Somewhere in Latin America, sometime in the 1970s...
The sweat evaporated off the backs of the resting soldiers clad in jungle green as if it were steam rising from hot meals. They were over half way in their speed march to their objective of showing the flag in a remote village where a government official and his wife had been brutally murdered. After ensuring their protective sentries were posted and another couple of scouts replaced the ones that had taken point, Phil Danté sipped water from his green plastic water bottle. He looked at the person they were escorting, the one that his commander, Major Hugh Williams was paternally speaking to...
* * *
Phil had found himself somewhere in Latin America as one of Major 'Hellfire Hugh' Williams' platoon sergeants through what was called the old boy network. Phil's former co-director of his private and commercial investigation firm in England, Peter, had served in the Commandos with the Major and his second in charge/adjutant, Captain John Coleman during World War II. When 'Bill and Cole' were back in England, Peter informed them of Phil's Vietnam exploits as an infantry section leader and his shaky civilian career. As one of the pair's platoon sergeants had been killed on their previous employment in the Middle East and needed replacing before their next operational deployment, things had fitted into place like an all-knowing unseen hand putting together a jigsaw puzzle of destiny on the table of fate.
Bill brought his team into a six month contract with an option of six months more to train their charges up. They'd be observed by their native officer counterparts who acted as their interpreters, shadows and eventual replacements. Their hosts would incorporate what they saw that they liked of their training and procedures. Though their pay was astronomical in their host country, they themselves saw it as enough to be worth getting out of bed for, and their travelling and accommodation expenses were free. Once he joined The Bill and Cole Show, it didn't take Phil long to realise that the only people who believed the money they earned was exceptional were those who had served in the British Army in the late 1950s and compared their two salaries with each other; and nothing else but. Major Williams admitted to Phil that the highest pay he had ever earned in his life was from the Americans when he and Captain Coleman worked for them in Vietnam. Neither of them would tell Phil what they actually did in Vietnam, but Phil surmised that it was an intelligence or administrative position, rather than leading native soldiers.
Along with 'Bill' and 'Cole' was Mrs. Coleman, a former nurse and secretary who helped her adjutant husband with a lot of the administrative work, and three other platoon sergeants; 'Scotty', a Scottish former Royal Marine Commando Colour Sergeant, Harry, a former army Sergeant who found Metropolitan Policing a bore after Korea, Malaya and Kenya, and Baltasar, a jovial Moçambique Portuguese who had served like the others with The Bill and Cole Show in Central Africa where they wrote their names in the history books in the 1960s. Phil was by far the youngest of the group, but his experience as an infantry section leader with the Royal Australian Regiment in Vietnam made him accepted by his peers, with all the old war dogs learning new tricks from each other. Though he truly liked and respected them and shared their love of soldiering in faraway places with strange sounding names, Phil secretly believed Scotty and Harry were there because they loved an excuse to enjoy drinking to excess and 'Balty' was a gambler; both the traits of his career non-commissioned officers in Vietnam.
Phil's laid back and often comical attitude endeared him to his men and to Balty, however Phil's relationship with Bill and Cole hit their first problem...
Cole informed Phil that Bill was bringing an American journalist to accompany Phil's platoon on a patrol. As Cole expected, Phil strenuously objected, with Cole learning a lot of Strine in a short period of time. Though Phil mostly spoke like an English gentlemen, when he was agitated his native Australian accent came to the fore. To Phil, all journos were ratbags, alkies and two-faced commos who couldn't lie straight in bed. Phil wasn't over endeared with Americans either, calling them Seppos; after rhyming slang for Septic Tank, Yank. The end result was that you couldn't trust them with telling the truth as they had a pre-arranged anti-military pro-communist agenda with their publishers, no matter what they actually saw.
'Brace yourself for the trifecta, Phil. Your Seppa journa is a sheila as well! Remember that feminine words end in the letter "a"...'
Cole laughed at the priceless expression on Phil's face, then explained that their employers were desiring favourable international publicity in combating their insurgency. The good news was that Major Williams would personally be responsible for the safety of the journalist, and wouldn't interfere with Phil leading his platoon.
'Permission to speak no bullshit fair dinkum man to man, sir.'
Phil queried, just between them, was the Major seeking favourable publicity for their employers, or himself? Phil confided his views that Major Williams went for publicity like flies to shit.
'What do you reckon, sir? Does the Major have tickets on himself?'
