By Jim Fairhall
The monsoon season of central Vietnam felt like a damp green jail enveloped by a cloud.
By then I’d almost pushed the battle of Co Pung Mountain, five months back in April, out of my mind. The war had quieted down into a dispiriting slog. It was still too early for me to dream about flying back to the World in a Freedom Bird. But soon, in a couple of months, I could apply for the glamorous reprieve of R&R. The choices were Sydney, Hong Kong, Taipei or Bangkok. Honolulu was reserved for married guys meeting their wives. Sydney drew soldiers yearning for dates, maybe even romance with round-eyes. Hong Kong was exotic, glittery-urban, The World of Suzie Wong. Taipei was terra incognita—what red-blooded American boy had heard of it before? Despite its cheapness it ranked as the shittiest choice, equivalent to a C-ration meal of ham and lima beans. But Bangkok—ah, Bangkok! The name suggested its allure. Returnees struggled for words to summon up a magical mystery tour of intoxicants and sex, set against the colors of canals, floating markets and gigantic gilt temples. Nobody mentioned Thailand’s history or the outlandishness of its language, those indecipherable scrolls and strokes that made even street signs disorienting. In my childhood I’d lived two years in England, fine-tuning it into focus gradually. In contrast, GIs on quickie R&Rs must have barely glimpsed Thailand, looking at it through their blurry American lenses. Still, I itched to go. I might not have felt that way if Susan hadn’t had an affair while studying last summer in Florence. Well, I had to admit, probably an affair of the heart. But my own romantic heart had taken a hit, and I imagined the strangeness of Bangkok might revive it.
Bill Byron had just returned from Bangkok. He had more time in country than me but was new in Alpha Company, a transfer from the 1st Division, the Big Red One, which had shipped stateside. I didn’t know him well, but he wanted to talk. It wasn’t unusual for acquaintances or even strangers to confide in me; now and then, back in Manhattan, women asked me for directions or advised me on shopping (when I wasn’t with Susan, anyway). I didn’t know why. Maybe it was my boyish face, or a gleam in my eyes of sympathetic curiosity. I was curious by nature—a writer’s tool, I’d been thrilled to learn from Mr. Ducharme’s comment on one of my essays in AP English. My curiosity had contributed to my quest for material for a novel about America in Vietnam—about our national traits that, hazed over back home, were writ large over here. That was before I lost my faith in my ability to write about the war.
I’d thought, with something like American hubris, I could just take notes on it. I did take notes, until it sucked me in like a whirlwind and led, through a failure of nerve, to my killing Matt and
an NVA soldier—a stranger who might, in peacetime, have confided his story to me.
Anyway, Bill didn’t want to discuss the war. He wanted to discuss Bangkok. We were on Firebase Beeham, where Alpha was pulling security. After supper we sat on a musty wall of sandbags beside a duster—it resembled a squat, double-barreled tank—which, at intervals after dark, would shoot fiery streams of 40mm rounds down into the bush across the Perfume River. White letters stenciled across its front proclaimed: The Jungle Pimp. Its two-man crew had gone to eat. There was still light. The sun, blocked by clouds all day, had escaped, brightening my mood until it began flaming out behind dark-green mountains.
Bill had a mid-Atlantic accent with some different vowels, making me wonder where home was.
“Yeah, it was outa sight. I knew it’d be great once the plane lifted out of the clouds at Huế-Phú Bài Airport. I had no idea what I was eatin’, but compared to Cs, it was fan-fuckin-tastic. Sunny, maybe in the eighties by afternoon, but of course there was air conditioning or fans indoors. Soft clean bed. Four and a half days never went by faster.”
“Bummer to fly back here.”
“You bet. I had no idea a place like that existed. Spent all my life in Marienville, Pennsylvania. Crossed into Canada once at Niagara Falls. Thailand was like a movie I never even heard of.”
“I guess you found a Thai girlfriend there.”
It was a normal question: the “Recreation” part of R&R meant sex. But Bill, a strawberry blond with a ruddy complexion, blushed a bit.
“The first afternoon I met this bar girl named Jantana. Her last name is a jawbreaker: Boonprajaob. I had to repeat it twenty times to remember it. Anyway, she went with me to my hotel. Next day she took me to the little shack she shared with another girl. It was on the bank of a little side canal. You couldn’t see it from the street. There was a French guy livin’ with her friend. They used a curtain to divide the room for privacy.”
“She invite you to shack up with her?”
“Yeah. How could I turn her down? She’s beautiful. Not like an American girl. I mean, all the curves are there, but they’re delicate. And perfect ivory skin.
“So anyway, we did a lot of things besides sex. I mean like, one evening we went to this club where people were pedalin’ around in little bumper cars, laughin’ ‘n havin’ a high old time. Some were GIs, but it was mainly girls. Some girls—well, really, the most attractive ones, they weren’t even girls.”
