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SAIGON ARRIVAL: BOB LAYSON

by Admin and Contributing Editors Richard Turner and Kevin Wells
© SaigonKidsAmericanCommunitySchool.Com

Bob Layson

Bob Layson (1959-61)

Arriving In Saigon: How Did Mrs. Yamaguchi Know?!

After landing the plane taxied to the arrival gate. I watched out the window as they rolled the exit ramp in place. Once it was positioned they announced we could exit the plane and proceed to the terminal. Since we were in First Class they had us exit first.

Following my parents I stepped out of the plane onto the ramp. Before I could take the couple of paces to start down the ramp steps, it hit me like the door of a blast furnace opening in front of me. Suddenly I was engulfed in the hottest heavy humid air I’d ever encountered. I’d thought Guam was bad. It was nothing compared this liquid inferno. Welcome to Saigon … Pearl of the Orient!

Of course, I had to wear my favorite flannel suit. I’d bought it in Hawaii just before leaving for Washington D.C. It was a pale power blue heavy flannel like one I’d seen Elvis wearing in a photograph. The sweat was pouring out of me like Niagara Falls by the time we reached the gate in the chain link fence to enter the terminal.

I couldn’t wait to get through the doors into the terminal were I was sure it would be air conditioned. No such luck. It was just as hot inside except the air was circulating some from the paddle fans hanging from the ceiling.

It was time to put on my son of a diplomat hat and become a shining example of the perfect American teen age youth representing America in a foreign country. By this time in my life I’d learned I lived in two realities. The diplomatic world of my parents with it’s rigid rules and formalities where I was excepted to play the part of what I called the son of a diplomat. Where perfection was expected and demanded. When not in my parents reality I could just be my natural self hanging out with my teen age friends doing the normal everyday things teenagers do. While living in Hawaii it was surfing, fishing, chasing girls and hanging out at the beach. But, after moving to Washington D.C. I began to enter a rebellious phase as I became more engrossed in Elvis and rock’n roll music, James Dean of Rebel Without A Cause fame, and was exposed to the beatnik scene in the coffee houses in George Town. Non-conformity was cool.

Once inside the terminal we were greeted by Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow and a group of State Department officials along with some of their wives. Greetings and introductions were made and we were ushered over and expedited through Customs. Traveling on a Diplomatic Pass Port had it’s privileges.

Then it was off to the baggage claim area where a couple of porters gathered up our luggage and loaded it into the official State Department cars waiting to take us to our temporary quarters.

Traveling to the Guest House

Mom and Dad rode with the Ambassador in his car. I rode in another car with one of the State Department officials, Mr. Jenkins. The rest of the greeting party departed. Our chauffeur followed the Ambassador’s car as we exited the airport heading toward Saigon on Cong Ly.

Thank God the car was air conditioned!

Mr. Jenkins told me we were going to a State Department Guest House where we’d live until our permanent housing was arranged.

I’d been looking out the window as we traveled down the street taking in the sights, sounds and smells of this so called Pearl of the Orient. The traffic was insane with funny little cars, bicycles, motor cycles and push carts. And, these funny little people wearing cone shaped hats. Even with the windows closed on the car, I could hear all kinds of strange sounds – horns, people chattering in a strange sing song voice, and the constant buzz of the motor cycles and scooters. The air was filled with the scent of what smelled like raw sewage, charcoal and some God awful stink, along with exhaust fumes.

As we approached a bridge the traffic slowed to a snails pace. Mr. Jenkins said there was a police check point at the bridge that was slowing everything down.

I looked out the window and saw a skinny little old lady dressed in what looked like black pajamas and a cone shaped hat squatting by a tree peeing. She looked up at me smiling with black teeth then spit some kind of red juice. I’d later learn they chewed Beetle Nut that turned their teeth black. I thought, boy this Pearl of the Orient is going to take some getting used too!

My thoughts were interrupted by Mr. Jenkins saying, “Are you planning to attend school here in Saigon or go abroad to boarding school?”

“I think dad said I’d be going to school here. Do they have a high school here?”

“Yes, they recently completed building a new school near the airport. The American Community School. There are also French and Vietnamese schools. What grade are you in?”

“11th. How many students are there in the high school here?”

“I think around 60 in grades 10 through 12. Most of the students are in the lower grades.”

“Do they have a foot ball team?”

“No, they don’t have any sports teams. There are no other schools to play against. Do you play foot ball?”

“Yes, right end. They don’t have any sports, not even base ball or basket ball?”

“No, the school doesn’t. But, the Circle Sportif has tennis and basket ball courts, as well as, a swimming pool and a rugby field. They have tennis and rugby tournaments, and water shows sometimes.”

“What’s rugby?”

“It’s the French version of foot ball.”

“If there are no sports, what do the kids here do?”

[I wonder if there’s a beat community in Saigon like there was in D.C.? I sure hope so. I could ask Mr. Jenkins but he looks too square. I doubt he even knows what beats are.]

“There are many academic, social and culture activities organized through the school, churches and other groups. We’ve arranged for one of the students from the school to come by this afternoon to show you around and introduce you to the American community in Saigon. His name is Larry Smith. He’ll be by about 3:00 pm this afternoon.”

