In April 1975, as the government in Saigon is falling, Michael Andrews prepares to make his way back to Vietnam to find the love he was forced to leave.
But Michael’s journey begins four years earlier. He joins the Air Force to keep out of the Army and out of Vietnam, but his first assignment is teaching English in Saigon to members of the Vietnamese military in an Army program called Palace Dog.
As an artist, and a man, before his time in Vietnam, Michael found life lonely and unsatisfying. In the midst of war, Michael searches for direction and meaning. He ultimately finds love and hope with Thao, a young Vietnamese art student, only to have their already uncertain future wrenched from them when he is pulled out of the country.
For Michael, his return in 1975 is inevitable and without question, though the outcome he hopes for is anything but assured.
2015 Rainbow Awards Honorable Mention
THE WORD that comes to mind immediately is fate. My going to Saigon in the spring of 1971 seems as inevitable as my returning there. Only then, I didn’t understand.
I had been in-country for about a month, and the fear carried by me, and those who came with me, seemed to be easing. This was, after all, Vietnam. This was, after all, war. In the States we had been bombarded with headlines, stories, televised accounts of soldiers fighting in the jungles, body counts, all testifying to the war. In basic training we had been lectured on and made to practice the fundamentals of combat. Or sort of, anyway. After all, this was the Air Force.
The chartered DC-8 had landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in the middle of the night, and drab brown military buses driven by Vietnamese drivers transported us to transient barracks at MACV—Military Assistance Command Viet Nam—Annex. We were Air Force, but the program we had been assigned to, Palace Dog, was under Army control, so we were to be billeted with the Army at MACV.
Even at three in the morning, the heat and humidity were unbearable. The walls of the barracks were half solid wood, half screening nailed to wooden frames. Ceiling fans spotted the center aisle but offered little relief.
Later that morning, as an army of mamasans—Vietnamese women hired to make beds, shine shoes, and wash GIs’ uniforms—descended on the Annex, it began to look like a scene from the film M*A*S*H. Jeeps and armored personnel carriers were parked on the gravel patches between the barracks. Soldiers, many casually armed with M16s, moved to breakfast at the prefabricated aluminum mess hall. For those of us who had just arrived, it certainly looked like war. But after a month, I wasn’t really sure.
One night, about a month in-country, I was lying in the shadows of my bunk in our own assigned open bay barracks at MACV Annex, staring at the dark crisscross of springs on the empty bed above as I waited. Farther down the bay, beyond the dark wall made by my lockers, a group of instructors played cards. The Monkees singing “Daydream Believer” vibrated from small speakers. Someone slapped down a card, and others groaned and cursed. A can of beer hissed when it was opened, then another. Cards were shuffled and passed. Talk silenced as hands were constructed.
I closed my eyes, my mind held a pencil, smoothed paper, pressed the point, but no lines would come.
I needed to get out for a while, but had no place to go. Curfew would start soon, so I couldn’t go downtown again. I considered the Annex USO club, the gym, the snack bar, or one of the other clubs. But they were the same. I could have gone with Randy to listen to Vietnamese language tapes, but I had already given up on learning the language. Too many tones, too many accents, too much for my tin ear. I could have written letters. Read. Prepared tomorrow’s lesson. I could have drawn, something I hadn’t done since graduating.
I sat up and looked outside through the screened wall in time to catch a white flare released in the sky high above the outskirts of Saigon. It fell slowly, wavering ever so slightly until it disappeared behind the dark outline of other barracks across the way. I didn’t really understand what the flares were. They seemed to be red or green or white mostly. They had something to do with lighting the area around Saigon, I supposed, highlighting an enemy who might be moving closer. The Tet Offensive of 1968 could happen again. The flares were a way of seeing attacks before they happened, I surmised. Or of telling those on the ground what they should do. Attack? Retreat? The flares were a reminder that in spite of the silence that followed their initial muffled pop and slow free fall, there was a war out there. This was something I didn’t particularly want to dwell on.
To change my focus, I reached across to open my locker and noticed a letter from home that needed answering. It had been more than a week since it arrived. I could see my mother sitting at her desk, her hair stiffly permed, wearing one of her pantsuits, her nylon-covered feet planted in the thick shag of the carpet as she searched for something to say. My father would be just outside, tending whatever flower was in season, and she would call, “Dear, I’m writing to Michael. Do you have anything you want me to say?” My father would turn, his frown now a permanent part of his face, grumble, then turn back. She would close, telling me there was nothing new and to write soon and be careful.
