After forty-seven Search & Destroy missions, fifteen Body Counts and one unrestful R & R, after a year-long contribution to the pacification of the militant and impervious peasantry of Quang Nghai province, with nothing to show for it but a thousand-yard stare, the Presidio of San Francisco was a sanitary Paradiso, a Switzerland for my soul.
Every morning I awakened on crisp white sheets, in the basement of a quaint brick barrack built in the era of sailing ships, when the U.S. Army wore blue and rode around on horses. Sniffing sea fog and cypress trees out my window, I would leap up, do eleven minutes of Canadian Air Force exercises, and take a long hot shower. Then I’d slip into my starched fatigues and spit-shined combat boots, clamp my billed cap upon my head, and jog down Infantry Terrace to the mess hall with nothing more important on my mind than what was for breakfast, or what to do with all my boundless excess energy.
Next, it was off to Presidio Headquarters on Battery Dynamite Road where I did make-work in the G-2 Section while a civilian clerk in the Military Records Section processed my discharge papers.
So while Cambodia and Laos got B-52ed into firewood, and the butcher’s bill in Vietnam surpassed that of the Korean War, and universities across the United States exploded in anti-war violence, I collated mimeographed copies of the Daily Intelligence Report and conducted an imaginary love affair with my commanding officer, a beautiful WAC major nearly twice my age.
A Cajun from Louisiana with a sultry French-inflected Southern drawl, Major Duval was tall, dark and voluptuous, with fluffy, blunt-cut hair. As I remember her now, she had the curved Latin nose and the veiled, sloe-eyed look of the actress Marie Schneider in the movie “Last Tango in Paris.” Like Schneider too, she had a supremely bountiful bosom. Only her crow’s-feet, and the wrinkles around her mouth, told of her long career as a warrior woman.
My itch for the major may seem like nothing more than a horny young GI’s fantasy of upward sexual mobility. Yet, incredibly enough, it was beginning to look like my itch might just get scratched. At Presidio HQ, the betting was even money, and the odds got better every time Major Duval tidied her coif when she caught my eye, or complimented my job performance for trifling reasons, or took me aside for “briefings” that had only the slightest relevance to my paltry duties. The office crew in G-2 thought it was hilarious, and they kidded me about it relentlessly.
Keesha, the civilian key punch operator, said, “I just cain’tfigger out what the major see in a peckerwood like you, still wet behind the ears.”
Captain Ponce said, “It must be those curly locks.”
Sergeant Major Phillips said, “It must be, ‘cuz it sure as hell ain’t his purty manners.”
“It’s the medals,” I said, and the REMFs (Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers) of XVth Corps didn’t say much back to that because I had a chestful of medals, including the Silver Star. Only I knew they were unearned and ill gotten, collected after the third annual Tet Offensive of 1970 when, for reasons of “morale,” the Army was handing them out like C-Ration candy. I earned the Silver Star on an S & D mission near some nameless little ville outside Phan Rang. My first “valorous action” of the morning was to lead my squad splashing across a rice paddy, screaming, “Fuck yo commie mommy!” after a gang of little black pajama-clad VC irregulars as they ducked and flopped in the mud to avoid our automatic weapons fire. My second was to submit — with only the most fainthearted resistance — to the repeated orders of my bloodthirsty company commander to take no prisoners, inflate the Body Count, and incinerate the ville’s rice-stocks and hootches with phosphorous flares. From my present perspective, I realize that I paid a heavy price indeed for my moment of glory. I will carry with me to the grave the sight of those newly widowed little mama-sans and orphaned baby-sans crying “Do luong, do luong!” for mercy as they watched their world go up in flames.
Three days before my release from active duty, my commanding officer shocked her staff — and settled their bets — when she stepped into our office, crooked a finger at me, and said in her languid Terrebonne Parish drawl, “Sergeant Ogle, y’all come with me now, you hear? I got a proposal to put to you.”
