The Code of Conduct


Lawrence Dagstine

Illustrated by Bob Veon

Who’s who in war?

The monsters had brought me here to make me what they called a functional criminal. They tried to get me in a way where I could conform to prison routine. It had been two weeks since I had been rolled to the dirt-laden operating room for the first of four operations; what the enemy called “borrowed” goods. To test my gratitude before proceeding, a figure had been sent to get me to provide some military information. He was a fanged freak of a man, dark hair and slanty features, with the bearing of a seasoned army officer. I soon learned he was known as Igor, and the name fit the tomblike persona. To us prisoners, the jailers remained rankless and nameless, and thus acquired silly nicknames. He had brought the map on which I was to draw navy in-flight refueling areas. The navy didn’t have any special fueling areas; they just did it wherever it was convenient, usually over water. I think Igor knew that, and I told him so. But he said he had to have a “secret” mark on the map to show my good attitude. Naturally, this human had refused.

Late that afternoon, Igor’s two sidekicks entered and solemnly announced, “I bring word from the general staff officer. You have made a very grave error. Now things will not go well for you.” Then they left. Before midnight I was awakened by the two ageless functionaries again—I called them Bram and Stoker, while the other more tormented prisoners decided on Tweedledee and Tweedledum—blindfolded, carried out on a stretcher, and then placed in a jeep, my first time upright in almost eight weeks. After six or seven jungle blocks and some hard turns late in the ride, there was a stop, a clanging, bright lights, then muffled reverberations of a quick trip through a tunnel and a stop inside what I assumed to be Ngo Ben Ha Prison.

The blindfold came off. A tall guard I would come to know as Drac loomed out of the darkness, bearing a huge pair of old, worn crutches. He signaled for silence, with a finger across his lips; he got it. Then Bram and Stoker followed, the latter shutting off the jeep’s ignition and leading me through a bloodstained door on the right wall of another tunnel. The crutches were made for a man half a foot taller than me. I vaulted along best I could, fearful of putting any weight on my stiff but somewhat straightened left leg, from which stitches had been removed only the day before. My lower leg still swung sideways at what had been the knee. A fall on it at that time might well have led to its amputation, and much to my captors’ feeding delight; theirs was a phantasmagoric method of absorption which I had never come across in my seventeen years parachuting across enemy lines.

The few steps in the cool night air had been exhilarating as the scene inside the bloodstained door was depressing. The floor of the short hallway where I stood was littered with debris, including a batch of blood-soaked bandages and a single human ribcage. The ceiling was high, the walls a dirty white, and four bolted cell doors were on either side. All were padlocked except the first door on the left. A barred window above each cell door had been boarded up. Stoker ran ahead and opened the next to last door on the right. Inside this new cell were two crumbling cement-slab bunks, one on either side of a very narrow aisle. There were leg stocks at the foot of each slab, a few inches from the door’s entrance. A rathole open to an outside gutter was between the bed heads; a mosquito net was rigged over the bunk to my left.

Bram threw two pairs of thin khaki prison pajamas, a blanket, a bar of soap, a washrag, a pair of automobile-tire sandals, and a white crusty pan with cool water on the cement slab to his right. He also tossed me a wad of gauze for my leg. “Keep silent,” he said in a tough, low voice. “Behave and we refill your pan.” The cell door was slammed and bolted; the two pairs of footsteps retreated.


Shaking my head, I pulled up the net, sat down on the slab under it, laid the crutches across my prison gear, and thanked God that, for the first time since leaving the Jungle Jockey’s flight-briefing room fifty-eight days before, I was within whispering distance of Americans. I looked down at those leg stocks at the foot of the beds, all weathered and corroded, then up above them at the strange feeding chutes within reach of a man in stocks. Then I looked back over my shoulder at the rathole with the small, open toilet bucket beside it; it was stuffed with the last resident’s shit. This cellblock was built for a privatized sort of efficiency; a man could be locked in stocks for months and the only jail labor required was opening the food chute once or twice a day and handing in a bowl of rice. It was up to the prisoner to dump his bucket out the rathole.

An illuminated bare light bulb hung from the ceiling high above me. A minute after lying back on the tightly woven straw matting, I sprang up and took off the paper-thin work jumper that had been given to me after being shot down. I put on one pair of prison pajamas and draped the other over the mosquito net to keep the light out of my eyes.

I lay awake that night for a couple of hours, listening to the barely audible whispers of real human countrymen. My heart pounded in excitement. I felt so good to be part of a group for a change. In the hospital I had spent lots of time thinking about dying a secret death, being eaten alive, and my remains, if there were to be any, rotting in an unmarked grave in a foreign land. I still didn’t know much about my hosts, and what life would be like in the coming weeks. Being able to get a deathbed exclamation to a middle-aged American man’s ear—I was turning forty in a month, and I was sure that this is where I would spend my hours of celebration let alone mandatory isolation—was security to say the least. Sooner or later people would learn the truth about Ngo Ben Ha—I was sure of it—and they would know when and where I died.

I was awakened by the clang of a metal pipe against a section of iron railroad track dangling from a tree outside. Next came martial music from loudspeakers on the other side of the prison walls—a broken phonograph system, albeit—and I finally heard the rhythmic clapping and chiming of the prison staff’s group calisthenic exercises in the courtyard. It was still dark, the moon a rusty crescent.