“Thank you. That will certainly make it easier to get to know everyone. Are there many kids my age?”

“Most are probably younger than you. I’d say there are about 20 or so your age or older. Most of the youngsters are good and behave themselves. But, there are a hand full of trouble makers. You’ll want to shy away from them. Larry Smith will fill you in on what you can do and can’t do while representing our Government in Vietnam.”

[Oh boy, here we go again with the good ole State Department “you’re representing American youth and your Country in a foreign country – so don’t screw up …”]

“Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Have you decided on a college to attend after you graduate from high school? What are you planning to study?”

[Oh, man. Here we go with the “what do you want to be when you grow up kid?” routine. Adults have been asking me this since I was old enough to talk. This cat is as square as the rest of them. He even has a square head with his white wall flat top crew cut hair and beady eyes. Hmmm, I think I’ll jive this square just for the fun of it.]

“Yes, I’ll be applying to the University of Hawaii. My parents felt it would be the best because of the residency requirements. Hawaii is our home state of residency, so the tuition will be substantially less then attending a college in another State. I’m planning to major in Architectural Engineering. For the past few years I’ve wanted to be an Architect. But lately I’ve been seriously thinking about becoming an FBI Agent or a CIA Spy. Particularly since I like to travel to other countries and learn about different people and cultures, I think I might find it more enjoyable than Architecture. But, my real dream since about the 7th grade has been to become an International Playboy traveling around the world. Of course, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, so financially I wouldn’t be able to support such a lifestyle. My other dream is to become the next rock’n roll super star, like Elvis. I’m thinking this might be a good way to provide the money to be an International Playboy, and at the same time give me a good cover as a Secret Agent for the FBI or CIA. Who’d ever suspect a rock’n roll idol of being a Secret Agent?”

[By the look on his face, I bet he’s sorry he asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.]

“Well, those are some aspirations you have. But, I think the Architecture and FBI or CIA might be the better career choices for you.”

Arriving at the Guest House

The Ambassador’s car turned right off Cong Ly onto a side street as our car followed. We drove down a block turning left traveling for another block then turned left back toward Cong Ly. The Ambassador’s car stopped in front of a villa on the right two houses from Cong Ly. Our car pulled up behind the Ambassador’s and stopped.

The chauffeur opened the car door for us and we got out. We gathered with the Ambassador and my parents in front of the gate to the villa as two small oriental men were walking from the house to the gate. They spoke to the chauffeurs in Vietnamese as they opened the gate then unloaded our baggage from the car’s.

While they were bringing our luggage in the Ambassador and Mr. Jenkins lead us though the gate and up the sidewalk to the the front door of the villa. The villa was surrounded by a wall topped with red and purple bougainvillea. The front lawn and gardens were perfectly manicured.

The villa was a two story white stucco with ornate iron bars on the windows. Very French looking like something you’d see in New Orleans. We entered through wide double screen doors. Once inside it was as though I’d stepped back in time to another era like one’s I’d seen in movies and read about in books. The architecture was from a by gone time. We’d entered into the large living room with 10 foot high ceilings, white tile floors and ornate teak woodwork everywhere. To my right was a smaller room with a closed teak door. Along the left side of the room was a setting area with a plush oriental rug, rattan and ornately carved sofa’s, occasional chairs, coffee and end tables, and lamps. In the right rear area was the dinning area with a large teak table and ornately carved oriental chairs, placed on an oriental rug, with side board style china cabinets along the right and rear walls. A crystal chandelier hung over the table from a paddle fan mounted to the ceiling. On the other side of the wall at the rear of the dinning area was the kitchen closed off from view. At the back of the room there was a teak stair case leading up to the second floor balcony and three bedrooms. To the right side and under the stairs was a back door opening to the rear court yard and servants quarters area. The walls were covered with oil paintings, and mirrors in ornate frames that were works of art themselves. The ambiance was a mix of wealthy French Colonial and old world Oriental throughout. It reminded me of the interiors of the 19th century mansions of wealthy barons during the industrial era in America.

Standing at the rear of the room was the servant staff lined up with the eldest to the left and youngest to the right. Mr. Tran Le the eldest stepped forward as Mr. Jenkins introduced him to us. Mr. Le greeted us with a big smile as he welcomed us to the house. He then introduced his wife, two sons and their wives, his two daughters and three grandchildren. Mr. Le was the Chef and in charge of running the house, with the others assisting him.

Nam, Mr. Le’s eldest son, showed us to our rooms located adjacent to the setting area on the left of the room. We enter though a large teak door into a huge bedroom. The bed with it’s massive craved head and foot boards was to the left. Along the opposite wall were large windows, a dressing table, and wardrobe. A paddle ceiling fan hummed softly over head as it’s breeze moved the mosquito net draped over the bed.

To the left of the bed in the back wall was a doorway leading to a second bedroom where the servants put my luggage. It was much smaller furnished with a four poster bed with mosquito net, a wardrobe and an occasional chair. It had a separate door leading out to the living room.

