I had gone downtown after work to visit tailor shops hoping to get t deal on a custom suit from one of the Hong Kong tailors. On my way back I stopped by a favorite watering hole, The New Yak Bar. Bars and tailor shops catering to GIs lined Tudo street. The word was “English thread,” make sure you tell them English thread. Whether I got English thread I do not know but when I got back to the world (New Jersey) my new threads were hopelessly out of fashion. But they fit.
Sitting toward the back, facing the door were Virgil and DB and another GI I did’t know. They were drinking local beer, passing the time and waiting for the cool of the evening. I walked toward the back to say hi and be sociable. They had been involved in an intense discussion of something as I walked up. As I picked my way among the tables they stopped talking and greeted me.
“So, what brings you to Tudo Street today?” asked Virgil.
“I’m looking for a suit.”
“So, did the tailor show you his dog-eared copy of last year’s GQ magazine?” asked the other guy.
“Tom, this is Mike. We call him halftrack for short,” said DB.
”Pleased to meet you.” Halftrack stuck out his hand without getting up.
“Why halftrack?” I asked.
“Well just look at him,” said DB. “Doesn’t he look like he should be driving a halftrack? Alls he needs is one of those Nazi officer hats with a brass badge in stead of a bush hat.”
Halftrack grinned. “Did you ask for English thread?
“Of course. I ask around.”
“You know, you can get an automatic discount if you pay in MPC.”
“I’ve heard that you can change money with them instead of the bank but today I didn’t get beyond the pictures in GQ. I’ve got to look around a little more.”
Halftrack Mike, was another of the odd characters I met in Saigon. By all outward appearances he was as gung-ho as they came. He was really into the war and being a soldier. He was almost too good to be true. Crew-cut blond hair, Aussie bush hat, reflecting aviator sunglasses, gold chain, Rolex watch (a real one that kept perfect time), and a 9mm Beretta in a leather holster. This was in stark contrast to DB’s outward DILLIGAF attitude (DILLIGAF being an acronym for Do I Look Like I Give A Fuck). Whether DB was really DILLIGAF or Halftrack as gung-ho as he seemed were a open questions. But for the moment I took them at face value. I had no question that Virgil was what he appeared to be: a strack troop; fatigues starched and ironed, boots polished, motorcycle clean, hair always trimmed. With nothing an officer could dress him down for, Staff Sergeant Virgil attracted little attention.
Halftrack wore army fatigues and the rank of staff sergeant on his sleeve — black stripes on green shirts; we had not yet gone to lapel pins for enlisted ranks. But he also wore two-color daisy patch of the Ninth Infantry Division on his sleeve. I found this odd because the Stars and Stripes had made much of the Ninth’s repatriation to its home at Ft. Lewis. It was part of Nixon’s much advertised troop withdrawal. As I sat down in the extra chair I asked him about the unit patch.
“How-come you’ve got a Ninth Infantry patch on? I thought they went home.”
“Some of the Ninth were. They was sent home to Ft. Lewis.” He explained. “That was just to make it look good for the press. But what the brass really did was reassign everybody who was due to DROS (rotate out) into the Ninth and everybody who’s time wasn’t up got reassigned to some other outfit. So there are a whole bunch of guys floating around Saigon with Ninth Infantry patches who aren’t in the Ninth anymore. But there are still several battalions in the delta out of sight. So if I wear a Ninth patch nobody notices. Nobody, that is, except guys like you.”
“So it doesn’t sound like you’re really assigned to the Ninth.”
“MACV. Just like you.”
“Then why not a MACV patch?”
“It attracts too much attention.”
“Too much attention?! There must be a thousand MACV patches in Saigon.”
“I’m not always in Saigon. I move around a lot. When in in IV corp I wear the daisy patch. When I’m up country I wear something else, usually First Cav.”
“So I gather you’ve been in-country a while. How many years?”
“You’ve been in country since ’65? Along with DB? I thought the only people that were here then were advisors.”
“We’re all advisors. Even guys like you. Now, I’m officially an advisor. And you’re right, it was just advisors then but after the buildup started in 65 they needed political cover for all the troops so they called us all advisors but most weren’t on actual advisory teams like you. At one point there were 50,000 advisors in I corps alone. I was one of them. Everybody has to be assigned to somebody so I’ve been assigned to whatever outfit was convenient. And now the Ninth is convenient but they’re not here so that’s even better.”
“DB was in I corp then,” I said nodding at DB. “He sent care packages home from there.” DB smiled.
“I didn’t know DB then. I worked with some Navy SEALS,“ said Halftrack.
“What did you do?”
“Blew up bridges.”
“Bridges?! Whose bridges? That was supposed to be our side.”
“Haven’t you learned? In Nam there are no sides. We blew up bridges to keep the NVA regulars from moving heavy munitions south by road.”
“That doesn’t seem to have stopped them.”
“So we found out.”
“How did we move stuff with the bridges gone?”
“Put up temporaries then removed them afterwards.”
“And what about the Vietnamese. How did they move stuff around.”
“Ferries. Like in the old days.”
“What do you do now that you aren’t blowing up bridges?”
“I’m on furlough.”
“You’re on furlough and you’re hanging around Tudo Street bars?!”
“God, you ask a lot of questions.”
Virgil broke in, perhaps resuing their previous conversation,“ Mike, we have some cash we need to spend. If you have any suggestions, let us know.”
“Look, I gotta see a man about a dog,” said halftrack getting up to leave. He headed for the restroom out the back door.
I didn’t completely follow what Mike was saying but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know more; nor, apparently did he. The group broke up when Halftrack left and I made my way back to the Dai Nam and dinner at the NCO club. After dark I went to the roof to watch the fireworks display over Cambodia. This time I took a glass of bourbon-and-carboy to the roof with me. The gecko on the ceiling fan greeted me on my return.