By: Tom Ray
Ed Churchwell met Thuy at a promotion party at the officers club at Tan Son Nhat Air Force Base on the outskirts of Saigon. A couple of his colleagues at Combat Evaluation Center Echo (CECE, pronounced “See See”) had been promoted from second to first lieutenant, and jointly hosted the traditional celebration. The club, like the entire Base, was like back in the States, offering American food and beverages only. There was a live country and western band from Nashville. Every table was occupied by Americans in jungle fatigues, sitting in chairs jammed together.
The CECE Director, Lieutenant Colonel Lopatkowitz, was on his Rest and Recuperation leave in Hawaii. With the Director away on “R&R,” Major Herb Carpenter was the acting Director. Ed was surprised when Major Carpenter, who all of the junior officers were allowed to call “Herb” in violation of protocol, walked in with a pretty young Vietnamese woman. She wore the traditional áo dài, a silk dress that was fitted tightly to the arms and torso, with two panels from the waist down, one in front and one in back. The silk trousers she wore were white. The dress was a turquoise blue, with a traditional geometric design reproduced in gold embroidery over all the material. Most of the clerk typists at CECE wore the áo dài with a mandarin collar, close to the neck and not exposing the shoulders or chest. Thuy’s dress that night had a scoop neck, showing smooth skin. Her silky black hair ran down her back almost to her waist. Ed guessed she was a few years older than him and the other lieutenants, and a few years younger than the Major.
Herb introduced her to each person. When Ed said, “Hi, I’m Ed Churchwell,” she responded “Oh, yes, I know you. Good to see you.” After everybody was seated again he leaned toward Roy Beaman to his left and said, “She acted like she knew me. I don’t recognize her.”
“You see her every day when we go to lunch. She’s the gal who works the desk at the Indiana.”
He was embarrassed that he hadn’t remembered her. The Indiana Bachelor Officers Quarters was across the street from CECE. There was a small officers club on the top floor where the guys from CECE usually ate lunch. In all the BOQs in Saigon a Vietnamese national sat at a counter in the lobby like the front desk in a hotel. Herb lived at the Indiana, and Ed remembered seeing him stop at the desk sometimes and talk to the female clerk. It had never occurred to him that Herb was involved with her.
“Hey, Herb, how much time you got left?” It was Taliafero, one of the guys getting promoted.
“You going to extend?”
“Shit, no. I’m dying to get home to mama.”
Ed laughed along with everybody else, but he thought it was odd that Herb would say that in front of his girlfriend. She maintained a smile and didn’t seem to have heard. Ed assumed she didn’t speak English all that well, and hadn’t understood what Herb had said. Later, though, he overheard her in a discussion with Troy Bentley, and she was speaking excellent English.
Up to that point he had been having a good time going to the officers clubs and bars with the other guys. After seeing her and Herb together that night, though, he wished he had a girl like Thuy. Ginger wouldn’t need to know about Thuy, and it wouldn’t hurt her for Ed to have some companionship while he was abroad.
At the six-month point in his tour he was eligible for two weeks of R&R. He and Ginger met in Hawaii. She got there a day before him, and met his flight when it landed in Honolulu. When he saw her at the arrival gate he ran to her and grabbed her in a bear hug. He hadn’t realized how much he missed her.
Back in their hotel they undressed frantically, and even as they were making love furiously he was noticing her body, thin like when they first had sex as freshmen at Ohio State. She had cut her light brown hair, and the new style emphasized her little girl quality that had appealed to him when they first met. The green eyes, little turned up nose, and dimple in her chin drove him crazy again.
After a couple of hours of sex they just lay in bed. He was dreading the inevitable fight, so he decided to lead up to it himself so they could get it over with early.
“From your letters it sounds like law school is agreeing with you.”
“Yeah. My professors all say I’m a natural. I guess you were right when you said I shouldn’t be an accountant.”
“Well, I don’t think you are necessarily meant to be a lawyer, either.”
“So, now what are you planning to do after the Army?”
That was the question he’d been waiting for, the one he was forcing now so they could get the argument over with rather than have it hanging over his head for two weeks
“Oh, something will turn up.”
He had prepared for her follow-up, and was disappointed when there wasn’t any. For the remainder of their two weeks together in Hawaii she didn’t ask anything else about his career after the Army. That should have made the R&R perfect, but the vacation seemed flat after that. They continued having sex regularly, and she seemed to enjoy that. Yet there was a coolness he’d never experienced with her. Despite the beach, sightseeing, luaus, and sex, she seemed distant.
