by Jack Walraven
© Copyright 2004 Jack Walraven, All Rights Reserved.
Warning! Some segments in this document are inappropriate for children.
VUNG TAU, JANUARY 1966
As we dropped anchor in the sheltered waters of Vung Tau, it seemed eerily quiet. The surrounding deep green hills, the beached fishing vessels with their nets hung out to dry under the warm blue sky, released some of the tension we had all felt since learning that we were going to Vietnam. Little did we know that our floating home, a 20,000-ton merchant ship flying the Norwegian flag, would find its final resting place some ninety miles up the Saigon river.
POSTWAR HOLLAND, 1952
On a dark, gloomy Sunday in 1952, we took the train from Den Haag (The Hague) to Rotterdam. We were on our way to visit Opa Walraven, who was only months away from going blind altogether. Oma Walraven had died earlier in the year when they were still living in Den Haag. It was the only time I ever saw Papa cry. After the funeral, Opa moved back to Rotterdam where he was born. The city was quickly rebuilding but many of the structures were still in ruins and there were large city blocks that stood empty -- testimonial to the severe bombardment the city had suffered in 1940. We sat quietly in the small oppressive sitting room while Opa Walraven talked of the war and the suffering Oma had endured. I didn't understand the words he was saying, except that it had something to do with the destroyed buildings.
That night, after being safely tucked into bed, I had my first nightmare, at least the first one I can remember. I was looking at the skyline of an unknown city. Even though it was night, the sky was alit with bright flashes everywhere. Strangely, there was no sound. When I woke up screaming in fear, Mama came and asked me what was wrong. I couldn't find the words to tell her. When the sobbing had subsided, she kissed me gently, turned off the light, and closed the door softly behind her. I've had that dream many times since.
She was born Rebecca van Leeuwen in Rotterdam on September 11, 1887. Her persoonsbewijs (internal passport) reveals part of her story. In 1941, Artur Seyss-Inquart, Reichskommissar for the Occupied Netherlands and highly regarded by Hitler, ordered that all citizens 15 years or older be issued persoonsbewijzen, and that all Jews had to be registered. Persoonsbewijzen had to be carried at all times and there were heavy penalties for not having one. Rebecca's persoonsbewijs was issued in 1943 in the village of Renkum near Arnhem. I never learned of her whereabouts prior to that date and one could only imagine. The first thing that stands out on the card is the big J stamped just to the left of her photo and on the front. That mark turned out to be a death sentence for most Dutch Jews. Those with mixed racial blood, partial Jews or bastard-Jews as the Nazis called them, had either a B-1 or B-2 stamp on their persoonsbewijs, depending on how many Jewish grandparents they had.
Traditionally, a person is formally either Jewish or not, but the Nazis sought to divide the whole world of the partially Jewish artificially by counting the number of Jewish grandparents. The "Nuremberg Laws" of 1935 dictated that: 1) three or four Jewish grandparents made one a "Jew," regardless of one's own religion; 2) two Jewish grandparents resulted in a Mischling ('half-breed') First Grade; 3) a single Jewish grandparent defined the Mischling Second Grade; 4) an individual without any Jewish grandparent was to be considered "German" (Aryan).
To the Dutch, this period was one of the bitterest disappointments of the German occupation. Liberation had seemed so close. The area south of Arnhem had been freed. If the allies had succeeded to cross the Rhine, the whole country would have been liberated in a matter of days. Instead, it would take almost eight more months to accomplish this.
If it hadn't been for the farmers outside the cities, many more would have died from starvation. The farmers weren't necessarily altruistic, however, and often traded food for the last few valuables the starving families possessed. Mama had been active in the resistance and her main function was to smuggle food through the German checkpoints from the country into the city. In the late forties she frequently took me to revisit the farmers who had provided assistance in those needy days. For several years after the war, food and supplies continued to be rationed and I was undernourished. For several months, a farmer offered us room and board. We drank milk straight from the cow and ate chicken and pork from animals that had been slaughtered that day. I'll never forget my anguish when I saw the farmer chop the chicken's head off. He flung the headless chicken to the ground and it started running! At night we slept in a barn with the animals. Hospitality went only so far.
Mama was born Hetty Mulder in Tegal, Java on March 3, 1921, a third generation in a line of colonial families in the Dutch East Indies. She had two younger sisters, Marianne Elizabeth (Jannie) and Johanna Roberta (Robbie). Both her father, Derk Mulder, and maternal grandfather, Johannes Banens, served as officers with the Staatsspoor- en Tramwegen in Nederlandsch-Indië (Dutch Indies State Railways). Her mother, Emi Mulder, was also Java-born. The Dutch Indies were the only home they knew and loved. They lived in a picturesque villa with servants and a summer home in the mountains. Every 6 to 8 years the company men were given an 8-month furlough to visit the Netherlands, the official home country.
In 1902, when she was five years old, Emi Mulder visited the Netherlands for the first time on a furlough. This is how she remembered the trip: "We left Java on a steamship (which also carried the overseas mail) on a 4-week long voyage filled with events, each more fantastic than the other -- the ports of strange lands, where you could go ashore and meet people from other races and different customs; beautiful scenery (but not as beautiful as our wonderful East Indies); strange creatures of the sea, brown fish and dolphins that could jump out of the water; sharks of which we could only see the dorsal fins and over which secret tales were told that would make your hair rise. And then came the Suez Canal, it was such a narrow passage between two seas that the ship moved very slowly. On both sides you saw the desert, a sea of sand, and now and then camels and small encampments, and at the end there was Port Said. There, the ship was boarded by magicians who could make little chicks appear from their necks, their ears, and even our clothing. For 10 cents young brown boys would dive off the ship, swim underneath it and reappear on the other side. And then we were in the Mediterranean, where I felt cold for the first time."
When they arrived in Holland, she was amazed at how big the people were and to see flowers grow in the grass (they're daisies and buttercups, her mother told her). She had never seen cobblestone streets or heard the clop-clop and rattling sounds of the horse drawn carriages over the cobblestones. The horses were so big and robust compared to the small and skinny ones of the East Indies. She had her first ever checkup at a dentist and had to have a molar removed. She remembered that they gave her a chocolate heart and a small flask of cologne to dry her tears. It was all new and exciting, but she was so happy to return to the idyllic life of the East Indies.
Opa Mulder received a telegram from the railroad company urging him to return to Java. Hetty had decided to become a nurse and wanted to stay in the Netherlands. Jannie was torn but chose to remain as well. Little did they know what was awaiting them and there was a tearful farewell. Oma, Opa and Robbie Mulder boarded a train in Den Haag and, with shuttered blinds covering the windows, they traveled through France to the port of Marseilles where a ship awaited to take them leisurely back to Batavia. (Boarding the ship in Marseilles rather than a Dutch port saved about a week in travelling time to the East Indies.) On May 10, 1940, Holland was invaded and all means of staying in touch were lost immediately. It would be nearly six years before any contact was reestablished.
Soon after their return to the East Indies, Opa Mulder took his retirement and they retreated to a mountain villa above Malang to await news from their daughters. Then on December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor and their war machine quickly rolled over Asia, including the Dutch East Indies. On March 8, 1942, the Dutch surrendered the East Indies to the Japanese. "Een zwarte dag! (A black day!)," wrote my grandmother in her diary.
Almost overnight the supply of fuel dried up and the busses stopped running. Opa and Oma weren't well prepared because they quickly ran out of food and other daily necessities. All Dutch companies were confiscated and Opa's pension was cut off. They were forced to sell some of their possessions to the Chinese who always seemed to have money. (After the war, when I visited Oma and Opa in their home in Den Haag, I noticed that their attic was always stocked with enough food, water and sundries to supply an army.)
In the summer of 1942, the Japanese decreed to move all Caucasians into prison camps -- for their own protection, they said. Men and women were segregated into separate camps. Oma Mulder and Robbie were interred in a camp in Malang, while Opa would spend the next three-and-a-half years away in an unknown men's camp. The Japanese announced the country had been liberated from the Dutch. This basically closed the book on 450 years of Dutch colonial rule over the East Indies. The situation was doubly humiliating to the Dutch prisoners. Oma Mulder wrote that they went from colonials to being colonized in one fell swoop. The idyllic life was over.
Initially, in the camp where Oma and Robbie were "housed," there was food, although meager, and the internees were allowed to tend small gardens to grow vegetables. The food situation grew steadily worse and Opa nearly succumbed to starvation in 1945. Dutch cultural activities were strictly forbidden and they were indoctrinated into the rudiments of Japanese society (a society I later came to admire, voluntarily). Oma wrote about the odd trades that were made among the internees. An empty can with a lid was bartered for a package of embroidery thread. Robbie's childhood doll was traded for a whole kilo of sugar. Although the guards were strict, even brutal, they tended to be kind toward the children. Oma thought it remarkable that in times of need, humans could be so creative. The most beautiful things were made with the simplest materials. They got through the day by living out fantasies -- pretending to drink a cup of hot bouillon (lukewarm water) or inventing the most delicious recipes (while consuming the last crumb on their plates).
Indeed. The ultimate irony came on August 15, 1945 when, after the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered. The war was officially over but no liberators came to bring relief and joy to the prisoners. The allied forced were months away from reaching them. Instead, a new terror appeared in the form of Sukarno and his nationalist forces. Two days after the Japanese capitulation Sukarno issued his declaration of independence. This was a perfect opportunity to get rid of the Dutch once and for all. A power vacuum ensued and whipped into a frenzy by Sukarno and his cohort Hatta, unruly nationalists, guerrillas of various factions, and roving youth gangs declared open season on the Dutch. This was the beginning of a chaotic period known as the Bersiap.
The gates to the camps were opened and the internees were free to go, and some did, but it soon became obvious that is was too dangerous to leave. Where could they go? The Japanese were ordered by the allied forces to keep order and protect the internees and after some reluctance, they did. Yet, thousands of Dutch and other Europeans, Indos (Dutch-Indonesians), Amboinese, and Chinese, were killed after the war was officially over.
"The only footwear we had in the camp were wooden sandals with a strap that was attached with nails. When the rains came and the grounds around the barracks became soggy, the straps came loose by plodding through the mud. We promised the children a reward if they would search the grounds for replacement nails (they had more freedom to move around)," Oma wrote. "Having no footwear was especially problematic at night when we had to go outside to relieve ourselves. It was painstaking work to clean your muddied feet in the dark before crawling back on top of your mat. We found a solution in an old pot we had brought to the camp (with the illusion that we could use it to do our own cooking). Instead of going outside at night, we used the useless pot as a nachtspiegel (chamber pot)." On the day the war finally ended, the hunger was so intense and the women were briefly able to go outside the camp to purchase some food and cook it themselves. "That night, small pots with simmering contents over charcoal fires could be seen all over the camp. Suddenly, a lady we didn't know walked over to Robbie and I to ask us for a favor. 'I hear that you have a pot that you're not using,' she said, 'Would you mind trading it, because I really want to cook something for myself.' We told her that it had been used for years as a chamber pot. 'I don't care,' she said, 'I'll give you a real chamber pot in return.' And so, from then on we had a real chamber pot, and the lady could happily prepare her soup."
While the years in the camp were unpleasant enough for the women, they were spared the violence of the war itself. When the war ended, that reality changed. "We were now confronted with death and destruction by the nationalists," Oma wrote. "It was ordered that anyone caught selling daily necessities to the "whites" would be punished with death. We heard that the families who had left the camps to return to their homes were killed." They eventually left their camp. Oma wrote,"Robbie and I, and many other women, were sitting in a rundown hotel wondering what the future held for us. Some men had left their camps and were reunited with the women. Onze man en vader (Our husband and father) still lay seriously ill from starvation in the hospital of the men's camp in the town we were now in. In the morning, guerrillas came to the hotel, rounded up all the men and took them away in trucks to prison. After the men were gone, several women were frisked for weapons and whipped with bamboo sticks. They were taken away and murdered in the night."
"I lay awake that night, knowing that our time was up. Outside, gunshots rang out, intermingled with cries of Merdeka! (freedom) by the guerrillas. Weren't the Japanese -- our former enemy, now that they had lost the war -- weren't they obligated to protect us? But where were they?"
"Suddenly, at 4 in the morning, I heard trucks coming our way; heavy boots were marching down the street. Thank God, it's the Japs, I thought. They're jumping out of their trucks to kill the guerrillas. The danger is over. From the kampong across the street echoed more gunshots and cries of Merdeka. The Japanese responded by setting the entire kampong ablaze!"
"The following morning the men returned to the hotel from the prison they had been taken. They told us the bloody tale of what had happened. The guerrillas, after killing several Dutch and Japanese, were captured by the "not-so-gentle" Japanese, bound hand and feet, and thrown in the river."
Shortly thereafter, a regiment of Ghurkas marched into town. The buildings were quickly cleared from guerrillas and the areas where they were concentrated were bombed from the air. They were indeed out of danger. But, several women camps outside the town had come under mortar fire from the guerrillas. There had been no one to defend them and women and children were losing their lives. The liberated town was ordered evacuated to Batavia in order to make room for the women and children in the beleaguered camps. They would be brought here in camouflaged trucks.
"And so, in the morning I received a message -- via a priest -- that I was to take my daughter and immediately join my husband at the men's camp where the former prisoners were in the process of being taken to a departing ship from Batavia. I quickly grabbed my small case (which had long been packed and ready), called Robbie and we were ready to go. But what about the tomato soup? I had just made it! Such delicious aroma and warmth! After all those hunger years, how could I leave it behind? Moments later, we climbed into a Japanese truck (actually, this was forbidden) going in the direction of the men's camp. There stood my husband, impatiently waiting. He said, 'We can just make it on the last truck. Let's hurry!' He paused a moment and said, 'Hey, what are you doing with a pot of tomato soup?' Yes, indeed, what was I doing with it? Away, tomato soup, away. We then jumped on the last truck and we were on our way to the harbor."
So finally, in February of 1946 -- sick and miserable, all their possessions gone, but free at last -- Oma, Opa and Robbie boarded a troop ship for the Netherlands. Just before the ship sailed slowly away from the Java coast, Oma got word that Jannie had died. To add insult to injury: Oma -- weighing only 78 pounds and wearing the over-sized trench coat she was given during a brief stop in the Suez Canal -- was accused of being a Japanese spy when the ship arrived in IJmuiden. Opa was carried off on a stretcher. And so began their new life in cold, damp Holland.
Two Black Roses
DEN HAAG, 1957
Since the first grade Tedde Toet and I had been bosom buddies, and for years I had been repeatedly told not to hang out with him. "Jaap has such a wonderful future ahead of him," my second grade teacher told my mother, "but he's so easily influenced. Tedde is leading him up the wrong path."
On that first traumatic day of school four years earlier, barely ten minutes after letting go off our mothers' hands, Tedde won the endearment of his classmates and teacher by dipping his tongue in the inkwell. He proudly showed his blackened tongue to everyone, and encouraged by our giggles and cheers, he emptied the remaining ink into his mouth and swallowed it. Twenty minutes later, Tedde was en route to the hospital. We were impressed. Not so the teacher. After six months she asked for a transfer.
The more people tried to break up our friendship, the closer we became. What probably scared both teachers and parents was that Tedde appeared so much more mature than his classmates. He was the tallest in the class. His dark skin and wild, black curly hair made him look more ominous than he really was. He was the first one to smoke a cigarette, the first one to drink beer, the first one to sneak into restricted movies, the first one to jump off a building, the first one to do anything. There's only one thing I remember that I did first. At age eleven, I was the first one to smoke a pipe.
Tedde was the first one to show me the red-light district of Den Haag. Long after everyone had gone to sleep, we would sneak out of our bedroom windows and walk several miles to the Geleenstraat, where dozens of ladies displayed their wares in dimly lit showcase windows. We would sit on the sidewalk, clad in our pajamas, and time the men going in and out of the narrow doors. Some were only in there for a few minutes. Tedde claimed that he had once seen his own father visiting one of the ladies.
I had a big secret that I didn't tell anybody. I was madly in love with Heidi. The movie had affected me deeply, and I somehow identified with her. At night, I would lie in bed and fantasize that Heidi and I had been captured by an evil king. The king's men had tied us up and we were hanging upside down, suspended from the high ceiling in one of the cold dungeons of the castle. Below us were rattlesnakes with slithering tongues. Heidi looked at me with pleading eyes. Although I never figured how to rescue her, or even myself, it was a nice fantasy. Only once did I accidentally blurt out my secret. We were playing "Good Guys versus Bad Guys." Everyone took turns saying who he was. "I'm Roy Rogers," said Lange (Tall) Jaap. I was known as Korte (Short) Jaap at the time. Evie was Lucky Luke. Herman picked the Lone Ranger. Harrie wanted to be Tonto. "And I'm Heidi," I said. All eyes were upon me, dumb-faced. I blushed deeply and quickly changed it to Kuifje.
Kuifje was the Dutch name for Tintin, international reporter and adventurer extraordinaire, and my childhood hero. Tintin is the main character in a series of hardcover comic books by the Belgian author Hergé. The first book titled Tintin, Reporter, in the Land of the Soviets, was published in 1930. Tintin's sidekick was a clever little white dog named Snowy. The two travel the world together in a quest to aid the downtrodden. They were often accompanied by Captain Haddock, an old salt with alcohol problems and a vocabulary of the most colorful curses. The story lines portray in great detail the reality of international politics of the twenties and thirties from a somewhat cynical point of view. With Tintin, I traveled from the heights of the Himalayas to the Wild West of America, from the opium dens of China to the pharaohs in Egypt, and from the Mayan temples of South America to the jungles in the Congo. Hergé was a master of intrigue. His storytelling instilled in me the strong desire to travel, to seek the truth through my own experiences, and not to take the words of others for granted. Tintin usually traveled by sea, and that's how I wished to travel.
Although I preferred Kuifje, the most popular comic series in the Netherlands and Belgium at the time was Suske en Wiske -- the wild adventures of a brother and sister and a regular cast of weird characters. First created by Willie Vandersteen in 1946 and published in book form by Standaard Uitgeverij in Antwerp, Belgium, they were originally written in Flemish. I found Kuifje's adventures to be the more intriguing, but Hergé decided to call it quits after two dozen issues. Vandersteen hired assistants to continue his series and today over 200 adventures of Suske en Wiske are in print. I will always consider Hergé and Vandersteen as the world's top creators of a comic series.
Occasionally, especially after watching a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers movie in the little community theater on a Saturday afternoon, we would play "Cowboys and Indians." Mostly, however, we played military games. We spent a lot of time in the many small stores that sold military surplus, remnants from the war, where we bought helmets, radio-telephones, and all kinds of other junk. We would then go on maneuvers in the polders, the farm and canal area just outside the city, where we "hijacked" one of the barges used for transporting vegetables. With long poles we pushed the barge through the network of canals. The farms were our battlefields. Hiding the barge in some reeds, we raided the hot houses for grapes and tomatoes. We plucked the trees for apples and pears. We dug up carrots. This wouldn't be any fun if you weren't caught occasionally. The real excitement was when a farmer came out yelling, shotgun in hand, and pumped a blast in our direction. The rush of adrenaline was exhilarating. Now and then one of us got hit by a pellet or two, never too seriously, and that made it all the more realistic. Carrying back our wounded, we called it. Other injuries were getting your skin torn up while trying to escape through barbed wire. Once Evie got his jacket caught in the barbed wire. As the farmer was nearing him, he screamed at us for help. His eyes were filled with the fear of imminent death. Tedde and Herman rushed back and pulled at him with all their might. The jacket ripped apart and Evie was yanked away in the nick of time.
I had another hero of sorts at the time, a military one. His name was pilot "Ace" James Bigglesworth of the Royal Air Force (RAF) or "Biggles" for short. The adventures of Biggles take place in the prewar years, WWII, and into the Cold War. In all, 100 books were written. At age 12, I had finally collected half of them. One day, after an unpleasant ending to a game of Stratego, I threw my brother Dick's collection of tin soldiers in the garbage. Dick then proceeded to tear up my Biggles books, one by one.
Tedde was going to teach himself how to ride a horse. He wanted to become a cavalryman. Not far from our school was a pasture with several horses. "What you need to do first," said Tedde, "is to befriend the horse. Always approach him from the front. Let him see you." Tedde walked up to the nearest horse, which he called Trigger, and stuck out his hand with some grass in it. "Here Trigger, Trigger. Good boy, good boy..." The horse reared its head, opened its mouth wide and brought it down on Tedde's shoulder. With a fierce grip, Trigger pulled Tedde off the ground and hurled him into the air. Tedde had Trigger's teeth marks for months. End of horse story, except to note that I've been scared of horses ever since.
According to Tedde only sissies get involved with girls. That didn't mean that I did not secretly admire some of the girls in my class. I was especially fond of Sylvia and her long ponytail. Only two years earlier, sitting directly behind her, I had dipped that ponytail in the inkwell of my desk, which didn't exactly endear me to her. But now she had become really attractive, a young mixture of Brigitte Bardot and Maria Schell. In drawing class, I drew a picture of her and me naked, in a compromising position, so to speak. All of a sudden I saw Tedde leaning over and he began to snicker. He reached for the drawing and I tried to pull it away. The teacher looked and demanded to know what was happening. Tedde let go off the drawing, but before I could hide it, the teacher demanded to see it. She turned pale and later that evening, she came to our home to talk with my mother. After she left, my mother cried. She had a perverted son, poor Mama.
The next day in class, Sylvia kept giving me warm glances. My God, I thought, somebody's told her! All I could do was turn away in embarrassment. But at night, Sylvia replaced Heidi in my dreams. Same fantasy, different girl.
Then there was Maria, with hair so red you could spot her a mile away. Often a victim of teasing by other boys, she had a super-crush on me. After school, the Light Tower, as she was called, would ride by my home on her bicycle calling out my name for hours while I cringed in hiding. It finally became so bad that she followed me around everywhere, even when I was with the boys who teased me endlessly about it. "Sailboat loves Light Tower!" they told everyone that would hear. Because of my ears, that was my nickname. I once tried gluing them to the side of my head, but that looked even more ridiculous. "Go away!" I screamed at Maria, "Leave me alone!" But she would just grin at me. "It's not that bad," said Tedde, "Her father is a goldsmith. Pretend that you love her, get as much gold as you can, and then dump her." Tedde always found a silver lining in every cloud. I ended up solving the problem by throwing rocks at her every time she came close to me. Such is love.
Probably one of the most hated classes was religion. Not that we hated religion. The teacher, we called him Moses, was right out of the Gestapo. Nearly seven feet tall and with a booming voice, he felt that the only way to teach religion was through fear and intimidation. Child abuse was a virtue with him, and he used the Bible as a lethal weapon, striking people over the head with it. He was a proponent of the "turn the other cheek" ethic. He would bang you across the ear with a giant hand and wait for you to turn the other cheek. Tedde thought that was marvelous. He dared us to use elastic bands or blow pipes, and shoot small projectiles at the bald spot on the back of his head whenever he was writing something on the blackboard. Of course, Tedde was the first one to do that. When Moses let out a yelp, he swirled around and demanded to know who had done it. Tedde, several other boys, and I looked at Willie Wortel, the kid everybody hated because he was the brightest. Moses walked up to Willie and belted him across the head, destroying Willie's glasses. "Turn the other cheek!" bellowed Moses, but Willie just cringed in fear, covering his head with his arms. Moses grabbed one of Willie's ears and began twisting it violently. "Turn the other cheek!" Moses repeated. But Willie couldn't do it, tears streaming down his cheeks. Moses hit Willie's head in full force with the Bible and his shattered glasses went flying across the floor. "Stop it!" yelled Tedde, "Stop it now!" The furious Moses whirled on Tedde, who smiled up at him and pointed at his cheek. Moses slapped him. Tedde, still smiling, turned the other cheek and pointed. Moses slapped him again. "Ah, this feels good," said Tedde, "Hit me again." This continued ten times and although there were tears in his eyes, Tedde never stopped smiling. Finally, Moses stormed out of the classroom in frustration.
Tedde and I decided to form our own boys' club, complete with weekly dues and a rule book. As his first lieutenant, I was in charge of collecting the dues and handling all expenditures, which included cheap wine and candles for our clubhouse, a bicycle storage closet in Tedde's basement. Tedde was in charge of drawing up the rules, which were changed every week. He also kept inventing new, sometimes dangerous, initiation rites to test the courage of new members. This included eating live spiders, running through a hailstorm of falling rocks that the other boys had tossed up in the air, and jumping off high places. I remember at least one boy breaking his arm when he jumped down from a second-floor balcony. Probably the most bizarre was to go down to the farms and pee against a fence which had been electrified to keep in the livestock. I was quite relieved to learn later that I was still capable of producing children.
Named the Black Spider, the club was patterned after the boy scouts, except that all of the rules were reversed. Instead of a good deed every day, we pledged to do a bad deed every day. One of the rules in Tedde's book: Offer to help an old lady across a busy street. When you get to the middle of the street, run away and leave her stranded.
It was all bravado, of course. We never actually intended to do anything cruel, although some of our actions could have caused serious injury or damage. Ever since the second grade, Tedde and I had been designing a rocket that would take us into space. From the contents of firecrackers, we created small prototypes that were fired from a small floating launchpad in the pond of a nearby park. Most misfired, but a few hit heights of up to fifty feet. The reasoning behind the floating launchpad was to provide a "soft" landing zone for future passengers of our rockets. Various insects became our first astronauts. Once, when we had built a fairly large rocket, we tried launching a small field mouse. Unfortunately the thing blew up on the launchpad, frying the poor little mouse. Just like real life.
In the summer of 1957, we discovered the bunkers the Germans had built during the war. Tedde had found a fenced-off area called the Waalsdorpervlakte just north of Den Haag. It was an area covering several square miles and consisted of hilly sand dunes, sparsely covered with clumps of reedy grass. Nestled between the sea on one side and a thick forest on the other, it was a remote military installation used for live firing practice.
"The bullets themselves are useless," Tedde told me, "It's what's inside the shells that we want." With a small pair of pliers, he gingerly began rotating the bullet inside the shell. "This is an art," Tedde said, "If you force it too much, the thing will explode and blow your hands off." One by one he removed the bullets and emptied the contents of the shells on a sheet of tin foil. We then stored the gunpowder in glass jars.
Tedde and I visited the firing ranges and WWII bunkers in the dunes of Den Haag and Wassenaar frequently that summer and the area became our favorite playground. On a couple of occasions, the red flags were up, and crawling through the sand, we heard gun shots echoing through the dunes. Tedde grinned. He loved it. I was afraid that I was going to die.
We discovered that the bunkers were part of an extensive network that reached from Hoek van Holland (at the mouth of the Rhine River) in the south to IJmuiden in the north (at the mouth of the IJssel River), a 40-mile stretch of coast facing the North Sea. Den Haag had served as the command center of the German occupation forces. The Germans began building the bunkers in 1942 and were part of the Atlantic Wall, which was erected to prevent allied landings along the coasts of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway.
We didn't know it at the time but the Germans had placed over a half million mines in the vicinity of the bunkers. Although many had been cleared after the war, the barbed wire fences and warning signs were obviously an indication that we shouldn't be there. Regardless, we spent the next two years exploring every bunker we could find along the coast. There were said to be hundreds, even thousands, of them in the sand of the dunes. Tunnels often connected the bunkers with various rooms in between.
The ammunition, weapons and other treasures that we found in the sand and bunkers were remnants of the war and we justified our appropriation of these items as archeological exploration. We came upon cases of ammunition, food rations, German magazines and documents, and boxes of the most awful cigarettes known to men. When we smoked a couple, we got so sick that we threw them out. Getting the stuff home and keeping it safe from prying eyes was a problem. We mostly used our bicycles and occasionally took the tram, and stored our caches in secret locations only we had the maps to.
Later we included my brother Dick in our search for treasure. He managed to dig up a Nazi helmet, complete with swastika and the skull still inside. When he brought them home (both skull and helmet), Mama had a fit, but she let him keep his prized possessions. Later, an uncle took it all away.
The following summer, only nine years old, he went there again on his own. This time he found a "super" bullet -- an intact 18-inch projectile -- weighing over 50 pounds. He tied it to the little rack on the back of his bike and, wobbling with the weight of it, transported it home through the center of city. Mama was not amused when she found Dick in the bedroom we shared, screwdriver in hand, trying to unlock the mysteries of his Super Bullet. I don't remember whatever happened to Dick's Super Bullet, but I think it ended up in Tedde's closet.
Tedde had his mind set on finding a V2 rocket. "It's the best rocket in the world," he said. "If I can find one of those, I'll be the toast of the town." Despite my admiration of him, he sometimes appeared off his rocker. Actually, there had been quite a stash of V2s in Den Haag. As of September 1944, the Germans had begun launching these rockets at Britain from the Haagse Bos (Hague Forest) and nearby Wassenaar, causing great damage and terror to the city of London. Over a thousand of them were fired from in and around Den Haag and on March 3, 1945, the Brits finally retaliated and sent a squadron of Spitfires to take out the V2 launching installation in the Haagse Bos. In what came to be known in the Netherlands as the greatest human error of the war, the bombs missed their target and instead flattened Bezuidenhout, a large section inside the city center, killing over 500 residents. It took 50 years before I learned that British bombs and not German ones caused the damaged buildings and flattened areas I had seen in my hometown as a child.
Tedde and I used the contents of the shells to make bombs -- a much easier task than building rockets. We put the gunpowder in a can and placed a small flashlight bulb in the powder. The bulb was connected to two long electrical wires. The can was sealed, placed into a hole we had dug in an open field, and then covered with a large rock. Unwinding the spool of wire, we walked back a safe distance to detonate our bomb.
It didn't work the first few times when we tried to use simple batteries to set off the gunpowder. But then Tedde brought a small hand-cranked generator he had picked up in a military surplus shop. "Try it," he offered, "Hold this wire in your left hand and the other in your right hand." As he frantically cranked the dynamo, I got a blast that went through my whole body. "Yup, it's working," he said calmly. Tedde had discovered a new initiation rite. It also worked beautifully to detonate our bombs. We blasted rocks into the air to our hearts' content.
Finally tiring of looking for ammunition in the dunes, we decided to create our own explosives from scratch. We spent hours going through chemistry books in the library, furiously making notes. Both of our bedrooms were turned into chemistry labs. We burned holes in the floor. We experimented with sulfur and saltpeter. Several times we were chased out of our bedrooms by choking fumes. One night, Tedde blew up half of his bedroom. But our perseverance paid off. We had invented the ultimate explosive.
We then did something really stupid, something I still regret today. Across the street from our apartment building the city had just begun operating a tram into the center of the town. "What would happen," I asked Tedde, "if we were to wrap this stuff in tin foil and place it on the track." He shrugged. "Just a big bang, I guess. Let's try and find out."
As soon as we placed the foil package on one of the rails, I had a feeling that we had put in too much powder. But there was no time to reconsider, the tram was coming towards us in the distance and we ran for cover. Ding, ding, went the little tram, ding, ding. Then WHAM! One of the steel wheels lifted from the track, and after some loud screeching and sparks, the tram came to a halt. We had derailed it! It was the first time for me to see Tedde scared out of his wits. Two ten-year old little terrorists! I thank God that no one was hurt in that incident.
We weren't caught, and we didn't tell anybody about it until years later. Nevertheless, Papa was suspicious and fed up with the mess I was making of my bedroom. In the evening, he packed up all my chemicals and threw them in the canal that ran in front of our building. In the morning there was a crowd of people looking down from the bridge -- looking at hundreds of floating belly-up fish. Way to go, Papa.
In the fall, I broke away from Tedde and the Black Spider club and formed my own club, the Red Adder. Our clubhouse was the crawl space below our apartment building. It stretched some 300 feet from one end of the building to the other. The ground consisted of fine sand. In some places, the dry sand was only one foot from the concrete ceiling. In lower areas, the ceiling was up to eight feet high. Here the sand was wet and small lakes had formed. The only way in or out of our clubhouse was through a small opening in the basement of the building. Originally, the opening was covered with a locked wooden cover. It would take six months for anybody to discover that we had removed the lock.
Our clubhouse was steeped in total darkness -- the only form of lighting were the candles we brought. The only sounds were from the drain and sewage pipes from the apartments above and the seepage dripping from the ceiling into the puddles and lakes. Whenever we climbed into our clubhouse, we carefully closed the entrance by pulling the cover in behind us. No adult was aware of its existence. Not even Tedde knew where we were.
We established our communal space at one end of the crawl space, where it was dry with enough headroom to sit up comfortably. We also had our own initiation rite: crawl to the far wall at the other end of the building, touch the wall, and then crawl back -- all without the aid of a flashlight or candle. The lakes, creepy-crawlies, and the minimal headroom weren't the only obstacles. We also hid some of our "senior" members in strategic places along the way. They were called the "mines." The mines weren't allowed to move, but if you accidentally touched one, you were "dead."
Towards the end of December it was neighborhood tradition to collect all the Christmas trees on our street and burn them in a big pile on New Year's Eve. For a one-week period Tedde and I became archenemies. He lived four streets over where the Black Spider boys were collecting trees and hiding them. We stashed ours in our new clubhouse -- the crawl space beneath our building.
Black Spider members would launch a sneak attack on a Red Adder member who was dragging a tree down the street, trying to take it away, and vice versa. We battled each other with homemade wooden swords and the lids of garbage cans. It was all in good fun, competing with each other for the biggest bonfire, but sometimes it got rough. Once a boy I didn't know shot me with a pellet gun. It hit me right between the eyes, leaving a red imprint for months. The boy, seeing what he had done, was more shocked than I was.
The first day of the year, a truce was declared and we all became friends again. One day we were discovered coming out of our clubhouse by a neighbor. We had been smoking and he was sniffing the air. "What the hell are you kids doing?" he demanded. "Oh, nothing," some of us mumbled. "What do you mean nothing," he said, pointing at his large red nose, "You think I have poop up my nostrils?" Henceforth he was known as Poop-Up-My-Nostrils.
When we were in our clubhouse a few days later, we heard a loud banging at the entrance. We quickly doused our candles and listened. Suddenly we saw a light in the distance. Someone had removed the wooden cover. Poop-Up-My-Nostrils poked his head inside. "Are you kids in there? If you are, come right out this minute," he hollered into the darkness. No one stirred.
After a moment, he closed the cover. We all sighed with relief, but not for long. We heard banging again, but this time it was much sharper. Poop-Up-My-Nostrils was nailing the cover to the frame! "We are trapped!" cried Herman. Evie started to whine. "Be quiet!" I hushed them. When the hammering stopped a few moments later, I lit one of the candles. All around me were frightened faces. "Nobody knows we're here," Herman said. "We're going to die," said Evie. "Follow me," I said.
The reason I wasn't scared is that several weeks earlier Dick and I had been digging outside in the back garden, near the foundation of our building. We had found a spot that led into the crawl space. It was too small to squeeze through, but it would be easy enough to make the hole larger. We covered the hole with a piece of plywood and some earth.
Now all I had to do was find it. For two hours, five desperate boys were feeling their way along the back wall of the crawl space. Some were crying again. Our last candle had been used up and the blackness was closing in. I felt a tightness in my throat. I must not panic, I thought. I'm their leader and I'm the only who knows what to look for. If I panic, we will all die. "We must go to the deep area," I said, "Where the lakes are." When we found it there was some relief. At least now we could stand up fully. It was still pitch-dark, however.
I needed to think clearly. Our hidden escape route had to be between the bottom of the foundation and the soil below it. I felt my way to the spot where the sand dropped below the foundation and then worked back from there. I could feel the compressed soil below the foundation. There had to be a gap somewhere along the way. Twenty agonizing feet, and then I found it. I stuck my arm through the gap and felt the piece of plywood. There was only a thin layer on top, and the plywood budged easily. The light that entered was blinding, but oh so welcome. We cried tears of joy as we removed enough of the soil to crawl out. We never went back. Which was just as well -- boys in the building behind us had discovered their own crawl space and only weeks after we had abandoned our clubhouse, a fire broke out in the other building. "Stupid boys," we chucked as we stood watching the firemen fight the smoke and flames coming from the crawl space.DEN HAAG, 1960
Mama and Papa had divorced. Dick and I had seen it coming, but when it actually happened it was still a shock. I had wanted to go to the same lyceum (secondary school) as Tedde, but Papa had insisted that I attend the venerable Gymnasium Haganum, a highly rated learning institution dating back to the 14th century. In my opinion, it was the stuffiest "snob" school in Den Haag. Papa wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer and all I wanted was to get out of the cradle-to-grave neighborhood we were living in.
The moment I walked through the wrought iron gates it felt like entering an asylum housed in a medieval castle, and I knew I didn't belong there. Dressed in blue blazers and grey slacks, my fellow students trudged about like zombies and I was convinced that I was the only one who hadn't undergone a frontal lobotomy. Until I entered Gymnasium Haganum, my school grades had been above average, but with the sudden shift in academic focus they began to suffer -- I immediately stumbled in German and Latin and needed tutoring. Who in the world speaks Latin, I wondered. The following year, with my confidence in learning new languages shattered, I was transferred to a lyceum.
Mama had found a condom in my wallet. I was embarrassed, but why did she have to be so hysterical? What was the big deal? Did she think that I was doing you-know-what? The thing had been in my wallet for two years. All the other kids had one, too. Tedde had bought them for us, or more likely, had stolen them from his parents' bedroom. It was a status symbol. I guess Mama felt bad that Papa had never found it necessary to tell me about the birds and the bees. Now he was no longer available.
Actually, we occasionally did use condoms. For example, we tied them to the exhaust pipe of our neighbor's car. We also used them as water bombs by throwing them from the fourth floor of our apartment buildings. They made marvelous toys.
