I slipped off the bar stool and followed Miss Yen back to her table. My mouth was going dry. I really hadn’t expected ever to see her again and was more than a little surprised at a warm welcome.
“Do you live in the area,” I asked.
“No. San Francisco.”
“Why there? There’s more of a Vietnamese community her in Orange County.”
“I’m not really connected with the Vietnamese community and I work for shipping company in San Francisco.”
“As I recall, you’re father was in the shipping business in some way. I remember you saying that he was the Air America of ships.”
“Did I say that?”
“Yes, as I recall, you did.”
“I can not believe I said that. When?”
“At lunch one day when we were trying to impress each other.”
“You have a good memory. Yes he was in the shipping business. Still is, though he’s mostly retired. I work for him but I essentially run the company.”
“So, you’ve gone from the troublesome jeune fille to shipping magnate. That’s quite a feat.”
“Ah, you still remember a bit of the French I taught you. What do you mean troublesome daughter?”
“I remember you saying that your father wanted to marry you off to an ARVN officer and you didn’t want that. And then there were the hours you kept on weekends too.”
“The hours? That’s true but it was mostly your fault. Yes, he wanted to marry me off and no, I did not want that.”
The conversation was beginning to slide in a delicate direction for such a newly renewed acquaintance and I sensed a bit of stress so I nudged things in a more neutral direction.
“So, where do your ships travel?”
“We ship mostly manufactured goods from Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong to the West Coast of the US. Maybe someday from Viet Nam; Who knows?”
“You don’t ship to Europe?”
“We did, until the late seventies. Much too dangerous now. The Suez was bad enough so we used to call at ports in Africa, Johannesburg, Luanda up the West African coast, then to Lisbon and Rotterdam. But that was long before I had anything to do with it.”
“Why not now?”
“Why not what now?”
“Why not ship to Europe now?”
“Now? We don’t get military escorts like my father did during the war. The Straits of Melaka are all but suicidal. Ships get boarded by pirates and the crews held for ransom or killed. For a small company like ours insurance rates have become prohibitive. Some of our shippers can’t even get insurance for that route.
“We’ve no reason to go to West Africa now and it’s much cheaper and safer to go here to the West Coast. And I’ve recently bought a container ship for the West Coast route. We’ll unload at Long Beach and Seattle. Maybe Tacoma eventually. Seattle is a problem with union jurisdiction, longshoremen versus the operating engineers. If they don’t settle the dispute soon Seattle will be completely out of the container business. The Port of Tacoma is going to build a big container terminal there. That’s the future and we’re proud of our business.”
“So you own the ships?”
“Of course. We are not an ex/im company. We don’t own any of the cargo and often don’t even know what it is. We just own the ships.
“And now, what about you Thomas? It is Thomas, yes? May I call you that? What brings you to New Port Beach?
“It is Thomas, yes. I’m here on Business. I work for an electronic test-equipment manufacturer and we have business with Toyota in over Tustin. I work in new products development. Cars are being computerized fast. There’s lots of electronics on them now. Spent the morning over there. I just finished lunch with our local Salesman. He’s off on another sales call.”
“You’ve made use of your military electronics training then; at least as applied to automobiles.”
”Yeah, yeah. it took some time but I managed to carve out a niche.”
“Umm hmm. I spent the morning just down the bay with our plant manager. We’re working on a new design, a well appointed performance cruiser. I don’t suppose you sail?”
“Actually, I do. I went in with another guy at work to lease a time-share, a 35-foot sailboat.”
“Ummn. I don’t. I just own the company. We’ve sold many yachts to time share programs. They have many tax advantages. Maybe you should look into buying one..”
“At a discount maybe?
“I don’t know about that. We don’t sell direct, only through dealers and brokers.”
“You know, I’ve nothing to do till I fly home Friday…,” I ventured, hoping it didn’t sound like a pickup line. “except a short sales call tomorrow afternoon.”
“I keep my own schedule,” she said, making a point of it.
“And I have set aside the weekend to spend with my daughter. I’ve theater tickets here Saturday. We’ll go to the beach Sunday. Then I drive back to San Francisco Monday and work on Tuesday.”
Well, it wasn’t an outright rejection so I prodded a little further. “So it seems we have some time to talk if you’re willing. There’s a lot of water under the bridge since……..”
“I hate that cliché.” She interrupted. “It reminds me of the stinking mud in the Saigon river. You mean since you left without so much as a goodbye or a letter.”
Oh oh. I knew it was only a matter of time till that came up. I took a deep breath. The tension was building.
“But I sent a letter; with Sgt. Davis.”
“The only explanation I got was from colonel Suel and he was a bit, shall we say, circumspect?
“Yes, I’d like to talk. I’ve been wondering for years what happened to you. When she graduated high school, I took Tommie to Washington D.C. to see Congress, and the capitol.”
“Tommie’s your daughter then?”
“Yes. We visited The Viet Nam War memorial, ‘The Wall’. Have you seen it?
“No, I haven’t been to D.C. since I got out of the Army. I really haven’t looked back.”
“Well, you should. Anyway, I went to the wall and looked for your name but it wasn’t there so I knew you made it back.”
“So you didn’t get the letter from Davis?”
“No. He must have come after I left, not long after you left.”
“Sgt. Davis wrote me you’d gone but he said he gave the letter to Sgt. Pigeon, who said he knew where you lived and would deliver it.”
“Well, I got no letter.”
“I wrote two but never heard back.”
Civilian mail service within Viet Nam had almost completely broken down in the face of the chaos and corruption of the war so mail to American civilian contractors into and out of Viet Nam went via APO addresses, Army Post Offices. Vietnamese civilians were often simply cut off.
“I was disappointed that I never heard back but things at Ft. Monmouth were pretty crazy about that time and I ended up in New York City with my mail forwarded from the fort; most of it.
So did you look up any other names?”
“No. But I don’t think your Buddy DB made it out if that’s what you’re asking but I’m happy to see that you did.”
“What do you know about DB? I’ve looked for him and wondered about that for years.”
“Umm…… It’s hard to tell. He disappeared but not like you did. Poof. Su Lin wrote me that he was in some sort of trouble and people had come around looking for him; and you, by the way. They asked Su Lin’s apartment manager.”
“It was Su lin’s apartment we stayed in. Su Lin said the apartment manager knew two of the guys. Mike and DB. They apparently knew you had visited the apartment and were looking for you. I think there is some of your Saigon story that I never knew.”
“Mike? I had no idea you knew about him. He showed up again about four years after I got home.”
“That’s just it. I didn’t know about Mike until Su Lin wrote me. Did he mention DB?”
“No. And I didn’t ask. That was before Saigon fell and I assumed DB was still in Saigon.”