“Yeah. I couldn’t have dreamed up a place like that. Next morning I actually thought it was a dream. I had a hangover from smokin’ so much pot with Jantana. She bought me—well, I paid her back—she bought me a carton of what looked like regular smokes. The brand was Krong Thip, or however you pronounce it. Inside each cigarette, pure pot. You’d never know unless you looked close at the tip or lit up. I smoked more than in my whole life before. And it was strong shit.”
“You bring some back?” Some of Alpha’s soldiers smoked grass on firebases, where we didn’t have to worry about giving away our position, but Bill hadn’t joined that loose group. Jantana had expanded his horizons.
“Fuck no,” he said. “I didn’t want to get busted.”
“Did you learn much about your girl? Jantana. I mean, did she tell you her background and stuff?”
“A bit. Of course, she doesn’t speak a helluva lot of English. Once, when we were in a taxi, I asked how she came to work at the Smiling Dragon. That’s the name of the bar where I met her. It was crazy. My taxi driver brought me there ‘n said I could have my pick of any of the girls. Some girls were flirty. Jantana was shy. She didn’t come on to me at all.”
“So how’d she end up working at the Dragon?”
“Oh, yeah. We were in the taxi, passin’ a building site. Girls her age, they were carryin’ bricks in baskets on their heads. She pointed. She said, ‘Me.’”
“Like that was her alternative?”
“Yeah, right. Gave me somethin’ to think about. She’s a sweet girl who had some crappy life choices. Her life would’ve been so different in America.”
He unbuttoned his top jacket pocket and pulled out a handsewn indigo bag.
“Our last day, she cried and gave me this.”
He shook a gilt ornament into his palm and handed it to me. It was a ring, a dragon’s head, too large and heavy to wear except on occasion. It was alive, though. Its incised lines and its horns and full snarling lips swept up and back from its red coral mouth. Its red eyes, with their dark pupils, stared out at some vision I couldn’t see. I liked touching it. For a second I seemed to detect a scent, feminine and alluring.
“She said if I love her, I should keep it till I come back. Otherwise, someone could return it for me at the Smiling Dragon.”
“Oh. Wow. I see.” I didn’t remind him that I’d be going to Bangkok. I was glimpsing, intrigued, the prospect of a romantic errand, but I didn’t want to be pushy.
“I miss her all right. It was like havin’ this wonderful dream ‘n you don’t wanna wake up. I guess she’s there right now, at the bar. The girls sit together at one end. Until a GI talks to one. They all smell great. Like flowers.”
“Not like here, huh?”
I inhaled the smell of damp mineral earth, mud-crusted sandbags and what seemed like the smoky steel of The Jungle Pimp, though it hadn’t been fired since last night. I felt a pang, remembering Susan’s jasmine perfume.
“Fuck no. Like flowers. With some light spice mixed in. Thai people are really clean. They like to shower a lot.”
“I’ll bet that was fun. Showering together.” I didn’t imagine him with Janatana, but rather Susan with me.
He looked surprised that I’d guessed. Maybe he blushed a bit. “Yeah, everything was fun.”
He looked away and paused. I wanted to keep our conversation going—partly because he didn’t seem finished telling his story, and partly because of my writer’s curiosity. I asked, “How old is Jantana?”
“Ha! Older woman. Twenty-two. She showed me her ID card. But she looks eighteen.”
“Born in Bangkok?”
“No. Out in the boondocks, up north. About a hundred kilometers east of Chiang Mai. I forget the name of her village, she said all her family’s there. She lit up when she talked about it. They farm ‘n make handicrafts there. She said I’d fall in love with it if I went there. She asked me to visit. But of course there wasn’t enough time.”
“Now you’re here.”
“Back in reality. At least I reckon this is reality. Weird, it doesn’t seem as real as Bangkok. Y’know, I heard of GIs who were AWOL in Thailand for months. With their Thai girlfriends.”
“Make love, not war. Tempting, huh?”
“Thinkin’ ain’t the same as doin’. But yeah, I thought about it. I didn’t want to say goodbye. It felt like my heart was breakin’ or somethin’.”
“Yeah, but Uncle Sam was perched in your ear, calling you back to duty.”
“Yeah, well, a dishonorable discharge wouldn’t play good back home. But there was other things. My fiancée ‘n me, we agreed to nail down a wedding date when I come back. We’ve known each other since second grade. Her name is Marjorie. Marge.”
“Huh! Marge.” I was surprised. Susan’s image flashed. I said, “You haven’t seen her for a long while. I’ll bet you love her, though.”
“Love? Well, yeah, of course. We have most everything in common. I like weldin’ ‘n she likes cookin’. But apart from that we like most everything together. Music. TV shows. Movies. I have this shitty little Yamaha 350cc two-stroke, but after our wedding we’re gonna look into buyin’ a Harley. A used one. She’s scarce ever been out of Forest County. Bein’ the oldest she helps her ma out with the younger kids. But she’s hankerin’ to get out of that house, see America.”
