"What's up with all the formality? Why all the mister protocol?"
"Tradition and security… When we were initiated into our elite cadre, the existing members christened us with a nom de guerre. Always for one of the disciples of Jesus. Our roster was never more than ten, so there were always a couple of names to spare. The distance between our nom de guerre and our real identity was a measure of safety for us in the real world,” Mr. Joshua said as he unlocked the door.
My Stilled Life: Chapter 12
I hadn't slept well. I'd tossed and turned most of the night. I've always had trouble sleeping in strange rooms and the stories of the maternal side of Mai Le's family, if true, were downright off-putting.
Early the next morning I was rousted out of bed by my Mr. Thomas.
"Rise and shine, Mr. Price, it's a good morning here in our high desert paradise," he chuckled. "Take a shower, dress for the heat. That means long pants, long sleeves, hat, and sunblock. If you don't have boots, I'm sure Joshua has some you can borrow. Also, grab a jacket. It’s desert morning cold outside. I'll be waiting in the kitchen," he said as he looked down at me, continuing to chuckle.
"What time is it? It's still dark outside?"
"We value sunlight here and try not to fritter it away, Mr. Price. Hurry along now, don't waste my time, I don't have that much left."
My morning toilette is a lot more complicated these days. After showering, I have to spend ten minutes removing my prosthesis, cleaning my eyelids, looking for any sign of infection or puss that might be seeping from my eye socket, then carefully cleaning my glass prosthesis before reinserting it and making sure that it looks somewhat normal. Then I put on my polycarbonate clear glasses, an extra measure of safety for a one-eyed man.
Mr. Thomas paused from his gargantuan spoon full of fruit-laden oatmeal. "Fill up, Mr. Price, it will be a long day out in the elements. You'll need all the strength and stamina you can muster. Fill up."
I loaded a couple slices of whole wheat bread into the mirror-finished countertop toaster, found a jar of creamy Skippy peanut butter in the cabinet next to the refrigerator, and once the toast was up, I scooped out a large dollop of the light brown elixir and spread across the bread's charred surface. Peanut butter toast and ice-cold Coca-Cola is a breakfast with its origins in the deep south. Not sure how it became a tradition in my mother's family, but it was now one of my staples.
Mr. Thomas's bright orange Jeep had been backed in and parked in a manner that indicated that he had years of experience in fast getaways.
"We're on our way to Sheep Hole pass. I have a small plot of land in a natural depression where we can practice shooting with a variety of weapons without being disturbed.
"You'll need to hang on, the Jeep's ride is pretty stiff. The county doesn't maintain the roads very well out here. We’re bound to encounter an overabundance of jarring roadway conditions, so belt-up and hang onto the grab bar."
Twenty-five minutes later, we pulled off the county road just past an odd shaped boulder painted lime-green. Mr. Thomas shifted into four-wheel drive, moving effortlessly over the shifting dunes. Once we were out of sight of the road, we came upon a little flat area with a small storage shed and a wall of sandbags set-up like a target range. We stopped and Mr. Thomas handed me several paper targets to pin up. When I'd finished pinning up all five targets, I walked back to the Jeep where Mr. Thomas was unpacking a small arsenal.
He handed me a pair of safety goggles and earplugs. ”We'll start with a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. Unlike an automatic, with a wheel-gun, you can be confident that when you pull the trigger the weapon will discharge.
"Since you have limited vision we start with a two-handed crouching stance. The army developed this method for shooting in the close confines of jungle warfare, where there wasn't room or time to use a more traditional stance.
"You'll need to turn your head a bit to get a view of what’s in front of you. A normally sighted person sees maybe one hundred forty degrees of what's in front of him. With your one eye you'll be lucky to see ninety, so you'll need to rotate your head back and forth to get a fuller picture of what's in front of you. Watch me a minute."
Holding the gun in both hands he crouched, extending both arms out in front of him, and fired off several shots.
"I'm really not aiming, just looking at what I want to hit and letting my arms be an extension of my vision."
