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Before Saigon: Kevin Wells

by Admin and Richard Turner, Contributing Editor
© SaigonKidsAmericanCommunitySchool.Com

Kevin Wells

Kevin Wells (1959-62)

The whole Saigon experience started in late 1958. My existence centered around going to school, being a feral kid during the summer, and one notable summer, being restricted to the yard with my siblings, the underclass. I was the first born.

Among the underclass, the favorite activity was bickering about the portions of ice cream and whining about my relative freedom. I had a small paper route and therefore had cash and a route to do. I pumped those then knobby knees around the neighborhood while the underclass had to stay in the yard because of the polio scares.

My father was the superintendent of the mosquito control project and had a DDT scented leather bomber jacket to prove it. To this day, if given a wiff of Old Spice with an undertone of DDT, I can think of only one person. The man knew how to kill mosquitoes and was not much bothered by the distinctive tang of his leather jacket. The mosquitoes were bothered by the scent of DDT and left him alone.

I am not greatly bothered by DDT because my father wrote a masters thesis on its economical use. As it turns out, DDT was most effective in humid climates and was therefore perfect for killing mosquitoes in the tropics. Killing mosquitoes in populated areas also reduces malaria (and some other diseases) and that was then, as it is now, regarded as a good thing.

During the summers, I could occasionally go on spray projects in my father’s territory. This consisted of getting up at 4:00 AM, having a quick breakfast, and driving to the location. Most of the spraying was done very early in the morning when spray drift was not a factor. I once scored a flight in a Bell 47 (the one that looks like a dragonfly). That flight was exciting beyond my wildest expectations. I knew that someday, I would learn to fly (and did).

During a family dinner one Sunday afternoon, he told us that he was going away on a trip. We were accustomed to this sort of news but this one had a twist. The trip would be four months long and would involve two countries; Mexico and Jamaica. When he got back we would be moving outside of the US. This was big news, and how big I did not learn until much later.

When he returned from his training weird things happened. The time he spent in Jamaica conditioned him to drive on the left side of the road. For days, the chorus in the back of the car was “Right side Dad, right side!”

Part of this driving around was because of the shots necessary. We were shot to pieces. The first of the tough ones, cholera, was administered and I was hauled back to school just in time for lunch. Then we went outside for a little schoolyard baseball. I made the mistake of trying a second base-first base base double play and it seemed my throwing hand made it all the way to second base. Hurt hardly covers it; dislocated shoulder is closer to what I felt. There were also more to take. We were inoculated against weird things, diseases that only very old people could remember hearing about, typhoid, typhus, and small pox (again). This was getting serious and I had one of the International Immunization Records of notable extent. I was so immune that my blood could be made into immunizations.

Then came the decision about the country assignment. Up for grabs was a posting to Ethiopia and some place called Viet Nam. My father brought back slides illustrating both, and as far as I can remember, it was baboons and hyenas versus pedal cabs and the Renault blue-tan cabs. There was a vote (not that it mattered) and Viet Nam won.

I voted for Viet Nam. I had ulterior motives. I knew something of the Orient, being a devotee of Terry and the Pirates television show (which I now enjoy occasionally on DVD) which was running in the Boston market Sunday afternoons. I was familiar with the Dragon Lady, DC-3s, and the air cargo operations that existed on a shoestring and at the edge of the law. The mysterious Orient sounded like it had great potential for adventure. Little did I know, then, of the adventure about to unfold.

One of the final preparations was stocking up on things. My mother bought an extra girdle, from the Playtex Industrial Strength line, the very one later repaired with a red bicycle patch. She also bought about a pint of paregoric, camphorated tincture of opium. Yes, you read that right; the secret ingredient was opium. Paregoric was then in vogue for calming various infant intestinal problems, soothing teething problems, and in general, calming the troublesome members of the underclass. It was the original little helper to which some mother fled (Mother’s Little Helper, The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, ca. 1966)

Paregoric was on the list of things to take so she took it. It was not easy. Even back when anyone with a prescription could buy paregoric, a pint of paregoric attracts attention. Every Baby Boomer is lucky they did not spend their childhood completely wasted on the damn stuff and it is fortunately no longer used. I have to admit, a mother of five like my mother could be excused a belt of it in times of stress but as far as I know, almost all of it was pored into the grass in the front yard the day we left Saigon in early May 1962.

We also bought various entertainment items, Monopoly and the like because, to our horror, there was absolutely no television in Saigon. English language radio was limited to two hours a day and the BBC World Service on short wave bands. Into the mix went other entertainment items like books, hobby and craft items and some few items destined to go on a slow boat to Indochina.

Widespread knowledge of Viet Nam was about five years in the future, so when I made my announcement to friends and teachers, I got tolerant blank stares which to me, indicated disbelief at best and suspicion in the worst case scenario.

My hometown had misjudged the Baby Boom and had not kept pace in school expansion. Misreading the Baby Boom was compounded by the fact that an expanded highway system made it possible to work in Boston and live in what was then the countryside. The practical consequence was that grades 6 through 8 were operated in two sessions, morning and afternoon. My disappearance from an already crowded school system was not much of a problem to the school and personal contacts were forced to concede that I really was going to Viet Nam, wherever that was.

