Georg E. Mateos
MISTER LEE (1942-1968 in Nam)
Mister Lee was a street-wise kid from Chinatown. A product of many generations after the one imported as a cheap labor for railroad construction went down as the masters of survival that helped reconstruct San Francisco twice, after earthquake and fires.
Not being Number One Son but one of the youngest, he was eligible for anything, so not willing to tempt Uncle Sam, which was already shuffling and dealing from his deck of draft-cards, he decided to apply for Navy service in Oakland, or even as far as San Diego, to be near his family.
The Navy had other thoughts.
Born into the generation that worshipped Bruce Lee, he knew zilch about martial arts, but was a linguistic genius learning exotic lingoes, and was a blade artist, throwing or otherwise: a very handy expertise to avoid being clobbered with a lead pipe by members of another gang. The “Red Dragons” always fought for keeps.
He was accused of have been disrespectful with a Navy Officer who, everybody knew, had more that a touch of racism. Mister Lee wasn’t having any of that and he was shoved out of the regular Navy into the Marines’ hands to teach him proper manners.
In the Marines he didn’t fare very well either, despite going through the meat grinder with the special attention of one Drill Sergeant who, when confronted with oriental patience, got his eyes tearful. Lee Wished to quit everything altogether but breathing bodies were needed to fight the Cong, so he was passed on from here to there until arriving to join the small club of weird people that nobody wants but that everybody needs to do all the jobs to which the Geneva Convention says no-no.
Called once too many times with a derogatory “Hey chink!” he showed what a mean dude with a blade was, with a “little nick on the face, just a little one this time, a sign of things to come if you insist calling me names” abiding after his friendly-shark smiled suggestion, it was to be “Mister Lee to you.”
After the lone wandering, where no one expects to survive all by himself, one is forced to come under the protection of one’s own peers, even if they are a group of misfits. Like wandering stones in the sky, the group was forming by mutual attraction when recognizing each other as been of the same species. Like wolves.
After Mister Lee became buddy-buddy with Boom-Boom, it was like seeing a young version of Charlie Chang protecting a firecracker Pancho Villa and vice versa.
Racism in the armed forces wasn’t dead and buried by a long shot and was one of the reasons for many to be pushed off of the forces, not for being racists, but for fighting back at it. Still there were pockets of bigotry, drafted redneck hillbilly’s militias, Arian Brotherhood wanted to hang the Niggers, Chinks, Jews, and Spics from the first tree, and segregation flourished, like the Klan had taken over and all was a merry party.
Despite all the camels he was forced to swallow, the former Red Dragon was a pro. If he was send to take the ass of a bigot from a fire he wouldn’t hesitate to put his hands in the burning coals to pull him out, and to cut him afterwards, just a little, in a dark alley to make him pay for past offences.
About five months after the mess hall incident, as the team sneaked back to after one of the, by now, “a raid to collect more scars;” rumors had been going around (but not yet confirmed, as usual) that a detention camp holding some missing-in-action GI-Joes was around Khe Bo.
It was a town on the east side of the mountains divides between Laos and Vietnam, with a lot of passages, smugglers routes, and rough terrain capable to discourage the most fanatic hikers.
If one spread over a few surprises on the charming landscape with disgruntled human mules smuggling war supplies going south via their neighbors Laos, political trigger happy commissars, and your local bandits chapter, the phrase make love not war, didn’t sounded corny or nonsensical.
The team was send there to see if it were true, to clean up and herd the prisoners to a secure place for chopper extraction, and call for an air strike if the place was too populated for a small team to “manage” a spreading pissed off anthill.
The settlement, near the Vietnamese border, could be reached through a mountain passage route through which white bearded Ho preferred to smuggle his war supplies going south via Laos’s territory from time to time under night’s shadows canopy being, by day, very exposed by American raider planes looking for trouble.
As the war advanced the Vietcong became more and more sophisticated, camouflaging their military enclaves under the disguise of ordinary villages that Kodak immortalized with airborne photography which couldn’t show the dug-out underground complex constructed beneath. An all-very-cozy family landscape of a quality picture, with rising stove smoke.
The Cong’s movements wouldn’t attract attention and a supply of food already at hand. If, God forbid, the enemy came, they would only find a small quantity of farmers and their families patiently attending the rice-paddies or going side by side with their plowing water buffaloes.
The entrances to the underground well covered and the black pajamas out of sight.
