R & R
It was January or February 1967. My name came up for Rest and Relaxation (R&R) leave. I had chosen Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. We took a plane from our base at Dau Tieng to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport. From there we were jetted to Bangkok.
Three of us from the battalion knew each other and decided to stick together. Michael Francis (Hugh) Smith a Brit and a non-citizen like me, Jim a tall skinny guy from New Jersey, and I made the third in this trio. Hugh was short in stature; I was a little taller and NJ Jim about six feet.
Upon arrival in Bangkok we were taken to a room in the airport and told what to expect.
“OK guys, I know you must be excited to be here and away from the bush. Please pay attention to some rules that will make your stay safer and more enjoyable. The country of Thailand has built a complete city for this purpose. You will be staying in one of the hotels there.”
“Everything is brand new and built for you guys. Prices are very reasonable, an individual room with a bathroom with twenty four-hour room service is eleven dollars per night. The hotel also has a small bar, a restaurant and phone service for you to call home. Long distance is not included in your room rate.”
“The city has several clubs for you to enjoy. In the bars you will meet dates that have been health-tested. You should ask for their health booklet and make sure the last test was less than three days ago. At the clubs you will find these females. The protocol is for you to ask one to dance or to have a drink. They actually don’t drink liquor, but you will be charged as if they did. If they accept and you two are comfortable, they will stay with you for twenty-four hours. The fee for their companionship is eleven dollars. Don’t screw it up for the rest, don’t pay more than the eleven dollars.”
“We recommend that you take your date when you go sightseeing. They will help you do your shopping and protect you from larcenous merchants. Most people stick with one girl for the three days they are here.”
“I would also like to warn you that homosexuality is accepted in this country. There are several areas of the city where cross-dressing is common. If you go into the city, make sure the crotch you grab is the one you expected.”
This last remark elicited several laughs.
As choreographed, we were driven to our hotel, showered, ate dinner and then took a taxi to one of the clubs. Soon all three of us had a date and after having a few drinks we went back to the hotel. As I recall, Hugh’s date was quite striking. His self-assurance and appearance made him a favorite with the ladies.
After a night of doing things that we only dreamt in the jungle, we met for breakfast. We all had a big smile on our faces. After breakfast our dates asked if they could go back to the rooms and fix themselves up. We said fine and stayed at the restaurant drinking coffee.
At this time, we noticed that several rough looking characters had taken the table next to us. They looked Anglo and several showed tattoos, not common then. They also appeared to still be drunk from the previous evening. We realized from their accent that they were Australian. Australia was one of the few countries that had sent units to the Vietnam war. Rumor had it that the “volunteers” had been given the choice of going to Nam or jail for some crime they had committed.
We greeted the Aussies and they only nodded to us. Soon we could hear them talking to each other.
Aussie 1, “I hate fucking Porto Ricans. Back home we beat the hell out of them.”
Aussie 2, “I don’t know why they don’t stay where they belong. We even have to find them here.”
Aussie 3, “Hey, easy, they are allies.”
Since I was the only Latino in the room, the performance was directed at me. However, I couldn’t tell whether it was just a test or whether they were ready to beat the hell out of me.
I stood up and fixing my stare on Aussie 3, walked to their table. They looked at me with an expectant smile in their faces as I said: “I always wanted to meet the famous Aussie troops. We hear that you guys are ferocious fighters and I want to shake your hands.” I was surprised that I was able to spill out all this without breaking up.
I went around the table shaking hands. One of them asked me, “Are you from Puerto Rico?”
“Close, I am also from the Greater Caribbean, I am from Colombia.”
Aussie 1, asked, “Do you and your friends want to join us and have a drink?”
I accepted for them and as NJ Jim and Hugh went around the table, one of the Aussies remarked, “Not only a Porto Rican, but also a fucken’ Brit.” We all laughed.
After having a drink with the Aussies, we got ready to go on a restaurant tour. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was hooked the moment I smelled the ginger, lemon grass and other spices when entering the first restaurant on the tour. I really liked the Thai food there and have been a fan ever since.
When it was time to go back to Nam, we had to forcibly get Hugh out of his room. He wanted to stay in Thailand with his date, he told us he was really in love. He left crying like a baby.
On March 18, 1967, Hugh was killed by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) that pierced the side of his armored personnel carrier. It went through him and exploded, killing one more and wounding several others. Thinking back, we should have paid attention to Hugh and left him in Bangkok.