Chapter 02 Second Time Around

Buffalo, 2009

As I stood at the window, I was watching the girl pacing up and down the sidewalk. She was angrily talking on her cell phone, but for some reason, I found that attractive. I hadn't been with an Asian woman in over forty years, not since Kim…I've been married three times since then, to big breasted blondes. The last one of those ended almost a decade ago.

I turned away, took a shower and shaved. I wasn't going to do any more yard work today.

I looked at myself in the mirror when I got done shaving. A lot of guys fool themselves as they get fat and sloppy, but I'd stayed in pretty good shape. I'd weighed 180 when I enlisted in June of '66 – I weighed 195 today. It was a pretty tight 195 though, I have a Nautilus gym in the basement and use it every day. The hair was thinning and going gray, but shit, at least I still had some.

For a second, I had – I dunno – a hallucination. Kim was standing there next to me in the mirror. Not the beautiful young girl I had known in 1969, but an older Kim, with wrinkles and graying hair…but she was still beautiful, and leaned against me the way my mother had held my father after forty years of marriage.

I wept.

I got dressed, put on a nice pair of slacks and a Hawaiian shirt. Made an early lunch, to make up for the breakfast I had skipped. Between time and the food, the alcohol wasn't affecting my system so much. I told myself, that must have been what caused the flashbacks and the hallucination. Blood sugar down, I'd seen the Viet girl, then the alcohol on an empty stomach.

I wondered about her story. 2B was a three bedroom on the second floor of the other house. It was Gretchen Thomas, a big-breasted grad student – Political Science, Kelly Ortiz, a slender Latina grad student in Engineering, and Sally McPherson, an Anthropology student. What was with this Viet girl?

Originally, I bought this place as an investment property. Rent it out to college students, take minimal care of it, rake in the profits. My son was going to UB, I'd divorced his mom when he was five, so we'd had a rocky time of things. It actually worked out, he can stand me these days, but I'd found I liked the place. I've got a little electronics firm in Amherst, making electronic widgets for the black ops community. When the place next door came up for sale, I bought that one.

The kids like renting from me, because I keep the apartments a bit better maintained that the other landlords, but I don't charge any more than the norm. I tend to be choosy about my tenants – I can't openly discriminate much, but most of them tend to be seniors or grad students, and they tend to run toward big breasted females.

Those girls tend to like renting from me, as I have a complete security system. Two burglars in ten years, and I caught both of them before the cops got there. A peeping Tom got the snot pounded out of him a few years ago when he tried sneaking into the yard.

Of course, there's some aspects of the security system that the girls DON'T know about…but that's my nasty little secret.

There was a knock at the door. Gretchen and Kelly were at the door. "Mr Sherman?" said Gretchen. "We think there's some kind of terrible misunderstanding."

"This about the Vietnamese girl?" I asked gruffly.

"Sally's.." Getchen started to say, "Sally's decided to go to Penn State, this year."

"I tried to call you last week, " said Kelly, "but your answering machine was full."

"She can't stay here." I said. "First words out of her mouth, were "Yo, you drunk, asshole?" I quoted. "Mouthy little tart" I said. "I spent too much time in Viet Nam to put up with some smart-ass Viet ordering me around like a servant. Find another roomie, ladies."

"Sam…Samantha…lives down the street from me." Said Kelly. "There must be some mistake. She's usually such a nice, well mannered girl. She's smart, too. She's a grad student in the Law school."

"Well, she better start watching her mouth," I said, "she was cussing me out like a street whore in English and Vietnamese."

The two girls exchanged looks. "Sam?" said Kelly. "I don't think I've ever heard Sam ever use foul language ever."

I had changed my mind by then. "OK, maybe it was just a misunderstanding." I said. "She can stay, but I better not have any trouble." I warned. "You two know how I run things. No loud parties, no boy friends living here unless they pay rent, noo drugs, no…"

"We know the rules, Mr. Sherman." Said Kelly.

"I'll give Sam the rental agreement." Said Gretchen. "She can fill it out and bring it right back."

"YOU bring it back." I told her. "Right at the moment I have no desire to see the foul-mouthed Vietnamese princess, or I might change my mind."

The girls went back to their apartment. I watched from the window. There's some very inobtrusive microphones on the outside of both my houses. I build security systems, you know? So I test a lot of the widgets at my house.

"Sam, Mr. Sherman, said you can stay here." Said Gretchen.

"Tell you the truth, I'm not sure I want to stay here, now." Said Samantha. "This guy is kind of strange."

"Mr. Sherman?" said said Kelly. "He's a big old teddy-bear."

"He's a sweet old guy, always nice…and that's what all the other girls who lived here told us. He's like everybody's favorite Grandfather."

"Well, he sure doesn't seem like my Grandfather," said Sam.

