Vung Tau Surfer South China Sea, Vung Tau 1970

Vung Tau Beach

You could feel the midday sun beginning to burn as we sat astride our boards outside the line of breakers in the warm, sparkling surf. Wave out the back! Time for action, up on the board, break left, duck under the curl, enjoy the exhilarating acceleration and hiss as we carve up the wave like a hot knife through butter. The South China Sea, Vung Tau, 1970.

Image2.jpgAs typical 21 year-old Aussie lieutenants, Chris and I were just 12 months out of the harsh regime of military college, posted to a boring supply unit near the seaside town of Vung Tau. It was formerly the French colonial resort town of Cap St Jacques and not much happened here because we surmised that the Viet Cong used it for R & R.

Time passed incredibly slowly during the six and a half days a week of work and we drank too much at night, both to relieve the boredom and to fall sleep in the unaccustomed heat and humidity. There was the opportunity to go to Vung Tau in the evening, but we were too slack to take advantage of it, and besides we liked to keep it for special occasions… like Sundays.

These were occasions to look forward to, and being officers we had to have a plan. It went something like this:

Image3.jpg1. Go to the Jade steam bath, wash away the week’s grime, have a leisurely massage and chat with the friendly young masseuse and mitigate the need to do something stupid later on – time allocated 90 minutes.

2. Go to a bar, drink “ba mi ba” with ice blocks, beat the bar girls at tic-tac-toe – time allocated 2 hours. We never did beat them because the more you drank, the more courageous you got, the bigger the bet and the less chance you had of beating them. The need for survival made them focus and concentrate.

3. Go to the Pacific Officers’ Club, have an evening meal, become very articulate and chatty and have a competition to annoy the most senior American officer and get thrown out. Time allocated, variable.

4. Repeat step two.

5. Return to base by 2200 hours curfew.

One Sunday it was Chris’ birthday and things were proceeding to plan rather well. Lan was free at the Jade and was able to care for to my week’s woes with her tender touch. Being suitably at peace with the world, we managed to jam in about eight “ba mi ba’s” before dinner and succeeded in annoying a bird colonel at the George by souveniring his hat and fleeing into the darkness.

The plan called for a repeat of step two, but we were bored with the bars on the main drag and decided to look for something different in the back street. So there we were, full as a fat lady’s sock, incredibly charming, with an overabundance of hilarity, bonhomie and repartee. Our ears led us to a new bar in an unfamiliar part of town, blues music blaring, attractive bar girls at the door.

Chris walked in with me behind him, breasted the bar and ordered two “ba mi ba’s”. The place became incredibly quiet as the music stopped with the harsh rip of someone roughly pulling the tone arm across the record. Around 60 pairs of hostile eyes focused on the two dudes at the bar.

If I am ever going to die, I know what the feeling’s like. Your life does flash before your eyes and you feel an incredible sense of calm before the inevitable end. However I sensed that there was going to be a great deal of pain before I got to that end.

Why were they looking at us? Descriptions will give you a clue. Chris had red hair and freckles, I am vaguely Spanish, and they were – incredibly African. We were in more shit than a Da Nang duck. They were having an enjoyable segregated time, and here were these two honkies stepping in on their turf.

We knew they weren’t going to respond well to, “Oops, sorry, please continue to enjoy yourselves, gentlemen, and excuse us for our incredible lapse into stupidity. We really must go”. So, by the intuition born of a near death situation, we decided to tough it out.
Chris turned round to what looked like Mohammed Ali’s bigger brother and said, in his broadest Aussie accent;

“How’ya goin’ mate, cheers”, raising his beer in a salute.

Brother-of-Ali looked at him as if he were an incredible stupid child who had just picked a fight, but out of an idle sense of curiosity and the knowledge that there was no need to foreshorten the killing process looked at him with quizzical, furrowed brows and asked:

“You know where you are man?”

“Yeah, Vung Tau buddy, wanna beer?”

“No I do not want a beer. Do you notice anything different about this bar?” he asked in a four-ball voice full of menace.

