By all accounts it was a spectacular night at the White House on a cool but clear October evening in Washington, DC. President and Mrs. Reagan were charming and gracious as they welcomed Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his wife at the North Portico Entrance to the executive mansion. After briefly posing for photographers, the men in their tuxedos and the women in elegant gowns followed a parade of flag bearers and military aides into the cross hall at the center of the building. The national anthems of each country were played before an assembly of 120 guests invited to the state dinner. The next move in this highly choreographed performance was for the president and prime minister to lead a grand march into the East Room.
The entertainment for the event was provided by a group of actors who performed songs popular in the American musical theater. Prime Minister Yew was a big fan of Broadway shows and appreciated the First Lady’s decision to indulge his interests with this favorite form of American culture. After a standing ovation from an audience filled with senior officials from both countries, business leaders from Asia and the United States, movie stars, famous athletes, big Republican Party contributors, and a handful of military officers, the entire group followed the president and his wife into the State Dining Room for a superb dinner prepared by an army of White House chefs busily working one floor below. Violinists strolled among the twelve circular tables lit with candles and adorned with fine china to provide a romantic atmosphere that further enhanced an already-exquisite experience for those fortunate enough to be in attendance.
United States Air Force colonel Brick Autry had been to many White House events in the past, but never to a state dinner. He knew he was lucky to be there. He had served as a deputy national security advisor to the president only for eight months. His boss, the national security advisor, was on a secret trip to the Middle East and had asked Colonel Autry to attend the dinner in his absence. Although this was the second time in Brick’s career that he was assigned to the White House, this dinner was his first opportunity to experience one of the perquisites of being a senior advisor to the president.
Normally Autry was completely focused on his job and didn’t pay much attention to diplomacy and schmoozing the movers and shakers in the nation’s capital. But tonight he showed off his ability to be charming when he needed to be. He and his date (a Miss Barbara Quincy) were seated at a table with the Singaporean defense minister, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, the CEO of Colgate Palmolive, and the editor of the Los Angeles Times. This was a group of impressive people, so Brick was surprised at how interested these men and their wives were to speak with him and learn of his background.
He figured that it wasn’t every day that folks whose careers were just a progression of normal jobs got to meet a guy who flew supersonic jet fighters, including over three hundred combat missions in Vietnam and Laos. Having also spent nine months as a prisoner of war in the notorious North Vietnamese prison camp, the Hanoi Hilton, and then going on to work for Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration made him a unique player in the Washington political power game. Perhaps because of his experience as a POW, the people around the table asked about his military experience in a tactful fashion. Brick appreciated this and answered them in a straightforward and truthful manner. If he referred to his time as a war prisoner, he generally told a story about his fellow prisoners that had a human or comical side to it. He never spoke much about the beatings and torture that he and most of his comrades had suffered. And, when it came to airplanes and flying, his enthusiasm for the passion of his life shone through as he related funny stories about his adventures. He generated a lot of smiles and a feeling of fellowship around the table. Connecting with other people—regardless of their station in life—was a skill that came naturally to Brick.
Colonel Autry’s charm and diplomacy were enhanced by his date for the evening. Brick had only met Barbara two weeks before at a meeting on Capitol Hill. She was the chief counsel to the House Armed Services Committee, and he had been very impressed by her intelligence and poise during a contentious discussion on defense spending between representatives from the White House and the Congress. He was also drawn to her appearance: blond and trim with a patrician, Ivy League look. She was a perfect candidate for his “target of opportunity” list. When he called her a week later to ask if she would accompany him to the White House state dinner for the prime minister of Singapore, she actually didn’t remember who he was, but she wasn’t about to turn down a night at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Fortunately, when Brick showed up at her front door earlier that evening, she was pleased to see a handsome and athletic guy in a black dress uniform. Her glance fell to a cascade of miniature medals pinned to his left breast under the silver wings of a senior command pilot. Even though they barely knew each other, Barbara proved to be quite comfortable socializing at the White House and was an effective ally in Brick’s effort to network and connect with the important people who were at the table.
