by Admin and Contributing Editors Richard Turner and Kevin Wells
Kevin Wells (1959-62)
Arriving In Saigon: USOM Guest House
Everybody new to Saigon had to start somewhere and our start was at the US Overseas Missions (USOM) Guest House.
It was our first night and I lugged the luggage up the stairs, flailed my way through the mosquito netting and fell face-down on the bed. By the morning, the air conditioner had lowered the air temperature to a mere 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
I looked like I had lost war with mosquitoes. The prickly heat rash was bad enough but not yet in full bloom and it was time for breakfast. That morning, I discovered that the hot water tap was on the opposite side from the US convention and hot water is generally only slightly above normal body temperature.
It was still the children are to be seen and not heard era so I got my orders. Full formal table manners were in effect until further notice and I was to help keep my siblings under control. As the oldest of the siblings, I had my duties. What I had not experienced before was a Chef and someone who served the meal, neither of whom was my mother.
This was new territory. Families necessarily have cooks, but a Chef and one trained in the French style was something new to me. My mother had constraints that apparently had no effect on the Chef. Chief among the constraints was that she was a one-woman show, mother of five, Chief Cook and Bottle washer, Chief of Procurement, Nutritionist, Maid, Laundry Maid, Chief Medical Officer, and more as the situation developed. As a result, her cooking style was workman-like. The family had no complaint because the food hit the table at the correct time. There were five growing boys and one girl and whoever at the fastest got the most. One of the phrases I remember from childhood was her entreaty to “Leave something for your father!” We could snarf down groceries! Those ways were over, it was time for proper table manners.
The new normal of the next few weeks was a culinary adventure. I became a life-long fan of baguette, onion soup, crepes, chocolate mousse, tournedos chasseur, bouillabaisse, omelets, vichyssoise, comfit, tarte tatin, and a wide range of other staples of French cuisine. The real surprise was éclair and cream-puff desserts. Yes, I would drink the Merlot, and got caught).
The other new feature of the new normal was the fact that I could not conduct refrigerator raids. That was the bad news. The good news is that the Chef was not averse to slipping me goodies now and again. He was a character and a memorable one at that.
The USOM guest house is where I learned that anyone who could possibly do so retired to a cool place after lunch and maintained a low profile until 2:30 or so when it again became safe to go into the sun. Being young, it took several weeks and complaints from adults to teach me that those with experience really did know best about such things.
The USOM Guest house was the departure point for my first taxi adventure, and the place to which I returned when new families arrived. It was also my introduction to the mysterious world of people who would not discuss what they were doing in Saigon. Actually, what was most fascinating was that adults would make cryptic remarks about others. We in the underclass started to put together our intelligence networks.
It was at the USOM Guest House that I started reading Time and Newsweek in an effort to understand the dynamics of the place. There was also the Times of Viet Nam, which was my first introduction to the gulf between what a native English speaker knows and what is learned at school. One memorable article included the account of a wedding of two diplomats. With a light tone, the Times of Viet Nam reporter wrote that “the wedding was consummated on the embassy lawn much to the delight of the assembled guests.”
A quick check of the dictionary told me what I had missed.
“I can’t say what it was that made me fall in love with Viet Nam, everything is so intense, the colors, the tastes, even the rain They say whatever you are looking for you will find here.
They say you come to Viet Nam, understand a lot in a few weeks, the rest has got to be lived.” (Movie; The Quiet American, 2003)
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