Valley of the Queen

The story begins 1000 years in the past in an area of present-day Vietnam. An ancient Queen is fleeing with her treasure from the Dai-Viet forces that are overtaking her country. As the modern narrative follows we begin in 1969 in the same area during the Vietnam war. We journey with the principle character through Vietnam and then to 1980's Chicago. The storyline returns to 1000 years earlier intermittently because that story is the foundation for the modern one. In the modern story, our hero meets a reporter who becomes obsessed with investigating an Asian despot who has a secret agenda to foment a revolution in Cambodia. Personal relationships develop and the plot leads four Chicago friends back to Vietnam with surprising twists and turns in the narrative that joins the ancient story with the modern one. The story is engaging and partly based on fact. The adventurous narrative is filled with love, conflict, a lot of intrigue and mystery.

This is how it begins...


Chapter 1

Panduranga, Southeast Asia, AD 1053

In the area of present-day Phan Rang / Thap Cham (Top Chom), Vietnam

During the fall of the Champa (Sh-am-pa) Kingdom

             Po pushed as hard as she could against the worn, wooden wheel of the cart. It was bigger than Po, but even at the age of ten, she was determined to get it beyond the muddy hole that stubbornly held it captive. The men pushing with her strained with loud grunts, and she, thinking those expressions assisted in their efforts, followed their example. However, her exertion came off as a series of mouselike squeaks, causing the others to break into spontaneous laughter. But with that, the wheel magically worked itself out of the hole, and their laughter turned into cries of triumph.
Big Sem picked Po up and swung her around joyfully. “Little flower, what would we do without you?” he said.
             Big Sem, who was very tall, weighed three hundred pounds, and was the physical opposite of Po was assigned as her personal bodyguard. Seeing how tired she looked, he put her safely down on the front bench of the first cart, the one he pulled by himself. She settled in and looked at the dense jungle ahead. From her perch, it didn’t appear there was any way to go forward. But it had been like that since the coast, and they had gone on just the same.
             There were twelve of them in their small party, including two Hindu pandits, along with four large carts carrying their precious cargo. In contrast to their station and the importance of their mission, they were dressed in rags as peasants, and their carts, though new and sturdy, appeared so old it seemed a mystery how they survived the rigorous expedition thus far. Their flight south was now in its fourteenth day, and Po was hopeful they were near the end of their journey. They brought with them a few personal items and the remaining wealth of the Champa kingdom, which once ruled this land for hundreds of miles in every direction. It was now all but destroyed by the conquering Dai Viet army sweeping in from the north. What remained of ornate palaces and temples was now reduced to these four carts of heavy chests.
             Po was the only child among them and was herself one of the treasures of the old kingdom. She was the daughter and heir to the great throne of the Champa kingdom and included because her mother would not let the dynasty fade into history. Though still very young, in a few terrible years Po had already lived a lifetime. Her older brothers were slain in battle, and her parents faced imminent death at the hands of the ruthless Dai Viet army. Her innocent presence drove this small but determined group of travelers.
             When it became too dark to continue any farther that day, Tap, her teacher, whom she called Uncle Tap because he was like family to her, ordered that they stop and set up camp. He was the nominal head of the group because he was the king’s trusted advisor, Po’s mentor, and a dear friend of the family. He readily accepted the assignment from the king to save the heritage of the great Champa kingdom and considered it a sacred responsibility. Added to the weight of the chests was the news his scout brought him the previous day that the entire royal family were slain in Dong Na as it was overrun and sacked by the Dai Viet army. Little Po was now the only remaining heir and rightful queen of the Champa people.
Tap took Po’s hand and led her to a place by the fire. “Sit down, Po, and talk with me,” he said softly. “I need you to lighten my spirits, little flower. I confess this old body is weary from our long walk today.”
             Tap was not an old man but not a young one anymore either, and with time his strength was little of what it once was. Their escape was successful thus far, but he knew it was only a matter of days before the trailing Dai Viet army would overtake them if they did not persist in their forced march. He had a good but desperate plan to get them safely away, but only if they could arrive at their first destination safely, and then their heritage might be preserved. They slept little since they left Dong Na over two weeks ago, and little Po welcomed the rest. She sensed the danger and the importance of their mission, but her innocence knew little of the dark cloud that pursued and threatened to consume them. Tap hoped this night’s rest would give them the energy they needed to continue on at their frenzied pace.
             Because of Po, and in deference to her, when they at last camped, and wanted nothing more than to fall onto their mats and sleep, they made an orderly camp, set down sleeping areas, and cooked rice over a warm fire. The pandits seemed tireless and were helpful, but afterward, they sat by themselves and went through their nightly prayer ritual. The others talked of many things, and with their bellies filling they grew more positive in their banter. Po listened quietly with heavy eyes, and finally fell asleep snuggled in the lap of her teacher.