I was ready to travel because we were going by airplane! The route was Boston-Chicago-Los Angeles-Hawaii with a two day layover, Manila, then on to Hong Kong, and finally Saigon.

Boston to Chicago was on a Boeing 707, a jet, that even in tourist class, was only 4 across. The meals were no worse than a Swanson TV dinner. and I could have all the Coke and ginger ale I wanted.

There was a short layover in Chicago, then we boarded a DC-6 for Los Angeles. What a contrast. The 707 was much quieter than the DC-6, the trip was rough because of the weather activity at the Rocky Mountains and it was just boring because it was night.

By now, everybody was stunned, but wait! There is more! More was in the form of a flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu of which I have no recollection whatsoever. The word zonked is hardly adequate. We had been traveling for more than 24 hours and hardly anyone gave a damn about anything other than getting a shower and some sleep. I and the underclass were not even ordered to stay in the hotel room. Stunned into good behavior was the reason for that oversight.

We did the tourist thing on Oahu. We went to see Diamond Head and do a circumnavigation of the island. The Blow Hole was not blowing because the tide was out. Back on Waikiki, we had dinner and it was still warm after sunset, but it was November. Weird.

After one additional day during which I had almost returned to normal, it was time to board the Pan Am Clipper, a Boeing 377 for the 18 hour flight to Manila via Wake, and Quam.

Boeing 377Lofting that takeoff weight requires a long runway and plenty of cylinders in the four compound radial engines. The roar on those four engines was somewhat muted by the insulation in the fuselage, but it was still recognizable as a roar. Fortunately, after we got off the ground, the throttles and noise were reduced and we got to wander around the two levels. The bottom level was the lounge/sleeping/dining area.

The first order of business was going through the PanAm bag. It contained moist towelette, so you could freshen up the sweaty palms resulting from your first takeoff at maximum gross weight, a map of the route so you could follow the flight when the navigator made his progress announcements, some marketing pieces from PanAm, and, if I remember correctly, a spare barf bag or two.

This flight involved 18 hours, sleeping in bunk beds and eating non-TV dinner type meals. In a word, it was great. I could have all the Shirley Temples I could want, served in the proper glass. The first meal was lunch, it was respectable and in part served by the most beautiful stewardess on the planet. I was smitten. I was ready to plan our life together. The 15 year age difference would have made things difficult, but….

Dinner was a hot meal prepared in the galley, and we had a choice of chicken, salmon or a steak. The table was set with silver rather than plastic, we had cotton napkins and a choice of several desserts. That was the best meal I had on an airliner, ever. And those days are gone forever.

The route took us to Wake Island for fuel, then to Guam for fuel, and on the Manila, the flight’s terminus. This was 1959 and my first brush with a life with a different pace. After landing, at Guam, I could see the terminal, and that we were just waiting for something to happen. A Boeing 377 is difficult to ignore. Even at idle, it makes a considerable racket, but there was nobody in sight. There were lights on at the terminal, but not a sign of life. We obviously needed fuel, but no fuel truck was moving. Nothing was moving.

Back in those days, when you pulled into a gas station, people came out to check the oil, pump the gas and clean the windshield. Your ticket may have even had enough holes in it to qualify for a glass. If you saw no action, you honked the horn. Well, Boeing 377s don’t have horns, and for that matter, had no way to even get off the aircraft without assistance of someone to bring out the air-stair. After about 5 minutes of waiting, the air-stair truck moved and after the flight deck crew walked to the terminal while the Flight Engineer supervised refueling. I witnessed this by making a pest of myself looking out of every available window.

Back in those days flight crews could give passengers flight deck tours and I got one. It was probably my face in one of the windows that tipped off the Flight Engineer to my interest. At some point the crew returned from their mysterious errand, and we took off again.

When we arrived in Manila, the descent gave us a good view of Manila Bay. Although not yet 13, I knew of the struggle in that part of the Philippines. We had just a short layover in Manila and then we boarded a Cathay Pacific off to Hong Kong. It was a Lockheed Electra, one of the ones that had been modified to keep the engines from falling off the wings. That seemed to be splendid news.

Arrival in Hong Kong was just in time to see and fully appreciate the fact that the descent over the red and white checkerboard was sporty to say the least. (Someone working there in 2003 tells me that the checkerboard was still visible.) Again, we were zonked, and had a 2 day and one night stay in Hong Kong. My father, being an adventurer, took me, as Number 1 son, out on the street to do some shopping. And shop we did. I did not squander my money on an ivory chess set, but darn well should have!

I had my first brush with culture shock. While entering the hotel after the shopping trip, I saw a boy, about my age and obviously not from a rich family. We looked at each other and the cultural gulf could not be ignored. He had a purple ear. I now recognize that it could have been a traditional Chinese treatment or it could have been something as simple as gentian violet used as a topical antiseptic or antifungal treatment.

The flight to Saigon was on Cathay Pacific, an Electra again, and again, it had the engine modification. The flight was offshore of China, and there was not a cultural feature in sight. It was as if the country was not populated but of course, it was.

We arrived at about sunset, temperatures were going down, relative humidity was going up, and prickly heat and culture shock were about to beset me.

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