Ignoring my office-mates’ winks and rolling eyes, I dropped what I was doing, followed her out the door, down the hall, and into her office. She locked the door behind us and motioned me into a seat beside her desk. Sweeping her green uniform skirt beneath her with a little flounce of the hips, she settled in her swivel chair and fixed me with a smile that I can only describe now as incandescent. While in military terms nothing inappropriate had yet occurred, the air between us crackled with electricity.
Thrilling though I might have found the major’s unspoken invitation, I can’t say I was completely surprised. I’d always had a way with women. Younger women said I was cute because I looked like a dark-haired Jimmy Dean and had a real smooth rap. Older women didn’t say why but latched right onto me. Actually, my secret with older women was my orphan routine, which I had perfected over the years, and lapsing into little boy talk at strategic moments. They found it irresistible, if applied with discretion. In adolescence, I even conducted a love affair with one of my county-appointed foster mothers. That is, until her barber husband came home unexpectedly during one of our summertime daily doubles, beat me black and blue with a razor strop, accused me of a bunch of thefts I did not commit, and turned me back to the County of Los Angeles.
Which put me in Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall.
From which I thought I might never escape.
“Sergeant, ya’ll be getting out here directly, non?” said Major Duval, perusing my DD-214 papers before her on the desk.
“Twenty-four years old. Just a few credits short of your bachelor’s degree. Scored off the charts on your GCT intelligence test. Made sergeant in a year and a bit. You were a squad leader in the Battle of Quang Nghai and earned yourself a bunch of medals. And apparently you got a way with languages.”
“I do my best.”
“Alors,Sergent, dites-moi la vérité; est-ce que vous parlez français bien, ou non?”
“Pas mal, Madame Commandante, pas mal de tout. J’ai pratiqué beaucoup avec les jeunes filles colons au Vietnam.”
“Well, I do declare!” she said, employing an archaic Southernism that I found utterly endearing. “Not bad, not bad at all! Now let me ask you something else. What’re you figuring on doing, now that you’re back in the World?”
“Truth is, Major, I been too happy just living and breathing to give it much thought.”
“Uh-huh. Well, I see here that you’re gettin’ short time.”
“Just six and a wake-up, Major.”
“Well, listen here. I might have a job opportunity for you when you get your discharge. Why don’t you pop by my private quarters tomorrow, Saturday, at about 1100 Hours – it’s House Number B132 on Sherman Road – and we’ll talk some more about it, non?” The major was not leering when she said this. She seemed quite sincere. Obviously, she had convinced herself that all she said was the truth, and she possessed no ulterior motives.
Next morning, I got up an hour beforehand, showered, shaved, and carefully trimmed my mustache in conformance to Army regulations. After a quick shot of coffee in the mess hall, I hiked briskly up the hill and under the Golden Gate Bridge Approach toward her cottage in the Presidio Woods.
The fog was still very thick and hung in an impenetrable blanket just a few feet above the tips of the tallest trees. A fine misty drizzle was falling. It dropped from the wind-twisted limbs of Monterey pines, off the green umbrella of the cypress trees, and formed crystal globules on the bracken ferns. The air smelled of damp eucalyptus leaf.
I took a shortcut through the wildest part of the woods. I was all alone. Not a grunt in sight. All I could hear was the crunch of my civilian Frye boots on the pine needles, and the nostalgic and altogether pleasant sound of automobiles racing over slick pavement at a distance. The Hurt Locker, Vietnam, had been hot, clamorous, sharp, deadly and bright, a detonation of sights and sounds: too real. Here in the foggy Pacific woods, Zen woods, all was cold, quiet, and obscure: unreal. After the opium-tipped paranoid reality of Phan Rang and TuyHoa and treacherous Route 1 . . . of the 2nd Brigade, the Screaming Eagles, the Airborne . . . the true meaning of things was no longer important to me. After you‘ve been overrun by howling little yellow fellows wearing weeds in their hair, after you’ve watched your petrified twenty-two-year-old LT call down in despair your own artillery upon your head, after you’ve seen your two best friends blown into slaughterhouse scraps before your eyes, you are too glad to just be walking and talking to give a shit about anything else.