             They were wakened in the middle of the night by a young scout who was sent behind by the teacher to keep watch on the advance of the conquering army. He told them with frantic gestures that the invaders were only a day behind them. Though still dark, they quickly repacked their belongings and started making their way through the dense jungle once more. The path they made seemed ominous in the late-night shadows compounded by a myriad of creature sounds hidden and threatening nearby.
Po was relieved when the jungle finally opened to a flat plain of wild grass, cactus, and low brush visible in the early light just before dawn. She could see far beyond on the horizon there were foothills leading to high mountains.
             “Are we going there, Uncle Tap?” she asked.
The teacher put his hand on her shoulder and only smiled. Where is it? He did not remember the temple being this far, but he was much younger when he last traveled to this plain.
              He was about to seek the advice of the two priests who were with them when one of the young men, upon seeing the mountains, became despondent. “We cannot make it over the mountains, master. Surely we must abandon the chests if we are to escape.”
             But as they watched, and with little hope remaining, the morning mist parted, and in the distance, on a hill overlooking the plain, they saw a small Cham temple with three towers lit with rays from the morning sun almost magically like a beacon.
             “It is karma, my brothers,” said the teacher joyously. “The gods are still with us. Come, we must hurry.” He shuffled down the path with little Po swinging his arm happily.
             Two hours later, they arrived at the mouth of a nearly invisible cave on the far side of a very rocky hill near the temple. The small temple site nearby was abandoned, as the remaining caretakers fled south to escape being subjugated by the Dai Viet army. The teacher went inside to inspect the cave and to see if it was as he remembered from a visit many years before. Finding that nothing was changed, he came out and signaled the carts to be brought close to the entrance. The men struggled the heavy chests down, with six of them lifting each one. With great effort they placed them within the cave. On the top of the first chest, Tap placed a scroll on which he had carefully recorded the story of their queen, their history, the royal lineage, and their mission. He put a rock on it to hold it in place. Finally, they placed two golden statues of their gods in front of the chests to protect them.
             They worked quickly then and closed the cave entrance with many large rocks. They retrieved ground cover and residue from the adjacent area and covered the entrance to look like the rest of the hill. When they were through, there was no sign they were there or buried anything within.
             It was then that the two Hindu pandits came to the teacher, and after they revealed their secret, they requested that he help them. They led him to another hill nearby that was between the cave and the temple. They worked back several large rocks to reveal a partial opening while explaining to the teacher there was a chamber below that was once thought accessible only from the temple. That access was bricked over and hidden several years before as the Hindu pandits began to abandon the area and move back to their homeland.
             They told him within this chamber were the collected offerings of devoted Hindu followers over many years and from many lands. The gold within meant nothing to them; they had much more than they could ever use. There was no reason to keep it because it brought only conflict and suffering when they sought to bring peace and enlightenment to those they nourished with their teachings. Thus the gold was secretly collected and deposited there for as long as any of the priests could remember.
             But there were many caves hidden within these hills adjacent to the temple. They recently received a message from the last caretaker of that temple explaining that a farmer’s boy playing in the area nearby discovered this outer cave access after removing a few rocks. The farmer showed one of the caretakers who still looked after the temple what his son had found, and together they covered up that cave entrance. But it was not as well hidden as the one they just disguised, and if any word got out of the Champa treasure being in the area, no doubt someone would find the entrance to their collected offerings.
             Tap was a skilled builder in his time and consented to their request for help, but he wanted to make a few additions inside the chamber to ensure that, in the remote chance it was discovered, no one would ever be able to take the gold. After he explained his plan to the pandits, they heartily approved, and by late afternoon his new construction and the burial of the chamber’s outer access entrance was done with near perfection. In the end, the two hills blended in with those around them leaving their secrets well hidden.
             Satisfied with their effort, they gathered their remaining belongings and took one last look as the sun was setting behind the temple. Po smiled, for it was a beautiful sight; with the sun going down behind them, the three temple towers looked every bit as if they were ascending gloriously to the heavens.
             Standing next to Uncle Tap, Po felt his hand resting on her shoulder. He gave her a soft squeeze, and said, “You must return here someday, little Po. Our heritage is your responsibility, and the lives and memories of our people are left for you to preserve and carry on.”
His voice was broken, and as she looked up, she saw his eyes mist in the reflection of the sun. She sensed that his charge to her was momentous, but at her young age, she could not measure its value and only partly grasped its meaning for her.
Even so, she took up his hand in both of hers and rested her head against it as she affirmed,  “I will, Uncle Tap. I will. I promise.”
             In answer, he pulled her against him as they stood side by side for a moment more.
No longer burdened by the heavy carts, the group gathered their remaining belongings and set off for the mountains and their final destination beyond. In that far land, time would pass, and their hopes and vision would become memories. Memories would become legends, and legends would be judged in kind.


