I felt stupid standing in front of the first sergeant holding a rubber. I had been in-country for several months, and I was about to get my first pass to go into An Khe; but, I insisted, I wasn't going to go visit the whores.
"C'mon Mouer. You want the pass; you got to go through the drill."
I held out my other hand, index finger pointing skyward. I placed the condom on the end of my finger and unrolled it, held the finger out for the top to see, then carefully unrolled it, removed it from the tip of my finger, and placed it in the trash can in front of his desk. I then showed him the brand-new, still-in-the-foil example I would have in my pocket. The test was over. He signed and handed me the pass. I was out the door in a flash and on the back of a deuce-and-a-half heading for town.
Amazing how war changes everything. When I first got here, An Khe was a collection of thatched-roof, mud-walled hooches. Down the road there were still plenty of those, but "New" An Khe had sprung up along the main drag. Buildings of tin, uncut sheets of Budweiser and Coca-Cola cans for walls, garish signs proclaiming the Tiki Bar, and Joe's Massage Parlor.
Off the road was a complex of concrete buildings around a plaza. Some of the buildings were bars, some were barber shops and massage parlors, most were whorehouses. Many of them were simple stalls with open fronts covered by curtains half-opened, revealing inside a bamboo bed with a "baby-san" looking over all the GIs passing by.
Inflation had set in. Older women did hard manual labor on the base at Camp Radcliff, chopping back the bush to clear fields of fire, hauling hundreds of pounds of firewood home at the end of the day. They were paid 80 p for a long day of back-breaking work. That was the cost of a beer in town. The "baby-sans" earned 200-500 p a pop; and on a good day, they popped often. Prostitution, booze, and the black market were gutting the economy of the country.
I wasn't here to visit "Sin City;" I was looking for Cowboy's house. Cowboy worked for me on the base. He was maybe 12 or 13 years old, wore a blue shirt and an orange baseball cap twisted sideways like a Dead-end Kid. We had become friends, of sorts. He had taken to calling me a strange nickname which, at first, I didn't understand. He called me "Gik," or "Gyik," and soon he had all the kids on the clearing crew calling me that. It took a while, but I finally realized that "Gik" was "Gook." I took it as a compliment.
Cowboy was my "foreman" on a crew of about a dozen kids and maybe half a dozen ancient grandmas in black pajamas with shiny betel-blackened teeth. Cowboy always told me--his English was no better than my Vietnamese, but somehow we communicated in that weird war-time pidgin we used--to come visit if I ever got a pass, to meet his mother and his sister. His father had been killed the previous year. At least that's what he said and what I believed. My buddies would roll their eyes and call me "gullible." They insisted his old man was probably Charlie; and if I were ever to go visit, I'd end up dead.
He was quite a kid. Wiry and strong and wise beyond his years; he was also the perennial clown. The hardest work was easier with him around. He had a natural talent for physical comedy: a Charlie Chaplin tramp in the war zone.
Each day he arrived on base carrying his little steel bucket, with the screw-on lid, filled with rice and fish sauce. I could have gone back to my company area, to the mess tent, for lunch each day; but I talked the mess sergeant into giving me a case of C-rations so I could sit with Cowboy and the others sharing cans of cookies.
He collected P-38s, the little can openers that came in each kit. Gave them away as presents, hung them from his ball cap...who knows what he did with them; but he never failed to giggle when presented with another one. I never knew him by any name other than "Cowboy."
Cowboy lived in "Old" An Khe, which was off limits. I thought about knives in the back and decided, instead, to hang around the main part of town for much of the day. I did a little shopping and met a young woman named "Lee" who ran a pushcart stand along the main road.
She spoke very good English, said she came from Saigon with her mother and uncle to make money selling soda pop to GIs way up-country. I told her my best buddy back on base was also named "Lee," and she thought it was odd that a man would have that name.
She was homesick. People here in the mountains were different, she said. Nobody spoke French. But there was money to be made here. We passed the time chatting and she let me take her picture. Then I moved on to another adventure.
I eventually wandered into a barber shop and got a haircut and a massage. No, I said half-a-dozen times to the old man cutting my hair. I didn't want a baby-san. No boom-boom or sop-sop. Papa-san didn't want to take "no" for an answer. He plied me with drinks.
Finally, he asked me if I wanted to smoke. Part of the great Vietnam adventure for me had been learning to get stoned. So far I had only managed to get a little giddy. Me and my buddy Froloff would duck out to the sandbag bunkers in the dark and throw cheap Vietnamese grass in the general direction of a Pall Mall which had been nearly emptied of tobacco. Then we'd pass the joint back and forth, return to the tent, and giggle.
