Tom had the cavernous C-130 cargo bay to himself. He wrapped a wool US-issue blanket around his shoulders and stretched out on the webbed jump seats to read. The low hum of the turboprop engines lulled him to sleep after a few paragraphs.
He woke to the loadmaster shaking his shoulder.
“Hey.” The crewman raised his voice over the sound of the engines. “We’re twenty minutes out. You’ll need to strap in.”
“All right.” He sat up. “Do I have time to get a drink of water? My mouth feels like it’s stuffed with cotton. I must have slept like a rock.”
The crewman laughed. “Yeah, you were out all right. You slept about four hours. I’ve been shaking you forever. Water is in the cooler up front in the galley. Help yourself. Cups are in the drawer, towels too if you want to wash your face. You know where the head is?”
“Yes. Thanks.” Tom sat for a moment collecting his thoughts and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
When his head cleared, he walked to the galley and moistened a towel to wash his face. The galley drawer was stuck. He yanked it open, took out a cup, and quenched his thirst with ice water from the cooler. Bright sunlight filled the observer’s window and he stopped to peer outside. The placid, turquoise water of the Gulf of Thailand gave way to the green and brown shades of the coastline. He stepped aside as the crewman inspected tie-down straps on a palletized generator. Another pallet held tool boxes and equipment; a 45-ton capacity axle jack sat on top of it all. The crewman shook his head. “Whoever put that jack up there deserves to be shot. It’s going to take days to find a forklift and offload it. I hope you guys don’t need it right away.”
“What?” Tom cupped his hand behind his ear.
“Loud, isn’t it? I said, I hope you guys don’t need the forklift right away.”
“No doubt. I hope the Commander brought some cash with him. It’s going to take more than a few bucks to rent one.”
“How long will you guys be in U-Tapao?”
“A week. We’re taking part in an exercise with the Thais, Aussies, Kiwis, and Brits. The generator is for the radio shack.”
“You’re lucky. I wish we could stay a few days. We’re offloading you, then flying to Diego Garcia. Have a good time for me, won’t you?”
“You’re going to Dodge? You poor guys.” Diego Garcia was a remote military outpost in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It had the usual services for the small cadre of Brits and Yanks that were stationed there, but not much in the way of entertainment other than the outdoor movie theater and enlisted and officer clubs. The fishing was great, though.
“It’s about that time. We’ll be on deck in a few minutes.”
They landed and taxied to a parking spot near the air terminal. Tom gathered his bags and walked down the cargo ramp into the oppressive heat of the tropical climate. The sun beat down with brutal harshness, reflecting from the asphalt and making distant objects shimmer like ripples in a millpond.
He set his bags down and took in the familiar scenery. U-Tapao had been a U.S. Air Force base during the Vietnam War, and later a processing site for refugees. He panned the airfield, resting his eyes on the now-empty sentry towers keeping ghostly watch over the perimeter. Thousands of men had passed through U-Tapao, nervously anticipating the unknown that awaited them in the jungles of Vietnam. Thousands of returning men shed fear and worry as they stepped onto free soil. Buddha Mountain, low and squat, dominated the landscape beyond the airfield. Tom thought it looked more like a bullfrog than a Buddha.
A honk from an approaching van brought him back to the present. The rear-passenger door slid open as the van stopped next to him and Bob Bennett stepped out.
“Tom. Hop in. You’re just in time to ride to the hotel with us.”
“Thanks. Toss my bags in the back, would you?” He climbed in and wedged himself between suitcases, flight bags, and George Wolfe in the rear of the van. George leaned over and grabbed a beer from the cooler behind the seat.
“Here you go, buddy, drink up. Hot enough for you?”
Tall, handsome, Italian George, gold necklace dangling outside his shirt, watched as Tom swallowed half the can of beer. “Sorry, man, no Klosters; PBR is all we have. Tastes like formaldehyde, doesn’t it?”
“It does.” Tom wiped a dribble of beer from his chin with the back of his hand. “But it’s cold. Where did you get it?”
“The embassy liaison, Dan something. He gave us a case yesterday when we landed – hey, turn up the AC; we’re burning up back here – and another case this morning.” George finished his beer and took another from the cooler, a Styrofoam model whose white, crumbling pieces clung to beer cans and melting ice. “I like that guy. He sets priorities.”
George and Tom were close friends and shared an apartment in Hawaii. George was a prankster, good-natured, good-hearted, and a lady’s man. He chafed under the Navy’s rigid discipline, and couldn’t wait until his enlistment was up. Promotion was his least worry; going to college on the GI Bill was his goal.
“By the way, first flight is at six tomorrow morning. We’re on the launch crew; the other poor bastards get to handle recoveries.”
Poor bastards all right. The nominal work schedule was twelve hours on and twelve off. The aircraft launch crew had evenings free to spend in town. Guys on the recovery crew had to swap shifts with someone if they wanted a night out. Not likely to happen in Thailand.
The drive to Pattaya was uneventful. The van, part of a package deal that included tours of local attractions, deposited men and luggage at the Tropicana Hotel on Beach Road at the north end of town.
Tom checked in at the front desk, gave the clerk his personal information, and arranged for laundry service. George passed around beers while the guys waited their turns to check in. He crowded Tom at the counter, leaning against him and making kissing sounds.
“Hurry up, Nelson; I don’t have all night. There are women in town who need my lips.”
“Wait until they find out where your lips have been.” Tom handed the pen to George and smiled as he moved down the counter.
“Very funny, mister comical relief.” George leaned over to sign the guest book, his left arm curved in a painfully awkward position.
Tom said “Doesn’t that hurt?”
“Doesn’t what hurt?”
“Screwing your arm around like that.”
“No. We geniuses get used to our little peculiarities.”
“No woman has ever complained about my peculiarity being little. Yours, on the other hand.”
“How would you know?”
“Haha. I’m not going there, buddy.”
George picked up his beer and room key. He reached for the bottles of water the hotel gave free to check-ins, but struggled to find room for them in his arms. He stuck them between his arm and ribs but dropped two when he stooped to pick up his bags.
“Tom, man. Stick those bottles in my arm. Thanks. Damn,” he said, as another fell to the ground. “Hey, grab that one will you?”
“Why not just leave it at the counter and get it later?”
“No way. They might run out.”
“You’re funny, George.”
“Come on. I’ll walk you to your room, dear.”
“All right, but no kiss at the door. I’m saving these lips for someone else.”
Inside the room, Tom put the bottles in the small refrigerator and turned to leave. George was already shedding clothes.
“Hey. Are you going to see Lek?” His voice was muffled as he pulled the tight undershirt off.
Tom rolled his eyes. “Yeah. This afternoon.”
“Give her a kiss for me.” George wrapped a towel around his neck and pushed Tom out of the room. “We’re grabbing a bite to eat and walking around before heading into town tonight. We’ll catch up with you later.”
“Where will you be?”
“I don’t know. Go. I’m in a hurry. Just head toward the Whiskey A Go Go. Maybe the Caligula Club. Check both,” he said as he closed the door and turned the lock.
“Okey doke,” Tom said as he picked up his bags.
The door opened again. George stuck his head out. “Check Ben’s too.”
After setting the bags down in his room, Tom stripped to his jeans and dashed off a short letter to Aida. He added a postcard photo of the hotel’s pool area he had chosen from the selection at the front desk. Aida had never been in a swimming pool and would tape the photo to her mirror alongside others he mailed her. The quirky habit started with a postcard from Hong Kong. The hotel’s rooftop pool fascinated Aida as the ultimate symbol of luxury. She made Tom send her a swimming pool postcard from each of his trips.