Thought you might appreciate this man's stories.
He has many stories about present day Vietnam and events that take place in Vietnam.
Vikings VMA 225
The last remnant of Marine Aviation in Da Nang is about to be lost forever. The old hangars of Marine Aircraft Group 11 are still standing but the only squadron name still visible in faded white above the hangar doors is "Vikings". It will soon be painted over with light green paint. I noticed the new paint on some of the old hangars as I was being bussed out to my flight to Hanoi last Saturday. I have looked across this airfield to those hangars every time I have gone to and from a commercial airliner here in Da Nang. It always gives me a twinge of nostalgia, because whenever I see that one painted name above those hangar doors, I go back to my first visit to this remarkable country 35 years ago. I really hope they run out of paint.
I had been to MAG 11 in Da Nang many times while stationed at Chu Lai with VMFA-115. When I arrived in Chu Lai in June of 69, Uncle Ho had the summer heat stoked up to MAX for us. The summer heat which is the current weather in Vietnam, is unbelievably oppressive to anyone who has never been here before. I remember my first days there as if it were last week. I had to check into my squadron, get a hootch assignment, get linen, pick up my 782 gear, bring my medical records to Sick Bay and have a chat with the Sgt. Major, to name just a few. I remember walking around the area looking for all the places on my tenth generation mimeographed list. The summer sun was beating down through a cloudless sky and reflecting off the beach sand that made the 'ground' at Chu Lai. The brim of my Marine Corps cover offered no relief but only funnelled the brilliance from the sand into my eyes. My Marine Corps green utility uniform absorbed every BTU of solar gain. Within a few short hours this city boy from Boston was ready to find a hole to crawl into and die. The heat and humidity drains every once of strength from you. I can still hear my leather Stateside combat boots clanging on the metal pallet sidewalks being unable to see. I remember stumbling about in a daze being unable to speak. This was my welcome to beautiful Chu Lai by the Sea and the beginning of a long, unforgettable, life changing year.
Unfortunately for me, I was an Ordnanceman and would spent 12 hours of every day, of the next year, forever it would seem, in the revetments loading F-4s. Hard tail bombs, Snake Eye bombs, big rockets, little rockets, gun pods, cluster bombs, missles and my favorite; napalm were loaded all day long. I really had a thing for napalm because of the cute little fuses and the white phosphorous boosters. The little paddle propellers on the fuses were just cute to me, I don't know how else to describe it. But seriously folks, when it comes to napalm, it's always better to give than to receive.
Loading bombs was a serious of very simple tasks. None of them required much intellect but to get good at it and fast required finesse and grace. It was not dangerous as you might imagine but you could get hurt if you were careless. Working under aircraft with exposives always makes you careful. The flight line environment felt like we were working above the fires of Hell. The dark green bombs sat on trailers in the sun all day. They became so hot as to be untouchable but we still had to get intimate with them. For example, tightening the sway braces on the lower, center bomb on a 3 bomb rack required you to become like Gumby. You had to snake your arms around the upper and lower bombs to reach the sway braces of the lower bomb in such a way as to not contact either of them with the skin of your arms. Then the sway braces had to be tightened to the right feel of tightness. After that, the sway brace lock nuts had to be cinched with a large 1" box end wrench. If the sway braces were too tight the bomb wouldn't release. If they were too loose, they could shake and damage the bomb rack. There were other similar tasks but speed was of the essence. Our Marine and Army brothers needed the product and they needed it to work. There was no room for error. Close air support was usually a mission of life or death.
The aircraft, many of which had already flown missions, also emitted gobs of heat from the twin General Electric J-79s. These monsters were directly above the aircraft belly skin which was directly above us. Not only was I burning in hellfire, I could barely see from the constant stinging of sweat that would run down my forehead and into my eyes. The heat came down from above, it came up from below and it was radiating from the work material. Luckily for the Marine Corps there wasn't an OSHA rep onsight. But if there was and he worked for Mr. Dietz, he'd probably by out there too; cutting arming wire, cleaning cartridges from the bomb rack guns or something. The only antidote for working in this environment known at the time was to drink large quantities of beer at the Enlisted Men's Club every night after chow.
