One day the old man told our Major C. through an ARVN interpreter that in all his seventy-eight years he had never been up in a helicopter. So we talked one of the American pilots into taking him up for a ride, sort of as a small gesture of thanks for putting us up or rather having to put up with us in his house.
Actually after the first few weeks he didn’t seem too unhappy with us. We gave him our empty tin cans, peanut butter jars, whiskey bottles and cardboard boxes, all of which he seemed to have a use for. And we sometimes found ways to help him out a bit. One of the sergeants who knew about such things helped him prune his fruit trees in the back yard, and I once spent half an hour fixing the chime on his Westminster clock. For some reason the chime had stopped chiming and started going thunk-thunk-thunk. All it took was a screwdriver and a little experimenting to get the chime in the proper position.
This was my desk at the front left corner of the house where we were stationed in Tan Ba. Note the ever-present weapon leaned up against the wall on the right. The lamp was attached to a battery, since we had no electricity. The little globe was one I had bought in Saigon, with the names of all the countries in Vietnamese.
When I wasn’t interpreting for Major Giam I sometimes talked on the two-way radio, for instance to the helicopter pilots or to our colleagues just a few miles up the river at Tân Yuên. But I also had lots of spare time for reading and writing, which was fine.
One evening each week the old man and his wife listened to a broadcast of a Vietnamese opera on the radio. To me it sounded just the same as Chinese opera, but they said it was Vietnamese.
Most of the Americans had the fixed idea that the Vietnamese were lazy, lacked initiative, etc., but our next door neighbor was living proof that this was not true. In his thatched house he had a café where I often went to meet the local people and practice my few words of Vietnamese. He served us our breakfast every morning by handing us fresh coffee and French bread across the cactus hedge between the two houses.
And he did our laundry.
When he had saved up enough money he made the most sensible investment that anyone could have made in a rural village in wartime. With the help of some relatives and neighbors he dismantled his house, put in a sturdy cement floor and rebuilt the house on top of it. Anything else could easily have been destroyed by rocket or mortar attacks, but his cement floor was practically indestructible, and when I returned thirty years later it was still there.
Another industrious person in our neighborhood was this young lady who earned money during the dry season by carrying water up from the river, not only for us but also for other people on our street. Rumor had it that her brother was a member of the local Viet Cong group that was based in a small patch of jungle about three miles away, so maybe she was spying on us, but she was so nice about it that we didn’t mind. Perhaps she even saved us from being directly attacked by telling her brother that our house was full of weapons and the whole backyard was surrounded by trip flares. Maybe she even knew that our sergeants had set up a Claymore anti-personnel mine, a devilish machine that sends shrapnel flying in all directions when it is set off.
The children in Tan Ba, as everywhere in Vietnam, were always friendly and entertaining. After school was over for the day they were usually free to run around as they pleased, except that some of the older children had to carry their younger siblings around and look after them.
My next post: Thirty years later — Tân Ba 1995