He is recognized immediately upon entering the dimly lit hall. Men and women rush forward to greet him, some hugging him, others bowing respectfully, palms pressed together. A murmur travels through the crowd. A drum roll comes from the stage as a woman begins to sing a lilting Lao wedding song.
The old man waves to the friends he recognizes. The middle two fingers of his left hand are missing, blown away in an accident long ago. He raises his arms triumphantly as he moves through the crowd, a hero coming home. At 5 feet, 10 inches, and 200 pounds, he dwarfs most of the Lao people coming to greet him. His is one of the only white faces in the room.
He and his family take their seats at the end of a table laden with bowls upon bowls of food: noodles, ground pork, vegetable rolls, chicken feet, fermented hard-boiled eggs. As he eats, picking at the food with his fingers, a steady procession of people approaches him to pay respects. The bride, not yet 18 years of age, offers him a tiny glass of tea; the groom gives him two Newport cigarettes.
Few of the young people recognize the old white man, but their parents know him well. Thirty years ago, he taught many of them how to aim a recoilless rifle, how to set a booby trap with a hand grenade, how to fire a 4.2-inch mortar. He taught a lucky few how to fly; as if by magic, he literally summoned shipments of rice and American dollars from the heavens.
"He was our leader," says Yaochiam Chaophauh, who at 16 years of age fought in the old man's army against the North Vietnamese. "He paid our salaries. He paid for our clothes and for our guns. And when one of our people passed from life, he paid [the surviving family] for that life."
Anthony Poshepny, or Tony Poe as he is called by his friends, doesn't attract much attention in his neighborhood, just north of Stern Grove, probably because he doesn't get out much anymore, and when he does, he doesn't do anything that would be considered out of the ordinary for an ailing septuagenarian. The 75-year-old with the round, bald head can sometimes be seen shuffling out in his slippers and a Planet Hollywood sweat shirt to get the mail. On the day after Halloween, he was still giving away candy to the neighbor's kids.
Within certain circles, though, Poshepny has become an underground legend. War buffs know him as the Central Intelligence Agency's super-fighting machine, the man who, along with a few other spooks, played a key role in the United States' secret war in Laos throughout the 1960s. Others, mostly writers for the British tabloids, believe Poshepny was the actual model for Col. Kurtz, the megalomaniac Green Beret played by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's film classic Apocalypse Now.
The film, released 20 years ago, tells the story of a mercenary's journey to assassinate a colonel who has gone
mad. Based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Coppola's version shifts the setting from equatorial Africa to Vietnam, and focuses its attention on the skewed morals of war. Capt. Willard, played by Martin Sheen, travels up the Nung River, to "terminate the command" of Col. Kurtz, an officer who has surrendered to the wild instincts of the jungle and begun "operating without any human restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct."
Like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Poshepny, who spent more than a decade in the jungle, adopted the ways of the native people. Like Kurtz, he gathered a loyal following in a remote outpost in Southeast Asia, where, according to Poshepny, he was revered like a god. Like Kurtz, he had a taste for the macabre; he was famous for keeping the heads of his enemies in formaldehyde and sending the ears to his superiors with his embassy reports. And like Kurtz, Poshepny ultimately became a liability for the United States government.
Coppola denies that he and screenwriter John Milius had Poshepny in mind when they wrote the script. In a recent interview, Coppola said Brando's character was based loosely on Col. Robert Rheault, the commanding officer of all Green Berets in Vietnam, who in 1969 was court-martialed by the U.S. Army after some of his men were accused of killing a Vietnamese guide whom they believed was a double agent. The charges were later dropped, but only after Rheault's military career was ruined.
The case was widely publicized in The New York Times, and Coppola makes a few obvious references to it in the movie. Capt. Willard, played by Martin Sheen, receives confidential orders to take out the colonel after the Pentagon has gotten word that Kurtz has executed four Vietnamese double agents.
But the parallels between Col. Rheault and Kurtz stop there. Unlike Kurtz, Rheault had a reputation as a straight arrow; he never went "bamboo," or rebelled against the U.S. government.
Poshepny, on the other hand, achieved an almost mythic, Kurtz-like reputation during the Vietnam War, often being viewed by superiors as a renegade warrior whose primordial instincts conflicted with modern morality. Some of those who knew Poshepny during the war and have since seen Apocalypse Now say Tony Poe was the real Col. Kurtz. And if he wasn't, they say, he should have been. Because Poshepny's story is far stranger than anything Coppola could have made up.