Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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The single incident which probably had the biggest impact on me while I was in RVN--and one of only two times I was actually personally scared (I was mostly too busy for fright)--had to do with making a Solacium Payment.
(As I remember it) a Solacium Payment was made to the next of kin of a local when they died accidentally in an incident in which the U.S. Army was clearly involved. It was made clear that the payment was not intended to convey any sense of culpability on the part of Uncle Sam, but simply a sense of regret at the family's loss and any involvement we had in it. (As you might guess, a long-haul trucking outfit like ours made a lot of Solacium Payments.) The payment had to be made by a commissioned officer and witnessed by another commissioned officer; all of this to lay about $35 worth of piasters (as I remember it) on a family whose feelings under the circumstances are probably pretty predictable. I cannot express what an asshole this made me feel like, except to say that I drew Burial Officer once back at Ft. Lee, VA. This was worse.
We had this big "cattle car" (an enclosed trailer with four rows of benches running front to back) that was used to haul all of the local hooch maids, etc. back into Saigon every afternoon. In one of the weirdest accidents I'll ever witness, the driver was knocked unconscious when his west coast mirror tangled with the mirror on the truck going the other way, and the cattle car went over an embankment, rolled and burned. Naturally, it was grossly overloaded--there were something like seventy-five people inside. I can't recall all the particulars, but about twenty or so died, including the driver.
Just about every officer in the battalion drew at least one Solacium Payment as a result of this beauty. Mine happened to be for a 17-year-old young woman who lived in Cholon. I knew her.
At this time I'm the CO of a two-and-a-half ton outfit that's being deactivated--we're doing bunker guard and other REMF crap. I have a Vietnamese (ethnic Chinese) secretary named Kim, who the Group Sgt. Major asked me to take in for awhile; apparently she'd been the designated squeeze of some M.I. Major he knew and they didn't know what to do with her when he rotated back to the world. Beautiful 19-year-old woman, miniskirts, great sense of humor (still got the pictures and she still looks good).... Kim volunteered to go down to Cholon and help us find this place because we didn't stand a prayer.
So, we tool on down to Cholon: Kim, me, my driver and a butterbar I borrow from the outfit next door to be the witness. We go and we go, with Kim asking directions frequently, and finally we pull over on the side of a small, very crowded street--with no military vehicles, White Mice or anything else reassuring in sight. I figure, let's get in and get outta' here ASAP. So I ask Kim, where's the house we're looking for? She says to come with her down this alley.
So, we leave a very unhappy driver clutching his M-16 in the jeep and the three of us head on down this alley--we've got two.45s and one M-16 between us. No extra magazines. (Officially, we're over-armed.) Within ten yards of entering the alley, sunlight has disappeared for good. What we got here is this winding alley between tall buildings out of the backs of which are extending lean-to like dwellings. There's a small path between all of this, and it's full of people, garbage, people, puddles, people, crates, and people. A lot of these people are young men, more than I'm accustomed to seeing out of uniform. Nobody is looking real happy to see us; many seem to be incredulous. If you look up, you can see the sky, but on the ground several stories below, it's twilight.
We move along as Kim asks questions once in awhile. We go a long, twisting, turning way. Occasionally, another smaller alley intersects the one we're on like a tributary. There are whispers and shouts and murmurs as we pass, but I don't notice what's behind us until I turn around to see we're being trailed by a growing crowd. The crowd is very quiet, but individual people exclaim as we go by and one or two people from each little hovel seem to join the group. They are mostly young (under thirty, I guess) men and women; some of the guys look like Cowboys.
I notice that Kim has stopped addressing us at all, and her inquiries sound concerned. I start thinking that this kid (I think of her as a kid because I'm a 22-year-old Man of the World O-3), who lives in a nice modern apartment building and whose Dad works for an American firm, is not on her own turf and is really in over her head. Now I'm getting very, very nervous. Butterbar is soaking wet and practically hyperventilating, and his eyes seem real big as he seeks reassurance. Maintaining my Command Presence (tryin' hard, anyway) I keep telling him this is all routine. He's got the only M-16 and I wonder if he is any good at all with it, then I realize that everything is so dense that even I couldn't miss with the.45. It dawns on me that we are right smack in the bowels of Cholon--legendary for belonging to no one but Charlie and local warlords.
