Brown Water, by Samuel Crawford
At 35,000 feet, Braniff flight 727 from Travis Air Force Base in California was one packed flight. This type of airplane normally carried about 160 passengers, but since this was a chartered military flight, I estimated over 190 service men onboard. There were no women, children, or crying babies on this flight.
Almost everyone was in dress uniforms: Marines in dress blue, Army in olive green and a few Navy guys like me in dress whites. A few guys--the officer seated next to me, for example--were ironically conspicuous in jungle utilities. There was no first class section or even coach, for that matter. There was just third class and that probably explained why I was sitting with an officer. He was sound asleep and had been since I got onboard. As if things were not strange enough, the airplane was painted orange.
The flight was not really so bad, it had been only twenty-four hours since I had left my home in Baltimore after a week of leave from boot camp. The flight from Hawaii alone had been eight hours and that was a long time to be in one seat. From sitting so long in one spot, it felt as if I no longer had the split in my butt. Furthermore, the seats were so close together that I had to step into the aisle just to change my mind.
My first set of orders out of boot camp directed me to report to the USS (ARR23). As far as I could tell, she was some type of repair ship now deployed somewhere near Saigon, Vietnam. It was my understanding that she pulled into port at Saigon every so often, which was why my orders had me reporting to Saigon. No one had explained to me just how to go about finding this ship, much less, how to get around once I arrived in Saigon. Who would I ask if she were there or not? What would I do if the SUMMIT were not in Saigon?
I naively hoped there would be an information desk at the airport. It would have been to my advantage, if I could have found a map at the airport, especially if that map had on it a little red “X” and the words, you are here. It would have been great if the map also had a few little boats at one end with names on them…USS SUMMIT, to be specific. It would have been my luck that the vessel’s location was some military secret and no one would be willing to inform me of anything. How would I even find out if she were still afloat? She could have sunk or been decommissioned after I received my orders.
Would I get a cab at the airport? If I did, would the driver communicate in English? Would he take American money for the fare? Hell, even if I did get an English-speaking cab driver and he did take American money, I would not have known where in the world to tell him to take me.
It was strange how things had changed in such a short time for me. When I left home and told my parents’ good-bye, I felt like a man going off to war. On the plane, I knew I was just a kid who was a few days shy of his nineteen birthday and completely terrified. I had no idea what to do when my flight landed. I knew what my orders were; I just did not know how I was going to accomplish them. This was not the way to start a new job and possibly, a new career.
The pilot announced that we would be landing soon and instructed everyone to buckle-in. I thought about my predicament and slowly shook my head from side to side. “Damn, Damn, Damn,” I said softly to myself.
At that moment, the officer next to me woke from his nap and said, “What do you want? Do I know you?”
“Sir. No, sir. Just thinking aloud. Sorry, sir,” I answered with obvious apprehension.
He questioned me as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, “Weren’t you calling my name? Dan, Dan, Dan?”
“Sir. No, sir. I just said ‘Damn.’ I didn’t mean to wake you. Sorry about that, sir,” I said with some embarrassment.
“No sweat my man,” was his response that relaxed me a little. His friendly smile was most reassuring.
“No sweat,” I sort of asked under my breath. I wonder what he meant by that?
“Yeah. No sweat. It just means that it don’t mean nothin,” he explained for my benefit.
“Cool,” was the only response I could come up with for now.
“Well, I’m awake now. Who the hell are you?”
“Sir, I’m Charles Edward, Seaman Apprentice, from Baltimore Maryland, sir,” I answered him as I tried to sound military and all that. I was sure that I was doing it correctly because I was saying, ‘Sir’ at the beginning and end of each statement.
He looked me over and said, “Let me guess. Fresh out of boot camp and on your way to The-Nam, right?”
I responded smartly, “Sir. Yes, sir. Where are you going, sir?”
After a long flight without anyone to talk to, I was full of questions and wanted to hold a conversation with anybody, even if he was an officer. In boot camp, the only time I had had a conversation with an officer was when he was yelling orders at me. Besides, I liked the way this guy called Vietnam, ‘The-Nam.’ Coming from a seasoned soldier, it sounded different than it had on the evening news.
“First off, boot, I’m not an officer. So, you can cut out the ‘sir’ shit. This is my third trip to The-Nam and I’m a Petty Officer Third Class,” he said as he tried to stretch out his long legs in the little space between seats.
“But you have an officer’s pin on your collar. An eagle. You’re a captain, right?”
“Wrong my man. It’s not an eagle. It’s a crow. An enlisted man’s run of the mill, petty officer’s-crow. You’ll learn soon enough that officers get the cool stuff.”
“Cool stuff?” What was this guy saying?
“Yeah, Navy Captains wear eagles pins on their collars. You know…eagles…majestic, proud, symbol of America, excellent hunters. Us enlisted guys get the crow for our insignia. It’s black, makes a lot of noise, and eats road kill.”
“Besides,” he continued, “with the way rank has its ups and downs here, in The-Nam, there’s no telling how long anyone will keep his stripes. It’s easier to just pin on a different set every now and then on your collar to keep things current. Sewing and re-sewing is such a pain, after a while you’ll need a new shirt.”
I did not know what he meant by all that, so I just ignored it. “You don’t dress like you’re in the Navy,” I pointed out. “You look more like a Marine.”
“Navy personnel serving in-country are authorized to wear greens. Once you get in-country, you don’t want to be walking around in your dress whites. You will make a nice target in a place where everything is either brown or green. Even the water is brown. Everything over here stays green and brown, year round.”
