I’ve been working on a different chapter lately. I remembered some things about Papasan I had forgotten and more too. This seemed a good time to sample it out…comments are always welcome when you read my stuff, especially where it concerns my memoirs. I want them to read well, so please, comment away…criticism is how we learn to write better. We learn that or we write terrible forever…bleah!!!
“You hack. You no carve, you hack, Shawty. Not should cut hard.” Papasan pointed to his head and continued, “See what you makin in heah, den carve. Not hack, hack, hack. Hack look like shit”, using one of the American cuss words he was proud to have learned with a, pardon the redundancy, shit-eating, toothless grin on his kisser.
I laughed and responded, “Oh, Papasan, it don’t matter. I’m just killin time here. I don’t expect it to look like anything, it’s a stick.”
“It stick before you hack it. Shoo be sometin ess affah, or you no touch. What you tink, Shawty?”
“I tink you’re pulling my leg, Papasan.” I returned with a smile.
Son, Papasan, was always joking with us “dinky dao GIs”. He was the head of the household of local Vietnamese civilians who took care of our domestic needs. Well, he joked with us as long as we kept our distance from his daughters. We all received the same greeting from Papasan when first we came to the 34th, “you no touch girls, less you want to wake wit no man”. Spoken with that red-lipped toothless smile, holding his nasty looking, hooked carving knife for all to see, while slicing the end off a banana. You got the message, and trust me, the way that sneaky little guy could come up behind you and be nearly in your pockets before you knew he was there, nobody gave his daughters a second thought. Besides, we all understood the taboos these people’s lived with. Your entire family would be scourged if your daughter was caught alone with an American, permission given or not, and permission was almost never given. I was proud to say that my Platoon mates and I were all good men. None of us ever tried to take advantage and even without Papasan’s warning, we wouldn’t have. I’ve always considered myself extremely lucky to have ended up with the “salt-of-the-earth” Americans that made up the 34th Patrol Dog Platoon. These guys were the best of every world and I was their mate.
Son’s family consisted of he and his wife, we called her Mamasan as we never heard her name, three daughters, two daughters-in-law and four grandchildren, three girls and a boy, Hong. The other men in the family, three sons and two sons-in-law were all fighting on the Cambodian border with the ARVN 25TH Division. This was a family hugely divided. Not only were all the men from this local family branch away fighting in the war, the majority of Son’s family lived north of the 17th parallel, the DMZ, in North Vietnam. Many of those had served or were serving, men and women, in the NVA. Things were at the lowest for them during the TET offensive of ’68. Eight members of the northern clan died in the fighting. Another seven were seriously injured. The southern clan went unscathed physically except for minor injuries, but what they experienced taking Hue back from the VC, scarred them mentally forever.
Papasan bemoaned the evil being done to his family and country and blamed everyone from the north to the south, the French and we Americans of course; but mostly he was pissed off at the whole world for letting it go on so long and so needlessly. To Papasan, who cared who ran the show, as long as it ran. He declared to me one dismal day that the world would suffer greatly and for many years because of its ignorance towards Vietnam. Hocus pocus? Let me ask you this, where are we right now as far as world peace and prosperity? Just sayin…
After spending several days on shit-burning detail with Papasan as punishment meted out for insubordination by our CO, I got to know the old man a little. In a very short time, I went from thinking, “I’m stuck with this useless old man burning shit because it’s all the CO thinks we’re capable of” to, “This old man has more on the ball than the entire chain of command and all us super-duper-American-soldiers too, and maybe that’s really why the CO stuck me with Papasan.”
Regardless, it worked. Papasan rekindled in me the ethics lessons my working class parents taught me. Loud and clear I eventually heard the message, “hard work pays dividends.” In Son’s world, there were simple things that brought him great joy. That was all he needed and all he had to do to achieve that goal was burn shit twice a day, 5 days a week. We burned our own on weekends. There was always someone on the Lt’s shit(burning) list…ha! Anyway, Son was in heaven. His family was safe and lived like kings, relative to those who did not work for the GIs and even though the men were away, they were all extremely happy people. Yet they still lived, all 11 of them, in what the poorest American would call a hovel. God only knows what they did when the men came home. There was one not terribly huge room, with walls made of scavenged or pilfered US materials, rejected plywood and 2x4s, windows and doors were just openings in the wood walls, and a combination corrugated steel/thatch roof with a hole in the centre for the cook-smoke to escape. There were flaps to cover the holes during monsoon. They could prop the roof flap open enough to let the smoke out without letting the rain in. Their cooking fire was usually a wood fire, though Papasan said they occasionally had coke to burn. At least I think that’s what he meant. He showed me a fist-sized rock and said “black, make mark on groun you rub. Burn too…lon tine”. They ate whatever fish they could catch from the Song Dong Nai that ran through and around Bien Hoa Ville, the chickens they kept and their eggs, and what rice they grew in their community paddy. We supplemented their supplies but they didn’t like our food much. They took tea bags and instant tea mix, rice, chocolate and cigarettes happily, though they couldn’t figure out what we did to our rice to make it so tasteless??? Who knew rice had a taste? We also paid the family $5 a month each in Military Payroll Currency (MPC…script), for the domestic work they did around the company area. They did laundry mostly, but also housekeeping, grounds work, helping around the kennel (when the dogs were away) and of course Papasan was our sanitation engineer. For this sum, they lived well above the average peasant’s standard of living.
