Saigon Stories was published in the exhibition catalogue (ISBN13 978-1-894518-41-3) for the exhibition Saigon, curated by Ingrid Jenkner and mounted first at the Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax, NS in 2007. In 2008 this exhibition was presented at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia western branch in Yarmouth, NS.
The Beautiful Flower
The first time we went to Saigon we flew and the second time we went by ship. On the first trip we stopped in Honolulu to visit friends. The lady gave me such an interesting flower. It was smooth and white and waxy and sort of cone shaped, and it had an odd long round thing sticking out of the center that was curved and reddish, and it felt scaly. It seemed like an enormous and extremely exotic object, not plant-like at all. I carried it around for a day or so, touching it and feeling its smooth waxy surface, and brought it on the plane for the next leg of the trip across the Pacific. The stewardesses gave us little books and games, and we were invited up to the cockpit to chat with the pilots, get a quick flying lesson and receive little pilot wings. When I got back to my seat I discovered that my mother, in cleaning up, had tossed my flower into the toilet. I began to cry, thinking of my poor flower slowly floating down through the sky until it made its lonely entrance into the ocean, where it would sink to the bottom and no one would ever know what had happened to it or where it lay. The more I thought about it the harder I cried and the more irritated my mother became. “Don’t be such a baby” she said. I thought about the flower for years, and sometimes still think about how frightening it would be to penetrate the ocean from such a height.
The Hotel Majestic
When we first arrived in Saigon in the summer of 1956, we stayed in the Hotel Majestic while waiting for a house. My father went to work somewhere every morning and my mother and brother and I, along with two or three other families that had recently arrived, went for walks, exploring the markets, the zoo, the parks, and the beautiful wide boulevards lined with trees. The traffic was an astonishing multicoloured flood of noise, dust and smells, with hundreds of tiny cars, bicycles, vespas, cyclos and motopousses.
One morning it was oddly quiet. Soon a big crowd began to gather in the street below the hotel, marching by and shouting. I leaned out the window and watched, feeling as if the banners and torches, shouts, occasional gunfire, pushy policemen in their pale uniforms, were spread out for my own viewing pleasure. Suddenly I was jerked back and was both angry and offended to realize it was my mother grabbing me by the scruff of my neck, yanking me away from the fabulous show. She ordered us under the bed and we stayed there for what felt like hours. She read us stories but it was pretty boring until we began to hear shouts in the hallways and some very loud banging on the doors and she stopped reading and whispered for us to be very quiet. Eventually it calmed and then someone came tapping on the door to tell us we needed to leave. There was an axe mark in our door when we opened it. We walked down the stairs because the power was off, and the place was a shambles. My mother’s friend Lillian announced gaily that we were refugees. A refugee was someone who had no home. Then we moved into a house. After my parents died my brother and I found their two keys to the rooms at the Hotel Majestic, which they had never returned.
The Great Typewriter Robbery
My dad arrived home one afternoon to discover that the house had been robbed and his typewriter was missing. My mother had been out and I was playing with a friend nearby. As a professor with an advising job that required a lot of writing, this was calamitous to him. And, he was very fond of his little Olivetti portable typewriter. He called the police and a great crowd gathered to witness the search. Everyone had a different idea of who the culprit was, how he might have got in, where the typewriter might be found. We all enjoyed the search very much. Happily the typewriter was eventually found in the shrubbery of the yard. My dad took many photographs. We all hoped the thief would not be caught, as the forsaken typewriter seemed a pathetic booty.
I think it was not long after this that my dad took his Luger bullets and threw them in the Saigon River. He got the gun in Germany at the end of the war, and brought it to Vietnam just in case. I imagine that he recognized that he would never again fire a gun, and considered how he would have felt had the thief discovered the gun and ammunition as well.
I had a stripey kitten we named Magellan, because he was a big explorer. Our house was sprayed with DDT one day and Magellan walked on it. He licked his feet and then he got really sick. He died. I always played on the floor with Magellan and suspected I had probably put my fingers in my mouth too. I waited a while to see if I would die too but I didn’t. I felt very sad about Magellan, because neither of us really understood that the house was sprayed with poison, but I was just luckier and bigger than he was.