Slowly it occurred to me that it wasn’t that way at all. My parents had moved. Since I had graduated from school and joined the Air Force, my father had retired. They had sold the house and bought a condominium, and I had no idea what it looked like.
Besides, what could I possibly tell them that they would believe or understand? That most of the time, except for the dropping of flares I didn’t understand in the distance, I felt as far away from the war here as I did at home? That here, even though I was enlisted and not an officer, I was a teacher and my students, Vietnamese military ranking from basic enlistees to full colonels, treated me with total respect and deference, even when they might outrank me?
And how could I ever hope to explain or expect them to understand my uneasy exhilaration earlier in the evening as I had taken a motorized cyclo back to the Annex from downtown Saigon? The cyclo had sped down smoky, dusty Hai Ba Trung Street with me sitting tensely on the blue-and-white plastic-covered seat, my hands gripping the yellow metal frame. The thick soles of my jungle boots were propped up against the metal floor frame. The driver, perched behind, wearing a soft, black baseball cap, grinned broadly as he swerved to pass other vehicles, then sped up as he moved down the center of the street and crossed over the barely visible center line before swerving back. The engine had sputtered and puffed, emitting faint spews of smoke as it moved us forward.
Catching sight of white-shirted Vietnamese schoolboys hurrying down a narrow alley, I saw myself a year before, sitting in the university library, struggling to finish my thesis. The close, quiet security offered by the heavy cinder-block walls, thick carpeting, and stacks of reference books had seemed real and important at the time. The end was in sight. The goal I had pursued the past six years was in reach. The thought of being drafted into the military, even with the knowledge my relatively high lottery-drawn number was coming within reach, had loomed darkly impossible.
The cyclo had bumped across the bridge, following the curve in the road, then moved quickly down the final straight stretch, past houses and shops, past rows of trees and walls and occasional open spaces, past vendors who lined the street’s edge selling gasoline in glass bottles. Motorcycles, Lambretta mini-buses packed with people, cream-and-blue Renault taxis, pedestrians with baskets and boxes—all crowded the street. Noises, smells, and smoke came from everywhere, and as the driver increased his speed, I smiled, gripping the metal frame tighter and pushing slightly with my feet as the moist wind rushed around me.
Speeding through the streets of Saigon, wearing the green Air Force-issued jungle fatigues, my life of a year ago seemed unreal.
Sitting on the edge of my bed, looking distractedly at the unanswered letter from home, I wondered if I could ever draw what I felt or if I could chronicle in those drawings what I was experiencing here. I somehow doubted it. For while I had the skill, the passion to recreate the events was somehow missing.
I stretched out on my bed, this time placing my head at the foot to rest my cheek on the cool metal frame and look in the direction of the never-ending card game.
From the far end, Richard appeared, shuffling into the light, gripping his towel around his waist. He paused to talk with the players, to look at one or two of the hands, to make comments I couldn’t hear but that caused the others to laugh. As he began to move away, someone grabbed the back of his towel and brought it to the floor.
“All right, fucker,” Richard yelled as he turned, bent to pick up the towel, then refastened it loosely about his middle before he made his way down the center aisle.
His dark freckles seemed to be everywhere. His towel now dipped below the line that marked his tan, revealing a trace of his thick brownish-red pubic hair. Moving closer, the color of his skin changed as he passed through the light and shadows of the barracks. He was fair and freckled, yet he tanned to a color somewhere between conventional brown and fiery copper. His dark red hair was streaked light from mornings spent at the Annex swimming pool. But his body was not a swimmer’s body. He had soft curves, slight sags that showed a lazy disinterest with anything that might make his body boringly perfect. His tan came from lounging by the pool, not swimming in it.
As Richard blended into the darkness of my area, he stumbled, balancing himself by reaching out and catching the edge of the empty upper bunk.
“Hey,” he mumbled. “What’s going on?” He raised one leg and placed his foot on the corner of my wooden footlocker. “I’m really fucked-up.”
My gaze moved up the straight line of his leg, bent with the curve of his knee and thigh, paused ever so slightly at the darkness revealing nothing of his crotch still covered by his towel before moving up his flat stomach and smooth, freckled chest to the glassy disorientation of his eyes. In that moment, I wanted to draw him. Standing there, just that way.
“Where were you tonight, anyway?” he asked. “I looked for you. Thought you might want to go to the club.”
“Around,” I answered. “The library for a while. You know.”
“Randy left in his uniform,” he stated.
“He’s listening to language tapes,” I said.
A sly smile crept across his face. “Shit. He’s gone off base. Ten to one that fucker’s getting laid.”
I smiled. “You don’t know that.”
