Authors: Robert Grossbach
Easy and Hard Ways Out
SAIGON, South VietnamâThe Air Force announced today the introduction of the new F24BZ into its active Southeast Asian arsenal. The all-weather fighter-bomber, plagued by technical difficulties and cost overruns in its developmental phase, was described by General Clarence Pound as “one more American prick in the deadly balloon of North Vietnamese aggression.”
Combined Wire Services,
July 12, 1968
To: W. Murphy
cc: N. Klapholtz, binary file
Subject: Soap expenditures
The accounting department monthly expense audit has, for the past three periods, shown an approximately linear increase in funds appropriated for soap to stock the lavatories. This month's spending was sufficient to actuate the pre-danger-level warning loop, the programming of which has resulted in this memorandum. Since none of us want to risk the consequences of an actual danger alert, kindly restrain expenditures in the area indicated.
Â Â Â Â Â Â
PROLOGUE: GATEWAY TO THE EAST
Often, Buchfarer had dreams in which his buddies were killed and he visited and consoled their wives, who made coffee and sexual advances. In the dreams, Buchfarer resisted the overtures in honor of the departed, although in real life he was not sure he'd have the strength. In dreams he was a doer, in life, a dreamer, a mote of dust carried by the currents. Besides, in real life, they didn't make advances.
A little before three in the morning, the voice of Kinsella, his bombardier-navigator, came blasting over the intercom. “Hey, Mitch. I'm tryin' a think of something from history. Who was the guy who sailed around Africa and discovered the trade route to India?”
A name leapt into Buchfarer's consciousness, then quickly incandesced into nothing before he could retrieve it. These kids like Kinsella. No feel for mood, for situation. Eighty miles south of Haiphong, about to interdict the shit out of the enemy by vaporizing his trucks, and look what his BN thinks about. Damn unfeeling kid.
“Give me a minute,” said Buchfarer into his oxygen mask.
He checked ahead, and to his left saw the plane of the flight leader, Colonel Chaplin. No trade routes in that craft. A decrepit forty-one years of age, Chaplin was a large-nosed, John Wayne-of-a-man with few outward emotions, even fewer inward ones, and a set of great, rippling jaw muscles that made Buchfarer afraid. Buchfarer did not know Chaplin's BN, Reed, although once, while swimming, he'd seen the man quickly glance around, and then blow his nose into the pool. He felt certain now that history stumpers would hold little interest for pool nose-blowers.
Abruptly, Buchfarer saw Chaplin bank slightly and begin to descend. Buchfarer gripped the stick in his right hand and followed, hurtling down through the dome of icy sky, the clear, crescent-moonlit blackness. The time was 0258, and they were four minutes from point India, the target. They leveled off, finally, at 18,000 feet, and below, Buchfarer could make out some darkly silvered trees against the ebony background. At the pre-flight briefing, the aerology officer had told them to expect a low ceiling, maybe 500 feet, at the target, but it seemed as if he might be wrong. Buchfarer hoped so. Low ceilings made it nearly impossible to spot the
launching flashes on the ground, and if you didn't see the launches it was difficult to take evasive action in time. You had to rely on your “break-lock” equipment then, to screw up the enemy's guidance, and Buchfarer, himself an engineering graduate, hated to have to trust anything designed by engineers. The thought of that made him nervous, and to calm himself he opened his mask and ate a quick plum, which he loved, and which was one of several he carried with him.
He wished, while replacing his mask, that he'd eaten breakfast that evening. He wished he were on an easier mission. He wished the plum he'd just chewed were sweet instead of sour. And he wished he were flying a different plane. This was a new one, and Buchfarer didn't quite trust it yet. True, the yellow sheet had shown only minor malfunctions, all corrected of course, but still â¦
Of all the men Buchfarer had spoken to, only Kinsella couldn't wait to fly it. Kinsella, who opened his Cracker Jacks from the bottom to get more quickly at the toy.
The soft whine of the jets was beating comfortably in Buchfarer's ears, and his mind had once more drifted to an eastern trade route when he received a radio signal on tactical primary.
“Dragon-two, from Dragon-one,” came Chaplin's voice in his headphones.
“Dragon-two. Go ahead, Dragon-one,” said Buchfarer.
“Looks like you're trailing a bit of hydraulic fluid.”
The tone was mechanical, devoid of emotion. All the older fellows were that way. They said “Roger” instead of “O.K.” as the younger guys did, and they were distant, correct, and imperturbable. Buchfarer banked slightly and saw it behind himâa thin trail of droplets unwinding through the night air. He checked his hydraulic pressure gauge, and saw it was down only slightly.