But not for Mister Lee! He was a born tracker with the uncanny eye of a Comanche, reading invisible tracks left on stones “so many hours ago” and the patience of a yoga master covered in flies, not letting his hand to smack the SOB trying to go up his nose. He could find nine of ten entrances to the tunnels by tiny details most of the people tend to overlook.
Papa-Charlie team crossed the border at 0100 hours covered by a furious monsoon; rain and gusts of wind that could press your face in the mud category, and flying cutthroat debris. In an open Huey, hurling fast and low with no lights, they flew following a path between the mountains walls that only the pilot could see, discerned ahead with the help of an occasional flash of lightning, no window wiper to clear the view and with the chopper’s belly whacked now and then by tree’s top branches as they raced east to the other end of the deep gulch, swinging in lazy arches from side to side as they went along.
At 0330 hours, the sound of the chopper getting away abruptly ceased, drowned by the racket of the heavy rain hitting the leaves, the ground, and drumming a crazy melody on the top of the heads of the team covered with oiled black tarpaulins. The group appearance was like Notre Dame’s Hunchback Quasimodo’s family get-together, marching in single file like death angels ominous shadows.
Like a bloodhound, Mister Lee nose pointed southeast as he took the spearhead position and started forward. They had crossed into the Nghe Tinh province looking for a needle in a haystack, something not confirmed, around the town of Khe Bo – a village with too few rice paddies to sustain the inhabitants, arranged too neatly, like an American-imperialist would expect to see while looking at a picture of a Vietnamese village from above.
They could move fast without caring about the noises their boots or the tarpaulins made against lower branches as every other sound was covered by the deafening racked from the heavy rain. Advancing for the best part of two hours, their nostrils were assaulted by the smell of smoke, from smoldering fires, which the rain was stopping from rising and was scattering in every direction.
Mister Lee, right arm half up showing a fist for stop was, for a fraction of a second, shown against the background flare of lightning, and through the foliage and the rain they could see few yellowish lights of a compound ahead.
They advanced cautiously after fanning out, with fifteen yards between each other; their guns elongated by long silencers, cocked and ready.
Nobody had said who was the boss, but implicit, they looked up to Walther (the Old Man) every time trouble was expected to hit the fan. It was the “old man” who discovered the thick bamboos prison cage under the outer tree line with sentry huts on both sides; it destroyed the idyllic illusion of a peaceful village.
Walther snapped his fingers twice and twice again, signaling to lie down and wait. There was no way to attack a compound in the dark, and let one of the black pajamas to go around your back. He moved over to Mister Lee, after a few moments of conference the Red Dragon went away to circumvent the area and spot any pockets of trouble. Forty minutes after, he was back from the opposite direction conferring with the Old Man.
Soon, daylight or whatever would make everything visible and they would be able to see if whacking the piñata was advisable.
Slowly the shadows melted away like snow under the spring’s sun and they could make account of the huts and the people that had started moving around. It was easy to see who the civilians were; they moved around with the submission caused by fear knowing that they were a disposable human shield for the order-barking Cong. A few black pajamas, too many for such a little hut in the middle of the compound, were coming out, possibly from an underground site.
Walther could now see clearly inside the cage, four prostrated figures soaked by rain, giving no signs of life. A man was sitting with his back against a cage’s corner; the side of his face visible between the bars and a gripping hand around one of the bamboo bars – both his face and hand were bloody.
After retreating deep into the forest, Walther decided, after Mister Lee’s reconnoitering trip without finding anything but the dirty road going to Khe Bo, to take the compound.
Walther and Kentucky, after taking out the sentries huts, would proceed to spray anything in black pajamas in sight, (never mind the civilians, if they got in the way… too bad). Mister Lee and Roscoe would free the prisoners; herd them back the way they had come while Boom-Boom and Sereno would fire as they dashed to the little hut with the underground exit.
They had taped extra magazines clips together to reload faster and gave the silencers a last twist.
Sometimes a sudden loud noise will froze for a second or two your opponent, before his pals react, duck, and start to fire back at you. When you are confronted with bigger numbers than the one you are carrying… mum’s the word. Like in a bowling alley, you throw your ball at the pins in front of you. When they are not pins but Cong you hope to see them fall before they know what is happening and before they could do something about it.
They fanned out again taking position and waited for Walther and Kentucky to make their move. The Old Man, twenty yards from Kentucky, gave him a nod and silently moved forward.