My only real experience up that point had been with Herman's sisters, both of them. Yvonne, at fifteen, was the oldest, and totally out of my league as a twelve-year old. She hung around the notorious nozems, the Dutch version of the teddyboys of Britain. She was a blonde very much in the image of today's Madonna. Whenever I saw her over at Herman's place, she would tell us little boys all about her sex life. One day she showed us that she was wearing eight panties. "The guys just go crazy when they see that," she said. She was a man-eater. I asked Herman if it would be possible for me to ask his big sister for a date. "I heard that!" Yvonne said. "Would you like to go to a movie?" I asked, nervous to the extreme. "Sure," she said.
It must have looked ridiculous. Here's fifteen-year old Yvonne riding her bicycle into the center of the city. And there's me, her twelve-year old "lover," sitting astride on the back of her bike, my arms around her middle, feeling the heat of her belly. We went to see the Guns of Navarone, which, by the way, made me a lifelong fan of Anthony Quinn.
On the way back, we stopped by her school, now very dark and abandoned. In the back of the main building she took me into her arms and we kissed, tongues sliding over each other, my first ever kiss. Later we dropped by the local roller skating rink at the Zuiderpark where she promptly abandoned me for her nozem friends. I must be a lousy kisser, I thought, as I walked home alone.
Anyway, I did mention that I got "involved" with both of Herman's sisters. The younger one was named Carla and at thirteen she was only a year older than we were. In those days we played a card game called Canasta. We would sit for hours and play the game. Carla, knowing that I had been "broken in" by her sister, would place a nylon-stockinged foot on my lap under the table and probe around. Nobody noticed but they may have wondered why I was slouching so much.
When I turned fourteen I began hanging out with a slightly older crowd, kids that rode mopeds instead of bikes. Most of them weren't nozems by any stretch of the imagination and rarely got in trouble with the law, yet they were rebellious in the way they dressed and styled their hair. And the way they rode their mopeds. The coolest moped in the Netherlands at the time, especially in Den Haag, the Puch -- the uncoolest was the Solex and nobody wanted to be caught dead on one. The Puch with its high handlebars was a symbol of the sixties in Holland, as was the Brylcreem-slicked hair. I wasn't old enough to ride one, so I usually climbed on the back of Lange Jaap's Puch when we rode the streets of Scheveningen or Centrum Den Haag with Boelo, Sim and Muus. At every red light we noisily revved the engine and when it turned green, we blasted off with the front wheel raised high in the air while disdainfully looking back at the cyclists. Doing a "wheelie" was not too comfortable when you were riding on the back, and to the amusement of the cyclists, I frequently fell off. The most dangerous thing we did was to race through the Boekhorststraat in the city's centrum. This was the turf of the nozems and they had weapons -- chains, brass knuckles, and switch blades -- and they weren't afraid to use them. The nozem gangs rode Puchs too, with handlebars raised even higher in the style of Easy Rider. It was a stroke of luck that we never fell into their clutches.
By this time I had fashioned myself after my new friends -- hair grown long, slicked down with Brylcreem, a big curl that hung down to my eyes, and a large comb in my pocket. I desperately wanted to ride a Puch on my own but nobody was willing to lend me one. Finally, I borrowed the Solex of a neighbor -- a good learning tool, I thought. The Solex was hardly a bucking bronco. In fact, it was really a bicycle with a small motor that you lowered on top of the front tire once you got up to speed peddling it like a madman. When I thought I got the hang of it, I took off down the bike path along the main road. On the way back, while passing a cyclist, we clipped handle bars and I went flying down the bike path. The cyclist was fine but the left side of my face was scraped clean of skin. It must have looked ridiculous -- a kid looking like James Dean falling off his Solex. After a visit to the clinic, I told my unbelieving friends that I had been captured by Indonesian nozems from Rotterdam who had dragged me down the street tied to their Puchs. I never did get to ride my own Puch.
Mama was growing increasingly worried about me and decided to call in Uncle Robert to the rescue. Uncle Robert was married to Aunt Robbie, my mother's younger sister. He was a military man, ram-rod straight, a man who jumped out of airplanes and a master of the martial arts. Uncle Robert decided to start off by telling me about the birds and the bees. "Ladies," he said, "can't control their urges. Therefore, it's up to the man to show restraint. And if you must, if you really must do it, then always use the thing Mama found in your wallet. Is that clear?" "Yes sir!" I almost saluted. Tedde's version of sex had been a lot more enjoyable.
It was obvious to everyone that I was suffering from a lack of discipline. Even after transferring from the gymnasium to a lyceum, my school work was still suffering and my truancy record was through the roof. I didn't fit the fold, my mother was told, and she and Uncle Robert decided that I was to move in with his family, where I would learn how to become a gentleman and a scholar.
My bedroom consisted of a converted closet in the hallway. "Windows are a waste of time," Uncle Robert said, "They make you daydream." He taught me how to fold my blankets and polish my shoes. "Men are judged by the look of their shoes," he said. We were up at dawn for a three-mile run down the beach, followed by an ice-cold shower. "If you dry yourself quickly and vigorously, you'll never get cold," he said. He took me to his barber to get a crew cut. "Gee, I never knew you had a face," he said, after my long locks were gone. He enrolled me into his judo class, where he could legally beat me up.
He took me along to the local bars, where we played billiards and drank beer together. (The legal beer drinking age in Holland at that time was fourteen.) "Some day," he said, "I'll take you to a place that'll really make you a man." Wink-wink.
The Cold War was intensifying and according to Uncle Robert, a nuclear holocaust was all but certain. He spent the whole summer digging up his back garden, destroying it in the process. "I don't care about the rest of them, but I'm building the best nuclear bomb shelter in the world," he announced. When it was finished he stocked it with canned food and other essentials. It was actually quite impressive, but I doubted that several layers of plywood would withstand much of a shock, never mind keeping out any radiation. For awhile, we had frequent nightly drills, where without warning Uncle Robert would bang pots and pans and blow whistles. "You have four minutes to get into the shelter," he would yell, "Move your butts! Now!" My aunt didn't think too highly of it, and after several weeks of "Total Readiness At All Times," even Uncle Robert tired of it, resigning himself to the futility of it all. In the early winter, after the first snowfall, the shelter collapsed.
Uncle Robert taught me manners and etiquette -- with chivalry ranking high on his list of virtues. "There are exceptions to the ladies-first rule," he told me. "For example, a man always enters a bar before his female escort. Do you know why?" he asked. I shook my head. "If there's a brawl inside, the man will get hit first." There was another exception to the ladies-first rule. "A man always descends the stairs first. Just in case the lady trips, you will soften her landing." Uncle Robert could go on for hours like this.
I was enrolled in dance school. "A gentleman should know how to dance," said Uncle Robert. "And by that I mean the Foxtrot, the Waltz, and the Tango. Not that Rock'n'Roll stuff or this new thing, the Twist." Actually, a week earlier I had won a Chubby Checker twist contest. It was fun and easy to do. The Arthur Murray dance studio turned out to be a drag. The girls were plasticky goody-goody-two-shoes. The teacher insisted that except for the hands no body parts could touch. They had shoe prints painted on the floor, showing you exactly where to step. Asinine stuff. One day, after our class was finished and a new one was about to begin, one of the kids in our class dropped several stink bombs on the way out. That summed it up quite well, really.
Uncle Robert was a musical man. He played the guitar, the piano, the clarinet and the accordion, and could sing all the popular cowboy songs with a real American accent. His favorite was Red River Valley. He tried to teach me how to play guitar, but I was tone deaf and I was unable to get my hands to do two different things at the same time. (When I brushed my teeth with my right hand, my left hand made the same motion.) I did go to accordion school for a few weeks, but it turned out to be a waste of money.
All in all, in the year I spent with Uncle Robert, I came to regard him as a mentor and close friend. He had earned my respect and, hopefully, I had earned his.
With rare exception, all Dutch males had to serve two years in the armed forces. Most boys were drafted at age eighteen, but if you wanted to, you could volunteer to enter as young as sixteen. After talking it over with Uncle Robert and getting the government's permission to be accepted before my sixteenth birthday, I joined the Royal Dutch Navy. In the initial interview, I was asked to list three preferences for which I would like to be trained for. I listed naval pilot as my first choice, electrical engineer as my second, and radio operator as my final preference.
Next, I was tested for electrical engineering. Again I did quite well, until I was given a straight piece of copper wire and a pair of pliers. First I was to bend it into triangle, then a square, and finally a circle. I didn't get past the triangle. So I became a radio operator. Only a hearing test was required for that, a test which I passed with flying colors.
Basic training took place at Marine Opleidingskamp Hilversum (MOKH), the naval training camp in Hilversum near the city of Utrecht. Uncle Robert had tried to prepare me for what to expect and left me with the advice to "just do what you're told, blend into the woodwork, and nobody will bug you." He was still convinced that the world was facing nuclear calamity, and thought that the navy would be a good place for me to be when it happened. For many of the boys boot camp was a living hell, but I remained determined to stick with it for the three months it took to determine who had the wherewithal to serve aboard Her Royal Majesty's flotilla. Over half were expected to drop out at the end of training, either of their own volition or because they weren't able to live up to the camp's motto of Constantia Et Fide -- With Constancy and Faith. The drill instructors, Marines who had recently returned from combat in the former Dutch New Guinea, were given the responsibility to convert us from mama boys into men -- a task they took on with relish.
After the Second World War, in 1949, Indonesia finally gained full independence from the Netherlands, but the Dutch refused to honor Sukarno's claim to West Papua, the western part of New Guinea. The Dutch government contended that the Papuans were ethnically different and that they should be given their own independence and unified with the Australian-controlled part of New Guinea. Thus, they retained their military presence there until late 1962, when the territory came under control of the United Nations. In the intervening years the tension between Indonesia and the Netherlands remained high with scattered clashes. In 1961, Sukarno sent in an invasion force of guerilla fighters and war between the two countries seemed inevitable. It was under these circumstances that I joined the navy and I heaved a sigh of relief when the UN took over later in the year.
The first three months we weren't allowed out of camp, although at night we could drink beer with the "real" soldiers in the canteen and listen to the jukebox endlessly playing Cliff Richard, Johnny and the Hurricanes and Fats Domino. After a few weeks, I got on friendly terms with my drill sergeant. Normally a beast during the day, he was relaxed and full of good humor after hours. I think one of the reasons he liked me was because of the picture I was carrying in my wallet. "She is my sister," I told him one evening, "I've written her about you and she's interested in meeting you." Fondling the picture, he grinned from ear to ear. He never got to meet my "sister," because I didn't have a sister. The picture was of an obscure Brigitte Bardot look-alike who never quite made it. Except to provide me with dozens of free beers.
The sergeant bragged about how they had removed the rings and gold teeth from the enemy soldiers they had killed in the jungles of New Guinea. "How did you remove the teeth?" I asked. "With my boot," he said. Although I highly doubted these gruesome tales, I played along to humor him. If it were true, it certainly wasn't something to be proud of. "Would you believe that the natives there are still cannibals?" he asked me. That I did believe because I had read about the tribesmen who had eaten a missionary. I wondered if the alleged enemy soldiers that they had killed were hapless cannibals with spears. "You know," he said, "human meat isn't all that bad. When you're hungry and it's a question of survival, well, you know what I mean," "Just don't eat my sister," I told him. That broke him up. "I promise, I promise!" he said, slapping me on the back. Gallows humor.
The weapon we trained with was the M-1 Garand rifle of World War II vintage. We were taught to take it apart, clean, oil and polish it, and put it back together -- all with split-second precision. It looked simple but it had an awful lot of parts. Shooting it on the firing range took some getting used to. It was heavy, noisy, had a healthy kickback, and it tended to misfire with part of the clip poking out from the top. But it was very accurate and I managed some pretty high scores in target practice. Often with bayonet mounted, we carried our M-1s everywhere we went -- on the run, over obstacles and through barbed wire, in water, and endless hours on the parade grounds. The bayonet was somewhat of a silly weapon, I thought, and when mounted, it made the rifle unwieldy and even heavier. I hoped that I would never get close enough to an enemy where it would come down to a battle of bayonets.
Boot camp was finally over and I had "graduated" near the top of my class. I was military material. Tedde Toet and Uncle Robert had served me well. I brimmed with confidence. Or was it arrogance? It didn't matter. I knew how to row my boat. Decked out in my dress uniform, I took the train to Den Haag. Mama was with friends in Germany and Papa came to meet me at Central Station. He had been dead against me leaving school and joining the navy. Nevertheless, he looked proud when I stepped off the train. After the divorce I had seen little of him and he was anxious to make up for lost time. We walked to the cinema and during intermission he surprised me by buying me a glass of beer. He then added to the surprise when he presented me with a half-pack of cigarettes -- his way of saying that I had come of age. That night he came to my bed, lay down beside me, and for the first time ever, he embraced me and held me tight. I was embarrassed, but it felt good. In the morning he made a Spanish omelette, another first, and asked me if Mama would be interested in getting back together with him. I didn't know.
I knew that Papa blamed Uncle Robert for encouraging me to enlist and destroying the dreams he had for me. But once he knew that there was little he could do, he enthusiastically supported me in my decision. Later, at a "show" parade on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Karel Doorman in Den Helder, he took picture after picture, as I brandished my M-1 Garand with bayonet in pose after pose. I felt sorry for him. He wanted me to be a doctor, preserving life, not killing it. Nevertheless, in the excitement of the moment, he beamed with pride. "That's my son," he told everyone. Poor Papa.
I was to be trained as a radio-telegrafist, a radio operator. That was cool, but I was disappointed to learn that for the rest of the year I would be attending classes full-time. I already knew Morse Code and how to wave flags, and didn't see the need for learning how to encrypt and decrypt secret codes. To make matters worse, we had to take regular school subjects as well.
What I wanted most was to be assigned to sea-duty and get out of Holland. All the stories I had heard made me hungry to see the world. The golden age of Dutch sailing ships roaming the seven seas was long over, but we still had a sizable fleet -- naval and mercantile -- and going to sea was still a realistic dream for boys my age. Many of my friends had fathers, older brothers, or cousins who were at sea, coming home once a year with trinkets from foreign ports and stories that could keep you spellbound for hours. The Netherlands is such a small country that it was every young boy's dream to leave it for a while and see what the rest of the world was doing.
In the early days of colonizing, the Dutch were quite sensitive about the size of their home country. When negotiating with local sovereigns in the massive archipelago of the East Indies, the Dutch were often asked how big the Netherlands were. They would pull out a world globe and casually point to an area from the North Sea to the Urals. In 1602, Prince Maurits invited a delegation of royals from the East Indies to the Netherlands where they were wined and dined. They were then taken for an outing to Fort Grave which had been occupied by Spanish troops led by the Duke of Parma since 1584. They were taken there because just at that time, in a raging battle, Dutch troops were retaking the fort and sending the Spaniards fleeing for their lives. It was a nice show of force and the royals were duly impressed with such a "great country and powerful army." Maps of the Netherlands were not officially allowed in the East Indies until the 19th century.
In the summer of 1962, most days were spent in the classroom and at night we were on guard duty at one of the camp's gates or on the occasional military exercise. Guard duty was extremely boring and tiring. We worked in watches of four hours on and four hours off. During the off-hours, we would sleep on a hard cot in the guard house. Return to the barracks was not permitted. Except for very brief periods, you weren't allowed to sit down. The only excitement came when some of the sailors and marines returned to camp roaring drunk, a common occurrence. If they were too drunk or rowdy, we were supposed to lock them up in the brig which usually ended up in a scuffle of some sort. Sometimes we would have ten or more "prisoners," some of them your friends, in the cramped cells. At the end of each watch, we awakened all the inmates and tied their hands behind their backs. We then "aired" them by walking them like dogs on a leash. In the meantime, all the cells were hosed down.
The closest we got to water was in the fall, when we spent two months in a sailing camp at a lake near Utrecht. It was mostly rowing and very little sailing. I promptly suffered my one and only "military" injury by slicing off the tip of my finger while cutting bread. One evening we attended a live outdoor concert by Roy Orbison and a Moluccan group named the Diamonds. Cliff Richard did a concert in Rotterdam, but I missed that. At night we roamed the clubs and bars of Utrecht, but since the streets were overcrowded with military personnel, and given the fact that we were still regarded as pipsqueeks, we didn't stand a chance in competing for the ladies. The only romance I felt was in the winter, when I was on leave in Den Haag. A beautiful female singer in a downtown club never took her eyes off me while singing a wonderful love song. Even though the place was filled with several hundred people, she was singing just for me. Wow! Famous singer falls in love with teenage sailor, read tomorrow's headlines. Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The dream was shattered when she picked somebody else for her next song.
My naval career came to an abrupt end in March of 1963, when Mama told Dick and I that she was going to marry Bill, a U.S. naval officer she had met in Rotterdam. Bill served on the aircraft carrier Wasp based in Norfolk, Virginia. On an earlier leave, Mama had taken us aboard the Wasp to meet with the jolly rotund Bill, who really wasn't an officer but a chef (okay, he was just a cook). I had worn my uniform and self-consciously compared it to the one worn by the U.S. sailors -- I preferred mine, especially the headgear. Mama told us that we were first going to emigrate to Canada and after their marriage, we would move to the United States. I was gonna be a Yankee-Doodle-Dandy! Whoopee! I was also disappointed, of course, that I would never be a Dutch admiral.
I had one final fling with the guys. In honor of my departure, Boelo's older brother Sim had rented a Cadillac convertible for a week. Five of us, all smoking big fat cigars, and decked out in fancy suits and dark glasses, were going to terrorize the streets of Holland. After circling our neighborhood for an hour, loudly honking our horn to make sure everybody saw us, we hit the beaches at Scheveningen and Katwijk, the draw bridges of Delft and Gouda (scraping the undercarriage of the Cadillac), the Walletjes of Amsterdam, the bars in the port of Rotterdam, the cheese market in Haarlem.
We attended an amateur rock concert in which some friends of ours were participating. They had called themselves Muus and the Mystics and were making their debut appearance. When they appeared on stage, all dressed in black leather jackets, the crowd cheered. Their first number was Peggy Sue by Buddy Holly. God, they were awful! The cheers turned to boos. Halfway through their second number, they were bombarded by empty Heineken and Amstel bottles, and they never got to finish it. "Ah critics," mused Muus later, "They know nothing about music."
A car that size, and a convertible at that, was a rarity in 1963 Holland. Everywhere we went, people stared at us. We spent most of our time standing up in the convertible, twisting and shouting, and waving and cheering at all the lonely people. There were so many new rock bands starting up at that time, that most people simply assumed that we were rock-and-rollers. I mean who else could do something that outrageous. Bill Haley and the Comets? Nah! They're passe. You don't mean the Beatles, do you? Hmmm, could be. That one guy does have a pretty big nose. "Love, love me doooo...," we all sang. See I told you, it's them! Hey guys, it's the Beatles! "Love, love me doooo..."
AMERICA, MAY 1963
It was sayonara time. Except for Papa, they were all there -- Uncle Robert and Tante Robbie, Oma and Opa Mulder, uncles and aunts, cousins and nieces and nephews, friends and friends of friends. Some were even crying, waving their handkerchiefs as Holland America's Rijndam moved away from the pier.
We picked up French emigrants in Le Havre and English emigrants in Southampton. Most of my fellow DPs (deported persons) were in their twenties. The first night out of Southampton, Mama dragged me out of the cocktail lounge in her nightgown at 4 o'clock in the morning. How embarrassing! Right in front of my thirty new British and French friends. Man-of-the-World, master of sophistication and elegance, gets dragged out of bar by his mommy.
The following day I had convinced Mama that the only reason I was in the lounge so late was to hone up on my English and French. "After all," I reasoned, "aren't those the languages they speak in Canada?" "Yes, of course that's true. But please don't drink so much," my mother said. "Loosens the lips," I replied.
We had a couple of good storms, and indeed the captain began appearing at the dinner table. He had found his sea legs. The storms brought with them a new game to play -- wait for the aft deck to reach its highest point out of the water. Then, just before it comes crashing down again, you jump as high as you can. Great fun!
When we neared the North American coast, we spotted icebergs in the distance. What a sight! A lot of that evening's dinner talk concerned the Titanic, and what-if questions.
As the Rijndam sailed under a bridge going up the St. Lawrence River, I finally began thinking about living in America. To my younger brother Dick and I, America meant both Canada and the United States, lands of untold riches, the streets paved with gold. The ten-dollar bill in my pocket was burning a hole. I was going to multiply it many-fold.
It became official in Quebec City where we were processed by the authorities. We were now newly-landed immigrants! In the port of Montreal, wearing my gold-threaded suit especially bought for the occasion, I gave the porter my one and only ten-dollar bill as we disembarked. "S'il vous plait," I said. "Merci, Monsieur," the porter replied, "Merci beaucoup." The Man-of-the-World, not a penny in his name, had arrived. "Mais oui, c'est la vie magnifique." "Au contraire, mon ami, c'est la vie sans le sou."
That evening Dick and I explored the center of Montreal. Everything was so much larger than in Holland. We had never seen such tall buildings. Except for annual summer vacations in the Tyrolian Alps of Austria, we had never been to a foreign country before. We went into a coffee shop where Dick bought me a coke. I was broke, remember? Neat! You could make a jukebox selection right from your table. Three selections for a quarter. Dick picked a number by the Beach Boys, I chose I Can't Stop Loving You by Ray Charles, and for the final selection, Dick punched the buttons for On Blueberry Hill by Fats Domino. We visited an Indian reservation across the river where a fully feathered, war-painted chief in a wig-wam sold us scalped heads and tomahawks. "These Indians are fake," said a disgusted Dick upon discovering that the scalps and tomahawks were made in Hong Kong.
A few days later, Bill met us in Montreal -- not looking quite as impressive in his civilian clothes -- and drove us down to his hometown of Chatham, New York. Driving through the rolling hills, we stopped at an amusement park with a ghost town and cowboys shooting at each other. They were fake, too. Bill had rented a cabin by Chatham Lake where Dick and I met an American girl determined to teach us American slang and every variation of the word "fuck." We met Bill's elderly mother and watched him play softball -- a game we had never seen -- with his buddies. One of them asked where we were from and when we told him, he asked, "How did you get out from behind the Iron Curtain?" I don't think he was joking.
Three weeks later, the marriage was off and we took the Greyhound back to Montreal, flat broke. Mama was too proud to admit defeat and she refused to contact family back in Holland. There was no way that she was going to ask for financial aid so that we could return. Doing odd jobs such as filling magazine subscriptions she scraped up enough money to buy train tickets to Vancouver -- there was a friend of a friend of a friend living in Port Moody, a Vancouver suburb, who was willing to help us get started with our new life in Canada. They kindly offered us lodging but it soon became obvious that we were imposing on their hospitality and after a week we moved to an abandoned tenement building on Broadway without water and electricity. Mom worked the early shift squeezing cookie dough at a bakery for a while until I found a classified ad in the help-wanted section of the Vancouver Sun: WANTED. Live-in housekeeper on ranch in Lone Bute. Caribou country. Children welcome. One phone call and Mom -- and, as it turned out, Dick and I -- were on the payroll of Nels Sandberg, a 70-year-old widowed rancher, also known as the Tyrant of Lone Bute. Hee-haw! Howdy Partner!
Of course, there was no payroll -- room and board was all we were going to get. The ranch was huge (almost as big as Holland, Dick said) and very understaffed. As school hadn't started yet, he had us work the fields, bailing hay and stacking the bales in the barn, feeding the animals and herding cattle. Remembering Tedde's unfortunate incident with Trigger, I was loath to get on a horse, but I finally picked an old beast called Bunk. Bunk's maximum speed, if you got him to move at all, was five miles per hour. Dick and I were cowboys! Tedde, eat your heart out!
Mom soon began referring to our "friendly" rancher as the Hangman. She had to get up before daybreak, fire up the wood oven, and cook up a stack of pancakes and bacon. The breakfast menu never varied, just pancakes and bacon. Although he had an old generator, he was too cheap to use it and we mostly lived without electricity. Sunset was bedtime, which was just as well because we were forced to get up so early. It wasn't all bad for Dick and I -- riding the range on our lame horses and running through muddy fields on tractors were loads of fun. The Hangman, in a rare moment of compassion, allowed us to have our pick from a closet full of cowboy paraphernalia -- hats, boots, bandannas, leather leggings, and spurs. All we needed now was a holster and a six-shooter. And a lasso, of course.
I received a letter from Herman wherein he told me how depressed he had become. Carla had become pregnant and after only two weeks of marriage, her husband had left her. His alcoholic father was jailed for buying all his friends and relatives expensive appliances with stolen money. On top of that, his father had punctured his heart with a needle while putting on a new shirt he had bought as part of his final splurge in life. Herman had tried to enroll in the army, but was declared mentally unfit. All that kept him going, he told me, was jazz music. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong were the only joys left for him. "You're so lucky to leave this miserable land," he wrote, "I don't see any hope for me."
Two years later, he was shot dead by the Amsterdam police in a bungled bank robbery. His final battle. His last hurrah.
I also received a package from my grandmother. It contained the wallet I had lost at the Efteling amusement park near Waalwijk just before leaving Holland. It even contained some 200 guilders that had been in it! I made a mental note that I should do the same were I to find somebody else's wallet. Honesty begets honesty.
In September, after much arguing between Mom and the Hangman about the need for school, my brother Dick and I attended our first school in North America, a small shack in Bridge Lake, some fifty miles away. It was so small that there were only two classrooms, one for all the elementary grades, the other for the junior high grades. Dick and I were in the same class.
The only problem was transportation. There was no bus and there was no way that the Hangman would chauffeur us. We had noticed a for sale sign on a 1947 Austin parked next to a coffee shop in Bridge Lake. Mom and I went inside to enquire. The counter clerk nodded at a gruff-looking cowboy in the corner. "How much do you want for the car?" my mother asked politely. The cowpoke looked up and pulled out a huge Bowie knife. Holy cow! My heart went up my throat and Mom took a step back. The man looked at his free hand and calmly began cleaning his fingernails with the knife. "Fifty bucks and she's yours," he said. My mother didn't haggle.
We now had a set of wheels to go to school with. The engine was so gutless, that we had to try several times to negotiate some of the hills. Even though I wasn't yet licensed, I did all the driving, and Dick did all the pushing. On the dirt road between the school and the ranch we had to negotiate one long -- not steep, just long -- hill. I would double-clutch the little Austin into first gear but it just couldn't make it to the top. The only way to do it was to put it into reverse and back it up the hill. One time, while turning around to begin the back-up maneuver, I almost put it over the edge of a small cliff into the creek below. The front wheel on Dick's side was hanging in the air and he moved gingerly out of the car to lessen the weight on that side first. We then slowly hand-pushed it back to safety. It wasn't very heavy -- the battery was probably bigger than the engine.
Dick had ordered an Italian rifle from a mail order firm in the States. It was a high-calibre weapon that could break your shoulder if you weren't careful. We had a lot of fun shooting at cans, bottles, and other targets, such as pumping holes in the Hangman's abandoned boat by the lake. One day we went hunting, and after several hours of trampling through the bush, I saw a pheasant. At least, that's what I thought it was, although I later learned that it must have been a grouse. He was perched on a branch some twenty feet up a tree, peering down at me. I aimed the rifle at the bird and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. The "pheasant" continued looking at me curiously. "Take the safety off," whispered Dick. I did and aimed the rifle again. The stupid bird was staring down the barrel and made no attempt to fly away. This is not very sporting, I thought. "Pssst," I told the bird, "Fly, fly." "What are doing?" asked Dick, "Shoot it." "I can't just shoot it like that," I replied, "I want to shoot it out of the air." We never did kill the bird, and I never went hunting again.
We stayed in Lone Bute, a very appropriate name, for five months. Mom's life was hell. Whenever she was done with all the housekeeping and cooking, the rancher would find something else for her to do. Finally, one of the many help-wanted ads she had responded to paid off. Mom had been hired as a housekeeper by a divorced man with three children on Vancouver Island.
For fear that the Slave Driver of Lone Bute wouldn't let us go, we escaped while he was away to do his banking in Williams Lake. Since we was going there anyway, Mr. Kulek, a neighboring rancher, had agreed to drive us the long way back to Vancouver in the back of his cattle truck. I still vividly remember the shivering cold as we bounced through the winding canyons along the Fraser River in the pouring rain.
From Vancouver, we took the ferry to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, where we were cheerfully welcomed by Douglas Fredrickson, our new employer -- and a year later, husband and father.
Dick and I attended high school in Qualicum Beach, a pleasant resort town on the east coast of Vancouver Island. After the isolation of living on a ranch in the Caribou, we finally got a chance to mingle with people our own age. At first, our heavy Dutch accents and stilted English speech were the source of some good-natured teasing, but we were quickly accepted into the community. It was only natural that one of the subjects I took that year was European History. I was dismayed to find, however, that Admiral Piet Heyn, one of Holland's greatest naval heroes in history and conqueror of the Spanish Silver fleet in 1628, was described in my textbook as a pirate. "The man was a national hero, not a pirate," I angrily told my teacher, remembering the ditty about Piet Heyn we used to sing as kids. Others events of that era seemed strangely slanted as well, favoring the English -- great sea battles won by the Dutch got bare mention in the textbook as minor skirmishes. I was ready to fight these battles all over again, but the teacher calmly explained that perceptions of the same event can vary and each country likes to see itself in the best light. She was right, of course, but if Piet Heyn was a pirate, then so was Sir Francis Drake -- albeit both sponsored by the State.
Douglas had given me his old Willes sedan, which I immediately took out for some time trials down some deserted logging roads. I still didn't have a driver's license and it didn't take long for the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) to pull me over. After being ticketed, one of the RCMP officers escorted me home. One hour later, I was on the road again, but I hadn't even gone one mile and I was pulled over again. It was the same officer, and I got another ticket. "Why don't you go and get a license," he suggested. "Good idea," I said. Several days later I got my license in Port Alberni. I even went to visit the RCMP station to show the officer. "Good boy," he said, "Just drive carefully."
When you are a sixteen-year old boy with his first hot rod, that's a very difficult thing to do, especially when your friends are fond of drag racing. Peeling rubber was the in-thing to do. Of course, my Willes was no competition against Gary's '56 Chevy or Gordy's souped-up '57 Buick. Their V-8s against my flat-6. The only way I could peel rubber was to do it in reverse (the same trick I used with the old Austin). They were going forward, while I was going backward. In less than 3 months, I had blown every piston in the engine. By that time I had earned the nickname of Oil -- the Willes at one point consumed twice as much oil as it did gasoline.
In November of that year, the principal of our school announced over the public address system that President Kennedy had been assassinated. There was stunned silence as school was let out early. For weeks everyone talked in hushed whispers. We all felt vulnerable and thought something terrible was going to happen.
My next car was a Hudson Jet, while Gordy had bought a beautiful white Edsel. Our favorite pastime was to cruise the main drag of Nanaimo -- back and forth, back and forth -- and then hang out at the A&W sipping a root beer, flirting with the car hops, with twenty or so car radios trying to drown each other out. If you've seen the movie American Graffitti, you'll know what it was like. Sometimes, we were all tuned into the same station at the same time and the harmonious crescendo was impressive. That was one thing I really liked about North America -- you had a variety stations to listen to. In Holland, there were only two state-controlled stations, and they never played pop music. Your only other option was Radio Veronica, a so-called pirate ship station in the North Sea, or Radio Luxembourg.
The Beatles were now really big. And so, of course, were the Beach Boys and let's not forget Gerry and the Pacemakers. Elvis I never liked. Cliff Richard was now a faint memory. We all knew the lyrics to I Want To Hold Your Hand and I Saw Her Standing There. The music was great in those days and so were the movies, such as James Bond in From Russia With Love and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.
The only problem I had with Canada at the time was the legal drinking age. In British Columbia you had to be twenty-one to have a beer, while in Holland you could enter a bar at fourteen to consume beer. The whole attitude about alcohol was different. Sure, we drank too much on occasion back in Holland, but mostly it was a part of socializing, creating a warm and cozy atmosphere. British Columbia didn't even have bars in the real sense, just sleazy hotel beer parlors where the atmosphere was anything but warm. Fights between sloppy drunks was common. No wonder the men were segregated from the women in those establishments. People drank to get drunk, and I was astonished to see that so many of them were native Indians. I had never seen people so defeated and downtrodden, so sad and fatalistic. Unfortunately, the initial shock wears off and then, like everyone else, you don't notice it anymore. How tragic.
Boys will be boys. If you can't have it, that means you must have it. Near most government-operated liquor stores there would an old geezer who would buy you a six-pack of beer or a mickey of rye, if you paid him for the trouble. Unable to go anywhere else in public, we would hop down to the beach in Parksville and drink our beer, and do a little bit of necking with Gail or Suzy. Nothing too excessive.
Sometimes the beaches were raided by the RCMP, and we would move to some logging road up in the mountains. We always parked facing downhill, just in case the battery went dead because you had your radio on too long.
Our lives revolved around our cars, the A&W and most importantly, the music. There were new groups appearing all the time - the Animals, the Dave Clarke Five, the Supremes, the Kinks, and of course, the Rolling Stones. Many of them became overnight stars on the Ed Sullivan Show.
We finally got caught for "being a minor in the possession of alcohol" on the Parksville beach. My mother and I had to appear before a local judge in Qualicum. "Please kiss the Bible," the judge instructed my mother. She kissed it and left a bright-red lipstick mark on the opened page. As a result, I was sentenced to one year's probation and was to report to a probation officer once a month. Thanks Mom.
A week later, while driving my Hudson Jet at its top speed of 130 MPH, the crankshaft popped loose. It hit one of the rear tires and I came to a screeching halt in the ditch. I was fine. My Hudson Jet was toast. From that point on, I rode with Gordy in his white Edsel.
I met my probation officer only once. He was a Haida native and very kind and understanding. We talked about my native Holland and how we had moved to Canada. At the end of our meeting, he told me that I wouldn't have to report anymore. "Just take it easy and stay out of trouble," he said.
In August of 1964, I heard for the first time that the United States and North Vietnam were entering into a conflict of sorts. Some U.S. naval ships had come under attack and the government had passed the "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution." I recalled that back in the fifties the French colonials had fought fierce battles in Vietnam.
When I finished school in the spring of 1965, I was eighteen years old and restless. Although the pop culture was still raging, there was now also a "counter-culture" or an "alternative culture" emerging, and in conjunction with that, the music changed, becoming shrill and inverted, almost nihilistic. Bob Dylan, whom I didn't like, was leading us into the psychedelic era. The Rolling Stones acted, looked, and sounded stupid. There was talk of new cult religions and LSD and marijuana. The world was freaking out.
Some friends and I moved to Vancouver, where we rented a couple of rooms in a house in the suburb of Burnaby. I got a job as a stage hand at Ken Stouffer's Cave Supper Club downtown, where I met little Brenda Lee, Dennis Day, and the still-blond boy wonder, Wayne Newton, with a retinue of prostitutes in tow (they could have been bodyguards). At the Cave, I fell in love with the gorgeous Kim Sisters, Sue, Aija and Mia -- they offered me a job as an equipment handler (they played a truckload full of instruments) and for the life of me I still don't know why I didn't take it. Their West Side Story repertoire was superb. All very exciting, yet my life had become aimless again.
Maybe this would be a good time to visit my family and friends back in Holland, I thought. Although I had saved a little money, I didn't have nearly enough for an airplane ticket. I started visiting the merchant ships in the port of Vancouver looking for a job, any job. No luck. Nobody was hiring a landlubber.
By the early summer I convinced a friend to hitchhike to San Francisco with me. We would find a ship there and work our way to Europe, linger on the beaches of the French Riviera and stroll the streets of Paris. While in San Francisco, waiting for a ship that would take us to Europe, we would visit all of the famous topless Go-Go bars on North Beach.
CALIFORNIA, JUNE 1965
When we arrived in San Francisco, we decided to first spend a few days relaxing. In a rented Plymouth Barracuda we drove south to San Jose and Santa Cruz, where we set up camp near the beach in an old tent I had brought from Holland. We whiled away the days "cruising" the beach and singing along with the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and the Hondels, from Help Me, Rhonda to Little Honda.
Two weeks later, after returning the car in San Francisco, we were broke. The friend, blaming me for this misfortune, said goodbye. He was going back to Canada.
I placed a collect call to my mother. Unfortunately, they were also in a financial bind, but she said that she would wire me ten dollars -- the fee for doing so was more than the amount she sent. I got a job as a dishwasher at a home for derelicts near Golden Gate Park. It paid very little, but at least I had a place to sleep.
Remembering my purpose for coming to California, I began walking the piers of the harbor. I was told that my best bet for finding work was to register at the Norwegian shipping office, which I did. I lied about my experience and told them I was a cook. Did I have any documents to prove that, they asked. Sorry, I replied, I had lost them.
Every day I checked in to see if anything had opened up. Every day it was the same reply: check again tomorrow. I went to a pawn shop on Market Street and said goodbye to most of my belongings, including my watch and tent. When I walked out, I bumped into a kissing gay couple. When they saw me staring at them, one quipped, "I'm not gay, my husband is." I didn't get the joke until much later.
Two more weeks went by. I had lost my "job" at the derelict home and had begun sleeping in sleazy all-night movie theaters. Then the Norwegian shipping office informed me that they had found me a job. They gave me twenty dollars in cash and a Greyhound bus ticket to San Diego, where my ship was docked. I was rescued, I had money, and a means to get back to Europe. Another week in San Francisco and I would have become a Flower Child in Golden Gate Park -- spaced out and grooving.
When I got on the bus, I realized that I didn't have any baggage, not even a toothbrush. I literally didn't have a pot to piss in.
The following morning I boarded the ship and reported to the steward, as I had been instructed to do. An hour later we left port and six hours later the crew found out that I couldn't cook. By that time it was too late to turn around and dispose of me, and I was reassigned to deck work.
