Fate May Come With Turbulence
Lovers of air travel find it exhilarating to hang poised between the illusion of immortality and the fact of death. ~Alexander Chase
It was the middle of March and Niklas was reaching his boiling point. Since the spotting of the atomic cloud and the trip to see Michael, he had not left the ground. So, thinking quickly, he found a way to rearrange his schedule, in order to get two days off in a row. Then, he found a ride to Vietnam.
The plane that would take him on the trip was nicknamed the Gooney Bird and it was the transport version of Spooky. Niklas had heard rumors that the North Vietnamese soldiers were instructed never to fire at Puff the Magic Dragon, because otherwise he would be angered and spit flames of death.
It doesn’t seem so deadly, when you ride in it, thought Niklas as the plane bumped and jumped along its flight path.
“DaNang is receiving enemy fire. We may be here a while,” called out the Pilot at one point. He wasn’t lying. Niklas watched time tick by for more than half an hour before they were provided clearance to land.
When finally on the ground, Niklas wasted no more of his precious time off; he hurried toward the tent of his good friend.
“Hey man, wake up. There is much to do and much to drink,” he joked, when finding Michael still in bed, but when the other man didn’t even stir, Niklas thought it best to leave a note. So, he did and headed to the Beer Garden to wait.
At about 1400 hours, Michael stumbled into the place, still looking rather exhausted.
Must have been a long night, thought Niklas.
“Hey,” he said with a smile. “It’s great to see you, but kinda sucks because I’m on duty for the next few days.”
Then maybe I will get to climb aboard Spooky again, Niklas thought and smiled widely at his friend, as if to say, ‘no big deal.’ He offered Michael a beer and they sat and drank for a few minutes.
“Do you mind walking to the chow hall? I haven’t had anything to eat since lunch, yesterday,” Michael said and they both rose and headed in that direction.
“Is everything all right,” Niklas asked.
Michael just nodded. “Yea, it’s fine.”
Three more times Niklas asked and finally Michael came out of his shell.
“It’s nothing really. We just lost an AC-47 over Thua Thien a few days ago. I didn’t know any of the men well, but… well, it just… I don’t know.” Niklas tried to change the subject, in the hopes of cheering his friend up, but now Michael couldn’t let go of what was bothering him. “I think I believe you now… you know? Like… fate.
That night, after Michael got himself ready to go, both men headed for the flight line. When it was time to take to the air, Michael helped with the quick, last minute checks and then came back over to Niklas.
“You can’t ride with me this time!” he yelled over the sounds of the tarmac. “But, there is a second AC-47 going up! They are a gunner short…” He didn’t need to say anything more, Niklas was ready.
Seated behind he guns, Niklas awaited instructions and they soon came.
“Ready to fire,” called out the pilot. Niklas did his best to recall everything he was supposed to do. When the plane fell into a familiar left turn, the guns opened fire and Niklas watched the tracers shooting off toward the land mass below them.
A huge noise shook the plane as something below was blown to smithereens. Niklas assumed a fuel storage or ammunition storage facility had been struck.
I have to ask Michael how to tell the difference, he told himself, while his adrenaline continued to pump at a fantastic rate.
For a long time, they continued to fire, until the pilot called out, “we’re outta ammo. Time to head back.” Quickly the plane was turned around and put back on the path to DaNang base. After the reload, the plane took to the sky again, and even more fire was dropped on the jungle below.
Don’t anger Puff, thought Niklas. He had once been told that it was the deadliest of all aircraft. It couldn’t drop as much as the B-52, but it wreaked havoc on the enemy troops.
The next morning came quickly and finally the plane careened down to meet the runway. After a quick inspection to find no damage from enemy fire, Niklas hurried to the Base Operations.
“Excuse me, do you know the location of Spooky 70?”
“Uh… no.” Answered the other man, looking down at something on the desk before him. Then looking up to Niklas, he said, “No, they are overdue. Haven’t had communication for the past two hours.”
So, Niklas decided to wait there. He found a comfortable, oversized settee and laid his head back. He actually appreciated the time to rest after the long flight and started to doze, but commotion coming from the radio brought him back to the real world.
The extra plush settee had all but swallowed him whole and it took some effort to get his weary legs up again, but once standing he hurried for the counter.
“What’s the commotion,” he asked. There was no response. The same man, who sat at the other side of the desk simply ignored the question.
Clearing his throat, in order to make a point, Niklas asked again. “What’s the commotion on the radio about?
“Hey man, I’m really busy at the moment…”
“Listen,” Niklas said, thinking on the spot, “I am Agent Thumper and, if you know what’s good for you, you will respond now!” His tone was hushed, because he knew damned well that it wasn’t information to be given out to just anyone, but he was beginning to get nervous and felt it appropriate.
The man gave a surprised look, but only stood and walked away. Niklas stayed planted to the floor. Frustration was growing within him.
“A possible signal has been received,” the other man started, when back at the desk. His voice too was barely above a whisper. “It is thought to be Spooky 70. Search and Rescue are trying to triangulate a position.”
“Does that mean a possible rescue mission?”
“Yes. It does.”
“Where is the mission being formulated?” he asked. The blood was now rushing through his veins and beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He brushed them away.
The man shot back information about the location of the helicopter and Niklas was instantly on the move.
Explaining again his special clearance, Niklas was told that he better get himself dressed appropriately, if he wished to play any part. So, off he went again. At top speed, he made his way to Mission Control where he was supplied a bullet proof vest, helmet, full ammo belt, and an M-16. He took a moment to look at the gun and then rushed off again.