Bang! My door was flung open and the ominous Drac yelled in Vietnamese, pointing to the little bucket and to my bar of soap and washrag. Moments later he waved me with a long fingernailed hand out into the hall. He was in a hurry as I worked to get all of this in hand, and myself onto those giant’s crutches. As I struggled along, Drac’s head turned. I glanced to the left and saw a grinning American face looking down at me through a crack at least four feet above a door.

Elated to see that face, it took me a second to realize that Drac had led me into a replica of the cell I had just left, except that there was a water spigot over the rathole. The obvious idea was for me to dump the shit and piss-filled bucket and wash my hands and face. When Drac snarled and slammed the door behind me, my crutches skidded and I nearly fell. I then realized that I had slipped on stale urine, which was all over the floor. There were other kinds of dried waste and feces, the likes I’d never encountered—not even in any condemned gas station bathroom back home in Missouri. It stank. Bad.

I stripped and, for the first time since I had been captured, looked at my now very thin, dirty, and deformed body. God, I needed a shave the worst. I should have doused myself all over, but I wasn’t up to it. I was shivering; the smell didn’t help any. The faucet just dribbled and the water was contaminated and cold.

By my reckoning there were five other solitary occupants, definitely not Asian like those others from days before, and as soon as they had been taken into cellblock C for their dumping and washing, then returned to their assigned cages, Drac went away. I immediately heard whispering from the guy I had seen looking at me through the crack. I dropped to the floor and spoke under my door. His name was Brady Grady—a weird first and last if I’d ever heard one—and he was off the carrier Kitty Hawk, sailing from San Diego to Hawaii, then the Philippines for some sort of strategic drop mission. His destination, like many others in his rank, was supposed to be the outskirts of the Mekong Delta. He told me the operation didn’t go as planned, and he had been shot down the week before. Not to worry about the smelly mess on the floor of the adjacent cellblock, as that was part of prison life here. Guards would come into our hall, feed, then use that floor every night rather than go to more distant latrines. It was the quickest and easiest way to get the nitrogen from our bloodstreams out of their systems.

Brady told me that his cellblock was known as Desolation Road. From his high observation perch, brainy Brady not only had a way of secretly seeing hall activities but could also see Drac for a couple of strides before he hit the bloodstained door. Grady obviously wasn’t playing with a full deck, but he established the clear signal of “Hickory Dickory Dock.” For danger, he would whistle “Frere Jacques”—Are you sleeping?—as visiting was still comparatively casual. If a person were caught talking, Drac would just open his door and rant in Vietnamese. The communication “tripwire” system, with its swift sequence of arrest, torture, confession, and atonement, had yet to blossom.

But it was not far away. In fact, it was during these very days that systematic torture was being tested and perfected by an executioner-like interrogator. Some times it involved blood plasma, other times body parts and vital organs. Drac’s practice victim—he fed the least of the prison guards—was a young shipmate of Grady’s. We’d heard all about it that following day, a cool predawn morning bathed in moonlight in 1966, when he was put in the only vacant cell along Desolation Road. Number 6, a little ways from me, good old Number 3.

Carlos had arrived unannounced at Ngo Ben Ha on the morning of April 5th. He was first put in a large interrogation room on the front side of the prison, just off the Desolation courtyard. There this brave and confident young officer refused to answer questions beyond name, rank, serial number, blood type—the only questions he was obliged to answer under international law. He was then threatened with death.

Once left alone, Carlos yelled to another cellblock and told some other Americans what was happening. One of the freaks heard this exchange, and Carlos was moved to still another cellblock, around the corner, in a place we few prisoners came to know as New Guy Lane. There he was constantly fed on and put well out of earshot of Desolation Road. Over a one-week period he was purposely beaten, toyed with, bound, whipped, and drained more than the rest of us. He was also kept in leg stocks, all to no avail. Finally, that following weekend, Carlos was informed that his interrogator had received permission from a higher authority to do what was necessary to get him to talk. Drac brought in a small, stocky creature whose distinctive features were half-beast, half-demon, with a receding hairline and expressionless eyes.

“What is that?” I whispered to Grady through the crack. “An ogre?”

“More like a golem,” he said.

Methodically this new creature, obviously in complete servitude to the masters of Ngo Ben Ha, slapped Carlos about the head and shoulders, knocked him down, bloodied him up, and laced Manila-hemp rope around his upper arms. At one point he used his strength to cut off the officer’s blood circulation and bent him double, producing excruciating pain and claustrophobia. Carlos was forced to submit; Drac seemed to delight in this.

Carlos’s answers were innocuous, but that wasn’t the point. These freaks had crossed a boundary. Henceforth, the “rope trick” was incorporated into their system and used as they chose. Carlos’s interrogator, the only golem I’ve ever seen in my life let alone with protruding ears, became known as Grarl. The torture expert, when summoned, was called Prince. And the high authority who had authorized this first torture was a pain expert named Sluggo; I’d later learn that, like Drac, he too had a say in the unethical operations many of us had to endure.

Sluggo was the first of the new three I got to know. He replaced Drac as our full-time turnkey. I studied him as he opened my cell door. He awaited my bow and the picking up of my bowl of alligator soup, which I feasted on twice a day when it wasn’t rice, rice, and more rice. He led me to the cellblock C bucket dump and wash each morning. He was a few centuries older than the other guards, perhaps three or four hundred years older, and the wrinkles in his face led me to believe he was a character out of some forgotten Asian dynasty where mysticism was regarded highly. His manner was that of an athletic trainer. He was trim and aloof, a very impersonal technician, and predominantly pale in features like the rest.