“I don’t expect to be in Saigon very long. I’m trying to find a ship called the SUMMIT. It’s an ARR and first, I’ve got to figure out a way to get to her and then I’ll be out to serve my one-year tour. I’ll be on a silver navy ship, sailing on the blue ocean. I’ll get to wear my little white hat and bell-bottom pants. I really won’t have to worry about anything being brown or green,” I answered projecting that I was pretty sure of myself. I hoped he would have some suggestions on finding my ship.
“Oh really? First off, navy ships are Battleship gray and not silver.”
“All right,” I answered.
“So, what makes you think, Charles Edward, Seaman Apprentice from Baltimore, Maryland, that your ship is out at sea?”
“Well I’m not positive, but she is a ship and ships spend time at sea.”
“Do you know what the ARR in ARR23 stands for?”
“Yes, some sort of repair ship.”
“It stands for Auxiliary Repair River,” Dan explained.
“So maybe she’s tied up in the Saigon harbor somewhere,” I responded, as if I almost knew what I was talking about.
“Well, when I left her two weeks ago, she was about 100 miles from Saigon. And not exactly in the easterly direction that you’re thinking.”
I could not believe my good fortune that he was stationed on my ship, or at the very least, knew where the SUMMIT was located. Now maybe I could find out, with his help of course, how to find her. “Well, I assume,” I responded. “That she goes in and out of Saigon every so often to repair ships in the South China Sea. Then she probably goes back to Saigon for supplies and repairs.”
“She’s only been to Saigon once in two years,” he answered. “She’s a repair ship and can repair herself when she breaks down. Besides, an auxiliary repair ship doesn’t repair ships at sea. So, what do you think?”
“Hey, I’m the new guy here. I’m not sure what to think.” Now that I got him answering questions for me, I might as well continue. I had to ask the one question that I often heard civilians ask Vietnam veterans, “So what’s it like being over here?”
He looked at me as if he had fielded this question a million times; “It’s fear and fascination. Sometimes it’s a little more of one than the other. Other times, it’s just the opposite, with everything else mixed in.”
“Yeah, I can’t leave out the mass confusion and death.”
I wanted to know more about that, but I needed to check on other things, such as where he left her two weeks ago, whether he was going back to the her, and anything else he could tell me about the ship. However, before I could ask even one more question, the pilot ordered everyone to take their seats, buckle up for landing and to put out all cigarettes.
Dan turned and stared out the window as if trying to find something; or maybe he just wanted to ignore me. He might even have been as scared as me, third time here or not.
My flight now started out to be an adventure. It felt as if the pilot was gaining speed to land rather than slowing. The last few thousand feet it appeared to me that we were heading almost straight down, only to level off at the last moment before we touched down. I did not think this was normal and I commented to Dan, “That was some landing.”
He responded with, “That was a great landing.”
“Great?” I questioned. I didn’t think that it was all that great.
“Yep. A good landing is one from which you can walk away from. A great landing is one after which they can use the plane again.”
“I guess that a good or great landing is optional,” I commented.
“That’s not exactly accurate.”
I questioned him, “What do you mean?”
“It’s the take-offs that are optional. The landings are mandatory,” he answered.
Thinking that he was joking with me, I asked in jest, “You have any more tidbits of airplane trivia?
“One more,” he quickly responded. “You know that you’ve landed with the wheels up if it takes full power to taxi to the ramp.”
Before I could respond, I found myself a little more interested in what I saw outside my window. All I could see was rows and rows of military aircraft of all types and sizes. I had never seen so many choppers in one place in my life. Just as Dan had explained to me earlier, everything was brown and green. Different shades of browns and greens, but brown and green just the same.
In spite of the pilot’s orders to stay seated until the plane came to a complete stop, a few people got up and were moving around. They gathered their bags and made their way up front to the exit the aircraft. Some of them were officers and some were enlisted and each of them were wearing utility greens, unlike the passengers who remained seated who wore dress uniforms. I assumed that these guys were returning to Vietnam by the way that they were dressed.
Dan was already up and getting his things together.
“We were just told to stay seated, weren’t we?” I asked, trying not to sound confused.
“We need to get off the aircraft in a timely fashion,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“Why? Is there something I don’t know? I thought we were ordered to stay in our seats.”
Looking at me as if my questions were a waste of his time, he answered, “First off, we don’t take orders from a civilian. Second, why is it that at 35,000 feet and moving at 400+ miles an hour, we can walk all around the aircraft having a smoke and a drink? Then, while we’re on the ground and moving at five miles an hour, we had to stay in our seats, buckled up without the relaxing affects of a good cigarette and drink? Third, you don’t sweat the small stuff. You see, while you are over here, you need to learn that everything is small stuff.”
Not wanting to lose this guy and, with him, any hope of finding my ship, I got up and started to gather my things.
The pilot announced, “Flag officers will depart the aircraft first after we have come to a complete stop.”
When I heard that, I just knew that I was going to be the last person off the plane. I realized that I was probably the most junior person onboard because I was fresh out of boot camp. Still, those dozen or so guys were doing their best to be the first ones to vacate the aircraft. Amazingly, no one spoke a word of reprimand to any of these men.
I stopped for a moment to re-think this situation. All of the men who were still seated were watching those who were standing. Two guys coming from the back of the plane were about to trample me because I was standing in the middle of the aisle. The first guy said to me as he passed, “Make-a-hole, boot.”
The second guy just said, “Ass-hole. You dinky-dau newbie.”
I was unnerved and embarrassed by their rebukes. I must ask Dan what a dinky-dau newbie was when I get a minute.
