By the time I reconnected with DB after several years of letter writing, he was the supply sergeant at the Third Field Hospital in Saigon. After I arrived in country, I met him several times in the NCO club bar in my hotel and had a few dinners “on the economy” at places he knew. After a couple of months I had gained enough of his confidence for him to invite me to his place. I knew he was living on the economy in Saigon with a Veitnamese family but didn’t know much more.
On a Sunday morning I squeezed out of the jitney at the landmark DB had given me. I had no idea where I was except that I was near the docks. Across the main road the jitney had traveled, ships towered above the street. Pallets of American beer, Coca Cola, Campbell’s Soup, tooth paste and crackers in metal tins were stacked haphazardly between the road and the dock, banded with metal straps. A fork lift truck rattled back and forth. I stood and stretched, cramped from being wedged into the back of the jitney.
I found the alley DB had described. It had no street sign but a large banion tree marked the entrance. It was narrow with buildings set close to the footpath and paved with occasional stepping stones to keep sandal shod feet out of the mud. I was uneasy but DB had assured me I was safe. About 25 meters from the street I felt a quick tug at my holster and my pistol immediately jammed against my neck. Two other men appeared with rifles crossed, blocking my path. Safe? I guess it’s all relative. Depends how you define it. I wasn’t bleeding yet.
In the street patois, a mix of Vietnamese, French and English, they asked where I was going. Their boots and rifles were new and American, not Chinese or Russian. This was a good sign; not all areas of Saigon were under American control. “I’m going to visit DB,” I said, my voice a lot shakier than I hoped. They looked skeptical and I suppose discussed in Veitnamese what to do with me. Things were not looking good.
A bit more chatter and they frog-marched me at gunpoint further down the alley. In perhaps 100 meters we came to a stop at a hovel with a broken cement yard studded with plants I didn’t know. It was roofed entirely with flattened, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup cans. Andy Warhol couldn’t have done better. Chickens ran amok as though afraid they’d end up in the cans if they stopped. The hovel was perched on the edge of a narrow waterway, a canal leading to the river and surrounded by a wire fence that extended a couple meters into the water. A pig rooted around near the water. Ducks upended looking for fish.
One of the men called out across the yard. A boy scampered out, looked over the scene and ran back into the hovel, chickens following. A minute later, a sleepy-eyed white man of about 30 came out. He was wearing army-issue fatigue pants and a white tee shirt. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. He looked hung over. He spoke in Vietnamese to the armed men who dropped their rifles and handed me back my pistol. I holstered it. “You shouldn’t leave that out swinging in the breeze.” he said. “You’ll lose it again.” That was DB.
What is with the armed guards?” I asked.
“Civilian defense force,” he answered.
Though that answer raised a hundred questions, but given my tenuous situation I didn’t pursue it.
“Come in out of the sun,” said DB.” The civilian defense force drifted back amongst the hovels and disappeared.
Mama san was making dinner for later. We had a few beers and talked. The three-room house, a hooch really, as the GIs called hand-made houses, was typical of the riverside neighborhood. In some parts of the neighborhood the houses were built almost entirely over the river on stilts but here the ground rose enough above the river that they were built on the ground and partly cantilevered over the canal. Most of them were entirely built of scrap materials, what in America would go to to the landfill: dismantled pallet boards and other dunnage from the ships; structural bamboo, stained with cement had once been scaffolding; and the roofing of flattened cans, which in DB’s case was all Campbell’s chicken noodle soup cans, label side up, rather than random beer, bean, soup and whatever. That made a statement that this was no ordinary hovel. Canned goods bound for the orient had the labels printed on like beer cans rather than paper labels glued on. The printing made for durable repetitive designs somewhat like Arab mosaics.
The interior was an explosion of American consumer goods from the PX. It might look like it had come from the black-market stalls that lined so many streets but DB had PX privileges. For a poor refugee Vietnamese family come in from the countryside, it was a dream come true. There was a large floor fan sweeping the room with its oscillation. There was a color TV, a refrigerator, a three-burner propane stove, colorful posters of Vietnamese movie heroes. And, of course, there was the ubiquitous Pioneer, component, stereo system, whose speakers were furniture in themselves. The music being played wasn’t American Rock ’n Roll but Vietnamese pop music that the two boys liked. The boys, about ten and thirteen were energetic and looked well fed, unlike many of the street urchins. They also were not sent by mama son to beg in the streets. There was no need.
Polished-wood, four-poster beds doubled as tables and seating areas. There were several, another symbol of wealth.There was no mattress or box spring, only a hard, polished surface. With a canopy draped with mosquito netting, when the bugs were bad during the day you could sit cross-legged on the bed, unroll the netting and eat your meal or watch TV in peace. Of course, the netting was used at night, with Raid sprayed around the margin between bed and net. Everyone took the anti-malaria pills DB supplied from the 3rd Field Hospital where he worked; big ones every day, small ones once a week.
The family had a pig and a dozen or so noisy chickens and ducks, kept home by the wire fence that extended a couple of yards into the canal. They all competed for table scraps and any bugs that happened by. Catfish, Tilapia or carp, I couldn’t tell which gathered under the outhouse cantilevered over the canal anytime anyone entered to do their business.
With DB’s help the family was wealthy by refugee standards. DB worked at teaching the boys English, a Sisyphean task it seemed to me but it apparently paid off. The boys roamed the city bringing back news from all corners that they would relay when DB got home from work: Were the Cowboys active on Tudo Street and how much protection money were they skimming from the bar girls; were they in the neighborhood during the day; were the roulette games going in Cho Lon this week, was the betting fierce; what was the black market exchange rate for MPC; what were the Indian tailors offering for greenbacks; what was the price of hashish today, and a thousand other scraps of information DB sent them off to discover.
Next door to DB’s hooch was an open space used by the neighborhood children as a playground. The ground was lumpy and overgrown with banana trees. There were paths worn in the plant cover from the children playing King of the hill on the humps.
One day I took a closer look at the playground to photograph some of the children at play and realized that the mounds were graves complete with engraved headstones. The playground was an overgrown French cemetery. No one remained to tend it for the dead French so the Vietnamese children put it to their own use. With the water table so high in the swampy Saigon area graves are made above ground.