The Tiger Balm Gardens
Sometimes we traveled a little. In Singapore we went to the Tiger Balm Gardens, a huge park with walkways, exotic plants, and benches here and there. There were places where models of people were set among the bushes and trees, acting out stories or history. We walked through the garden, my parents talking just to each other and my brother leaning back in his stroller. I was amazed when we began to walk through a bunch of scenes showing tortures. There were people being cut into pieces, people being hanged or burned, and most astonishing of all, a person lying on his back with his belly cut open and someone else pulling out his guts with a crank and round barrel device. You would never think up all the things that people were doing to each other. The guy without the guts was screaming with a crazy look on his face and the ones doing the pulling were laughing at him. I went closer to examine how it was being done. It seemed so curious and improbable. It wasn’t the gore, but just the idea that anyone would think up such a thing to do to someone else. What could they be thinking? First, to do it and second, to make a model of it. I did not look or speak like the people in the places where I lived and visited, and was always on the lookout for clues about what they thought about. So far, the world was pretty confusing, but never dull. Just then my mother looked up at the surroundings, saw where we were, and whipped us right out of there. It was so disappointing. They would not answer any of my questions about what was going on.
Years later I had an operation to remove a piece of intestine. When I woke up afterwards the doctor smiled down at me and told me my bikini days were over. But, on the bright side, he had had a good look and my organs looked very nice and the only bad place was gone now. Groggy but alarmed I asked him how he knew that. He pantomimed a hand-over-hand gesture, showing me how he had reeled out my intestines before folding them back inside. The most terrible torture of the Tiger Balm Gardens had happened to me! I was pretty glad I had been asleep.
The Mechanical Pencil
After we had been in Saigon for nearly a year, my mother and father had a disagreement about my brother’s health. An X-ray of his chest revealed a cloudy area, which could possibly be TB. The doctor thought it was worth waiting to see if it would clear up, but my mother decided it was time to go home to her family. My dad stayed in Saigon but Jeff and I went back to Alabama. I was not clear about what was going on but I knew it was pretty important because at the airport before we left my father gave me his most precious possession, his heavy gray metal and plastic mechanical pencil.
When we finally arrived in Tallassee I was enrolled in school. This was to be the third school I attended in second grade, but was also the school my mother, uncle and aunt had gone to, and some of their teachers were still there, so it felt familiar. After a while my brother’s X-ray did clear up, just as the doctor predicted. My Dad came to Alabama and my parents reconciled, and after another year we went back to Saigon for two more years. This time we went we went by ship, because my mother was very angry at Pan Am for changing her reservations around so that she had had to fly almost continuously half way around the world with a one year old and a seven year old, when she left Dad. We had stopped one night in Honolulu and after Jeff and I went to sleep she went down to the bar. He woke up and cried and cried and cried. I gave him toys, and sang to him, and patted him, and did every thing I could think of but he was inconsolable. I promised I would find Mama and put on my bathrobe and went down to look for her. When I finally found her she must have been very embarrassed because she handled me roughly and hit me a few times. When we got back to the room Jeff had fallen asleep from exhaustion, I guess. I felt pretty sad that my mother was so angry and the pencil did not make me feel much better. Later in Alabama I got the mumps and used the pencil to draw a picture of myself with big cheeks to send to my Dad.
My Best Drawing
The first school I went to in Saigon when I was seven was a French school, Les Oiseaux, run by the Grey Nuns. I did not stay there long because the nuns would tie energetic children to their chairs, and had other archaic ideas. The next school I went to was the American Community School. It occupied two or three Quonset huts and had several grades in each room. One high point was when my second grade teacher had a nervous breakdown and we had no school for a few weeks. Another was when the principal brought around a large dead poisonous snake that had been caught underneath my classroom. He showed it to us and we were allowed to touch it. The next was when our Quonset burned to the ground. Our pre-conflagration classroom also had a petrified log lying on the ground in front, and one could chip off little pieces of the wood turned to stone. It was from this that I conceived the great idea of sleeping on a piece of coal to turn it into a diamond. I could not understand why no one had thought of this before - I knew that heat and pressure and time turned wood to stone and coal to diamonds. Despite faithful efforts my coal remained only coal.
