Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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I have been trying to remember what it was like for me when I was first in Vietnam. The first few weeks I felt totally alone. It wasn't that the country felt alien. It didn't at all. I was too scared to leave the USARV compound at Tan Son Nhut. My life was a triangle. I got up in the morning in the barracks (called a hooch) went to the mess hall and messed, went to work in the IG building, messed, went back to work, messed again and then back to the barracks and bed. The next morning I got up and did it again. Many weeks passed in this simple way.
The country seemed like San Diego, where I spent a few months with my mother during WWII while my father went through marine training, like San Diego, but without my mother. Both places were warm and had cockroaches, but San Diego was easier, because my mother looked out for me.
Here in Vietnam, I kept thinking, I'm on my own. Nobody cared whether I lived or died. I tried to find some solace. I remembered that I'd loved going to the San Diego Zoo.
I asked around of people who seemed like old Asian hands. "Is there a zoo?" Everyone knew there was a zoo. Most had even been there. I tried to find someone who would be willing to be a companion on such an expedition. For some reason I thought I might be comforted by the familiar sight of exotic animals in cages.
Maybe the zoo would have sun bears. I thought that they were indigenous to this neck of the woods. Malay sun bears, Malaysia couldn't be too far away. In Seattle the sun bears loved Milk Duds, and I loved throwing them to the bears and getting them to do their little tricks. They'd clap their paws and even occasionally do somersaults. They loved Milk Duds.
I wrote my mother and asked for a few boxes of Milk Duds. I figured that because they were hardy enough to survive the cases in movie house foyers they would survive being shipped to me from Seattle. I was right. I sampled a few when they arrived and they nearly sucked the silver fillings out of my molars.
David Chevalier, a SP 6 who was a stenographer in the same office I worked in, had agreed to accompany me to the zoo. David referred to it as the Jardin Botanique.
I remember little of the trip to the Saigon Zoo, except that we went in a sort of a cab which David called a cyclo. I was overwhelmed by my first exposure to an Asian city. The smell, yes, it was very different from Seattle, or Indianapolis, or even San Diego. There was a crush of people, bicycles, and military vehicles. And the heat and humidity seemed much greater than within the protective confines of the USARV compound.
We arrived at the zoo, paid and entered through turnstiles. I wanted to see the sun bears first, so that's where we went. The Saigon Zoo was very different from both the San Diego Zoo and the Seattle Zoo. I was unable to take it all in, but there were platoons of boy and girl scouts in neat uniforms, a man painting faces on balloons, a little girl selling neat triangles of pineapple from a huge platter. "Don't even think about it," David cautioned. "The stuff would kill you for sure. You'd linger for days and then die in a huge pool of your own liquid shit."
Who needed that sort of experience? I waved her away. Besides I had my pockets full of boxed Milk Duds, for the bears and for me. One thing about Milk Duds, they made me very thirsty and what could I drink? If the pineapple would kill me, so would the watermelon, or the weird colored drinks I saw for sale. And the water--"Don't ever drink the water," we'd been told a million times. I could get very thirst in such a country. It was an overcast day, but hot, very hot. Both David and I had long since developed enormous wet sweat spots everywhere our civilian clothing touched our bodies. That is to say, everywhere.
The bears. We arrived at their cage, which was more of an open pit. A low wall and a steep walled waterless moat protected us from the laziest bunch of sun bears I'd ever seen. Would Milk Duds mobilize them? I opened a box, dug out a few, separated them from each other and started tossing them to the bears. They galumphed over to where the Duds landed and snuffled them up.
Soon they were snorting and clapping their paws and doing somersaults. They loved the Milk Duds. No zoo keeper materialized to stop the fun, either. Asia, at least the Saigon part of it, didn't seem as well monitored as America.
There were things to like about Saigon, the Paris of Asia. I was now prepared to seek out other entertainments. We spent an hour or two gawking at the rest of the zoo, the Jardin Botanique and left. Our bargain had been that after the zoo we'd go to Tu Do Street and see what it had to offer. David had assured me that I would find wondrous sights to gawk at. I hoped he was right.