The thudding footsteps of the jug-eared golem was hard to mistake. I got up close and personal with him at my first Desolation interrogation. It was a muggy night in May when Sluggo came to my door and gave me the sleeves signal—the cutting action of one hand across the other wrist—which meant roll sleeves down and prepare to meet an interrogator. Grady was bouncing off the walls going, “Fuck LBJ! Fuck LBJ!” as I was escorted out the cellblock. I exited the bloodstained door for the first time, followed Sluggo out of the tunnel into some foliaged campground, and across to room 13 in the rain. It was slick; I nearly fell on my crutches getting up the steps. I went into that room where I had spent my first few weeks flat on my back on a hardwood library table, awaiting treatment. I had hardly recognized the place, perhaps because I suddenly remembered being drugged and dragged to the first of my operations. The golem was now sitting behind a small table draped with a black cloth. A lamp on the table was the only light, and he had a sinister looking mallet close at hand. A silent man with a crazy beard, almost my age, sat back in the shadows. I bowed as instructed—I wasn’t about to fall victim to the mallet—and Grarl snarled at me in broken English to have a seat on the low stool before him.

This quiz started out as what I would call an attitude check. How was I? Was my clothing adequate? Was the food adequate? Do I find the conditions sanitary? And so on. I had a lot pent up inside me. “What do you care?” I said. “We’re just part of the dinner menu. There’ll come a day where I end up the main course.” I was getting tired of sitting in Desolation Road, watching other new shootdowns spend two-three weeks there and then get transferred. Then, before you knew what hit you, the heavenly experience of being feasted upon, tortured to death, or sent to an even worse facility. I brought up the question of the Geneva Convention of 1949, concerning treatment of prisoners of war. I complained about solitude, filth, the heinous operations and the unfinished medical work on my leg.

“But this is not a regular prison facility,” Sluggo chuckled from the doorway, arms folded across his chest. “We operate outside the jurisdiction of the North.”

“But you work with them,” I said. “Isn’t that the same as being a Cong yourself?”

“As long as we provide useful data on a monthly basis, we can do as we like with the detainees. This is the way things were established. This is how the American bargaining chip works. It is advantageous for both our parties. The only thing we have in common besides this land is that we share a common enemy: you!”

My defiant attitude got the silent man my age out of his chair. Robotically he took Grarl’s place at the table and let the golem interpret the short speech he gave in Vietnamese: “You have no right to protest; you are just a human, and you are a criminal.” He then produced the Pacific Stars and Stripes. “We know your kind well,” he said.

“What is everybody in a trance?” I hissed.

So that’s how they got their information: hypnosis. And they gave that information to the North—the real North—and in return, the freaks got to keep us.

But I was much stronger than they thought; it would take more than some torture expert or ugly golem to put me under their spell.

Finally Sluggo said, “It is true the country acceded to the Geneva Convention. But we later filed an exception against those captured in wars of aggression. We specifically did this for the Vietcong. We made the political process easier for our neighbors. Other than that, you are nothing but a common criminal, guilty of bombing schools and churches, and of crimes against humanity. Who are you to talk? You deserve to be experimented on. Now, you have medical problems and political problems, and in this country we take care of medical problems only after political problems are resolved.”

“Sure, I remember,” I said, challenging him. “Brady’s left kidney, bone and tissue samples from my forearm and knee, Carlos’s pinky toe, and Geoffrey’s gall bladder and spleen. You said something about politics, Doctor Moreau?”

Annoyed, he stomped out into the rain. Grarl then dismissed me, telling me I had just made a grave error. I had offended an officer of great influence, an officer who sits on a special committee.

I could only imagine what kind of committee.

Back in Desolation, I continued to watch the one-way flow of new shootdowns come and go on to that wonderful place I dreamed of out there, a place like the compound I had lived in during survival training. The fact that I was being treated differently was really starting to worry me. When was the purpose of my mission going to come out? How in heaven’s name was I going to handle it? Would they keep “borrowing” from my malnourished body or was I to become one of their better permanent fixtures? Sooner or later they would twist me into a knot and have my testimonial to deliver to the North. Either that or drain what blood was left out of me.

The velvet-glove treatment continued the following week when Drac came to the door with paper and pen and a sheet of instructions about how I was to properly address mail. I was told I could write a short letter to my commanding officers back at the Jungle Jockey, and to copy and enclose the mailing instructions.

“Okay, this is weird,” I said. “So all of a sudden you’re letting me contact the outside. Won’t you clue the Navy in on your little shrouded jailhouse for fiends and lab rats?”

Drac didn’t say a word. He just pointed at the paper; his eyes ordered me to write.

My mind was thousands of miles from the prison as I wrote. I had thought about how to get Carlos and Brady’s name out as live prisoners, and buried that and others in double-talk in the text. Eventually Bram came and got my envelope and letter.

Five days later, the iron fist struck. In midafternoon the freaks made a big production of a pinch they could have pulled off most any day of recent weeks. Stoker had purposely tossed down a cigarette near my cell; I slid my crutch out under the door to retrieve it, and—bang!—Bram was there yelling.

