Secrets

by Bruce Meredith

“Look at those tits,” drawled Lance Corporal Jim Hutchinson. Hutchinson’s skill at setting off classroom claymores had caught me off-guard during our first class two days earlier, so this evening I’d been standing guard over him until a question by his friend Ben sent me to the blackboard.

My classroom antagonist and I looked a lot alike – a runner’s build, medium height, brown hair and eyes, long fidgety arms. Like me, Lance Corporal Hutchinson sported a mustache, a bold move for a Marine even in Vietnam. His was narrow and manicured, signaling fashion not protest.

“It’s her pussy, stupid,” said Ben Jaworski, surveying the blackboard. Ben was a clean-shaven corporal with dress shoes so polished they flickered code back to the dying fluorescent ceiling lights. He turned toward Jim and shook his head, “No wonder you can’t get laid.”

Ben turned to Andrew, the third student in the class. Andrew smiled at Ben and Ben pumped his fist. Ben had won this round. Tonight, it was coordinated attack designed to make the college kid uncomfortable. In our first class, Andrew had come to my aid. This evening he enjoyed watching me dangle. I held the chalk and controlled the blackboard, but the Marines could overrun me whenever they wanted. I needed to change the dynamic. I remembered a trick one of my Jesuit teachers had used in high school.

“I can’t help, if you don’t want to learn.” I gathered my papers and walked out of the class. It had worked for my teacher, but he wore a black cassock, carried an oak pointer, and had a strategic alliance with the Almighty.

My gambit carried more risk. My retreat would be hard to explain to my superiors, and if it didn’t work, could jeopardize my Sgt. Bilko arrangement. My teaching gig gave me an off-base pass and paid $8.25/hr. for two hour-and-a-half classes a week, a welcome addition to my $250 per month pay. It also provided intellectual relief from my day job at Headquarters, an old French mansion three klicks up the road, where I pretended I was James Bond while learning my new job as a military intelligence clerk.

 

In the hall, I watched the clock and waited. The minute hand’s baritone click announced each minute of my self-imposed exile. With each tick, I questioned my decision, especially since I had ceded the high ground two days earlier when I’d agreed to follow the Marines to the enlisted men’s club after my chaotic first class. My teacher friends back home had warned me that students shouldn’t know much about their instructors, but I convinced myself that my skills at bar room banter would redeem my dismal teaching.

I’d first tried to get the Marines to talk about the war, but they were more interested in me than firefights. By our second pitcher of beer, the Marines knew I had gone to Catholic schools, ushered at Sportsman’s Park when Musial played his last game, spent a summer teaching algebra to inner city dropouts, then headed to law school. Unfortunately, the Army had other plans. After one year, I was drafted and sent to learn fire direction control at Fort Sill, where I learned to plot the trajectories of artillery shells before winding up on an artillery base in Ban Me Thuot, in the Central Highlands. Once the Marines learned my background, they started grilling me about how I got my teaching job.

Truthfully, I had no clue. I’d helped my prior NCO pass his Math GED and my current NCO, Master Sergeant Johnson, with harder tests. Sgt. Johnson claimed I had a gift and urged me to apply for a part-time DOD teaching position, even offering to adjust my schedule. A week later, I was hired to teach basic algebra but my job soon changed. The DOD director told me that I had been selected to teach a small group of Marines enough math so they could enter an in-country fire direction control program. I’d never heard of any such program, but I didn’t ask questions. As I was leaving for my first class, Sgt. Johnson told me that he had a friend who’d claimed the DOD director had ripped him off. He wanted to know immediately if the director tried any shenanigans.

 

As I paced the hall, I could hear whispers coming from the class. Just after the fifth thud of the minute hand, I heard chairs moving and saw Andrew peering around the corner of the classroom. He was the oldest of the group, about twenty-five, same as me. He was a young girl’s dream date with his blue eyes, blonde hair curling over his ears, and a charming smile. He wore civilian khakis and a sports shirt, open at the neck. During our introductions, he’d said he’d dropped out of community college in California, got drafted and ended up at Parris Island. He never mentioned his last name. Unlike the rest us, Andrew had a weapon, a pistol he had holstered on his waist.

“Okay, Walker, come back. We promise to be good boys. Just keep your graphs clean.”

I finally got it. My sine curve’s repeating ascents and plunges had created a Rorschach test, with predictable results.

“Okay,” I said, shaking my head. “I do draw fabulous breasts.”

