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The Reception and the Red Spot

by Kevin Wells (ACS)

A chance remark for a recently new “Saigon Kid” brought back memories. The no-longer-missing Euellen Oliver Campbell sent me an email message thanking me for my research into the Lander College yearbook. Her fifth sentence was “Mom was just relating a story several days ago to her assisted living friends about attending a formal reception there in 1958-59 time frame.” The video tape that is our lives rewound to early 1960 and the reception and the red spot incident. Let me explain.

The briefing new State Department families received in those days counseled that many consumer goods readily available in the USA were unavailable or difficult to find in Saigon. What was at the time delicately called “intimate apparel” was one such category of consumer goods not readily available or available only at a horrendous price or after a long delay.

Put bluntly, a lady should take all the bras and girdles she would need for two or more years, and the wise woman took plenty because the tropic climate would ruin all rubber products quickly. My mother was wise and prudent but mere words cannot convey the range of forces the tropics bring to bear on intimate apparel.

In those days, just before the build-up of the US Mission to South Viet Nam, all official Americans got at least one Ambassadorial Reception and a dinner at the Ambassador’s residence. The variable was the Protocol Officer who would pass these invitations out by Foreign Service Rank. Newly arrived, but high ranking members of the mission, civilian or military, obviously got bumped to the top of the list while lesser luminaries waited for their turn. A Flag Officer waited a few weekends, while more junior personnel could expect the invitation months and possibly a year later.

My father was somewhere in the middle because in March, 1960, the invitation arrived. The Wells household went into emergency footing. Although none of the offspring were to attend, we all had duties, primarily along the lines of “You will be watching your brothers and sister Saturday night.” We were all under orders not to have inconvenient situations develop, such as gastrointestinal eruptions (remember those?), failure to appear home at the required time and so forth.

On the day of the reception, my mother kicked into high gear, checking household arrangements, the “hair thing” and laying out the wardrobe. Chee Ba as head of household, took the brunt of the work. I could not tell you how many time she went up and down the stairs on various feminine missions. Then there was the enrobing.

Disaster! A brand new factory sealed industrial strength girdle from the Playtex High Compression line developed a problem. Fully enrobed, it appeared that my mother had a mushroom emerging from her buttocks, trying desperately to erupt through the fabric of the dress.

Back in those days, an industrial strength girdle from the Playtex High Compression line was a vulcanized rubber impregnated fabric. Bicycle inner tubes are vulcanized rubber and they can be patched so why not attempt it on the aforementioned industrial strength girdle? Those were my orders. This was mission-critical because my mother’s rotunda could not otherwise be comfortably encased in the dress.

I have never worn a girdle. My opinion is that girdles of the industrial strength type should be classified as an instrument of torture United Nations Convention Against Torture. I can only imagine the effect on the human body of wearing such a thing in a tropical climate, with or without air conditioning.

So off I went to the local bicycle repair man. He must have been clueless about the use for such a thing but it was rubber and he knew what to do. What he did not know what why he was doing it. A young lady happened by, sized up the situation, and told him something in Vietnamese. This generated laughter and I assume that the kind lady explained the use of an industrial strength girdle. If you have ever seen someone really rolling on the floor laughing, tears streaming from his eyes, drooling, passing gas and, for all I know, wetting his pants, you get the picture.

He had red patches. He did his duty and earned his fee and off I went on the return trip. My mother was duly encased, enrobed, brushed out, fluffed, sprayed & etc, and descended the staircase where she issued the stern orders to me to make sure they were all in bed by 9:00 PM, no trouble was to ensue, behave yourselves and etc.

Then I saw it, the red spot, not much attenuated, and clearly visible. It was, (how can I put it), industrial, obvious, glaring and right there for everyone to see.

My father, dead these nine years, intuited what I was about to say. He quickly stepped over to where I was and said “Don’t spoil this for your mother.” I regarded his tone as slightly menacing so this was a very thinly veiled threat if I ever heard one.

So they went out the door, my mother first then my father who turned and gave all of one of the grins he used when he was in the pursuit of a particularly devious gag. The more devious they were, the better he liked them.

