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White Rabbit

by Lani Friend

The rule was “No drinking twenty-four hours before a flight, and no smoking a hundred feet from the plane,” but who could keep it straight after a weekend of yakatori bars and highball dives in the Ginza, ok, and that love hotel off Shibuya Station with the blinking lips in the window and hand restraints on the bed. A few Chinese Lanterns and a Yokohama chaser made you lose more than your way back to the airline inn at Tachikawa.

She knew her way around a cockpit. Chatting up pilots over spring break had gotten her free lifts from Ho-Ho-Kus to Hilo. Now she was cruising over Cam Ranh Bay on the lap of 2nd Lt. P. F. Kelley deadheading to Tokyo in a cloud of Cambodian Red he’d scored off a maid in the BOQ. They toked it out of an M14 shell casing as Purple Haze blasted from the navigator’s radio.

Hot ashes searing into his leg sent Kelley leaning into the control yoke and the plane banking a sharp left as ground personnel ran for the hangars. Hendrix excused himself while he kissed the sky as Kelley leveled out and brought the nose up.

The Reynold’s Wrap Express they called it, better known as the Flying Bong, held aloft on wisps of Saigon street hash. It was rumored to be a CIA airline: “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere” — rice or rocket launchers, soybeans or surveillance sensors, spies, heads of countries, even chickens, pigs, and water buffalo when Agent Orange poisoned farmland in the south. Thirty missions a day, engines left on for refueling. It was Southeast Asia in the middle of a war zone. You didn’t ask questions.

She had landed this job the way she came by everything truly worthwhile — backstage passes to Jefferson Airplane, the last cab in North Beach on a Friday night — in a skirt up to here with legs that caused a pile-up on the people-mover at SFO and a face that made the cover of the flight school brochure.

“Looks like a freakin’ resort,” the navigator peered down at the toothpaste strip of beach separating mountainous jungle from the South China Sea.

“Yeah, a Roach Motel,” mocked Kelley. “Grunts check in, but they don’t check out.”

Being in the air kept you alive longer, though you were an easy target. Last night they had landed at Bien Hoa with lights off to avoid attack. The flight attendants wore flats to run for the bunkers. After the troops deboarded, Vietnamese cleaners filed down the aisles with garbage bags. The attendants were supposed to keep them from hiding bombs, but nobody knew what the bombs looked like or what we should do if we found one or why we were here in the first place.

The old man she was assigned to bowed into the lavatory, wearing a coolie hat and relentless smile, his bright eyes belying his age. She wondered if she should act formidable and imposing, or wary but vulnerable, appealing to his better instincts, or try to disarm him with a friendly smile? Hey, we’re both in this together, let’s be comrades. But it was his country. She was the invader, the one to be watched.

When they left, the DC-8 took off at an angle so steep the wings shuddered. A leisurely take-off was begging for ground fire. Landing back in Tokyo, they piled into cabs for the long ride to Tachi and the airline hotel with tatami floors and “orenji juusu” on the menu. A soak in a sunken tub, a complimentary kimono, and it was time to hit the O Club.

She stood on the top step and reconned the dining room. Purple Heart, right first table. Two bars, silver, left third table. Outstanding Airman, lower mezzanine. One bar, gold, coming up on her right wing asking her something, but she zeroed in on the fighter pilot approaching at nine o’clock. Two bars, silver, face off a fresco, Bernini hands—bullseye.

“I’m Joe,” he said. “Join me for dinner.” It wasn’t an invitation. It was an order, something she normally reacted to by accepting, then standing the guy up were it not for those eyes gazing from a balcony in Amalfi. Two hours later they were speeding through Tokyo on the Shinjuku Line to Kabukicho, “Sleepless Town”— a screaming neon hellscape of pulsating peep shows and pachinko parlors, naked soapdowns, karaoke bars and blues joints, soba shops and shabu shabu restaurants, shoulder-to-shoulder with drunken salarymen and their tottering Lolitas just learning to walk in heels. A place where you stood an even chance of getting shot by a Chinese gang or the Yakuza. Touts in shiny suits beckoned them into gambling dens.

Ten blocks later in the garden district they bowed into a leafy guesthouse. A jolly mama-san, hand over mouth, showed them to a room. “Ame-li-can man, so tarr!” she giggled. “Ame-li-can rady, so pletty!”

They got down to business, he demonstrating the navigational skills that put him at the throttle of an F-4 Phantom jet, she revealing secrets of the Tokugawa courtesans woodblocked on the ancient Shunga scrolls.

