Brilliant orange, red, and yellow mingled in a varie-gated pallet of color, radiated with flickering intensity against the clouds. Beneath us, along with the flashes of gunfire, the jungle became an eerie verdant, creating a ghostly pallor on the vegetation. Our last three flares floated slowly to earth, still providing light for Diep Duc to lay in a fusillade of fire toward their usually unseen enemy. We had been on station for forty-five minutes, keeping the sky ablaze with well spaced drops. A few tracers curved up in our direction, attempting to discourage the illumination we provided the battle below, but no hits. Now that we had exhausted our last flare, we turned east. The inbound C-123, called at the initial checkpoint, relieving us from this mission. The night flare drop kept us keyed to a high pitch. Now we had completed our third, and as our luck, or skill, or whatever that enigmatic ingredient happened to be, they went off without a hitch. As we reached altitude and headed north on our way back, Zack flipped on the navigational lights and the rotating beacon. It was safe all the way up the coast to DaNang. Tension drained from my body, in a release of pent up drive, as we darted among rain showers. The needle of the radio compass pointed dead ahead to the Base TACAN station. Fifteen more minutes and sleep. Zack cranked back and flipped a Marlboro from his sleeve pocket, rotated his zippo, and sucked in a long draw. This was the part of a mission where we relaxed, leaving the built up anxiety and suspense for the next one. Zack started his usual banter and joke telling. The crew tolerated his jokes, occasionally laughing hysterically. He never seemed to run out of new material.


"Hey, let me tell you about some of the good, the bad, and the ugly." The intercom was quiet, anticipating his latest. "The good: Your wife´s pregnant; the bad: It´s triplets; the ugly: You had a vasectomy five years ago." Groans were heard immediately, but the verbal rebuff didn´t deter Zack. "The good: You give the `birds and bees´ talk to your daughter; the bad: She keeps interrupting; The ugly: With corrections."


"Save some for the bar," I said. "Give the tower a call that we´re ten out for a straight in for runway three five."


The screen tent door banged shut behind us and Zack stopped short, looking down at the two letters on his bunk. I glanced quickly at mine; a tell-tale blue envelope. Tom also had two. Mac stuck his head around the edge of his mosquito netting. "Thought you guys would like to have your mail when you got back. If I didn´t pick it up, you´d have to wait `till tomorrow."


"Thanks, Mac," Zack said.


We moved the mosquito netting to one side, dropped onto the bunks in our sweaty utilities, eagerly opening, but teasing the contents out, making each last as long as possible. Even if the envelope color didn´t give it away, the handwriting on mine was definitely Leslie´s. I slid my finger gently through the edge of the envelope flap and slipped out the two pages. Anticipation shot through me. My hands unfolded it gently.