I was taken before Drac and Sluggo and proclaimed guilty, not only of violating the camp regulations prohibiting communication, but of moral turpitude—“ingratitude for the undeserved humane and lenient treatment Master Cho Ki (Igor) is providing you.” In almost ritual-like fashion, I would be made to repent and atone for my crimes against the Vietnamese people; the freaks would be sure to do it for them.

That evening the bloodstained door banged open, and I knew it was time to say goodbye to Grady and take my lumps, no matter how much everything seemed arranged. I was moved out—net, bucket, blanket, and all—and taken around Desolation courtyard on the normal-sized crutches they had finally traded for my high ones. I was led up a circular staircase. On the second floor, I transited a long hallway and then came down another staircase, into a dark hall that had four thick cell doors on the left, and a blank wall on the right. This had to be another version of New Guy Lane. The third door was opened. I looked into a somewhat narrow but much longer cell than the one I had left, with concrete bunks offset head to toe rather than side to side.

“Get up on the bunk!” shouted Bram in that tough but raspy voice of his, pointing to the one in back, below a high window.

After having talked to Grady the past eight weeks about New Guy Lane, I pretty much knew what to expect in this cell. I hobbled over to the bunk and managed to swing myself up on it. The guard took my crutches away. Then the big locking bar of the leg irons was raised, lowered, and padlocked. My arms were bound behind me while Bram ranted on and on about my bad attitude.

I spent the night slumped over in irons, arms bound behind. There was no blanket that night; I remember how cold and shivery I got. I could hear the two sets of Ngo Ben Ha’s temple bells—they only looked and sounded like a church on the outside—and as they rang midnight on this soldiers’ holiday, I said, “Happy Memorial Day,” and thought of my girlfriend back home that I wanted to marry more than anything; I’d been married twice before, and hoped I’d live to embrace a third union.

Based on what Grady had told me, I programmed myself for thirty days of softening up in those irons. At the end of the day on June 1st the ropes were removed from my wrists in back and tied in front, so I could lie back. A blanket was thrown over me, and I gratefully worked it up around my head and neck. After three days the ropes were left off. My rations were cut short. Every morning I was let out for ten minutes to use my bucket. I wondered if there was a point to all this. I wondered if this was all one big test on my part. Probably not, I told myself, as I still refused to cooperate.

There were no Americans within earshot, which gave me trouble. I pounded on the walls and talked loudly after about the eighth day, but all I got were some sinister giggles next door to my left. I had been spoiled in Desolation Road.

I was totally surprised when, on about the twelfth or thirteenth afternoon, Bram brought in the crutches and unlocked and lifted the big three-foot long shackle bar. I was going to quiz. I followed him through new territory. We walked patiently down a dark passageway toward a big courtyard, then through twin brown doors that had green and off-white painted glass panels in the top half. I caught a glimpse of a number. We were in room 43. In it were a big table and a little table, some chairs, some crates, most covered with a cloth the Vietnamese called Ho Chi Minh blue. There was also a recently used gurney in the corner, a blood-soaked sheet in a crumpled pile on top of it, and a pair of handcuffs hanging off one of the support bars. Hanging from the high ceiling was a broken fan, a malfunctioning light bulb, and a giant hook. I trembled and swallowed at the sight of the hook, then wondered when my last tetanus shot was.

The big-eared golem waddled in and sat at the little table, trusty mallet by his side. I bowed in accordance with prison regulations and, following Bram’s nod toward the little stool in front of the table, hobbled over to it on my crutches.

This was it. I was ready for the worst, and Grarl got right to the point. “It has been decided that you must write to your government and explain the plight of the Vietnamese people.”

“Like hell I will!” I shouted.

“Lack of cooperation will only keep you here longer,” Bram muttered from the side.

“As I was saying,” the golem continued, “you must explain the plight of the Vietnamese people, to fight for four, eight, twelve years to defeat you imperialist aggressors. You must explain that the war with the North is illegal and immoral and must be stopped.”

“You can force-feed me all the propaganda you want. Ain’t happening, stud.”

“Then we will reprogram your mind in such a way where you will have little choice.”

“We were hoping you’d participate this time,” Bram added.

“Your hypnosis won’t work on me,” I said.

“We’ll just see about that,” said Grarl.

Then I went into my song and dance about the Geneva Convention of 1949 again, my treatment as a POW, and the improper nature of Grarl’s demands. The golem nodded toward Bram to go find Sluggo; if they were going to be difficult, so was I. While waiting for the torture teacher, Grarl put his mallet at the front of the table. He waved off as so much hogwash and pushed a handwritten document in front of me.

“You can actually read?” I scoffed.

“This is what you must write,” he said. “You are in bad health. You must think of yourself. Go back and work on it. Take your time.”

As I swung along on my crutches, retracing my steps, Bram came back inside. Sluggo was now standing behind him, shaking his head; he threw me a dirty look. Before exiting, he whispered in my ear, “There seems to be a wall between us, one which, from a racial and cultural stance, will always be there. But you and I must try to see through it. We must join together and bring this imperialist war to an end.” Just about then he looked down at my dog tags and got serious. “Jack,” he enunciated, “you and I share similar qualities, in that we are both lifelong military officers, only that I succeed you by a few centuries. You will help me please the North, so they can follow through with their ambitions. You will help me make the other criminals realize that it is in our mutual interest to stop the war. You will obey. You do not realize it now, but you will….”

