Just Like a War Zone

First published in my memoirs volume, Warbaby, Talking About My Generation.  This was written in 1998 at a time that I was in the process of confronting the realities of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  This blog post is being published 18 years later. I can scarcely remember how I felt back then, and for that I am eternally thankful.

 

June 2, 1998. Two days ago the little town of Spencer, South Dakota, was reduced to rubble by a tornado. Today I listened to someone on the news who flew over Spencer remarking that the remains of the town looked “just like a war zone.” It’s a common phrase used to describe disaster areas. When we want to convey the utter devastation of a place, whether Spencer or the South Bronx, or Detroit after the ‘67 riots, we say it looks just like a war zone.

In my profession I have had many occasions to study hundreds of Union and Confederate photographs of Richmond, Petersburg, Fredricksburg, Mechanicsville, Hopewell, Cold Harbor, and other towns and countryside locations of Virginia taken during, or immediately following, the Civil War. Most of these photos depict landscapes so strange as to be surreal. Looking at familiar hillsides and roadways where I drive and walk routinely, I am disconnected from them by the depth of their devastation. Scarcely a tree stands. Grass doesn’t grow. Fields lay wasted and roads rutted. It all has a trampled, abused appearance. In many of the pictures there are people—haunted, defeated, exhausted people. Often bodies lie about the landscape, twisted in forms that no living shape could take. My home, Virginia, appears in ghostly form in prints from Mathew Brady’s glass plates. It looks just like a war zone.

This laying waste to a country shocked me as much as anything else in Vietnam. When I arrived in An Khe, the place looked like something out of National Geographic. Within a matter of weeks, a few months at most, it looked like some burned, tortured, brimstone-poisoned, post-volcanic landscape. I no longer noticed anyone in the fields with their buffalo. Bicycles were rapidly replaced by motor scooters driven by slicked-up pimps with decked-out baby-sans on back. Tea houses gave way to opium dens and whore bars and black-market stalls.  Trees and bamboo thickets were cleared by the thousands of acres with defoliants, bulldozers, rome plows, even napalm.

Villages became prisons for pawns needing not to be pacified, but, rather, to pacify both Uncle Sam and the VC in order to prevent their being laid waste. The economy was trashed. The culture was deeply wounded. The fields were flooded when the rains came because nobody was tending to the canals and sluices of the paddies. Roads became impassible because they were so deeply rutted by convoys of military vehicles day in and day out. Where we kept the roads paved, they became nearly useless for a passer-by who could be caught in the crossfire of those who fought to control the roads. Market days with their trips to neighboring towns disappeared. Holy days with their pilgrimages and temple visits vanished. The towns and temples themselves were often lost, or appropriated for other purposes.

As the trees were removed the thin topsoil that sustained the fields washed away in monsoon rains leaving behind the gullies, eroded, blood-red laterite of sterile tropical subsoil. When the rains stopped, any useful soil quickly baked to iron rust or blew away in the wind, depositing itself in the eyes, mouths, and hearts of anyone trying to live in that newly barren country. Families, communities, congregations, parishes, neighborhoods, and nations were swept aside by politics and war. Even the social, cultural, and spiritual landscape looked just like a war zone.

I have enjoyed hearing the stories of those who have traveled back to Vietnam, and to see their photo albums and slide shows. Many say that it is great to walk the vaguely familiar streets of Vietnam with a thriving and proud culture growing new in what was once a wasteland. But there remain many booby traps and mines. The forests and soil are saturated with poisons. Whole regions, populations, language groups, and ethnic groups have disappeared, been removed and shifted, resettled, and reprogrammed. Children have grown up scarred, physically and psychically mangled by war and its ongoing, inter-generational effects. I have not been back, but I need only think about my scant memories of Vietnam to know that, despite the changes of thirty-one years that have passed since I was there, many more lives will pass into the earth before that place is healed.

