Tom had the C-130 cargo bay to himself. He stretched out on the webbed seats and read for a while. Soon, the low hum of the turboprop engines made him drowsy and he fell asleep. He became annoyed after a while when someone shook his shoulder.
“Stop shaking me.”
The shaking continued, accompanied by a muffled voice. Tom could not make out what the person said; whoever it was kept shaking him.
“I said stop it. Go away.” He tried to look around but could not move his head. The hand on his shoulder continued to shake him while the voice called him to wake up.
At last, the dream faded. He opened his eyes and found himself looking into the eyes of the loadmaster.
“Hey.” The crewman had to raise his voice to be heard over the sound of the engines. “We’re about to land. You need to sit up and strap in. We’re twenty minutes out.”
“All right. Do I have time to get a drink of water? My mouth feels like it’s stuffed with cotton. Holy crap, my eyes are heavy. I must have slept like a rock.”
The crewman laughed. “Yeah, you were out all right. I’ve been shaking you forever. Water is in the cooler up front in the galley. Help yourself. Dixie cups are in the drawer, Kimwipes 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.
Reaching the galley area, he moistened a Kimwipe and washed his face. He found the Dixie cups in the drawer and drank enough water to quench his thirst and get rid of the cotton mouth. He stopped on the way back to his seat to peer out of the window. Sunny, no clouds. He turned to see the crewman inspecting the 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 saw him and shook his head. “Whoever decided to put that jack on top of the pallet deserves to be shot. It’s going to take days for the Thais to find a forklift and offload it. I hope you guys don’t need it right away.”
“No doubt. I hope the OIC brought some cash with him. It’s going to take a few bucks to rent a forklift.”
“How long will you guys be in U-Tapao?”
“Two weeks. We’re flying operational missions and participating in an exercise with the Thais, Aussies, Kiwis, and Brits. The generator is for the mobile radio shack.”
“You’re lucky. I wish we were staying for a few days. We’re offloading you then flying to Diego Garcia. Get laid for me will ya?”
Tom smiled. “You can count on it.”
“It’s about that time. You’d better strap in; we’ll be on deck soon.”
After a smooth landing, Tom walked down the cargo ramp into the oppressive heat of a Southeast Asia summer. The sun beat down with brutal harshness and shimmered above the concrete flightline. The intensity of the sun’s rays seemed to singe Tom’s skin. He looked around at the familiar scenery. U-Tapao had been a U.S. Air Force base during the Vietnam War, and a basing site for refugees after the war. Reminders of the American presence were everywhere. Sentry towers still kept watch over the perimeter, and flat-roofed barracks rose above the plain surrounding the airfield. Buddha Mountain, a landmark Tom never tired of photographing, dominated the landscape. He checked to see who else had arrived and saw aircraft PC-7 and PC-4 parked nearby. He grabbed his bag and started for the terminal when he saw a van heading his way. The van pulled next to him and the door slid open.
“Tom! Hop in. What a surprise. We didn’t know you’d be here. You’re just in time to ride to the hotel with us.”
“Brian, Phil, how you guys doing? Here, take my bag, would you? I didn’t find out until last night I’d be going on det.” He climbed into the back and wedged himself between suitcases, flight bags, and George Wolfe. George leaned over and grabbed a beer from the cooler behind the seat.
“Here you go, buddy, drink up. Hot enough outside for you?”
Handsome, gap-toothed George, ever-present gold necklace dangling outside his shirt, smiled at Tom as he sucked down half the can of beer. “Sorry, man, no Klosters; PBR is all we could get. Tastes like formaldehyde, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Tom wiped a dribble of beer from his chin with the back of his hand. “But it’s cold. Where did you get it? Thais don’t drink PBR.”
“The embassy liaison met us when we landed – hey, someone turn up the AC; it’s hot back here – gave us the van and driver, and said he’d take care of our gear until we return tomorrow. First flight is at six in the morning. We’re on the launch crew; the other poor bastards get to handle recoveries.”
Poor bastards all right. Each shift pulled twelve hours, but the launch crew had evenings free to spend in town. The recovery crew only saw town during the day, unless they swapped with someone on the other crew. Fat chance.
An hour later, the van deposited men and luggage at the Tropicana Hotel in Pattaya Beach and headed back to U-Tapao.
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 turn 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.” More kissing sounds. “Hey, are you going to see Lek?”
Tom rolled his eyes and said “Yeah. After I shower.”
A few minutes before noon, he stepped out of his room, refreshed and in civilian clothes – shorts, OP shirt, flip-flops, and sunglasses – and headed for the lobby. He gave his key to the desk clerk, a beautiful Thai girl with the smoothest skin he had ever seen, and left for town. He looked back to see if she watched him. No.