I was breaking into a cold sweat. Perhaps this was his master game plan—perhaps it was all of theirs—to coerce and intimidate. I was being solicited to entice my junior officers in stocks to betray their code of conduct, their country. Of course I would rather have succumbed to a most horrible death, then become the Vietcong’s little Benedict Arnold in shackles. Actually, I was so flustered that I wasn’t sure I was picking up all he had to say. There was even a remark about “your government”, saying it would cease bombings. For the moment, I paid it no mind.

“Now, go back to your cell and think about what I’ve told you, Jack.” He grinned. “You are not like these other young officers and you are not well. You must think of yourself. You must think of your loved ones. Do some writing, because you must help me end this war.”

I clomped along, my mind racing—out of curiosity more than anything else—and knew it was a no-win situation. When Bram escorted me back to my New Guy Lane cell, its door was open. A guard had left a bowl of alligator soup and half a loaf of French bread on the unused bunk. There was to be no getting up into the irons. Bram put the writing material beside the food on the bed slab and left, slamming and locking the cell door. I skimmed the document Grarl had given me, and my heart sank with the degradation of it. I read the fine print; the bottom had dropped out of my life.

Here, in this cold dank cell on that most manipulative and darkest of days, I thought long and hard. I scoffed down the soup and munched the bread, taking no time to enjoy either. I was busy thrusting back the urge to play it smart. I knew that a copy of the whole of Grarl’s text would be read by any intelligent American for what it was: childlike pidgin-English propaganda, and other miscellaneous disinformation. So, I thought, why not see if you can stall? Put them off by being reasonable. After all, a transfer wasn’t completely off the table. Oh, where are those great booming voices from on high that shout down maxims of patriotism, advice from God when one is at the razor’s edge of moral decision?

But it’s just me down here, stuck entirely with myself. I’ve got to come to terms with this dilemma by logic, intuition, and gut feeling. That’s it! Gut feeling! There was never any doubt when Igor brought that air force map to the hospital. Isn’t this the same? Isn’t defiance what it’s all about around here? Where is your ego? Who are you to be shoved around?

I picked up my crutches and hopped back and forth. After those days in irons it felt good to move around, and to have made up my mind in a way that would have even made my father proud. Next spring it would be eighteen years since Dad took me all the way to Annapolis just to see and hear me take the oath in Memorial Hall. “Do your best to be the best officer here,” he’d said. “Never lose sight of mind or country.”

Funny I should think of that now.

It was after midnight when the key went into the cell door again. Bram let Grarl in first; Stoker leaned against the far right wall with his arms crossed. I held my crutches in one hand and bowed as he marched to the front bunk and contemptuously flipped through the blank sheets of paper. “You will learn,” he said as he marched out with Grarl. I was certain they were headed for Sluggo or Drac’s office to get permission to escalate; perhaps even the master himself, Igor.

It was not Bram but a short and scruffy “Fu Manchu” looking guard who unlocked and swung open the cell door about half an hour later. He picked up the papers, ink, and pen and nodded me out.

I followed the now familiar route to room 43, walked between its glass-paneled doors, and gave the usual bow in the general direction of Grarl and Bram. A gloomy silence met me as the non-speaking, scruffy little guard laid out papers, ink, and pen on the small table. About then I caught sight of Prince in the dark corner behind me. With his right hand he was holding a heavy iron bar, its end resting on the cement floor. The bar was longer than Bram was tall, and had two big ankle lugs at the bottom. In his left hand he had a coil of Manila-hemp rope, and the face behind it pretty much said “From Sluggo with Love.”

Grarl gave me time to absorb the dramatic effect of Prince and his equipment, then spoke, “You are insolent and obdurate!”

“And you’re fat, bald, and ugly,” I retorted, although now was neither the time nor place for acerbic wit.

“This is your last chance, American,” offered the pidgin-sounding sack of clay. “Write the paper!”

“You would be wise to follow,” Bram murmured.

I shook my head no. Prince let the iron bar go with a crash. Grarl and Bram joined in a chorus of shouting as Prince leaped toward me, popping my jaw with no trouble whatsoever with the heel of his gnarled hand; he practically knocked me off balance. Flipping the crutches aside, he wrestled me to the floor, sprang up astride my legs, whopped my jaws alternately, making loud slapping noises. The pain was unbearable. No American I’d fought in the hand-to-hand practice rounds of survival training could even come close to the precision strength of this immortal creature; Korea was nothing like this.

Next the scruffy guard held my arms back while Prince—I would later purposely change his name to Prince of Darkness—went for the bar and connected my scrawny legs to it, spread-eagled and extended. Grarl and Bram hit the floor and fed off the droplets of blood that burst from my now-frothy jawline. Prince went to work threading the hemp rope about my upper arms in a complicated pattern. I could feel his foot in my back as he pulled my arms and shoulders together in jerks. I cried out, but refused even the slightest mercy. Prince bent me forward at the waist. He put a right foot on my shoulder and mounted my back as my head slumped toward my knees. Then he pulled up on his rope, cinching my shoulders and arms even tighter. I was yelling by this time, the echoes deafening enough for even a vampire to where Bram quickly shoved a rag into my mouth. Then Prince’s bare heel was on the back of my bowed neck; my cervical spine suddenly felt a whole lot heavier, and I heard a rotating snap! I don’t know where or how this creature inherited his enormous strength, but so help me, my head was literally pressed to the bricks between the calves of my legs. In that position all action seemed to stop; time stopped. The rag came out of my mouth. “Keep silent!” I heard Grarl snarling in my ear; I could feel the wet clay saliva bouncing off my cheek. Then I was suddenly worried about catching my breath. For a moment, I panicked. I knew from survival training that I must quit thinking about suffocation and get my head “out of the box,” but everything was closing in too quick: the tremendous pain, the claustrophobia, the baddies taunting in a circle, the hopelessness of it all.