I was not so stupid or innocent as to think that my tour of duty in Vietnam would be a picnic. I was scared to go. I didn’t want any part of killing; even less of being killed. But, I thought, we are there to do some good. Maybe it is wrong-headed. Maybe, I thought, if elections were held, Ho Chi Minh might win. Who knows? But we would do what we could. We would purify the water, improve the agriculture, cure diseases, teach democracy, and point the way to prosperity. Okay, maybe I was naïve, but I don’t think I was alone.

So what is it that has taken the place of naïveté? I am not sure. Basically I am a sane, healthy, functioning human being with a life I am thankful for. But when I look into certain recesses of my mind all I can see are child prostitutes, hungry people, dead or crazed comrades, and ravaged countryside. When I try to make sense of it, to write it all off as an aberration, of politics gone awry, of a flaw of the human spirit that sometimes manifests itself on earth, I am brought up short. I think: This is me. This is my doing. This is the way we “helped” Vietnam. There is no arrangement or reason or meaning to it. It’s just death and disorder and boundless havoc. When I try to view my own past, it is as ghostly strange, lifeless, and unfamiliar as a Mathew Brady photograph. It looks just like a war zone.

The Lotus Is a Flower

 

The Lotus (Sanskrit and Tibetan padma) is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols and one of the most poignant representations of Buddhist teaching. The roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the heavily scented flower lies pristinely above the water, basking in the sunlight. This pattern of growth signifies the progress of the soul from the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of experience, and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment. 

Nitin Kumar in “Exotic India Arts” 

Brothel-Hopping

It was April 1967. I had been in-country for eight months, and I had had only a single day pass into An Khe, and no other free time or R and R leave. But my turn had come, and before I knew it I was on a C-130 transport bound for Cam Ranh Bay where I checked into a brand new barracks and spent my first night in Vietnam sleeping inside a real building.  The following morning I was on an airplane bound for Singapore.

Like most guys heading out to an exotic Asian port-of-call for R and R, I had planned meticulously how I would satisfy my deepest cravings as soon as I hit Singapore. These were not what you might think. I was tired by the time I finally checked into my hotel, so I called and asked if there were 24-hour room service. Assured that there was, I placed an order and requested a wake-up call—for 3:00 a.m.  At 3 in the morning I was awakened by front desk. Within minutes there was a knock at my door. I tipped the waiter generously and, after he left, I sat in bed and nearly cried with joy as I ate my steak, drank a tall glass of fresh milk, and, for dessert, sipped a double Chivas Regal on the rocks. I was in the lap of luxury. All my needs were fulfilled. Well, maybe not all.

The following evening I took up with a rowdy crew of Royal Australian Air Force fellows who invited me to join them in their favorite Singapore sport: brothel-hopping! The idea of this game, or so they told me, was to have fun, drink and eat well, get some attention from some pretty women, and do it all for no more than the cost of a few shared cab fares. Well, I was very low on funds, so a night of cheap entertainment sounded like just the right thing to do.

We met at our arranged rendezvous—there were four of us—and began by hailing a cab. One of the RAAF guys—our self-designated “fearless leader”—asked the driver to take us to the “best brothel in town,” and off we went. Now, in Singapore in 1967 (as in 1867 and, no doubt, 1767 as well), a cabby hauling a load of foreign soldiers or sailors to a brothel was simply all in a day’s work. I was feeling kind of nervous, however. This was not something I was experienced at, and I really didn’t know what to expect. My newfound friends had not told me precisely what it was we were about to do.

We arrived at our destination, disembarking in the circular driveway of an elaborate Colonial mansion. At the door we were met by two Chinese “gentlemen.” They were well-dressed, well-mannered, and very, well, large.  Our fearless leader asked our cabby to wait and gave him a large tip to encourage him to do so.

We were ushered inside by a middle-aged woman dressed in exquisite Chinese high-fashion silk brocade. We were led to a lavish Victorian parlor room with dimmed lighting and plush furnishings. As we each took up a place on the overstuffed chair or settee of our choice, a beautiful young woman appeared and asked us if we would care for some refreshment. In minutes we each clutched a cocktail or a large glass of fine whiskey as a couple more beautiful young women arrived bearing plates of delicious Chinese appetizers: dumplings and shrimps and things I could not identify. All delicious.