Dan noticed that I had stopped what I was doing and that I was about to get back into my seat.
“And fourth,” Dan added “I know that a parked airplane filled to capacity with military personnel makes a grand target for snipers. So now you have a choice my new friend, you can get into gear; or, you can put it in park.”
I looked at him and before I could say anything, he said, “As for me, I’m gonna di-di-mal myself out of here.”
Those words drove home the realization that I was really in Vietnam, a war zone. So, I prepared myself for the scramble to get off the plane just like the other men. Assuming that di-di-mal meant to do it quick.
As I stepped back into the aisle, I made eye contact with a very young looking sailor sitting across from me. Other than looking extremely young to be in uniform, his face showed total confusion to see me moving around after we all were ordered to stay seated. I didn’t say anything to him because I wasn’t sure what I was doing.
I did feel a little strange ignoring orders, especially when I passed officers still seated and buckled in. I worried that each of those officers was taking a good look at me so later he could write me up for disobeying orders. For this excursion of mine, I could expect one of my two stripes to be stripped away. Nevertheless, Dan had said that stripes were, ‘easy on and easy off’.’ However, it was probably better to lose a stripe than to lose your life, but right now, I didn’t want to lose him...or my life.
I wondered what would happen if you were reduced in rank and that you only had one stripe to start with. Would that mean that you had zero rank, an E-0? An even bigger question was what would happen to you if you did not have any stripes to take away and you had to lose me. I decided to save these questions for a later time because getting off the plane required my full attention. No need to be called an ass-hole a second time.
To my surprise, at least the first six guys made it off the aircraft before the door was even fully opened. The remaining six or so of us were close behind and moving fast. Even the stewardesses had known to step aside quickly to let us exit.
I jumped a short distance to the approaching stairway because it had yet to reach the plane. I assumed that the guys who had exited first had had to make quite a jump.
It required all of my concentration just to run down those stairs that were still moving toward the plane. The first groups of guys were charging down the stairs at full speed, making the entire stairway shake, rattle, and roll. Vietnam was beginning to be a very exciting place.
I dismounted the stairs and tried to catch my breath. Dan turned to me and said, “After I get my sea bag, I’ll help you get yours. It’s going to be a mad house when our bags are dumped on the tarmac.”
Dumped on the tarmac I questioned. Somehow, I had imagined something a little more organized…perhaps finding my bag on the conveyor belts as I normally would at most airports. I kind of wanted to see my bags go passing by in an organized, single file military fashion.
Once everyone was off the plane and on the tarmac, we just stood around. We were a little ways from any buildings and I had no idea what to do next. How could I expect to find a ship if I could not even find the terminal. In addition to that issue, if they were going to dump my sea bag on the tarmac, I needed to find just where on the tarmac this was going to happen.
Just as I was about to ask Dan about our sea bags, he looked over past me and said, “Try to stay in the middle of the group.”
“Why?” I figured that we could see our sea bags better if we were on the edge of the group of almost two hundred men.
“If someone wants to take a shot at the group, it’s better to be in the middle,” he told me as he made his way into the center of the crowd.
With little delay, I followed him to the middle of the pack. I was not surprised to see that the same guys that exited the plane first were also there. “I would have thought that we were safe from the VC here on base,” I questioned.
“Not as easy as you may think,” Dan responded.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, describe a North Vietnamese for me. Then describe a South Vietnamese.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I nodded sheepishly. I had no idea what a South Vietnamese looked like, much less what one from the North. However, I did assume that they looked alike.
Just as I was about to ask yet another question, I noticed that a cargo door opened in the rear of the aircraft. Someone was launching all two hundred or so military issue green sea bags directly onto the tarmac, twenty feet out and over feet down.
“Look at that! How in the world is anyone going to find their sea bag when they’re all exactly alike?” I wondered aloud.
I was a little taken aback by the way our bags were treated. In a matter of minutes, the pile was eight feet high and twenty feet in diameter. I imagined that the flight crew was getting even with us for not staying buckled in our seats until the plane came to a complete stop.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff. This is not a big deal. It’s true that all of our bags look same-same. But I already told you, after I find my bag, I’ll help you get yours.”
I could not imagine what made him so sure that he would find his bag, even before I found mine considering, as he said, they were all same-same. Then I noticed that one bag being thrown off had a large ‘X’ on two sides made with two-inch masking tape. At that moment, Dan said, “There’s mine.”
With a cocky mannerism, he walked to the pile and climbed a few bags. He casually grabbed the marked sea bag and balanced it on his shoulder. He walked back and dropped his bag beside me as if it was a prized trophy.
This guy really seemed to have his act together and I was glad that he had decided to help me. I needed to find out more about my ship before he and I went our separate ways. Assuming we were going to part ways. However, I hoped we were reporting to the same place. I would like this to be a, no sweat adventure for me.
I noticed that the same guys that exited the plane so quickly were picking out their bags in the same manner. All had similar marking on their bags. One had a large red bow and another was sprayed with black paint in some weird design. This must be the bag of someone that had been a hippie in his early days. Still another had masking tape circling his bag. What a great idea this was. Everyone who had to scramble for his bag noticed how helpful the markings was. It appeared to me that each was thinking of doing the same thing to their bags on their next flight.
After a few minutes of waiting, I was getting rather hot and very inpatient. The heat of the sun was broiling my head and the heat off the tarmacs was cooking my feet. I decided to start with my search without him. I walked past Dan, toward the pile of sea bags, when he said to me, “Hang on a minute, my man. The officers will be in there making it tough for the enlisted guys to find their bags. Let them finish first.”
“What do you mean?”