Then I realized I was listening to Grarl’s fading voice. “Do you submit? Are you ready to comply? Will you obey?”

“Yes, I—I submit. I submit,” I murmured.

Prince dismounted, and as I raised my head, he methodically started loosening the arm bindings. I’d never felt such relief in my life as the blood surged back into my arms.

“The Slugster taught you well,” I said in a low voice; it was the best tone I could manage.

I had to work to hold the old-fashioned dip pen straight. My grip was flaccid after the ropes, the spasmodic feeling in my backside so intense I couldn’t even give this kind of inflammation a proper name. To make things worse, the pen kept sliding out of the notch. As soon as I wrote my words and copied the disgusting piece, Prince tossed my sandals over to me and walked to the table. He read no English, of course, but he did make sure there was about the right amount of writing on my paper. Satisfied, he showed it to Grarl; the golem carefully examined it. Then he put his long black hair back into a warrior-like ponytail—this meant torture time was over and he’d called it a day—picked up my crutches, put them gently beside me, and waved to me to follow.

For the remainder of the night I was not put back into irons, but the agony I felt inside my heart was worse than any physical pain. How am I ever going to live this down, I asked myself. What do I do now? And where do I go from here? I’d wondered how much longer they would need this broken shell of a man. I’d given them what they wanted. What else could they possibly need from this cripple?

The next morning Grarl was waiting for me once more at the quiz table in room 43. He was acting cool; so were Bram and Stoker. I needed help getting into the little stool. My body was so swollen I couldn’t manage it on my own, even with crutches. He let me bow and stay leaned forward, then passed me the letter I’d copied to in my handwriting, made out to the U.S. Foreign Secretary of State, of all people. “Your letter must be put in its proper form,” he said, then laboriously explained the format: double-sized left margin, proper indentation, paper creased in a certain way. “Also, improve the expression—make it sound like you.”

That did it. I grasped at an idea that had occurred to me the night before as I tossed on that hard slab. The thing I’ve got to do—figuratively, at least—is get up and fight. I’ve got to figure out a way to change the wording, to deflect that paper missile before it goes into the public domain. I’ve got to get it into the hands of friends in Washington who know me well enough to recognize what’s going on over here. If I’m being forced to disgrace myself, the least I can do is let them know what’s happening to me.

I spoke to Bram, as he seemed to have a better time understanding me. “There is no way to make this sound like me. Too much pressure in the speech. Senior military officials follow certain procedures. If I violated them, my superiors would know there was foul play afoot. Also, there’s something known as protocol.”

Bram nodded to Grarl. The golem perked up. “What is your idea?”

“American naval commanders don’t usually write to the foreign secretary of state. The men at Jungle Jockey would look at this with daft faces. Believe me. Everybody has to go through the military chain of command. It’s just how things work. This is a political document you’ve had me pen. Everybody in my government knows that I would send it to the political military division of the U.S. Navy Department. They would take my remarks and pass them up the chain of command. Also, your words explaining the ‘plight of the Vietnamese people’ are those of propagandistic media sources, such as foreign newspapers and radio, and your Cong allies further north. Do you really want to screw up relations with your aggressive human neighbors? See what Master Cho Ki thinks, if you don’t trust me.”

Grarl and Bram looked at each other with hard faces, then the golem dismissed me, saying, “We need to present this to a higher authority,”—and with this I figured they had to get permission from either Igor or Sluggo before initiating anything—“so for now we can only promise to review your proposal.”

“And if my cooperation is beneficial?” I asked.

“You will get transferred to a lesser prison,” Bram stated. “Your American allies should be able to bargain for your release much better than they would here or with our northern partners.”

I was hopeful but still worried sick, as they led me back to my cell. This was risky business, I thought. But a smaller prison meant a trade was possible. The trouble was, now I sounded like I wanted to write the blasted thing. I’d committed myself. Live and learn. At least for now, I was spinning the web. I was cutting the deals that would lead to my exchange and liberation, and I liked it better that way.

Bram and Stoker came to my cell that afternoon. They had paper, pen, the old letter as I had copied it, and ink. “The general staff officer said for you to write a letter to the political military policy division of your navy, in the manner of which you best described. You must not give away the location of Ngo Ben Ha, you must not influence the text with too much information, and you must not tell them about us. We are guards, nothing more. Who we are is none of your government’s concern, as with our jail practices and code of conduct. We are extending you some trust—some!—but don’t think us fools, because you’ll regret it.” 

“Can I be taken back to the courtyard entrance? Cellblocks B and C? What about Carlos and Grady?”

“No questions! Fill out paper,” Bram ordered.

“Agreed,” Stoker added. “All in due time.”

“How long have I got?” I asked.

“I’ll pick it up when I do my next set of rounds,” Bram said. “Now write!”

