A Culpable Innocence
Chapter 1: The Guard Tower (pg. 1)
A miasmic night encased Regis like a shroud, veiling the stars behind its thick mist and ensconcing his guard tower in a foreboding stillness. He felt outside the flow of time. A nearly undetectable breeze carried the heavy floating vapors under the guard tower’s underpinnings. It seemed to suspend him, perched above a cloud and absent any sense of solid ground beneath his feet. He squinted into the settling fog, but his vision was blurred by the reflected glare of the tower floodlight. It only served to highlight his silhouette and make him an easy target.
Is there anyone out there, Regis wondered?
This was only his third day in the Central Highlands and he had seen almost nothing of the country. Landing in a C-130 here was not the same as his arrival in an airliner a month ago in Saigon at the Tan Son Nut airbase. He had been anxious then when the pilot reported they would “circle the airport until the mortaring had stopped.” But when he exited the plane, he recognized all the same elements of a military base back home, except for a suffocating blanket of heat and humidity. It was reassuring in its familiarity.
His arrival at the Central Highlands’ airbase in Pleiku, on the other hand, was a totally different experience. Anxiety was eclipsed by fear. The pilot dropped the plane out of the sky like a lead stone. Later he found out that this was standard procedure when under attack: a more gradual descent would make the plane vulnerable to small arms fire from the valley below – one in the network of valleys that now hid from his view behind a heavy fog cover. Like all the other military installations in the area, the airbase was located on a hill, a plateau just long enough to land cargo planes. Falling out of the sky, the plane had creaked and groaned as if it were going to break into pieces at any moment. Then there were pinging sounds followed by sudden swishes of air, and he had held tight to the sling netting to prevent his body from bouncing off the ceiling. In the terror of the moment, time seemed to slow down; his senses had become extraordinarily keen. He remembered how his eyes had been fixed on the holes blasted into the fuselage by snipers while intensely aware of the other passenger’s wide-eyed stare and the busy crew on the periphery of his vision. Two crew members had been pulling at the straps that held their cargo in place. They seemed to go about their routine completely unaware of what Regis supposed might be their imminent death. Just a fraction of a second before the pilot pulled up the nose of the plane, they had sat down in unison with their backs supported firmly against the cargo. Regis could still feel how his stomach had traveled from his throat to his feet in one sudden jerk. Moments later the plane bounced off the runway with a jolt. As soon as its wheels found traction, the pilot braked forcefully like a cowboy reining in a wild stallion. Then, at the same instant the pilot eased his heavy braking, one of the crew had begun opening the rear tailgate. The plane was gliding sedately in safe harbor once again. As the pilot pulled the plane around into its assigned berth, Regis saw his new surroundings swirling into view for the first time. A kaleidoscope of colors had greeted him: penetratingly blue skies, pierced by mountains of varying shades of intense green. The cargo specialist beckoned the attention of his passengers with his regular greeting, “Welcome to the fuckin’ highlands.” Then he casually motioned them to release their harnesses and approach the now fully open tailgate. Regis had inhaled deeply, struggled to find his footing and shoulder his duffle bag, and then staggered toward the exit. He remembered feeling like he had entered an alternate reality.