Chapter 2


Phan Rang Air Base, South Vietnam, 1969

             The US Air Force base at Phan Rang in early 1969 could have been located in Arizona if you only regarded the surroundings. There was no jungle or any obvious signs of the Vietnam War that was so often portrayed on the American nightly news. Instead, the sprawling F-100 jet air base was situated ten miles in from the coast on a desert plain that consisted mostly of dirt, cactus, rocks, and dry brush. It was very hot and humid on most days, and airmen stayed cool and dry in air-conditioned doublewide trailers or prefabricated buildings typical of most air force bases around the world.
             Jack Largent, airman second class, arrived at Phan Rang at one in the morning, tired and weary. It took him two weeks to journey from the continental United States to Vietnam because on the way he was required to attend an intensive jungle survival school held in the Philippines for combat aircrews going to Vietnam. The actual survival school lasted only five days, but he was of such low rank, he had to wait five days to start the course, and then wait another five days after it ended to get a flight out to Vietnam. Clark Air Base in the Philippines was tropically beautiful, and for Largent it was very much like being on vacation at a resort. It was probably the only time he benefited from being a two-striper in the air force.
             He was twenty-one, not quite six feet tall, and well tanned after his two-week “vacation” at Clark Air Base. He had dark hair and what more than one girl called “bedroom” brown eyes. People told him he looked like George Maharis, the actor who played Todd on a television show called Route 66. He liked the image and the series about two vagabond young men wandering around the country in their Corvette, but he personally couldn’t see the comparison. He was dressed in a light-tan air force uniform, having flown first from Clark Air Base into Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. From there he caught a flight in a C-130 cargo plane up to Phan Rang earlier that night.
             Largent was an air force photographer whose duties made him into some kind of photographic generalist. He was initially assigned to Maguire Air Base in New Jersey after basic training, where he used the large Speed Graphic four-by-five press camera to photograph everyday mundane events such as medal ceremonies, news features, aircraft damage reports, and the general’s wife’s pickle party. He considered himself a photojournalist if anything and used his own personal Nikon thirty-five-millimeter camera to keep his photo-sanity, mainly by exploring New York City’s East Village during his off hours.              He was looking forward to coming to Vietnam because he heard they used thirty-five-millimeter cameras and not the archaic Speed Graphic four-by-five monsters he was forced to use on assignments at Maguire. Here he was going to do something real for a change.
As he stepped off the ramp at the back of the aircraft onto the tarmac, he stretched his stiff body and looked around. It was darker than he expected, as it was a night with no moon. There was one main light              in the distance over the door to base operations. In another direction, there were several maintenance crews working on F-100s within arched concrete revetments lit by portable lights. As Largent looked around, trying to decide where to go next, he saw an airman approaching.
             “You Largent?” the airman asked. He told Largent he was the photographer on alert from the photo squadron assigned to pick him up that night and drive him to the barracks. The airman, dressed in jungle fatigues, said little else. He led Largent out to a waiting Jeep, got in, started it up, and remarked impatiently, “Fuckin-A, let’s go. I’m tired, and been up all night waitin’ for ya.”
Largent threw his duffel bag and camera case in the back and joined him.
             As they drove in the open Jeep, Largent saw that the entire base was dark, with ghostly buildings that blended into the surrounding hills, and left as mysteries waiting to be solved with the morning light. The photo barracks was up on a hill overlooking the base, snuggled in with a lot of other identical buildings. Like all the barracks at Phan Rang, it consisted of a long prefab two-story building with an open bay from one end to the other. The bay was divided into sixteen cubicles on either side of a central hallway, with two men sleeping in bunk beds within each cubicle. As they entered and walked down the dark hallway between cubicles, Largent felt the fans every twenty feet pushing the hot, humid air around the very quiet late-night interior. The airman led him to a cubicle to bed down and pointed to a top bunk. Someone was sleeping formlessly in the bottom bunk in the darkness behind mosquito netting. Largent’s driver left quickly after telling him to report to the photo squadron at eight in the morning.
             Largent climbed into the top bunk still dressed and took a moment to settle in. The wall of the cubicle stopped less than one foot above where he laid his head, and in the next cubicle, to the glow of a single lamp, someone was playing “I Need a Man to Love” by Janis Joplin on a stereo. It was very late to be playing music of any kind, and though the sound was turned down very low, Largent could hear it clearly over the edge of the wall in the quiet barracks as she sang the refrain “It can’t be now” over and over. He smiled to himself and thought welcome to Vietnam. Within minutes he was fast asleep.