The door closed, Chee Ba groaned and headed for the kitchen, and my sister said “Did you see the red spot on mother’s bum?” a little too loudly. This set off a wicked laugh in Number 2 son, and I had a feeling of foreboding. Somebody would suffer, and I was concerned about collateral damage, me for instance.

The light was out in my room when they returned, so I dodged the crossfire and waited for dawn. I noticed a certain frosty atmosphere the next morning. My father, being practiced in stonewalling, just went about his business and I decided to be scarce. Chee Ba was still groaning and muttering to herself in the kitchen. The rest of the household staff was attending to their duties at top efficiency in a jittery, caffeine overdosed way.. The old gardener was trimming bushes and laughing and talking to himself. (Talking to himself was normal, the laughing was not.)

There was eventually a detente, but I did not confess to knowing about the offending spot for 35 years. In 1995, I reminded my father of the incident and of course he rolled on the floor laughing, tears streaming from his eyes, drooling, passing gas and, for all I know, wetting his pants. Of course, I had to admit my role when my mother asked “What is the big joke?”

9 comments to The Reception and the Red Spot

  • Kenneth R. Yeager

    Bravo on an excellent tale, I thoroughly enjoyed that reading and so my hat is off to you, Kevin. I do wish more folks would peel off a little personal history of a humorous nature. Laughter, I’ve been told, is good for the soul.

    With 32 years in the State Department as one of the lesser beings, occasional Ambassadorial functions did come our way. Receptions and dinners where, for us, not for pleasure but to help entertain the Ambassador’s guest and that can be a pretty boring detail to carry out, especially when the person with whom you are conversing suddenly finds out you are a “lesser being.” After a number of years, I managed to figure out ways to avoid such functions. Some Ambassadors were fun to work with but most were petty, self-centered egotistical types with little regard for his or her staff. Professional diplomats who were appointment ambassador were generally better to work for than political appointees but one of the best was of the latter category, Shirley Temple Black during our time in Prague (1989-92). A really charming lady with a down to earth husband. Three of the very worst were in Morocco (two ambassadors during my time, both awful) and Vienna. My early years with the Foreign Service were so far down the personnel ladder than I hardly ever had any interaction with the ambassador or the senior staff, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds.

  • thomas rushton

    Great stories, and please …more! I was not in the foreign service, but was there as a contractor, and spent five of my seven years as a guest of the communists, POW taken to the North.

  • Maile Doyle

    Oh my goodness, what a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it with us all. I do not recall my mother wearing a girdle in Vietnam, because of the heat, but I remember the bee hive hairdo sprayed within an inch of it’s life! My father was a MACV advisor, Colonel Miller, and mother taught in the elementary school. (1961-1963)

  • Kevin Wells

    Ken,

    If you were a pawn of the Chief of Protocol, you must be familiar with the saying: “Where you stand determines where you sit.”

    My parents sat “below the salt” but it entertained my mother to no end and she had something to write about to the relatives back home.

    KLW

  • Kenneth R. Yeager

    Fortunately, dinners were not often but receptions more common, again to help entertain the guests. Unfortunately, we had to act under the rule, you must attend if the Ambassador “invites” you so finding ways to avoid such events became a challenge.

  • Sarah Rogers

    I can remember how excited my mom was to attend those receptions. I also remember the briefings in regard to what we would and would not have in Vietnam. Actually we had much more than we had expected.
    In regard to underwear…I remember with horror when the Chief of Public Safety Divisions (my dad was his assistant)wife told me and mom that she wore NO undies at all. Shocking!!

  • Suellen Oliver Campbell

    Dear Kevin,
    Loved this story! Those days of receptions and dinners made for some wonderful tales. I loved to see my mom and dad head out the door for that evening’s event….Dad, the U.S. Naval Attache, with all his Navy hoopla pinned on his uniform and pretty, red-haired mom in a beautiful cocktail dress or gown. They were “royalty” in my teenage mind, and even more so in their latter, frail years. Such poise, grace and stature.

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