“Add a couple of nipples and slant eyes,” said Andrew, lighting a cigarette.

The Marines would find that sketch funny, but I couldn’t win playing their game. I picked up the eraser and worked on a comeback as Andrew sauntered in front of the room.

“Pay attention, you assholes, or you won’t make it through artillery training.”

Jim and Ben looked down at their worksheets. I couldn’t figure out why Andrew had taken me off the hook, but I owed him. After Andrew’s intervention, the class behaved and we moved through the worksheets. I had regained control. With just over a half hour remaining, I tried to make the class relevant.

“Let’s try something different,” I said.

I had them stand up and pretend they were coordinates in our room and I told them to imagine lobbing water balloons at each other and discussing all the things that could affect the balloons’ arcs. I didn’t tell them I’d spent my time in Ban Me Thuot working as a law clerk and hadn’t ever plotted a live artillery shell or watched one explode. The demonstration went well until Ben pretended to break an imaginary balloon on Jim’s head.

“Specialist Walker, this game makes me thirsty,” said Ben. “I know a place where the waitresses have great curves.”

The class still had fifteen minutes to go, but the Marines didn’t have to sign in and out like other students. “We can go,” I said, “but only if it’s a field trip.” I asked where the bar was.

“OK, if you can draw its location on the board and estimate the difference in length between walking and an artillery shell’s direct path, we can go.” I figured the exercise would use up the remaining time. Ben went to the board, took my chalk, and drew the various triangles. Surprisingly, his answer wasn’t far off the mark. The class still had ten minutes left, but a deal was a deal.

 

As soon as I’d left the air-conditioned DOD building, Vietnam’s stifling heat returned until we reached the main road. Across the road was the South China Sea. Its steady breeze pushed small waves of sweat crashing across into my glasses. I lingered behind and watched the sun’s last determined beams shimmer on the distant waves. Three years after Tet, the war continued in fits and starts just beyond Nha Trang’s coastal hills, but gazing over the beach in the dim refracted light, it was possible to pretend that Nixon’s secret plan was succeeding, but a conversation just last night left me wondering if there were other wars and secret plans.

Just before lights out, I’d decided to tell my friend and co-worker, Spencer, about my teaching fiasco two days earlier. Spencer could have been in a Norman Rockwell painting. He had short blonde hair, perfectly parted. He and his wife wrote each other daily, fantasized about their new home in Cedar City Utah, and swapped ideas from Better Homes and Gardens. He believed God was an American and directed its wars. Unlike me, Spencer had been trained as an Intelligence Analyst and knew what he was doing. He had been at Headquarters for six months and knew the insides of its closets. He was skilled in office procedure and could spit out words on a typewriter quicker than a helicopter gunner could empty a M-60. Spencer. We each were Spec. 5s, but both of us knew who was in charge.

In addition to his clerical skills, Spencer garnered most of the important work because he had a higher security clearance, so high he claimed he couldn’t talk about it. I was certain that it hadn’t taken the FBI long to stamp him “USA Prime.” Sergeant Johnson told me that I might need a higher clearance to keep my job, but I didn’t encourage him to begin the process. Coffee wasn’t my only vice, and I’d spent my college years shouting at the police and waving a “McCarthy for President” sign.

After I finished my rendition of the class, Spencer picked up his shoes and gathered his equipment. “Some people like to make others feel bad.” When I told him about my bar conversation, he stopped spit-shining his shoes and looked at me. “Those Marines are like those Rice Krispy guys. They act friendly and talk real cute, but they’re just cartoons selling crappy cereal.”

He picked up his shoes, examined the toes, and gave them a final brush. “You need to watch what you say. We protect our secrets.” Spencer looked around and lowered his voice, “Not everyone likes our Colonel.” I tried to get him to say more, but he turned towards his bunk. “Be careful with those guys. You don’t know a thing about them.”

 

I trusted Spencer because I owed my job to him. I’d bunked next to him when I was marooned in Nha Trang awaiting return to my old unit after hemorrhoid surgery in Japan. We had a bond. I didn’t mock Spencer’s sainthood. In turn, he didn’t blab about my hemorrhoids. While the army searched for my paperwork, Spencer convinced Colonel O’Malley to interview me.

The Colonel was just over fifty, too old to become a general. He was tall, but a bit overweight. Both of us had had our knuckles rapped by nuns and our minds molded by Jesuits so we could match the martyrs with their grizzly deaths as well as recite St. Augustine’s elements of a “just war.” He said he was impressed that I had been in the field, most of the clerks at Headquarters hadn’t. Near the end of the interview, he asked me whether I could keep a secret. I told him I could. They’d taught me that much in my one year of law school.