             After reporting in on the first day at the photo lab and meeting his new boss, Master Sergeant Dix, Largent as a new arrival on base was given a list of things to attend to right away. He went to base supply and was issued two jungle fatigue uniforms and one pair of jungle boots. The uniforms as issued were loose and baggy, but just adjacent to the base supply was a Vietnamese tailor where, for a few bucks, you could have them tailored to custom fit. His fellow airmen at the photo squadron briefed Largent on this. Every airman partook of the cheap tailoring to make their jungle fatigues fit well, and no airman on base wanted to be seen walking around in the baggy base-supply version.
             He also met his mama-san barracks maid. She was the Vietnamese lady responsible for making his bed, cleaning his cubicle, shining his shoes, and doing his laundry. The cost was ten dollars a month. No airman wants to come home after a hard day fighting a war to a dirty barracks cubicle, so this was a no-brainer. Largent was amazed to find out she also washed and ironed his clothes including his underwear, and his jungle fatigues had sharply creased pants and shirtsleeves. This was all unexpected, as there was nothing like this kind of service stateside. He laughed. This was going to be a rough war. He could see that already.
             Then he found the BX. In Vietnam the Base Exchange was the general store where airmen could buy items straight from Japan and Hong Kong, such as Seiko watches, Nikon cameras, and Pioneer tape decks, among other items, on a first-come, first-serve basis and for surprisingly cheap prices. It was necessary to check what came in at least once a day because by the next day, the great deals were gone. Checking the BX would become a daily routine for Largent.
             The final item he sought out on his list the first day was his mailbox at the post office. This would become an essential part of his daily routine when, after a few weeks, the inevitable loneliness set in, and the only remedy was a letter or package from home. This wasn’t peculiar to Largent. This was true of almost every soldier in Vietnam. Every veteran would say Vietnam was a lonely fucking place.
             In the next few weeks, Largent learned the quirks of working at the Phan Rang air base photo unit. Mountains and foothills surrounded the air base on three sides. The Vietcong rocketed the airbase every few weeks from these surrounding hills trying to hit the air force F-100 fighter jets parked on the flight line. When there was a rocket attack, it was usually in the middle of the night, and his fellow photo squadron airmen had a routine that baffled Largent at first because of the apparent impending danger.
             The barracks at Phan Rang sat up on a hill, with a splendid view of the base and flight line. There was a well made and secure bunker constructed of piled-up and reinforced sandbags on one end of the barracks. But when the air-raid sirens sounded, most of the photo-unit airmen ignored them entirely and remained sleeping in their bunks. Those who didn’t would grab lawn chairs that were leaning up against the bunker and sit outside to watch the incoming rockets. The airmen watched passively when the rockets missed, which fortunately they did most of the time. But when they hit something on the flight line, many stood up and cursed. “Fuck you, Charlie!” For these particular airmen it meant a lot of extra work. The next few days they would have to photograph the damage and print hundreds of copies of the photos for distribution around the world. As Largent soon found discovered, it seemed everyone wanted a photo of an F-100 hit by a Vietcong rocket in Vietnam.
             When a visiting general arrived, usually for a one-hour base tour, a photographer would hop it over to the flight line to get a photo of Colonel Denton shaking hands with the visiting general as he stepped off his USAF Learjet aircraft. Then the photographer would rush back to the photo lab to process the film, print the wet negative, dry it, and have an eight-by-ten glossy souvenir print nicely packaged in a Phan Rang base envelope on the flight line an hour later for Colonel Denton to hand to the general as he departed. On each photograph was an inscription on the bottom right corner; “Welcome to Phan Rang Air Force Base. Colonel Mark T. Denton, Commander.”
             But beyond this, Largent discovered to his dismay that his routine as a photographer was mostly cleaning and maintenance duties and a lot of unexpected bullshit. Master Sergeant Dix, the black NCO he reported to, actually started teaching him how to use the old Speed Graphic press camera all over again. Over Largent’s protests, Dix insisted on going through the entire obsolete training manual and wouldn’t let him go on any assignment until he passed each exercise to Dix’s satisfaction. Largent discovered that, as one of only four white airmen at the twenty-man-unit photo lab, he was destined to get all the grunge work in some sort of Twilight Zone reverse discrimination. He wanted to get out and take photographs, but when any assignment off of the airbase came up, it was given to one of the black lab technicians who wanted to get off base instead of one of the three white photographers. It wasn’t right, but it was what it was. It was their ballgame, and he was going to be kept sitting on the bench or cleaning the locker room.
