Saigon-Going Home (The Cage: Vietnam)

(taken from the book: “Where the Birds Don’t Sing”)


Saigon-Going Home
The Cage and the Stranger

Just when I thought everything was back to normal, in the process of leaving Vietnam, sitting in the packed-air terminal, going through three days of the military checking of this and that to see if I had any issues in the area of drugs, psychological or physical; consequently, putting me in one cage after another, separating me from one group to another, finally I made it, that is, I made it to the inside terminal, a feat in itself, –I mean…I was really warn out.

During the processing, one guy [GI] came up to me in the bathroom where we all had to piss in this container and give it to the Security Police at the entrance, upon one’s departure from the latrine, then they’d have it checked for drugs. If you had any kind of dope in your system, [god forbid] it would come out showing, and you’d have a long wait before you got that free steak in your out-processing at Fort Lewis

a man next to me a young [anxious] white lad, asked me to save some of my piss for him, that is, put it in his container, as he was holding it in his hand [impatiently]. I looked to my right, the guard was always looking everywhere, he’d start on one side go down to the floor with his eyes and up to the ceiling, or almost that high, across and up the other side, and continue doing that; then look outside a bit, and do it again. At the same time, as the guard was doing this, he’d grab the piss bottles of soldiers leaving the bathroom, and give them to another Security Police person and he’d take them away.

For the most part, there was only a few seconds to make such a transfer, if one was going to do it in the first place; that is, making any transfers of the liquid from one bottle to another. The Security Policeman, standing at the doorway, had firmly said, when each person came through,

“…if you are caught giving away you piss, you will be put in jail, along with the fellow you’re trying to help…” and we’d not leave this hell hole. I told the guy standing next to me, in a somewhat, panic, to move on, get away from me or I’d exploit him for what he was trying to do, I said this as the guard started to look my way.

“What’s going on over there?” The guard said [craftily], as he started to walk towards us. The man next to me [desperately] seeing the movements of the guard, put his hand under the other guy’s dick to catch his piss, and quickly maneuvered on over to the other side of the latrine, where there were parallel urinals. [I think the guard overhead me telling him to get away from me quick or else.]

“Something wrong Corporal?” asked the guard. I looked at the dope addict, slyly, and said no, just minding my own business. “Good,” he commented, “Then move on out of here.”

The other man now was on the other side of the bathroom, trying to fill the rest of the bottle up in the urinals, he needed to fill it up a little over the middle line, but now the guard was suspicious. When I left, I turned around to catch a glance; the guard was watching him directly. I shook my head as I walked past the gate to get into another processing area; I’m sure the guard knew the man was up to no good, but it was best to just move on.

For three days [at times somewhat bored] I went through this process of check, and recheck. I couldn’t even find any booze to drink.

Then on the third day I was put into a cage with three other GI’s as there were several of them. They were [the cages] as big as a small kitchen, possible 100-square feet. As they [the processing people] got to you, you would go to another cage, until you got through the whole gamut, three cages in all [to insure you were drug free, this process was started in the summer of l971, just prior to my leaving which was in the fall].

The Stranger

[Abruptly.] “Hello, my name is Star.” I looked at the stranger, he sat to my left, and actually I only turned my head slightly to get a glimpse, giving him a preferred profile incase I didn’t want to talk. As I looked at this stranger wide-eyed now, he seemed calming; at the same time, I was listening to the sounds of the airplanes, their engines, and the chatter from within the terminal, the sounds of walking feet, pacing feet, –pacing back and forth, just waiting to get on the flight, everyone was doing it but me, and here was this small man ‘Star’, youthful, inquisitive. I thought at the moment, now what does he want. Maybe he was twenty-one, maybe not. I was twenty-four now, had been for a week. He looked like he was built solid. He was in green-fatigue Army garb. Not dressy at all but kept, no rank, no anything signifying who he was. I wasn’t much for talking, but I guess I could be friendly I thought.

“Hi,” I countered back, with a smile, hell I thought I’m on my way home; if he wants to rob me I could care less. I say that facetiously, for I knew it was not his intention. He was most likely boarded like me, having to go through all this gobbledygook bull shit.

He smiled [wisely], his face was smooth, almost illuminated it seemed, so clean looking, too clean looking, I figured he was not an ordinary soldier, maybe one of those undercover Military Intelligence chaps, but so what if he was –I thought.

He said [soothingly],

“I say–it’s over for you I see; the war that is, you’re going home I expect?” Knowing that was more of a statement than a question, I nodded my head ‘yes’, and smiled. At best, it was a rhetorical question, in the sense: — it was not a matter of if, rather of when, which was happening at this very moment. I got a little more composed, and asked [a little carelessly],

“How about you, I mean are you, are you headed on home also?”

“I’ll be back here, one way or another, I’m sure–it all depends… (‘Flight …’ some one said quietly.) Do you believe in God?”

I thought, man oh man, a preacher in the middle of the airport, maybe one of them you find back home; I’ve seen them all dressed up in old looking garb, like in the days of Jesus, sandals and all preaching around the airport, going into fast-food restaurants and asking for hand outs. But he couldn’t be one of them, he didn’t fit the bill.

