by Admin (ACS)
When I launched this site on April 21, 2008 the first article I posted was *MY JOURNEY TO SAIGON – 49 Years Ago Today*. At the time it was my intention to continue the story of my days in Saigon until my departure. But, it seems other things got in the way and I never continued it.
Being the non-conformist and contrarian that I am, I thought it appropriate to tell the end of the story first – then fill in with the in between times later. Don’t we all jump to the last chapter of a book to see how it ends before reading the middle chapters – I always do!
The State Department had called my dad on the carpet several times because (as they put it) *I was an embarrassment to the American government in a foreign country*. This was mostly because of my wild and rowdy ways, drinking and carrying on in public, going outside the city (to the hooch’s), staying out on the town after curfew hours when there were high security alerts in effect, and assorted other mischievous activities.
Riding Lambretta Over Taxi
One day I was late for base ball practice. So I talked our cook (Jon) into borrowing his Lambretta motor scooter and went blazing out of the driveway of our house with some other Saigon Kid on the back. I can’t remember his name, so lets just call him Jake.
After exiting the driveway, I turned right to head out to the ball park, then WHAM! A taxi that was in front of me SLAMMED on his brakes (for no reason). I was about 4-6 feet behind him riding his bumper. I couldn’t stop fast enough so jerked the front wheel of the scooter up in the air thinking I’d just ride right up and over him (hell they did that in the movies, why couldn’t I do it). Jake slide off the ass end of the scooter and hit the pavement. As the scooter’s front wheel went up the back of the taxi — I gassed it HARD. About the time the front wheel of the scooter hit the rear window of the taxi I lost control of it. I threw my legs out to each side, let go with my hands and slide off the back of the scooter and rolled out of the way. The scooter flew off to the right of the taxi hitting some guy on a bicycle knocking him to the ground.
Jake took off running just as the taxi driver got out of the taxi screaming at the top of his lungs. Then Vietnamese started coming from everywhere screaming and yelling (must’ve been 50 or more within seconds). About that time our cook and our chauffeur/bodyguard came pushing through the crowd. The cook grabbed me while the chauffeur took care of things with the taxi driver and the guy on the bicycle. Jon rushed me into the house telling me to stay there and not go outside. He went and got his scooter and pushed it back to the house. The front end of it was trashed.
I begged and pleaded with the cook and chauffeur to NOT tell my parents. They finally agreed, but only if I paid for the scooter repairs PLUS the $5000 piasters the chauffeur paid the taxi driver and guy on the bicycle to shut them up.
I scrapped together all the money I had but was still short $20,000 Piasters.
I went over to Larry Smith’s place where I begged and pleaded with his mom to loan it to me — and to NOT say anything to my parents. After about 2 hours she finally agreed and loaned me the cash in USD$ which I took down to the Chettiar on Tu Do and traded for piasters (he exchanged at 140 Ps per USD vs. the legal exchange of 72).
I paid the cook and chauffeur back. And, thought all was good until the next day at lunch when mom mentioned that Jon had an accident with his scooter so she had to give him cyclo money to do the food shopping at the market every morning until his scooter was out of the repair shop. And, went on to say that fortunately he was not injured. (as I was thinking to myself OH SHIT I’m busted).
But, all was well … UNTIL 2 days later at lunch when dad said to me, “you’ll have to skip ball practice this afternoon as we need to talk after lunch”.
After we finished lunch he looked across the table at me asking, “is there anything your mother and I should know about?”
“No, not that I know of, why?”
“What do you know about the 2 American kids that got into an accident with a taxi and hit a man on a bicycle around the corner from here a couple days ago?”
But, I played dumb (big mistake).
He just glared at me saying, “then maybe you would like to explain to me why the hell the Ambassador called me and Jake’s father into his office this morning and raked us over the coals for an hour.”
No options left, I fessed up. After which I got a 2 hour lecture about how my actions effected his career with the State Department and that I was embarrassing the American government as a representative of our country in a foreign land.
I got grounded and was only permitted go to school and ball practice for the next week.
Black Marketing U.S. Dollars To The Communists
The dust settled and all was well for awhile until one day dad got called before the Ambassador again, this time because *it had been determined that I was black marketing U.S.Dollars to the Communist*.
It seems someone had ratted me out for running my little ‘money exchange’ on the side.
I had no idea I was black marketing U.S. Dollars to the Communists.
It had all started several months earlier when I discovered the Chettiar who owned the candy store on Tu Do. He paid $140-170 Ps for each USD. Beat the heck out the legal rate of 72 Ps/USD. Then I could take the Ps out to the Currency Exchange at the Airport and trade them back to USD and make an additional 3 cents profit per USD in the process.
At first I was just doing this with my US$5/week allowance. But, than other Saigon Kids where always short on cash between allowance days, so I’d loan them Ps to get by until allowance day with the understanding they had to pay me back in USD$, which I’d trade with the Chettiar for Ps and double my money.
Soon I figured out that I could offer the kids 85 to 90 Ps per USD$ for their allowance money and sell the USD$ to the Chettiar for $140-170 Ps profiting on the spread. The kids were happy because their allowance went farther.