It took a good 40 minutes before I could consistently hit the target. Then we moved to a Russian Makarov .380 pistol.
Mr. Thomas picked up a small automatic and handed it to me."I chose this Makarov pistol because they're still ubiquitous in Vietnam, especially in Binh Tay Market on the western edge of Saigon.
“Similar caliber and kick to the Smith & Wesson, but it holds 10 rounds. In my opinion, this weapon is only useful in close quarter fighting. Nothing beyond twenty feet. After that, hitting something is just luck."
"My father had one of these in his study, I found it when I was going through his stuff," I said.
The weapon was hot to the touch. It had been laying out on the Jeep's tailgate, in the full purview of the sun. It didn't feel as substantial as the Smith & Wesson. Holding it with my right hand and sighting with my left eye was awkward. I couldn't hit much of anything.
"I think you might have more success if you shoot the Makarov left-handed," Mr. Thomas suggested.
Left-handed I could hit the target, but I couldn't make a consistent grouping. After half an hour, Mr. Thomas seemed satisfied and motioned me over to the back of the Jeep. He took the Makarov from my cramping hand.
He replaced the pistol on the tailgate, put on a pair of leather gloves and picked up the rifle. "This is the best, most versatile and most reliable assault weapon in the world. Widely known as the AK47, the Kalashnikov is virtually indestructible, unlike the M16, which needs to be constantly mothered."
Mr. Thomas, still holding the weapon, leaned into the cab of the Jeep, flipped a couple of switches on the dash that filled the air with sixties acid rock. He took a couple of steps away from the Jeep, turned to face the targets, and opened up with full auto.
He surprised the shit out of me by yelling "Fuck you motherfuckkkkeeerrs!" as he emptied a full clip into the center of the furthest target.
"I find that yelling clears my head, rids me of anxiety and hopefully instills a modicum of uncertainty in the enemy. We'll start you with two-round bursts. Put on these gloves. This is a Serbian manufactured AK with a stamped receiver. It has very sharp edges. Firing it without leather gloves can lacerate the shit out of your hands." He loaded a new magazine and passed the AK to me. “Keep it pointed down range and move the selector down one click to semi-automatic."
I faced the target, awkwardly pressed the rifle butt against my left shoulder and squeezed the trigger. I hardly noticed the recoil and actually hit the right edge of the target with the second shot. He had me continue doing short bursts until I was consistently hitting the target.
"Now, we'll practice changing the magazines under fast fire conditions," he said handing me two fully loaded 40 round clips.
"Remove the magazine, clear the action, make sure its empty. Then take one of the new mags I just handed you, insert the magazine, charge the weapon, fire a two-round burst, eject that mag, load in a new one, charge the weapon, fire a two-round burst. Just keep repeating the process until both magazines are empty."
It took a full forty-five minutes to complete the process. Mr. Thomas seemed pleased, "You cut your load time from over a minute to under twenty seconds. That's good, but a proficient combatant averages around eight seconds, but it's not bad for your first day.
"Move the selector up to the middle position, which is full auto. Make sure you're holding on with a firm grip, and while you squeeze the trigger you'll need to watch for barrel rise."
I turned to the target, moved the selector and squeezed the trigger. It felt like I'd only just pulled the trigger when the clip emptied out.
I found it exhilarating. After I'd emptied half a dozen full clips, Mr. Thomas sighed. "You can see, Mr. Price, the disadvantages of using this weapon in full automatic. It's exciting for you and intimidating for your opponent. But before you know it, you're out of ammunition, facing a smiling enemy, and have little chance of seeing tomorrow."
The house was dark and deserted when we got back. Mr. Thomas walked in, switched on the lights, and made his way into the living room. "Join me," he commanded while he browsed through a long shelf of vinyl LPs. He took his selection over to an expensive looking turntable, unsheathed the vinyl disk, and set it in motion. The room filled with the sounds of Cal Tjader's lyrical improvisations.