“The officers will be shouting and giving orders like, ‘is that my bag soldier? What name do you read on that tag? Hand that bag to me, boy.’ We’ll just wait a few minutes. The pile will be easier to search when the officers are gone.”
Just as he said, I could see officers yelling at enlisted men and enlisted men helping officers find their bags.
As Dan and I stood there watching the officers giving orders and being rude to the enlisted men, Dan said, “You see there are three types of officers that arrive in-country. The first type is the, ‘General Washington.’ He thinks he’ll be a general someday and then become president. Not a bad style for an officer because he’ll take care of you, keep you alive and well.”
“Now what does that mean?”
“He wants you to live so you can vote for him in twenty or thirty years when he runs for public office.”
I wonder how accurate he thinks he is. On the other hand, did he think he knew it all?
“Then there’s the, ‘General Custard’. He marches to his own drum. Not always using common sense and not listening to others who have more time and experience in-country. He tries out his own untested ideas and eventually gets himself and everybody else killed. He doesn’t understand that good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, good experience usually comes from making bad judgments. This type I can spot a mile away and I try very hard to keep them, a mile away.”
Now this was starting to sound like a lot of crap to me, but I’ll listen to be polite. “And the third type?” I asked, wanting to stay on his good side until he could help me find my ship.
“Finally, ‘General Bob.’ These officers just report in-country not wanting to give or take orders. These guys aren’t very smart, even though they have a college degree.”
“What do you mean, they are not smart? They have a college degree?”
“These guys have a college degree, yes; however, they are not smart enough to avoid the draft. They just want to put in their 365 and stay out of combat. They blend in with the scenery and bring little attention to themselves. They’re the ones that allow the enlisted men who know what they are doing, to do what needs to be done. These officers are well liked by the men who have been here for a couple of tours. They even get along with the unhappy enlisted draftees because they’re in the same boat. We generally think of them as one weird ass-holes, but acceptable weird ass-holes just the same.”
“How can they be both?” I asked doubtfully.
“Ass-hole because he’s an officer, but acceptable ass-holes because he was drafted.”
None of this was what I learned in boot camp about officers. Officers were people to be obeyed. Whatever they demanded, I did it and I did it quickly. I figured that he just had it all wrong. He may have known how to get off planes and find his luggage quickly, but he can’t be right about officers…at least not all of them.
After about twenty minutes, the pile of bags was about half gone. Dan and I began our search the still, massive pile. Fortunately, I found my bag after searching only a dozen or so.
With our sea bags slung on our shoulders, we headed toward the terminal. I felt as though something were missing, then I remembered the nightly news broadcasts back home showing soldiers marching smartly up the beach, four abreast. There was always a band playing, flags flying, and newsmen taking pictures. Here, there was nothing. Everyone headed toward the terminal by ones, twos and threes, talking, joking, and smoking cigarettes…the perfect opposite of an orderly column of new arrived military personnel.
Dan noticed that I was looking all around and asked, “Looking for the band?”
“Yeah.” Now how did he know that?
“No bands for us today.”
“No, why not?”
“We are replacements, returnees, fresh meat and spare parts. Bands are for whole units arriving and departing this lovely country.”
Damn, I had expected-and even wanted-a band. There had been no hula girls handing out leis at the airport in Hawaii, either, and I was really expecting that. I hoped this wasn’t a sign of things to come. I knew that Vietnam Vets returning home were finding themselves treated like shit. It appeared that I was getting the same treatment on my arrival. Not a good sign of things to come.
I was about ready to ask him what he meant by, ‘spare parts,’ when I noticed the sign above the door that read, ‘Welcome to Tan San Nut Air Force Base, Saigon, Vietnam.’ I had seen this place on the nightly news, full of coffins with American flags draped over them. Out of morbid interest, I looked around for some, but didn’t see any. Then I felt shameful for thinking that. A flag-draped coffin was an awful thing to see. That would have meant that for every body inside, there would be a grieving family back home. Hope I never have that kind of thought again.
“So now what are you looking for?’ Dan questioned.
“Nothing in particular. Just checking the place out.”
With a smile he said, “I bet you’re looking for someone with a sign above his head with your name on it. You know, a limo driver at an airport like they have back in the real world.”
“That would make things easier, wouldn’t it?” I answered. Naturally, there was no way I was going to tell him what I had really been looking for.
Still smiling, he teased, “I think that you are still expecting some kind of limo service. At least a military bus that reads, ‘USS SUMMIT.’”
I responded by kidding with him with, “Well maybe not a limo and driver, but at least someone to give me directions.”
“No sweat, we’ll just have our orders stamped and follow the crowd. Stick with me. I know the routine.”
“Stamped? You mean like S&H Green Stamps?”
“Yeah, two tours and four books will get you a grenade launcher that doubles as an umbrella stand,” Dan quick wittily replied.
Next to the door, leading into the terminal was a mailbox. The kind you would find on any corner back home. Instead of being blue, it was red with the words; AMNESTY BOX stenciled on the side. “What’s that?” I questioned Dan.
“A freebie. If you have something that you don’t want to be caught with, place the item in the box and no one will say a thing about it,” he explained.
“Like what kind of things?”
“Illegal things, you know what I am talking about,” he responded, looking at me as if I was trying to act innocent.
Well, for me, I have nothing illegal on me and I will just walk proudly on past it. I hoped that he would do the same and pass it by, and he did.