Afterward, they shared the last Winston. She asked him between drags how long he was going to keep strafing rice paddies and napalming Asian kids, and he shot back that their own army had done it, and if she hadn’t been brainwashed by her stonefreak commie pinko friends, maybe she’d learn something.

They had to save the world from communism, he argued. He hadn’t graduated from the Air Force Academy for nothing. Make love, not war, she countered. She hadn’t wandered around Golden Gate Park in facepaint and flowers for nothing. He called her sweet but delusional. She told him to seek spiritual fulfillment. Then he said spiritual fulfillment was a high-altitude intercept with an air-to-air missile, and took care of business.

Stay away from smoking caterpillars, his voice echoed from the depths of the tub. He swigged an Asahi in the rising steam. A hookah might get your head on straight, she mused horizontally from the king-sized futon. Patchouli-soaked space cadet, he muttered. On a bad trip. A bad trip, she clarified rather loudly, was mistaking an entire village of women and children for Vietcong. It was a terrible crime, he yelled, barging through the bead curtain — but you couldn’t trust any of them, especially the kids, and put his fist through a shoji screen.

When he calmed down, he gave a lecture on collapsing dominoes, and she rebutted with a protest speech about the myth of world communism. He asked what right chickenshit draft-dodgers had to protest anything, and she replied that he was the chickenshit for not exploring his inner rage. The foul language made them hungry, so they ordered hot pot with duck. Then he took her like Pluto abducting Proserpina, his chiseled fingers leaving indentations in her alabaster thighs.

Every week flights left Travis with another load of troops bound for Nam. The trips over were quietly tense. She squirmed in the jump seat trying to avoid the stares of the guys in the front rows. They were leaving behind everything they had. She had nothing to offer but a company smile and a frozen dinner. A bad dinner where uncooked peas and carrots rolled out of the trays and dotted the blue carpet like a pointillist landscape.

When they landed at Da Nang the cabin doors opened, exchanging cool air for a blast furnace. Gathering their gear, the men staggered into the blinding light. On the tarmac, two hundred soldiers were waiting to board for their trip back to the States.

“Kill yourselves now before the gooks do it!” they’d shout at the guys getting off. Then they’d climb the steps with noisy bravado, trading jibes and breaking out of the protective carapace they’d evolved over the past year.

Between trips she lived with seven other girls in an apartment near Travis. There was always turbulence. Someone got pregnant, food and boyfriends were poached, angry pilots’ wives called day and night. It was worse when the apartment was empty, and she had time to ponder what she was doing —the nonstop parties, the unscheduled layovers, the missed connections, and the ones that went nowhere. She was flying without a compass.

Like an armored vehicle, the war rolled on, mowing down an entire generation. There was no end in sight. The Pentagon was happy, Dow Jones was happy, the touts and the Mama-sans and the Lolitas were happy.

She’d see herself reflected in a galley oven in regulation lipstick and heels stomping plastic trays into undersized garbage bins. She was a cog on a conveyor belt to Hades, an oarsman on a Stygian ferry transporting passengers to the Underworld. The next day she’d circle job ads in the Bay Area Chronicle. Faced with escalating conflicts and doubt, the only thing to do was cut your losses and bail.

At Da Nang, the troops from the plane were herded onto buses with barbed wire covering bottle glass windows. At the battalion they were put to work filling sandbags for bunkers. Every morning an officer called out names. Those called would fly on to places like Pleiku and Quảng Trị and Khe San.

As soon as they got there, they set up defensive perimeters and began digging trenches. Shirtless in the suffocating humidity, they rammed their shovels into hard clay, scanning the horizon and listening for the crack of a sniper’s rifle. The snipers would hit something close by to remind them they were pop-up prey in a shooting gallery, to be blown away at will. The men worked until dark, the sweat leaving spiderwebs of grime on their pallid torsos.

It was said that the night belonged to Charlie; but truth was they never knew when they’d be hit. The VC threw rockets and artillery at them, and all they could do was retaliate.

Exhausted, the men took their weapons and stooped into the underground bunkers they’d built. They pulled their claymore detonators as close as the girls they’d kissed goodbye and lay there in the dark listening to mortar rounds leaving their shells.