As the evening wore on, Brick realized that he was having a really good time. Discussions with the other guests were lively and interesting, and his date was handling herself quite well—getting admiring looks from other men in the room. Even though he was new to this level of political social activity, feeling like he was having a good night, he rewarded himself with a couple extra glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon. Eventually, as he held hands and walked around with his attractive date, he spotted someone he needed to speak with.
General Jim Young was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a man Brick had known and respected since he served under Young’s command during the Vietnam War. Brick excused himself from a chat Barbara was having with several well-heeled women and made his way over to the general. The older officer smiled when he saw Brick approach and moved forward to shake hands with his former subordinate. “How you doing tonight, Brick? This place is a lot fancier than the Officer’s Club in Thailand, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” said Brick. “This is a whole lot nicer than that rotten bar at Ubon, but I still don’t think I’ve ever had more fun than some of the nights there when you were in command of the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing. Being a member of the Wolfpack was one of the better experiences of my life.”
“Yeah, it was fun,” said General Young. “There were some tough times there too—like the night you and Jet Thompson got shot down west of Hanoi. There were a lot of sad faces around the bar when we realized that Jet Thompson was dead and you were a POW. Some of our guys thought you two were indestructible—but I guess we’re all mortal. Some of us came back, and some of us didn’t.”
Brick just nodded in agreement and said nothing.
The general took him by the elbow and moved him away to a spot in the State Dining Room where they could speak without being overheard.
“Brick, I need you to give me an update on the mood in the White House concerning the Strategic Defense Initiatives. Whenever I talk to the president, he seems to be completely on board with this, but we have a few loose cannons rolling around over here in the West Wing, and I just want to be sure I’m not getting smoke blown up my ass. Since the Soviets suspended the arms-reduction negotiations a few years ago, we’ve been kicking their butts developing space-borne defense systems and missile systems in Europe. We don’t think the Russians can keep up with us in this arms race, and sooner or later they’re going to crumble and come back to the negotiating table. I know all this additional defense spending isn’t popular in Congress, and Reagan is taking heat from both sides of the aisle, but I truly believe exercising our economic might over the Communists makes more sense than trading nukes over the top of the polar ice cap.”
“I’m with you, sir. The safest way to beat the Russians is to outspend them. I think the senior people in the White House all understand that, and my impression from meetings with the president is that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to build up our military capability and force them to bankrupt their society trying to keep pace with us.”
General Young put his arm around Brick and moved him closer to a window and further from anyone who might want to listen in on their conversation. “Brick, I’m going to share something with you, and I want you to keep this under your hat. I don’t want this information moving around inside the White House yet. There’re too many political hacks around here who could jump to unwise conclusions and get into the middle of this.”
“No problem, sir; what’s the issue?”
“It’s rare that you get strong agreement from key analysts at the State Department, the CIA, and my guys in the Defense Intelligence Agency, but based on some human intelligence we are getting out of the Kremlin, every Soviet watcher we have thinks that Gorbachev’s recent appointment as general secretary of the party could be a watershed event for US-Soviet relations. This Gorbachev guy seems to get it. He knows their economy is screwed up, and he understands that they have to make major reforms. Their economic, political, and military systems are a mess. We know they want to be a viable country and a player on the world stage. If we can force Gorbachev to the negotiating table with our strategic defense initiatives, we think we can do business with this guy.”
”Well, Brick, here’s what you don’t know: signal-intelligence-gathering activities conducted jointly by DIA and the NSA have been picking up telephone and radio chatter inside the Soviet Union, indicating that there are a few folks in the Communist Party and the KGB who aren’t too thrilled that a reformer is now running the country.”
“That doesn’t seem too unusual. Human beings don’t typically enjoy having things change around them.”
“Yeah. Well, this little group of human beings seems willing to alter the course of history by terminating the reformer. In addition, the CIA has several reliable spies in the Kremlin who are very alarmed by rumors about an alliance of the Russian mafia and the KGB. The mobsters know that reform will be bad for business, and the secret police know that the winds of change will weaken their hold on the country. Neither group is afraid of using violence to achieve their goals, so it seems like a real threat to the life of the general secretary.”
“If we can figure this out with listening devices on airplanes and satellites, and a few well-placed spies, don’t you think Gorbachev’s security team can figure it out?”
