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Saigon Kids Stories – The Trip Home: How To Explain RVN

by Kevin Wells (ACS)

We left Saigon in early May 1962 with both a feeling of loss and a feeling of anticipation.

The first stop was Manila. In some ways, Manila was like the US, only more so. The motorcycle police officers had motorcycle officers uniforms, but in some way, more so. The jodhpurs had a wider spread, the gun-belts more shiny, the boots were more exaggerated, and the chrome on the motorcycles more extreme than anything I had seen before.

We did the tourist number, and even took in a Ventures concert. Don’t ask me why my mother agreed to go to a Ventures concert because I could not explain that. She did not seem to be impressed by Walk, Don’t Run, and Perfidia (or maybe it was Outer Limits)

Then it was on to Hawaii. It was till warm, tropical, we were acclimated. The anticipation was building. Dysentery was not much of a possibility, and they had Coca Cola, the real Coke and not Segi Cola. On to California.

Route 66Here, we hit a snag. It was cool. Very cool for LA, and we had nothing to keep out tropically thinned blood from freezing solid. No problem, my father said, we will be over the western divide into the desert in no time flat and everybody knows how warm deserts can be. Right? Wrong!

So my father buys what he thinks is a good used car, stuffs everyone in it and heads east, planning to follow Route 66 all the way, stop in outside of Chicago to visit relatives for a day or so, and then drive on to Boston.

The first big stop was the Grand Canyon. It was mid-May and it was snowing by the time we got to Flagstaff. We shot into the hotel from the car and never got out of the car the next morning unless necessary because it was still snowing.

Of course, it had to happen; in Santa Rosa, NM, the car died. It was a rather large Nash with the sophisticated automatic transmission about which nobody in Santa Rosa NM had even a slight clue, and certainly no parts. Parts had to be ordered. And shipped. And installed. Breakdown, shipped and installed accounted for five days, during which I tried to chat up some local female talent.Rambler Wagon

When I was asked about travel itinerary, I told the little ladies that we were stranded in Santa Rosa enroute from Saigon to Boston. The typical response was along the lines of Where? Nobody had a clue about Southeast Asia, or what was happening there.

Next we hit the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and the crushing boredom of as far as the eye can see. We saw lights of towns and cities forty miles away. Judging from how grain elevators seemed to emerge from the ground, we also saw the curvature of the earth.

Missouri was more exciting, and crossing the Mississippi told us we were getting somewhere.

To put this accomplishment in perspective, there were two adults, me and my four younger siblings. Every elbow got sharpened against every rib, every imaginable retaliatory move was made and every button was punched.

What started as an adventure ended up as an endurance trial. No matter where we stopped, nobody seemed to grasp the idea that Americans served in foreign countries any way other than the military. Even when Route 66, the television series, had a character in 1963 just back from somewhere called Vietnam, it still did not connect with people that I had been where they never suspected Americans to go.

Weird, huh?

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15 comments to Saigon Kids Stories – The Trip Home: How To Explain RVN

  • Kenneth R. Yeager

    Kevin, you may remember a post I did a while back where I talked about feeling like a stateless person, having been an Army brat and then working for the State Dept. So I know exactly what you are writing about and to me, the situation exists today. Sure, folks know about Baghdad and Egypt and Syria because of TV news and the internet, but I think, and I hope I am wrong, that the majority of Americans would flunk a reasonably simple geography test. Now you are into education so you would be a better placed than I on this. While still a proud American citizen (albeit with dual nationality) I think most US citizens are pretty parochial in their views (I think that is the right word), AND certainly TV news is dominated by reporting on events in the US with very little coverage of foreign news. In my opinion Germans are more aware of what is happening in the US than Americans are about Germany. Plus, the US education system is greatly lacking in sparking interest in news outside of the United States. So what can we do about it?????
    Keep the articles coming…great stuff.

    • Kenneth R. Yeager

      I suppose one can say that some of what I just wrote is a bit redundant but still, I suspect damn few could pinpoint Damascus on a map so I think you and the other SKs will understand what I said.

