Rod Gale

Introduction to My Bus

     My passages in “Bus” were first written for another publication, Reflections, Observations and Decisions.  Fred’s initiative to develop Bus provided me the opportunity to contribute selections from ROD because of their relevancy to people and experiences in Bus.

     I’ve enjoyed few people and few events in my life as meaningful, warm, and enlightening to me as those during the so brief time of September 1969 through May 1972.  This is the period from which I entered service in the US Air Force and learned I’d be going to Viet Nam through my two tours of duty there.  “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”  Almost.

ROD is being written in celebration of the people who’ve impacted my life.  I can think of no better place to share pertinent parts therein than herein.

Palace Dogs individually and collectively have helped define me.  Thank you.

Give and Take Care,



Open Bay Barracks

Viet Nam Year Two was very different from Year One in many ways. My housing was a huge example. That first year I lived in a commercial hotel leased to the U.S. Army as Bachelor Enlisted Quarters: the St. George Hotel (part of a three hotel complex, which included the White and Capital). We were in Room 618, or as the charming girl at the check-in desk would say it, sick-a-teen. We had three guys in the room: Tom, Ralph, and I. Now, don’t get great images of an exotic Asian tourist hotel floating through your mind.
Our room was about 150 square feet for the three of us, total, but you’d have to add a 25-foot bathroom to the total. Though we shared the sink-toilet-shower bathroom, it was ours and it was en suite. One screened double window (that I don’t ever recall us closing). A narrow entry hallway where we each had a two-door wood wardrobe that stowed our clothes, personal items, and all our military gear (M-16 rifle, ammunition, and load bearing equipment). Each of us had our own desk with a drawer. Toss in a three and a half cubic foot fridge and the fans, and the three of us – like all the other guys – were cozy, but comfortable. Really it was quite remarkable.
Year Two was a different ball game. I think the by-then smaller group of us occupied two or three barracks close to one another on the Tan Son Nhut Annex. This was in the Gia Dinh area north of TSN Air Base with the city golf course and Military Assistance Command Viet Nam (MACV) Headquarters compound between the base and annex. Initially it was a turn off: on base vs. off base, barracks vs. hotel, 20 people to a floor vs. 3 to a room, and 1 latrine for the 40 in the barracks vs. 1 bathroom for 3 in the room. Despite all those up front negatives, it really was pretty nice to live on the TSN Annex.
First of all, I got to know more guys and know them better. The privacy of the hotel was also isolating. The barracks were none of that. At least not so much. The upstairs and downstairs areas were somewhat that way, but we all still saw each other as we passed the outside stairways, at the latrines, and just sorta wandering around.
The on-the-economy lifestyle a few of us lived in Year One brought with it some anxiety. Well, we were in a war zone. What the hell were we doing running around the local streets night and day in these targets called American military uniforms? Why were we out to curfew (and beyond), sometimes with and sometimes without rifles and ammo? Really, we were so stupid. Yet, we had a great, once-in-a-lifetime experience that ended up being positive for everyone I knew who was involved.
Still, I (we?) lived and played under a cloud of anxiety being caught by the good authorities (the U.S. Army military police or our chain of command) or the bad guys (Viet Cong or hoodlums (“cowboys”)). Of course, much of this concern would not have existed had we just stayed on the BEQs the Army had leased, maintained, staffed, and guarded for us. Believe me, the “dumb kid” expression is not limited to junior and senior high school people.
In part, though, during my second year I was relieved of much of the over-the-shoulder, did you hear that?, constant look out for good guys trying to protect us and bad guys looking to score. I still had an apartment in Cho Lon, but I spend most of my nights on post. Ya know what? I don’t know which I really preferred! I sure wouldn’t have made that statement four decades ago, but events over time can create judgment and experience tends to take precedence.
I was assigned to a barracks to live near the middle on the west side on the second floor rather than the BEQ hotel and the north side on the sixth (seventh using U.S. numbering system) floor. We all had two-level bunks, most of which must have been full during the 1969-71 period. However, in 1971-72 as U.S. forces were drawing down, the demand for racks was much less so each of us had that double bunk to ourselves. Some guys slept on top, some on the bottom (which was my choice), and some took off the top and slept in a “single” bed. We had a lot of discretion in how we’d arrange our personal areas. I don’t recall we had desks in each space, but we did have a wood footlocker and a metal double wall locker. Each of us had a space about 8 by 10 feet in that bay of, probably, 25 feet by 50 feet. They were pretty good sized buildings. The second floor where I lived was all sleeping area, where as the ground floor also had the latrines and office space. As a result, more people lived upstairs than downstairs.
Each floor had its benefits and drawbacks. Both floors had wood lapstrake siding on their lower four feet and screens from there up to the rafters. Those of us on the top floor thought we had the advantage during hot weather to get more of a breeze. The guys on the ground floor thought they had the advantage were we to be attacked. Since we were never attacked, I guess we on the top got the better deal because it was almost always hot.
Not always though! We had a spell of three or four nights in the winter of 1971 when it got cold. Real cold. I wore one set of underwear, two undershirts, two complete uniforms, my socks and boots, and slept under my single sheet, single blanket, and poncho liner. I still shivered. That temperature must have dropped into the low 60s or upper 50s! Yeah, I was from Spokane, but I’d gotten accustomed to warm: seven months in San Antonio, a year in South Viet Nam, three months in San Bernardino, and another five months in South Viet Nam. White Christmas to me had become just a song and a memory. Those warmed my heart, but not my bones!
The 25 to 30 of us who used that barracks all partook of a single latrine area in the south end of the building on the ground floor. It probably had toilets in stalls (I can’t recall, but think I’d remember if they were all out in the open like my first open bay barracks in Casual Control at Lackland Air Force Base in October-November 1969), a long row of sinks with mirrors, a long trough urinal (maybe individual ones; I can’t recall that either), and a large shower area with privacy walls. Not bad, really.
The only thing I clearly recall about the barracks bathroom was one guy who spent a lot – a whole lot – of time there. Tom was fastidiously hygienic when it came to showers. Honestly, no kidding, Tom took a shower each morning, when he finished his teaching shift, and again at night before going to bed. He wasn’t carousing around and wasn’t playing basketball, volleyball, or tennis all the time. He either enjoyed showers or hated sweat. I can still envision him coming around the corner out of the shower area, wearing a white terry cloth robe, and drying his hair with a U.S. Army-issued green terry cloth towel.
Maybe the best part of living in the barracks as well as the hotels was the availability of maids – always called by the Japanese term mamasans – to wash and iron (starch if we wanted it) every piece of clothing we had six days a week, clean our personal areas, and clean all the common area. The U.S. Army paid for these services, but I think we individually chipped in a bit more ($5?) each month. Yup, we were spoiled rotten!
It was generally a comfortable life for all of us due to the work of these do-anything-for-ya maids, but for George, the maid taking care of his and a couple of other guys’ area was also great entertainment. George would often wait until the lady arrived in his area to get up. He’d take great delight in ripping off his white top sheet with great flourish, standing up, and greeting her with a rousing “chao ba (good morning)!” He’d just startle the hell outta her with the flamboyancy of his awakening – and, that he slept au natural! George wasn’t any small dude either; must have been at least two or three inches over six feet.
Our barracks were just a five to ten-minute bus ride to our worksite at the TSN School. This little hop was a far cry from the normally 45-minute commute we’d had in Year One to get to the same school through the streets of Saigon from the St. George Hotel in Cho Lon. We actually gained almost an hour of sleep or play time. It actually was a lot safer taking this short, close ride, which was generally well patrolled/protected by U.S. and Vietnamese military police.
Once in a while (monthly?) we had Commander’s Calls in the common street area among the two or three teachers’ barracks. Guys would crowd around the Commander and First Sergeant there on the ground and more would perch on the stairway landings at the ends of the barracks. Commander’s Calls in the round! I still have photos of one or more of them as our leaders passed the word, fielded questions, comments, and complaints, and generally tried to retain some sense of Airmanship and military bearing among our gaggle of junior enlisted , college gradate, USAF English teachers at an Army-run Defense Department school in the Republic of South Viet Nam.
Those guy had their hands full. As I’ve often commented, it must have been like herdin’ cats!
Those housing facilities in Saigon in 1972 were the last of my experiences being in open bay barracks. From then on, as a noncommissioned officer and officer, I’d be in semi-private or private quarters, on base family house, government leased apartments, or off base private housing. It would be nice to have the privacy, but, looking back, I’ve never again had that sense of comradery one gained through living in the TSN Annex open bay barracks in Saigon.


