(The Usual Suspects at the Amen Corner of the Willow Bar. Mac took the picture).
This is about mysteries- and personal Crusades. Mac had one- getting Joe Rochefort the Distinguished Service Medal. For VADM Earl Frank “Rex” Rectanus, it was to get justice for our only MIA intelligence officer from the Indo-china conflict.
Mac had some back problems last week, but he came roaring back and was ready to hit the bar at Willow on Monday. The weather was loosening up just like his sacroiliac- unseasonably warm in Arlington, and the rising temperature featured the best of both worlds- the ladies shed their coats to revealing advantage but kept their tall leather boots with the spike heels.
“I was admiring the view on the way over,” I said. Mac had beat me to the bar by minutes, and he was sitting by Old Jim and Mary, who stopped on her way back from the office downtown.
“There was a cracked rail on the Metro,” she said. “Things were a mess all day.”
I nodded, grateful that I do not have to travel far to get to the office. I looked around for a pen, found that I had conveniently forgotten mine, and borrowed one from Katya, whose dark-eyed beauty graced the business end of the bar along with Tinkerbelle and Jasper and the lovely Liz-with-an-S. “So,” I said to Mac, grabbing a stack of napkins, “Where were we?”
The door to the bar swung open with a rush and in walked Point Loma with Jiffy, another Midway sailor of our vintage in tow. I knew this was going to get complicated, particularly with both Johns, with and without H’s, and The Lovely Bea.
Mac is a babe magnet, for sure, and he was in fine fettle and thoroughly enjoying the first of his two Race 5 India Pale Ales. He cleared his throat and said, “I don’t know. What do you want to talk about?”
“Well, the big news is about Hawaii, and where we should stay if we go for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway this summer.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “The Hale Koa is all the way downtown, and the events are supposed to happen at Pearl Harbor.”
“I like the Rainbow Tower of the Hilton, too. That is where the Navy used to put us when they tented the houses to kill the monster cockroaches. The housing area at McGrew Point was built on landfill, and there was no way to really eradicate the things. They just moved from house to house.”
“I was always in quarters at Makalapa, on the rim of the Crater. It was nice to walk to work.”
“I bet. Kimo is out there now, in your old job as the Fleet Intelligence Officer. It will be good to see him again back in his element. And Admiral Paul, who works up at the PACOM HQ at Camp Smith. This will be fun if we can pull it off.”
“We will see,” said Mac. “Paul was leaving on official travel to Thailand, I think.”
“Should be time for COBRA GOLD,” I said, thinking of the best joint naval exercise in the world, since it normally came with a four-day port visit in Pattaya Beach. Colonel Ike was further down the bar, huddled with Jake. I pointed at him, saying: “Ike just got back from Cambodia. I have always wanted to go there.” Katya topped up my white wine. “And Laos, of course. Damn, there is a lot to see.”
Mac smiled. “I was one of the last Americans on the Plain of Jars,” he said. “That was the trip with Lt Gen Bennett when I was Chief of Staff at DIA. We were visiting the Ambassador, G. McMurtrie Godley, which made things confusing since we were both known as “Mac.” Everyone else knew him as “The Field Marshall,” since he was involved in everything going on in the country, political or military.”
“So, you were there just ahead of the Pathet Lao guerrillas?”
Mac nodded. “It seemed like a good idea to see the place while we could.”
“And now we can again,” I said. “I sort of feel like just heading west from Hawaii this summer.”
Mac took a sip of beer. “I think I have been to SE Asia for the last time,” he said. “That was the same trip we saw Admiral Rex in Saigon, and had dinner with him and Admiral Bud Zumwalt.”
I picked up my pen. “Wait,” I said, scribbling. “That is impossible. He was not Zumwalt’s Intelligence Officer then. He had PCS’d back to DC when you visited. I have talked to the guy that relieved him the year before. Rex was back here, working collections issues.”
(VADM Earl “Rex” Rectanus in Vietnam).
