YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 31. Settling into our new home and I hit the town.

Settling into our new home,  8/11/71 My diary tells me that for once everything went off without a hitch. We were allocated huts and picked our beds, then in order of importance we found the following: the boozer, mess hall, couldn’t miss the ablutions they were outside our huts, movie theatre, oh yes and our new work compound. Now we have our priorities right let’s have a look at what these places offered. For starters we had taken over the area recently vacated by an Engineer squadron. They had the facilities we needed for the cleaning and refurbishing of our vehicles, weapons and any other stores and equipment that had to go home with us.  Our boozer was a huge tin shed with a small bar area contained in a wire cage. Obviously those engineers didn’t like it when the bar had to be closed down. The wire would also slow down the heavy bombardment of beer cans thrown at staff. Somewhat reminiscent of the Blues Brothers movie with the scene in the country and western bar. We had a dartboard and I think a pool table. The main thing though, we had plenty of grog. As you can see by the pictures our accommodation bordered on the side of frugality. The corrugated iron enclosed sandbags were there to protect the sleeping inhabitants against mortar shrapnel. Although the only explosions we encountered there, was when the trooper whose job it was to light up the hot water chuffers let too much fuel in and it nearly blew his face off. He had no eyebrows for a while.

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The mess hall at least had lined walls and long tables. Not a place that kept you dallying over your bacon and eggs, very utilitarian and the food was okay. One thing the army is extremely good at is making toilet blocks. The showers were basic, concrete floors with duckboards in every cubicle, and hot water via the chuffer. the toilets however were a glorious six-seater affair. Sturdy metal pedestals concreted into the floor, which covered a huge pit, there were wooden seats and even paper holders. Ah, the bliss of modern plumbing. No privacy mind you and people wonder why many soldiers aren’t shy, retiring types.  I have mentioned in an earlier post about army ablutions and how they bring everybody down to the same level. What I did find out is this, the most popular piece of reading material at the time was, The Phantom. A great comic that has been around since 1936. This appeared to be a sensible piece of reading material, because American copies of Playboy and  Penthouse magazine were jealously guarded and hoarded away. Besides you’d never get any work done sitting there reading girlie mags all day.

The movie theatre took up one end of the mess hall which had large, barn style doors at one end. The screen would be placed outside and the chairs from the mess used for the customers. I actually took a one day course in using the movie projector and worked one night a week as the projectionist. This came to an end when I destroyed the last half of the 1970 version of Julius Caesar, starring Charlton Heston. I fell asleep, the audience, what was left by then had also fallen into an abyss. I woke to the smell of celluloid burning and something resembling an atomic blast covering the screen. That’s strange, I thought sleepily, there shouldn’t be any explosions in Julius Caesar. Yikes. I spent the last reel manually rewinding the huge heap of film on the floor, cutting out burnt film and splicing it back together. I’m sure nobody would have noticed the missing sections.

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The compound, as you can see by the above photo was a basic affair, lengthy with an all-weather gravel surface. The Sandgroper was my vehicle and this would be the last I saw of it. We parked our vehicles there in preparation for what was going to be a busy, productive time. When you find yourself in a new home the first thing you want to do is explore, and under the guise of, ‘We need to go out on patrol,’ we hit the beach. The hill in the background is Cape St Jacques. The top picture isn’t the best in the world but it shows you the beautiful stretch of beach. A couple of vehicles stopped so the crews could explore the wrecks on the beach.

Vung Tau Beach

I have no idea what type of armoured vehicle these wrecks are, so any input would be appreciated.