Cole had the patience of Job in responding that publicity was how Major Williams was able to get themselves employed. He explained that Bill felt that if you didn't have sympathetic journalists write your PR, then unsympathetic journalists would. To Bill, PR stood for 'Performance Recognition' not 'Public Relations'.
Between European and Burma service in World War II and a return to the colours in Korea, Bill and Cole had enlisted in the Foreign Legion, serving together in French North Africa, Madagascar and Indochina. Though they had some great stories, they both vowed they would never soldier for a mere pittance again. Ergo, better PR meant better Payment and Reward.
Cole had the manner of a kindly father as he lectured that favourable publicity was just as important to an army as water and ammunition was. Their foes had changed their name from the 'Rebel Armed Forces' to the more romantic 'Guerrilla Army of the Poor'. Bill and Cole's counter-guerrillas were the 'mobile military police'; the symbols of peace and stability.
'What's in a name, Phil? Everything!'
* * *
Major Williams introduced Phil as 'Felipe' to Marian Manning. With a twinkle in his eye, Bill informed Marian that Felipe was able to speak some English.
Marian had incredible large blue eyes that Phil felt that a man could jump into like a pool of water and end up in paradise, but her eyes were calculating...She was short in height and looked fit enough for a bit of jungle bashing. Her nondescript clothes were sensible blue jeans, hiking boots, cowgirl hat over her jet black hair and a long sleeved heavy blouse that wouldn't stand out, but would identify her as a 'civilian'; her only jewelry was an underwater watch. Her clothes weren't new, so it seemed she was used to being off the beaten track. He instinctively sensed her intelligence and believed that she would hide it to obtain information from those she needed it from, like Bill. He had a vision of her wearing a Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeer ear hat singing 'I'm as...cun-ning as a shit-house rat!' His last girlfriend had done him like a dinner, and he had vowed to never let anyone do that to him again...
Marian spoke maternally to Phil in efficient Spanish; Phil smiled in response and humbly thanked her in Español. Though Phil was not fluent by any means, his knowledge of French from home and Latin from school helped him to quickly pick up bits and pieces. His counterpart acted as a translator as well as a witness. Their platoon also had translators of the native Indian patois.
Bill roared with laughter at the expression on Marian's face when the darkly tanned brown eyed man with the black hair and Fu Manchu moustache with his slouch hat hanging on his back from an extra long chinstrap making him resemble a B-movie Bandido gave his platoon their Warning Orders in the crisp style of a British officer as his counterpart translated.
As his counterpart conversed with their soldiers, Phil signaled Cole into another confidential chat.
'You're sure the Major has his eye on her all the time and she's not going to be getting to any telephones after our briefing?'
Old Kind Cole instantly transformed into the angry Captain Coleman as he shat out Phil who now stood at attention for daring to question his commanding officer. When his obscenity laced tirade subsided, he asked Sgt. Danté if he read him loud and clear?
'Rather safe than sorry, sir.'
'Rather you mind your platoon, Sergeant, and concentrate on the tactics whilst those in the know concentrate on the strategy...comprenez-vous Philippe?'
'Oui, mon Capitaine.'
The pair's traditional English distrust of anything French, such as Phil's ancestry had intensified after five years as non-commissioned officers in la légion étrangère française; their Francophobia became ridicule at best to hatred at worst...Captain Coleman piled on his enfant terrible like the proverbial ton of bricks...
* * *
Preparing his platoon for patrol kept the chastened Phil busier than a one-legged man at a dog kicking contest. Leading native troops meant being firm, but constantly smiling and never aggro, unlike the Australian army. Phil supervised his counterpart and their section leader's final weapons and gear inspection. The men were armed with American Korean War surplus M2 carbines and webbing that Phil theorised had come from South Vietnam once the South Vietnamese had been equipped with up to date M16A1 Armalites.
For additional firepower the platoon carried an M1919A4 .30 calibre air cooled 'light' machine gun, Phil had unsuccessfully tried to acquire another one in case their one gun was put out of action. When they first joined their command, none of their soldiers were keen on carrying the machine gun that was anything but light. That instantly changed after Phil gleefully demonstrated how much fun it was to fire the weapon from the hip with the result of clearing a patch of vegetation with a belt of ammunition; they fought over which of them would carry it after that...
One man in each section also carried an M8 rifle grenade launcher and rifle grenades. Initially issued only to unit leaders as a symbol of rank, Phil trained his other ranks to use them as he felt one couldn't lead his men and fire rifle grenades simultaneously. In addition to their carbines and hand grenades, each man carried an ammunition belt for their machine gun that they wore as a macho bandolier that exposed it to the elements and made a mockery of their jungle green uniforms blending in with the bush.
