“We have a friend who would like to meet you,” said Virgil toward the end of a Saturday of drinking beer at DB’s hooch. “Next Saturday.”
Weeks earlier, Virgil had alluded to “friends in high places.” I had no idea why I would be interesting to friends in high places but Virgil assured me that there might be something in it for me. Adventure if nothing else, I thought.
Why me was a combination of factors as it turned out but it took me many years to assemble the pieces. At the time Virgil spoke, I hadn’t connected the suitcase of cash to his proposed meeting nor had I understood the international forces that swirled around the Viet Nam conflict. Part of the interest in me clearly was the MACV patch I wore on my arm. Aside from being the command headquarters for the military in Viet Nam, MAVV was a grab bag of projects that didn’t fit neatly into the military organization charts of divisions, battalions and companies. It included several intelligence organizations, training, liaisons with ARVN, Koreans and other nationals, all advisory teams and of course me and Phil of advisory team 126. Without knowing specifically what we did the patch could mean nearly anything.
“What about?” I asked.
“You remember you told us about getting paid by direct deposit into your New Jersey bank account?”
“And you write checks on that account when you need cash?”
“Yeah. What are you getting at?”
“Well, if you write a check on a US bank that’s as good as having greenbacks in country. So, that means that you can collect 220 piasters per dollar instead of 135 for MPC. That is if you write the check to somebody other than the bank.”
“No, I’m thinking more money than DB and I deal with.”
On a Saturday, sometime after suitcase day we are sitting in the office of Col. X, an aid de camp to president Thieu. Being Saturday the radar school is closed. I’m sweating. It’s hot. It’s always hot in Nam but even my palms are sweating now. We ducked into the military entrance from a side street, not from the grand entrance, across the lawn and past the fountain. One of he guards took the note DB gave him and disappeared for a moment. When he returned he ushered us down a narrow hall to an office in the back of the building.
The main floors of the Palace seem to float above the lawn, about the height of the water spurting from the fountain out front. It is an architectural landmark, a stark departure from the very grounded, French-colonial buildings that have defined the character of Saigon.
It represents change, growth and upward momentum — a break with a feudal, agrarian past; a past whose rhythm for centuries was marked by the plodding hooves of buffalo pulling hard at plows in the black earth; a past whose cycles of life were the cycles of the monsoons, of harvests, of planting rice, of marriages, of the births of children and of death. The break from the earth was a break from the very circle of life, a break from the animal spirits and of the spirits of ancestors whom the people worshiped along with dozens of spirits tied to the rivers and the stones and the trees. That was all changing under the regime of President Diem and his was the face of that change. The Presidential palace was its concrete representation. The change was not universally embraced.
Diem commissioned the building’s design in 1962 to replace the French Colonial building that dated from 1873. That building that was damaged in an assassination attempt on Diem by rogue Vietnamese Air Force bombers; said to be rogue anyway. The new building was designed by a Vietnamese architect educated in France. It won an international award. But Diem was killed in an American-backed coup in 1963 before it was finished. It was now inhabited by President Thieu.