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I was impressed with this beach, long, sandy and littered with the rusting hulks of vehicles from WW2. The occasional cracked open concrete bunker and an inordinate amount of sand. We loved it. The APC’s could be opened right up and we raced each other along the hard packed sand. What a thrill indeed. Mind you we still had to be on the lookout for Viet Cong. From that day, until we left in February 1972, as far as I know only one V C was ever sighted. He popped up from behind a sand dune one day about three weeks into our stay. Saw that we were still well armed and had a section of vehicles on the go, so he left in a hurry. Naturally it wasn’t all beer and skittles, does anybody play skittles? Part of our being there involved the security of the base and a Ready Reaction team had to be manned every day. An armed ( twin .30 cal Brownings ) and fuelled APC stayed parked in the compound by day and in between the boozer and the mess hall at night. If you were rostered on you spent the night in a small guard-room with a radio. I think there was besides the driver and commander, a radio operator armed with an automatic SLR and a large bag of full magazines. If the call came through on an incursion, we would go to where our infantry were stationed, pick them up and head to wherever we were needed. Thankfully it never happened. Over the next  four months a huge amount of work needed to be done before we could go home. It may sound mundane but the work is worthy of some mention and I will be doing that over the next few weeks, All work and no play makes for disgruntled troopers so this brings us to:

I hit the town. Beware this section is R rated. After our first day of settling in and races on the beach, I decided a night in the boozer seemed appropriate for me. We didn’t give a toss about the décor, lack of female company, no nibblies or the gentle breeze blowing through the doors off the South China Sea. There was cheap beer and spirits to be drunk. I think we all felt the weight lifting off us, the time had come where we could relax without looking over our shoulder. Sit down at a table and drink in good company. Feel normal for once and get pissed (drunk for my US readers) and let the ferret run as they say over here. In other words, civilised. Naturally the consumption of large amounts of alcohol mean one thing, hangovers. The following morning we had our weekly dose of anti malarial drugs, and put in a full day of stripping vehicles out. Yuk, it wasn’t pleasant. Being made of stern stuff everybody except those on ready reaction lined up for a leave pass to go into town. You could wait for a truck to run you in, or jog down to the front gate and catch a Lambro.

When you’re heading out on the town you need to dress accordingly. Who said pink jeans weren’t sexy? The bottom picture is of a typical bar, probably better than most.
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My diary is quite blunt about the activities for the night, I went into town and had my first head job. Now this may sound crass and indecent. Okay, it is crass and indecent but that’s how it was. If I had said, “Well, a few of us decided to go out for the night, have a couple of quiet drinks and take in a museum and the cinema.” Then you would be thinking what a load of BS. I’m sure those of you who have seen the movie Catch-22, from the novel of the same name by Joseph Heller, may well remember some of the scenes involving soldiers and prostitutes. Here in Vung Tau you didn’t have to line up along dim alleys throughout the night, while waiting your turn for an available pro. There were steam baths and massage parlours, and quaint little barber shops, where you had your choice of a haircut, manicure or oral sex. After looking at the grizzled, ancient barber who appeared to be a close relative of Ho Chi Minh, the choice of oral sex  didn’t seem to hard to make. The shop was beautifully laid out with a proper chair, all the utensils, yet the way he held his cut throat razor, hmm.

An old Mama San would be waiting behind the curtain that separated the shop from the real business out back. She would fling it open, grab your arm and hustle you through the dimly lit maze of hastily erected cubicles. You didn’t have to look at any other customers, those who had been serviced were led out through another door. If you had walked in not knowing what to expect, then the noises emanating from behind paper-thin walls would surprise you. Hoarse, whispering voices, grunting, moaning, deep sucking, slurping sounds all added to a sense of some scene from Dante’s second stage of hell – Lust. The first four lines from Keats’  sonnet, On a Dream, may give you some idea.
But to that second circle of sad hell,
Where ‘mid the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Mama San led me to a vacant cubicle and indicated that I may actually need to take my pants off. She left and a few moments later a young woman came in dressed simply in long black pants and a shift, her thick black hair tied back severely. A quick glance at my face, nothing said, not even a smile and she went to work. Now it’s time for me to play Keats and put my two bob’s worth in.
She took me to a place I’d never been,
tantalised and raised emotions deep.
Sensations flowed, an acute electric stream
clasping her hair, I, tried not to weep.
Professional until the very last,
lips sealed, she held my offering,
while I, floated somewhere vast
and fell in love with lust’s eternal sting.