When we returned to Saigon I returned to this school. The school used the Calvert System. This was a program of books and lessons used by turn-of-the-century missionaries when teaching their children in deepest Africa. It was a wonderful education, I learned about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, how Nebuchadnezzar went mad and went around on his hands and knees eating grass, we memorized poems every month, and though sometimes I chose short poems like Fog I also could recite The Highway Man, and Ozymandias. We learned a lot about animals and plants and basic math. For science when I was ten I drew a large anatomically perfect anopheles mosquito using coloured pencils. It was the best thing I had ever drawn. It was hung in a case beside the principal’s office, but was taken down after my third detention. My mother kept it for years. I was very proud of the drawing because it looked just as I had hoped.
The Sewing Machine
Before going to Saigon I enjoyed designing clothes for my paper dolls, but it was just too flat. In Saigon I made clothes for my stuffed animals, dolls and little plastic horses. They were very complicated. I also built stables out of cardboard and paper and bits of wood. I knew how to build because one day at my friend Bill’s house we took pieces of wood and built small boats that we sailed in the tub. There were lots of different sizes and shapes of boards and we nailed them together and used more nails for decoration and useful additions. It was a lightening flash – that people made things! Everything that was not made by nature was made by a person. And, I could make things too – it was just a matter of figuring out how to do it. The boats did not sail very well and sometimes they rolled over, but I knew I could do better.
The clothes I made for my animals and dolls did not look too good. The edges had threads that kept falling off and the stitches were clumsy. The stuff I made looked like the work of a nine year old, it was disgusting. I persuaded my amah to take me out to her room, where she had a sewing machine, and she would sew the clothes much better than I could. I would lean over her shoulder and back-seat drive. I would have preferred to do it myself but she would not let me touch her machine. Leaning over her shoulder I suddenly realized that if I could drive a sewing machine I could really make anything – cloth could do anything. The way cloth was made with tiny weak little threads going over and under each other was pretty simple, but if you did it with bamboo, for example, the thing would stand by itself. I lusted for a sewing machine. It was much cooler than my microscope. I could imagine pushing on the pedals and that needle zooming up and down a hundred miles an hour.
Most of the little horses and their robes got lost in Rome, on the way to America. They were on my lap as we rode in a taxi and when we were spinning around a traffic circle the door of the car flew open and my favorite toys, dearest companions for the past few months, flew off my lap and into the traffic. My mother grabbed my arm as the centrifugal force pulled me toward the door. I was inconsolable – what was worse – suddenly loosing them or imagining them being flattened into the pavement by all the car tires? It seemed so cruel to leave them there. My mother cried and was angry at the same time, but not for the toys. I was bereft.
We were bigger than most Vietnamese and the French clothes were silly so my mother arranged for a tailor to make some clothes, and we went to a store to pick out material. I found the most beautiful cloth. It was creamy white and had small turquoise stripes. On each stripe were tiny merry-go-round horses in grays and reds, cantering by forever. My mother tried to talk me out of this cloth but it was too beautiful to leave. I wanted to design the dress myself, and decided to include all my favorite dress parts (I was allowed to wear shorts sometimes but a lot of the time I had to wear a dress and flip flops or those stupid French children’s sandals with the creepy soles that smelled like chemicals). This dress would have a sash and puffed sleeves, but not big ones, subtle ones. I gave it a dropped waist with a fold of cloth standing up to mark the seam between the top and gathered skirt. The skirt was for running. The sash could be my horse’s tail and the dropped waist would not be scratchy. It had a small round collar for my mom. The top stripes were vertical, the skirt stripes horizontal, and the fold stripes diagonal. I figured I had covered all the possibilities. My mother thought it was terrible. I loved this dress and wore it until I grew out of it. It was my first garment design.
The Girdled Tree
In school we did science experiments like watching celery change colour as red ink was drawn up the veins. We learned that the Indians girdled trees to get them to fall down, and Jane and I determined to put it to the test. Near her house was an area where some houses were going to be built (we thought) so we selected a tiny tree that seemed to be in harm’s way and girdled it with our pocketknives. We watched as its leaves slowly dried, browned and shriveled. I wished that I could take back that act. I came to understand that everything wants to stay alive, and it was wrong to take life for no good reason.