Going to sea is a moment of magic. As we slid out of San Diego harbor past the armada of navy ships, I looked out at the open sea, beckoning. The shoreline disappeared in the distance. I didn't care if I ever came back. Such is the magnetism of the sea. The umbilical cord had been broken.
I learned that we were going to Kobe, Japan. Oh well, at least I was being fed and had a place to sleep. From the steward I bought some toilet articles, a carton of duty-free Camels and a couple of T-shirts.
I had the least desirable cabin on the ship: smack in the middle on the aft-deck, directly above the propellor. It was terribly noisy and there was so much vibration that it rattled my teeth. On stormy nights it was worse. The violent waves would lift the stern out of the water, and the propellor, freed from any water resistance, would spin crazily out of control. I literally had to hang on to the sides of my bunk when the stern came crashing down again. It probably contributed to my dislike of roller coasters.
Although the officers were all Norwegian, my fellow shipmates were a motley crew, a virtual United Nations: Filipino prison escapees, refugees from African and Middle Eastern nations I had never heard of, cartoonish-like sailors from Finland and Denmark, a Clark Gable look-alike from Buenos Aires, a deaf-mute, and to balance things out, an American former teacher from Long Beach, California. In keeping things simple, everyone was assigned a nickname (being the only Dutchman, I was called Holland). We spoke a kind of pidgin English with a smattering of Scandinavian thrown in, vastly more practical than Esperanto.
To this day I do not know what their real names were, with the exception of Popeye. His name was Oskar Hansen, which I learned a dozen years later, when I by chance ran into him at Yokohama Station. He invited me to dinner at his home in the suburbs, where I met for the first time his wife Yoshi and their two small children. They appeared to be a cozy and secure family, and we did very little rehashing of the past.
The days at sea were spent picking and scraping never-ending rust, or when nobody was looking, simply painting over the rust. From Popeye, an able-bodied seaman (AB) from Norway, I learned how to splice the heavy manila ropes with a spike and mallet. Finland - a bald, bearded and bronzed veteran AB - taught me how to rig up a scaffolding and heave it over the side. We worked in two 4-hour shifts a day. During the night shift I had look-out duty on the foredeck. If I spotted the lights of another ship, I was to report it to the bridge by ringing the bell from one to three times, depending on the ship's location. In the middle of the Pacific that was very rare indeed. We once passed by a couple of Japanese trawlers that were bouncing up and down the waves. One moment you saw them, the next moment they were gone. Pretty gutsy to be out there in such little boats. Most of our free time was sheer boredom, probably the reason why so many sailors are heavy drinkers.
We had a few stormy days, but since we took the southerly route it wasn't all that bad. The storms brought out schools of flying fish, and it was amazing how high and far they could fly. Some of the guys brought out nets and tried to catch them, but they were quite clever in evading obstacles.
About once a day at midnight we set the ship's clocks back one hour (sometimes two), and when we crossed the International Date Line, we simply moved the calendar ahead one day. If it had been my birthday, there would have been no way to celebrate it, because it never happened. Living 25-hour days makes time drag. We also had GMT clocks, but they were never changed.
The weather grew warmer as we neared land and I had begun sleeping outside on top of the aft deck, where I had placed my mattress. On moonless nights, it was magical to stare up at the billions and trillions of stars, numbers that Carl Sagan would later confirm for me. You could see forever. Just you and the universe. Far more inspiring for contemplating the meaning of life than any hallucinogenic substance back in San Francisco. Now let's see now, all those stars are particles of dust in the armpit of an ant. That's it, I'm living in the armpit of an ant!
JAPAN, AUGUST 1965
By the time we reached Kobe, Clark Gable, a self-proclaimed expert on romance, and Popeye, married to a Japanese girl in Yokohama, had adequately briefed me on what to expect: girls, girls, girls. In later years, I would feel shamed to admit that this was one of the reasons I fell in love with Japan, but in these early days of sowing my oats it surely contributed to the interest I've had in that part of the world.
When we docked at this busy port, there was a hum of activity. Customs and immigration officials, shipping agents, stevedores, chandlers, longshoremen and women, many of them elderly and clad in baggy "pajamas," their feet stuffed into tight tabi (Japanese socks), swarmed all over the ship. I noticed that many of the men relieved themselves in public without any concern for being seen. They peed against buildings, trees, and into the water. Must be a shortage of toilets, I concluded. It didn't help either that the crew had locked all of the ship's toilets.
I also wondered why some of the Japanese were wearing surgical masks. Perhaps because of the pollution, I thought, or maybe they suffered from some terrible disease. Later in the city I saw many others wearing masks. When I asked Popeye about it, he told me that the masked people were suffering from a cold and that it was a courtesy not to spread it to others.
Another weird thing I noticed was that Japanese cats didn't have tails. "The Japanese cut them off when they're still kittens," Popeye informed me. "Why would they do that?" I asked. "I don't know," Popeye replied, "Maybe it's some kind of superstition." Popeye turned out to be wrong. Even though the Japanese are quite superstitious, the tailless cats that I saw were bred that way.
When I found an elderly longshoreman worker napping on my mattress on the aft deck, I told the bosun (boatswain) about it. He walked over to the poor unsuspecting soul and kicked him off the mattress. When I got upset over this treatment, the bosun shrugged and said, "That's the only language they understand." Nice guy, the bosun.
The bargirls, or B-girls, were what sailors lived for in those days of early post-war Japan. The dollar was pegged at 360 yen, and even on a lowly deck boy's budget was it possible to enjoy the finer things in life.
That first night in Kobe I finally lost my virginity. Twenty of us piled into a caravan of taxis that took us to the port's "amusement center." Most of us went to a bar recommended by Clark Gable, while the officers entered a somewhat classier cabaret across the street. Officers and crew rarely frequented the same establishments, I learned.
The bar we entered was a madhouse. There were some thirty bargirls, or hostesses as they were called in the fancier places, and they crawled all over us. Clark Gable had one sitting on either side of him and one on his lap. Finland wasn't doing so badly either. He was "dancing" with two of them while the jukebox played You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' over and over.
"Hey Mama-san," Clark Gable yelled, "This here is Holland. He's still a cherry-boy." Mama-san grinned at me. "Aa sou desu-ka? Cherry-boy very nice. You numba one. You buy drink for Hiroko. Maybe tomorrow you no more cherry-boy." Hiroko sat on my lap, put her arms around my neck, and nibbled on my ear. Hiroko was obviously the cherry-boy specialist.
I quickly got the hang of how the system worked. The girls made their money by getting you to buy them highly overpriced watered-down drinks, in some cases just pop or iced tea. The more drinks you bought them, the more accommodating they would be. Some of them would sleep with you, but only if they liked you. No guarantees. There was usually at least one older woman, the mama-san or mother hen, who would protect the younger ones, the chicks.
In the mid-sixties, Japan was not the economic power she is today. There was still rampant poverty, especially for the young women in the rural areas. Some had lost their fathers in the war and needed to support the remaining family. For others, it was the only way to bring some glamor into their lives.
Japanese hostesses are an enigma. They still exist, but nowadays they are the domain of the Japanese businessman. In the mid-seventies, my good friend, Bob Wallace, would write this about them:
"[The Japanese] hostess is many things. She is a pamperer, a teaser, a counselor, but most important she is a woman who makes herself available to men so that they may relax and enjoy themselves. She may offer just the right mood for business negotiation that would be difficult in the more formal realms of the office. Or she may simply provide the means for a man to escape from the daily routine of his structured life and to regain his sense of being a man among other men. In another sense, she offers an amorous rapport which invites the customer to play the role of seducer. This sometimes leads to a date outside the cabaret, but for the most part simply puts a little swagger back into a man's steps. She is there to make men laugh, to make them forget themselves, to give them a woman's loving attention which is so important. This is her job and it is how she earns a living."
"Hey Holland," yelled Clark Gable, "Are you coming?" I looked at Hiroko, who nodded. "Good ruck, cherry-boy!" said Mama-san. We walked out of the bar. Finland and his girl followed. Clark Gable led the way with three girls. "You know, Holland," he said, "I've had "double-deckers" before, but this is my first time to go for a "triple-decker." I'm a bit like you tonight. It's like being a cherry-boy all over again." That made all the girls giggle. "Ooh, you sooo sukebe!" one of them said. I later learned that meant "naughty." I'll say!
We walked several blocks and entered a "love hotel," one of Japan's finest institutions. Today, they are littered all over Japan, with many of them having quite unique and grandiose decors. Our love hotel was a simple inn. When we slid open the front door, we were greeted by another mama-san who welcomed us profusely on her knees. "Take your shoes off, Holland," said Finland. After putting on slippers, we followed mama-san down the darkened hallways where she showed us to our rooms.
There were no locks or door handles in this place. Mama-san simply slid open the shoji door, and leaving our slippers in the hallway, we entered the tatami-matted room. Mama-san softly slid the door closed behind us. There was a window covered with shoji. (When I later tried to peek out through the window, there was just a solid wall one foot from my nose.) When I looked to my right, I saw a fluffy and frilly futon, and just beyond it was an alcove, tokonoma, with a scroll of a waterfall and birds. Inside the alcove stood a large Chinese vase. I must have spent five minutes taking all of this in. I had forgotten about Hiroko.
The reverie was broken when all of a sudden mama-san appeared with a trayful of cups, dishes and a pot of hot water. She busily prepared setting out the dishes and cups and poured us green tea. She then handed us oshibori, so nice and hot, the absolute antidote to a sweltering day. Mama-san was wearing a kimono and she moved around the room by sliding on her knees. What was she doing? She moved to the head of the futon and corrected a slight imperfection, an unseen crease in the bed cover. She checked the kleenex, hidden away in a beautifully carved wooden box. She made sure that the shoji covering the window were perfectly closed. She removed a speck of imaginary dust from the tatami. Finally, when she was all satisfied, she smiled. "O-biiru-wa dou desu-ka? Nomimasen-ka?" she asked, "Mochiron o-furo-wa itsu-mo douzo."
I was living in a fable. When Hiroko pointed out that I should pay mama-san for the room, I simply handed her my wallet. Hiroko took care of things after that. She took me by the hand, clutching our yukata, and walked me down to the basement into a small dressing room. Beyond it was a glass door, all steamed up. Hiroko began undressing and for the first time in my life did I see a woman in her full nakedness. I just stood there looking at her beauty, somewhat embarrassed and at the same time very excited. "You really are cherry-boy, aren't you? Here, I help you," Hiroko said while handing me a small towel. As she undressed me, she giggled when I tried to hide my "boyhood" from her with the towel. "Come," she said, "Let's go o-furo."
Except for the ceiling, the bathroom was all tiled. A small waterfall gushed steaming hot water into the filled tub, much larger and deeper than I had ever seen. Hiroko pulled over two small wooden stools and nodded for me to sit on one of them. She dipped a small wooden bucket into the tub, and gently poured the scalding water over my feet. "Your hands," she said. I held out my hands, and she poured another bucket-full of water over my forearms and hands. "Atsui desu-ka? Too hot?" she asked. It really was, but I shook my head. As if she had read my mind, she partly turned on the cold-water faucet over the bath. Each time she brought up the bucket, she would add just a little bit of the cold water, test it with her hand for perfection, and then pour it right over me. "Water must be hot," she said, "Today hot day. Hot day and hot o-furo makes you cool." Not quite understanding that logic, I nodded. It did feel wonderful.
Hiroko turned off the cold-water tap, stepped into the bath with the little towel placed nicely folded on her head, and immersed herself up to her chin. "Come," she said. I stepped into the water and sat at the edge of the bath. "I feel like a lobster," I said. "Is okay, is okay. You come inside. Feel good." I slowly, oh so slowly, lowered my body into the boiling inferno. My boyhood temporarily forgotten, I followed Hiroko's example of putting the towel on top of my head. My buns finally hit bottom. "Mr. Lobster, what does it feel like to be boiled alive?" "Well Fred, you bring up an interesting point. The boiling part is not all that bad. It's when they start eating me that really bugs me." How true.
At first, I looked upon it at as another military exercise, just to see how much torture one can take. But when I looked at Hiroko, smiling Hiroko, so content and so relaxed, I had to smile too. The Japanese sense of the o-furo is a return to the womb. It's totally equivalent to looking up at billions of stars and wondering who you are. "Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are." Hiroko giggled.
After a few minutes we were sitting on the stools again, and Hiroko shampooed my hair, twice. She then placed her towel on her thigh and vigorously soaped it. For the next half hour she scrubbed me from top to bottom. It was as if I had never washed my body before. Every toe and every finger was carefully attended to. She carefully used her towel to clean out my ears, and even tried to remove the blackheads on my nose. When she gently soaped my boyhood, I had to close my eyes from the pleasure of it all. "He very happy," Hiroko said.
With all the soaping and scrubbing done, we rinsed ourselves with the wash bucket and went for another soak in the tub. This time I had no trouble at all with the temperature. My skin was tingling pink after Hiroko dried me with the rinsed and squeeze-dried wash towel. How practical, I thought, that little towel. I was now the cleanest man on earth and I no longer felt embarrassed with my nakedness. "From now on, I'm going to travel the world without my clothes on," I informed Hiroko. "Neva happen," said Hiroko.
Clad in yukata, we returned to our room where two ice-cold Kirin beer were waiting for us. She poured me a glass, and I poured one for her. There was a small radio in the room and she tried to tune it to FEN, the U.S. armed forces radio network and the only one broadcasting in English, but I shook my head. I wanted nothing to do with the "real" world. "I want to be in Japan," I told her. She switched frequencies, and finally found one that she liked, a station playing what sounded like French chansons with Japanese lyrics.
"I think you Greek god," said Hiroko in the morning. "Why?" I asked. "You never stop," she said, "You sleep five minutes and then you more." She was right of course. Never, ever, had I experienced anything like this before. Never, ever, was I able to repeat what I did that night. Which is probably just as well, because it probably would have killed me before the year was out. My boyhood had become my manhood. No longer was I a cherry-boy.
Back on the ship, I slept most of the day and in the evening I considered visiting Hiroko again. She had been a good teacher, but in the morning she had looked much older than I had initially thought her to be. She had been a little rough around the edges. Instead, I went bar-hopping near the shopping area of Motomachi. Every place I entered I was besieged by girls asking me to buy them drinks. When I refused again and again, their demeanor changed. "Kichi. You stingy, you numba ten," they said. Finally, in the fourth or fifth bar, I met the girl of my dreams. It was immediately obvious that she was different from all the other bargirls I had seen. She sat alone and did not join her friends in pestering me for drinks. I caught her looking at me, but every time I looked at her, she shifted her gaze downward. Finally, I mustered up enough courage to walk toward her table. "Can I buy you a drink?" I asked. She looked up and smiled. "If you like," she said shyly.
Her name was Machiko, she informed me, and she was seventeen-years-old. She lived in Osaka and had only been working for two weeks. "You speak English very well," I said. The compliment was sincere, because her English was indeed quite good, and it didn't contain any of the vulgar slang so common with the other girls. "Is not so good," she said, "I study very hard every day. Some day I want to go to America, or maybe Canada. Canada is very beautiful. What is your name?" I told her, and also that my friends on the ship called me Holland. "That's funny," she said, "If your name is Oranda, than my name is Japan." She giggled at that. "I like Jack much better. It's a nice name." So is Machiko, I told her.
We talked for hours, like we had been friends all our lives. I told her about Holland and my crazy friend Tedde, and all about life in Canada. "Maybe I'll come and visit you in Canada," she said. I told her that would be wonderful. Just before closing time, I asked to go out with her. "No, I can't," she said, "I must go home to my family. I cannot miss my last train." Seeing my dejected face, she put her hands over mine. "It's ok, Jack-san. I can meet you tomorrow in the daytime. I'll show you Kyoto. It's very beautiful." We left the bar together and she pointed out a coffee shop where we would meet the following morning. During the cab ride back to the ship, I knew that I was in love. (Note to reader: please stop laughing and shaking your head.)
Hand in hand, we strolled the Motomachi shopping arcade. Upon noticing that my jeans kept slipping down, she asked, "Don't you have a belt?" I shook my head, embarrassed. A few minutes later she darted into one of the stores and bought me a belt. "Why do you work in a bar?" I asked her. "I work there only two nights a week. It pays for my English class. I want to visit you in Canada, remember?" We stopped at a vendor who sold us two bowls of shaved ice. Mine was covered with red strawberry-flavored syrup. Hers was green, the flavor of melon. She gave me a taste of hers and I gave her a taste of mine. So simple, yet so deliciously refreshing on such a hot and humid day. "Do you have a boyfriend?" I asked her. "No boyfriend, just friend-boys," she replied, "Jack-san? Do you have a girlfriend?" I smiled. "I don't even have a friend-girl," I replied. She squeezed my hand. "That's not true," she said, "I am your friend-girl." When I asked her if she would be my girlfriend, she just giggled.
We took the electric train to the ancient capital of Kyoto. At first I was disappointed to see that it was just another large city with heavy traffic and street cars moving about under the sweltering late-August sun. But later, as we walked up the climbing narrow street with the many little shops toward the Kiyomizu Temple, that feeling disappeared. She bought some omamori, talismans, and we tied them to a tree.
We spent several hours at Kiyomizu, contently sitting on tatami overlooking the city and sipping hot sake. We played a little "pretend" game. I was Lord Yamamoto, ruler of Kyoto, and she was Lady Fujiwara, my evil mistress. In the evening we huddled together in the comfort of a futon in a small inn near Kiyomizu, where we continued our little game. We made love only once, very gentle and very caring, so unlike the bronco ride of the night before. Later, with Machiko sleeping like a baby, I heard a peculiar sound coming from the street. I slid aside the shoji to peer outside. It was a vendor pushing his cart of steaming noodles. I am at home, I thought, and dozed off into the most peaceful sleep I had in years.
The following morning Lord Yamamoto and Lady Fujiwara walked the "nightingale" floors of Nijo Castle, once the home of the mighty Tokugawa shoguns. The floors would squeak to warn of intruders. Machiko explained that some of the inner sanctum rooms were reserved for the shogun's mistresses. Ah, if only I had been born a shogun!
In the afternoon Machiko had to return to her family in Osaka. I went along for the ride on the electric train to Amagasaki Station. Like Tokyo, Osaka is a flat metropolis. It doesn't have the charm of Kobe, nestled peacefully below the sloping hills of Mt. Rokko. The traffic was maddening! If it hadn't been for Machiko, I would have been hopelessly lost. I was amazed at how few people spoke English.
We had lunch at a small restaurant. Before we entered, Machiko pulled me towards the large display window where all of the restaurant's menu items were laid out with perfect replicas. They looked good enough to eat. Not being able to read the signs accompanying the replicas, I randomly pointed at one. It turned out to be katsudon, a bowl of rice with deep-fried pork, egg and onions on top, which is still today one of my favorite dishes.
Inside, Machiko showed me how to use chopsticks, and it turned out to be easier than I had thought. When the waitress brought us our food, it looked exactly like the replicas in the display window.
Knowing that our ship would be leaving the following day, Machiko gave me her address in Osaka, and I gave her the forwarding address of the shipping company in Oslo. We promised to write each other. When she hailed a cab, I almost got hit by the rear door which automatically swung open. At the ferry terminal, we said goodbye. I tried to give her a quick kiss, but she turned away in embarrassment. "People don't do that in Japan," she said. But her eyes were moist, and so were mine. "I love you, Machiko," I said, "I really do." With a barely audible voice, she said, "Goodbye." With that, she let go of my hand, turned around and walked away, her head bowed. Oh God, I wanted to embrace her and spend the rest of my life with her. A little voice inside my head said: Don't prolong this, get a grip on yourself. I turned around and walked into the ferry terminal building.
The ferry, bound for Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku, took me back to Kobe. Feeling quite lonely and love struck, I was sipping a can of Sapporo beer outside on the upper deck of the ferry when I was "discovered" by a group of uniformed elementary school children from Shikoku.
Many of them had never seen a Westerner before, and they eyed me curiously. Word about the weird-looking alien quickly spread throughout the ferry and before long there were some 200 youngsters crowding around me. They were giggling, touching me, trying to shake hands, muttering things I didn't understand. Finally, one pulled out a pen and scrap of paper and gestured me for my autograph. Before long, I was signing my name on whatever they could find: textbooks, postcards, shirts, even bare skin.
Suddenly, a little boy pushed his way through the crowd. With a big smile on his face, he said, "Yankee, go home." He had no idea what it meant, but was very proud that he knew some English. When I got off the ferry near the port tower of Kobe, the children stayed on to return to their homes in Shikoku. As I stood on the pier watching the ferry move, they all stood lining the railings, happily jumping and waving at me. In unison they said: "Sayonara, Jacku-san!" I had made 200 little friends.
Some of our cargo, the wrangled remains of what once were Detroit's finest cars, had been unloaded, and we set sail for Okayama. Who says that GM, Ford and Chrysler had no success in exporting their product to Japan? They were already doing that in 1965!
We entered the excruciating beauty of the Seto Naikai, or the Inland Sea. Literally translated, it means "the sea within the straits." Sheltered between the three main islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, it is virtually landlocked.
I can't find the words to do it justice, so I quote the words of the well-known author on Japan, Donald Ritchie, in his book, The Inland Sea:
...traveling westward along its length, one feels the shores pressing close, as though it were a large river rather than a small sea. On the right are the mountains of Honshu -- in the foreground, low hills ranged one behind the other and then, behind them, the snow-capped spine of the country itself, the Japan Alps. On the left are first the sharp and Chinese-looking mountains of the island of Shikoku, so different that it appears another land, and then the flat coasts of Kyushu. This shallow sea is a valley among these mountainous islands...
Gracefully arising from this protected, stormless sea, are hundreds of small islands, many covered with forest. The Seto Naikai has been called the Aegean of the East, [but] a castaway, given the choice between a Greek and a Japanese island, would swim toward the latter.
...flat as a meadow, [it] looks domesticated. From its surface rise the islands, fingers and noses of some shallowly submerged range, but softened and rounded - female mountains of unexampled loveliness, all loins and haunches, skirts of sand of purest white, fields of deepest green, and black, black bushes. These islands, even those on which no one lives, seem civilized, or at least as though waiting for civilization.
In Okayama, where we unloaded some more Detroit scrap, I didn't join my shipmates in their endless bar runs. I had been smitten by this land. I also was in love with Machiko, and I somehow wanted to remain "faithful" to her, although it was probably doubtful that she was doing the same for me.
Instead, I became a tourist and visited Korakuen Garden, one Japan's most celebrated gardens, and Okayama Castle, where I pretended to be Lord Yamamoto again. This time Lady Fujiwara was not with me.
Many years later I thought that I had been lucky in the manner I had arrived in Japan. Had I first arrived at the old Haneda airport or later, at the New Narita International Airport, my initial impression would have been awful. Machiko and the Seto Naikai were most likely the inspiration that would eventually have me spend more than a decade in this paradoxical land.
Popeye and I met several Japanese fishermen. One had once been a merchant seaman and his English was good. We jumped at the chance when they invited us to go night fishing with them. At three in the morning we climbed on board a weird, junk-like vessel. There were nets everywhere, as well as floats made of clear glass. Smack in the middle of the deck was a large black-iron pot with slowly boiling water, like a witch brew.
After the men had brought on board their supplies, including several cases of sake, we set off. There was a bit of a chill in the air, and one of the men filled several earthen flasks from a large bottle of sake. Suspended from a piece of rope, he lowered the flasks into the boiling water, careful not to submerge them completely.
At the mouth of the bay, close to shore, the captain slowed his vessel down to a crawl. Under a full moon, two of the men were peering overboard into the dark water. They slowly lowered what looked like spears. When one of the spears was brought back up, a wriggling octopus was dangling from the end.
The octopuses (octopi?) disappeared into the boiling cauldron. The captain put the engines in full throttle and headed out to open sea. The spray from the breaking waves was exhilarating. The captain stood smiling behind the wheel. His flashing white teeth made him look like a carbon copy of Zorba the Greek, as portrayed by Anthony Quinn. He smoked a pipe, very unusual for a Japanese. The man was in his element and I envied him.
An hour out of port we slowed down and Popeye and I helped the men lower the "floating" nets. Then we waited, drinking piping hot sake and chewing on the rubbery octopus. One of the men brought out his guitar and we listened to the chanteys of Old Japan. As the sake began to flow more freely, the songs became more boisterous. Popeye and I were invited to sing, and we sang some filthy sailor verses at the top of our lungs, "....this is number four and I took her on the floor....and this is number nine and I took her from behin'....."
Just before sunrise, we began hauling in the nets. Fish of all kinds clung to them, as well as crab and squid. There was mackerel and a fish called hamachi, which is delicious as sushi. Zorba took one of the smaller fish and, still squirming in his calloused hands, he bit into it. "Gooo..," he said, holding up one of his thumbs. Some of the crab and fish went into the pot. Breakfast time! Come and get it!
Popeye and I were skunkered as the reddish sun peeked over the horizon. Hot sake glides down the throat oh so smoothly, but it carries with it a deadly punch. On the way back to Okayama, we gave back to the sea what we had taken from it.
From Okayama we traveled the remainder of the beautiful Inland Sea to the port of Moji, at the north end of the island of Kyushu. It was an overnight trip and the seascape around us was dotted with little fishing boats, creating a thousand points of light. Years later, many of these islands would be spoiled by spanning bridges between them.
A stray dog had somehow found its way on board the ship. It was an ugly mutt, nothing like the beautiful Akita dogs of Japan. Because of his habit to sniff everyone's crotch, we named him "Sukebe," the Japanese word for "naughty." Sukebe stayed with us until he mysteriously disappeared in the Philippines.
Moji is the closest point between Kyushu and Honshu. One can clearly see the city of Shimonoseki across the narrow Kammon strait that separates the two main islands. Because of the very strong tidal currents, navigation is tricky.
The ship's agent brought a letter from Machiko, together with a picture of her. She told me that she missed me and wanted to know when she could see me again. As in Okayama, I didn't join the boys in their nightly amorous adventures in Moji. They teased me, saying that only sissies were faithful to their loved ones. "Grow up, kid," they said, "Your Machiko is probably in bed with a Greek sailor right at this moment." That hurt.
I locked myself in my cabin and wrote a letter to Lady Fujiwara, telling her that we would be in Japan for another two weeks. I gave her the rest of our itinerary and hoped that she perhaps could visit me in one of the remaining ports. I didn't have a picture of myself, so I simply drew a rough picture of my own face. I also told her again that I loved her. My first real love letter. Signed with love and kisses from Lord Yamamoto.
We were in Moji several days, but I didn't go ashore. There was nothing of any interest to see. Moji is part of a large industrial complex, which is now known as Kita-Kyushu. All of our remaining scrap iron was unloaded here, and after hosing down the hatches, we would be taking on new cargo in Nagoya, Yokohama, and Otaru in the northern island of Hokkaido.
By the time we headed back up the coast towards Nagoya, the bosun informed me that I had been promoted from deck boy to ordinary seaman (OS). That meant that I could move out of the propellor chamber into a cabin farther forward. It also meant that at sea one 4-hour shift would be spent at the wheel. I'll never forget the initial thrill of steering a 20,000-ton ship. If my mother could see me now!
In Nagoya the streets were unusually wide and well-organized, very unlike a Japanese city. I remained faithful, despite continuous teasing, and visited Nagoya Castle to return to the dreams of Lord Yamamoto. I also learned how to play pachinko, a popular Japanese pinball game. I would stand for hours, until my feet hurt, hypnotized as the little steel balls spun before me, occasionally opening up the tulips that would bring me bonus balls. The loud music blared forth, as if trying to drown out the sounds emanating from the hundreds of machines lining the aisles of the parlor. Every so often, a machine would go berserk. A red light on top would begin flashing, a siren would go off, and hundreds of the little balls would come spilling out from below. Jackpot!
Pachinko is therapeutic. It is a form of Zen, a sense of Mu, nothingness. The surrounding din - ringing bells, balls striking wood or glass, spilling into metal trays, the marching music, flashing lights everywhere - engulfs you and puts you into a trance. You're in a cocoon, oblivious to the world. All thinking stops. The spinning balls become a blur, and the brain shuts down.
Besides horse and motorboat racing, pachinko was probably the only other form of legalized gambling in Japan. Balls can be exchanged for prizes -- cigarettes, canned goods, chewing gum - and the prize sections of some of the larger parlors resembled small supermarkets.
I traded my balls in for cigarettes, obscure brands with such names as Ikoi and Golden Bat, and another I've forgotten the name of, except to remember that it had a hollow filter, a pretend-filter.
Later I learned that I could've sneaked into some back alley and exchanged my prizes for money. This was illegal, of course, and it wasn't very surprising to learn that many of the pachinko halls were controlled by yakuza, Japanese gangsters. Each machine was slightly different from the next one. Every night, after the joint closes, a "nail" man, called kugishi, would make minute adjustments to certain nails in each machine. All machines were emptied and a new number of balls were put in the next morning. During the day, the number of balls per machine would vary according to wins and losses. In the book A Hundred Things Japanese, Thomas I. Elliott described Pachinko as follows:
...the weight of the balls can tip a machine just enough to affect the direction or bounce of the balls. Professional players, many of them ex-kugishi, adjust the reserve of balls in the feeder tray in order to offset the weight of the balls inside, thereby achieving the ideal nail bend. They "read" the nails and jockey the lever before they pachinko a single ball. Some pachinko parlors bar these men, for they bankrupt a joint with one ball. Some kugishi and professionals have national reputations...
I never became a professional player, or pachipro as the Japanese called them, but I must have spent several hundred hours of my lifetime playing the game. Years later, the machines were automated, and you no longer had to flip the spring-loaded lever with your thumb. That took all of the fun out of it.
I was at the wheel when we entered foggy Tokyo Bay. Suddenly, without warning, we came to an abrupt, grinding halt -- the ship shuddering violently. I had steered us onto a submerged garbage dump! It took six tug boats and four hours to pull us off. I was afraid that I would be demoted back to deck boy but it was the third mate who was blamed for veering off the charted channel.
In Yokohama we stayed at anchor just off a little park, named Yamashita Park. Behind the park, near the observation tower with the letters TOYOPET written on it, was the Grand Hotel. It was the same hotel where my grandfather had stayed in the late twenties on his way to Indonesia, I remembered. After taking the taxi boat ashore, I peeked into the still stately European-style dining room, and imagined my grandfather sitting at one of the tables, writing postcards to the family back home.
Over a Kirin beer in a Chinatown bar, Popeye had convinced me. "You can't stay celibate for the rest of your life," he said, "You don't even know whether you'll ever be back in Kobe again, let alone Japan. Put her out of your mind." He was right, of course. I had been terribly naive.
So, that night, I fell "in love" again. Nothing to it, really. We had gone to a hostess club called "123" on Yojohan-cho or "Four-and-a-half" street, a narrow alley running parallel to Isezaki-cho, at that time Yokohama's best-known shopping street. It wasn't the street's real name, but was nicknamed that way because of the little rooms where one could engage in hanky-panky. Rooms in Japan are measured by the number of tatami mats they occupy. Thus, a yojohan was a small 4.5-mat room, just large enough to do you-know-what.
This time her name was Fumie. Compared to the other girls in the bar and just like Machiko in Kobe, she was shy and unassuming. She didn't pester me to buy her watered-down drinks. She told me about her younger sister who had a yakuza boyfriend, and her widowed mother who lived in a slum in Tsurumi Ward. And about her older brother, who attended a merchant marine training school across the bay in Chiba.
The following night I returned to Club 123 alone, and asked her what time she got off work, and would it be alright if I waited for her. She nodded and that night I forgot about Machiko.
The following morning Fumie took me sightseeing. (I considered rewriting this manuscript and refer to the bargirls as tourist guides that I met in a bar.) We visited the Hikawa Maru, once a passenger steamer crossing the Pacific, now a floating restaurant and tourist trap. We bought some yakisoba (fried noodles) from one of the vendors and sat by the fountain in Yamashita park. I pointed at our ship, sitting calmly at anchor.
We struck up a conversation with a couple of U.S. sailors who invited us for a beer at the Zebra Club, just a short walk away. The Zebra Club was exclusively for the U.S. armed forces. The two sailors took us in as guests, which was allowed. The club had both a lounge and a restaurant, and there was nightly entertainment. The food and drinks were ridiculously cheap, U.S. dollars only.
It was a Rest and Relaxation (R&R) establishment. Many of the men there were serving in Vietnam and were temporarily in Japan on R&R or sick leave. Their portrayals were both horrifying and fascinating. Although the conflict had been festering for several years, as far as the Americans were concerned the real fighting had begun only that summer, including the bombing of North Vietnam.
I recalled the horrors of war from the stories my mother told me about the Second World War, and the four years my grandparents spent locked up in camps in Indonesia. Yet it was hard to imagine actually being in a war. I didn't realize at the time that I was less than five months away from finding out.
When we left the Zebra Club, I invited Fumie to come and visit our ship. At first she was hesitant, but I finally coaxed her onto a taxi boat. Once on board the ship, I sneaked her into my cabin and just in the nick of time, and with great remorse, did I remove Machiko's picture from the wall above my bunk.
The next morning we were awakened by loud knocks on the door. "Holland, are you in there?" It was Wire, the ship's electrician. I unlocked the door and opened it a crack. Wire beamed at me. "Look who's he-e-ere.....," he drooled. My heart sank. Right behind him stood Machiko, her face aglow. I instantly aged several years. I tried closing the door, but Wire knew a good thing when he saw it, and cackling madly, he forced the door all the way open. Fumie, holding the sheet up over her shoulders, stared at Machiko. Machiko, eyes wide open and mouth agape, saw Fumie and dropped the bouquet of flowers she was holding. I sank to the floor.
"Come on, honey, Holland is busy right now," Wire said, taking the stunned Machiko by the shoulders, "Let me give you a guided tour of this great ship." I couldn't bear to watch as they walked away.
This shameful moment has stayed with me for the rest of my life. I never got a chance to explain -- what was there to explain? That I was a total jerk? A low life sailor with a girl in every port?
That night, Fumie and I went to Peanuts on Isezaki-cho, a loud place with rock band after rock band. Some of Japan's greatest stars were to make their debut at Peanuts. Several tables away sat Machiko, with Wire crawling all over her. She was drunk and crying. At one point, she threw her half-filled glass at me. I was truly disappointed that it missed me. It just skidded harmlessly past me on the cockroach-ridden carpet. Oh God, what had I done? I wanted to walk over to her, cuddle her, tell her that everything was alright, but I didn't have the courage. The Lady Fujiwara fantasy laid shattered at my feet. The band struck up their rendition of Eve Of Destruction. How appropriate.
Fumie and the other girls in Club 123 taught me the flower card game of hanafuda, or koi-koi as they sometimes called it. It is played with a deck of 48 small, thick cards depicting flowers and birds. The cards are divided into four suits of twelve cards. Each of these twelve cards represents one of the months of the year and is worth anywhere from one to twenty points. The game is fast-paced and lively as you slap down the cards to match a suit. I later learned that there are some thirty variations of the game and that the players beforehand agree on all the rules of the game.
I returned to the Zebra Club again and read in the Stars and Stripes that there were now 125,000 troops in, or on their way to Vietnam. Also, President Johnson had signed into law a bill making it a crime to destroy or mutilate a draft card. B-52 bombers were attacking Viet Cong strongholds in South Vietnam. The war was heating up and over endless Budweisers the GI's told me that the situation was much worse than we were led to believe. Charlie, GI slang for Viet Cong, was everywhere, they claimed. You couldn't tell Charlie from the other gooks. In order to distinguish friend from foe, one GI joked, you had to ask them, "Are you the enemy? If they say yes, then you quickly shoot the little fuckers."
We next set course for the northern island of Hokkaido, this time smartly avoiding the submerged garbage dump. Some snow had already fallen in Otaru, a small port city on the west coast of Hokkaido. I was amazed at the large number of Russian ships, and later in the evening, in a small night club, Popeye and I made friends with a couple of sailors from Leningrad. We were invited to their ship where we drank vodka and played chess into the wee hours of the morning. There is a camaraderie among merchant seamen that transcends all political boundaries.
On the morning of our departure from Otaru, in blowing snow, a 50-member orchestra played Auld Lang Syne as we pulled away from the pier. This was our last port in Japan and my heart ached for Machiko. I swore that I would return. As we sailed out to open sea, B.J. Thomas summed up my emotions when he sang I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.
We knew that we were leaving Japan, but we had no idea what our next port would be. Instructions from the ship's owners were to sail in the north-easterly direction of North America. It would be my longest time at sea without seeing land. One day a giant whale, about a third the size of our ship, swam alongside us for about six hours. It spouted water 30 to 40 feet into the air, while one large eye stared at us curiously. After ten days of cold and stormy seas, we received orders to change course for the Philippines.
That month I had the 8-to-12 shift, which is the most favored by sailors because it allows for fairly normal sleeping hours. I spent the evening shifts at the wheel, and since we were in the middle of the ocean, there was very little supervision. The mate on duty would provide you with the course at the beginning of the shift and then nod off in the chart room. On calm nights, I would activate the automatic pilot and stand outside on the bridge, chain smoking cigarettes. But when the seas were rough, the ship had to be steered manually. The excitement of being at the wheel had worn off and become a drudgery. The waves or currents throw the ship off course, and frequent corrections have to be made. It is common practice to try and keep the ship within 5 degrees of the desired course, although in heavy seas one wave may throw the ship around much more violently. After a while, you get lazy and allow more leeway. I probably added an extra day to our journey to the Philippines by letting the ship zigzag off course by as much as 20 degrees.