             Though there was nothing for the airmen working at the photo lab to do most of the time, they were required to take no more than one hour for lunch. There were two chow halls, one nearby and one on the other side of the base. The daily lunch routine on most days was to pile into the back of a big blue air force van and race to the other side of the base, because for some unknowable reason, the food at the distant cafeteria was far superior to the food at the one that was located a few blocks from the photo lab. It took twenty minutes to get there and twenty minutes to get back because the road to get there circled around the entire flight line just inside the base perimeter. That left ten minutes to eat and another ten minutes to check their mailboxes and see if anything new arrived at the BX. This was the same routine every day, and after two months of this, it was getting old. It was more like being in the States without the many off-hour diversions, than in Vietnam. Largent was getting frustrated and depressed.
             That was when he first met Bill McCann, a fellow airman two-striper who worked for the base edition of the Seventh Air Force News. This newspaper went out to all the air force bases locally and news agencies around the world. McCann’s job was to report the air force’s role in the war and to embellish it in a positive way. He was lean, not quite as tall as Largent, and looked like a stereotypical Hollywood reporter, right down to his pencil mustache. His black glasses hinted at his sharp intellect. Like most men of all services drafted during the war, McCann was just putting in time until he could transfer back to the States. But he had one helpful trait that could make him a great reporter if he wished to make a career of it. He was a good listener and would make comments here and there to keep a person talking, never knowing if a story would develop out of that conversation or not.
             To escape the boredom of the photo lab, Largent used any excuse he could to visit McCann at his news office, and on one occasion, after delivering some prints of an awards ceremony, he related his predicament at the lab to McCann. Largent was looking for a way out of his situation, and McCann thought he just might have one.
             “Look,” said McCann, “I am authorized a photographer to work with me on a regular basis to photograph my stories. You and I work well together. You’re a good photographer and have a good sense for composing images that tell a story. I can request you to be assigned to my office, and then you wouldn’t have to worry about the situation at the photo lab.”
             Largent considered this idea for a moment but then had a reality check. “Naw, thanks for the thought. Dix would have to approve, and he’s had it in for me since I arrived.”
             “I’m covering a medical civic actions program tomorrow at the Ninh Thuan Province Hospital in Thap Cham,” continued McCann. “A couple of our air force doctors are working out of there as part of the MedCAP program a couple of days a week. I’ll call in the morning and tell Lieutenant Banyon I was lucky to run into you because this happened on the spur of the moment, and it’s a good opportunity to show how we work with the locals to improve relations. I was going to ask for a photographer, but you happened to already be in my office, and we’re heading out now.”
             “They’ll want to know why I didn’t call instead of you,” objected Largent.
             “I’ll tell them you had to make a pit stop before we left and that we had to hurry or miss the operation scheduled that morning at the hospital,” explained McCann.
             “That might work.”
             That night they got together at the base NCO club, which was divided into two halves of a large prefab industrial building. The half that was closer to the bar and the stage was noisy and rowdy. The other half, which was separated by three supporting columns, was a bit quieter, especially at the back, and the two airmen sat all the way on the other end of that quieter half.
At one point an uproar of yelling and laughter rose from a table near the bar where eight black airmen sat, including Master Sergeant Dix. They were in the club every night and were having a good time as usual.
             McCann looked over at them and smiled at Largent. “Tell me more about the reverse discrimination going on at the photo lab,” he said.
             “Nope,” replied Largent. “I’ve said too much already. It’s a bad joke, that’s all. You have to understand something, McCann. These guys are lifers. The service is their world, and I’m just a visitor putting in time and passing through until I transfer out. I get it. They’re going to run things their way because they can, and after all the stuff going on back in the states, I can’t blame them. I just wish they would not see me as the enemy. Not all whites are racists or look at them differently from anyone else. It’s odd in a way. Individually I get along with most every one of those guys very well. We can sit and talk about a lot of things and be genuinely interested in the stories we share. But get several of them together, and there’s a different dynamic happening entirely. I become the outsider to them.”
             “I bet that’s what they feel most times back in the States,” said McCann.
             “Yeah, I bet you’re right about that,” said Largent, shaking his head. “Damn, McCann. Maybe it just takes time. I like most of the guys a lot, but Dix has had the wrong idea about me from the start. With him, I come off as having a bad attitude. Maybe it’s because I corrected him on his approach to my training during the first week. I thought I was being helpful by telling him I already knew the stuff he was insisting on teaching me again. Bad idea.”
             “I’ve heard of race riots going on at other bases around Vietnam,” McCann said. “They’re keeping it all under cover, hushing it up. But it is happening. I find your situation interesting, that’s all. ’Nuff said.”