One of my parents’ friends had been given a turkey, but for some reason they did not want it. They gave it to us and I named the turkey Tim. Tim joined a long line of cats, dogs, finches, angelfish and a mouse deer given to us for similar reason. If someone did not want a pet, we took it. I think my parents had been blindsided on this – what could they have been thinking? Tim was aggressive. He had a particular dislike for my mother and would flap his wings and gobble and run at her, pecking her legs and toes. He was big and terrorized the other pets too. I would not hear of his demise and so it went until one day I came home from school and she told me Tim had run out the gate when she was driving her car in. Years later she confessed they had finally begged someone to come and get him. He was probably pretty tough.
We were warned to be very careful about what we ate and drank in Saigon, and we were not to go barefoot on the street. People had different germs there, and we had to have lots of shots before we went. For one shot we had to ride the bus to a different city. It seemed nuts – riding for hours just to let somebody stick some bad stuff in your arm. Did Vietnamese who came to America have to get shots for our germs too?
In Saigon we had to use special water, that was boiled, to brush our teeth. My friends and I would dare each other to use the water from the tap. Usually we did when no one was looking but we were very careful to spit it all out and not swallow any. At restaurants, we had to drink pop from the bottle, and never have ice. Fizzy drinks burned my mouth so I lived on orange Fanta. It would roll over my tongue, sweet but with a bitter after taste, and the only way to wash out that bad taste was to put a little more Fanta in your mouth. Eventually you were left with the bad taste and an empty bottle. My parents drank beer, called Bamba, which meant “thirty-three”. They laughed and talked with their friends, and the beer tasted worse than Coke even, and there was nothing to do except be quiet, kick the chair, work with the Fanta taste, and watch lizards run around on the walls and ceiling. I could try to catch them, but they were pretty fast and if I jumped for them I would be told to sit down and be still.
When my amah took Jeff and me to the market we sometimes ate food from little street carts. It tasted spicy and peppery, just like the smells in the air. Once I got sugar cane juice. The cart had a little grinder like a wringer on a washing machine only with square teeth, and after you gave the man the money he would chop a piece of cane with a machete and feed it through the rollers by turning a crank. Juice would come out a little shoot on the other side and he would catch it in a drinking glass and give it to you. The glass was not clear but foggy. This was strictly forbidden because of the germs, and my parents would have been so angry to know I tried it. I had to argue with my amah really hard to do it, and she never let me do it again. It was so delicious and sweet with a grassy kind of taste. It was much better than Fanta.
The adults were very worried about amoebic dysentery. Many of them got it and were very sick, throwing up and other stuff. I did not know any kid who got it. We went to the clinic every now and then and got a tonic to kill the worms. It did not taste that bad but it was disgusting after the worms in you died and had to come out. If we got worms from going barefoot on the street it would be harder to get rid of them, and there were also things like TB that you could get from stepping in someone’s spit. In some places you could get the Black Death from being bitten by a flea that lived on rats. This was a dark possibility and I did not want to go anywhere that a rat flea might bite me. The Black Death changed the world and you got big black lumps all over you before you died. Most scary was rabies, that you could get from being bitten by a mad dog. If you got bitten you would have to have 14 shots in the stomach, even if you did not know the dog was mad and he just ran away. We were very careful not to touch strange dogs because those shots sounded horrible.
The Fish on the Floor
One afternoon we arrived home to discover a big catfish flopping around on the sidewalk right beside our gate. I remember it being about two feet long. My mother and I picked it up together and carried it inside, and it was still gasping. We did not know what else to do so we put some water in the bathtub and dropped the fish in. Not too long after we heard some slapping sounds. We looked into the bathroom and there was the fish flapping around on the floor of the bathroom. Water was splashed around everywhere. We corralled the fish and slung it back into the tub. This continued intermittently until bedtime. My dad arrived home a few hours later, he had been at a meeting that culminated in many cocktails. He walked into the bathroom and stood silently trying to understand what he was looking at. He went into their room and said to my mother, who was nearly asleep “there is a fish on the floor”. She did not open her eyes but said “put it in the bathtub”. He cleared his voice and said a little louder “there is a fish on the floor” and she repeated yes, put it in the tub. He wrestled the fish back into the tub, brushed his teeth and went to bed. The next morning they agreed that it had been a perfect Thurber moment. After considering all the possibilities and implications we decided that the fish deserved another chance, so we loaded it into a bucket (headfirst), took it down to the Saigon River, and threw it back in.