I frequently visited Popeye's cabin after the night shift. He had bought several cases of cheap Tory's whiskey (Suntory without the Sun) in Otaru and I felt obliged to help him consume it. I could speak of only one thing. Machiko. I told him all about our little fantasy and how much pain I felt about that horrible day in Yokohama, and how much I wanted to return to Japan. At first, he tried to console me. "It's part of being a sailor," he said, "Women cannot expect their sea-going men to keep their peckers behind lock and key. It's a fact of life. My wife never asks me about what I do in port. If your Machiko understands that, and if she really loves you, then she will take you back when you return." But when I finally asked Popeye to write a letter to Machiko on my behalf, he drew the line. "Holland, you're driving yourself and me nuts. That'll make it much worse," he said, "You should let it rest for now. Let time heal your wounds. I'll bet you a case of Tory's whiskey that by the time you get back to Japan, your feelings will have changed."
As the nights got warmer, I started sleeping out on deck again, staring up at the brilliance of the Universe. I had borrowed a copy of Donald Menzel's Field Guide to the Stars and Planets and I learned to identify the constellations as we moved from the northern to the southern sky. I picked a small constellation, shaped like an arrow, as my favorite. It eventually became a good-luck symbol, and being able to detect it lifted my spirits.
Finland suggested that we try trawling for shark. We "borrowed" a big chunk of meat from the freezer and fastened it to a large hook, which we dropped into the water from a 500-foot line. Several times a day one of us would check the line to make sure the bait was still there. We would also throw into the water smaller pieces of the bloodiest meat we could find. On the third day, Finland yelled, "We got one! We got one!" Several of the men tried pulling in the line, but because the ship was doing over 15 knots, there was just too much drag. "Tie it to a winch line!" the bosun yelled. Popeye and I ran to the nearest winch and as he swung out the boom and released the brake, I pulled the heavy steel cable towards Finland. There we fastened it to our thick fishing line. "Pull it in slowly," Finland warned Popeye, "or the line will snap." It took over an hour before we saw the large dorsal fin protruding in our wake. "Swing the boom out further," instructed the bosun, "Don't let him near the prop." It was huge, over twelve feet long. "Is he dead?" Cookie asked as we hauled him up on deck. Most of the crew had now gathered around. "Why don't you go and find out," someone suggested. "Hey Cookie, do you know how to make shark-fin soup?" Finland joked.
THE PHILIPPINES, OCTOBER 1965
Anchored in Manila Bay for clearance formalities, we were greeted by customs officials who asked us if we had any duty-free cigarettes to declare. Popeye had already told me to answer in the affirmative. "The officials will then offer to buy them from you and resell them in the city," he said, "If they catch you hiding cigarettes in your cabin, they will simply impound them."
Manila was a favorite sailor port in the sixties, as were Bangkok and Hong Kong. I won't go into any of the lurid details, but after five weeks at sea, a lot of money changed hands that first night in Manila, with very little of it spent on souvenirs. The men had long ago become tired of the ineffective yellow saltpeter pills, kindly provided by management in a big glass jar in the mess hall. I was told they were used to still the sexual urge.
The following morning, we left early to navigate our way past numerous islands and small vessels for the port of Davao in southern Mindanaoland. At night the fishermen would light bright lights to attract the fish and illuminate the seas all around us. Moving around them was like tiptoeing through the tulips. Our Filipino shipmates informed us that pirates were still roaming and terrorizing these waters. They knew because they had spent time in jail with them. To prove the point, they proudly bared their backs to show me their large tattoos of the Virgin Mary, which they said is how prisoners are branded in the Philippines.
After the hustle and bustle of Manila, I wasn't ready for what awaited us in the little port off Davao. It was early evening and all we could see was a white beach, a thick jungle background, and a short wooden dock, half the length of our ship and supported by thick poles in the water. On the beach itself was the outline of a large ramshackle hut, a jeep, and nothing else. As we slowly sided along the dock, lines were thrown overboard and local swimmers took them ashore and tied them to nearby palm trees. All of a sudden, before the ship had even been secured, bright lights and jukebox music blared forth from the hut on the beach. "Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy hang on," the music went. Some thirty young girls in minimal attire came running out of the hut and started dancing on the beach. About a dozen of our men stopped what they were doing, jumped overboard, and swam towards the beach. We had arrived in Paradise! It was party time! Only sixteen of us and thirty of them.
Unfortunately I had such a good time that I don't remember a thing of that night. All I know is that I woke up on the floor of the hut the following morning. Alongside me lay about ten of my passed-out mates. Hundreds of empty San Miguel beer bottles littered the floor. The girls were gone. The place was thrashed. That evening, though, it would all be restored so that the fun could be relived. We were to spend four days in Davao and I clearly remember both officers and crew pleading with the captain to sink the ship right there and then. We had found our reason for living. Why bother and go back to sea?
One of the hut girls offered to take me into Davao in a jeepney, a converted jeep dressed up like a Christmas tree. I blush to say that I spent the night with her in her "bedroom," a hammock strung between two palm trees. The trip into Davao opened my eyes in more ways than one. After traveling only about two miles we were stopped at a "checkpoint." Heavily armed "soldiers" politely asked me to pay a road toll. Confounded I turned to my "guide" and asked for her advice. She smiled sweetly and asked me how much I valued my life. Four or five checkpoints later we arrived at the outskirts of Davao. If, on a scale of one to ten, the contrast of the slums of L.A. and the opulence of Rodeo Drive rates a seven, then what I saw in Davao blows the scale all to hell. I came from the "happy hut" to looking at homes the size of the White House. Nothing in between, just the very rich and the very poor.
Nevertheless, I liked Davao, a dusty and poorly maintained town. In some ways it reminded me of the old Wild West. Bars were called saloons, and the signs outside asked patrons to check in their weapons before entering. This was not make-believe, because many Filipinos did carry weapons, and they did tend to use them in the heat of the moment. I probably had my best ever haircut in Davao, sitting in the middle of a dirt street, with chickens and a pig or two happily going about their business. I forgot the language we used to communicate, but as the barber carefully manipulated my thinning hair, we discussed the major problems of the world at the time. His son was in Vietnam and what did I think about the war? I told him that I wasn't sure, but that I thought it important to get as much information as possible. My "guide" then took me to Davao's favorite restaurant and for the first time in my life, I tasted dog meat. It sounds obscene, but it really wasn't. I was told that these were wild dogs rather than the domestic variety. Of course I had no way of verifying that. In any case, it was a delicious meal, but it was somewhat unsettling to find out later that Sukebe, our ship's dog, had disappeared.
Leaving Davao was traumatic. I'm sure that some of us had thoughts of jumping ship. Although things were ridiculously cheap, the constant partying had wiped out most of our cash reserves. In fact, we had begun trading soap, shampoo, socks and shoes to pay for our extracurricular activities. Furthermore, there was another ship sitting at anchor waiting to take our place. So back to sea it was.
In addition to the cargo we had picked up in Japan, we loaded two of the remaining hatches with copra and we were now destined for the U.S. east coast. Except for the passage through the Panama Canal, the several weeks at sea were monotonous. Some of the crew began drinking heavily and one of the engineers got the jeebies and tried cutting his wrists with a broken bottle. It took four men to subdue him after breaking down his cabin door. As soon as his injuries were looked after by the first mate, the captain ordered him locked up. None of us saw him again until he was led off the ship by local authorities and the ship's agent in Balboa, from where he was flown back to Norway.
Steering a ship into the locks of the Panama Canal is exciting for an eighteen-year-old. Once in the locks, movement of the ship is controlled by motorized trolleys on either side of the lock. I thought it was interesting that the trolleys were manned by Americans. Once we got out of the canal into the Atlantic, we were met by hurricane-force winds. Visibility was practically nil. We had to drop off our pilot and were moving very slowly through the heavy traffic of anchored and moving vessels. The pilot had turned the command over to the captain and was looking for the pilot boat to pick him up. Suddenly there was a loud bang and both the captain and pilot scrambled outside to see what had happened. Almost immediately the captain rushed back inside and screamed at me, "You hit a buoy, you stupid idiot! What the hell are you doing?" The pilot came back in and ordered me, "Hard starboard! Now!" Flustered, I frantically began turning the wheel to the left, which is port instead of starboard. Bang! We hit the buoy again, or perhaps it was another one. The darkness and heavy rain made it impossible to see. The captain yelled "Piss off!" and shoved me aside. Like a man besieged he turned the wheel the other way. Bang! This time I had no idea what we'd hit. The captain turned to me, "Get off the fucking bridge, pisshead! You're destroying my ship!" That night I did some heavy drinking myself. The captain didn't look at me for a week. On the job training, they call it. In all fairness to myself, the helmsman simply follows orders and normally doesn't make decisions on his own. Until I turned the wheel in the wrong direction I had followed the pilot's orders to the letter. We were practically drifting and I don't think it would have made any difference which way I turned the wheel. In any case, it was just a stupid buoy and no harm was done.
THE U.S. EASTCOAST, NOVEMBER 1965
By the time we left Boston for New York, I was allowed back on the bridge again. I was at the wheel as we approached the Cape Cod Canal. We had a pilot on board who told me, "Take her in as you see fit." I had never received such a command before. Normally you would be told to steer a certain course or the degrees in which to turn. The captain gave me a fixed stare. Sweat broke out all over my body and my knees were buckling as I gingerly steered the ship into the canal. We had unloaded most of our cargo in Boston and the ship was riding high in the water, making it much more responsive in turning. I oversteered. "Take her back a bit, son," the pilot said calmly. We got uncomfortably close to the starboard bank of the canal. The captain's eyes were wide as saucers, but he didn't say a word. The rest of the canal was a piece of cake.
In New York, sitting next to a cop in a bar in Manhattan, I hear that "some idiot set himself on fire in front of the UN building," apparently in protest of the Vietnam war. I recall seeing the picture of the burning monk in Saigon. The jukebox blares out the hit single "1-2-3," and I am reminded of Club 123 and Fumie in Yokohama. "Another rum-and-coke, please," says I to the bartender. To my left sits a very famous actress. "Would you like to buy me some flowers?" she asks sweetly. As we step into a taxi, an elderly man dressed in a black suit and bowler hat, waves his black umbrella at me and sys, "Repent, young man. Repent! You already have one foot in Hell!" I buy the very famous actress a dozen red roses, after which she invites me to her fancy apartment for a loveless bronco ride. The following morning, I stare blankly at the fading Statue of Liberty, shrouded in fog. It's a strange world.
I didn't like Baltimore. It's probably a very nice city, but one incident really turned me off. We had befriended some Korean sailors in an earlier port. By chance we met them again on a pier in the port of Baltimore, and we decided to go into town and have a beer together. At the first bar we entered, the bartender took one look at us and barked, "Out! No chinks in here! Out!" I tried explaining that my friends were Korean, but it fell on deaf ears. "They're all the same. Gooks is what they are. Get out before I throw you out," the bartender threatened. I looked at the other patrons, but all I could see were hard faces staring back at us. A few paid us no attention at all. Dejected, we turned around and did some heavy drinking aboard the Koreans' ship. While in Baltimore, we never went back ashore.
The longshoremen in New York and Baltimore had been loading large crates of canned food. On each box was stencilled a large American flag and a pair of hands shaking each other. Below the graphic were the words: FROM THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Although there were some rumors, no one yet knew what our destination was. When we were a week out in the cold Atlantic we were told that we were heading to Sfax in Tunisia.
AFRICA, DECEMBER 1965
The Mediterranean was beautiful and sunny. Sailing past the Rock of Gibraltar and this close to Europe reminded me of my original purpose for becoming a sailor, which was to visit my friends and family in Holland. Perhaps I could leave the ship in Tunisia.
There was a sense a eeriness when we entered the port of Sfax. A couple of large vessels sat half-submerged in the water, a sight that sends shivers down the spine of many a sailor. Although the local folks were not unfriendly, they totally ignored us, as if we didn't exist. On one excursion out into the countryside, I saw a woman suddenly stop in mid-stride. Still standing, she spread her legs and urinated. Weird.
By now it should come as no surprise that most sailors regard a visit to the nearest red-light district as priority numero uno, and Sfax was no exception. The problem was that no one had ever been to Sfax before. The next best thing then was to grab a cab and ask the driver. It took Clark Gable a full ten minutes and many provocative gestures before the wrinkled and ancient little driver broke out into a wide toothless grin. Cackling rapidly in Arabic, he grinded the rattling little Renault into gear and we were off in a great cloud of smoke and dust.
This driver knew only one speed: pedal to the metal. How he maneuvered through the crowds of pedestrians without killing anybody was an act of magic. I guess he knew we were in a hurry.
When we reached our destination, we faced a city within a city. The inner sanctum was surrounded by a 10-foot-high red clay wall. Inside, low clay buildings stood close together delineated by narrow winding alleys crawling up a hill. It was dark and the distant shadowy figures moving through the maze looked ominous. There was a rancid odor in the air. No red lights here, I thought. I was about to turn around, but Clarke Gable and Popeye had randomly picked one of the alleys and were about to disappear around a corner. Reluctantly, I followed them.
"Pssst. In here. In here." A robed Arab beckoned us from a darkened doorway. He ushered us inside a large smoke-filled room with about 15 men, some sitting on the floor. As far as I could tell they were all Arabs, most attired in traditional robes. One man was dressed in a 3-piece suit, calmly reading an Arabic newspaper. No one paid us any attention, no one talked. At the far end of the room a door opened and a man the size of a sumo wrestler stepped out from the room beyond. One of the waiting men stood up, put down his reading material, walked into the room, and closed the door behind him.
This was a "take-a-number" brothel! Every five minutes another of the waiting men was "processed." They didn't look very happy when they came out. I don't think a word was ever uttered in that waiting room, and that included us. At one point we just looked at each other, nodded our heads, and walked out. Strike Sfax as a hot spot for sailors.
In Sfax we took on more cargo, this time sacks of phosphate. Each sack bore the same stencil as the cartons we picked up in the States: FROM THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, with the same flag and shaking hands. Rumors were now ripe that we were going to Vietnam, but the officers wouldn't confirm it. After all, they said, Vietnam was not the only place in the world that required foreign aid.
I tried calling my grandmother from Sfax to see if she could wire me some money for me to return to Holland. But I couldn't get past the Arabic operator at the post office.
As we "steamed" towards the Suez Canal, we were hit by swirling columns of sand reaching higher into the sky than the eye could see. It was a weird sight on an otherwise beautiful and cloudless day. The cyclonic whirls left several inches of fine sand on the decks of our ship. In the early evening, I stood on the foredeck and when I looked down at the bow cutting through the water, I noticed six pilot whales guiding our way. I watched for an hour as they danced through the "fire-flies" of the phosphorescent water.
In most ports local authorities forbid the regular populace from boarding foreign ships. Not so in Port Said, Egypt. Literally dozens of merchants came on board and set up shop, turning the ship into a floating bazaar. Popeye and I had our picture taken by an Egyptian with a pre-war camera. It even had a little birdie on top. Although black-and-white and quite grainy, it was not a bad picture. Just like my grandmother had written half a century earlier, little kids dove off the ship, swam under the keel, and popped up on the other side -- an art passed on from generation to generation. The merchants were relentless salesmen. They stayed with us right through the Suez Canal, and when they disembarked at the other end, I had a cabin full of useless knickknacks.
As we moved out of the canal into the sweltering Red Sea, we watched camel caravans slowly moving off in the hot desert. I was told by my veteran shipmates that it got so hot here that you could fry eggs on the deck.
It was in the Red Sea when we played "chicken" with an Indonesian freighter. Although both ships were moving south, our respective courses were set so that the two ships moved ever closer. The Indonesian had the right of way, but the captain, a normally cautious man in his early sixties, had a chip on his shoulder vis-a-vis Indonesians. He refused to give way. Neither did the Indonesians. The crews of both ships came out on deck to watch the drama, waving and screaming at each other.
I asked the captain whether to alter course, but he shook his head and said, "We'll wait until we see the whites of their eyes." The crews of both ships were jumping up and down and hollering insults at each other, and I wondered what had caused all this animosity. Just when it looked as if a collision were inevitable, the captain ordered the engine room to slow engines. "Hard port," he said. This would be a good time to make a mistake, I thought, cranking the large wheel with all my might, in the right direction this time. The Indonesian shot past our bow by what seemed only a couple of feet to spare. "Son-of-a-bitch would have rammed us," muttered the captain. No kidding, Cap.
Told that we would be docking at Djibouti, our spirits were temporarily raised. Perhaps our foreign aid was destined for some poor African nation after all. But when we arrived in this duty-free port, there were no longshoremen to unload our cargo. Instead we took on provisions, in quantities I had never seen before. For two days, streams of delivery trucks brought enough provisions to have us sail six times around the world without stopping. It now seemed certain that we were going to Vietnam, but there was no one willing to confirm it.
As was the case in Tunisia, there was a strong French influence in Djibouti. Many of the bars had French proprietors, some of them former legionnaires. Because it was a duty-free port, we stocked up on booze and cigarettes.
To make up for our fruitless venture to the inner city in Sfax, Popeye and I visited the famed "thatched huts" on the outskirts of Djibouti. There were some thirty huts, each with a floor space of no more than ten by ten feet. But what really came as a shock to a novice sailor were the young ladies standing by the doorways. They were as dark as night and all seemed over seven feet tall.
As we moved closer we noticed that they had hairdos that added a foot to their height. We later learned, not substantiated, that they used cow dung to keep their hair in that position. Popeye, barely five feet tall, quickly disappeared into one of the huts with a whoop of glee.
I was practically manhandled into another hut, but as in Sfax, I had lost my appetite. After the giant lady noticed my reluctance, she tried to reassure me by flashing her picture ID which stated that she had been cleared by the local health authorities only last week. This gave me an idea and I tried to cool her insistence by falsely telling her that I had some terrible disease. That's ok, she said, no problem. After seeing that there was no way to sway me, she offered me to partake in her own little duty-free shop. I had several cool Heinekens at 15 cents a can, and when Popeye joined us some time later, we bought several bottles of good French cognac to take back to the ship.
We had barely left port when many of the men could be seen scratching their crotches. We were under a Crab Attack! The little bastards were everywhere! The chief mate handed out little jars with a tar-like substance. "You guys better shave," he kindly suggested, "In the meantime, stay out of my bathroom!" They actually looked like crabs. One by one they had to be squeezed out from the hair roots beneath the skin where they had nestled. All of the ship's toilets had to be sanitized and some men risked permanent constipation trying to avoid being affected again.
For Popeye, it was even worse. His battle with the Amazon in Djibouti had given him "a leaky faucet." In addition to the tar treatment, he was subjected to several shots of penicillin.
The following day we received official word: we were taking our cargo of American generosity (not to mention our crabs) to the war zone! Hot-diggety-damn!
Thus we began our long trek across the Indian Ocean. We didn't see land again until we were just off the northern tip of the island of Sumatra on Christmas Day. Actually we smelled land before we saw it, the sweet fragrance of the jungle.
It was early evening and I was standing alone outside on the bridge, serving as a lookout. The men were having Christmas dinner down below. As we moved into the Strait of Malacca, the smell of the jungle grew even more pungent. For the first time since I had left San Diego, which seemed like years ago, I felt really homesick. I hadn't sent anyone even a postcard, never mind a Christmas card. I suddenly realized with a shock that my family and friends didn't have a clue about my whereabouts. I had simply disappeared. And now we were going into a war zone. I suddenly felt afraid. Repent, the man in New York had said.
As we moved into the South China Sea, the seas were choppy and the color of pea soup. How peculiar that the seas have their own unique color. This sea looked ominous, so unlike the blue inviting waters of the Mediterranean. In the distance we saw war ships: destroyers, cruisers, or whatever, their guns silent.
Except when you're far out at sea and totally out of touch with the world, the radio is your only link with humanity. We had a television in the crew lounge, but nobody ever got it to work. I had a small Panasonic transistor radio, booty from the cargo we had picked up in Japan. I also had a tiny player for 45-rpm records. Unfortunately, I only had two records: Down In The Boondocks by Billy Joe Royal (a gift from Machiko) and Unchained Melody by the Righteous brothers (Machiko's and my favorite) -- songs still bring tears to my eyes when I hear them today. I was oblivious to the peace marches taking place all over North America. I had missed the hippy revolution by a hair, and alcohol and cigarettes were the only drugs I knew, and knew well.
It's difficult to explain how much I treasured that little Panasonic. Reception was mostly poor even though I had rigged some sort of antenna by hanging a coat hanger out from the porthole of my cabin. My little Panasonic brought me the music of the world, from the Beatles to Japanese enka, from the love songs of the Philippines to the primitive drums of Africa, from the exotic tunes of the Middle East to the gongs of Indonesia. I learned that music is what all people have in common. People need music almost as much as they need food, if only to soothe the senses and relive memories. In that regard, I was well-fed.
Occasionally I picked up an English news broadcast. My interest in the area we were going to had become a lot more intense. I learned that Viet Cong commandos had exploded a bomb at a Saigon hotel housing U.S. servicemen, and that the U.S. had increased the bombing raids on North Vietnam, and that two ARVN battalions were destroyed by the enemy. A poll stated that only 20 percent of Americans believe that the United States should have withdrawn its troops from Vietnam before getting involved in combat. General Westmoreland states that he needs 443,000 men by the end of 1966. A recent increase of Viet Cong bombings in Saigon results in a curfew on US forces stationed there. The Chinese accuse the Soviets of sending Vietnam obsolete or damaged equipment. A US C-123 transport plane crashes in the mountains north of Saigon just before Christmas, killing 85 people. And then, just before we arrive, some good news. A massive worldwide peace initiative is announced and the US halts its bombing of the North. But, only a few days later, Senator McGovern announces that the peace talks are doomed to failure, and others quickly echo his sentiments.
VUNG TAU, JANUARY 1966
As we dropped anchor in the sheltered waters of Vung Tau, it seemed eerily quiet. The surrounding deep green hills, the beached fishing vessels with their nets hung out to dry under the warm blue sky, released some of the tension we had all felt since learning that we were going to Vietnam. Little did we know that our floating home, a 20,000-ton merchant ship flying the Norwegian flag, would find its final resting place some ninety miles up the Saigon river.
The only thing unusual about our arrival in Vietnam was the absence of Vietnamese customs and immigration officials, or any other local authorities. The only official acknowledgement of our presence was a U.S. patrol boat that came up alongside to deliver mail and some other documents. There was no mail for me -- I didn't expect any. Except for the shipping address I had given Machiko, the world didn't know where I was. I had held out the slimmest of hopes that Machiko would write, but she didn't. I could hardly blame her.
I asked one of the shirtless soldiers on the patrol boat if they could mail letters for us. He assured me that they would be happy to do so, and not to worry about the postage. "How's the war going?" I asked him. "It's a fucking riot, man," he replied.
We were to see a lot of the little gunboats in the days to come. A few had their bows brightly painted with sharks and dragons. Often they would come alongside us just to shoot the breeze. We even started a little game by throwing empty cans overboard. The GI's would then try to blast them out of the air. I guess war can get somewhat boring too.
Well, Vung Tau looked peaceful enough. We had been at sea a long time and we were really anxious to get ashore. Without asking for permission, six of us lowered one of the lifeboats and rowed the 200 yards to the beach. We walked about a mile down a dirt road in the direction of the small town and apart from some weathered fishermen and old women mending nets, it looked deserted.
Along the way we passed by a series of weird-looking shops and bars lining the road. They looked like a fake set of a deserted ghost town at Universal Studios. The fronts were tall with brightly painted signs, but behind the facades were low structures made of tin, plywood and other flimsy materials. Some of them didn't even sport a roof. Since we had been the only large ship anchored in the bay, there were no other sailors to be seen. Neither were there any soldiers.
When we got to a wide tree-lined boulevard fronting the town, we finally found a bar which was open. About a dozen girls welcomed us with enthusiasm. They hadn't seen much business in a week and were glad to see us. The jukebox was fired up the and we spent the next few hours dancing and drinking the most rotten Vietnamese brandy known to man. We didn't have any piastres, the local currency, but the girls had no trouble accepting our greenbacks. We had no idea what the exchange rate was, but who cared. "Hey, you buy me drinkey, I give you lovey-lovey. You numba one," chirped the girls. "Yes, and you make me sickey-sickey!" said Finland good-naturedly. Christ, they spoke the same language as the bargirls in Japan! Berlitz must have a special universal program for bargirls.
When darkness set in, four of us decided to head back to the ship. Popeye and Finland were having too much fun. "Don't worry about us," said Popeye, "You guys take the boat. We'll find another one."
The moment we climbed back on board, the fireworks began. It started with a single flare lighting up the hill no more than a mile away. This was followed by the sharp cracks of small arms fire and then the louder boom of something heavier. The activity seemed to be around a guard post halfway up the hill. The weird thing was that it was impossible to distinguish friendly from hostile fire. The exchange abated after an hour, but intermittent shots could be heard throughout the night.
Popeye and Finland returned to the ship just after midnight. They had swum back. It had taken them fifteen minutes of yelling in the water before someone heard them and lowered a rope ladder. They were in bad shape. Both of Popeye's eyes were blue and black and puffed closed, and his hands and knees were bloodied because he had tried climbing up the anchor chain. He truly looked like Popeye now. Finland's nose was broken. They had been attacked and robbed of all their possessions. All they had left were their briefs. It all happened so fast that they had no idea who their attackers were. We woke up the first mate who attended to their injuries. We expected to be admonished for our little escapade, but the first officer said nothing, while the captain remained in his cabin.
I wrote about a dozen letters to friends and relatives that night and related my excitement about being in a real war. I learned much later that when my father received my letter, he spent about a week going through diplomatic channels trying to extract me, claiming that I had been shanghaied against my will.
The following day a shore leave plan was implemented. The third mate and bosun would alternate running the motorized launch ashore four times a day. The last launch back to the ship would be at sunset. Anyone who missed it would be stuck for the night.
I borrowed a pair of binoculars and looked up at the guard post on the hill. I discerned the movement of soldiers, but couldn't tell whether they were American or Vietnamese.
The exchange of small arms fire, and sometimes the heavier stuff, continued nightly -- but never during the day. Some nights, when the fighting was heavier, helicopters were brought in to strafe the hillside. During the day, the only signs of war were the rumble and thunder of B-52 bombers dropping their loads far off in the distance. One night, the guard post on the hill caught fire and burned for hours.
Some of the guys had been talking about hitching a ride into Saigon. During a visit by one of the little gunboats, I asked a soldier how long it would take to drive into Saigon. "An eternity," he replied, "And that's if you're lucky." He explained that the 80 miles of road between Vung Tau and Saigon were not safe.
Initially, during our daily trips ashore, I wondered why we never saw any American GI's in the bars we frequented. One day I asked one of the bargirls and she pointed to the OFF LIMITS sign posted outside. I then recalled seeing similar signs in the bars of Yokohama. Apparently, the U.S. military determines which bars are safe for their servicemen. The bars we were in got all their business from the merchant seamen.
On some days, several of the bars were occupied by ARVN (South-Vietnamese) officers. They looked at us with contempt, and it became quickly obvious that we weren't welcome in their presence. They were arrogant and obnoxious to the girls, treating them like cattle (it could be argued that we were, too). On one occasion, a drunken officer came into our bar, waving a pistol, his eyes filled with hatred. He fired into the jukebox playing Manfred Mann's "Do Wah Diddy Diddy Dum Diddy Do" and it exploded in a shower of glass. The officer looked in our direction and I slowly slid under a table. He was a maniac on a rampage. When he saw one of the bargirls hiding behind a couch, both he and she screamed. Tables, chairs, bottles, glasses flew in all directions as the poor girl tried to get away. Some of the others tried to help her, but that quickly stopped as he wildly fired two more shots into the ceiling. Then he was upon her. Grabbing her by the hair, he dragged the sobbing girl out of the bar. Some of us began moving towards the doorway, but the mama-san blocked our way. "He kill you, he kill you," she hissed, "Stay, stay. He bad man. He numba ten. You better go back ship now. Maybe more trouble," she pleaded. We never found out what that was all about.
When we were the only game in town, we had free reign and the competition for our patronage in the shops and bars was fierce. This drove prices down and we lived like kings. However, gradually more merchant ships began joining us at anchor. We were told that the area up-river between Vung Tau and Saigon, known as the Rung Sat, was unsafe and that only ships with high-priority cargoes were allowed to pass through. We were to remain at anchor until our safety could be assured. One of the gunboat soldiers told us that they were bringing in more and better river patrol boats for protection and that minesweepers would be clearing the waterways. He said that the greatest fear of the military command was to have a large ship sink in a narrow section of the river and block the supply line into Saigon.
In two weeks there were some 20 ships of various nationalities dotting the bay, and the economics of supply and demand were reversed. Prices went up, and in some bars we were suddenly no longer welcome. The name of our ship was the Baymaster, but some of the bargirls soon began referring to it as "Pay Bastard." No money, no honey. "Hey you," they would say, when we could no longer afford their Saigon Tea, "You numba ten."
The bars became segregated by nationality. There was the Greek bar, the Scandihovian bar, the Filipino bar, the German bar, and so on. Traditionally, Scandinavian and Greek sailors have no use for each other, and as in other ports of call, there were frequent skirmishes between the two groups during our 3-month stay in Vung Tau.
On January 30th, there were fireworks all over the place, real fireworks this time, in celebration of the Tet holiday. We joined in the festivities by setting off flares from the bridge, and before long the other ships followed suit. Crazy thing to do, I thought. Setting off fireworks during a war. The enemy was probably doing the same thing. After all, it was their holiday, too.
We were now really running out of money, both officers and crew. Although we were now being paid a "danger-zone" bonus in addition to our regular pay, sailors built up their cash reserves by being at sea for long periods of time, followed by rapid spending sprees in port. Being this long in a spending spree mode was very unusual. Dramatic measures had to be taken. The duty-free brandy we had bought in Djibouti had been depleted, and we couldn't even afford the local ba-moi-ba, "33" beer, any longer. Running out of booze was a nightmare, as it had become the only way to drown out the boredom during the day and the gunfire at night. At a hastily-called emergency conference of both crew and some officers, it was decided that the time had come to break out our secret treasure chest.
I guess stealing is stealing, no matter what you call it. We preferred to call it "Oops, look at what we found. They forgot to unload these boxes. Oh well, finders keepers...."
On an earlier voyage, we had picked up a cargo of electronic goods in Japan, including little Panasonic radios and cassette players. What usually happens with the more valuable shipments is that pictures are taken of what the cargo looks like before the hatch covers are closed and sealed. At the cargo's destination, when the holds are opened, these pictures are then used for comparison to make sure that nothing has been pilfered, something that longshoremen are often accused of.
What the designers of this security method failed to take into consideration is that there is an intricate ventilation system that leads down to the hatches. The crew simply removed the grill covers and with ropes, flash lights and other tools, snaked their way through the narrow tunnels. (I still have nightmares of getting caught in a tunnel and suffocating, or even worse, having your partners up above pull up the ropes and refasten the grills. A wonderful practical joke!) None of the boxes were actually removed from the hatches. They were just stowed in nooks and crannies where they could not readily be seen -- a condition that could have been caused by rough seas.
For a while, Vung Tau probably had the highest per capita ratio of Panasonic radio owners in the world. We sold or traded many hundreds of them while we were there. Our favorite bar even introduced a new currency system, 10 beers for a radio, 5 brandies for a cassette player, 2 radios for some hanky panky, 4 radios for a "sandwich." What made them even more valuable were the batteries, which Japanese manufacturers tend to include with their products.
Gradually, whenever the situation was deemed safe and the tides were just right, some of the ships weighed anchor to begin their six-hour trek up the Saigon river under armed escort. These were the ships that were deemed to carry "next-to-high-priority" cargoes -- ours didn't even rate "low priority," so we were told to stay put. Most of the oil tankers and U.S. transports went straight in and never had the pleasure of joining us in our little "paradise."
Across the street from our favorite haunt was the Hospital, at least that's what it would have looked like if all the "patients" and "nurses" were removed from it. In fact, it may indeed have been a hospital at one time. The main ward had some forty beds, all separated by flimsy curtains. To be admitted to the Hospital was quite simple. They didn't accept Blue Cross and you didn't even have to be injured or sick, although being the latter was quite helpful in getting you through the treatment. The admission fee to the Hospital was one dollar (no piastres please!), and two dollars if you wanted a private room (a bargain if you ask me). My record is six trips from the bar to the Hospital in one single afternoon, mostly in the public ward. I have no idea what I was doing there, but I do recall some of the conversations between my fellow "patients" and their "nurses." I'm sure that there must have been a doctor on call, just in case, but I never saw one.
One day it became obvious that I had become sick -- from one of my treatments at the Hospital, no doubt. Sooner or later it is bound to happen to every sailor, especially at the rate I was going. I had a first-class case of the clap, and the following day I was forced to join the daily line-up at the first mate's office for a shot of penicillin.
After the second month in Vung Tau, we ran out of radios and cassette players. Another emergency meeting was called. Someone suggested that perhaps we could sell the phosphate. "Why not the canned goods?" another chimed in. "No, that's going too far," the third mate responded. Someone asked what phosphate was used for. "Probably to make bombs," I said, remembering the bomb-making days of my childhood. "No, you idiot," said the third mate. "It's used as fertilizer." The bosun said that he had befriended some local merchants and he would discreetly enquire about the current market price for phosphate.
All this time no one had seen boo of the captain. Later someone told us that he had left the ship late one night and had been flown back to Norway for an early retirement. I hope that's true, because I had begun to like the old man ever since he had played the "chicken" game with the Indonesian freighter. Rumor was that a new captain would be joining us in Saigon.
I was suffering from a terrible toothache. Popeye suggested that I ask the first mate for some money to see a dentist. We would then go ashore, find a dentist in downtown Vung Tau, and have the offending molar extracted. The first mate agreed to give me fifty dollars. "Make sure you get a receipt," he told me.
The third mate took us ashore. "Shall I go with you guys?" he asked as we jumped out of the launch on to the beach. "Nah, we can find our way," I told him. When we walked past our favorite bar, Popeye suggested that we go in for a quick beer to quench the thirst. Three hours later, and after a quick visit to the Hospital, we were on our way back to the ship. The fifty dollars was gone. The aching molar was not. Popeye had asked one of the bargirls to write out a phony receipt.
Later, in Saigon, when I asked the first mate for some more dentist money, he had me open my mouth to point out the cavity from the extraction in Vung Tau. Fortunately, I had several other cavities, but he remained suspicious. When I finally did visit an ancient little dentist, a graduate from the Paris School of Dentistry of 1912, it took him an agonizing hour of twisting and pulling, before there was a loud crack. He proudly claimed that the job was done, but when the novacaine wore off, the pain was still there. He had left in the root.
Back in Vung Tau, on a moonless night several days later, with the sounds of rat-tat-tat up on the hill, we began our foreign aid to the Vietnamese. They came alongside in small barges, and for several hours hundreds of sacks of phosphate were hand-carried down the lowered gangway. Cash on delivery. During our final month in Vung Tau we never ran out of money again.
The weather had been beautiful since we arrived, and with Vung Tau's beautiful beaches it could classify as a world-class resort. One of our favorite games was to swing one of the booms out over the water and do "Tarzan leaps" into the glittering bay. We had been told that there were no sharks in the area, but once when we were watching Popeye do his version of a water ballet, Finland suddenly yelled "Shark!" At first everybody thought he was joking, but then we saw the fin rapidly moving towards Popeye, and we all started yelling at him. Then Popeye saw it too. He began a desperate back-pedaling, but the shark was much faster. There was no way he could make it the remaining thirty feet to the lowered gangway. A nearby gunboat heard the commotion, saw what was happening and came full speed towards Popeye and the shark, now only ten feet apart. Popeye's eyes were bulging out of his head. The gunboat fired its forward gun at the shark and a red cloud colored the blue water. It moved another three feet towards Popeye and then went into a frenzy, circling madly. At the same time two GI's hauled a shaking Popeye out of the water, while another finished off the shark with an M-2 carbine.
We invited the three soldiers aboard, and Popeye asked them for their names and addresses. "I'll never forget you guys," he told them. "Ah, no fucking sweat, man," said the corporal, "It's all in a fucking day's work. You come and see us when you get back to the world, you hear." Popeye promised them that he would. "I thought there were no sharks in these waters," I said. The corporal took a swig from the bottle of Jack Daniels that Finland had kept hidden in his cabin. "Poor thing probably got lost," he said, "How long you guys gonna be in-country?" What the hell does that mean, I thought. "We'll be leaving Vietnam as soon as we unload in Saigon," answered Popeye, "If we ever get to Saigon." Popeye obviously understood the slang better than I did. "See what you mean," the corporal laughed, "I hear rust doesn't float worth shit." With that we all laughed.
In town one day we were stopped by a couple of MP's who wanted to check our ID's. They warned us about Black Syph, the most deadly venereal disease known to man, a sinister plot by Charlie to kill off the enemy. "Hey, I warned you guys," he said sternly, "Thousands of our guys have already been shipped off to camps on isolated islands in the Philippines, waiting for their dorks to rot away." After the MP's sauntered away, I was stunned but Popeye just laughed.
"Reminds me of a joke," said Popeye, "This guy got the clap in a whorehouse in Hong Kong. When he went to his doctor, he was told that he had the Hong Kong Poe. Nothing could be done, except immediate amputation. The guy was beside himself. He'd rather die, he said. Desperate, he went to the world's foremost penis doctor at the Mayo Clinic, where he was told the same thing. Amputation was the only cure. As his final hope he was referred to a Chinese Hong Kong Poe specialist in Taipei. The Chinese doc took one look and told the guy, 'Ah so, you have Hong Kong Poe. No ploblem.' The guy was jubilant. 'You mean you don't have to cut it off?' he asked the smiling doc. 'No, no. No cut off. You just wait and lelax. Two mole weeks, and it fall off by itself.'" Vely funny, no?