“Hopefully, but we don’t know that for sure. If this guy gets whacked and replaced by a reactionary who wants to return to the days of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko, our goal of ending the Cold War will go up in flames.”
Both men took a second to think about the ramifications of that statement, and then the general continued with his thoughts, “We’re going to really work this with all our intelligence teams. We have to see if we can identify the players in the anti-Gorbachev effort and then figure out how to scope the problem. It may be completely out of our control, but the United States has a vested interest in keeping the current regime in Moscow alive and healthy. At some point the CIA is going to have to brief the secretaries of state and defense on this as well as the president. I’ll give you a heads-up when I think that will take place. If you hear anything about this from another source, make sure you let me know.”
“I’ll do that, sir. I appreciate you rolling me in on this situation.”
General Young took a moment to look around the room at the sumptuous party being enjoyed by these successful, well-connected, and generally attractive guests. “I never thought I would get to go to a party like this. A lot of people were surprised when Reagan appointed me to head the Joint Chiefs. Hell, I spent most of my career flying around faster than the speed of sound and inhaling jet fuel. Now I have to act like I’m interested when some woman with blue hair tells me about her problems getting a good caterer so she can host a party for a bunch of useless lobbyists in Georgetown. We got too many weenies running this goddamned government!”
Brick chuckled and shook his head. Jim Young was the most charismatic and effective military leader he had ever met—a patriot who would give his life in an instant for his country or for one of the men or women in his command. It was ironically funny to see this dynamo constrained by the constructs of the political process that ruled the District of Columbia, and the nation.
Young slapped Brick on the back. “Keep me posted, Brick.” The general headed off to rejoin his wife and the gaggle of women she was speaking with.
“I will, sir.” He walked off in the opposite direction and grabbed another Cabernet from a waiter before making his way back to his date.
The moment arrived where protocol required that the president and First Lady excuse themselves to accompany the prime minister and his wife back to the North Portico. This was a signal to all at the party that they had thirty minutes left to enjoy themselves at the expense of the American taxpayer before leaving through the South Portico and heading back to their cars parked on the ellipse just outside the White House fence.
Brick took this time to guide the lovely lawyer from the House Armed Services Committee around the dance floor and knock down another drink. He realized the wine was getting to his head, but he was having fun and figured his temporary job of pressing the flesh and making small talk was finally over. As guests began to leave and move through a gauntlet of military aides and White House police toward the exit, he thought about something he wanted to do before the night came to an end. Normally he would visit the wall only by himself, but he was more than casually interested in the woman he was with and figured he would see how she handled one of his pilgrimages to a hallowed place in Washington.
Brick grabbed Barbara by the hand and walked out of the State Dining Room and into the cross hall. They left the main part of the mansion by walking through a door into the hallway that connects the center portion of the White House to the West Wing and Oval Office. The Secret Service agents and White House police manning various checkpoints in this section allowed them to proceed unimpeded since, as White House staff, Brick was authorized to move through the secured area. Having an unauthorized guest in these locations was not allowed, but the security personnel let it slide, given that Brick’s clear intent was to reach his parking spot on West Executive Avenue—a thoroughfare that separated the West Wing from the Eisenhower Executive Building, where Brick’s office was located.
When Brick and Barbara reached his reserved parking location, they hopped into his Porsche 911 and raced up to the security gate on Pennsylvania Avenue. The guard recognized Brick but still took a moment to check out the inhabitants of the car with his flashlight. Passing through the gate, Brick took a left on Pennsylvania Avenue and another left on Seventeenth Street, heading south. By this time of the night, the traffic was light, and Brick accelerated the car up to fifty miles per hour until he was forced to stop for a traffic light at the corner of Seventeenth Street and Constitution Avenue. When the light turned green, he popped the clutch and screeched around the corner, heading west toward the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge. However, several blocks prior to the entrance of the bridge, he made a violent U turn on Constitution Avenue and brought the car to a rest in a no-parking zone on the south side of the avenue.
“My God, Brick—are you crazy? Are you trying to get us killed?”
Brick laughed as he turned off the car engine. He hadn’t met many people in his life who enjoyed riding along with him, whether in an F-4 Phantom fighter jet or in a car. His normal approach for getting from point A to point B was routinely asymmetric.