The Agreeable Snake
In our side yard there was a big tree like a banyan tree. I don’t know what kind of tree it was but it had multiple branches and roots slithering all over the place. It was a good place to hunt for blue-headed geckos. The geckoes were exciting because they were really big and if they bit you they were said to never let go. I never had the pleasure of discovering the truth of this, but was eager to catch one, figuring I could persuade it to let go if unlucky enough to get bitten. One day I found a shed snakeskin in the tree, and ran in to show my mother, ecstatic with my discovery. My mother showed it to several people, who all thought it was the shed of the deadly krait, a snake so poisonous that if you were bitten you would almost assuredly die before you could be treated with antivenom. She banned me from the tree, that side of the yard, and all of the shrubbery much to my sorrow. After much discussion my parents hired a snake charming team to come and persuade the snake to move. Several days later a small group of men arrived and set up shop. They had several bamboo poles that they banged on the ground in a complicated rhythm, while playing some kind of flute and tapping on a drum. This was interspersed with chanting and prayers. After a while they told us that the snake had agreed to move on. It did not occur to me until years later to wonder where the snake had gone. Where in Saigon would he be welcome? I did not go gecko hunting again in the tree.
The Sailing Shoes
We often went to Long Hai or Nha Trang, for the weekend to play on the beach and swim. The water was a luminous turquoise and looked hotter than the sky. Sometimes we went out on a little boat and jumped over the side and paddled around looking through a box with a glass bottom, at fantastic coral and fish of every colour. The combinations of colors were what my mother would call “tacky”, but I wished I could lick them and rub them all over my body they were so tasty looking.
When the tide went out there were pools left on the beach, with all sorts of unnamed stuff in them. There was pooh of course, but also little creatures with shells, or spines or slime, and sometimes objects that seemed to be neither animal nor vegetable but I believed were alive. I was always sure that if we looked in the next pool we would find something so amazing that even my parents would be stunned. They were often impatient about this search, but allowed me to bring back mystery things in old pop bottles to watch, in case something would hatch.
I had pink flip flops which I wore everywhere. A big wave came and sucked one right off my foot. I could not catch it and my shoe went bobbing off toward the horizon. I cried because it was going out too fast for me to rescue, and it seemed so helpless. My mother became very angry and snatched my other shoe off my foot and threw it as hard as she could after the sailing shoe. “There!” she said, “Now it won’t be lonely!” This was such a shock that I could not breathe for a moment.
At night I tried to stay awake so I could listen for the sound of a tidal wave coming in. I knew it was only a matter of time before one came, because I had seen a movie about them and I knew just how the sound would be. If I could warn people in time we could all run to a higher place up the beach. Usually I fell asleep in spite of myself and was very relieved to wake up and discover that it was a new day without a wave. I wondered if my shoes would ride the crest of the tidal wave as they came back home, and what they would think to discover I had not waited for them.
The adults in Saigon had very full social lives and one consequence was that the children seemed to just run wild, going swimming or to horseback riding lessons, or to each others’ houses all by ourselves. At nine or ten I would be allowed to take a cyclopusse by myself, though never a motopusse, which I would have preferred, as it was so much faster and noisier and far more dangerous. We discovered that in the evenings when our parents were out and we were sleeping over at each others’ houses, we could telephone the embassy and order a car. We would then go to the Alhambra movie theatre downtown, and see movies we were not allowed to see, mostly about WW II. We saw movies like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, From Here to Eternity, Twelve O’Clock High, and On the Beach. We also saw a few horror ones. With our mothers we only saw movies like Lady and the Tramp, Lili, and the Wizard of Oz, though my brother did have to be carried out of that one screaming his head off. He was OK until the flying monkeys. The embassy driver would wait for us, smoking cigarettes, and take us home again. I wonder what he was thinking. Our parents never knew about this, and I did not wonder about how loose things were at the embassy that ten year olds could order cars for the evening. If we had been older and more inventive we could have really gotten into some trouble!