To the right of the master bedroom was the bathroom with tiled floor, a pedestal sink, mirrored medicine cabinet on the outside wall. The toilet was on the back wall with the water tank hung on the wall several feet above it. Next to it was a bidet – the first time I’d ever seen one. I wondered what it was, but didn’t want to ask. The wall on the right was the shower area. The floor in the shower area slopped slight downward to a drain in the center. The faucets where mounted on the wall with pipes running up the wall where a pipe extended out from the wall with a large shower head on the end. The shower curtain hung from a large half moon shaped pipe attached to the wall at each end. When the curtain was closed it formed the shower enclosure area. I’d never seen a bathroom like this before.

After the grand tour of our quarters the Ambassador and Mr. Jenkins departed. Mr. Jenkins reminded me that Larry Smith would be calling around 3:00 pm. to show me around.

Nam informed us it was siesta time until 3 o’clock. But, if we needed anything to ring the buzzer by the kitchen door and someone would come.

During orientation in D.C. they mentioned that everything closed down from noon until 3:00 pm. when people generally slept during the heat of the day.

We busied ourselves unpacking and getting settled in. Once I’d unpacked my suit cases I took a nap. I was awakened by a knock on my door. I opened the door and Nam told me Larry Smith was waiting to see me.

Introduction to Saigon

I came out into the living room where Larry was sitting on one of the sofa’s. I walked over as he stood up saying, “Hi, I’m Larry are you Bob?”

“That’s me man!”

I extended my hand while saying, “Skin me cat.”

A puzzled look came over his face as he gripped my hand and shook it with the typical square style hand shake, saying “Nice to meet you. Welcome to Saigon. What’s with the skin me cat stuff?”

“You’re not beat, are you Larry?”

“Beat. What’s that?”

“You know, like hip – a hipster. A cool cat.”

“You mean like a Beatnik?”

“Yeah, man.”

“No, there’s no Beatniks in Saigon.”

“The pits, man! Don’t tell me there’s no Rock’n Roll either.”

“We’ve got Rock’n Roll records and music.”

“Cool. So were are the happenings in Saigon?”

[So far this place is sounding like squaresville. This guy is square for sure.]

“I’ll take you around and introduce you to some of the kids here.”

“Okay, let me grab my shades and tell my folks we’re taking off.”

I knocked on my parents door. Mom answered the door and stepped out into the living room.

“Larry this is my mother, Mrs. Layson. Mom, this is Larry Smith, he’s the guy Mr. Jenkins said would take me around and introduce me to everyone. We’re going to take off now. What time is dinner served?”

“Hello, Larry it’s nice to meet you.”

“It’s nice to meet you too Mrs. Layson. Welcome to Saigon.”

“Thank you Larry. It’s nice to finally be here.”

“Bob, dinner well be at 6:00 pm. After that we have a reception to attend at 8:00 pm.”

“Okay, mom, I’ll be back by 5:30 pm.”

“Let’s get going, Larry.”

We left and walked up to Cong Ly where Larry flagged a cyclo down. As the cyclo made it’s way over to us I said, “Are we going to ride in that thing. They told us in D.C. not to because they had been known to suddenly turn into alleys and slit American’s throats from behind, or to jump off the back and send you to crash in a busy intersection.”

He laughed saying, “Nah, they’re safe. We all ride in them all the time. Nobody’s got their throat cut yet.”

As we sat down in the front passenger seat I said, “Where can I buy some smokes?”

“We have to go to Tu Do for smokes.”

“Let’s go there first.”

He told the cyclo driver to go to Tu Do.

The cyclo pulled away from the curb into the traffic on Cong Ly picking up speed as the driver weaved in and out of traffic at what seemed like brake neck speeds. As the driver slowed down then sped up darting in and out of traffic it felt like I was on a thrill ride at a carnival. Abrupt stops 3 inches from the car in front of him seemed to be the driver’s normal way of coming to a stop. As the rear of the car in front of us would come closer and closer getting bigger and bigger I had visions of the brakes failing and flying face first out of the cyclo and onto the rear of the car in front of us.

As we approached a large fenced and walled compound on the right, Larry pointed it out as the Presidential Palace. As we passed it I was looking at the Palace grounds and the heavy guarded entry gate when suddenly the cyclo driver made an abrupt left turn onto a tree lined boulevard with a wide park like median. I found it novel how the bases of all the trees were painted white up to a height of about 4 feet.

The driver was now picking up speed as we traveled in the left lane of four abreast traffic when he suddenly veered to the right as we approached the back side of what appeared to be a brick cathedral. The cycle seemed to be trying to rise up on two wheels as the force of the turn pushed us to the left side of the seat. Directly ahead the wall of the cathedral appeared to be getting larger and moving toward us as if we were going to smash into it as the cyclo completed it’s turn with the wheels only about a foot from it as we raced past it. Larry mentioned it was a famous Catholic Cathedral built in the 1880s, and pointed out the Post Office to the left across the square from it.

The driver continued down the street toward Loi Le where as we approached Larry instructed him to turn right then to stop about 100 feet past the intersection. As we got out of the cyclo Larry told the driver to wait then said, “You can buy cigs here”. We walked across the side walk in front of the Loi Le entrance to Passage Eden to several old ladies with little stands that reminded me of wooden TV trays. They each had an assortment of cigarettes on display on there stands. “They only sell three kinds of American cigs”, Larry commented.

“Have they got Lucky’s?”

“No, looks like only Winston and Salem today.”

