Category Archives: New

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!

 

 

Showers

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.

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!

 

Wounded Warrior — Not!

Living downtown in Saigon, actually, in Saigon’s Cho Lon Chinatown suburb, I was not close to the hospital on Tan Son Nhut (TSN) Air Base.  TSN, one of the largest US Air Force (USAF) installations in the word, had the 3rd Field Hospital, but was a long way from where I lived.  Thankfully, I never needed that facility.

What I did need – twice – was a clinic with a doctor.  Fortunately, one was just up the street from my bachelor enlisted quarters (BEQ) in the St George Hotel.  If I went straight out the front door of the hotel and kept walking, what, maybe a hundred yards, I’d run smack dab into Dong Khanh Street.  Then, just hang a right and keep going east until I entered Saigon and the street name changed to Tran Hung Dao.

It was there, on the south side of Tran Hung Dao, the US Army had placed the 218th Medical Dispensary to handle non-emergency outpatient cases for people assigned to Saigon, but living off TSN and other military installations.  I first went there when I thought I was going deaf.  That was a real problem for someone who talks as much as I and for anyone who worked as a language teacher.  Over a period of many days the world around me grew quieter and the sounds I did hear seemed to withdraw into a canister of some sort.  It sure wasn’t from the sound of cannon fire, in-bound rocket explosions, or even a barrage of small arms fire.  Nope, I was in Saigon, teaching English and living in a hotel.  Life was pretty darn good, but I was losing the ability to participate in it.

I’d been reluctant to go the the 218th because I came from a family that didn’t run to doctors just because a hangnail developed or I had a cramp in my back.  Nope, clinics were where sick people went and they were full of those.  The time had come, though, to get my cheeks in there before whatever problem that was taking over my skull resulted in a permanently silent world.

Nice place.  Clean.  Bright.  Organized.  Not too busy in the morning after treating the lineup of guys in there to address their venereal disease symptoms or to have that last check of that same old problem before heading home.

Within minutes of checking in a medic had me in an examination room and was poking around my ears, nose, and throat.  I couldn’t hear what he was asking so he’d write out questions and I’d shout out answers.  Yeah, that’s almost how it worked.  After five minutes he jotted a note telling me to just sit tight.

Minutes later he walked back in with a stainless steel kidney shaped tray about a foot long and the largest darn stainless steel syringe-looking thing I’d ever seen.  It must have been an inch in diameter and eight inches long.  What kind of shot was I going to get for whatever illness I had?

He then walked over to a plastic jug of potable drinking water and filled it with some sort of powder from another plastic container.  After shaking it up a bit, he poured the mixture into another stainless steel pot and put it on an electric hotplate for a few minutes.  Warm, but not hot.  Well, that was good.  At least he planned to wash up real well before he did anything to me.  But, what was so serious as to require such cleanliness, besides just good medical practice?

After a very short time, he stuck the point of that syringe into the pot of by-now lukewarm water and loaded it up.  What?  We weren’t writing and reading notes because his hands were wet.  He stuck that kidney shaped pan under my shoulder, put my arm on it, and told me to hold there.  I ain’ no dummy; I kept it right where he told me!

He then proceeded to jam that syringe in my ear opening and blast about — seemingly -– a quart of warm medicated water into my ear.  I thought he’d never stop.  I got worried after just a few seconds because he wasn’t slowing down.  That syringe held a helluva lot of fluid and it was all headed right inside my head.  Yeah, I know, there was lot of open space in there to hold it, but, hey, it still wasn’t a vat.  Then, he loaded up after just a moment and did it all over again.

Immediately, it felt like chunks of my ear, brain or skull had broken off in and were being flushed right out of by head.  A third insertion with that syringe.  This time, I could actually hear him taking talking to me about it.

A miracle.  I wouldn’t have to learn to read lips.  I wouldn’t have to shout my communications.  I wasn’t going to die from some sort of cranial infection.  My darn ear had been full of many months of Saigon dust and Rod ear wax.  Hey, those ears come in pairs so he cleaned out my other one too.  I could hear again.  The 218th had made a friend.

