“See you guys later!” I said as I waved at my friends. We had ridden the bus from Long Binh to Newport Army Terminal, where they were going to begin their twelve hour shift. I was to be driven into Saigon by Lieutenant Colonel Burke’s driver, whom I didn’t really know well. They all threw me the clenched-fist ‘tighten up’ salute as we pulled away from the port headquarters, and soon we rolled through the gate and onto the highway that took us the rest of the way into Saigon.
It was a pleasant ride, in its own way. Travel on Saigon’s streets and roads observed one very strict rule: Size matters. Five ton trucks yielded right of way to ten ton trucks. Two and a half ton trucks (deuce and a half’s) yielded to five ton and so on down to the level of pedestrian. Nobody broke this rule, with the result that out of this recipe for disaster arose an orderliness that made the chaos relatively accident free.
We chugged into Saigon and I sat back in my seat, enjoying the coolness of the morning, the smells from the sidewalk phō stands, and the rays of early morning sunlight streaming through the leaves of the trees and the diesel and gas fumes from a million vehicles without a single emissions control devise among the lot of them. It was very hard to believe that at any stop a kid could roll a grenade into my jeep, and I spent most of my time trying not to think about that.
The driver let me off in front of Saigon Port, from where I walked to Hai Bà Trung Street and purchased a ‘deck’ of twenty Saigon bombers. Then I flagged a taxi and squeezed in for a ride to the Capital Apartments. The Capital was a large five-story building where civilian contractors with the U.S. Government did actually rent rooms on a monthly basis. There was a bar on the roof and frequently military officers of a higher rank and other contractors would go there and rent rooms for the night, which included the female residents of those rooms who also worked at the roof-top bar. In spite of its expense, my friends and I preferred the Capital to all other places in Saigon, and it was there that I obtained my room for the next two nights and ascended to the roof top, where I could sip coffee or a soda and relax with a book until lunch time. I had scheduled to meet Jerry at the Continental Hotel Restaurant.
Jerry was already waiting at a table when I got there, and he rose to shake my hand in the normal way, rather than our ‘tighten up’ greeting, when I walked up. “Hey, good to see you” he said. “Pull up a chair. Have a drink?” he asked.
“I’ll take a Bam bah” I said, using the G.I. slang for the Vietnamese national beer. The waiter approached our table to give me a menu and Jerry said “Hai ba mi ba” in perfect Vietnamese. The waiter was surprised but he was a professional. He gave a short bow and disappeared to get our beers.
“Where did you learn Vietnamese?” I asked, probably clearing up the question of who was the stupidest soldier in Vietnam.
“Here” he simply said. “I have a real facility with languages. Ich kann den ganzen Tag lang zu Deutch sprechen.” I just looked at Jerry, boggling. “I’ve been in Germany a time or two. In fact, I’m going back there within the next two months. The real high stakes in the Cold War are in central Europe, not Vietnam. This is a side show, and Eisenhower’s dominoes, which were real enough when he spoke of them, are pretty much a moot point now. The Cong just want to finish kicking out the foreigners and make Vietnam one country again, and they don’t care if the foreigners are us or the French or the Chinese or the Russians.
Sure, they’re Reds” Jerry continues, “but they don’t want to export anything except Beer 33” – he raised his nearly empty bottle of beer – “rice and some seafood, if they can get their farming and fishing activities back on their feet after the war is over. The Vietnamese don’t really like the Cambodians, and they don’t care much one way or the other about the Laotians, and those two countries feel much the same way about Vietnam. This stupid war will grind on for a few more years because nobody had the balls or brains to just end it, but the real clash of civilizations is still in central Europe. Russia is the biggest threat to the West, as we are to them, and that’s where my skills will come in most handily.”
The waiter returned with our beers and we ordered our meal. As the waiter departed I picked up the conversation again. “I want to tell you about your skills. You were absolutely right about the attack on Long Bnh. We were ready for it and handed the Cong an ass-whuppin’. That’s why I’m here today. My Colonel was in one hell of a good mood and gave me a pass to be here legally, which for me is a first.”