And then it was time for the “main course.” One by one the working women appeared. Scantily dressed, mostly in negligees and harem gowns and filmy lingerie. They circulated around us like gentle sharks around fidgety prey. They would touch each of us as they passed and then, relying on whatever radar their professional experience had instilled in them, they zeroed in on us and took up places alongside us. More beverages were delivered, along with plates of fine sweets and pastries, both Asian and European types.

The sex workers were clearly experts at their trade. They were mostly Chinese women but there were also exotic racial blends. Singapore was famous as a world crossroads of cultures with beautiful women carrying mixed heritages of beauty from the Asian, African, and European continents. Being neither intimidating nor shy they knew how and where to touch, stroke, glance, nudge, and smile. They could not be, and would not be, ignored. After all, they were the reason we were there, weren’t they?

Apparently not. As one very appealing young lady’s fingers began to dance precariously close to my vulnerabilities—did I mention I had been in the jungle for the last 8 months?—Fearless Leader stood up abruptly and announced, “These women are too old and ugly. Let’s go find a better brothel!” On cue the other RAAF chaps jumped to their feet. It took me a minute to realize I was about to be abandoned, then I, too, leapt up, and quickly followed the crowd out the front door. Our cabby was waiting. Thank Heaven for that, because the “doormen” who had so politely greeted us were looking quite unfriendly as we jumped into the taxi and drove off.

Once in the cab, Fearless Leader told the cabby that the women were below our standards, and hoped that he could recommend a higher-class place for us to try out. Now I was beginning to understand the essence of “brothel-hopping.” As promised, we were doing this to get free drinks, free food, lots of attention from some beautiful women, and to spend nothing more than cab fare. The “main course” was not on the menu. We were in it for the appetizers! Well, I thought, that’s a neat game. But I couldn’t get the ugly looks of the guards from that last brothel out of my mind. This was also about danger and adventure, and I had plenty of that back where I was coming from. I was beginning to have some doubts about “brothel-hopping!”

Our next stop was a much less fancy building on the exterior—almost a retail establishment by the looks of it. At the door, once again, there stood two large gents. Our cabby greeted them as old friends or relatives. And, once again, a madam arrived at the door to escort us to the inner sanctum. The arrangements here were a bit different. The large room we entered was laid out like an old British men’s club. There were several other customers already present. Large tables were scattered around, each surrounded by big chairs and a scantily clad lady or two. There was a stairway ascending to a second-floor balcony, and there were working ladies standing along the entire length of the stairs, each showing her best selling points.

We were escorted to a table near the stairway. Our table was already set with trays of food, glasses, pitchers of water, and fine linens. Within minutes beverages began to appear. Once again we ate, we drank, and we enjoyed the focused attention of the establishment’s employees. And, once again I was caught offguard—perhaps because I was working on my fourth glass of scotch—when Fearless Leader announced loudly that this was a “second-class whorehouse” and that he’d “be damned to spend even ten cents for one of these skags.” The RAAF chaps were instantly on their feet and heading toward the door.

I did my best to catch up with them, and as I came out the front door, it was evident that our cabby and the door guards had enlisted some friends There were four mean looking gents standing between us and the cab. The largest one stepped right up to Fearless Leader and said, “Perhaps you need a little more time to select one of our ladies. Surely at least one of you has found a companion for this evening?”

“Yes,” I shouted quickly, “I have!” The RAAF guys stood frozen in their spot beside the taxi. They were very quiet and very nervous. At that moment the “madam” took my arm in hers and tugged me gently back toward the club. The cabby opened the door and my “friends” climbed in and drove away. I never saw them again. Back inside I was led back to the table where we had been sitting. In a few minutes, I was again accompanied by the woman who had been gaining my full attention just at the time we were interrupted by Fearless Leader’s signal to abandon ship. And with her came Madame Madam! Now it was all about negotiations and business terms. My new friend—her name was Mei—would accompany me to my motel and stay the night. The madam would provide us with a private taxi for the ride home. The driver was another very large Chinese gentlemen.