In April of 1966 we received word that Saigon was ready for us and that we should ready ourselves for departure. Although we had been the first ship to drop anchor at Vung Tau in early January, we were one of the last ones to leave. We went in right behind a large Shell tanker, escorted by river patrol boats.
The river coils like a snake and the surrounding area is flat and marshy. We slowly passed by non-descript vessels and then a small Korean warship overtook us. The Koreans were all out on deck, manning their guns, wildly shooting in the air, and screaming battle cries at the top of their lungs. What enthusiasm! They seemed in their element, and absolutely nuts.
The first fifteen miles up the river we saw small U.S. and ARVN bivouacs, heavily camouflaged with sand bags all around them. We waved at the soldiers. They didn't wave back, but just stared at us. We were unwelcome intruders, war profiteers, while they were getting their asses blown off. Not very happy campers, they were, and I didn't envy them. Here and there were patrols wading through the marshes. Gradually the encampments began to thin out, and after 20 miles or so there were none to be seen.
At one time there must have been a small hamlets along the river banks, but now all we could see were charred remains and empty or water-filled craters.
Three miles to the north, B-52 bombers were descending from the sky. Once they reached a sufficiently low altitude, they dropped their loads on the neighborhood and then climbed back up. They rumbled monotonously, almost painfully, as if in slow motion. We couldn't see what the bombs were hitting, if anything. We were spectators with seats far away from the action and it seemed surreal. I must admit that it was an exhilarating spectacle and some of us began clapping our hands like little kids every time the bombs hit. War was fun! War was groovy!
Helicopters began joining the convoy of ships and patrol boats. Some of the gunboats were buzzing back and forth along the banks. They were "rock-and-rolling" -- blasting distorted music through speakers, trying to drown out the din of the choppers. It was infectious and we got caught up in it. It was a symphony of chaos, hauntingly beautiful.
"...And tell me-e-e-e over and over and over and over again my friend, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction..."
One of the roaming gunboats pulled up close to us and a soldier used his megaphone ordering us to go inside. "No way," we screamed back, "no way!" "It's your fucking life," he said good-naturedly, shrugged his shoulders, and sped away.
We had been winding our way up river for some 30 miles, following behind the big fat ass of the Shell tanker. The pounding of the B-52s had faded in the background and we were just beginning to get a bit bored, the rush of adrenalin fading, when we heard several loud bangs nearby.
Apparently someone had taken aim at the bridge of the Shell tanker and smoke was coming from the wheelhouse. For about ten seconds, nothing happened and then, all hell broke loose. At least it seemed that way, because we were so close. The patrol boats were scrambling trying to determine where the attack had come from -- firing at anything that resembled shelter of some sort along the river bank. Suddenly there were choppers all around us strafing the countryside and firing rockets. The fully-loaded tanker began drifting perilously close to the bank. The Australian pilot we had taken on board in Vung Tau came out on the starboard side of the bridge and used a megaphone to order us to prepare to drop the anchor. We ran forward, released the brakes, and dropped both anchors to the waterline. Our ship began shaking and I assumed we had reversed engines to slow down, which was confirmed with three short blasts of the horn. This was a narrow stretch with sharp bends and it would have been extremely dicey to squeeze by the tanker. The best course of action was to slow down and stay well behind. The drama ended almost as quickly as it began. Even though the tanker was at least three times our size and had a much deeper draft, it managed to negotiate the bend by using its side thrusters, some very fine control of its powerful twin screws, and a whole lot of luck with the existing current.
We hung well back from the tanker the rest of the way and there were no more incidents. Finland, who as senior AB had shared taking the helm with the bosun going up-river, told us later that he regarded the event as a Hollywood production, but he admitted that the calm demeanor of the Australian pilot had prevented near-panic on the bridge. Ironically, a few miles further we saw farmers working in the fields without a care in world. It reminded me of the Dutch farmer who, at the time Dutch soldiers were shooting at invading German paratroopers near The Hague, walked up to the soldiers and told them to keep the noise level down -- it was scaring his cows.
SAIGON, APRIL 1966
By the time we slowly entered the stretch of the Saigon River that would take us into the city, it had begun to rain, and the surroundings looked dark and dreary. Along the north shore of the river were shacks and shanties with tin roofs, some up to three stories tall, standing on stilts in the water. On the south shore we passed rows and rows of stationary ships tied to buoys fore and aft. We had never seen a congregation of so many ships in one place together and small boat traffic was going in all directions in utter chaos. When we neared the city center, we did a tricky maneuver -- first we dropped the port anchor in the middle of the river and then swung about the anchor to do a 180-degree turn, nearly taking out several of the stilted shanties on the north shore. We then went back downstream a ways where we tied up to buoys parallel to several layers of other ships -- obviously, parking was at a premium. GI's came on board to inspect the ship, their faces grim and speaking in monosyllables. There was no welcoming committee to give us keys to the city. Perhaps it was because of our appearance.
Ships need to be regularly maintained. Periodically they must go into drydock to have their keels cleaned. Our ship hadn't seen the inside of a drydock in three years. After our captain seemed to have disappeared, discipline had been practically non-existent. We had stopped scraping rust and painting back in Djibouti, and our ship now really looked like a rust bucket, just like the Liberian- and Panamanian-flagged freighters we had regarded so derisively in the past. The engineers complained about breakdowns in the engine room and the lack of parts. Gradually, the men had begun to care less and less.
The only way to get to shore was to take a 30-minute ride to the city center by sampan, at the time mostly operated by young girls. The average sampan could hold 3 or 4 passengers. Some were larger and motorized. They roamed the harbor randomly. Most of us quickly learned to buy the loyalty of our own sampan girls, so that they would ferry us back and forth at the times we wanted.
I promptly fell in love with my sampan girl. Mai was only fourteen, and because she loved Disney characters, I dubbed her Minnie. Once when I stepped from her sampan onto the lowered gangway -- the non-stop passing boat traffic turned this into an acrobatic performance at the best of times -- I dropped my Yashica camera into the murky water. Minnie saw the camera drop and made several dives trying to retrieve it, to no avail. I never bothered to replace it.
According to a U.S. sergeant guarding our ship, the north shore and "Stilt City" were off limits to U.S. personnel, as they were considered danger areas. Nevertheless, Minnie and I spent hours paddling through the mazes of Stilt City. The poverty was overwhelming but the people were friendly and waved to us from their shabby dwellings. Some of the residents got to know us, and Minnie patiently translated my conversations with them.
I even learned how to operate the sampan myself, which is not easy. It must have been a strange sight to the locals, a tall skinny westerner paddling the single oar through the water with this little Vietnamese girl as his passenger. Perhaps, then again not. There were a lot of strange sights in Saigon, as I soon learned.
That first night in Saigon, Popeye and I took the sampan ashore. There was a lot more activity in town than we had initially observed from the ship. A busy floating restaurant, hundreds of street vendors with little carts selling all kinds of exotic food and trinkets. At Me Linh Park near the river, we bought what looked like French bread with some kind of very strange-tasting meat from one of the vendors, and then began walking the French colonial streets of the city. Later, several of the crew members would get food poisoning from buying street vendor food. In fact, one disease or another would eventually hit all of us. There was enough going around for all and then some. Some curable, others not.
With a little bit of imagination and a few snorts of brandy, the center of Saigon is like walking the streets of Paris in the late nineteenth century. The main tree-lined boulevards are wide and the buildings stately. We walked past the major hotels - the elegant Majestic near the river, and then up wild and woolly Tu Do Street to the Caravelle hotel, and the venerable Continental with its pleasant terrace cafe, and then left on Le Loi Boulevard past the Rex, where U.S. officers were housed (BOQ). We looked into chandelier-lit dining rooms with ornate porcelain dishes and well-polished silverware. And we gaped at the crowded streets, filled with honking tri-wheel trucks, bell-ringing pedicabs, or cyclos, and bicycles, and a zillion tooting scooters. At some intersections, white-uniformed traffic policemen called White Mice because of their white uniforms, stood on pedestals trying to create order out of chaos.
Popeye's modus operandi in a city he has never been to before is to walk every major street of the city. His radar-like nose took him to all the bright lights, honing into points of interest. That night we walked for five hours until he declared that he had a feel for the city. It was time to go back and look for a good bar on Tu Do Street (known as Rue Catinat to the French).
Popeye had sailed the seven seas for over fifteen years and he knew his stuff. Ever since that first night in Saigon, I have approached every new city I visit in the same manner. I will spend hours walking the streets the night I arrive, preferably alone, taking in the sights and the myriad of smells that typify a city. My first night in Hong Kong, I walked and smelled the streets of Kowloon until my feet were blistered and bleeding.
Saigon was, and perhaps still is, a city of contrasts. It had, in Popeye's words, pathos -- a city of shamans, where reality becomes a lie. There was a sense of false normalcy. Diners, smiling and smartly dressed, arrived in limousines and entered the fine hotels, socializing as if this really were Paris. Saigon was a city where one was either in a state of exhilaration or utter depression. "No soft corners here," Popeye observed.
Street orphans, barely six years old and some of them amputees, grab your sleeve to sell you cigarettes or pornographic pictures (boom-boom pictures, they called them), or get you to exchange money. You don't even dare to look into their haunting eyes. Vendors everywhere, many of them reselling the foreign aid meant for the less fortunate. What a hypocrite, I thought later, remembering the sacks of phosphate we sold in Vung Tau.
That first night in Saigon, I got into a fight with some Greek sailors. Looking back upon it now, it all seems so futile and stupid. Popeye's walk through the city, the attack on the tanker, and the months in Vung Tau were beginning to sink in. I felt traumatized by conflicting emotions. I felt shamed, part of a problem I didn't understand or could do anything about. It really made no difference that they were Greek, although the Scandinavian animosity towards them probably helped me decide to throw an empty beer bottle in their direction.
They had been acting like idiots, which is certainly not uncommon for drunken sailors. Any other time and I would have let it pass. They were treating the waitresses like dirt, referring to them as gooks. It was obviously a new word to them picked up from the GI's, I guess, because they kept repeating it over and over, followed by hysterical laughter. Finally it blew a fuse in me and I threw the bottle.
The bottle hit their table and scattered the glasses on top of it. A Filipino rock band was playing a very loud rendition of House of the Rising Sun on a small stage a floor below. In a rage, I moved down to where they were sitting, and got into a scuffle with the guy whom I figured to be the major jerk.
The last time I was in a fight was back in third grade. Under normal circumstances the Greek would have easily beat me, but in my fury I managed to knock him over the railing where he landed with a crash on the drums below. The band stopped playing and left the stage. Popeye grabbed me and got us out of there in a hurry. He literally dragged me down the stairs towards the street.
Still furious, I walked out on the sidewalk and smashed the glass case of a hawker selling contraband American cigarettes, badly cutting my wrist in the process. Popeye threw the bewildered man some money and steered me in the direction of the river while trying to calm me down. When he saw the blood coming from my wrist, he took off his shirt and tore it to strips. Calmly, he applied a tourniquet to my arm and bandaged the wrist. I had seen the first blood of the war close-up, my own.
The gook factor, the dink factor, the slope factor. I thought back to the bar in Baltimore, and the conversations in the Zebra Club in Yokohama. It had sounded so offensive. But then my own grandmother still referred to the Japanese as "Jappen," and others in my family still called the Germans "Moffen." And before the Americans came to Vietnam, the French openly called the locals "Les Faunes." In wartime, it's human nature, a defense mechanism to overcome fear, my mind reasoned -- us against them. The only sad difference was that in this case the derogatory labels were applied to the "friendlies" as well.
Our cargo was non-priority, and no one came to unload it. A week went by and the ship continued to rust. Morale on the ship was the pits and we felt abandoned. All discipline was gone. The rumored replacement captain never came and the first mate, now technically in command of the ship, spent most of his time in a drunken stupor. His once deep-blue eyes were now devoid of color. Some of the men had locked themselves in their cabins, refusing to come out.
Two weeks after arriving in Saigon, our third mate's body was found floating in the Saigon River, an apparent robbery victim. No police arrived to investigate. Just too common an occurrence, a U.S. sergeant informed us. The third mate had only been in his twenties, and I briefly thought about his poor family back in Norway. But only briefly, because, given the environment we were in, too much thinking was dangerous to your health.
We learned about Saigon's master "magicians." They were unbelievable, good enough to make the Ed Sullivan Show -- little kids trained to remove your watch or wallet unnoticed. I lost three piastre-filled wallets until I finally wised up and stopped carrying a wallet altogether while in the city. Today, when walking through a crowd, I still have the unconscious habit of patting my back pocket every three or four steps. My watch they left alone. The darn kids probably knew it was a Timex.
One night, having just returned to the ship, we saw a helicopter hit one of the power lines strung over the river. It tumbled into the water in a magnificent shower of sparks, barely missing the heavy boat traffic below.
As the weeks went by, Popeye and I began using the ship as simply a place to bed down for the night. We ate most of our meals on shore. It was just too much of a hassle to take the sampan back and forth. Even worse, the ship had started to resemble a loony bin. Men that had been full of piss and vinegar only a week earlier were starting to crack. Cookie had stopped cooking since few men ate their meals on board. Those who did made their own meals. The galley was a mess, and so was the mess hall and the rest of the ship. Wire was desperately trying to repair the broken television set in the lounge. "I must know what's happening. I really must see what's going on," he repeated over and over. Little did he know that there were no regular TV broadcasts in Vietnam at the time.
Minnie the sampan girl and I made a date to go to the movies. It's a macaroni Western, she told me. It was a beautiful day as we walked hand in hand through the center of the city towards the Notre Dame Cathedral. At the Brodard Cafe on Tu Do Street we stopped for some refreshments and a bite to eat. We ordered banh cuon (rice pancake with pork and stuff) with lots of nuoc mam (smelly fish sauce) and garlic on it, an ice-cold Tiger beer for me, and a coke with double straws for her. The cafe was a great place for people-gazing -- the pretty girls in ao dai traditional dress and conical hats, the old men pulling their carts to the market, the young Vietnamese "cowboys," fashionably dressed and showing off on their fancy scooters. Today was a "happy day," a day when it's impossible not to love Saigon, The sad days were when I absolutely hated Saigon. There were no in-between days. The weather has a lot to do with it, I thought. And so did Minnie, of course.
Minnie had the uncanny ability to read my mind. Today is a happy day," she said. "Yes, it is. Just look outside, everybody else is happy, too." But she didn't take her eyes off me. She just nodded and smiled, happily sipping her coke. "Close your eyes," I told her, "Don't open them until I tell you." I had bought a small Minnie Mouse button at a stall a couple of days earlier, and now I pinned it to her blouse, Opening her eyes, she looked down and giggled. "Merci beaucoup, Donald Duck." Quack, quack to you too, Mademoiselle.
Back out on the sunny street we walked past the Continental Hotel and waved at the tipplers on the terrace the reporters had dubbed the "Continental Shelf." Because it was a happy day, they waved back. "When the war is over," Minnie told me, "I want to become a stewardess and travel the world." I told her about my travels -- Holland with its tulips and windmills; the milk bars and Tyroler music of Lienz, Austria; the awesome Rocky Mountains and the hapless native Indians of Canada; the beauty and serenity of the Inland Sea of Japan, the dizzying skyscrapers of New York. Listening intently, she slipped her arm inside mine. Pure, innocent Minnie. I never felt prouder in my life. We paused outside a bar to listen to the Lovin' Spoonful singing Do You Believe In Magic. "I do," I said. "I do," Minnie said.
We stopped to admire the Virgin Mary in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral. "Are you Catholic?" Minnie asked. I had to think about that for a moment. My maternal grandparents were devout Catholics, but because my father was partly Jewish, my mother had left it up to us to select our own religion. "I used to be a Catholic," I finally replied. Minnie looked at me strangely. "Then what are you now?" she asked. I honestly replied that I didn't know. There's something attractive about all religions and I would like to embrace them all. "Would you like to go inside the church and pray?" Minnie asked. "No, we'll be late for the movie," I quickly said. The last time I was in a church was with Tedde, not to pray but to steal candles. I had already sinned too much. "Nonsense," said Minnie, pulling me into the church. "The movie never stops. They just play it over and over." But the front gates were locked. God didn't want me in His church.
In the middle of the movie, while Clint Eastwood was shooting bad guys, an explosion rocked the back of the crowded theater. There was instant pandemonium as acrid smoke began filling the room and the screen went dark. People were pushing and trampling over each other to get to the exits. I was stunned and stared dumbly at the dark screen, perhaps waiting for Clint to tell us that these were just some neat special effects. The thought to never yell fire! in a crowded theater crossed my mind. Minnie grabbed my hand, shook me, and pointed to an emergency exit, where we safely managed to escape into a back alley.
Later we joked about it. Maybe we should go back to the theater and ask for our money back. We never found out whether there were any casualties. We didn't want to know. After all, it was a happy day, you know, and on happy days you ignore all bad things.
I never witnessed any major attack on the city of Saigon, just regular terrorist "incidents." Because they were so sudden and unpredictable, people tended to ignore them. Few of them were reported, as if to deny the enemy his successes. As far as the locals were concerned, it was business as usual. These people had been at war for so long that it seemed normal.
For the American GI's, it was another matter. At least that was my perception when I met them in Saigon, where they would spend a few days on "in-country" R&R. I never spent any time with them out in the boondocks where life was a whole lot different and much more dangerous. In the Saigon bars that weren't off limits to them, I had frequent discussions with GI's mostly my own age. After a few drinks, they would open up and readily admit that they had little motivation to fight. Many were depressed, drinking heavily, and some of them were strung out on dope. They wanted to get back to the World.
Popeye and I become drinking buddies with four Marines from a platoon that had recently been decimated near Da Nang. Every time they tried talking about it, they broke down. We cried with them, while the bargirls giggled in embarrassment. They were the lucky ones, I thought. At least they could let go of their emotions. What was worse were the quiet and silent types, the loners.
One night we saw a lone soldier sitting at the bar. He didn't utter a word, emptily staring at the reflective glass at the back of the bar. He was squeezing his glass of bourbon so hard, that eventually it shattered in his hand. He nodded his head at the bartender, who after cleaning the mess brought him another glass of bourbon. He took several sips and kept staring at nothing. I tried looking at his eyes, but saw nothing, the eyes of a dead man. A few minutes later the glass shattered again. This continued several times before he slid off his stool and collapsed on the floor. I glanced at his hand and saw multiple shards of glass protruding from the cut-up flesh of his palm. Two bartenders picked him up and gently carried him into one of the darkened booths in the back of the bar. No one had said a word. Words were meaningless.
Not all of the soldiers we met were demoralized. Not by a long shot. Some GI's kept their fighting spirits alive through hate -- pure, unadulterated hatred. They despised the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. In fact, they hated all slopes. The only good gook is a dead one, they said. They loved to kill the motherfuckers, cut off their balls with a dull knife, they said. Born to kill! Born to die! Barry McGuire's Eve of Destruction was written for them.
There was a certain logic to this attitude. If you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys, then you must assume that they're all bad guys. If what you perceive is a good guy and he then proceeds to blow your buddy's head off, well shit man, it's a question of fucking survival. Nevertheless, it's repulsive, but then so is war.
Probably because they were elite units and smaller in number, the Australians and New Zealanders had a more laid-back attitude. Generally older than their American counterparts, they seemed more experienced and more prepared for what to expect. The Australians at least had some homegrown jungle to practice in. In any case, they didn't seem to carry the same animosity toward the Vietnamese, and in the bars they were always in good cheer and easy to talk to.
Except for the instance of seeing the Koreans going up the river on their little warship like there was no tomorrow, we never met any in Saigon. But I heard stories about them. A grunt put it quite succinctly one day. "The fucking ROKs are killer freaks. Compared to the ARVN regulars, you know, the Kims are totally cool. They not only cheerfully kill gooks, but anything that fucking moves, including us dipshits. It's like, you know, they have a reason for being here. Can you fucking believe it?" It must be the garlic, I thought.
Not once during my stay in Vietnam did anyone bother to ask me what I was doing there. Oh sure, there were some perfunctory questions, such as "Who you're with?" and "When are you due (back in the World)?" After a while I would just shrug, which as far as they were concerned, was as good an answer as any. I would tell people my name, and a minute later they would call me "Fred." "Hey Fred, when you're finished with my "wife," put her in the washing machine and I'll pick her up later." To the Americans in Vietnam, my name was Fred. Here today, gone tomorrow.
We had been in Saigon now for four weeks, which added up to four months of total 'Nam time. Our crew had dwindled to eight. Both Finland and Clark Gable had used what brains they had left and taken a commercial flight out of Saigon just days before the Viet Cong launched a mortar attack on the airport. Somebody had unloaded the cases of canned foods, no doubt having made their way to the vendors on Tu Do street and the markets in Cholon, but the remaining sacks of phosphate were still stacked up in the ship's holds. All of the ship's engines had been shut down, even the auxiliary, and I could swear that the ship was listing to port. We were now solely relying on shore power, and that was flaky at best. With the frequent outages, the meat and Cookie had gone bad. Wire had finally given up trying to fix the TV. He was now just staring at it.
News was scarce. The Stars and Stripes paper and AFRS (Radio Saigon) kept us somewhat up to date, but it was mostly useless drivel. Some of the reports were funny. Pravda reported that "Batman" is brainwashing American children into becoming "murderers" in Vietnam. Even funnier: the Pentagon denies this. Another report quoted the leader of South Vietnam's Roman Catholics warning against early elections, because "the Ky government only controls 10 percent of the country's territory." (What a comforting thought.)
Money was becoming a problem again. Popeye had gotten himself a job as a barkeep in one of the Tu Do bars, and I already owed him several hundred dollars in IOUs. It was time for me to start looking for employment opportunities. Maybe Minnie and I could run our own sampan business! Minnie and Jack's Saigon harbor tours! "And to our left, ladies and gentlemen, just beyond that floating corpse, is the My Canh floating restaurant, also known as the Russian Roulette Cafe. And it isn't just the food either! Why they kept rebuilding it each time it was bombed was a standard joke in Saigon.
With the only exception of Minnie, I hadn't made any Vietnamese friends. Oh sure, we were friendly to each other, joking and slapping each other on the back, and we even called each other friends, but there always remained an unspoken barrier.
Although the Cholon district was considered to be a Viet Cong citadel, Minnie and I loved going there by pedicab, especially to the Binh Tay market with its myriad of stalls and the nearby Chinese pagodas. I had already begun showing the first signs of going "native," as those in the know say, occasionally wearing a long black linen shirt reaching down below my knees over white slacks. A conical hat and dark glasses and voila, I would fit right in. Especially in Cholon I wanted to "blend in," to disappear in the masses of humanity. This may seem hilarious, but it actually wasn't. Except for the short cold spell in Hokkaido and the North Pacific, I had been living under the hot sun since California. My nineteen-year-old skin had turned to leather and in 1966 Saigon I was just another freak among fellow freaks. Perhaps a little taller, but that was all.
The "experts" will tell you that "going native" is a disease. It is a point-of-no-return. It is an intense desire to belong, to be wanted, to be accepted. It always fails, because the self--appointed "native" will always remain a fraud to the real natives and as a "traitor," or more kindly, a "fruitcake," to the society he's left behind. I don't necessarily disagree with the experts, but that's really the subject of another book.
Like anyone else trying to protect his sanity, I craved human companionship. For me, the only ones to turn to were the flotsam and jetsam of westerners that would drift in and out of the Saigon. In addition to the military, there were sailors like myself, temporarily "on the beach." There were a growing number of correspondents of various nationalities, some true professionals, others "free-lance" war freaks, stoned out of their skulls. There were CIA spooks and French veterans from the Battle of Dien Bien Phu who had forgotten to go home. There were loud-mouthed American civilian engineers and red-faced German businessmen, selling God--knows-what. There were Corsican gangsters, metis drug dealers, war profiteers and mercenaries. Then there were those that were impossible to identify -- the lunatics, the totally weird, the ones who would never go home again. And finally, believe it or not, there were the tourists! "Hey Mabel, how about spending the summer in Nam?" "Oh Fred, how romantic!"
Most westerners socialized within their own peer groups, but every now and then, when the stars were in the second heaven, you would befriend someone from another tribe.
One day I met someone who I thought for sure was a French mercenary. When I asked him if that's what he was, he laughed but didn't answer. He drove an army jeep and was armed to the teeth. He wore battle fatigues with no insignia and no rank. If Hollywood were casting for a French mercenary, he would be it. He was always alone and the Americans ignored him. I knew him as Antoine, but I doubt that was his real name. My God, compared to Antoine, my Uncle Robert was a military wimp.
When I met Antoine a second time, he was sucking on a bottle of San Miguel in his favorite haunt. I told him the story of how I had ended up in Saigon. When I asked him if he could find me a job, he said that he could do that. I was to meet him again in a few days. He finished his beer, paid his bill as well as mine, and roared off in his farting jeep. Jesus, I thought, he's going to sign me up as a mercenary!
That night I told Popeye that I was joining the French Foreign Legion. I had already convinced myself that Antoine was a high-ranking legionnaire. Popeye looked at me as if I had flipped my lid. Too much Vietnamese brandy. Shell shock. I was showing the first symptoms of dementia. "Maybe it's time you try and find yourself a way out of this hellhole," he said, "This thing is getting to you. You don't even know how to shoot a gun. And for your information, there is no Foreign Legion in Nam." I couldn't be convinced. "I had weapons training when I was in the Dutch navy," I countered. "The stinking cheesehead navy can't shoot its way out of a teacup. Am I the only sane man left on this floating graveyard? Tomorrow I'm moving out!" He stormed out of my cabin.
I lay awake in my bunk for hours and wondered how much a mercenary got paid and whether I would be allowed to do some looting on the side. I remembered that Antoine was wearing an expensive Rolex watch and a large ruby ring. Vietnam had indeed gotten to me. I was going insane.
I considered writing my father a letter, informing him that I was joining the Foreign Legion, but then thought better of it. He wouldn't understand. Instead I would write my Uncle Robert. He was a military man and had fought in New Guinea. Perhaps I could phone him. I tried as hard as I could, but was unable to recall seeing a single phone in Vietnam. Besides, I didn't have his phone number anyway.
When I met Antoine, my newly found hero, three days later, he handed me a business card of the office manager of a large French shipping agent. "They need a supercargo," he said, "Pay him a visit. Au revoir, mon ami." Before I could reply, he was gone. I ordered another beer, San Miguel of course, and tried to figure out what had just transpired. Perhaps the shipping company was a front for the Legion. That must be it. The Legion was notorious for its caginess. They wouldn't be operating out in the open, out of a storefront office with posters announcing tremendous career opportunities. But what the hell was a supercargo?
That evening I met Minnie at the Givral Cafe on the corner of Tu Do and Le Loi, across the street from the Continental. Wearing the button of her namesake and sipping a coke through double straws, and me drinking the sewage the Vietnamese referred to as local brandy, she had no idea what I was talking about. She just smiled broadly and kept nodding her head. She was happy, her eyes dreamy. Even though her glass was now empty, it never left her hands. She kept sucking through the straws, bringing up small amounts of liquid as the ice melted in the glass. I talked, and talked, and talked. I told her everything I knew about the French Foreign Legion, and then some. She giggled, never allowing the straws to leave her mouth.
Actually, I knew very little about the Legion, except that they were stationed in the Sahara Desert. The legionnaires were as tough as nails. I also remember the joke about the rookie officer arriving for his new assignment in the desert. He asks the men what they do for fun. "We use the camel, Sir." The officer eyes the camel suspiciously, then shrugs. "The camel, you say. Hmmm. Well, what the hell," He lowers his pants and humps the camel. "How's that, men?" he proudly asks the bewildered troops while pulling up his pants. "Well Sir, we usually use the camel to ride to the brothel in town." I almost started telling Minnie this joke, but then thought better of it.
Later, when she was taking me back to the ship, she was humming. Seeing that I was looking at her, she stopped see-sawing her oar through the water. She sat down facing me. Not a word was said. Tears began to flow in my eyes. She looked at me curiously, and then the tears began to flow in her eyes. Our lips slightly touched, and for the next 30 minutes we held each other tight, the sampan drifting aimlessly until a metallic clunk broke the spell. As we looked up, we saw the hull of a giant ship looming above us. Minnie shrugged, and as she gave me a big smile, she retook her position and paddled me back to what was now the alien world of my ship.
The following morning I met with Mr. Dupuis, a little mouse of a man, who told me that war was nothing more than running a business. Running a war, he explained, meant keeping the status quo in tact. War was as normal as peace, he said. The world keeps on turning, he assured me. The problem, he warned me, is that war brings out the worst in people. C'est la guerre. He also told me that a supercargo is short for a "supervisor who makes sure that no one steals the "fooking" cargo." I was "fooking" perfect for the job.
The next day I presented my credentials to the captain of the ship I was assigned to. First day on the job and I was wearing a "silk" suit I had tailor-made in Vung Tau. (A week later, while shaking hands with another captain, one of the arms would unravel at the shoulder seam and come loose.) One of the mates took me down to the main deck where I was introduced to the Vietnamese foreman. Not quite knowing what I was supposed to be doing, I began observing the unloading of the cargo.
I had tally sheets that told me what was in each of the hatches. I was supposed to initial the foreman's tally sheets as the hatches were emptied. It quickly became clear that something was fishy. These guys were pilfering! I started an argument with the Vietnamese foreman, who called me a liar. Some of the longshoremen formed a ring around us, some with hooks in their hands. A U.S. sergeant sauntered over and pulled me aside. "You won't be the first supercargo they have killed," he kindly warned me. I got the message. I returned to the foreman, bowed deeply, hands put together in front of my chest, and apologized. My mistake, I said. At lunchtime, the Vietnamese invited me to share lunch with them. We sat on one of the hatch covers, eating fried rice and nuoc mam with our fingers. We were friends again. And I had entered a world of rampant corruption.
I told Minnie about my lucky arrow-shaped star constellation and we tried looking for it on several occasions. We never did manage to locate it in the Saigon sky, which was sad. I dreamed of taking her to the beaches of Vung Tau where the air was cleaner and the nights were darker, but that's all that it remained -- a dream.
It had become our habit to meet every Sunday afternoon at Givral's, pick up some freshly baked croissants, and then go for our favorite stroll up the wide boulevard leading towards the palace. One such Sunday, red-striped yellow flags were flying everywhere and we were wondering what Premier Ky and his cohorts were doing. The city had been free from terrorist activity for more than a week. The weather was perfect, not too hot, not too humid, and not too much smog. Girls, wearing their Sunday's best ao dai, were smiling and full of good cheer. It was so nice to pretend that this was a wonderful world.
It was just a single sniper shot. At first I thought it was a small firecracker, but when I looked up at the barricade by a building where one of the guards had stood nonchalantly just moments before, I now saw him slumped over some sandbags, his M-16 uselessly hanging from one hand. More shots were heard and people scattered in all directions, and then it was over. The White Mice, the desperation clear on their faces, were all over the place in minutes, but Charlie was gone. Even the South Vietnamese couldn't tell friend from foe.
The corruption reached right into the U.S. military. The sergeant who had cautioned me not mess with the Vietnamese foreman and his longshoremen was just as corrupt. After a while I got to know the bad apples. I even wondered about Mr. Dupuis, the office manager at the shipping firm. On a couple of occasions I was invited to parties at the Rex and the Cercle Sportif, the lush country club behind the palace, which were attended by high-ranking U.S. military personnel. Although I never received any monetary kickbacks as a result of my duplicity, my "military connections" got me access to goods from the PX commissaries of the U.S. military. I had no idea how big the corruption was, but from the whispered conversations in the dark bars of Saigon, it seemed massive.
My acquiescence wasn't total. I frequently caught the small-time pilferers, the "amateurs." That's how I kept my job. But the big-time operators I would leave alone, simply to save my skin. It was a marriage of convenience. They knew who I was, and through the handouts of certain favors, I knew who they were, at least some of them. If I needed some extra money, they would allow me to sell the occasional case of PX booze. I probably could have made a lot more money, perhaps even enough to move into the Majestic or the Continental. I'm sure that was what Tedde Toet would have done, but I figured that a low profile would keep me alive longer.
Instead, I rented a third-floor room in a rat-infested flophouse just off Tu Do Street right across the street from a mosque. Minnie helped me move over the few possessions I had. Popeye had done the same thing weeks earlier. The ship had become a death trap. The few remaining crew members were now total zombies. Why don't they leave, I thought. Why don't you leave, a little voice reverberated in my head.
Good question. I had somehow convinced myself that I was stuck in Vietnam, but that wasn't the case. There were commercial flights leaving Tan Son Nhut airport every day, even if only to get to Bangkok. I might not have enough money to get back to North America or Europe, but I could always ask for help at the embassy in Bangkok. I had heard many of the GI's say that they would gladly give an arm or a leg, even a left testicle, just to get out of this armpit of the world. Then why was I staying? A morbid fascination with Hell perhaps?
I had never flown on an airplane before and I wasn't too anxious to get on one. Of course, that excuse didn't hold a heck of a lot of water. One afternoon, I was in the Princess Bar where Popeye tended bar, and met two Air America pilots. I asked them about the possibility of hitching a ride to Japan. "Well, we don't fly there ourselves, but there's a Sergeant Johnson with Flight Ops at Tan Son Nhut who might get you out on a transport to Atsugi," said one of the pilots. "Yeah," grinned the other, "but you may have to work your way there by tending to the wounded." Apparently, the healthy troops didn't use the transports for their R&R. I never bothered to check.
As was typical of the French architecture at the time, my room was large and had a ridiculously high ceiling. Suspended from it was a slowly circling fan, almost as useless as the mosquito net over my bed. Instead of curtains, the grimy windows could be covered with green shutters. There was a quaint French dresser in the corner. The top of it was carved with graffitti: Kilgore Was Here and I Love Suzie Wong, All of Them.
Looking out of my window, I could see East Indians slowly trek back and forth between Tu Do and the mosque. Most of them made a living manipulating currencies and had street gangs of homeless boys working for them. As in Japan, black-market money exchange had become big business in Saigon. It eventually forced the military to pay its men in "scrip," or funny money, which was practically useless on the street. (In the late sixties or early seventies, hookers outside the Zebra Club and Merchant Seamen's Club in Yokohama would offer me to take 50 cents on the dollar for "scrip," more officially known as MPC (Military Payment Certificates). I never figured out if that was getting laid at half the price or double the price, or whether it was getting your nookie at par.)
Minnie and I would rendezvous (or RV as we called it) at regular times at the Givral. One day she was very excited. "Ship down, ship down," she said breathlessly as she pulled me along to where she parked her sampan. It wasn't really hers, of course, she just rented it from one of the local entrepreneurs.
When we reached the location of our ship, the stern seemed to be sitting at the bottom of the river. It was an eerie sight. My former propeller-room cabin was submerged. The ship, my former home, had died. It was like mourning a death in the family. That night Minnie and I cried together again, holding each other tightly in the aimlessly floating vessel (I was afraid of inviting her to my hotel room for fear that I would lose control over my self-imposed celibacy with her).
I had been in Vietnam for six months now. I was only nineteen years old, but felt like an old man. I had not received any replies to the letters I had written in Vung Tau. Popeye and I had drifted apart. Antoine had disappeared and except for the RV's I had with Minnie, I was totally alone. Yet, I made no attempt to leave the country. Saigon had become a magnet and it wouldn't let me go.
In July I started hanging out with Bjorn, a journalist for a Swedish tabloid. He had been in 'Nam since '62, long before any American presence, and was fluent in Vietnamese. We immediately took a liking to each other and we spent countless hours talking about the war. We discussed philosophy and the meaning of life. Bjorn related to me how much he hated war and I wondered what he was doing here then. It's strange how human beings are brought together and so quickly pour their hearts out. Life is so fragile when you realize that no one is looking after you any longer.
One night in the bar of the Majestic I told Bjorn about Minnie. "It sounds like this Minnie is the girl of your dreams," said Bjorn with only the slightest touch of sarcasm.
"Yes, but I'm afraid to tell her that, Bjorn. I once fell in love with a girl in Japan and then really broke her heart. I don't want to do that to Minnie. She's too precious."
"Don't you think you're a little young to start worrying about broken hearts. Have you slept with her?"
"No, but my body aches for her every night, even when I'm screwing one of the Tu Do girls, I think of her. I don't want to hurt her, Bjorn. I'm like a father to her. And besides, God knows I may already have syphilis"
"You're a strange bird, Jack, but I understand. I went through something similar a year and a half ago."
"Here in Saigon?"
"No, not Saigon. I married a girl up in Hue when I first got to Vietnam. She's probably the reason I stayed here all these years. We had a little boy. Named him Tan, after my father."
What happened next, Bjorn, I wanted to ask, but the sadness in his face made me hesitate. I walked up to the bar and brought back a couple of Heineken, pouring one into Bjorn's empty glass. Someone put some money into the jukebox and Percy Sledge began singing When A Man Loves A Woman. It was too much for Bjorn. Tears rolled down his cheeks. I held his hand and cried with him. Only when the song had stopped was he able to speak again.
"At the beginning of last year Hue was relatively quiet. Fighting was sporadic. Trying to cover every battle I could find, I joined some ARVN troops near the village of Binh Gia. There were some Americans there as well, but officially they were still called advisers. It was the fiercest battle I had seen yet and the ARVN took heavy casualties. Some of the Americans were killed too.
"On the second or third day, I heard that the Buddhists were demonstrating in the streets of Hue and that the city had come under attack. I had a feeling that something was wrong at home and wanted to get back to Hue, but trying to do so would have been suicide. We were under relentless attack for over a week and I swore that I would never cover another battle.