How the Hell’d I Get Here?

May 1, 1970, was a big day in the Viet Nam War and in my life.  On that day South Viet Nam and US military forces advanced into Cambodia in the open in large numbers and I landed in Saigon.  Coincidence?  Karma?  Don’t know, but the pairing has enabled me to remember both events and that date so very well.  I sure can’t/won’t/don’t have the energy to address the larger picture, but do let me layout my own little piece of the action.

All through college I’d pretty much blown off the Viet Nam War.  I focused on school, girls and beer, with widely varying success depending on which of the three topics were under discussion.  A couple of things became clear in my senior year in 1969 though:  I was going to have to address being in the military and I wanted a way to avoid going into the War.  Students are often very good at kicking the can down the road in committing to a course of action, and I was a pretty good student!

Finally, graduation approached in June 1969 and I had no offers from school districts for employment as a teacher because they knew I’d be drafted before or in my first year of work.  All that was hanging over my head, but my focus was on the work of being an undergraduate teaching assistant in Eastern Washington State College’s history department, finishing my two degrees in history and education, hanging out with my girlfriend and drinking beer with my friends.  In retrospect, so damn dumb!

Anyway, to avoid the draft to avoid the Army to avoid Viet Nam, at my girlfriend’s urging I joined the Air Force.  The Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP) enabled/enticed folks to sign up now and go on active duty 90-120 days later.  The DEP also guaranteed a technical specialty of choice.  I grabbed for and was awarded the Education career field.  I figured I’d probably end up in a base education office somewhere in the US or maybe even Germany, Japan or Korea.  Lookin’ good so far.

After a summer of chasing my girlfriend, drinking beer, and water skiing, it was time to go to Basic Training.  Honestly, I was in a cloud and had no idea whatsoever what I was doing or what was going to happen to me on September 15, 1969 when my parents drove me to the induction center in downtown Spokane.  After a bit of administrative processing, we were sworn in.  Naively, selfishly and in great fear, I mouthed rather than verbalized that oath.  I thought not actually having said it would provide me an “out” somewhere down the line.  Talk about your immoral wimp wallowing in the sweat of his own anxiety!

Somehow we were then heading to Spokane International Airport.  I’d only been there twice before:  once with family to pick up my dad when he returned from a training session in Seattle with American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) and once to see the first Boeing 707 airliner arrive in Spokane.  I don’t recall a moment of the ride to the airport, but I do recall my first plane ride.  It was a four engine prop job.  I still remember seeing its shadow on the runway and harvested wheat fields as we lifted off and headed west to Seattle.  There we changed to a jet plane headed for Los Angeles, where we changed to another jet for the flight to San Antonio, Texas.  One day I’d never been on a plane; by the end of that day I was a pro traveler with both prop and jet aircraft under my belt.

Still none of it registers in my memory bank for that day until the plane’s door opened in San Antonio.  A burst of humid September night air washed through the plane.  Nope, never before had a damp hot feeling hit me in the face like that.  It was ShowTime:  a man in a khaki uniform came on the plane and asked that all the people arriving for US Air Force Basic Training remain on the plane while the others departed.  Only then did I notice so many young adult male and female passengers seated around me.  When the civilians-to-remain departed, this same person told us civilians-no-longer to get up, get our stuff, and go into the terminal.  So far, so good.  Damp, but good.

But not for long.  As soon as we got into that terminal around 11 pm, that same khaki-clad man started screaming at us to line up against the wall, keep our eyes forward, not to look around, not to talk, and to stand up straight.  Okay, now this venture was starting to go downhill.  I’d been in the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program my first two years at Eastern.  I sort of knew the drill for the drill, but I’d not experienced this yelling-in-public approach for the sake of intimidation routine.  We haphazardly marched/meandered/swerved forward through the dark hallways of the airport at midnight and onto a blue school bus.  It was a quiet (silent!) ride along the yellow neon lit freeways through San Antonio to Lackland Air Force Base (AFB).

We finally stopped outside some vast low building and the yelling started again.  I don’t recall the words, but everyone clearly got the idea we were to get off that bus, stay quiet, go into the building and eat – fast.  I bolted down sliced ham and something like potatoes and cheese from a steam tray.  Then back on that same bus.  We proceeded to drive to our barracks to be:  08 Squadron, one of the new huge barracks buildings.  I was not to learn how lucky I was in that craps shoot of squadron assignments until six weeks later when I encountered airmen who’d ended up in the wood World War II barracks.  Two different worlds, each with its advantages.  Our big advantage that trumped all others was the air conditioning.  Real air conditioning in San Antonio, Texas in September.

Anyway, we were herded upstairs, told to sit on the floor in a big open area and be quiet.  After a few moments that seemed like an hour we heard a tap, tap, tap on the floor in synch with a man’s sturdy footsteps.  We learned this was Technical Sergeant Stephenson who would serve as our Technical Instructor (TI).  We were called to attention when he entered and stayed that way while he sat down on a folding grey metal chair at the head of the room.  His Assistant TI, Staff Sergeant Coleman, then told us to sit down.  We did.  It was silent.  Very silent.  Then that tapping began again as TSgt Stephenson sat there slowly tapping the toe of his spit shined black leather oxford on the high gloss tile floor.  Finally, he spoke.  I don’t remember a word he said, but do recall that I grasped the concept that he was in charge and I was helpless.  I thought back to that lip-syncing of my oath just a dozen hours earlier.

