Fred Jacobsen

Why did the acolyte cross the road?

 In 1970 Saigon, I don’t recall any traffic signals in operation, or for that matter, traffic lanes. Traffic circles sufficed in the larger intersections, with the very occasional “white mice” constabulary enforcing good driving habits amongst the population. As for pedestrians, crossing any street was very much like the video game Frogger, which required jumping from one safe spot to another in order to get to the opposite bank.

 During off-duty hours, I carried a camera over my shoulder instead of the M-16 machine gun the Air Force issued me to keep order in my classroom. Although I safely taught English as a second language to Vietnamese officers and enlisted men, I’m pretty sure that only one was a Viet Cong infiltrator. He was the most articulate; i.e. mouthy.

 So there I was, one fine spring day in Saigon’s Chinese district of Cholon trying to get across Đồng Khánh street on my way the BX to pick up my daily box of Tide. (The sweet old lady who did my laundry REALLY went through that stuff!) Imagine two rivers of wheeled vehicles flowing along in opposite directions, at the same time; mostly each on their own side of the street. There were bicycles, cars, taxis, buses as well as three-wheeled peddle powered and motorcycle powered cyclos whizzing about with their passengers riding precariously out front of the driver. Then there were the ubiquitous Honda motorbikes. Under-powered for one person, they would often be seen with an entire family of four and the week’s shopping aboard, zipping in and out of traffic.

 The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for crossing a street on foot was to start by looking in the direction of traffic coming toward you, and simply start walking across. Keeping close eye contact with the oncoming drivers, you would each subtly adjust your trajectory so as to miss running into each other. The effect was that of crossing a stream, allowing the water to flow around you. The tricky part was, once you reached the middle of the street, you had to shift your gaze in the opposite direction in order to “go with the flow” of traffic traveling in the other direction.

 On this day, I had safely made it to the middle of the street. While watching the traffic coming from the second direction, I felt a sharp tug at my shoulder. Coming from behind me, two young men on a motorbike got close enough for the passenger on the back to grab my camera’s strap and neatly pull it off my shoulder along with my camera.

 There I was, standing in the middle of traffic watching my camera disappear down the street in the clutches of “Saigon cowboys”. Anger welled up in me, like I have never known. My field of vision constricted to that camera, that motorbike and those hoodlums. There was no fine Spring day; there was no surrounding traffic; there was only anger.

 I’m pretty sure that in that instant, if I had my M-16 with me that I would have sent 20 rounds down the street after those cowboys. Luckily for them, me and how many innocent bystanders, I did not.

 Then all of a sudden, the anger lifted and the fine Spring day returned.

 It occurred to me that as there was a guerrilla war going on all around us at the time, the duo on the motorbike could just have easily been Viet Cong as cowboys. Instead of standing in the middle of the street without my camera, I could have been trying to stand there with a knife or bullet in my back.

 The Great Scales of What’s Important must have weighed my mind and soul in that moment. Did I more value my stuff or did I more value life and that fine Spring day?

 I remember crossing the rest of the street with a new-found sense of brotherhood: seeing in the eyes of the oncoming drivers that which I had missed before. We were sharing that space in the road, our lives flowing around one another. We were sharing that fine Spring day, and it didn’t matter who had what, for within each of us, we had it all.

 So came my “moment of Zen”.
A work in progress.

Tricky Dick

Our class of instructors landed at Tan Son Nhat Air Base on May 1, (May Day) 1970. We were herded into a large, green canvas tent to get our in-processing Welcome to Vietnam. While we waited, Armed Forces Radio was playing on the PA system. No sooner had we settled in than President Richard Nixon began a live broadcast to the nation.

English: US President Richard Nixon and Chines...

We learned that the United States was formally crossing the border and carrying The War to Cambodia! I was pretty sure that at that point we were well and truly screwed.

By the time we got to our new quarters in Cholon the Army guys were already packing up their bags and all their equipment and were moving out in open duce and a half trucks. Going to Cambodia.

At first the apprehension of also getting loaded up to follow them to Cambodia was palpable. Only gradually over the next days did it occur to us that we were able to stay at the St. George and nearby hotels only because the Army had been moved out.

So instead of camping out in the dust of Ton Son Nhat with the rest of the instructors, most of us would up staying our entire tour camping out in a run-down French hotel. Outside the door was about a dozen bars and a hundred Chinese restaurants.

Things were looking up.

VietNam Film

Two Word Verb Break Dance

Your students have looked up in their trusty Vietnamese-English dictionaries the meaning of “break”.

Now please explain to them:

Our car broke down at the side of the highway in the snowstorm.
The woman broke down when the police told her that her son had died.
Our teacher broke the final project down into three separate parts.
Somebody broke in last night and stole our stereo.
The firemen had to break into the room to rescue the children.
I need to break these shoes in before we run next week.
The TV station broke in to report the news of the president’s death.
My boyfriend and I broke up before I moved to America.
The kids just broke up as soon as the clown started talking.
The prisoners broke out of jail when the guards weren’t looking.
I broke out in a rash after our camping trip.


  • larryscroggins  On June 15, 2016 at 5:50 pm

    Fred I just signed up.

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