When we arrived inside the terminal, we found a counter with three lines of us new arrivals. The sign above each window read, ‘Exchange.’ A guy using a bullhorn herded us into a roped off area. I saw one guy; wearing jungle utilities like Dan, try to go under the rope. An MP appeared out of nowhere and shoved this him back under the rope. I thought it was odd that neither one said anything to the other. It appeared that they have done this before, you know, I try to sneak out and you catch me. Whatever, he remained in line.
“What’s this?” I asked.
Dan leaned close and whispered, “This is where we make the exchange from our green backs into MPC. Keep all your tens and twenties. Just turn in your fives, ones, and all your change.”
“Military Pay Certificates. Even our coins are changed over into paper. It’s a real pain.”
“So, why should I keep my tens and twenties?”
“Keep it down, man. Can’t you whisper?” He snapped in a stage whisper. Clearly unnerved, he looked around to see if anyone had overheard us.
“Listen, my big mouth friend. When someone whispers to you, trying not to be heard by others, try to whisper your answer in the same way.”
Great. I had just pissed off my one and only passport to my ship. Dan must have sensed that I was worried about angering him, because he immediately regained his cool. “You can sell a twenty for twenty-five dollars of MPC. American greenbacks are worth lots money over here.”
“Is that legal?”
“All I’m doing is selling is something that’s already mine. Granted it’s not legal, but I’m not paid enough to get shot at,” he answered, somewhat defensively.
“I can’t do that,” I said in a low voice because I didn’t want anyone else to hear me. “I’m just going to turn it all in and do the right thing. Besides, no one is going to be shooting at an Auxiliary Repair Landing ship sitting in the middle of the South China Sea.”
I was trying to be humorous, but he was obviously not in the mood.
“No sweat. Do what you think is best.”
The line moved quickly and in a few minutes, we were at the counter. The officer behind the counter took Dan’s orders, pulled off one of the copies, stamped it, and put it on a pile of about fifty others. He then stamped Dan’s original copy of his orders and asked him, “How much are you going to exchange?”
“Nine dollars and twenty-five cents, sir.”
The lieutenant behind the counter looked at him as if he knew he had more.
“Is that one hundred nine dollars and twenty-five cents? Or did you say two hundred nine dollars and twenty-five cents?”
Dan looked the officer right in the eye and politely said, “Sir, I just came off R&R. I ran out of money and I had to borrow this little bit that I have here to get back, sir.”
“So where did you go?”
“Was it cool?” The officer asked, relaxing a little.
“No sir. No matter how much money you take, you will quickly run broke if you decide to spend your R&R there. Be sure to take lots of money.”
The officer responded with a smile, as Dan continued with, “Just remember sir, if you don’t spend all of your money, then you can count on not having as much fun.”
The officer paid Dan little attention after that. With the money exchange completed, Dan stepped aside to allow me room to reach the counter.
The officer asked for my orders and I obliged. He then asked, “How much are you going to exchange?”
I knew he noticed that Dan and I were together and I assumed he was waiting for me to answer with an amount less than ten dollars. I spoke up and said, “I have two hundred and thirty five dollars and some change.”
With a genuine confused look, the officer gave me a quick, ‘once over,’ as if I was somehow holding back something. With what Dan had said earlier, I could only imagine that I was the only person handing in to exchange more than ten dollars.
“Did you say two hundred and thirty five dollars and change?” He questioned.
“Yes sir I did.”
The lieutenant made a face of surprise and then handed me my MPC replacement bills in five, tens, and twenties.
The money was a little smaller and had the same feel as regular money. I placed the bills in my wallet. I got a real surprise when he handed me a few bills in the five and ten cent denominations. These bills were smaller than the dollar value bills. (APPENDIX A) However, this made sense because it was of a lesser value. This made my wallet hard to close with the volume of bills that I now had.
The exchange completed quickly and we stepped away from the counter when Dan said in an amusing way, “Dumb shit, you could have made fifty dollars.”
I tried to be cool and said, “No sweat.”
“No sweat man. I was just trying to put some money in your pocket,” Dan answered me apologetically.
“I know. I’m just being cautious. First time in Vietnam and all that.”
“Hey, do me a favor. Guard my bag for a minute. I’ll be right back,” Dan asked me, as if all was fine now.
“Sure thing.” I mumbled distractedly. I wondered if I had done the right thing by turning in all of my money the way I did. Maybe I didn’t always have to be so, by-the-book. I could always use an extra fifty bucks. However, too late, what was done was done. I never liked getting into trouble before and there was no reason to start now with my new career ahead of me.
Dan dropped his bag and headed for the men’s room. While he was gone, I had some time to check out my new surroundings. For such a small place, there was a surprising amount of activity. It seemed as though everyone but me knew where he was going. I was hit with a sudden wave of anxiety. I wanted to find my ship, not stand guard over a guy’s sea bag while he made a head call.
A voice behind me said, “Excuse me.” I turned and saw an army private carrying a small cardboard box. The lid was closed and he was holding it with such care and secrecy that my interest was sparked. He probably had some puppies, kittens, or snakes in this box of his. Just what I needed. Anyway, I answered, “Can I help you?”
“No, I believe that I can help you,” he smiled and handed me a small booklet from his box.
To be polite, I took it and saw that it was a book of Vietnamese courtesy phrases. He nodded knowingly. “You’ll need this while you’re here in-country. It’s very helpful for your day-to-day dealings with the locals. Everybody has one.”
The pamphlet was like a child’s dictionary, full of useful pictures. (APPENDIX B) It hadn’t occurred to me before that I would need to communicate with locals, but now I could see that this pamphlet was something I sorely needed.
“Only one dollar and it’s yours,” he said.
It seemed like a fair price to me and I wondered if I should buy Dan one. Yet, then I thought that he probably already had one since he had been here before.