He sat down facing me saying, "I met your father in Laos, back in the early 1970's. He was a singular individual. A man who was most-alive in treacherously chaotic situations. When called upon, he could erupt into episodes of extreme violence, undaunted by anything, other than his objective. But afterward, if you'd meet him on the street you wouldn't think him capable of even a minor misdemeanor.
"You don't seem to be too much like him, and maybe that is lucky. Killing someone is not without its lingering drawbacks. No matter what the justification, the act will leave a stain on your being. And just when you think it's gone, it will manifest itself in unexpected ways.
"Your father was the only man I've ever met who's being was totally stain-resistant."
Another bad night, filled with dreams of shadowy beings standing in judgment of a guilty world.
I felt like I'd just fallen asleep when Mr. Andrew was at my door requesting my presence in the kitchen as soon as I was able.
After a hasty breakfast, we drove to a local strip mall with a store-front dojo that he'd rented for the day. As we crossed the threshold, something changed in his demeanor. All cordiality left, replaced by a sternness that was a little bit scary.
In the entryway, we took off our shoes, removed our jackets and walked onto the dojo's training mats. Mr. Andrew began, "First off, let us state the obvious. You're approaching middle age, not at your best physically, and with your newly acquired deficits you'll need a great deal of luck to survive any hostile encounter."
"What I can offer you is a no hesitation strategy. A knowledge of the bodies vulnerabilities. Where and how to strike to inflict the most damage and gain the extra time you need to escape."
"Rule one: If you can run away, run away. No matter where you are, try to visualize an escape route. Keep track of who and what is around you. If you think something is amiss, move away. Find a different route, eat at a different place, sleep somewhere else. No routine."
"Second rule: Soft on hard, hard on soft. When you're going to punch someone's skull, ribs, anything where the bone is close to the surface use a soft part of your body. Like a palm strike or a closed fist hammer strike.
"To strike an opponent's neck, throat, stomach, kidney or any soft area use the knuckles of your closed fist. Soft on hard, hard on soft.
"A broken hand is debilitating and is a lot easier to do than most people can believe. These techniques will help prevent that.
"If you’re attacked, more than likely they will try to take you unawares. If it turns into a fight it will more than likely become a grappling match in which you'd be at a great disadvantage.”
We worked on the heavy bag for the first part of the day. Then in the afternoon, we grappled. Which was exhausting because I was so vulnerable on my blind side. Mr. Andrew had no qualms about throwing me around, then explaining what I'd done wrong as I struggled to get up again.
When the dojo's sensei arrived to teach his evening classes, Mr. Andrew thanked him for the use of the studio. I could hear them laughing as I hobbled back to the car.
The morning of the 3rd day, Mr. James was waiting in the kitchen for me. Getting out of bed was goddamn painful. After showering, I found a near-empty tube of Salonpas in the medicine cabinet and slathered what was left of it over my arms, shoulders and lower back and waited for the burning relief to begin.
Mr. James lead me into the den, that was decked out with cork bulletin boards overflowing with pinned up diagrams and photographs. There was also a nifty little video projector hooked up to his laptop. From which, I assumed, there would be some kind of powerpoint presentation.
He pointed to a small refrigerator and a side table loaded with Hostess snacks. "Breakfast. I'm aware of your proclivities, so grab something. This is going to take a while and I want you fully awake and taking notes."
I used a church-key to pop the top off of an ice-cold bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola, grabbed a couple of Twinkies in their cellophane wrappers, and made my way to the table that he was pointing at. I placed my breakfast down next to a pad of paper and a mechanical pencil. I pulled up my chair and turned to Mr. James giving him the thumbs up sign.
He looked directly at me asking, "You're sure you're ready? This is a long involved tale, Some I have first-hand knowledge of, some I got from the intelligence services, and the interpersonal stuff is from reading Tu Thi’s journals. It will take a while before we’ll get to how you got embroiled in this long-running vendetta.“
He lowered the lights and pressed a key on his computer. The first slide appeared. "This is a map of Southeast Asia during WW2."