  • Frank

    Ken, I was thinking…because of your remark…I was a State Department Brat and my own kids ended up being Army Brats.
    I think Americans are so into “America is the center of everything”, so others don’t matter as much. I do not think it is because of a lack of education (of course I’m Bias). but a deep routed cultural issue. Try to tell Americans that France has a better health care system (US is considered #37),try to tell Americans the Danish have the best chance of upward mobility (and they are the happiest folks in the world), that Germans have better wages and benifits and that beer, coffee (and coffee is still rationed for G.I.’s in the Commissaries going back to post-WW II time frames), cheese, fresh food products, and less molested farm products are in Europe. As a teacher, i would point this out and students and parents complained that I was not a true American.
    It did not dawn on them, that I was saying this only because I felt the U.S. could turn this around for our own good!
    Leaving tomorrow and will be in Amsterdam on Wednesday.. Those darn Dutch ride to many Bicycles and get in the way of us American tourists! And those trolleys always aim straight toward me. You would think that with all us Americans going there and spending money, they would adjust their habits!! LOL

  • H. Clark

    True story.

    As a newcomer to the U.S back in 1975, my coworkers often invited me to their parties so that I have a chance to meet new friends. A Vietnamese girlfriend of mine from high school in Saigon happened to visit me from Switzerland, so I brought her along to the party. People there would ask my friend:

    Where are you from?
    -Switzerland.

    Huhh? Can you spell it? (They thought she does not understand English).
    -S w i t z e r l a n d.

    Where is that?
    -It’s a country in Europe.

    What do you do there?
    -I am a biologist.

    It caused eyebrows to go up, plus a young looking Saigon kid as a biologist in Switzerland? Hmmm…

    Back then, there was no pho, no banh mi, and no Vietnamese restaurants. We tried to fit in and loved it.

    • Kevin L. Wells

      Huong,

      Your little story reminds me of my experience in the departure lounge at Orlando in about 2004.

      I was waiting for a flight home and overheard two men talking in adjacent seats. One explained to the other with an accent that clearly marked his as a native Spanish speaker that he was “…from Hendersoonveeelle.” It took a second for my brain to process his accent and it was then obvious that he meant Hendersonville, NC, just 60 or so miles from our destination airport.

      I distinctly remember thinking “Why not? He can be from anywhere he chooses to call home.”

      KLW

      • H. Clark

        Kevin,

        Regarding the accent we hear around us, it’s something one must develop very early in life to be able to speak native-like. I find it absolutely true in my case. Very interesting!

        I learned French as a young kid growing up in Saigon at St. Paul school and spoke the language for about 12 years and then completely dropped it (dead) when I must immediately went to work with the Americans until now; it has been 44 years. However, my French accent is still much better than my English accent, which is ddaaang close, but still not native-like. Families and friends have always been toooo nice, telling me it’s perfect. They’re all big liars! – LOL – 🙂

        Huong

  • mimi

    Hi everyone,
    Ignorance…do not think you have a monopoly, lol- it is equally distributed amongst many countries who think they are educated. I often read blogs and commentaries of readers on british, canadian, french and american newspapers, and I can tell you that knowledge of history and geography, and just plain common sense are harder to find that a living soul on mars.
    Frank, have a nice trip. Hope you have nice weather, and that the trolleys do stop for you-lol-
    Bob, the girls reunion did not take place, it was impossible to find a date that suited everyone. It has been postponed to autumn, we’ll see if we can make it.

    Another thing I wanted to know: is there a way to have the Viet-nam film on DVD?

    Big hugs to all. mimi

  • Suellen Oliver Campbell

    Leaving Saigon after 2 years in country, I felt like a fish out of water for the first few months. Didn’t want to go, then didn’t want to leave best decribes my Saigon experience. After departure from Saigon, and having said good bye to all my friends (and then boy-friend Larry Smith)I sobbed uncontrollably all the way to Manilla. We had left in a hurry due to my grandfather’s illness, and I was shell-shocked for a long time.
    My first realization that I was “not in Kansas/Saigon anymore”, was when I went to the local drugstore in Philadelphia, and tried to bargain for a bottle of Revlon nail polish with the clerk. I asked, “how much?” She said, “one dollar.” I said, “I’ll give you 50 cents,” and the look on the clerk’s face brought me quickly back to a new reality..no more bargaining! Bummer! Shopping has not been much fun since then.