“Shit, man. He’s heading for trouble. The whores over here fit razor blades in the plastic caps of shaving cream cans and stuff them up their twats. Then when you plug them….”
I couldn’t hold my sudden burst of laughter.
“And black syph. If you get that, they put you on this ship that sails around and never docks. You never see land or people again. They tell your family you died and give them a bunch of medals.”
“Where do you get that stuff?” I asked, rolling back on my bed.
He lowered his leg, steadying himself by holding the rail of the top bunk. His head, fiery, coppery, haloed in gold, leaned in slightly and hovered above mine.
“It’s almost enough to make you queer,” he whispered, his eyes suddenly appearing lucid and clear.
I froze. Unable to move, unable to swallow, unable to blink my gaze from his. Then, just as suddenly, I relaxed.
“What?” I finally managed to ask. “Then what?”
He lingered a moment, his eyes closed. When he slowly opened them, they were glazed again. He pulled back, loosened his towel, and threw it over his shoulder as he turned. In that moment, I saw myself kneeling on the floor in front of him, burying my face in his crotch as my hands kneaded the soft flesh of his buttocks.
“Fuckin’ bore,” he muttered as he shuffled toward the latrine.
I didn’t move. I listened to the sounds of the card game that continued. I heard the music, though I couldn’t identify the song. I felt tiny beads of sweat forming on my face.
The sound of the shower filtered through the latrine doors. Upstairs, someone ran down the center aisle, slammed out the back door, shook the steps as he moved down, and crunched onto the gravel road. My impulse was to get up and run after him, whoever he was and wherever he was going.
I closed my eyes, searching for an escape. Nothing came.
The sound of the shower, beyond the wood wall of the latrine, stopped, pulling me back to the heat and humidity of Saigon at night. I sat up, glancing at the dark door.
But when it opened, it was Randy, not Richard. He was still in uniform, frowning as he stomped toward his bunk across the aisle from mine.
“Why’s this place so dark?” he demanded of no one in particular before snapping on the small lamp above his bed. I sat up and crossed my legs, holding my knees to my chest. Randy sat on his footlocker, unlacing his boots.
Richard reappeared from the latrine, his hair wet, naked, his towel thrown casually over his shoulder as he sauntered toward us.
“Christ,” Randy snarled. “You’re a goddam exhibitionist.”
Richard paused, glancing from me to Randy and back to me. “If I wasn’t so fucked-up, I’d tell you to fuck yourself.” He winked and continued on. “See you fuckers later.”
Randy fell back on his bed, his laughter betraying a resigned weariness.
I watched Richard move, twisting unevenly from side to side, passing the card game without speaking, then blending into the darkness at the far end of the bay.
“He shouldn’t be here,” Randy said quietly. He was standing now, shedding his uniform.
He was slightly taller than Richard, his body fuller, his black hair straight and cut close. His skin was ruddy, his face showing what seemed to be a perpetual five o’clock shadow. The only thing that conflicted with his rugged appearance was the bright clarity of his deep blue eyes, which were luminous even in the dim light.
“What choice did he have?” I asked.
“We all had a choice,” Randy retorted. “We could have gotten out of this assignment if we had really wanted to.”
I recalled the briefing by the civilian supervisors of the program and how inviting they had made it sound.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Randy continued. “We join the Air Force to keep from being drafted into the Army and to keep out of Vietnam. And what happens? They send us to teach English for the Army in Saigon.”
Randy stood in his green military-issued boxer shorts and matching T-shirt, staring in the direction of the now-subdued card game without actually seeing it.
“Christ,” he muttered. “If Connie could see me now. A goddam Palace Dog.”
I repositioned myself on my bed, moving closer to the aisle. Randy had only mentioned Connie a couple of times, when he was particularly down.
“She used to get this tight little frown whenever things weren’t going precisely her way.” He paused, his thoughts far away. Then slowly he turned to me. He sat on the edge of his bed. “She didn’t like it when I told her I was enlisting. I think she would have preferred me to go to jail. Or Canada. Anywhere but here.”
The look in his eyes as he spoke showed his pain. He held it for a moment, and then it was gone. The tension in his face eased. The corners of his mouth relaxed.
“Don’t you ever get tired of this?” he asked me.
I thought a moment. I knew he was talking about the barracks, not about being in Vietnam. Without his saying, I knew he loved it. I knew he was anxious to get out, get away, explore, find whatever it was he was looking for. My reply of “I guess” seemed a safe enough answer.
Randy stood and pulled back the blanket covering his bed. He bent over and crawled beneath his sheet. “Don’t you want to do something?” He snapped off the lamp, leaving our area in darkness.