“I’m not into filters.”

“Try the Bastos there French.”

I picked up a pack of Bastos and asked the price. The lady said, “100 Ps”.

Larry said, “Too much. Give her 25 Ps”.

I handed her 25 Ps as she started on a rant about it not being enough, asking for 50 Ps. Larry said, “No, 25 Ps”, as he started to pick up a pack off the tray from the lady to the left as she said, “Sell you 25 P”.

The lady took my 25 Ps while saying something to the lady to the left in Vietnamese in not too nice a manner.

I thanked the lady as we turned to go back to the cyclo. As we got in Larry explained they don’t have prices on things like in the States and that you have to haggle price when buying everything. As we walked back to the cyclo I opened the pack of Bastos placing one between my lips as I withdrew it from the pack then rolled the pack up in my left shirt sleeve. I reached in my pocket pulling out my Zippo lighter pinched it open between my thumb and fingers with a snapping action, as my thumb turned the striker wheel igniting the flame. I cupped it in my hands as I brought it up to the Basto dangling from my lips taking a long deep drag as the flame touched the end of the cigarette the smoke entered my mouth and throat. Suddenly I started coughing from the strength and harshness of the Basto, as I said to Larry, “Damn! What are these camel shit?!”

He smirked saying, “Strong aren’t they. You’ll get used to them. Real men smoke Bastos, not Marlboro’s!”

After a couple more drags they began to go down smoother, but still smelled like burning camel shit.

Let’s go to the Cercle Sportif and see if anyone is hanging out there Larry commented. He told the driver to take us there. The driver went on Loi Le to a circle intersection and turned right. As he did, Larry said, “That’s flower street down there” as he motioned to the left. He then pointed out The Rex Hotel on the corner, and the City Hall building as we passed by it.

We proceed along some side streets following behind a small truck loaded down with bamboo cages stuffed full of ducks. Each time the truck would slow down or come to a stop the cyclo driver would stop about a foot behind the truck as we got a close up look at the tower of duck cages piled high on the truck. They were piled so high it looked like the truck would topple over any minute. The ducks were quacking and carrying on in a frenzy. When the truck would start up again from a stop, black exhaust smoke would pour out of it engulfing us in the pungent odor of the ducks and exhaust fumes.

As we raced along Cong Ly passing the Palace again, still following the duck truck, suddenly something hit the right lens of my sun glasses splattering across it. “What the hell was that”, I said as I took off my shades and looked at them saying to Larry, “It’s duck shit, man! The f**k’n ducks are bombing us with duck turds!”. Larry immediately broke out in laughter which quickly turned to a surprised frown as I wiped the duck shit from my glasses onto to his pants leg. “What the f**k are you doing! Don’t wipe that shit on me!”.

“Hey, man, this Saigon Cadillac convertible ride was your idea not mine”, I said while grinning at him, “Dig it, man, dig it!”

“You’re f**k’n crazy! Okay, now we have to go by my house so I can change my pants.”

“Ahh what’s a little duck shit, man?!”

“I’m not going to the Cerc smelling like duck shit!”

“Whatever, man. Where’s your pad?”

“Above the Commissary.”

“Lead on”, I said as Larry directed the driver to his house.

We turned left off of Cong Ly onto a side street. After a couple of blocks the driver came to a stop in front of a walled compound with large iron gates. Coiled barb wire was strung along the top of the high walls. We paid the cyclo driver and walked across the street toward the gate where two guards stood in their white uniforms armed with machine guns hanging from a shoulder strap and .45 cal. pistols holstered on their waist belt. They were scrouney short little guys in baggy uniforms and white police style hats balanced on their heads. They looked like they were struggling under the weight of their weapons. I snickered to myself thinking they didn’t look like they could fight their way out of a wet paper bag, and if they fired their guns the recoil would probably knock them on their butts.

As we approached them Larry said, “You’ll need to show the White Mice your ID Card.”

“White Mice?”

“Yeah, that’s what we call the guards. They’re Saigon Police.”

As I flashed my USOM ID card I thought, White Mice how appropriate, they reminded me of Disney cartoon characters.

We walked across the courtyard to a stair well to the left of the Commissary entrance. We went up the stairs entering his apartment through a large wooden door. It had tile floors throughout. The living room was on the left and the dining room and kitchen to the right. We went into the living room where Larry introduced me, as a new arrival, to three girls sitting around talking and listening to records. His sisters Cheryl and Donna, and their friend Suzy.

“I’m going to change. Be back in a minute”, Larry said as he headed down a hallway toward the bedrooms.

“What’s going on girls”, I said while looking each of them over, mentally rating them on my chic meter. Donna was the cutest, but way to young. Cheryl looked around my age and was easy on the eyes. Suzy was the average plain Jane type with glasses.

“Just listen to records”, Cheryl said, “Where are you from?”

“D.C. was the last place. We lived out in Falls Church or Falls Balls as we always called it”.

“Did you bring any new records with you, everything here is at least a year old” Suzy asked.

“Yeah, my vinyl collection will be here in a few weeks with our personal effects the State Department is shipping.”

“What do you have” Cheryl asked.