It never crossed my mind to go back--got these orders, you know. It never crossed my mind that Kim may have brought us here on purpose.
We keep going for what seems like many miles (even today I think it must have been close to a mile--surreal). Kim stops in front of one of these lean-to's--you can see right in to the "living area" and there's a blanket or curtain separating off what must be a small sleeping area in the back. A very uncertain man of about forty comes to the entrance and he and Kim talk. She tells me we have the right place, that this is the young woman's (forgot her name, too--what's new?) father. I ask her to tell him my canned speech about why we're here, but--impetuously--I add that I knew his daughter and am here also to pay my respects. I wonder why in the hell I really am there.
The father insists that we come in and he puts his hands in front of him in a prayer gesture and bows as I enter. I don't know from left field about customs at that time, but my reflexes have me bowing back. He goes to a little Styrofoam cooler and pulls out two lukewarm bottles of what's now Classic Coke--that's all he has, but he insists that Butterbar and I have them. He gives us the only two chairs at a little table and he pulls up a crate or something. Kim stays standing by my shoulder. There are two other women and a little girl in the hooch. We are introduced to the mother--his wife--and the Grandmother; they stay over in the shadows, but are attentive. The mob is outside, very quiet except for an occasional murmur, just staring. The family doesn't seem to notice and I find myself forgetting about them.
We talk for quite awhile. I tell him that his daughter was a hooch maid in my company and that she had a wonderful sense of humor and beautiful smile (didn't have to lie). After we talk a little more, his eyes light up and he says that I must be the handsome Dai Uy who always spoke to the women and would joke with them when they were doing laundry. He excitedly calls his wife over to tell her of the connection and seems to be introducing me all over again. We talk some more.
We finish the Coke and I realize it's time to get to business. How? First he takes us over to a dresser on one end of the hooch. I hadn't really focused on it before, but they've set up a little shrine on it. There's a couple of candles, a small framed picture of the dead girl, a couple of other mementos including a letter or card of some kind and, incongruously, a watch. The grief in that hooch had been evident all along, now it was very strong; my feelings of sharing responsibility helped it along. Don't anyone ever lay that bullshit about "they don't care about death the way we do" on me.
I don't know if others have had the same reaction, but except for Vietnam I never saw anything like that little shrine until I first went to the Wall. The Wall is covered with lots of little Vietnamese shrines; some of us have helped to create them. Ironic, ain't it?
I seriously consider just getting the hell out of there without doing that stupid, insulting payment. I consider giving them some money out of my own pocket--if Kim said it'd be O.K.--and going back and saying we couldn't find the place. I want to do anything but offer this family a lousy $35 and ask them to sign for it (as I recall, they had to sign) while Butterbar and I sign a form and give them a copy confirming that Uncle Sam has bought them off. In the end, intimidated by the presence of the Butterbar and Kim (or maybe because I still believed there was a good reason for me to be told to do this shit, even if I couldn't understand it at my level), I do the deed. Can't say how I felt when I was going through it--I was numb.
As we start to leave I realize that the crowd is still there. I just know that we've come this far without any grief because they wanted to know what we were up to. I honestly believe that they are going to kill us on the way back. Or maybe we'll just be captured? Naw, they'll kill us. I'm completely fatalistic about it. (O.K., you knew this might happen, right?)
Nothing happened. As we retrace our steps, the crowd dwindles; each person peeling off when they get to their own hooch. By the time we get back to the blinding sunlight in the street, there are just a couple of people standing at the entrance to the alley. Not one person has asked for a cigarette, tried to change money or offered a blow-job--on the way in or on the way back.
Hernandez, my driver, is one tense dude. He's sitting with his butt on the back of the driver's seat so as to have a clear shot--his knuckles are white from gripping the M-16 so hard. About ten Cowboys are scattered in a rough perimeter, like wolves waiting for the moose to bleed to death or let down its guard. He's happy to see us, but really pissed off.
Kim was called to another M.I. unit to perform pressing duties the next week. I never had much more contact with the Butterbar, so I don't know if he saw and felt what I did. I am sure that he tells a version of this story from time to time, but it's really not much of a war story.
I still don't know exactly what I felt--or feel today--but I think about it a lot.