“Get off my foot!” hissed Don. I looked down and saw that I was standing on his foot.
“Sorry.” I whispered, changing position. We stood together in a concrete drainage ditch in the northeast fringes of Saigon waiting for a collection of three MP jeeps and six MPs to finish their business and move on. We were in an off-limits area. It was a string of bars, gambling joints and bordellos that were the anything goes type -which typically produce arguments and fights. Sometimes the fights got pretty serious with knives or even guns coming into play. The MPs were called there so often to break up fights or to round up GIs who were too drunk to walk (or stay conscious) for their own protection. Being off-limits made it just too attractive to ignore, drawing adventure seeking soldiers like moths to a flame. When our company commanders would announce that some location or other was off-limits, the response was usually “Hey, we gotta go check that place out.”
And so there we were, four of us, peering out of a concrete ditch and waiting for our chance to go experience life on the wild side. The MPs had two guys in custody and put them in the backs of jeeps and finally took off. We immediately swarmed out of our hiding spot and began to walk the street to get a feel for the area and identify places that looked like likely spots we wouldn’t be writing home to mom about.
Don and Ralph veered off and headed into a storefront with scantily clad women posing in the windows while making come hither gestures and undulating messages that required no translation. Frank and I continued on, looking instead for somewhere to get a few boilermakers. “Those guys are gonna end up on the island.” Frank commented to me as we watched our friends disappear into the door of the skin merchant’s place.
“Island?” I asked. “What island?”
“You don’t know about the island?” said Frank, sounding like he was in awe of my ignorance. “The island, man. It’s a place they send us grunts who catch one of the incurable social diseases.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Jeez. They got some VD running loose that’s a mixture of a bunch of different different diseases that got all mixed together because of how many guys these chicks sleep with. The VC also infect girls with really awful diseases and send them out to have sex with us GIs. There’s venereal diseases that are just too gruesome, stuff that literally gives you boils all over and rots your thing off like leprosy or something. I mean, these diseases are really b-a-d bad. The army can’t allow the soldiers to take this stuff back to the world, so they send the infected guys to this island.” explained Frank.
“Holy crap!” I said. “How long do they have to stay there?”
“Like I said, man. There’s no cure for this. It eventually kills you so they just keep the infected guys there until they die. It’s a one way trip, man.”
“Nah. That has to be a load of crap.” I said, giving Frank my ‘calling bullcrap’ look.
“It’s for real, man. They don’t talk about the island, it’s supposed to be a secret. But they show movies so we can see what these diseases look like. It’s a total gross out.”
“Jeezis. You seen these movies?” I asked.
“No. But I talked to a couple of guys who did and they said it was really gross. Said it made them decide to cage the weasel till they got back home. Or maybe R&R in Sydney or something.”
“Wow.” was all I could say. “Let’s try in here.” I said, pointing to what looked like a pretty tame bar. We made our way to the door and were stopped at the entrance. Most Vietnamese men were short and slight, like five feet and skinny. But the one who stopped us at the door looked more like a 300 pound Samoan.
“Five hundred P door charge.” he said. “And two drink minimum for each.” Five hundred P, or piasters, was five bucks. I handed Godzilla a ten dollar scrip bill, what the Americans used for money and was readily accepted by the locals and the big man stepped aside. The bar was pretty crowded but Frank found us a little round table with two chairs and we sat down.
Almost immediately a pair of bar girls appeared from nowhere and parked on our laps. “You buy me one drink, okay? You number one GI, you.” They both said it simultaneously. It was like stereo. I was hip to this trick. You buy them a drink which was usually a half inch of tea in a glass and cost five bucks. I was about to say No Thanks when a bar maid arrived with a tray and put a whiskey in front of Frank and I and the stereotypical tea glass in front of each of the girls on our laps.
“Fi’dollah, fi’dollah, fi’dollah, fi’dollah.” said the bar maid, pointing at each of the glasses as she spoke.
Frank got a pissed off look and I held up my hand in a restraining gesture. Looking disgusted, Frank threw a twenty dollar scrip on the table which the barmaid immediately snatched up. Frank and I tossed our shots. “You buy me one drink?” asked the girl on my lap.