We showered and were in bed in minutes.  We weren’t all asleep though.  Too scared, too worried, too tired to sleep.  I laid there stifling the sobbing and shaking within my body, not wanting to admit to myself how scared and helpless I felt.  Much more so, I didn’t want those around me to notice those emotions emitting from me.  Thankfully, the sobbing from most of us drowned out the noise from each of us.  I guess the remainder of the guys were stronger, faked it, or were asleep.

The following 41 days are a story in and of themselves.  One day – the fifth day – ties in with my shared experience with Palace Lime (later Palace Dog), the program nickname for English Language Training in South Viet Nam.  That day was Career Day, the early point in training when Basic Training airmen are sent to personnel processing sites on Lackland AFB to be told about the Air Force Specialty in which they would be trained and work as their first assignments after Basic Training.

As part of the DEP, I already knew my specialty was to be the Education career field.  I was singled out of my flight of 50 guys and sent to another location in the old part of Lackland.  Marching by myself I thought it was kind of cool how I knew much of my future, while the others were starting out from scratch.  Yup, yet another example of a Dude countin’ them hens afore they be hatched!

As I arrived at the designated site for my orientation, I noticed all of those milling around outside were older than most of those in my Basic flight.  My flight, like all those in Basic Training, was composed primarily of men (boys?) right out of high school.  A few were in their early to mid-twenties for various reasons (due to deferments for college, a job, medical issues, etc.), but, by and large, it was 18-19 year olds in Basic Training.  We older guys gathered that day were ushered (not yelled at) into the squat white wood building and seated at regular school desks with folding arms/writing rests.  Hey, this was nice.  This was real.

Then a sergeant walked to the front of the room, confirmed our names from a roster, and reassured us we were all going to be education specialists.  Even better, he said we were going to be English teachers.  I was getting pumped.  This was even better than I’d imagined, though I hadn’t really given it much thought at all since June when I enlisted, got word I’d be in that specialty, and had beaten the draft!

The next words out of his mouth were to the effect that this English teaching was to be at the “University of Saigon.”  No doubt he said it with a smirk on his face as though he’d announced to the masses the emperor had no clothes!  Though I don’t recall his exact words or how he said them, I do recall my reaction.  No kidding, I started to faint and fall out of that school desk.  I went as white as a sheet of paper.  The guy to my left stuck out his right arm to prop me up in my desk.  I couldn’t fall to the right because the desk was closed on that side.  I was going down and going down fast.  Ya know how you can’t know the depth of the canyon until you’ve been to the top of the mountain?  Well, in just a few seconds I’d scaled and spelunkered to each.

This was not the plan.

That night TSgt Stephenson opened his door to anyone who wanted to talk about the career fields they’d been assigned that day.  His general purpose was to give folks ideas about their upcoming schools, job duties and assignment locations.  Apparently, I went into his office with my tail tucked between my legs, not sobbing, but no doubt feeling sorry for myself.  I then had the first verbal slap in the face to grow up I’d ever experienced.  His general thrust was that men were in the Service to serve their country.  Many had done it before; I was just one of many to come who would serve.  The Service was an obligation and responsibility as a man in the United States of America.  Even at that, I was going to be an English teacher.  Most would have it much tougher than me.  Grow up Airman Basic Gale.

Geez, this harsh enlightenment came from a position and perspective that didn’t hold hands.  Stand up, do your job, stop complaining.  I heard him.  I’ve remembered that admonition many times through the years.

Even so, I still tried to get out of that assignment.  I volunteered for the Food Service and Security Police specialties figuring they needed volunteers and I’d be eagerly sought as a college graduate.  I was naïvely grasping at straws:  almost every cook and cop got assigned to Viet Nam.  Most of them served in operational units at sites close to the combat lines, lived in hooches, ate in canvas covered messes, showered in communal latrines (when showers and water were available), and slept on cots or bunks.  I even tried the Sole Surviving Son route because my brother was in the Navy assigned to the carrier USS Shangri-La off the coast of Viet Nam.  I was scrambling.  Had I gotten what I asked for I might not have survived.  For sure, I’d be a different person along the way and today.

Nevertheless, I finished Basic Training in late October and entered the pipeline ending in Viet Nam.  My next step was Casual Control on the old part of Lackland, adjacent to the base’s parade ground.  While the others in my flight lined up for buses to take them to San Antonio International Airport to fly home enroute to their next assignments or to head directly there, I humped my duffle bag onto the base shuttle bus to head over to the Casual Control barracks.

Wow, my eyes opened that chilly October day as I entered the two story barracks.  They were cozy, but they were dark, the latrines were open stall, and every plywood footlocker was loaded with cockroaches and those palmetto bugs endemic to the humid warm southeast United States.  I wasn’t alone though.  I was just one among a rotating population of 1,200 to 1,500 men and women waiting to move on to their technical schools.  We were all jammed up in the personnel pipeline because the backend of it, the USAF units worldwide, were cutting back on filling their positions as USAF and other Services’ manpower was drawing down from the height of the Viet Nam era.  It was all part of the results from President Nixon’s Vietnamization.

Those of us in the Palace Dog English teacher pipeline were in a little different situation.  It wasn’t the manpower in the schools in-country that was being cut back.  Our logjam was caused by teachers already in Viet Nam extending their tours!  Yes, many of those there didn’t want to leave!  The result was the technical school at Lackland put a hold on new entrants like me.  It was clogged and easier to keep us in “Casual.”  Perhaps we’d even be reassigned to other specialties if it kept up too long.

It didn’t.  Casual for most of us lasted about two to four months.  For me, it was from late October to mid-January.  During that time, I moved among four barracks and performed a variety of duties.  I worked in the military post office sorting mail, served as dorm chief for a barracks of 50 fellow Casuals; did a few tours of kitchen police (KP) at various dining halls on the base, including Big Willy – Wilford Hall Medical Center.  People liked Big Willy KP because it was only two shifts long (breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner) whereas the other dining halls’ KP duty was all day, three long sweaty shifts that left you just plain worn out and your clothes filthy and smelly.

Ever available when not on those other jobs was the duty of weeds and seeds.  All airmen in Casual not assigned to other jobs were given this duty.  As a result, almost a thousand airmen were spread across that sprawling installation to clean up and pick up whatever was out of place.  Of course, with so many people involved, cleanup went fast.  However, we still had the duty to perform all day.  As a result, many people would throw back down on the ground the cigarette butts and other things they’d spent the morning picking up.  Why?  It’s crazy:  we needed something to pick up in the afternoon.  Go figure!

