In 1969, at the height of the Viet Nam War, four American military and State Department brats spend their last year of high school on an American military base in Ankara, Turkey. Rampant drug use and innocent lapses of judgement combine to produce emotional scars that will last their lifetimes.
Editor’s Note: The book excerpt below is printed with permission from the author.
DEATH BY INNOCENCE was published by Avertine Press, in 2009 and is 196 pages, softbound.
Thomas Slagle grew up on military bases in the U.S. and overseas, and has spent the last twenty-five years working as an attorney. DEATH BY INNOCENCE is his first work of fiction.
Colonel Jack Stone’s F-105 screamed over the jungle canopy at more than six hundred miles per hour. He checked his instruments and punched the release button on the precise coordinates relayed by the uncertain voice in his headset. He heard and felt the aircraft clank as the two 500-pound napalm canisters tumbled out. He knew his wingman was simultaneously dropping an identical payload a few yards to the right. Stone thought he saw a dozen or more uniformed North Vietnamese regulars scattering in a clearing on the ground.
“Good,” Stone said out loud. “We’ll fry a bunch of you little yellow bastards today.”
Stone had a slightly different prejudice than the average American bigot. He liked blacks, Jews, Italians, and even Germans. They were all in the U.S. military and therefore they were all equal. But he could not stomach an Asian – any Asian. Stone had been an eighteen-year-old buck private stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He remembered that day and the deaths of friends, kids no older than himself. He also remembered how the Japanese treated their prisoners; he had seen the emaciated survivors of the Batan death march and Japanese prison camps. He would never forget. He agreed with the adage that one could judge the humanity of a society by the way it treated its prisoners. The Japanese were an enemy without a sense of morality.
The Koreans and the Chinese were no different. Stone had been called up as a second lieutenant, USAF, to fly F-80s and F-86s when Korea broke out. He knew from friends what happened to American flyers captured by the North Koreans. Nor were the Vietnamese any different. Stone was fully aware of the atrocities the North Vietnamese were inflicting on the American pilots they captured.
Stone’s cold hatred was transferred to all Asians, friend or foe, so that when he and Benson turned and flew back over the target area to survey the damage, he had no reservations about the hell they had just inflicted on more than one hundred Vietnamese, whether Viet Cong, North Vietnamese regulars, or even a few unlucky South Vietnamese civilians. He didn’t doubt that they were family members and sympathizers of the Viet Cong. He was, however, deeply concerned for the safety of American Marines whose dug-in position was dangerously close to the inferno below. Therefore, Stone was relieved when the voice in his headset came back. “Thanks, guys, direct hit. They’re in hell now.”
Stone had only slept six hours out of the past seventy-two and this was his sixth mission during that time. He had always had trouble sleeping on demand, especially when he was flying combat missions. He was just too keyed up – the missions never ended – each one played over and over again in his mind until it was time for the next. And if he didn’t feel alert enough to fly a mission, he just took a couple of those little black widow pills that were readily available for the pilots. He had taken two more that morning before they left Ubon, Thailand.
He looked at the ground, over the rice paddies, jungle and muddy river spread out below. If he had known of it Stone would have agreed with Lyndon Johnson’s private assessment that Vietnam was “a fourth-rate little country.” But that was the only thing on which Stone would have agreed with LBJ. He distrusted virtually all politicians and admired only one: Barry Goldwater. He would forever believe that Goldwater had been robbed of the ‘64 election by being miscast as a nuclear danger. He knew that politics was costing lives of hundreds of Americans just as it had cost over fifty thousand American lives in Korea. He was positive that if the politicians would turn the U.S. Air Force loose, it would take less than forty-eight hours to take out all of the North Vietnamese air defenses and destroy their Soviet-made MIGs before they even got off the ground. Our B-52s would come in from Okinawa and finish the job. Stone himself would gladly stand ready and willing to drop a hydrogen bomb in the middle of Hanoi, or Peking, or Moscow, if need be. No need to worry about whether or not the North Vietnamese would come to the peace table – that little country would have no one to send.