His laser pointer highlighted Saigon. "All your troubles began here, in French Indochina, with the Luru clan. They were immigrant Hua Chinese merchants whose forefathers had settled there several generations before and gotten rich due to inequities of French governance.
"After France capitulated to Germany, things took a dark turn in Indochina. The Luru's elders were keen observers, especially of the Sino-Japanese conflict. The local Chinese community was overrun with rumors of the incredible number of inhuman atrocities that had occurred along the Imperial Japanese Army's line of march. Especially troubling was the vicious sacking of Nanking and the subsequent slaughter of non-combatants that had become dark lore among Saigon's ethnic Chinese.
"Early in 1941, these rumors, combined with the Luru clan's astrologer's forecast, were the impetus behind their fortuitous decision to move their assets out of Saigon, hiding them to a number of small rice hamlets scattered throughout the Mekong Delta.
"A few months later the Japanese marched into Saigon as sympathetic conquerors. The Vietnamese people were hoping that they would throw the French and Chinese out on their asses.
“Most of the Japanese rank and file soldiers were veterans of the China campaign, viewing the ethnic Chinese as hereditary and historic enemies.
“Unfortunately for them, most of Indochina's commercial enterprises were in the hands of the ethnic Chinese. The Japanese had to put aside their natural inclination to exterminate them and bowed to expediency, choosing to exploit their business acumen and knowledge of rice production in the countryside. The Chinese merchants were in control of over 80% of Vietnam’s commercial enterprises. They were allowed to continue these activities, but now on behalf of Emperor Hirohito. As long as things went well, everybody was all smiles. But if things looked or went awry, the offender was publicly dispatched.
"Mai Le's grandmother, Tu Thi Luru, was born a month later. It was a very scary time. The Vichy French government was still officially in charge, but in everything other than in name, the Japanese military ruled, doing what they wanted when they wanted.
"Her birth should have been a moment of great joy. But due to the presence of the Japanese, celebrations were deferred in favor of sequestering her and her mother in the remotest hamlet the clan had sway with. Their journey began immediately, hoping to skirt the harsher supervision that would surely follow once the Japanese troops were more conversant with local comings and goings.
“After several months, the idyllic village's remoteness was both an advantage and hindrance. By the time the clan leaders learned of Tu Thi Luru's mother's illness, she'd already moved on to the next plane of existence, leaving Tu Thi Luru without a firm hand to curb her innate willfulness.
“Born in both the hour and year of the Dragon, it was foretold that Tu Thi Luru’s life would be eventful and filled with the specter of strife. Beautiful, willful, and savage when her will was thwarted, the golden child of the Luru clan was the pinnacle of years of planning and generations of breeding. Her ethnic Chinese ancestors had come to Saigon generations earlier and, after much striving, they were finally in a position to assure the clan's eminence for decades to come. Tu Thi was the culmination of years of planning.
“In March 1945, the Japanese were done with the sham, imprisoning the Vichy authorities. At that point, the Japanese realized that they had to redouble their efforts or the war would be lost.
“Like the Nazis, they viewed brutality as the great motivator. In this vein, they executed Mai Le's great-grandfather and three grand uncles when they failed to meet their rice production quota. After being publicly caned and humiliated they were beheaded in a public square as a further motivation for the local peasant farmers.
“But by September, Japan had surrendered and for a couple of months it looked like Vietnam and the Vietnamese people might gain their independence. The Luru clan was preparing to be expelled as foreign interlopers because of the resentment that the Vietnamese people felt towards their clannish commercial success and the favor that the French had shown to the Chinese merchants.
“But early in 1946, the clan's fortunes brightened with the return of the French, who were there to reclaim their empire and reassert authority over Indochina.
“At this point, Tu Thi Luru was six years of age. Her training needed to begin. But, since both her parents were dead and much of the clan's leadership had been decimated by the Japanese, those who remained were in a quandary as to who to trust with her tutelage and edification.