I’d heard this story before—a variation on it was my mother’s. The oldest daughter, she’d moved from Indiana, after graduating from Oberlin, to a cold-water flat on York Avenue in Manhattan. She’d had more possibilities than Marge, just as I had more than Bill. I didn’t know what to say about Bill’s conversational swerve to his fiancée, especially since I was more interested in his experience with his Thai bar girl. I fumbled, saying, “Sounds like a love match.”
“Yep. We’re definitely a match. Our dads are even members of the same motorcycle club, the Golden Wing Riders. Mainly they ride Hondas, but what the hey, they get out n’ hit the highway. Probably Marge ‘n me’ll join up at their age.”
“After your kids have grown up.”
Bill shook his head. “Too far ahead for me to wrap my head around. What I’m thinkin’ about is Marge plus a job that’s sort of waitin’ on me. My uncle’s a shop steward in the powerhouse at the GE rail plant in Erie. He says, what with me bein’ a vet ‘n all, I’m like a shoo-in for the first machinist apprenticeship. Sort of my dream job.”
“You’d be set for life.” I meant: sentenced for life. My presumption embarrassed me, since Bill was a good guy, without meanness, and had a right to his dreams. But his was a version of the American dream that depressed me.
“Yeah. Same as my dad ‘n my uncle. I’d never get rich, but it’s a salary you can raise a family on. Of course, I’d have to move closer to Erie. Probably Edinboro, like Uncle Bennie, when I can afford it. It’s a college town. College ain’t for me. But it’s real pretty there. Great place for kids.”
“That’s a terrific plan, Bill.” I was lying again, but I did it because I liked him.
“I guess. I never questioned it. It’s just that I’m twenty years old, ‘n it feels funny to have my whole life laid out. I don’t want to end up like Gramps, sittin’ on his porch ‘n wavin’ to people he hardly knows while downin’ Iron City beer.”
“Maybe you’ll just have to write a different script. Bill Byron, A Life. Latest release. Produced and directed by himself.”
“Y’know, you’re the one who should be a writer. You got a way with words.”
“That’s what I used to think. But it’s hard work.”
“Yeah. I’m sure it is. I never got good grades in English. I just didn’t have the knack. And actually, after elementary school, I never did see the point of poetry. I guess I’m a realist.”
“Well, I can understand. But I wouldn’t give up on imagination.”
In the dusk voices approached. We greeted the crew of The Jungle Pimp and slid off the parapet to give them room. The duster clanked, coughed, snorted two arcs of red and green fire across the darkened Perfume River, surprising me as always with their beauty. Time to go: Bill and I had to report to our respective bunkers for guard.
He said, “Well, thanks for listenin’.”
I talked with him again a few times before my R&R, but we just exchanged some bullshit. He didn’t mention the ring or Jantana. I felt disappointed. He was a young guy, twenty, whose flushed broad face had the unworn look of a twelve-year-old. I wanted a better fate for him than that he’d finish his tour of duty, go back to Marienville, stow the coral dragon in a shoebox, forget.
What I wished for him was escape. I wished he’d rejoin his girl in Bangkok, shack up for a year and toke on carton after carton of black-market Krong Thips, the menthol-laced smell of grass sharpening his grasp of the life of the canals and the ordinary people living along them. Maybe he wouldn’t stay with Jantana. He’d change, though, and Marge (no doubt a nice person, like him) and the lifetime job in the GE powerhouse in Erie would lose their magnetic draw. Perhaps he’d find a long-term job in Thailand, learn how to surf, return Stateside to do cutting-edge welding for NASA in Texas, or steer straight off after something into space and tackle some amazing, enlivening project I couldn’t imagine.
Or perhaps he’d just wander off the tracks, drifting into the life of an itch-footed American loser transformed by a vision. I liked that ending, almost as much as his successful reinvention. Any fate was better than thirty years of drudging at a power plant, eased just enough by holidays, renting a not-quite lakeside summer cottage, attending the VFW on dinner-plus-movie evenings, bowling, riding with the Golden Wings through same-old towns and industrial farmland to rallies in Branson or Nashville, and watching thirty thousand hours of TV before, at last, with a sense of life having whizzed by in an unexamined blur, succumbing to a long glide of sunset years or an early heart attack. I was biased, of course. Maybe Marge and he would find a cause or a transcendent hobby, like hiking all the national parks. Maybe they’d raise two delightful daughters who’d make them happy and eventually win scholarships to fine colleges. Could happen. But one of the war’s paradoxes was that it killed some guys (I’m not talking about all the dead Vietnamese) yet opened others up to possibilities beyond the prefab lives awaiting them like carapaces back in the World. If some unfathomable impulse transported Bill back to Thailand, the weird foreign country he’d be exploring there would be himself—his American self. It piqued me to imagine so, anyway. I may have been a washed-up writer, but in my heart I was still a romantic.∎
Photo by Edward Leon