93. Children Shouldn’t Play With Hand Grenades

In bewildering fascination, Saigon, formerly the capital of French Indochina, held me captive for about a week.  The rich blend of people, some in fancy western threads and others staying true to their native attire, were walking about in a fairly normal city scene.  

Some were shuttled around in decent cars and yes, there were clunkers to be seen as well.  Others took cyclos without a second thought and there were quite a few people going about on bicycles.  Then of course there were the troops going from here to there on foot and in military transport.

The smells coming from restaurants, fresh food vendors and street-food stalls were definitely interesting and I found some delicious too.

While sitting in a local bar on yet another sweltering hot evening, engaged in the usual sipping of ice cold beer, I was startled by what I was certain to be the sound of an explosion.  A little shaken to be sure but more so curious, I walked over to the open doorway and peered out.  A couple of more distant bangs followed.

The scene outside was that of the city’s people going about their daily routines, intermixed with our G.I.s and some foreign visitors … and children playing around the streets.  I then heard a siren in the distance.

Seeing nothing out of the ordinary I returned to my table, not really sure what to think or how to react.  I say this because most everyone else in the bar seemed relatively calm about the boom and bangs.   

Timing such as it was, these bangs became the discussion at our table.  My friends and I were told by a couple of Marines standing at the bar, to be aware of the children and youthful people here; perhaps an occasional grandparent too.  They must’ve sensed my concern.  

There have been occasions wherein children pretending to play ball outside, were actually culprits of (most likely forced) no good actions.  They were usually near an establishment where a good number of G.I.s were to be found.  A ‘ball’ would roll inside.  

Now either someone will pick it up and roll it back outside or it was ignored but sometimes, before one could realize it, kaboom!  Not only the visually dense population of American and Allied troops but the average citizen of South Việt Nam, all were targets in this damned war.  

And as was the wartime usual, you couldn’t really trust anyone.  Decidedly we were unable to distinguish the difference between North and South Vietnamese citizens; who had the grenade … or worse?

As if on cue, a ball rolled in through the open doorway and right then and there, my heart stopped beating.  I was sure of it because I don’t remember taking another single breath!

After what seemed like forever but only a moment or two later, a youthful lad came in after it and took it back out straight away.  Clearly I’m still here to say, that wasn’t a hand-grenade, or for that matter any other exploding device that evening.

Towards the end of our Việt Nam stopover I wanted to stay back in the city for an overnight.  Though I knew I’d have to rise before the morning sun to get back to the ship via the 5a boat at shore, I will admit I chose to engage a female companion and so retained a hotel room.  

It was after only a few minutes of being in this room (probably for the best) when the moment about to be, was disturbed.  There was sudden (again with the heart-stopping) and loud non-stop banging.  I instantly opened the door to see guns staring me down.  

There were 4 that I could see and two of them were pushing their way into my room; these gunslingers didn’t wait for an invitation to enter.  They briefly looked around.  I definitely wasn’t going to argue or question these 2 Vietnamese (n or s? don’t know) soldiers with -credit to my imagination- itchy trigger-fingers on those cold & scary (what looked like) AK-47s, surely loaded and ready to shoot!

No English was spoken and they left shortly after arrival, taking the girl with them.  The only conclusion I arrived at was the girl must’ve been North Vietnamese, posing as a South Vietnamese family girl.  Or was it the other way around?

Okay I’d finally had enough of my own shenanigans; no more shore time for this boy, I would stay in the ship for our remainder of this Việt Nam stopover.

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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 Việt Nam.  

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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61. A Surprise For Dave!

Those days, after more than a year in San Francisco I began to feel like I stepped into suspended animation once again.  I concluded my life wasn’t moving forward.  True there’s always various options one could look into; these eluded me in that moment of my existence.

I found myself just hanging around and not doing much apart from work and roaming the city.

It was roughly a little more than a week after that first trip into the Los Angeles area when I realised this young man from the Fiji Islands was craving the warmer climate of southern California.  You’re surely not surprised are you?

By the end of the 2nd week I had given notice to my employer.  Leaving the hotel restaurant in good standings as well, I offered to stay with them till they replaced me.

Autumn was definitely in the air when I bought my one-way ticket on the Greyhound bus and headed down to Los Angeles.  I got off the bus at the Santa Monica station.  After a little searching I found myself a motel room for about $2.75 per night.  This was on Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles, a nice place to be.