“Okay man, just one,” I responded, accepting his offer.
He took my dollar, thanked me, and immediately found another customer.
I skimmed my book and saw the value of what I just purchased when Dan returned, looking like the cat that ate the canary. “I just made a hundred bucks,” he boasted but just loud enough for only me to hear.
Since he had just come from the men’s bathroom, I was a little worried about how he’d made this hundred dollars. I hoped that he wasn’t some kind of queer hooker, or something. No way was I going to hang around some fag, even if he was going to be my guide here in Saigon. Maybe he had sold some greenbacks.
Anyway, to share my good news, I said, “I just bought me a pamphlet on Vietnamese Phrases. Should I get you one? My treat.” I held out my pamphlet as if it were the prize catch of the day.
“You bought it?” He sneered.
“Well, he wasn’t giving them away.” I answered and wondered why he looked so amused.
“There are a couple of reasons why you shouldn’t have bought that.”
“And they are?” How could this purchase not have been a good deal?
“First off, they’re free. If you’re Navy and you’re over here, it’s free. Second, everyone here wants to learn to speak English. They don’t want to teach you Vietnamese.”
“So I got taken?”
“Yeah, twice. And we haven’t even left the terminal yet.”
“Yeah, twice,” Dan answered back quickly.
“You paid one dollar for a free pamphlet and then you lost fifty dollars on the exchange,” Dan explained.
“Give me a break. I’m the new guy here,” I answered, feeling stupid.
“No sweat,” Dan answered, finally showing me some mercy.
“You said that everyone wants to learn to speak English,” I asked, hoping to change the subject.
“Not only that, the girls here want to have the surgery to make their eyes round and American looking. Everything over here will someday be Americanized and we might even make South Vietnam a state like we did with Hawaii and Alaska.”
“No sweat. I mean, no shit.”
“Yeah. No shit,” he answered, as if this would someday come true.
The lines to the exchange windows had dwindled to about one or two people when someone with a clipboard began yelling orders. “Anyone just arriving in-country and needing a ride to the BOQ or BEQ, listen up. I have some instructions.”
Guessing that I might be in need of this ride, I gave him my undivided attention. I wished I knew what a BOQ or BEQ was. He continued, “The buses are outside, so get your asses on board, now!”
Finally! Things were sounding like they had in boot camp. Everyone there was called an ass, too. It appeared that this enlisted guy, because of his clipboard, had some kind of magical authoritative power over everyone. Even the officers were taking his orders, and they didn’t seem to mind being called, ‘asses,’ either. I didn’t understand that at all.
The clipboard guy yelled, “Everyone outside, board the buses for your BOQ or BEQ!”
I looked over at Dan and asked, “Do we need one of these BOQ, or BEQ’s that this guy is yelling about?”
“Yes we do, my new lost friend.”
“And a BOQ or BEQ is a what?”
We follow the crowded outside as he explained, “BOQ stands for ‘Bachelor Officer Quarters’ and BEQ for ‘Bachelor Enlisted Quarters.’”
Outside, there were six military buses parked side by side, facing the front of the terminal. Three buses had, “ARMY,” posted above the front windshield. Two others said, “MARINE,” and the sixth said, “NAVY.”
“What? No Air Force bus,” I questioned.
“Why would you think there would be an Air Force bus out here?”
I quickly responded with, “Why not? Air Force personnel got to report to their base.”
“Look around you my man. We’re already on an Air Force Base. Didn’t you read the sign on your way in?” He answered me with a chuckle.
“Oh yeah. Tan San Nut Air Force Base was the first sign I saw when I walked up to the terminal,” I said in response.
At that moment, I heard the drivers that stood next to their buses, shouting to everyone to get onboard. I started toward the Navy bus, but saw that Dan was heading toward one of the Army buses, the wrong way I assumed. Dan looked back at me as if to suggest that I follow him. I followed him with some reservation, reasoning that if he was smart enough to come up with that sea bag trick, he probably knew what he was doing. Emphasis on ‘probably.’
I boarded the bus and made my way down the aisle. Dan plopped down in an aisle seat and threw his sea bag in the window seat next to him. I thought that, if I was still worried about how me made that money in the bathroom and if he was a queer or not, with that, I didn’t want to sit next to him. I took the two seats behind him, placed my sea bag in the aisle seat, and sat by the window. I thought to myself, ‘Damn, I’ve been here in Vietnam for less than an hour now and already I found myself on the wrong bus, I was not sure where I was going, and I paid a dollar for a free pamphlet.
“My first day in-country friend,” Dan said, turning around to look at me. “Who do you think has the better seat? You or me?”
Shit, now I was in the wrong seat. However, I suspected that I was about to be the butt of some joke, but I bit anyway, “You.” I thought that maybe he wanted me to sit next to him. Regardless, I was fine sitting right where I was.
“Correct. Now why do you think I have the better seat?”
“No idea, but I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
“Yes. You see someone just might want to take a shot at the bus while it’s driving through scenic downtown Saigon. My American made military issue sea bag that has a window seat just might stop the bullet; or, at least slow it down before it hits me.”
Once again, I was surprised to find out that he said made sense. I started to change my seat around, but the bus jotted and backed up. I decided to sit tight and hope that, with a little luck, no one would shoot at me today. Besides, if they really needed to shoot at the bus, then maybe they would do it from the other side of the street. The bus rolled forward only to stop behind one of the other buses.
“How did you make that hundred dollars, anyway? Did you sell some American money in the men’s room?” I asked to change the subject. No need to dwell on the subject of being shot at.
