Author Archives: Spokanesman

Disney Was Right

During my two tours in Viet Nam as an Air Force English teacher from 1970 to 1972, I had the good luck to meet and get to know a lot of great students.  Hundreds of students – generally ten or six at a time – went through my classrooms, two weeks at a time.  Those two weeks were the time it took to study one book in the American Language Course (ALC) developed by the Defense Language Institute English Language Center (DLIELC) in San Antonio, Texas.

The Center created the ALC for use worldwide to prepare military personnel for training in the United States to operate and maintain US equipment their countries bought from America.  A few took the ALC to prepare to enter professional military education or graduate schools in the US.  Though the ALC was used around the world, the program in Viet Nam was its largest application.  I was part of the effort.

Many – most? — of those students were in our classes and wanted to continue on for the same reason I joined the US Air Force.  They wanted to avoid the War in Viet Nam.  The difference, I guess, is that I wanted to avoid it forever and they just wanted a break from it.  They faced a lot of challenges in and out of their classrooms.  I had only a handful of students not try to learn.  The glass was far more than half full.

For most of my first year I photographed all my classes and kept notes on the students as they moved forward through the ALC curriculum.  During my second year I didn’t do that at all.  Nevertheless, I kept track of most of my students while they attended the Tan Son Nhut School where I taught.  Once in a while during that second year, an old student of mine would swing back through the school after returning from training or education in the US.  It was always a treat for me and the current students to learn of their success.  It saddened me, though, to know that their success still brought them back to the war zone.  It was their fate to have been born there and it was my fate only to pass through.

One time it worked the other way.

Ho Van Nen was my student three times, meaning he was in three classes studying three different books.  The first time was near the end of my initial tour of duty, probably in March or April 1971.  When I returned for a second tour in August that same year, I had him as a student in two more classes.  He then graduated from the ALC and went on to some kind of technical training for enlisted personnel in the US.  He was well educated in Viet Nam; had gone to college and was then drafted just like had occurred with many American GIs serving in his country.  I expected him to do well in the US and back in Viet Nam, if he could stay alive.

In May 1972, I left Viet Nam before my second year was complete as part of Vietnamization, the turning over of US roles in the war to the Vietnamese.  Most of us on second tours did not stay the full year of our assignments.  The demand for English teachers was down, and most of those remaining positions were being filled by Vietnamese teachers.

After an all too short leave at home in Spokane, Washington, I went on to my next duty assignment at Castle Air Force Base in central California.  After just a year and a quarter there, I was accepted for Officer Training School (OTS) so I went back to Lackland AFB, to its annex there where OTS was conducted.  As with my Viet Nam tours, that OTS experience was full of people surprises.

The biggest surprise of all occurred close to the end of my ninety days of training.  I recall it was near the end because I was leading a small group of us trainees as we marched across an open concrete area from one class to another.  Only near the end of the training were trainees allowed to march themselves without a senior classman in charge.

As we passed the flagpole in the center of that area, another group of people was marching in the opposite direction.  By that time, the Air Force had pretty much switched over to the use of light blue shirts and dark blue pants as a daily uniform.  These folks, though, were in a kind of dark khaki different even from that tan service uniform we’d worn in Viet Nam.  This then, was a fairly easy group to spot.  Especially since our small formations were marching in opposite directions right by each other.  Further, these folks were officers so it was sort of polite for us to move out of their way.

It’s always good for the formation leader to move the formation so it doesn’t hit something, like another formation.  That may seem like a “duh” statement, but one may be surprised how often stuff like that happens.  Anyway, we did a right flank then left flank to dodge the oncoming group.  That meant the two formation leaders passed one another within a couple of feet of each other.  Also, because we were enlisted people while OTs, we had to salute any officers.  In a formation, it’s the formation leader with that saluting responsibility.

Up pops my ol’ right arm, up pops that formation leader’s right arm and we looked right at each other.  Yup:  First Lieutenant Ho Van Nen!  Both of us dropped our salutes, stopped moving, shouted “teacher” and “Nen”, and then gave each other a big hug.  Oh, yeah, our two small formations sort of stumbled forward for a few steps then stopped to see what in the world was going on.  It was totally cool!

The two of us then appointed someone else to take over our formations and the two of us stood there for maybe ten minutes just blabbering.  I told him what had been going on with me over the last couple of years and I learned he’d been selected for pilot training in the US.  That’s what he and the other Vietnamese were at Lackland preparing to do.  They were in the specialized pilot English language program at the DLIELC.  They were finishing up that week and moving on to their undergraduate pilot training at another USAF base over the weekend.

We traded mailing addresses.  Then, as GIs have done since time immemorial, we never sent a card or letter to each other.

Now, four decades later, I’ve done a bit of searching on the Internet for him.  A Ho Van Nen lives in the San Jose, California area.  It’s a small world:  I wonder if he is my Nen.  I really should give that phone number a jingle, but ….

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!