I would stay there for about a week.  Settling in the first thing for me to do was take a walk.  I returned to the room feeling relaxed.  Turning to the pages of my little notebook I refreshed myself on a couple of goals.

Before I left home my brother had suggested I carry this with me at all times as it would prove really useful.  “Write our home address in it just in case you suddenly feel like sending home a postcard,” he told me.  The first Palm Pilot right?  

One of the things on my to-do list was to try and find a treasured childhood friend, made through the mail.  Yes I’m talking pen pal here.  It sure would be nice to meet him face to face.

I inquired with someone as to the location of the address.  Go close to Overland and Pico someone said.  “This street you’re looking for will cross Pico Boulevard and then you’ll make a right turn.  From there it may be another mile or so,” another friendly face told me.

Someone else said to take a bus and go towards Rancho Park Golf Course.  I was directed east.  Well there was no shortage of people willing to give me directions.

Once I finally arrived in that neck of the woods I popped into a local business asking for continued directions, just to be sure you know.  One man in this little store told me, “If you’re walking it’ll be a ways.”  Well I was prepared to take the walk that might lead me to a childhood friend;  this was my only plan for the day.  

Eyeing me out of curiosity I think, he continued, “First there will be a golf course, don’t worry the street will give way into a residential area.”  A couple more directive words and I was set.  Thanking him I left his shop and began the longest part of my journey.  

And once I made that right turn I passed the golf course everyone seemed to mention.  The road started to slope a bit and then it went up again.  I began looking at the house numbers.

I had walked and walked but as I was taken in by the the layout of the neighborhood I didn’t really feel the distance.  

At last on my left hand side I came upon the address I’d been hoping to find.  It was a wonderful white painted, single story home.  So there it was, the actual home of my un-met friend, my pen pal of years past.  

I stood silently there for quite some time wondering what I should do now.  A hundred thoughts raced through my mind … what if?  What if it’s the wrong address?  What if the people inside think I’m a bad person and shriek in fear?  What if …?

I finally pressed the doorbell button.

It must’ve been nearly 3 minutes before I heard anything besides my own heartbeat and that was the click of the door.  Well that certainly was enough time for my nerves to be in more of a spin than they already were.  

A beautiful lady cautiously opened the front door and only slightly at that.  “Can I help you?” she said.  Stunned – I said nothing for a moment.  I wanted to say, ‘Mom.’  I was beginning to feel all too strange but I pushed myself to say something,  ‘I am looking for my friend.  This is the address I’ve got for him.’

“Who’s your friend, have you a name?” she asked me with the door still ajar.  I nervously replied, ‘Dave? David.’  Her eyes grew bigger yet she was listening to me in quiet thought I suspect.

I bravely continued to speak, ‘My name is Parma and I’ve come from the Fiji Islands and now to Los Angeles to meet him …’ and then my voice sort of trailed off.

She turned her head slightly towards the inside of the house and said in a louder voice “Honey! Dave, come here!”  Soon the door was opened a bit more and a young man was looking at me with the same wide-eyes (apparently he was recognizing me from the earlier photos I had sent to him in our communications).  

He said with a brightly lit face, “Mom!  This is my pen pal Parma!  We used to correspond when we were so much younger, remember?”  Instantly her face showed immediate relief and the door opened wide.  ‘I told you Dave, someday I will come and meet you.’  

I was practically rustled into the house with overwhelming affection.  Only once did his mother call me by my name because after that it was, oh honey this and honey that and on and on and lots of hugs too!  Imagine how the questions flew around in all directions that afternoon.

And when his dad came home, his surprise was worth a thousand dollars as well.  He had entered the living room simply expecting the normal evening when his eyes fell upon me.  “Who have we here?”  

I stood up right away and Dave taking the cue also rose and immediately introduced us. “Remember dad how I used to correspond with a kid in the Fiji Islands years ago?” Dave asked his father.  

Mr. Elson looked thoughtful for a few moments and then his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree, just like Dave’s had earlier.  He couldn’t believe it either.  This family truly welcomed me and yes, before dinner was even finished, I was asked to call them only mom and dad.

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Parma (that was a nickname Dave used with me and I absolutely cannot seem to remember how that came to be).