“You haven’t even drunk the one you got before. But no. No more drinks. Take your glass and find another GI. Both girls tried cuddling up to us, putting their arms around our neck and running their fingers against our cheeks. “I said no.” I repeated and stood up. This effectively dumped the girl off my lap. Frank followed suit and in no time the girls were yelling that we were ‘number ten,’ basically an insult. Things they approved of were number one, things they disapproved of was number ten. There was no middle ground. It was pretty much part of the Vietnamese lexicon and used universally by men and women alike.
Godzilla made his way over to the table and the girls started talking to him in Vietnamese at machine gun pace. Godzilla listened, his expression getting darker all the time. “Two drink minimum.” he growled.
I pointed to myself and then to Frank. Then I pointed to the four glasses on the table. “Two of us, four drinks. We each bought our two drink minimum.” I said.
“Girl drink not matter. YOU buy two drink.” he said.
From behind me I heard a guy with an Aussie accent say “Buzz off, dingo. Ee’s boys bought thay’re four drinks, right mates?” Five or six assents replied.
“You buy more drinks.” said Godzilla.
“Screw you,” I said, feeling more secure because of the Aussies lining up behind me. Godzilla was fast. He swung a blow that caught me on the cheek and felt like a sledgehammer. It was on then. I was shoved out of the way as a pack of Aussies shoved the little table out of the way and and started throwing punches at the giant. He looked annoyed by the blows but not affected. He grabbed one of the Australians and head butted him. The Australian went down and then all hell really broke loose. It was like every guy in the bar against Godzilla -or anyone else that happened to be handy. I was down and stayed down, crawling on all fours heading for the door. I looked around and didn’t see Frank but I kept crawling. Furniture was breaking and so were glasses and bottles. I got hit on the back of the head by a flying piece of beer bottle.
I got to the door and stood up and stepped out. I felt a hand grab my arm and turned to punch whoever was grabbing me. It was Frank and I pulled my punch. The fight spilled out of the bar and now people on the street were getting involved. I heard the repetitious blowing of a whistle that announced the arrival of the White Mice, the local Vietnamese police. Frank and I cut through the crowd, and crossing the street we hopped back into the drainage ditch we’d started in. We took off at a fast run, hearing the sirens of the Military Police showing up.
We made it a few streets away and climbed back up to the sidewalk and started walking back to the Rigger compound where we lived and worked. We tried our hardest to look innocent and it apparently worked, we made it back intact. Frank and I hit the enlisted club, pretty much a tent with a bar and picnic tables in it and had a few beers. Feeling the effects of the alcohol and with our adrenaline levels back to nothing, we felt tired and hit the hay.
In the morning, Frank and I each showered and headed over to the mess tent for breakfast. As we crossed the compound an MP jeep pulled in and parked in front of the Duty tent where our CO and First Sergeant had their offices. In the back of the jeep were Don and Ralph, both looking pretty disheveled. They saw us looking at them and gave us a sheepish grin.
Frank and I were almost dome with chow when our partners in adventure grabbed a tray with scrambled eggs and toast. They sat down at our table and started to eat. “So?” said Frank. “What happened with you guys?” Both of them shrugged and kept eating.
“Come on,” I said. “Spill.”
“Not much to tell.” said Ralph. “We went in and had a couple of drinks and checked out the ladies. We, you know, made our choices and were led into rooms in the back.”
Don continued. “The mama san came back and collected our money and told us we had twenty minutes. We got undressed and then all hell broke out out in the street.”
Ralph took over. “The girls started yelling ‘MP come. MP come. You go!’ and handed us our clothes and pushed us out of the room.”
“Yeah,” said Don, “right into the hands of a couple of MPs. We got busted for being in an off-limits area. They fined us each a half month’s pay.”
“We had to spend the night in the stockade with drunks that were either yelling or throwing up.” said Ralph. “I’d love to get my hands on whoever made the MPs and cops show up. I’m tired, got ripped off for twenty bucks, fined and jailed, and now I gotta go out to Tan Son Nhut for a cargo pack inventory.”
Frank and I looked at each other and Don asked “What happened with you guys?”
“Nothing.” said Frank.
“We had a couple of drinks and met some Australians.” I added.
Don looked at my face suspiciously. “What happened to your cheek?”
“He was drunk and fell on his face coming back from the enlisted club.” replied Frank.
“What a couple of pussies.” said Ralph. “At least we got a story.”