After awhile some of the young low ranking military guys started buying Ps from me. Soon I was averaging $75 to $100 per week USD$ profits.
I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. Heck I was just making a few extra bucks because $5/week allowance my parents gave me just wasn’t enough to do much in Saigon.
But, as I learned, after the Ambassador raked dad over the coals again, the Chettiars in Saigon were selling the USD$ to the VC who needed them to buy things that could only be bought with USD$.
Damn! I was a teenage Saigon black market gangster and didn’t even know it!
Anyway, my career as a Saigon banker came to an abrupt end. But, by then I’d saved up almost $2,000 US, so I still had party money to spare.
I guess at this point the Ambassador put dad on notice to either keep me in line or harsh measures would have to be taken.
A short while later came the straw that broke the camels back.
The Cho Lon Chinese Girl
A few months before my money exchange venture was shut down, I’d started studying martial arts at a Buddhist Temple in Cho Lon. There was a cute little Chinese girl about my age in the class with me. Ling caught my eye in no time. So, I hit on her by approaching her to help me with learning to speak Chinese. In return I’d help her with English. She told me that she was not allowed to socialize with boys, and particularly non-Chinese boys, but that she would talk to her family about tutoring each other.
Upon arriving at Ling’s house (a small mansion) I learned that her father was a wealthy Chinese Merchant in Cho Lon, as was her grand father. Entering the house was like stepping back in time 200 years. Her father and the entire family were dressed in the old style Mandarin clothing, and everything in the house was traditional old world Chinese.
I felt really out of place.
Ling’s father spoke perfect Harvard English.
The entire evening was extremely formal and proper Chinese.
The dinner was excellent.
The family was checking me out. For good reason, as by Chinese custom at the time if a Chinese girl was seen in public with an American (or any non Chinese) boy/man she would be considered a prostitute and the family would be disgraced loosing face in the community.
The dinner and conversation went well.
After I left Ling’s house I felt like I’d just stepped out of a movie or something — none of it seemed real.
The next day after class Ling told me her family had approved of our arrangement to tutor each other. Since I was her teacher and her my student, and she my teacher and I her student the family would not be dishonored and loose face.
After martial arts classes we began going to a nearby park where we’d tutor each other.
After a few weeks one thing lead to another and I found myself in a bazaar *secret* love affair with this exotic Chinese girl (if we were discovered I sincerely believed I would be beheaded). She somehow seemed to know of all these secret hidden from public view places we could go in Cho Lon to be alone.
After a while the sneaking around to spend time with each other was getting old, so one day I mentioned I thought we should get an out of the way apartment someplace. A few days later Ling told me she had found the perfect place for us. I gave her the money for a month of rent and she made all the arrangements. It turned out to be a tiny 10′ x 10′ place hidden away at the end of a maze of alleys and passageways in the middle of Cho Lon. It was furnished traditional Chinese, but sparse with only a bed, side table and small lamp. It became our *secret* passion pit during the weeks that followed.
At the time it never occurred to me as to how secret could it really be with an American boy making his way to it several days a week through the maze of alleys and passages that probably no American even knew existed, and surely had never entered.
Then about a week after my money exchange venture was shut down, while in the throws of passion one afternoon, two Chinese men came crashing through the door knocking it off it’s hinges.
Followed by her *father* (talk about being caught with your pants down). Her father, Ling and the two goons where scream and shouting at the top of their lungs in Chinese — while I was getting dressed (probably the fastest I’d ever done in my life).
Ling’s father grabbed her by the hair pulling her behind him as they went out the door with Ling screaming and yelling, dressed in nothing but a silk robe.
I was left standing across the room from the two goons with them between me and the door. They just stood there, dressed in their Mandarin cloths, staring at me — with no expression on their faces.
At this point I was so scared that nothing really mattered anymore. Thoughts of my head on a Chinese chopping block flashed through my mind.
Not knowing what else to do, I reached down to the bedside table picking up my pack of Bastos and Zippo lighter. Then, in my best James Dean impersonation lite a cigarette, leaving it dangling from my lips as I put the cigarette pack and lighter in my pocket (Jimmy would have been proud of me!). Standing up straight I folded my arms across my chest and I stared back at them (just like the really tough guys do in the movies).
The stare down went on for about 5 minutes or so as I took an occasional drag off the Basto dangling from my lips.
None of us saying a word.
There was an eerie silence in the room.
Thoughts were racing through my mind of how to get past these goons and make my escape. I wonder if they have knives or guns under those mandarin robes? Are they martial arts masters?
I wonder how fast their cloths would burn if I torched them with my trusty Zippo? That won’t work. This building is a tender box. The place will go up in flames in the blink of an eye. Boy, wouldn’t that give the Ambassador something to rake dad over the coals for – literally. I can see the headlines now, “State Department Official’s Son Burns Cho Lon To The Ground”.
