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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86. Qui Nhơn Harbor

It was the 12th day and after many nautical miles into the Pacific Ocean, I’ve faced every day as a new adventure, which had up till now been spent in daily routine.  

I remember the announcement of land being spotted, blaring through the overhead speakers and my preconceptions seeping deeper into my veins, now even more than during the journey in this direction.  

We approach the 12 mile neutral zone, skirting Vietnam and the war region. I overheard, “Anything goes!” That sounded like a voice of experience talking: not comforting, yet exciting.

Entering this boundary I’m seeing lots of ships anchored off the Qui Nhơn Harbor shoreline.  Not one was docked at land and I already knew our ship would never go to shore either.  Once we received our ‘parking’ location anchor was dropped.

As our ship was one of the napalm carriers, there would be about a dozen Marine (the naval infantry) assigned to protect the cargo, us and of course the ship itself.  A couple of hours had passed before our assigned ‘on board’ armed guards arrived.  They’d stay with us now for as long as our ship was here in this ‘parking lot’.  

The Marines would rotate in 3 shifts throughout the course of the day and night.  Naturally it was our responsibility to feed these guys. They would eat in the main dining room so they didn’t fall under my care.  Remember I was assigned to my ship’s officers only.

As supplies were needed the Marines would come out to us in their boats and get what they needed at any given time.  Think floating super-store!

And as far as personal weapons already on our ship and to my knowledge, no one was armed save for our Skipper.  In retrospect I’m thinking perhaps the 1st Officers may have had guns as well, I should think. It made sense if they did but at the time I did not bother to think about it.  

As the crew and I were engaged in our duties later that afternoon, the ship’s Captain came down to into the dining room to brief us of our disposition. Remember there are no more than 30 of us on this entire ship and so the gathering was intimate.

The Skipper said to us, “Now you’re entitled to the combat zone paycheck.  During our time here, if the Việt Cộng take a shot at any of us, we’ll have it made,” he said with a smirk I couldn’t forget and finished that statement with, “…if we should survive.”

There had been no conversation with any family since leaving California and the thought of what the Skipper just said was resting bittersweet on my heart.  While thinking big bucks for my family, I really wasn’t looking forward to taking a bullet!

Looking into his eyes I felt our Skipper must’ve lived this scenario many times already.  “Keep your eyes and ears open at all times. Be sensible men, this is a different world. Always look over your shoulder … watch your ass!  I’m telling you, there’s no trusting anybody!”

He looked at all of us carefully and continued, “In your off time you are free to go ashore but you’d be wise to follow protocol.  Should you go into town and act stupid, like disobeying local law and obviously our own civilized sense of behavior, you’ve then made the decision to take your safety into your own hands and you are no longer protected under these United States War Zone Rules.  In other words, your ass is null and void!”

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11. Think Happy Thoughts!!

Port of Suva arrival and naturally my family is there waiting for me.  And as the time before, I stay at home only to report to the ship as duty calls.  The cargo of flour had to be unloaded and the ship cleaned before more Fiji sugar can be taken on for the next port in Canada.  This means I have a good four or five days in port, possibly more and this was always dependent upon available labor.

Friends and family filled my evenings as work filled my days.  It was the 2nd day at home when I began to discreetly collect my most important personal belongings and pack them into my travel bag; the things I felt I would need to start my life anew up in Canada, with Sonia.  

The evening prior to the ship’s departure had arrived.  My mother and my brother announced to me their plans of taking me along to a dinner gathering at their friend’s home.  I asked if I knew this family and I was told I had not yet made their acquaintance.

Although I was deeply preoccupied with thoughts and preparations of seeing sweet Sonia again, I didn’t wish to upset my mother or brother so I agreed and certainly I never minded meeting new people.

They lived just about a mile from our home, near the main street of Waimanu Road.  We arrived to happy hosts and they received us warmly.  Sitting comfortably on a sofa in their living room and having been served a drink, the introductions began for me as everyone else knew one another already.

I met the adults aka the parents and their six children; two sons and four daughters.  Of the two eldest children, one of the daughters parked herself next to me on the sofa and began a conversation with, “What countries have you been to so far?” in Hindi of course. 

Her name was Hemma and I replied to her, ‘Hawaii, Vancouver, Canada, Washington and Oregon in the United States and when we came back this way, I went on to see parts of New Zealand and Australia …’ Hemma was smiling.  I finished with, ‘…and tomorrow I am going back up to Hawaii and Vancouver!’

Our conversation continued and I asked her what her birthdate was; instead of giving me a date, she said, “I am fifteen.”  So much for beating around the bush.  I told her my birthdate and stated that I was eighteen.

My mother came by after a few moments and gently touching my arm, she softly told me this girl was one she especially wanted me to meet.  Dinner was served and we all joined together at the table.  A delicious Indian meal had been prepared and it was delightful to me.

This very young and pretty girl was doting over me perhaps a little too much for a first meet but then who am I to say anything about first meetings?  As Hemma filled my plate with lots of food she told me I should enjoy these dishes and eat up because I would not get this taste in my mouth again while overseas.

Well then!

Dinner was finally over and the conversation going around the room that evening was all pleasant enough.  However it was getting late and well, this young man had a working schedule to keep!  I suggested to my brother that we depart by 10p as I was feeling tired.  I was after all a couple of drinks into the night and with a full tummy to round off that relaxed state, I wanted to go …lingering thoughts and all.

For the lovely hospitality, dinner and drinks, we said our goodbyes, many a thank you and good nights.  It only took moments to reach our house and after we got settled in, cups of my sister-in-law’s perfect spiced tea for all, we conversed a little about the night.

I was asked how I enjoyed the evening and, did I like the young girl they introduced me to?  We could tell she really liked you, they said.  Now as they’re trying to speak lightly, suspicious thoughts are entering my mind.  It’s becoming apparent to me that my mother, brother and the other members of the family had been talking while I was away and decided it was time for a bride for the Little Blue Masala; and they picked Hemma!

They knew I would be sailing away again.  I knew my mother -God rest her soul- was doing everything she could to keep me at home.  My brother -God rest his soul- wasted no time introducing me to her and guess what?  Although panic momentarily set in, I realized I had nothing to worry about!

My life-changing bag was packed and with it I would be leaving first thing in the morning.  They didn’t know about the little plan I had hiding up my sleeve.  The one where I arrive in Vancouver, jump ship and elope with my Sonia …forever.

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Hemma is a created name for a very real person in this part of LBM’s saga.

We’re both glad you have decided to climb on board Little Blue Masala’s ship of tales.  Thanks for riding the unpredictable waves with us; after all that is what makes life interesting isn’t it?