“So how does that work, you know, making money from selling money?” This seemed like something that I should know about.
Looking and sounding like an economic teacher, Dan explained, “You see, American money, or greenback, will always have its value and is traded anywhere in the world. If this country were to fall apart, its currency will be worthless. This way, if you have American greenbacks, then your money is always valuable. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense; but I do know that I can make some money this way. There’s usually someone in the men’s room exchanging money before and after each flight.”
His explanation made sense. It was another tidbit to remember for the next time I fly into Saigon. What was I thinking? I had just gotten here. Why was I even thinking about coming back? I joined the US Navy to see the world, not to see downtown Saigon more than once.
As the bus started up again, I noticed that the windows had metal screens in them. These screens were unusual because they were of one-inch spacing and appeared to be quite strong. I couldn’t imagine how screens with such large holes could be useful. They did let the air flow through, a welcomed relief in this hot and humid climate. I looked behind the bus and noticed a jeep with a large machine gun mounted on a tripod in the back followed us closely. I assumed it was there for our protection, but I wasn’t sure if it made me feel safe or not. The jeep reminded me of the TV show the, ‘Rat Patrol.’
It was a short ride to the main gate. As we left the base and headed into town, I saw that almost everyone was riding around on small motorcycles and none were bigger than 100cc. The few cars that were around were small, and most of them were taxies along with a few buses. The only trucks were military and most of them were dump trucks. It was strange, but most, if not all of the trucks seemed to be occupied by an oriental driver and his entire family. The truck cabs were nearly large enough for the family to live in them. In fact, everyone I’ve seen so far over here seemed so little.
Some of the buses had so many people riding them that it reminded me of pictures on bus travel in India. I saw a number of people hanging on the sides with others standing on the bus steps. One bus had a little boy on top of the roof in the luggage rack holding onto a chicken.
There was a lot of traffic noise and the motorcycles were deafening. Everyone was blowing their horns, apparently just for the sake of blowing their horns. It sounded like New York City at rush hour. The only difference was that these horns sounded more like little toy horns
I noticed four people riding on a motor scooter alongside us. It seemed to be a mother and father with two children. It looked kind of cool to see so many people on one little moped. No one could do something like that back home and get away with it.
The trucks were driving crazy, trailing very close to the motorcycles, and laying on their horns to make them move out of the way. I looked over at Dan and asked, “Do the truck drivers always drive this way?”
“Yeah. The first thing the gooks do when they get a new truck is take away the brakes and add extra horns.”
“Gooks,” I questioned. I didn’t know if he meant that gooks were truck drivers or that they were the local people here.
“Gooks,” he repeated. “You know, everyone that’s from over here. If your eyes are round, then you are not a gook.”
This guy was full of jokes. With that tidbit of information, I kept my eye on this one truck that passed us and his brake lights never did come on. Somehow, I could imagine that Dan just might be right about this.
I saw that we were passing the presidential palace. I recognized it from newspaper photos. Guards surrounded the palace and two tanks lurked inside the grounds. The palace was an attractive building, though it wasn’t in keeping with the brown and green theme. It was sparkling white, and its cleanness contrasted drastically with the surroundings.
Each time we passed a good-looking girl, some of the guys on the bus would start to yell all kind of remarks at them. Some of the remarks were pretty foul and I wished that some guys would just shut up and leave those girls alone. Some of the girls looked back and smiled, while others ignored them. It was hard to tell if the local girls appreciated this busload of servicemen or not.
Dan turned toward me and said, “Some of these rednecks are enjoying themselves with all the women around.”
“What do you mean?”
“See, for most rednecks, these are the first girls they have ever seen that they aren’t related to.” That was an interesting point and the more I thought about it, I realized that most rednecks did kind of look alike.
“Rednecks are a breed of people,” Dan continued.
“What are you talking about?” Maybe he has all rednecks catalogued as he did with the officers.
“You know, you have the Irish, the English, the French…and you have Rednecks.”
To change the subject, I asked, “So Dan, what’s with the screens on the windows? Are they afraid we’re going to jump out?”
“You see,” he answered with a serious look, “the mosquitoes here are so large and strong, that it takes a screen like this to keep them off the bus.”
This information did not strike me as good news at all. I couldn’t imagine mosquitoes being that big. They could probably induce anemia in one sitting!
Dan smiled and said, “You look worried.”
“I am! How many bites can anyone take before passing out? Do these things travel in groups, wolf packs, schools, herds, or flocks?”
“I don’t know, but the misquote is the national bird over here.”
I gave him a look of being pissed and confused. He must of felt somewhat sorry for me because he came back with, “Man, I’m just joking about that. You’re going to make a good gullible friend.”
I tried to hide my embarrassment, “I knew that, I just wanted to see how far you would take the joke.”
Dan gave me a look as if thinking, “Yeah right.”
“So what are the screens really for?” I asked again.
“It’s to keep grenades from being thrown into the bus.”
I was hit with a wave of panic. “No Shit. Come on, tell me for real.”
“For real man. One of those answers is the real reason.”
“I don’t know which story I want to be true. Either way, I could loose a lot of blood.”
“Well, my new and confused friend, the mosquitoes are large here in-country, but the screens don’t really work all that well against them. As far as grenades go…well, the screens don’t really work all that well against them, either.”
I just needed some straight answers, not a lot of bullshit. “So, are you going to tell me straight this time why the screens don’t really work for either one? Or are you going to give me a third scenario?”
I could tell that a few of the guys onboard were starting to enjoy my gullibility. They didn’t have the guts to ask any of the same questions that I was asking, but they wanted to hear the answers just the same. I felt like telling all of them, who were chuckling at me to, ‘Give me a break. You were fooled, too.’
