Dirt Man

Throughout a lifetime one can encounter a great variety of people.  I certainly have done so in my life and work in Asia and the Middle East, as well as in many parts of the United States.  They’ve not always been positive encounters, but I’ve had only a few that have been negative.  In fact, I’ve probably had more that have been memorable than negative.

Before my time in South Viet Nam, these memorable people (outside of my family) were Father Peckover, the priest at St. David’s Episcopal Church I attended and where I served as an acolyte.  At Eastern Washington State College, it was Professor Donald Pierce, Chairman of the History Department and the man who hired me as the department’s first undergraduate teaching assistant, and Associate Professor Donald Barnes, the teacher in the History Department with whom I debated (with me to the negative) the issue of whether or not Americans would support withdrawal from the War.  These were all wholesome encounters with people in positive situations who were successful in their lives and careers in the service of helping others.

My encounter with Dirt Man was different.  Dirt Man existed – not lived – a bit into Saigon, just east of where Dong Khanh Street in Cho Lon ended and changed its name to Tran Hung Dao, a Vietnamese word.  It was on the south side of that street where I first saw him standing against a wall that supported those rolled sheet metal lean-tos that were built against the brick walls that lined the streets.  There was the street, a curb, a sidewalk of well packed dirt, pavers or concrete, that lean-to about three and a half feet wide, four feet tall, and eight feet long, then the wall.

His hair was long, to his shoulders, and totally disheveled.  He hadn’t run a comb or brush through it since who knows when; no doubt didn’t even have access to a comb or brush.  Actually, from the shoulders up he resembled one of the more spaced out guys covered in mud during the last day of Woodstock.  Hanging on his body, fragile rail of a thing that it was, was some kind of garment that must have been a long sleeve shirt at one time.  Below that was a pair of ragged pants that were slowly decaying away from the cuff upward, the ends of which had moved just north of his calves by this point.  Shoes, sandals, socks?  I never saw any.  Besides, they would have been incongruous with his outfit.

He was filthy.

Dirt Man was just standing there, looking out at the street.  I never saw his eyes or head move so I can’t really say he was looking at anything.  Can one look when in a trance?  Maybe yes, but I don’t think you can see.  It was strange how he tended to stand on one foot with the other foot raised and placed against the standing leg just above the knee as a foothold.  I’ve seen that done by aborigines in Australia and tribal people in sub-Sahara Africa.  Geez, I’ve even done it myself in some sort of afterthought as a boredom break.

That first time I saw him was while riding a cyclo dop from Cho Lon into Saigon.  These were the pedaled bicycle taxis.  The cyclo mais were the motorized version most GIs favored.  The former were romantic; the latter a real thrill ride that could hold their own at a Six Flags.  As we slowly passed him to my right, he seemed to be one of the last people at the bottom rung of society.  Later, over time, I came to perceive him not to be at the bottom of his Vietnamese society because he was not part of any society.  Dirt Man was a non-person.

I spent a lot of time traveling along that street for a variety of reasons, some of which had me there in the evening or early morning.  It was these times that solidified my perception of Dirt Man because it was then, when the sun was not blazing in the sky and the sidewalk was not being used by pedestrians, that I saw him asleep.  At least he was horizontal.

Dirt Man did not live and sleep in one of those steel lean-tos.  Dirt Man slept in a trench with a length just about that of his height, a width that accommodated his shoulders, and a depth that allowed his so thin body to be sheltered from the wind as it blew down the street.  This trench was in that part of the sidewalk that was unpaved.  It was just earth trampled by countless sandal, shoe and boot soles over the years.  I don’t know if he excavated that depression, if he claimed it by right of occupancy, or if he just stumbled into it one night and found it to be more suitable than being fully exposed lying on the sidewalk or up against the wall.

I don’t recall not seeing him throughout my first tour in Viet Nam May 1970 through April 1971.  When I returned for my second tour as an English teacher in August that year, he was gone.  I actively looked for him, though, as part of reminisceful cruising through that area.  By then, I lived far away on Tan Son Nhut Annex that second year because the hotel/bachelor enlisted quarters complex in Cho Lon where I lived the first year had pretty much shut down as the US military withdrew its forces in 1971 and beyond.

Dirt Man was gone, but not forgotten by at least one person.  This American by-passer of his life has told the story of Dirt Man to people on countless occasions.  Those occasions presented themselves just like a Reader’s Digest “My Most Unforgettable Character” story.  Most often, though, I told people about Dirt Man when I would hear them discussing the trials and tribulations in their so uncomfortable lives in America.  You just don’t know how far is down until you look there.

I’ve seen the bottom, or at least close to it.  I’ve seen Dirt Man.

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