“That may well be, but when General Bennett and I walked into Zumwalt’s quarters, he was there, big as life. I sat between him and Bud.”
I screwed up my brow in puzzlement. “If he was there, and I believe you, Sir, that means something had caused him to be sent temporary duty from Washington, and it must have been something big that he did not mention to you.”
“Like the case of the missing Jack Graf,” said Mac. “But we have been down this rabbit hole before.”
“Jack’s loss was a major crusade for Rex in his later years. I learned a lot helping to research the available evidence on his POW-Missing in Action status. A lot of the Naval Intelligence guys obviously followed the case pretty closely, and they came close to rescuing him at least once, with the camp where they held him showing signs they had only left hours before.”
“Torture can make anyone talk,” I said. “I heard the SEALs even found some of the Viet Cong interrogator’s notes.”
Mac nodded thoughtfully. “That is why the whole shot-while-trying-to-escape and Jack’s body being buried in a place where the river washed it away is an interesting story.”
“Yeah. When I found out that Jack had been to the Kodak School to learn about how they were going to do electro-optical imagery from earth orbit before he went back to Vietnam I was stunned. They never let people with those clearances get far out of Saigon for fear they would be captured and compromise the biggest secret in the Intelligence Community. And then Jack parachutes down right into the middle of them after he got shot down.”
“Do you think Rex was in Saigon to do a damage assessment on his loss?” asked Mac.
“I don’t know, and if Jack was traded to the Soviets, we have lost our window of opportunity to find out from the KGB files.”
“I don’t suppose we will ever know the answer, but to get a technician who knew how the spy satellites really worked would have been worth a lot to the Russians.”
Mac shrugged. “Case closed, as far as the POW-MIA folks are concerned. But it would explain why Rex was there. The Navy would have been embarrassed at the screw-up that put Jack in a place where he could be captured.” Then we drifted away from mystery, and talked about other ones, cancer being one of them, according to my notes, and then about Mac’s top-ten recipes. “Eggplant Parmesan, hands down,” he aid. “I did all the cooking for the last few years that Billie was still living at home. I got pretty good at it. The stuff they serve at The Madison is abysmal. They don’t have a clue.”
I scribbled frantically. “I need the recipe,” I said. “I would like to try it. What else did you have in the rotation?”
“Chili con carne,” he said. “I have a recipe I invented myself. Spaghetti, apple crisp as a dessert.”
“No pear pies, like the ones from the C-rations on Guam.”
“No, definitely not. I don’t think I have had a pear of any kind since the War. And tenderloins. I would get the big ones form the Commissary- I would toss one in the over at 400 degrees for an hour, then turn it off an let it rest for an hour. Couldn’t miss. Perfect every time.”
“That sounds delicious,” I said.
“The kids liked a thing we called ‘Porcupine Balls.”
“That doesn’t sound very appetizing,” I said.
“Actually quite tasty. We used a pressure cooker. Dangerous things, and you had to watch them closely. I would take hamburger and shape them into meatballs mixed with regular white rice. When they cooked under pressure- I don’t recall how long, but not too long- the rice stuck out like the quills on a porcupine.”
I wrote it down. There were several other conversations in progress. Point Loma was talking about Ops Officers he had known on Midway, and Mary was saying why Bob Ryan the weatherman had changed stations, and why he got eased out of his old job at Channel 7.
The threads were all interesting, and I decided to stop writing and concentrate on the wine. Mac smiled. “Good, now that you are not writing things down, I have a story for you that you can’t tell.”
I put down my pen. “I am all ears,” I said.
It was an interesting story, and it is too bad I can’t tell you. But I promised. Life is interesting, you know? And like the Jack Graf story, it doesn’t always make a lot of sense. “What did Shakespeare say about life?” I asked Mac.
He smiled broadly. “A tale full of sound and fury,” he said.
I gestured at my notes. “And told by an idiot,” I said. “Who would be me.”
Copyright 2017 Vic Socotra