Misadventure In Saigon

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My last assignment in Vietnam was as Chief of the 110th Open Storage Depot at Tan San Nhut. Thin . . . though as Warrants couldn’t “command” my official title was Chief.

It was also somewhat remote from the rest of the group, and it gave me a great deal of autonomy. It afforded me the opportunity to “live on the economy” in Saigon so I found an apartment on Truang Dhogn…a street better known to the GI’s as “Plantation Road.” It was very close to an establishment called The Pretty Girl and Happy GI Bar.  It was perfect for me. I had a staff car, which I had on an open hand receipt from the US Navy Saigon Motor pool, even though I was from the army, and there was a secure US military parking area, within two blocks of my apartment.

I liked living in the apartment . . . I was, at the time, writing BRANDYWINE’S WAR, and living in my own, private apartment, gave me a lot of quality, alone time. I had all the comforts of home . . . a small refrigerator that I had bought at the PX, a cooking stove, a table, a desk, a sofa, and a comfortable bed. Early every morning I would be awakened by the sound of soup boys, clacking their sticks together to advertise the strolling soup vendors. Mamasans were always nearby, singing: Bunmae! Bunmae! Bunmae is a very delicious baguette of bread. The rhythm of the clacking sticks, was unique to a specific soup vendor, and I would listen for the one I liked…. then meet him in the street with my bowl.

I also had a typewriter and paper, so what more could I possibly want? The typewriter was a portable Smith Corona, electric. I had grown used to using an electric typewriter, but there were times when I regretted it, because Saigon was subject to brown outs…. even total black outs, and when that happened I would have to sit in the total dark, unable to write, or even to read.

Fortunately the brown/blackouts weren’t too frequent, so I was able to get a lot of work done. I was in constant communication, by mail, with my editor in NY. Unlike now, when email can afford an instantaneous exchange of manuscript…. and revisions…..these exchanges were, at a minimum, two weeks apart. Still, work on the book progressed.

“I know there is a war going on, not only for you, but for your character, but don’t you think you could give Brandywine some sort of love interest?”

“Part of the thing that’s driving this novel, is Brandywine’s determination to be somewhat more insane than the war itself. That’s the only way he feels he can survive.”

“Yes, but can’t he be a little insane with some female? A Vietnamese woman? Or maybe an American nurse or something?”

“All right, I’ll introduce Lady Jane Grey.”

“Wait, wasn’t Lady Jane Grey beheaded?”

“This one won’t be.”

This exchange between my editor and me took almost three months, but it introduced Jane Gray, the nurse in my picaresque novel, BRANDYWINE’S WAR, BACK IN COUNTRY.

As it turned out though, my little quiet get-away, had a drawback. It seems that a lot of American soldiers were using their off-duty time to rent apartments for activities, other than writing a book. And whereas I had off-base quarters authorization from the base billeting command, many did not. And the nefarious opportunity, most practiced by these “shadow soldiers” was the illicit use of drugs. From time to time, US military authorities would make a sweep through the area, in pursuit of these soldiers, some of whom had deserted the army and were now supporting themselves by black market and drug dealing.

I had written until late, and was asleep very soon after I turned in.

I WAS AWAKENED WITH A LOUD BANG, AND WHEN I OPENED MY EYES, I WAS BLINDED BY A BRIGHT LIGHT! I COULDN’T SEE A THING! In my grogginess, I thought that perhaps a VC sapper squad had broken into my apartment, and I reached for the pistol that was hanging from the head of my bed. The upstroke of a rifle butt knocked the pistol from my hand.

“Freeze!” someone shouted in English.

In the street out front, I could hear the popping sound and radio call of a PRC-10.

“Thank God you’re Amer . . .” that was as far as I got before the barrel of a rifle was literally pushed into my mouth preventing me from saying a word.

“Keep your mouth shut, soldier! Who are you?”

“How am I going to tell you who I am if I have to keep my mouth shut?” I tried to ask, but it came out “Hgg, mug, tgg, mug . . . .”

“Take the rifle out out of his mouth, Carter.”

The rifle barrel was withdrawn.

“I’m Chief Warrant Officer Vaughan, and I have an authorized billeting assignment for these quarters.”

“Let me see it, and some ID.”

So far the voices were coming from the other side of the blinding glare of light, and I had no idea how many were there. I reached for the drawer on the bedside table.

“Open that drawer and you are a dead man!”

“How am I going to show you my ID and my authorization?”

“All right, but that better be the only thing that comes out of that drawer.”

I opened the draw, pulled out my billfold to show my ID, and the billeting authorization.

“Lieutenant?”

“Yes?” a disembodied voice responded from outside.

“This guy’s a warrant officer ‘n he’s got permission to live here.”

“All right, let’s move on.”

There was no, beg your pardon, or I’m sorry, or excuse me. The three men, I could see them once the lights were taken away, a sergeant and two SP/4s left. I heard the jeep drive away, then I turned on the lights. My front door was lying on the floor….. and mosquitoes were swarming in.

That was my last night in my off-base apartment.

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