Stone had read in the Stars and Stripes that 500 more Americans had died in the past month, a light month. He knew they were mainly the same “warriors” that fought every war – 18 and 19-year-old kids. He thought of his own son, T.J., who would soon be old enough to wade through dirty, leech and mosquito infested rice paddies. T.J. was soft like all American kids, raised on television and comic books, unlike his own generation who were raised in the world of the Great Depression and Adolph Hitler. Stone would do anything to keep T.J. from ending up in Vietnam or in whichever godforsaken hell hole the politicians decided to wage another “police action.”
* * * * *
On that same day, half a world away on the floor of the United States Senate, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Fulbright (D-Ark), spoke to his colleagues saying that the war in Vietnam had engendered “an unhealthy atmosphere of suspicion and recrimination” in the nation and had turned “the Great Society into a sick society.” Fulbright spoke to a nearly empty chamber. Only as he concluded did the senators drift onto the floor from the cloakrooms where they had been watching the final innings of the World Series game in Boston.
* * * * *
He and his wingman Captain Benson were at 5000 feet rapidly closing in on the Cambodian border when the explosion rocked Stone’s aircraft. Shit, he thought, how could those little bastards get that lucky? Anti-aircraft fire had exploded just off his left wingtip, tearing off approximately forty percent of the wing. How could he be so unlucky? He knew someone on the ground had just made a one-in-a-million shot.
Stone was calm – in three wars he had faced danger many times. But he knew his actions in the next few seconds would determine whether or not he lived. He thought quickly of the eject button and being blown through the canopy of the aircraft. He rejected that as cowardly and considered that bailing out could be as dangerous as hanging with the aircraft. He also felt strangely responsible for the multimillion dollar aircraft. So he struggled to regain control. It was useless. Within three seconds of the explosion, the 105 was spinning dizzyingly out of control toward the ground. The G-forces on his body were tremendous, and as they pressed him into his seat Stone fought to remain conscious. He knew he had to if he was to have any chance of survival.
Stone had often heard the expression, “My life passed before my eyes,” but he had always doubted the phenomena of time slowing down as one imminently faced death. He didn’t doubt anymore. As he drifted into unconsciousness Stone reflected on his almost thirty-year military career. He knew he was a true American hero. He had been born in 1923. That placed him with a unique few who had actually physically taken lives in combat in three American wars. He had fought the Japanese for the U.S. Army. He had learned to fly jets after the war as he went to college and law school on the GI Bill while in the reserves. When he was recalled when Korea broke out, he had four confirmed MIG kills while flying F-80s. He would have been an ace if a Major hadn’t gotten credit for a fifth which he was sure he had nailed first. Now it would all end because of a lucky shot by some unknown gook on the ground in this little fourth-rate country.
He thought of his wife Cynthia. He had deeply loved her since they first met in college. She was remarkably loyal, never wavering, even though the crappy assignments like Greenland, Okinawa, or Uban. He had always been faithful to her, even avoiding the prostitutes that preyed upon American servicemen in Thailand and Okinawa. He was sure she had always been faithful to him.
He thought about T.J. He remembered that T.J., now a sophomore, was playing football. It was only JV, but at least he was trying a man’s sport. Stone himself had been a good football player. A 180-pound guard when the game was played the way it was supposed to be played – by men with leather helmets, and no face masks, playing the game both ways. He even played two years in college until his increasing obsession with flying and reserve training took away any time he had for sports.
Stone knew T.J. was too slight to play the line. Maybe he could play a skill position – tailback, maybe even quarterback. He would just have to toughen up a bit. Who knows? Stone instantly regretted that he would never see T.J. play in a football game. At that moment he wished more than anything that he’d had a chance to see his son play in just one game.
When Stone drifted back into consciousness he was amazed that he was still alive. His body was still pinned violently back into his seat by the G-forces. He fully expected instant impact. He forced his eyes open but they would not focus to let his brain know how far he was from the ground. He had the mildly comforting thought that at least the end would come quickly.