I’d never been one for self-analysis, in any case. The origin of whatever psychological problems I had — self-destructive impulses, difficulty sustaining close relationships — was so predictable and obvious for an abandoned child such as myself that I thought, Why bother? I managed to cope well enough. I had not done the hard prison time that so many of my old dormitory mates from Juvenile Hall had done. I’d only been fired from a couple of jobs. I maintained a B average in college. I did fine in the Army. So I figured, “Hey, why not leave well enough alone?” And though I had a compulsion to write in my journal every day, and felt incomplete if I didn’t, I mostly wrote about my observations of others, and the world around me, and events I was involved in. Sure, I had strong emotions, the principal among them being fear, but I rarely if ever reflected on them, even in combat. Of course, that would all change later on in my life, when I fell in love. Oddly enough, though, as I’ve grown older and my fires have dampened somewhat, I‘ve found myself writing in my journals less and less, while exploring my inner conflicts and motivations more and more.
Humping it up Presidio Hill that day, with the horror of Nam behind me, I remember being so happy I felt I might faint. All my life stretched out blankly before me like a long and empty book at the printer’s shop, with not a word on any page, only a THE END after many heavy numbers.
“What am I gonna do?” I asked the air.
“What’s it matter?” I was pleased to believe it responded.
Every dogface has his day, and this was to be mine.
“How you doin’ there, boy?” the major called, beaming a smile at me across her yard. It was a positively radiant smile. She had the kind of oily Latinate skin that wrinkles only a little with age, and it stretched smoothly across her high elegant cheekbones.
“Morning, Major Duval, I’m doing just fine,” I replied, crunching up toward her across fallen gum tree leaves, leaves that fall summer, autumn, winter and spring.
Standing above me on the damp crabgrass in a black turtleneck sweater and tight hip-hugging bell-bottom jeans that accentuated her tiny waist, her vast and still-fecund hips and breasts, the major was looking me over as well.
I’d dressed very carefully, as she had. Those who habitually wear military uniforms are extremely conscious of the way they look when people first see them in civvies. I was wearing bell-bottoms and a black turtleneck as well, along with a tight-fitting leather jacket. I’d made extra sure that not an article of my attire looked too pressed, too clean, too Dacron shiny and PX-new. I wore pukka beads around my neck and a turquoise bracelet around one of my wrists.
So had the major.
Yet neither of us had succeeded in our disguises.
“Well, I do declare,” she said. “Damn if we don’t look like the Tony Twins.”
We were both happy for the excuse to laugh. She pressed my hand as if we were old friends.
“Come on into the house, hon, and let’s have us our little talk.”
“All right, Major.”
“Now, you don’t have to call me ‘Major’ at home. Call me Desirée.”
“Desirée. You know, like Napoleon’s fiancée?”
“You like it?”
“It’s a fantastic name,” I said. “It’s so Old World and . . . romantique.”
“Merci, jeune homme, vous êtes très gentil.”
“Mais je vous en prie, madame. And you can call me Zack, if you like.”
Just as we reached her front porch, the fog suddenly lifted; we were bathed in sunlight, and Major Duval turned to regard the view of Alcatraz. “Whoo, it’s really something when that fog rolls back!”
She waved her hand toward the sunlit side of the bay. “You know, this here is the prettiest damn state in the Union.”
“The weirdest,” I said, just to make talk. Actually, I could not conceive of living anywhere else.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. There’s locos all over nowadays,” she said, showing me inside, motioning me to take a seat on her living room sofa. “Look at them yoyos back in New York, blowin’ up that police station. Hell, even the Army’s loaded with psychos. I had this big fat Cane River Creole for a commanding officer one time, over in Germany? And you’re not going to believe this. Everyone knew he was some kind of fool. Him and his skinny little High-Yellow wife? Then one day he has a heart attack at his desk and we taken off his jacket and we can see his pants been cut clean away around his behind.”