'Your English is mucho good-o', smiled Marian.
'We can sing too!', Phil replied, then ordered his platoon, 'Three Five Zero Zero!'
Phil and his men gleefully sang the catchy refrain of that song from the musical Hair that he taught them as they embarked on their surplus American army trucks; Marian joined in as well. They would be let off to make a speed march to their objective.
* * *
Phil guessed correctly that Marian was an experienced war correspondent. She travelled lightly, kept close to Bill, conversed quietly and kept pace with everyone.
Having fresh scouts for the platoon paid off when they suddenly dove to the ground.
'¡Abajo!', Phil shouted.
The bullets from their ambushers sounded like the cracking of stockwhips over their heads; the platoon returned fire. Phil's wide eyed counterpart had frozen; he reminded Phil of Jay Novello, the actor who, with Vito Scotti seemed to play every Italian stereotype in Hollywood films or TV shows. Phil imagined him screaming 'Commander-ah McHale-ah!!!'
Once their machine gun was set up and loudly returning fire, a feeling of triumph and happiness filled the atmosphere.
Phil and his section leaders threw smoke grenades. At Phil's hand signals, two of the sections accompanied him and his counterpart, who Phil was initially literally dragging along, in a flanking movement around the left of the ambush as one of the sections and the machine gun laid down covering fire.
The ambushers hadn't expected smoke or an enveloping manoeuvre; they fell dead to the ground from Phil's platoon placing bullets in their backs as they still faced the smoke; they foolishly remained in their firing positions where they were fatally fascinated with the cloud of smoke until their end...
'¡Toma un prisionero!'
Phil's order to take prisoners was not complied with; all their ambushers lay dead or had escaped without leaving spoor. He desperately wanted to question one to find out why they were where and when they were; he had a bad feeling about Marian...
As the smoke subsided Phil established a perimeter. Marian went running up to the bodies like a child running to the tree on Christmas morning and began photographing the dead, with what to Phil appeared a delight that disgusted him. Was she here because she was a blood junkie?
'Enjoying yourself? You must have lots of fun doing crime scenes.'
'You don't seem to be too upset about it yourself', she retorted.
'I'm not upset, but I'm not enjoying it either, except I'm glad it's not me your photographing.'
'Maybe I will, who knows what tomorrow will bring?'
'I take each day as it comes, Marian...have you ever seen those cartoons about the wolf and the sheepdog who tried to kill each other during work hours but were the best of friends off duty? "Mornin' Sam, Good Morning, Ralph."'
The memories of the old Warner Bros. cartoon broke the angry mood of both of them.
She giggled and nodded, then she began to lecture him as Bill watched in silence,
'If you don't enjoy what you're doing and you won't get out of it, then you're one of the damned.'
'That's a good one, you could stick that inside a fortune cookie. Oh well, I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't...what a damned shame...'
'You Australians don't take anything seriously, do you?'
'Wasn't it your Red Skelton who said, "Don't take life too seriously, you don't come out of it alive anyway"?'
'Touché. Aren't you afraid of dying?'
'Like your Robert Mitchum said, "Everyone dies, I just want to die last".'
'It sounds like your university quoted a different group of philosophers than my university did.'
'Robert Mitchum and Red Skelton beats Sartre and Voltaire any day of the week.'
'I suppose you think a woman shouldn't be in a place like this.'
'I guess no one in their right mind should be, but my Auntie fought with the French Resistance during the war. "Deadlier than the male" and all that...'
'She sounds like she's really something! What did she do after the war?'
'She did work she still refuses to mention for the Fourth Republic in Indochina and French North Africa, then she came to Australia in the early 60s and became a school teacher. She writes short stories as well.'
'Teaching...', she pensively pondered, 'That's how everyone ends up...', she broke into an enticing smile, 'I'd love to meet her.'
'I hope you will.'
''Felipe, like you and Bill, I don't get paid for good news or no news at all. Call me a ghoul, but it's my way of life.'
'A way of life in a cult of death.'
The pair smiled at each other with their eyes in a mixture of respect and ending their animosity towards each other.
'By unanimous decision I declare this bout a draw...shake hands', laughed Bill.
Marian and Phil complied.
'Our occupations are the only ones where if you openly show that you love what you're doing, people believe you're mentally ill.'
'Amen', simultaneously replied Bill and Phil.