The two chimpanzees left. I took the pen and started to write furiously, cranking out the nonsense. Who knows, if I did as good a job as I suspected I would, perhaps I could get the fiends to go easier on Carlos or campaign to release Grady along with me. I was signing my initials when Sluggo unlocked the bolt and burst in with a sneer. He took the pen, ink, all the paper, and went out.

“What gives?” I hollered.

The torture teacher didn’t say anything.

In all, the letter was a flowery piece of bureaucratese, with a little padded wording and intelligence mojo from yours truly. No American could have read it without knowing it was a spoof…but that also didn’t mean I was laughing up my sleeve. Knowing that reworked paper could blow the whistle on me, should Sluggo or Igor reexamine it, caused me tremendous worry; in the end, they’d put the blindfold back on, escort me hurriedly back to the prison hospital, and extract more than just bone and tissue samples. If they did do that—and let’s say things really did backfire—the political situation in the region would grow more intense. The North Vietnamese retribution would be more swift and severe.

Honestly, I wanted this deal done. I wanted my transfer already. Let them think I put them and their allies in a position to end a ruthless war which, according to President Johnson, had no truly effective means to an end.

Writing pretense in this extortion-prison circumstance required sensitivity, not just compliance and patience. The freaks worked each prisoner on a ratchet system. If a prisoner was ordered to do something and refused, that was often a minor offense. In the first few days of your captivity it was minor compared to refusing to do something after having already done it before; that’s when they fed in numbers and broke bones.

One of the greatest booby traps I saw on the horizon was a let bygones-be-bygones scene when we were transited to the many different levels of interrogation rooms and cellblocks. By the time we got to that threshold, I reasoned. Purposely. My whole concept of proper prisoner of war behavior was based on sticking together, or giving the impression that I desired that. And it wasn’t deliberate. We were all in a situation in which loners could make out. If, after the initial shakedown, you refused to communicate for the sake of politics, there was the tacit agreement that the enemy would leave you alone. One interested only in keeping his own nose clean could score lots of points. I asked everybody in Desolation Road to give up this edge of individual flexibility and cooperate, level with your neighbors on what information you gave up in the torture room, take lumps together just as you would apart, and if necessary, all go down the tubes together.

If you back me up, I’ll back you up; if you get me freed, I’ll be back for you.

Desolation was full of new shootdowns. Grady and I didn’t hesitate when it came to recruiting these young bucks, especially before the quizzes. It was like a holiday for me to be out of isolation and back in regular solitary confinement, where I could hear the noises of fellow servicemen coming and going and do a little whispering. That night Grady and I had an hour-long verbal ping-pong game. For me it was sheer entertainment to again talk to somebody who actually knew who Lenin was, and who, when I ridiculed the idea of comparing LBJ to Hitler, silently granted me the point without going into a theatrical rage.

Seventy-two new shootdowns entered Ngo Ben Ha during the summer of 66. It was a feverish July I’d never forget. Almost every night one or more new men would be hauled into Desolation for initial torture, but ended up talking. There was an urgent need for space, and every few days a draft of prisoners would be taken in jeeps to one of the many satellite camps purposely installed by the Cong around the facility. Carlos informed me that there was a stolen Russian aircraft in one of these camps, and this was how the freaks traveled outside the deeper jungle perimeters and transferred high-level prisoners. As usual, Grady and I made sure all the new arrivals in the hallway understood what we were trying to achieve. One young navy pilot had been stashed on the front end of New Guy Lane before he’d had his initial shakedown. Grady and I had no idea he was that fresh caught and inexperienced. The night they took him out, put him in handcuffs, and demanded that he give certain information, he innocently replied, “No, sir. Please! That is against my commanding officer’s orders.” Sluggo nodded to Drac, and Prince was called in. The heavy iron bar and ropes came out, the knots tightened, and the young man, like the rest of us, was forced to submit and tell them what he knew.

“I hope that doesn’t happen to me again,” Grady said, as we put our faces up at the overhead cracks. We could do nothing but listen to the young pilot’s screams of torment. “Now that it’s overcrowded,” he went on quietly, “and the freaks have more blood and flesh than they need, there’s going to be a secret purge, isn’t there?”

“Nah, I doubt it,” I said, but I couldn’t be a hundred percent. Purges, while not uncommon, affected a number of the prisoners, bringing torture to many and death to some. “The kid just didn’t get to us in time so we could school him.”

“You better rally for me the moment you get out,” Grady said.

“You’re at the top of my list,” I whispered. “By Christmas, we’ll both be drinking Pina coladas with our girlfriends in the Florida Keys.”

But the letter I penned was still floating out there—for weeks. It should have reached the Jockey by now. They knew a transfer was written into the request. So why so long to respond?

I had spoken too soon, for a few days later I was called down to Grarl’s quiz room again. There the golem sat, dark rings under his eyes. He said it was time for me to help him—again. He was worried about us criminals, he said. The weather was unusually hot, and because of the shortage of bathing water, many had bad skin problems. He asked me what I thought of giving us Americans an opportunity to have lots of fresh air, being granted walks, with plenty of bathing water. Master Cho Ki would make all this possible if I cooperated.

“Hey! I did my part like you asked,” I said, annoyed. “I obeyed your stupid code!”

