Monday, April 8, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Seven: The Taxi Ride

And then it had become July of 1967.

Jack and I were both commissioned military officers.

We were both defending our country.

We were both in Vietnam.

And we weren’t very far from each other in Vietnam.

You might have thought that that would be adventure enough, but we weren’t satisfied.

You might have thought we would have been able to savor the fact of two close friends being within a distance that allowed us to see one another – in a war zone.

But that was not the case.

In his several trips to Saigon since he had been in at Nha Bey Jack and I had sat around various restaurants and Officers’ Clubs drinking and reminiscing about chukkars claimed and chukkars yet to be gotten. He had described Nha Bey in a way that made it sound like a frontier outpost in 1870’s Kansas. He had told me tales that populated the place with people like the Australian cook who had shown up one day and had asked to go on a combat mission. Supposedly the Australian cook was soon regularly flying and manning the 50 mm Gatling gun.

There were the stories about Jim, the Commander of the RSSZ.

There were the stories about Jack’s cubicle mate, Bob.

Jack and Bob had an agreement that if one was out on a nighttime mission and the other one wasn’t flying, the non flyer would have ice and gin ready immediately on the flyer’s return for a ceremony known as the passing of out. The non flyer would meet the flyer on the landing pad with the initial offering of the ceremony.

It had seemed only natural to Jack that I should go to Nha Bey with him and go with him on a mission and shoot the 50 mm Gatling gun. If an Australian cook could do it, so he reasoned, surely an Air Force officer could do it. That would have made for great stories in a later time, but I didn’t see combat as something I would be very good at.

But I did go to Nha Bey.

That trip to Nha Bey had been a contingency plan for weeks. I usually had Thursdays as a day off. The plan was that Jack would try to schedule some down time from flying and come to Saigon for one of his periodic visits on a Wednesday. We would spend the evening of his visit going to our various haunts and then I would go back to Nha Bey with him the next day. The idea was that once I got there I would probably be taken over by the patriotic desire to fly a combat mission. Or, the default if that didn’t happen was that at least I would be getting a lot closer to the day to day humdrum of the war than I was exposed to in Saigon. When it got dark at Nha Bey the Viet Cong took over outside the wire, and they spent their nights testing the wire’s security and using explosives and gunfire to attempt to gain entrance to the base. It was a nice little game of stasis.

The place I lived in Saigon had two beds. There was mine, and there was that of another lieutenant, named Dale who was a meteorologist. Dale had night duty, so except on his days off we barely saw each other. And he had offered his bed to me for any guests I might have visiting me in Saigon. So Jack had a reliable place to sleep when he was in Saigon. By then I had a complete stereo system set up and a small Sanyo refrigerator. I had all the comforts of home.

There were two Nha Bey buses each day, one coming from in the morning and one going to in the early evening, but before dark. After dark it was best not to be on the road to Nha Bey because it lapsed to the Viet Cong overnight. Even in daylight things could get pretty dicey pretty quickly which was one of the reasons for the bus rather than a constant unscheduled dribble of jeeps going to and from Saigon with each having to provide for its own security. The buses had armed military police aboard. They were the only people allowed to have firearms. Not only weren’t we allowed to bring firearms in the country, people living in combat areas were not allowed to bring their guns to Saigon. Those of us who lived in Saigon just weren’t allowed to have firearms at all. It was thought to project the wrong image – more like a war zone than an advisory mission – to have people running around with firearms in Saigon.

So the planned day had arrived. As frequently happened with Jack and me, we had gotten involved in drinking and storytelling at the Brinks mezzanine bar and we missed the bus. The Brinks mezzanine bar overlooks the street below. It was fairly deep into urban Saigon. Jack had to get back. So he did the obvious. He left me in the mezzanine bar overlooking the street while he went in search of a taxi.

As often happens in that part of the world at that time of the year, by the time he had reached the street a torrential rainstorm had commenced. I could hear his voice over the roar of the rain as he bargained (“bargaining, this is ridiculous; I have never seen a less advantageous bargaining position” I thought to myself) with the Vietnamese driver in the weird pseudo language that we used with the natives. I’m pretty sure that the bargaining point ended up being not an attractively priced fare, but the fact that the driver would even consider driving to Nha Bey at all, as the sun was setting, and the road was slipping back to the Viet Cong. But he agreed to do it.

The taxi was some little bitty, old, probably French, car. Jack sat in back and I sat in front opposite the driver. As soon as we got out of town into the delta or whatever it was that was south of Saigon the driver began to act rather jumpy. And it was getting dark – the sun rises and sets in the tropics very quickly – at an alarming pace. I, of course didn’t have a gun. But neither did Jack. While he had considered not being able to take a gun to Saigon an irritant in his life up to that point, it had not been a major problem as long as the armed bus had been his assumed mode of transportation. In general, the need for a gun in Saigon was not much more than the need for a gun in Los Angeles. But as events were beginning to materialize, the lack of a gun was becoming a bigger deal at an exponential rate of speed. Even I thought it would have been prudent of us to have had side arms.

We had begun muttering to each other, as we progressed down the road, about the rapid decline in the quality of our situation. We were beginning to have doubts about the loyalties of our driver. We did a running estimate of elapsed time and estimated time of arrival, and offset that against our best estimates of the remaining light from the setting sun.

It didn’t look good.

And then the driver stopped the Taxi. And then he got out. He got out with an obvious sense of urgency. He got out quickly and purposefully. And he went to join a group of Vietnamese that had suddenly appeared from somewhere. The light was getting so bad it was difficult to figure where they had come from, but they were there, and so were we.

We both, without even discussing it, felt that we were at that moment at the point where what had been a potential catastrophe, had lost any element of being potential and was in the process of becoming an accomplished fact. Jack muttered something about the lack of a firearm. Then he said something to the effect that the only satisfying part of this mess was going to be killing the taxi driver before we were captured or killed.

In retrospect it was always interesting to me that at that moment, in those circumstances, killing the taxi driver had seemed to me to be both the most rational and most important thing I could do in my short time left. We quickly outlined the plan for manually dispatching the guy. We went over it several times in minute rehearsed detail, each of us with his step by step mutually coordinated role in the killing of the taxi driver. It took almost no time at all to go through it several times.

When the driver returned to the taxi the atmosphere must have been tangibly electric. I was coiled tighter than I had ever been or was ever going to be. I was supposed to have made the first move, as a starting point, and as, we hoped, a successful first strike, followed up by Jack with a finishing maneuver from behind. I must have been less than a full second from making my move. The driver must have felt something, because he said something with a big grin, took out a pack of Lucky Strikes and offered us each one. Then he quickly started the car and drove us the rest of the way to Nha Bey. We never knew what the group of Vietnamese wanted, or how he got us through, or even if there had been a problem. But we got through and I saw Nha Bey with the sun setting. Later in Jack’s and Bob’s cubicle, which had been made by putting two stacked bunks against the window and delineating the area with their 6 foot tall storage lockers at each end of the bunks, we told tales, listened to the intermittent gunshots and occasional explosions of the Viet Cong, and I was initiated into the passing of out ceremony.

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