Saturday, February 19, 2011

Story 1: Author Bill McFeeter, The Devil is in the Details

This is one of of three stories I am reprinting here with the authors permission.  The author is a member of our Writers Club here at Desert Trails Rv park in Tucson Az.  Hopefully they will give you an idea of the the type of wonderful writing produced in our small writers club.

Note:  the story is the property of the author, no other use is permitted without the authors specific approval.

“The Devil is in the Details”

4 December, 1966. My first wedding anniversary. Young wife 18,000 miles away. I was only 21. Love hurts! Time: 2:19am. Place: Barracks at Tan Son Nhut AB, Saigon, Vietnam……
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Hdqts. 600th Photo Squadron, Activity Level: prone position, blowing zzzzzzzzz’s. Dreaming of ice cold beer and a rare steak, when I am rudely awakened and brought back to humid reality by screams Major Howard Landau.
No, we were not under mortar attack but had you been there - you would have thought so. The Major had an annoying flair for the dramatic and was able, because of his rank to hide out from the war. Not all Majors did. He was the type that would make up lies when he got back stateside; nothing more than an counterfeit combat photographer wannabe if there ever was one.  I did not like him but had to tolerate him, so I did. As he always did, he was barking authoritative military orders at me and woke up half of the other guys trying to sleep.  He told me to report to the photo equipment locker at once, if not sooner, and secure the longest 35mm telephoto lens I could find, B&W film, two motorized Nikons and a 250 exposure back and meet an Air America (CIA) C-47 with certain tail markings on the flight-line in 20 minutes. I asked him I asked where I was going and he said: Can’t tell ya!” I asked what was to be photographed and all he said was “can’t tell ya”. I would be briefed en route and would return that night. How bad could this be?

Larry Burrows, a prominent Life Magazine Vietnam photographer once told me in our favorite bar in downtown Saigon that if you are getting lousy photos you are not close enough. Clearly, in combat, a long telephoto lens put me a lot father away from the bad guys than a wide-angle lens. Sweet! Normally my uniform of the day was Tiger Camo. Fatigues, as I am wearing tonight, with no military designation, so I could operate freely without being hassled by those of higher rank. All too loudly, the Major told me to wear regular green jungle fatigues, matching green baseball cap and absolutely no weapons were allowed. Hmmmmmmm…… a very strange request indeed. Sure wished Maj. Landau came complete with a mute button but no such luck. I was tempted to tear his vocal cords out, super glue his lips but passed because Leavenworth Prison was just a long plane ride away.
  
Rummaging through the photo equipment trailer,
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I found exactly what I needed, a 600mm Nova flex Follow-Focus Lens, (auto-focus had not been invented yet) two Nikons and what appeared to be a wooden gunstock mount which I would use instead of a tripod. Looking back, the camera and lens mounted on the gunstock; looked like an exotic Star War’s weapon (cool) and was exactly what I needed to photograph what I didn’t know I was supposed to photograph. The lens had a spring loaded pistol grip that you squeezed to focus. The gunstock also had a pistol grip built-in, along with a cable release that you depressed to fire the camera and 250 exposures motorized…essentially, a machine gun loaded with film. Not lethal at all and a great tool for capturing as well as preserving history. Most excellent!