“Well, I am sorry,” he said in a strangely reconciled way. “I want you to remember that I give you a chance to do something good for your fellows and yourself.” It was then that I knew he meant the transfer, and my participation in whatever it is he would have me do, would expedite the process.

“Now, complete these sheets and write what I tell you.” Bram and Stoker locked the door and left me with Grarl. I sat down at the familiar table with the Vietnamese blue cloth and, as best I could under the pressure, wrote again what I had written before—brief sentences this time, intended for the naval officer in the correct chain of command. It lacked the persuasive prose from a few weeks earlier. I could add nothing. This time I had a hulk breathing over my shoulder.

That night was cold. I put on both my pajama shirts and added a flourish I’d learned on how to keep my feet warm in these clammy cellblocks. I took off my pajama pants and closed the waist by pulling the drawstring all the way up and tying it. Then I stuck my legs into the cuff ends of the pant legs. That left my feet together in what became a warm little bag.

I’d had a look at my broken leg at the same time. It seemed to be straightening itself out. Thankfully, there was no infection; nature is a great healer. And a positive mental attitude will do wonders. All in all, things were coming up roses.

I had just drifted off to sleep when I heard the rattling of the keys out front. That sound was always the first sign of trouble at night. The guard held up five fingers and left. I was to be packed when he came back in five minutes. I heard doors slamming down the way. A big move must be on.

“Grady, I think this it,” I whispered up at the crack, but all I heard was loud snoring.

The keys again. The door opened. The guard put a tight blindfold on me. I felt for my blanket roll, picked it up, and followed the hand that gripped my arm, down the corridor through what I assumed to be the location of the bloodstained door. I headed toward some bright lights outside, then right toward a murmuring commotion. The vocal activity occurred just beside a truck parked inside one section of bamboo fence.

I heard prisoners climbing into the back of the truck, one at a time. Locks clicked as they were handcuffed. Somebody took my blanket roll, and I was lifted up to a freak in the truck who got his veiny hands under my armpits and hoisted me aboard. It was easy. I was down from a normal hundred and seventy to about a hundred and twenty. There must be about four or five of us prisoners, I thought, and almost as many guards. After being handcuffed from behind, a guard noticed that I was off balance. Helping me with my one good leg, he pulled me into sitting position, up against the truck’s starboard side, while the driver gave us all a final lecture on the dire consequences of not cooperating.

We disembarked a half hour later to what I assumed was one of the satellite camps. My precious blanket roll was handed back to me, and I clutched it to my stomach. We lined up in silence. Five minutes later we were led through a labyrinth of narrow trees. Each prisoner had a guard, and we moved along one at a time. By the time I hobbled down the long winding path, I was consumed with a new feeling of horror—horror at the great patience of the ruling hierarchy and their confidence in the ultimate success of their propaganda campaign; don’t even get me started on the feedings, or the ‘plight of the Vietnamese people.’

In so many words, I’d been told by Sluggo, “Our race has no capability to defeat humans on the battlefield. But war is not decided by weapons so much as by will. Once the American devils understand this war, they will have no interest in pursuing it. We will empower our neighbors to win it on their own turf.”

Sluggo was the one freak that didn’t give up on the possibility that, in my torment, he might squeeze out a little propaganda. I was amazed when one day he brought a razor out to where I was washing my face in silent solitude. He gave me the shave motion. I complied, and sure enough, it was out of the bath and into the quiz room with Grarl. There sat a golem interrogator, along with Tweedledee and Tweedledum, telling me that the general staff officer had decreed that I was to soon meet with some of his friends.

“What friends?” I had asked.

Grarl looked up at Bram and gave a toothy smile. “You’ll see.”

Stoker had gone on to say, “You made a lot of trouble for the general staff officer. He is very, very angry. You also angered Cho Ki, and should be severely punished for this. But I do not make the rules. Criminals at camps miles away know the rules. They sometimes beg to come back to Ngo Ben Ha when they realize what they have done. The general staff officer says you have set back the camp authority, and that is not good.”

Now, as I was being led through the jungle with other men like myself, my spirits were soaring, especially when I thought back to my moment of defiance.

The guard took me in hand and we mounted a jeep for a drive to what I later learned to call the Plantation; as long as I could call out or contact the embassy, I had no problem picking vegetables for some sandal-wearing turds. It was an improvised prison with a farm, set up around the manor house of an old French residence some eighty years old. After my blindfold was off, I was marched into the meeting room. There, around a large table, sat a dozen hairy animals in Vietnamese officers’ clothing, as well as two burly vampires in civilian clothes. Bewildered, I took a seat without bowing. Sluggo, who I had not actually seen for a week, came in and sat between the two civilians. He looked at me and said in perfect English that the officers were lycanthropes—what us Lon Chaney fans back in the States call werewolves, generally—and that they were hungry to get to know me.

“You should’ve worked with us, Jack,” he said. “Now we got what we want, and you got what you want. You’ll be glad to know you are no longer our responsibility…yet something tells me though that you’re going to wish you were still in our custody.”

I could hear a distant dog barking, followed by an even bigger dog howling.

By the time all of this had been extracted, I was rundown. I remember one lazy afternoon in New Guy Lane, watching a beetle on the floor of my cell being eaten by ants. The poor thing was helpless. It couldn’t get its feet under itself, and it was being slowly lugged toward the bottom of the cell door, still moving while the ants were all over it. I felt just like that beetle now, unaware that my greatest challenge was still ahead.