“Oh, all kinds. Elvis, Ricky Nelson, Bo Diddley, Coasters, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Everly Brothers, Bobby Darin, Drifters, Isley Brothers, Clovers, Falcons, Jackie Wilson, Fabian, and a bunch of others. When they get here I’ll let you know and you can check them out.”

“How’s the school here? What grade are you all in? What is there to do here?” I asked.

“I’m in 8th grade, Cheryl’s in 10th and Suzy is in 9th”, Donna replied asking, “What grade are you in?.”

“11th.”

“There’s not much to do here other then go to the Cerc and the movies” Suzy said, “and sometimes kids have parties”.

Larry came back into the room saying, “Ready. Let’s hit it”.

“Where’s a tap, man?”

“A tap? What’s that?”

“You know man, like a faucet! I need to wash the duck shit off my shades. Man, you’re so square. I keep forgetting you don’t speak beat.”

“There’s a sink in the kitchen over there”, Larry replied as Cheryl said, “duck what on your shades?!”

“We were behind a duck truck and the ducks dumped on us”, Larry explained to the girls as they began laughing hysterically.

I cleaned my shades putting them on as I walked into the hallway saying, “Let’s hit it, man! Hey, it was cool meeting you chic’s. Later!”

Larry and I went out front of the compound. There were no taxi’s or cyclo’s around. “The Cerc is only a couple blocks. Let’s just walk over”, Larry said, as we started walking along the dirt side walk area along the street.

“Your sister is easy on the eyes. Is she hooked up with anyone?”

“Yeah, she’s going with Buzz. You’ll meet him later.”

“So were are all the chic’s around here?”

“There should be some hanging out at the Cerc. If not, we’ll have to cruise around to find out were everyone is hanging out today.”

As we crossed the street to the Cercle Sportif Larry pointed out the main building while commenting, “They have tea dances there every week and other social events sometimes. Let’s check out the swimming pool and get something to drink.”

We walked along the pathway between the tennis courts and basket ball court. There were some French guys shooting hoops. We exchanged greetings from a distance as we passed by them. Larry seemed to know them. I didn’t have a clue who they were so just smiled and waved back at them.

Once we reached the pool we walked up the steps. Upon reaching the top I looked out over the lounge area around the pool. I was somewhat stunned for a couple of seconds. There before my eyes were all these girls and women in bikini swim suits lounging around the pool. Some were sunning themselves. Some were walking around. Some were swimming in the pool.

Larry must’ve noticed the look on my face as he said with a smirk, “You like the view?”

“Christ, man! There damn near naked.” In the States I’d seen pictures in magazines of girls in what we called French bikini’s, but up until now I’d never seen them in the flesh. They weren’t even wearing them in Hawaii yet. The American girls were still wearing those one piece suits along with those stupid looking rubber swim caps to keep their hair from getting wet.

We walked over to the snack bar and ordered coke’s. While standing there waiting for our coke’s I continued taking in the view, thinking to myself, the guys back in Falls Balls and Hawaii are never going to believe me when I tell them about this. I’ll have to bring my camera and take a few pictures to mail to them with a note “wish you were here”. That should get them foaming at the mouth.

As I took a drink of my coke, Larry said, “There’s some of the French girls over there, come on.” He started walking, with me following, toward three girls sunning themselves on chaise lounge chairs by the side of the pool.

When we were a few feet from them the girl closest to us raised her sun glasses looking up at Larry saying, “Salut, Larry!

“Hi, Michele! How are you girls today? This is Bob. He just arrived from the States today. I’m showing him around. Bob, this Michele, Anne and Jacqueline.”

“Hello girls. Nice to meet you”, I said as they all smiled saying something in French to me. I must’ve looked a bit puzzled as Michele asked me if I spoke French. I told her I didn’t, just as Mrs. Yamaguchi’s words echoed in my mind like a freight train running over me. How did Mrs. Yamaguchi know?!

While attending school in Hawaii during my 9th grade year I took French class (mostly so I could meet all the hot chic’s in the class). Mrs. Yamaguchi was the French teacher. The last day of glass before report cards were being given out, she asked me to stay after class. She explained to me that she should give me an F for the class, but that she was going to give me a complimentary D minus, as she knew I was more then capable of getting a B or even A grade for the class if I would apply myself instead of chasing after the girls all the time. She then looked me straight in the eye saying, “Bob, some day you are going to regret not studying harder and learning to speak French”.

As I stood there looking at these three beautiful French girls in their bikinis Mrs. Yamaguchi’s words echoed louder and louder in my head, as I kept saying to myself “How did she know?!”

My thoughts were suddenly interrupted when I heard Michele’s voice asking me where I was from. She had a mischievous twinkle in her eyes with the cutest voice and French accent when speaking English. I told her I’d just come from the Washington, D.C. area. We chatted with the girls for a few minutes as they welcomed me to Saigon. Michele reminded me of Brigitte Bardot, or what I envisioned her to be like, even though I’d only seen a few pictures of her but heard many stories about her. She was every American guy’s dream girl.

Since there didn’t seem to be any American kids at the pool Larry suggest we leave and check out some other places.

I told the girls it was nice meeting them and I hoped to see them again soon. They said good bye and welcomed me to Saigon again.

As we walked down the steps from the pool I commented to Larry, “Damn man! Michele has got to be Brigitte Bardot’s sister?!”