So I returned the next week!  You gotta be careful about befriending people; sometimes they won’t go away.

This time it was to check out some bumps on my left wrist and right forearm.  Jungle crud?  No way, city boy here.  Leprosy?  Yeah, I may have hung out with the wrong crowd, but, come on!  Skin cancer?  Who’d heard of that then?  Well, better get it taken care of before it grows and overtakes both arms.  These guys had done a pretty good job on me with my stuffed ears, so maybe this would be a simple matter of some iodine and Band-Aids.

This time it was a doctor who saw me.  I didn’t know if that was a dangerous sign or just my turn.  In any case, she got out a big flashlight and round magnifying glass then started to examine every inch of both arms and where they’d touched my torso hanging by my sides.  What the …?

“We can take care of that or you can just wait.”  Take care of what?” he responded.  “You’ve got some warts there.  They probably won’t be a problem, but you may want to get rid of them now.”  “Okay,” said the Saigon English teacher.

What the hell!  A little dry ice and Freezone and I’m outta there, right?  Wrong!  “A little procedure” in medical terms spans a wide spectrum of activities I was only starting to learn and have learned about even more over the years.  Naïvely, I gave it a thumbs up so she took me to the dispensary’s operating room.  Really!

Got me to hop up on and lay down on the operating table after taking off my fatigue shirt.  In came two guys to assist with a couple of syringes and a long cantilevered devise that looked like the apparatus a dentist uses to drill and polish teeth.  Then needles.  They sure were not there to dab on a bit of Freezone, that was for sure.

Too inexperienced and shocked to say anything, I just laid there while one of the assistants set up the equipment next to the table and the other one loaded the syringes from two vials.  This was starting to get serious and I had to head back to the Capital Hotel BEQ to catch the bus to head out to school for my afternoon shift.

“This is going to sting just a little,” the syringe-bearing assistant informed me about a nano second before plunging it in my right inner forearm.  “And now for the wrist,” he quickly said as he picked up the other syringe and moved to the left side of the table.  Stuck that sucker right in there!

Hey, why don’t doctors and more dentists use that practice carried out by some dentists whereby they put a little numbing agent on the skin at the point they’re going to insert the needle of a syringe?  It works like Oragel we can all buy at a grocery store.  This way we cannot even feel that needle at all!  A tube of Oragel at the wholesale level surely can’t cost that much; it’d go a long way and sure would change the “sting just a little” experience.

Anyway, my arm and wrist soon went numb as tested by the assistant’s stabbing me with a sharp steel probe.  No blood, no wince:  proceed!  Proceed she did!  “Please look the other way,” the doctor encouraged.  Glad to do so.  My head flipped to the left as one assistant glommed onto my right arm and she grabbed the business end of that contraption now hanging over the table and me.

Within seconds I heard a popping sound like an electrical short circuit and I stared to smell something like burning electoral wiring.  That was me!  On fire!   Well, sort of.  The doctor was using an electric probe to cauterize the warts on my arm.  “This one is deeper than I thought,” she stated to herself, but clearly including her two assistants.  That was the signal for the second one to grab onto my arm — just in case!

It was like in the mid-‘50s submarine movie (either Run Silent, Run Deep or The Enemy Below):  dive, dive, dive!  That doctor must have gone in three eighths of an inch.  Now, that may not seem like much until you took a look at my wimpy forearms.  I never heard her give the “surface” signal, but it at some point she moved to my left wrist.  She had two areas to work on there.

She got ‘em all.  No stiches; just let ‘em heal from the inside out to ensure no cysts or cavities develop later beneath an overgrowth of new skin.  She put some sort of antiseptic in and around the gaping (yes, gaping) caverns she’d hollowed out, and slapped some big cloth bandages over the tops.

This was not at all what I’d expected after my first and easy procedure the preceding week.  Yes, all three of these medical folks knew what they were doing, did it quickly, and truth be told, practically painlessly.  I even got some pictures Tom took for me laid out on my bed in the hotel.

So, those were my scrapes with medics during the Viet Nam War.  Yeah, not the stuff of We Were Soldiers Once .. and Young.  Thank goodness!

