A day or two after my arrival, Major Giam informed us (through me as his interpreter) that he wanted us to move into a different house. It was located at the highest point in the village, just slightly higher than the rest, but one of the basics of military tactics was that one should try to occupy the highest point.
It was also the nicest house in the village and there was plenty of room for us, because only an elderly couple lived there.
We asked if these elderly people were willing to have us live in their house and he said no, they were totally opposed to the idea, but they would just have to accept it.
We were not too happy about this, because we knew that the quartering of soldiers in private homes was one of the grievances that led to the American Revolution of 1776. Quartering in peacetime was later prohibited by the third amendment to the US constitution, which was part of the Bill of Rights:
“No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
But the Bill of Rights applied only to America, not Vietnam, and in any case there was a war going on.
So we moved in to the nicest house in the village, despite the protests of the old man who owned it.
He was seventy-eight years old and was a marvelous gardener. His front yard was a cement patio surrounded by huge flower pots containing various carefully tended flowers and shrubs. His back yard was an orchard. The house was made of bricks covered with plaster and freshly painted white with green and yellow trim.
For the first several days he was furious because we wore our shoes in the house. The Vietnamese, those who wore anything on their feet at all, usually wore sandals that they could kick off and leave on the doorstep when they entered a house. But eventually we got through to him that we all wore combat boots which take five minutes to lace up, and so we couldn’t keep taking them off and putting them on all day.
Major Giam told me the old man’s name, but I never used it. I simply addressed him as “Ông”, which means Grandfather and is the polite form of address that is customarily used when speaking to older men.
After a while he suggested that I address him as “Bác”, which means Uncle.
One reason the old man was so upset about us moving in to his house was that his wife was very ill. He was so sure she was dying that her open casket was already set up in her bedroom, right next to her hammock.
When he found out that one of our sergeants was a medic he asked him to have a look at his wife. The medic addressed the old lady cheerfully in English, which she didn’t understand: “Now ain’t that handy, old lady, having your open coffin right there by your hammock, so when you croak they can just plop you right in, no problem. Since you’re dying anyway it doesn’t really matter what I give you, does it? So just take some of these white pills to make you feel better and some of these pretty yellow ones to make you sh!t, and we’ll see what happens.”
Whether because of these pills or in spite of them, the old lady soon recovered and was up and about, sweeping, cooking, washing dishes, clucking at the chickens and chewing her betel-nut. And that was what finally reconciled the old man to our presence in his house, because he was convinced our medic had saved his wife’s life.
Just to make sure, Major Giam arranged for a government nurse to come around once a day to see that she was all right.
The betel-nut, by the way, is a mild narcotic that the older women often chew and spit. It makes them feel good, evidently, but also stains their teeth and eventually damages the teeth and soft tissue of the mouth if they chew too much of it.
Sergeant J., our medic, was a big jovial man with masses of combat experience and staunchly right-wing opinions. He and I got along very well, even though we disagreed about more or less everything.
When he was eighteen he joined the army and trained as an infantry medic. At nineteen he was sent to Korea and spent several months in combat during the humiliating retreat of the American forces back down the entire Korean peninsula under the pressure of wave after wave of Chinese soldiers, or “Red Chinese” in the Cold War parlance of that era.
The rest of us were still aghast, a dozen years later, at the Chinese tactic in Korea. Only the first wave of Chinese soldiers had weapons, and when they were dead the second wave advanced, picked up their weapons and continued to attack. Perhaps as many as six or seven waves would do this, until the Americans were finally forced to retreat.
Sergeant J. said he could well understand why the Chinese soldiers would do this. They were told: “There are bound to be casualties, so if you see a weapon on the ground, pick it up and use it so it doesn’t fall into the hands of the enemy.”
He was full of disdain for the Americans who drove around in tanks on the battlefield. “They were scared to even get out and take a pee. Me, I wouldn’t get into one of those tanks, that’s the most dangerous place to be.” (This was no doubt intended as a dig at Major C., who was a former tank commander.)
Sergeant J. never forgave the US government for not using nuclear weapons in Korea. “Teddy Roosevelt said to speak softly and carry a big stick. But I say we’ve got to use the big stick.”
And he summed up his views on foreign policy with the sentence: “There’s only one way to deal with these countries, and that’s to kick their m*****-******* a$$.”
On domestic politics, his view was: “You get your gun and I’ll get my gun and we’ll all go down to city hall and tell those politicians what to do.”
I asked what would happen if all those people with guns didn’t agree among themselves about what should be done, but he couldn’t imagine this possibility.
Occasionally Sergeant J. told us a bit about his past life. When he was fourteen he ran away from home and got a job stringing up telephone wires, until his father drove from Oklahoma to Illinois to pick him up and bring him home.
Once he said: “Two years ago my son died.” And: “My daughter is twelve years old now. No, thirteen.”
After Korea he also served in a combat zone in Laos, and this was his third tour of duty in Vietnam.
Sergeant J. said he kept volunteering for Vietnam because of his Chinese girlfriend who lived in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. But there was also another reason, apparently, because a few months later, when I was no longer stationed in Tân Ba, the American officers told me that Sergeant J. had been arrested for smuggling opium. I can’t vouch for that because I wasn’t there, but they all insisted it was true.
My next post: The Cao Dai Eye in Tân Ba