like the forks on a bolt of lightning, repercussions spread throughout American society after that and, indeed, around the world. You can think of RFKs assassination as just one of those forks, and the gunning down of protestors at Kent State University another, but it takes very careful study indeed to follow all the trails to their unhappy conclusions. Looking back on those times now, most people still around might see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s walk on the moon as the only bright spot in the night worth remembering.

On the third day of the Tet Offensive military planners gathered at the Pentagon gave the go ahead to activate a desperate plan to decapitate the North’s leadership with a very limited strike on a small enclave northwest of Hanoi. Operation Headless Horseman would be carried out by a very specially modified Martin B-57G, one that had been modified to fly in the so-called ‘night intruder’ role, and it would carry a very small, very low-yield tactical nuclear device to it’s intended target: a leadership compound about fifty miles from Hanoi. Reconnaissance aircraft and radio intercepts were being used to closely monitor political movements, and the mission’s timing was considered crucial to it’s success.

The aircraft took off from Danang and turned to the west and then, once out of Vietnamese airspace, to the north. The intended track would see the aircraft make it’s attack run from the northwest and hopefully surprise the North’s formidable air defenses, but before that could happen LBJ recalled the flight. While en route back to Danang the aircraft encountered a SAM battery and sustained heavy damage, and before the aircraft could make it back to Vietnamese airspace it went down.

+++++

Picture if you will a shallow valley, tree-lined for the most part, and along the valley floor a a small river running through swampy low brush. To the west a more rugged landscape of foothills giving way to serious coastal mountains, while to the southeast lay the city of Hué. Located in a clearing on the valley floor was a small facility that looked somewhat like an old fort from the days of Cowboys and Indians, and in this fort were stationed several US Army Green Berets and a few hundred infantrymen from the South Vietnamese Army. These troops were positioned to guard a forward medical facility operated by the US Army, and this little fortification went by the name of C-Med. C-Med was one of the facilities targeted during the Tet Offensive because the doctors and medics stationed there were located very close to North Vietnam, and as a result serious casualties from the DMZ were often carried to C-Med to be stabilized. Many of the wounded had to be treated on the spot and then transported, usually to Danang but sometimes to an aircraft carrier offshore, though many never left C-Med alive. Surgeons plucked out of their residencies landed at C-Med if they were considered troublemakers or rebels, because C-Med was routinely attacked by Charlie – as the Viet Cong operating in the region were derisively called, though the origins of the name remain obscure. As a result many physicians based at C-Med were either killed or went out of their minds due to the unrelenting workload.

And this unrelenting workload was the norm before the Tet Offensive began, and long after.

+++++

Harry Callahan’s first operational assignment after arriving at Phu Bai on 28 January 1968, was to fly a Medevac up to C-Med. Onboard with the medics was Robert Parish, MD, a talented young surgeon from Coos Bay, Oregon who literally despised anything in green, most notably army green. And most especially army officers wearing their peculiar varieties of green, and whom he variously regarded as festering turds or rattlesnakes, depending on the current state of his inebriation – to which he dated to his arrival in Vietnam. Parish had quickly been, as you might expect, posted to C-Med.

And as luck would have it he just managed to hop a ride with Callahan – after failing to get arrested for calling a colonel a douche-bag, well, a fucking douche-bug, to the man’s face. He had called the colonel such things, and more, because the colonel had had the temerity to relieve Parish of a just-opened bottle of Johnny Walker Red – at eight in the morning.

And “Fingers still smell like Cat?” was the first thing Parish said to Callahan; Harry replied by dropping the collective and plastering Parish to the Huey’s ceiling. “I take that to be a resounding yes,” Parish sighed as he pulled a flask of Bacardi 151 from his flak jacket and took a long pull. “Want some more, Callahan? Or is that best you got?”

Callahan dropped the collective and Parish barely grabbed a seatback in time to avoid the worst impact as he slammed into the floor. Parish decided to drink in silence after that, though he looked past the door gunners at the passing treetops now just a few meters away. C-Med came into view above the trees a few minutes later, and Callahan circled the base once before coming in for a hard touchdown. The medics pushed Parish out the door and ran with him to one of the bunkers by the pad; the medics returned with several kids on stretchers and hung IV bottles on overhead trees while the door gunners lashed the stretchers down, then one of the medics told Harry to get airborne as quickly as possible – or words to that effect – but by then Harry Callahan had completely forgotten about Doug Parish, MD.

He made three more flights to C-Med that first day on the flight line, and one more around midnight. Parish had his fingers in some kid’s neck almost the entire trip to Danang, and he disappeared into an ambulance without saying so much as one ‘fuck you’ the entire trip.

And yet, when Callahan woke up and made his first flight back out to C-Med the next morning, there was Parish waiting on the flight line, waiting to catch a ride back out to the trenches.