“Dream on she’s Joe’s girl.”

“Who the hell is Joe?”

“He’s the leader of the Clods.”

“Who are the Clods?”

“Sort of a James Dean gang.”

“A street gang, like the pachuco’s in San Diego? They had a gang there called the Sultans. I had a couple run ins with them during the 7th grade when we lived there. That’s were I learned how to street fight. They fought dirty with chains, barb wire whips, brass knuckles, switch blade knives, baseball bats… they were crazy ass Chicano’s. I hooked up with a hot little Chicano chic, Maria, for awhile. Her brother was a Sultan. When we broke it off, her brother came after me with this gang. He thought I didn’t think she was good enough for me because she was Chicano, or some such shit. Him and 8 of his gang caught up to me outside the mall after the movies one Saturday night. I thought I was dead meat until my buddy John Lowvel showed up with 5 other guys, just in the nick of time. They were all packing zip guns. They all pulled out their zips aiming them at the Chicano’s as John told them to hit it or 6 of them were dead meat. The pachuco’s disappeared into the darkness just as fast as they had appeared a few minutes earlier.”

“Nah, the Clods are more Beatnik, James Dean, Elvis, rebel non-conformist kinda. Joe is the Ricky Nelson of Saigon. He sounds like Ricky when he sings with his Clod band.”

“Let’s head over to Deny and Veny’s and see if anyone is hanging out there.”

“Okay, lead on. Who are they? More half naked girls in French bikinis?”

“No, only the French girls wear the bikinis. Deny and Veny are the Indonesian Consulate’s daughters. They’re cool. Everyone hangs out at their house a lot.”

On the way back out to the street we stopped at the basketball courts and shot a few hoops with the French guys. There seemed to be some kind of friction between Larry and them. Yet, they were friendly toward us.

After a bit we continued on to the street in front of the Cercle Sportif. As we walked I commented to Larry, “The State Department guy I rode to the Guest House with told me the school here doesn’t have any sports teams. Is that true?”

“Yeah, but a few of us have been trying to get something together. So far no luck because there are no leagues here or other schools to play. None of the schools here have sports teams. There are rumors that MAAG is going to form a baseball league for the military guys. Did you play in the States?”

“Sure did. Football, baseball, basketball and martial arts. I never cared much for track though so didn’t get into it much. I’ve never been to a school that didn’t have sports. I guess that means there are no hot cheerleaders either?”

“Nope.”

“With all these hot French girls at the pool who needs cheerleaders. I’ll take the bikini girls any day over cheerleaders”, I said chuckling.

When we reached the street Larry flagged down a taxi and told the driver were to go. After a few blocks the taxi stopped at the gate in front of large French looking mansion. It was on a corner surrounded by a wall. After paying the driver we walked through the gate and along the driveway toward a row of rooms off to the right that appeared to be servants quarters. The door to the end room was open and I could hear American rock’n roll music coming from inside. Inside we found Deny, Veny, Jim and Peter all lounging around on the sofa and chairs spinning platters on a record player sitting on a small table against the back wall of the room. As we entered the room Larry introduced us telling them I’d just arrived from the States today.

Deny asked me if I wanted a Coke or something to drink. “A coke will be fine”, I replied. She stepped just outside of the door and yelled across the courtyard to a servant woman at the rear side of the house. She spoke in a language I didn’t understand, but assumed was Indonesian.

After meeting them it was apparent they were all squares so I decided to cool it with the beat speak, as it was obvious to me by now that the beat scene had not hit Saigon yet. Or, if it had, I hadn’t found it so far.

I was fascinated by how small Deny and Veny were. They couldn’t have been more then about 4 feet tall. They were both hot, but Veny was the hottest of the two with her long hair cascading down her back. Or, maybe it was just because she was wearing short shorts and a skin tight fitting shirt that didn’t leave much to the imagination. They were both very friendly smiling, joking around and laughing a lot.

While Veny was changing the records on the player she asked if I brought any records with me, and what the newest one’s were in the States. Deny asked about latest movies. The guys wanted to know were I was from in the States.

The servant brought my Coke and I sat down on the sofa next to Deny taking a long drink of it. We hung out for awhile as I filled them in on the latest sounds, movies and news about the States. It seemed everyone here was starved for information about the States. Most of the records they had were a good year or two behind the times. I told them that once we got settled in and our stuff arrived from the States they could listen to my records.

Larry said, “Lets go check out the Olympic maybe the guys are there”.

“What’s the Olympic?”

“Come on, I’ll show you.”

As we left they all welcomed me to Saigon again and told me to come around anytime. I thanked them telling them it was nice to meet them.

We walked out to the street and flagged a taxi. As we traveled toward the river Larry was directing the driver in Vietnamese. Each time he’d give the driver directions, he’d tell me what he was saying and telling me how to give the taxi driver’s directions. “If you want them to turn left say re trái, turn right say di ngay, stop say drung, go straight say di thang.”

“Yeah, like I’m going to remember all that! Don’t they speak English?”

“No. Some speak French. But not many know any English. But don’t worry, you’ll pick up the lingo in no time.”

“If you say so. It’s all Greek to me!”

