Down to the River
One Sunday when visiting DB, we were standing in the yard when Virgil came bumping down the alley on his brand new Honda twin-cylinder motorbike. It was blue and chrome and he’d added a luggage rack since I’d seen him last. It was spotless except for some mud spattering from the alley. He had come from the opposite direction I had.
On the luggage rack was a grey Samsonite, 2-suiter suitcase from the P-X. Virgil had turned the rear springs up to full-load and it was still down at the rear as it bump, bumped its way down the alley. As he turned into the yard he seemed surprised to see me and asked DB, “Is he OK?”
“He’s OK,” answered DB.
Virgil levered the bike onto the center stand with one foot and swung the other carefully over the top of the tank so as not to scratch the paint. This maneuver was not the usual way of dismounting a motor bike but was necessary because of the suitcase. He unstrung the bungee cords holding it on and hoisted it to the ground.
“Who’s home?” he asked.
“Just the two of us,” DB said nodding at me. Mama San’s out shopping and the boys are off doing some errands for me.”
“Good, I just picked up the change from our latest sale. Wanna see it?”
“Sure, Bring it inside.”
Virgil dragged the suitcase inside with some difficulty and set it on the pallet.
“Gotta beer? This calls for a beer — P-X beer not Bier laRue; I’m so tired of that. Maybe it’s the ice cubes that make it so awful.”
“You’re a braver man than I drinking iced beer on the street. You come down with the shits lately?”
“No. But I want P-X beer anyway.”
DB went to the fridge and got a Pabst Blue Ribbon for each of us. A pallet of Pabst had come his way from the latest shipment from the states.
“How ‘bout a churchkey?” asked Virgil.
DB fished one out of the drawer and handed it to Virgil who poked a couple of holes in the top of the can and handed it to me. I did the same.
As I was taking my first swig Virgil undid the latches on the suitcase and opened it. I nearly choked. Sitting on the pallet in the open suitcase was more money than I had ever even dreamed of. It was filled with bundled 20,000 piaster notes. These were about the equivalent of a US $100 bill. I was dumbstruck! What could they possibly do with that much money? DB already had all the consumer goods available in the P-X. Virgil had just bought himself a new motorcycle. The family was well fed and not in rags by any means.
“Holy shit! Where did all that come from?” I asked.
“It’s tough to explain,” said DB. “For now let’s just say we made it in trade. And, ah, maybe a little gambling.”
“Actually, we made this changing money on the black market,” offered Virgil.
“No shit. How does that work,” I asked.
“It’s easy. Lots of guys do it. All you need is a bank account and a little seed money.”
“I don’t think we should involve him in all that just yet,” said DB.
“Why not? We could front him the seed money.
You have a stateside account and a checkbook? Is that right?” asked Virgil.
“Don’t lets get ahead of ourselves,” cautioned DB. “Checks are only payable in MPC.”
“That’s checks from Bank of American at Long Bin or Citi Bank at Dodge City,” said Virgil. “Checks from a stateside bank are payable in US dollars almost anywhere in the world, including here.”
“Did they make you exchange your cash for MPC when you arrived in country?” asked Virgil.
“No. We arrived at Bien Hoa on money change day during a rocket attack and it was total chaos. Nobody said shit about money. We just took the bus to the replacement center at Long Bin and then got rocketed again. So I still have the money I came with. I’ve been spending MPC. I didn’t know you could spend greenbacks.”
“You can’t. At least not legally,” said DB.
“Since when are we talking legal here? How much have you got in greenback cash?” asked Virgil.
“I dunno. Maybe $500.”
“He doesn’t even need any seed money,” Virgil said to DB.
“You’re buying piasters at the bank rate of 135 per dollar, right? Make you a deal. I’ll buy your greenbacks for 175 right now.”
“What’ll I do with that many piasters?”
“Go spend em on the economy. Buy a suit. Play roulette in Cho Lon. Or poker. Whatever you want.”
“Come on. Be fair,” said DB. “You should at least give him the street price for greenbacks.” .