Roundball

The three hotels that served as our bachelor enlisted quarters (BEQ) complex in Cho Lon were sited such that they formed a courtyard to their rears that was sheltered from the streets.  The Army had built a pretty good-sized basketball court in the area as well as placed the backup electricity generator for the hotels to the side.  Striving to max out the use of limited resources, the Army had also built a large shelter area to cover the generator as well as serve as a movie theater al fresco.

That generator was silent during the day when the city power sources were plentiful and demand in the hotels was low.  At night, however, those three big hotels full of hundreds of GIs with their lights, stereos, TVs, fans and refrigerators were just more than the local power grid could accommodate.  On came the generator.  And it was a big one, probably 6’ x 8’ x 10’.  I have no idea about its wattage production capacity.  As long as that thing had fuel, we had electricity!  But, we also had noise.  Lots of it.

The movies in that shelter were played using a regular blue 16 mm projector, just like we’d used for years while teachers in our schools.  As was available in schools, the sound came from a single speaker mounted in the projector cover that was removed when the machine was in operation.  Our movies were fairly recent.  The images were as steady as you could expect in the room with that huge generator rumbling a few feet away.  As for sound, there was no competition.  Silent movies.  Well, the movies were silent, but the room was far from it.  I tried them once or twice.  Never again.  Some guys were there every single night.  They probably would qualify for some sort of heavy disability compensation now were they to apply to the Veterans Administration.

A few of us took to the court.  In our mid-20s, most of us slept in until 9 or 10 in the morning because we didn’t have to catch the bus for work until 11 or 12.  With almost nothing else to do, playing roundball from 8 to 11 or midnight seemed like kind of a cool thing to do.  We were all friends so the play was competitive, but all done in fun.

Man, did we sweat!  We were soaking wet after just a few minutes of play in the hot and usually humid nights of Saigon.  Yet, at the time, it was so cool!  Looking back it was just totally cool!  Yeah, I get the lexicological paradox.

We all played hard.  We all had fun.  We all sweated.  Thank goodness we had that generator sharing and screening the area with us.  Had that machine not been there, the echoes of the ball pounding on the concrete slab would have ricocheted off all the walls of those hotels.  The GIs inside would have grumbled at us with insults and pummeled us with all kinds of things.  I’ve heard that pounding over the years as our son and neighbors’ kids would dribble on driveways in our and neighbors’ yards.  I don’t know how my mom and dad put up with it while my brother and I did that very thing for years at home.  Oh, yeah, they loved us!

If we’d been bombed by our fellow GIs on that court in Cho Lon, we would have well deserved it.

A bit of vanity here as an aside.  Due to my passing skills (developed because I sure didn’t have much in the way of shooting skills), I picked up the moniker of Rocket Rod.  My buddies were generous, I know.  Not being a jock of any real prowess, it was great to be granted that title.  Loved it, just loved it!

Holiday Meals

In 1969, I spent Thanksgiving in Casual Control at Lackland Air Force Base, along with 1,500 other Airmen.  We all pretty much knew where we were going:  to technical schools as follow-on to our just completed six weeks of Basic Training.  However, most of us didn’t know when we’d be moving on.  Not a thing of that special day’s meal comes to mind.

Four weeks later, though still in Casual and still not knowing when I would depart, I had my Christmas meal at home in Spokane with my family.  Those of us long-termers in Casual were give a ten day leave because the USAF knew we’d not be sent to schools until at least the following January.  That was an especially great meal for me despite it being our families’ regular Christmas Day feast.  The most special part of that day, meal, and gathering occurred when the family sat down to dine.  It started to snow.  The timing was perfect:  right out of the closing scenes in White Christmas.  So totally cool.

A year later, we were all in Saigon, Republic of South Viet Nam.  Life was different, huh?  These two holiday meals I remember vividly as the end of 1970 approached and we neared the two-thirds point in our one year tours of duty.  All the environmental and cultural acclimation had occurred.  Relations with family and friends back home were well into routines or totally in chaos.  We’d all seen the short-timers leave and were no longer making comments on the new people arriving in-country because there were relatively few of them.

