Monday, April 29, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Eighteen: The Attaché Case

Sometime soon after I had set up my stereo and Sanyo refrigerator in Saigon, thus beginning my return from near psychological death I made one of the most significant purchases in my life. The Base Exchange often went for extended periods with nothing in it anyone would want to buy. There had been a period of seemingly never-ending weeks when they had tried to enforce a buy American regimen on us – by 1967 the quantity of Japanese stereos and cameras that were being sold in Vietnam was seriously harming America’s balance of payments with Japan. During that buy American attempt suddenly Sony, Sansui and Asahi Pentax had been replaced on the shelves by Ampex, Scott and Kodak. Gradually those shiny new American products gathered dust and grime as they languished on the shelves. No one was going to pay a major price premium for products that had substantially fewer features and were of substantially lower quality than their Japanese competitors. A period, which could have been described as the commercial equivalent of the trench-bound stalemate of World War One, ensued. About the only things the BX was selling were condoms and Tai princess rings.

The ultimate capitulation was spectacular. One morning the BX opened and the shelves were piled high with several models of Sony tape recorders. There were Akai tape decks. There were Teac Tape decks. There were Sansui and Kenwood amplifiers. There was a whole stack of Sanyo 1.5 cubic foot refrigerators. The glass enclosed jewelry case overflowed with a huge selection of Seiko watches. By ten in the morning a line snaked out of the exchange into the street, which created a problem for the myriad generals as they careened around the base in their chauffeured staff cars, bestarred flags flapping in their vehicularly haste driven breezes .

With all those people in line at the BX it was hard not to wonder how we could possibly be pursuing the war effort.

I waited to go to the Exchange until the crowds had abated toward late afternoon. I really didn’t need anything since I had bought all my stuff before the imposition of the now failed buy American program. But I wanted to see what was still there. One of the characteristics of retail in Vietnam was - no matter how large the quantity might have been of something that we actually wanted to buy - it would sell out in hours, or even, sometimes, minutes. So I wasn’t surprised to see sparsely populated shelves and floor space. But something caught my eye. Just behind the few Sanyos still on offer was a pile of attaché cases. Closer examination showed them to be quite tacky. They were two pieces of molded plastic forming the body and the lid of the case. But they had sturdy well made latches, a well-attached and durable handle, a drop down three pouch paper vault in the lid and an interior of short fiber synthetic material that disguised the plastic nature of the case. And they were only five dollars each. I had never approved of attaché cases, but one of these seemed to be just what I needed. I always had more to carry than I had pockets for, and officers weren’t supposed to have things in their pockets in any event. And, given the number of senior officers that were everywhere, the mechanics of saluting everything in sight made carrying anything that required two hands out of the question.

A purse was the obvious answer.

That attaché case became my purse.

I took it with me everywhere.

I was carrying it the night I tripped over a partially exposed stump of a tree root poking out of the ground just outside the entrance to Ton Son Nhut. I had been trying to catch a bus. I was able to get up quickly enough from tripping over the stump to pick up my attaché case and catch the bus. That had been partially because I had had the help of an old high school friend who had materialized out of nothing earlier in the day as an Army Lieutenant visiting Saigon.

His name was Bill and we had been friends in high school. Because he lived more or less in Jack’s neighborhood, he and Jack had done more things together in high school than Bill and I had, but we had been friends, partially drawn together by the common bond of being friends with Jack. Bill and Jack had become closer during college because they had both gone to Oregon State. They had been roommates for part of that time. So the surprise of having Bill suddenly show up had been a pleasant one. By that time in my Vietnam tour I had become utterly comfortable with my passive resistance of not giving a shit for the war effort and it had been pleasant to not only have encountered an old friend but to have that friend also be someone who was masquerading as an officer in the armed forces of the United States.

I was usually present and accounted for in the “war effort” for the pre-requisite number of “working hours.” By then I had become in charge by some militarily osmotic process of building the 7AFDITD target data base. “The 7AFDITD target data base” was a grand term for a rapidly growing hoard of punched 80 column cards that were periodically put through sorters, collators and, ultimately an IBM 407 accounting machine with an attached CAM – calculating accounting module – brothers and sisters of which were going to bring me to near fatal financial ruin some years later. At that time they were just hulking gray entities in a trailer across the compound from the hootch in which I worked. And my only relation with the 80 column cards was the preparation of the coding sheets that we used to extract and codify OPREP 4 results. Some higher being converted those coding sheets into 80 column cards. Then those cards became components of the 7AFDITDTDB. Normally an officer would have only supervised the endless extracting and transcribing of OPREP 4 results to coding sheets. Normally the actual physical job of coding the information to the coding sheets would have been the job of junior grade enlisted men. And I had some of junior grade enlisted men assigned to me, and they did transcribe. But I had decided early on to manifest a sort of solidarity with my enlisted men by coding my share of coding sheets. There was something almost lullingly narcotic about the process. And it passed time. Between that and signing Certificates of Destruction as George Washington or Who’s in the John, Milton? the time seemed to pass. At least - on those occasions when I awoke from the narcosis of coding - I could see my DEROS creeping ever closer. The other recommendation for taking coding as a primary function was that it was totally unnecessary. The size and quality of the 7AFDITDDB had no bearing on anything. The mere assertion of its existence was really its total purpose. That assertion and the ability to take visiting dignitaries to the trailer full of hulking gray entities was more than enough. The fact that there were huge quantities of 80 column cards with holes in them seemed to point to the inevitability of our ultimate defeat of the enemy. Many a light at the end of many a tunnel could be pointed out in that trailer full of obsolete tabulating equipment and vast drawers full of meaningless and mostly fictitious data.