At last, the school logjam broke and we advanced into Personnel Awaiting Training (PAT) status.  This meant we were moved into the same barracks we’d live in while in tech school.  Our daily duties were similar, but without the KP.  We also knew there was an end in sight:  PAT was just two weeks long.  It was here I met my roommate/compadre-to-be for the next year and half, Tom.

Tom was from Michigan.  We both missed our homes and our families.  We commiserated for hours, days, weeks and months.  Tom and I were together the two weeks of PAT, the eight weeks of teacher training, and ended up getting with one another on the flight to Viet Nam.  We even rode home to the US from Viet Nam together a year later.  Tom was a good person; a kind man.  I lost track of him after that.  I missed the chance of growing old knowing him.

Yet, as we advanced through our training together, I thoroughly enjoyed having Tom as my roommate.  On our flight from the US to Viet Nam we were seated next to another classmate, Fred.  We arrived at San Francisco International Airport at various times, but funneled into the single gate area for the first leg of our flight.  We’d all gone our separate ways after finishing tech school, but gathered at SFO over two or three days for flights to Viet Nam.  Tom, Fred and I ended up in the same row on the port side the aircraft.  Fred was at the window, Tom was on the aisle and I was tucked in between as we went from SFO to Alaska (Elmendorf AFB), then to Japan (Tokyo or Okinawa?), and finally to Viet Nam.

As we flew over the coast and westward toward Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, Fred looked out the window and remarked, “Oh, look, the war!” referring to the bomb craters pockmarking the red dirt of the South Vietnamese coastal area.  As if on cue, the Pan American 707 charter aircraft shuttered violently and stared to descend.  We’d been hit before even arriving in-country!

Nope, air brakes.  I’d never heard of them and would experience them only one more time (while on a small military aircraft approach to Vandenberg AFB in 1975).  The timing of applying those wing flaps with Fred’s comment about entering the war zone couldn’t have come at a more perfect part in the flight.  In fact, the use of the brakes was done to protect us from missiles, mortars and rockets by flying at high altitude over the land as long as possible, then diving at a sharp angle to the airfield.

It would have been nice if they’d told us it was a planned maneuver.  I just about lost it all as I thought we’d been hit.

Regardless of how we got to Saigon, we’d arrived.  They popped those doors of the aircraft open in the late morning and the rush of hot humid air rushed aboard, just as it had six months earlier as I arrived in San Antonio at night.  Well, I survived the events following that arrival; maybe I could do it for this one too.

Though the flight was a mixed group of men and women, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, we were broken up by Service and shuttled off to various sites on Tan Son Nhut.  We airmen got shuttled by bus over to a barracks and moved upstairs to an open bay pretty much the full size of the barracks.  It was late in the morning.  After sitting down, a member of the host unit told us to be quiet and then he turned on the TV at the far end of the room.

We stared watching and listening to President Nixon‘s televised address to the nation announcing the US invasion into Cambodia.  I didn’t realize the impact of that action for years to come.

That day, though, I’ll never forget.


Songs That Tell My Story

Music has meant different things to different generations since probably the first people thumped a stick on a log or clapped two rocks together.  Perhaps, though, no generation more than mine defined itself through its music (or was it the other way around?).  I love to sing, but I cannot.  I love to pluck strings on a guitar or tickle keys on a piano, but I certainly cannot play even a random note on any instrument.

Nonetheless, songs of the ‘60s and ‘70s were a huge part of my life then.  Still are, if you ask my son Steven.  Complicated or simple, they expressed my emotions, thoughts and even some activities growing up in junior high school, high school, college, and my early time in the Air Force.  I understood most of the lyrics, or at least I interpreted them to mean something to me.

These five songs and their selected lyrics told my story of my first year in Viet Nam.

Leaving On a Jet Plane

So kiss me and smile for me

Tell me that you’ll wait for me

Hold me like you’ll never let me go.

Don’t know when I’ll be back again.

Oh babe, I hate to go.

When I come back I’ll bring your wedding ring.

Any Time at All

If you need somebody to love, just look into my eyes

I’ll be there to make you feel right.

If you’re feeling sorry and sad, I’d really sympathize.

Don’t you be sad, just call me tonight.

If the sun has faded away, I’ll try to make it shine

There’s nothing I won’t do

If you need a shoulder to cry on, I hope it will be mine.

Anytime at all, anytime at all, anytime at all,

All you’ve gotta do is call and I’ll be there.

We Gotta Get Out of this Place

Little girl you’re so young and pretty

And one thing I know is true.

You’re gonna die before your time is due.

Girl, there’s a better life for me and you.

Yes, I know.

We gotta get out of this place

If it’s the last thing we ever do.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

I look at you, see all the love that’s sleeping.

I don’t know why nobody told you

How to unfold your love.

I don’t know how someone controlled you

They bought and sold you.

I look at the world and I notice it is turning

With every mistake we must surely be learning.

Here Comes the Sun

It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.

It feels like years since it’s been here.

The smiles returning to faces

I see the ice is slowly melting.

Here comes the sun, and I say it’s alright.

Leaving On a Jet Plane

So kiss me and smile for me

Tell me that you’ll wait for me

Hold me like you’ll never let me go.

Don’t know when I’ll be back again.

Oh babe, I hate to go.

When I come back I’ll bring your wedding ring.


My First Full Day? Come On!

Sometime in January or February 1970, I started to get access to some real information regarding my impending assignment to be an English teacher in Viet Nam.  Since learning about the assignment on September 19, 1969, the fifth day of Air Force Basic Training, I’d been dreading it based on little or no information at all.  I was scared, big time!  Ignorance is a powerful force.

Then in early 1970 I was moved out of the Casual Control status where I and scores of my fellow Palace Dog English teachers were among about 1,500 young enlisted people waiting for vacancies in schools.  In Basic we were so focused on our tasks we didn’t have time or the opportunity to learn about what would happen in Viet Nam.  In Casual we had all the time in the world, but no one to tell us about our upcoming Viet Nam assignments.

All I knew about Viet Nam was what I’d been watching on television for six years:  jungles, rivers, rice paddies, mountains, killing and dying.  Once I got into the English language teacher training program we learned we’d be working in schools and living in hotels.  Hey, that wasn’t the Viet Nam I knew.  It was still Viet Nam though.

While home on a ten day leave after tech school before going to Viet Nam, I ended up being more concerned about my parents’ anxiety than my own.  By brother had also been assigned to the Viet Nam area aboard the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La.  All I could do to help them was promise to be careful and not take chances.

My plan?  Keep my nose clean, go to work at the school, and stay in my room at the hotel the rest of the time.  Success a third of the time is not a great track record.

Things got off track my second day in Viet Nam.  Others who arrived with me and I had been bused to the Capitol/White/St George bachelor enlisted quarters (BEQ) complex in Cho Lon, the Chinatown of Saigon.  We disembarked the bus heading west, crossed the street dragging our gear (most of it in those green heavy canvas duffle bags), then walked down that dirt potholed alley east of the Capitol Hotel to the St George entrance.  The guys going to the White Hotel were taken around the corner to its entrance.

