Down to the River
Most weeks, the neighborhood got together mid day for Sunday dinner. In the afternoon, the men lounged about in tank tops, shorts and flip flops, drank sometimes homemade whiskey and smoked homemade cigars, not always tobacco. DB invited me one week and I asked if I could bring my camera. No one objected to my photography though I noticed the two men who had held me at gunpoint months earlier among the group. They hammed it up, mugging for the camera then sat for a formal group portrait. I promised to bring a print when I got the film developed. later, when I showed them the finished 8 by 10 print they crowded around and teased each other about their poses, clothes and I don’t know what all as I don’t speak Vietnamese.
After the group broke up DB and I walked back to his hooch. As we entered the yard Virgil pulled in from the alley on his faded, mud-spattered, Honda 90. This seemed like the official motorbike of Saigon. There were a million of em, faded red and cream colored fiberglass.
While Virgil parked, I asked DB about the men who had stopped me on my fIrst approach to the neighborhood; no longer armed guards but affable family men lounging on a Sunday afternoon.
“Why do you need armed guards?”
“So what are they here for?”
“Like I told you, they’re civilian defense force. They defend the whole neighborhood.” DB said matter-of-fact.
“From the Cowboys, mostly.”
“Who are the Cowboys?”
“Those cops riding around on the green Harley Sportsters?”
“I though the cops were on our side.”
“Noooo — There isn’t really a side. It’s not like Husky Football back home with two teams and a line of scrimmage. The last first-and-ten was in 1954. They’ve given up counting the yardage since then.”
“Well, there’s the U.S., and the ARVNs on one side; us and the VC on the other, right? Who else is there?”
“My son, you have much to learn and you need to learn it soon,” said DB, mocking a Buddhist monk.
“There isn’t really an ‘our’. It’s chaotic. The news reports you see in the Herald hardly scratch the surface. And the Stars and Stripes and AFRTS? That’s just propaganda for the troops. That’s all bang bang shoot ’em up stuff with bloody photos. Hooray for our side. Don’t pay any attention.
“When you go beyond the Herald into the real world and dig, then it gets interesting. Around Saigon It’s a bunch of little armies and gangs competing with each other for their share of the graft. The peasants don’t stand a chance.
“Theres the VC and then the NVA regulars, but they don’t get into Saigon, except the VC occasionally make a raid out on the northwest side. Then there’s the Palace Guard, Thieu’s irregulars and the Cowboys. But aside from that there’s plainclothes cops who work for the mayor, American MPs, who police the bars and the money changers,” he continued.
“There’s CIA who supposedly work for your outfit over at MACV. Then there’s other spook outfits who don’t have names and it’s not clear who they work for. I know one guy who fits that description pretty well.”
“God! How do you keep track of them all.”
“You don’t,” interjected Virgil who’s Honda was now on its center stand in a corner of the yard.
“…..and then there’s the ROCs, that’s the Korean army, and the Aussies,” continued DB. “Let’s see, who’ve I forgot. Anyway, only the NVA and VC’s on the side of the peasants and they’re not protecting all of them either.”
“The Cowboys really work for themselves.” said Virgil. “They get money for Sportsters and uniforms from the Americans, indirectly. It has to go through Thieu. But they officially work for the mayor and he gets kickbacks from them. They’re the enforcers and collectors for his scams but they run their own side deals too. The only thing that controls them is the ARVN and then only when Thieu thinks they’re too visible on the street and they’ll blow his sweet deal with the Americans.”
“What kind of side deals?
Well, they also work for the Cho Lon merchants enforcing their drug trade.”
“Wouldn’t that be Army CID and the cops?”
“Are you kidding me? Cholon Chinese sell heroin, they’re not suppressing it. The cops are in it up to their helmets. They control the dealers. And CID doesn’t get any further up stream than the retail dealers selling to GIs.”
“So what’s that got to do with a neighborhood like this that you need protection?”
