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Lt Ahn wrote out detailed directions for getting to his home. He cautioned me to safeguard the written directions. I understood. Written evidence that a Vietnamese knew an American personally, at times, proved to be fatal. Directions to a home provided not only the proof of friendship, but also where the victim was located.
On the appointed day, several drivers looked at Ahn's directions and adamantly refused to accept me as a fare. The one who dared venture into the suburb where Lt. Ahn lived, spoke English very well. He explained that he was not able to take the shortest route. Certain areas were, "Not good for an American to be." I accepted his judgment and paid the extra few cents in fare to "be safe."
Approaching the address, the driver informed me of the fare. With assurance that I had the correct change (including tip) and understood the importance of a quick exit, we were both prepared.
Handing him the money and gathering my gifts under my left arm, I unlatched the taxi door. He stopped. I got out shutting the door. The taxi was gone. I walked across the sidewalk. A gate swung open. I stepped into a courtyard—stood still—did not speak. When summoned, I walked into the house. Same as when you visit any of your friends, right? No mention of the movement from taxi to house was ever made. It was just part of life.
The Post Exchange carried an assortment of children's toys meant for service people to purchase prior to returning to America. All kids are excited to see Mom or Dad home from a long trip away, but they always find time to ask, "What did you bring me?" This time the toy would stay in Vietnam.
Several battery-operated toys from Japan caught my eye. A gleaming robot that shot sparks from his eyes and stalked around on moving feet was my final choice for Lt. Ahn's son.
Knowing my purchase would dazzle him, I handed over the brown paper bag to the three-year-old boy. Being an uncultured male, I did not even think of wrapping paper or a gift box. The price tag was, however, removed. The box of spare C batteries was my personal, inspired addition.
The three-year-old checked for batteries in the robot, turned it on and watched for a few seconds. I was dazzled by the magnificent mechanical marvel. Wow! What I wouldn't have given for such a thing when I was a kid. After a few more spark, noise, movement cycles, the little boy pulled me into his room. From a toy box, he pulled an endless array of battery operated toys. The only toy he didn't display was an exact duplicate of mine, only larger. Some kids learn tact at an early age.
Dinner was a delight. After several weeks of GI food in the Officer Club, I was ready to try anything.
The first delicacy started with what appeared to be a lace doily from my Grandma Harvey's Morris rocking chair. Only this one was made of rice instead of crochet thread. Each person draped a “doily” over their left hand, as a base for the coming items. The next layer was a large leaf, looking somewhat like iceberg lettuce, but not quite. From here, each person was on their own. Fillings ranged from various sprouts to fruit, meats, fish, and other mysteries I quickly learned to eat first and question later.
This whole concoction was then rolled up carefully with the ends tucked in to avoid escapees. Similar to a flour tortilla or a slice of Norwegian lefse. It was absolutely wonderful.
It was a simple matter to eat the chosen delicacy with a little rice with chop sticks. Soup was handled with the uniquely Asian spoon.
The usual bowl of rice was served with various other side dishes. The custom was to transfer small portions of a side dish to your rice bowl using chop sticks. It was a simple matter to eat the chosen delicacy with a little rice with chop sticks. Soup was handled with the uniquely Asian spoon.
The spoon was ceramic, not metal. The bottom of the bowl was flat and meant to stand on the table. Extending from the bowl was the integral handle, with a narrow trough down the middle. This dandy gadget could be used like a conventional spoon or the handle provided a means of pouring the bowl contents over rice. Mothers found the handle a less messy way to feed young children.
Almost expected someone to start mowing their lawn. But this was not home, not North Dakota, not America, not safe. I had to be gone before darkness. Damn this war.
After numerous cautions from the adults and bright eyed encouragement from the young son, I had my first encounter with "Nuoc Mam." Nuoc Mam is like a soy sauce. Sorta. Fresh fish are layered with salt in large porcelain jars or barrels. After fermenting for three months, the resulting liquid is drained from the bottom. This liquid is then poured back in at the top of the container and allowed to filter through the fishy remains and ferment for an additional six months. When once again drained from the bottom of the container, Nuoc Mam is ready to be bottled and sold. It tastes very good and is very spicy. Like Japanese Wasabi, or Korean Kim Chi, a little goes a long way.
Even a Lutefisk hardened palate like mine had to ease into the Nuoc Mam realm of dining nirvana. (For enlightenment: Most military pilots forbade the transport of Nuoc Mam in their aircraft. A spilled container spread a smell that only got worse with time. Lighted gasoline was no match for the pungent Nuoc Mam.)
That evening, I was able to relax—almost. Good friends, good food, pleasant evening breezes, fragrant tropical blossoms spreading enchantment and the quiet murmur of suburban life. Almost expected someone to start mowing their lawn. But this was not home, not North Dakota, not America, not safe. I had to be gone before darkness. Damn this war.
Lt. Ahn cautiously walked me to a nearby thoroughfare. We quietly waited in the shadows of a large tree. When an empty taxi approached, he flagged down the driver and spoke swiftly. The third driver accepted me—but only after I agreed to double fare and going the safe way around. Before I slid into my seat and my friend turned the corner, we faced one another. In the manner of soldiers everywhere, we both came to attention in silent respect for our friendship and our caring one for the other. It was the last time I saw my friend. Travel to his home became unwise and unsafe.
Story Subject: Military Service
Military Branch: U.S. Army
Dates of Service: 1962 - 1975
Veteran Organization: AMERICAN LEGION POST 0062
Unit: 716TH MILITARY POLICE BATTALION
Specialty: Military Police
Story Themes: 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 716th Military Police Battalion, Army, Food, Grand Forks, Michael Harvey, Military Police, Read, Relationships, Saigon, South Dakota