As we approached a building with a sign saying Olympic Bar, Larry told the driver to stop in front of it. As we got out and he was paying the driver he commented, “This is the only place in town that has roasted peanuts. Every place else only has boiled one’s. Come on, let’s grab a beer. Maybe Joe and the gang are here.”

“Grab a beer?! Will the serve us?”

“Yeah, there is no age limit like in the States. If you’ve got the money, they’ve got the beer.”

“Come on, you’re shitting me, man!”

“You’ll see.”

We walked through the door into the bar stopping just inside to let our eyes adjust. As my vision became clearer I took in the room. Across one side was a concrete bar painted bright blue. Weird I thought. Paddle fans hanging from the ceiling turned slowly circulating the smoke hovering over the tables and chairs scattered about the room. Several Vietnamese girls were sitting on stools at the bar. As soon as we entered two of them started toward us with big smiles on their faces greeting us in very broken English. They ushered us to a wooden table near the rear of the bar, while chatting away in Vietnamese to each other, and saying something to one of the girls still at the bar.

As we sat down Larry looked at one of the girls saying, “Ba moui ba”. She scurried off toward the bar while shouting something in Vietnamese to the bartender. The other girl went through a door to another room. They returned with two bottles of beer and a basket of peanuts. They started to sit down at our table when Larry motioned them away.

I looked at him saying, “Why’d you send them away, man, they’re hot?”

“If they set with you, you have to buy them Saigon tea.”

“Okay, what the hell is Saigon tea?”

“Shots of tea. They tell you it’s whiskey but it’s really just tea. As long as you buy them another round about every 20 minutes they’ll keep sitting and talking with you telling you how much they love you.”

Laughingly I said, “So it’s like Rent-A-Chic?!”

“Yeah. Hell, they’ll even screw you for about $5 US.”

“Give me a break, man. You mean we can drink beer and romp in the sack with chic’s here and nobody gives a shit?!”

“Yep, welcome to Saigon”, he replied with a smirk on his face. “But these girls cost too much. Every Friday afternoon a bunch of us gather at the Continental Hotel than go outside the city to the shanties were they only charge 25 cents US.”

“You’ve got to be putting me on!”

“No, for real.”

“How’s that work?”

“Just like this place but not as classy. We go in and set down. They bring us a warm beer. We drink beer while they bring the girls in one by one. When you see one you like you go in a back room with her and do your thing. We’ll be going Friday if you want to come along.”

“Hell yes, I’m in! I’m beginning to like this place already”, I said laughingly, “they left this out of the State Department orientation in D.C.”

I took a long slow drink of beer as I gazed at the girls lined up along the bar across the room imagining what it would be like jumping in bed with them.

“Here try these peanuts”, Larry said as he scooped a few from the basket.

I took a couple cracking one open popping it in my mouth. “Damn, these are tasty.”

“So what’s the school here like?. That guy Jenkins from the State Department said they just finished building a new school.”

“It’s nothing to get excited about. It’s nothing like State side schools. We only go from 7:30 to 11:30 in the mornings. It’s more like Study Hall. There aren’t any teachers. Just room monitors that we turn our completed lessons in to and they give us new one’s to complete. Once we turn them in they send them to the States for grading and return to us. It’s all correspondence courses from the University Of Southern California. The high school anyway. I don’t know what the lower grades are like.”

“Sounds like a piece of cake.”

“Yeah, it’s more of a social hour. Show up at 7:30 am go to your assigned room, turn in lessons and work on some new ones. Then take morning recess and hang out in the halls with everyone, after smoking a Bastos in the boys room. After that back to the class room until 11:30 and go home for lunch.”

“How’s the chic’s at school?”

“Okay, but there aren’t that many to pick from and most are hooked up with someone. There are only about 50 kids total in the high school classes.”

“Doesn’t sound very exciting. What do you do for excitement around here?’

“Mostly just party. Between the American and French kids there’s a party almost every day. The American’s have theirs in the evening and the French have theirs around 4 to 8 pm. If nobody is having a party we go to the bars and shoot the shit. Or taken in a movie then go drinking.”

I looked at my watch. It was a little after 5:00 pm. “I better be getting back to the Guest House for dinner.”

I drank the last of the beer and stood up pushing the chair back with my leg as I picked up the pack of Bastos and my Zippo lighter from the table. Shaking a cigarette from the pack I raised it to my lips while eyeing the girls lined up at the bar. I lite the cigarette taking a long slow drag while saying to Larry, “You want a cig?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

As we started for the door three of the girls chased after us pleading with us not to go. We told them we’d be back later and stepped out to the street where a taxi was parked at the curb.

“You take that one, I’ll grab another one”, Larry said motioning toward the taxi. No sooner had he said it when a cyclo pulled up behind the taxi.

“Hey, thanks for showing me around, man! Anything going on tomorrow?”

“I don’t know. I’ll come by your place around 10:00 am and we can cruise around to see what’s happening. See ya!”

I got in the taxi showing the driver a card they’d given me at the Guest House with the address on it. I didn’t really know where it was from where I was at, so just had to trust the driver to take me there. Hopefully, he wasn’t a Viet Cong and wouldn’t kidnap me or something. He gestured he knew where it was and drove off toward City Hall. He drove up to City Hall, turned right then left finding his way to Cong Ly. As we went past the Palace I felt comfortable we were going toward the Guest House. Or, at least it seemed to be as best I could remember.