Suddenly a new thought occurred to Stone. What if he could somehow pull the 105 out of the dive? Could he still somehow survive? He knew that the chances that the aircraft would survive the maneuver were minimal. Modern aircraft were miraculously engineered and manufactured, but he knew they could not do the impossible. They were simply not made so that a crippled aircraft could make a right angle turn out of a vertical dive. The plane would most likely simply come apart. But it was Stone’s only option.
The maneuver was easier to visualize than execute. Because Stone was still pinned deeply into his seat, even moving his right arm was extremely difficult. He opened his right hand and then screamed like a shot putter to summon all of the effort he could into reaching for the stick between his knees. When he felt the stick in his hand he jerked it back with all of his remaining strength.
The plane shuttered violently as it performed a maneuver for which it had never been designed. Stone felt only an excruciating pain in the middle of his back.
When Stone realized that the aircraft was still intact his hands were shaking uncontrollably. He heard Benson’s voice on the radio, “Wow, good flying sir. Can you make it over to Danang?”
“Yeah,” Stone said, “the controls are a little mushy, but I think I can get her there.” Stone was not religious, but as he nursed the damaged plane to Danang, he prayed for the first time since he was a child.
When Stone pulled the crippled plane to a stop at Danang’s airfield he knew that although the plane still looked generally intact and he saw no smoke or flames, there was still a significant chance of fire or explosion from the jet fuel still on board and he needed to get out of the cockpit quickly. However, as soon as he moved the first muscle toward leaping out, pain knifed through his back again. Shit, he thought, what the hell is that? So, instead of leaping out he pushed himself up with his arms, gingerly swung his legs out of the cockpit and slowly descended the ladder while trying to look as nonchalant as possible.
The flight surgeon, Major Antoine Stewart, USMC, was the first person to meet him as he crossed the tarmac. Stewart said, “Christ, man, what happened to you?”
“Ahh, the little bastards got lucky.”
“Nah, mighta twisted my back a little. Be fine tomorrow.”
“OK, come inside and fill me in.”
Inside was a metal quonset hut that served as the flight surgeon’s excuse for an office. Stone winced as he used his arms to lower himself into the flat grey government-issue armchair across from Stewart.
Stone felt a little better after he was seated and spent 10 minutes describing the mission and the accident.
When Stone was finished, Stewart offered, “My phone’s out but there’s one in the next office you can use. C’mon.”
Stone tried to stand to follow the major. But as soon as he made his first movement up, the stabbing pain burned through his back again. This time the pain also radiated all the way through his left leg. He tried easing back into the chair but this time the pain didn’t cease or even diminish. Stone saw the major peering inquisitively over his glasses as a black screen scrolled up his field of vision until all was black.
* * * * *
When Stone woke up he focused his eyes on a nameplate attached to a white lab coat leaning over him. It said: CAPTAIN WALTER STROTHERS, M.D.
Stone managed to croak, “Where the hell am I?”
Strothers flinched, then stepped back, eyeing Stone suspiciously. Strothers said in a lispy, high-pitched voice, “You’re in an American military hospital in Japan.”
Stone disliked Strothers immediately. Strothers was a short, bald man with an angular face, thick-lensed glasses, and carplike translucent skin. No way the guy was career military. Though he had no idea what one looked like, Stone mentally nicknamed Strothers “the ferret.” Stone knew the type. They had let the Air Force pay their way through medical school, maybe even college. Now that they had to repay the favor by serving four years in military hospitals, they resented the military, the lifers, and the fact that they were delayed in what Stone assumed was earning their nearly unlimited future incomes.
“I need to get back to my squadron and get back in the air,” Stone said quietly.
“Not gonna happen,” the ferret smiled. “You have several cracked vertebrae, a pinched nerve, and a herniated nucleus pulposis. You are fortunate that I can probably get you walking again. I have scheduled your surgery at 0600 tomorrow. Hopefully it will require only one operation. But no flight surgeon in his right mind will ever approve you again to fly a cargo plane, much less a jet fighter.”
Stone replied angrily, “I’m not a pencil pusher. I’ve always been a jet pilot – one of the best in the Air Force. What the hell else am I gonna do?”
“I don’t know. But,” Strothers hesitated, “I noticed in your service record that you have a law degree. Maybe you could transfer into the JAG corps. The Air Force can always use a lawyer who actually knows how an airplane operates.”