It took me a while to answer. “Yeah,” I finally said. “But what?”
My question was met with silence.
“Randy,” I said.
“What?” he muttered
“Those flares we see. The colors. What do they mean?”
He paused, as if thinking out his answer.
I sat up, looking across to his dark bed. “I mean, I thought maybe the red meant fighting, the green meant the fighting was over, or vice versa, and the white only for looking to see what’s there.”
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” he said. “I mean, it must change, depending on what they’re doing. Otherwise, if it meant the same thing every time, the VC, or whoever the enemy is that’s out there, will know.”
“Yeah.” I lay back on my pillow. It seemed reasonable. But still I wondered. I heard the early, steady breathing sounds of his sleep and added, “Maybe you’re right.”
THE NEXT morning the mamasans arrived around eight to start their chores of making beds, polishing shoes, keeping everything in order. While they worked, we had breakfast in the dining hall, made a run to the PX, spent a couple of hours at the Annex pool, then headed back to the barracks for a shower, lunch, and to dress for class.
Before leaving, there was another confrontation with the mamasans about whether or not we should get them another box of detergent. We were each supposed to give the one who worked for us two boxes of Tide a month, with a bottle of Clorox and a can of shoe polish. They usually succeeded in extracting more, some of which they used, most of which they sold on the black market.
Shortly before noon, we boarded the bus for the school to begin the afternoon shift. After leaving the Annex for the short ride to the school compound, we passed the golf course the military officers and civilians, I presumed, used. As the bus made the turn past an MP station and onto the main road, I looked toward the white three-story building set back from the road, gleaming in the brightness of noon. It was our new classroom building. The wall in front of the school was spotted with bunker-like posts that held two or three sleepy, bored-looking Vietnamese guards.
The driver honked, turned the bus through the main gate, and passed the guard house before stopping in front of the light green aluminum structure everyone called the Tin Building. It housed some of the American support staff attached to the school, as well as the mail room and instructors’ lounge.
“Check my mail for me,” I called to Randy as we stepped off the bus. “I’ll be at the lockers.”
I started walking to the far side of the compound, toward the two long single-story older buildings that used to be the classrooms and now served as offices for the Vietnamese at the school and locker rooms for the instructors. I could see the last columns of green-uniformed Vietnamese Air Force students from the morning session marching back to Tent City, the large camp of canvas tents where they lived.
I didn’t understand how the students stood living in such conditions. The tents were nothing more than pieces of rotting canvas stretched over wooden frames. They had no lockers, nothing to secure their belongings. Unsteady cots served as beds, with two or three times as many crammed together as there should be. There was a community shower that many of my students refused to use, feeling it was healthier not to bathe. True, there was a large prefabricated dining hall the US military had erected, but I knew from my students that what was served was barely edible. Somehow the students managed to put up with this for six days, with Sunday the only day those who hadn’t gotten into trouble during the week could leave the camp to visit their families or go downtown to get decent meals.
I paused in the roadway separating the two older buildings, and gazed toward Tent City. The morning session broke ranks as the afternoon group prepared to march to the school.
The sound of running water caused me to turn to my left and look down the row of offices to the far end. In the bright sunlight, underneath a showerhead nailed to a wooden post, stood a Vietnamese who was assigned to the school. I recognized him as one of the drivers. Now he was wearing only a grimy pair of gray undershorts that were wet and stuck to his body, exaggerating the outline of what they normally hid.
Even from a distance, I could see his leathery, worn-looking skin, his sinewy, hard body, bony and bent. But the man’s movements were quick and energetic as he rubbed the soap into his chest, down his legs, then raised his arms to reach his shoulders and back.
Several Vietnamese officers rounded the far corner and walked past the man, as oblivious to him as he was to them.
I turned quickly, feeling my face flush, as if caught peeping through a keyhole. But the officers smiled and nodded as they passed. When they turned the corner, I looked back again and saw the man with his back to me as he stood under the shower, letting the slow running water rinse his hair and body.
“Nothing today, Sunshine,” Randy called out. He was scanning his own letter as he moved toward where I stood.
“I wasn’t expecting anything,” I muttered, following him to the room that housed our lockers. “Where’s Richard?”
“Bargaining his beer ration away with the bus driver. I think he’s trying to get more than five dollars for a three dollar case.” He shook his head. “If the black market ever folded, I suspect the economy here would collapse and the war would be over.”
The dirty-yellow cracked plaster wall of the small room was lined with army-issue lockers the instructors used to keep books. A slowly turning ceiling fan provided next to no air circulation.
