George Robinson

Guard Duty 11 May 70

Today I taught my first English class at Koepler Compound. After lunch I had the infamous military task of guard duty. The shift is five hours long and is divided between two Americans; one walking around the compound, making sure the area is secure – checking for claymore mines, plastics, booby traps, noting suspicious behavior, and watching the flow of traffic; the other soldier maintains his position at the pill box in front of the school. The walking tour is the one that cures you of cultural shock with an overdose.

I drew the first tour.

Proceeding down Nugyen Van Tanh Street, I passed the barbed wire roadblock next to which several Vietnamese were lounging in a cement fire base. They are usually students who either have just entered the program or are awaiting a class date or who have just completed the course and are awaiting orders for further training possible in America. All armies are the same, if you have any free time you’re put on detail. Anyway, either their English is non-existent outside of hello, how are you, do you have any brothers or sisters; or like Bihn Khim, whom I met, nearly a native speaker with sentences interspaced with Jesus Christ and Holy Shit.

As I talked with Khim, I kept my eye on the crowded sidewalk; obviously, the pill has not made it to the Far East yet. There are scores of children running around, getting in the way. The smaller street urchins go unclothed – most logical in this tropical heat. The boys play the universal time passer marbles. The several that I observed were excellent shooters. The little girls run around in groups giggling and whispering and doing whatever little girls do in groups. I noticed one small boy squatting in muck and mire itching away fleas, playing with two crickets – the crickets reminded me of the bug in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” – grotesque!

As I turned the corner into the back alley, I spotted an old man, his cat whiskered beard white with age, puffing on his hookah or, if you will, his opium pipe. Next to him on a platform raised two feet off the ground was a rotund woman who, like Queen Hecuba, had six of her children gathered around her all of whom were busily scratching her back.

The smell of Vietnamese food cooking rapes the nose. Vegetables with no English equivalent are stewed in a black caldron next to rice and varieties of fish that are unique to the oriental shores, and unique in their odor – not aroma – odor. This backroom cooking stench permeates the narrow alley, nicknamed dope alley by those who have pulled guard duty here before. The alley winds and banks and tumbles onto Vo Than Street.

At this exit the Vietnamese counterparts to the U.S. Bowery bums now live in their heroin stupor. This main line commune kennels stray mongrels, and injects them with heroin daily. Then they transfuse the dogs’ blood into a clotted vial and use this hot blood to stretch their supply. They shoot up with a mixture of heroin and dog’s blood. It’s obvious that they have been shooting blood for a long time; a look at one of the old men’s arms will convince one of that. The scars run from the wrist to the elbow like an abandoned freight yard. A mama-san, who was probing for a vein kept collapsing in ther arm, finally achieved Nirvana by shooting a vein in her wrinkled forehead. I observed one old timer whose internal system was rejecting this opiate ritual. Like a just opened fire plug, blood was gushing forth from his mouth an nose. The sidewalk was not a sanguine vomitorioum, but before this enfeebled addict returned to his drugged orgy, he doused the street with two buckets of water, and hand swept his remains into the gutter and then with patrician distain gargled.

With this last act of bravura, I rounded the corner and slowly sauntered down Vo Than Street eyeing the pretty Vietnamese women riding the Hondas in their Ao Dai’s. By accident I glanced down between a parked VW and motorbike. Three metal canisters linked together with fuses reflected a bright burst of the Saigon sun. It looked harmless, a discarded piece of scrap metal. An odd configuration, but just junk all the same. None the less, I would have to report it and the EOD would have to come and take a look at it.

I passed the wire mesh blockade leading on to Nguyen Van Thanh Street and waved to the two Vietnamese kids standing guard at either side, resting on their worn and tired M-1’s. I figured they probably served under Diem – the M-1’s, not the eighteen year old student/warriors. I reported in at the station in front of the school, mentioned the canister on Vo Than, smirked at my replacement sitting in the shade, checked my watch – twenty minutes had passed. I would have to make the tour twice more before I was relieved for hour, Choi Oi!!!

*

14 DOT

A poem about the 14th Day of Training.

It is written from the perspective of a squad leader.

Click here to download.

*

Broadway East, Far East

Plantation Road, Saigon, South Vietnam.

