In the following days, the Troop began reconning the local AO again. To everyone's relief, they found it in much the same shape as it was prior to the invasion, and the decision was made to climb up off the deck and start flying the missions at altitude again. Just like "the good old days." Nighthawk was even resurrected, with Nicholson back at the helm. While this was going on, Luke and I were named as the permanent "night standby" gun pilots, spending our days on China Beach getting tanned, and our nights lounging in the ready room at the flightline. It was good duty all around, and we made no apologies to anyone for the assignment. We were now the Troop's senior pilots and had earned the right. As the calendar slowly ticked down those last two weeks, Luke and I became almost unbearable to be around with our constant cries of "Short!" and heckling of the hapless copilots assigned to us each night. "I'm so short, I have to stand on a nickel to piss on a dime," it would start, or something as absurd.
After returning to the hooch one morning, I was changing into cutoffs to meet Luke on the beach when a knock came at the door. Opening it, I was surprised to see Specialist Baker, the Old Man's driver.
"The major sent me to pick you up, sir. Wants to see you back at Ops asap."
I was mystified why the CO would need to see me so urgently, considering I was just up there. Had I gotten into some trouble I wasn't aware of? After pulling MPC out of my shorts, I guessed anything was possible. But Eisenhower smiled when he saw me enter and motioned me to sit down, which put me somewhat at ease.
"Just received a telegram for you from the Red Cross. I'd like you to read it," he said, handing me the single sheet of paper. I scanned past the heading to the short message below. My face flushed. "Daughter hospitalized from overdose of aspirin. Condition guarded. Serviceman's presence urgently requested."
"When can I leave, sir?" I asked, the telegram shaking in my hands. His expression soured as he looked down at his desk.
"I just got off the horn with Twenty-Four Corps. Apparently, there's a major over there who doesn't think an aspirin overdose is serious enough to send you home early. Sorry, Mike, but emergency leave has been denied. Sure was hoping to have better news for you when you got here."
My own expression changed from shock to disbelief. "Then why would the Red Cross want me home if it wasn't serious?"
"I've asked them to verify the message. Sorry, but until we get further information, there's nothing I can do."
As I stood and faced Eisenhower, I knew I was losing control. "Goddamnit, sir, I only have a few days left anyway! If anything happens to my daughter and I'm not there, I'm gonna' personally kill that sonofabitchin' major and piss on his grave!"
"That's enough, Austin! I'll notify you as soon as I hear anything. Now go back to your hooch and try to cool off." He understood my outburst but demanded that I return to being an officer and a gentleman. I stifled my anger and stormed out, telling the driver to take me back to the compound on the double.
Once back at the hooch, I threw another tantrum, kicking the wall lockers and throwing things while I screamed curses at the anonymous bastard sitting behind a desk somewhere out of reach. Finally, I hit the front door so hard that the latch flew off. It felt like I had broken my knuckles. Squeezing my swollen hand, I flopped down on the bunk and screamed into my pillow, just as a child might who couldn't have his way. I had done my time in hell and now just wanted to go home to my daughter. For all I knew she might be dying. My despair was driven deeper by my own guilt about having been absent for so much of her short life. But it was easier to be pissed at the Army than to look too long under those rocks.
Another knock on the door woke me that evening. This time, it was the major. He looked around at the mess, letting out a low whistle.
"You can relax, son. The Red Cross just confirmed your daughter is in satisfactory condition at a hospital in Wichita, Kansas. They say it wasn't an aspirin overdose, but sleeping pills she'd apparently found in the bathroom of your in-law's house. They've pumped her stomach and she'll be fine. I've requested the major at Corps to reconsider your emergency leave, but I honestly wouldn't count on it if I were you. The main thing is that your little girl is okay, and you'll be going home to see her shortly anyway."
I thanked him for coming personally and laid back down, exhausted by my emotions as much as if I'd spent hours in the cockpit behind enemy lines. It was the best news I could have heard. For the rest of the night, I dreamed of being somewhere else.
With "two days and a wake up" to go, I reported to Ops for my last night of standby duty, almost giddy with anticipation and excitement. We played Hearts for a couple hours, shouting our bids over the blasting stereo. The game grew old, and we decided to go to bed, complaining to the frontseaters that we had to rest up for another tough day on the beach. Then we'd pack for our trip back to the World.
"Jesus, I'll be an old man with grandkids before you get home, Thomas," Luke chided. We continued razzing the copilots for awhile before tiring of the abuse, finally getting sleepy.
The RTO's shout was an unexpected jolt to our sleep. "What's up?" I asked. "Nighthawk just took a shitload of fire somewhere down in the Arizona, sir. Told me to send you guys out to help 'em."
Instantly, I was on my feet, ordering the copilots to run ahead and get the blades untied while Luke and I gathered information on coordinates and frequencies. Breathless from the long sprint across the flightline, I climbed into the cockpit and jerked my helmet on. Practiced hands rushed through the abbreviated checklist to start the Cobra as fast as possible. Luke called the tower for a scramble departure and we turned south and lifted off in tandem from the taxiway, veering southwest after clearing the Marbles.
Intimately familiar with the area from my Nighthawk experience, I assumed control of the mission, leading us across the dark paddies. I was surprised at how natural it still felt. Even after all this time, I remembered the exact heading, relative to the few lights in the AO, that would bring us over the eastern end of the Arizona. A few miles from the Horseshoe, I spotted their beacons.
