Read P. O. W. Online

Authors: Donald E. Zlotnik

P. O. W. (8 page)

“In that case, I will….” Spencer opened the first can and started eating the fruit slowly.

James laughed and went back over to where the NVA guards were drying off so that they could relieve their comrades on guard
duty.

Spencer waited until James had turned his back and quickly handed the open can of fruit cocktail to the colonel.

“Thanks, Spencer!” Garibaldi was starting to get the first symptoms of scurvy. His teeth were already loose, and his gums
would bleed if he just pressed his fingers against them.

Spencer held the can of sliced peaches in his hand and read the label. His mouth started watering in anticipation. He stopped
himself from punching a hole in the lid and handed the second can over to the colonel. “Here… for later.”

“I can’t take both of them, Spencer… I just can’t.” Garibaldi shook his head.

“Please… I don’t think I could stand looking at you if all of your teeth fell out!” Barnett smiled. “Here… please take it.”

Garibaldi hesitated and took the food that was medicine to him. “Spencer, when we get back to the States, I promise you… I’m
going to buy you a
case
of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail!”

“It’s a deal.” Spencer looked over at the guards. “You’d better hide the can; here comes a guard.”

The NVA beckoned for the POWs to get dressed for the return trip to the camp.

Lieutenant Van Pao was waiting for them when they returned from the river. She waited until Garibaldi had helped Barnett into
his cage and then called him over to where she stood. She was very angry at how badly Barnett had been beaten by James, but
she had to assume the responsibility because she had given her permission. It was the last time, though, that she would allow
James to touch one of her prisoners.

“Colonel Garibaldi, ma’am.”

“Colonel, come with me to my office.” She whirled around and walked rapidly back to her office. Garibaldi relaxed when he
saw that she entered the building from the side where she worked and not the end of the structure where she did her interrogations.

Van Pao took a seat and opened a cardboard sundries box that was normally issued to American troops. She removed a carton
of Marlboro cigarettes and placed one of the packages on her desk. Garibaldi watched the NVA officer light up. He realized
at the same time that someone must be supplying the NVA with American supplies, for the popular sundries package to be there.
The American troops liked them in the field because the sundries boxes included free cigarettes that were fresh, not like
the C-ration cigarettes that were always stale and tasted funny. The packages also contained candy and shaving equipment.

“Would you like a cigarette, Colonel?” Van Pao smiled and offered the pack.

“I don’t smoke, ma’am.”

“Candy?” She held out a small carton containing twenty-four Chuckles.

“Sure…” He took the package and started opening it to remove one of the smaller boxes of the popular red, yellow, green, black,
and orange candies.

“Keep them all.” She waved back the offered package.

“Thank you.” Garibaldi’s thoughts flashed back to the river when Spencer asked James what the price was for the offered food.

“I would like a small favor from you.” Lieutenant Van Pao became all business. “Spencer Barnett has some information that
I need, and I want him to talk before our division staff sends a certain officer here to interrogate him.” She leaned forward
and spoke slowly. “This officer is known for his cruel methods of extracting information.”

“What would you like to know?” Garibaldi already knew the answer.

“His reconnaissance team hid some secret sensor equipment along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We have found half of it, and we
will
find the rest… it’s all just a matter of time. There is an engineer company assigned to that task.” Van Pao inhaled a deep
breath of smoke and leaned back in her chair. “He can make living here a lot easier on himself if he cooperates…. He makes
me look good, and I can make
both
of your lives much, much more tolerable here in my camp.”

“I’ll talk to Barnett.” Garibaldi knew that Spencer couldn’t take much more torture and that the sensors weren’t worth the
young man’s life. The edge of a Polaroid photograph was sticking out from under the NVA intelligence officer’s desk and caught
Garibaldi’s eye when he looked down. He could see that the man tied to the bamboo rod was Barnett, but he couldn’t see who
was wielding the bamboo cat-o’-nine-tails. He didn’t hesitate; if he had taken the time to think, he wouldn’t have done it.
The photograph could have been a set-up.

Garibaldi dropped the box of candy to the floor and then fell on all fours to retrieve it. He shoved the photograph into the
box and almost gave himself away when he saw that it was James who was beating Spencer. Garibaldi hid his gasp by coughing.