A month after R&R Ginger wrote that she was dissatisfied, and wanted an open marriage. At first he didn’t want to talk to anybody about it. Then one night after a farewell party that Thuy hadn’t been able to attend, he began a drunken discussion with Herb Carpenter.
“My old lady wants an open marriage, meaning she wants to go screwing around.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, man. That sounds like she really wants a divorce.”
“I know. I can’t believe it. I haven’t been screwing around on her. A few times with bar girls, but nothing serious, and she couldn’t know about that anyway. She came up to college from southern Ohio and didn’t know jack. I took her under my wing and brought her along. And now she dumps me while I’m over here. She’s gonna regret it, too. She started out in business education, which was a great career path for her. If she got tired of teaching she could be a secretary. Somehow she got the idea to be an accountant, and switched to business administration. Then she got the idea of being a lawyer. That’s even stupider than a woman accountant.”
“Well, there are women accountants and lawyers. I don’t know if I’d want my wife to be one, but it’s not totally crazy. What are you going to do?”
“As soon as I get back I’m going to divorce her. If she wants to be a lawyer that’s one thing, but an open marriage while I’m over here? No fuckin’ way.”
After Major Carpenter went back to the States, Ed stopped to talk to Thuy on his way to lunch. The Indiana was a better BOQ than the one he was in, and he had been trying to move.
“Hi. May I help you sir?” She said it as a joke, exaggerating the subservient way you’d expect a Vietnamese desk clerk to address an officer.
“Hi, Thuy. Before he left, Herb suggested I check on my status on the waiting list. Since he’s gone, that means there’s been a vacancy. Where am I on the list now?”
She moved down the counter and pulled out a clipboard. “Let’s see, Lieutenant Churchwell, let’s see…. Excuse me one minute.”
She went into the office behind the front desk, where the NCO in charge of the BOQ sat. He could see her talking to the sergeant, then she came back out.
“Well, what do you know, you’ve just moved up to number one. Do you want to move in tomorrow?”
“Absolutely! What a coincidence.” He laughed. “That’s great. What do I have to do?”
“Come in after eight tomorrow morning and register, and move your stuff in.”
As he walked passed the front desk after lunch he waved at her and smiled. She said, “See you tomorrow, Eddie.” Nobody called him “Eddie” anymore, but he didn’t mind it from her.
The next morning he signed out a CECE jeep and moved out of the Montana BOQ. Thuy checked him in at the Indiana. Now he could sleep later every morning, and walk to the office instead of taking an Army bus.
After lunch at the Indiana he said, on the spur of the moment, “You guys go ahead, I’ll see you at the office.” He went up to the desk.
“Hi. I’d like to celebrate my new room. Can I take you to dinner tonight?”
She paused a second, looking to the side like she was thinking about it, and then said, “Yes, I’d enjoy that.”
“Can I pick you up?”
“Yes. Let me give you the address. Any cyclo driver can find it.”
She lived in a four-story, pink stucco apartment building on a side street with other stucco buildings in white or pastels. The street was crowded with parked motorbikes and even a few small cars. At the opening of the street Ed got out of the motorized cyclo’s passenger seat and paid the driver. He walked the rest of the way, rather than having the cyclo negotiate the cramped roadway. Walking down the street Ed smelled garbage at one spot, then burning charcoal a little further on, then the pungent odor of cooking fish sauce, and the inviting scents of frying fish, and roasted pork and chicken. A woman was peddling noodle soup, walking down the street with the food and utensils in two baskets hanging from a pole balanced on her shoulder. A young boy was walking ahead of her, clacking two pieces of wood together to announce her passing to potential customers. It was a typical hot, humid evening. Everybody was in pajamas, except for a few of the men in boxer shorts and undershirt.
Her building was easy to find, but he didn’t know how to find her apartment. There didn’t seem to be a lobby entrance. A gallery ran along each floor. He heard a sharp “Ed,” and looked up to see her wave at him from the second floor. She walked to the end of the gallery and down the stairs.
They walked back to the main street where he hailed a cyclo. He hailed one of the new version, powered by a motorcycle engine. The old style cyclo, with the driver pedaling bicycle-style behind the carriage-like passenger seat, was quiet and didn’t reek of gasoline fumes. It was slower, though. Conversation was difficult in a motor cyclo, but the streets were noisy anyway with other motor cyclos, motorbikes, and the occasional car or truck. Better to get out of traffic as soon as possible.
The restaurant was downtown on Nguyen Hue Boulevard, which ran from city hall to the Saigon River. The street was so wide and with a median so broad that it resembled a plaza. The sidewalks were crowded with petty merchants who had spread their wares on the concrete. Women in black silk trousers, brown or white shirts, and the traditional conical straw hats hawked Salem cigarettes, Tide detergent, and other consumer goods from the American military Post Exchanges, food items in brown foil packets and olive drab cans taken from U.S. military combat rations, and soap, perfume and other items smuggled in from China.