Chapter 3

             That night Largent got his camera from the photo lab. He used his own Nikon F thirty-five millimeter since he was not authorized to use the lab’s only one. True to the plan, he went straight to the news office on base the next morning. McCann made his call to the lieutenant, and as predicted, it was all approved on the spot. It’s going to be a good day for a change, thought Largent.
             It wasn’t. The operation they were to cover was an air force captain operating on a Vietnamese motorcycle driver who was in an accident and had a lung full of fluid from an infection. Because the infection was near his heart, the patient could not receive anesthetic, only local numbing injections around the area of the incision.
             Largent, who had a weak stomach in general, found himself in a small, cramped, light-green-colored operating theater, dressed in a mask and green hospital scrubs. As the doctor and two nurses wearing identical scrubs worked over the patient, they were illuminated by an old, bright, two-foot domed operating room light from above. The patient was fully conscious and vocalized his pain in constant loud moans. He cried out many times as the doctor cut into his chest cavity and inserted a rubber hose into his lung. Slowly at first, and then more quickly, a bottle began filling with pale-yellow liquid. The doctor and nurses were working so efficiently, they didn’t notice Largent taking his photographs. They also didn’t see him fleeing the operating room at the first opportunity after he felt he had a good set of storytelling images. When he got outside, he took several large breaths of fresh air to fend off vomiting.
             McCann walked up, smiling at Largent’s apparent distress, and asked, “How was it?”
             Before he could answer, Largent threw up next to him behind a bush. After standing back up again and shaking it off, he answered, “Great. I love this stuff.”