The rule was “No drinking twenty-four hours before a flight, and no smoking a hundred feet from the plane,” but who could keep it straight after a weekend of yakatori bars and highball dives in the Ginza, ok, and that love hotel off Shibuya Station with the blinking lips in the window and hand restraints on the bed. A few Chinese Lanterns and a Yokohama chaser made you lose more than your way back to the airline inn at Tachikawa.

She knew her way around a cockpit. Chatting up pilots over spring break had gotten her free lifts from Ho-Ho-Kus to Hilo. Now she was cruising over Cam Ranh Bay on the lap of 2nd Lt. P. F. Kelley deadheading to Tokyo in a cloud of Cambodian Red he’d scored off a maid in the BOQ. They toked it out of an M14 shell casing as Purple Haze blasted from the navigator’s radio.

Hot ashes searing into his leg sent Kelley leaning into the control yoke and the plane banking a sharp left as ground personnel ran for the hangars. Hendrix excused himself while he kissed the sky as Kelley leveled out and brought the nose up.

The Reynold’s Wrap Express they called it, better known as the Flying Bong, held aloft on wisps of Saigon street hash. It was rumored to be a CIA airline: “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere”—rice or rocket launchers, soybeans or surveillance sensors, spies, heads of countries, even chickens, pigs, and water buffalo when Agent Orange poisoned farmland in the south. Thirty missions a day, engines left on for refueling. It was Southeast Asia in the middle of a war zone. You didn’t ask questions.

She had landed this job the way she came by everything truly worthwhile — backstage passes to Jefferson Airplane, the last cab in North Beach on a Friday night — in a skirt up to here with legs that caused a pile-up on the people-mover at SFO and a face that made the cover of the flight school brochure.

“Looks like a freakin’ resort,” the navigator peered down at the toothpaste strip of beach separating mountainous jungle from the South China Sea.

“Yeah, a Roach Motel” mocked Kelley. “Grunts check in, but they don’t check out.”

Being in the air kept you alive longer, though you were an easy target. Last night they had landed at Bien Hoa with lights off to avoid attack. The flight attendants wore flats to run for the bunkers. After the troops deboarded, Vietnamese cleaners filed down the aisles with garbage bags. The attendants were supposed to keep them from hiding bombs, but nobody knew what the bombs looked like or what we should do if we found one or why we were here in the first place.

The old man she was assigned to bowed into the lavatory, wearing a coolie hat and relentless smile, his bright eyes belying his age. She wondered if she should act formidable and imposing, or wary but vulnerable, appealing to his better instincts, or try to disarm him with a friendly smile? Hey, we’re both in this together, let’s be comrades. But it was his country. She was the invader, the one to be watched.

When they left, the DC-8 took off at an angle so steep the wings shuddered. A leisurely take-off was begging for ground fire. Landing back in Tokyo, they piled into cabs for the long ride to Tachi and the airline hotel with tatami floors and “orenji juusu” on the menu. A soak in a sunken tub, a complimentary kimono, and it was time to hit the O Club.

She stood on the top step and reconned the dining room. Purple Heart, right first table. Two bars, silver, left third table. Outstanding Airman, lower mezzanine. One bar, gold, coming up on her right wing asking her something, but she zeroed in on the fighter pilot approaching at nine o’clock. Two bars, silver, face off a fresco, Bernini hands—bullseye.

“I’m Joe,” he said. “Join me for dinner.” It wasn’t an invitation. It was an order, something she normally reacted to by accepting, then standing the guy up were it not for those eyes gazing from a balcony in Amalfi. Two hours later they were speeding through Tokyo on the Shinjuku Line to Kabukicho, “Sleepless Town”— a screaming neon hellscape of pulsating peep shows and pachinko parlors, naked soapdowns, karaoke bars and blues joints, soba shops and shabu shabu restaurants, shoulder-to-shoulder with drunken salarymen and their tottering Lolitas just learning to walk in heels. A place where you stood an even chance of getting shot by a Chinese gang or the Yakuza. Touts in shiny suits beckoned them into gambling dens.

Ten blocks later in the garden district they bowed into a leafy guesthouse. A jolly mama-san, hand over mouth, showed them to a room. “Ame-li-can man, so tarr!” she giggled. “Ame-li-can rady, so pletty!”

They got down to business, he demonstrating the navigational skills that put him at the throttle of an F-4 Phantom jet, she revealing secrets of the Tokugawa courtesans woodblocked on the ancient Shunga scrolls.

Afterward, they shared the last Winston. She asked him between drags how long he was going to keep straffing rice paddies and napalming Asian kids, and he shot back that their own army had done it, and if she hadn’t been brainwashed by her stonefreak commie pinko friends, maybe she’d learn something.

