Wayward Son, Chapter 7
Love the One You’re With
It was hard getting to know the Vietnamese on a personal level. Language was certainly a problem, but culture and economics made things far more difficult. These people had been at war for centuries. They had been invaded by the Thais, the Chinese, the French, and the Japanese. Sure, Ho Chi Minh and General Giap had finally thrown the French out with the help of the Chinese, but that was of little solace to the south. They preferred French colonialism to Chinese communism. Given the human rights record of Asian communists, that’s easy to understand. But, they were tired of fighting and embarrassed by their poverty and their country’s need for our soldiers. We gave them an inferiority complex that only the NVA could overcome.
I pondered these things as I listened to this petite and pretty mama-san tell me, “No Bic” (I don’t understand). I felt the same way. I tried to treat all Vietnamese with as much respect as I could. I sought out contact and cultural enlightenment when it was possible. Hooches in the rear areas had hooch maids. These mama-sans did laundry, polished boots and made beds (complete with rice starch in the sheets, which led to me being attacked by ants one night in my sleep). It was really good pay by Vietnamese standards. I paid five dollars a month for these services, which did not include sex. Mama-san had to split that with the job broker and the NCO in charge of nationals working on base. But with a few GIs patronizing her, she could take care of an extended family with money to spare. Plus, I gave her a little extra soap and other cleaning materials when she requested them. The maids pooled their materials and sold the excess on the black market. But times were tough and we didn’t mind.
So when she brought a friend who asked me to buy a box of laundry soap and some towels at the PX, I did. Her friend, who was a new worker, promised to pay me immediately. It was now three weeks later, and she didn’t understand why I was asking for my five dollars. Worse, she was claiming not to understand pidgin, which combined French, English, and Vietnamese. Now, to a GI making $265 a month, 5 bucks isn’t much. The price of two vials of heroin or an afternoon with a whore. I can’t even say that it was the principle of the thing. But she, like most of her compatriots, didn’t want charity. They wanted to earn their money honestly or by cheating a dumb GI out of it.
I looked at her and said, “Well, honey, bic this. If you don’t give me my five dollars by tomorrow, . . .” I finished the sentence with something so unspeakable that to this day, I still can’t believe I actually said it. I never talked that way. And I certainly wouldn’t have kept my threat. Maybe it was the twenty dollars that some maid took from my room while I was sleeping after guard duty the week before. Or maybe it was almost getting my foot blown off that morning. I was picking up trash outside the gate and almost stepped on a booby trap that could only have been set by one of these hooch maids. I truly wouldn’t have hurt her. But, I was tired of trying to be nice to someone who was treating me as though I were stupid. Five minutes later, there was a knock at my door. Mama-san handed me my five dollars. I felt awful and ashamed. I still do but I can’t figure out what I could’ve done differently. If I had forgotten the money or made it a gift, one of us would have been dishonored. And in a country with little else, honor was a precious commodity.
I found honor in the strangest places. Some of the dumbest things we did, like wait for permission to fire at an enemy, who was shooting at us, were due to trying to preserve some sense of honor for the Vietnamese. Of course, at the same time, practical Vietnamese were grabbing every dollar they could for the inevitable collapse of the ARVN government. And the government was leading the charge to grab as much money as it could. I didn’t get to do a lot of trading with the people. I did try local food when possible. I avoided bars, and declined to have my own personal hooch maid, unlike many of the officers and NCOs. Personal maids provided personal services. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a prude about sex. I just figured that these people had been screwed enough. Besides, I thought I should be faithful to my fiancé, even though I later found out she didn’t feel the same way.
But what do you do when a whole village offers the services of one of its citizens so that you will dump wood (torn from those damn rooms by yet another lifer whim) in their village instead of the dump. The wood made their village temporarily wealthy. But they didn’t want it for free. And when the rest of the detail took the mayor up on his offer, should I have said no? I tried. Both he and the mama-san (who was probably a relation if not his wife) got very agitated that I didn’t want her services. He tried offering other women. She kept tugging at me, trying to drag me into the bushes where she had set up her boudoir on a rain poncho. I finally relented when another GI handed me a condom.
“They’ll never let us out of here if you don’t go,” he said.