“After much debate, a little thought of unmarried great-grandaunt was selected to take Tu Thi under her purview and develop her into the poised weapon of beauty that the clan required her to be.
Some in the remaining upper echelon of the clan thought of her as a harbinger of misfortune, referring to her as White Silk Rustling, an epithet for the coming of unseen and unexpected death.
“But the majority just thought of her as merely an eccentric old maid who dressed in the color of death to commemorate an unknowable loss. They thought all she really needed was the right task to bring her back to the living.
“Thanks to the Japanese, she was the only living member of the family who still had a working knowledge of the intricate practices the family had employed for centuries to educate the young of the family. She would know which mysteries to initiate her charge into and which to hold back.
"She was answerable for the golden child's instruction and for making sure that she was cloistered and that her virtue could be strictly monitored. Unlike the golden-child tradition of all the other clans, the future of Luru clan rested on a female and her unblemished maidenhood.
“These duties elevated White Silk Rustling into a position to exact payment for the wrongs done to her as a young woman. Wrongs that were compounded when the family set her on a path of years of lonely servitude. To exact this overdue retribution she was prepared to pay any price, no matter the consequences to herself or others.
With spurious care, she initiated Tu Thi in the essential feminine arts, skills, and mysteries, while secretly nurturing Tu's growing obsession with everything new, glamorous and Western.
“The growing hope for a life in the West was like opium to the young ingenue. She wanted freedom. She wanted to dance with abandon, to bob her hair like Louise Brooks, live a life devoted to the arts and self-expression with the freedom to speak her mind without censorship.
“By happenstance, the perfect linchpin for great-grand aunt's plan of revenge materialized in the form of a newly posted French diplomat, Bernard Martin Patti. After just one glimpse of his jaunty demeanor and movie star looks, White Silk Rustling knew he would be the perfect lure.
“Her plan was simple. An accidental meeting, then a series of flirtations, then a secret wooing and finally an impregnation that would put an end to all the clan's aspirations.
“The first meeting between Tu Thi Luru and the young inexperienced Frenchman was so electric that White Silk Rustling knew at once her trap had sprung. An instant animal magnetism, that great-grandaunt magnified by extolling the virtues of the young occidental and the advantages of living in the West, interspersed with tales of romance and the ecstasies of willfulness. This continued until Tu Thi Luru became obsessed with quenching the fire in her nether regions.
“A smiling great-grandaunt had Tu secreted out of the compound over the next few months. With glee, she encouraged and aided the young diplomat's efforts to woo, entrance and finally impregnate an all too happy to oblige Tu Thi Luru.
“When it became common knowledge that the "Gates of Heaven" had been breached and inseminated by an occidental, the clan erupted into an internal civil war. The lives of those who were charged with Tu Thi Luru’s safekeeping were forfeit, especially great-grandaunt, who laughed as she was lead away to face a most painful and undignified end.
“A week later, the diplomat was abducted. After several days of persuasion, he and Tu Thi were married in a late night service at Saigon's Notre-Dame Basilica. A suitable house was found where the couple could reside under the watchful eye of the clan until the birth. The young Frenchman continued his duties at the embassy while he tried to keep Tu Thi Luru in a blissful state. At his insistence, the birth took place at the French hospital in Saigon after a very short labor. Through her father's embassy's auspices, their daughter was granted a French birth certificate, which conveyed French citizenship. This was 1956.
“At this point, most of the French had already left Indochina, leaving just a skeletal diplomatic staff to help oversee the agreed upon referendum that was to unite the two Vietnams. But when the Americans came in to advise the South Vietnamese government, the idea of unification evaporated. So the French opted to leave.
“Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Martin Patti and their newly born daughter, Soung, were slated to sail for France at the end of November. It was never explained what happened but something did. When the SS La Marseillaise sailed, Tu was left behind, replaced by a reluctant wet nurse. It seemed the clan had taken their revenge, just when the willful Tu Thi's dream was within reach.”
All materials copyright 2017 Ronald Gary Dunlap