from my Book Vacation of a Lifetime
~ 1 ~
On April 10, 1967, our plane landed in Saigon or to be exact Tan Son Nhut. Frosty and I were still dressed in our winter blues. The stewardesses smiled bravely at us, wishing us well, as we filed past them.
All those who did a tour of THE NAM have never forgotten their first stepping off an air-conditioned plane and into Vietnam’s heat which was like walking into a furnace at full blast – and they weren’t kidding. We were all soaked through and through by the time we reached the bottom of the stairs.
Everyone gathered up their duffel bags and were processed through check point where Frosty and I were directed to stand to one side. The others were divvied up and shipped off to various bases.
An Air Cop walked up to Frosty and me, looked at our orders and drove us out to a lonely hooch set off from a long metal building to the east and some Quonset Huts to the west. The runway was to the north and what appeared to be supply buildings were lined up to the south.
“Whadda we do now?”
The AC drove off.
The hooch had no door or air conditioning, and its one window offered no ventilation. Something stank to high heaven – I couldn’t place the odor but it made me want to gag.
A Cajun with thick black hair shaved on the sides sat on the top bunk, thunking a bowie knife over and over into a board on the mattress. THUNK … THUNK … THUNK …
“Hi – name’s Kelly. This here’s Frosty.”
“That your name?”
His accent was so thick, I could barely understand him. I later saw his name on a roster sheet – COURVILLE.
“Where ya from?”
“Been here long?”
“That you stinkin up the place?”
“Watch y’all mouth, boy” –
– “fore I lop off yourin bawls…”
“So what the fuck is it?”
“I hope the fuck they get us outta here quick – no way can I handle that stench for a week!”
“Y’all get used to it.”
“Yeah, after I’m dead. Frosty, let’s see if we can go downtown.”
Frosty and I walked over to the Main Gate where a security guard stood on duty.
“Okay if we walk into town?”
The guard eyed our soggy winter blues.
“Not dressed like that, you will. You’d last about twenty feet before you get shot or stabbed by Charlie. Besides, you need a pass, and I KNOW you ain’t got one.”
We looked out the gate at what we could see of Saigon – THE PARIS OF THE ORIENT. Saigon resembled not Paris but Mexico City – hot and humid with traffic roaring by and horns honking … smells of burning wood and exhaust fumes … hundreds of motor scooters piled high with people or crates of vegetables and livestock … a risk of getting killed if you tried to cross the street … the scooters even zipping up crowded sidewalks … no lanes, no stoplights, just total chaos … That’s all I ever saw of THE PARIS OF THE ORIENT so I’ve no adventures to brag about on Tu Do Street.
“So, where can we go, then?”
“You’re free to roam around the base but stay out of the restricted areas – they’re marked off.”
So Frosty and I wandered for most of the day but there wasn’t much to look at – no Vietnamese or anything – so we headed over to the Mess Hall for more inedible food. When we got back to the hut, Courville was still THUNKing his bowie knife into the board. The heat and the stench and THUNK … THUNK … THUNK were already getting to me.
“D’ya mind? That’s REALLY irritatin.”
“Yew don’t like it –”
“– come take it away from me…”
“Okay, Gator Bait – LET’S GO!”
Courville jumped down from this bunk, knife ready. Frosty came between us, arms out –
“Hey, take it easy – we’re all stuck in here so let’s try to get along!”
Courville and I shook hands and Courville stopped THUNKing his knife – he turned out to be an okay guy but the heat and that stench were still there. I stripped down to my boxers and tried to sleep but couldn’t – the way the sweating was rolling off of me made me feel there were ants crawling all over me. As soon as I’d doze off I’d be ripped awake by that stench whatever it was. I got one, maybe two hours of sleep that first night.
The next day, the three of us sat and sweated, waiting for our assignments. Finally Courville whipped out a deck of cards.
“Y’all want ta play sum poker?”
“Forget it. I’m broke – besides, I suck at poker. How about gin rummy?”
So that’s what we did all day – play gin rummy – and the hotter it got, that worse that stench grew. Finally I said FUCK IT and went poking around trying to find out what it was – it didn’t smell like sewage – it smelled like rotting meat. I stopped a two-striper –
“Hey,man – what stinks so bad around here?”
Two Stripes had me follow him – off the walk about twenty feet was a concrete gutter, four inches deep and a foot wide. Something reddish-brown was trickling down it in a stream. Two Stripes pointed to the long metal building in the distance.
“See that? That’s where they drain the bodies of blood before they ship em home. The blood drains into this gutter.”
All said in a matter of fact way.
I followed the gutter and – sure enough – it ran right past the window of our hooch. I almost threw up then and there. I told Frosty and Courville – they were just as horrified.
I didn’t sleep that night – I had a hard time breathing without gagging on that foul air. Fortunately, next day, a staff sergeant pulled up and told us to pack and get over to the flight line on the double – we were being shipped out.