Stone thought about it a few seconds and then he realized, maybe he would be watching high school football games soon.
* * * * *
He knew this time he would have a perfect shot. As soon as T.J. saw the quarterback pull the ball back out of the fullback’s stomach he knew the hit was his. It was the same predictable option that head coach Edward Caldwell’s Garrett High School Falcons had run for the last three years. The varsity ran it and the junior varsity, on which T.J. played, ran it also. T.J. had seen it hundreds of times in practice or from the stands in the varsity’s games. The quarterback faked the dive to the fullback, started down the line, then pitched wide to the tailback a split second before he was grabbed by the defensive end. If the cornerback was successful in carrying out his responsibility of turning the play inside, T.J. would get a perfect shot at the ball carrier. Even better, it would be a full speed running shot, giving him a chance to do the one thing he excelled at in football – tackling.
T.J. met few, if any, of the requirements of a good high school football player. At 5 foot 8 and 142 pounds, he was the smallest player on the field. Actually, 142 was an exaggeration – without helmet, pads and cleats, he was more like 135 pounds. He had only average speed and strength and virtually no moves. But he had one thing in his favor. He didn’t mind hitting people. In fact, he enjoyed it.
T.J. fancied himself the best tackler on the junior varsity. He was good at it because he performed it exactly as he had been taught. He hung at his safety position until he recognized the play and where the ball carrier would head. His only thought during these times was drive through the ball carrier. Get a running start, lower your head, and drive your helmet right through his numbers. Often the runner would dodge at the last instant, and T.J. would be left with a grab and drag down tackle. However, on occasion, with the right timing and if T.J. and the runner were of somewhere near approximately the same size, it would produce a perfect form tackle. And for the most part the JV running backs were small, 165 pounds or less. If they were bigger and had any athletic ability, they were probably on the varsity.
In addition, few JV teams had any decent passing attack. Therefore, T.J. had been a decent JV football player just by making hard-hitting tackles from the safety position.
This scrimmage was the one time during the year that the JV football players had a chance to impress Coach Caldwell. The varsity scrimmaged the JV once near the end of each season. Usually it was a total thrashing of the undersized, undermanned JV by the varsity. However, the scrimmage on occasion allowed an overlooked JV player a battlefield promotion to the varsity.
At the same instant the quarterback pitched to the tailback, T.J. made his break to the spot where the tailback was headed. One thought replayed over and over in his head. Drive through the ball carrier. Drive through the ball carrier.
The violence of the full-speed collisions on a football field had always surprised T.J. They weren’t like grabbing, drag-down tackles in the back yard or slow wrestling blocks at the line of scrimmage. The surprising ones were those when the ball carrier and tackler both had a full head of steam, like on a kick-off return when neither turned aside to avoid the impact.
This collision was the most violent T.J. had ever experienced. The tailback, a 160-pound backup with an undistinguished football career, had just reached full speed after cutting inside the corner. He made no attempt to juke the undersized safety. T.J. had also just reached full speed when his helmet drove directly into the ball on its way through the tailback’s numbers. He heard a whoosh and a groan as the air was driven out of the tailback’s lungs. T.J. was stunned – the collision felt like he had just tried to head-butt a Volkswagen. Although T.J. briefly lost consciousness, he didn’t know it.
When he could, T.J. stood up. He was woozy, felt nauseous, and could hear a loud ringing in his ears. He also had an intense headache. He looked down at the ball carrier who was still laid out gasping for air. A few feet away a pile of players scrambled for the fumble.
He heard loud whoops from the players milling around behind the offense and the even louder voice of Coach Caldwell. “Yeah. That’s the way to hit. Who was that?”
“That’s Stone, Coach. I told you the little bastard would hit you.” It was the JV coach’s voice.
“Hey Stone,” Caldwell yelled without inflection. “You’re varsity.”
T.J. was still stunned from the hit and said nothing, but he was smiling inside his helmet. As he began his pacing routine to get ready for the next play, T.J. wished only that his old man was there for a change to see the hit.
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