“Okay, for real. The grenades the VC now use have hooks on them, so they will just attach themselves to the screen and cause more damage than if they came in. The mosquito stuff is just a bunch of bull. You almost fell for it.”
I heard a few guys on the bus laughing and I felt like a real jerk. I swallowed the remainder of my pride and asked, “So what would you do if that were to happen?”
“If what were to happen, the mosquitoes or grenades?”
“The grenade thing. I don’t care about the mosquitoes,” I answered.
“Don’t know. Just enjoy the ride.”
He dropped his smile, turned, and stared out the window as if he really didn’t want to talk about it anymore. It was just as well because I didn’t like being the butt of the joke in front of a group of strangers.
Just then, about a hundred horns sounded. To my relief, the focus was no longer on me as everyone turned and looked outside. The commotion was just a group of motorcycles racing by in a hurry. Everyone was cutting everyone else off and no one did anything about it. Crazy driving seemed to be the norm around here. Maybe if there were some police around, the traffic would be more orderly.
Our bus driver was just as guilty as all the other drivers were. He would speed up, just so he could slam on the breaks, and then speed up again. When we were moving, we were cruising so fast that it was hard to really do any sightseeing. Whenever we stopped, though, I could see that some of the people were dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothes, while others wore American outfits: mini skirts or hot pants with Go-Go boots. Some sported flip-flops and a few wore no shoes at all.
Dan apparently taking note that I was looking at everyone’s outfit said as he pointed off to a woman wearing a dress and straw hat, “Her dress is called, ao-dai. Non-la is what you would call her hat.”
“Thanks,” I responded, wondering how he knew what I was looking at.
Our bus driver came to a sudden, but controlled stop. I could not tell why we stopped, but I could clearly pick up that he was very nervous at having to do so. He looked all around in front of the bus, blew hard on the horn, and yelled at whoever was in his way. I looked behind us and noticed that the guys in the jeep that were following us also seemed concerned. Every time someone approached the bus, the gunner pointed his machine-gun at him and yelled, “Back off.”’ Welcome to Vietnam, I thought.
The bus continued on without incident. That little stop got everyone that was yelling at the girls to stop and quite down for a few minutes. I assumed that the gun pointing at some of the people bought a little reality to those guys. Now it appeared that they were looking for snipers and not for girls to yell at.
Dan looked back at me and asked, “Aren’t you wondering why we are on an Army bus and not a Navy bus?”
I had almost forgotten about that. “Yeah, what’s the story? And please, no jokes this time.” I didn’t know why I was asking him more questions; he was probably going to give me some more of his crazy answers.
“See, when Navy personnel arrive in-country, they have to check in with the Officer-of-the-day at the Navy barracks. He stamps your orders, takes a copy for himself, and notifies your unit that you have arrived in-country. They arrange for transportation to your unit, assign you a bed for as many nights as you need, and issue you some meal tickets.”
“So what’s wrong with that? I still don’t understand why we’re on an Army bus. Moreover, are we going to see the Army’s Officer-of-the-day? Won’t they just tell us to go check in at the Navy barracks?” I felt a scam coming my way.
“No, I’ll explain to them that the Navy barracks is full and we were told to check in at the Army barracks. Now, the main reason for not checking into the Navy barracks is to avoid standing watches. Navy personnel staying at Army barracks don’t stand watches.”
“I’ve done watches before. What’s the big deal?” I asked.
He said, sarcastically, “What you did was to stand, ‘Fire Watches’ in boot camp. A sissy watch with no real danger. Here, you stand real watches. I’m talking about being issued a loaded weapon and then realizing that you’re a sitting target.”
Unfortunately, he was making sense. I didn’t like the idea of being a target.
“Trust me on this. You will not enjoy being on watch. They’ll have you pulling four-hour watches sometimes, two, three times a day. Snipers here shoot at military personnel at least twice a week. That means that a guard or two is hit every week in Saigon alone. Besides, when you reach your unit, you’ll be pulling a lot of guard duty and the snipers will be shooting at you three or four times a week. Why start now?”
“I’ll tell you this,” Dan continued, “Let the guys that will never see action pull some guard duty while they are here in Saigon. With some luck, or bad luck, the Navy guys that pass through Saigon might see some action before being shipped out to sea.”
A little confused, I asked, “But isn’t that where we’re going? Out to sea? Gray ship, blue water, white hat, and all that navy stuff?”
With a serious look, he asked, “You have no idea where our unit is, do you, my new lost friend?”
He said, ‘our unit.’ That meant that we were going to the same place after all. I was relieved. “No, not really. I know nothing about nothing. Where is our unit?”
As I waited for his response, the bus stopped, the door opened, and everyone started to unload. Just as the plane exodus earlier, only the ones dressed in utility greens knew to get off quickly, the guys in dress uniforms took their time. I decided to follow Dan and exited quickly.
As we left the bus, I noticed everyone was heading toward the building across the street. It was a small hotel with a squad of guards outside standing guard behind sandbags bunkers. Each had a rifle and a few manned machine-guns. Just like the bus windows, a screen fence encased the two-story building and all its balconies from the ground to the roof. The guards were vigilant while everyone crossed the street to the front door.
As we crossed the street, Dan looked at me and said, “It’s best that we are at the end of the line, it’ll be easier. Otherwise, we’ll be told to get at the end of the line and wait until everyone has checked in to see if beds are available.”
So, this was it. I was in Saigon, Vietnam, Southeast Asia.