Orders were radioed and Niklas, along with a group of other airmen took to the air in the helicopter. They flew low and the trees were so thick that Niklas actually felt his heart trying to pound out of his chest.
Gunnery Sergeant Lopinger gave him a look that could kill when he tried to move from his seat to get closer to the man. Lopinger sat in the open doorway, with his feet on the runner. Niklas did as the man’s eye’s had instructed. He was too consumed with fear for his friend to be concerned with anything else. So, he sat back against the seat, closed his eyes and said a silent prayer.
“Approaching location. Keep your eyes peeled.”
At that, Niklas’s eyes shot open again and scanned the ground.
“Seeking a good LZ…” the Captain said and then there was so more chatter between then men. “…that’ll work.”
The small clearing that they came down on was surrounded on all sides by jungle -- jungle that was likely infested with people who would like to see him and the other men dead.
Lopinger’s feet were on the ground immediately and he moved quickly, stealthily, surveying what they hand landed themselves in.
Niklas hit the ground. It was plush under foot and blades of grass tickled his pant legs.
“Path,” Niklas called, having reached the opposite side of the giant metal bird.
Lopinger ordered them all to follow it. Thick rows of trees grew high above them on either side of the narrow path. Niklas was ready for a lot of walking, but within fifty feet of leaving the clearing, shots rang out from every angle.
“Hit the deck!” The command cut through all other sound and Niklas’s vest hit hard against the ground. Instantly, he had the gun pointing out in front of him, while his body stretched out against the warm earth.
Thirty yards from where they laid, several Vietcong soldiers took off running. Niklas climbed to his feet and started to advance in the same direction.
“Stop!” Lopingers loud voice called after him, but Niklas could barely hear it. He continued onward, following the back of the native soldier at the rear of the pack. Suddenly, the man turned. Niklas was staring down the end of a barrel and like a deer ready to meet his fate, he froze. The sound of the bullet was deafening.
But, it didn’t connect, he thought, thrust from his shocked state. Then, the man before him dropped his gun. Just as it hit the plush jungle floor, the soldier collapsed and when his body landed, Niklas saw the back side of the wound. It hadn’t been the enemy’s gun that had fired. The bullet was that of Lopinger, who had just saved Niklas’ life.
The bloodied hole was at least three inches in diameter. It continued to ooze, as Niklas stood there transfixed, until something caught his eye. This time he was ready and acted fast. Looking up, he smoothly raised his gun to find another Vietcong soldier at the other end. Except this was no man.
I just killed a woman, was the only thought he had, as her body fell forward on top of the gun she had been holding. Behind her was another, ready to take aim. The boy was no more than ten years old. His emaciated figure looked too weak to wield the rifle, and yet he raised it with relative grace and pulled back on the trigger. Nothing happened. The gun was out of ammo or had misfired, but nothing came at Niklas. At once the stick thin legs of the child took off running. Down the path he cruised and then around a corner.
“Do not pursue!”
This time Niklas heard and obeyed the command from Lopinger. He watched as the boy disappeared behind the thick brush. His nerves were so amped up that the scream from within the jungle made his heart race even faster and every hair on his body was on end. Niklas looked to the man, now standing beside him.
“He got the trap,” the Gunner Sergeant said, as if answering an unasked question.
Stories Niklas had heard of Vietcong traps instantly circled his brain.
“Man, I hear that it’s insane. Those guys are crazy. They booby-trap everything! Large shaved bamboo sticks, threaded with razor sharp spikes can come out of nowhere, if you accidently come in contact with invisible trigger wire. BAM! Just pierces through you. You better hope you die,” told a friend, “because otherwise, the feces that they use to cover those spikes… well let’s just say, that ain’t gonna be a good way to go!”
He thought of the young child succumbing to such a fate and his heart ached.
“Stop dwelling. Kid was short. That thing would have made contact with his head. Dead instantly. Now come on!” Lopinger commanded.
Niklas shook the thoughts and the guilt, leaving it on the ground behind them, as they carefully maneuvered up the path and into another clearing. Once more, his heart sank to his stomach.
The bullet hole was huge. It had nearly destroyed every inch of the head. Niklas felt sick, but then the rage took over. On the ground were two men, both donning matching bullet wounds, which exited straight through the temples.
I will kill them! I will KILL THEM ALL! The anger consumed him; threatened to eat him alive. He heard again the voice of his step-father. “When the enemy is armed and intends to cause harm to you or your fellow soldier, show no restraint!” When that voice vanished, another filled his mind. He was unarmed! Those sons of bitches killed him and he didn’t even hold a weapon. I will kill them!
Lopinger was at his side instantly. Like a mother holding a child, the man tried to calm Niklas. Yet, Niklas didn’t want to cry. He didn’t want to think. He was numb, except for the anger. He could not control the pure, raw hurt.
“That’s enough,” Lopinger said, taking control again. “Take these soldiers to the helicopter and let’s get outta here before we join them.”
Niklas, always the soldier, took the order. Dropping his weapon, he dead-lifted the body of his friend and laid him gingerly over his shoulder. Then, squatting, he retrieved the weapon. Looking like a true mad man, he pointed the gun straight ahead and began to walk with purpose in the direction of their aircraft.
“Can I give a hand, Sergeant?”
Niklas looked at the man, but could not see his face. “No. Thank you, Sergeant. He ain’t heavy…” he sighed, and then thinking back to happier days, added, “He’s my brother.”
So, the group marched forward and boarded the helicopter that would take them back to base. The ride was to be silent and even if another man had uttered something directly to him, Niklas wouldn’t have heard it. Seated on the cold, hard floor of that helicopter, Niklas held the head of his friend in his lap.