“Did they teach you when to tell a secret?”

“With a client, sir, you never break a confidence.”

The Colonel sat back his chair. “Sometimes secrets need to be told. Our job is to tell the right people.”

I said nothing. Two days later, I learned I’d passed my audition and was reassigned to G-2.

 

As I turned away from the beach, I could see Andrew waving at me. I picked up the pace and shoved Spencer’s warning to the back of my mind. I was confident that I could manage the situation and looked forward to having some fun. The Marines would show me the real Nha Trang.

I jogged until I caught up and we continued to follow the beach for a few blocks, before turning on a side street to battle scooters and bicycle drawn carts in the near darkness. Passing GIs shouted catcalls at Vietnamese women. Most looked down and picked up their pace, but a few used the banter to begin negotiations for evening services. As we walked, Andrew asked me about the DOD director’s English classes for Vietnamese nationals. All I knew was that his students seemed to like him. We passed a fortune-teller. She was dressed in black with a beautiful jade necklace. I checked her rate: five dollars a visit, a lot less than the US paid its analysts.

Five minutes later, we reached our coordinates. The bar was a cross between the French nightclubs I had visited one summer in Paris and the GI-infested dives that surrounded large American compounds. There were round wooden tables etched with graffiti and chairs supporting stained cushions. As we crossed the room, a waitress winked at Andrew and led us to a corner table. There was a small contingent of black soldiers keeping the beat at their table and some ARVN officers smoking Marlboros. Martha sang from a jukebox about a heat wave while Marvin just wanted a witness. But while the smoke made me cough, the bar wasn’t a complete bust. Ben was right about the waitresses.

The Marines ordered doubles and bought me top rail scotch. When the waitress came by, they ordered me another. I didn’t want to get up at 0530 with a bad hangover, so I dumped half of my drink into the sink when I used the head or poured my drink into the Marines’ glasses while they flirted with the waitresses. After some talk about the mathematics of the female form, the Marines shifted the conversation to my day job.

“You hear things at your fancy office,” Jim said slurring his words. “Just tell us when we can get out of this fucking place.”

I took a sip of scotch. I was tempted to show off my inside knowledge. I knew the war wasn’t going well. I could tell that much from the snippets of truth buried in the Army’s rosy reports, from snide comments from my friends at Air America, and from the traces of gloom that crept across the face of our commanding officer, Colonel O’ Malley, the head of G-2.

But I remembered Spencer’s warning. I put my scotch down and looked at Jim “I don’t know any more than you. You should ask the fortune-tellers, they’re the ones who know as long as they ask the right questions.”

Slurring his words, Jim said the best sex he’d ever had was with a fortune-teller in Da Nang, but she disappeared the next day. A few days later, the base was hit with a mortar attack.

“I just fuck’em,” said Jim. “There’re certain things, you’re just not ready to hear.” Jim stood up using the table to steady himself. “I say fuck the fortune tellers and fuck this goddamn war.”

Andrew had left for the latrine. “Chill, man,” said Ben. “We’re here to party, get some Vietnamese pussy, forget about the war.” Jim looked me over like I was one of the bar girls.

“The college boy pretends he’s so innocent, doesn’t need to get his hands dirty; it’s all bullshit and he knows it.” I pushed my drink forward and started to stand up.

“Let me buy you one more,” said Ben.

Jim put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Let him go. He’s goddamn idiot. We’re wasting our money.”

“Wasting your money?” I said.

“Forget it,” said Ben, glaring at Jim. “He’s drunk. Ignore him, like we do.”

“Tell him the truth,” Jim said, “and get this goddamn REMF out of here before Andy gets back.” Ben looked around.

“O.K, Walker.” Ben lowered his voice. “The DOD director is taking kick-backs. GIs pay him to get teaching assignments. He’s probably using the money to teach the VC English.”

“Who are you guys?” I said.

“Ben,” Jim said, “Andy’s coming.” Ben glanced at Jim, then pushed his face next to mine. “Just get your ass out of here!”

I started to retreat, but reconsidered. I occupied the high ground and owed it to the Colonel to press my advantage.

“I’m not leaving until I know what the fuck’s going on,” I said. Ben watched Andrew move to the table. Jim started to smile.