This was all new to me. “Mei” is a very common name and nickname for young Chinese girls. It means “Flower.” But my escort for the evening was not a young girl. I suspected she was at least ten years my senior. She was attractive in a worldly way, but mostly, fortunately for me, she was a consummate professional. She knew what we were going to do with the rest of our night. I had no idea.

Just Sit!

When we arrived at my motel room, Mei began immediately to undress. It was no strip-tease, just an economy of motions needed to transform from dressed to undressed—totally undressed—in about a minute. I was completely mesmerized by the mature, post-child-bearing, but taut fit body of this woman. She stood there a moment and let me just look. She was completely naked but for a simple necklace chain with a small carved stone figurine around her neck. She then turned her attention to me. Somebody had to. I was standing there like a dummy not knowing where to begin. She began by unbuttoning my top shirt buttons, but I told her I could do the rest. Soon I was stripped to my skivvies, but she quickly indicated I would have no need for those, and off they came.

Mei took my hand and led me straight to the bathroom where she turned on the shower, adjusted the temperature, and ushered me in. She proceeded to lather up a wash cloth with a bar of soap and then to wash me thoroughly from head to foot. Now don’t go imagining that this was some sort of sensuous foreplay meant to get me ready for what was to come. Not at all. It was simply washing. She then washed herself equally thoroughly. We dried ourselves off and proceeded to the bed.

Mei did not speak much English, and I didn’t then speak any of the Chinese languages. Nonetheless we found we could communicate easily enough with gestures and a few shared words. Still, it took me quite a while to figure out just what she was getting at as she instructed me as well as she could to assume a certain position. It was not a position I had ever been in before, though I did seem to recall seeing something similar in an illustrated edition of the infamous Kama Sutra.

Once I managed to find my place, we, well, we had sex. Sounds kind of clinical, I suppose, but it wasn’t. Nor was it any of those earthy, passionate, grunty-steamy, monosyllabic euphemisms we often use for sex. And it certainly wasn’t “making love.” What it was was competent, appropriate, enjoyable, relaxing, and—I think I mentioned that Mei was a consummate professional. Clearly, she knew her business.

As I felt myself beginning to drift off, still entwined with this stranger’s body, Mei expertly disengaged herself and popped to her feet. She extended her hand, motioned me out of bed, and, once more, led us off together to the shower for another thorough cleansing. After we had dried ourselves again, Mei walked back out to the bed, removed two pillows, and plopped them side-by side on the floor. She then walked back to the bathroom and re-emerged with two small face towels. She walked over to one of the pillows, and in an amazingly fluid motion, dropped down into a seated position on one of the pillows, folding her legs into a sort of pretzel that I knew was often called “the full lotus.”

She gestured to the pillow beside her and said “You sit here.” With much less grace I took a seat, awkwardly crossing my legs, knees pointing skyward. She chuckled at me and helped me rearrange my legs into what I many years later learned is called “the adepts pose.”  This wasn’t completely novel to me. I had some familiarity with Asian religions partly through my youthful fascination with the “Beatniks.” I had read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and much of Ginsberg’s poetry. I had become somewhat fascinated with Asian arts and culture, and, in preparing for coming to Vietnam, one of the books I had read was Buddhism by Christmas Humphries. I had already pegged the little female figurine on Mei’s necklace as a Buddhist icon. Apparently Mei wanted to practice her meditation, much as American Christians might pray before going to sleep. I was willing to learn something new, and I figured I would only be in my uncomfortable position for a matter of minutes.

Mei instructed me to place the tip of my tongue against the back of my upper incisors and to relax my mouth in an opened position. She then placed the small face towels on each of our laps. At first I thought this was to cover up our private parts as a gesture of modest respect for the meditation, but that wasn’t it. The tongue-on-the-teeth thing meant that once engaged in meditation, there was a pronounced tendency to drool! The little towels caught the flow. She placed my hands, palms up, on my knees, fingers gently curled, and said, “Just sit!” Within minutes I was fidgeting. “Just sit,” she reminded me.

