Tom grabbed his backpack, stuffed in a bottle of suntan lotion and a book, and checked his camera for film. He added two extra rolls to be safe, then looked around to see if he had forgotten anything. As always, his backpack was stuffed with things he’d never use but, you never knew. Tom was the Swiss Army knife guy; if you needed a bandage for a sucking chest wound, Tom would have it.
He sat on the bed next to Lek and kissed her cheek. “I’m leaving, Lek. I’ll see you later this afternoon. I hope.”
Lek, warm and comfortable in bed, peeked at him from under the covers. “Why you say you hope, Tommy?”
“If the aircraft returns broken, we could be there all day and into the night repairing it. We have to have it ready to fly tomorrow’s mission.”
Lek put her arms around his neck. “What is the mission, Tom?”
“I can’t tell you that, sweetheart. They’d shoot me if I did.”
Lek sat up, pushing Tom to the side. “Tommy! No they would not shoot you.”
“I’m only teasing. However, going to jail would be almost as bad as being shot.”
“Oh you. Okay. I stay here for a while and go home later. She wrapped her arms around him and held him tight. “Don’t go, Tommy. Stay with me.”
He kissed her, and wrestled his head from her arms.
“I can’t do that honey. Here’s some money for breakfast. I’ll see you tonight.”
He left the money on the desktop, slung the backpack over his shoulder and left for the hotel lobby. The welcome scent of coffee floating on the early morning breeze made his mouth water. He followed the aroma to the breakfast bar and poured a cup. It was hot and delicious. He grabbed two lids and poured a second cup for the ride to the airbase. The staff had laid out a breakfast bar which included doughnuts. They were irresistible. He stuffed one in his mouth and a couple more into a sack and walked to the front desk, flushing red when he saw the good-looking girl behind the counter; she had been watching him. She laughed and said good morning as she took his room key, and wished him a good day. He thanked her and walked out to the valet stand. The van idled at the curb while the driver sipped his own coffee and thumbed through the Bangkok Post. Tom called shotgun and climbed into the front seat as George ran out of the lobby. He tossed his bag into the backseat and flicked Tom’s earlobe.
“Hey dickhead, I called shotgun yesterday.”
Tom reached back and caught George’s nipple between his fingers. “Too bad, dipstick, I got here first.”
“Owww, all right, all right, you can ride shotgun. Let go!” George twisted free but flicked Tom’s earlobe again before diving for the rear bench seat where he sat rubbing his chest.
The detachment Chief Petty Officer, Rick Clothier, appeared from the lobby.
“Scram, Nelson. Get in the back; I’m riding in the front. Clean up the coffee you spilled on the console. Matthews, grab the box-lunches from the front desk. Bennett, give him a hand. There should be two pack-ups: one for aircrew and one for maintenance. The rest of you guys help the driver stow the gear.”
The guys scrambled to do as they were told.
“Matthews,” he called, “make sure they packed the coffee grounds.”
Tom hadn’t budged. “Aw, Chief, I need to ride up front so I can take photos on the way.”
The Chief reached into his bag and pulled out a video camcorder. “Sorry, Sailor: video trumps photos. I’m videotaping the ride for posterity.” He waggled his thumb over his shoulder. “In the back.” Tom grabbed his backpack, gave the console a cursory brush with a Kimwipe, and moved to the back. George mimicked Tom’s whining plea to the Chief. Tom flipped him off as the rest of the crew took their seats and the van set off, turned onto Beach Road, and headed for the airbase.
The twenty-five miles to U-Tapao took an hour to drive. Once they left town, the miles sped by, accompanied by the continuous snap of camera shutters. Golden-domed Buddhist temples dotted the countryside; villagers drove water buffalo along the dusty road; students dressed in blue and white uniforms and carrying satchels straggled to bus stops, the girls holding umbrellas against the heat of the sun. School was compulsory through age fourteen and every village took pride in the education of its children.
Unfortunately, education could not trump poverty. The excitement of a city like Pattaya exerted an irresistible pull on young girls looking for something more rewarding than life as the wife of a farmer. The opportunity to make easy money lured many of them to the big city where they could make a decent living working in the sex tourism industry, an unacknowledged but de facto part of Thailand’s economy. Sailors didn’t consider the fact they bore some responsibility for the local economy; they only knew Thailand as the Land of Smiles and willing young women anxious to please any man who would spend money on them.
Those thoughts were not in Tom’s head during the drive to the airbase. He hoped the launch of the morning’s aircraft and the recovery of another would go smooth with no heavy maintenance that might delay their return to town early in the afternoon. Pattaya’s nightlife had the same effect on young men that Christmas does for children. The men understood why they were in Thailand in the first place and the importance of the detachment meeting its operational objectives, but no one went to Thailand for the work.