Dad’s Watch

Graduation from Spokane’s Shadle Park High School in 1965 was like most other high school graduations that year across the country.  It had probably been similar in those same schools for many years before and would be so for an indefinite time going forward.  Except in three ways.

First, I was part of it.  ‘Nough said.  Second, ’65 was the year in which the tsunami of World War Two Baby Boomers completed high school in America.  Our high school had the largest population in the city at just over 2,100 students, all in just three grades.  Our graduation class had almost 1,000 of them:  half the students were in our class.  We’d been that wave all through thirteen years of school since kindergarten.

That graduation also marked the point in my life my parents gave me my first watch.  A Lord Elgin:  American made, twenty three jewels, self-winding (Elgin was the first to have this in the United States), gold-filled in some way, and with an expanding metal band.  This presentation was cool at a time when kids didn’t get wristwatches when entering kindergarten, cell phones in grade school and iPads in junior high.  Watches then were sort of special, at least in my family.  Though we didn’t know it at the time, 1965 would be the last year Elgin would produce the Lord Elgin.  An American institution was going out of business.

Time was different then too, I’m pretty sure.  Kids thought about time in terms of before school, lunch, after school, bedtimes, holidays and summer vacations.  What would a kid do with a watch when thinking in terms of “school year?”  However, high school graduation meant summer vacation would be followed by college, with its varying class schedules, commuting to and from school, and various academic and personal appointments.  Then, on to the life of an adult.

So, I got that watch as my graduation gift from Mom and Dad.  I wore it every day that next summer playing baseball and for four years of college.  I wasn’t allowed to wear it during US Air Force Basic Training, but I wore it the many months while waiting for technical school, in technical school and during my ten days at home before going to Saigon, South Viet Nam as an English teacher.

Who knew what that year in Viet Nam would bring?  For sure though, Dad knew it would be no place for a nice watch like mine.  We didn’t have a lot of money so we strove to care for what we had.  The day Mom and Dad took me to the Spokane International Airport enroute to San Francisco and Viet Nam, Dad traded my watch for his.  For safe keeping.  For remembering.  For a promise to return.

So, I arrived in Saigon with Dad’s blue dialed Seiko dive watch.  It was perfect for that environment.  No doubt as he’d intended, wearing that watch also brought him to mind with each glance for the time.  It was a dive watch so I had no trepidations about wearing it 24/7 (a term not created at that time), whether in the rain of the day or night, over the sweat created by a poncho on guard duty, on the basketball courts of the St George Hotel where I lived, or while showering in my or any other room that had warm water, or even just water.

When I returned to Spokane after that tour in Viet Nam in April 1971, we traded watches again.  Our promise had been kept.  Then we did it all over again in August when I went back to Viet Nam for a second tour of duty as an English teacher.  Same environment; same deal; same unspoken promise.

My second tour presented very different living circumstances.  Rather than living in Cho Lon in a hotel and eating in another hotel’s dining hall, I was assigned to a barracks on Tan Son Nhut (TSN) Annex, very close to our school.  This arrangement made it very nice for getting to school:  a five minute bus ride rather than a 50 minute long haul through city streets in the same kind of bus.  However, my primary reason for returning to Viet Nam was to live downtown again, as all of us had done that first year.

So, similar to what I had done via car my first two years in college, I commuted between Saigon and the Annex.  This time, by bicycle.  I used that bike to go all over the city, but mostly for the commute.  Often on that bike – actually, it was more like a cargo bicycle – I’d haul three cases of beverages “for consumption.”  Well, it was consumed by someone, somewhere, sometime.

Near the end of that tour I’d left TSN and was riding south on Nguyen Van Thoai Street, just sort of pedaling along, not really focused on anything.  The approaching evening had cast long dark shadows across the road, broken by blindingly bright sunlight in streams as I passed through each intersection which had no buildings blocking the sun.

It was in one those blind spots the cowboys truck.  Yeah, we all knew about these “kids” on Honda 50cc motor scooters.  One would drive the scooter while another sat astride or side saddle on the rear.  They’d whoosh closely by a GI or anyone with anything of value exposed.  The driver wove in and out of traffic just enough to distract people while timing that swerving so as to come within inches of their target prey.  The passenger would reach out and deftly snatch the necklace, bracelet, camera – or watch – from the arm, neck or shoulder of the victim.  These cowboys actually practiced their moves with one another, sometimes in gangs.

Two cowboys got my watch as I was mindlessly pedaling.  After two or three seconds of astonishment, I realized what had happened and gave chase.  First, on my one speed bike carrying me and three cases of pop.  Then, on foot as the traffic worsened.  One, two, and then three blocks I rolled and ran.  Screaming for help.  Yeah, right.  I stopped there.

Feeling stupid, foolish and abandoned, I exploded in anger and rage to all around me.  Using every vulgar Vietnamese word I knew at the top of my voice, I vehemently let the world know I’d been wronged by that place and those people.  Then, broken hearted, I had to accept it was my own behavior that had placed me in that position.  Isn’t that usually the case?

