Chapter 7 — Saigon Roulette

Institutionalized Graft

The next week, we met for drinks after work at a cafe Miss Yen knew not far from the Dai Nam. It was not like the many garish dives that dotted Tudo Street but was a quiet, relatively unknown spot near the Bến Thành Market where she liked to shop. I had failed to get past the disdain for the slums and refugees a week or so before but the suitcase of money still gnawed at me like a rat gnawing at a cardboard box for nesting materials. The holes were getting bigger and the curiosity was leaking out.

Miss Yen and I had had escalated our relationship from lunch on the veranda to drinks after work. We had been careful to address each other formally in the office but the lunches on the veranda grew longer and more and more frequent. We were properly covering a growing relationship behind an air of formality, I thought. One day I suggested that we might see each other after hours. “Major Toms would have to know.” she replied. “Since I have a security clearance my movements are pretty closely watched and you draw more attention than you know, aside from your security clearance.”

“What might your parents think? You still live at home, yes?”

“Oh, I’m free to move around …. keep my own hours within reason. They don’t ask too many questions. In our circles Saigon is not the vast city you see. If I’m downtown somebody will notice, say hello and mention to my mother that they saw me. So we’d have to be public about it — but discrete.”

I took that explanation as a yes and it made me happier even than when my adolescent heartthrob Monica who lived on my paper route said yes to our first date. The conversation made me a little nervous and it hadn’t even happened yet. Like the time, on a dare, I asked Kathy, one of the popular high school cheerleaders, on a date and amazingly she accepted. Was I up to that? As my evening with Kathy ended she invited me in. Her parents were out for the weekend, she said. But I was expected home (my father locked the front door so I would have to ring the bell when I came home) so declined.

Where a night with beautiful Kathy might have lead was almost beyond the imagination and frightening all at the same time. I later found out from my good friend’s younger sister that I was considered “a little slow on a date” among the girls at school. We were all interested in sex but the question was always — how much? How far could the girls go before something went wrong and there were a million way for things to go wrong for them. But then, slow or not, I was invited to the girl-asks-boy Tolo dance three years running. That was a much needed ego boost. As was Miss Yen’s offer, however veiled.

We sat safely away from the entrance. I told her a little about my photo trip to the third Field Hospital and meeting DB. Miss yen said that DB was very fortunate to have such an assignment. It was a good job and he would have quarters in a good part of town at a BEQ called Columbia, a short walk from the hospital and near the airport.

“DB doesn’t live at the BEQ,” I said.

“No? Why not? It’s one of the better ones and he could walk to work. Where is he living then?”

“He’s adopted a refugee family and lives with them.” I wasn’t at all sure that I should tell her this but she was bound to find out sooner or later. She was both smart and inquisitive.

“Ooooh, that’s why the questions about the riverside slums.

She paused, thinking

“He’s supporting them? On his soldier’s salary/“

“Yes,” I said. “But here’s more to it than that. He seems to be supporting the whole neighborhood. One day I asked him about the chaos of money changing on the day we got here. And he had a long explanation about how it was designed to combat inflation but instead people had figured out how to make money from it. He said that you could buy MPC at the bank for one price and spend it in town for another price. And some people just trade money, buying it here and selling it there and making a profit.”

“Arbitrage, it’s called. Spending MPC at the merchants is one thing. You’re not supposed to do it but it’s a convenience. All the soldiers do it. The MPs look the other way. But buying and selling Piasters will get the Army CID involved.

Is DB involved in that?”

“I don’t know,” I lied. “He had a good explanation of how it works and he said there is a mad scramble to change money at the last minute every time.”

“There are many ways people do that sort of thing and walking in from the street with an offer to change MPC for Piasters might get you a trip to LBJ,” she said referring to the Stockade at Long Binh, known as Long Binh Jail.

“You will not know who you are dealing with or who they are connected with. You might walk into a sting operation by CID, or something worse. This currency arbitrage is much bigger that a few GI spending MPC at the Indian tailor’s shop.”

CID was the Criminal Investigations Division, which was like the Army’s FBI. They had a reputation for being everywhere and never seen. They weren’t above entrapping the unwary to make an example of them.

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