The line rolled backward, unfurling and straightening from a tight, easy arc. As the last curl straightened, a gentle movement of the uniformed man holding the rod sent the line gliding forward again. A pause, then the rod tip dropped and the line straightened before dropping on to the coarse thick alien grass outside the officers mess. No grass like this ever grew in America.
Wop-wop-wop-wop-wop… As the Lieutenant completed his cast, his attention was drawn upwards. In the reflection of his mirrored aviator sunglasses, the source of the noise became apparent. Three Hueys powered past low overhead, the sound of the rotors fading as they passed over the jungle tree-line, half a mile away. The Lieutenant watched them disappear, then puffed at the cigar clenched between his teeth. He sighed and spat out a tiny piece of loose tobacco, then continued practising his casting, still dreaming of a river half a world away.
The Song-chai bar in Saigon was a regular haunt of the US forces stationed there at the time. Just off a main street, it boasted air conditioning which never worked but ceiling fans that did. It also had a great PA system which Cuong, the manager, utlised to maximum effect.
There were a lot of soldiers drinking there that night. Young men, some still boys, none more than 25 years old and most much, much younger. Their green singlets and silver dogtags contrasted, mostly favourably, with their black glistening muscles. Or so the girls thought. Most of the soldiers were black. And very young. The helicopter pilots tended to be slightly older and of a different skin colour, but to the girls they were all the same. They all represented money and a possible escape route from the poverty and fighting that was Vietnam.
On one table, a group of men were reminiscing about their favourite sport. Loudly. Competing with Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ and the like could not be achieved without considerable volume. They had discovered several months ago that each was an angler and had gravitated to each other over the course of time. Whenever they found themselves free, they would sit and swop fishing tales at this table. Cuong had laughingly named it the ‘flishing table’, it was a regular spot for the angler/soldiers.
These men were drawn from various parts of the Unites States, so their fishing experiences were wildly disparate. Oiled by large quantities of Budweiser and Bourbon their tales grew nightly. A Seattle man told tales of salmon and steelhead. Another from Florida told of bass by the boat-full whilst a third spoke of sailfish and tuna off the California coast. On this particular night, a grinning Cuong had just served them each a ‘free’ whisky when the black sergeant told his tale. He had a cheong-sam clad girl on his lap who was trying to persuade him to buy her another drink. The drink would be mostly water of course, the girls were an added-sales gimmick. As the big sergeant spoke, her long black hair kept blocking the view of his face. She was trying to get his attention, like a small child interrupting its mother. He kept moving her head aside as he told his tale in a Southern drawl. Her attentions could wait.
“We always fished for the catfish in the Mississippi and Missouri. Usually we’d catch ’em up to a couple of pounds but there are some real monsters living down there too. This one spot I know of, people used to use it as a swimming hole. One day this guy, he was a big guy too, he was out swimming and something grabbed his leg. He shouted ‘My leg, help, it’s got my leg’ but nobody understood what was going on. Well, he was dragged under. The police were called out but they couldn’t do nuthin’ so they called out the coastguard. The coastguard had divers go down to try and find this guy. They never did find him but they did say that there was this huge catfish down there looking very pleased with itself. They reckoned it was a couple o’ hundred pounds at least”.
The story prompted more catfish talk. Over the keyboards intro to a Doors number, one of the soldiers told how the Meekong River had some of the biggest catfish in the world. Everyone leaned forward so as not to miss anything, they were fascinated by the talk of these monsters. They discussed maybe going fishing for the Meekong catfish on their next R&R and their talk moved onto the tackle and baits that would be needed. The sergeant’s advice was sought. He delivered a lecture on the effectiveness of stink-baits to the background of Jim Morrison belting out the lyrics to ‘Riders of the Storm’. A good bait was vital, he shouted. Find a good catfish stink-bait and it will work wonders, you won’t just catch one, you’ll catch every one for miles. They’ll just follow the stink trail until they find the hook.
Cuong watched the soldiers, listening. His face grew serious as he saw their rapt attention. He decided to put catfish on the next days menu, perhaps charcoal grilled, they would like that and would pay heavily for a taste of their home. Then he broke into his customary wide grin as one of them called to him to bring more beer.
The Huey helicopter was the workhorse of the Vietnam war. It was versatile enough to be used for live action, dropping off men ‘behind the lines’, such as they were, and also roomy enough for emergency evac operations.