I never could figure out why my Marine Corps made me, a 5'4", 108 pound, skinny little kid from the City of Boston, an ordnanceman. I couldn't understand why I had to lift, roll and shake very heavy objects that were filled with high explosives. It never squared in my little military mind why the big moose from Minnesota got to be a Radar Technician and sit at a bench or the punk from New York got into the Seat Shop only to sew flight bags. Didn't I go into the Marine Corps with an Aviation Guarantee to learn a marketable skill? Didn't anybody know this? Didn't my recruiter tell anyone? I finally had to rationalize that a 500 pound bomb was heavy to everyone and if you weighed 108 lbs. or 208 lbs. it was still going to be a serious day's work. Through all this drinking and thinking, I kept the faith. I knew, deep in my heart; that the great minds in the Marine Corps upstairs office; those highly trained and professional personnel specialists; those masters of the craft who poured over the test scores, deciphered the personality profiles and matched men to MOS knew that this was what I had been born to. It was the mission after all that made it all worthwhile. I knew I was supporting the guys out in the boonies and because of this one immutable fact and against all the odds, I got good at it. We all got good at it.
The result of working in all this heat and dirt was the adolescent skin on my face erupted with a Biblical plague of boils and pimples. Every morning I would go to the showers and head in my flip-flops. I would carry my mirror, razor, soap. I would wrap my Marine Corps Green towel around my naked butt and go down and do the three 'S's. I did them just like our beloved Drill Instructors taught all of us to do. But the last 'S' the one called Shave, turned me into a bloody sacrifice every morning. It took me so long to stop the bleeding I often rushed to catch the last of morning chow. This was a bad thing because morning chow was the only antidote known at the time for a Marine Corps hangover.
Those ever sympathetic Navy Corpsmen at sick bay knew exactly what I needed; a 'No Shaving Chit' and a visit to the dermatologist at the Navy Hospital up in Da Nang every 6 weeks. This 'No Shaving Chit' exempted me from doing this one 'S' of the three 'S's. This allowed me to grow a little beard. A beard is actually a part of our great Navy's tradition which the Marine Corps has been a a part for centuries. I'm sure the Navy Corpsmen saw it that way and had no idea what sort of reaction would come of it. But it made my Ordnance Shop OIC (Officer In Charge), Mr. Dietz, very unhappy with me. Making Mr. Dietz unhappy was not a good thing. There was no room in his Ordnance Shop for one of his Marines perpetuating and especially revelling in any Navy traditions but that is another story for another time. That story is called "3 Months at the Dreaded Bombdump".
Every six weeks, as directed by those friendly Corpsmen, I would take my medical orders and check out of my shop for my 3 day medically necessary excursion to paradise. Without any remorse whatsoever, I would forget all about those nasty hot bombs, the Hot Pads, the hot re-arms in the fuel pits, the Daisy Cutters, the cute little naplam fuses, the sweat and the pain and take my seat on that old Hummer, and fly up to Da Nang. There, after spending about an hour and a half getting to the Navy Hospital near Marine Corps Air Station Marble Mountain (right near where I'm living today) and visiting with the dermatologist, I would make good use of the remainder of my three days. I found myself shopping at the Air Force PX, hanging on China Beach, and more importantly, partying with my ordnance brothers of Marine Aircraft Group 11. Those days and nights in Da Nang was the only antidote known at the time for a year in an Ordnance Shop at Chu Lai.
Now, everytime I look across the Da Nang International Airport, over at those old MAG 11 hangars and see the faded glory of the 'Vikings', I remember those times. I remember how sweet it was to feel I was getting over on the Marine Corps. I remember the work, the pain and the comaraderie. I remember my old friends and hope they are alive and well. I remember and hope the sons and grandsons of Uncle Ho and Mr. Charles run out of paint.
