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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48. All aboard!

First thing I did was surrender my suitcase at the entry level and having checked my ticket, it was accepted and my hands were free.  I came back down to the wharf where my family and friends, who had come directly to the docks, were waiting.  

Saying the this-time-for-real goodbyes to the family before climbing the gangplank was rough to say the least, especially seeing my mother’s face and knowing this was, once again, tearing her up … it hurt.  

Then there is my sweet Noori.  I was closest to her now than ever before and knowing how dearly she loved me didn’t make this farewell any easier.  

The loudspeaker blurted out the commencement of pre-boarding for those passengers who were already residing on that ship from the previous port.  My heart skipped a beat and I can only imagine what my mother, sisters and brother and Noori’s hearts were doing.  

“Send us a postcard!”  someone said.  “Don’t forget to write!” said another.  “Remember us and return soon …”  trailed another voice.  It was time to say our final (such a word!) goodbyes.  

One by one I went to each person, young and old, hugging, kissing and wiping tears and making the repetetive promise to take care of myself and return sooner than later.  

Do you know there were a few of my family members whom I had never in my life, witnessed them shed a tear up till just now.  How heart-wrenching.  It was a long line-up of dear ones and then I get to my brother and my sisters.  

I had never seen my brother cry either and in our embrace he poured which of course caused me to cry my eyes out too!  My dear sister-in-law stood by him silently crying.  To make her smile I told her I’d miss her meals as no one could touch her cooking where I was going.  It worked.

I gave my brother a personal promise; whether or not he wanted it I would send money to assist so that he wouldn’t have to miss me that way and I reminded him that I will definitely call for him as soon as I have settled.  

To my sisters I told them how much I loved them and would miss them (I knew my little sister would be the one writing to me) and to all my nieces and nephews I laid down the promise of goodies from America.

My mother, my dearest, most precious mother.  I don’t have to tell you about the nonstop tears there.  She said to me, “Maybe I’m not going to be here when you come back.”  What a stab in my heart, I had that coming.  

I knew I’d better say something comforting and quick!  ‘Amma don’t worry please.  I promise you as I have made the same to Noori that I will be back in two years to marry her.’  

Noori was naturally standing there right beside my mother.  That statement brought a gentle smile to my crying mother’s face … and to Noori’s.

It was nearly 4 o’clock and the steamship whistle sounded.  The call for all to board was heard and went through my bones.  Noori and I embraced, tightly, she cried a lot and we repeated our love statement for one another.  ‘I will see you soon Noori.’  I assured her and she assured me in return, “I will wait for you Gary.”

Orsova ticket to.. 1959I began my ascent of the gangplank and I could hear all the crying.  I made my way to the top deck of the ship.  Boxes of streamers were laid out for the passengers to throw as their departing gesture and final tie being broken … well that’s what it felt like to me.

I grabbed half a dozen of those paper streamers and made my way to the railing of the ship, obviously dockside.  The Fiji Military band had begun a tune and the mood was set.

I see my people down there on the wharf and I can tell they’re searching for my face among the many.  A couple of the excited children spot me waving and point me out to the rest.

The Orsova horn -that sound- was blasted again, twice.  It was 4:45p and the gangplank would go up in five minutes.  I hold one end of each streamer and then begin to throw them towards the crowd, in the general direction of my family and friends.

Then the departing song Isa Lei began.  A man had caught one of my streamers and as though by fate, handed it to Noori.  She may not have caught one on her own, I don’t know and I had no idea who he was.

The big rope at the stern was first released and the ship begins a controlled slip away from the dock.  The tears and emotions for nearly everyone present were uncontrollable.  It’s such a haunting piece of music and the way the lyrics are sung, one cannot help but to lose it.

Isa is God in Fijian.  A feeling of hearts full of pleasure and return right away and your absence will bring pain … that kind of a feeling, very haunting you know.   

“Why did you come if you have to leave …”

The band is still playing and the streamers have been flying.  Now the stern has been released as the ship pulls away under it’s own complete power.
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You know this goodbye with Noori reminded me of 1953, nearly the same scenario up in Vancouver with Sonia.  I had said to her I would return to her and that we would run away and get married.  Sonia had said she would hide me from everyone.  This felt a lot like the same and I really didn’t want to suffer that love lost once again.