Don’t you think most people would know if they spent a night in a whorehouse? I’ve always grown up thinking I was pretty smart because that’s what my mother used to tell me when I was little and my SAT scores told me when I got older. But I have done some of the stupidest things imaginable.
I went back to Saigon after most of the Americans had left. The Koreans were gone too, but some Australians were still around. I didn’t have much money and got in late, so I was running out of time to find a place to stay. I went to a Chinese laundry that I knew on Tran Hung Dao in Cholon, the Chinese district.
I used to go there and talk to the girl who worked at the counter before getting on the bus every morning with the rest of my unit and going to work. Our living quarters were right across the street, so I got in the habit of visiting her and shooting the breeze in Chinese. I could speak some Vietnamese, but I could actually talk in Chinese.
I’ve always gone into shops and talked to the hired help if they were girls. For two months I regularly visited a bookshop in Danang that a young Chinese woman ran. Then on my last day in town I went to say goodbye and an M.P., a marine, busted me for being on the streets. You weren’t allowed to be in the city unless you had business and papers to prove it. You weren’t even supposed to talk to the locals. I showed him my little plastic I.D. card that was issued to me because not only did I wander around town, I lived in it.
Me and two other guys, a Kentuckian who liked to fight and a Mormon from Utah who told me some of the most wondrous tales I’d ever heard, lived on the second floor of a little house in a tiny compound with about six families who inhabited squatter shacks along the wall opposite the gate. We lived upstairs and the landlady lived downstairs and entertained any number of soldiers and considered herself the girlfriend of one in particular who flew Hueys.
It was my first day there when I met her boyfriend and two of his buddies who had just gotten in themselves and were drinking whiskey in the afternoon shade. I looked into his bloodshot eyes and listened to him talk about ground fire that opened up holes in the bottom of his helicopter and one bullet that went through his arm before he could get away. He seemed very tired and I started thinking what was I doing there.
I thought the very same thing in Saigon one evening when I was standing on the deck of a little river boat tied up to some pilings near downtown. We were just a few blocks from the Majestic and Caravelle Hotels, and our job, me, and once again a marine, was to guard it. People in the navy got one day’s training in weapons, and most of the day we spent watching marines demonstrate them. My marine was now telling me that if anybody came across the river in the night I was to stand feeding the cartridge belt into the mounted machine gun while he fired it.
I looked at him and didn’t say a word, but I knew if they came across the river that night I was going to hop up off the boat and run all the way back to the hotel, and he could do whatever he wanted, even sacrifice his life to save a used up boat that wasn’t worth much more than a used car. It was a training vessel and never left the city.
The night passed peacefully enough except for one rocket that came zinging across the river in the middle of the night. The marine, sensitive to such sounds, had scrambled out of bed and was flat on the deck before it landed. As for me, I was sleeping like a baby until it exploded. I could tell it was some distance away, but it was loud. One rocket, and that was it. When it became light I went back to the hotel.
And now this other kind of marine, this M.P., was looking at my special plastic I.D. and saying that talking to a local in a book store did not constitute being on business in town (not his exact words), and he wrote me up. He gave me a receipt with the time and place where I was to report the next day. I took it and didn’t say a word about the flight to Saigon that I was going to be on that afternoon.
Both those marines were long gone, and my Chinese friend was now taking me up the street to where I could get a room. She introduced me to some people whom I could hardly understand, and then she left. A maid grabbed some bedding and indicated I should follow her. We walked up four flights of stairs that overlooked an enclosed open courtyard. All the rooms opened onto long balconies facing the courtyard, and as we ascended I could see couples standing, smoking, carousing outside their rooms. They were all young, dressed like civilians, and I didn’t think much of it. Maybe they were on holiday.
The woman took me into my room and put a water thermos on a stand. Then she gave me my bedding and said slowly, so I could understand, that she wouldn’t be coming back to my room, and if anybody knocked on my door it wouldn’t be her or other staff. She closed the door behind her. I checked the lock. At the time and to this day it all seems like it almost never happened. I was tired and went to bed, but I couldn’t get to sleep for a couple of hours. I figured that the best thing to do was to be quiet, not look anybody in the eye, wait for daylight, and leave. And that’s what I did. And still am doing.