“Yaw, I guess I kind of know of Him–” adding, “I’ve said a few prayers in my time.” Actually the only time I prayed was when I was young, and was studying to be an altar-boy, and when I drove drunk, and a few times here in Vietnam. But I felt I need not explain all that.

He smiled again, as if he knew something I didn’t know, or knew something I knew and wasn’t willing to share, he wasn’t snobby, or impolite, and I seemed to be in a trance as he continued to talk, and everything seemed to be related to a solitude with God. What could I say I told myself, I had nothing better to do today, and I wasn’t sure what they were saying over the loud speakers but it wasn’t let’s go, it’s 9:00 AM, but it was getting close to my time to get on the plane I knew. His voice was comforting, and tranquil.

Forty-five minutes later

[Bewildered.] “Excuse me,” I said to the stranger, as I got up and went to the counter asking why I wasn’t being called to get on the 9:00 AM flight, it was now 8:55 AM. She looked at me strangely [almost amused], then scratched her neck,

saying [as she tried to clear her throat]:

“Everyone is aboard airplane, we made last call 15-minutes ago; –it looks like you’ll have to take the next flight out, sorry.”

[Un-thoughtfully I yelled.] “What!” A few of the soldiers around the counter looked my way. “What’s that?” I asked in disbelief. Then settling… slowly calming myself down…I continued to speak:

“I mean lady that was my flight; I need to get on it [I didn’t stop to focus, and listen to what she had said].”

“Sorry soldier, it’s all secure, and ready to take off, you really can not get on it.”

I took in a deep breath of air, and let it out slowly.

“Oh well,” I said, trying to be cheerful, and then walked away. That’s what I get for talking, I told myself. The next flight was at 9:00 PM, I had time to walk around and get a sandwich and some coffee, they had a few carts with Vietnamese women selling food, and some machine venders. But as I looked for my friend in this somewhat 2600 to 3000 square foot waiting area, I couldn’t see him. No way could he have left, unless he decided to stay in Saigon, at this air base [Tan-son-nut].

Sitting Thinking Waiting for the Flight

I sat back down, got thinking how slow time moves when you’re patiently waiting; telling myself, this time will all pass, and be but a memory in time to come, you know, this was simply how it was [plaintively but true].

My mind now was shifting to a few days ago, I had met a gal with a blue dress on a few days ago, she wanted me to go down to her house in the city of Saigon, it would be a lustful afternoon at best, and if caught, a bust at worse, that is to say, I could get in trouble. Not sure what her price was, she said we’d argue about it later, she was a doll, big round breasts poking out of her flimsy silk like dress, a little like Frenchie, with nice sculptured legs. She came into the men’s latrine right behind me, she was a secretary to some Command Sergeant Major I believe, she kept on telling me we could do it right in one of the stalls there, right in the huge Air Force, latrine [actually who would know or tell, many women came in and left, all supposedly working– but I said no, it was too wild for me, but really meaning, too careless.]

Joe, my friend from the 611th followed me here to the Air Base, and was going to Hawaii, where he was going to meet his wife. He told everyone back at base camp, he was done with the Army, saying,

“Chick, don’t tell anyone. Make sure you don’t tell anyone, they gave me $2500 to stay in, and I took it.”

He seemed to be in a little panic as he emphasized not telling anyone, he even told me to ‘shut up’ about it a few more times, almost sorry he told me in the first place–that I was the only one he was telling [he was regretting–and here I’m telling everyone in the book, 33-years later]. I told him it was great, if that’s what he wanted; not sure what the big fuss was about, but I’m sure he went a cut the Army down from head to toe, and you know, that made it worse when you turn around a join right back up. In any case, he made sergeant, we were both corporals at the 611th; I think the extra strip he got was for joining. For myself, I needed to get out, it was time. He had taken a flight yesterday; I figured he was in Hawaii right this very minute.

Flight A102/9:00 PM

As I got ready to get on board the 9:00 PM flight, information had come back, seeping through the ranks, the grapevine as one might say, –it was that the previous flight had gone down in a storm before it reached Japan; sadly but true…

I stood like a stick in disbelief–

[With profound disgust.] I had to be pushed by the soldier behind me to wake up; I think I was in a daze for a moment.

“I was supposed to have been on that flight,” the soldier behind me caught his breath, “No kidding.” As I would find out later in life, this would happen once more; in l980, flying back from Italy to Germany, and back to New Jersey. I would take an early flight out of Italy, not the one I would be assigned to because I had gotten to the air base early, and they had several seats available, and asked me if I wanted to take it. I’d find out in Frankfurt, that the plane I was suppose to have been on, after my flight, went down.

In this flight [from Vietnam to Japan I was suppose to have been on], there were 220-soldiers killed; –in the flight from Italy to Germany [to take place in l980], over 240-soldiers would be killed.