“Thank you, Dragon-one,” said Buchfarer.
Quickly, he checked the rest of his instruments, gyro, compass, altimeter, airspeed indicatorâred-lit caretakers of his life now. Not serious, he told himself. Worst that could happen would be he'd have to lower the landing gear manually. Words of a ubiquitous poster passed through his head:
Please Wingman, No Fancy Footwork, Just Solid Airmanship
. Let's see some goddamn solid airmanship, he said to himself. But an inner, less rational voice said,
First the plum, and now this
Suddenly, Kinsella's excited squeal rang through his helmet. “Hey, I got it, I got it!”
Colonel Chaplin's more elaborate communication followed immediatelyâa remote, disinterested pronouncement, as if describing a third-floor sale on waterless cookware. “Dragon-two, from Dragon-one. My gadget shows target bearing zero-four-five degrees, thirteen miles relative. Confirm.”
“Roger one, affirmative, target range and bearing.”
Shit, thought Buchfarer. He'd said “Roger.” Unthinking error. Bad habit. He thought of another poster:
. He'd have to be ever alert. No more “Rogers.” Vasco da Gama popped into his head just as he looked down, expecting to see the scattered lights of Haiphong, seeing instead a low sea of clouds. On top of everything else, the aerology officer had been correct.
From: W. Murphy
To: N. Klapholtz
Subject: Money spent on soap
What kind of shit is this to get that stupid letter from your lousy computer? You got something you want to say to me you say it in person you don't need that lousy machine to do it for you. As for the soap we buy what we need what should we do? Maybe the machine don't have to wash its hands after taking a crap but us people do. Anyway it don't even say whether this was bar soap or powder. Some machine!
Very truly yours,
“SOMEDAY YOU'LL LOOK BACK ON THIS â¦ AND YOU'LL LAUGH”
a. A Unique Ability
When Brank was fifteen and good in everything but not interested in anything, his parents had led him to a building that smelled of disinfectant, and made him take a series of aptitude tests. Later, when the results were so uniformly good that they indicated nothing, the psychologist had said, only half jokingly, “It appears that his greatest talent is for taking aptitude tests.”
b. A Non-unique Inability
The women clustered quietly in a corner of the patio while Brank stood on the grass with the men. They were husbands of his wife's friends, an accountant, a drug salesman, a printerâeasygoing aliens, non-engineersâand they talked about shrub transplants and fertilizers.
“How 'bout you, Harv?” said the accountant to him after a while, trying to draw him into the conversation. “You puttin' anything in this year?”
Brank felt naked, unprepared. “Uh, no. Nothing. Not this year. Everything I touch dies.”
“Oh,” said the accountant, genuinely dismayed. He wore green bermuda shorts and clip-on sunglasses, and his legs were flaccid above the knees and pasty white.
“I'll bet you don't use manure,” said the printer. “I'll bet you use one of those chemical fertilizers. I tell ya, I've had some marvelous success with manure this year.”
Brank began backing away.
“That's your problem, Harv,” said the printer after him.
“I've never been lucky with manure,” said Brank, feigning a wistful wandering out onto the lawn, actually desperate to evade further conversation. He saw his three-year-old son sitting behind the other children, watching glumly as they built an intricate structure from wooden blocks. And suddenly a wave of ineffable sadness washed over him, and he felt, crazily, as if he might burst into tears right there on the spot. The intensity of the feeling seemed tied to its very generality, a vagueness unusual for Brank, whose mind was always so clear and focused. And though it related mainly to his son, and his wife, and the ruined years he'd piled up behind him, it was also connected with the printer who was successful with cow shit and the accountant and his bleached thighs. Brank had heard that outsiders ranked accountants with engineers as the two dullest groups at a party. He felt like running over to the man and hugging him, saying, “It's all right, I understand, I'm dull, too. My thighs aren't bronze pillars, either.”
Instead, composing himself, he withdrew a weathered Spauldine from his pocket, and, glancing around to make sure no one was staring, he began to toss it in the air. He squeezed it as it came down each time, turning it over and over in his hand, getting the feel of its leathery roundness. Gradually he pumped it higher and higher, launching it straight up with a smooth, levered coordination of wrist, back, and arm, oblivious of everything but the whirling pink sphere suspended like a satellite in a dazzling universe of blue.