They made their way through to the restaurant. Captain Beaman had told him the place was like a real French restaurant. The deep red carpet, red wall paper, and gold trim gave the place an Asian appearance, but the Vietnamese maître d’ wore a tuxedo, and the tables were set with Western style silverware and glasses, and no chopsticks.
As they sat down she was smiling and enthusiastic. “I like this. I’ve never eaten here, but I’ve always wanted to. Are you from Texas? We always hear about Texas.”
“No, I’m from Ohio.”
“Oh, a Buckeye. People from Ohio are Buckeyes, right?”
“How did you know that?”
“I know a lot about the States. Everybody here does.”
She surprised him like that throughout dinner. He’d known that she was smart, but had underestimated how much she knew about America. He realized now how little he’d talked with her when she’d been with Carpenter. He’d been worried about what they’d talk about, but it turned out to be easy.
When the cyclo pulled up to her apartment building after dinner she said, “You’d better come in. You’ll never make it back before curfew.” She led him quickly up the stairs and down the gallery, unlocking her door and pulling him inside.
There were carpets on the tile floors, lacquer wall hangings and mahogany furniture. There was a stereo and a TV, which he guessed had come from the Post Exchange compliments of Herb. She offered him a seat on the sofa, and sat next to him. He hesitated for a minute, then kissed her, and she kissed him back. The rest of the night was like a fantasy of soft skin, maddening odors, and passionate sex. She was petite, and he liked the feel of cuddling her. It was like when he first dated Ginger, before she got self-confident and started trying to tell him what to do. Except Thuy had confidence already, and still welcomed his protective embrace.
She woke him early the next morning, and he took a cyclo back to the Indiana to shower and change. From then on it progressed naturally. He kept a clean uniform at her apartment in case he overslept and didn’t have time to go to the BOQ before work. Whether out on the town, or just relaxing at her apartment, they talked a lot, about Vietnam, her family, the States, his college days, American music, the Beatles, just about everything. He bought beer, liquor, cigarettes, and electrical appliances on his PX ration card for her to sell on the black market. There was another lieutenant at the Indiana who had a Vietnamese girlfriend, and they became part of a circle of American men and Vietnamese women. Ed was proud that Thuy was the prettiest, most intelligent and most sophisticated of the women in that circle.
Charlie Jackson said, “So, what are you gonna do, man?”
“I don’t know.”
“The Army’s got lawyers. You ought to go to the JAG office at MACV and see what your options are.”
“Yeah. I just don’t feel like screwin’ around with that right now.”
“You want a divorce don’t you?”
“I do. This is gonna happen. I just don’t want to take the time now.”
Then it was over. Rationally he knew he was leaving, but he felt like tomorrow he would go to work as usual, then come back to Thuy’s place, and continue on like that forever.
“I hate to go back to the States. I love you. I’ll come back.” That was the only time he ever mentioned the future to her. He was surprised that he had said it. He still had no idea of doing anything specific.
She said, “I’ll miss you. Let’s not talk about it.”
That was all they said. They listened to music and made love until late. The next morning they got up as usual and went to the Indiana in separate cyclos. He brought the few things of his remaining in her apartment. Most of his goods had already been shipped back, and at the BOQ he finished packing what was left. In a few hours he was on an Army bus to the big U.S. post at Bien Hoa, where he spent the night. The next day he boarded a Military Airlift Command chartered flight to Oakland Army terminal.
After he’d been back in Columbus for a couple of weeks, living with his mother, Ginger called to talk about a divorce.
“I’ve done the research on it. I don’t want any alimony from you, and there’s no property or kids, so we can get this over quick and painless. You don’t even need a lawyer, unless you just want one.”
“You’re almost a lawyer by now. You going to handle it all?”
“No. It’s best to have somebody admitted to the bar do it, to make sure the paperwork is all correct.”
“Well, I was admitted to several bars last night. Maybe I can take care of it.”
He was disappointed she didn’t laugh.
“I’ll have the papers drawn up for you to sign. You’re going to be at your mother’s for a while?”
“Yeah. You want to get together for a drink, and I’ll sign them there?”
“No need for that. I’ll have them sent over and you can mail them back to the lawyer.”
He wasn’t sure now whether he wanted to see Thuy again. Saigon, the Army, and Thuy all seemed to be from another universe. He went out a lot at night, dating girls he met at clubs around the university. He liked talking about Vietnam, impressing them with stories about Saigon. He was having a good time while he decided what to do next.