“Brick, where the hell are we going? It’s the middle of the night, and you’re parked in a spot where they will either ticket your car or put a boot on it!”
“No sweat—I have a White House sticker on the front bumper; they’ll leave the car alone.”
Brick took Barbara’s hand, and they began to walk onto the national mall that stretched from Capitol Hill to the Potomac River. To their left they could see the Washington Monument soaring into the sky, and on the right, they could make out the top of the Lincoln Monument bathed in lights that created dramatic shadows within and around the marble building.
“Is it safe to be out here on the mall at this time? We may be a target for a mugging. There aren’t any tourists still walking around.”
“Don’t worry. You’re with me. No one will harm us.”
Brick was slurring his words a little. She knew he had had too much to drink.
After they walked about sixty yards from the car, Rick guided Barbara to a sidewalk that paralleled a long black wall set into the contour of a shallow hill. The wall was divided into two wings that sloped down from a vertex in the middle. The black granite panels of the wall contained the names of over fifty-eight thousand men and women who lost their lives during the Vietnam conflict.
“This is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, isn’t it?”
Brick said nothing but continued to walk until he stood at the center of the wall with one wing sloping to his right and the other to his left. The lights buried in the brick border at the base of the wall cast an eerie glow over the surface, highlighting the thousands of names. Brick stared at the wall in silence. His date held his arm and pulled herself close to him for security. “I come down here once in a while at night, usually on a night when I’ve been working late. There is normally a park ranger here until ten p.m., but after that there won’t be anyone around. Just me.”
Brick became silent again, and Barbara began to wonder what was going on. Autry seemed to be such an articulate, smart, and outgoing guy that this mood of somber introspection appeared out of character. Maybe his experience in Vietnam had left him with more than a thirteen-year-old memory.
“Why do you come here, Brick? Do some of these names represent friends of yours?”
Autry looked at Barbara briefly and then looked back at the wall. “I come here to think and to talk. I talk to my brothers and sisters who are here on the wall. I can put a face to several of the names carved into this stone, but mainly I come by to talk to all my fellow veterans.”
Brick again looked at Barbara Quincy, who was trying to assess whether that last statement was rational or delusional. Brick smiled. “Don’t worry—I’m not nuts. I realize there is no one here but me. I just like to think out loud, and I feel closest to the memory of these folks when I am standing here.” He hesitated for a moment and then asked a question that took their discussion in a different direction, “You work around politicians every day. Do you think they make good decisions? Do you think they make moral decisions?”
“The answer to each of those questions is different.”
“OK, let me put it this way: Do you think they make decisions that are in the best interests of our country?”
The young woman shrugged. “Sometimes they do—and sometimes they don’t.”
“Right—sometimes they do the right thing, and sometimes they don’t. But when I was a young college guy who desperately wanted to fly jets and wear the uniform of my country, I believed that our leaders in Washington would never allow our fighting men and women to die for nothing or for a hopeless cause. Do you know that by 1968, the secretary of defense knew that the war in Vietnam could not be won and gave this assessment to the president of the United States? From the end of 1968 until the war’s final conclusion, over twenty-one thousand more American lost their lives while our leaders tried to figure out how to cut and run.”
“I was just in high school at the end of the war. My parents hated it and were very antiwar. Once it was over, I never really thought much of it.”
“Well, I’ve thought about it a lot. The best and the brightest screwed it up getting into Vietnam, they screwed up the prosecution of the war, and they screwed up the withdrawal. The conclusion I draw from this is that the best and the brightest at the top of the government pyramid may not be the best, and they may not be so bright. We went to Indochina to make that part of the world safe for democracy. Today, all three countries, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are run by authoritarian Communist governments. The fifty-eight thousand names on this wall died for a cause that our leadership didn’t know how to lead.”
“That sounds pretty cynical, coming from a guy who sits right near the top of that pyramid today.”
“It’s not cynicism; it’s just reality. I’m proud of my military service. I served with amazing people in the air force as well as spectacular folks here in the White House. I’m just concerned that we are again turning into decision makers who have too much confidence in our judgments and not enough understanding of the world around us. It always makes me want to question authority or decisions made with a political goal in mind.”
