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Before Saigon: Richard Turner

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

Richard Turner

Richard Turner 1959-61

In the summer of 1956 my father, Ralph Turner, was sent to Saigon by Michigan State University. He spent three months there developing a guide for the upgrade of the surete crime laboratory which the Vietnamese Bureau of Investigation had inherited from the French. When he returned the souvenirs he brought back were a tiger skin, two python skins and an opium pipe. Three years later, when he told the family that we were going to be spending two years in Vietnam, I was ready to go. In my teenage imagination tiger hunts, pythons and opium dens were much more exciting than my petty acts of vandalism and shoplifting, throwing water balloons at cars and even learning to French kiss on slip covered couches at basement parties. At that time I was, in truth, a Rebel Without A Cause. Although James Dean was the pole star of my small town life, I had absolutely nothing to rebel against except the boredom and predictability of Midwestern life, and ennui is an elusive target, especially for a teenager. I was, although I barely understood it, ready to reinvent myself.

In 1959 Life magazine published an article on beatniks. It was also the year that the beatnik character Maynard G. Krebs appeared on the television program The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. The sensationalism of the Life magazine article and the parody of Bob Denver’s character did not, however, keep me from seeking out a copy of the Beat Bible, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

The other pop culture phenomenon that set the stage for my journey to Saigon was Martin Denny’s Quiet Village, which was #2 on the Billboard charts in 1959. His music, replete with birdcalls, gongs and wind chimes, could easily have been the soundtrack for the alluring land of tigers and pythons that I imagined Vietnam to be. Watching the movies The King and I (1956) and South Pacific (1958) completed my education in the exotic.

On the eve of our departure for Vietnam I was staying at the house of a high school friend because my parents had rented our house to the family who would occupy it while we were living in Saigon. The next morning at breakfast I said that I was nervous about the trip. My friend’s mother gave me a Valium to calm my nerves. Friends and family came to the Lansing airport to bid us farewell. We posed for a stereotypical travel photograph before boarding the plane and took off for an adventure that would shape our lives in ways that we could not even begin to imagine.

We flew to Los Angeles, where we stayed with family friends. There I insisted that my parents take me to the Unicorn coffee house, which I had read about in the Life magazine article. I wanted to see real beatniks. Much to my amazement, and my brother and sister’s puzzlement, my parents drove me to the coffee house and waited in the car for probably forty five minutes while I went in, ordered an espresso and absorbed the beat atmosphere.

The next leg of our journey was by boat. We cruised from the port of Long Beach to Honolulu aboard the SS Luraline where we had hula lessons, played shuffleboard, shot skeet off the back of the ship and ate sumptuous meals – all at government expense. In Hawaii we stayed at the historic Moana Hotel. During our time in Hawaii we went to a Kingston Trio concert. Their recording of Tom Dooley had been in the top ten for several weeks the previous fall. I also talked my parents into taking me to the Shell Bar to hear Martin Denny and his group playing his hit Quiet Village. The highlight of the week was getting teenage idol Ricky Nelson’s autograph. He and his family were in Hawaii filming a Kodak commercial.

From Hawaii we flew to Japan where we had our first experience of jet lag. We arrived in Tokyo early in the morning and went straight to the Imperial Hotel, which my father, being a fan of the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had long looked forward to seeing. My parents instructed us to take a short nap after which a sightseeing tour of Tokyo was planned. We all, my parents included, slept until 5:00 pm.

Hong Kong was our last stop on the way to Vietnam. We landed in Hong Kong during the middle of a typhoon, which made for a frightening arrival. My parents’ main interest in Hong Kong was visiting a tailor shop to have clothes made for the new life on which they were embarking. Suits, dresses, shirts and blouses. I still have the invoice for the clothes, which were all completed within four days. While our clothes were being made we ventured from the storied Peninsula Hotel to the New Territories for a look at Communist China, which was just more of the same rolling hills on the other side of a barbed wire fence. The Tiger Balm Gardens, with their painted concrete scenes of the tortures of the damned seemed to be a much more potent symbol of what was then called The Yellow Peril than Red China.

Arriving at the Ton Son Nut airport, which I would visit many times during the next two years to meet new arrivals and to bid farewell to old friends and, once, to meet the famous aviator Charles Lindberg, I spent my time in the gift store trying to buy a copy of On The Road while my parents were introduced to the men and women with whom they would work and socialize. Not understanding what it was that I wanted, the gift store clerk tried his best and handed me a road map of Vietnam. As we were leaving Ton Son Nut for the drive into Saigon a kid the age of my younger brother told him that he would “give him some pees so that he could buy some chits for the Dia Nam”. He might as well have been speaking Vietnamese for all we understood.

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