The chopper formation was flying over ‘safe’ ground, following, as always on this patrol, the south bank of the mighty Mekong River. At this point the jungle vegetation had been burnt back from the river banks for several hundred yards. The destruction was not fresh, it had happened some weeks ago. The napalm had done its work, it was clear to see that nothing moved on the charred landscape. Three of the powerful green choppers spread out in a line at two hundred yard intervals, flying at a mere 3oo foot above the devastation. In the lead aircraft, a black sergeant was scanning the ground below them when he spotted something which caused him to tap the shoulder of the Lieutenant who was flying the craft.
“Hey Lou. Look down there. What do you make of that?” The marine was shouting into the pilots cupped ear in order to be heard over the throbbing noise of the rotors. There was little point in wasting words in that din – nobody ever said anything in a Huey unless it was important. The Marine was pointing down to the river.
The Lieutenant readjusted his vision to follow the pointing finger. Washed up on the beach were fish, hundreds of fish. Big ones, small ones and… Wow. Two of the biggest fish he had ever seen. They were lying belly up in the shallow margins on a beach bordered by the blackened, burnt out jungle. The Lieutenant was a practised veteran, of both war and angling, he could see that these fish were of astounding proportions. The angler inside of him argued with the professional soldier. The angler won.
Keeping radio silence, he slowed the craft to a hover and signalled to the other helicopters that he was going down. First he made a slow careful sweep low along the beach, looking for any signs of trouble. Then inland across the charcoal jungle. Nothing. The area was safe.
With practised ease he settled the ungainly craft gently down on to the beach. Before it had even touched the sand the black sergeant’s platoon was out and running, taking up defensive positions, eagle eyes scanning right to left and back again over the smoke blackened terrain. The pilot cut the engine and dismounted his charger. He walked quickly across the beach, over to the shallows and studied the pair of giant dead fish through his mirrored shades. All around him smaller fish were decomposing in the heat, the smell of rotting fish in that shimmering heat was awful.
The two dead catfish were truly huge. The smaller of the two must have been approaching ten feet in length, the larger one around twelve feet. The Lieutenant surmised that the fish must have died in a bombing some days ago, it would account for all the other dead fish too.
The sergeant came running up beside him. “The area is secured sir”. He took a double take at the two great fish. “Holy cow. Will you take a look at that. Ain’t never seen nuthin’ that big back home”.
The Lieutenant pensively reached into his pocket and retrieved a cigar. He snipped the end off it with a cutter attached to a cord on his jacket and lit the thing, speaking all the while.
“Okay Sarg, get some of the guys over here and let’s pull one of these mothers out. I wanna get a real good look at this. Leave Rossi and Simons on guard. Oh, and get my camera from the chopper will ya”.
The Lieutenant removed his sunglasses and waved to the other Hueys which were now hovering two hundred yards out over the main river, their machine-guns trained on the beach. He raised both hands in a thumbs up signal and, using both hands as landing bats, waved to both aircraft to land. He would need more men than he had here to pull these suckers out of the water.
The pilots of the other two Hueys were the Lieutenant’s friends, his drinking and fishing partners. They had all served together for a long time, they were all very experienced veterans of the war. They were also all super-keen anglers, and would be itching to have a closer look at the pair of outsize monsters laying in the margins.
The pair of helicopters landed beside the first and the men aboard disembarked. Even those who had no interest in fishing were made curious by the obvious excitement of those who were. Soon a knot of men were wading into the water, watched by those on guard. The area was secure, nothing was going to happen.
But it did.
The first indication that something was wrong was a clatter as a hand-grenade landed inside the open door of a Huey, followed by more of the hand propelled bombs landing in and around the others. A machine gun started firing, then several more. Within seconds the whole beach was a battlefield, or to be more precise, a slaughterhouse. The American soldiers and airmen never stood a chance. All around the beach, trapdoors opened in the sand, each emitting a stream of carefully laid down firepower. The battle, if it could be called that, was over in under a minute. The guerilla fighters of Ho Chi Minh had lain for ten hours buried in the sand. They emerged from their concealed holes carefully, wary of any additional resistance, but there were none. One of the ambushers, a small man holding an AK47 assault rifle at the ready, trotted nimbly over to the rivers edge. Showing no sign that he had lain immobile for so long, he checked that none of the Americans were left alive. He paused beside the body of a dead Lieutenant, noticing a still smouldering cigar laying in the sand beside the fallen man.
Cuong’s brother looked up as he ground out the cigar with his rubber thong shower shoe. His eyes ranged over the dead men and considered. Cuong had been right. A good catfish stinkbait wouldn’t just catch one, it would catch every one for miles.