Brick smiled back at her and placed his arm around her shoulders to hold her close. As the two of them stood there looking at the wall, a large figure approached from the darkness.
“Hey, are you folks sure you want to be out here this late at night? We get an occasional thief wandering through the mall once the park rangers are gone.”
Brick and Barbara turned toward the voice and saw a tall, broad-shouldered African American police officer walking in their direction. The policeman came right up to them so he could get a look at the late-night visitors to the monument. He was a bit surprised to see an attractive woman in a formal evening gown and an air-force officer wearing a dress uniform.
“You folks look like you attended a pretty fancy party tonight. Where are you coming from?”
Brick smiled and answered his question, “We were just a few blocks away at sixteen hundred Pennsylvania Avenue. You know, the White House.”
The cop laughed softly. “Yeah, Colonel, I know where the White House is.”
The policeman moved around the couple nearer to the wall so the reflection of the lights in front of the monument would give him a better look at their faces.
“Say, aren’t you Colonel Brick Autry?”
Now it was Brick’s turn to be surprised. “Yes, I am. How did you know? Have we met before?”
“We haven’t actually met, Colonel, but I was at the Vietnam Veterans Association Meeting at Fort McNair last month where you gave the keynote address. It was a helluva speech. The vets really appreciated your candor and the ideas you had about dealing with the Soviet Union.”
“Well, I think we were pretty proud to know that one of our own was sitting at the right hand of the president of the United States and giving him good advice on how to provide for the national defense.”
Brick began to laugh. “Honestly, officer, you’re giving me a little too much credit. I don’t sit at the president’s right hand; my office is actually in the Eisenhower building, and I really only see Reagan once or twice a month. I’m reacting to the orders of my bosses, just like you are.”
The cop flashed Brick a wide smile. “I’m sure you are just being modest, Colonel.” He looked over at Barbara Quincy and then back at Brick. “You know, Colonel, your young lady is getting kind of cold. The temperature is dropping out here.”
Brick took off his dress-uniform waistcoat and wrapped it around the bare shoulders of his date, who was beginning to shiver. The miniature medals made a tinkling noise as he transferred the jacket from his torso to hers. He again placed his arm around her and held her close in an effort to conjoin the heat of their bodies. At that point, all three of them were quietly staring at the wall when Brick realized that the policeman knew his name but he didn’t know who this friendly public servant was.
“What’s your name, Officer, and where did you serve in Vietnam?”
“My name is Otis Day, and I was a sergeant in the US Army. I served in Quang Nam Province from late seventy-one until late seventy-two. We were working with South Vietnamese troops to protect the city of Da Nang and the air base that was located there. It got really hairy during the Easter offensive in April seventy-two.”
“I remember it well. I flew a number of air-to-ground missions in the region during that offensive.”
“Sure, I remember watching F-4 Phantoms dropping snake and nape on the bad guys. Maybe you were one of those brave pilots flying those planes.”
The policeman took another long look at the wall and then turned back to the couple standing next to him. “You know, Colonel, it’s getting kind of late, and the young lady looks like she is ready to go home. I also suspect that the sports car illegally parked over here on Constitution Avenue belongs to you, and I’d appreciate it if you could move it as soon as possible.”
“Sure thing, Officer Day. I’m sorry if I’ve caused you any problem by being out here so late tonight.”
“It’s no problem—c’mon, I’ll walk you back to the car.”