Mama San’s strident voice cut through the haze, that and the sound of my hostess hacking and spitting in the corner. A warm, damp cloth to my best mate and I was hustled out like a processed chicken. Standing  on the crowded footpath I paused for a moment to reflect, swiped at an urchin trying to pick my pocket and thought how good life could be. The night called to me, the bars, massage parlours and clubs of Vung Tau were ready for business. Like an old tart wearing too much makeup, she didn’t look all that bad under a bright street light. So much to see, experience and feel. I found a store run by a Sikh, he sold knick-knacks, souvenirs, cowboy boots and knives of every description. Half an hour later I strolled out in my new, black calf-high boots worn underneath my jeans and a fine flick knife nestled in the boot. Now I felt ready to take on anything and began trolling the bars. All of them had American style names emblazoned on the wall outside, to remind their clientele of happier times and home. The Detroit Bar, Blue Diamond, Texas. Then the Hong Kong and The Grand Hotel. Bar girls hustled outside, some appeared to be fresh from the country, others looked like veterans of a long, tiring campaign. All of them had one thing to sell, themselves. Many were dressed in western clothing, silky mini dresses, short shifts, blouses and trousers, very few wore the traditional costume, the Ai Dao. A long white dress, slit high up the sides with black pants worn underneath.

All the bars had one thing in common, they wanted your money. Most were based on a similar plan, long and narrow with a front door. Once inside, the bar was on the left and a long row of booths sat against the left hand wall. At the rear the obligatory curtain hung over a doorway. Most led into an area where those with an immediate need could be serviced and a hole in the floor served for a toilet. The booths had well cushioned benches that could sit about six, they usually held two couples. Once the girls had your attention they made the most of the opportunity for you to buy them drinks. If you didn’t they would move on. The bar had a line of stools against it and the hard drinkers lurked there. Most places had reel-to-reel players fixed to the wall behind the bar, belting out the Stones, Credence, The Animals. Lighting wasn’t a huge priority and after several scotches even the plainest of girls resembled Suzy Wong. I didn’t feel the need for more sex that night. Making my way between bars and seeing how life worked in my new neighbourhood took up my time. It wasn’t only the troops who congregated in town. The locals, mainly in their late teens and early twenties went about their business. Most of the young men would have been ARVN and if the rumours were true, some Viet Cong visited. Apparently they needed a little R&R too.

By 22.00 hrs I called it a night, If you were caught out after curfew at 23.00 hrs you were in trouble. Heppo roll in one hand and can of coke in the other I waited at the corner of The Flags for the truck home. It turned up and I climbed aboard, finding a seat next to the cabin. The driver would wait until he had a load and then take us back to camp. One gained quite an insight into people while watching your mates and strangers try to clamber aboard. How alcohol can radically change people from nice to nasty, or quiet to raucous, a lesson indeed. Back at the barracks I hurried to the shower block and gave my mate a good scrub. Feeling a little scared for him, yet undeniably ready for what was to come, no pun intended at all.

Next week: Beach Parties, Surfing, There are some fools and Not again.

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27 thoughts on “YOU’RE IN THE ARMY NOW, part 31. Settling into our new home and I hit the town.

  1. Raani York

    Love this post, Laurie. It’s so much memory in there – and in combination with the pictures it gives a whole new insight of what happened… I love the pics, by the way. Even though I have to admit: The pink Jeans surprised me… For some undefined reason you always seemed more the “sunflower-yellow” type of Guy. 😉
    Just kidding.
    Thanks for sharing all this, Laurie!

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Raani, it was an historic occasion indeed, on both counts. 😉 Ah, those pink jeans. I would have worn floral ones if I could have found any. They certainly made a statement, and after reviewing my diary I didn’t seem to wear them for long once I hit town. The grey fly material makes a statement indeed.

