The word “family” conjures recollections: Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas around the tree, rented summer bungalows by the shore. I have those in my memory. But I have an added image: three or four Vietnamese girls squatting on the floor before the desk of their sex parlor, laughing, chattering and spooning steaming rice into my bowl. For awhile, that, too, was my family.
I never used their services or wanted to. That would spoil everything. My personal needs were met elsewhere. No, I needed people who cared I came back safely from the field. I needed a family.
Military personnel had their squads, platoons, and companies as ‘ad hoc’ families. But I wasn’t military. I worked alone. Don’t ask what I did, running in and out of the city. If I told you, I’d have to kill you. Just kidding.
I’d heard about the place – the white French-colonial three storey building on Pasteur Street in Saigon. It was the least garish front along that row of bars that strung out like Christmas bulbs on a wire. It wasn’t what the girls did in the side room where four, sheet-covered hospital gurneys stood that attracted me. It was the exercise equipment in the antechamber overlooking the street.
I had been pumping iron since middle school. I even entered a bodybuilding contest at the Mount Tom Amusement Park when I was nineteen. Didn’t win; didn’t have the quads.
Anyway, I wanted a place to workout. There were plenty of military gyms but going there meant questions that I wouldn’t answer. I tried once at a Special Forces Recondo School in Nha Trang, but the guys kept giving me shifty looks and muttering, “Spook.”
So, I climbed the two flights of stairs one afternoon and found myself in a clean lobby, similar to a modest hotel entrance. It was just me and the girls. They presumed I was there for the “usual,” so two of them stepped from the desk to give me a better view.
They were lovely – maybe not as fetching as the ‘tea girls’ in the bars but much prettier than the sad prostitutes forced from the countryside and working “Hundred-P Alley.” I spoke to them in Vietnamese; speaking Vietnamese was a big part of my job, as vital as my sidearm. They were both surprised and pleased I knew their language.
I praised their good looks and told them I was happy to meet them, but I was there for the weights and the horizontal bar. I gestured toward the curtained alcove where the equipment gathered dust. I asked how much it cost for an hour and they had to confer before finding a price. No one ever had a workout there before. The club fee amounted to less than five dollars American. I paid them in Vietnamese dong since paying in “greenbacks” was illegal. Folding green was valued everywhere and if the Vietcong got some they could turn it into medicine or ammo.
The girls tittered appreciatively when I peeled off my shirt. The antique weights were amazing – German kettlebells, barbells looking like rusting basketballs joined by steel bars, doorknob-shaped dumbbells that topped out at fifteen kilos, a bench that would have looked appropriate in front of a keyboard, wooden Indian clubs, and a horizontal trapeze bar about seven feet off the ground. A deflated leather speed bag drooped in the corner. Eugene Sandow would have felt right at home.
Nevertheless, it was better than pushups, dips and sit-ups in my apartment. At least I could stay toned and keep ripped. I used to be pretty good on the horizontal bar in high school and recapturing my flexibility had appeal. Overall, I was pleased.
I got to my gym six or eight times a month – three times a week if I wasn’t working. I had a satisfying routine that left me sweating and puffing and grateful for the exhaust-laden breeze that blew from the balcony. The girls liked to see me there, too. It gave the place an air of respectability, a kind of health spa. What transpired in the side room didn’t matter – like what goes on in a fine restaurant kitchen when you go there for the great food.
The soldiers, who arrived in threes and fours, were surprised to see some guy hoisting the irons or grunting on the chin up bar. They laughed, but they never laughed at me. It was the incongruity they found funny. They had more sense than to mock me. I think the girls palmed me off as a kind of “bouncer” to keep hassles to a minimum. I didn’t mind.
While things were pretty peaceful for the girls, they had one big problem. The soldiers paid them in military scrip – MPC or ‘funny money.’ This paper got changed out every few months so the Black Market didn’t get fat. When that happened, the old scrip was worthless. Soldiers were given forty-eight hours warning to convert their MPC into the new issues. But Vietnamese or anyone else holding that paper was out of luck. Periodically, GIs roamed the bars, offering the girls ten cents on the ‘funny money’ dollar before all the cash turned to charcoal stove tinder. Those soldiers got rich.
Places where MPC had value were the Post Exchanges at Tan Son Nhut airfield or the Cho Lon neighborhood. For the girls at my gym, getting into those ‘stores’ was like breaking into Santa’s workshop in the offseason. It had everything they wanted and they knew it. Vietnamese friends working there told them what inventory arrived, how much it cost, even which aisles it was on. But, unfortunately, my girls weren’t allowed in to buy anything. Their faces were perpetually pressed against the pane while the glittering trinkets gyred and whirled a few feet away.
Business was brisk and the ‘funny money’ kept piling up in cardboard boxes behind the desk. But it had nowhere to go and eventually it would be worthless. So, one day, they came to me.
As I said, I wasn’t military, but I had PX access, as well as hospital services when needed. The girls gave me their shopping list and I felt I should be checking off who’d been naughty or nice. Naturally, their wants were heavily weighed toward female needs and desires: toilet products, hygienic aids, cosmetics, clothing, and kitchenware. I wasn’t daunted since many soldiers had off-base Vietnamese “wives” but I told them I had to spread out the trips and alternate sites or the MPs might think I was black marketing.
In exchange for the purchases, they invited me to lunch. Soon I was scheduling my workouts in the mornings, so I’d be done and settled by lunchtime. They were excellent cooks, and the microwave Radarange, two-coil hotplate and apartment-sized refrigerator I bought sped up the process and expanded their culinary repertoire.
Besides dry goods, I picked up American meats, fruits and vegetables, along with discounted wines, beers and liquor. We ate very well and my Vietnamese language improved, including my accents. I learned more about Saigon and what was really happening than anything coming out of MACV reports. We laughed, joked and teased. I never had a sister growing up, and now I had four.
It wasn’t Little Women, but it sure felt like home.