Bad Day At The Office, Cupcake?

Tell King All About It — Or Not
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Imagine starting a new job; a new career really, with strong elements of your past vocation but offering many new challenges and a very different work environment. Now imagine your first solo assignment in that new career is dangerous, difficult and daring; a chance to “make your bones” in your new position and prove your superiors’ faith in you was not misplaced.

And now imagine a week into it, you can remember only fleeting fragments of the first few minutes—and have no clue how you wound up a hundred miles away, looking like a rhino stomped you into a mudhole and walked it dry…

It’s not my story, but I was privileged to sit with two of the principals; the lead investigator and the interpreter/translator, and get the entire story. Now I can tell it, just leaving out several specifics; names, dates—other than “the 1980’s”—and even the continent, though I think you can figure that out. It is, I think, a somewhat unique tale, and a good one!

First, let’s introduce the Dramatis Personae of this caper. For confidentiality and space-saving, I’ll assign them labels. Our main character’s name suggested a certain historical monarch, so we’ll call him “King.” A U.S. Army veteran, he had served with distinction as a tabbed Ranger. Airborne-qualified, and an expert in reconnaissance and observation, he had retired with 20 years of service. Still under 40, he was fit and strong and had led an almost charmed life, only twisting an ankle in a bad parachute landing and suffering minor frostbite in Arctic training. I guess he was overdue for a whopping dose of karma.

“INV” refers to several agency personnel who, over nearly a year, stitched the puzzle of King’s missing week together. Among other concerns, they needed to know if King had, at any point, been in the custody of a certain foreign power adept at brainwashing. They didn’t want to find out the hard way King was a “Manchurian candidate;” a ticking time bomb inside the US apparatus.

“TERP” was the interpreter/translator. A linguist and social anthropologist specializing in small, isolated clans and tribes, he was carried on the roles of a private Midwestern university as an associate professor. He had first come to the continent in the early 1970’s, leading a group of grad students on a field study. When the group departed, he didn’t. Terp waved happily at the plane, turned, and stepped back into the jungle. He had found his home. Annually, he returned briefly to the States to visit his dentist and doctor, update his vaccinations, gorge on fast food, drink cold American beer and sign off on the next series of research grants which would keep him on the continent.

Terp was a funny, cheerful, very different kinda guy. He had become fluent in many native dialects, but his own spoken English seemed frozen in the 1970’s. Perhaps understandably, his translated figures of speech and expressions were like those of a young college student in the Disco Era. So, I recorded his narrative in that idiom.

You’ll see.

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Biff, Kip And Other Players

Biff and Kip were the names Terp gave to our teenage native heroes. He described them as “Like, the high school varsity all-stars of their tribe, and the nicest boys you’d ever meet. Strong, good-lookin’, funny, bright and conscientious; just really cool guys.” Terp said their clan was “self-isolated,” generally “Avoiding contact with strangers like the plague, because strangers carry stuff like, well, the plague. And ebola. And cholera. And Monkey-Pox. You name it. Mostly, they conduct business from 50 feet away and upwind of you, and they stay within their traditional turf. That makes what the boys did even more courageous.” So, why were they out wandering far from their home turf? Terp grinned.

“Because their parents, family and clan elders had all told them it’s forbidden and dangerous,” Terp explained. “To them, that meant interesting and thrilling; an adventure; just like American boys but without bikes or swiping the keys to Uncle Fred’s old truck. For kicks, y’know? They’re the cool guys, and had reps to maintain.” Terp gave us an illustration of their “coolness” and character.

The first time he saw them he thought they were wearing bright beaded caps—but it was their hairstyle. Both had cut their hair to twists about a finger’s length and thickness, stringing colorful beads into it. He asked if that was “the style” for boys in their clan.

“Nope; just us,” Biff said. Why? “Because, you know; we’re cool. Others wanna do it, but they’re not so cool, so… Oh, and my little sister does this too, a little longer. She wants to be like me. Looks pretty neato on her.” Kip interjected “Yeah, she looks really cute with ’em.” Biff, laughing: “He’s sweet on my baby sister! What a dork!” This commenced an exchange of shoulder-punches and “Am not!” and “Are too!” “Am NOT!”

Kip: “Hey, I don’t like her like that! She’s a kid, an’ I’m a man, almost.” Biff: “Want me to tell her you don’t like her?” Kip, suddenly serious: “Dude! Don’t do that, OK? You wouldn’t do that, dude, wouldja?” Biff laughed, jerked his thumb at Kip and told Terp, “See? Toldja. Coupla years, he’ll be my bro-in-law. And still a dork.” Kip, changing the conversation, tapped his beaded hair and said, “When we get back everybody’s gonna do their hair like us, ’cause we’ll be, like, rock stars.” Biff: “Yeah, if our folks don’t bust us and like, put us on restriction.”

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“Y’see?” Terp smiled; “They could be goin’ to Benson High in Omaha, and hangin’ out at the Dairy Queen.”

“HH” stands for Hired Hands, about a dozen shady characters who fought, stole or smuggled for the highest bidder. “HHH” was their honcho. They played a brief but important role.
Into The Hole

When a belligerent Eastern power tries to secretly move dozens of workers and soldiers and tons of excavation and structural materials into a remote forested location on another continent, Western ears perk up. It’s even more interesting when that local government’s officials, usually very chatty, flatly deny the existence of the project, and even refuse the usual emoluments to oil their tongues. Conclusion One: They’ve either been lavishly bribed, or scared sufficiently spitless. Conclusion Two: Either that Eastern power is foolin’ with something too dangerous to be done inside their own XXL-sized country, or possibly, arranging a new hemisphere-wide threat. Some folks still remembered the nasty surprise of finding strategic missiles on our doorstep in Cuba, and didn’t want to repeat it. When you can’t even spot it with spy planes and satellites, a little panic sets in.

A native asset found the location, but couldn’t see or figure out exactly what was going on. The situation called for a reconnaissance professional, with the right gear and supplies for a stealthy, in-depth analysis.

Just as dawn broke, an unmarked helo flying an erratic pattern at treetop level scudded over a lonely border, coming to a hover over what appeared to be a small black hole in the jungle canopy. The hole was too small for the helo to land, but that wasn’t the plan. A boom swung out from the hatch and King clipped its winch’s cable end to his harness. First he, then a cargo-netted load of supplies, would be lowered into the gloom, deep into that midnight-black hole. The crew chief tapped him on a shoulder and shouted over the engine and rotor noise, “Better you than me, buddy! Good luck!” King nodded and smiled, peering into the darkness.

Being a pro, I’m sure King had thought of many different scenarios and possible changes to the mission plan. I’m even more certain he never imagined what would happen at the bottom of that hole.

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