After a while I felt my body begin to relax. I felt more relaxed than I had since arriving in Vietnam. But my mind was full of thoughts and questions. I was thinking about my wife and baby, wondering if I should feel guilty sitting here naked on the floor next to a prostitute. I decided I shouldn’t. I was pretty sure Holly would have understood. I turned to take a better look at Mei. She seemed to be totally lost in her own mind, or soul, or wherever it was someone goes when they do whatever it was she was doing.

“Just sit!” Her eyes were half closed and she did not move, but she was well aware that I was not simply “sitting.” I tried, once again, to return to that relaxed state. And then it was morning.

“What the heck?” I thought, and might have muttered. Suddenly I was aware that daylight was streaming through the windows and Mei and I were still sitting on pillows on the floor. We had been there all night. I had slept that way, but Mei appeared just as she had so many hours ago. Her eyes were half open, attentive. She knew I was awake and, without comment she stood straight up and reached her hand to me. I tried to stand, but my legs were nearly frozen in place. Mei was laughing at me. Eventually I got my legs moving and she pulled me up to my feet.

Without another word or gesture, this new acquaintance and mentor led me straight to the bed, arranged me into another interesting position, and, once again, we had sex. This time was even better. Still not love-making, but, perhaps, friend-making. And when we were finished we, once again, immediately trotted off to the shower.

We dressed and Mei gathered up the small bag she had brought along. I paid her the remainder of what we had agreed on and a decent tip, and then asked her if she would allow me to buy her breakfast. She simply shook her head to say “No.”

Then she astonished me. She leaned forward and kissed me warmly on my cheek and swiftly and without comment placed her necklace with the small stone figure around my neck. As I was gazing at it and wondering what the heck this was all about, Mei simply said “Bye-bye,” and walked out the door and out of my life.

I wore Mei’s necklace for the next couple months around my neck along with my dog tags.  When I came back home from Vietnam I continued to wear that necklace. I discovered eventually that the figure was Kuan-Yin, the Buddhist bodhisattva that symbolized compassion. Kuan-Yin is a feminized avatar of the  Indian Buddhist saint Avalokiteshvara. In China and Southeast Asia Kuan-Yin plays a role much like that of the Mother Mary in Catholicism, and I can remember one temple in Vietnam with idols of Mary and Kuan-yin flanking the entrance door. Kuan-Yin is a protecting spirit, and I felt protected by Mei’s kind act for the rest of my tour of duty.

In fact, when I returned to my company from Singapore, I had to report to the Sergeant Major who informed me that I was being transferred. No longer would I be serving with a combat engineer platoon. Instead, I was to be acting company clerk for two or three weeks, and then I was to move up to 70th Engineer battalion headquarters. There I would serve out the last three months of my Vietnam year as a combat matériel supply clerk for the S4 officer.

Somewhere along the line I lost the prized necklace Mei had given me. I believe that the chain simply broke and it slipped away somewhere, perhaps to be found by a passer-by.

Postscript: I came home from Vietnam in the late summer of 1967. Within two years I began having problems with anxiety and panic attacks. I soon began trying to control my problems by finding that very relaxed state I had experienced sitting cross-legged on the floor next to Mei. By 1970 I had begun to consider myself a sort of Buddhist, and for the next six years I studied books on the subject and learned a variety of techniques to help my meditation. On several occasions, after returning to college to complete my education, two of my professors routinely took me with them on trips to visit various Buddhist temples and monasteries in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. I toyed with the idea of joining a monastery, but was determined to finish my college education in Asian Studies. I did spend several evenings in two different Buddhist temples—one of the Therevada school and one of the Mahayana school—sitting with monks in meditation. I remember the first time I joined the monks at the Mahayana temple. The Japanese monk in charge of the evening’s meditation session pointed me to a place on a bench with others already seated. He was unsure as to what my experience might have been in doing meditation. He told me to just sit as relaxed as I could, with my eyes half closed, and my mind clear and tranquil. He finished his quick lesson by repeating, “Just sit!”