The van passed through the airbase’s main gate, drove past the base workers’ housing where clothes hanging from clotheslines flapped in the breeze, and stopped in front of the new air terminal. The air terminal had been built for commercial flights soon after the war in Vietnam ended, but it was not yet free of military use. The men poured out of the van to unload the gear. Chief Clothier carried the box of maintenance records into the unoccupied terminal and set up shop. The coffee maker looked ready to fire up, but nobody knew where to get water. The driver wasn’t much help since all he did was drive. He spoke the language, though, and went off to find someone who could help, returning a few minutes later with a Thai Air Force captain. The captain was apologetic as he informed the Chief that they would have to use bottled water until a tap could be opened in the terminal.
“Holy shit. That’s a 45-cup coffee maker. It’ll take half our water to fill it up.” George wasn’t a coffee drinker and couldn’t stand the thought of wasting good drinking water to make it. “There’s got to be someplace around here to get water, Chief. Let me take the van and driver and look for water. I saw some locals not too far away, maybe they can help.
Chief Clothier considered the number of water bottles they had to split between the aircrew and maintenance folks.
“Captain, can we do as he suggests?”
“Of course. However, I suggest instead that one of your men go with me to the barracks and fill your water coolers.”
“Is there any place to buy coffee now? Our aircrew will be arriving shortly; the coffee low-light is already flashing and Sailors require much coffee to function intelligently.”
The captain laughed and said, “Of course, I understand. We have the same requirement. There is a restaurant outside the base; you must have seen it as you drove past. If not, no matter. They will have coffee.”
“Bennett. How much money do you have? Enough for two jugs of coffee?”
“Yeah, Chief, I think so.”
“All right. Grab the coffee jugs from the aircraft and go with the Captain; I’ll reimburse you when you get back.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“It is my pleasure. We will return soon.”
After the men drove off, Tom asked the Chief if he could walk around and take some photos.
“Yes, but don’t go too far. I don’t want to have to look for you if we need a metalsmith.”
George, lying on a luggage conveyor, said, “Hey, can I go with you?”
“Go ahead. But don’t get lost.”
George tucked in his shirt and grabbed his cap. “All right, man, let’s go.”
They left the terminal and walked toward the hangars a short distance away. Tom had the back of his camera open to load film.
“I saw a DC-3 in the hangar as we drove past. I love those airplanes and thought I would get a few shots. I wish I could fly in one. What a thrill that would be.”
George was silent. Not like him at all.
“What’s wrong, George?”
George looked at the ground as he spoke. “You weren’t with Lek yesterday afternoon before we met up, were you?”
Tom’s face reddened. “How’d you know?”
“I saw her run up to you outside Ben’s Jewelry Store crying, and then you cut her off when I asked if you weren’t tired of each other. She wasn’t acting like you had been together all afternoon.”
“What’s going on, Tom? I know you well enough to know something is bothering you.
Tom remained silent.
“I mean, it’s none of my business, I’m concerned is all. You lied when you said you had been with Lek. I don’t think you’ve ever lied to me before.”
Tom snapped the back of the camera shut and let the film wind.
“I’m not saying you’re a liar or anything,” George added quickly. “I’m just not sure why you thought you couldn’t tell me the truth. We’re roommates back in Hawaii, but we’re friends too. Right?”
Tom watched as the vans carrying the aircrew to the terminal drove by. He and George waved. One of the enlisted guys yelled out, “Hey, man. You guys got any coffee?”
George raised his arm high and gave the thumbs up.
“We don’t have any coffee, George.”
“He doesn’t know that.”
Tom laughed. “You’re evil, George.”
They walked on, neither speaking for a moment. Buddha Mountain, low and squat, rose from the plain a few miles from the base. Tom must have taken a hundred photos of it over the years of working out of Thailand; it never showed the same face twice. He looked at it now without seeing it.
“Of course we’re friends. There’s never been any doubt about that. You caught me off guard when you asked if I was meeting Lek. I wasn’t. I met a chick at the kickboxing bar on the beach – you know the one – and was going back to my room to wait for her when you guys showed up. I knew you expected me to say Lek so I did. I guess I just thought it’d be easier than telling you I had met someone else.”
“Yeah. I know how it is.”
They reached the hangar and walked around while Tom took photos of the DC-3. Two Thai sentries nodded as the Sailors walked past their vehicle. No challenge: they were used to the American Sailors. Tom motioned for an okay to take the sentries’ photo. The sentries assented. Tom snapped a couple photos and said thanks. He and George walked on.
“Where’s your camera?”
George shrugged. “I didn’t bring it. Didn’t feel like lugging it around.”
“Well, let me know if you want a photo of something.”