“You guys having a fight with teacher?”

“He IDed us,” said Jim.

Andrew put his hands on my shoulder. “Nothing personal, Walker. We all want the same things. Have another scotch. Maybe we can help each other.”

James Bond would have the perfect quip, but I was just a typist. “I’ve heard enough from you assholes.”

“You don’t know shit,” said Andrew.

“About what?” I said.

“You work in G-2. Act like you’ve learned something.”

I stood there, staring at them. I’d never told them where I worked.

“Your genius Colonel knew the DOD director was being investigated. Johnson gets you hired, no qualifications. Then we show up. Put it together. You were set up. O’Malley and Johnson aren’t your friends.”

Andrew handed me a piece of paper with a phone number. “We can help each other. Maybe I can get you home early.” I stuffed the piece of paper in my fatigues and hurried out of the bar.

When I looked back, the Marines were standing outside. Ben was laughing. I passed a fortune-teller. I kept walking.

 

When I got back to the barracks, I sat on my cot. Spencer was asleep. It took me over an hour to drift off. By 0400 I was awake and began my daily preparation for battle. I got my flashlight, found my small iron, pressed my fatigues on my trunk and touched up my boots. In my bedtime stupor, I’d left a sliver of my mosquito net open and now paid the price. I needed coffee badly, but the mess hall would not open for another hour. Most officers at headquarters dressed in khakis and demanded their charges copy their sporty look. The Colonel, however, wore jungle fatigues. Spencer wore khakis, but I followed the Colonel’s lead. Jungle fatigues hid stains and didn’t require me to display my two perfunctory medals, leaving my bravery an open question.

I started for headquarters. Today, I would beat Spencer and control the coffee. Spencer was a devout Mormon and shunned caffeine, but he felt duty-bound to make the coffee, usurping my only ascertainable contribution to the war effort – keeping the java strong.

The doors were locked when I arrived at Headquarters. I sat on the steps and watched the eastern sky lighten and gray waves lap over the beach. I debated how much I should tell Sgt. Johnson about what happened in the bar. A night guard recognized me and unlocked the door. I walked up the polished wooden staircase to our offices on the second floor. I turned on the lights, put an extra tablespoon of coffee in the stubby silver lined pot, and picked up a copy of Stars and Stripes. According to the paper the war had gone particularly well the last couple of days, noting the hundreds of additional enemy dead. By the army’s calculations, we soon would have only ghosts to fight.

Spencer arrived at 0545 and heard the coffee pot. “That’s my job. Your coffee makes everyone edgy.”

“Long night. Went drinking with the Marines.”

“Why? They’re assholes,” said Spencer. Spencer rarely used profanity. “What did they want?” he demanded.

“They were interested in what we do here.” I’d been taught in law school to keep an escape route open when advancing on treacherous terrain.

“You didn’t tell them anything?”

“I told them they should talk to the fortune-tellers.”

“You should have told them to go to hell.”

Sgt. Johnson came in and headed for the coffee pot. He took a half sip and rolled his eyes. “Catholic coffee.”

“Walker thought we needed a jolt.” Spencer glared at me as Johnson headed out the door.

I went over to Spencer’s desk. “You know something about the Marines?”

“Sgt. Johnson is the expert on Marines, you need to talk to him." Spencer looked down, pulled a piece of paper from his typewriter, reloaded another, and commenced firing on a new page.

By 0630 the casualty reports were starting to accumulate and I began my initial autopsy, sorting the dead by unit and location. The final autopsy was performed on the third floor before sending the casualty reports to their final resting place on Goodfellow Avenue in St. Louis, just off my route to high school. The overflow was sent to others of the Army’s large concrete mausoleums where the smudged files of unknown soldiers were wrapped in yellow folders and laid to rest in gray steel caskets.

I was less than half way through the casualty reports when Lt. Colonel Green marched into our office. I raised my butt a few inches, arched my back, and saluted. Spencer managed only a few inches higher. Colonel O’Malley didn’t like formality and we saw no reason to straighten our spines for Green. His main office was on the third floor, and his appearance this early meant a long, unpleasant morning.

“At ease,” he said quickly, resolving the issue of our arched backs.