“OK, for you, since you’re a friend, I’ll give you 220. That’s the rate this week. But I’m making nothing on the deal. No rake at all. And I’m taking the risk.”
“What risk?” Asked DB, “This deal’s as risk-free as it gets.”
“Well, I really wanted to save the money. I still have car payments at home,” I countered.
“Open a bank account at Dodge City buy MPC on the economy and deposit it,” said Virgil
“That’ll just complicate things,” said DB. “You can only deposit the amount of your pay plus $200 each month. It’ll take him months to get rid of the piasters that way.”
“What would you suggest then?” asked Virgil.
“Buy money orders and send them to New Jersey,” answered DB.
“From who?” asked Virgil.
“From Citi at Dodge City, from Cooks, from American Express. Actually, Amex will mail them direct to his bank so they will know they’re not forgeries. And besides, they’d take them anyway. It’s not like you were spending them at the Indian tailor’s.”
“What do the Indian tailors have to do with it?” I asked.
DB and Halftrack had begun to talk as though I weren’t even there as they worked out the details of a scheme I didn’t understand at all but seemed to involve me.
“How is any of this to my advantage?” I asked.
“OK, here’s how it works. You can buy MPC from the Indian tailors for 135. You give them135 P and they give you one MPC.
But at the bank you give them one MPC and they give you 175 p, Dig?”
“So its 40 P per MPC to your advantage to buy piasters at the tailors,” said DB.
“It sounds like a lot of trouble and I don’t understand how I come out ahead.”
“Let’s say you want to buy a suit at the Indian tailor’s and the price for the suit is 10,000 piasters but you only have MPC. So he’ll charge you $74 MPC but if you give him piasters that you bought at the bank the price to you is a lot less because he’d rather have piasters because there’s no money-change risk. He’ll take the equivalent of about $57.50,” explained Virgil.
“But you don’t have to buy a suit,” said DB. “You can just buy and sell piasters. When you buy piasters at the bank you get 175 per MPC and if you buy MPC from the tailor with the piasters you bought at the bank you pay 135 piasters. So you pocket 40 Piasters. He’s happy to get rid of the MPC because it reduces his risk of an unexpected money-change day. You don’t assume his risk because you can just walk over to the bank and deposit the MPC in your account. So you can make 40 p per MPC as fast as you can walk between the bank and the tailor. Everybody wins.”
“Sounds like you guys already worked this out.”
“We did. A Long time ago.”
“So lets say I take your offer for the $500 greenbacks and I end up with over 110,000 piasters and I go to the tailors and buy MPC. How much do I get?”
“A hundred ten thousand divided by 135. Umm ..lets see. That’s about $800. So you made $300 for taking the bus to the bank at Dodge City.”
“That’s if you’re dealing with greenbacks,” said DB. “It’s less if you use MPC but it’s still worthwhile.”
“But I don’t have a bank account at Dodge City. Can I just give them MPC and get piasters back?”
“Won’t somebody get suspicious if I come in a couple of times a day and do this?”
“So then what?”
“Come in less often with more money.”
“There’s a limit to this where I keep getting more and more piasters?”
“That does get to be a problem,” said Virgil nodding toward the suitcase. “at some point you have to work out a way to convert the piasters into something else.”
DB added, “There are some important people who want to solve this problem. We know some of them.”
“There’s a limit on how much MPC you can put in your in-country bank account but is there a limit on how many piasters you can use to buy travelers checks or money orders or bank drafts?” mused Virgil.
“We’ll have to find out.” said DB. “Know anybody at a bank?”
“I know somebody at Cooks. They’ll probably know the skinny,” said Virgil.
“Don’t you think your ARVN colonel buddy has already checked that out?”
“Maybe but maybe not. They’d have to have somewhere to send the draft. Where would that be? It’s no problem for Thieu. I hear he and Madam Nu own a bank but for the colonel it’s another story.”
“Madam Nu’s bank won’t do the colonel any good. Where’s he going to get a correspondent bank?”