From time to time the US Navy sailed battleships into the harbour on the Saigon River and tied up at the docks. Sometimes when they did this we had a field trip from school. We would ride busses down to the harbor and each sailor would be given a handful of kids. We were taken all over the ship. We got to sit in the gun emplacements on deck and pretend to fire at the city. We inspected the torpedoes and tubes and learned how to fire one. We were shown the radar screens and were allowed to pretend to steer the ship and talk into the microphone. Afterwards we were taken down to the mess and treated to vanilla Dixie Cup ice cream, which we ate with little flat wooden spoons. The sailors felt a little sorry for us because we never got ice cream. We felt a lot sorry for them because they had to sleep in stinky little rooms and remain at sea for a long time, but we thought the guns were pretty cool. I never wondered why they were there in the first place.
Covert Activities, 1958
My dad was a civilian adviser so I rode a green USOM-AID bus to the Community School. My friend Jan’s dad was a military advisor so she rode a black MAAG bus. Suzanne’s father was in the CIA and she rode in a car. He was a spy, and we had some questions about what that might mean. When the two kinds of busses encountered each other near the school everyone would all yell out the windows at the other “bad” bus because we were on different teams. While at school we all played together. We dimly sensed that there was friction between diplomatic and military fathers, but didn’t much care. Our mothers sometimes shopped at the PX, and it seemed hypocritical to me to denounce the military if you were buying stuff at its store. My mother once bought me a beige and brown plastic wallet there with a molded saddle on it, and I thought it was the coolest. She also bought big cans of terrible gluey cheddary cheese so that we would get some dairy in our diet. This stuff was dry like peanut butter only orange and really sticky. There was nothing good that you could do with it, but it tasted marginally better than the powdered milk that Jeff would drink but not me. This was the army’s biggest crime as far as I was concerned. But Suzanne’s father worked with my father, so why were they on different sides? They all wanted what was best for the Vietnamese, they just had different ideas about what that was. When I asked my father decades later who else was in the CIA he was appalled at the quality of our childish information. I wished I had paid more attention.
Almost everything in Saigon deserved a closer look. Bugs came in every size and shape and there were little lizards running up the walls and fruit of bright colours and all kinds of different smells in the air. The very leaves on the trees seemed bigger or more green or shinier than those in America. I picked up dead bugs and kept them in little match boxes in my room where I could look at them more carefully with my magnifying glass. I did not keep live bugs because I found out I couldn’t feed them what they liked and they would usually die. It was so sad when something died. But I tried to catch everything I could to have a good look before turning it loose.
Rocks were different, though. The rocks wanted me to pick them up and take them home. I had many rocks of different shape and color. I had books that would identify the various bugs and rocks and other objects that I gathered, but I was not interested in their names, only in how they looked and made me feel. Sometimes I lined them up according to color, sometimes according to size, and rarely according to how much I liked them. I did not want the ones that I liked least to know that they were losers. I was not sure what was alive and what was not, so everything might have feelings.
When we left Saigon I packed my rocks and a few of my special bugs. My mother said we were the only people who carried rocks half way around the world. Many rocks went in the surface freight but the special ones went airfreight. The bugs in their little boxes were not so sparkly in America, and the rocks missed Vietnam.
The Birthday Party
We left Saigon in the summer of 1959. Things were getting a bit unsettled and the embassy would call more and more frequently in the morning to say “Stay inside the gates of your house, children should not go to school”. That part was fine with me except I would have liked to go swimming. I liked to read though, and had many interesting insects and plants to inspect, and lived more in my imagination than in real life, so it was not bad. On the day we sailed out of the Saigon Harbor, four US soldiers were killed up north, and civilian dependents had been told to leave. This seemed very sudden to me though my parents must not have been too surprised. My birthday would be on board the ship. My mother thought it would be nice to invite every child on the vessel to my party. She booked the dining room and every child from every class was invited. The room was full! I have no idea what we ate but we drank a good deal of wine because it was a French ship and the waiters were quick to replenish our water and wine mixtures. Afterwards we went up on deck for a few games and then into the recreation room for Laurel and Hardy films. It was very hard to hold on to the handrails to climb to the upper deck for the movies after drinking the wine. It felt like the ship could just roll over. While this sensation was a little scary there was something I really liked about it after I realized the ship was not going to really roll upside down. I don’t think I have ever been so joyful while drunk as that night. I still have several of the presents given to me on that day.