I shared my mother’s brownies with Papasan once. He begged me to ask her for a box just for him. I did and she complied, adding two dozen of her signature chocolate chip cookies. I was their hero for weeks. They actually invited me to break bread with them for dinner one day. This is not a normal thing for a Vietnamese family to do with your average GI. I brought my CO with me to be sure there were no improprieties, I am an idiot after all. As the guest of honour, I was given the head of the chicken. I can’t be sure, but I think Papasan was pulling my leg again, because when I came back inside from running outside to heave up what was left of my lunch, the chicken head was gone, everyone was chowing down and no one said a word about it. Either that or LT took care of it??? Damn! Idiot!
I found myself gravitating to the back of the latrine whenever I was down. My hanging out with Papasan was a kind of escape really. No one went to the back of the latrine but him or the poor slobs who had the duty on the weekends or anyone on punishment, so it was just him and I. After I gave up on hacking, we just enjoyed the quiet together. His serenity gave me peace, for a minute anyway. He carved, hummed and smoked that crazy long ivory pipe with the strongest smelling tobacco I ever smelled, and, no, it wasn’t pot. You may wonder about the smell from the latrine. Bien Hoa (and Vietnam in general) had very predictable weather patterns. The Airstrip on the US air base on Bien Hoa ran north to south for a reason; the wind almost always blew north to south. With the airstrip running that direction, the aircraft, usually well overloaded, by taking off into it could use the wind to help generate the lift needed to get off the ground. Now, whoever built out latrine had been around awhile and must have learned from the Air Force’s example because he built the latrine so that the poor bastard that was burning the stuff didn’t absolutely have to breathe it too. Most of the time it was blowing south and the back of the latrine was on the north side of the building. If it was blowing any the other way, you moved to the side of the building rather quickly, ahem.
Son was terrified of our dogs and made no bones about it. He’d had incidents before with k9s getting too close. Once was with me and Prince the first time Hong got loose and was grappling with Prince’s slimy tongue, laughing with the kind of glee you only hear in a kids laugh. Holy shit did Papasan go through the roof. I thought Prince was going to go ballistic. I’m sure he could feel papasan’s angst and that makes dogs nervous. I had to leash him to control him. After that, whenever a Handler brought his partner too close to Son or any of his family when Son was around, especially the grandkids, he went nuts. The carving knife came out and he moved into a perfect fighting crouch, ready for the worst. Most of our furry partners, of course, are looking at him and I’m sure, thinking, “Does he have treats?” It took most of the entire time I was in-country to get him to let me approach with Prince and that only after he again stumbled on his four-year-old grandson this time rolling around on top of Prince without being eaten. After he settled down, that is to say, once he was done berating me, my parents, America, the daughter who was watching young Hong, and anyone else in a hundred mile radius; he sucked it up, grabbed Hong off of Prince’s belly, teeth and knife in play the whole time, handed him off to his daughter and chased them off. Then, not to be outdone by his grandson, he deliberately walked up to Prince, who was by now a bit miffed at the old man’s behaviour and had his teeth bared, (I think by now Prince had full recall of their last meeting). Son then said something in Vietnamese that made Prince turn his head the way dogs do, he calmed immediately, then Son patted him once on the head, turned to me and said, “Nevah gain, Shawty, nevah!” That was the only time Son made contact with any of our partners. It was not, however, the last time for Hong. He had a knack for losing his watchdog and always ended up in the kennels. No worries for little Hong, our dogs all loved the little rascal, but if sure set Papasan off.
The last time Son and I Spoke was a very sobering experience. Son’s oldest son came home to recover from battle wounds and told his dad a very different story from what was being said in the news. Because we Americans were backing out, the south could no longer say they were winning. In fact, they were starting to lose. It was just a matter of time before the Americans would all be gone and then after the south ran out of everything, the north would sweep down and destroy the south and her people.
When I went to visit with him later that day, he was a very different man. He hardly said a word and kept giving me what I can only describe as the “evil eye”. After pressing him for an explanation, he angrily said, “You will go home to America soon. Then we will die”. Shaking his head and with a tear in his eye he turned away from me and said, “Why?” He never looked back and never said another word to or for that matter acknowledged me or any of us.
Two weeks later, with more grief in my heart than hope, I fucked up for the last time and was injured bad enough for the Army to give up on me and send me home. I still dream about Son, Hong and the rest. I still wonder, what if.
RIP Son. I hope you found your serenity again after we left…somehow I can’t imagine that and I cry.