"How goes it, Four-Nine?" I asked Nicholson.
"Okay I guess. Got a little vibration in the blades. Mini's in op though. Otherwise we'd have left you guys in dream land," Randy replied. "There's seven or eight of 'em hiding down in the treeline, right where it makes that zag toward the creek bed, just a tad east of where the Christmas Trees used to come from."
I knew precisely the area he was describing, and the crescent moon lit the ground well enough to easily pick out the target area. "Got it. Everybody's in sight. Two-Three's in hot on a southeast-northwest run with left break." Setting up a shallower than normal dive angle because of the risk of misjudging the ground in near darkness, I selected nails and positioned the treeline slightly below the cross-hairs on the rocket sight. It was a moment I'd wished for many times on Nighthawk to personally deliver the rough equivalent of the wrath of God down on their heads. What a fitting end to my tour. I steadied the aircraft and pressed the trigger.
With all my night time experience, I suddenly realized I had never before fired rockets at night. In my zeal to kill the NVA, I had forgotten to close my eyes, allowing the bright flash of the rocket motors to completely blind me. "Two-Three's out left," I called, clearing McConnel for his run while I climbed on instruments to wait for my night vision to return. Luke's beacon flashed past as he fired a pair of HE. Seeing his ship engulfed in the plume of hot sparks stretching three times his length, I was amazed our aircraft didn't catch fire each time we shot rockets. The instructors should have at least demonstrated this in Cobra School, I thought, pushing the nose over into another dive.
"Two-Three's east to west this time, right break."
Turning to put the treeline within enfilade fire, I released the remaining six pairs of nails at intervals of a few seconds, careful to warn Thomas and close my eyes each time. During the break, Luke's white phosphorus rockets began exploding in brilliant flashes, starting a series of grass fires near the trees.
"This is it, let's expend," he called, releasing the remaining rockets in a furious salvo.
If they were part of the regular crowd I had fought against on Nighthawk, they must be shitting their pants down there right now, I mused. Rolling in for the last time, I thought back to the credo I had written for Nighthawk, drunk one night months before. I still carried the scrap of paper in my wallet.
"I travel through darkness
On wings of death
With talons of fire"
Xin Loi Victor Charlie, I smiled. The talons of fire have returned.
I walked the HE rockets through the treeline, counting off a full second each time I squeezed the button before opening my eyes to watch their point of impact through a dazzling shower of sparks streaking past the canopy. Nineteen seconds and rocket pairs later, I heard an empty click on the headset. I pulled out as the last dull explosions faded into night.
Now it was the copilots' turn. Luke and I circled opposite each other to let them work the area over with the turrets. For nearly a minute, the minigun tracers moved around like two quivering serpents. Next, the combined chunkers created a dancing geometric pattern of small explosions. In less than ten minutes, we had delivered a combined two tons of ordnance. Maybe now they would learn to leave Nighthawk alone if they were still alive. As if to underscore the point, Nicholson called Red Horse's arty frequency to process an unobserved fire mission as we flew in formation toward the lights of Da Nang.
Tom and I had taught him well.
As the Cobra slid smoothly into the revetment, I twisted the throttle to flight-idle and unsnapped my chin-strap to remove my helmet. I opened the canopy and peeled off my gloves before relaxing in the seat during engine cool down. The transmission droned as the blades sliced effortlessly through the air. I tried to comprehend the fact that my final combat mission was over. After the prescribed two minutes, I rolled the throttle off. The soft swishing blades whispered to me in the night stillness, but soon despaired of calling me back and fell silent. I hit the harness release with the heel of my hand. The straps fell away with a metallic clink, and I crawled out of the cramped cockpit for the last time.
Back in the ready room, I could see the same bitter-sweet look on McConnel's face. The mixture of desire to leave and reluctance to end our roles in the war was inexplicable but real. The absolute joy of going home alive was tempered by the irrational guilt of leaving the others behind. I guessed a lot of men must feel this way at the end of their tour. We retired to our bunks for the second time of the night, where we slept peacefully until dawn. The usual bitching and chatter of the Cav teams woke us, as they walked in from the truck to prepare for another full day of recon missions. It was music to my ears.
After breakfast, Luke and I headed to the beach one last time to rest up for our DEROS party that night. Late that afternoon, we headed to the PX to buy booze and snacks for everybody.
Like the party for Dick and Tom, ours was a mellow affair, mixed with a heavy dose of reminiscing about the good times, as we tried to say goodbye without saying it. Too soon, the last revelers drifted back to their hooches, since it was a work night for them. We would probably never see each other again. Five hours later, we would catch a chopper ride to Da Nang for the flight to Saigon and on to the World from there. But what would be waiting?
Certainly hugging loved ones and reveling in the fact I'd survived came to mind. Still, I wondered how I would cope with the rest of it. Willingly or not, men became addicted to the excitement and danger of combat, like a drug complicating their readjustment to society, or so I'd been told. All I knew was my own adrenaline highs sometimes kept me awake long into the night, replaying the events that triggered them over and over in my mind until I fell into fitful sleep. Would I miss the excitement when things were back to normal?
And what was normalcy anyway? Taking and returning fire; a heart-pounding pullout from a dive, pushing the aircraft to design limits; hearing a frantic voice saying he was taking hits or going down, all this had been a "normal" part of my life for the past year. Regardless, going home meant no one would be trying to kill me anymore.
And I could finally stop killing as well.