Yup, they got Dad’s watch.  The one he’d given me as an ideal timepiece for use in Viet Nam.  He’d made the trade to protect my high school graduation gift.  Then I went and lost his because I didn’t follow directions.  Didn’t heed others’ advice not to wear watches off base, to keep my sleeves rolled down if I did, and to be cautious while out on the streets.  Didn’t heed my own advice to new guys coming into Viet Nam to do the same.  Didn’t pay attention.  Didn’t do the right thing right.

I bought Dad a new Seiko the next day at the TSN Base Exchange and used it my last few weeks in-country.  Dad and I traded watches again when I returned to Spokane in the spring of 1972.  He really liked that new watch even better, he said, than the old I told him I’d lost to a cowboy.  Dads say stuff like that to their sons.

Then, I lost my Dad just seven years later.

I still have my Lord Elgin.  It still works.

I Should Have Done Something

Service in the military can be very challenging.  An element of danger is there for everyone and it’s omnipresent for many.  Nevertheless, the military can really spoil you.  Responsibility, yes.  Reliable paychecks, yes.  A roof over your head (in kind or through payment), yes.  The same for victuals.  The work is usually long, often challenging, and can be tremendously fulfilling.  Responsibility comes early, increases rapidly, and can take on huge dimensions.

Despite all these characteristics which make Service life good, what spoiled me the most was the overwhelming professionalism of those I worked for, with or supervised.  Across the board, great people.

Almost.  I can count on a single had the number of people who embarrassed me because they wore the same military uniform I did.  The first one was one of our own Palace Dog English teachers in Saigon.

We had a lot of guys serving as teachers spread among six schools.  Three were in Saigon and one each in Vung Tau, Nha Trang, and Dalat.  We represented a broad cross-section of America, but were all college graduates with some having their master or doctoral degrees.  It was that level of education that set us apart within the entire US military.  No other all enlisted (and junior enlisted at that) unit was composed solely of college graduates as its operational personnel.

As with our country, we also were across the spectrum in our thinking about the value/viability of the Viet Nam War.  We’d joined the Air Force for a variety of reasons, but the primary one was the same as mine.  We wanted to avoid the draft, the Army and Viet Nam.  Then, with our educations, we were put in a personnel pipeline that led straight to Viet Nam.

Our duty there was to be English teachers five hours a day.  Tough duty, huh?  We may have been scared, we may have been lonely, and we may have been derailed in our personal or professional plans.  But we didn’t have it tough.  Our behaviors were more dangerous to us than the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.  We should have been thankful.  Most of us, at least with a rearview perspective on everything, were.

Except for this one guy.  He resented his situation so much that he put people’s lives in danger, while he lived in relative comfort and safety.  At worst, he was in the training pipeline for six months, was assigned for one year in Viet Nam, and perhaps another couple of years at one base in the United States as he finished up his four year enlistment.  Though I never kept track of him, I cannot imagine he stayed in the military.  At least, I hope he did not.

What he did that was so egregious was to teach his students “opposites.”  Up was down, down was up.  Pretty was ugly; ugly was beautiful.  Stop was go, and so on.  I ran across this situation in my second tour when I had his class as a substitute teacher on a day he was not available.  Because we all had the same textbook and were all to progress on a lock step schedule, it was fairly easy to be a substitute.  Get the class number and get the training week, you’ve got the book and lesson set to go.  Pretty much anyway.

His was a midlevel class.  I walked in, did the usual “Good afternoon,” greeting and was pleasantly surprised when several students replied with something like, “We’re great.  How are you doing?”  It was perfect conversational English, with perfect intonation and pronunciation.  We were lucky if we could develop those capabilities with Specialized level students after they’d been a year in school.

He’d had these guys for two books — four weeks — and it was like being in Mr. Kotter’s classroom.  It takes great rapport with the students and hours of repetitive practice to develop that ability.  His predecessors and he had done a great job.  After just a few minutes of this, I noticed a consistent anomaly in their vocabulary.  It was the “opposite” thing.  “Ya wanna go in for a beer?”  “What’s down doc?”  “I worked so hard today I’m done out.”

At first, I thought it was sort of funny, made the corrections and moved on.  Later in the week, I ran into an earlier class of his that was just about to be washed out of the school for failing their English Comprehension Level (ECL) tests.  They, too, lived in an “opposites” vocabulary world.  He’d trained his students well.

However, the impacts of his actions may very well have proved tragic.  Impacts he may not have considered.  Impacts that may have come to pass regardless of what he did.  Yet, as this has festered within me over time, these were probably impacts about which he really didn’t give a damn.

What I’m talking about was what happened to the vast majority of students who washed out of the schools in which we taught.  In the first place, they were in that school because they’d scored at least at the minimum level on a language aptitude test.  That test didn’t guarantee success though.  The aptitude had to be developed by good teachers and hard work by the students.  Without one or the other – preferably both – aptitude represented unfulfilled potential.