Another Day in Da Nang
A stake bed truck was backing out of a driveway onto Tran Phu Street to the electronic tune of Jingle Bells. It's warning has a dual message for me, being both cautious of backing trucks in Vietnam and Christmas. The flowing one way traffic on Tran Phu Street in front of the Binh Duong Hotel looked the same as yesterday. Most traffic in Vietnam looks the same but now I can recognize indivduals.
The people going by are becoming familiar. The same French looking guy goes by on a motorbike with an Ao Dai clad woman riding side saddle facing away. The policeman on the large Honda turns out of the side street and powers up Tran Phu on some mission. The motor bike taxi guy who has been working the hotel for years arrives and gives me a short wave of recognition. There are cyclo drivers with large loads of fish and crab, all resembling the scene of yesterday. Yesterday, I was here too, standing in the entry way of the hotel. Then, I was waiting for Thu An to convince her son to get dressed and get ready to go to school. Today, Thu An had left ten minutes earlier to take her son to school on her bicycle. His school is the VietEnglish bi-lingual Catholic school just up the street. Also up the street, before you get to the big River Han Market, is Christie's Cool Spot, the ex-pat bar and hang out. Yesterday, he didn't want to go or walk to school as well. This was a new tactic to get cooperation and seemed to work.
It was the first morning since my return he didn't go to school yelling and screaming. Until now he didn't want to go to school, he just wanted to stay with us. He used every trick in the book to grow roots into the hotel room floor. After four days he was starting to realize I wasn't leaving. As I am starting to get concerned about her return, she pops around the corner on the side walk.
Today we met with the people renting us a house at My Khe Beach. It is in a nice coffee shop between two buildings. Above the space, a huge tree makes a thick canopy above the tables. Around and enclosing the leafy canopy is corrugated metal roofing and a few tarps. The trunk of the tree making the shade comes out of the poured cement making the walk way. There is not any ground to allow watering. It has grown thick but is pruned like a large bonsai with no other branches or leaves under the canopy. It is shaded and cool under it and creates a scene of tropical serenity.
It is in places such as this that business is conducted. Over coffee or a beer, the slow give and take of conversation is the turf where deals are made or broken. Its too early for lunch but at the other tables, under swirls of cigarette smoke, other meetings were taking place as well. I let my wife do the talking for obvious reasons but it is her demeanor and style that works best whether its police business or buying oranges. I have watched her a few times in the police and government offices smoothing a path over obstacles most people need cash to overcome. This meeting was clearly a continuation of the one we had a few days ago when we were looking at the house. I drink my tea and listen to her tell the two gentlemen about me and how an American has come to sit before them. I know enough Vietnamese spoken by her to know what she is talking about but not enough to understand much of anyone else.
The two men listen quietly stirring their coffees or interjecting with short utterances. As long as they are looking engaged, I know she is doing well. They look at me from time to time and smile politely. At the conclusion, we are invited back to the house later today to sign papers. Thu An looks satisfied, so I guess we're in.
The Wheel of Life
The wheel of life seems to spin round and round quickly in Vietnam. One day I was with Thu An and her two brothers while they chose a gravesite for their mother and the next day I was at a wedding. Talk about whiplash.
Thu An and I took a taxi out into the countryside to meet her brothers at a crossroad. We almost didn.t make it. The taxi kept stalling. Every place the car died had an ad hoc mechanic who tinkered with our old KIA. None helped much but they did drop what they were doing to investigate. A piece of tape here and a rap with a hammer there and with broad smiles and a thumbs up, they inched us forward until we stopped at a motorbike repair shop. These guys quickly discovered we had water in the fuel and helped the driver remove the fuel filter. They all took a turn blowing the fluid out of it. Before long we were actually back on the road to the meeting point.
It was an unmarked and non-descript intersection like thousands out in the country. As we waited, I watched a crew of young men lining a trench with newly quarried granite rocks. A large backhoe moved the rocks from where they were dumped by the side of the road to a built up mound of dirt above a drainage trench being lined. They moved the rocks by hand from there to the trench where they were merely dropped. It appeared by the way they were aiming their load; they were filling in between other rocks they had been dropped before our arrival.
