Authors: William F. Buckley
Tucker's Last Stand
A Blackford Oakes Mystery
William F. Buckley, Jr.
FOR JAMES P. MCFADDEN
Devotedly (and with apologies)
February 2, 1964
Blackford Oakes tried to remember: Had he ever been hotter?
There had been that stifling cottage on the beach in Havana where he spent those miserable weeks waiting on the caprices of Che Guevara. How hot had it got there? he tried to remember, on one of those endless summer afternoons. One of his professors at Yale in the mechanical engineering school had said airily to his class that engineers
know the temperature of the air, even as pilots always know in which direction north is, and navigators can tell you within millibars what the barometer is reading: part instinct, part the need, every little while, to consult the thermometer, the compass, the glass.â¦ Yes, Professor Schmidt, the students would nod, mutely. God, what an iceberg; you always knew what
temperature was. He'd have sunk the
in tropical waters.
Blackford brightened, as he stepped around the manure on the ground. A wonderful, creative thought had just occurred. Only a few years ago, when in October 1957 the Soviets had launched their dazzling satellite, striking dumb the great superpower of the West with this display of advanced technology, President Eisenhower had rushed through Congress a bill to help pay the college tuition of engineers and scientists, citing the critical scarcity of them. Could it be that Professor Schmidt had something to do with generating that shortage? Had the deadly word gone out from Yale to the whole of the Ivy League, to the state colleges, reaching even to California?
Study engineering and you'll spend four years with the likes of Professor Schmidt
. Well, Blackford could not remember exactly what the temperature had been in Havana, but it couldn't have been this badâor was he suffering the normal biological decomposition of the thirty-eight-year-old?
“Shit,” said Tucker Montana, as he removed from his massive left forearm what looked like a baby tarantula. Using thumbs and forefingers, he spread the little creature apart and examined it. “It's only a
,” he said, tossing it at Blackford, who stepped deftly to one side, letting it fall into the steaming bush-nettle that reached up toward them, sometimes a foot high, sometimes three feet and more.
“If you want to make pets out of your tarantulas, make pets out of them. I don't collect them.”
He realized suddenly that he had sounded more acidulous than he intended. He was feeling the heat, and now he was making Montana feel the heatânot a good idea at all; very unprofessional in tight, oppressive circumstances. He hadn't worked with Montana before, knew about him only that he came from a purposefully obscure unit in the Army, designed to take on special projects. And Montana knew only that Blackford was CIA. Blackford permitted himself to reflect that, really, Major Montana didn't know him quite well enough to toss tarantulas his way.
He forced himself to smile. “On the other hand, I might save it and send one to Mother. She loves nature.”
Montana grinned and with his long ferule beat the bush directly ahead of him, calling out to Ma Van Binh, their sun-grizzled Laotian guide. “Binh, we getting a little too high? Yes? I mean, the trail is now a couple of hundred meters over”âhe pointed to his right. Ma Van Binh said it was necessary to watch for “bayno”âbooby trapsâplanted close to the trail. Montana interrupted. He knew all about booby traps. Hell, he even knew the specialist who had gone over to Hanoi to teach them the latest models. “I almost got the son of a bitch one time.” He opened up to Blackford as he continued beating his way behind Ma Van Binh toward Point Easy, where the helicopter would meet them. “Former Huk. His name, I kid you not, is Jesus Joseph SacredâJesÃºs JosÃ© Sagrado, graduate of a fine little Catholic school in Luzon. Far as I can make out, all they graduated was Huks.” With his hand he swatted the mosquito on his nose.
“I'm exaggerating, obviously; sure there were a couple of others besides Jesus the Boobytrapper came out of that missionary school. The Huks gave ol' JesÃºs a little portable laboratory all his own, and didn't like it if he didn't come up with a new trick every day. He got a chicken to swallow explosives before we walked into Miramar: that chicken stayed alive until one of the Huks turned him over to the cook for dinnerâone less cook in the Philippines. Then there was the case of beerânot a trace of rust, no holes, nothing. Beer came out like a TV commercial, only when you drank it you had about three minutes to live, three unpleasant minutes.
“JesÃºs liked most of all gravity, though. Some of those trails, hunting down those man-eating bastards, some of those trails got so you didn't want to walk over any surface of any kind, didn't matter what it looked like, didn't matter if it was a slab of concrete, because old JesÃºs Sagrado had a way of covering his boobies so no geologist could tell that it wasn't a good solid stretch ahead of you. But every now and then it was just a wafer-thin layer of earth, and just under that a nice deep hole with maybe three punji stakes, almost always got their guy right in the crotch. One of those boobies was worth a hundred casualties, if you counted the morale; got so you couldn't get the Filipinos to tread over freshly laid concrete.”