“His trousers, boy. Had ‘em cut out around his butt, covered up by his jacket. And it was puckered black and blue from beating. Some kind of freak. Him and his wife. We hushed it all up and gave him an honorable military funeral because his brother was some kind of big shot in the colored quarter of Baton Rouge. But all I could think was — here’s a man I worked with every day. From my own state of Louisiana? And he was always impeccable. But under that beautifully pressed and tailored forest green Army jacket of his, and all his service ribbons, his bare buns were sticking out. It was disgustin’. And let me tell you, that created quite a little stir around there. He was cleared for ‘Top Secret.’ If the Russians or East Germans ever got a hold of him? They could’ve blackmailed his octoroon ass from here to Dixie and back.”
“I’ll bet!” I said, attempting to laugh, as she stepped into the kitchen to pour us some coffee.
Actually, though, I was puzzled. Not so much by her story as by the expression on her face when she told it. I was a bit titillated as well, in spite of myself, and didn’t know why. Except – I was reminded of Eugènie Lassnier, a pretty Eurasian girl I met one time when I was on leave in Saigon. She worked at a place called Bar Toi et Moi on To Do Street, owned by a notorious Frenchwoman named Maman Bich who was purportedly her step-mother. Anyway, one evening Eugènie and I were sitting at the bar having a chat and she said, “Tu sais, je deteste de faire amour dans le cul. Enculer. Compris? C’est dégolasse!” From which I understood that someone had once performed anal intercourse upon her and she didn’t like it. But since she’d brought up the subject a propos of absolutely nothing, and since her manner of indicating her disgust was purposely insincere, I perceived that she was not disgusted at all, that her feigned aversion was meant to evoke a positive response from me. And it did. I took her upstairs and did what she secretly wanted me to do, and she responded with gusto. Then, after a long shower together, I recall, we were strolling under the rolled barbed wire and banyan trees of pretty John F. Kennedy Park, across the street from the tall French Catholic Cathedral, when Eugènie leaned into me and whispered, “Je joue, je joue encore, çacoule! I’m still coming!” And I believed I understood then . . . something of the psychology of human perversity that I’d never understood before.
A complicated little prostitute Eugènie may have been, but I found a kind of sweetness in her, a depth of soul. On the morning when I had to return to my base, she insisted on accompanying me to the US military bus stop at Rùa Hồ. Swinging on my arm, leaning on my shoulder, she smiled fondly up at me like a devoted fiancée. When we reached the big open market at Ben Thanh, she stopped and asked me what the year of my birth was. When I told her it was 1945, she took me to a fabric vendor and bought me a lightweight, cream-colored silk scarf, of a kind that Southeast Asians sometimes wear as a combination sweat-sop and mosquito guard. Except that this one had a pattern of little “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkeys printed on it.
“C’est pour la bonne chance, pour vous garder hors de danger, parce que vous êtes né dans l’année du singe,”shesaid. “It’s for good luck, to keep you from danger, because you were born in the Year of the Monkey.”
And it worked! I wore that scarf until it was tattered, yellow, and smelled like swamp water. But I was never wounded. Never got a scratch.Only one other grunt in my platoon had that kind of luck. A black dude from Harlem named Malcolm McGee. Then, at least from what I heard, he got mugged and killed on his third day back in the World.
When Desirée popped out of the kitchen carrying a tray full of coffee and croissants and sat down beside me at the coffee table, I suddenly felt reckless and audacious, like I had nothing to lose. So I told her a somewhat sanitized version of Eugènie’s story, testing her. When I was finished, she affected shock and said, “That is dis-gusting! You oughta be ashamed of yourself!” Yet she acted just as I had expected she might, with a sharp intake of breath and an increase of the pulse beat in her neck.