After a few months, though, he started missing Saigon. It was common for the GIs in Vietnam to complain about how they missed “round-eyed” women, and Ed had even said that kind of thing himself. Now that he was back in Ohio, though, he was finding the girls bland compared to Thuy. She knew about the war, the black market, about switching out her U.S. military currency that the Vietnamese civilians weren’t supposed to have. She could understand his insights into the war, the Army, and America, and would ask him intelligent questions about his opinions.
He finally wrote her through Charlie Jackson, who now had Ed’s old job at CECE. He didn’t want to risk his letter getting lost in the Vietnamese postal system. As soon as he’d mailed it he felt a twinge of doubt, and when she didn’t answer he felt like he’d dodged a bullet.
One night at a bar he met another Vietnam vet, a guy named Vince.
“Yeah, I’ve been back a couple of times. On the Vietnamese paperwork I say I’m going there to sell mutual funds. Once I’m in country I work the black market. I still know a lot of GI’s, and I buy PX merchandise from them, and sell it to a local contact.”
“Do you just buy a plane ticket and go over?”
“No, you have to get a visa from the embassy in Washington, but that’s easy. I’ll give you the address. Then you buy the ticket, and, yeah, you just fly over, hop a cyclo downtown, check in to the Caravel or wherever, and do what you want. You have to have a passport, of course.”
“Oh, hell yeah. If you have any reason to go back, just do it.”
The memory of Thuy came back sharply that night. The divorce was on track, but he didn’t feel like finding a job just yet. In the next few days he applied for a passport, then the visa. He talked to a travel agent, and decided to make it a world tour. Saigon would be just one stop, although the most important one.
He wrote Jackson again, giving him a heads up that he was coming back, telling him he wanted to surprise Thuy. He was a little concerned about not having heard back from her. Maybe Jackson hadn’t really given her the letter, or maybe her reply had gotten lost in the Vietnamese postal system. In any event, she must have been anxious to see him again.
He didn’t mention to Jackson that he wanted to keep his options open, in case he decided he didn’t want to see Thuy once he got there. If he changed his mind after he got to Saigon, he’d see the guys from CECE and visit the old haunts, then go on to Australia without seeing her.
Eight months after he’d departed Vietnam his flight was landing at Tan Son Nhat Airport, near the U. S. Air Force Base and the U.S. military headquarters. He was regretting now that he hadn’t been able to contact Thuy in advance so he could go straight to her apartment. He was yearning to be in bed with her again.
He was exhilarated at being back in-country as a civilian, not having to think about what the Colonel or the MPs would say, and being a sophisticated world traveler instead of a GI. By the time he checked in to the Continental Hotel it was eight o’clock. In the hotel dining room he ordered veal cordon bleu, because he liked the French sound of it. After dinner he had a drink in the hotel bar, making small talk with a couple of contractors. They didn’t have any job leads. He was back in his room before curfew. The next morning, after a breakfast of noodle soup from a street cart, he called Charlie Jackson to set up lunch.
He arrived at the Indiana a few minutes after noon. He could see Jackson and Melville out of the corner of his eye, coming out of the long CECE driveway across the street. He talked with the gate guard while Jackson and Melville crossed the eight-lane street with the big median.
Jackson said, “Hey, boy, what are you doin’ here?”
They all laughed and shook hands. Jackson and Melville were both first lieutenants now.
“How’re we going to do this?” Jackson asked.
“I’ll go around back. You go in and tell Thuy you want to show her something. Then you just take her through the back door.”
They went on through the gate of the compound, Ed and Melville walking around to the back of the building. Ed positioned himself beside a dumpster so he couldn’t see, or be seen from, the door. The lock clicked. Jackson was talking, then Thuy saw Melville and said, “Hi,” in a business-like voice.
Ed stepped out from behind the dumpster. He hadn’t been sure he could trust Jackson to keep a secret. He almost expected Thuy to not be surprised, but her jaw dropped, and her eyes widened.
“My God!” Breathless, she put her hand over her mouth. Then she closed her eyes, and sobbed a little.
She was as beautiful as he remembered. He put his arms around her. She nestled into his chest, soft and delicate, like a baby.
“I’ll pick you up tonight. We’ll go to dinner.”
“I need to take care of some things first. Let’s meet at the restaurant. Where are we going?”
He gave her the name of a French place downtown they’d been to a lot. They kissed good-bye. It was sweet.