“Hey Callahan,” Parish called out as Harry walked out to his Huey, “eaten any good Cats lately?”

Harry stopped and felt for the 45 strapped to his hip; he pulled it out and walked over to Parish – whose eyes went wide when Callahan unholstered the Colt. “You know what punk? How’d you like to eat some of this?”

“You headed up the valley?” Parish said, quickly changing the subject as he sized up Callahan once again.

“Yeah, Meathead, I am.”

“Mind if I grab a ride with you?”

“Well yes, Meathead, as a matter of fact I do.”

“Okay, Callahan, you win. No more jokes.”

“Get in,” Harry said before he turned and walked out to his flutterbug, though Callahan ignored him as he and his co-pilot went through the pre-start checklist.

After they lifted-off Parish slid up close to the ‘pit, his eyes scanning the countryside beyond the Huey, looking at all the foot traffic as the passed Hué City. “Never seen so many people out here, Callahan. You hear anything this morning?”

“No? Why?”

“I dunno, man. My nut sack is itching, and it usually only does that when Charlie is up to no fuckin’ good…”

“Your nut sack…?” Callahan had just started to say when a volley of small arms fire slammed into the left side of the Huey, raking it from the cockpit to the tail. He heard one of the medics scream and his co-pilot slumped over the controls. Parish got the pilot out of his harness and dragged him back onto the floor while the other medic helped; the door gunners leaned out and began shooting at anything that moved. Callahan put the Huey down in the weeds, racing between trees for C-Med. He knew the approach well enough now to slide in hard on his first attempt, which just happened to be when mortar rounds began landing inside the perimeter. A small herd of ambulatory wounded jumped in the back of the Huey and the gunners screamed “Go-go-go!” in unison; Harry lifted off and decided to head back to Phu Bai by another route – but it was the same everywhere he tried. Streams of ‘farmers’ carrying AK-47s and RPGs lined all the roads and trails leading to Hué City, and many took potshots at the Huey so Callahan had his hands full all the way back to base.

Parish went with the wounded medic while orderlies carried away the dead co-pilot; another hosed blood from the interior of the Huey while Callahan looked over the damage to the ‘bug with his crew chief. No engine damage, no rotor damage, so Callahan was good to go as soon as he could round up another co-pilot.

Parish got back to the flight line just as Callahan and a new pilot, a green kid from West Texas named Don McCall, walked out to the messed-up Huey.

“That don’t look too swift,” McCall sighed – bug-eyed – after looking at the fifty or so bullet holes sprayed down the left side of the aircraft – many through the co-pilot’s door. 

“Pretty fucked-up morning all around,” Parish said as he walked up to Callahan. “Can you get me up to C-Med without all the bullshit this time?”

“How’s the kid,” Harry asked, referring to the medic wounded earlier.

“Well, he won’t be beatin’ off with his right hand for a while,” Parish said, jerking the air with his right hand, “but other than that he’ll be fine.”

“Jesus H Christ, Parish. Where’d you grow up? In a goddamn whorehouse?”

Parish grinned as he climbed back into the Huey, and he sat and watched as Callahan and the new kid worked the checklist and got the ‘bug back in the air – only now he observed there was literally almost no one out on the trails leading into Hué City. Even the normal ebb and flow of farmers was nowhere to be seen, and Parish started scratching between his legs the closer they got to C-Med.

The assault there had suddenly stopped too, just like somebody had decided to turn off a spigot and stop the flow of water. Parish hopped out of the flutterbug and ran off to surgery while Callahan help unload dozens of crates of supplies for the hospital, then the medics loaded several more body bags into the main cabin. Harry looked at the black bags like they were an accusation, but of what, and against who? Only a week in-country and he’d picked up on enough talk to have his doubts about what was going on over here.

He turned around and looked at this buzzing hive of activity, Vietnamese and Americans working side-by-side, but what were they fighting for? To keep the South free? If that was so, why did the northerners fight with such passion to unify their country? Why did the locals around the base look at all the round eyes with so much suspicion in their own? No, things just weren’t adding up.

But in truth, about all Harry thought about was a girl down in Saigon, and now, after just a few days away he positively ached to see her, and to hold her again.

But like walking inside a giant trap, the coiled spring of the Tet Offensive had gathered around Harry Callahan and his little Cat, and was now just a few hours from slamming shut.

+++++

The Jetstar came in from the northwest and flew parallel to the coast for a few minutes and Harry saw the lights of a large city about ten miles away, the low skyline reflecting off still water. “That’s Tel Aviv,” Avi proclaimed – and somewhat proudly, Callahan thought. “Your mother is down there in that sea of light.”

Harry turned and looked out the little square window, if only because for the past ten hours he had thought of little else. 