“Well the Aussies ship in huge amounts of beer. They’re also shipping more potent stuff back to Oz. Somebody has to get paid for that and I think I know who,” said Virgil.
“You’re thinking Halftrack?” DB speculated.
“I’d bet on it. No money people would touch Thieu with a barge pole. For one thing he’s way too hot and for another they’d get stiffed. The only thing money types would take from him would be commodities or gold.”
“What’s a Halftrack got to do with any of this?” I asked, puzzled.
“Halftrack’s a guy we know,” answered Virgil. “You met him on Tu Do street a couple of weeks ago. Big guy? Wears aviator sunglasses? You’d know him if you saw him again.”
“I wouldn’t bet on Halftrack,” countered DB. For one thing, the Cholon Chinese have the drug trade completely tied up and for another Halftrack hasn’t been in Saigon long enough to make those contacts.”
“Yeah, but you forgot, he came to town a year ago, the same time Shackley did.”
“You think there’s a connection?” asked DB.
“I’m almost sure of it. Have you noticed those unmarked cargo planes coming into Tan San Nuit?”
“No, I’m at the hospital all day. All I see are the choppers coming into the helipad.”
“I’ve seen them,” I said. “They come in about the same time every afternoon over our warehouse. We’re in the approach path to Tan San Nuit.”
“And they’re unmarked?” asked Virgil.
“Most of them. They’re black. Except for some of them that have AA on the tail.”
“Those are Air America; that could be anything. I’m interested in the unmarked ones. What kind of planes are they?”
“I recognize some. They’re C-47s. The ones with the AA tail markings are the same but with windows.
“Those would be DC-3s, the ones with windows.”
I continued, “But other ones look like flying guppies. I took some pictures of them if you’re interested.”
“The unmarked ones probably belong to General Ky. The Viet Nam air force got a few caribous from us, they look like guppies, but I bet most of them are C-47 Spookys. Gunships. Key got half a dozen of those and they’re supposed to have bigger fuel tanks. They’re easier to keep in the air than caribous and Ky’s air force has a reputation for crashing planes. Either plane can be got off the ground in a quarter mile or less.”
“Why is that important? They land jet airliners at Tan San Nuit.”
“Yeah, but the dark ones don’t take off from a big airport. They’re all STOL planes for a reason.”
“STOL? And what would that be?”
“Short Take Off and Landing. They’re probably coming from Laos. Ky can fly the Spookys all over the place and nobody asks any questions. Probably ‘cause they don’t want to know. Also they’re armed. They call them ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ because of the gatling guns on board. Nobody fucks with them on takeoff.”
“I still don’t understand. What the hell are you guys talking about?!” I asked.
“Virgil, I told you this was way to complicated for Sunday before dinner. There’s too much he doesn’t know to make sense of it. Have another beer. I’ve got plenty.”
“I can see that,” said Virgil, holding the handle on the fridge door while trying to decide on which brand of beer he wanted.
“Don’t hold the door open. It hurts the electricity. When the fridge comes on I have to turn the variac up. Then I forget to turn it back down again and it blows the light bulbs.”
Another curiosity of the slums was unveiled — pirated electricity. Nobody cared where it came from but it was clear there wasn’t enough of it. This meant that for DB to utilize all his PX-sourced fridges, fans, lights and stereos, he needed a device called a variac, which could overcome the voltage drop associated with overloaded circuits. Low voltage would kill the fridge and that would mean warm beer.
“Did you get all this beer from the Aussies?”
“Not all of it, Just the Fosters.”
“You like that swill?”
“It’s a lot better that the alternative, which was Reinlander”
“Well, you just got what? a pallet of Pabst? Why aren’t you drinking that?”
“I can’t let the Fosters go to waste.”
“Sell it then. Give it away or are you afraid you’l offend the boys from Oz?”
“Oh just have a Pabst and close the door. Here’s the churchkey. Tom, you want one?”
“Yeah, I’ll have another. Pabst if you don’t mind.”
“Picky picky. You complain about free beer?”
“Fosters gives me a headache in this heat.”