Thuy went back to her post at the front desk. Churchwell, Jackson, and Melville went upstairs to the club for lunch. Afterward, they escorted Ed into the CECE compound. He couldn’t believe he was walking up that driveway into the compound again. He remembered to walk slowly because of the heat. To the left of the driveway was the soccer field. It was hidden from the highway by an eight-foot fence of green, corrugated metal. On the right was a drainage ditch that doubled as an open sewer for an unauthorized toilet built in conjunction with an informal snack bar used by Vietnamese Army personnel. The drainage ditch was between the driveway and a Vietnamese senior military staff compound.
The driveway curved sharply and led into the compound proper. The big one-story stucco building at the end of the driveway was CECA, or “Seeka,” the big brother to CECE. To the left, before CECA, was a small building that housed the Post Exchange system snack bar, and beyond that CECE. Although the CECE building was smaller than CECA, Ed thought its L shape, and courtyard in the middle, made it a classier structure.
The Americans gathered around to hear his stories about life after Vietnam. The pretty young typists flirted with him and called him “butterfly,” which is what the Vietnamese women called a man who had a lot of girlfriends, because he flies from flower to flower. Lopatkowitz, who had never really liked Ed, was gone. The new Director listened to Ed’s stories with interest, and laughed at his jokes. He admired Ed, being single and touring the world. Ed headed downtown feeling good.
At seven-thirty he walked the three blocks to the restaurant. Thuy wasn’t there yet. He stood on the sidewalk among the squatting vendors, smoking. He wondered if he could take her back to the hotel, or would they have to go to her place.
She finally showed up in a cyclo. When she approached him on the sidewalk he tried to embrace her, but she smiled and put her hand up to block him. He’d forgotten she didn’t like to be seen getting close to him in public.
After he ordered a whiskey sour for himself and tea for her, she rested her crossed forearms on the table in front of her. She wasn’t smiling.
“I was surprised to see you today.”
“I know. I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“I didn’t think you were coming back.”
“Sorry about that. I told you I would. I sent you a letter. Didn’t it make it to you?”
“It’s been eight months.”
“I had to file for divorce, and apply for a visa, and do a lot of other stuff. What’s the matter?”
“Do you have a job here?”
“No. I’m working on something in the States.”
“So you’re here now on a tourist visa, and you’ll be gone in a couple of weeks.”
“What’s the matter with you? I’ll head back home eventually, get a job, do the paperwork to bring you over. Isn’t that what you want?”
“That’s the first time you ever asked me what I want. And you never told me you wanted to take me to the States.”
“I told you I love you, and that I was coming back for you.”
She didn’t say anything, glancing around the restaurant disinterestedly.
“I don’t like this. We spent a lot of time together. You’ve never acted like this. You’re acting like I’m a stranger.”
“I’m sure you got your money’s worth. You would have let me know if you weren’t satisfied. You spent most of your tour chasing bar girls, and going back to your wife for R&R, and then spent time with me the last three months.”
“You were with Major Carpenter.”
“If you were so interested in me, why did you wait for Herb Carpenter to leave before asking me out? You were more concerned about the feelings of your friend than about being with me.”
He was shocked by her aggressive tone. She spoke again, in a softer voice.
“You’ve been gone eight months. You couldn’t expect me to stop everything waiting for you. I have to live. I have parents and brothers and sisters to take care of. I’m just an adventure for you. You may mean what you say now, but once you get back home for good you’re going to start being embarrassed to have me for a wife. You’ll meet another girl, better than your first wife, and she’ll fit in with your friends and family better than me. Then you’ll regret your promises to me.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about! I love you! To hell with those bitches back home! I don’t want to stay in Ohio anyway. We can go to New York, or Hong Kong, or anyplace else. Don’t throw away this chance to be happy!”
He knew he would make her happy. She was just mad now because she hadn’t gotten the letter. Saigon was a dump. Columbus was better than this, and he’d take her someplace better than Columbus. There was no doubt in his mind now that he wanted to marry her. He wanted to hold her, protect her.
She glanced at the door.
“I’m leaving now. Please don’t cause trouble.”
“You fuckin’ bitch. Who is it?”
She got up and walked to the door, so quickly that it surprised him. He jumped up and followed her, but she was too far ahead of him, gliding smoothly through the restaurant, the back panel of her áo dài floating in the air. He felt big and awkward, having a harder time than she did negotiating the crowded dining room. As he watched from the doorway she got into a motor cyclo, taking a seat beside a GI. He couldn’t make out the guy’s rank insignia, but he was older, maybe in his thirties. She looked straight ahead. The guy looked at Ed as the cyclo pulled away.
He went out on the sidewalk and watched the cyclo head up the street and out of sight. He walked to a bar a couple of blocks away, without going back to pay for the whiskey sour and tea.