The jet had left San Francisco and flown to Toronto, then Iceland and on to Zurich, refueling at each stop while Avi and Harry stepped outside to briefly stretch their legs before the final leg to Israel. Callahan’s interrogation had abruptly ended as quickly as it began and the old man had turned to focus on his pile of papers, first studying one then annotating others, and the little he said to Harry revealed just how serious the information was. Avi was preparing the country, his country, for war, because all the numbers and information inside these reports concerned troop readiness levels in Egypt and Syria, and seeing the concrete reality of those preparation had focused all Callahan’s attention on his mother.

Because suddenly another Arab-Israeli war wasn’t just a distant hypothetical exercise; his mother was down there somewhere in those lights, and now the idea was more than troubling. Harry found himself looking at the old man from time to time, studying his attentiveness and the way his hands moved as he wrote, and he realized quite without understanding the how or the why of it that he was beginning to respect Avi. He was, after all, his mother’s husband. Her first husband.

And she had chosen this man over his father. “And me,” he added.

“And you, what?” the old man asked, looking up quietly.

“Sorry. I was just thinking about something.”

“And what were you thinking?”

Harry turned from the window and looked at Avi. “That she chose you over my father. And me.”

Avi nodded and looked Harry in the eye. “Perhaps it feels that way to you now, but you haven’t seen how much she thinks of you both. I have. Every day. Never question her love for you, Harry, or for your father. Her love is bigger than that, more encompassing, so please do not diminish what you find here.”

“What does she do with her days?”

“She is back in the lab many days, and she still teaches when she can.”

“When she can? Is she ill?”

Avi looked away, took off his reading glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, then he rubbed the corners of his eyes. Harry saw they were rimmed with scarlet now, and that the old man was indeed very tired. “Your mother’s illness is complicated, Harald. It is emotional, an emotional calamity, and I feel it has grown worse since she arrived.”

“Worse?”

“Yes. She stopped playing the piano after she left California, and with the outlet no longer available she has internalized all her anguish. All her suffering. Her demons, if you will, only now her demons come out at night, and they come for her.”

“Why, Avi?” Harry asked. “Why did she stop?”

“Because, Harry, without you she can not see beyond the demons. She can no longer see the notes or the music.”

“Without me?” Harry said, surprised. “I don’t understand, Avi.”

“Neither do I, my friend. Neither do I, but you’ll see soon enough.”

+++++

Everything happened after darkness fell, and after midnight further south, around Saigon.

Callahan was in his hooch trying to sleep but the incessant song of Hueys coming and going made it almost impossible. Someone was just outside the tent smoking manure, or something that smelled pretty much like burning manure, when he thought he heard thunder off over the mountains to the west – and he turned inward on himself and groaned. He hated flying instruments at low level, really hated it, but the wounded never stopped coming into C-Med, and those needs were real, not to say extreme. When the Hueys stopped flying people died – it was as simple as that – and thunder meant rain, didn’t it…? 

Simple as that.

“That ain’t thunder,” someone outside the tent said – and then it was suddenly noon. 

“Fuck!” someone screamed, and the sound of that man’s fear struck Callahan as the most agonizingly real thing he’d ever heard in his life. Harry was lacing up his boots before he was upright, checking to see if a round was chambered in his 45 while he stood and reached for his flak jacket – then…

Gunfire. Close. A few shots from a 45, a longer burst from a couple of -16s, then the whomping of AK rounds whiffling through the canvas just overhead. He knelt and ran outside to see dozens of flares overhead and someone was shouting “we got Charlie in the wire!” – which meant Viet Cong were inside the base perimeter – and just then mortar rounds started falling near the parked helicopters. And the fuel bowsers…

He ran for his ship, saw McCall just ahead running in his underwear and unlaced boots…

“Get a ship up now,” Callahan said as he sprinted by. “Don’t wait…just do it…!”

Callahan got to the first Huey on the line and pulled the battery umbilical free on his way to the cockpit, and he started waking the beast up by feel until he got the overhead lights on. Engine start, wake up the radios, check frequencies, call in to the tower, chaos everywhere and he sees three guys up ahead firing into the darkness then dozens of return muzzle flashes off in some trees only a hundred yards away. Power good now, torque in the green so add collective and counter with rudder. Keep the nose down, down you stupid fucker, no lights, no lights, a little more power…watch the fucking torque…push it over some more…that’s it…that’s it…watch your airspeed…pull up…keep it just above the tents…better call in…

“Kilo Bravo Six, airborne,” Callahan said on guard.

“-Six, C-Med calling in with major casualties.”

“-Six is buster,” Callahan replied, telling the tower he was en route.

“-Six, this is McCall, I’m on your six with two gunners.”

“Good news, kid, you take lead and lay down some fire when I go for the pad.”

“Roger,” McCall said, and already Callahan was starting to like this kid.