“How’s your class?” Randy asked, opening his locker.
“Okay. Repeaters. Third time, I think.” I thumbed through my book, looking for the sheet of loose paper that had my lesson plan on it. What I really wanted was something on which to make a quick sketch of the man bathing.
“I guess you can only go over ‘Hello. How are you? Fine, thanks. Good-bye’ so many times and make it fresh.”
I nodded. “A couple of them said they might be pulled out and sent to Da Nang soon.”
Randy sighed. “At least that gets them out of that hell hole.” He nodded toward Tent City.
I gazed through the broken shutters of the unscreened windows. “Those fences look so puny,” I commented. “I don’t know why they don’t cut through them and run away.”
“Run away where?” Randy countered simply.
From beyond the compound, we could hear the loud counting of the afternoon group marching to the school.
Randy slammed his locker. “Well, here we go again.”
We stepped outside into the glaring sun just as the gate separating the school from Tent City was closed and the squads of students were dismissed from formation. As I peered over the rush of dirty green uniforms scurrying to get something from the school snack bar before classes began, I saw that the man taking the shower had gone. And while the sudden urge to commit what I had seen to paper had passed, I made a mental note to buy a camera the next time I went to the PX.
DURING THE long afternoon break, I stood on the landing of the second floor, between the classrooms and the language laboratories. My class would be there the last two hours to listen to the tapes. I looked forward to relaxing my voice after the intensity of repetition the teaching demanded.
Most of the students crowded at the other end, on the ground level, smoking and chatting as they chewed on roasted peanuts from tiny plastic bags. Many held hands or draped their arms around their friends’ shoulders. Others squatted, resting their arms on the flats of their knees. They looked so young, and they were so genuine in their interest and friendliness.
I walked along the balcony toward the back of the building. A cool breeze from the north moved through the shade. Leaning against the railing, I looked across the flatness that even from this short distance was lush and tropical. A boy ran across a field between Tan Son Nhut Air Base and the school, chasing some lean-looking cows. In the far distance, a Pan Am 747 descended in stark white-and-blue into the base as clouds grayed the sky. Somewhere beyond that scene was war. How far, I didn’t know. How real, I also didn’t know, and hoped I never would.
Cooking odors, heavy with the smell of fish sauce, drifted from a compound just beyond the school. It appeared to be the living area for Vietnamese military families, though they weren’t connected with the school as far as I could tell. The buildings were long and low, wooden, with large sheets of rusted metal forming the peaked roofs. The road leading from the main street was dusty and unpaved but clean.
I watched as children ran to one door and peeked out, then disappeared into the shadows. A woman’s voice called from inside. There was music, faint and high pitched. A breeze rippled the line of green palms behind the metal roofs, and I again felt something stir inside me. There was a feeling I knew I had to capture, I had to show. A feeling I demanded to know more and understand better.
In the quiet of the moment, my thoughts shifted to my home with the cleanly trimmed yard and cement drive. I thought of the tall trees that darkened the green lawn with their shade. I had grown up in that house. My first eighteen years had been spent there. Now, standing where I was, looking at this everyday life, still so new to me, unfold, I was surprised and a little sad at how little attachment I felt for that home.
A familiar voice caused me to turn and look down to the ground level. Randy stood with a group of students. I admired the way he got on with them. All of them. He felt comfortable in a way I didn’t. I was always so stiff and formal, like a teacher. I didn’t want to feel that way. It was just so difficult for me to open up the way Randy did.
Suddenly from beyond the low building that separated the school from Tent City, there was a tremendous explosion.
I froze. Students ran from all directions toward the noise. Slowly I moved along the balcony and down the stairs. My hands shook slightly as I held on to the railing.
“What the fuck was that?” Richard was at the bottom of the stairs, his face pale, his eyes wide.
Students pushed and shoved as they moved from the building. Randy stood under the eaves of the old building, waving for us to follow.
“You won’t believe it,” Randy called. “Come on.”
As we moved through the breezeway, we saw students crowded at the fence. Across the brush that buffered Tent City, we could see several students from the morning session reaching through the fence, pulling at the carcass of a cow.
“You know that, sir?”
I turned and saw one of the students Randy had been talking to earlier. His name, Tri, was stitched onto his uniform.
“What happened?” Randy asked.
“Some student make trick for cow to walk there.”
The students around them were all laughing, pushing against each other as they called to their friends on the other side.
“Have many bomb under dirt. Keep out VC.” Tri paused. “And keep student in.” He grinned and winked. “Tonight we have good dinner in Tent City.”
I understood now why the students didn’t try to escape.
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