The unnecessary nature of my primary function had translated into total personal freedom. When I was there in the hootch it was thought that I was first in line in contributing to the war effort. I produced prodigious quantities of coded OPREP 4 data. But since it was totally unnecessary, when I wasn’t there, nobody noticed or cared. I had actually been able to create the functional equivalent of not processing in and spending my tour in the Officers’ Club. As it was, I spent a great deal of my apparently dedicated to the war effort time in the Officers’ Club. I spent a great deal of time there primarily because it was dark and they served a generous scotch rocks for not much money. But I also spent a great deal of time there because I had realized very early in my tour that if one sat in the Ton Son Nhut Officers’ Club long enough one would see everyone that one had ever known who had any relationship to the commissioned military.

So I really wasn’t surprised to see Bill. I was surprised that he was a Lieutenant in the Army. I hadn’t heard that he had even gone into the military.

He had a bandage on his hand that was oozing blood. “Combat wound,” I thought to myself. So I bought him a drink. In the ensuing discussion he thrust out his hand and said “you’ve got to be careful when you’re scavenging”. I just looked at him waiting for some salty combat joke. He finished his drink and we ordered another one from the wandering Vietnamese cocktail provider. We lapsed into silence. That was not unusual. Bill had always been fairly laconic and conversations with him had always contained significant lapses into pregnant silence. About halfway through the second drink he said “I came down here to Saigon to get some stuff we need back at the fire base. One of those things is air conditioners. I couldn’t get supply to give me any, but I discovered an unguarded hootch with a brand new looking air conditioner. As I was removing it from the window I let it slip and it fell on my hand. It’s pretty messed up.”

We had a third drink and then re-convened to downtown. I had decided to take full advantage of my job as coder in chief. We went to various bars. We went to the My Canh floating restaurant for lunch and to see if anybody was going to try to blow it up that day. We finished off at the Mayfair in the early evening. I had to introduce a friend to my only favorite place in Saigon. Then we went to the roof bar of the Brinks and then we started to walk back to Ton Son Nhut. It was fairly early in the evening and I was going to go with Bill to the infirmary while he got the dressing on his hand changed. The appearance of the base bus had been a windfall. It would get us to the infirmary much more quickly than walking and would allow us more time for final drinks at the Officers’ Club.

As I tripped and fell I folded my right arm under myself and fell on it hard. The arm was kind of turned in toward my stomach at the elbow with my hand pointing outward toward my right ear. That posture and the force of my impact caused me to hear a distinct snap followed by a stab of pain in my right elbow. The attaché case flew out ahead of me grinding across the sand and gravel of the roadway. Bill was there in a moment and helped me up and we managed to catch the bus.

That fall made the occasion a much more communal one: both of us needed to go to the infirmary.

The bus didn’t go to the infirmary. It made a circuit of the Officers’ Club, the enlisted clubs and the BX. We got off at the BX, which was the closest point to the infirmary. On the way from the BX to the infirmary we encountered a member of the ROK – Republic of Korea guy. He had a fairly muscular Honda motor cycle that he was trying to get on. The problem he had was that he was trying to mount from the front by climbing over the handlebars. He was not succeeding. If he had succeeded he would have been sitting backward on the seat with the handlebars at his back.

He was really drunk.

Not knowing any Korean we left him to his own devices.

It was a fairly long walk to the infirmary. We were glad that we had caught the bus to get as close as we had. When we finally got to the infirmary, Bill explained that he needed the dressing on his hand changed and I explained that I thought that I had broken my arm.

They immediately asked us if there had been any hostile fire involved with our injuries. They were hoping to get us Purple Hearts.

Bill said no he had dropped an air conditioner he was stealing on the hand and I said that I had tripped over a stump.

The medics were fairly disgusted, but being medics they had to treat us. My elbow, they said, had experienced a hairline fracture.

My attaché case was heavily scarred.

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