Aboard the CIA Air America C-47, loaded with “Civilian Suits” (very rare in Vietnam), heading east we climbed out of the clouds at about 3,000 feet, banked hard right, hugged the eastern coastline of South Vietnam and headed North.
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After six months in-country and approximately 50 or so combat missions; I was familiar enough with the terrain from altitude to know we were headed for Cam Rahn Bay, a large but relatively quiet and reasonably safe AF Base along the coast.
I asked the Suit sitting next to me where we were going. He said “can’t tell ya” just as the Major had said. I asked him what he / they wanted photographs of. He responded … “Can’t tell ya”.
Grrrrr….I had had enough of this and said “I know exactly where we are going, Mr. Empty Suit” He looked at me with an expression of pure distain and disbelief and called my bluff. I wasn’t bluffing. “So, smart-ass, where are we headed?” he asked.  I said, “Cam Rahn Bay!”  All the blood drained from his face in a mille-second and he asked “How do you know that?” I said, “Can’t tell ya!!!!” (Touch√©! You have just been had by none other than “Mac the Marauder”) I was slapping my knee and LOL! He was not amused. Most excellent! Had he checked me out before this mission he would have learned that two months before I had spent two weeks in Singapore working with some of his “associates” or in this case, other CIA operatives. I am not particularly the CIA. One of the “Suits” confirmed Cam Rahn Bay was our final destination as he continued to brief me on our mission. None other than President Lyndon Banes BBQ Johnson was en route on Air Force One and would be landing soon.
His objective: boost morale, a great photo-op for LBJ, show support for the troops, and, along with General Westmoreland, award medals to those who deserved them. No big deal. My mind began to wander slightly and I smiled. Who would ever name their daughter “Ladybird”? Did she have a brother named – Man-bird? Was there a nephew named “Flip the bird”….but I digress.
Others photographers would be on the flight-line photographing various medal ceremonies, dignitary hand shakes and back-slappers. I was to climb to the top of an adjacent aircraft hanger and photograph the President from a high vantage point as he exited Air Force One. (With no likelihood of someone shooting at me this should have been a piece of cake, right? Well, not exactly!) Landing 30 minutes before Air force One, I was herded into a small hut where I was issued my press credentials. I was told emphatically to “wear the press pass conspicuously on the back of my baseball cap”. 
Following all the annoying bureaucratic red tape to the letter, including a slightly too friendly body pat down for weapons, I left the briefing to climb up the long, tall ladder to the top of the hanger and select the best vantage point available. I had already attached the press pass, as ordered, to the back of my cap.  On top of the hanger, I set up as close as I could to the edge, tested my camera and waited. The view was spectacular as the sun was now up and glistening on the South China Sea. It was peaceful and reminded me of home, Lake Champlain and Vermont.
On top of the hanger, the sun began to heat the metal roof and black gooey roofing cement began to bubble. I felt like the steak I had earlier dreamed about….cooked well done instead of rare…laying on top of the hanger was very hot!!!!! A cold snap would have made me a permanent part of that roof. Smoke from the tires in the distance and Air Force 1 touched down. Mentally I gave the pilot a C- for the landing and I forget how hot it was.
After all, the President was on board and I was just slightly intimidated that little ole me would be photographing him. Air Force 1 taxied to a predetermined spot below me.

I mounted the camera up to my right eye. Damn, the bill on my cap obstructed my view through the cameras viewfinder so I reversed it as many kid’s now wear them all the time.
(Little did I know I was setting a fashion trend and that my cap would never quite fit the same way ever again.)
The door to Air Force One opens and there’s the President of the United States. I start to shoot. He takes three steps down the stairs and waves. The Follow-Focus lens works beautifully. The motorized Nikon camera hums.…… and then …total darkness…someone had turned the lights out. Then “blinded by the light” ….someone had turned them back on. I am on my back instead of on my stomach; and I did not know how I got there. The barrel of a handgun was pressed to my forehead and a knee was on my chest making it difficult to breathe.
What is going on? My head really, hurt. The sun blinded me but I could make out a gun held by a somewhat apologetic Secret Service Agent.  He said he was sorry for pistol whipping me but saw from the rear what appeared to be a sniper weapon.
He had never seen a Nikon set up like a gun and soooo he took no chances. He explained he really thought I was going to blow up AF 1 and assassinate the President! He could not see my press pass from the rear because I had turned my cap around. Stupid me! My fault….he was just doing his job. Had he not finally seen the press pass when he turned me over the outcome could have been much worse than just a cut, concussion and a bad head ache.
The pictures I took before he turned my lights out, all seven were… uninspiring.
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Today I prefer to wear a “Boonie-Hat” that is round and has no front or back. I will always have painful memories of my brief encounter with LBJ for many reasons but this one rises to the top.  A word to the wise: Pay attention to the details. They can keep you alive, and if you don’t, get you killed or, at the very least, give you a very bad headache. Where the hell is my Tylenol? Until next time….Mac the Marauder is over and out! Thank you!

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