By Terry Lloyd Vinson
During the patriotic heyday of the cold war era, Deron Barrow gained a measure of fame portraying tough-as-nails war movie host Sergeant Ace Claymore, his fledging television career soon derailed amid lurid details of a checkered, real-life military history. Decades later and living in relative reclusion in a small Mississippi town, Barrow is approached by a pair of young documentary filmmakers and offered the opportunity to separate fact from fiction regarding a pair of infamous tragedies; one at a remote Air Force base and the other an infamous hotel massacre at an iced-in Arkansas lodge, the question of Barrow’s status as either hero or villain left to interpretation. As filming draws to a close, the many vengeful ghosts of Barrow’s bygone days fire a final, potentially fatal salvo, pressing the fictional Sergeant Claymore to the forefront once more, the actor behind the makeup forced to revisit life-or-death survival skills once reserved for a television soundstage.
Land of the Morning Calamity Excerpt from The Mask beneath the Mask: A Memoir, by Deron Joseph Barrow
That initial infidelity occurred fairly quickly, maybe three months into the Mountain Hill assignment. Lori and I had rented an apartment less than a mile’s ride from the main gate, a cheap-as-dirt, dilapidated crap-hole that we used to joke was being held up by an army of roaches living rent-free. Being that we could only afford one form of transportation, a ‘77 Le Sabre in the twilight of its existence, she stayed home and played house while I, as a newly assigned Airman Basic (no striper), routinely put in sixty-plus hour workweeks. The troop’s name was Pamela Fries, a busty, ultra-cute red-headed Airman First Class assigned to the same security outfit and, personality-wise, the polar opposite of my quiet, reserved and sometimes emotionally stilted newlywed spouse. Pam Fries could hold her own with any of her male peers in terms of work output, alcohol consumption, overall physicality and, both shockingly and hilariously, was a true Zen master in the art of profanity. I’d never met anyone like her and honestly, she blew my socks off. My biggest crush, possibly of all time, but surely for a highly impressible, barely twenty-one-year-old. It started out innocently enough with a few beers at the base airman’s club after a long shift of walking the flight-line like a pair of fleshy automations. By our third or fourth such outing, we ended up in her barrack’s room and well, such was the beginning of the end for that first ill-fated marriage. Approximately six or seven weeks later, the new had worn off and it ended as quickly as it had begun. Oh, we still worked many of the same shifts and occasionally tipped beer mugs at the club or some of the local bars, but that mostly involved a group dynamic. Pam went on to other affairs—rumor had it she even briefly shacked up with our unit NCOIC—before receiving orders to Guam. Toot sweet, we never even said goodbye.
Wish I could claim she was the lone discrepancy, the single mistake that could be chalked up to youthful curiosity, hormones, untamed horniness. Not…even…close. There were countless others, including yet another co-worker at the end of my tour whose name, I’m ashamed to say, completely escapes me. Then there were the numerous one-night-stands, normally kick-started at one of two local watering holes near the base’s main gate that catered to base personnel and thus whose female clientele consisted mostly of what the young airman referred to as ‘camp tramps.’ Over time—about the time I’d earned my second stripe—I found my personal favorite to be a country-western dive with the laughably cornball moniker of Thirsty’s, only because the majority of my conquests originated from said tavern. This boy wasn’t picky, not in the least, especially after six or seven rounds of libations.
Many was the night I’d stagger home—if I found my way home at all—wearing a drunken grin that poor Lori was forced to endure along with the lies that accompanied it. I apparently had no shame in cheating on her so openly, and though I never gave it much serious thought at the time—I was literally on a never-ending carny ride of work vs. play with no time in between—there was little doubt I was purposely sabotaging the marriage. All these years later, there is shame but, sadly, little regret. Surely Lori would echo this, wherever she may be. Selfish lug that I was, I can’t help but reflect on that expression of off-kilter bewilderment that often clouded those baby-blues, even in the supposed ‘good times,’ what few there were.
The orders to Korea were the nail in the coffin from the day they were slapped in my sweaty little palm. Lori had hoped for England or Germany for my initial overseas base, and I’d even lied in telling her I’d filled my assignment dream-sheet with nothing but the best the European theatre had to offer, and only those deemed ‘accompanied,’ meaning three to four year tours with dependent travel paid in full. Instead, I’d listed such popular remote locales—meaning the twelve-month type where family members did not qualify—as the Philippines, Korea and even Greenland. Obviously, I was craving a little ‘me’ time, that whole ‘til death do us part crap wearing mighty thin as year three since those initial vows approached.
Kunsan Air Base, South Korea: The Kun, The Land of the Morning Calm. More like the Land of the Daily Debauchery. Make no mistake, you worked your ass off—we were, after all, supposedly a mere nine minutes from the grisliest of deaths via chemical warfare if the enemy from the north deemed it so—and partied like it was your last night on the planet when the opportunities arose. Needless to say I accomplished both, in spades.
Though base regs required all those below the rank of E-5 (Staff Sergeant) be assigned a barracks room, it took me less than a month to unofficially rent a room off base near the narrow, winding streets of the ‘Ville, more infamously known as American Town, or A-Town, a party-haven located a few scant miles from the main gate and allegedly built with DOD funds to give off-duty GIs a place to blow off steam. Modestly put, this boy could’ve shoved a loaded freight up Mount Everest with the steam I blew off, despite my stay being so cruelly, but justifiably, cut short. From the moment I deplaned to the overwhelming scent of garlic-laced kimchi, that place was equal parts magical mystery and sinner’s paradise. From the readily available prostitution to all-night clubs to street vendors selling all manner of exotic foods, this southern-born, southern-bred boy was a space-traveler trekking atop a planet of unknown origin and discovering all manner of carnal delights.
I often came to the conclusion during one of the many drunken escapades inside A-Town’s gated walls that I never wanted to leave. I figured I could continue to extend my tour until they literally dragged me onto that Freedom Bird back to the states, a flight the majority of Kun inmates began to anticipate from day one of assignment, especially the married of the species. In my nine-plus months on-site, I saw many a marriage crumble as those so happily wed and loyal to their displaced better-half upon arrival fell lustful victim to the ample charms of some local seductress. In fairness, I didn’t qualify for said category, being that my marital status was teetering on the edge of collapse upon arrival.
The Korean word was ‘yobo’ for lover or live-in partner. In my sadly truncated tour, I managed to move in and play house with two different yobos, although unlike so many of my doe-eyed peers out shopping for engagement rings and filling out stacks of acquired-dependent paperwork, my own agenda was purely physical, baby. Sewed on my senior-airman stripe about mid-tour and with the accompanying raise—laughably miniscule in retrospect—I felt like I’d secured rock-star status, at least among the bar girls that had become my personal entourage. Well, that and a natural talent for black-marketing everything from American smokes, booze and even select grocery items from the base commissary. I was, at least until the big implosion, one of the made men of the ‘Ville, a smooth-talkin’, fancy-walkin’ dude with the cheesy grin, fat wallet and perpetual erection.
Looking back with less innocent eyes and a modern take, it was like comic-book geek’s wet dream: hard-ass ‘Ville cop when duty called—as base security, we were also tasked to police up the A-Town bars, which usually meant breaking up drunken brawls or yanking a horny GI off some unwilling, extremely pissed-off bar girl—and town Romeo without-a-conscience whenever out of uniform. More importantly, I had plans of becoming the unofficial mayor of GI town, that is, the guy who could get you anything for a price. Those plans did not include the shitstorm that soon followed: a level-five tree-bender that left me stripped of not only whatever imaginary status I’d achieved, but as the dominos slowly toppled, a potential career as well.
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