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  2. Pagadan

    Another interesting chapter and in-depth look at the daily life of soldiers and their environment. I enjoyed the Julius Caesar movie anecdote too (funny) and the photos, especially the wrecks on the beadch from WWII. I wonder how the beach looks now. Even more wrecks? Thanks again for sharing the photos and the word-pictures. Well done.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Joy, I’m glad you enjoy my anecdotes, I like to entertain. As to the beach, I nipped over to google satellite and took a look. Where our base was there is now a golf course and there are big houses and resorts up the beach where we used to go racing.

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  3. Jane Risdon

    Well what can I say! Blushing to the roots of my blond/grey hair…I want to say I enjoyed the piece Laurie, but that sounds a bit naughty somehow. I was going to comment on the barracks and how Dad in Korea used to wake in the mornings surrounded by boots and tins and other stuff which his room mates had thrown at him during their sleepless night as he snored happily unaware of the barrage landing on and around him. But reading further on I find I want to comment on your other activities too. LOL….reminded me of a tale told to me by said parent about a visit to a certain area in Singapore and the shock of ‘encountering,’ a ‘he-she,’ back in the day…..you boys! Whatever next.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks Jane, maybe I should have put the warning in larger letters? 🙂 I can relate to the boots and tins, blokes aren’t exactly pleased about snorers in barracks. Now you have me thinking Jane, I wonder if the parlours that specialised in French Lessons actually hired……… Oh nooooooo. 🙂 It’s okay it was a she, boob jobs weren’t in then. I’ve heard many a story from soldiers and sailors about them meeting the ladyboys. It’s a minefield out there Jane.
      Thanks so much for commenting Jane, you can stop blushing now.

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      1. Jane Risdon

        Phew!! Thanks goodness. I came over all unnecessary reading your piece. What a laugh though. Yep those ladyboys can be a problem. I worked with lots of transgender guys and gals when doing the shows in London and it was a minefield at times but very, very, tragic oftentimes. We got to know so many of them and they were great fun but behind the smiles there was often great sadness and pain.

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      2. laurie27wsmith Post author

        Rest assured, ladyboys weren’t a problem.
        It is a sad state of affairs for people with gender confusion, especially when they come up against bigots. It’s bad enough when you kind of know what you are.
        Laurie.

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    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Jane, there are so many quips I could come back with here. They would be funny and apt. You’re only the second person to comment today, you brave woman. So I give you a heartfelt thanks for acknowledging my truth, no matter how confronting it can be. As a writer who wants to write truthfully about events, I don’t want to hobble myself because it may cause embarrassment. I could have been grungy and lewd with it but I thought the references to Catch 22 and my nifty poem lifted it somewhat. 🙂
      Cheers
      Laurie.

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      1. Jane Dougherty

        You told your story very well. It would have been easy to go over the top with nudge nudge type comments, but I much prefer your light touch. Honest and slightly self-mocking.

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      2. laurie27wsmith Post author

        Thanks Jane, it could have gone all ‘Benny Hill.’ Like other milestones this was a big one for me. I didn’t have the benefit of high school sweethearts and a normal social life. I started work at 13 and was still being sexually abused. So for me this event definitely wasn’t an aberration. I tend to use the self deprecating approach on some subjects. 🙂 Thanks so much for reading it Jane.

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      3. Jane Dougherty

        You come across as a rock solid character, at ease with himself and the world. Nobody would ever guess that you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth and not a care in the world. Keep up the good work, Laurie, you’re an example to us all.

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      4. laurie27wsmith Post author

        I’ve had quite a few years to get my poo in a pile Jane. My reason for taking up writing was to show people that no matter how tough life can be as a child you can get through it. I’ve mentioned various events from my childhood over the past couple of years but I think most don’t believe it. I’ll probably have to lay it out one day. Thanks again for reading my work.
        Laurie.

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