Wednesday was payday. I had finished the final exam and it was ready for tomorrow. I’d spent the past two night with Agnes. It was lovely beyond my wildest dreams. And dreams were the vast majority of my experience with women at this point in my life. If it was to become a habit, I was all for it. Guys talked about the down side of long-term entanglements with women but if there was a downside to being entangled with Agnes, I couldn’t see it.
On paydays Phil and I reported to Col. Suel for our monthly “chat” as he called it. Suel was every inch a soldier. He was formal with his direct reports, mostly majors in charge of his many advisory teams but with us he was fatherly and went out of his way not to be intimidating. It was all but unheard of for enlisted men to report to a high-ranking officer. He was well aware that we believed we were in way over our heads. He was sure to tell us he didn’t think so. Our “chats” were friendly and informal. Today was no exception. He did the usual bit of hand-holding, inquiring how we were coming with our class, if the interpreter had worked out well, if the equipment was holding up and asking if we needed anything. Then he asked about our schedule and when we would be through.
“Nugeant, you have, what? two more weeks to go to finish?”
“Yessir. I’ll give the final on the 20th. Allen and I thought it would be good to have a graduation luncheon the following Friday. They really have studied hard and been very helpful.”
I broke in, “Excuse me sir but Phil’s absolutely right. They deserve all the recognition they can get.”
Phil continued, “We thought that maybe we could design some diplomas and have them printed up over at Long Binh. One sheet for each man with his name printed on it and signed by us and appropriate officers.”
“I think that’s a fine idea but I don’t know who you should charge it to. It couldn’t be Team 126, though. I’ll look into it and come up with a charge number for you. You’ll need it by when? the 23rd.”
“Yessir that would be just great. We should be able to sign them all in an hour or so. Should we put a signature line on them for you?”
“No. No. I’ll be gone in a few months and nobody would know who I was anyway. I’ll arrange for some battalion-level ARVN officer to sign. Maybe I could get a facsimile signature from General Horn and you could make the diploma from the Saigon branch of the Signal School. That would put you guys on the map for founding it.”
“Yes Sir! that sounds great,” Phil and I echoed each other.
“All right then men, we’ll get on with it,” said the colonel.
“Gentlemen, dismissed!” barked the colonel.
I was very pleased to be dismissed in such a fashion. The term “gentlemen” was usually reserved for officers and I was flattered to say the least.
Then the colonel said, “Oh, Allen before you go I have a favor to ask, if you’d be willing.”
“Yessir, also I would like to have a word in private with you if I might.”
The colonel nodded at Phil who left the office in the direction of the kitchen.
Then he said, “Me first if you don’t mind.”
“Mind sir? Not at all sir.”
“Allen, you will finish up your training this Friday if I understand correctly.”
“Yessir, that’s correct.”
“So you won’t have much to do other than equipment maintenance and report writing and so on. Is that right.”
“Is there anything that must be attended to before Nugeant finishes?”
“No sir, not that I can think of at the moment. Although sometimes I have to fuss with the motor-generators when it gets hot.”
“Is that critical. I mean would class stop it you weren’t there?”
“No sir. it just means that Phil would have to stop a demonstration for a moment to deal with it.”
“So it doesn’t sound like it’s critical then.”
“The reason I’m asking is that I need for you to make a house call to fix a radar at one of our reconnaissance sights. It’s off the map, as it were, so this duty wouldn’t go on your permanent record but It would help me out a great deal. I’ll give a glowing report on you to Gen. Horn either way so don’t feel that your record is dependent on this. Actually, you see I owe a favor and I’m hoping you can fill it for me.”
“Yessir. I hope I can help out. Is it one of our radars? I mean the ones I teach?”
Yes, it’s a mortar locator and it’s guarding a clandestine site. That’s why it has to be off the record. It’s unnamed and doesn’t officially exist. If you agree to go, someone else will give you the coordinates. You’ll give the coordinates at the Tan San Nuit AA passenger terminal along with a copy of your blanket travel orders and they’ll take you up there. You’ll need to take some tools and test equipment and I’ll dispatch someone to help you manage it. Think you can handle it?”
“Actually, I’m honored that you’d think of me for this job. When do I leave?”
“Saturday. You need to be back in two weeks. If it looks like it’s a bigger job than that, let me know as soon as possible. I’m relieved that you’ve agreed to go. There’s really no one else in country who can handle it. Can you be ready by Saturday?”
“Should be no problem, sir.”
“One other thing. This is very hush hush. It’s politically sensitive. Nixon will get his ass in a sling if it gets out that we’re even over there. That’s how high it goes. Do I make myself clear?”
“Jesus, I mean yes sir.”
“Good, I thought you’d understand. Now you wanted to talk to me about something.”
“Yessir. I have stumbled on to something I think you should know about. I think it’s very bad and shows corruption at the top of the Vietnamese government.”
“So far there’s nothing new in what you say. Go on.”
“Last Saturday I went with two other guys to the presidential palace to visit an aide de camp to president Thieu. I didn’t know why we were going there but I was very impressed that my friends know such a person. Well, they’ve been involved in money changing and have amassed quite a lot over the years, in piasters I should say. And they know I have a New Jersey checking account. So I don’t know what they told the colonel before we got there but it turned out that he, the colonel, wanted to convert piasters to dollars too.”
So far, Col. Suel had barely raised an eyebrow. “Specialist Allen, this sort of thing goes on all the time. I’m not condoning it but it’s not uncommon. How much money does he want to convert?”
“Fifty million dollars.”
The colonel did raise an eyebrow, shifted in his chair and said. “My, that is unusual. And he and your friends think you can pull this off? What did you tell them?”
“First let me say that I want nothing to do with this. I think it’s immoral, of course its illegal and I think it reflects a total lack of concern for the people of the country, for us soldiers, for the US government that’s given them so much and for anyone but themselves. But that’s not what I told them. I told them that it was complicated, that there were many things that could go wrong and that there were many details that had to be worked out before I would agree to be a part of anything like this.”
“Smart boy. You did the right thing. You didn’t shut them out and you didn’t promise the moon. I’m very glad you told me about this. This could be what it seems but it could also be a setup, a fishing expedition to see who bites. You don’t want to be the fish. I’ll ask around about this and see what I can turn up. I’ll let you know as soon as I find something. In the mean time for this reason and the trip, keep your head down. Stay off the streets. Come back Friday afternoon and get your travel instructions. See me, then go down the hall to 3B and see a Mr. Shackley. He’ll give you the travel details. Was there anything else?”
“No sir. I think we’ve about covered it.”