It was not a pleasant experience. I tried to avoid looking at her betel-stained teeth. It was more like relieving myself than lovemaking. To her, sex was just another body function. It seemed more typical, but maybe it was just the people we dealt with. The Vietnamese weren’t very hung up about the human body. I never saw Vietnamese pornography. It must have existed, but I never saw any. I remember how shocked I was when a mama-san squatted in front of me at a brigade radio repair center and just peed right there in the dirt. How she managed without pulling her black silk pants off, I’ll never figure out. It went right through the pant leg without ever getting a drop on her. And then there was the time I was taking a shower after my first guard duty. In sauntered all of the mama-sans with the laundry. They started doing the clothes right there while I was showering. Didn’t pay the least bit of attention to me. At Bien Hua Air Base, they had a massage parlor right on post. Whenever I had a cold, I’d go over for a sauna and a massage. Every time, at the end of the massage, the girl would start getting a little too personal and demand five dollars to finish the job. I always told these women I didn’t have any more money. They searched my wallet (I always gave my money to a friend before I went in). Satisfied that I was broke, they left. None ever took pity on me and finished what they had started.
Not that I didn’t ever partake willingly of female companionship. I did. Once, while in Ham Tam on R&R, a B-girl stole my hat. Getting it back cost me a drink. While drinking, she became subtly but physically aggressive. She invited me to her place. I decided to go. She took me by Lambretta to her house. The sights, sounds, and smells of those back streets gave me a taste of Vietnamese life that staggered me with its immediacy. Middle class America lives behind closed doors. The Vietnamese lived in the streets. Bags of squid hung in doorways, children played with shirts but no pants, and supper pots steamed in every doorway while filling the air with the smell of pho, nuoc mam, rice, and mangos.
Her house was clean and tidy. There was scrubbed tile work everywhere. At her urging, I stripped and entered a small porcelain tub in the middle of the living area. She bathed me, gave me a massage, and we had sex. Intercourse was the only time she stopped talking. She was a number one boom-boom girl and seemed proud of it. I wish I could have understood more of what she said. I would have come away with a much better understanding of the people. Of course, I could have been killed, going off unescorted like that. The thought occurred to me, but I didn’t care. To have come halfway around the world and never seen how people lived would have been a terrible waste.
The most fun I had interacting with the locals was when the high school challenged us to a soccer match. I was one of only two GIs who had ever played the game. But it got us off for the afternoon and the EM club supplied refreshments. When we arrived, the kids were playing the game. They were so much smaller and younger looking than our high school students. They looked more like fifth graders than tenth graders. We picked a goalie and two defenders (I was one), and we started. The big problem, from their eyes, was the GIs’ insistence on playing American football rules instead of soccer rules. By halftime we were only down 1 to nothing. Considering that the ball had been down on our end of the field the entire half, it wasn’t too bad. But, while we desperately needed a rest, they continued to play and said they never took longer than a five minute break. Thirty minutes later, play resumed, most of us fortified by a considerable amount of beer. The goalie and I were relegated to offense, (where we did manage a couple of long distance shots at the goal). The new defenders gave up three goals in quick succession. The game ended with a 6 – 0 loss. It could have been worse. The funniest part was that they continued to play after we left, and with a measure of pride at having beaten the Americans at “football.”
One rare Sunday afternoon that we had off, the BC let the whores on the camp. An argument and a knock on the door awoke me from a nap. As best as I could understand, a GI had brought this young lady, obviously new to the game, into the compound. He wanted free sex in exchange, and when she wouldn’t give it to him, he abandoned her. This was a serious problem. If she were unescorted, she would be arrested and not allowed on base again. I agreed to escort her off base. As I walked her to the gate, she explained as best as she could (she’d had some English training from the French nuns) that it was her first time and her father was a missing ARVN soldier and her family was desperate. I tried to give her five dollars at the gate, but she insisted on giving the required services.
I gave in to my physical nature. She was happy and began talking about how she’d be my permanent personal hooch maid. She told me that the other mama-sans were ripping me off. I agreed to request her services the next day. She smiled with delight. But it was not to be. Captain Brown picked the next day to assign me permanent field duty. It was probably his way of getting back at me for the mini rebellion I had been a part of. She had earned a month’s worth of groceries in one afternoon, but her anticipated regular job of keeping me clean and sated fell through. I’m sure she waited outside the gate the next day wondering what happened to me. Over the years, I have wondered what happened to her. I know that she was hustling me. I also know that I am better off with the way things turned out. We were all warned and had plenty of evidence at how eager some women were to become war brides. But I am profoundly saddened by the mercenary undercurrents of most of my relationships with the Vietnamese people. The only comfort I have is that there are worse things people do to each other than rent their bodies for a few minutes of pleasure. I just wish I could have done better.