They had to save the world from communism, he argued. He hadn’t graduated from the Air Force Academy for nothing. Make love, not war, she countered. She hadn’t wandered around Golden Gate Park in facepaint and flowers for nothing. He called her sweet but delusional. She told him to seek spiritual fulfillment. Then he said spiritual fulfillment was a high-altitude intercept with an air-to-air missile, and took care of business.

Stay away from smoking caterpillars his voice echoed from the depths of the tub. He swigged an Asahi in the rising steam. A hookah might get your head on straight she mused horizontally from the king-sized futon. Patchouli-soaked space cadet, he muttered. On a bad trip. A bad trip, she clarified rather loudly, was mistaking an entire village of women and children for Vietcong. It was a terrible crime he yelled, barging through the bead curtain — but you couldn’t trust any of them, especially the kids, and put his fist through a shoji screen.

When he calmed down, he gave a lecture on collapsing dominoes, and she rebutted with a protest speech about the myth of world communism. He asked what right chickenshit draft-dodgers had to protest anything, and she replied that he was the chickenshit for not exploring his inner rage. The fowl language made them hungry, so they ordered hot pot with duck. Then he took her like Pluto abducting Proserpina, his chiseled fingers leaving indentations in her alabaster thighs.

Every week flights left Travis with another load of troops bound for Nam. The trips over were quietly tense. She squirmed in the jump seat trying to avoid the stares of the guys in the front rows. They were leaving behind everything they had. She had nothing to offer but a company smile and a frozen dinner. A bad dinner where uncooked peas and carrots rolled out of the trays and dotted the blue carpet like a pointillist landscape.

When they landed at Da Nang, the cabin doors opened exchanging cool air for a blast furnace. Gathering their gear, the men staggered into the blinding light. On the tarmac, two hundred soldiers were waiting to board for their trip back to the States.

“Kill yourselves now before the gooks do it!” they’d shout at the guys getting off. Then they’d climb the steps with noisy bravado, trading jibes and breaking out of the protective carapace they’d evolved over the past year.

Between trips she lived with seven other girls in an apartment near Travis. There was always turbulence. Someone got pregnant, food and boyfriends were poached, angry pilots’ wives called day and night. It was worse when the apartment was empty, and she had time to ponder what she was doing —the nonstop parties, the unscheduled layovers, the missed connections, and the ones that went nowhere. She was flying without a compass.

Like an armored vehicle, the war rolled on, mowing down an entire generation. There was no end in sight. The Pentagon was happy, Dow Jones was happy, the touts and the Mama-sans and the Lolitas were happy.

She’d see herself reflected in a galley oven in regulation lipstick and heels stomping plastic trays into undersized garbage bins. She was a cog on a conveyor belt to Hades, an oarsman on a Stygian ferry transporting passengers to the Underworld. The next day she’d circle job ads in the Bay Area Chronicle. Faced with escalating conflicts and doubt, the only thing to do was cut your losses and bail.

At Da Nang, the troops from the plane were herded onto buses with barbed wire covering bottle glass windows. At the battalion they were put to work filling sandbags for bunkers. Every morning an officer called out names. Those called would fly on to places like Pleiku and Quảng Trị and Khe San.

As soon as they got there, they set up defensive perimeters and began digging trenches. Shirtless in the suffocating humidity, they rammed their shovels into hard clay, scanning the horizon and listening for the crack of a sniper’s rifle. The snipers would hit something close by to remind them they were pop-up prey in a shooting gallery to be blown away at will. The men worked until dark, the sweat leaving spiderwebs of grime on their pallid torsos.

It was said that the night belonged to Charlie; but truth was they never knew when they’d be hit. The VC threw rockets and artillery at them, and all they could do was retaliate.

Exhausted, the men took their weapons and stooped into the underground bunkers they’d built. They pulled their claymore detonators as close as the girls they’d kissed goodbye and lay there in the dark listening to mortar rounds leaving their shells.

Lani Friend is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in History Magazine, Ampersand Review, Adanna Literary Journal, New Floridian Magazine, and others. Her father was a career naval officer and took care of incoming wounded at Honolulu Naval Hospital during Pearl Harbor. During the Vietnam War she served as a flight attendant for Airlift International Airlines, transporting troops to and from Southeast Asia. You can view her portfolio at http://www.lanifriend.blogspot.com.

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