Each guy who got a pass would pick up a bag of dope. $5.00 worth of MPC would buy a paper lunchbag stuffed full of herb. I was supposed to bring back a bag; so when the barber asked me if I wanted some smoke, I took him up on it. He led me into a dark room, sat me on a rope bed and produced an opium pipe.
He started rolling the resinous ball, and I realized what I'd gotten into. I didn't want that shit. I was of that generation that was quickly coming to believe that grass was cool and essentially harmless but opium! Man, that led to skag; and then you were sunk. But I had to maintain a little face here. Papa-san had taken a couple bucks from me and was doing all the prep work; and I had, at least, to try it.
I didn't smoke much...just enough to make me feel sleepy and a bit sick to my stomach. I had saved face and left. I had decided earlier not to go look for Cowboy in Old An Khe. It was off limits. Best that might happen is I'd get busted and do a mess of KP or even a little stockade time. Worst is there would be some VC down there and they would cut my throat. But now I had had my haircut and massage and a few drinks and some opium, and I wasn't quite as rational as I should have been. I walked off into the old part of town looking for Cowboy.
Leaning against a mud hut, a young mother, with four or five kids around her, begged for money as I walked by. I handed her some piastres, and she bared her breast in front of her kids, gesturing me into the house. I smiled nervously and kept going.
I would stop here and there showing people Cowboy's photograph. Most everyone knew him, and they'd point me down another dirt lane. I started getting nervous. The opium was really making me queasy...or maybe it was just anxiety. I was beginning to worry that I had made a big mistake leaving the heart of town.
Naked kids pretended to go fishing with a string on a stick in a mud pond on the side of the road. A young boy with serious intent in his eyes herded a string of ducks up a drainage ditch filled with monsoon rainwater. People peered at me from their compound walls or the doorways of their houses, suspicious, curious. Some smiled and waved; many more stepped inside, unsure of what to do. I whistled some dumb song to keep away the fears.
Finally, I came to the end of the dirt road and the house that had been pointed out to me. Cowboy was in the yard chopping wood. His face lit up; his eyes were big as saucers. He yelled "Gik!, Gik!" and ran inside, appearing at the door seconds later pulling his mother by the arm. I was greeted warmly and ushered inside the compound.
There were a number of young adults, mostly women, and lots of kids. I was led to a low table and sat down. Tea was served, and we all "talked," though I never understood anything they said; and I doubt they understood me, other than through that magical mode of communicating that involves gestures, smiles, nods, and lots of guessing. It soon became clear that I was being invited to lunch, which I gladly accepted.
Porcelain bowls were brought out and soup was ladled in them. Rice came next, smothered in a very pungent (no. 10!) fermented fish sauce. Then a few small dishes with meat or vegetables in pungent sauces. Then more dishes, one after the other. I think Cowboy's mother and some of the other women were busy cooking food as fast as I could eat it. I kept telling them I didn't need any more, but I was not about to be allowed to go away hungry. Finally I convinced them I was quite full. Then Cowboy disappeared.
I was left alone for a while with some children. Just as I began to get a little nervous, Cowboy returned to the room leading a young girl. She was dressed in embroidered satin. Her face was thickly made-up; and there were satin, high-heel shoes on her feet. Her hair was tied up in a formal fashion. Cowboy introduced me to his sister, though, today, I cannot remember her name.
She held her eyes downcast. She was thin and stiff and awkward. She appeared to be close to Cowboy's age, perhaps a bit older, but no trace yet of a woman's body showed beneath the mature wrappings. She sat, still looking down, except to snatch an occasional furtive glance at me, then only to blush when she saw I had noticed. She did not speak.
More tea was served, along with some fruit and pastries that reminded me of Greek baklava, although the spices were different and the smell of rosewater wafted over the dish. She did not eat. Cowboy's mother returned to the room and sat opposite me, smiling serenely. I pointed to the pastries, "No. 1," I said, "No. 1." She smiled again. Then she and her daughter arose and left the room.
Cowboy showed me around the compound. There wasn't much to see. Slowly, my visit began to turn awkward; and I searched for ways to leave gracefully. I kept asking Cowboy where his "Mama-san" was. I wanted the thank her for the food and hospitality and get back to town. He probably understood my question, but I couldn't understand his answer. I made a motion toward the door, but he grabbed my hand and asked me to stay. Again I asked to say "good-bye" to his mother, but we simply stood there for what seemed an eternity, awkwardly.
Finally his mother appeared. I made a great show of my gratitude and my pleasure at having enjoyed the company of her family and the comfort of her home, then I headed for the door; but, again, Cowboy wouldn't let me leave. This time he took me by the hand and led me through the house and back into the courtyard. I was getting nervous, mainly because I did not understand what he wanted of me.
He led me to a small hooch along the wall of the house compound...a tiny thatched house with a curtain over the door. He gestured plainly for me to go inside. I thought it would be rude simply to refuse, but I did not know what might await me in there; so, I tried to play dumb.
