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VIETNAM MEMORY     By Commander Ed Bookhardt, US Navy, Retired
A Saigon Christmas
Posted December 2003
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon in December. Passing showers that had temporarily cleansed the rancid air now rose in a vaporous haze from the hot wet pavement. I leaned forward, resting my forearms on the parapet that surrounded the roofed-over canteen atop the Rex Hotel. Alone, I tried to organize my thoughts. I had been struggling for several days to fend off those all too familiar Christmas blues. At the same time, I was despising myself for it was against my nature to get down in the dumps. As I pondered, a strong breeze off the Saigon River began to rustle the treetops along the main thoroughfare. I traced its path until I felt its coolness on my face. It was a welcome relief to the stagnancy that prevailed.
Rex Hotel as it appears today
Click for full Image

The Rex located in central Saigon, was initially leased by the Army to house Military Advisors at the onset of the United States’ military commitment to the Republic of Vietnam. “The Roof” or “Top of the Rex,” soon became a favorite watering hole for GIs. Sunday afternoon was usually my only free time, so I would go to the Rex when not on travel to other Corps areas. I felt somewhat at ease there, as I did not have to watch my back and it was within walking distance of my billet.

Unknown at that time, Saigon was enjoying the final weeks of its relative isolationism. Except for an occasional rocket lobbed in from the rice-paddies, infrequent sapper attacks and car bombings, the city to date had been spared the brunt of the war. With a half-million GIs in country, it was riding the crest of a booming military supported prosperity. An uncanny feeling of gayety existed. This euphoria was further bolstered by MACV’s General Westmoreland’s announcement that Allied Forces were winning the struggle with the Viet Cong. From where I stood on that damp dismal Sunday, the shooting war did indeed seem strangely remote…the looming “Tet Offensive” would soon change the city and the lives within forever.

Gazing over the wall, the stench from garbage, waste and diesel fumes rose up to meet me. A myriad of vehicles, primarily military, motorcycles and pedi-cabs darted in crisscrossing patterns through the choked overtaxed intersection below. The masses of humanity rushing about in that familiar oriental shuffle, meshed with the traffic like some muted woven tapestry. This bustling tempo was in sharp contrast to the ragged half-naked refugees squatting in hopeless despair in hidden crannies and alleyways.

Watching the human drama unfold, I was lulled into deep reflection by the rhythmic patter of rain on the hotel roof. Watching the droplets trickle from the overhanging eaves, my thoughts turned to family. How were they coping? Was there illness or financial woes? The two oldest children were teenagers, a critical time for parental guidance; it stirred my fatherly concern. Had I set the moral example and provided the character building they needed to meet the temptations before them? There were so many troubling questions to brood over. The family was near relatives while I was deployed, so I did not dwell on the Christmas issue. We had endured numerous holiday separations over the previous twenty-years…that was Navy life. Yet no matter how hard-shelled you think you are, one still becomes melancholy…

A sudden gust of rain quickly brought me back to reality. Jumping back from the wall, I brushed the droplets from my wash-khakis, took my empty glass to the bar and bought another scotch. Subsisting on my combat pay alone I sorely needed a boost in the finance department…so I decided to try the ten-cent slots. Sauntering over to the machines nestled among some neglected potted shrubbery I choose machine number nineteen. On the nineteenth I would have six months in Vietnam and had a hunch the number would bring me luck…it didn’t.

From my position at the machines, I could look out over tables filled with a collage of uniforms; cammies, greens, fatigues, khakis and civvies to a small stage decorated with tinsel and two gaudy artificial Christmas trees. A young Korean group, “The K-Tones” sponsored by the USO took the stage. They could not speak English, yet began playing and singing American pop songs. With jet-black ducktail hair, flashing teeth and gyrations ala Elvis, they were real showmen. The only problem was their enunciation of mimicked lyrics. They could not overcome the harsh “sing-song” nasally twang common among Orientals.

As I remember, their rendition of the Los Bravos hit “Black is black…I want my baby back.” sounded something like, “Block ish block, aaww vant mi bobbie bock.” Now, imagine their attempt at Christmas carols! It was absolutely hilarious! The crowd loved them; particularly the one with Hollywood sunglasses, quivering lips and pork-chop side burns! To this day, and I have absolutely no explanation for it, flashbacks of that rainy Sunday will appear. I can see Saigon, the Rex, the K-Tones and the milling throngs in vivid detail…like some broken record, “Block ish block, aaww vant mi bobbie bock…” will turn over and over in the recesses of my aging mind…

A couple of my cohorts, Bob Wilson and Jim Ammons joined me and we proceeded to celebrate the season and my six months in country. We got quite mellow. Hell, it was a health issue; one had to build a resistance to the rampant diseases of Southeast Asia. Moreover, I had another weeklong trip to Cam Ranh Bay, Qui Nhon and Da Nang before Christmas. To fly in one of our old DC-3s, affectionately dubbed “Star Ships,” required a certain amount of liquid courage. J?B was also a noted snake/insect repellent…therefore a requirement in case BWA’s [Baling-wire Airlines] Star Ship had to make an unscheduled landing somewhere in the Central Highlands! A good Navy man is always prepared…

There were some sixty officers on the Admiral’s staff. Each brought a small wrapped gift, to the Mess on Christmas Eve for appropriately enough, a Chinese Christmas… my first! It was a system of gift exchanges, which I have yet to figure out? If someone with a certain number, liked your gift better than his, he could take yours and give you his…you in turn could take someone else’s, and so on and so on… By evening’s end, I wound up with a splitting headache, a feeling of being had, and a pair of bent metal-shoetrees which I have to this day!

In a distant hostile land on that memorable eve, I experienced one of the most heartwarming Christmases of my life. Military men sharing the gamut of human emotions: laughter, tears, happiness, sadness, but above all, sharing a bond of enduring comradeship…a magical brotherhood that is known but to few men. In the purest sense, we were family…kindred by chosen profession. A few of us die-hards hung on until well past midnight ushering in the birthday of Christ. With bear hugs and best wishes we went off to our bunks, each to deal in his own way with the uncertainties within.

The white phosphorus star-shells that routinely illuminated the distant nighttime sky turned the interior of my tiny cubical a ghostly hue. Eerie shadows crept across the walls as each luminary descended beyond the horizon. Extremely restless and unable to sleep, I finally rose and went to the window. The gleaming light seemed somehow symbolic of the biblical story of the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem… As the last shell gradually faded and flickered-out, faint slivers of reddish-orange and gold appeared in the eastern sky…dawn was breaking over the Pearl of the Orient…it was Christmas Day 1967.

Vietnam Memory continued:    MONSOON
December 2003
Ed Bookhardt is a retired SeaBee with 30+ years active Navy service who worked his way up through the ranks. He writes good stories.
More by Ed:   Memorial Weekend  2008       Stones Of Gray