As Thanksgiving approached, most of us were pretty well turned on/off about our military situations and lives in Viet Nam.  Then, as has happened to me many times over my following thirty one years in the USAF, the military threw me a curve.  I think a lot of us had a similar experience.  This Thanksgiving meal in Saigon became my most memorable.  Well, perhaps right up there would also be when the toilet backed up gallons of effluent in a slow, but unstoppable geyser in our apartment our first Thanksgiving in Cairo in 1987.  I’ve been lucky to have had Thanksgivings in a lot of places over the years.

Thanksgiving 1970 found me sad, confused and homesick despite the camaraderie of my fellow Palace Dog language teachers.  I think we worked that day because I recall returning to the St George/White/Capital Hotel complex as it was darkening outside.  So it must have been around 6:30 or thereabouts because I think our afternoon shifts at Tan Son Nhut (TSN) School as well as the other two schools in Saigon were 1-6.  Those of us at TSN had the longest bus ride home so we sort of pulled up the rear at meal time.

Our dining hall was on the second floor of the Capital Hotel, which also served as a noncommissioned officer (NCO) bachelor enlisted quarters (BEQ).  It had these two winding staircases from the lobby on up to the hall, which must have served as a ballroom or banquet room when the hotel was designed and filled with tourists and business people.  That was before the war escalated and the US contracted such facilities for the huge number of military people in Saigon.

I wasn’t really excited about this meal.  Feeling sorry for myself, I was probably not even going to partake of it.  One of the guys – Tom?, Ralph?, Fred?, Bill? – pumped me up and got me to go.  After walking down that alley east of the Capital from where the bus dropped us off, going through the lobby of the St George and getting our key to Room Sic A Teen from the girl at the desk, stashing our M-16s and (for me and few others) single short-filled magazines in our bandoleers in our 1/8 inch thick veneered plywood room lockers, I went down to the Capital to go in for the meal.

Since it was an NCO BEQ, the Capital was off limits to us junior enlisted folks except for the beeline we made from the door to the bottom of the staircase and on up to the dining room everyone in the three hotels/BEQ complex used.  As I went up the curved stairway, my spirits soared and my attitude changed quickly.  Years later, when I saw the flashback part at the closing of the blockbuster Titanic, I flashed back myself to how I felt that Thanksgiving evening entering the Capital dining hall.  Remember how the camera followed the recreation of the ship from its sunken silt covered decayed mess to its original splendor, and then Winslet was ushered into the grand ballroom and ascended the grand staircase?  Melodramatic, I know, but, boy, that’s the way it was for me that day.

The US Army had pulled out all the stops to make a Thanksgiving holiday feast for us.  The walls were decorated n orange, black and white.  Even crepe paper three dimensional turkeys were hanging as mobiles.  White tableclothes adorned every table and were changed every time the diners left so the next group of four would have a clean and ironed cotton table cloth.

The meal, oh, the meal.  It must have been everything any of us had ever had for Thanksgiving meals around the US.  Each of us had had some of the things, but none of us had had all of the things at a single setting.  Collard greens?  Not me.  Pecan pie?  Not me.  Through that diversity, the essence of what we all knew to be a Thanksgiving meal was there.  And it was there in great quantity even though we were coming in near the end of the serving time.

Turkey, of course.  White or dark meat, or do you want both?  Dressing, whether as stuffing from the birds or baked in the oven.  Whole or jellied cranberry sauce.  White potatoes (mashed or boiled).  Sweet potatoes and yams.  Green beans with shredded almonds, bright frozen peas, Julienned green beans, even cauliflower.   Sliced ham for those who preferred it, or wanted it in addition to the turkey.  Pies:  had that new-to-me pecan, also pumpkin, apple and minced meat.  Ice cream:  the traditional vanilla, strawberry and chocolate.  A bit melted, but still cold and edible with a spoon, not a straw.