After crossing Beach Road with a mixed crowd of locals and tourists, Tom turned and walked uptown along the beach walk. The sun beat down, but a sea breeze blew in from the Gulf of Thailand, refreshing the area between the water and the business side of the street. Lek had lived a couple of blocks off of Beach Road when he saw her two months ago, but he’d stop at the Whisky A Go Go first to make sure she still worked there and find out if she was seeing anyone else.
The packed sidewalk crawled with tourists wearing swimsuits, sarongs, shorts, slacks, all depending on whether they were going shopping, dining, or swimming. Most establishments had a dress code, but only enforced it in the evening hours, not caring much how people dressed during the day as long they didn’t trespass too severely on the Thai people’s strict standard of morality.
Shielded under the shade of palm trees, Tom strolled along, reflecting on the many ethnic cultures found in this corner of the world. German and Australian men far outnumbered those of any other group, barring Asians. They came to enjoy the pleasures of beautiful Asian girls willing to assume just about any position to earn a few baht.
Everything came cheap in Thailand, including the women who brought in whatever a girl thought a man willing to pay. Girls worked from bars and hotels; window-shopping at the hotel was a failsafe method of ensuring female company for the night if a man found himself alone after a night of carousing. Streetwalkers were uncommon and usually unclean. Sexually transmitted diseases had run rampant until after the war in Vietnam when the influx of soldiers and Sailors slowed from a flood to a trickle. There had been no reason to clean up the trade back then. Now, however, in order to attract tourists, particularly male tourists, girls who worked in bars and other establishments had to carry up-to-date health cards, producing them on demand to police and clients.
Loud cheering and laughter coming from a bar on the beach jolted Tom out of his reverie. Curious, he walked over. The thatch-roofed, open bar held a kick-boxing ring. Two young Thai men pummeled each other with flying fists and roundhouse kicks. Neither looked serious about inflicting pain on the other. Tom nearly left until he noticed a bartender staring at him and smiling. She raised her eyebrows at him so, deciding he could use a drink, he sat down in front of her. “Hello. May I have a Tiger beer, please?”
“Okay. You want glass?”
“No, that’s okay.” As she leaned over the cooler, the collar of her loose white blouse fell open revealing her firm breasts. A twinge of arousal passed through him and he grew hard. A strong desire to make love to her made his heart beat fast. Whatever thoughts of Lek may have lurked in the recesses of his mind vanished. He had visions of pressing his lips to the girl’s breasts as she lay naked in his bed at the hotel. He flushed when she looked up and smiled at him as he looked away. She grinned as she placed the bottle of beer on the bar and, with a bottle opener, flipped the cap off with a deft twist of her wrist. Her dark eyes were deep-set and turned down at the outside, giving her a sultry appearance.
“You American Sailor?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Only American Sailor turn bashful when looking.”
Tom smiled and ducked his head, turned the bottle in his hands, and gave a shy look, his face still flushed. “Yeah, sorry about that. You’re pretty, though.”
“Look.” She pointed toward the sea. Two U.S. Navy destroyers sat at anchor about a mile offshore. “You from ship?”
“No. I’m not from the ships. I’m from U-Tapao airbase.”
Her forehead rose in surprise. “Oh. You got girlfriend? How long you here?” She spoke rapidly with in a shrill, high-pitched tone; it wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
“Shhh. Let me hear you speak softly.”
“Speak softly, like this. Can you?”
She appeared puzzled, and looked around the bar before leaning toward him and whispering, “What you say?”
“Much better.” Tom smiled and whispered back. “What is your name?”
“My name Amporn. What is your name?”
“Tom. My name is Tom.”
“Okay, Tom. Why we whisper, now, Tom? You got secret for me?” She leaned in closer, her face serious, her eyes narrowed in anticipation of some revelation from Tom. She pronounced Tom like Dom, but her voice sounded much more pleasant when she stopped trying to talk above the crowd noise. He looked into her eyes and smiled. “No. No secrets for you. I just wanted to hear you speak without yelling. Your voice is lovely when you speak in a normal volume.”
“What you saying?” She looked sideways at him, brow furrowed.
Tom spoke in a normal voice now, a smile spreading across his face. “I said you are pretty, and you have a pretty voice. Do you understand?”
“I got a pretty voice? Okay. Thank you.”
“And you are pretty.”
“Okay.” She stared at him now, intently. “You got girlfriend in Thailand?”
He looked at her, his pulse racing, thoughts of Aida and Lek flashing through his mind. Tunnel vision came over him as he gazed at Amporn while his mind told him to be careful. If Lek saw him with Amporn she’d be pissed. He could forget ever seeing her again. True, there were plenty of girls in Pattaya – he could always find another if Lek left him and things didn’t work out with Amporn. But he liked Lek, liked the way she nestled with him in bed, liked the way her tiny body moved when they made love, her soft moans unlike those of any other woman he had slept with, not forced, not contrived, completely natural. She made him feel like the only man in the world. Aida flashed through his mind.
“No. I don’t have a girlfriend. I don’t have a girlfriend anywhere.”