In the excitement, confusion and chaos of my arrival I didn’t notice the location of the elevators in that seven/eight story hotel.  As we started the climb humping our bags ever upward, it dawned on me there were no elevators.  The sixth floor was going to be a climb three to four times a day, every day, for a year.  Our room number was 618.  That was sick-a-teen according to the charming desk clerk who repeated it so many times over the year.  We dropped off our room key as we left and reentered the hotel just like in a number of hotels in those days.  We’d say our number and she’d repeat it back to us.  For all these years, that sick-a-teen echoes so clearly.  My Taiwanese wife is charmed by the pronunciation too.  She knows through experience that sound Vietnamese make when truncating the hard sound endings to syllables in English words.

I don’t recall Tom’s reaction, but I was not turned off by the looks of the place.  As a hotel, it wouldn’t have earned a five star rating; it wouldn’t have gotten any stars actually.  Maybe a black mark, but no stars.  I was so tired, so hot and so sticky all I thought was it looked pretty clean.  The ceiling was quite tall (maybe 10 or 12 feet) as with all hotels in Southeast Asia to keep the heat above our heads as much as possible.  That didn’t make it cool.  It just made it less hot than it would have been with a 7-8 foot ceiling.  The bathroom was small, but complete with a little sink stained from rust in the water despite efforts to keep it cleaned.  A toilet with a separate water closet (a WC) mounted up on a standpipe jutting up from the bowl just like one I’d had in the farmhouse I lived in during my senior year in college just a year earlier.  A shower in the corner (without a curtain) filled out the three part bathroom.  I checked the water in the sink:  a bit of a yellow-brown tint.  “Don’t drink the local water” was a verbal admonition we’d received many times over the last eight months.

The room had three single beds with mattresses.  They had wood frames with many slats to support the muslin-covered foam mattresses.  I don’t recall how we selected the beds, but Tom got the one along the wall under the window and I got the one parallel to his near the door.  The third one was perpendicular to ours, against the far wall and just outside the bathroom.  It may or may not have been occupied; I don’t recall the person who was our roommate initially.  Later we had a sailor in there and when he left Ralph joined us for the balance of our shared time in–country.  I got lucky with my roommates:  all good guys.

After stashing our stuff in wood wall lockers alongside the doorway hall, we joined a bunch of the other guys for a walk to the Cho Lon Post Exchange (PX).  It was just a few blocks away to the northeast, but along a route that gave me a great cultural awakening that day.  Recall that I was going to hunker down and lay low to survive my year in the war zone?  Yeah, right:  the first afternoon I was on the street in a gaggle of GIs.  The roundtrip walk was fun; hot, but fun.  Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.  I’d not been in-country more than a few hours and there I was with a bed, bathroom, good roommates, toiletries, and a gun, bullets, and helmet.  Hot damn!

It was time to get some rest.  I collapsed.  The next morning, maybe around seven o’clock, we were awakened by urgent shouting in English and other languages.  We couldn’t make it out at first, but American GIs and local civilians were scurrying through the halls, pounding on the doors of all the rooms and clearly – regardless of language – telling people to get out of the building fast.

A bomb.  No kidding. “Bomb” was being shouted!  My first full day in-country and a bomb is in our hotel.  Get me the hell outta there; the Viet Cong have planted a bomb just as I arrived!

I was in my newly issued green boxer underwear shorts and tee shirt.  No time to get dressed, there’s a damn bomb in the hotel.  I put on my still never-polished black leather/green mesh punji stick proof combat boots (no time to really lace ‘em up), popped my steel helmet on my head, grabbed my M-16 and bandolier, and then headed out the door of our room.

I was ready.  For what, I wasn’t sure, but I had all my combat gear just in case.  How I’d use those bullets and that rifle against a bomb I didn’t think about.  I just knew the alarm had gone out about a bomb, that meant war stuff, and so I got my war gear.

The first thing to do after I was “equipped“ was to get the hell out of the building.  We ran to the very wide stairwell near our room and charged down the many steps and landings from the sixth floor to the ground floor (seven floors if you‘re using the American standard of the ground floor being floor number one).  As people vacated their rooms and converged on the stairwells traffic got a bit heavy.  No one tripped and no one fell.  There wasn’t too much shouting either.  We were a herd in full stampede, but very disciplined.  How’d ya like to see that in a civilian setting, huh?

Though the hotel had three stairwells, everyone entered and exited though a single small lobby area with a double door to the alleyway outside.  What could have been a real logjam was quite orderly.  Much of that calm no doubt was due to the presence of Army military police (MPs) directing traffic.

Most of us new guys were ready to bolt for the street.  The MPs with their training and experience held us in the alleyway.  The last thing they wanted was a bomb flushing several hundred GIs onto Dong Khanh Street so a shooter or a bomber would have a rich pool of targets.  Someone was thinking; it wasn’t me.

So, there we were in varying states of dress and almost all fully armed milling around in the alley.  None of us knew what was going on, but we’d all heeded the alarm, followed directions and vacated the hotel quickly.  Then we stood in that bright sunlight and humid air for over an hour.  Most of us had brought our weapons, but I don’t recall one of us bringing our canteens, or even if we’d filled those canteens we’d been issued the day before.  At some point, our wearing of oversized, never washed boxer shorts with those huge flys also became an issue.  Dress right, dress left may be fine in formation, but it becomes a challenge when talkin’ ‘bout one’s physical attributes in baggy underwear in an alley.

After that hour or so outside, the word spread that it was a false alarm.  That was just fine by me.  Some sort of package that got things started was determined to be just some stuff outside the building that was of no consequence.  We all started to move back into the building.  Though we’d all come out over a period of ten minutes, we were all trying to get back in at the same time.  It was still orderly but it was slow and sweaty.  Then we had that climb to Room 618.

My first full day in-country.  I was at 362 and a wake-up.


So That’s Why!

I tried my hardest.  Really.  Getting the meaning and words correct was important to me to be sure I got the results I wanted.  My efforts began my second day in Saigon, right after I settled into Room 618 with Tom at the St George Hotel.  At first, like most GIs all over the Republic, I used a US Army-developed and issued Vietnamese phrase book.  Of course, such a book did contain much of the vocabulary I was seeking.

So, I enlisted the guidance of my Vietnamese English language students at Tan Son Nhut School to write simple sentences.  Then I’d practice with them to get the pronunciation just right, even with all the tonal nuances that can change a single written word such as “ma” into five very different words depending on the tone of the vowel indicated by that diacritical mark over or under it.

