This text, made available by the Sixties Project, is copyright (c) 1996 by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., or the author, all rights reserved. This text may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. This text may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is a collective of humanities scholars working together on the Internet to use electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.
First Few Days in Viet Nam
Once, in a small hamlet outside the large Army/Marine installation at Chu Lai, early in 1967, I stood with a group of techies from the 601st RRU--that's a group of linguists and Morse code operators plus a few other MOSes for those who do not know. We were haggling over the cost of this and that, things like genuine jade chess pieces that would bleed the green right onto your fingers if you were sweating and you were always sweating in Chu Lai, Vietnam, Republic of. We stood up above the rice canal that ran behind the small hamlet, all the shops perched precariously on the edge, and haggled for chess men, jackets, genuine Ming vases, and for the rental of female companionship.
I remember clearly a guy from Seattle, Dale something or other, the last name is not important, he was frightened--his first time out of the base camp, though not more than half a klick out--and I think, to cover his fright, he "acted out" the bad guy image. He was not, at heart, a bad guy, just frightened and even more frightened of letting any of us know he was frightened.
Let me describe her for you. She was about four feet tall and could not have been older than twelve -- obviously poor, there were no middle class people in Chu Lai, at least not Vietnamese people. She had long brown/black hair and was very slender, breasts just beginning to bud and carried her baby brother on her hip. But she was clean and her brother was clean. He had on a shirt and in the way they did things, no bottom. It made sense. If you're not old enough to go to the bathroom, why not just let the urine and shit fall onto the ground? The girl was tired, had obviously been kept awake by the shelling the night before and had come to the little market for something--fish, vegetables, maybe even to beg from the American long noses she knew would be there.
Let me talk about Dale again. He was also young, filled with American innocence and that kind of tough/naive bravado that is common among 18-year-old American men when they are in groupings of other men near their age or older. He was not, and I want to stress this, he was not a bad person. In Seattle, he had fished and hunted, had played baseball, had dated, had managed somehow to retain his virginity and continued to resent it even the day after the first night he had ever heard the shrill whistle of 105mm rockets grow awesomely silent, to be followed by the loud boomings and the cries from men like him but whom he did not know and, now, would never know. Dale was big, right at six feet two inches and burly, with kinky hair sitting above his normally too red face. He was not well-educated, but had graduated from high school, one of the first people in his family to have done so.
On this day after the night of the rockets, Dale was even worse off than he had been the day before and the day before he had thrown himself under his bunk when the housegirl had walked through looking for boots to clean. I mean he was so cherry his face could have been used on a box of Smith Brothers cough drops. But on this day, Dale was swaggering. He had survived last night. It didn't matter that almost everyone had survived last night. All but three men out of approximately 6,000. Dale No Last Name had been through his trial by fire and had come out the other end ready to boast about being a man.
Her name, we found out later, was Chuyen. Bang Van Chuyen. And her little brother was named Ngo. Her father was an ARVN captain and was stationed on the base at Chu Lai. I still remember her vividly. No ao dai, just those long silky-looking pants, not new, but with a matching blouse, with worn spots all over it. She didn't have a conical, bamboo hat on, but one of those Australian bush hats that the REMFs had taken to wearing to pretend they actually went out in the bush. The hat's important, you know. Not because it was a hat, but because it was that kind of hat, that kind of bush hat.
You have to understand, too, that Vietnamese women always looked younger than they were or much, much older. Chuyen looked as well developed as some of the prostitutes who worked in the bars on Tu Do Street in Saigon and along Le Loi Street in Pleiku, but then again, no one really knew how old those prostitutes were. So when Dale saw Chuyen he saw more than a young girl holding her baby brother, he saw more than a child holding another child and he was scared in spite of the bullshit and he was embarrassed to be the only one, he thought, in the whole fucking detachment not to have found some woman to "make him a man" when he was still in the States and, be assured, that's how Dale thought of it, of sex, of releasing into a vagina instead of into a hand-kerchief. Dale saw Chuyen and began to walk toward her.
"How much?" he asked.
"Toi khong biet," she said.
"I said 'how much?' you fucking whore!" Dale screamed.
"I no whore," she said.
"How the fuck much?" he asked again and grabbed at her shoulders.
"Di di mau, G.I. I no whore," Chuyen said again.
That's pretty close to the whole conversation. It didn't get really bad until we all started laughing. "Hey, Dale," someone screamed, I don't know who, not me. "Hey, Dale, CherryBoy! Can't even buy it!" "Show her your money," someone else screamed at him.
The whole group roared, laughed, tormented him.
Dale's face turned cherry red and he grabbed Chuyen hard and pulled her towards him. Chuyen spat in his face and Ngo began crying. "Sonofabitch!" Dale screamed in her face and pushed her hard. Chuyen and her baby brother fell to the ground.
I was, as is so often the case, the oldest person in the group--a Spec 5 linguey who would rather have been anywhere else. I managed to grab Dale and shove him back to the ditty-boppers and calm Chuyen down. It always amazed me that just the fact of an American speaking the language could make the Vietnamese people want to listen and trust. I don't mean speak the patois that most Americans could speak, but actually converse in Vietnamese.
The White Mice (ARVN MPs) showed up shortly after I had Chuyen on her feet and Ngo back to her (he was still crying--it sometimes took years before the Vietnamese had cried so much that there were no more tears available. That's one of the reasons we American soldiers resented them: they seemed so emotionless most of the time).
When we got back to the company area, the Captain had already heard about Dale's problems from the ARVN. Probably if Chuyen's father had not been an officer, the whole thing would have been dropped. Dale was still lucky; he received an Article 15 and was restricted to the company for fifteen days.
A true story: anticlimactic, certainly. If I were doing it as fiction, it would certainly not have ended this way. I mean Dale's still alive somewhere. I don't know, though, about Chuyen and Ngo.
Since her father was an officer, she probably became a secretary on the American base--I mean the "war" didn't end for eight more years. If she didn't become a secretary, she probably became a prostitute. But, then, we didn't win, so her father and her and, even, Ngo probably wound up being "re-educated" in some camp. True stories are often as sad as fiction.