"When I finally got back to Hue in the middle of January, I found the house empty. I waited for them to return, but they didn't. I walked the streets for weeks calling out their names. I must have talked to every citizen in Hue. I waited for six months before I gave up hope and moved to Saigon."
"Jesus, Bjorn. I'm sorry. How can people just disappear from the face of the earth? Didn't she have family?"
I realized that I had used the past tense the moment I said it, but Bjorn didn't seem to notice, or perhaps he had truly given up hope. His tears had dried and he took a deep swallow from his glass.
"Jack, believe me, people do disappear, never to be seen again. But just in case, I've left word with neighbors on where to reach me. As far as family is concerned, no, she didn't have any. She was an orphan."
The rains had started, the humidity became unbearable and I was very fatigued. In my room the ceiling fan's high-speed setting was kaput, and in the morning my sheets were soaking wet. My clothes in the closet were beginning to rot and I had to throw away my "silk" suit. I felt somewhat guilty about doing that only because Minnie had painstakingly sewn the loose arm back on. God, how much hotter can it get? I had developed a bad case of crotch rot, and my feet didn't look much happier. Earlier in the day I had bought some Johnson & Johnson's baby powder to treat the problem. Now I was lying in bed, staring up at the geckos on the ceiling, giving my private area maximum exposure to the minimal fan. I need some simple companionship, I thought. Someone to share the pain with.
I hobbled towards Tu Do Street, to the Princess bar where I hoped to find Popeye. It was still early and the place was deserted. "Where's Popeye the Norwegian?" I asked one of the regular girls. This one was in the habit of wearing a ridiculous blond wig with a permanent wave, which I suppose she thought made her more appealing to the Americans. She was in the process of applying big gobs of Day-Glo paint to her gaunt sixteen-year-old face before a small cracked mirror, preparing herself for the evening's onslaught. In the back of the bar, flaunting the wrath of Vietnamese superstition, two girls were chasing cockroaches, trying to demolish them with their high heels. The place reeked a thousand odors, all of them unpleasant -- dead meat and stale urine, sour vomit mixed with cheap perfume, the decaying nightmares of a thousand men. I took a whiff of my own armpit for comfort. In the evening, a few coins in the jukebox, fresh sweat, the renewed musk of horniness, Old Spice, and the free flow of alcohol, would stifle the olfactory senses enough to make it bearable again.
The girl painted one eyelid neon-green before she looked up at me. "He go home," she answered, blinking with what seemed to be only one eye. "Go home? What do you mean he went home?" I asked incredulously. She looked at me as if I were the dumbest thing on earth. I had forgotten that you can't communicate with these people when you're stone-cold sober. I tried again, patiently this time. "Did he go home to Norway or did he go home to his room here in Saigon?" "No, no, no, you no unnerstand. He go home to his mama-san in Japan, " she finally replied, "You buy me drink now, okay?" Well, thanks for saying goodbye, Popeye!
I guess the information deserved a drink. "Yeah sure, I'll buy you a drink, but first please finish doing your other eye." With both eyes blinking now, she put her tools away and sat beside me at the bar. "Why he go back Japan?" I asked her. After a belt of brandy I was able to communicate again. "He very sick, your friend Popeye. Number ten sick. What you call malaria? If stay Saigon, maybe he die."
Malaria? Do people die of malaria? Is that what those mosquito nets are for? Then I vaguely remembered. Many years earlier, Popeye had contracted malaria in Lebanon. He had spent nearly three months recuperating in a hospital in Israel. Hadn't he once told me that he lived in fear of a recurring bout, that certain conditions could make it reappear? I wasn't sure, but made a mental note to ask Bjorn what the chances were of getting malaria, in Saigon. In the meantime, I had lost another friend.
One rainy night Bjorn and I were talking to a couple of Australians in an "off-limits" bar in Cholon. The bargirls, the Aussies called them Sheilas, had long given up pestering us to buy them Saigon Tea. Two American GI's wearing civvies were sitting near the entrance playing some kind of dice game. On occasion, MP's would roam these bars and weed out straying GI's, but for the moment the two were happily ignoring regulations. And who wouldn't? It was rather presumptuous, I thought (perhaps naively), for the military to think it could tell a safe bar from one that wasn't. Now, being in the Cholon district in the first place, that was another matter.
The night before Bjorn had taken me across the Saigon River to the north shore, where he had interviewed what he claimed were Viet Cong. The meeting had been frightening, at least for me. Bjorn, in his fluent Vietnamese, had a heated argument with the VC about my presence. At one point, one of the eight men, actually a boy several years my junior, drew a knife and held it up to my throat, Bjorn said something and then waved his hand nonchalantly, as if to imply, "Sure, go ahead. Cut his throat. See if I care." He didn't even look at me, for crying out loud! What kind of a deadly game was he playing?
"They want to see your passport," Bjorn finally said quite softly, still refusing to look at me. "Mother Maria!" is all could say. What a great time to tell me to bring my stupid passport! I wasn't even carrying my driver's license. "Then speak Dutch to them," Bjorn said calmly, and this time he looked at me and smiled. I was puzzled but finally got it. They thought I was American. I'll do even better than that, I thought. "Als we toffe jongens zijn, dan zullen we wezen en daarom komen wij," I sang with quivering voice. It was a song I had learned back in Holland some ten years earlier. The Viet Cong looked at me with mouths wide open. Their arguing had stopped. "Overal, overal, waar de meisjes zijn, daar is het bal," I continued, this time much louder as I gained confidence. Some of them were smiling at Bjorn now. Another one was humming along. I repeated the refrain several times, each time with more gusto. I was singing for my life! When I finished with a flourish, I knew that I had passed the test because they were applauding.
Bjorn talked to the men for three hours. I didn't understand a word. At the end of the meeting, we all shook hands. I had no idea what they had talked about, and Bjorn was tight-lipped on the way back. "Don't ever take up singing as a career" is all he said.
Now, back in the Cholon bar, I was boasting to the two Australians of having met the VC. They weren't such bad guys after all, I told them. "They are human beings, just like us," I said, amazed at my own profundity. "Yeah sure, mate, go tell that to General Westmoreland. He may not be aware of that amazing fact," snorted the one sitting next to me. The Aussies were obviously not the least bit impressed by my persuasive talents. Bjorn kept wisely quiet, refusing to come to my defense.
I was about to force my argument further when there was an explosion outside that made our ears ring. The two Australians hit the deck, while the two Americans ran outside to see what happened. I was about to follow them when Bjorn grabbed me and pushed me under a nearby table. "Don't move!" he hissed. Several bottles on the glass shelves behind the bar had tumbled to the floor. Five minutes went by before we picked ourselves up from the floor. There was complete silence and -- I had peed my pants.
One of the Australians peered out of the doorway and after what seemed like an eternal minute, he turned back inside and threw up. I was shivering like a leaf and without asking, the bartender handed me a shot of brandy. I gulped it down. The burning sensation in my chest had me gasping for air, but it calmed me somewhat.
When I finally went outside, the narrow street was littered with debris. A café a couple of houses over had been bombed. The two American GI's had vanished, safely I hoped. There were a dozen casualties, all were Vietnamese or Chinese, and at least two were dead. "Fine human beings, aren't they, mate?" said one of the Aussies while slapping me on the back. I guess I had lost the argument.
I had never been this close to dead and dying people. The mind works in mysterious ways. The sight of the blood reminded me of one of my mother's jokes: Sam and Moe were hunkered down in a trench during WW-1. There were bullets flying everywhere. Suddenly Sam turns to Moe and asks, "Hey Moe, does blood smell like poop?" "No, I don't think so," answers Moe. "Good," says Sam, "That means I haven't been hit."
The only thing worse than a dead person is a person in the throes of death. You try comforting them, but there really isn't much you can do, except to say, "You're gonna be alright. Hang in there. They'll be here soon." Words intended as much for you as for the wounded. When you see a person about to die, it makes no difference whether they are friend or foe. The agony is the same.
The incident had freaked me out and I was out of commission for nearly a week. I had reduced myself to solitary drinking and vomiting within the confines of my decrepit room. The only times I left my room was to go out for booze, whatever I could find. I had stopped eating. One night I woke up on a bench near the river. It was way past midnight and because of the curfew, the streets were empty. The place was a ghost town and the only sound was the lapping of water against the quay. I had no idea how I'd gotten where I was, or even where I was.
Suddenly, in the corner of my eye, I see a convoy of small black dogs scurrying towards the river. Except they don't walk like dogs. Their legs are too short. I sit up with a start. Those beady little eyes! Those pointy little snoots! These are not dogs! They are bloody giant rats! Oh God, I'm hallucinating! I'm now truly going dien cai dau, or Dinky Dau as the Americans pronounced the Vietnamese word for crazy. What's next? My brain reels as I wait for the pink elephants. Instead I feel the barrel of a gun at the back of my head. I close my eyes, almost with a relief to end it all. "Shoot," a little voice in my head screams.
Raising my head, I look up into the eyes of an American MP. The MP looks over at his partner who's still holding the gun to the back of my head, and nods. Taking this as a sign to pull the trigger, I close my eyes again. "Stand up and put your hands on your head!" I do as told and as one of them frisks me, I start giggling. "The guy is a bleepin' basket case, Pete." "No shit, Cal," says Pete. "What the hell are you doing here?" he asks me. "Studying the behavior of the Saigon River rat," I reply. "Oh, now I recognize you," says Cal, "Hey Pete. This guy here's that famous professor doing a book on the friggin' Saigon river rat." Sure, humor me. "Would you like my autograph?" I ask. "Yeah sure, buddy, but first we gonna arrest you for breaking curfew."
I'm sitting hand-cuffed with Pete in the back of their jeep. "You guys can't arrest me. It's against the Geneva Convention." Pete and Cal look at each other. They're really having fun with me now. "Listen, buddy, we have the guns and you don't." I see their point. "Can I at least call my lawyer?" I ask very sincerely. That really cracks them up. "You're too much, doc," says Pete, "Next you'll want us to read you your freakin' Miranda rights." Pete and Cal are now in tears laughing. I don't crack a smile. "Will I be released when the war is over?" I ask sheepishly.
I wasn't being intentionally funny. I was actually feeling downright miserable. In any case, Pete and Cal took pity on me took me back to my hotel, where we had a couple of warm beers and discussed the finer points of the Saigon River rat.
Many years later, it was the movie Apocalypse Now that most closely portrayed the true insanity of the war I was in (except for the Brando part, which was too much). War was indeed a state of human insanity and despair -- with humor being the only relief. All of the reasoning I had been brought up with went right out the window. Anyway, my encounter with Pete and Cal snapped me out of my misery.
Bjorn got me to a qualified dentist, a real Frenchman with a Citroen in his suburban garage. He gave me a root canal to remove the rotten remnants of my aching molar, and pulled out two others, just for the hell of it. The guy even did x-rays, which was a first for a somewhat apprehensive me. The only problem was that now I only had one molar left and I had to start eating like a rabbit. Just gum it to death, my Canadian stepfather used to say.
One afternoon Bjorn brought over a chess set, a real beauty he had picked up in Bangkok. I hadn't played the game since my maternal grandfather had taught it to me back in the late fifties. He had been a Dutch master who played the game with a vengeance. A real stickler for the rules (yes, he had an official chess clock), he played against me as he would a Boris Spasky or a Bobby Fisher. We must have played over a hundred times and I never beat him once.
Serious chess is a great way to take your mind of things that bother you. While pachinko is a mindless activity that puts you in a trance, the end result has the same therapeutic value. Later, when I learned shogi, the more complex Japanese version of the game, I felt the same way. Chess requires one's full concentration, no idle conversation, no daydreaming, no looking at your opponent (except perhaps as a psychological ploy). The exhilaration when you think you've found a winning strategy, the fear when you suddenly realize your last move was a stunning blunder. Winning is everything, and when you lose a close one, you want to win even more the next time. I remember a story of a famous Russian grandmaster who for the first time in a decade was about to lose his first game. He stared in stone-faced silence at the hopeless situation on the board and as time was about to expire, he sent the board and pieces crashing to the floor. "I don't like this game anymore," he said simply, and walked out of the room.
Unfortunately, Bjorn wasn't a very good player. Or to state it more fairly, I was a better player who had learned his lessons well. After ten straight wins, I gave him a handicap. I would drink one beer while he abstained. He still lost. We tried two beers and he would win occasionally. Finally, at four beers, I would usually lose. "This research must be worth something to somebody," joked Bjorn, absentmindedly picking his nose and flicking the booger towards my ceiling fan. "Well, if nothing else, we've invented a new handicap system for chess," I replied while trying to dodge the descending booger.
The three of us went shopping at the Binh Tay market in Cholon. The mostly open market place was full of its usual hustle and bustle, merchants outdoing each other in trying to sell their wares. We delighted ourselves at a sumo-like contest where fat Chinese wrestlers slapped each other out of the makeshift ring, and excited spectators exchanged money in a betting frenzy. I bought a couple of my favorite Wrangler jeans for both Minnie and myself, and Bjorn bought me a bottle of ginseng wine, which he assured me would do me a world of good. Minnie thought that was hilarious.
"Hey guys, how about if I treat the both of you to dinner tonight at the Caravelle," I said with enthusiasm. "That sounds like a grand idea, but they won't let us in the way we're dressed," said Bjorn, taking a bite out of one of the Mutsu apples he had just bought. True enough. Even in times of war certain dress codes stay in effect, and I had thrown away my only suit. Seeing the disappointment on my face, and after flicking out one of the pits in the core of his apple, Bjorn smiled. "Hey man, don't sweat it, you can borrow one of my jackets and ties. But as far as little Minnie here is concerned, my wardrobe isn't that extensive."
So we set out to find Minnie a dress, all for the sake of having dinner at the Caravelle. I had never seen her in anything but jeans or shorts. Bjorn picked out a Chinese cheongsam, but Minnie didn't like it, and neither did I, it made her look like a bargirl. She didn't feel comfortable in an ao dai either, so we finally settled on a simple flowery print dress with a white belt. She looked wonderful. "We're going to have to buy the little princess some shoes now, too," said Bjorn, taking the final bite out of his apple. Yeah right, the maitre d'hotel may not appreciate the thongs she was wearing, so at one of the stalls she picked out a pair of flat white loafers. "How about a purse?" suggested Bjorn, as Minnie was admiring herself in a mirror. "Come off it, Bjorn. Next you'll want me to buy her a hat, pearls, the works, and I won't be able to take you guys to dinner. Here, give me one of your apples, I'm getting hungry." As he handed me one, he said, "This is a story I'm going to file. 'Man Without Teeth Makes History By Eating Apple.'" I hit him over the head with my shopping bag. "Listen, Bjorn, it's your fault. You're the one that took me to that French butcher of a dentist. And besides, I've got more teeth left than you have hair on your head." "Maybe so, but at least I don't look like a rabbit when I eat."
We stopped by at Bjorn's room where we showered and changed clothes, and then walked the couple of blocks to the Caravelle on Lam Son Square and its 9th-floor dining room. While Bjorn made an early-evening reservation, Minnie and I walked up one floor to the rooftop terrace. She had never been this high up before and was amazed at the panorama around us. "It looks so different!" she exclaimed. "It also sounds so different! It even smells different!" Looking towards the golden glow of the river, the late-afternoon sun was setting behind us.
"Monsieur? Mademoiselle? Un aperitif?" It was Bjorn holding a tray with three glasses of champagne and some hors d'oeuvres. He even had a white napkin draped over one arm. We took a seat at a table facing the river. "Santé, mon amis!" I said as we clinked glasses, "Merci beaucoup for making me feel better. I almost lost it there for a while." Minnie grinned from ear to ear. "Well, I guess you're a bit lucky, Jack. Minnie and I considered eloping, you know. We were very tempted to let you wallow in your own self-pity. Isn't that right, Minnie?" She gave one of her new shoes a try-out by kicking him in the shin.
"Where you live, Minnie?" Bjorn asked as we were being seated at our immaculate candle-lit dining table by the window. A small orchestra was playing popular tunes from the fifties. "Over there, out in the country," she replied. From the position of the sinking sun, she was pointing to the northwest. Bjorn frowned. "You live in Cu Chi?" he asked. "No, no, not Cu Chi, but very close. It's countryside," she replied, "It takes about an hour by bus." She also told us that even though she tried to get home every day, she sometimes would overnight at her aunt in Saigon. "Oh, that's good," Bjorn said. I thought that was a rather strange remark, but let it pass.
It was the fanciest and tastiest dinner I'd had up to that point in my life, although the food at Maxim's on Tu Do was said to be far superior. I don't remember how many courses there were, only that it was all delicious, even though the portions were small. The menu was totally alien to Minnie, but she ate all that was recommended and ordered for her by her two "knowledgeable" gentleman escorts from the European continent.
Life had taken on perspective again. The world was turning as usual, as Mr. Dupuis had assured me that it would. And with "honest" supercargoes being in such short supply, I had no trouble getting my job back. Which was good, because I was nearly broke again. When the ships I was visiting were nearby, I would take Minnie's sampan and give her the business. For longer distances, I used the company's motor launch.
I was paying very little attention to the war at this time, but at the end of August I heard that an American freighter had hit a mine in the Long Tao River 20 miles to the South, killing seven of the crewmen. It sank and blocked the river -- it was the same stretch of water we had come through. Around the same time the Chinese claim that U.S. planes sank one of their freighters in the Tonkin Gulf.
"I'll get you accredited," Bjorn said one evening on the terrace of the Continental. "You must be kidding. I'm no reporter," I replied. "Neither are half of them," he said while pointing towards a group of reporters swapping war stories. "It won't cost you anything and it does have certain advantages." Well, why not? "Maybe I should buy myself another camera. Just to make things look legit," I suggested. He shrugged. "Suit yourself, but you don't see me with a camera."
The following day, Bjorn took me to the Vietnamese authorities to get my Bao Chi press credential. At JUSPAO (Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office) by the Rex hotel I was issued my MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) accreditation card. All that was needed was my passport, some photos, and the letter that Bjorn had typed up the previous evening on his company's letterhead. Actually, there was a minor screw-up with the Vietnamese authorities when they realized from my passport that I wasn't even officially in Vietnam (no stamp), but that got straightened out with some fast talking and a carton of Marlboros that Bjorn had thoughtfully brought along, and I was granted a temporary visa. I was now a bloody war reporter, and I was even granted PX privileges. Far out!
I never filed a single story, of course. Didn't write a single thing until now. But towards the middle of October, I did attend a news conference given by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara who was in Saigon on one of his fact-finding missions. He said something like "everything's going swell." I was probably the only "reporter" there not taking notes.
Soon after he left, some of the war's biggest battles took place just north of Saigon, lasting well into the middle of November. Around this time, Bjorn and I began to frequent the rooftop of the Majestic Hotel. It was a favorite gathering spot for foreign war correspondents, as was the rooftop of the Caravelle where most of the American reporters hung out. We "compared notes," sipped beer, and watched as the B-52s unloaded their bombs on the suburbs. What a weird sight, watching the war unfold live before your eyes while sipping a glass of champagne -- actually they were vodka tonics and we didn't sip them -- and listening to Mozart's Eine Kleine Nacht Muzieke! No blood, no gore, it all looked so neat and sterile.
Of course, the terrorist attacks hadn't stopped in Saigon. At the beginning of November, Bjorn and I witnessed a grenade explode at a bus terminal near the Ben Thanh market, killing several people. On the same day, not far away, someone fires a 75-mm recoilless rifle into a crowd of people waiting for the start of a parade celebrating South Vietnam's National Day. Some of the little yellow flags sported an extra stripe or two.
I got to meet some of the other correspondents. One of the ones that stood out at the time, at least for me, was photographer Sean Flynn, son of Errol, and friend of the legendary Tim Page (Page later collaborated on the book, Requiem, with Horst Faas, another legend). Unlike many of the others, Flynn spent very little time in Saigon. The city was a refuge for sissies, he said, and he was eventually swallowed up by the jungles of Cambodia (or Laos). Vietnam wasn't large enough for him. Big names who were there at the time included Larry Burrows, a photographer for Life, and Charlie Mohr, formerly with Time and now with the NY Times, Eddie Adams, and the author Bernard Fall, who had been there forever. They were the veterans, the field guys. Many of them hadn't exactly endeared themselves to the U.S. military. Even less appreciated around this time was Harrison Salisbury's unfavorable reporting out of Hanoi for the NY Times, thereby contradicting claims made by the Pentagon.
Saigon was not the place to be if you wanted to report on the war. Although brief skirmishes did break out in the city, they came without warning and there was no way to get to the "scene" in time. The real fighting occurred in the boonies and if you wanted to witness that, then you had to trudge along with the troops on their "search-and-destroy" missions. That often meant going up in a helicopter to some LZ (landing zone), and even then there was no guarantee that you would see action. Some of the more foolhardy ones would try and venture out on their own, but that was really tricky. It was my observation then that given the short time span most reporters spent in Vietnam, only a small percentage saw any real action. Except for the Marines and the Special Forces, the same could be said for many of the "regular" grunts.
One of the special events that always drew a crowd among the journalists and photographers was the "gruesome picture" show. These were the pictures (I wonder where they are now) the field guys brought back for us to admire, the really gross ones that never made their way into print. It reminded me of the clandestine picture book my mother once showed me of the Nazi atrocities perpetrated on the Jews. The most sickening were the posed ones, like a little girl holding her own head (eyes wide open) in her lap, or a VC who had been castrated and had the works stuffed in his mouth. You imagine it, they had it. The only way the mind can deal with that, or perhaps to distance itself from what it sees, is to engage in black humor.
"Hey, take a look at this." Bjorn was holding out to me a section of the New York Times. We were sitting on the terrace of the Continental. The article he pointed at stated that because of theft, bribery, black marketing, currency manipulation, and waste, about 40 percent of U.S. economic and military assistance sent to South Vietnam had failed to reach its proper destination. Furthermore, at least 400 U.S. servicemen and civilians were facing charges of corruption and black-market activities.
Months earlier I had told Bjorn about the phosphate we sold in Vung Tau and the hanky-panky that was happening on the ships. "If you don't buy me a beer, I'll turn you in," laughed Bjorn. "Yeah sure, Bjorn, and I'll tell them Charlie is your best buddy." I walked up to the bar and came back with two large bottles of Saigon Export. "You know, this is really weird. Both you and I know that this has been going on for at least a year. The percentage quoted here is probably much higher. Many of the journalists here are just as guilty of selling PX stuff. Why hasn't this story broken much earlier and who are these guys facing charges?"
Bjorn took a swallow from his beer before answering. "The story hasn't really broken yet, and probably never will. At least not until the war is over. I mean, look at the scope of this thing. Did you ever notice how well stocked all these bars are? Even most of the hotels here do not legally import all that bourbon and scotch. The cautious few may refill legally bought bottles, but most don't even bother. Then look at all the markets. Where do you think all that Campbell soup comes from, and the Wrangler jeans you are wearing? If you were to cut out all the corruption, the Saigon economy, in fact the whole country's economy, would collapse overnight."
"Jesus Bjorn, what you are saying is that the corruption is tolerated at the highest levels to sustain the war effort, all part of "winning the hearts and minds" of these people. You can't tell me that President Johnson is allowing this to happen? I mean why are all of these guys then being charged?"
"The guys that were caught are the scapegoats, the little fish. Not as little as you, perhaps, but nevertheless they come from the lower ranks. With over half a million troops you can afford to sacrifice a few little lambs, perhaps an officer or two, and hopefully the story will go away. At the moment, they're not even scratching the surface. Tens of thousands of westerners, mostly Americans of course, and millions of Vietnamese are making their living from corruption. You stop anything that massive and the Americans might as well pack up their bags and go home. And by the way, it feeds the American economy too, you know."
Perhaps Bjorn was stretching it a bit, but it was a persuasive argument. At the Majestic that evening some of the journalists talked about the NY Times story, but few jumped in with their own version of events. I was sure that those who were involved in the occasional PX sale felt a bit uncomfortable and the mood was somewhat hushed. It was interesting that the guy (I'm not sure whether it was Bernie Weinraub or Jonathan Randall) who had filed the story had only reported it after the 400 had been charged. The story had been sitting there for at least a year for anyone to pick up.
"You know, it would be interesting to look at total PX sales and divide by the number of troops stationed in 'Nam. Remember that most of them are not even near a PX. Can you imagine Walter Cronkite reporting on the 6 o'clock evening news that according to a recent study the average American soldier in Vietnam consumes 7 bottles of scotch, 5 bottles of bourbon, and 3 bottles of brandy a day? In addition, he daily smokes 8 cartons of cigarettes and consumes 23 cans of Campbell soup? And he wears out his Wranglers in three days." Bjorn looked at me with a lopsided grin. "Scoop of the century, Jack, scoop of the century."
At the beginning of December Minnie was forced to spend an increasing number of nights with her aunt in Saigon. VC activity on the outskirts of the city had risen dramatically and it was unsafe for her to make the trek home or even to get back into the city. The Americans and South Vietnamese Rangers had set up a permanent defense around Saigon, but the Viet Cong still managed to launch a fierce attack on the airport.
One evening Bjorn introduced me to Peter Arnett, a gung-ho AP field reporter from New Zealand, just in from the boonies. "I wish I had the guts he has," Bjorn told me later, "He's on Westmoreland's hit list." He certainly was something of a celebrity, although some journalists avoided him like the plague. He loved to talk and was fascinating to listen to. According to Arnett, the Americans weren't winning the war, just destroying the country.
Actually, Bjorn had a lot more courage than he admitted to. He didn't stray much out of Saigon, but whatever was happening in and around the city, he managed to cover it. He seemed to know that something was going to happen before it happened. Bjorn never attended any of the regular military briefings, the "Five O'clock Follies" as they came to be known. I wondered whether he was he getting his information from the Viet Cong. I never asked him. Some things are better left unsaid. The closest he ever came to clarifying his political position on the war was to say, "I'm a neutral observer, not a participant."
Occasionally, Bjorn would show me the articles he had written for the Swedish tabloid, the Svenske Dagbladet. As they were in Swedish, I couldn't read them, but many of them made the front page.
"They've got a choir singing Christmas carols on the terrace of the Continental! Can you believe that?" We picked a table near the bar. "What's so strange about that?" Bjorn asked. He was beginning to set up the pieces on the chessboard he had brought, our early-evening ritual. "Nothing, I guess, but I didn't have a Christmas last year and now it sounds so alien, especially here." Bjorn held out his hands and I picked the one that held the black piece. "Tell that to Cardinal Spellman. He's standing right over there." I followed Bjorn's eyes toward the street entrance and saw a small group of military officers and a fellow dressed up like St. Nicholas. "Who's Cardinal Spellman?" I asked. "He's the Catholic top banana of all U.S. military forces, in town for a few days to say mass to the troops." Bjorn returned his attention to the board and made his now familiar king's pawn opening move, "Well, I hope he's brought enough presents," I remarked and made my counter move. A few days later he would tell U.S. soldiers that they were in Vietnam for the "defense, protection and salvation not only of our country but ... of civilization itself."
Minnie, after a hard day on the river joined us at the table. "Oh, I love Christmas!" she squealed with childish glee, "It's so beautiful." One of the waiters was handing out carol sheets in both English and French and we joined the others in singing Silent Night. A few jerks were substituting the word "night" with something else, like "gook" and "fuck" and "shit." I wished that someone had the guts to throw those bastards out. Bjorn and I never got beyond the first few moves that evening. Instead, we made plans to celebrate Christmas together as well as my upcoming first-year anniversary in Vietnam. The two Christmases I had spent in Canada, we'd had turkey. "I wonder if they have turkeys in Vietnam?" Bjorn looked at me with distaste. "What's a turkey," Minnie asked. "Jack's a turkey," said Bjorn, "Actually the Americans are planning to distribute them all over the country by dropping them from B-52s. Frozen ones, of course."
Instead of a turkey dinner, we had turtle dove, frog and cobra-blood cocktails at the Nha Hang Le Lai restaurant. For the really exotic, you could sample bat, python, or how about a porcupine? Beats turkey any day.
After dinner we exchanged gifts. Bjorn gave me his chess set and Minnie gave me a portrait of herself, dressed in her best ao dai, something I had asked for. For Minnie, I had brought a large collection of Disney comic books that I had picked up at the PX. I was not aware of there being any U.S. dependents in Vietnam and I wondered if the troops were reading them.
"Oh, this is special. I'll treasure it forever!" Bjorn said with a wrinkled nose. "Thanks for waiting to give me this until after dinner." He was holding a thin necklace with one of my extracted molars, complete with dried blood. I had paid one of the jewelers in Cholon the equivalent of five dollars to drill a hole in it. Bjorn sterilized it by dipping it in his glass of cobra blood. I also gave him a hard-to-get copy of Bernard Fall's Street Without Joy.
Well, I made it -- a whole year in 'Nam -- a year in which 128,000 tons of bombs were dropped (every $10 spent on bombing does one dollar's worth of damage, as long as you don't count civilian lives as being worth anything). Only 318 U.S. aircraft were lost. 116,000 South Vietnamese soldiers had deserted (20 percent of their total forces). Officially, about 5,000 American had been killed in action. Also officially, there were over 30,000 American WIA's (wounded-in-action). A couple of hundred thousand (give or take a few) Vietnamese (mostly civilians, of course) had lost their lives. From the other side, the North Vietnamese, using their Russian-made calculators, claim to have killed 100,000 Americans (nice even number, that). It's the numbers game. Tally up the score. Can't you see that we're winning the war! Who cares that there were now 200,000 homeless kids roaming the streets of Saigon.
In fact, just about every Vietnamese in South Vietnam seems to have moved to Saigon -- the more the merrier. Overall a pretty good year, wouldn't you say? French President de Gaulle is pissing in the wind telling the Americans to get out of Vietnam. What a party pooper! We're having too much fun here!
Actually, everybody did take a breather. A truce was negotiated to begin on the last day of the year (giving us a chance to sing Auld Lang Syne up on the Caravelle). But on the 2nd of January 1967 at 0700 hours Saigon time, the United States announced the resumption of "normal operations." I guess they didn't want anybody to get bored.
"You should do it at least once, Jack." We were having a coffee at the Givral with a couple of UPI reporters who had just returned from seeing some action in War Zone C. Jesus! Bjorn was daring me to go out there and see some real fighting. And doing it in front of others no less. "Hey, Bjorn, you know that's a no-no here, man. Taboo. And this kid is not even stringing for anybody," said one of the UPI guys. Unintentionally, those words made it even more difficult for me to chicken out. How could I criticize the beer-bellies for refusing to leave the comforts of the Continental or the Caravelle, if I myself was nothing but a coward. Before I could give it another thought I told Bjorn that I would do it. "Don't worry, guys," Bjorn said, "I'll be there with him, holding his hand."
So, in the middle of January, I became part of Operation Cedar Falls, a large offensive to disrupt guerilla ops just outside Saigon. Was I scared? Do bears poop in the woods? Or perhaps more appropriately, do tigers fart in the jungle?
At a black market I was outfitted with second-hand fatigues, boots and a helmet. "How about a gun?" I asked Bjorn nervously, "I've always wanted to shoot one of them M-16s." Bjorn pinned my ID on me. I had tried to do it myself, but had dropped it three times. "No guns, Jack. We don't want you to go out there shooting your balls off." I suggested that perhaps we should have a couple of drinks first. "No booze," he said curtly. I think he was having second thoughts about me tagging along. He had seen me freak out before and he could see I was on the edge.
We were told that we were going out on one of the choppers to the northwest of Saigon. "Please no, Bjorn. I've never even been in an airplane. I'll take the bus and see you over there, okay? I'm scared to death of flying." I probably had a good reason to be. Choppers had been dropping out of the sky like flies. "Suit yourself," said Bjorn.
While waiting for our chopper, we teamed up with a trio of "tunnel rats." These guys probably deserved danger pay more than anybody else during the war. The grunts had discovered an extensive network of tunnels and the tunnel rats were assigned the envious task of clearing them. Not surprisingly, most of them were small guys. At one point they had tried using Alsatians to do the nasty job, but after seeing so many of the poor dogs die, they decided to go back to using humans.
"Don't mind my friend here," Bjorn told them, "He's having one of his hourly nervous breakdowns." The rats looked me over curiously, and then one said, "Hey fucking ace, man! We'll give him a couple of our fucking 'bennies'." I had no idea what he was talking about, and it didn't really matter. In stressful situations, people talk only to themselves anyway. "What's a motherfucking nervous breakdown?" asked Rat Number Two.
What I wanted most at that moment was to hear some groovy music. Instead I hear, "Chop-chop, men. There's your birdie. Have fun at the zoo. And don't stay up too late, okay? Mommy is watching you." We made a mad dash for the whirling chopper. It wasn't even sitting on the ground! What's the rush, I thought. The door gunner was wearing a safety harness, rolling a cigarette with one hand. Oh what a relief! The guy was concerned about his safety.
I looked back down at the field and waved goodbye to my stomach. The rats were jiving to imaginary music. Bjorn was holding on to one of the struts, his few remaining strands of hair blowing in the wind. Over the roars of the rotor, people were actually talking to each other. I couldn't hear a thing they were saying, so I struck up a conversation with myself.
Down below we saw soldiers and equipment moving through the rice paddies. I looked at the rats. They were about a foot taller than they were before. Or was I shrinking? They were looking at me and pointing at my crotch. Had I peed my pants again? How truly embarrassing! Now they were grabbing their own crotches. Ah, a third dimension. They were teaching me the third dimension. I grabbed my own crotch, feeling relief that it was dry. I looked for their approval in having understood the third dimension. They showed their approval by going into stitches. Bjorn handed me my helmet. Not knowing what to do with it, I did the natural thing and put it on my head. The rats went into convulsions. I thought what's wrong with these guys? To please them, I grabbed my crotch again, the third dimension maneuver. For good measure, I threw in the masturbation maneuver. One of the rats was about to into cardiac arrest, or at least a good imitation of one. Bjorn took off my helmet and conked me over the head with it. And then I got it. I wasn't in Alice in Wonderland after all. These guys were using their helmets to sit on. When I finally sat on the helmet, they all gave me the masturbation maneuver in approval.
I later learned that the underbellies of the helicopters weren't exactly bulletproof. As an added layer to protect their jewels the grunts would sit on their helmets.
It seemed like there were at least a hundred choppers going in all directions. I wondered if there was anyone somewhere directing traffic. As we flew over the rice paddies generally following the Saigon River into more heavily forested areas, we could see troop movements towards the north. A couple of F-4 Phantoms streaked by us as if we were standing still. Over a small rise, we came upon thick jungle and except for a clearing here and there, you couldn't see the floor any longer.
The gunner was a lot more attentive now, hunching over his 30-calibre machine gun and talking to the pilot over the intercom. And then we saw the smoke and fire of villages and jungle that were in the process of being bombed and burned.
We were flying on a Huey. Hueys had a high attrition rate in Vietnam, but the thing was nevertheless a technological marvel. It did the job of getting you in and out of places fast, dead or alive. Charlie never had anything like it. Of all the men I admired, Huey pilots were some of the coolest. I had no idea who built the Huey, but the one thing I would put in their suggestion box would be to soundproof them a bit and maybe put in some decent seats.
When we got to our LZ (landing zone) near what used to be the village of Ben Suc, we jumped out of the chopper and were met by a young lieutenant who cordially shook our hands. "European reporters, huh? My brother is stationed in Germany and loves it there. Sure wish we could trade places," he said. As the infantry officer continued his small talk, I looked over his shoulder and I couldn't help notice that the chopper we just left was being loaded with what seemed to be a couple of body bags. "Well, you guys have come to the right place. This is turning out to be a pretty big operation." As we walked towards some tents, there were men and equipment everywhere, artillery and what they referred to as Rome plows. Some of the men had shed their shirts and were sunbathing on top of their tanks. It got hot here even in January. There was a smell that was hard to describe, a mixture of so many things that there was no way to analyze it. An odor of decay totally different from the rot you smelled in Saigon.
Later I heard about the time Bob Hope made one of his traditional Christmas tours of Vietnam. Speaking to the troops at the base at Long Binh, he asked, "What is that smell?" In unison they replied, "Shit." Hope's reaction: "I know it's shit, but what have they done to it?"
A couple of grunts were trying to out-sing the Mamas and the Papas. "Monday, Monday! Is just that day!" Catchy tune, that. "Charlie's been digging himself some tunnels," the lieutenant told us. He had a nervous tick, which reminded me of a joke. Two men are sitting in a train compartment. Every minute or so, the first man would jerk his head violently to the right, while the other was flicking his fingers. The first man, noticing the curiosity on the other man's face, finally speaks. "I see that you've noticed my tick. It's from the war." The other man, still flicking his fingers, replies, "Oh, I see." Several minutes go by. Then the first man says, "I see that you have a tick, too. From the war?" A short pause. "No. Not from the war. From my nose. "
"We don't see the scope of this thing yet, but we're finding more and more of them each day. Those guys on the chopper with you are specialists to clear them. It's pretty dangerous work." No kidding. He took us past some huts. "This is where Charlie used to live. These things are impossible to see from the air. By the way, how come you guys don't have cameras?" Bjorn told him that we were print reporters. He seemed quite disappointed. "For all we know, the whole country could be linked by tunnels. The little fellas must have moles working for them," he continued.
"This is the entrance to one right here. Be, my guest." Seeing the look of hesitation on our faces, he smiled. "Don't worry, gentlemen. These were just cleared this morning, booby-traps and all. But I would suggest that you shed your clothes." He also suggested that we take turns, just in case the man in front panics. Bjorn undressed (I was amazed to discover that he was wearing the molar necklace I had given him as a joke) and disappeared into the dark hole in the ground. "Shouldn't he have a flashlight or something?" I asked the officer. He grinned evilly. "Nah! It's more fun this way." A dozen or so gunship helicopters roared over our heads and a little later, we hear the sound of rocket fire and explosions. I was barely able to restrain myself from cringing. "We're doing some preliminary clearing about half a click from here." It sounded much closer than that. About twenty minutes later a muddied Bjorn reappeared. "How far did you go?" asked the lieutenant. "To the first room. It was the only place I could turn around," replied Bjorn. We gave him a hand to get him out of the pit.