They walked on in silence for a few minutes before George spoke up again.
“So, what are you going to do? Who are you going to see? Lek or the other girl?”
“Oh, I’m going to see Lek. Now that she knows I’m here I won’t be able to avoid her.”
George glanced at him.
Tom caught the glance and went on. “Not that I want to avoid her. I like Lek. A lot. Not as much as Aida obviously, but, I don’t know, I just like her. She’s great looking, great in bed, lots of fun….”
“Are you going to marry Aida?”
“Are you going to marry Aida?”
“Yeah, I guess. Why?’
“I don’t know. Just seems kind of weird to be screwing other chicks if you’re going to marry someone else. Are you guys engaged?”
“Is that what you want? You don’t act like a guy who just asked a woman to marry him. Aren’t you supposed to be walking on air with your head in the clouds, or something?”
“Why does it matter what I do here if I mean to marry Aida when I get back to the States, George? What about guys who have one last fling at their bachelor parties? Who tells them they’re doing wrong? Why does everyone think I’m supposed to be some kind of chaste saint just because I asked a woman to marry me? Who made everyone my judge and jury? What’s special about me that people think I’m scum because I want to have some fun before I get married? Why don’t people worry about themselves and leave me the hell alone?”
“Because this isn’t like you, Tom. You’re not the kind of guy who treats women like trash. You only cut loose when you get away on these detachments. It’s like back home, you’re afraid to let people see another side of you, so you hide it behind a good-natured, fun loving personality and a naïveté about dealing with the world.”
“I’m not naïve,” he said flatly.
“You don’t even talk a big story because there’s no story there. You’re not a saint, man, you’re an ascetic. You don’t date back home. You go out, but you don’t dance, and you never bring women back to the apartment. Overseas, though, you’re a completely different person. What is it, Tom? What changes you?”
“I don’t know, George. I think I’m looking for a love that doesn’t exist. I want the kind of love my parents had but will probably never find. I’m looking for the woman that, when we meet, we’ll both know instantly that we’re in love and always have been. That’s what happened to my parents, George. That’s what everyone who knew them tells me, anyway. They say my parents seemed born to love each other.”
“But that was your parents, Tom. You can’t expect the same thing to happen to you. That kind of love is rare. Believe me, I’ve met enough women to know.”
“But, you’re not looking for love or marriage, George. You’re going to be a playboy your entire life.”
“No, Tom; I want what you want, but I’m not going to force it. I’m going to have fun while I look for it. You don’t want to have fun; you want the goal without the foreplay.”
“That’s a nice way to put it.”
“Seriously, I mean it. You need to lighten up, stop looking for the right kind of girl, love, marriage, whatever, and just let it happen. You can’t force it. I doubt if your mom and dad were looking for each other; it just happened when they weren’t expecting it.”
“Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. I just know it’s different overseas, George. I don’t feel like I’m under pressure to be someone I’m not. I find it hard to talk to women back home. I feel like they’re judging me, holding me to a higher standard, assigning me to some arbitrary category of worthiness, like they’re measuring me against all the other men they’ve gone out with to see where I stack up and whether they should deign to date me again. Overseas, women don’t care who you are. Or, maybe I’m a snob, maybe I’m an elitist. Maybe I think being an American makes me better than everyone else.”
“Well, I treat all women the same; they all need my lips.”
It was true. George gave himself freely to all women with no expectation of anything but a good time. Maybe that was the key: expectations.
“Your problem, Tom, is that you stop looking for your parents’ kind of love overseas. It isn’t even a problem, it’s the right way to approach life and love. You’re looking for a good time with no expectations of anything permanent. That’s why you cut loose and go wild. You become the love ‘em and leave ‘em guy while treating the women here like playthings, objects of entertainment. Back home, you expect love to fall in your lap; over here you’re making up for the lack of love by screwing everything in sight. Tell me I’m wrong, Tom, and I’ll shut up. I’m not accusing you of anything but trying too hard, buddy. Just relax, stop looking for it, and let it happen. You can’t force true love.”
Tom looked into the sky, impatience building inside him at the questioning that was forcing him to examine his actions in both PI and Thailand. Until this moment, no one but Steve had made Tom stop and think about what he was doing. George had hit the bullseye. That didn’t make him feel any better.
“I think I acted without thinking things through, George.”
“I mean about asking Aida to marry me. I think I acted in haste.”
“Well. Aida was already sure you were going to marry her. She didn’t come right out and tell me, but I could see it in her face and hear it in her voice when she spoke to the girls at Maricel’s. They believed it, too. Imagine how she feels now that you’ve asked her to marry you.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So, do you really want to marry her?”
Tom looked away over the airfield so George couldn’t see his eyes. “I don’t know what I want, George.”