They flew on in the dark, no anti-collision lights on – but there was so much fire in the sky none were needed…

He saw McCall’s Huey slip ahead by passing right and even though they were just over the treetops he could see several more explosions and heavy fires raging at C-Med – and they were still more than five miles out. Small arms fire peppered the Huey as they got close, and he made out a few trees he had used for landmarks earlier in the day as he lined up for the medical pad, then he heard McCall on the radio talking to controllers on the ground and requesting vectors…

Too fucking hot…too hot…nose up Meathead, get your goddamn nose up…c’mon man, gotta bleed some speed…

He was about twenty feet off the ground when an RPG slammed into the Huey somewhere aft and the flutterbug lurched sideways, yawed hard right and he countered with the pedals – but nothing happened. ‘Tail gone,’ he muttered as he rolled hard left stick.

The Huey hit hard and skidded through some thick brush; he saw a fat white snake roll up the windshield and disappear aft, then heard McCall on the radio. “-Six, off to your right! Beat feet!”

Callahan saw McCall about fifty feet away, the right-side door standing wide open, so he pushed his way out of the wrecked Huey and through the brush, diving into McCall’s ‘bug and hanging on tight as they climbed out of the swampy undergrowth by the river. He kept seeing that fat snake every time he closed his eyes…

“Thanks,” Callahan said.

“Roger that,” McCall said, now pointing to the center of the camp. “Pad right there.”

But Callahan wasn’t plugged into the intercom and couldn’t hear over the symphony the door gunners were playing right then. He fumbled on the floor in the dark, felt another helmet and pulled it on, checked the circuit and spoke. “You got it?” Callahan asked.

“Man, I’d rather you take it. I’m seeing spots.”

“Spots? You hit?”

“Not sure. Maybe…” and with that McCall slumped into the left side door.

Callahan got his hands and feet on the controls as he felt his way towards the pad; the door gunners were firing almost straight down into the weeds as he flared and he watched an Arvin with an M-16 bayonetting someone about ten feet away. He felt bodies being tossed in back then heard the gunners yelling “Go-go-go!” even as he throttled up and hit the collective. 

Okay…nose down and let’s not get our ass shot off this time…torque in the green…

He screamed: “Gunners, dead ahead!” as he pulled up hard on the collective, running the torque deep into the red, and he knew the gunners were leaning out and shooting down into the weeds again as he slammed the nose down and eased back on the throttle. “Any medics onboard?!” he yelled.

“I don’t know,” Doug Parish said, his grinning face about a foot from Callahan’s. “Do I count.”

“Co-pilot’s hit,” he managed to say as he turned and looked for Hué City on the horizon.

It wasn’t hard to find. Fire covered about half the horizon from down in the treetops and amber coils of smoke drifted skyward, framed by massive new explosions every few minutes. Chatter on guard was non-stop now, forward controllers vectoring in some A-6 Intruders inbound from Dixie Station and the tower at Phu Bai telling anyone still on the frequency that the base was closed until further notice.

“Better head for Danang,” Parish said. “We got some bad stuff back here.”

“McCall?” Harry asked.

“Got some plasma running; he’ll be okay.”

“What the fuck is going on down there?” Callahan said as he scanned the panel.

“You been asleep or somethin’? This shit’s been goin’ on for a few hours.”

“Where?”

“Far as we could tell just about everywhere. Danang, Saigon, you name it.”

Callahan hoped he remembered Danang’s guard and dialed it in, made the call. “This is Kilo Bravo Six, Dan Guard over?”

“-Six, go ahead.”

“Inbound from C-Med, base closed, we’ve got three, three, and four.”

“Roger -Six, we’re closed, standby for vectors to Dixie Station, and can you copy TACAN?”

“-Six go ahead.”

“Okay -Six. One-zero-five degrees, TACAN channel two-four.”

“Got it. Thanks.”

“We’ll let ‘em know you’re inbound, -Six.”

“Understood, out.” He dialed in the frequency and looked as the DME came to life, then checked their fuel state, doing the math in his head and shaking his head.

“You know something, Callahan? I don’t like it when pilots start shaking their head, if you know what I mean?”

“We’re gonna be sucking fumes about the time we got there.”

“Where’s there?”

“Dixie Station? Been there?”

“The fuckin’ carrier! No fuckin’ way, man. There ain’t no chicas out there. What’s wrong with Danang?”

“Closed.”

“Fuck. This ain’t lookin’ good, amigo. I hear there are sharks out there, ya know?”

“Yeah, well, there’s a shitload of goddamn snakes down there too, doc. You got a preference?”

“Yeah, as a matter of fact I do. A warm hooch and no one shooting at me – for at least 12 hours…”

“Amen to that, brother,” Callahan heard someone say, but all Harry could think about in that crystalline moment was his Looney-Junes – dying in his arms.

(c) 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw

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