All I got from her the first few days were blank stares, a warm smile that went from ear to ear on her cherubic face, then a giggle, all followed by laughter with her friends.  Regardless of whatever I used as words, phrases or full sentences, I got about the same reactions.  I always got serviced wonderfully with the routine stuff, but if I had a question of how, more or less, or wanted something special I got that eager smile, but the same results.

Oh, those results were great, no doubt about that.  You could never even hope for those services, much less at those prices, back home in the US.  Like a lot of GIs, I had a great deal going.  Quickly, I got spoiled.  If I could have figured out a way to get her home to America to provide those services, I’d be set for life.  What else could a single guy ask for?

Nevertheless, I could not break through on the language front.  Things became pretty routine, but I was happy with that routine.  Then, one day at school in an advanced language class, the students started a conversation with me about how GIs lived in South Viet Nam compared to how they lived in the US.  They knew the food was different, but they wanted to know about our daily activities.  What was the biggest difference?

We bantered about the idea that US GIs didn’t wear uniforms while off duty at home (Vietnamese GIs wore uniforms on and off duty).  Most of us had cars and TVs in the US, but neither was available to us here.  Of course, they asked about what we did for recreation and I was surprised about my replies because it dawned on me that despite a few activities here and there, most men in their twenties in the US spent time thinking about getting dates on Friday and Saturday.  You know what?  Those twenty year old Vietnamese GIs had the same weekend goals.

The conversation turned again to me.  Those ten students eagerly said they could help me, but I’d need to learn the Vietnamese language.  I told them I was trying to speak to one woman, but I couldn’t make her understand me.  Wow, that got ‘em interested.

I told them the vocabulary, phrases and sentences other students had given me and drilled with me.  These guys understood me, just like the earlier students!  So, we started to assess the situation.  Soon, they started laughing.  Really laughing.  Embarrassed a bit, I broke into their conversation I knew was about me and this woman.  What was so darn funny?

Our hotel/BEQ was in Cho Lon, the Chinatown of Saigon.  My maid must be Chinese!  Older Chinese women (maybe 45 or 50 years of age or more) who provided laundry, shoe polishing and room services would not have gone to any real school and would not speak Vietnamese.  Most likely, they never even would leave Cho Lon.  Cho Lon was not a ghetto, but it was an enclave where Vietnamese residents went to eat, but where Chinese tended to live their whole lives.  My very limited, task–specific perfect Vietnamese was all in vain.  The very nice older lady who served me, Tom and GIs in several adjacent rooms on the sixth floor was Chinese.

Open your world view Rod.  The world ain’ what it seems!


Sleeping With Tom

I was really lucky to have lived with Tom for so long.  At the time I last saw him in April 1971, we’d lived together for just about five percent of my life.  That’s a long time.  Tom was a good guy.  I bet he still is one.

He was from Michigan, I was from Washington, and we’d entered Air Force Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base about the same time.  That was September 15, 1969, for me, but I don’t know that date for Tom.  After six weeks of Basic, we were both plunged into the abyss of Casual Control with no definite exit time, but that dark cloud of “going to Nam” hung over both of us.  With 1,500 people in Casual, we never ran across one another.  Or, we may have, but never knew it.  Like frogs, we all looked the same in green.

Then, in late January 1970, we started to move through the training pipeline by being placed in Personnel Awaiting Training (PAT) status.  We first met during our initial day in PAT at Lackland.  We were out of the brain-numbing boredom and tediousness of Casual’s mundane details, highlighted by the occasional kitchen police (KP) duties, the dreaded meat packing, and the ol’ fallback keep ‘em busy activity of weeds and seeds.

We were finally in training.  Good news, bad news.  As long as we were in Casual, we weren’t getting closer to going to Viet Nam.  By entering the training pipeline, we could start the clock counting down to going in-country.  It would be two weeks of PAT, eight weeks of English language teacher training technical school, perhaps two weeks of leave, then on to Viet Nam.  Well, okay you could not DEROS (Date Estimated Return OverSeas) until you went there.  May as well get going.

I got that going and kept it going with Tom.  We moved out of our respective Casual barracks, World War Two two-story wood, rectangular open bay buildings, into 1950s era barracks.  These newer types were shaped like a two story block I with semi private rooms with their own bathrooms on each end and a common use day-room in the center on each floor.  They were still white, they were still two stories, but the rest of the differences made a real difference.  Though our family names were consecutive in the alphabet, it was still a bit of luck that I got Tom as my roommate.

Regardless of who got in there first, we were both comfortable with the bunks we had.  All the rooms had two double bunk beds, but just two people per room so we could choose to sleep on the bottom or top of our respective bunks.  Both of us choose the bottom.  Perhaps it was based on comfort and ease.  Perhaps it was to use the top bunk as shelter from the stuff of the present and future over which we had so very little control.

We cleaned our room and scrubbed our mold-encrusted shower space.  It was nice to have that bathroom as a welcome change from the open-bay latrines in the Casual barracks.  It took some real work though.  It had to be cleaned for inspections as well as to be tolerable.  That day was my first exposure to the “fragrance” of pine oil cleanser.  I can smell it even as I write, just like I can smell JP-4 aircraft fuel whenever I think of an airfield flight line.  People may get most of their sensory input visually, but, wow, those two memories are so strong for me and totally olofactorially induced.

Tom and I got that latrine clean in a day and night.  Got our bunks set up with fresh linens and blankets and had our stuff stowed away in lockers before going to sleep.  I’d sleep with Tom almost every night for well over the next year.  A broad smile was on my face as I wrote and reread that line.

It’s weird what you talk about in the morning and evening with a guy you’ve just met and don’t know how long you’ll continue to be around.  It begins as small talk and the basics of our lives.  You don’t want to expose yourself too much too soon to anyone.  He had a wife about whom he cared very much; I had a fiancé with whom the rest of my life was pretty well planned (but, not).  We both intended to be teachers after our USAF obligations.  We were both shocked to learn our shared Viet Nam avoidance initiatives had resulted in heading us directly there.  We both like to eat, but weren’t fussy about what it was.  We both missed home.

Basic and Casual were new worlds and both were transitory.  PAT smacked of reality.  We started to settle in.  Tom was a great person to talk to, to use to assess ideas, to give feedback without judgment.  Well, I could tell when he did not agree with a direction I was going, but he didn’t use the word “wrong.”  He made it safe to think and to talk.

After PAT, it was on to the Defense Language Institute English Language Center technical school.  I think we moved to another set of barracks, but they were in the same Block I configuration as those we had in PAT.  Tom and I roomed together again.  Good.

With a set schedule for classes that wasn’t very robust (something like 8 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday) we started to live lives that must have been what it would have been like in a college dorm.  A few of the married guys in our class decided to move their families to San Antonio and were allowed to live off base with them.  Tom and his wife chose not to do that.  I think it was because she had started a career and this eight week school in San Antonio would be short and disruptive.  I got lucky again:  Tom stayed in the barracks as my roomie.