“Well, actually the brass didn’t believe your Colonel. I guess he fucked up big time somewhere; maybe he got some general’s daughter pregnant, or maybe his wife. Anyway, he’s got a cloud over his head and the big boys were inclined to ignore him. Some of the lower ranking g-2’s at Long Binh talked with the security guys there and a few of them were ready to put a plan in place whether the brass wanted to or not. They could have put Charlie in a world of hurt if they would have been more ready, and some Captains, Majors and Lieutenant Colonels are looking good now while some Colonels and generals are pointing their fingers – the ones they had stuck up their asses while the shit was hitting the fan – at each other. Your Colonel, by the way, shined up his credentials just a little bit. I’ve heard his name mentioned now and then, and I had never heard it before.”
“That’s good” I said. “Colonel Bannock has never been a ball buster, although he can hand out a shit detail with the best of them. My friends at Headquarters Company say that he’s perked up since the attack and is OK to be around. He’s supposed to rotate home in three months, unless they extend his tour. I can’t imagine that; I’m getting out of the Army the second that I can, if I survive that long.:
“Why wouldn’t you survive it?” Jerry asked. “You don’t pull particularly hazardous duty do you?”
“Not generally” I said. “But I’ve got lead position on a supply convoy to CuChi this Monday. I did such a good job of sniffing out the last attack that the Colonel wants me to try my hand at locating snipers before they can put an RPG into us.” I made a face at Jerry at this point. “Thanks a lot for making me a hero.” Jerry chuckled for a moment and said “Into every life some rain must fall. I’ve never done much in that area. Lots of tunnels there, no?”
“Lots of tunnels there, yes” I replied. “The little bastards pop up, take a shot, and then disappear. Colonel Bannock thinks I’m Sherlock Holmes now, or maybe Geronimo, and I can see things that other people miss. So I’m going to be sitting in the lead truck doing my ‘magic’ on Monday. Probably get my ass blown sky high!”
Jerry frowned a little at that and scratched his jaw. We fell silent as Jerry mulled the thought, a silence that was broken by the return of the waiter with our lunch. “Give me a day to think about that” Jerry said, and we turned our attention to our plates of very American looking food.
As we ate Jerry asked me what I thought about his story, and it surprised me that I had forgotten all about the whole dog-boy thing. The real life bullets and bombs had easily trumped the fantastic story which Jerry had told me, and I honestly hadn’t given it much thought. “I don’t know” I told him. “I don’t think you’re crazy, but it is still a hard thing to swallow without seeing this happen with my own two eyes. Tell me again why you don’t want to just do that and end the matter.”
“Well, I want you to trust me” Jerry replied. “I know it doesn’t seem to make a world of difference to you, but I want to feel that you know me, know that I’m a reliable friend, and that if I tell you something, even something as wild and whacky as the story that I’ve told you, that you believe it is true just because it’s me who says that it is. I’ve lived quite a few years without a friend, and if I do succeed in finding one now I want it to be on that kind of foundation I believe that you are worth having as a friend because you stepped up for me when I was at the most vulnerable time of my life, and potentially at some cost to yourself. I’m looking for that level of friendship, and this is the way that I feel is best to achieve it. If it is achievable at all, that is.
If it turns out that you can’t believe my story I won’t hold that against you. I can’t swear that I would believe it either. I will shake your hand and wish you well. I have lived my entire life without a genuine friend and I’m not saying that to influence you one way or the other. I really will be OK on my own. That sort of comes with the territory when, as far as you know, you’re the only person on the planet that can do something as bizarre as I can, and will get you pretty much labelled as insane or worse if you reveal it. If this is just too much of a creep show for you that’s OK, but if you think there’s any way that you can run with me on this I will be very grateful indeed. The rest is up to you.”
I hadn’t even tasted the steak and potato that lay on the plate in front of me, and I now picked up my fork and knife and began to saw on the piece of expertly cooked meat. I was used to the well-aged water buffalo, or whatever it was, that they fed us in the mess hall, and forgot how a real steak could taste. I sliced off a piece, rolled it over with my fork as I inspected the level of doneness, and then put it into my mouth. Ecstasy! My attention for the moment was entirely on the steak. Baked potato and green beans followed the piece of meat down my gullet as I pondered what to say next.
