R & R

People assigned on permanent change of station (PCS) orders to Viet Nam and areas in the war zone close to it were authorized a one week Rest and Recuperation (R & R) leave (vacation) to any one of several sites.  A paradox was that Marines – who had some of the toughest duty – had to be on 13 month assignments to get that R & R.  Though many GIs may have thought it would be great to take that break a couple of days after arriving there, the rules required you to be in-country at least 30 days to qualify.  After that, it was first come-first served so guys in their tenth month had higher priority than those in their third.  Though there were reports of people not taking R & R, doing so was due to a matter of choice or money.

My first year I didn’t go.  It was a matter of choice and money!

Where could you go?  Locations varied over time.  In its entirety, here’s the list of available sites:  Honolulu, Sidney, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Manila, Singapore, Taipei, and Tokyo.  Honolulu was the location of choice for most married GIs because they could link up with their spouses.  Sydney was the choice of most people who despised Asians in general and as the symbol of their being assigned to Viet Nam in the first place.  Tokyo was used least because it was the most expensive.  Taipei was the choice of those who wanted to experience the culture of Asia without the war or cost.  The other sites were generally chosen so guys could buy stuff, rent girls, or do both.

I took R & R my second tour because I realized I blew it by not taking advantage of the vacation the first year.  I do make mistakes, but try not to do them twice!  Well, I guess that’s not completely true because sometimes a sign of my marginal insanity is that I keep trying or saying the same thing to conquer the windmills thinking I can get ‘er done.  I chose Taipei because I was really fascinated in things Asian and didn’t have much money to buy anything.  I think Dennis went there the week before or after me.

The trip to Taipei was really uneventful.  I took the shuttle bus from the Tan Son Nhut Annex where we lived to the TSN Airport, waited just a short time, and then got on a chartered commercial flight that lasted about three hours for those 1,400 miles.  We arrived sometime after lunch.  The whole flight was for men and a few women taking R & R.

The first activity off the plane was an orientation on Do’s and Don’ts while on R & R.  The key points were 1) get back to the plane on time, 2) don’t act like you’re in Viet Nam, and 3) don’t criticize the Republic of China government.  This was still the martial law era of President (Generalissimo) Chiang Kai Shek.  It’s so cool that I’ve lived and experienced the evolution of democracy of Taiwan first hand:  from martial law in 1972 to free elections in 1996.  The extent of political involvement at all levels in Taiwan today is amazing.  It’s one of the great stories of peaceful positive change in the world.

The next step was to sign up for our hotel.  The guys goin’ for it all took the Grand Hotel, that the-fairly new landmark on the north end of Taipei.  It’s a huge structure of fourteen stories, 487 guest rooms, and a plethora of dining and banquet rooms.  I didn’t go there.

I signed up for the Hotel Golden Star.  It was $6 a night.  Honestly, as I write this sitting at our home in Tainan in 2012, I’m looking at the brochure I got at the sign-up counter in
Taipei 1972.  Really.  It’s true.  I still have it.  Last week when I was in Taipei I checked it out on line.  Guess what!  The pictures on line are very similar to those in the brochure from forty years and one month ago.  Oh, they did paint the lobby and put in new curtains though.

At the same counter we were to sign up for any tours we wanted.  Availability was limited so it was first come-first served.  I didn’t know this and had limited funds anyway.  The guys who came prepared actually chose the tours first and the hotels second.  I wasn’t one of those.  I followed directions and ended up at the end of the line.

Nevertheless, I moved on to the tour line.  I got a one day trip to Wu Lai, an aborigine village in the mountains outside Taipei, a half day tour of Taipei, and an evening at the opera.  Yeah, I know:  great R & R, huh?  The rest of the time was mine.

When all that processing was done, we got in shuttle buses that took us to our various hotels.  Yup, I was a line of one at the Hotel Golden Star in north Taipei on Chung Shan North Road.  That was okay; I didn’t have to wait for anything.  I checked in, went to my room, and then wondered what in the world I was going to do.  My tours were going to be spread over my time in Taiwan starting the next day so I had to kill the afternoon.  I was alone, didn’t have much money and was there only because I didn’t want not to use the R & R freebie.  So, I went walking.  I walked south, a long way.  A real long way.  I got back to the hotel around eight that night.  I have no idea what I ate.  Showered and crashed.