It was my turn. At least, the officer kindly handed me a small flashlight. After I crawled the first ten feet through the tunnel, it hit me. I now knew for sure that I was claustrophobic and it was getting worse. After crawling through the ventilation pipes leading to the ship's hatches and the underground crawl space of the apartment building back in Holland, this was much worse. It started as a tingle down my spine, slowly working its way up. I could hardly breathe. Bjorn was right. There was not enough space to turn around and, skinny as I was, my shoulders were touching both sides. The urge to stand up was overwhelming. I lay still for a minute. Keep your eyes closed, a little voice told me. Finally, the paralyzing fear began to dissipate. I considered crawling backwards, but I was tired of being a chicken. It is hard to imagine what it would be like if the tunnel were still full of booby traps or live enemy soldiers. How much further to the room, I wondered. It had taken Bjorn about twenty minutes to make the round-trip. Had he had a panic attack? I should've asked him. What if I missed the room and kept on going? I might end up in Hanoi and share a cup of tea with Uncle Ho. Discuss the finer aspects of tunnel engineering, and then crawl all the way back. When I reached the room I heard it before I saw it with the feeble flashlight. Weird! In a matter of minutes my ears had picked up the ability to see what my eyes could not. I stayed in the room for about a minute to meditate. What great therapy!
"How was it?" asked Bjorn as they helped me out of the deep hole. "Piece of cake," I told him. I'm sure that he knew I was lying, but he never bothered to say so. Then came the zinger. "I take my hat off to your guys," said the lieutenant, "I wouldn't go into one of those things if you paid me a million bucks. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some work do. See me at the camp in about an hour and I'll show you some other goodies. In the meantime, make yourselves right at home." He took a few strides, turned around and said, "And by the way, thanks for sweeping that baby for us." He left Bjorn and I dumbly staring at each other. Everybody had a sense of humor.
In the chopper I was wondering if Ben Suc, or any other of the villages around here, could be where Minnie's from. Bjorn shook his head. "No, I don't think so. She lives further back near Cu Chi toward Saigon." I hadn't realized we had gone that far north. Little did I know that the tunnels led right through Cu Chi into Saigon.
In talking with some of the troops we met Tom with the 1st Air Cavalry. He told us that he was a collector. In his satchel he carried nearly a hundred panties -- used ones, of course. Ten for each month he'd been in-country. Trophies from the B-girls of Vietnam. "Brings me fucking luck," he claimed in all seriousness. "About twenty more of these, and I'm outta here." Good luck charms were a way of life here, and I still carried the lucky five-yen coin I had been given by Machiko back in Japan.
Later the lieutenant showed us some of the weapons and things they had found in the tunnels, as well as a couple of dead Viet Cong lying on a flatbed, buzzing with large black flies. At least, that's what he claimed they were. "These men are now true believers," the man proudly stated, a cliche that would stick for years. In the evening, we hitched a chopper into Tay Ninh. Although we had been invited to spend the night with the troops, Bjorn thought it wiser, not to mention more comfortable, to stay at a hotel, and there were none of those left in Ben Suc, if there ever were any. "But you haven't cleared the others tunnels yet!" the lieutenant hollered after us, as we ran for the chopper. A roar of laughter came from the men around him. It was a joke he must have used before, and told over and over.
Riding a chopper at night over the countryside gives you a whole different perspective. The heat had turned to bitter cold, and we were given blankets to huddle in. I couldn't even see the faces of the men we were riding with. In any direction we looked, we could see fires burning -- happy campers building campfires. Pull up a stump around the fire, Fred. Make yourself comfy. But I doubted that they were campfires. It was nice to believe, though. I guess people don't turn off the war at sunset. Both to the south and north, we see and hear the ack-ack-ack of tracer fire -- an explosion here, an explosion there. I thought of the sophisticates on the rooftop of the Caravelle, probably already on their fifth cocktail, moaning about this filthy war.
The skipper of our vibrating Huey skillfully zigzagged his way through the fire zones. He's done this before, I thought. Cool dude. How can any of these men go back and live normal lives? They'll get bored out of their skulls. Bjorn shoved an elbow into my side. Right up ahead, lazy tracers were arcing toward us. It's almost beautiful, even hypnotic. All we needed now was some music to go with it. Like real pros we were sitting on our helmets. None of the men spoke. There was no panic. A little later we landed safely at the Tay Ninh West base.
The following morning we took a long pedicab ride to the opulent, almost gaudy, Cao Dai Great Temple. It was time for some sightseeing. Caodaism is a unique Vietnamese religion, a rich blend of the secular and religious philosophies of East and West. It contains a touch of Christianity, a chunk of Buddhism, a bit of Confucianism, a slice of Islam, a sprinkle of Hinduism, and finally, a, pinch of Taoism. I had found the religion of my dreams. "Where do I sign up, Bjorn?" I asked after he explained it all to me. "You don't qualify, unless you're ready to go celibate and become a vegetarian. You're too much of a hedonist for that. But if you're truly interested, I'll get you some books to read back in Saigon, starting with Graham Greene's The Quiet American."
Actually, the Caodaists weren't all that peaceful. They had their own private army and had at one point established their own feudal state in the Province of Tay Ninh. In the mid-fifties, President Diem had bought their loyalty as well as that of the Hoa Hao, a rival sect centered in the Mekong Delta.
We watched in fascination as the colorful priests and white-robed priestesses shuffled back and forth. At the front of the temple we looked up at the "divine eye," which is the supreme symbol of Caodaism. It somehow looked familiar. Bjorn walked up to one of the priests and bowed in the now familiar Vietnamese greeting. After speaking with him in Vietnamese for a few minutes, the priest nodded. He had agreed to show us the inside of the temple, which we entered from the male side after removing our boots (females entered from the other side). As the priest spoke softly in Vietnamese (he spoke French as well), Bjorn translated bits and pieces of it. We were shown a mural of a Chinese statesman, a Vietnamese poet, and Victor Hugo, the French poet and author, the three signatories of the Third Alliance Between God and Man, and the domed ceiling representing the heavens. It was awe-inspiring. At noon, we were invited to participate in the prayers, and I tried to do 19 years of praying in one sitting. Never in my life had I felt such a yearning for religion.
"How and when do you plan to get back to Saigon?" I asked Bjorn over a steaming bowl of bun thang noodles with shredded chicken and prawns. At the time, it was relatively safe in Tay Ninh, the town was crawling with Arvins, ARVN regulars, and U.S. troops. "Don't you want to do some more sightseeing?" Bjorn said, after a long strand of noodles disappeared noisily into his mouth. Why not? Life, was so unpredictable here anyway, you might as well enjoy it. "Just promise me that we won't do any more tunnels, okay?"
In the afternoon, we joined a chopper convoy that took us for a dizzying ride up the "safe" side of Black Lady Mountain (Nui Ba Den), some 15 clicks to the northeast of Tay Ninh. The U.S. army had established a firebase at the summit. The view was spectacular. And the firepower they had assembled there was even more impressive. Gun batteries were facing in all directions. An officer explained the type of weapons to us and three other reporters that had joined the tour. Mortars, 105mm Howitzers, self-propelled 8-inch guns, the works. "Except for due east, you're looking at Cambodia out there, and Charlie is sitting right there below us," he explained with a sweeping gesture, nearly knocking the borrowed helmet off my head. "What is Charlie up to, sir?" asked one of the reporters. I'm glad I hadn't asked the question. The officer stared icily for a moment and then snapped. Too many windy and cold nights, I supposed. "What the fuck do you think he's doing down there! He's waiting for the night to take fucking pot shots at us." The reporter who had asked the question looked at his fingernails. Must be a recent arrival. He never asked another question while he was there, which had pretty well become my own modus operandi.
Anyway, there was little time for idle chatter because ten minutes later Charlie breaks tradition by not waiting until nightfall. Incoming! Several explosions were heard nearby. We all hit the deck or scurried behind sandbags. There was some return fire, in the direction of Cambodia, no doubt, but thankfully that was the end of it. The officer explained that Charlie was not stupid enough to engage in sustained big battles that they could never hope to win. It was driving the Americans crazy with frustration. "Come out and fight, you little yellow motherfucker!" he screamed down the mountain. I thought that was very funny.
"Bjorn, I'd hate to get stuck out here for the night." One of the GI's smiled at me. "How would you like to be up here for a week? Or a whole month?" he asked, not really expecting an answer. He explained that at night the Viet Cong would conceal themselves on the hillside (easy to do) and taunt them with megaphones (psy-war it was called). "There's no way of telling how close they are. Creepy as old hell," he continued. "Do you guys patrol the mountainside?" I asked him, breaking tradition of not asking questions. "Not if I can help it, but yes, we're under orders to clear it from top to bottom. Pretty futile, if you ask me. The east side is supposed to be clear, but don't you believe it." He had a point. As long as there were trees and shrubs in which to hide, the area could never be safe. So what was the simple answer? Defoliate the mountain, which is what they eventually did. There was another solution: Take all the friendlies in the country and put them safely on ships in the South China Sea. Then, flatten the whole country. And when that's all done -- sink the ships. This was frequently suggested, but never actually carried out.
I was getting tired of helicopters. "I'll hike down the safe side," I told Bjorn. "No, you won't," he replied as he dragged me towards the waiting chopper. That night we spent at the base, bunked out on cots with some twenty other men. "I think I'll restrict my sightseeing to temples from now on, Bjorn," I told him, but he had already drifted off to sleep. I wish I could've done the same, but the snoring sounds coming from the grunts around us kept me awake until the wee hours of the morning. I thought of the men on top of the mountain and what they were doing and whether Charlie was nearby. Was he taunting the men with megaphones tonight?
Operation Cedar Falls lasted some eighteen days, involving 16,000 American troops and an equal number of ARVN soldiers. During the operation, thousands of civilians were relocated, 711 of the enemy killed, 488 captured, 1,229 bombing sorties flown. Officially, U.S. casualties were light, although the NLF (National Liberation Front, the political arm of the Viet Cong) claimed to have killed 2,500 Americans.
Bjorn and I had a tiny sample of it, and that was enough. Especially for me -- I wasn't even getting paid for risking my life. Compared to this, Saigon was Dream City and I was already beginning to miss Minnie. So in the morning we took the chopper back to Saigon. Well, not directly. We had been assigned a milk run, dropping off and taking on troops at various landing zones, combat camps, and base camps. One soldier looked at us curiously and wondered, "What happened to your guns?" Bjorn had a pat answer. "We don't need guns. We kill 'em with our charm." The soldier leveled his M-16 at Bjorn's chest and told him, "Well, this is my fucking charm, buddy." It would've been so poetic if he had pulled the trigger.
The pilot did us a favor by dropping us off at a rooftop of a military building near town. It was somewhat unnerving hovering above the "hard" concrete of Saigon instead of the "soft" canopied jungle, but I'm sure that a fall from an altitude of 500 feet would have been equally deadly. In any case, I only had to walk a few blocks to get back to my hotel.
When I got to my room there was a note from Minnie slipped under the door. "Where are you?" it simply said. I pulled out a pen and wrote on her note, "I'm here!" I then pinned the note to the outside of the door and went to sleep.
A couple of hours later a soft knock at the door woke me up. It was Minnie. When I unlocked the door, she let out a yell. "Did you join the army?" she asked with a shocked expression. I suddenly realized that I was still wearing my fatigues. I hadn't even bothered to take off my boots when I had flopped out on the bed. "No, no, no, of course not. It was Bjorn's idea to do a little sightseeing," I replied. Minnie and I had never discussed the war or any of its implications, and I didn't want to start now. So I told her that we had gone to Tay Ninh to visit the Cao Dai Holy See, and how beautiful it had been. She was still suspicious. "But you're so dirty!" she said. I looked in the mirror and realized that she was right. Filthy was more like it. My face looked as if I had intentionally tried to camouflage it, and I had picked up some nasty odors along the way.
After showering and shaving, and changing into my customary jeans and white shirt, we went to Givral's for a bite to eat. "You're crazy, Jack," she said, still upset. "I've been staying with my aunt for a week. I can't go home because the roads are so dangerous. Then you dress up like a soldier to go sightseeing in a dangerous area. You're dien cai dau." I put on my best persuasive smile. "It wasn't dangerous. And anyway, we didn't go by road. We took the helicopter." Just at that moment one of the UPI guys walked in. "Hi Jack," he said amicably, "Bjorn tells me that you guys saw a bit of action in the Triangle. We're going out to Ben Cat tomorrow. Wanna join us?" I just waved my hand. Shrugging, he smiled at Minnie, and she smiled back politely. But as soon as he was gone, she stood up and without saying a word, she walked out. I tried running after her, but she had already disappeared in the early evening crowds of Tu Do Street. Damn!
When I returned to the restaurant, the UPI stringer was sitting at my table munching on a Banh Mi Thit Nguoi French bread sandwich, while leafing through a copy of Ramparts, a popular magazine among journalists in Vietnam. "What happened to your lady? Was it something I said?" he asked with genuine concern. "Yes. I mean no. Sorry, it has nothing to do with you. It's my own stupid fault. I lied to her to protect her, I guess." He nodded. He didn't seem to need too many details to get the picture. "Come on," he said, "Let me buy you a beer over on the terrace. You're one of us now."
"Rule number one is never, I repeat, never fall in love in a war zone. That's totally number ten. Look at the grief it's brought Bjorn. There are enough pretty faces around here so you won't get lonely, but you're not supposed to fall in love with them and propose marriage. I'm sure you're too smart for anything that stupid." I listened to the UPI guy, his name was Nick, and nodded at his words of wisdom, because what he said made a lot of sense. Especially the part of falling for the B-girls. For many GI's, that had become a real dead end. I didn't bother telling Nick that Minnie was not a B-girl, or that I had never even told her that I loved her. Under the circumstances, it didn't really matter what my relationship with Minnie was. She was just simply worried about my safety, that was all. Worried, perhaps, that since I had discovered the excitement of firebases and booby-trapped tunnels, I would relapse into my latent death wish. I mentioned none of this to Nick. "I guess you're right, Nick. There are lots of fish in the sea." I told him. He slapped me on the back, happy to have brought me back to my senses. "So how about it?" asked a grinning Nick, "Ben Cat? Tomorrow?"
Across the street I see Minnie. She's looking into the Givral, looking for me. Even from here I can see the Minnie Mouse button on her blouse. Ben Cat? And then what? Pleiku? Hue? Khe Sanh" The DMZ, from one end to the other? Why not Cambodia and Laos, too? Thoughts were racing through my head. I was getting addicted to war. I really wanted to be a war correspondent, to be like Peter Arnett and Nick. Minnie was right. I was Dinky Dao.
"Sorry Nick, maybe some other time. But thanks for the beer." Before he had a chance to reply, I was running across the street and almost got creamed by a small three-wheel truck. Now that would have been ironic!
"You don't need to apologize to me, Minnie," I told the sobbing girl. "It's I who lied to you. Anyway, I promise you that I won't do anything stupid in the future." A stupid promise I was unlikely to keep. Stupid people cannot vow not to be stupid. It's not in their nature. Nevertheless, Minnie nodded and a tiny smile broke through her tears. "We can go sightseeing in Saigon," she finally said, "It's much more better." Feeling much more better, she began drafting a "tourist" itinerary.
The following few weeks we toured several of Saigon's many temples and pagodas, the most striking of which was the Phuoc Hai Tu, or Emperor of Jade Pagoda. We visited Cha Tam Church where President Diem had gone into hiding after the 1963 coup attempt, and at the National Museum we viewed Vietnam's evolution since the Bronze Age Dong Son civilization in the 13th century BC. I marveled at the rich and fascinating culture. And Minnie was so proud to show me.
At the zoo, Minnie was anxious to see the monkeys. I prefer tigers, I told Minnie, but she wasn't fond of them at all. "Tigers are evil," she shuddered. "That one looks like you," she grinned while pointing at an ape a particularly nasty stare. The zoo was probably one of the most peaceful outdoor areas in Saigon at that time, as far removed from the war as could be, but I wondered if there were any tunnels below us.
By the end of January, Operation Cedar Falls now history, Minnie was able to resume living at home and I began spending more of my evening (pre-curfew) hours with Bjorn again. "You know, Bjorn, I'm very tempted to go out again. Nothing dangerous, of course, but somewhere to relax. Vung Tau, perhaps. They got great beaches there." He eyed me warily. We all knew some reporters who, after their first ride, never ever left their hotels again, while at the other extreme, there were those that had literally become "chopper junkies." Guys who got their daily fix by jumping in and out of helicopters without any regard for where the hell they were going. Hell, if you wanted to, Uncle Sam would not only ferry you all over the country, he would even feed you some decent grub in his fancy camps. What hospitality! Of course in return they expected you to write some nice things about him.
"Minnie's going to kill you if she finds out," Bjorn said, absentmindedly flicking a booger toward the next table on the terrace. "No, she won't. We'll take her with us. Like a vacation on the beach. Can you dig it?" Bjorn reminded me that General Westmoreland frowned on having his helicopters used for holiday travel, especially by a phony reporter and his native girlfriend. Nick joined us at the table and immediately liked the idea of spending a few days at the beach. "We're near a Tet cease-fire anyway, and Minnie shouldn't have any problem with that," he observed. Actually Tet wouldn't take place until the second week in February that year, but people had already begun their celebrations with noisy fireworks. But we never invited Minnie to join us.
In the early morning a few days later, the three of us were talking with a couple of pilots on a strip near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. "You won't fucking believe it, man. Stupid fuckers were crossing the river in them little gook boats at 2400 hours," said one of them, his eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. "How the hell were we supposed to know them was friendlies?" asked the other of no one in particular. Obviously, they were both quite distressed. Only eight hours earlier they had attacked some sampans crossing the Bassac River, killing and wounding a number of civilians. Unfortunately, they were out there past curfew and were consequently mistaken for VC.
Nick immediately smelled a story. "Come on, Nick," I pleaded, "We're supposed to be on vacation." Actually, we were way off the beaten track. The chopper we caught at Tan Son Nhut was scheduled to fly to Vung Tau by way of My Tho, but was at the last minute diverted to Can Tho. My dream vacation on the beach was going up in smoke. "Listen guys, this will only take a couple of hours, and then we'll hit the beach," said Nick, determined to get his way. I looked at Bjorn. "Bjorn, Nick can do this on his own. He can join us in Vung Tau later. Please!" Nick had already walked up to a group of officers, arguing heatedly about getting transportation down river. Bjorn, torn with indecision, was kicking loose some of the red clay. "It's better if we stick together, Jack. That way we'll have fewer regrets later."
A half-hour later we were speeding down the widening Bassac River on an ARVN gunboat. Looking at the wake behind us, I could see old men clad only in their underwear, cursing us under their breath from their small fishing vessels.
It was an awful sight. Some of the dead had been in the water most of the night. God knows how many had floated out to sea. Small boats were bringing them in one by one. Each time one arrived, grief-stricken relatives would walk over to look, hoping beyond hope. Nick was all over the place, snapping picture after picture, until he ran out. "Holy shit!" he screamed, "I'm out of fucking film!" Meanwhile, Bjorn was quietly talking to some of the survivors, giving them comfort in whatever way he could. I sat alone at the riverbank, fiddling with a reed, emptily staring into the dark-green water.
The only soldiers there at the moment were Vietnamese. Nick tried to get the story from them, but they just ignored him. They either didn't understand what he was saying, or simply pretended not to. He finally gave up and sat down beside me. "I'm sorry, man, about getting so excited, but we were the only reporters on the scene." Some scoop, I thought. "I'm not a reporter, Nick," I said softly. In the silence that followed I realized that I was being unfair to him. "I'm sorry, too. You're doing your job the best way you can. It's just that I can never get used to this shit." Nick put his arm around my shoulder. In a whisper he said, "Neither can I. Nobody can." When I looked at him, he had tears in his eyes, and for a moment I thought he was going to throw his camera into the river.
Backtracking through My Tho, we finally managed to hitch a ride to Vung Tau, where we arrived about an hour before sunset. None of us talked along the way. From the air strip we took a taxi into town. Bjorn told the driver in Vietnamese to take us to the Song Hong hotel. "You didn't tell me that you've been here before." I said to Bjorn, the first words I had spoken since, leaving Cai Tho. He smiled. "You say you've been to Japan, right?" I nodded. "Have you ever been to Nikko? Or Kamakura? Or Nara?" I shook my head. That means you've never been to Japan. By the same token, you've never been to Vietnam until you've seen Da Lat, which can be compared to Nikko, although I'm partial to the ambience of Da Lat. Vung Tau is somewhat like Kamakura."
Vung Tau had changed since I was there a year earlier. It had become an in-country R&R spot for U.S. military personnel based in and around Saigon, and now it was crawling with soldiers. "This is not how I remember it," I told Bjorn. I looked at Nick in the front seat. He hadn't yet shook himself loose from his self-imposed silence like we had. Just stared at the drunken boys from home, taking a break the best way they could.
At the hotel, Bjorn talked to the clerks while Nick and I played with a stray cat. Darn, I thought, we should have made reservations, the place is booked solid. All of a sudden a well-rouged lady entered the cramped little lobby and embraced Bjorn. They spoke excitedly in Vietnamese for several minutes until she suddenly looked at us. Before I knew what was coming, she had me smothered tightly around her well-endowed bosom. "Mon freres, bienvenu, bienvenu!" Ah! The power of perfume! Not to mention the power of big bosoms. Ah, magnifique!
We weren't staying at the hotel after all. Madame Croissant (that probably wasn't her real name, but it sounded like it) made arrangements for us to be driven to a villa just above Bai Dau Beach in two lacquered pedicabs with uniformed drivers. How they huffed and puffed to get us up the hill. Madame Croissant and Bjorn were in the lead cyclo. Nick and I, at least a hundred pounds lighter, were following, our driver cursing his fate. What can be worse than having to apply the brakes going uphill just because of some slowpoke ahead of you?
Madame Croissant took us through the villa, obviously delighted to see Bjorn, because she hugged him every three steps. It was indeed something to behold -- the villa, I mean. Like a postcard from the French Riviera, the place was designed for royalty. Located part way up Le Grand Massif (Large Mountain), the sunset out over the South China Sea was heartbreaking.
After being shown to our individual suites, Madame Croissant rang a little bell. Within seconds, coming out of nowhere, three Vietnamese were standing at the entrance of the enormous sitting room. They were the skeleton staff, Madame Croissant explained in her bubbly manner as she introduced us formally to Tran the houseboy, Linh the maid, and Ly, the elderly cook.
"Yup, this is it," Nick said with a deep sigh of contentment, "As of now, I'm retired. In the morning I'll call Westie and tell him to cancel the war." We were sitting on the wraparound veranda where Tran had just brought us three tall gin and tonics with cracked ice. In strategic positions around us, he had lit joss sticks to keep away the mosquitoes. The sweet fragrance mixed in well with tropical flowers from the garden below us.
"It's nice alright but how much is this going to cost us?" I asked. "El gratis. I'm collecting on an old debt," he replied with a wink. "This Madame Croissant, is she French?" asked Nick. It had been difficult to tell with all that make-up. "Not quite. She's a metisse. By the way, did you notice that even though we're quite isolated up here, there are no guards?" Nick looked puzzled and I suddenly remembered the almost nightly shooting on the mountain above us when we were anchored in the bay less than half a mile away. Nick said, "Yeah, I was just thinking about that. There's no security at all, not even a watchdog." Just then several shots rang out in the night and Nick almost fell out of his chair. Bjorn roared with laughter. "Bjorn, that's not funny," I told him, "It gets pretty hairy up here at night. I think I would like another drink. Do I just ring the little bell?" He nodded and finished off his own drink. After Tran served replenishments, Bjorn explained that the VC had been paid off not to touch the villa. "What a crazy war," Nick observed, echoing my sentiments exactly. "C'est la guerre folle salut." And with that, we raised our glasses. One for Ho and one for Ky. Tran announced that un petit repas was being served in the candle-lit dining room. Le petit repas consisted of wild boar, fried banana, spring rolls, mountain vegetables, and roasted peanuts. In order to neutralize any extraneous noises from outside. Tran had thoughtfully selected a piano concerto by Tchaikovsky. For desert we had banh it nhan dau, a pastry made of rice, beans and sugar served in a banana leaf, followed by a Grand Marnier in the library.
In addition to every issue of National Geographic since 1912, there was a massive collection of Vietnamese literature in the library. It also contained such works as an autographed copy of Bernard B. Fall's Street Without Joy: Indochina at War 1946-54, Le Royaume du Champa by Georges Maspero, Genji Monogatari in the original Japanese by Murasaki Shikibu, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, and many other classic works.
Hot croissants, papaya, longan, rambutan, pomelo, carambola, and a choice of a dozen juices. Breakfast on the veranda. Paradise was a little bell in Cap St. Jacques. Yesterday seemed like a million miles away. But Bjorn broke the spell.
"Do you know why those people were crossing the river?" He was referring to the Bassac River massacre. "To get to the other side," said Nick facetiously, flicking crusty flakes off his shirt with the folded International Herald Tribune that Tran had brought in from town. Bjorn ignored it. Taking a big scoop out his papaya, he said, "They were on the run from the VC, hoping to make their way to Saigon." They had jumped from the pan into the fire, I thought. Nick stood up and walked to the railing. Addressing the gardener down below, he said, "To misquote Lord Tennyson: From the jaws of Death. Into the mouth of Hell. I'm going to file this story after all." The gardener looked up, smiled, waved, and went back to tending the bougainvillea and frangipanis.
While Nick was trying to find a courier to take his film and story to his bureau chief in Saigon, Bjorn and I took the cyclo around the peninsula. We waved at the old women, survivors of three wars, their backs parallel to the road so that the only way they could show us their betel-stained grins was to turn their heads sideways. Whenever little kids ran up behind us, our conical-hatted driver went out of the saddle and into overdrive, pumping as hard as he could. I wanted to throw them a few piastres, but Bjorn shook his head. It's like feeding piranhas," he said.
We stopped for a refreshment at Bach Dinh, Villa Blanche, once an imperial residence. "Does Vietnam still have an emperor?" I asked Bjorn. I knew that Japan still did. "No. Bao Dai, the last of the Annamite emperors, moved to Paris about a decade ago. During the colonial years, most of them were French puppets.
Going south along Quang Trung Street, we passed by the rocky Thuy Dong Beach and Vung Tau proper, where fishermen were unloading the night's catch. Youngsters were expertly shuttling between the boats and the beach in large floating wicker baskets. Bjorn explained that the baskets were sealed with a black pitch that prevented them from sinking.
At the other side of town we rode along the foot of the smaller mountain, Le Petit Massif, on which stood a lighthouse. At the southern tip of the peninsula, jutting out into the South China Sea, we made another pit stop. At one time, the French had set up naval fortifications on the promontory, but now only the ruins remained. In the distance we saw a flotilla of warships, seemingly at peace. I wondered if the French canons could have reached those ships.
Going back up the other side of the peninsula, we came to Bai Sau, the main beach area with dozens of outdoor cafes and Martini Rossi parasols. "Look at that, Bjorn. Surf's up! Hang ten, can you dig it!" We stopped at a spot where the breakers were really coming in and watched the Americans and Saigon Cowboys ride the waves. We sat down at one of the cafes and ordered ourselves a couple of tall bottles of yellow gold, cool ones from way back in the fridge. We gave the driver our wallets for safekeeping after which he put up the canopy on his cyclo and went for a nap. Siesta time.
"Hey, Bjorn, the top of your head is peeling." We were listening to the third go-around of the entire repertoire of the Beach Boys and the beers were getting warmer. Poor fridge couldn't keep up. Bjorn flashed me his silliest grin, like the Cheshire Cat. "I don't care," he said. The sun, the music, the beach, the surfers, the good vibrations, and the beer all contributed to a deep sense of contentment. We rented a couple of rubber boats, just large enough for one person and took them to an area where the surf was calm. We bobbed up and down contently, while sucking on our warm beer.
We must have dozed off for a long time. When I woke up and paddled toward his boat, Bjorn looked like a burn victim. He opened his eyes when I said his name and asked what was wrong. "You're starting to blister. The top of your head is another matter. We might have to get you a skin graft back in Saigon. Perhaps we should head back." We paddled back, dropped off the boats and painfully walked back to where the cyclo was parked. The driver was nowhere to be found. "Way to go, Bjorn. He's probably already on his fifth pipe in the opium den upstairs." Bjorn looked up. "That's not an opium den, dodo, that's a mahjong parlor. Christ, that's even worse. He's got our wallets."
We were just about to check out the second floor of the cafe, when our cyclo driver appeared from around the corner, still zipping up his pants. "Damn it, Bjorn. He used our money to get laid. Well, at least that's cheaper than mahjong." The man was very apologetic as he handed us our wallets and watches back. All our money was still in the wallets. "Was it a good boom-boom?" I asked him. He didn't have a clue what I was talking about, but nevertheless he smiled and said something in Vietnamese. Bjorn told me that our driver had simply gone for a leak. When he noticed our burned skins, the driver handed us a bottle of Coppertone. A little late, I thought, but a kind gesture just the same.
We slept all the way back to the villa, this time with the canopy up. When Ly the cook saw the condition we were in, he spoke rapidly in Vietnamese and disappeared into the kitchen. "I think I heard him say we're Dinky Dao," I said. "No, he told us to take a shower and wash off the salt. He's preparing a special concoction for us," said Bjorn.
The only way to get under the shower was to leave the hot water tap alone. Even at lukewarm, the water scorched the skin. Linh was given the honor of applying Ly's magic potion of sixteen secret spices and herbal extracts to the burned parts of our bodies. Not being into S&M, it stung too much to get any erotic fantasies, but after about ten minutes the pain dissipated and the skin cooled down. Except for the top of Bjorn's head, we hardly peeled. Just a bit of minor flaking.
Tran put up the parasol on the veranda and was just about to serve us our first gin and tonics, when Nick returned, "Wow," he said when he saw us, "Looks like you guys had a better time than I did. What the hell is that smell?" He dumped a pile of newspapers and the latest issues of Time and Newsweek on the table. Bjorn told him that it was Ly's Skin Lotion No. 9. "What took you so long, Nick?" I asked. "Ah dammit, nothing was flying today, so I had to run it into Saigon myself. Paid somebody a hundred bucks to borrow a lousy jeep and almost got myself killed in an ambush. I really should call it quits while I'm ahead." I picked up a copy of the New York Times and read that Senator Robert Kennedy had just arrived in Vietnam. "Hand me the comics section, will you?" Nick said. He had finished his drink in one gulp and was crunching the ice. "I'm not going to leave this villa until they kick us out," he said as he rung the little bell. "Hallelujah," said Bjorn and I in unison.
Just after a delicious seafood dinner, the shooting started again, this time a little closer and more frantic. It made Nick nervous. "The natives are restless tonight," he observed. "I hope Madame Croissant isn't overdue on her payments." Bjorn was doing a crossword puzzle and seemed unperturbed. "As long as Tran is here and still smiling, there's nothing to worry about. Do you know a six-letter word for a mythological serpent?" he asked. An explosion nearby shook the villa, prompting Nick to ring the little bell. "Tran! Turn up the music and bring us another round. Please?" he told the smiling boy. "Oui, Monsieur Nick."
In the quiet spell that followed, Nick relaxed a little. "A six-letter word for a mythological serpent? Hmm, let me think. How about 'dorkus'?" Bjorn shook his head. "No, a dorkus is what you are. It starts with a P. Nick was thinking out loud. "Hmm, starts with a P. Porkus, Pragon, Peepee, Poopoo. Oh, I don't know. I give up. I get stupid when I think." Tran put down fresh drinks and said, "Maybe it's python." For a few seconds we looked at the smiling Tran in utter amazement, and then we roared with laughter. Bjorn looked at his crossword and held up his hand. "Hold your horses, guys. Tran is right. It's python." Nick choked on his drink and rolled on the floor. Tran was beaming.
Minutes later, Nick was still shaking his head. "It can't be." he said still wiping away the tears, "Pythons are for real in Vietnam, considered a delicacy. It's not mythological." Bjorn put down his paper. "Now there's a thought. Perhaps we can ask Ly to serve us python tomorrow night. It's supposed to be yummy served with cobra blood cocktails." Nick threw an ice cube at his head. "You're a sicko, Bjorn. I think I'll just send out for hot dogs tomorrow." Nick stretched his arms. "Well, before they start that awful racket again, I think I'll hit the sack." After Nick was gone Bjorn looked at me and winked. "I wonder if he knows that when the Vietnamese began imitating the American hot dog, they never bothered to ask about its contents. They just simply assumed." I rang the little bell for the last time that evening, and said, "Oh, but dog is delicious, Bjorn. I had some in the Philippines."
We stayed true to our word and didn't leave the villa again until we returned to Saigon the day after Tet. A cease-fire had been declared and it was safe enough to travel by road. Nick suggested buying bicycles, but Bjorn nixed the idea. "Well, how about buying our own cyclo then," he said playfully, "We'll each take turns driving. And along the way we'll pick up some beer money running errands for Charlie." We ended up hiring a jeep and driver. This turned out be a smart move because it took us most of the day to negotiate around the pot holes, trucks, bomb craters, water buffalo, post-Tet revelers, and the thousands of refugees hoping to find a better life in the big city.
It was said that Saigon's population had grown to three million, six times larger than it was only a few years earlier. The city was imploding on itself, a black hole in the universe. I had thought that the poverty in Davao was bad, but seeing the outskirts of Saigon for the first time at ground level was unbelievable. Here, a cardboard box was a luxury condo. I turned to Nick who was sitting next to me in the back, and said, "My God, these people are living in the largest and filthiest garbage dump on earth. This is worse than Hell." He grimaced as he held up a loaded AK-47. Several miles back, the driver had stopped and had given each of us a weapon. "Display it openly," he had explained, "And nobody will bother you." It was absurd that after all my time in Vietnam I only carried a weapon this one time. Not to protect myself against the VC, but as a show of force against starving refugees. Nick said, "I usually wear a blindfold through here. You should see it when the rains start." Haunting faces stared at us sullenly as slowly the landscape changed from cardboard boxes to wooden crates and then plywood shacks. "We're moving up in the neighborhood," said Nick to no one in particular. We were all chain-smoking, and Nick would later refer to the experience as the five-pack ride. Every couple of miles we were stopped at checkpoints, and then waved through after checking our identification. They were obviously not only trying to keep the VC out.
Bjorn turned around and said, "The tragic thing about all this is that these people were living perfectly normal lives in their villages. Perfectly normal, until the powers-that-be decided to relocate them for their own safety and razed their homes. The authorities refer to it as pacification." We reached our final check at Y Bridge and with a sigh of relief we were back in swinging Saigon where the happy folks were still celebrating the arrival of the Year of the Ram with noisy fireworks.
"Now, whatever you do, don't mention Can Tho to Minnie," I said. We were sitting at the top of the Majestic and Minnie was about to join us at the table. "Oh, you look like Africans!" she exclaimed. "More like two slices of burned toast," Nick said. I handed her the coral necklace I had bought at the beach and told her about the beautiful villa. After dark, we watched some of the fireworks and got into an argument about Chinese astrology. Minnie claimed that this was the Year of the Goat. Nick said it was the Year of the Ram. I remembered what I had learned in Japan, and said, "The Japanese refer to it as the Year of the Sheep. And by the way, I'm a boar." Nick laughed. "Yeah, we all now that you're a bore, Jack. The Japanese probably call it the Year of the Sheep, because they consider themselves a peaceful nation now. I like ram much better, or even goat. You know, as horny as a goat."
"What, are you, Minnie?" asked Nick. She blushed a little before replying. "I'm a dragon," she said, "It's not a good year for girls." But Nick loved it, "Minnie's a dragon, and Jack's a boar. A boar and a dragon. Ha! A very unlikely pair." Nick laughed even louder when he learned that Bjorn was born in the Year of the Monkey. "Bjorn a monkey? Fat chance. He doesn't even eat peanuts. He does scratch himself a lot, though. I got it, Bjorn was born in the Year of the Ape." He stood up and walked around the table acting like a gorilla, scratching himself under his armpits. Minnie was laughing herself silly. Bjorn just smiled, and said, "Be careful, Nick. There are a couple of zookeepers sitting over there licking their chops at you. Anyway, you haven't told us what you are yet."
He didn't know. "He looks like a cock to me," I volunteered. Bjorn almost fell out of his chair, spraying beer all over the table. But Nick didn't get it, and neither did Minnie. Nick said, "Hey, hey, don't get nasty. There are ladies present." Bjorn sprayed more beer. When he finally recovered, he said, "It's you who's got the dirty mind, Nick. Jack here thought that you were born in the Year of the Rooster. You know, cock as in rooster." Now Nick was spraying beer.
Minnie, looking puzzled and amused at the same time, said, "Nick, tell me what year you were born." He had to think for a moment. "I was born in the year of the Lord nineteen-hundred-and-forty-one." "Please write it down," she said. He did so on a coaster and Minnie calculated the numbers on an imaginary abacus, fingers flying through the air. Nick looked at her in anticipation, and then put up his hands in prayer. "Dear Lord, please. Don't let me be a cock. I don't want to be a cock. Thank you, God. Amen." Minnie smiled at him. "Nick, God has answered your prayer. You are a snake." This time Bjorn and I both sprayed beer. Nick the Snake. Nick muttered, "I'm a snake. A python, Bjorn's mythological serpent. A Vietnamese delicacy." He stood up again and slowly shuffled to the edge of the roof. Looking out over the snaking Saigon River, he threw up his arms and yelled at the top of his lungs, "Dear World! I'm getting off now! But when I return, when I return -- I'll do it in the Year of the Cock!" Two waiters rushed over to restrain him while at the same time the Saigon sky came alit with a magnificent fireworks display. Nick looked up in wonder, as did the two waiters on either side of him.
