I have seen you, shell-shocked city,
Shimmer in the parachute flares
The day’s dust and... [+]
“No, I never got a Purple Heart. Used to think a war scar – maybe on the shoulder or thigh – was cool. Something to showoff at the beach. But that was nineteen-year-old thinking.
“Hey -- want another beer? Anyone willing to hear old ‘Nam stories deserves a beer.
“Anyway, I was at Long Binh – nicknamed LBJ – eleven miles north of Saigon -- operating a D7 CAT, dozing mountains of helmets, cabinets, tenting and a bunch of military crap into segregated heaps. Except for the M-14 in my cab it was the same dump job you’d get in the States – hot, dirty, smelly and boring. Oh, was it boring!
“LBJ was the biggest logistics facility in country. And it had everything – bars, theaters, golf course, PX, restaurants – even massage parlors. If you never left the post you’d think you were in some American camp, like Fort Bragg.
“The ‘grunts’ had no respect for us. Called us REMFs – Rear Echelon Mother F-ers. And inside, I had to agree. Working 9-to-5 wasn’t fighting a war. So, I left Base when I could.
“I took the troop shuttle to the city, got off on Pasteur Street, and cruised the bars. That’s where I met her -- in the San Francisco. It was a joint like the rest – narrow, mahogany counter, vinyl-covered booths. Nothing special. Except for her legs.
“I bought her a “Saigon Tea” – colored water in a shot glass that got you fifteen minutes conversation. That’s all you got from “tea girls.” They were better looking than the prostitutes, more educated, so they didn’t have to go to bed to make a living.
“After three or four “teas” I had to go. But I asked if I could see her again, and she said she’d like that and touched my hand.
“Oh yeah – her name. It was Hoa. She said it meant peace and harmony. I was glad I could pronounce it. She said she was eighteen.
“Every chance I got I went to the San Francisco. Knowing she was there made noisy, cheating, jostling Saigon more welcoming than the Base.
“We started dating.
“Oh -- thanks for the light. You know, these things’ll kill ya. Worst than Agent Orange.
“I took her Christmas shopping on Tu Do Street. She was Catholic so Christmas was a big deal. She dolled-up in this silky, red dress – I think they called it a ‘oww-yi’ – and she looked classy as well as hot. The crowd just parted ahead her like the wake before a ship’s prow. That wasn’t no meek ‘tea girl’ I was with -- that was a lady.
“I offered to carry the Christmas packages, but Hoa said no. My arms would be full and pickpockets could grab my watch and money. Christmas for them was like a candy store for kids.
“We went other places, too. Did we? No. There was nowhere to go and – this sounds stupid – I was in love. I could wait.
“Yeah, we did what teenagers do. We went to the movies across from the Continental Hotel, to the zoo, and for walks by the river. We bought ice cream and Cokes with lemon at the sidewalk cafes. We got pho soup from street venders. I bought flowers from a flower girl. Regular dating stuff.
“Hey -- we saw a Three Stooges flick. No subtitles needed. When Curly went ‘Yuk, Yuk, Yuk’ and slapped his fist in Moe’s face, the Vietnamese broke up. Hoa did, too. She said it was sign language for sex. Curly was flipping Moe off. Crazy!
“Sorry about the smoke. I’ll put it out.
“I bought a ring at the PX. It wasn’t a diamond but it was nice. I gave it to Hoa and told her I wanted to marry her. She cried and took the ring. She said she couldn’t wear it on her finger – it would hurt ‘tea’ sales – but she’d have it on a chain next to her heart. That was good enough for me.
“My tour was almost up. But I promised to return. I said I would re-up provided I got Long Binh duty again and I got to marry Hoa.
“Back in the world, I stayed in the neighborhood a couple weeks – drinking and hanging with friends – and then went to the recruiting office. The sergeant gave me the mandatory Army spiel about wedding Miss Juicy, but when he realized I wasn’t signing anything without the deal he pulled out the fiancée visa petition papers and talked about Hoa’s interview at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. After Tet, recruiters were having trouble meeting quotas.
“Hey – your beer’s flat. Try salting it.
“Back at Long Binh, I caught the first shuttle to the San Franciso.
“Hoa wasn’t there.
“The place looked darker than usual and the girls were hugging each other and crying. The barman -- who always scowled -- was trying to rub a hole through the countertop. And I was getting scared.
An older woman named Naw took me to the storeroom and said Hoa was dead.
“All I could say was ‘How?’
“She said three nights ago some civvy Sea/Land contractor came to the bar and bought her ‘teas.’ After an hour he propositioned her. Hoa told him she didn’t do that. He got pissed and shouted ‘You all do!’ Then he pulled a gun and fired three shots under the table into her stomach. After killing her, he just got up and walked out. Nobody stopped him; nobody chased him.
“The cops said they couldn’t find him. Naw thought they were paid off.
“I stumbled from the San Francisco, feeling sick. I couldn’t hear anything – not the traffic, not the bar girls yelling at me, not the cop blowing his whistle. All I heard was a great buzzing – a wasp swarm inside my skull. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to do.
“I only knew one thing. I knew I just got my war wound.