Green was the XO for Major General Anderson, the acting head of II Corps. Green was about forty, a little old for a Lt. Colonel. He was tall and lean, his grey hair perfectly sculpted. Spencer had told me that Anderson had ordered us to give Green a desk near our operations room. “Good News Green,” as the Colonel once referred to him in private, showed up about twice a week. He recognized our office as hostile territory. Even Spencer distrusted Green’s fastidious military manners, his flag-waving dedication to end Communism, and his lust for a silver eagle on his shoulder. Spencer and I suspected General Anderson had ordered Green to keep tabs on the Colonel but also wanted to get him out of his office. Anderson’s doctor probably had warned him that too much ass kissing could produce chafing.

I found a porcelain cup and saucer and brought Green his coffee. “Spencer,” Green shouted a few seconds later, “your coffee’s bitter, make it like you always do.” Green turned towards me.

“Walker, where are yesterday’s enemy body counts?”

“Spencer has them. I track casualties.”

Spencer already had the report done and gave it to Green. Green smiled. My report would take longer today.

Before finishing the casualty reports, I pulled out the piece of paper on which Andrew had scribbled his number. I knew the power of men like Andrew. Once when mortar fire had shut down the main airbase in Nha Trang, threatening my R&R, a friend had taken me to a small airport where an Air America cargo plane whisked me to Tan Son Nhut air base in time for my R&R to Australia. These guys worked in the shadows and could move you anywhere. To them, truth was just the bookie’s odds, subject to bartering and recalculation.

Suddenly Green, shot up, and bellowed, “Attention.”

“Sit down, Green.”

It was Colonel O’ Malley. He wasn’t wearing his usual jungle fatigues. Instead he wore dress blues, medals dangling everywhere from his chest. Something was up.

“Good morning, sir,” I said. He poured coffee into his large mug. He seemed pissed about something. He took a sip of coffee. His face brightened.

“Good coffee today, Spencer,” the Colonel said as went into his office. “Send Johnson in as soon as he arrives.”

“What’s with the dress blues and the ugly mood?” I asked.

“There’s a reception for a new ARVN General this afternoon,” said Spencer. Lots of brass attending. Looks like the Colonel got drafted.”

“The Colonel’s got quite a display,” I said. “Never thought he was the John Wayne type.”

“WWII, then Korea,” said Spencer. “He doesn’t talk about it.”

Sgt. Johnson returned. I hadn’t told Spencer much. I could afford to wait and check the latest odds before placing my bet. I finished my report and gave it to Johnson.

“Too many goddamn names, Walker.” Johnson took the report to the Colonel. Johnson stayed longer than usual. An hour later, the Colonel emerged from his office, wearing jungle fatigues.

“Sgt. Johnson, get Green,” he said. “I have an assignment for him. Don’t know why the Army ordered me to bring that damn formal over here. Leave the Academy Awards for Washington.”

I understood the Colonel’s anger. In the field soldiers fought, protected each other, and counted down the days. At Headquarters, officers gave themselves medals and stabbed each other in the back. They spent their time shaping back home critics’ reviews and watching for their name at the end of the movie. The reception was for those who longed to see their names in large letters, the ones who rushed to read Spencer’s body counts and to put my casualty reports in a drawer. The Colonel cared about the production crew. I took the piece of paper from my pocket, tore it up and waited until Sergeant Johnson and I were alone in the office.

“Sergeant,” I said, “My Marines don’t seem interested in math, just in what I do here. Something’s not right.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Nothing, but they tried to get me drunk.”

“Amateurs,” the Sergeant shook his head.

“Who were they?” I said.

“Doesn’t matter, they’re not friends.”

“What were they doing?”

“Gathering Intelligence, the same as you, but they wanted more than the just DOD director. What did they offer you?”

I hesitated. “They said they might get me home early.”

“In a body bag. You were smart not to play their game. Spencer was right about you.”

“I need to talk to the Colonel,” said Johnson.” As he left, he put his hands on my shoulder. “We didn’t want to use you as bait.”

I needed to get out of the office. I walked across the road to the beach. A fortune-teller was setting up shop. I reached for my wallet.

“Not ready to tell fortunes. You come back this afternoon.”

“Only one question.”

“One question make another. You come back later.” She took out some rice from her bag and began to eat. I headed back to the office.

As soon as I got back, Sgt. Johnson told me the Colonel wanted to see me in his office. The Colonel was at his desk.

“Walker, I have a mission for you. Take this envelope and deliver it to Colonel Jacobson. Give it to him personally. A jeep will be waiting out front. The driver knows the location.” He handed me the envelope.

“And have Spencer give you a fancy folder.”

Spencer gave me a brown letter attaché with the II Corps insignia on it. “Don’t get lost,” he said.