“Why we have the civilian defense force is that the mayor doesn’t have time for penny-ante stuff, like collecting from pimps and bar girls. He gets a cut of stuff like liquor coming off ships that goes to bars and doesn’t go to the PX. You know, big time stuff. Construction kickbacks, like that. The Cowboys hold up the street vendors, chase the bar girls, take out their cut in trade. They shake down the barbers and manicure girls. The tailors who aren’t Indian have to pay up too. It’s your basic protection racket. They aren’t nice people. Stay away from them.”
“Let me tell you a little story,” broke in DB. “About a year ago one of the neighbors came in from the main street and saw there were two of the Cowboy Sportsters sitting idling on the side of the road by the Alley. Nobody around. Very unusual. They never leave them unattended. He came and told me about it and after a while I went out and had a look. One was out of gas and the other had overheated and seized up. Ordinarily they leave them idling because they’re hard to start. They don’t have electric starters and the Cowboys aren’t as big as American Harley riders. Anyway, I asked around and somebody had seen them chase a street vendor into the alley but nobody would admit to seeing anything more. So the Sportsters sat there for most of a week before somebody picked them up. Here they lynch cops. We haven’t had any trouble with the Cowboys since.”
This left me still wondering why DB, personally, needed protection but he clearly had it.
“OK. I’ll remember that. Say, speaking of the P-X, since I don’t have a ration card could one of you get me some lenses for my camera?” I asked.
“Sure,” said Virgil. “Come by on payday and we’ll go to the big PX in Cho Lon.”
“OK, thanks. but I don’t need to wait for payday. I can just write a check to the PX.”
That won’t work if you’re getting stuff on my ration card. I’d have to pay them. Don’t you have cash?”
At that time army tradition was to pay soldiers in cash once a month. A private made $83 per month. My first payday came on the first of the month, three weeks after I was sworn in as a private. We lined up outside the orderly room, the company office, while the Executive Officer counted out dollar bills to each soldier. He was guarded by the armed paymaster who delivered the cash from the finance office. When it came my turn the XO counted out $61. Figuring that the Army held two weeks in reserve like Boeing, where I’d worked before, I said.
“Wow! that’s not much for a week’s pay.”
The XO looked at me, astonished, and said, “Private, that’s for the month. Be glad we pay you at all.”
Back in Saigon I said to Virgil, “No, I don’t get paid in cash.”
“What do you do on payday?”
“I show up at headquarters, salute and shoot the breeze with the colonel.“
“So what do you do for money?”
“Like I said, I just write checks for cash at the bank. I have my same old checking account in New Jersey.”
“You have a checking account in New Jersey? The Army direct deposits? I didn’t know you could do that.”
“Yeah. I’m in Head and Head company at Ft. Monmouth and one of my buddies works in finance. I set that up ages ago so I wouldn’t have to buy chit books to the NCO club from the First Sergeant. He always takes a skim to fund his bookie operation.”
“Jesus, that’s New Jersey for you. The first sergeant is making book out of the orderly room?! What track?”
“Monmouth. It’s right close by.”
“The company clerk isn’t wise to this?”
“Yeah, but de Lemo won’t say anything. He has bigger fish to fry. He’s from Philly. His father is a highway contractor.”
“New Jersey road contractor, huh. Well connected I’d guess.”
“No shit! One weekend we were on alerts in case some hippies leafleted the post……… which made no sense at all because it was winter. Anyway, nobody got a pass. Well, about noon on Saturday de Lemo walks out of the permanent party barracks, right across the street from the orderly room. He’s wearing a black suit and tie and gets into a black Cadillac with Pensilvania tags that’s waiting…Right in front of the orderly room. And Top was sitting in his office in the orderly room.” Top watched him go and never said a word.
It was Vito Genovese’s funeral and de Lemo was expected. Friend of the family, ya know.”
“OK. Well, come up with enough MPC and we’ll go to the PX. “
“How ‘bout next Saturday?”
“That’ll work. I’ll come by the Dai Nam and ride you over on my bike.”