The Arizona Daily Star
Tuesday, July 11, 2000
Author: Bonnie Henry
They were typical American teen-agers: playing softball, listening to old Buddy Holly records – and cowering in the kitchen ’til the machine guns fell silent.
For this was Saigon , early ’60s, in a country already at war with itself.
“After our arrival, there was an uprising,” Tucson attorney Richard C. Henry says.
“They had a bloody fight in Saigon . You could hear people shooting machine guns up the street. We stayed in our kitchen, waiting it out.”
The time was late fall 1960. Henry (no relation to me) was 17 and in his junior year at the Saigon American Community School.
On Thursday, he and 40 other classmates will travel to Phoenix for their first-ever reunion.
Henry and Frank Stoddard, a high school teacher who now lives in Sierra Vista, are the only two Arizonans among that contingent.
Stoddard, also a junior at the school in ’60-’61, is a prime mover behind the event.
“What makes it a big deal is that when we left town on a silver airplane, it instantly ended. There was no hometown or high school we could return to.”
Stoddard’s father did construction projects under the State Department; Henry’s father was attached to the American Embassy.
Both teens – close friends in Saigon – returned to the States for their senior year.
“The Vietnamese school wasn’t accredited,” Henry says.
Designed for dependents of American workers, the school, for grades 1-12, ran from 1954 to 1964.
Classes, taught through correspondence courses, were small, says Stoddard, whose high school had but 40 kids the year he was there.
After the United States entered the war, the school would become an Army field hospital.
“I think it’s still there,” says Stoddard, who returned to Vietnam in 1966, this time as a Marine.
“I had the best times and the worst times of my life there,” he says.
He first saw Saigon in the summer of ’60, flying in with his family on a prop Pan Am.
Heat and humidity hit them hard. “I think we got used to it,” says Stoddard.
Hairspray and starch also helped.
Old photos posted on the reunion Web site show some teen queens with hairdos as stiff as their crinoline petticoats.
Teen life in Saigon was an insulated cocoon, filled with parties, slow-pitch softball and dancing to old 45 rpm records.
“Armed Forces Radio didn’t kick in until 1962,” Stoddard says.
Most of the kids hung with other Americans, though both Henry and Stoddard had Vietnamese friends.
“I used to borrow my Vietnamese friend’s Vespa,” Stoddard says.
The Americans also congregated at a French sports club in downtown Saigon .
“We met French kids there,” Stoddard says. “Even though the French lost to the Vietnamese in 1954, there were an awful lot of French colonials hanging on.”
The city was still beautiful when he was there, Henry remembers.
Still, bombings and random acts of terrorism were rife.
“We had bars and screens on our school bus windows so nothing could be thrown at us,” Stoddard says.
On Nov. 11, 1960, an unsuccessful palace coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem sent tanks into the streets.
Three years later, Diem was assasinated.
The Saigon American Community School closed in ’64.
While both Henry and Stoddard have lived in Southern Arizona for years, neither knew about the other until Stoddard put out reunion feelers last fall.
They’ve met twice since then.
“We talked and talked, it never quit,” Stoddard says.
Talking about their world at 17 – a world that no longer exists.
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