It was all served by the cooking staff and others of the support service unit who volunteered to make the meal special for us (and probably help themselves take away their own blues too).  No self-serve that day.  To me, despite the lavishness of the meal, the icing on the cake (hey, I don’t recall cake being available with the meal; just about the only thing not there for us) was when we went to our table.  Each table had silverware, cloth napkins and four quarts of egg nog – one for each diner.  I’d never had egg nog before and here I had a quart of it!

I don’t recall how the meal ended, but I must have waddled out of there and stumbled down the staircase en route out of the Capital.  I have no idea how I climbed the seven floors to get to my room – 618 – at the St George.

I’m in my mid-sixties now.  I’ve eaten meals for a variety of holidays in countries throughout Asia, the Middle East and the US.  No meal holds a candle to the one I had that Thanksgiving with close friends in 1970.  Then, we did it all over again at Christmas!

Herdin’ Cats

I moved through a pretty broad set of ranks in my career in the United States Air Force (USAF).  Starting out in the enlisted force, I advanced in minimal time through the rank of staff sergeant and later as a commissioned officer through the rank of lieutenant colonel.  Often I had occasion to reflect on what it must have been like for that handful of NCOs and officers tasked to supervise and lead us Palace Dog English language teachers while at Lackland Air Force Base and even more so in Saigon.

Our group was composed of old boys and young men in their early to late 20s, all in the rank of airman, airman first class, or sergeant during our first tours in Viet Nam.  We were just about at the bottom rung on the rank ladder.  At a normal USAF base in the continental United States (CONUS) we’d have been fresh fodder for the give-take orders system.  But not so with us.  We were all college graduates and several had advanced degrees.  Some had had real work experience before joining the USAF.  Most had joined up to avoid the draft-Army-Viet Nam pipeline.

We worked short workdays of about five to six hours determined by our students’ points in the American Language Course we used to teach them.  We lived in hotels converted to enlisted quarters; three to a room.  Local women were hired to spit shine our boots; wash, starch and iron our tropical weight fatigue uniforms; and clean our rooms.  A bus ferried us to and from schools across Saigon where we worked.  Life was far from tough for our select group living in the War Torn Citadel of Freedom.

Nam?  The jungle grunts and delta sailors deserved to use that term.  We should have used it only to milk sympathy.

How in the world did those staff and technical sergeants get us to follow their guidance?  How did the captain operations officer feel surrounded by his academic peers (or superiors?)?  How did the colonel commandant getting an easy ride his last few months in-country perceive his command?  With my much later developed perspective, those folks – that chain of command – performed their roles delicately.  It was good duty, but it was fraught with pitfalls.

Recall when it was learned we weren’t properly caring for our M-16 rifles?  Those weapons and many rounds of ammunition had been issued to us the first day or two of arriving in-country.  We carried them to and from school every day, keeping them in the corner while in class, but carried around our school compounds otherwise.  When we pulled guard duty two or three times during our one-year tours, we had those weapons with us for protection or to defend those sleeping under our watch.

Those rifles were potentially our life and death responsibility.  Yet, most of did not lift a finger to maintain those weapons.  Maintenance of cleaning and oiling them at least weekly was a necessity in the dusty humid environment of Saigon.  A grunt in the field would have done it daily.

I cleaned mine twice.

The first cleaning occurred because one of the staff NCOs or officers saw the condition of our weapons.  He probably saw one lying around with no one watching over it so he took a look at it.  He would have seen the barrel starting to rust and the whole thing loaded with dust in every crevice.  As a descent supervisor he would have spoken to the person responsible for that one weapon, and then gone on to see what others were doing with their weapons.  He would have been appalled.

No doubt, he was the reason all of us at Tan Son Nhut School got the word we’d have an inspection.  That event had several highlights for me.  We lined up in formation near the volleyball court in ranks three deep during the shift changeover at lunch time.  The morning shift was held over and we on the afternoon shift had arrived early.  It was South Viet Nam.  It was hot.  We were Palace Dogs.