The final week of February became a time of mourning for many in the press corps. Bernard B. Fall, writer and historian, bought the farm by stepping on a mine just north of Hue. He never got to finish his eighth and final book. At the time I had yet to read any of his books, but through my Christmas gift to Bjorn and having seen an autographed copy of Street Without Joy at the villa in Vung Tau, I felt I had lost a dear friend. There were some that thought he was an enemy sympathizer, but many of the veteran reporters in Vietnam felt he was the granddaddy of them all and his love for Indochina will always be remembered through his writings.
In March, a new bar calling itself Penny Lane opened its doors just off Tu Do Street. Coincidentally, the Beatles introduce a song by the same name around the same time. The single topped the charts in both Europe and the U.S. and the bar owner threatens to sue for copyright infringement. "Me, I sue Beetle. They stole name. Me not born yesterday." Yeah, right.
Minnie had been trying for months to convince her family that they should meet me. I argued against it at first, but her dragon-like persistence won out over my boar-like stubbornness. So, on a fine Sunday morning in mid-March we took the bus to her village about 60 miles from the city. I was the only round-eye on the bus and felt self-conscious. After nearly two hours of what seemed like aimlessly roaming the back roads, she told the driver to let us off. There were rice paddies everywhere, some of them being worked by hunched-over farmers in their familiar cone hats. Minnie took my hand and led me back up the road from which we had come. After several minutes of walking in silence, she stopped at some tall brush and motioned me to wait. She moved into the brush and disappeared. A minute later she was back with a bicycle she had hidden there.
It was a man's bike, her brother's. With Minnie straddled on the cross bar and giving me directions, we paddled along the paddies towards her house. The dirt road was full of potholes, and at one point I failed to negotiate one. The bike upended and we tumbled into the ditch. For several minutes we were caught in fits of laughter.
I looked into Minnie's deer-like eyes. In the eons of time many a word has been written about the magic of falling in love. Minnie's eyes had a brilliant glow, the glow of love. I could look into her soul, and there I saw myself, our souls had merged. Now her eyes changed, became dream-like, staring right through me. Then I saw confusion, followed by fear. Were her eyes reflecting my own.
Our lips brushed softly, and then we hugged each other tightly. Two lost children in a scary world. I wanted to tell her that I loved her, but couldn't. I had used those words with too many of the bargirls. "I love you" had become cheap and insincere. Love 'em, leave 'em, and forget 'em. A girl in every port. I didn't want to hurt this beautiful and innocent girl by giving her false hope. The words of love can be cruel indeed.
When we got to Minnie's house, her brother was in the yard polishing an old Vespa scooter. He nodded at me with a non-committal look and continued polishing. Minnie pulled me into the house.
The main living area had a dirt floor with a long wooden table in the middle. Beyond the living area were several smaller rooms which had their floors elevated about a foot from the ground. They were curtained off for privacy. At one end of the living area was a small kitchen, where a woman stood preparing food.
When we entered, a beaming Minnie excitedly called out to her mother. Drying her hands, Minnie's mother turned around and smiled at her daughter. But when she saw me, her face turned dark. During the pregnant pause that followed, I didn't know what to do or say. Finally, Minnie broke the spell by going into a rapid monologue in Vietnamese, and we seated ourselves on a long wooden bench at the table.
The mother returned to the kitchen, still listening to her daughter. Occasionally she nodded and glanced at me. I had no idea what Minnie was talking about, but after a while her mother was smiling again and brought us some Chinese tea.
Later there was a rustling of the curtain from one of the smaller rooms. Minnie's grandfather, dressed in long underwear, joined us at the table. The grandfather spoke some French, but mine was too poor to carry on an intelligent conversation. However, when I asked about Minnie's father, I understood enough to know that he was morte. I wondered how many Vietnamese children had lost their fathers in this war.
Minnie joined her mother in the kitchen, and occasionally they brought snacks and beer to the table. Minnie's grandfather was probably much younger, but he looked as if he were in his nineties. Too many years of backbreaking work in the fields.
Because of the beer, I had to go to the bathroom frequently. Minnie's home lacked running water. There was a smelly outhouse, but I quickly decided it was best to walk across the dirt road to relieve myself in the ditch.
I was doing exactly that when I heard the sound of traffic in the distance. I turned my head and saw a cloud of dust coming down the road towards me. As it got closer, I could make out that it was a column of armored vehicles. I thought of trying to hide in the ditch, but I was frozen in place.
"Who the fuck are you?" growled a soldier, a sergeant. Three others were pointing their M-16s at my chest. My fly was still open and some urine had splattered down the front of my jeans.
It took me several seconds to realize that they were Americans. I stuttered something unintelligibly. "Get in the truck! Now!" the sergeant barked. I was paralyzed with fear and didn't move. When I tried going through my pockets trying to find my press credential, two of the soldiers grabbed me by the arms and threw me head-first into the back of the truck.
The rest of the convoy had carried on and the truck sped away to catch up. I then heard the unmistakable rumble of B-52s in the distance. I looked out the back of the truck and this time they weren't slow at all -- they were rapidly approaching us from the east. And, they were dropping their loads!
I could feel the woosh of hot air and the ringing in my ears as several bombs exploded in the vicinity. I didn't hear the sound as much as I felt it.
When I looked up, I saw smoke and fire in the direction of Minnie's, but we were already too far away to see what damage had been done. In a cry of utter despair, I tried scrambling out of the truck, but a sharp crack to the skull knocked me out cold.
When I came to near the outskirts of Saigon, not in a truck but in a jeep, I was practically comatose. The pain in my head was excruciating. The MP next to me tried talking to me, but I could neither hear nor speak. When I gingerly touched the back of my head, I could feel that it had been bandaged.
I was taken to a military installation at Long Binh and questioned. The contents of my pockets and wallet were spread out on the table in front of me. I could barely hear the questions from the interrogating officer. They seemed to be coming from very far away. Each question had to be loudly repeated several times. I wanted to cry, but couldn't.
Several hours later a corporal drove me back to town in his jeep. He kept trying to make small talk. I stared straight ahead, silent.
I stayed in Saigon another three months but never saw Minnie again, and to this day I don't know what happened to her or her family. I would wait by the river and tried talking Bjorn into taking me to the area where she lived -- both were in vain. I considered going out there alone but realized that I would never be able to find it again. For all I know, Minnie could be happily married today with a family of her own. I hope so.
In the early summer of 1967, I moved to Japan on my first-ever commercial flight and, as the war dragged on for eight more years, I witnessed as the wounded continued to be brought to hospitals there. While their physical wounds eventually healed, for many the psychological damage could never be undone. It was a very tragic war as far as wars go.
The Airbus 320 banked sharply to the left and through breaking rain clouds the snaking pattern of the Saigon River became visible. In the distance, toward the Cambodian border, loomed the dark silhouette of Black Lady Mountain (Nui Ba Den). On our final approach into Tan Son Nhut airport, I considered staying on the aircraft and flying right back to Bangkok.
Several months earlier, something happened that finally prompted me to return to Vietnam. In the late afternoon of January 16, 1991, I was doing some work at my computer in my basement office. As was my habit at the time while working at home, a television set was on in the background, at low volume, tuned to CNN. Suddenly the tense voice of Bernard Shaw caught my attention: "The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated. We're seeing bright flashes going off all over the sky. Peter?"
I turned up the volume and heard a voice from the past -- the unmistakable New Zealand accent of Peter Arnett, speaking matter-of-factly as he described what was happening in the skies over Baghdad. What followed was the most gripping live television coverage I have ever witnessed and I didn't sleep a wink that night. The reporting by Bernie Shaw, John Holliman -- you couldn't pick two more unlikely war correspondents -- and the veteran Arnett from their room in the Al-Rashid Hotel, was truly admirable in its spontaneity and, in my opinion, put CNN on the map as a legitimate news service. (Later, the O.J. Simpson trial would give similar credibility to Court TV.)
It was Arnett's finest hour, but just as in Vietnam, he quickly became a thorn in the side of the Pentagon. In both conflicts, some of his "less-than-flattering" reports about U.S. military operations have earned him such labels as anti-American, commie -- he readily admits to having liberal leanings -- enemy sympathizer and traitor. He was lambasted by presidents Johnson and (George H.) Bush. Unfortunately, war is a messy business that cannot be sterilized for public consumption, and while Arnett may have made some mistakes, in my book he is still one of the best war correspondents of our time.
The spellbinding drama of the first 24 hours of the Gulf War brought back a host of memories and reawakened my old desire to be a traveling reporter like my childhood idol, Tintin. Thus began my feeble attempt to put these words onto paper. It also gave me an excuse to revisit some of places in my past.
Landing at Tan Son Nhut airport in 1991 was weird. What was a beehive of activity during the war, was now practically deserted -- it seemed as if we were the only aircraft that had landed there in weeks. Hangars, revetments and quonset huts were still there as a reminder that this really was the same airport. As the Thai Airbus sat alone on the tarmac, several men slowly rolled a set of stairs toward the plane. Walking toward the arrival area in the sweltering heat it soon became obvious that "hurry up and wait" was the operational phrase at Tan Son Nhut. Two young immigration officers dressed in uniforms that would make a dictator proud slowly processed us at the door to the little non-airconditioned terminal building. It didn't really matter -- it would take another two hours to hand-carry the luggage off the plane.
When I finally plunked my bags on a table for inspection by a customs officer, I almost had a cardiac arrest. For some reason I thought that "777" cigarettes were a sought-after brand in Southeast Asia and I had bought four cartons of them at the duty-free in Bangkok. Later, when filling out the customs form, I noticed that I was only allowed two cartons. What to do? Thinking that the worst that could happen was to have the extra cartons confiscated, I honestly entered that I had four cartons. When the customs officer looked at my form, he handed it back to me and said, "Two. Not four." I obliged and changed the 4 into a 2. Then he waved me through with my four cartons.
Once through customs the place was a zoo of humanity waiting to meet and greet the passengers from the plane. Fortunately, I had arranged for a guide and driver beforehand and since I was the only westerner on the flight, I was soon greeted by an extraordinarily tall Vietnamese from Vietnamtourism who spoke impeccable English. During small talk on the way into town, it became apparent that my guide was a Northerner. He was cordial, but I decided to offer little information about the purpose of my trip and focused my attention on the surroundings. The first thing I noticed was that almost nothing had changed -- there were loads of bicycles, mopeds, cyclos, motorcycles and scooters, and then it hit me -- there were hardly any cars and no trucks. Of course, there were no soldiers to be seen, either, as if we had been sucked back into pre-war Saigon (if such a time ever existed).
When we arrived at the Mondial Hotel on Dong Khoi Street (my old stomping grounds, known as Tu Do during the war and Rue Catinat under the French), my guide asked me to hand over my passport. He told me that I would get it back when I checked out. Great! I would be roaming the place without my passport, a somewhat disconcerting feeling. The Mondial is a pleasant 40-room hotel with a tiny lounge off the lobby. It put me smack in the middle of where I wanted to be. In fact, it was only half a block from the flophouse I used to stay. When I dropped by there in the afternoon, it was just as filthy, but this time it was filled with Russian tourists. I climbed the stairs to my old room but halfway up I panicked and fled. It was too much, too soon.
That first day back I strolled the length of Tu Do Street -- it was so much shorter than I remembered -- past Maxim's (still as busy as ever) toward the Majestic Hotel by the river. The hostess bars along Tu Do were gone, but there were still a few, with very, very old hostesses, hidden away in the little side streets. On top of the Majestic I looked out over the river and tried to remember where my ship had been. On my way back up Tu Do, I bought a beer at a place named Apocalypse Now. At the square, the Caravelle Hotel looked as it had before, but the Continental, while newly renovated, no longer featured its open terrace. Givral's was still there, too, but the statue of the ARVN soldiers on Lam Son Square was gone. Instead there was a huge black statue of Uncle Ho in front of the former Hôtel de Ville.
At the roof bar of the Rex Hotel, the former BOQ, I got into conversation with a French couple and their teenage daughter. The father had lived in Vietnam off and on for the past 30 years and I was fascinated by how passionately he spoke about his "adopted country." He related the experiences of his grandparents in colonial Vietnam and how his father had served in the French army in Vietnam after the Second World War. I chimed in with what I knew of the Dutch colonial experience in the East Indies. All the while, the daughter looked terribly bored and I couldn't help but feel sorry for her -- when I was her age I had felt equally annoyed by such endless rehashing of the past. Sometimes it's so difficult to let go of it. When they (he) invited me for dinner at the restaurant next door, the proper thing would have been to beg off politely, but I didn't.
Upon returning to the hotel, I met Bob and Terry, a Canadian and a Brit, in the cozy lounge by the lobby. Bob was an antique dealer, but not the usual kind. He had been in Vietnam for nine years buying up old cars and an occasional shot-up Huey for clients in Canada and Europe (no trade with the U.S. was allowed at that time). I found this curious in that except for vehicles used for official business, the few privately-owned cars were junkers. That's precisely the point, he said. The Vietnamese had to make do with cars and trucks that were 30, 40, even 50 years old, and they had been religiously maintained -- most importantly, they were still running. They may look like junkers, he said, but were pots of gold underneath. To prove his point, he showed me the car he was driving, a beautifully restored 1957 two-tone (yellow and black) Peugeot 203 sedan. For a moment, I considered going into business with him.
Terry was in the hotel business; he had come to Saigon from Hong Kong to take over management of the renovated Oscar Hotel, formerly the Century Hotel, one street over on Nguyen Hue Boulevard. When I told them that I had booked a guide and driver through Vietnamtourism, Terry suggested that I cancel and deal with Saigontourist instead. They confirmed what I had already suspected -- Air Vietnam employs mostly northerners and, yes, they tend to be taller. I would more likely get a "Saigon native" through Saigontourist. Bob also suggested that I exchange my dollars at one of the kiosks on Nguyen Hue Boulevard. Earlier, I had gotten 328,000 dong for 40 dollars at the money exchange in the Rose Hotel, which turned out to be a bankroll that filled both of my pants pockets. Forty dollars would get me half a million dong on the black market, they said. And keeping my dong in my pants was not a good idea, Terry added with a smile.
Just like in the old days, the beggars and street urchins along Tu Do still presented a nuisance and like the old days, I ignored them. Except for one, a 15-year-old kid who had stationed himself outside my hotel. He was polite and not overly persistent, and that first evening I bought a copy of that day's International Herald Tribune from him for only two dollars. A week earlier, while I was in Bangkok, a Lauda Air 767 had crashed in a bamboo forest northwest of the city and I was curious to read about the aftermath. The cause of the crash was a mystery and the story became even more gruesome when it was reported that "normally gentle" villagers living near the disaster scene had stripped the 233 corpses of their valuables before the authorities arrived.
My street urchin "friend" served another purpose besides selling me an occasional newspaper: without asking, he shooed away any other beggars the moment I stepped out of the hotel and made sure I wasn't accosted by anyone while I was on Tu Do. He never begged me for anything but I did reward him for his attentiveness by paying him five dollars for a copy of Newsweek. I also gave him a couple of packs of "777" cigarettes -- yes, I know that was an inappropriate thing to give a juvenile -- and a Parker pen.
In the morning, I joined Terry and Bob for breakfast at a monstrosity named the Saigon Floating Hotel, moored quayside on the Saigon River. Looking ridiculously out of place in still-quaint Saigon, the "Floater" as it was called by the locals, was owned at the time by Barrier Reef Holdings of Australia. It was originally moored at the Great Barrier Reef, but when that venture quickly failed, someone had the brilliant idea to tow it to Vietnam and up the river into Saigon. Too bad it wasn't here twenty years ago, I told Bob and Terry. It would have made a great target for the VC. (Hanoi must have shared my sentiments. Several years later they refused to renew the hotel's license and it was eventually towed back out to sea.) They did serve a pretty decent breakfast, however.
After cancelling my original guide and driver, I rebooked with Saigontourist at nearly half the price, $100 a day (all-inclusive except tip) -- a one-day tour of the Vung Tau area and another day exploring the Cu Chi and Tay Ninh areas. I spent the rest of day hanging around the river; watching the little ferry cross back and forth while kids were jumping into the river from its upper deck; chewing on a Banh Mi Thit Nguoi sandwich, the first food I tasted, and hated, when I stepped ashore in Saigon a quarter of a century earlier. It tasted quite good this time around, especially with an ice-cold Tiger beer, but I still didn't know what was in it. I finally paid a kid a pile of dong to take me out on the river in his motor-on-a-stick sampan. He took me past the pink Customs House and the moored ships flying Russian, Cuban and Chinese flags. Heavy clouds darkened the sky and the nostalgia was overwhelming -- was my Yashica camera still on the bottom of the river, or the rusted hull of my ship? I somehow doubted it. Back on the quay I had watched kids diving in the muddy river for whatever metallic objects they could find. When we turned around I asked my helmsman to cross the river and go past what remained of "Stilt City." Living conditions hadn't improved much and it was still a low-rent area. Incredibly, the dwellers of "Stilt City" were still smiling and waving.
Perhaps, that was the most striking snapshot I gathered from my return to Vietnam -- despite the hardships, the people seemed to be positive and upbeat, ready to get on with life. I had seen more miserable faces on the streets of New York and Paris, a subtle reminder that prosperity does not equal happiness. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with warmth and hospitality, especially when they learned that I was not Russian. Such was the reality in 1991.
When I stepped back on shore from my river expedition, I felt exhausted. Across the street from the Majestic Hotel I let myself get talked into taking a cyclo for a dollar even though my hotel was less than a 10-minute walk away. "No dong, just a dollar," said the elderly "driver" when I tried handing him a bundle of the local currency. "How long?" I asked him while handing him a buck. "One hour," he replied. Oh my God, I thought. "Where you go?" he asked. "I don't care," I said, and off we went. In spite of his age, the man was a racehorse and in no time we were at the palace where I told him to stop. "You tired?" he asked me and I had to crack a smile. I got off the cyclo and sat down on a patch of grass. "You wanna beer?" he asked, handing me a warm "33 Export" and sitting himself beside me. Without asking I gave him two dollars and told him to have one himself. Instead he had himself a pop.
"You not Russian," he said matter-of-factly. "How do you know?" I asked, staring blankly at the palace. "You have dollar," he replied, staring just as blankly at the palace. "You funny," I said, easily reverting back into pidgin-English. "No. You funny," he retorted. Like many of the cyclo drivers on Tu Do Street, the man was an ex-ARVN who had returned from years in a "re-education" camp to start life anew, lucky to have his body in tact to do what he was doing. We never discussed the past, family or friends. There was no need. Sometimes, so much more can be said by not saying anything at all. After staring at the palace for another ten minutes, he "drove" me back to the Mondial Hotel.
Focussed on hitting the sack, I got my room key from the front desk and was about to walk past the lounge toward the rickety open-grilled elevator, when the bartender called out, "Hey you, come here!" I should've known better (but I never do) and obediently walked into the lounge. Besides the young bartender, there was a single customer planted on one of the five bar stools. His name was Carl, an amiable vet who had served two tours in Da Nang. The kid-bartender had obviously reacted instinctively when he saw me enter the lobby -- he didn't have a clue what Carl was talking about and I was the perfect diversion. I'm glad he did.
This was Carl's third trip back to Vietnam. The first time it was for reasons that compelled so many veterans to return -- to come to terms with themselves and to find some inner peace and a sense of closure. Carl was one of the earliest returnees in 1988 and was stunned at how he was received. The country he had abhorred for so many years, the hellhole where he had lost so many of his buddies, welcomed him back with open arms. "It was cathartic," he told me. "I felt I had to give something back." When he returned to the United States, one of the first things he did was to volunteer as a counselor with a local veterans association. "I finally knew I could contribute something." Aware of the severe shortage of medical equipment and supplies, he and several other veterans set out on a mission to collect medicines and whatever equipment they could get their hands on. "We would canvass the hospitals for anything they were throwing out. What was obsolete in America could save lives in 'Nam," he said.
"We were full of piss and vinegar but oh-so disorganized. We had no idea what was needed, so we accepted anything that people were willing to give us, from penicillin ampules to an old dental chair." When they were preparing to return to Vietnam a year later, they were facing the logistical nightmare of a U.S. trade embargo and travel ban (the travel ban was lifted in December of 1991), excess baggage and other red tape. "Flying into Bangkok and waiting for a visa to enter Vietnam by myself was one thing, but how to do that as a group with several crates of medical stuff was quite another." With the help of Vietnamese friends some preliminary arrangements had been made for the supplies to be received in Saigon, but getting through Thai and Vietnam customs remained a big question mark. "We had all heard the stories of the folks who had unwittingly brought drugs into Thailand and were summarily executed," said Carl. They decided that the best course of action was to limit their cargo to two large suitcases per person and keep their personal effects to a minimum, stuffed in carry-ons.
"Bangkok was a breeze," Carl said, "But we had to wait a week to get our entry visa into Vietnam. At Tan Son Nhut, customs inspected every little item in our bags. They seemed more confused than anything and couldn't figure out that we weren't doctors. As luck would have it, a Saigon surgeon returning from Hanoi happened to pass by and notice the confusion. He acted as if he were expecting us and that cleared the final hurdle." When Carl invited me to join the group to visit a hospital in Cholon the following morning, I readily accepted. "But first," he said, "let's get my buddy and tear around town in a cyclo. That's our custom." It was close to midnight, but what the heck. Beer in hand, the three of us climbed into separate cyclos and, side by side, we tore down deserted Tu do Street, whooping and hollering, "The Americans are back, the Americans are back!" Within minutes half a dozen girls in flowing ao dai were buzzing around us on Honda motorbikes. "Hey American!" they yelled, "You numba one!" Where the hell had they learned that, I thought. "You numba ten!" Carl barked. "The Americans are back, the Americans are back!" we sang in refrain. The cyclo drivers were grinning ear to ear. After a while the girls grew tired of the silly game and buzzed off. I hadn't had that much fun in a long time.
The group consisted of one other veteran and two Vietnamese women. Carl told me that their medical cargo was twice as large as the last time, but more importantly, that it contained items that were the most needed. As we stood there on the sidewalk with the precious supplies, I expected some conventional transportation to arrive to take us to Cholon. Instead, one of the women hollered something across the street -- like clockwork six cyclos pulled up on the sidewalk and in minutes we were on our way, fully loaded. At the hospital we were taken to the office of the director, a jovial elderly man and, according to Carl, a former high-ranking Viet Cong cadre. After refreshments and some discussion we were invited to visit some of the wards. When I rose to join the others, Carl grabbed my arm and said, "I wouldn't do that if I were you." I sat back down and he explained that they were going to the children's wards. I asked him why that was so bad. "Deformities," he said simply, "I have seen a lot of shit, but that's one thing I never want to see again." As a father, neither did I. On the way back we dropped by a noodle joint where we met four "re-eds," former senior ARVN officers who were interned in re-education camps after the fall of Saigon in 1975. They had relatives in the U.S. and the two women had brought the overjoyed men several bundles of letters, photos, gifts, cassette and video tapes. The women, in turn, were given bundles to take back.
In the evening I joined Bob and Terry for dinner at Madame Dai's Bibliotheque (library), a cozy little restaurant, replete with old tomes, housed in the stately home owned by Madame Dai. A Paris-trained lawyer and former senator in the South Vietnamese government, Madame Dai was, perhaps still is, a bit of a legend in Saigon. Considering her past role in the "enemy" regime, one can't help but wonder how she was allowed to attain these riches when the communists took over. "It's her charm," said Terry. "Rumor is that she was in bed with a top Viet Cong official and buttered her bread on both sides." "Or she was a very good lawyer," said Bob. When we were halfway through dinner, Madame Dai swept by the tables, mumbling sweet-nothings at the diners and blowing air kisses. My God, I thought, she is a carbon copy of Madame Croissant of Vung Tau, dressed like royalty and rouged to the max. Terry addressed her in French and she sat down at our table. After some small talk, she asked me where I was from. When I told her that I was born in les Pays Bas (the Netherlands), she covered my hand with hers and said, "Ohhhhh! I love les Pay Bas. Your royal family, they are magnifique!" She bought us brandies and, as a cat jumped on her lap, she told us about the members of Europe's royal families she had met, including Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco. She was quite a name dropper, Madame Dai, but then so am I. Didn't I just mention that I met Madame Dai?
"Did you see the cat that jumped on her lap?" Terry asked when we left the restaurant. I nodded and he told me how Madame Dai's cat had lost one of her kittens several years earlier. "It was right at the dinner hour and the restaurant was full, as usual. The kittens were in a closet by the kitchen. To the consternation of the diners, a humongous rat calmly carried one of the kittens by the scuff of its neck the length of the restaurant and out the front door. No one made a move to stop it." I know all about humongous rats, I told him. Ah, the stories of Saigon.
My Saigontourist guide and driver picked me up at the hotel at dawn. I was amazed that my transportation for the day was a full-size air-conditioned Mercedes. The streets were deserted at this hour and the cyclo drivers were still asleep in their cyclos across the street. As we moved out of the city, the dusty roads began filling with bikes, motorcycles and carts. Vendors set up tiny shops on the side of the road, cutting up blocks of ice to cool the refreshments and laying out rambutan, longan, durian, start fruit and tiny bananas. The display of a bicycle inner tube and a tub of water indicated that your tires could be mended there, and judging by the condition of the roads, they were doing a thriving business. It was ironic that as one of the remaining communist countries in the world, Vietnam seemed to have more entrepreneurs per capita than most capitalist ones. When we got out of town, there were small water towers every few miles along the "highway." "It's for the trucks," my guide explained, "They're very old, they overheat, and their radiators leak." As the traffic thickened I did indeed see that the trucks had seen better days -- many still bearing U.S. military insignia, belching black smoke. Some carried barrels of water on top of their cabs.
Hoang, my guide, was a native Saigonese. His family had tried to escape twice from the country -- the first time his father was arrested and the second time the promised boat to take them to freedom never arrived at the appointed spot in the delta. They finally resigned themselves to their fate. Perhaps just as well, considering what happened to so many of the boat people. Hoang had earned a degree in philosophy and was now earning the equivalent of $15 a month as a guide for Saigontourist. He considered himself lucky. Jesus, I thought, I'm paying more than six times the guy's monthly salary for this little outing, a bargain if I had ever seen one, and he considers himself lucky. The driver made even less, I was told, but he had the fringe benefit of taking the Mercedes home a couple of nights a week.
We had pulled up behind an old army truck filled with soldiers, the first I had seen since my arrival. They looked disdainfully at the Mercedes and I considered waving at them. Instead, I raised my camera and began snapping a picture. "Please don't that," said Hoang, "It's not allowed." Moments later the truck turned left into Long Binh, formerly the largest U.S. military installation in Vietnam.
We stopped at a roadside stand for a pop and some ice chopped from a block with a rusty spike. It was deliciously refreshing and without asking the proprietor peeled some fruit for us. We had pulled the car off the road into a dirt area and a boy came over to give us a "parking ticket." The driver gave him some money and he was off. No matter how small, everyone had a little enterprise. Everyone. It may take decades, I thought, but some day this country is going to be very prosperous.
When we entered the outskirts of Vung Tau I could hardly recognize it. It had exploded in size and there was construction everywhere. Obviously the Russians had been there, but so had the Japanese, the Taiwanese, the Europeans, and the Canadians. Hoang told me that with foreign investment there had been a building boom in Vung Tau, but that it had faltered because of foolish decisions by both government and investors. The construction sites, and the dreams to turn Vung Tau into an international resort, were standing idle. We stopped at the Canadian Hotel, a project that had actually been brought to completion. When I walked in the pleasant but sterile lobby, the manager told me that the hotel was fully staffed but there were no guests. When I asked him when the hotel was scheduled to open, he said, "I don't know." He handed me a rate sheet that quoted $60 for a standard room, but that all rooms were forty percent off until the end of July. Their business plan needs some reworking, I thought.
When we got to Quang Trung Street, the wide avenue with the large palms along Front Beach, I finally got my bearings. The little kiosks were still there but I couldn't find any of the familiar bars. I didn't bother looking for The Hospital. We had a leisurely lunch in the atrium of the Grand Hotel, where we ran into the guide (the Northerner) who had picked me up at Tan Son Nhut. I felt a little embarrassed that I had abandoned him for a Southerner, but he waved politely.
On a wall of the atrium was painted a large advertisement for Labatt's Canadian Lager and, in a sense of Canadian pride, I ordered a bottle. Unfortunately, it hadn't arrived yet, so I settled for a Heineken. (Because of the ongoing U.S. trade embargo, I couldn't order a Bud, which I wouldn't have done anyway.)
After lunch, we went along Front Beach to the spot where we had come ashore from our anchored ship 25 years earlier. I sat for a while on an overturned boat on the beach looking out over the water at Nui Lon, Large Mountain, the scene where I had first witnessed the sounds of war. I asked Huong to take me there. "Why?" he asked. "I'd like to visit the villa of Madame Croissant," I replied. He shrugged his shoulders and summoned the driver. Huong knew that I had been in Vietnam during the war, but as was the case with most Vietnamese I met during my return, it was a topic he was reluctant to discuss. The people wanted to look forward, not back, and I don't blame them. So, I kept my explanations to a minimum.
We drove to Bach Dinh, Villa blanche or the White Villa, and started searching from there. Hidden behind the thick foliage, there were many villas of French architectural design, and I was about to throw in the towel when I spotted it -- I recognized the veranda where I had enjoyed breakfast with Nick and Bjorn so many years ago. A young lady appeared on a balcony and through Huong I asked about Madame Croissant. They talked back and forth, and I felt myself getting impatient. Suddenly, Huong said, "Let's go," and started walking down the hill. "She's dead," he said when I caught up to him. This didn't surprise me, because she had been in her sixties when I met her. Still, I wanted to know who the young lady was and who was living there now. "It's a retreat for high government officials," he said. No wonder he wanted to get out of there. Charlie had come up in the world.
We drove around the peninsula toward Back Beach, by a giant concrete statue of Jesus Christ on Small Mountain, standing watch over the South China Sea -- a pathetic attempt to give the area a semblance of Rio de Janeiro. Huong suggested that we go inside and climb to the top. I was still in a bad mood from the unresolved emotions I'd felt at the villa, and I told him I wasn't interested. Besides, given my past, I thought it rather sacrilegious to climb inside JC.
Instead, I had him stop at the old lighthouse -- that beacon of beacons beckoning sailors home century after century -- where we talked with the keeper about nothing in particular. Ever since I first went to sea, I have had a deep love for lighthouses and the maritime history they represent. Actually, that feeling goes back much further, to the time I was an infant lying awake at night in my crib near the fishing harbor of Scheveningen. At regular intervals, the beam of the lighthouse would flash by my room in the attic -- flash, ..., flash, ..., flash-flash, ..., flash, ..., flash -- a signal that all was safe and secure. I asked the keeper what the distinctive sequence of the lighthouse of Vung Tau was, but I didn't write it down and have forgotten.
Going back down Small Mountain, toward Back Beach, we stopped to watch a stream of worshipers wade through the low tide to Hon Ba, Islet of the Goddess. Shaped like a tortoise, it is home to a temple built by fishermen in honor of the Goddess of the Sea, my kind of temple. Back Beach was strangely deserted in June of 1991 -- the half-constructed hotels and abandoned cranes lent it a quality of lost dreams. We stopped at an area with modern beach bungalows standing high on poles in the sand. When I started walking toward the surf, picking up shells, girls began to appear on the verandas of the bungalows. They were silently sizing me up. Huong flashed me a grin, but I shook my head. I was waiting for one of them to holler, "Hey you! You numba one!" But it never came, probably because they thought I was Russian, the only "white barbarians" in town at that time. Just as well, I thought, and continued my gathering of the exotic shells of the South China Sea.
Soon after the war, when the hapless Russians began arriving in the former South Vietnam to fill the vacuum left by the Americans, they were quickly dubbed "Americans without dollars," even by the communists. As many scholars had pointed out for years, communism in the Soviet Union and communism in Vietnam were two different animals. They warned against the use of labels to distinguish friend from foe -- in my opinion, a truism that has held true through the ages.
On the way back to Saigon, clutching my plastic bag of seashells, the driver asked me what music I liked. I said, "Neil Diamond, Queen, and Elton John." Queen was a mystery to him, but he inserted a tape with a live recording of Neil Diamond at the Greek Theater -- songs that flowed through me like the blood in my veins. As we neared the environs of the city I loved so much, I asked the driver if he had any Vietnamese music. He grinned and popped in a tape of the most beautiful ballad I had ever heard.
When we got to the hotel, I invited them in for a drink at the little lobby lounge. I was bushed with the images of the day, but I was glad that Bob and Terry, and even Carl, weren't there. I felt so embarrassed when I handed Hoang and the driver envelopes as a token of my appreciation. It felt so inadequate. When they left, the driver presented me with the cassette of Vietnamese ballads.
That night, I tried falling asleep with the memories of Madame Croissant and Vung Tau, but I couldn't. The Russian vodka had addled my brain and every half hour I walked to the window, pulled aside the curtain and looked out at the cyclo drivers asleep in their carriages on the street below.
In the morning I walked toward the Rex. I had become familiar to the locals and a group of middle-aged men -- obviously vets, but which side they had fought for I could not tell -- beckoned me to sit down with them on small stools on the sidewalk. They were passing around a large bottle of unknown liquid and offered me a sip. I took a swallow and almost passed out. I gave them a thumbs up and they shared some fruit with me. They didn't speak a word of English but we chatted happily for an hour, watching the passing foot traffic. When I stood up to bid my adieu, I offered to pay them for their hospitality but they adamantly refused.
When I crossed Le Loi Street with surefooted cockiness, the bikes, motorcycles, cyclos, and mopeds buzzed by me in all directions. The traffic light was not meant for this type of traffic, it seemed, and I had learned that the safest way to cross the street was to just go for it -- don't stop, don't hesitate, don't rush, don't slow down, and the traffic will miss you, not by much, but it will miss you. I walked past the vendors selling war era maps and dog tags (were they real?) to the bustling market of Cho Ben Thanh where I sniffed durian and watched a cart laden with tomatoes turn over.
Passing through the unguarded gates into the garden of the former Presidential Palace, I walked around unhindered as old women were painstakingly mending the old carpets in the halls. From the upper floors were magnificent views of the wide tree-lined avenues leading in all directions and in the distance I could spot the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral. Off the former underground command center with strategic maps still pinned to the walls and a massive array off communications equipment, is a small room containing a simple cot and bedside table with two telephones and a multi-band radio -- a grim reminder of what it was like in the final days leading up to April 30, 1975.
At the Exhibition House of Aggressive War Crimes, that's what it was named in 1991, I'm handed a brochure titled "U.S. Imperialist's Aggressive War Crimes in Viet Nam." The English used to describe the alleged atrocities is so stilted that it's almost comical, and defeats the purpose for which it was intended. The exhibits are not comical, however, and the rooms are stifling hot and I escape into the gardens displaying the "liberated" machinery of war -- tanks, cannons, Rome plows, Hueys and other flying equipment, and a guillotine. I wonder out loud whether the Americans used guillotines in Vietnam and a fellow "tourist" cleverly points out to me that it's probably French.
I wanted to see the zoo again but at the entrance a tropical downpour diverted me into the former National Museum, now renamed the History Museum, and home to artifacts from the Bronze Age Don Son civilization, the Chams, Khmers, Vietnamese and various ethnic minorities. What I hadn't seen before was a fascinating display of phallic sculptures and the giant bust of Ho Chi Minh (not in the same room, of course). Upon exiting, the rains had stopped but since the zoo still looked dreary, I grabbed a cyclo back to Tu Do Street. Bob and Terry were in the lounge and told me about the furniture factories they had visited. "Not the crappy stuff you see here in the tourist shops, but seriously beautiful pieces carved from the finest hardwood," said Bob.
"The Japanese and Europeans are already buying it up by the shipload," Bob continued. "There is some serious money to be made here." He was seriously considering expanding his export business to include shipping Vietnamese furniture to Canada, and I was seriously thinking that the Vietnamese were about to get seriously screwed again. Half a dozen years later it was learned that the Vietnamese weren't the only ones to get screwed -- to secure a steady supply of hardwood for their blossoming furniture business, the Vietnamese had begun plundering the more bountiful forests of neighboring Cambodia.
The three of us went for dinner and the floor show in the decadent ambience of Maxim's down the street. Despite it being midweek, the place was packed to the rafters and it was hard to believe that we were in a communist country. Multiple menus listed an endless number of dishes from Vietnamese, Chinese and Western cuisines. On a stage, bathed in multi-colored lights, an attractive pop songstress in a tight-fitting cheongsam was singing a Vietnamese rendition of Danny Boy while tuxedoed waiters hustled among the tables. Staying away from the main courses, we ordered a potpourri of appetizers from three different menus and I experimented with new flavors by dipping escargots in nuoc mam (fish sauce). New acts made their debut on the stage and at any moment I expected the Kim Sisters to show up. Bob made an attempt to continue his furniture discussion, but fortunately it was too noisy.
The day of reckoning had arrived. I had tried to push the memory of Minnie to the back of my mind, but on the morning I was to venture out to Cu Chi and Tay Ninh, I began to feverishly study maps and figure out a way to find her home.[more to come]
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Jack Walraven, All Rights Reserved.
Last Update: May 21, 2001