BX Goodies

During my six weeks of Basic Training in 1969, I earned $115.30 a month.  The Aerospace Team would have tossed in housing and meals it valued at $60 and $77.10, respectively, had I been “on the economy.”  However, because I lived on base and ate in the dining hall, that money did not show up in my paycheck.  At the time, the US minimum wage was $1.25 an hour so a civilian at that rate would have made $200 a month.  Of course, I’d worked fifty percent more hours during that period of time.

Upon graduation from Basic, I was promoted to E-2, with a pay increase to $127.80, then to E-3 and $138.30 soon after I arrived in Viet Nam in 1970.  Still, all that time I was getting housing and food “in-kind,” whether it was in the barracks and dining halls on Lackland Air Force Base or in the St. George Hotel Bachelor Enlisted Quarters and Capitol Hotel dining hall in Saigon.  The Air Force tossed in another $65 of Hostile Fire pay for serving in a war zone.

I had a bit of money to spend.  In the beginning, I didn’t waste it so I had some stashed away to use before returning to the US at the end of my first tour in April 1971.  Like many (most?) of us, I used it to buy the portfolio of goodies available through the Army Air Force Exchange Service (the BX).  Some guys bought stuff from US bases when they went on Rest and Recuperation leaves.  Some bought it at the Tan Son Nhut BX by being at the right place at the right time.  In both cases, the proud new owners had to arrange to ship their possessions back to the US or carry them in the planes home.  Way too much effort, inconvenience and risk of damage for me.

Most of us chose instead to shop through the BX catalog.  Those catalogs were free then (they are $5 now, with that cost returned as a credit when making a purchase).  Whenever a new catalog was available at the BX, we stampeded to get one.  They were almost product in and of themselves!

Here’s what I and almost all the other guys bought through that book of dreams:

Camera System.  Nikon was the photography sophisticates’ brand of choice, or what you got if you had the money, wanted the best, and you didn’t know anything about cameras.  Some stuff from Germany was in there too, but was all beyond my interest and knowledge levels.  I got a Konica system for my parents and a Pentax system for myself.  When Dad knew these great cameras were available, he and Mom took a photography class through the Spokane Community College and his instructor recommended that brand.  It was large, it was good, and it was reasonably priced.  I went with a Pentax for the latter two reasons, and for the opposite of the first because I had small hands that just couldn’t make the spread to operate the controls on the Konica.

Disposition.  After the thrill of the class diminished, Dad never used his camera again.  I used mine a lot during my second tour and till around 1987 when it just became too much hassle for pictures I never looked at.  I sold both systems for $100 each in 2008 when I moved from Seattle.  At that time I also got rid of most of my pictures.  Then Bill started digitizing his pictures, the Palace Dog reunion came up, and I regretted the ditching of most of those prints and slides.  Stuff happens.

Stereo System.  Along with cameras, stereo equipment was the most popular high end thing guys bought.  The BX offered Japanese as well as German brands.  I don’t recall the top of the line stuff because I didn’t have that much interest in all the gear.  So, I got a complete Akai system for Mom and Dad and myself.  Receiver, open reel tape deck, turntable, stereo speakers (just two), and this new thing called a cassette deck (a double deck of course, for duplicating).  When I got to the US I set up my parents’ system in Spokane.  They used two stations on the receiver and listened to 78 rpm dance records on the turntable.  I used all my stuff as I traveled from assignment to assignment in the US after my second Viet Nam tour.

Disposition.  I sold my parents’ stuff in 1978 when they moved in with me at my home near Sacramento while assigned to Mather AFB.  I sold all my stuff in Cairo, Egypt while assigned to the embassy there in 1989.  I don’t recall ever duplicating a cassette tape.  Then, in 1992, we bought a completely new system (sans turntable, but with a compact disc player), which we’ve used, maybe, a dozen times over the next two decades.

Dinnerware.  Didn’t most of us get at least one set of Nortake for our moms?  I did, after she selected it from one of those BX catalogs I mailed home to her.  She selected a 12-place setting of bone china along with every imaginable serving piece one could put on a dining table or sideboard.  She also got an 8-place setting for everyday use.  I got an 8-place setting of everyday dishes from some other company.

Disposition.  I gave my parents’ everyday Nortake to a young family just starting out in 1999 right after we retired from the Air Force and moved to Seattle.  Their fine china we still use, but just for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We really do need to change that habit and use it often.  My set of dishes I sold in 1987 just before we went to Egypt to live for two and a half years.

Clothing.  Who didn’t get one, two or three tailored suits to wear back in America?  Maybe toss in a bunch of shirts and ties too.  I even heard of a guy who got shoes made for him while in Hong Kong for his week of R & R.  Polyester – the newest, shiniest stuff on the bolts of material – was my fabric of choice.  I got two suits right there at the little shop on Tan Son Nhut Annex.  My brother, Greg, was aboard the USS Shangri-La off the coast of Viet Nam at the same time I was in Saigon the first year.  At one of his Hong Kong port calls, he loaded up on a full wardrobe of handmade stuff.  He, though, went for wools and silks.

Disposition.  Wore each one once, soon after returning to the CONUS after my second tour.  First, they were going out of style and second, my body was growing out of them!  Apparently, the calorie count of food in the US military dining halls and at home was different from the noodle soup I ate for breakfast, beer I drank for lunch, and cha gio (spring rolls) I ate for dinner most days.  I gave all my stuff to the Goodwill in 1977 when I made a major move forward in life.  Greg’s stuff was worth wearing for a long time.

Fans.  Remember those blue plastic bladed fans we scrounged at the Cho Lon Post Exchange and the Tan Son Nhut Base Exchange?  In-country we got a single punch for one on our ration cards.  Like with so many of the purchases and so many other folks, those fans obtained via ration cards were often commodities not to be wasted on personal use.  However, the BX catalog had those fans too.  One went to Mom and Dad and another to Grandma, both in Spokane.  Well used – and both still in use today, over forty years later.  Mom and Dad’s went there when they moved in with me.  Grandma’s came about the same time when she moved in too.  Hsiu Chih and I then carried them as part of our household goods to Texas, Virginia, Egypt, Florida, California, Washington, and now back to California again.

In our move to Texas, a blade broke.  Fortunately, at that time I was traveling to Asia five or six times a year and I often went to or through Japan.  I took the broken blade with me on my first trip there in 1980.  Finding a replacement blade for an eight year old fan would take me far from the English speaking shops and bright lights of the central districts of Tokyo.  A subway train, then a bus, and finally a twenty minute walk got me to a Panasonic warehouse.  My Japanese counterparts in an F-15 program management review spoke English so they’d given me good directions about how to get to the warehouse.  There, though, it was up to me.  Fortunately, as in America, standing on the customer side of a counter in a parts warehouse holding up a two blade portion of a three blade unit 16 inches in diameter and bright blue in color has pretty much a universal meaning.  I got my replacement blade.  For your information. The replacement blade for that $20 fan in 1970 in Saigon, cost $25 in 1980 in Tokyo.

Disposition.  We still use both fans in Lincoln, California.


For me, of all the stuff I bought the least expensive ended up being the longest lasting, the most used, and most memory producing.  Not a bad life lesson too!


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