“Yeah it’s real nice compared with some of the shit holes in the main street.”

At this stage I thought Brother-of-Ali’s eyes were going to leap out of their sockets. The veins in his neck looked like thick hoochie cord, his ham-like fists clenched and unclenched and it took all his self-control to prevent himself from exploding into an apoplectic paroxysm of murderous outrage. A scowling crowd hung around the edges, sensing that there might be some action.

Enunciating his words one by one, he spoke in a similar manner of a father to a son who had just taken his new car without permission and crashed it:

“Do-you-notice-anything-different-about-the-people-in-this-bar?”

“Oh yeah,” Chris said, his face lighting up with a smile of discovery, ” you guys are black, let me buy yez all a beer.”

This confused Brother-of-Ali, because he probably expected something like begging for life, but he responded in the same voice as before:

“And-what-do-you-think-about-black-people?”

“Black, white, dagoes, chinks, wogs they’re all the same to us in Australia, mate. We’re a democracy and we’re proud to fight alongside blokes like you to defend freedom. Here’s to freedom!” he shouted, raising his can.

This really confused everybody, including me, and begrudgingly, the crowd raised their drinks and toasted freedom.

At this stage the mamasan, sensing the tension had broken, put the music back on and the crowd became curious about the two Aussie honkies, asking all sorts of questions about Australia, plying us with beer and bourbon and being our best friends.

“Shee-yit, you Aussies are sure crazy.”

At an appropriate time, i.e. when we discovered we had wobbly boots on, we left. At another appropriate time, 50 yards down the road, we burst out laughing and gave praise that we had passed through the valley of the shadow of death and had indeed been delivered from evil. We congratulated ourselves on being so smart. Unfortunately, this deviation from the plan (repeat step 2) led us to discover that it was now 2200 hours, and we were out after curfew. So we hopped in a taxi and headed back to the base that was about five kilometers away.

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We arrived at 2220 hours and as we were late, the base sentries arrested us and took us to the military prison on the base. Good looks and repartee had no effect on these guys, who could barely suppress their evil glee at having arrested a couple of officers, who had in their possession a US Colonel’s cap.

They eventually let us go and returning to our lines, we decided that the best thing to do was to drink some beer before going to bed. We reflected on the gravity of our predicament and the beer solution was that the only way to avoid punishment was to kill our company commander. We fell about laughing and came to the conclusion that this was not a sensible option.

Image5.jpgNext day the company commander marched us into his office. We decided to apply the Streaker’s Defence – “It seemed like a good idea at the time”. This didn’t work and the Major began to rant and rave, and from some angles looked like Brother-of-Ali, except that he was whiter and angrier.

“Theft, out after curfew, disgraceful conduct by career officers, what sort of example is this to the soldiers, if I wasn’t short staffed I’d send you home on the next Herc, field demotion to second lieutenant, get out of my office while I consider my options.”

Last night’s bravado seemed a long way away as we considered our fates and the ignominy of demotion. In the end he came up with a brilliant scheme. We were both ordered to perform two weeks duty officer, on alternate nights, which meant that we wouldn’t be able to go out with each other for a month. This seemed like a catastrophe because being duty officer was a real bummer, policing leave passes and making sure the troops took condoms with them, lighting the officers’ shower in the morning, checking the trip flares on the wire, inspecting the soldiers’ meals, kicking them out of the boozer at 2200 hours, inspecting the sentry post during the night, and tending to the usual AWOL, assaults, insubordination, drunkenness and sick parades and other disgraceful conduct.

God works in mysterious ways.

The day after our punishment, a Task Force edict came out that curfew was now 2230 hours, but this didn’t change the outlook of the Major, who I noticed now had an interesting souvenir in his office (the cap). I thought that this was a particularly rough deal, and a singularly unfair act from the Almighty. Then another Task force edict came out the next day. If you were on duty, you didn’t have to start work until 1000 hours the following day.

The South China Sea was cool and refreshing at that time of morning and you had the waves all to yourself. Bonus!

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