Finally, Cowboy stood near the curtain but looking away from it and pulled it open, gesturing to me to go in. The tiny dark room appeared empty except for a bedstead with a thin cotton mattress. The curtain closed behind me, and I turned to follow Cowboy out when I felt a hand on my arm. In a panic, I yanked my arm away and turned, ready to fight for my life. Cowboy's sister stood in front of me, barely lit by the daylight shining through the crack in the curtain. She was completely naked.
She took my arm again and led me the two steps to the bedstead. I shook my head; I said "No." I sat down on the bed. For the first time since I met her she spoke in my presence. "You like Baby-san?" she said.
"Sure. Yeah. Of course. Sure I like Baby-san," I answered, or something like that.
She lit a candle and set it on a small ledge over the bed. In the candle light, it was clear she was a child. Her abdomen bore a large scar...not from surgery, I thought. It looked more like the puckered wound of shrapnel. Her skin was taught over her bones. Her hairless, slender, sexless body seemed horribly out of place here, and wildly discordant with her highly made-up face. This, I realized later, was her bedroom; and it was me who was out of place. She began to stroke my legs the way whores do, repeating mechanically, "You like, Baby-san?"
I shuddered at her touch. It had been a long time since I had been with a woman, but there was nothing that could make me react that way to this child. She moved very close and laid her head on my thigh...very tenderly. But her words, awkward in any circumstance, were at terrible odds with her youth, her need, her fragility. "GI boom-boom Baby-san?"
I jumped up and said "No" sharply. She hung her head, her eyes once again cast down. Then she looked up, a practiced, cat-like smile on her painted face. "Baby-san love sop-sop GI dick."
It was clearly time for me to get the hell out of there, so I stood up without another word and stepped through the curtain. She ran after me. Standing there stark naked in the bright daylight, she suddenly looked even more like the little kids playing in the puddle along the road. She hollered some sort of plea at me; and when I looked back, I saw tears streaming down her face, leaving trails through make-up. I walked back towards her and led her back into whatever dignity might be found in her room, out of the glare of day. I patted her hand, thanked her, assured her I thought she was a wonderful girl, but...
She began screaming. "Baby-san love Gik. Baby-san love Gik. GI boom-boom Baby-san, GI no love Baby-san?..." etc. etc. Louder, more insistently. I tried to grab her hand to calm her down and her other hand grabbed at my inner thigh, the cat-like whore's smile re-appeared but the carnelion-tinted grin looked only perverse under those bloodshot, teary eyes.
I jerked away again and swung the back of my hand to push her away, managing instead to slap her fairly hard on the side of her face. She became very quiet and stood quite still. I apologized fervently. I told her I didn't mean it, but the red welt on her cheek was hard to ignore. She looked me straight in the eye and said, once again, "G. I. no love Baby-san;" but, this time, it was not a question.
I walked out of the little house, through the main house, out the door, across the yard, through the gate and down the road. I didn't see Cowboy or his mother. I was glad of that.
It was a long walk back into "New" An Khe and through the tin-and-glitz part of town to the quadrangle of poured-concrete buildings that stood off the road between the village proper and the base camp. The buildings were all painted in pastel colors.
I entered the first one I came to. It, like all the rest, was a bar. I grabbed a barstool, ordered a scotch and a beer, and drank them down as fast as I could. I ordered another round. In a matter of moments a prostitute was hanging on my shoulder. I bought her whatever colored water they served themselves and ordered a third scotch. Her hands were on my thighs and her lips were grazing the back of my neck. She whispered hoarsely, "Baby-san love sop-sop GI dick."
Without discussion I paid up the bar tab and followed her to her cubicle. I dropped my pants just inside the door and climbed on the bed. The woman made no pretense of undressing seductively. She crouched over a steel washbasin, splashed her crotch, then climbed on the bed. But there was no use. I was not in any state of mind or body to go through with it. I got up and pulled my pants back on. The woman shook her head and stuffed her money into her bra. I left the bar and walked to the road.
Within half an hour, a deuce-and-a-half came along and picked me up. I hung onto the wooden rails, watching the hazy town fade into the distance as we bounced up the long dirt entrance road to Radcliff. Just before we passed beneath the large wooden arch that announced the First Cav's base camp, I heaved my guts over the side of the truck. My stomach was wracked with cramps, and I dry-heaved all the way to my company area. The company clerk signed me in. "Get any pussy, Mo?"
I staggered to the tent and flopped into my bed, but I was cramped and heaving most of the night, neither my guts nor my mind able to digest the slice of life I had tasted in this strange and foreign land where I found myself far, very far, from my home.
Copyright © 1996 Dan Mouer, All Rights Reserved