Akron. Shit. I'm still only in Akron. Every time I think I'm going to wake up back in the jungle. When I was home after my first tour, it was worse. I'd wake up and there'd be nothing… I hardly said a word to my first wife until I said yes to a divorce. When I was here I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I've been here a week now. Waiting for a mission, getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room I get weaker. And every minute Bush gets stronger. Each time I look around the walls move in a little tighter.
Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service.
"Captain Kerry, you in there?"
"You have orders to report to ComSec intelligence in Cuyahoga Falls."
I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn't even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles down a river that snaked through the campaign like a main circuit cable and plugged straight into Bush. It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of George W. Bush's secret, any more than being back in Akron was an accident. There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.
"Captain, you ever heard of George W. Bush? Did a stint at the Texas Air National Guard, then disappeared for a time. No one knows where. Went AWOL; papers vaporized. Then we picked this up, from the Republican National Convention."
(Plays a recording)
"We must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army. And they call me an assassin. What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie… they lie and we have to be merciful for those who lie. Those nabobs. I hate them. How I hate them…"
"No, a crony, a guy called Zell Miller. Pretty pissed, wouldn't you say? But where there's Miller, there's Bush. You know, Bush was one of the most outstanding officers the National Guard ever produced. He could knock back a quart of Jack Daniels, score with Miss El Paso and still spot for a basket toss. But then he took up religion, politics; became president, and, well his ideas, methods have become unsound… Unsound."
"What happened then?"
"Now he's somewhere in Ohio, which may emerge as the key battleground in the November election, and he's seeking the state's 21 electoral votes. He's got an army of supporters who worship the man, like a god, and follow every order, however ridiculous.
"Your mission is to proceed down the Ohio River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Bush's path, follow it, learn what you can along the way. When you find him infiltrate his campaign by whatever means available and terminate Bush's command."
"Terminate with extreme prejudice?"
"You understand captain, that this operation does not exist, nor will it ever exist."
I was in a Navy PBR, a type of plastic patrol boat, pretty common sight on the rivers. They said it was a good way to pick up information without drawing lot of attention. That was okay; I needed the air and the time. Only problem was I wouldn't be alone.
The crew was mostly just kids, rock and rollers with one foot in their graves. The machinist, the one they called "Chief," was Mary Beth Cahill. She was from Dorchester. She was wrapped too tight for Ohio, probably wrapped too tight for Dorchester. Up front on the '50s was a famous lawyer from North Carolina. John Edwards. You look at him and you wouldn't believe he ever won a case in his whole life. Then there was Theresa. Mrs. Theresa was a cook from some South African shithole. Light and space of the campaign had really put the zap on her head.
(Sound of explosions in the distance)
"What the fuck is that?"
"Arc lights, B-52 strikes. Every time I hear that something terrible happens. Hey, Hueys up ahead."
"Let's have a look, chief."
It was the AirCav, First of the Ninth, our escort into the Ohio River. But they were supposed to be waiting for us another 30 miles ahead. Well, Air Mobile, those boys just couldn't stay put. First of the Ninth was an old cavalry division that had cashed in its horses for choppers, and gone tear-assing around northern Ohio, looking for the shit. They've given the Republicans a few surprises in their time here. What they were mopping up now hadn't even happened an hour ago.
Their commander was a guy named Clinton. He hadn't heard of a mission to take us down to the Ohio. He was flicking death cards at dead Young Republicans, then said:
"Well, we'll see what we can do about that. But for now stay out of my way."
Clinton had a pretty good day for himself. They choppered in Big Macs and beer and turned the LZ into a beach party. He wasn't a bad officer, I guess. He loved his boys and girls, and some even felt safe with him. He was one of those guys that had that weird light around him. You just knew he wasn't gonna get so much as a scratch, though he was just begging for it. But could he help me on my mission?
I could hear Mrs. Theresa muttering: "I'm not here. I'm walking through the jungle gathering tomatoes. I make a nice tomato soufflé. Kinda spread it around. Hey captain, I wanna get some tomatoes."