One member of our group had solved the rust problem by sanding and polishing the barrel of his M-16.  Though still blackened, it almost glistened in the bright mid-day light.  That look was not what the US Army had specified to the manufacturers nor what they had created!  To help keep the barrel chamber clean, we’d been issued black plastic caps about two inches long to keep over the barrel opening at the muzzle.  Being laid around casually, some of those caps were missing.  One of the guys addressed that missing part by placing a condom (new, of course) over the muzzle.  There it was, covering the end and flopped over hanging down the side.  GIs can be creative.

They’re also resourceful and sometimes clever.  It was the early 70s.  Hair was long, but we were in the military, but we were in the USAF, but we were in a language school in Saigon.  We pushed; the system looked the other way.  A little.  Limits existed, though, so hair was part of that inspection.  Some of us got haircuts that night before the inspection; some were lookin’ good all the time.  Some blew it off and took their chances.

One particular friend exemplified why old Navy and Army manuals reportedly contained the admonition, “The enlisted man is a sly and cunning individual who bears constant watching.”  By the way, I checked this saying out many years later and found it to be an urban legend.  Anyway, there he stood just to the left of me and in the rank ahead.  His hair was above his collar and ears; it didn’t show around the opening of his cap.  But it was melting!  Yes, he had tackled his long hair situation by lubing it up with Vaseline or Butch Wax.  Now, those products served all sorts of purposes in Viet Nam, but I’d never seen them oozing down the neck of a GI in formation in the hot midday sun while he stood inspection.

I was so proud of him!

Don’t Drink The Water

As we all prepared for our first military assignments to teach English in Saigon, no one more than I prepared to hunker down, play it safe, and get home alive.  Yeah, I laugh at all that now too.  Even so, in late 1969 and early 1970 as I came to accept that I was going to South Viet Nam and there wasn’t any real way out of it for me, I latched onto tips others provided on how to make it through my one year tour of duty in the Air Force.

I vowed not to pick up a Zippo lighter on the sidewalk, whatever a Zippo lighter was and looked like (I never smoked).  It would probably be a bomb anyway because a GI would never leave one lying around and a Vietnamese would never let one lay around.  I’d scope out various routes of travel and never develop a pattern of moving from any Point A to any Point B.  Hang around a large group of GIs in public?  Not me; we’d create too much of an easy valuable target for the Viet Cong.  Properly maintain my weapon and keep it in a secured location to ensure it would be ready when necessary and turn into a terrorist tool.  Don’t drink the water; locals had developed immunities we had not.  Oh, and one I came up with myself was to secure the area around and on top of my bed with sandbags, then sleep inside that mini bunker.

Yup, I was gonna make it through that year.  Alive.

Well, stuff happened.  I finally met GIs who owned Zippos, but I never saw one on the street.  I was too lazy riding my bike around town to take anything but the shortest route to get from the Base Exchange (BX) and school to where I lived.  I joined right in with groups of guys hanging out in bars without a thought in the world about how a grenade could be lobbed through a doorway and take out half a shift of teachers.  Or, more likely, a fire could have done the same.  I never did scrounge up any sandbags for my bunker bed.

However, I was always careful not to drink the local “water.”  As many may recall, I certainly did my share of beer drinking while we were together in Saigon in those early years of the 1970s.  Of course, like a few others, I could not usually afford the BX beer because it was too valuable as a commodity on the local market.  That ration card beer had better uses that to be consumed by this bright-eyed naïve kid from Spokane.

Nope, Biere Ba Muoi Ba – Beer 33 – was the drink of circumstance (certainly not choice, at least in the beginning).  That beer was primarily served from tall dark brown glass bottles shaped much like a chardonnay bottle.  I don’t think it was ever served chilled; at least it wasn’t in the places I hung out.  The cost of electricity would have been too much for those places and this beer moved so fast it wouldn’t have had time to get cooled in a refrigerator anyway.  Further, in the places where they had refrigeration they probably did not carry Ba Muoi Ba!