There was no doubt that Jerry had changed 180 degrees from what he had been, and it wasn’t because he had grown into a six foot four inch bruiser who could kick Muhammad Ali’s butt. He also knew things that most people couldn’t have known about goings on in my unit unless he had been there, and nobody had seen him there. Not as a human, at least. And then there was the dog hair on my fatigues. It was obvious that something here was truly different and I had to come to some sort of decision. I gnawed on my lunch, rolling these thoughts around in my head while Jerry sat across the table from me placidly chewing and swallowing his food, giving me free reign to add it up and come to my own conclusion.
At length I put down my fork, caught the waiter’s eye, and asked for a shot of bourbon whiskey. Distilled spirits were seldom my first choice but this was an unusual day, and I didn’t think that lighting a joint amongst the officers and high-ranking civilians who were enjoying their lunch around us would be the most clever thing to do. When the shot came I took a sip and then looked directly at Jerry.
“Man, you’ve given me a hard proposition to handle. I’ve told you that I think you are not crazy. In fact, I guess I can say that I know you’re not, at least as far as you can know anything. You’ve given me a story that nobody could believe without seeing it, but in every way you act as if it is true and that it would be perfectly rational for me to believe it too. I have to admit that I don’t have any other friends who can turn into dogs, and so this places me in a very interesting situation. I’m still having trouble getting over the last hump, so will you be patient and give me a little more time? I’d love a little more proof, too, but I can sort of understand your point about that.”
Jerry took the napkin and wiped his hands and lips and said “I can’t really ask for more than that. I expected you would say that you can’t handle it at all. Sure, I’ll let you think about it some more, and maybe I’ll give you a little more evidence to help you. I’ll think about that for a while.
Anyway, it’s time for me to shove off. I’ve got a few things to get done this weekend. I’ll get back to you Sunday night if I can, or Monday morning at the latest. Where are you staying in town?”
“At the Capital Apartments. Why don’t you come and get a room with me? ”
“No, I don’t really fit there. I’m pretty careful not to party too much, in case I start to run my mouth and say things that I shouldn’t, and sex is definitely not for me.”
“Oh, you’re a cherry! Well come on man, I’ll get it popped for you.”
“No, it’s not like that. I’m not being a prude, and I would like sex as much as the next guy. Problem is, I don’t know what would come of it. That next guy doesn’t run the risk of getting someone pregnant and the girl having a litter instead of a baby. I don’t think that would happen, but I don’t know it wouldn’t. That can really mess with your head.”
I just stared at Jerry for a half a minute and then broke out laughing. “Yeah, I guess that would slow me down pretty good. Holy shit, man, I never thought of that. Wow! This just screws with my head more and more.”
“Tell me about it” Jerry said. “It’s been screwing with mine for a good many years now. I’ll pick up the check if you’ll cover the table.”
“Cover the table? What does that mean?”
“The tip, man. I’ll pay for the meal if you’ll cover the tip. It’s usually 10% of the check.”
“Really? I’ve never heard of that!”
“Yeah. It wasn’t expected at the Two J’s hamburger stand on University Avenue, but that’s what grown-ups do in the rest of the world” he said with a laugh.
“Screw you” I said, laughing also. “I’ll pay 15%.”
We shook hands and Jerry hurried out of the restaurant. I sat back down and ordered one last beer, and paid for it when it appeared on my table. It was getting on towards 1:30 and the sun was beginning to bake Saigon, but I was comfortable in the covered outside dining area. Large fans were stirring up the hot, humid air and I could look off toward the River while I nursed my beer. Jerry had told me the craziest story anyone possibly could, but he seemed to be as normal as anyone could be, and in fact more normal than most of my friends at Long Binh. I really liked the guy, and his sanity, when compared with my own, seemed to make him a very believable person. I wanted to believe him but there was a strand of skepticism that I couldn’t shake. “Oh well” I thought, “I’ll give it more time. I’ve got other things to do now.”
So I arose and stepped out into the throng on Tu Doe Street and walked the short distance back to where my contact for buying weed and performing other, rather irregular currency transactions, managed his business. Papa San could have been a VC for all I knew, or for all I cared for that matter. I had very little investment in this war by this time, and so long as Charlie wasn’t shooting at me I had no intention of shooting at him. I had nine months to go until the end of an almost two year tour, and if Charlie and I could work out some sort of modus vivendi, that was just fine with me.