There had been no documents on the bodies of the dead to provide any information. The dead guerrillas, who didn't look or act hardcore, were buried in a pit by the platoon with their entrenching tools; Phil's counterpart praised the courage of the dead. The platoon carried the weapons and ammunition of the dead guerrillas with them.
* * *
The winds had picked up as they always seemed to do in the late afternoon; the tall grasses on the hills moved with the strong breeze as if they were alive.
Their objective was nearby, the platoon sent their scouts into the village, then waited for their signal to come in.
The patrol entered the village where they were greeted by older males holding their hats in their hands. Jay Novello Junior was now in an officious mode as he gave a speech.
Marian translated for Bill and Phil. The assassination of their officials would not be tolerated, and they had defeated and buried a group of terroristas on their way to the village. The three of them anxiously watched the reaction of the villagers when that news was broken to them.
As Phil figured, the news went over like a lead balloon. Jay Novello Junior wouldn't be getting any Christmas cards from them...
Marian spoke to 'Novello' requesting that she be able to interview the headman of the village through one of the platoon's interpreters; a time and place was specified. Phil reflected that he'd be losing one of his sections to guarding Marian, Novello and Bill. If more guerillas decided to attack it would be a golden opportunity as their force would be split.
* * *
The platoon spent the night outside the village sleeping in their American surplus ponchos and poncho liners that they wore below their 'butt packs'. They supplemented their rations by Bill purchasing stalks of bananas for over twice their real value from the thankful villagers; Phil thought of the phrase 'going bananas in a banana republic'. Though they doubled their guards, they celebrated with camp fires, a feast, and everyone recounting their exploits of their mission as they cleaned their weapons.
Marian and her party returned safely; her shorthand filled several notebooks.
Late the next morning the same government trucks that had transported Phil's platoon arrived with a new series of government officials and gifts for the population. The trucks carried Scotty's platoon who literally rode shotgun. Phil had equipped the trucks with a trick he learned from the Yanks in Vietnam; Claymore mines backed by steel plates and sandbags that could be detonated against any ambusher on the side of the road like a giant shotgun.
Marian and the platoon boarded the trucks to return.
* * *
Upon their arrival at their base, Marian said goodbye to Bill as Phil and his counterpart gave their final briefing to their patrol.
Phil turned to see Marian's blue eyes boring into him. She put her hand to his mouth, then she embraced him in a silent lingering timeless hug that seemed to give each other the understanding of the thanks for each other's company and asking and receiving their forgiveness for unintentionally hurting one another.
Then she was gone...
* * *
Bill, Phil and his counterpart were later summoned to headquarters long after Marian's return to the United States. Phil dreaded that Marian removed the weapons from the dead guerillas for her photos and had written an imaginative atrocity story to get herself a Pulitzer Prize.
He was overjoyed to be wrong.
Their commander proudly informed them because of Marian's story, a medical group would be coming to the village to provide medical aid. The three soldiers felt quite pleased with themselves.
As Phil's counterpart translated, Bill informed Phil,
'According to Brendan Behan, all publicity is good, except an obituary notice'
* * *
Phil received a letter from his Auntie telling him she saw his photo in an American news magazine and bought copies for all of the family. Though Phil's name wasn't mentioned in the laudatory story, she recognised him and said it was a flattering photograph that made him look like a Latin American.
The Colemans were at home together, Balty was preparing his platoon for their next day's patrol, and Scotty and Harry were elsewhere attempting to outdrink and outdo the stories of each other. Bill and Phil sat on a balcony catching the evening breezes, enjoying a cold cervaza with the sounds of a traditional band in a local cantina playing guitars, harp and trumpet alone or accompanying their singing. It was one of those wonderful times and places where Phil felt that he was somewhere...
'Oh, Marian really liked you, Danny Boy. She asked me all sorts of questions about you. Not many women really understand, but she...she twigged on how your Caroline left you high and dry and one of the walking wounded; I didn't mention it at all...'
Phil gave his commander a shocked questioning look.
'Oh, it happens to all of us, Danny Boy...every man has a Caroline of his own...My wife and I called it a day not long after I left the British army. Instead of becoming a crashing bore permanently living in a seaside hotel in Bournemouth, I ended up in Africa. Then things happened to me, like things happened to you...'
Phil recharged their glasses with lager, then raised his glass to the North; Bill joined his toast.
''There's not many women who understand...I really hope I can meet her again, sir.'
'I hope you shall, Danny Boy, I hope you shall.....
Author Notes: Happy and an Infinitely better New Year!