All those students of ours at least had the potential to succeed.  Their failure to progress through the books and American Language Course, progress defined by continuing to pass the book level tests, resulted in them being washed out of the school and returned to the infantry units from which most of them were drawn.  Success in our school was a way to learn English, a way to learn their jobs taught in technical schools in the United States, a way to move up in rank, a way to serve their country, and a way to improve their quality of life.

Failure meant going back primarily to combat and logistics units.  The units on the front lines of the war.  Where the bullets hit the bone.

No doubt some of our successful graduates later died in the Service.  It was much more likely that our unsuccessful students would die though.  This unprofessional member of our special group of Americans may have contributed to that.

He’ll never know.  I’ll never know, but at least I’ve wondered.  I should have done something to stop it.

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.

Ice Cream with Dennis

I love ice cream.  Always have, apparently.  Always will, for sure.  When just five or six years old, soon after my family moved out of our basement apartment at Papa and Grandma’s house into our little family’s only home, we’d return to their home a lot.  It was just ten minutes away:  make a left out the driveway, left on Rowan, right on Alberta, left on Wellesley, right on Nevada, jog over to Hamilton, then a left onto Carlisle.  There it was; on the left, just across the play field at Logan Elementary School.

We went there weekly for breakfast waffles on the weekend or, for us two kids, even overnight on a Friday or Saturday.  It must have been about the time we moved out that Papa and Grandma bought their freezer.  As a little kid, it took some thinking to learn which was which, the refrigerator and the freezer.  It was important to know the difference because the freezer had the ice cream.

Both were white, both had one big door, and both were about the same size.  The key was the key:  the freezer had one, but the fridge did not.  I guess, of course, one may ask “Why not just remember their locations?  They don’t move ‘em around.”  Well, that’s true.  However, I’ve learned over time that kids don’t develop the concepts of space and time until later in life.  I guess that learning point occurred for me beyond kindergarten.

Whether we opened it or my grandparents opened it, that freezer got opened every time my brother and I went there.  Why?  Ice cream, of course.  It was always strawberry, chocolate and vanilla Neapolitan.  Our grandparents bought it in a two and a half gallon tub from Rosauer’s or Albertson’s grocery stores.  Greg was the one who went for chocolate, I was the strawberry guy, and we were “forced” to take equal amounts of vanilla.  Well, sorta equal.  Greg’d go down the brown column, I’d do the same for the red, and we’d end up with a stalagmite of white we’d have to keep whittled down to be able to reach further down into the brown and red stuff.  The tubs were huge for little (and even not so little) kids.

It went that way until Greg and I joined the Service when we were in our early twenties; he the Navy and I the Air Force.  Right after that, Grandma sold her home.  Our tubs of ice cream days were over.  Done, but not forgotten.  By then, acne had prompted us to limit our intake and later our weight did the same.  Stuff happens.

Later, Dennis introduced me to the exotic stuff.  Not in Spokane, but in Saigon.  Going back to Viet Nam for a second tour in 1971 gave me the chance to get to know Dennis.  Perhaps my longest lasting joy from that Viet Nam reboot was making friends with Dennis.  No, not “perhaps.”  For sure.  Dennis is a wonderful person.

Hey, now though, let me tell about a wonderful treat and experience to which Dennis introduced me.  First, it’s important to know Dennis loves food.  You wouldn’t have known it by how he always kept his weight in check, but you’d definitely know it by spending a full day with him.  It’s Dennis who enlightened me to the two worlds of people and for which I coined an expression to describe them:  some live to eat and some eat to live.  Dennis is among the former; me the latter.  That dichotomy also describes my wife Hsiu Chih and me.  That’s one of the reasons he and she had an immediate bonding chemistry when they met in 1978.

So, Dennis was a great guy to hang around for many reasons, only one of which was his knack for finding great food at low cost and his eagerness to share his discoveries.  Sometime during our second tour together, on a weekend, Dennis invited me to join him for ice cream.  Based on my upbringing and experience in military dining halls, I was thinking the treat would be strawberry with real strawberries or creamy French vanilla because of the French presence in Viet Nam.

Oh no, those would have been nice, but this was Dennis, my gastronomical epicurean adventurer and guru.  This was going to be Dennis-special.  I’m not sure how we got downtown from the Tan Son Nhut Annex where we lived, maybe by MACV bus which was still in operation or maybe by cyclo mai.  Regardless, we got downtown near that big Vietnamese GI black statue in a little park along Le Loi Street, near Nguyen Hue Street.  He led me along the adjacent sidewalks passing several eateries.  I was ready to gaze; he to graze.

Before long we ended up in a small, clean, charming and air conditioned ice cream shop.  This was a nice place.  I’m pretty sure it catered to the elite Vietnamese, European and American diplomatic, education, and business communities.  Air Force sergeants were not typical patrons.   Actually, I think very few military would ever go there.  This was a place for people who grew up with and lived lives in which food delicacies would have been “de jour.”