Anyhow, I shook myself sober, and forced myself onto the flight, walking slowly, and thinking about the 220-soldiers, and my friend who had disappeared. I guess life would be boring without mystery, and so I left well enough alone. It was the hand of providence that rearranged things, not sure why, I was no better than another soldier, by far. Matter of fact, I was probably worse than most. But I knew I couldn’t dwell on that too long, it was just the way things were.


A Steak at Fort Lewis

As I was on the flight, going to Fort Lewis from Vietnam I knew once I’d get to Lewis, I’d process out of the Army, get a de- briefing, and be on my way home. It was the way things worked. If anything I had lots of time to think of the future. I started to think as the plane went over more land and water on its way to Japan [where it would refuel and I would buy my mother a beautiful opal necklace and earrings], and then onto Alaska [to refuel again], I thought about a reoccurring dream I had while in Vietnam. It was about being in the back section of a plane, and somehow the plane had lost its upper section in mid air. The dream never went past that [I had it several times]. Maybe this was the plane I thought, but I was seated in the middle of the plane not the back, it couldn’t be the same plane, or dream. Funny what you think when information is constantly being processed in your brain.

Two hundred soldiers dead in a flight, a preacher of sorts talked me into missing a plane. I was about to process out of the Army. The dream may have been right, the plane I was meant to be on went down, and possible I would have been in the back, like my dream indicated. It never had an ending [my dream, as I have already said] because, maybe and just maybe, God tore that part of the page out of the book of life [After I would arrive home from Vietnam, I’d never have that dream again for the rest of my life, or up to this writing, anyway.]

War is never good, but I had really gone to Vietnam thinking it would free a country; what I had learned was peace does not mean freedom, for they had peace, as long as they did what the dictator told them to do, yes, then he gave them peace [meaning North Vietnam of course]. At best I felt, maybe a slice of Democracy with a slice of Capitalism could benefit Vietnam. I didn’t know the combination for them, what would work, and I’m not sure if anyone else did either.

But what I did know was such regimes did not give the people, [although in pretense they may have] peace with freedom, something they never knew in the first place, but it seemed to me like they wanted to test it out; possible something new for that whole part of the world in general. Why the world was willing to let a dictator hold this country in ransom was beyond me; –especially when the nations doing the squabbling were the countries that had peace with freedom. It was a time of countries domineering people, and in some cases countries domineering countries. Who was right and who was wrong would be talked about for many years to come. Wiping my brow, I sat back and enjoyed the sun coming through the window.

Maybe the whole world couldn’t tell the difference between peace for sale, and peace with freedom [sometimes we’re just too close to the forest to see the trees].

In my short life time, I have witnessed at points of time, where the whole world was wrong and one person right, it has been proven time and again. But I didn’t know if I was right or wrong, I just went by my values, I couldn’t violate them. And so maybe our truth is simply our values that are what makes us right and wrong. I don’t know, in any case I was glad to be going home.

I looked at a few clouds outside of my port hole in the plane; it looked like a cluster of candy frost. I liked it. Still no birds though. [I hesitantly looked at a number of faces in the seats, some sleeping, some tired, some couldn’t sleep, but all happy to be getting out of Vietnam, I think.]

My mind started shifting into day-dream mode again.

I think all my friends in Vietnam would not have minded dying for that reason alone, that is, peace with freedom. I knew all the controversy back home was more on blind-sight, and hind sight. A bunch of people blind following the blind not free thinking. The very same way the government runs the war, the blind leading the blind.

From what I’ve seen, read, and heard most of it was showmanship, news on news, the spot light. We all forgot people were dying. We forgot peace with freedom. We all had our sins though.

The sorry feeling I always carried around was [although it didn’t bother me as much as my friends] was the naked fact we had no support, not by our own people, much less the rest of the world.

I got thinking about the steak you are suppose to get the last day in the Army, no, I mean, when you come home from Vietnam, I guess everyone gets one. I hope they are right.

I had also learned, –and thought as I sat on this stuffy plane, with all the body odor shifting around like in a horse stall, and believe me, it was enough to kill a skunk– no one knows you as a soldier; –that is to say, because while working in San Francisco, at Lilli Ann, everyone in the world knew of, or about Adolph Shuman even me, I worked for him, but here in the Army I was no more known than a ‘wino’ on Wabasha Street, in St. Paul, Minnesota. And I’m sure if Mr. Shuman would have been on this airplane with me, no one other than a few people on the plane would have known him. So that told me something for having a long career in the Army. But I knew I needed to get educated somehow and I would take advantage of the GI Bill now and go to College. That is what I had to do.

The world was changing and you had to change with it. To have a degree, and not be licensed in some profession, you were not in demand. Plus, I needed to learn how to be more assertive, and talk to crowds, and so I had a lot of work ahead of me.

When I got to Fort Lewis, I was given a big fat steak [and I don’t mean with a lot of fat on it], just like they promised, and some letters from the President saying what a good job I did, and from a few Generals and so on. I was also told they’d send me an Army Accommodation Medal in the mail in a few months, and then I was on my way to St. Paul, Minnesota, it took all of 24-hours.