Officer Day turned and walked eastward on the sidewalk with Brick and Barbara trailing close behind. As they approached the end of the granite monument, Brick stopped and strode over to a panel on the face of the wall to look for a name he had stared at so many times in the past. When he found it, he gently rubbed his fingers over the etched stone that read,
James Emerson Thompson
“You see this name, Officer Day? This is the name of my navigator in Vietnam, Jet Thompson. He wasn’t just my backseater; he was also my best friend. We flew over three hundred missions together. We thought we were the hottest jet jocks in the sky, and most of the time, we were. Then one day I made a mistake. I made an error in judgment. When the signal had been given for our flight of six F-4s to disengage from the target area, I pressed on and attacked a target no one else had been able to hit that afternoon. I was so damned sure I could get it that I ignored the order to disengage and rolled in on an ammo dump that was protected by high walls. In order to blow it up, you had to drop the bomb right on top of it. Jet and I never second-guessed each other, so he was with me all the way on the move, but it was really my decision, not his. I held the Phantom in a steep dive well below the altitude where I would normally release the bomb. When we pickled the weapon, I pulled up, but we were really low when the bird bottomed out and headed skyward again. We were right over an antiaircraft battery, and they let loose with everything they had. I could hear the triple-A rounds piercing the hull of the aircraft, and immediately everything started going to hell. I was getting engine firelights, hydraulic failure indicators, all kinds of emergency flashes on the instrument panel—the airplane was coming apart. At that point I couldn’t control the bird, and it started to roll over and head south. I screamed for Jet to eject, and I pulled the handles on my seat. Unfortunately when we ejected the airplane was upside down. Sometimes that ejection attitude screws things up. I made it to the ground OK because my chute worked perfectly. Jet got a streamer—the chute never fully deployed, and he came crashing to earth. I found him fifteen feet off the ground, hanging from a tree in his harness. He was terribly banged up. I knew he was dead. I started to climb the tree to see if I could cut him down, but in the distance, I heard men yelling in Vietnamese. They were hunting for me, and I had to run. I looked up at Jet and told him I was sorry, but I had to run. Twenty-four hours later, a bunch of angry rice farmers caught me and beat me until I was unconscious. At that point they turned me over to the North Vietnamese Army, who took me to the prison camp. Being a POW sucked, but nothing was as bad as leaving my best friend to rot in that stinking jungle. I’ve thought about that moment every day for the last thirteen years.”
Barbara Quinn and Otis Day stood motionless and slightly shocked. Brick’s story was moving, but the cold tone in his voice with which he narrated the tale was unnerving. He seemed like a man in a trance.
Brick looked back at Barbara and pointed at the decorations pinned to his dress uniform. “Do you see these medals, Officer Day? A Distinguished Flying Cross, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star for valor, a Purple Heart, and an Air Medal with two silver Oak Leaf Clusters—just fantastic. When I was released from North Vietnam, they told me I was a hero and gave me all these awards.”
The two men and the woman silently resumed their walk away from the monument, but when they reached the sidewalk that would take them to Constitution Avenue, Brick stopped once more and looked back at the wall.
“Do you patrol this area every night, Officer Day?”
“Yes, I do. I pass the monument several times a night, and just like you, I always stop to think or say a prayer.”
“When you’re leaving this ground like we are now and you look back at the wall, how do you feel?”
“Hmm, I guess I feel hopeful.”
“Hopeful? How’s that?”
The black man smiled again and placed his hand on Brick’s shoulder. “You know, Colonel, I grew up here in the District with nothing. I didn’t even know who my daddy was. But my momma didn’t spare the rod and encouraged me to join the military when I got out of high school. The army taught me a lot. More than just how to be a good soldier. It taught me that it’s possible for different types of people to get along and work together. When you’re getting shot at, you don’t care if the guy next to you is white, black, a Jew, or a Christian. You just need to believe that he has your back, and you will risk your life to cover his back. That’s how it works. You know that as well as I do. So it makes me hopeful to know that most of the men and women who came back from ’Nam understand that and are doing jobs every day like the ones you and I are doing. We are working every day to make this a better country, a better country for everyone. And now that I have met you, I am even more hopeful. I’m glad you are in the White House. I have confidence in you.”
“I hope I don’t disappoint you, Officer Day.”
“You won’t disappoint me, Colonel. You gotta remember that sometimes it takes a mountain to believe.”
“I sure am, and I love singing with the choir at my church. I might even think of you when I sing that song next Sunday.”
The policeman was pleased that he was able to bring a smile back to the faces of Brick and Barbara.
“You just remember, Colonel, the good Lord don’t make no mountain you can’t climb if you really set your mind to it. And once you make it over the top of that mountain, those demons haunting you from that jungle will be left far behind. It just takes the mountain to make you believe in yourself and the big man up above.”
Brick reached out and shook Otis Day’s hand. “It was an honor to meet you tonight, Officer Day.”
“Colonel, the honor was mine.”
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