"He was in Viet Nam." Said Kelly. "So was my Grandfather. He get's all jumpy when it get's warm like this. Maybe you set off some kind of flashback for him or something. Give him a break, why don't you? I really liked it here last year, and I bet you will, too."

Samantha sighed. "OK. Actually, he is kinda good looking, in an old-man way. I wonder if he's got a grandson?"

The girls started unloading their cars and went into the apartment. I switched to the camera in their living room.

Hey, I told you I make surveillance gadgets. I had cameras in microphones in ALL the rooms. OK, so I'm a pervert, a high tech peeping Tom. Not like I sell the stuff, or post it on the internet, or anything like that.

But I like making sure the kids are OK, and hey, if I get my jollies looking at coeds getting undressed or whatever, sheesh, c'mon, give me a break, OK?"

I switched the TV screen back to the pre-season football line up. During the commercials, I scanned the girl's bedrooms. Most of it was just happy girl chatter. Samantha sounded just like the other two, a typical American girl, and I started to wonder, if Kim had lived, if we had children, if we had a daughter, would she have looked like Samantha?

Fort Riley, Kansas, September, 1967

They – the folks that contacted me – told me about the studies and Operations Group, a section of Military Assistance Command Viet Nam. It was outside the Army chain of Command, although we worked closely with the Army and the other military organizations.

They also worked with CIA, and between my shooting skills and language abilities, they were real interested in me. I went to the Airborne short course, just so I could parachute in if I had to.

They made no bones about it, it was a dangerous job, but hey, it beat working the rocky soil of my daddy's farm, or a mind-numbing assembly line job at the auto factory.

I did the Airborne course, then they sent me to Monterey, for the Defense Language Institute. They wanted me to learn some technical Vietnamese, to go with the ad hoc learning I already had.

They also wanted to give me a Russian course, since there were some Russian advisors rumored to be running around with the NVA. Russian is pretty close to the Polish I'd learned from my grandparents, so maybe I'd be able to interrogate, or at least read any Russian documents we found.

While I was at Monterey, the Tet offensive hit. Like a lot of other GIs, I wound up on a big white bird headed for Viet Nam. This time around, I knew what I was getting into. For about half the trip, I was fielding questions from all the rookies. There were a couple of other returnees on the plane with me, but when the questions started getting repetitive and stupid, I told the boots to shut up and let me sleep.

Sometimes I wonder how many of those guys on the plane made it back home onto the "Freedom Bird" and how many left in an aluminum casket.

When I got off the plane, I was met by a guy in a jeep from MACV-SOG. I'm glad he knew where he was going, because I rapidly got lost in the swirling traffic of Saigon.

A lot of buildings had the scars of the fighting, and more than a few were burned out wrecks.

I got checked in, issued weapons, and sent off to a Special Forces Base Camp up near the DMZ. The mission? To conduct surveillance missions along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

I know, Surveillance and Interdiction is an Army mission, and actually, they were doing it well.

Our mission was to go along the trail, observe what was going on, and report it so that somebody else could do the interdicting. If we did what we were supposed to, Charlie and "Gomer" – the NVA, would never know we were there.

We were based out of a Special Forces A team base. Let me explain a second. Most people have no idea what the Special Forces are, what they do, and what the difference is between Special Forces and Special Operations Forces. Special Forces, otherwise known as the Green Berets, are a particular group in the Special Operations group of units.

What most people think of when they think of Special Forces, is actually the Special Operations Mission. Clandestine operations behind enemy lines, derring-do, the kind of stuff done by Rangers, and Delta Force, or the Navy SEALs or Marine Recon. On the Brit side, Royal Marines, SAS, or the Special Boat guys.

Airborne Rangers is where the Special Forces come from, but they actually have a peculiar mission that the other Special Operations Forces DON'T have. They go out into the enemy back country and train the resistance fighters, train'em to defend themselves, train them to do the fighting for themselves, so all Uncle Sam has to do is keep'em supplied with weapons and such.

It was a good idea, and Kennedy's original idea for Viet Nam. Send the Special Forces in, teach them to defeat the communist insurgents on their own ground, stabilize the area for democracy. Eventually, we'd all go home and just ship weapons to the democratic forces of Viet Nam.

Trouble was, the Viet central government was a bunch of corrupt, stinking asshats, and they did NOT like the idea of peasants that could defeat a main force Army. They wanted a traditional Asian Army, obedient to the central authority, a régime protection force, not a democratic field army, operating with the consent of the governed.

When Kennedy died, Westmoreland and his cronies led the charge to turn Viet Nam into an industrial age, mechanized war. Those guys grew up in WWII, they trained for decades to fight WWIII on the Central Plains of Europe, so they wanted to fight the war they knew in Viet Nam.

But it was an insurgency, and some vestiges of sanity remained, so there were still some Special Forces in Viet Nam, trying to do their job.