After a few blocks he turned left and pulled to a stop in front of the Guest House. I got out and paid him then walked inside.

Back at the Guest House

The staff was busy scurrying around preparing the dinning room for dinner. Whatever the cook was making in the kitchen sure smelled good.

I went to my room and laid down on the bed closing my eyes as I went over everything from the day in my mind. If I’d known what was waiting for me in Saigon, I wouldn’t have been so bummed about leaving D.C. like I was the last few weeks before we departed.

A few minutes before 6:00 pm mom called me saying dinner was being served. I got up and went out to the dinning table sitting down with me parents and another black man, Mr. Wilson. Dad introduced me to him saying he was with the State Department and had arrived a few days before us.

The table was set with fine linen table cloth and napkins, silverware, china dishes and crystal glasses. The Chef had prepared a small feast that could match the finest restaurant. The servants served the meal from silver serving trays lined up on the china cabinets along the wall. Starting with a delicious onion soup, followed by a fancy fruit salad and the main course of prime rib, roasted baby potatoes and vegetables all seasoned and cooked to perfection. Along with an excellent French wine to wash it all down (not that I knew anything about fine wines).

After the servants cleared the dinner dishes from the table, Nam announced desert would be ready shortly, as he topped off everyone’s wine glass.

A few minutes later the Chef and the entire servant staff came parading out of the kitchen with Mr. Tran Le carrying a large cake with candles as they all sang Happy Birthday with mom, dad and Mr. Wilson joining in as the cake was placed on the table in front of me. I was blown away. How did they know it was my birthday. I learned later mom had told the cook and requested a cake for me.

The cake was a master piece. It was a single layer chocolate cake with white butter cream icing, my favorite. It was ornately decorated complete with a large red dragon on top and 2 smaller dragons on all four sides. Nam explained 9 dragons would bring me much luck and that red one’s were the best because they kept the bad spirits away.

I made a wish and blew out all 16 candles in one breath, as everyone cheered Happy Birthday again. Everyone was smiling and giggling at how they had surprised me. I think they were enjoying the festivities as much as me.

Nam cut the cake serving a piece to everyone as the Chef returned from the kitchen with homemade vanilla ice cream for everyone.

I felt some what overwhelmed yet humbled and honored with the sincerity of the excitement and joy they were all expressing in celebrating my birthday. I’d only met them for the first time a few hours ago and they were treating me as though I was the most special person in the world. By their actions, smiles and laughter I could sense their joyfulness was coming from their hearts. This would prove to be the beginning of my coming to understand the warmth and compassion of the Vietnamese people.

After dinner I returned to my room preparing for the reception by changing from my casual street clothes into a suit and tie. Promptly at 7:45 pm the State Department car arrived to take us the the Ambassador’s house where the reception was being held. Upon arrival we were greeted by Ambassador Durbrow who had us stand with him as he greeted arriving guest while introducing us. By about 8:30 pm everyone had arrived and we began to mingle. I always dreaded attending these functions as there was rarely anyone my age in attendance. To amuse myself I’d tag along with my parents through the crowd playing my role as the perfect American youth representing our government in a foreign country while exchanging small talk. But, for the most part, I’d just people watch observing the behavior of the people and how they interacted with each other. To me it was like watching a movie play out in front of me with everyone playing their role. I found it comical as to how they all acted out their parts based on their professions and social status in the pecking order of the diplomatic world. Attending these functions I came to understand Shakespeare’s words … “All the world is my stage”. It was during this phase of my youth I came to the realization that we are all just actors and actresses playing our parts as the various characters in the movie we call life.

The reception ended around 9:30 pm and we were taken back to the Guest House where I retired to my room getting out of my monkey suit (suit and tie) as I referred to it.

The Gecko has landed

I kicked back on my bed surrounded by mosquito netting listening to the hum of the overhead paddle fan. I closed my eyes and drifted back through the day’s events of smoking cigarettes, drinking beer with prostitutes, checking out hot French girls in bikini’s, and a heart felt birthday dinner with a 9 dragon cake. Dang! This is the best birthday ever. Mom and Dad couldn’t of given me a better birthday present if they tried too.

Larry may not be a cool cat beatnik but he sure knows his way around town. The guys back in the States are never going to believe me when I tell them about this place unless I send them photographs. But, how can I get the film developed without my parents seeing the pictures? There must be a place in town that develops film. I’ll ask Larry when I see him as I’m sure my parents would flip their lid if they saw pictures of me smoking and drinking beer in a bar full of whores. This Paris of the Orient may not have beatnik coffee houses, but who needs them when you can do everything here you have to be 21 to do in the States. I’ve got cigarettes, beer, women, sex and rock’n roll what more could I want?!

Just as I dozed off to sleep the sound of … “F**k you” … startled me awake. Then I heard it again … “F**k you” … I looked up and toward the ceiling were it seemed to be coming from just as I heard it again … “F**k you” … a Gecko lizard dropped from the ceiling onto the mosquito netting over my bed – the Gecko had landed welcoming to Saigon the Pearl of the Orient.

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