Yet, we didn’t drink warm beer either.  Well, some of us did drink warm beer, but by the time we got to that stage in the evening, we probably didn’t know it was warm anyway and certainly didn’t care.  So, no harm, no foul!  We did drink cold beer and we did it by filling our very thick–walled glasses with warm Ba Muoi Ba poured over a huge chunk or two of ice!  That chunk had no doubt just been calved with a rusted hand ice pick wielded by a pre-teenager in the back room or alley from a 1’ x 1’ x 3’ log of ice held on the filthy floor with the kid’s bare foot or tire-tread sandal.

Yup, I didn’t drink that contaminated water though!

Chef’s Salad

Before living in Viet Nam, I’d had a Chef’s Salad just one time in my life.  It was during the summer of 1969.  My girlfriend, her sister and her boyfriend, and I stopped at a Denny’s restaurant on Fourth Avenue in downtown Spokane late at night after doing something or going somewhere.  Can’t recall.  That Denny’s is gone now.

My family and I didn’t eat out much.  Mom was a great cook, Dad liked piddling around in the kitchen, and we didn’t have a lot of money.  So, dinners out were limited to the Cathy Inn Chinese restaurant on north Division Street and always included a mound of fried rice with two strips of pork crisscrossed and imbedded on top.  I wouldn’t figure out how they did that topping without crushing the mound until I was 33 years old and my Taiwanese-born wife would give me the “duh” answer.

Our other meal out was dollar hotcakes at Knight’s Diner in a repurposed railroad dining car, also on north Division.  It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I figured out why they called them “dollar” hotcakes.  I guess that was yet another difference between my elders’ generations using primarily coin currency and mine using paper.  Anyway, we’d stop in there on the way out to go fishing at Waitts Lake in the spring and summer.

Oh, we also had hamburgers late at night at the Panda restaurant at the intersection of Division and Wellesley on the way home from Dad’s swing shift on Friday nights.  He’d pick up Mom, my brother and me from Papa and Grandma’s house where we’d stayed that evening waiting for him to get off work.

So, my dining experiences were limited and, until I wrote this, I didn’t realize they were even more limited to Division Street!  We weren’t on Division that night so I deferred to the others at Denny’s to recommend something to eat.  A Chef’s Salad coming right up.  It was good.

A year later, I stumbled on that kind of salad again.  This time, though, it was 7,700 miles away and it was in a city without anything like a Denny’s:  Saigon, Republic of South Viet Nam.  Tom and I had ventured out to try a dining hall different from the one we used all the time at Capital Hotel, part of the Bachelor Enlisted Quarters (BEQ) where we lived in Saigon’s Chinatown, Cho Lon.

The President BEQ and dining hall – or whatever was the name of the place we went – was in Saigon, up Tran Hung Dao about a mile or so from where we lived.  We might have taken a bus the Army had available to shuttle GIs around Saigon.  We could have walked, we did that a lot, but probably didn’t because we were going out for dinner and would not have wanted to get too sweaty.  Saigon’s weather was dry and hot or wet and hot, but it was always hot.  We most likely shared a cyclo mai, the commercial motorized cycle with space for two in a bench seat in front and the driver on a saddle in the back.  We loved riding in those things.  Crazy dangerous though, but we were just in our early 20s so what the hell!

We got into that dining room and found out it was completely different from our dining hall.  This was more like a night club.  On a stage was a group from the Philippines blaring full blast in perfect mimicry of America’s Top 40.  Jeff Christie’s Yellow River must have been requested and sung very third song that night.  Probably because sailors from the Delta were in there and because it fit the play list the PI singers had memorized.

Instead of a buffet hotline, we had menus from which we ordered our own food.  Of course, here we had to pay for it while at the Capital it was free as part of our in-kind Basic Allowance Subsistence (BAS).  Most of the things on the menu were similar to our own rotating selections at the Capital.  Except the Chef’s Salad.

I went for it.  Fifty cents.  So worth it.  The huge bowl must have been double the size of the offering at Denny’s.  The clincher, though, was the salad dressing.  Denny’s had provided a little cup of whatever I wanted.  At the President, they gave us a whole bottle with the order.  You better believe I partook of the blue cheese manna from heaven.  No way I had less than a third of that bottle.  Maybe I actually had dressing with a base of salad.

I’d found my first comfort food.