  • To all who wrote and responded on this topic: it’s so good to hear Saigon kids talking about this, because I think the return from VN was very very challenging in so many ways. I was sent to boarding school in Massachusetts, and for a while I took hot showers more than once a day just to warm up…On a more general note, the American teenage world of Saigon was more free-form, cosmopolitan and in some ways democratic than the world I encountered at my Episcopalian boarding school, with its strict “preppy” dress code and the hierarchies of colleges we applied to. In Saigon, children of Army sergeants rubbed shoulders with those of colonels, highway contractors, university professors, CIA operatives and state department types as well as French colonials, kids from the American South going bar-hopping and slumber partying with Indonesian ambassador’s kids.I think also we were less monitored and supervised than we might have been stateside – I know that was true of me. Anyway, entering the college prep world was for me like stepping onto the planet Mars initially. I adjusted quickly, (that essential skill for a State Dept brat), but the move back to the States was the culminating and most intense of all my moves due to my dad’s career. I think, like many people who wrote in, I will always have a sense of “statelessness,” with all its benefits and losses. I’d really be interested in hearing more from others about this feeling!

  • Jim Turnbull

    Great to hear from Suellen and Janet. Does anyone have contact info for the Haznam family? I know that Dini was ill, but haven’t heard any recent news. I have a lot of fond memories of the Haznam Family and spending hours and hours at their home.

    • Hi Jim – Sadly, Dini Haznam passed away recently. Contact information for Veny (and other Saigon Kids) is located in the Alumni Directory (link is located at bottom of left side menu area). Also, the most recent information about particular individuals can be found under their name on the Categories Menu (located left side menu area).

      Bob

    • Suellen Oliver Campbell

      The Haznam Home was Teenage Central, wasn’t it? We all have so many wonderful memories of afternoons and slumber parties spent at their house. Everyone was welcome and loved being there.
      How are you, Jim? Good to hear from you on here.Would you take some time to relate some of your memories for us old late “50’s Saigon folks?

  • Jim Turnbull

    Bob, Please contact me at my e-mail address. Thanks.

    • Jim – Please use the *Contact Form* to send me your message. Click On the *Contact and Help Desk* tab on the Menu bar across the top of this page. Thanks.

      Bob

  • Suellen Oliver Campbell

    Janet, Saigon is still one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I know that some, like your sweet sister, have horrible memories from the closeness of the war and its side-effects. Those younger kiddos did not have the opportunity to experience the freedom of teenage life in Viet Nam that you aptly decribed, and the select few of us were fortunate to have lived. I think we were there at the “perfect” time in it’s history.

    I have not thought of the unusual variety of friendships we made across the strata of American society, income and status of Saigon friends. We were all just friends, mostly due to the small number of teenagers over there with which to hang out. But you are so right…we were an eclectic bunch of kids who managed to find some common bonds in a foreign land. We also were fortunate to make some life-long friendships, and though it has been now over 50 years (with no contact for many of those years), those friendships, like ours, are still very close to my heart.
    With Dad in the Navy, for many years I never felt like I had a “home.” We rarely had family to celebrate holidays or enjoy summer vacations, but overall I am blessed to have had the life we lived, moving from coast to coast, attending many different schools.
    However I always wanted to begin and end in the same school, something many of my friends did, but I never had. Then I attended Lander College in S.C., and decided I would never change schools once I enrolled. I met and married Charles and he had family there, so S.C. became my “home” though we lived other places. Even after living in Texas for over 40 years, I still say, “We are going home,” when traveling to S.C., but also say, “We are going home,” when returning to Texas. After all these years I guess I have dual stateship.
    Maybe it just takes a half a century or so to have planted roots deep enough to have a “home?”

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