All through breakfast we chatted of inconsequential things, squinting at each other in the bright sunlight that streamed in through her front windows, squirming in our seats, each of us hoping it would be the other who would get up the nerve to break the ice. By the time we were finished, it had come to the point where I figured I was going to have to make my move. Yet I was afraid to make it, despite the encouragement her eyes appeared to be giving me. I hoped she’d make some more overt sign, for there to be no mistaking her desires. I recollected several times in my life when, bedazzled by a woman’s beauty, deceived by my lust, I’d been sure that she was beckoning, and made my move, only to be angrily admonished, or turned down flat, or even slapped in the face. I knew how we men fool ourselves with women, convince ourselves that the most innocent glance is an invitation, and act upon our illusions. I was also aware of how certain women provoke us falsely, just to prove their power. And I could not take the slightest chance of offending this woman who, after all, was my commanding officer, and held my discharge papers, my life, in her hands.
“You know, I was wondering all night long, son,” the major said, when we’d finished eating and were seated closely together on her sofa, “how you ever got by on your own, with no mom or dad, no family at all.”
“Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy,” I said, in my little boy voice. “Sometimes it was kind of touch and go.”
“Why, you poor baby; come here and let Mama give you a hug,” she said, raising her arms to me.
“Ooooh,” I moaned, she moaned, and we fell over sideways on the sofa.
I crawled then upon the sweet expanse of my commanding officer and got off instantaneously into my Army-issue boxer shorts. I tore at her sweater and jerked it around her neck while her head lolled back against the sofa. Ripped her bra off. Threw it in a corner. Then, as I put it later in my journal, “I went down upon her marvels, her mams. Sucked nip and mum till she begged me quit else she died of excess. Slid those jeans down her broad-bottomed beam and we rolled like a boat upon the waters, heaved like the sea. The tide rose higher. The wind yelled. And there we were again, atop another wondrous wave, a tidal flow, a frothy blow and ebb. Then on to uncharted fathoms, unplumbed depths, down and down to rest at last in womb, homeroom, essence.”
When finally we broke it off to grab a breath, she held my head between her breasts, stroked my hair and said, “Say, you know, boy, the reason I first had my eye on you is – I thought of you for this job I told you about; when you get your discharge? Some old government boy come by G-2 and wants to know if I got anyone to recommend. Says he needs a smart, well-educated young combat vet with French and Southeast Asian language skills who’s just about to get out. Some kind of overseas undercover work. ‘Right now, we got too many of those damn Ivy Leaguers working for us,’ he says. ‘People starting to talk.’ So he’s looking for a clever young fellow from a working class background. Po’ boy like you. ‘Show those Libs in Congress we can play it straight,’ he says. Pay’s real good. Ten times what you gettin’ now.”
“Sounds great, but this sounds better,” I said, and blew into her cleavage.
“Ooooh, that tickles!” she protested, and clamped down hard upon my head and held it tighter and tighter in her lactiferous cleft until I surrendered all resistance and whistled like a white-bellied mammal in a fish net for mercy….
…. If Major Duval had told me that six months to the day after our first and only carnal encounter I’d be strapped to the metal floor of a rickety old C-47, spiraling toward the Mekong River in a precipitous, missile-avoiding, corkscrew landing approach, I’d have told her she must be out of her tree. My sense of surreal familiarity only deepened when I clanged down the steps a few minutes later with a groggy gang of hung-over grunts just back from R & R and got smacked by the torrid heat and paddy-stench of upcountry rainy season. My sinking sensation reached bottom as I hotfooted across the steaming blacktop toward the control tower of the US Air Force base at Nakhon Phanom and glimpsed a line of cloud-ringed jungle mountains on the Laotian horizon and a pair of Air America Hueys going whap-whap-whap as they prepped for take-off. And I asked myself for the hundredth time since I’d embarked upon this my second perilous Journey to the East how in the Lord Buddha’s name my duplicitous commander had ever seduced me into revisiting a region of the world that I’d sworn on the putative grave of my unknown mother to never set foot in again.