I watched them as a study of social interaction. There were more than a few of them but only a few were really working. It wasn.t long before you could tell the supervisor, the expert, the malingerers and the workers. It was a public works project for sure.
Much to my astonishment, her brothers arrived exactly on time. We followed their motorbikes down an ever-narrowing concrete strip that snaked through small hamlets and by farms. Up a washed out dirt road we came upon the cemetery. It was spread over a large area. Most of the above ground crypts appeared to be forgotten. Life is so full of necessity here, I was pretty sure few people came to visit on a regular basis.
Low walls, low enough for the local kids to jump over, defined groups of graves. There were groups of small ones that could only be those of children. There were other elaborate ones with boat like round walls and little temple like structures protecting the gravestone. These could only have been for the better heeled.
Thu An.s brother Hoi new exactly where we were going. For a moment we stopped at a lone small one. Thu An told me this was Hoi.s daughter. I was set back with surprise. She told me she was 6. She tapped her cheek, and said beautiful in Vietnamese, followed by a jerk of her head and a little thuck sound made from her teeth pulling away from the back of her teeth. The sense of loss of something wonderful from people who have nothing but their children was instantly communicated.
The brothers didn.t hesitate for ceremony but were about surveying the other open plots. Next to another that was identified as Hoi.s wife.s brother they described to me the final resting place for their mother with outstretched and sweeping arms. The ground they were looking at was still covered with brush. I nodded respectfully.
By now the cemetery people showed up and serious discussion began. Before too long, some kind of agreement was struck with handshakes. I spent most of this time goofing around with some of the children that were clearly intrigued by the foreigner. Kids in Vietnam are always easy to fool with and a little smile gets them grinning from ear to ear and whispering to each other. Their innocence is always refreshing and it was appreciated on this day.
Back in Da Nang, Thu An.s mother looked worse than the day before. Her skin was very yellow and her lips getting purple. We could still talk in the Pidgin English of our common time but it was clear she was running out of steam. The doctor told me she needed regular transfusions of whole blood to keep her going but whole blood was scarce. The whole blood would give her the blood factor needed for coagulation. The bleeding was killing her faster than the liver was failing. Thu An.s family and friends had no one with A . Regardless of donor availability, there apparently is a lot of fear and superstition around giving and receiving blood. I offered to donate a pint, no big deal to me. I thought my wife would be proud her husband wanted to help but was only met by .the look., which isn.t really a look in Vietnamese but more like active ignoring. It also means the subject is not currently available for discussion. Since I need her language skills to help navigate to the blood donation station and ask other pertinent questions, I knew we were done with that one, for a while anyway. If I wait and bring it up again later, by not forgetting, I communicate to her I.m serious. She will then happily help me. People always wonder how we communicate without a common language and this is one mode. It.s really no different then other people except there isn.t a lot of talking about the .issues.. It.s just streamlined because to each other we are easy to understand.
Next morning, I found my suit and tie in their bag still perfectly unwrinkled, ready to provide the cover of elegance to the ambivalent. I put on my suit, the one I got married in 11 months and 25 days before and called a taxi. I actually liked it. How she got a suit made to fit without measuring me is one of those little Asian mysteries.
At the reception, the bride and groom met us standing next to a poster of them blissfully smiling out at infinity. She had that look of satisfaction. Not from catching a good man necessarily. But from the sense of success of being allowed to follow in the narrow footsteps of her mother and the mothers that came before her. The groom, who had probably sang karaoke shamelessly hundreds of times, now had to really get it right the first time. This impending performance had planted that unmistakable look of terror firmly on his youthful face. I didn.t know these people but I thought he looked familiar.
I took my seat at a table somewhere near the middle of the hall next to my wife with people I now know are her old opera friends. I couldn.t get into the spirit but kept thinking back to Thu An.s mother silently dying in a cold, dark room in a building with off again on again running water and no toilets. I looked around and into the eyes of these people I didn.t know and little understand. I marvel at their strength to keep going under the weight of unbearable loads, to dance along the edge of the precipice never looking down and for their ability to make joy whenever possible. I realized these two young souls were now accepting the responsibility of keeping the wheel of Vietnamese life spinning round. I raised my glass with them and toasted the good luck and the new hope of the two families and of them all.