The second day I was off to Wu Lai.  The bus picked me up right in front of the hotel, bobbed and weaved through the streets I then thought congested (I comment on that in light of what is seen there today), then headed south up a mountain road to get to the Wu Lai village.  It was a pleasant drive, though a bit scary as we rounded curves on that ascending two lane asphalt road.  Upon our arrival we were ushered over to a small building, led through it and saw that it was like a miniature train station.

Train station indeed!  The train consisted of individual carts that could accommodate either two or four people and were on a narrow gauge railroad track.  How did they move up and down the mountainside to the village’s performance area?  Manpower.  Literally, man power.  Two men pushed our rail cart up the mountain railroad.  Today, it’s a narrow gauge train line that uses the same tracks with a small locomotive.  My family and friends in Taiwan today are amazed at that story.  Only the old people know of its validity.  Ah, those were the days ….

Up at the village it was dances, clothes, facial and body tattoos, lunch and music.  Only the lunch was mine.  Then, back down the hill with those two guys holding on for dear life and working a manual wood brake on the steel wheels just like on a buckboard or wagon in the American West a hundred years earlier.

The next day I was on my own so I walked a million miles to the National Taiwan University, which I could best characterize as Taiwan’s Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford/Sarah Lawrence, to see how one went about getting hired as a teacher there.  Surely, an American with two baccalaureate degrees and a Washington State secondary teaching license would be in high demand.

Think again American.  Only those with at least a master’s degree need apply.  This inquiry was one of my two real reasons for going to Taiwan.  The other being not to lose out on the almost-free vacation.  The information formed the stimulus for me pursuing my master’s work in the US a few months later.  Dejectedly, I walked back to my hotel.  My dogs were barkin’ and my day was over.

I had only vacation ahead of me so I continued that the next morning by taking that half day tour of Taipei.  This was on a bus owned by the worldwide company named Gray Line Tours.  I’ve seen it in cities throughout Asia and the Middle East.  My first exposure to it, though, was right there in Taipei.  It was just three hours, but included lunch.  It was a great way to get an orientation to the city.  Afterwards, I went to the famous and still-in-existence Shi Lin Night Market.  There I got my only souvenirs of the trip bought on the economy:  a circular teak jewelry box for Mom and two sets of jade earrings.  I have the earrings again and I sold the box in 2010.

The next morning I walked north of the hotel to the Taipei zoo and the US Military Assistance Advisory Group compound across the street from it.  The zoo was a zoo, except for two things:  its setting and one display.  It was on top of a hill overlooking a train line and valley bursting with agriculture.  From the top of the zoo area looking north it was quite breathtaking.  On the top of the hill was also the part of the zoo that housed its large birds.  The fly pens for them were sited such that the birds could swoop down the side of the hill to perches right along the walkway.

I didn’t know that though.  I was mindlessly looking at the valley to the north, and then glanced to the south, up the hill.  Right there, twenty feet from me, was a huge condor type of bird with an eight to ten foot wing span coming right at me.  I jumped to the right and almost tumbled down the cliff to that lovely valley below.  I don’t know if the bird enjoyed that “attack,” but I do know the folks all around me thought it was a great show.  I guess I did too, in retrospect.

After a few morning hours with the critters, I wandered over to the Exchange adjacent to the MAAG offices.  I got a jade and brass lamp, and then sent it home to Mom and Dad from right there at the APO.  So convenient.  Then, back to the hotel to get ready for the opera.

Now, I ain’ no opera aficionado, but I’d heard that the Chinese opera was something special.  There I was in Taipei, Taiwan Republic of China — the free world’s haven of Chinese culture.  Gotta be a good deal, huh?  Good deal or not, I had no idea what to expect.  The bus got us there around seven or eight in the evening.  The driver got our tickets, and then let us through the door and into the lobby.

Hey, this was a fancy, huge theater.  No popcorn or other junk food that I could see available.  Right away, hostesses approached each of us, held out their hands for our tickets and led us to our seats.  Front row, center!  Bring it on!

Just a few minutes later the lights went down and my experience began.  Brilliantly colored and over the top designs for the costumes of dynasties long gone.  Just three instruments, but lots of music and all at varying volumes.  As best I understood, there was a storyline in there, but it was interspersed with juggling acts, clowns, and mimes.  No dogs or ponies though.

After just a few minutes of the lights going down, all the side doors slammed open.  I ducked; no one else moved, but they were all behind me so I couldn’t really see what was going on anyway.  After just a couple of seconds, a swarm of young men and women emerged through all those doors with trays of large glasses full of steaming tea.  They came to each patron and placed those glasses in a holder in the arms of our chairs.  I’d wondered what those were for!

