"Yes sir. If you'll come with me the General will see you now."
P.G.T. Goldkette was a small compactly built man. His thick straight blond hair, gone grayish, was combed straight back in the European style. He had huge blue eyes behind glasses, a small potbelly, and stood in a slightly forward stance so his short arms actually hung a few inches in front of his belt buckle, like a New Age Jimmy Cagney.
Mandy thought he looked like a bewildered baby toddling about the large office.
Al squinted at the General a moment; then he suddenly stabbed an index finger.
"You're a Cajun, and the P.G.T. stands for Pierre Gustave Toutant."
Goldkette threw back his head and roared with laughter.
"I see you are a student of the Civil War, Mr. Deforest. I am guilty as charged."
He spoke in the pleasing patois of New Orleans: half Southern, half French, and half Brooklyn all stirred together. He smiled at Mandy.
"Let us tell you the secret, Mrs. Deforest: my Daddy gave me the first names of a famous Confederate General, P.G.T. Beauregard. He would have it no other way."
They sat at a large mahogany conference table with a view across well-cut lawns to the muddy Potomac River. The Washington Monument obelisk and the Capitol Hill dome jutted in the background. The historic Custis-Lee mansion stood on a hillcrest to the south.
Goldkette sobered as he studied a thin folder before him.
"Mr. Deforest we are most distressed at the accidental release of your service record. Inquiries are being made: ears will be pinned back. But that is neither here nor there; the damage is done. We know that a certain media individual is aggressively pursuing the matter and our experience tells us he will have the story, at least in part, in a few weeks. My job is damage control. I have read thoroughly the archival summary of Project Heat Lightning."
Suddenly, he scooted his chair backwards and sailed away from the conference table across the room to his desk. Mandy could tell he enjoyed the maneuver, like a kid on a board flying down a snow bank. She decided she liked him. If Al got stubborn, she would lend a hand. Not with everything, but enough to deflect the momentum.
Goldkette picked another folder from his desk and returned, laboriously waddling the chair forward across the office.
"And I have taken the trouble to review all the combat de-briefs, including yours. But this is all history, mere paper and rather dry into the bargain. Just now I feel a great need for insight into the attitudes, the reasoning behind this, uh, remarkable activity. Will you help me? It seems there is no one else left."
Al was not listening. He had been looking at Goldkette's tunic, hanging over a chair near his desk: seven rows of medals below Command Pilot wings. So many medals that the uppermost were hidden under the jacket lapel. Al could read medals: a natural if somewhat useless gift. There were been-there medals and done-that medals: the former for having been in a certain place at a certain time, the latter for individual performance. Goldkette had lots of done-that medals, high-level ones, including the Air Force Cross and the Silver Star.
Al was on the fence about cooperation. He was still bitter about his treatment, about the treatment they had all received. But it was clear Goldkette had stuck his neck in the noose a few times. Now, without conscious thought, he decided that the man was probably OK. He would tell him of that time.
"There's one other man, Douglas Trapnell, in North Carolina."
"I am sorry to tell you Mr. Trapnell suffered a stroke two weeks ago. He cannot speak now; the prognosis is unfavorable. You are our hope, sir."
Al was deeply stricken by this unwelcome news. Now suddenly, with nothing to soften the shock, he was the last old prune on the tree.
"I didn't know. He's my close friend. I used to see him every year. Then as we got older it was the telephone, we talked a couple of times a year. Ill miss those conversations."
Tears came to his eyes and he wiped angrily at them.
"I'll miss Doug."
Al sat thinking, going back to another time, remembering events that had begun mercifully to dim. The late spring sun lit his troubled face for a long while. Mandy and Goldkette understood, waited. Eventually he spoke, anger in his voice.
"I'll tell you what I know General, but you won't like it; won't like my version of the thing at all. We were just kids, dumb kids trained to do a job we didn't understand. And we were used by the politicians; badly used. And the Air Force did nothing to protect us, nothing meaningful. Twenty-two of us went out to that shithole and two came back: Doug had no legs and half my brains were blown out."
Al glared at Goldkette as if he were personally responsible, seeing the system rather than the man.
"I think Im a reasonably strong man: no hero, but able to stay the course. I don't whine and I don't spend a lot of time blaming others. But your Air Force shit on me, mister: threw me out with a quarter-pay medical retirement. Then I had to fight to get VA rehabilitation over at the Naval Hospital: no help from you on that one either. Then, when I struggled back from my disability, you sons of bitches canceled my medical retirement. I was left in the street with no help, not even that paltry disability check. I couldn't eat the goddamned medals.
Mandy took me in before we were married; I was a half-wit. We lived a year on her secretary's salary because no one would hire me: the speech therapy hadn't kicked in and I sounded like a drunk. Finally I got a job as an assistant embalmer, they were happy to have me because no one wanted to do that work. No sir, you're not going to like this story at all."
Goldkette looked at him calmly.
"Nevertheless, I need to hear it."
Now Al turned to Mandy. A tear had formed in the bad eye and slowly made its crooked way down the furrows of his cheek.
"And those kids that didn't come home, they were all good ones: Dave Rey was a Senator's son, he saved me that day. And all the others; no one knows where they fell in that jungle. Fifty years gone by and no one can go to mourn them, to say an Ave over them."
He paused now, chest heaving, embarrassed to lose control in front of this stranger. He had hoped for dignity.
"And your Air Force did nothing to find them. Not a fucking thing: goddamned cowardly politicians. What got broken over there, I could never put it back together."
He turned again to Mandy.
"Sometimes I wonder why I'm still around, and they're gone. They didn't get all these good years we've had. Fall is the worst for me you know, when the leaves turn. I never told you, I didn't know what to say."
Mandy looked at him and simply nodded. She could not speak. She looked down at her lap. There was extended silence before she turned to the man she had known for 60 years; the man she had always loved.
"I didn't think... oh, but I knew Al, I always knew. I just couldn't do anything. I saw how powerful it was."
He made a helpless gesture.
"I guess Im getting sentimental in my old age. Old guys get sentimental you know. No one knows why."
Goldkette's hands were arranged primly on the table before him. He knew enough of the ghastly affair not to contest Al's accusations: they were generally correct. But he couldn't let his service go entirely undefended. He softly spoke.
"We're fighting men, Mr. Deforest: we fight when were ordered to. Not perfect, not even close. By mandate, we respond to civilian authority, to elected officials in the White House, modulated by certain individuals in the Congress. We don't always do the right thing, but in my experience we try: we try hard. And we have two sides, the fighters and the bureaucrats. We can't do our job without both sides, but it isn't always pretty. I'm sorry for what happened to you, and I suppose it will happen again to others, but I won't apologize for my service: we're not that bad."
He paused, looking to the handsome couple across the conference table, thinking he was ill prepared to argue this case.
"And I still need your help."
He turned mournfully to Mandy and saw the striking face, saddened now. The wrinkles were there, the delicate transparent skin of old age. But the facial structure: eyes, cheeks, mouth, had not changed from her youth. Gravity and the adipose deposits of age had not had their way with her. He thought she must have been a beauty - was a beauty.
"My wife Edith and I would be honored to have you in our home this evening, Mrs. Deforest. Well eat Creole: She-Devil Prawns and Hoppin' Joe."