The Special Operations community was doing well. It was a light infantry kind of war, mechanized stuff was pretty much confined to the coastal plains and the few roads in the hills and jungles. Special Ops is the lightest of the light, and any one of us could do more than a platoon of conventional infantry up here.

In those days, I didn't think about things like this. I was just a dumbass Sergeant, "young, dumb and full of cum", as the saying, and I was up in the ass-end of nowhere, at a stinking little shithole called Phan Rang.

A Special Forces A team held the village, 12 Americans – really tough Americans, min you, but only 12 of them! – with a force of about a 100 locally trained fighters, held the area. My team was another eight or ten "Spooks" as we called ourselves. We would head out of there and into the jungle with no ID, no American weapons, and go do – whatever the orders were.

I always wondered what shit-for-brains down in Saigon came up with the idea of no American weapons, no markings. Bunch of Caucasians and African-Americans –even if all they found was a body, there was only one place we could have come from. Well, ok, crusty old Staff Sergeant Hang was ethnic Chinese, even if he talked like a California surfer dude – which he was before he joined the Army – but the rest of us were Caucasian and Afro.

But when I got there in mid-February of 1968, The Tet Offensive was still going strong, and a shit load of stuff was heading down the Trail. Strangely enough, not much was going on around Phan Rang – all the VC and NVA were headed south to Pleiku and Hue and the Mekong Delta.

My team would ghost on out to the Trail, sometimes with the locals, more often with ethnic Chinese Nung mercenaries, and plant sensors, call in targets for the B-52s and Spectre gunships. We'd always go about forty or fifty miles away, so I don't think the Viets associated our trips with the interdictions on the trail.

So Phan Rang was a pleasant little, peaceful spot. There were occasional little dust ups with the local VC, but it was pretty much a "don't mess with us, we won't mess with you" kind of of place.

I managed to get my hands on some documents from the local VC chief that spring. His assessment was that the SOG team was a bunch of war-weary misfits. He thought we were just heading out into the jungle and screwing off, hiding out and calling in fictitious reports. His recommendation was that they leave us, and Phan Rang alone, because killing us might get us replaced with somebody more efficient.

And, it was a nice assignment. Crazy missions – we'd ghost out into the jungle, spend weeks or months out there, living off the land, capturing food, ammunition and weapons from the NVA and VC, come back to Phan Rang for some rest, and head back out again.

It was crazy and chaotic, but for the kind of guy I was back then, it was great.

Then I fell in love.

We were coming back from a deep penetration mission. We'd gone deep into Laos, all the way up into North Vietnam and back again. We were working with the Montagnards, the aboriginal people of Viet Nam. Shouldn't call them Montagnards, that's an insulting Viet term. Translates to "Mountain people", but I think " dumb ass redneck hillbilly" is probably a better translation. Mostly Hmong, but we worked with the Meo, too.

Phan Rang was mostly ethnic Vietnamese, but there were tough bastards, not like their lowlander cousins. If you think of the Hmong and Meo as Viet Nam's equivalent of the Indians, then the folks at Phan Rang were like those tough old Scots-Irish that headed up into the hills and carved out a living. Guys like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone would have felt right at home with those guys.

I used to go down into the village by myself, talk to the people, talk to the kids, just hang out away from the guys some times.

By this time, I spoke Viet like a native. Ok, even with a heavy tan, I was still a six-foot two guy – my hair was jet black in those days – and we didn't cut our hair or shave when we were out in the field. We usually shaved when we got back from an op, but we didn't cut our hair unless we headed into the rear with the more conventional forces.

For some reason, I was doing a "white Indian" thing that summer, and had my hair braided and long like Ed Ames used to do on the "Daniel Boone" TV show.

The beard didn't go with it, so I was headed into the ville to see the local barber.

The kids were totally amazed by my thick black beard. A few of the adults had seen us come back from a mission, so they'd seen what we looked like. Viets don't grow a lot of facial hair, and Hmong grow even less.

Me? I had to shave twice or three times a day back then, I had a "five o'clock stubble" before noon if I shaved in the morning.

So I strolled through the village, looking like the "wild man of Borneo", and I talked to the kids, and laughed with them, gave'em candy, that sort of stuff. Old Nguyen had the hot water boiling already, and half an hour later, I was shaved clean and feeling like a new man.

Like I said, Phan Rang was a quiet place, so I went for a walk. Another thing most Americans don't understand – Viet Mountain villages are spread out, often over the distance of three or four miles.

Actually, by American standards, most Viet villages would be five or six separate villages, but the French, and the Viets after them, called them one village. The part of Phan Rang closest to the A Team Base was actually called Phran Rang four.

The village, or village complex, more accurately, followed a wide spot along a small river valley. There was a little waterfall a few klicks from Phan Rang 1, with some nice pools for swimming.