Dennis led me through the front door and got us seated at one of the few tables.  I’d never used that type of table and chairs, which I guess today I’d characterize as wrought iron bistro.  They fit the shop’s ambience perfectly.  It was nice to be someplace nice.

Along the back wall of the shop was a moderately sized commercial freezer with glass doors.  Inside was a variety of frozen desserts; some were dairy products and some were pastries.  Dennis took me back to the freezer to show me what they had.  I cannot recall if the place also served coffee, but, as I look back, it probably did because rich black coffee would have gone wonderfully with every single offering on its menu.

We went in there for ice cream as Dennis promised so we chose the pineapple and coconut offerings.  Looking at them through the display doors was intriguing because all I could see were brown coconuts and golden pineapples.  I figured you chose the flavor and they’d grind up the fruit as a topping over the ice cream and dump it in a bowl.   Viola!  Not so.

The waiter brought to our table a whole coconut and a whole pineapple.  At least, they looked whole.  After placing the fruit on white plates on the table, he delicately removed the tops from each one and removed those from the table.  There in front of us were a coconut shell and pineapple hull, each filled with huge chunks and slivers of their fruit in a vanilla based ice cream.  I don’t recall which of us had which flavor, but we probably shared samples with one another.

They looked so cool!  I couldn’t taste mine for quite a while because they were frozen, hard as rocks.  The dainty spoons we were given couldn’t even scrape the ice cream out, much less scoop it from the natural containers.  I sat there relishing the food and impatiently waiting for it to thaw to the point of spoonability.

Finally, and really, it must have been over ten minutes until we were able to make some dents in the surfaces of our desserts.  Rich, creamy, beautifully colored, and delicious!  Our spoons were those long handled ice tea spoons that enabled us to dig all the way down to the bottoms of the coconut and pineapple.  And dig we did.  Top to bottom and all around the insides.  All this while we sipped on room temperature water.  That warm beverage cut the flavor in our mouths just enough to allow the follow-on spoon of frozen dessert to hit our palates afresh.

I’ll bet it took an hour to eat our goodies.  That’s a looooooooooooooong time for a guy like me who can throw down a bunch of strawberry and vanilla ice cream in a big cereal bowl in just a few minutes.  Savoring the ice cream and water was delightful.  To this day, I still like to have just a bit of water with my very cold ice cream.

The rest of the afternoon is a blur for me.  What I’ve never forgotten, though, was how Dennis introduced me to life on a higher level amid a setting I thought I knew pretty well.  Over the following many years, he would do that many times over.  It all began that afternoon I discovered real ice cream with Dennis.

Once Again

All of us Air Force Palace Dog English teachers shared the experience of that first round trip airplane ride to start and end our tours of duty in the Republic of South Viet Nam.  Remember the dead quiet somber mood as we boarded the plane in San Francisco and after subsequent fuel stops along the way?  None of us really knew what to expect, almost all of us were leaving someplace we wanted to stay, and were going someplace we had tried to avoid.  I’m pretty much sure I wasn’t the only one who was more than a little scared.

Most of us didn’t want to expose what we were thinking.  None of us wanted to intrude on the private thoughts of those around us.  That setting led to a pretty quiet plane ride.  I recall the stewardesses being polite and upbeat, but not intrusive.  Those folks must have had some challenges, too, because they knew they were serving people some of whom would not be returning to the USA in the passenger cabins.  I wonder if we ever glanced around and wondered the same thing about others besides ourselves.  I don’t think I had such a mature perspective to consider doing that.  It wasn’t out of callousness.  It was just lack of life experiences.

We all took that westbound ride across The Pond.  Around a year later, we got on planes going the other way that were very different in character.  Raucous joviality permeated the terminal while people were awaiting boarding.  A bit of good natured pushing and shoving took place as we moved across the tarmac to climb the rollaway stairs to board another 707 for the ride home (no jetways then).  Smiles, stares out the windows and an anxiousness to get that front door closed so the pilot could move the plane away from Viet Nam and toward America.  Back to The World.

Then, at the point of rotation and lift off, a series of hollers and cheers rippled through the cabin.  People had served and survived their tours of duty in Viet Nam.  They were going home.

However, not everyone cheered.  By that time in April 1971, President Nixon’s Vietnamization had been underway for over two years.  The US was standing down and reorganizing its forces from combat and training to training and logistics.  Our long delay a year earlier to get in training and go Viet Nam was part of that shift.  This shift meant that by the time we were leaving, some of those in-country and leaving with us had volunteered to stay there.  Some did not want to leave for a variety of reasons.  Though I desperately did not want to go to Viet Nam and certainly was not a volunteer to do so, I was part of this group by the time we all left in 1971.

Most of us never looked back after getting off the plane in San Francisco.  Some of us did though.  Let me characterize the plane rides missed by most of my fellow Palace Dogs.