Fun And Games
Vietnam is a great place to practice Buddhism. I have been coming here to visit my wife for over two years now. Everytime I come, I always ask her if we can see some traditional Vietnamese music. My requests, in either language, are usually met with blank stares. I decided to take matters into my own hands and check out the daily papers. I am now able to look through the newspapers and get a feel for the ads. I figured that performances would be advertised and I would find something in the paper. Sounds reasonable doesn't it? I discovered there are no entertainment sections and there really is little advertised except consumer items. The only places you can find anything about entertainment is at tourist offices.
While strolling around the hotel district in Sai Gon, we found a performance being offered at the Opera House. This is THE Opers House in Sai Gon. There was a huge banner telling the world there would be a concert of fall season traditional music. I knew I hit pay dirt. We climbed the stairs and went to the window. A young woman in the ticket office informed us it was invitation only for one night and since we were inquiring, we hadn't been invited. After not taking NO for an answer she finally said, if we were lucky, we could come back on the night of the only performance half an hour early and see if there were any open seats. I thought that was fair enough.
On the night of the Opera House performance we tried to get on a river cruise to a village that was advertised as offering traditional music during dinner. We tried to locate this mysterious village office only to finally find it was actually 'Saigon Tourist', a huge tourism concern in Vietnam. They run the Rex Hotel which is one of the best in the city. We got to the office at 5PM for the 530PM cruise, only to find the cruise booking closed at 430PM. We sat in their office for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do next. Thu An didn't seem to be bothered by the difficulty of all this but it really was getting to me. I really felt we were getting close. We decided to go out and walk down the street to the Opera House. We climbed the stairs and leaned over at the ticket office window to see if anyone was in there. The performance was at 8PM and it was just getting to be 530PM. Two guys were hanging around and started talking to Thu An. After a few seconds, they produced what looked like tickets to the show. Thu An didn't look happy and kept shaking her head no. I asked her if they were tickets. The guys picked up on my interest and showed me long ticket looking things that were exactly like the big banner over our heads. I asked 'how much' to Thu An. She said 100. I asked $100? They laughed and shook their heads no. 100,000 Vietnamese Dong they all said together. I thought that's only $7. I asked, for each? They said no, for two. I thought, that makes this almost for free, $3.50 each. I opened my wallet and Thu An quickly pulled out a 100,000 VND note. The deal was done and I thought how wierd this is to buy invitation only tickets from a scalper right in the foyer of the venue. Stranger things have happened to me here and I thought, if these turned out to be bogus they would make a good story.
It was off for a quick bite and then back to the Opera House to wait. People were showing up with the same tickets sticking out of their pockets. I was really feeling lucky. The doors opened and our tickets were accepted by the door man who gave them a partial rip through the middle. We went down to the third row and took the first two seats next to the left of the center aisle. As the place filled, the mood music being played went from Midnight In Moscow to some other Russian military sounding instrumentals. My sense of luck began to fade.
The hall was full. The curtain rose and the first few numbers were Vietnamese songs delivered by beautiful women in ao dias. The musicians, all women, were two guitarists, two keyboardists and someone playing a device that simulated drums. After them, a man sang two Russian victory songs with a great amount of emotion. I knew the Russians had been based in Vietnam and some Vietnamese knew Russian but the image of this Vietnamese guy singing Russian with the same gusto as a returning veteran of the Great Patriotic War signaled to me I would not be getting what I have longed to see.
We stayed for the duration. Thu An seemed happy to be having any kind of live entertainment and I should have too. I'm sure for her it was a treat to be in this wonderful space but for me it only means the search goes on.
One can not come here with expectations of finding what you want. Money can get just about anything accomplished here but you will rarely get exactly what you thought was the bargain. In many ways, you have to just go with the flow and see what happens. Getting angry accomplishes little. After a while you will find that the road and the destination are really the same. Its taking the trip that matters.