Immediately after the silenced guns had coughed at the sentries hut and started stuttering over the compound aiming at the visible Cong milling around a washing basin, Mister Lee and Roscoe jumped towards the cage and with small machetes hacked the cage’s door open as Boom-Boom and Sereno entered the hamlet from the opposite end to Walther and Kentucky, fanning their shots.
The Cong weren’t expecting trouble, and the ones trying to go back for their weapons or in the underground entrance hut direction, fell down as forbidden dum-dum bullets hit them. The surprise was so total, that the only attempt to scream was from a few women, caught in the middle of a maelstrom of falling bodies, spluttering blood and storming monsters covered with green vines.
By the time Boom-Boom had dropped down in the underground exit chute with ears plugged with chewing gum and was merrily rolling hand grenades as far away inside the tunnel as he could, Walther, Kentucky and Sereno were kicking doors an making a sweep-over, now accompanied with wails of the terrified women left alive after the attack.
Suddenly, a line of three huts disintegrated as a mighty muffled explosion from the underground pushed earth, broken people, and all manner of detritus up from somewhere below.
Walther, on his way back towards the Prison Cage, was thrown down on his face while Kentucky and Sereno, stunned, were trying to get up with their faces distorted in surprise and covered with a lot of mud and other unmentionables.
Sereno was the first to reach the rest of the little hut where Boom-Boom had disappeared. The chute had collapsed and Sereno started to dig barehanded in search of the now buried noisemaker. Kentucky and Walther joined the effort as Roscoe watched the surroundings, his gun ready.
A few minutes later, they pulled out dirt spitting, gasping for air, Boom-Boom minus eyelashes and eyebrows hairs singed by fire, a mighty gash on his chin, and an egg size hump on the left side of the forehead.
Dragging the crazy noisemaker between them, Sereno and Kentucky followed the others into the forest hearing Roscoe calling for evacuation of four airmail packages and six mailmen.
Walther checked the liberated prisoners, who showed signs of beatings, torture, and exhaustion. Their dirty uniforms were stained with blood, mud, and urine, and with tears in the fabric where their captors had take hold to drag them yet to another “interrogation”.
Three of the prisoners had a Cobra attack chopper-crew badges, the fourth was a SAM downed Skyhawk bomber pilot – the one and only Maverick-jerk who, a few months ago, would swallow shit before looking at the “dirty chink”. He now was looking at that “dirty chink” in the face through a semi closed eye (the other was completely closed by the swelling on his left side).
Taking turns, (Boom-Boom was quickened up by a dose of ammoniac under his nose, which put him on foul humor mode) they helped the fly crews to hurry forward. Only Mister Lee didn’t want to be relieved of his charge, the Navy pilot, taking care of him like a hen with only one chicken left to take care of, trying not to grab the man too hard, but holding him straight and relieving him of his own weight as they hiked to the choppers rendezvous.
On one of the few stops, so their charges could get a needed respite, Mister Lee, very carefully, washed the face of “his” pilot trying to liberate some of the caked blood from within the swelled eyelids. Roscoe had found that the pilot had painfully broken ribs and had bandaged his torso tight to ensure that no broken bones could stab the lungs.
Like a nurse does, Mister Lee, careful not to press the canteen on the swollen and parted lips, poured water, which his charge drank with whimpering thirst. The pilot, during all the operation, hadn’t taken his only working eye from Mister Lee.
By noon they heard choppers approaching, as they were half a mile from the designated clearing with legs screaming to stop.
Roscoe, encumbered with radio backpack, was keeping an eye on their rear expecting trouble at any moment and talking to the pilots that they were approaching, that he was hearing them and was just a few minutes away with the “packages”.
The underground explosion must have called someone attention, with survivors pointing in the direction of their exit.
But they reached the clearing without trouble. The choppers, hovering over the grass, were waiting with their door gunners swiveling from their machine guns side to side ready to go bowling, as the team arrived through the high grass to deliver the four airmen into the first Huey.
A riding paramedic started immediately to look for vitals, pump painkillers and setting hanging up IVs’ in the dehydrated wounded men.
Mister Lee was the only left on the ground after delivering the airmen; he was making sure of no screw-ups; what was passing in his thoughts as he looked at the helpless wounded pilot couldn’t be read in the inscrutable Chinese face.
As the chopper moved up, the Navy pilot, sitting in the rear of the side opening, strapped against the wall, fixedly stared directly at Mister Lee as he attempted a military salute with a half stretched bloody hand with broken fingers.
Mister Lee, the least military of them all, snapped to attention, saluted back… and the chopper was gone.
©Copyright 2007 by Georg E. Mateos