The day I signed in at Norton Air Force Base sometime in May, 1971, I started out-processing to return to teach again in Viet Nam.  Yeah!  At my new duty section that first morning someone overheard I’d just returned from Viet Nam doing that teaching job and alerted me that he’d just seen a bulletin offering the chance to for us teachers to return if we wanted to do so.  My in-country request to extend my first year had been turned down, but my CONUS request to return started processing that very day.

I started in-processing in the morning and out-processing in the afternoon.  Go figure!

In August I was again at San Francisco International Airport, waiting to board a charter 707 to take me to Viet Nam.  I assure you, there was no large group of friends to share that experience I’d had just fifteen months earlier.  However, the atmosphere was like a circus.  Almost everyone getting on the plane was an eager volunteer.  Recall how it felt and sounded leaving Saigon?  That’s exactly what it was like in San Francisco.  Weird.

All the way along the route hijinks were taking place.  The flight attendants were playful and joined in with all the laughter.  A constant flow of chit chat was going on among people on the plane.  The only problem we had was in Okinawa when there was a weather hold for a typhoon and we were stuck on the plane for four hours.  That cabin got loud and the air became stench.  Those attendants earned every cent of their pay that day.  By the time we arrived in Saigon everyone was talking about all the things they were going to do upon arrival and the next couple of days.  Let your imaginations run wild.  Yeah, there was not much talk of increasing our role in Vietnamization.

I and some others were in for a big shock when we learned the White/St George/Capitol BEQ complex was in the process of closing down.  This meant we’d be quartered in those big two story open bay barracks on Tan Son Nhut Annex.  We were back in Viet Nam, but it was a different place than we’d all experienced the first time around.  It had all changed in just four months.

Close to a year then passed.  It was very different tour of duty from the first one.  We were leaving before our one year tour was up because Vietnamization had accelerated.  Little did we know that two and a half years after this crescendo of Vietnamization that the North Vietnamese Army would ride into the same streets many of us had ridden along in cyclo mais and cyclo dops.  Remember that huge black statue of a Vietnamese soldier in a plaza downtown where most of us had at least one picture taken with ourselves in the foreground?  It was toppled the first day:  April 30, 1975.  Or, was that the last day?

Before that though, was our plane ride home to bring our second tour of duty in Viet Nam to an end.  It was quite a contrast to the flight I shared with several of my Palace Dog friends back in 1971.  A third of the plane was full of GIs and their new Vietnamese families (wives and children).  English and Vietnamese were spoken on the flight.  It was dead quiet as we took off save for a lone GI who gave out a single bleat of joy.  As much as all of us had been anxious and fearful of the unknown in the spring of 1970 heading away from San Francisco, much of my plane was full of people with those same anxieties as we headed away from Saigon.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, there was no overnight stay in a hallway with my close friend Tom.  I quickly got a flight home for Spokane.  It had been very different flight.  It was going to be a very different life.

The B-70 Disputation

The Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle, Washington designed the B-52 Stratofortress bomber in the 1940s and 1950s, and then built 744 of them from 1955 to 1962.  The US Air Force is still flying them today and plans to continue to do so for at least another decade.  The Air Force conceived and deployed it to perform a vital role in the then-raging Cold War pitting the Western democracies led by the US against the Communist Block led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China.

Though designed to carry nuclear weapons, the B-52 has never dropped any in combat.  It did, however, drop a lot of diverse conventional weapons.  By the mid-1960s, the airframe had endured a lot of takeoffs and landings, the engines had burned for thousands of hours, and the Soviet threat capabilities had improved.  It was time to develop, build and deploy a replacement for it.  North American Aircraft won the competition with Boeing to create the B-70 Valkyrie as an aircraft initially intended to fulfill that role.

Not everyone agreed.  Various groups lined up on both sides of the B-70 debate.  Opinions addressed the issues of Defense Department spending and the US role in international disputes.  The positions were grounded in engineering, strategic, ideological, economic, and political beliefs and passions.  Sometime in 1969, the White House, Defense Department and Congress stopped efforts on the Valkyrie.

Enter therein Dave and I in sometime in 1970 or ’71.  We took up the batons for each side over a ridiculously passionate two day period.  To characterize it as a disputation provides a wonderful academic halo over our barroom behavior spanning those two days and intervening night.  No doubt we would have liked to have had our engagement perceived in that academic light.  In fact, at least some of our thoughts, speeches and actions were in the best rules of an academic disputation.

However, there’s no doubt in my mind that each of us (at least, me, for sure) engaged one another on this issue of the B-70 To Be or Not To Be principally from our ideological perspectives and let’s git it on attitudes.  However, let me address this look back from just my own perspective.

I grew up in a moderate, middle class, middle income family (note:  a difference really does exist, though many people and most new organizations think income and class are synonymous and interchangeable).  We tilted left in social issues and right on international issues.  I reflected that upbringing, tempered by my education at Eastern Washington State College and inflamed by being a college student in the late 1960s.  It was a volatile vortex.