Feet Don't Fail Me Now!
I didn't start thinking it was a really dumb idea until I was sitting at SFO. I was on my way to Taipei where I had to change airlines to Vietnam Airlines then fly to Ha Noi, change planes again to finish with a flight to Da Nang. It was then, while waiting in the peaceful and sleepy inducing departure hall, the future unfolded in my mind. I needed to get off in Taipei, go through passport control, get my bags, go through customs and then find my way to the Vietnam Airlines ticket counter and then check-in. After that, it was another run through security and then a mad dash to the gate. I had only an hour and a half. In Ha Noi, I needed to do it again, plus; I needed to buy a ticket.
At first, I rationalized this would be no sweat for the experienced world traveler. But deep down in the back of my mind I knew I would be busting my ass to get out on the same day.
EVA is a class outfit and I slept well on the flight. As we approached Taipei I got my shoes on ready to sprint out the door. It didn't matter I was in the back near the freight; I was ready.
We landed exactly on time but the taxi to the gate seemed long. My stuff was spread out around in the overhead bins because I was sitting in an emergency exit row. I stood up and looked down the aisle over an endless throng of motionless Chinese heads. It seemed to take forever for the jetway to get to the door. I could feel the seconds melting away never to return.
Out on the jetway I got caught behind two ageless Chinese women who, if were American, would have requested wheel chairs. I was already too far behind the crowd to warrant just jamming past them but as soon as I cleared the jetway, I made up for lost time. I still wasn't sure if I needed a visa.
At Immigration, most everyone was heading for the 'citizen' counters. A good break, I thought. The two non-immigrant lines had only a few people in them. The Immigration official turned away the person in front of me for some unknown reason. They had a few words, then I watched her make tracks towards a window marked .Visa. across the hall. He waved me forward and took my passport and embarkation form. I scrutinized his face looking for that faint twitch of, "got another one.' I knew if I needed a visa at this point I was screwed. He stapled my embarkation form to a page in my passport and handed it back to me. I thanked the guy for doing his job.
Now on the other side of immigration I paused for another wasted moment looking for directions to the baggage claim area. The signage at Chiang Ki Shek was unconventional, bizarre even. They were short, yellow, with black letters, internally lit and attached to the ceiling. The English and Chinese characters had such little space between them that it made it difficult to read the English letters.
Down in the carousel area not much was happening yet. I yanked out a cart and quickly rolled it up to the assigned belt. A few bags were in orbit and the people from the .citizen. lines were starting to trickle in. I walked over to the belt delivering bags up to the carousel from outside. There was a light beam trip that would stop the feed process if there were going to be a bag collision on the carrousel. Once I figured out what was going on, I became annoyed at this ridiculous display of politeness. I wondered whether they received the same treatment from the rampies. I still had an hour to go.
It seemed like everyone was leaving except me. I started thinking what all airline passengers worry about; my bags and me were on different planets. Finally, they came up together. Wham bam on the cart and now, how do I get to check in? I followed a couple out who were joyously met by their family including a photo shoot. But soon I was alone; I went out into the center of the hall and looked for a sign to departures. There were no signs but I guessed departures would be found upstairs. At the up escalator, carts were not approved. I looked around for the man but saw an elevator instead.
Around a pillar was the elevator. I got in and pushed the door close button. The door closed and then I pushed the up button. The door opened. I pushed the door close button again and then pushed the up button again. The door opened again. It became apparent I was in a down only elevator. I was starting to get a little unhinged by the rapid consumption of time getting into stupid situations. Around another pillar was another elevator and inside there was one word above one button, Departure. Up we went.
I pushed my cart with the four bags into the check-in hall. I rolled out into a throng of random motion and unintelligible voices. Kids were running around, old people were motionless and there were no clear spaces between people. It was also a shock to go from the tomb-like quiet of downstairs into this mad-house of up here. I went from being in a space where I could only think too much to a space where I couldn.t think at all.
Now I only had to find the Vietnam Airlines check in