             The next morning Largent and McCann did it again. This time it was a medical civic actions program going to a local village to do physical examinations, inoculate some children, and give out medicine. McCann was once again driving the Jeep they had used the day before. To Largent it looked like a replica of the old World War II Jeeps, except this one was painted gray.
             Largent felt good as they raced along with the wind dusting off their hair. It was the first real freedom he had since arriving at Phan Rang. He liked finally doing some actual photojournalism work free of the BS at the photo lab.
             “Must be nice,” he commented.
             “What?” asked McCann.
             “You don’t have anyone hassling you, and you have your own Jeep to get around in. You sure have it all figured out, McCann.”
             “Oh no, this is the captain’s Jeep. I get to use it only when I’m out on an assignment, like yesterday and today. For a long time, they wouldn’t let me drive off the base,” explained McCann. “This is an adventure for me too.”
             As they left the base main gate, heading for Thap Cham, Largent saw off to the right a temple he had seen the day before when they went to the hospital. “What’s that temple doing there?” he asked.
             “It’s a Cham temple left over from the old Champa kingdom days,” said McCann. “The Cham religion is Hindu, and they migrated through this area. They had the custom of walking a day and then building a temple like this one. I was going to do a story on it, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.” He turned left toward the little town, leaving the temple behind them.
             The MedCAP was set up just beyond the small town of Thap Cham, and people were there from a lot of the surrounding villages. There was already a long line of people wanting medical attention. Largent thought they all looked like they were dressed in pajamas because their light cotton shirts and black satin or thin cotton pants did indeed resemble pajamas. He was ardently photographing many of them as they waited and then as they told their stories to the medical techs and doctors. None of them seemed to care that he was taking their photograph, and some even posed with big smiles.
             The patients had interesting faces, and Largent went well beyond just covering the MedCAP routine. There was one lady whose hands alone told a story with many chapters, and another with black teeth from chewing betel nuts attracted his attention. Largent got a candid shot of an air force doctor holding a baby up and smiling, with the mother proudly looking on. This was one photograph he really liked and portrayed everything they wanted to say. As always, he covered it and photographed different angles around that original perspective just to be sure. He was finally feeling pretty good about himself as a photographer and about what he and McCann were doing.
             By the following day at noon, Largent had processed the film and printed six images of each event. He quickly got them to McCann at the base news office, who put them together with the stories and sent the whole thing to the Seventh Air Force News headquarters office in Saigon on the afternoon shuttle.
             This was maybe Largent’s only opportunity to end his situation at the photo squadron at Phan Rang, and if anything were going to come of it, he would know soon. If McCann’s instincts were right, they would love the images and want more from the same team. If they were wrong…well, thought Largent, what were they going to do? Send him to Vietnam?

             Upon arriving the next morning at the beige prefab building that made up the air-conditioned base photo lab, Largent was told to report to Lieutenant Banyon’s office. Banyon was the base photo lab commander. Here we go, thought Largent. When he knocked on the door and entered, the lieutenant was sitting and reading a report behind his gray standard, military-issue desk while Master Sergeant Dix looked on from a chair to one side. Largent saluted smartly, was recognized, and stood at attention.
             That was one thing Largent, a draftee, did not like about the military—all the saluting and “yes, sirs” and “no, sirs.” He’d always had a bit of a problem with authority figures and people with extended egos. The military was overloaded with those types. The lieutenant was right out of the ROTC program at UCLA, and thus Banyon let Dix pretty much decide things and run the photo lab as he wished while he supervised.
             “At ease,” the lieutenant began. “Sergeant Dix has just given me a report that you have been off base two days without permission, airman. He has recommended a reprimand be inserted into your records along with a disciplinary action. What do you have to say about that, Airman Largent?”
             Largent had not anticipated this sort of conversation and was flustered. He managed to stutter a response: “The…the last two days…I thought I had approval from you, sir.”
             “Yes, well, as the head of the lab operations, that should rightly come from Master Sergeant Dix, who claims you bypassed his authority intentionally to do these off-base photo assignments. Perhaps I should have considered that myself, but that does not excuse you for going over Master Sergeant Dix’s head, out of the chain of command, and coming to me. I assumed Master Sergeant Dix had approved all of this kind of activity. No, no, you clearly have gone out of the chain of command on this one, Airman Largent. I will be considering this recommendation. In the meantime, and until we can sort this out, you are to stay in the lab and assist the lab techs in their work. Is that understood, airman?”
Largent nodded softly. “Yes, sir.”
             “Is there anything else, Master Sergeant?” asked the lieutenant, turning to Master Sergeant Dix for approval.
             Dix stood and replied, “No, sir. ” He motioned for Largent to follow him. They left Lieutenant Banyon’s office. Dix took Largent around to the darkroom print lab. When they entered through the rotating darkroom door, they found Airman T. J. Wilson half printing, half dancing to Motown music from a tape player next to his enlarger under the dim orange darkroom light. The song was Marvin Gaye’s hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Wilson aspired to be a DJ once he got out of the service, so he ran the darkroom like he was on the radio, announcing each song with rehearsed comments. It was entertaining the first time you heard it.
             “Turn that shit off, Wilson,” ordered Dix. “How many more copies do you have to do of that C-141 accident?” he asked.