“I have a driver.”

“I guess I’ll be taking orders from you soon.” Spencer looked away and gathered his typing.

 

The ride didn’t take long. The top hotels, residences, and command centers weren’t far from the beach. We arrived at a large home, set back from the street. An iron gate surrounded the manicured residence. Two MPs guarded the gate. My driver, a staff sergeant, pulled up next to a Mercedes Benz and kept the motor running. All down the street, there were empty jeeps surrounded by a few Lincolns, their drivers pacing around talking to each other. ARVN and American soldiers patrolled the sidewalks. Down at the corner, there were two jeeps with mounted machine guns.

“Don’t be long, this ain’t our party,” said my driver.

I went to the gate where two Marines examined me. “I have an envelope for Colonel Jacobson.”

“I’ll take it to him,” said the ranking Marine. I heard violins. “My orders are to deliver it to the Colonel personally.” My driver got out of the car and signaled to the MP.

The MP looked me over. “I’ll get him. Stand outside the door.”

A major arrived and showed the MP his invitation. When the MP examined it, I edged into the doorway. “Don’t go any further,” the MP ordered.

I strained my head forward, American Blue and ARVN black formal dress uniforms stood in clumps, mostly belonging to field grade officers. A few mingled with each other but most stuck to their own kind. A string quartet in the corner played Mozart. A Vietnamese woman in a cocktail dress flirted with Major General Anderson. Lt. Colonel Green straightened his hair with his fingers and moved towards them. Several GIs wearing tuxes wandered the large living room, serving hors d’ourves. One passed by me and mumbled, “assholes.”

An ARVN officer and an American civilian in a blue double-breasted suit stood a few paces from me speaking French. A Vietnamese General moved to the front of the room. He couldn’t have been more than forty, most likely the younger brother of someone important. The music stopped. The ceiling fans slowed. Anderson prepared to introduce him.

Before Anderson’s speech began, the ranking MP and Colonel Jacobson found me in the hallway. Colonel Jacobson signaled me to go outside. He looked like a slightly younger version of O’Malley.

“You have a message for me, Specialist?”

“Yes, sir, from Colonel O’Malley.” I took the envelope out of the folder and handed it to him. The Colonel opened the envelope and read the note. He took a pen out of his pocket and told me to turn around. When he finished writing, I turned back around and he put the note back into the envelope. In the next room, General Alexander began praising the ARVN General. I stuck my head in for one last look.

“Get your ass in the jeep, Walker,” said my driver. As we pulled away, I spotted a jeep with two stars; a civilian wearing a sports coat was reading in the driver’s seat. It was Andrew. I turned my head as we sped by.

When I got back, I knocked on the Colonel’s door and he invited me in. I saluted, and he immediately directed me to be “at ease.”

“Enjoy the party, Walker?”

“Pretty fancy, sir. Nothing like Ban Me Thuot.” I handed the Colonel his envelope back. “It’s from Colonel Jacobson.”

Colonel O’Malley opened the letter. He shook his head, tore the letter into small pieces and up put it into the trash.

“Goddamn ridiculous,” said the Colonel, “especially on a day fifteen of our men were killed,” The Colonel stood up, looked me over and nodded his head. “Good work on your field assignments, both of them.”

 

Spencer avoided me the rest of the day. After the office cleared, I moved my chair next to his desk. “You still pissed that the Colonel sent me?”

“The Colonel always trusted me with his messages,” said Spencer. “I must have screwed up.”

“It wasn’t you. The Colonel wanted me to see the reception. He knew I’d understand.”

Spencer looked down. I looked around. We were alone.

“Spencer, I know what the Colonel’s note said.”

“You looked inside the envelope! You could get court-martialed,” Spencer whispered.

“Didn’t have to,” lowering my voice.

“I don’t understand,” said Spencer.

“At the reception there were GIs in tuxes, a string quartet, champagne, the best china.”

Spencer looked bewildered. “Sounds fabulous.”

“We’re fighting a war. The VC live in tunnels. The Colonel didn’t go because he couldn’t stand the bullshit.”

I debated whether to continue. Lance Corporal Hutchinson was right. Sometimes it’s best not to know. I looked around the office, taking measure of all those cabinets, holding all of those manila files, containing all those names. Soon more cabinets would be needed. I owed it to Spencer. This secret needed to be told.

“The note,” I said, looking straight into his eyes, “it said we’ve lost the war.”