Tech school was fun and easy for us.  It was also our last bulwark before facing the inevitable PCS (Permanent Change of Stations) to the unknown, though a little less-feared Viet Nam.  In a way, the long pipeline served to acclimate us a bit to a tour of duty in a war zone.  However, we also got smarter.  We learned where we would work and live (Saigon and hotels).  We learned we’d have short work shifts (8-1 or 1-6, I think).

We had drawn together the scuttlebutt as to why we were stuck in Casual for so long.  It wasn’t Air Force mismanagement and it wasn’t entirely because of the US withdrawal of forces we had come to know as Vietnamization.  A lot of it was because so many of our predecessor teachers in Viet Nam liked the duty there so much that they were extending their assignments, obviating us showing up as their replacements.  Hey, it couldn’t be all that bad if guys just like us were choosing to stay longer!  Well, we used that as a tool anyway with ourselves, each other and our families.

In late March 1970, we got our orders and found out we’d be departing CONUS (Continental United States) on the same date.  On or about April 29 those of us in our class were to show up at San Francisco International Airport to catch planes for Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon, in the Republic of South Viet Nam.  In mid-April Tom and I parted at Lackland, he to return to Michigan and I to Washington to scrounge whatever we could out of the ten days we had available to us before “shipping out.”

It went fast for me.  It must have gone even faster for
Tom, his wife and their families.  How do you spread and share your time appropriately among so many entities?  None would feel they got enough.  Each was correct.

After going hither, thither and yon, Tom, I and the others rendezvoused at SFO.  I can’t recall if we flew out of SFO or were bused to Travis AFB for departure.  Regardless of the departure point, we got on a chartered Pan American 707 jet.  That plane was packed!  Even so, it was Tom and I together again!  We teamed up with Fred too.  Fred was at the window, Tom on the aisle and I in the middle seat, all on the port side of the plane.  We sat like that enroute to a fueling stop at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage and another fueling stop at, I think, Yakota AB, Japan or Kadena AB, Okinawa.

On to the RSV.  We must have talked en route, but I don’t recall a single word or idea until we crossed the South Viet Nam coastline.  At that point Fred announced, “Look, I can see the war!” or words to that effect when he spied the craters from bomb or cannon fire in the defoliated red clay of the coastal region.  In-bound to the war zone.  We were gonna be soldiers.  Hang on to yer ass!

After arrival, processing and all the stuff the US Air Force and Army needed to have us do, we were in-country.  Wherever Tom went I tagged along, or we were shuffled forward together.  Actually, I think we both just followed our herd of fellow Palace Dog English teachers.  After being issued our Load Bearing Equipment (LBE) and tropical weight clothes, we were bused to the hotel complex in Cho Lon, the Chinese district of Saigon where we’d be housed.  Our group was split up with some being sent to the White Hotel and the rest of us to the St. George.  Tom and I stayed paired up.  We were placed temporarily in some room on the third floor, I think, but we got put in Room 618 right away.   We stayed assigned to that three person room for the rest of our one year tours.

Tom got the bed by the window, I was close to the door and the third was by the bathroom.  Each had its own advantages and disadvantages.  I think we were both happy with our locations.  I don’t recall much about what we did or said after those first couple of days until it was time for Christmas.  We must have said a lot, though, because a lot happened.

Then, it was Christmas time.  I think Ralph joined us as our roommate just before or after that holiday.  Tom and I both got boxes of goodies from home for Christmas.  We each savored opening those boxes.  We shared all the food we kept pulling out of those containers.  My favorite was the pudding in individual cups with pull open tabs.  I don’t know why because pudding wasn’t necessarily a big thing for me as a kid.  It was great right there right then though.  My container was full of food.  Tom’s had all that, too, but I think he also had a little artificial, fully decorated Christmas tree in there.  Maybe not, but somehow we ended up with one of those in our room and I don’t think it was from Spokane.

Despite the joy of Christmas and the oohs and aahs of opening our presents, that Christmas Eve was quiet in our room.  Tom was deep in thought about his wife, family and home.  I was doing my share of yearning for family and home.  Tom and I were able to know when to talk and when not to do so by then.  We’d been together almost every day and night for a year.

Fast forward to April 1971.  It was time to DEROS.  My life and future plans had radically changed compared to a year, even six months earlier.  Tom had helped see me through it all.  I don’t think he always agreed with me.  In fact, there were times when we just sorta “took a break” in our communications.  Friends can do that.  Even so, Tom was always honest, insightful, and concerned for my well-being.  Again, I was lucky.

As much as he was looking forward to getting home, I was saddened by leaving.  Different people.  Different times.  We headed for Tan Son Nhut Air Base together with very diverse perspectives.  Even so, we were together.  Together for the bus ride, together for the out-processing, and together for the wait to board the aircraft.  Together for the flight.  How so very different though from a year earlier.  Both flights were quiet, but the thoughts prompting the quiet were different.

We arrived at San Francisco International Airport late at night.  Some of the group was able to catch flights right away so they whisked through the airport and were gone almost forever.  Tom, John and I, though, wouldn’t leave until the next morning.  It would be a short long night.

Someplace within the miles of walkways of SFO’s domestic terminal, the three of us found a dark hallway where we could stash our bags and lay down without being disturbed.  It was a quiet area and we spoke accordingly.  We were starting to decompress.  It still wasn’t real.  Tom and John both pretty much took care of a bottle of Chivas Regal.  I had a couple of pulls, but had never been much of a Scotch drinker.  Few of us used our alcohol rations in–country for drinking.  Ya didn’t want to waste your commodities on yourself!

As dawn came over San Francisco and that airport, John left us for his flight home to his wife, family and the rest of his life.  Tom and I were left there alone, together, just as we’d been in the PAT barracks fifteen months earlier.  Finally, with a hug and best wishes, we parted.

I’ve never seen Tom again, though we’ve talked on the phone a couple of time many years apart.  I now cherish more than ever our time together.  Stuff happens.


Free Postage

As a little kid in Spokane in the 1950s, I recall the family gathering around the phone to listen to Mom talk long distance to her aunt and cousin in Seattle.  The cost was high, the calls were rare and short, and the transmission quality was somewhat challenging.  Communication was tough; letters were easier, cheaper, and more thoughtful.

Things were not that much different for us while serving in Viet Nam in 1970-72.  The Defense and Postal Departments had arranged for us in Viet Nam (and some surrounding areas associated with the war zone) to send our letters without postage.  All we had to do was be sure to use our return address that included the Army Post Office/Navy Post Office (APO/FPO) number that was included on the list of applicable units.  Also, we had to write the word “Free” on the top right corner of the envelope where a stamp would usually go.  As technology progressed, this same authorization applied to voice recordings, whether the two inch open reel tapes or the newly available cassette tapes.

