Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Nineteen: Shit and Sodium Flares

This story is drawn from Screen Saver – a full-life memoir that I have written. This story starts in the middle of some musings about one of my favorite haunts in Paris. The first time I got to Paris was in 1998, obviously much later than 1967. But the musings are a perfect segue to Saigon 1967.

That favorite Parisian haunt was Le Bonaparte.


In the winter - except on warm days - the waiters would deploy the plastic window-walls that enclosed the sidewalk tables. I had never sat inside. The chairs and tables on the sidewalks seemed the ideal habitat to me. By the time non-smoking had come to France, and the sidewalk areas had been left to the smokers, driving me inside the places I played Parisian I had changed allegiance from Le Bonaparte to Le Départ Saint-Michel. So I had never been inside Le Bonaparte except on the rare occasions that I had needed to go inside to use the bathroom.

On those occasions I descended the spiral steps into the basement and used the Turkish toilet. There was something bizarre but comforting about standing and pissing into a porcelain indentation in the floor.

I eschewed the Turkish posture but I always had pondered the dynamics of that defecal squat since the first morning that I had walked to Ton Son Nhut and had seen what seemed to be most of the population of Saigon out in the field-that-became-a-lake-in the-monsoon.

They squatted here and there over the acres of that field.

I often wondered if the daily deposits those people made in that field during the dry season contributed to the fierceness of the creatures that emerged from the mud of that inundated field in the wet season. After several good evening monsoon that field turned into a lake and became alive with creatures. I never actually saw one of the creatures, but I heard them, and I saw the water boil as they did whatever it was that they did to make the water boil.

That roiling, boiling water transmitted fierceness. So I felt sure that those creatures were fierce. It seemed to me that living in a shallow soup of monsoon rain and Saigonese shit had made those creatures hyper active and mean. They were rather similar to Tea Party Republicans I was to think many years later whenever reverie took me back to that seasonal sewer.

That – the effect, if any, of the Saigonese shit upon those creatures - was one of many questions that I was never able to answer. But the nature of the creatures in the field-that-became-a-lake-in-the-monsoon was a thing about which I often wondered.

And it wasn’t merely idle wondering. That field that became a lake had been one of the first things that I had seen on that first day in Saigon about which I could remember almost nothing when I had been cut loose by the system to “go downtown and find a place”.

In the process of going downtown in search of that place I had seen the part of that field that was closest to downtown.

I hadn’t known what I was seeing. I certainly didn’t know that I was seeing the edge of a huge field.

What I thought I that I was seeing was a huge – really huge – mud puddle. And the only reason, I believe that I even saw that, given my semi catatonic state was that the puddle was full of little Vietnamese boys. They looked to be ten or eleven.

There must have been a dozen of them or more.

The puddle was, apparently, the neighborhood swimming hole.

Something resembling relief surged through me. The scene looked so Norman Rockwell.

But that feeling of relief was immediately replaced with something else. What that replacement was, I never knew with certainty or precision. It was just an off center, off balance sort of surge of a mix of hate and revulsion.

Maybe I knew without knowing I knew, that the puddle was a vestige of a much larger, when the season of rain made it so, shallow lake the size – perhaps – of a large part of the Luxembourg Gardens – and made up of a fluid laced with Saigonese shit and populated by a sort of creature that lived in the dried mud of the lake during the dry season and flourished and roiled water and almost snarled in the rainy.

At least, when I walked along that lake in the rainy season, it seemed to me that those roiling presences were also snarling.

And those creatures were yet one more thing about Saigon that I knew it would be best to forget.

On the other hand, there was a sight that I once saw that I would always remember.

During my brief engagement as the morning briefer of the general at Ton Son Nhut I had needed to get to his office in Seventh Air Force Headquarters quite early. It had been so early that there hadn’t been any military transportation available so I walked the two or so miles every morning in the darkness to the base. I had acquired my five dollar plastic attaché case by that time so I had a weapon. In the event of some kind of an attack I had decided to use the brief case as a sort of club. Not long before that I had architected the toilet based plan to deal with any attack on my dwelling. Both plans had been obviously fantasies of desperation, but they had both provided me with something to think about doing in response if things ever became hostile.

Part of the walk, after leaving Saigon and entering Ton Son Nhut, skirted the edge of the air strip. During hours of darkness it had been a favorite pastime of various disaffected components of the indigenous population to try to breach the strip at its outer terminus. That was the portion of the strip that I passed in my early morning walk to brief the general.

One morning I was at that point in my trip to work when suddenly the darkness became daylight. The sun, I knew, came up fast at that point on the earth’s surface, but I hadn’t ever seen it come up as quickly as the illumination that had just occurred. I had heard about sodium flares but I had never seen one deployed. As the light gradually dimmed back to pre-dawn darkness, and as the last glittering streaks of the burning chemical slithered to the ground I realized that I had at last seen one. And it was such an unexpected visual surprise that I immediately added it to the inventory of sounds and sights that I was able to summon at will into conscious being for the rest of my life.

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