             “Oh hell, Sarge,” replied Wilson, turning off his music. “I’ll be here until midnight sometime next week if I work straight through. I have to do ten copies of fifty-six different images. I have to correctly number the negatives, label them, write captions for them, and make sure they’re all in order before we send them out to Washington. I may just die here, Sarge. Be sure to tell my momma what happened to me, will you?” He smiled broadly. Largent liked Wilson because he was friendly and funny and always seemed to be in a good mood.
             “Wilson, you are relieved,” announced Dix. “Largent here has volunteered to take over this job. Show him what needs to get done, and then you may take a break. Report to me after lunch. Got it?”
             “Yes, Sarge­­—Sure!” he said happily as Dix left the darkroom back through the rotating access door.
             “Oh man, you fucked up, Largent,” Wilson commented as Largent stood by, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light in the dark lab. “OK, here’s the negs. They’re all marked, but you have to be sure to follow the numbers in order, and the printing is done in sequence.” He proceeded to explain the print job to Largent, who could only stand by in disbelief at this turn of events.
FUBAR, he thought. Just when he’d thought things could not get worse.

             Two mornings later, after working at his new job continuously and after arriving to start printing again, Largent was once more called into the lieutenant’s office. He was surprised to find Colonel Denton, the base commander, sitting along with the lieutenant. Largent made a sharp salute and stood at attention.
             “Stand at ease, airman,” commanded the lieutenant, smiling. “Colonel Denton dropped by to thank me for our excellent base visitors’ photography routine and gave me this note sent to him from Seventh Air Force headquarters. It seems the photos we had you take with McCann on those MedCAP assignments have been sent for worldwide release to all the news agencies. They have garnered a lot of good and positive publicity for the air force effort here in Vietnam, and in particular here at Phan Rang Air Base. That photo of the captain holding up the baby has even been on the front page of some major newspapers.”
             “I am happy to commend you personally, Airman Largent,” said the colonel. “We need more fine photographers like you publicizing our efforts here at Phan Rang. I hope you will keep up the good work. You and Airman McCann have a fine sense of the image the air force wishes to present to the rest of the world. The lieutenant tells me he has recommended you for another stripe. It is richly deserved. Let me shake your hand. And if you ever need any doors on the base opened up for you, your camera, and Airman McCann, you just let me know. I’m sending a letter of commendation to the lieutenant here and to Airman McCann’s commanding officer. Thank you, son.”
             With that, the colonel saluted and exited, and Largent was left alone with the lieutenant.
The lieutenant was proud and smiling as he ordered, “Sit down, airman. I want to talk to you for a minute.”
             Largent sat down as Master Sergeant Dix entered and stood unsmiling, leaning on the open door behind him.
             “Airman, I am recommending you for your third stripe,” the lieutenant said, looking at Largent and then Dix. Sergeant Dix stepped forward and was starting to object when the lieutenant put up his hand to stop him. “Sergeant Dix and I believe you have been reprimanded enough for your hasty actions on Tuesday and recognize that you did it in an effort with Airman McCann to improve the image of the US Air Force. You are to be commended for your foresight and initiative, airman. I am assigning you as the permanent base photographer for the local Seventh Air Force News office so that you and McCann can continue your dedicated work. If you need anything to facilitate your efforts, you come right to me. Thank you, airman. That will be all.” The lieutenant saluted and dismissed Largent.
             As Largent left the office, he could hear the lieutenant and Dix getting into an argument. He could not hear what Dix was saying, but the lieutenant was speaking loud and clear. “Enough, Dix. I have heard all I want to from you. That was the first time the colonel has even said hello to me, much less come to my office, Sergeant. And you had nothing to do with it. That young man you were punishing for his initiative yesterday made us all look good.”
             That got Largent’s attention. He stopped in the hallway to listen for a moment as the conversation continued. “No, no, no, Sergeant. If you want to keep those stripes, you keep your hands off Largent. He represents all of us in this squadron, and now Command is following his work. If he wants to use the lab, he uses the lab. If he wants to photograph something or needs equipment, you be sure he gets it.”
             Dix started to talk but still not loud enough for Largent to hear clearly.
“Stop with the fucking chain-of-command shit, Sergeant! Largent is on assignment and reports directly to me now. I am in charge here, and I will be watching you carefully in this matter. I am due for promotion, and this visit from the colonel assures it. Let me remind you that I write your reports, and I decide what goes into your folder. Oh, and one more thing. I do not want to hear any more about lab techs going out on photo assignments. If I hear anything that even looks hinky from here on out, Sergeant, you are going to be the one reprimanded. You had better get your act together and set everyone else straight too. This lab is going to be run right, and I am holding you responsible. Am I clear on that?”
             Largent smiled and thought what goes around comes around. He continued down the hallway. He couldn’t wait to thank McCann. The guy was a fucking genius!