Blackford confessed he had never heard about JesÃºs Sagrado.
“We never caught the bastard, but after the surrender in 1954 Colonel Lansdale's scouts discovered he had been scooted out to Hanoi and given some medal or other by the great Ho himself, and reestablished with a new and better laboratory so he could do something to diminish the frog population.”
The conversation had the effect of sharpening Blackford's vision. Granted, he was walking directly behind Montana, who was walking directly behind Binh: he had, in effect, without planning or even desiring it, two forward scouts to step into any of JesÃºs's booby traps, plenty of warning. Still, the heat and the fetid air seemed to magnify all ugly possibilities, including the bizarre possibility that either man could walk safely right over a booby trap without setting it off, yet it would go off under Blackford. Time for a drink of water. And yet one more photograph.
He gave word to stop the column of five men and snapped what must have been his five-hundredth picture, yet another view of the jungly bramble that all but covered the trail that was serving the North Vietnamese as the vital, if narrow, difficult, and treacherous supply line into the southern part of the country they were determined to conquer. It was Blackford's responsibility to specify, and then design, with his own engineering background and especially with the help of the wizards at Aberdeen Proving Ground, means by which traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail could be detected, so that something might be done to interdict the materiel and men beginning to travel over it in greater and greater volume. Down the Trail they came: guerrillas, of courseâmembers of the North Vietnamese armyâand weapons, weapons, weapons, everything from .22 pistols to bazookas, the latest kind, made in the Soviet Union.
They had walked almost eight miles that day, the fifth day of Blackford's exploration, and he was habituated now to the redundancy of the Trail's surrounding featuresâthe hanging Spanish-moss-like vegetation, the sprouts of sharp underbrush, the varicose little ditches engraved by the spring floods. He was to isolate one hundred miles of the Trail, in pursuit of the Grand Design to block it, and he needed to come up with specifications for whatever mechanisms might transform this otherwise unseeable, impenetrable bush-jungle “road” into a highway as visible as a stretch of highway laid over Arizona desert.
A hell of an assignment, but then President Johnson was a big man and he thought big and the word to the CIA was:
Find out a way to block the trail those mothers are using, what the hell we got all that technological know-how for, if we cain't stop a few half-armed yellow savages from supplyin' a major revolution in South Vietnam
? When the Director called Rufus and Blackford in and told them what he wanted, he paraphrased the President's instructions, running them through that verbal laundry he and so many others in direct contact with the Commander in Chief used when relaying instructions to subordinates. But when the President, in his impulsive way, had said he wanted to see this Tucker Montana in person, plus the two CIA officials he'd be guiding to do the necessary surveying of the Trail, it was only left to make the appointment and the arrangements. So that at 10:30 at night, Appointments Secretary Jack Valenti took all three of them to the White House, where they had a personal taste of the presidential vernacular. They were not shown into the Oval Office, or even to the private quarters, but were taken directly to the swimming pool. Five minutes before they arrived, the President had decided he wanted to go for a swim. When Rufus, Tucker Montana, and Blackford were led to the indoor pool the water was dimly lit, but it was easy to see the President, lying on his back, his nose and his penis projecting just above the water, his paunch like a mountain protecting the artillery pieces on either side from each other.
The water's fine, come on in, the Commander in Chief said, more an order than an invitation. Blackford was unhesitating. Montana looked at him, then followed his lead. They stripped, an attendant taking their clothes, and dove in. Rufus simply turned away, tilted one of the canvas chairs to one side so that his eyes did not fall on the pool, and said nothing. The President was gurgling in the water and chatting away with great spirit about the magnificent resources at Aberdeen with which he intended to meet the yellow bastards who were doing everything they could do to ruin his administration and maybe even turn the country over to that maniac Goldwater, if he ever got nominated, and elected, “though I myself like the dumb son of a bitch, except maybe he would get us into a third world war, and that would be bad for my spread down on the Pedernales.” He sank his head a final time and waddled to the stairs, climbing out of the pool into the bathrobe held stretched out for him. Towels were given to the other two men as they climbed up the ladder and sat on the marble bench while dressing. One was still tying his tie, the other lacing his shoes, when President Johnson walked out fully clothed and motioned them all to follow him.