The tea glasses must have held sixteen ounces of water with loose tea leaves floating on top and slowly moving down to the bottom of the glass.  It had enough experience with these at the home of Mr. Edison Denny Liu a fellow teacher at Lap Nhan Chinese High School in Cho Lon in Saigon to know what was going on.  Let ‘em rest; the leaves will be on the bottom soon and not on my teeth.  Besides, the tea was almost scalding hot.

As the show progressed, it was sort of more of the same.  I sat there, sipping tea and relaxing in the soft chair.  The day had been long and warm, the theater was air conditioned.  I dozed off.  More tea arrived.  I drank it.  More opera.  More tea.  Oops, when does the intermission take place, I hope soon?

I learned a lot in Taipei; one fact was that Chinese opera has no intermissions.  Also, Chinese opera runs four to five hours.  Further, there are only so many sixteen ounce units you can store in one adult male bladder.  After reconnoitering a bit, I realized folks behind me were occasionally moving to and from their seats.  I’d broken the code:  you make your own intermission!  So I did, three times before the show ended around midnight.  I couldn’t believe it.  I’ve subsequently visited Taiwan many times since then and live there almost half the year now.  I’ve never gone back to the opera and I’ve met only one Chinese person here who’s gone at all.  Got it!

The following day I went to the National Palace Museum by bus from my hotel.  It cost thirteen US cents each way; great ride, but a bit too fast in the corners up the mountain road.  I planned to spend all day there because I was on my own.  Well, I thought I was on my own.  As I got off the bus, another man got off with me.  Cool.  We both walked to the ticket counter to pay for our admissions.  Cool.  We got our tickets and walked through the gate, up to one of the entrances, and on into the huge, ornate, fascinating, beautiful building.  Totally cool.  Then my partner-to-be started explaining every display to me.

In Japanese, which was easy for him because that’s where he came from.  I knew three expressions in Japanese and none of them had anything to do with the displays in the Chinese National Palace Museum in Taipei.  His English vocabulary was two thirds of my Japanese vocabulary.  This went on for five hours, including a lunch break.  I went to the restroom.  I stood looking at some displays for much longer than my interest warranted.  I showed him things on the other side of the room.  He stuck.

After a while it just became natural to move case by case, and listen to him explain everything to me in Japanese.  By the way, every item in every case had information cards written in Chinese, Japanese and English.  On the ride back into the city we sat next to each other, looked all around, and didn’t say a word.  He got off at his hotel and I at mine.

That was bizarre, but he was a really nice lonely guy.  I like to think he thought the same thing.

My last day of R & R was spent around the hotel.  It was in a fairly busy area so there were lots of window shopping and local things to see.  Lots of temples, though I wondered why I bothered since I’d been to so many in Saigon.  Yet, with time on my hands I meandered around one not too far from where I was staying.  As I prepared to leave the front door, right in front of me walked two Chinese kids on their ways home from school.  A boy and a girl, probably in junior high school.  Each wearing their uniforms of white shirts and dark blue pants or skirt.

“Hello sir.  How are you this afternoon?”  Now, that’s far beyond cool.  That’s awesome.  They started the conversation so I joined in.  Where’d I live?  How long was I visiting their country?  What had I been doing?  Did I like seeing temples?  Geez, would an American seventh grader have that kind of maturity and boldness?  And this was in English!

They then asked if I’d like to see a very special temple, one that a lot of Westerners seemed to like.  Sure!  We’ll take you!  They hailed a taxi; no kidding!  I thought, seriously thought, I should just say thanks and walk away.  Sometimes intuition is great; sometimes not.  I got in the cab; me in the front and the kids in back.  Yeah, it was a Yellow Cab.

Within minutes we’d gone through several city streets up toward a hill and arrived at our destination.  The kids were so proud:  they’d delivered me to the front of the Methodist Church.  It was a special temple a lot of Westerners went to.  Done deal!  We wandered around inside and I explained some of the ideas of Christianity – from the perspective of an Episcopalian with a lot of caveats for Roman Catholicism and the diverse Protestant denominations.  Ya think Islam, Shinto, Buddhism, and Taoism are tough to understand?  Look in a mirror and think again.

After an hour or so, they escorted right to my hotel front door and said goodbye.  Gone, never forgotten!

Well, my R & R was over.  The next day it was back to the airport in Taipei, the airport at TSN in Saigon, and my rack at the barracks.

It was worth it.  Wish I’d gone the first year too!

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