Chief wasn't happy: "Just don't go out there by yourself. And for God's sake, don't say what just pops into your mind. You'll blow the mission and make us all look like fools.
"Hey shove it. I'm getting some tomatoes."
About half an hour went by, then Mrs. Theresa ran back to the boat, screaming: "It's a tiger, a fucking tiger!" She can't make the boat, falls into the water. I lunge over and grab her by her Kevlar, she falls back in; I've got her … she's in the boat, flapping like a beached walrus. We can hear Chief yelling: "Never get out of the boat, never. You hear?"
Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Bush got off the boat. He split from the whole fucking program. How did that happen? What did he see that first term? The more I read and began to understand, the more I admired him. A tough motherfucker. He could have retired to some manicured Texas country club, chewed the fat with the good ol' boys, and not even had to worry about how much money he had in his pocket. But he chose to stay on in the White House. He could have gone for idleness but he went for himself instead.
We had been drifting a week, weeks, I don't know, when we were hit from the jungle around Chilo. It wasn't jungle, though, so much as the steadily closing lid of a casket. Chief and Mrs. Theresa took a few rounds, dead as dirt, and then it was just me and Edwards. We were moving deeper and deeper into the darkness. Then we caught up with Bush; or he caught up with us. Goddamn. I could smell him, and all I got for backup is this shit-grinning, bouncy little lawyer, high on litigation and himself.
Someone approaches looking agitated.
"I'm an American, American office worker. It's all right. Any of you got cigarettes, that's what I've been dreaming of."
"I'm trying to find George W. Bush… Can you hear me?"
"Hey, man, you don't talk to Bush. You listen to him. The man's enlarged my mind. He's a poet-warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he'll, uh, well, you'll say hello to him, right? And he'll just walk right by you, and he won't even notice you. And suddenly he'll grab you, and he'll throw you in a corner, and he'll say do you know what is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you—I mean I'm no, I can't—I'm a little man, he's a great man. I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas—I mean … "
The single candle felt like a prison courtyard searchlight, but Bush moved in and out of the shadows.
"Where are you from Kerry?"
"I'm from Massachusetts, sir."
"How far are you from the river?"
"The Charles River, sir?"
"No the goddamn Mekong. Yes, the Charles."
Bush was bent over, as if talking at the reed mat over which he was slumped. His hair was grayer than the pictures in his file, the eyelids closer to each other than I imagined.
"Why do they want to terminate my command Kerry?" he asked
"That's classified sir."
"Not any more, captain, wouldn't you agree. What did they tell you?"
"They told me…They told me that you had gone totally insane and that your administration was unsound."
"Are my methods unsound?"
"I don't see any method at all, sir."
"Are you an assassin?"
"I'm a soldier, sir, just reporting for duty."
"You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill. You know I've seen horrors. Four years in Washington will show you a few. You have a right to kill me… But you have no right to judge me. It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face—it's tumbleweeds of congressional investigations; a vice-president who thinks you're an idiot, but to whom you're manacled because everyone else thinks he's smarter than you; a national security advisor who's got a rod up her ass, talks like an answering machine, and thinks she knows the world because she wrote a book on a commie army. But you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends.
"You know captain, I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That's my dream. That's my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor, and surviving. I'm sticking around Kerry, but that's because you or me, we're the same thing at this point, doesn't make a difference. We're the same thing."
They could have made me a president for killing him, and I wasn't even in their fucking army anymore. Everybody wanted me to do it, him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a guardsman, standing up, not like some poor, wasted, rag-assed renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that's who he really took his orders from anyway. But I wasn't doing it.
I looked at Bush and he understood. I didn't have it in me. Then he began laughing, a hysterical, burbling laugh, an overflowing, salsa-laden enchilada of a laugh, then he said it, as tears flowed into saliva: "Horrible, horrible, horrible."