I suppose, some guys are going to read this, and go, "Right, this dumb ass was wondering around back country Viet Nam like a tourist by himself."

That was the beauty of the place. No, really, it was kind of surreal – I'd have never tried something like this in most places in Viet Nam, but this place – it was magic. Ever see the movie "South Pacific"? – the subplot with Bali Hai – I kept thinking of that.

And frankly, I didn't want to see the guys on my team. We'd just spent four weeks humping the boonies, sleeping in a dogpile at night because of the cold, smelling each others body odor and what not. Sometimes it got to the point where somebody would fart and you knew who it was by the smell. That is just getting too close to your team mates, you know?

At that point, I didn't want to see them, and I didn't want to go down to the main bases in the lowlands.

I just wanted a peaceful, quiet swim.

Then I saw her.

The pools were quiet – sometimes the kids would make it into their own little homemade waterpark – but I heard no voices, just the gentle sound of the water. That was fine by me, I just wanted to sit and meditate, maybe swim a little.

She was swimming in one of the pools, just sort of floating and letting her long black hair surround her like a halo. Well, yeah, she was naked. No swimsuits up in that part of the country, and people would have looked at you funny if you suggested it. Skinny dipping was the only way to go swimming.

I'd be a liar if I didn't pay attention, but I saw no need to disturb her. Some guys would have been jumping up and down and making fools of themselves, but me…by that time in my life, I just quietly got undressed, sat in the lotus position, and meditated.

I mean, by that time, I was starting on my 20th month in Viet Nam. I'd turned into an animal on my first few months, but, about five months in, I started to learn about meditation and calming.

A lot of hippies and stuff were talking about when I got back to the States. It was supposed to bring on a state of calmness and inner peace. Self-knowledge was supposed to bring about a new peaceful age of non-violence.

It made me into a more efficient killer. My senses were heightened – I could glide through the jungle, silent as a ghost, and kill without warning. Most of my team was working with it to one degree or another.

And so I sat in the waterfall's spray, stretched my awareness to the limit. I could hear the water flowing past the rocks, felt the spray on my body, listened to the sounds of the birds and the insects, luxuriated in the peaceful, natural setting…and incidentally, enjoyed the sight of the beautiful, naked girl swimming in the calm pool about 30 feet away.

I had never seen her before, but I knew who she was. She was staying with her Uncle, the village Chief Trinh Nguyen. Her father, Trinh Dao, or more commonly, "Big Trinh", was an upper level functionary in the South Vietnamese Government. I wasn't sure if she was Kim, the 18 year old, or Han, the 16 year old, but they had been sent here in January. Ostensibly, it was to celebrate Tet in the old family home, but my bet was that Trinh knew about what was coming, and wanted to get his daughters away from the carnage.

Rich Vietnamese sent their kids to France, less rich ones sent their kids to America, guys at Trinh's level sent the kids upcountry. Not really all that different from rich people in the US, when you really came down to it.

I figured the Trinh family was probably working both sides of the fence, covering their bets…another reason Phan Rang was left alone. This was fine by me.

I simply sat on the rock, and enjoyed the entire peaceful scene, at one with the universe.

After awhile, I heard the sound of sandaled feet coming down the path from the village, and I heard a young girl's voice.

"Kim, you naughty girl! You know you're not supposed to be swimming alone!"

"Van, you are such a baby. What man is going to bother us? Uncle Dao would have him killed."

"But what if one of the round-eye monsters catch you?" said Van. "Those filthy barbarians are sex machines with no conscience" she said "They want to have sex with any woman they see." she giggled "Old Granny Minh, who cooks at their camp, says she makes almost as much on her back as she does as a cook."

"So? They aren't here." said Kim. "Besides, some of them are almost attractive, in a monsterous way. Did you look at that one who was in the village today? He almost looks like one of us."

"But he's so huge!" said Van. "He's got to be over two meters tall!"

"Not that tall, Van" said her sister, "I'd bet 180-190 centimeters…but I wonder if all parts of him are equally large."

Van had a nice blush. She splashed her sister, squealing "You're terrible!"

Then she looked up and saw me. "Kim, there he is right now!"

Kim, who was floating on her back in the water, said in a languid tone of voice, "Yes, right, like I'm supposed to jump up squealing because you thought you saw an American."

Van splashed out into the water, still dressed. "No, really!" she grabbed her sister's arm and pointed. "He's up there, sitting by the rock."

Kim looked up, and realized I WAS sitting next to the rock. She stood up, terrified, and both waded to the shore. Kim grabbed her white cotton shift and ran down the trail and Van was right behind her. I got an excellent view of backs of two lithe bodies running down the trail…Kim was still naked, struggling to put on her dress, and Van's soaked shift hid as much as a wet T-shirt.

I laughed, stood up, and went for my swim.


Comments always welcome, folks