After nightfall this main thoroughfare is a neon collage of numerous and indistinguishable bar signs. The bar girls hawking outside the taverns, brightly dressed in the “Ao Dai” – a maxi length pants suit with Apache slits down both sides – or their imported occidental cocktail dresses are in strategic contrast, like a coral snake and a sleeping grasshopper, to the green fatigues of strolling Korean, Australian, Vietnamese, and American military. The bars are crushed tightly together making the choice of haven for the evening dependent on a whim or a sink.

As you pass by each establishment, the bar girls try to persuade you to join them with such tried and true trite come-on as “free love”, “make love all night” and “boom boom, number one”.

The girls are beautiful, as sexy as Mata Hari and just as vituperous. Millenniums of oriental mysteries are hidden behind dark shoulder length tresses and slanted almond eyes. There is a sink of evil in their come hither looks that Captain Ahab would have certainly understood.

But before one can enter a bar, he must negotiate his way through the traffic of cute little girls souveniring flower leis to passing GI’s. On closer inspection one finds out that they are really sassy street urchins stuffing withered weeds into your pockets and unstuffing watches and wallets. The one effective means of dealing with these mini Saigon cowgirls is to sternly brush them aside and tell them “Di di mau”, (Get the hell out of here). It’s effective. The alternative is to be a nice guy – same same sucker.

Having chosen your oriental retreat for the night, you will be led by the hand into a dimly lit, wood-paneled atmosphere; past walls decorated with reproductions of Thai rubbings and gaudy red and gold lettered Chinese scrolls; under Charley Chan type fans that lazily disturb the air like a tired mamas an dusting; in tempo with the music of Motown, Nashville, or London; to an unoccupied booth in the rear. In the twilight of your morals your hostess will sit on your lap, caress your neck and thighs, and allow you to fondle her, all for the price of a Saigon tea.

A Saigon tea costs 400 Piastre. Not bad for a tumbler of coke with a solitary ice cube. The girls split the drink fifty-fifty with the house. On payday a hustling bar girl can finesse as many as 100 – 150 teas. One must remember that all bestowed affection has an economic motivation not an emotional one.

Unnoticed at first but all the more remarkable because of its naturalness is the bar girls’ fluent English. But it’s to be expected. These girls are opportunistic. They go where the money is, and the money is with the Americans. A similar situation existed 15 – 20 years ago when French forces were fleeced of their francs by enterprising bar girls who could “parlez Francais” like a Parisian.

As a cushion begins to adjust to its new contour, so the GI begins to adjust to his new surroundings. He notices the petty black market traffic of GIs coming in with packages of Salem and cognac and selling them under the table. He sees a pregnant bar girl who, rather than get an abortion, will have the American baby and sell him. If she happens to like that particular GI, she might keep the child as a souvenir.

His eyes catch the retiring figures of a “cherry boy” and his girl promiscuously making their way upstairs to the “boom boom” room. A night’s pleasure may bring him unwanted discomfort. Trying to urinate one night he may discover an agonizing burning sensation, like a bee’s sting inside, which will force him to acknowledge that continual drip, like the insomniac’s leaky faucet, that leaves a brownish blood type stain on his shorts.

These thoughts of VD are interrupted by a Vietnamese busboy asking for change of $20 MPC or maybe 500 Piastre. If the American decides to be a good Joe and promote better international relations, he may find himself the proud possessor of counterfeit money.

The evening ends early at 2200 hours. Many will ignore the curfew and stay until 2 or 3 in the morning. These imbued soldiers face the danger of being roughed up by a gang of Saigon cowboys who ride the streets of Saigon on their Hondas in oriental imitation of the Hell’s Angels.

Broadway East, Far East like its western counterpart is an experience never to be forgotten, especially by the myriad GIs who have been stationed in Vietnam.

Comments

  • Ralph Mattia  On February 4, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    George,

    Your first story is right on. I remember both the drug users and the dogs. The red spots on the dogs were far greater than the acme on the face of a teen age boy who loves candy and knows not woman.

    Regarding the second story, Broadway East, Far East, I am shocked, shocked that such things occurred. I should have put down my military discipline manuals and gone out sight seeing.

    Ralph

  • Bill Province  On February 9, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    I remember I asked one of the classes, What did you do this weekend? Did you go to the zoo or to the movie. The beginning English class as a group said, “Yes I did”. I also remember teaching them vocabulary by asking them questions like, Would you like to be a genius?” the students scrambled to look up the word in their dictionaries, and would say something like, “Yes, I like”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: