91. “We’re Americans, Don’t Shoot!”

Day 5:  Sài Gòn.  Two of us, my cabin-mate (I’ll call him Phil) and I are busy sucking down a few ice cold beers in one of the bars and as was becoming the norm, flanked by local femme fatales.  Before we realized how late it was, already we had broken the curfew missing our boat back to the Trans Western.  

Desperate to get outta there we made quick inquiry for a way to return to our ship, to anyone who’d listen.  We needed someone with a boat who’d take us out to the anchored ships, for pay of course.  One Vietnamese man with very little English stepped up to the job.  We three made haste to his boat.  

So now we’re putt-putting through the dark waters under black velvet skies, studded with stars brilliant as diamonds.  I see little twinkling lights of the ships anchored all around the harbor.  

In my mind I’m thinking, how on earth are we gonna find our ship in all of this?  They seem so close to each other from a distance but as we get nearer, they’re all really far apart from one another.

Marines on constant patrol are no doubt hearing the putt-putt of the small gasoline engine of this little man’s smallish boat.  Suddenly there were two spotlights splashing us in harsh white light and our boatman quickly shuts off his motor; he definitely doesn’t want to get his ass shot off in any language, of that I’m sure!

Feeling the panic, Phil thinks quick and takes off his tee shirt.  He stood up and began to wave his white shirt, “Don’t shoot, we’re Americans!” he yelled out in fright.  I didn’t think twice and removing my shirt, I too stood up and did the same. ‘Don’t shoot, Americans, we’re also American!’  

We’re waving our shirts and they’re getting closer; upon reaching us, I’m guessing they relaxed only a small bit, assessing we are most likely harmless.  

They cuss us out. “What the hell are you guys doing out here after curfew …(then pointing the barrel of their guns at the boatman)… with him!?”  ‘We missed our boat outta town and … and we made a desperate decision’, I nervously explained.  

They talked amongst themselves for a moment and then ordered us to climb aboard their boat.  The Vietnamese man was also brought on board.  His little boat was tied up to theirs and after identifying us with our ID cards, we were transported to the Trans Western.  

Boy did we get an ass-chewing and that was just by the Marines who picked us up!  The Skipper had yet to have his go on us.  Upon arrival we had to of course, be re-identified to the guard soldiers on board our ship; up the rope we went.  

The patrolling Marines left with the little man still in their custody; I’m thinking most likely they escorted him back to shore.  This type of scene may have happened to others before us and most probably would occur again in the years to come.  

Phil and I made tracks for the mess hall.  All this excitement made for a great appetite.  A few of the Marine soldiers were down in the galley enjoying some grub.  

We made fresh coffee, tuna fish sandwiches with some crunchy pickles and proceeded to eat as though that would fix anything.  I tell ya, what a night!  To our immediate relief, the Skipper’s ass-chewing was not on tonight’s menu.  

Retiring to our cabin I was on autopilot until my head finally hit my pillow and I was able to think for a moment.  I was filled with gratitude that my butt was not blown to bits by the US Marines!  Or anyone else for that matter.

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90. Next Stop, Sài Gòn

After pulling up anchor, the Trans Western skirts Vietnamese coastline along the route towards Sài Gòn harbor and as before, we stayed away from the actual shoreline. Remember our cargo was not allowing us a near-to-the-shore ‘parking’ spot.

That first night we all stayed on board, no one left our boat.  However, the next day most of us were more than ready to get off the ship and explore this new frontier.  

Sài Gòn was a city larger than Quy Nhơn.  Streets, buildings, shops and hotels were bigger.  Some of the bars and cafés were of equal stature for the most part, perhaps with a little more flair and variety.

And hard to miss were the tanks and jeeps everywhere; a constant reminder that I was still in the middle of a war zone.  American soldiers strapped with weapons were always visible. 

Occasionally we were stopped and asked for our identification.  We carried ID cards of the Merchant Marines (seaman). Let me tell you it was a bit intimidating being questioned by a guy with a loaded gun somewhat pointing at your persons, even if they are our own soldiers, which they were.

There were people walking around all over the city and some drove from here to there in their cars.  A good percentage of these people were dressed in western-world clothing, my guess is that I was seeing the French influence from when France occupied Vietnam.  

Although the hotels, automobiles and restaurants were modern, I couldn’t help but notice the simple folk who stuck to their culture in everything they did, from the clothing they wore to the way some kept shop and definitely down to the street food preparation.

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81. Puffed Up Arms in San Francisco

Early 1966

I thought about it most of the night and chose not to return to the hospital that morning as I knew it would be far too difficult to leave at all.  

I trusted Alok was safe and I hugged and kissed my children before leaving for the few days I assumed I’d be away.  My previous job at Santa Ynez I had left on good terms and with positive reference, as was my habit of doing.

I knew in my mind that if I was going to get to Fiji it was now or never.  Diana drove me to the station so I would catch the 10a Greyhound into San Francisco.  After dropping me off she went back to the hospital to bring Alok home.

For the most part it was a straight through drive up north with only a few key stops along the way.  I arrived some time that evening just after the dinner hour.  Upon arrival in San Francisco I took a taxi to a friend’s apartment.  I’d known Morris since Fiji.  This is where I’d stay for nearly a week.  

It just so happened the Seafarers’ International Union of North America was across the street from his apartment building.  What were the odds?

Next morning I took that fateful walk across the street and made myself known to them, stating my intentions and then fell into their process.  One of these things was to take their form to a doctor (choose one from a list f I didn’t have one up there, which of course I didn’t) for shots, check-up, etc.,  whew!  What a lot of technical to-dos.  

I returned to Morris’ apartment late that afternoon with the certificate of completion of the union’s medical requirements.

I also had the need to go to bed.  My arms were loaded with shots, painful, swollen and these caused me to feel quite ill.  Well I was forewarned by the doctor this most likely would be the side effect.

I did manage to call home and check with Diana about Alok’s health, how Amar and Asha were doing, how she was getting on, things at home and you know, stuff.  

She comforted me, telling me that all is well and how wonderful it was having Susan and Lisa with her young son just next door.  I told her about the not-so-fun time at the doctor’s office.

Fortunate for me, Morris’ wife nursed me a bit, fed me good Indian food and I was able to rest the remainder of the day and the night through.  The next two days I was really a mess.  I felt much better the third day.

In that next morning I returned to the Seafarers’ Union office to submit the doctor’s completed form and certification showing I had all the proper vaccinations.  

After what appeared to be a thorough review the staff behind the counter gave back to me all of my papers, the ID clearance card which I had previously obtained in Long Beach and my identification to include my British passport and my Green Card.

I was instructed to sit with the other fellows over in the reception area.  We would wait. Little conversations took place, something to pass the time.  I noted I was the only Indian, there was a small handful of African origin gents, a couple of Irish men and the rest were American or something.  I’m guessing.  It’s not really important, is it?

My name was called and I went back up to the counter.  I was told,  “We need a waiter.”  The one agent asked if I was experienced.  I replied, ‘Yes and I have worked on a ship before.’  I was then instructed to throw in my ID card, like literally.  

It felt like a gamble; it’s the way they do it.  Other people reviewed my papers and near immediately I was accepted for the position.

Next thing is I’m being told where the ship is docked.  It was at my own expense to get to this ship.  The location is on Suisan Bay at Concord, California.  I’ve been given everything I need to report to that ship.  Grateful for the job I returned to Morris’ apartment and shared my exciting news.  

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Suisan Bay   a part of Contra Costa County which is located in north-­central California.  This is where you’ll find the Concord Naval Weapons Station.  That’s about 70 miles southwest of the capital of Sacramento.