It was Friday afternoon. When I’d seen him earlier in the week, DB had muttered something about gambling in Cholon to kick off the weekend. As I checked out of the office for the ride to Saigon, I said hello to Miss Yen who asked, seemingly in passing, what I would do for the weekend. She was French Vietnamese, from a wealthy family and Major Tom’s private secretary. We had been flirting since I arrived and sharing stories on the veranda steps at lunch.
I’d been wondering for sometime about Miss Yen’s growing interest in me. I thought it was probably genuine. Given her family’s wealth and status she certainly didn’t need a plane ticket to the states as a war bride. Her father had sent her to the Sorbonne in Paris early in 1964, after Diem’s assassination. Aside from education, he wanted to shield her from the chaos and violence of Saigon. But Paris was a hotbed of antiwar activity and I think she got more of an education than her father bargained for.
I said, casually as I could, “I might go to Cholon,” though I knew it was a serious adventure and I was a little nervous about it. I’d heard about the high-stakes poker and the rumors of bloody roulette games.
“Oh no. Don’t go to Cho Lon. We could spend the evening together,” she said quietly, though Major Toms was out of the room just then.
Then her voice picked up. “You’ll likely lose at poker and most certainly roulette. You should save your money. Like I told you before, you have no experience with these streets. You don’t know enough to be roaming about unescorted. And I saw you in the street not wearing a pistol. You should at least do that.
“Pistols are heavy and uncomfortable,” I complained.
“All the same you should do that. I know this city. These slum people aren’t your people. Remember? you told me about your people. Like I’ve told you before, no slum people have uncles who are colonels in intelligence. And they shouldn’t know you do. And neither should DB and certainly not that Halftrack character. The MACV patch on your arm is enough to cause trouble.”
I did not remember telling her about Halftrack and I did not remember telling her about my uncle being in intelligence.
“I’ve heard they play Russian roulette for high stakes. The audience bets. Maybe I could win some money at that,” I countered.
“Don’t believe everything about Cholon! And you know well that we all live in a game of Russian roulette everyday. Suelemente j’ai appel il ‘Saigon Roulette’.”
“How’s that?” I asked. Not entirely sure of the French. She’d been throwing French phrases into conversation to test my skill since I gotten a book on French from the post library.
“How’s that?! How can you ask ‘how’s that’? You sat with me in back of the truck by the bridge that day when VC mortared the traffic.” She continued, “And Pigeon told me only a week ago about the three of you being covered in broken sandbags and glass in front of the hotel. And then when you first reported for duty, I washed your bloody lip from the rocket attack the night before. How’s that, indeed. Life in Saigon is a terrible game of chance. Why make it worse by gambling?
Do what you will but I have more to lose than you. You can just go home one day and forget about us but I must live here and take the life chances. And I don’t like the odds. ”
“And you. What am I to you that you’re so concerned?”
“I’m selfish. I want you all in one piece for myself.”
“Me? one of the despised American soldiers clogging up your sidewalks?”
Yes. You. And I told you before you’re not like the others. You have a soul.”
“Ah. You say that to all the boys,” I teased. But the veil was off! Should I turn back? I was attracted to her and not just because she was pretty.
I hadn’t forgotten the events she spoke of but they had receded into the fabric of my memory. Traumas were not something I could focus on every day. If you faced the terror head-on, every day, you’d just go crazy. Guys did. What it had become for her I was not to know for decades but it was clear then that the daily uncertainty of her years living in Saigon was wearing on her.
The traffic event was on a blistering afternoon at the end of the rainy season when the rush hour traffic struggled to return to the relative safety of Saigon proper. The VC had dropped a mortar on the road on the inbound side of the bridge and hit a large truck. The now disabled truck blocked traffic until a wrecker could make its way from inside the city to drag the wreck off the bridge. Meanwhile, traffic backed up for miles just sitting, sweltering in the afternoon sun. When the mortars began falling on the blocked traffic my heart stopped. The five of us sitting in the canvas covered truck looked at each other in a stunned panic. We were obvious candidates for a direct hit, we and any other olive-drab colored vehicle in the line up.
Sgt. Pigeon was riding shotgun up front with Wan, the driver. He turned and shouted through the cab’s open rear window, “Get out! Get out! Get under the truck! We’re sitting ducks! Miss Yen, who had ridden with us that day, had worn a particularly fetching yellow AuDai with white trousers. For her to get under the truck with the mud and grease would ruin her outfit. But she didn’t miss a beat. She gathered up her skirts and was the first one out the rear door of the truck. She crawled under the truck hugging the ground and managed to come away unsoiled but for her knees. Portly Sgt. Bell had grease all over his belly. Ba Minh, who had been injured in a grenade attack the year before moved slowly and I jumped out of the bed to help her get down. I was skinny in those days and fit easily under the frame of the truck. If we suffered a direct hit we’d have been dead meat but the truck chassis might protect us from flying shrapnel.
The mortars rained down forever, it seemed. And they scored direct hits, fortunately behind us. Not between us and the bridge. Eventually, Won, who’d stayed in the cab despite Pigeon’s orders, called down, “Get up, get up. We move.” We scrambled out from under the truck and into the bed. Another hour passed crawling through Saigon rush hour before the truck stopped at the central market.
That day Miss Yen had gotten out at the central market to meet a friend. At least for that day her roulette game was over. But today our conversation about the roulette of life in Saigon continued.
“Come to dinner with me, not to Cholon. DB will just get you into trouble.”
“Well, where could we go?” I asked. “The Dai Nam NCO club is safe and the food is good. Some guys bring their girls there. But it’s boring”
“Boring depends on your perspective. It’s is a matter of what you’re used to. I wouldn’t find it boring. But I would rather go somewhere else. The other girls there would know I’m not one of them.
“We should be seen with a better class of people, you and I. You didn’t get into the Signal Corps by being a, a, what’s the word? Peasant, no that’s not it, ruffian maybe? hoodlum? You know, there was that American musical that was made into a movie, ‘West Side Story’! That was it. Anyway, you aren’t one of those gang people.”
I had gotten used to the bars on Tudo Street where we sat well away from the door and my usual haunt was the NCO club at my hotel. I actually could have taken her there. Lots of guys did escort their girls there. There was a bar, a Vietnamese cover band playing American rock, and dancing. But it was not a place Agnes would feel comfortable. Besides, as she said, the other girls would know she was not one of them. They weren’t her people. Then there would be the problem of getting her home by curfew. The MPs and the police were strict about that.
“Let’s do dinner at a proper restaurant, a posh place downtown. Where the officers go.”
“Umm, might be over my budget.”
“What? You haven’t made enough by changing money? — I’ll pick up the check if you want. How about the Continental? We could hob nob, as you say, with the newspaper types”
Lift you up emotionally. Set you down. That was Agnes. My uncle had recommended the Continental but he said it was quite expensive. I must have looked hurt.
“Better yet we’ll go somewhere that I can just sign for it.” Miss Yen said softly. “I’ll put it on our family bill. There are many places like that for us. My father likes Guillaume Tell,— excellent classical french cuisine and some Americans but not too many. Mostly business people. That’s why he likes it.”
A posh restaurant in the French district. I liked the sound of that. But would I fit in? Would they let me in? She wouldn’t fit in at the NCO club. For her it would be slumming, even it it was safe.
But even if a restaurant in the French district, I had to ask, “What then? We both have to be off the street before curfew.”
“We can stay at Su Lin’s apartment. It’s near the restaurant. I’ll see if she’s home this weekend.”
You’re so good to me, my love, my sparrow, I thought. I was not used to being treated so well.