View more books by Bruce Brown: A Long Way From Paradise, Violence of Action, If You Think Somebody's Out to Get You

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$29.95 / Hardcover (DJ)
ISBN: 9781457512384
208 pages
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Excerpt from the Book

BACK WHEN I graduated from high school parents didn’t gift you with trips to Europe; instead, they asked you how soon your summer job started. Therefore, my first trip overseas was to exotic Saigon, a war zone. I’d graduated from Long Beach State the year before with a bachelor’s in journalism. With the “experience” of working for my collage paper and one year with a small local newspaper in Orange County I had decided to make my bones as a war correspondent. Armed with the promise from a couple of larger papers to “look at” anything I sent back and with a letter of introduction from my local paper, I paid way own way to Vietnam. Would I have gone if I had known then what I know now? Doubtful. I’d been in country a whole four months and written my first “big story” when forces beyond my control caused my life to make a radical change.

Their arrival in the dimly lit bar was announced by a bright shaft of sunlight and a cacophony of street noise that came through the door with them. Like nuns, they traveled in pairs. Like hookers, they went by street names. Like both nuns and hookers, they were easily recognized for what they were. As soon as Salt and Pepper entered the smoky bar, I knew what they were. Salt looked like he had stepped out of a ’30s movie about European soldiers of fortune in Asia. He wore a straw planter’s hat with a wide purple band along with a rumpled white linen suit over a wrinkled white cotton shirt that was open at the collar. Pepper was a bit more fashion forward. He had chosen the unofficial uniform of the CIA in Vietnam: an unadorned black baseball cap, a rayon aloha shirt, and faded jeans bloused into jungle boots. Following strict CIA doctrine, both hid their eyes behind Ray-Bans. Salt’s 9mm Browning automatic—they all carried Browning 9s—would be in a shoulder holster rig. Pepper’s would be tucked in his waistband at the small of his back under the hideous shirt. Both were drenched even though they carried umbrellas; it was late October, and the wet monsoon was trailing off, but they’d been caught in the predictable noon “shower,” a drenching storm in any other latitude.

They weren’t a complete surprise; for the last two days, I’d been expecting someone to come looking for me. I’d anticipated one of Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge’s buttoneddown State Department types from the embassy’s fourth floor. Instead, I got a pair of CIA Chief Of Station William Colby’s spooks from the basement. State Department or CIA, anybody looking for me, would know I spent more time in Paul’s smoky bar-bordello-casino than my hot cramped office/apartment. Like many expats, I had become a regular, if not quite a habituate, sitting at a small table near the rear. The location gave me a great view of everything that happened in the main room while I sipped my Ba Muoi Ba and nibbled at the shrimp-flavored rice puffs the waitress brought with the tepid rice beer.

Located on Nguyen Hue Blvd. between the Century Palace Hotel and the riverfront, Paul’s was an institution in Saigon. After the disastrous fire that had nearly destroyed the city at the turn of the century, the ruling French had rebuilt Saigon in the image of their beloved capital. It had become the Paris of the Orient. The original Paul, a Belgian diplomat who chose to stay in the warmth of Indochina rather than return to his wife and the chill of northern Europe, had created a true bistro. His second wife, a Cambodian, waited tables while his mother-in-law cooked French food with a local flair. The present “Paul” was said to be either an opium warlord in Lom Sak or a Thai police colonel in Bangkok. My money was on a well-connected general of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam—the ARVN for short—or his wife or mistress.

From behind their shades, Salt and Pepper’s eyes swept the mostly European crowd. I felt their eyes pass over me without any reaction. Apparently satisfied, the men went to the bar. While they took stools, I sipped my lukewarm Ba Muoi Ba and shifted my eyes back to the entertainment. Maybe they hadn’t come for me; maybe it would be a drone from State after all.

From a far corner, nearly lost in the fog of smoke, a large, garish jukebox blasted “The Twist.” The song might have been three years old in the States, but it had become the unofficial anthem of Saigon strippers. Actively ignoring the beat, the hipless, breastless Chinese girl working the tiny raised stage dropped to her hands and knees. With exaggerated catlike movements, she approached a pair of Australian liquor salesmen.

The street door opened again, admitting another harsh shaft of light, which turned the smoke-thick air to silver fog. Once more, traffic noise nearly drowned out Chubby Checker. Two White Mice—the ubiquitous National Police—stood there in their white uniforms and black Sam Browne belts. As the door swung closed, every eye in the place turned to the new pair. Conversations died, and even the stripper slowed her rhythm. Only Mr. Checker’s insistence that we “twist again like we did last summer” failed to respond to the implied threat. They were probably there just to collect the protection money from; the bar, mamasan, German forger selling identity papers three tables over and the gamblers in the back room, but still they made the crowd nervous. Everyone in the place was guilty of something, or vulnerable to a frame. The White Mice set up shop at a table against the wall, removing their hats and putting them upside down to collect their due. A waitress hurried over with their complimentary Pernod.