Dave, coming from his own background, knew just how to ignite, fuel and fan the fire.  Damn, this was gonna be a good one!

The B-52 was aging and I thought the Administration said we needed the B-70 as its replacement.  Good ‘nough for moi!  Dave took exception.  Honestly, I cannot recall what I said or what he said, but I think his view was that we may not need the B-52, we may not need a replacement, we sure as hell didn’t need the B-70, and we could use the big bucks it would cost to put against other programs primarily on the domestic side of the budget.  If any of that’s wrong, I sure do defer to the correction!

No doubt it was a casual comment by someone during the bus ride to our school in the afternoon that prompted either Dave or me to support or criticize the decision to shelve the plane.  Maybe even it even came from one of the two of us.  In any case, the discussion ensued.  Afore long, lines were being clearly drawn ‘tween the two of us and we pawed the ground right up to those lines.  We were in full intellectual rut.

I’m sure we each focused on rational quality data and views during the early hours of our engagement.  However, quality can only go so far when the opposing disputers just cannot (or will not) see the truth of the matter, acquiesce and shake hands.  Oh, hell no!

We – or at least I – “advanced” to the quantitative stage.  Quantity there meant number of words and the volume with which they were spewed forth.  The quality of ideas had long been abandoned because neither of us gave an inch on each other’s reasoning.  That first afternoon witnessed a sea change from quality to quantity.  The ride back to the St George Hotel in Cho Lon focused solely on quantity.  Exasperating quantity.

At some point the two of us must have turned into quite a circus for our friends, acquaintances and everyone else within earshot.  Not satisfied with stopping there, we probably morphed into an embarrassment for our friends.  Let me remind/tell you why I believe that.

At some point well into the night, I just about lost my voice.  No pain, but I really could not do much more than whisper.  I’d talked for hours until I was blue in the face.  I had “progressed” to being hoarse.  Thank goodness we kept the assault on a verbal level.  We took leave of one another hours after we’d already taken leave of our good senses.

A few nails were left lying around the next day at lunch so we decided to seal up the coffin all the way.  Picking up right where we had left off, we must have entertained everyone on the bus ride to school on Day Two.

One of us tossed the ol’ ball onto the court and the other picked it up.  Game on, again.  It didn’t last long though.  Within minutes my hoarse throat was silent.  Literally.  I could not make noise.  Not a rasp.  Not a croak.  Not a whisper.  Silence.  The only pain I felt was in not being able to engage with David.  My vocal chords were taut.

I also couldn’t teach normally that day, a condition I kept from my supervisor.  In class, which was primarily based on a listen-and-repeat process of students copying whatever the teacher says, it was all grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing and student role-playing.  All my teaching was via chalk to the chalkboard and pen to paper.

I hadn’t changed Dave’s position. I’d made myself speechless (a dilemma for Rhetoric Rod).  I limited my ability to do my complete job.  In that I couldn’t speak and time passes quickly, I probably failed to apologize to all around me for my performance.  I do that now.  Too little too late, but with total sincerity.  I had, however, no doubt completely succeeded in making a fool of myself.

Over time, I‘ve developed some perspective and greater knowledge on the topic of the B-70.  That time-garnered perspective only makes that disputation in the early 1970s even more moot (read, ridiculous).  Here’s what I know now I didn’t know then:  The B-70 was by that time solely an experimental aircraft (the XB-70).  The Administration had decided not to review any production efforts because neither the USAF nor DoD wanted it by then because the USSR had developed fighter aircraft and missiles that could defeat it.  Only select Congressional members wanted it revived and continued because doing so would financially benefit the companies and job seekers in their districts.  Money and jobs meant reelections for those folks.

David was correct.  I was wrong.  Have a nice day.

By the way, while at the US Air Force Air and Space Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, I saw the one remaining XB-70 bomber.  Damn, that’s a beautiful bird!




Our St George hotel was seven or eight stories tall (depending if you are using the European or American system to count) and shaped like a squared U so there were maybe 30 rooms per floor.  That meant we had around 200 rooms housing up to three people each.  Those approximately 600 people ran a lot of water and drew a lot of power.  Saigon didn’t have much of either to offer.  Despite reserve water tanks on the roof and a huge generator on the ground, sometimes it got dry or dark when we wanted it wet and light.

Some of the rooms must have been on separate systems.  The building was probably created that way for special guests or management when it was designed and built as a commercial hotel before the war expanded.  Perhaps it was remodeled for the same reason when the Army put the place on contract to serve as a bachelor enlisted quarters (BEQ).  Regardless of when, how or why, a handful of rooms in the whole building always seemed to have hot water for showers.  If they didn’t have it, at least they were the last rooms in the building to lose it.