Remember sending those letters and tapes home for free?  Our families were so proud and relieved to get them and we were so happy to be able to save the cost of stamps from our $128 monthly paychecks.  Just as great was that any friends and families back in The World had the same postal privileges sending letters and tapes to us as long as they followed the same addressing rules.

We could write our letters any place, but you sort of had to get off on your own to make and listen to some of those tapes.  I chose the rooftop of the St George Hotel, our living quarters.  The location made it kind of exotic, but it mostly provided the privacy to record how lonely and scared I was.  It also gave me the opportunity to listen to my parents’ worried but encouraging words and the cooing of my girlfriend.  Yeah, the tapes were cool.

Some folks were aware of and took advantage of phone service available at the USO in Saigon.  That was a great place run by people with a wide variety of reasons for being there.  Most of those folks sincerely cared about our well-being.  I didn’t know about that service my first year and took the chance to use it just once my second year in-country.  I called Mom and Dad to tell them of my schedule and plans for returning home.

Too often, we don’t take advantage of the chance to communicate when it’s available.  All the more often, we only learn that fact when it’s too late to communicate at all.


Lighten Up

People sometimes do stupid things in wartime.  Count me – and some of my fellow Palace Dog English teachers – in that group.

As teachers in the US Air Force in Saigon, the capital of the Republic of South Viet Nam, all indications showed we were pretty well removed from the war front.  Some of us emphasized that to families back home to set their minds at ease.  Some of us emphasized the war’s porous front to gain sympathy and create a lot of machismo in our vanilla world.  Most of probably mixed the two portraits depending on circumstances in Viet Nam, those with whom we were communicating, and our moods at any particular time.

True, the Tan Son Nhut School in Gia Dinh where most of us taught had been in the path of the Viet Cong when they moved on Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive.  However, this was 1970, ’71 and ’72.  The VC presence as a military force had been pushed back out of the capital region.  We always heard reports of isolated terrorist (did we use that word then?) attacks and we could watch aerial bombardments on the horizon while drinking beer on the roof of our St George Hotel in Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinatown.  All in all, though, Saigon was safe for us.

Nonetheless, we teachers carried a full load of LBE (load bearing equipment) while on duty to, at and from our schools.  The LBE consisted of a steel helmet, some kind of hard plastic helmet liner, a canteen to be filled with water at all times, an M-16 rifle, and a bandolier holding eight magazines with 21 cartridges in each magazine.

It was a heavy load.  True to the characteristics many of us Saigon Warriors, it was only fitting that we bore those heavy loads only in the short stroll to and from the buses that took us to school and back.  Tough life, huh?

We GIs, always working angles, sought a better way.  Now, I didn’t start this and I don’t know who did, but I slowly got on the bandwagon of lightening that burden of our LBE.  Two key elements were involved and both would have been abhorred by a combat infantryman in the bush, a grunt on a mountaintop firebase, or a sailor on a river boat on the delta.  First, we didn’t carry water in our canteens.  What the hell, we could always get a beer at the hotel or a bar.  Second, we removed 20 of the 21 cartridges from each of the eight magazines.  If inspected, we could always show that magazine with the single cartridge exposed at the top.  As long as we held onto this magazine, the weight differential would never be noticed by a noncommissioned officer inspecting us.

So clever.  So easy.  So cool.  So damn stupid!

To top it all off, we usually stored those removed cartridges in a paper bag in our flimsily built wood lockers secured with lightweight locks in the hotel rooms where we lived.  After we did the removal deed, we’d not look at that bag again until it was time to turn in our LBE when departing the country.  This meant that bag with scores of ammunition sat unaccounted for in a facility normally occupied by host nation personnel throughout the day.  Had even one of those folks chosen to go over to the other side, they could have so easily endeared themselves to the enemy by carrying thousands of rounds of ammo with them.

We were lucky in so many ways.



I’ve been drinkin’ beer since college.  I like the taste and enjoy the buzz.  Used to, anyway.  A (the?) biggie was, however, the variety of social activities associated with doing “what everyone else does.”  Yeah, I followed the herd.  Sometimes, too much.  Sometimes, too often.  But, drink I did.  My tour in Viet Nam increased the ease, opportunity, and inexpense of drinking that beer.  I was lucky.  I’m still here.

As a hard-core Washingtonian, Olympia was my beer of choice as it was for a lot of people in God’s Country.  It wasn’t until I left the area that I heard it mocked as being even lighter than Coors on the beer-real-men-drink scale.  I could never understand that because I thought Coors was good too.  Well, maybe I do understand it after all.

Oly wasn’t an option in Viet Nam and Bud was too valuable on the local market to waste as a consumable by the average GI.  I tasted San Miguel once from the Cho Lon Post Exchange.  It was in steel cans that had just about rusted through from the inside.  I thought it tasted strange.  I couldn’t understand why people liked it while on R&R in the Philippines.

Ended up that I and a lot of us turned to the local beer, Ba Muoi Ba, Biere 33.  A lot of the guys grouped it as being bad along with Oly and Coors, but I liked those so the grouping was fine with me!  Warm beer from a tall, filthy brown bottle with a red label, poured into a thick-walled barely rinsed glass, and cooled with a chunk of ice carved from a block out in the alley and made from the same non-potable water we were admonished not to drink and chipped into pieces that fit the glass by a kid in that back alley holding the block down with his bare feet or his tattered tire-soled sandal.  Ah, life is good if you survive it!

As I passed the mid-point in my first year in Saigon, Bill got me lined up with a part-time teaching job at a Chinese high school in Cho Lon, that Chinatown district in which we lived.  I yearned to be in a classroom and it provided some real money.  Teaching at Lap Nhan also helped maintain some of the professionalism that was perhaps being worn off my edges.  It was a lot of fun teaching history and geography, all in English, to some of the brightest Chinese students in Viet Nam.

It also tightened up my schedule.  Lap Nhan‘s schedule for me was three-four days a week and from 8 or 9 to 11 each day.  So, though I’d had bun thit nuong (vermicelli noodles, barbecued pork, cucumber slices and roasted ground peanuts, all covered with nuoc mam for breakfast – yeah, I know, you’re drooling just reading that, right?) for breakfast, I just had no time to get any lunch at the Capital dining hall before boarding the bus with everyone to ride out to the school at Tan Son Nhut Annex.

Following the lead of my Lap Nhan senior instructor and overall Senior Advisor (then, as even now), I swung through the club on the first floor of the Capital, picked up a couple of Buds at a dime a pop, and tossed them down before or on the bus ride.

Ya know what?  If you’re gonna jump off a cliff, make sure it’s a tall one so you can get in all your stunts along the way.  I got lucky with a soft landing and good friends along the way.

I still like beer though.  Oly, not Budweiser.


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 (BAQ).  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.


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!


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!


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!



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!


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!


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!


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.



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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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 ….


  • Crystal  On September 3, 2012 at 2:52 am

    Can anyone let me know what address I can use to send an email to Rod? Thanks!

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