I could throw the bed spread over them then beat them over the head with the bedside table – might work. Damn, I don’t even know if I can find my way out of this maze of alley ways. I always came with Ling. Never paid much attention how to get in and out of here. Even if I did get by these goons somehow, I’m in the depths of Cho Lon. The only white boy surrounded by thousands of Chinese.
I wonder what John Wayne would do? The Duke would just charge them head on, and smash their heads together. I saw him do that in a bar fight in some movie. I could just charge them and knock them out of the way. Probably get my ass kicked. But, at least I’ll go down fighting.
Damn, there is nothing in the room except the bed and the little table. I need something to use as a weapon.
I could act like a crazy mad maniac. Start screaming and jumping around like some kind of psycho nut case – but what then?
The silence broke as one of them said (in perfect English), “follow me”.
He turned looking at me saying, “You go now. Never come back here. Never see Ling again. If you try to we’ll give you to the Viet Cong”.
I got in the pedicab and the driver started peddling toward the bridge to Saigon. As we went down the street I felt like everyone was staring at me and knew everything that happened. It was an eerie feeling as though I was being put on display in the public square as the American who had dishonored a Chinese girl.
At the Cho Lon side of the bridge the pedicab driver stopped and motioned for me to get out. I got out and he peddled away without waiting to be paid.
I just stood there for a few minutes still a little unnerved thinking -What now?!
I flagged a taxi down and went to the Olympic Bar where I downed several 33’s back to back. Then I headed over to the Cercle Sportif where I hung out as though nothing had happened until just before dinner time. I went home ate dinner then went to my room where I stayed being afraid to go out on the streets at night. I laid awake until the wee hours of the night with my head spinning thinking about what had happened and wondering what would become of Ling, until I finally drifted off to sleep drained and exhausted.
Two days later when I went to the temple for class a monk met me at the gate, politely telling me I had finish all the classes as he closed the gate in my face (their way of saying go away you are not welcome here, I suppose).
Extortion and Exile
A few days later dad came home unexpectedly about 4 pm. He came storming into my room where I was kicked back listening to records.
He glared at me saying, “What in the hell did you get yourself into now!?”.
He was fuming which was very out of character for him.
I just looked over at him saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, dad”.
“This is no time to get smart with me. I just left my boss’s office. We have been instructed to report to the Ambassador’s office because one of the most influential and powerful Chinese Merchants in Cho Lon has filed a complaint through the Vietnamese Government and American Embassy saying that you got his daughter pregnant dishonoring her and his family, and is demanding financial restitution from the U.S. Government. Now start talking and make it fast!”
Stunned, I recapped what happened as fast as I could for him. When I was finished he said, “Have you told anyone else at all about this?”.
“No, Ling and I are the only ones who know about it besides her father and his two goons.”
He just looked at me shaking his head saying, “Damn, Bob, I can’t believe that you’re so naive to let them set you up like leading a lamb to slaughter!”
I said, “What?!”
He looked at me with fire in his eyes saying, “You were set up. You’re not to leave this house until I return. You are not to talk to anyone, anyone at all, not even your mother about this until I return. Understand?!”
As he left the house he told mom there was a crisis at the Embassy, not to hold dinner for him if he was not back by dinner time.
Around 8 pm dad returned home. Sat mom and I down in the living room and told us that in three days we would be leaving for Hawaii, and he would be remaining in Vietnam. We would stay in Hawaii until I finished the school year and they made arrangements for me to attend a boarding school in the States. After that mom would return to Vietnam.
Mom and I were both stunned and shocked. Mom started to ask questions. Dad just looked at her and said, “I’ll fill you in on the details later. Right now Bob and I need to go to the Embassy. I don’t know what time we’ll return. It may be late.”
Mom had been a State Department wife long enough to know when not to ask questions, and just do as instructed.
Dad and I went to the Embassy where I was lead to a room with a tape recorder and several people. They had me tell them every detail of my affair with Ling, from beginning to end while they recorded it and a lady wrote down everything I said in shorthand. They questioned me over and over until about 2 am. They left no stone unturned. No detail unexplored. They had me describe Ling in minute details from head to toe, over and over.
After they were finished questioning me, dad and the others concluded and agreed there was no question that I was set up, and that Ling was probably not pregnant but they undoubtedly had another girl who resembled Ling that was pregnant.
For about the last 20 minutes at the Embassy they instructed me that I was never, ever to tell a living soul anything about what happened. I was to act normal as though none of it happened for my remaining few days in Saigon. They made it clear to me in no uncertain terms.
Dad and I returned home. Mom was waiting up for us. He told me to go to bed and that we’d talk at breakfast. Him and mom were up for awhile talking, I assume he was filling her in on the details.
At breakfast the next day, he reminded me of my instructions not to talk to anyone about what happened.
Before departing Saigon I’d ask dad several times what was going to happen. All he’d ever say is that it is being handled by the Embassy.
Three days later mom and I were on a plane bound for Hawaii.
So in February 1961, two months before my 18th birthday, my adventures in Saigon came to an end and my exile in Paradise began, where my rock’n roll partying ways continued with Mary Ann who lived down by the sea — but, that’s another story for another time.
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