I think Bill and David lived in one of these rooms and it was on the second or third floor.  If it weren’t them or there, it was a couple of other guys in our class of teachers and it was not too inconvenient to get there.  The good news was also the bad news:  they had it and everyone wanted it.  They were smart to shower early because they must have tired of the tap, tap, tapping on their door as individuals and classmates throughout the building would migrate to their room when hope dissipated for water elsewhere in the facility.

One of the worst water room invasions occurred on a night in which many of us had played basketball.  Saigon nights were usually warm (!) and wet in and of themselves.  Add to that setting six or eight young men, then get those guys to play roundball for a couple of hours.  Yup, you got yerself some funky dudes.  It’s close to midnight, the game’s over, it’s time to shower, ‘n’ there ain’ no water in our rooms.

Yup, tap, tap, tap.  “Hey, you guys got water tonight?”  They could have just tried to ignore us, but we wouldn’t have gone away.  We knew they were in there.  Besides, they were always generous.  However, that night we must have pretty much drained the generosity gauge to zero when the whole basketball cadre showed up with towels, soap and sweat.  Ah, the trials and tribulations of the war zone.

It could have happened any day.  Those friends who lived in there must have felt like it happened every day.  Generous friends:  I hope we thanked them.  If not, then thank you now.

Dear Rod

Don’t worry, I still love you.  However, I want to be sure we are doing the right thing when we get married after you return from Viet Nam.  So, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to date some of the guys who have been asking me out.

Or words to that effect.  I sure wasn’t the first GI to get one of those “Dear John” letters.  I know I wasn’t the last.  Nevertheless, when you’re the one who gets such a note from home, it makes you feel like you really are alone.

Some of that aloneness is self-imposed by wondering what the heck is going on without a way to get an immediate answer.  After being written and sent to me, it took another week for my first response to get back home, then yet one more week for a reply.  Those three weeks were a long time.  Further iterations dragged out the process and conversation.  The information, the attitudes, and the feelings – from both parties – quickly become out of date.  Sometimes a statement, a tone, or a glimpse of body language needs an immediate reaction to steer the course of a conversation, the course of a relationship, and the course of the future of two and more lives.

In terms of tectonic plates, a three week period is a nano-moment.  Not so with people coping with eighty year lifespans.  Reactions, responses and replies too often come too long after the moment that prompted them.  So many thoughts and deeds intervene with the conversation.  It’s almost like a monologue in an echo chamber.

One of those echoes becomes a question asked of oneself:  well, how do I feel about all that was, is, and may come to be?  Soon, the thoughts can evolve from salvage and restoration.  A charming old house has value only if the timbers are strong.  A house of cards held together with varnish remains a house of cards.  Sometimes, it does all come back together.  Usually not. Even when reconstituted, it’s a different relationship.

One’s pause to confirm created another’s moment to reflect.  Who was I, really?  The same of her, really.  Even more so, who were we as one?  Years later, I learned an expression I’ve often used ever since:  there’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.  It’s an idea I wish I’d been aware of earlier; it applied so very well here.

My time of reflection gave me great pause as to the questions of who was she, was I, and were we?  Perhaps she had changed; perhaps I just finally took the time to see.  Independent of that, I know I had changed.  Thus, we had changed.  My reaction that had started as feelings of confusion and abandonment became those of enlightenment and confidence.

Time and space are powerful factors in thought.

This was not entirely an intellectual or philosophical evolutionary process though.  No doubt some of that enlightenment came through the guidance of my/our Senior Advisor on the hallway floor outside his room in the St. George Hotel.  At least that’s what he says.  Based on Bill’s only hinted at description of the night, I must have poured out my heart and guts, but, thankfully, that gut part was only figurative though it certainly could have been otherwise.  Apparently it was an all-nighter.

I’ve known my dear friend Bill for well over forty years.  During this time, that night has come up on two or three occasions.  Briefly, but it’s happened.  Never by Bill; only by me.  A few words; a few sentences.  I’ve always feared pursuing a full conversation about what I said and did.  He’s always showed the grace not to give an unsolicited accounting.  He wears the Senior Advisor mantle well.

At this moment and at this point as I write, I intended to project what I might have said that night; what I might have done.  In fact, I wrote several estimates of my words and my actions there on the floor outside his room.  After two days of reflection I’ve chosen to hit delete on my thoughts.  There; done!

What my booze-clouded mind blocked me from retaining that night and my dear friend has sagely refrained from reminding me should, it seems, remain locked in the back of my mind and behind his lips, as it has over these four decades, and counting.  He’s my Senior Advisor.  Who the hell am I not to heed to him?

People often wish for a chance to get a “do over.”  Then in Saigon and later back in the United States I had my opportunity.  I chose to do it differently rather than do it again.  Though one can never know what might have been, one can certainly imagine it.  My time of reflection had enlightened me to a different perspective on her, her thoughts and her actions.  As it had on my own.  It’s through that reflection that I am so thankful events took the course they did.  For her.  For me.

It was best that there was to be no us.