“Barnett has until dark, and then I have something
special
for him that I’m quite sure will be convincing as to my dedication.” Lieutenant Van Pao instructed the guard to take the
colonel over to Bamett’s cage and let him talk to him until dark.

Spencer was set in his decision to hold out as long as he possibly could before revealing what he knew about the sensors.
It was obvious that the NVA wanted the devices destroyed, and that could only mean the seismic-intrusion devices were causing
them a great deal of trouble. Every day he could hold out meant a day longer that the North Vietnamese were suffering casualties
because of him.

“Spence, I know what you’re thinking and how you feel, but a night with Mother Kaa… No one will hold it against you if you
talk now.” Colonel Garibaldi’s voice was soft. “Besides, the photograph of James beating you will surely be proof enough as
to what you’ve put up with under torture!”

“No… I might not make it through the night without spilling my guts to those bastards, but I’ve got to try….” Spencer’s eyes
were locked on Mother Kaa’s cage. She had been sleeping all day long and would probably be very active once the sun dropped
behind the mountains.

Colonel Garibaldi respected Barnett’s dedication, but he also knew that when the boy broke under torture, he was the type
who couldn’t be put back together again. “All right, then… I’m not going to waste any more time trying to convince you.” The
colonel leaned forward and spoke in lower tones. “Let’s talk about Mother Kaa…. I don’t want to scare you, but if they put
you in her cage tonight, you’d better know a few things about large snakes.”

“Like what?” Spencer’s voice quavered in front of his fellow prisoner.

“Normally, I don’t think she would try… eating…”—Garibaldi hesitated for a second with the word and then said it anyway; he
had to make it clear to Spencer what he was in for and what he could do to protect himself—”… an adult human, but she’s one
big
bitch, and you’ve lost a lot of weight.”

“Do you really think…” Barnett couldn’t take his eyes off the cage. He was imagining a long bump in her body come morning
that would be him. “Man!… Colonel, I’m scared.”

Garibaldi hugged the young soldier. There was really nothing else he could do to try to reassure him. “Listen: You are going
to make it out of this fucking place! Think
positive
!”

Spencer’s eyes opened wider and wider as he watched the thirty-six-foot-long python slowly move her coils.

“Spence!” Garibaldi’s voice was sharp. “Listen to me! I’ll be awake all night long with you… and this is what I want you to
do: First, talk to me, tell me everything that’s going on in the cage once it gets dark and I can’t see. Second,”—Garibaldi
didn’t want to say it, but he had to warn Spencer—“protect your head. If she’s going to try anything, she’ll try biting your
head and start there…. But she
has
to bite you somewhere, in order to get traction with her coils.”

Spencer’s voice broke, and tears rolled over his cheeks. “Oh… shit… Colonel… I’m so fucking scared!”

“Spence… do you want to change your mind? It’s all right if you do.” Garibaldi grabbed both of Spencer’s shoulders and gently
shook him to get his attention. “Spencer! You’ve done far more than most
men
…. There’s nothing wrong in giving in now!”

Spencer lifted his chin and looked at the colonel. The tears filling his eyes magnified the light blue irises. Garibaldi felt
a pain in his chest. He would gladly trade places with the seventeen-year-old. He was in his mid-forties and had lived a good
life until he had been shot down; this soldier was barely into puberty and had so much to live for.

Garibaldi hugged the boy tightly in his arms and felt the thin shoulders shaking. “I want you to know, Spencer, that I am
very proud of you…
very proud
.” The colonel’s tears soaked through Spencer’s hair. “Your father is one very lucky man to have a son like you.”

Spencer wrapped his arms around the colonel and hugged back. “Oh… fuck, sir… I’m scared.”

*   *   *

Lieutenant Van Pao watched the emotional scene from the shadows of her troop barracks. She couldn’t make out what was going
on—if Spencer had broken down or if he was confiding in the colonel father figure. She left the shadows and approached the
cage.

“Spencer… would you like to talk to me?”

Barnett released his hold on the colonel and glared at the North Vietnamese intelligence officer. “Fuck you, Sweet Bitch!”