My business with Pop concluded, I decided to walk back to the Capital Apartments. There was a tailor along the route who was making me a blinding white suit with a Nehru jacket, an outfit made popular by the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The style was hugely popular back in the United States, as far as I could tell from outdated newspapers and magazines that I occasionally found from back there, and I was certain that a suit tailored to my six feet tall, one hundred and thirty two pound frame would make me the coolest stud imaginable when I got home, and irresistible to Elizabeth Sola, Jennifer Franklin and Carmen Martinez; three beauties from my neighborhood with whom I exchanged letters and expected to bowl over with my unmatched coolness upon my return. It was just my luck that the Nehru style was not only passé when I returned home but was in fact a joke by the time I put my sandaled foot on the sidewalks of my San Diego and returned to normal life, as resistible and uncool as I ever had been.
After leaving the tailor shop I walked another half mile to the Mi Mi Flamboyant Bar on Le Lei Street. Mai Lee worked there and I wanted to stop in and give her some money. My relationship with Mai Lee began one night when we had slid into Saigon for an evening’s debauchery and ended up at the Mi Mi.
This bar, like the Capital Apartments, was a place where patrons were usually a lot higher on the food chain that us, and fatigues with E-5 stripes and below were rarely seen there. Because of our ‘irregular financial activities’ with Papa San we had the money to hold our own there and on one night I took a shine to Mai Lee. The drill was that you bought the bar girl a ‘Saigon Tea,’ a glass of colored water. When you had paid enough for the worthless stuff, you had the girl for the evening. I was pretty well lit up before we even entered the Mi Mi and Mai Lee was a beautiful girl. At first she was nice, thanked me for the tea, and went back to her Colonels and Majors and civilian contractors, but I was persistent. After dropping about $200 my point was made and I was placed on the back of a motorcycle and told that the driver would take me to Mai Lee’s house.
I didn’t know the driver from Ho Chi Minh. He could have been Vo Nguyen Giap, the Commanding General of all communist Vietnamese forces, and I wouldn’t have known the difference. I was at least as likely to get my throat cut in a dark alley as brought live to Mai Lee’s house, but somehow I got there. I gave the driver a few piasters and we mounted the steps together. The driver explained a few details to an old woman who lived there, and she invited me in. I entered and sat on a stool, looking for Mai Lee. She wasn’t home yet. While I sat there the picture of what was to happen became clear to me.
Grandmother and two small children had been in the one bed, and a small pallet lay on the floor on the other side of the room. There were only two rooms and a tiny bathroom in the apartment and Grandmother began dragging the small pallet to the other room, preparing to give up the larger and more comfortable bed to Mai Lee for her work that evening.
I was not anything like a moral shining star then. The list of shaky activities that I had been a part of in Vietnam is a story that I would take no delight in telling. While I was seated on that stool however, a cold beam of light sliced through my drunken haze and showed me exactly what I was participating in. This beautiful young woman had two children, and was forced to sell herself to support her aged mother and kids.
Where was the father? Was he the motorcycle driver? Was he a Vietnamese Army or Air Force officer who had been killed in action? Unexpectedly, this bothered me greatly, and by the time Mai Lee showed up I indicated to her that her family would sleep on the bed and she could sleep with them there too. I took a cushion and thin sheet and made a bed for myself in a corner of the tiled floor.
Mai Lee and her family were flabbergasted. At first they had no idea what to make of this crazy G.I., but at length elected to take the gift. I awoke early the next morning and, rather stiff as a result of sleeping on the hard tile floor, flagged a cycalo back to the port, where I made up a spellbinding and entirely bullshit story about my conquest the night before. Ever after, whenever I was in Saigon, I would stop into the Mi Mi Flamboyant Bar and sit for a spell with Mai Lee, buy her a Saigon Tea or two, slip her fifty dollars American or whatever I could spare, and then go my way. I hope that in some way I made a difference in her life.
On this day Mai Lee wasn’t at work, so I made my way back to the Capital Apartments. Any twinge of conscience or moderation that I had felt with Mai Lee was not to be seen here at the Capital and soon the party was roaring on, and I found my comfortable place right in the middle of it.