The blunt, hostile statement caught her off guard, and she hesitated with her mouth opening and closing like a fish’s out
of water. Finally she spoke. “You will see what a Sweet Bitch really is!” She turned and gave the guards orders.

The camp guards pulled Spencer out of the cage along with the colonel. Van Pao backhanded Garibaldi across his mouth, drawing
blood instantly. “You failed me!” She turned her attention to Spencer and nodded her head. The guards tore his black pajamas
from his body, leaving him naked. “There will not be a repeat of what happened to our South Vietnamese officer…. Mother Kaa
will not have any problems digesting
you
!”

The guards pulled Barnett to the python’s cage and lifted him on top of the structure. The snake was coiled up in a tight
ball at one end of the low bamboo cage. Spencer dropped down through the roof hole and scooted to the opposite side of the
cage. He felt the cool bamboo poles against his buttocks and knew that he could go no farther back.

“Call me anytime, if you have something to tell me.” Lieutenant Van Pao smiled and ran her fingers back and forth along the
bamboo bars, making a soft scraping noise. “Wake up… Mother Kaa, wake up….”

Garibaldi watched from his cage. He instantly picked up the name Van Pao was calling the snake and realized that there was
only one way that she could have known they called the python by that nickname. Garibaldi was positive they had never referred
to the snake by that name in front of her, but they did talk openly in front of the guards. Garibaldi was sure that some of
the guards spoke English. They only pretended that they couldn’t understand what was said to them so that they could eavesdrop
on the POWs’ conversations.

Spencer stared at the huge pile of coils. She seemed a lot bigger close up than in the failing light. The coils moved slowly
and the monster python’s head appeared. She looked directly at Spencer with her black, lifeless eyes and tested the air with
her tongue.

Lieutenant Van Pao left to have supper with her men. The single remaining guard retired to the small guard shack to smoke
a cigarette. The guard knew that he wouldn’t be able to sleep once it got dark, with the POW screaming all night long like
the South Vietnamese officer had done.

Colonel Garibaldi saw Spencer’s chest heaving in and out rapidly and knew the soldier was scared to the point of hyperventilating.
“Spence… take it easy, boy. She’s only a dumb reptile… remember that! We’ll outsmart her, boy….
Spencer!
Talk to me.”

The colonel’s voice was a comfort to Barnett, and he quickly gained control of himself. “I’m fine, Colonel.”

“Good! Now back up into one of the corners of the cage, and if she starts moving, don’t let her get her head behind you and
push you away from the bamboo…. She can’t coil or squeeze you without getting some kind of traction.”

“All right.” Spencer scooted from his position against the bamboo bars to a corner of the cage. Mother Kaa’s head didn’t move,
but she tested the air again. “Man, Colonel… she has a head as big as a football!”

“She might try and coil up against you for warmth when it gets dark…. Be ready for that too.” Garibaldi looked over at the
guard in the shack and wondered if he could speak English.

Spencer pushed his back against the corner of the cage and pulled his knees up to his chest. He wrapped his arms around his
legs and waited.

*   *   *

The old Montagnard sat on his porch with three more of the village elders and sipped the bamboo straw that stuck out of the
large wine pot in front of him. A length of bamboo had been placed over the lip of the jug with a splinter of bamboo about
two inches long bent down into the jug. The purpose of the stick was to measure how much each man drank. When it was your
turn to drink through your straw, water was poured in the jug until it reached the very lip and was going to overflow. You
drank through your straw until the level of the wine lowered and the sliver of bamboo was exposed. There was no faking drinking
at a Montagnard wine-drinking ceremony. What made it even worse was that they were constantly adding new water to the wine,
and since it was drawn up from the bottom of the pot, the wine would actually still be fermenting in your stomach. There wasn’t
a worse drunk and hangover than the ones created from Montagnard
num-pah
.

As the Bru chieftain saw the sun drop down behind the mountain, his vision disappeared. He was suffering from a severe vitamin-A
deficiency and would be totally blind before the year was out. The old man spoke to the other elders and asked that they beg
the evil Tang Lie to leave them alone in peace. The other old men began chanting and beating their gongs. The music reached
the POW camp and would have provided a refreshing form of entertainment, except for the situation Spencer was in.

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