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Sunday, 26 September 2010

Memories of Vietnam: parts 44,45,46: The Outsider, The Two Colonels, Goodbye van Kiep


The Outsider

The Outsider, or the stranger or the foreigner. Whatever term Camus was expressing applied to me. One who did not fit in. I had been in the country for more than two years, but I was still a resident of the Bahamas, which was my base and I considered my home.

I had never felt so much a foreigner than during the first Tet, the Chinese or Vietnamese New Year. This had been a great holiday amongst the Vietnamese before their various wars, often lasting weeks amongst the well off. Even during the war it was a three day festival with a general easing of curfews. A great family get together where all outsiders were excluded. I had heard a lot about it and expected much and then what. Imagine walking along a snow encrusted road in Europe or the States, parties and family reunions going on in every house but you who are the stranger and have no friends, go back to a lonely hotel where not even the bar is open.

I had made some friends though, my personal relationships, although somewhat tempestuous at times, had progressed. I had become acclimatised. I enjoyed the food, the work, and life in general but was still largely unmoved by the suffering of the people. Indeed I think I was going through a period of extreme callousness where my emotions had been switched off.

There was an incident many years later which might best express it. It was at the Cirque Sportif Club in Saigon. I was reading my newspaper, perhaps having a drink and smoking my pipe, behaving as any French or British member of a colony’s elite might have been doing. I heard a noise and looked around and saw a waiter had collapsed unconscious on the floor. I calmly went back to reading my paper as if it was not my affair and did not even raise an eyebrow. This was a complete detachment from others suffering. Earlier, when I had not been in the country a few months I had been quite willing to go and help the victims of some road accident or Viet Cong mine if you remember from one of my earlier stories. I had become very hardened.


The Two Colonels

I have mentioned earlier that we had two colonels living in the camp. One was the adviser to Provincial Headquarters, and the other ran the US camp at Van Kiep. We were under the latter. The provincial adviser was old army and I doubt if I said two words to him the whole time I was there. He hated the camp commander who was a member of one of America's minorities. I found him very decent and got on very well with him. He only used his authority on me once when after some row with my girl friend in Vung Tau I had ridden a motor scooter up to the base at about ten o'clock in the evening. I was none too sober and he wouldn't let me drive back to Vung Tau at midnight.

What usually happened was life in a small camp depended on the colonel's tastes. If the colonel drank everybody drank, if the colonel didn't drink, nobody did. If the colonel required everybody to use the rifle range everybody did. I'm sure I became a much better shot there than I ever did in the army. We certainly had a much wider choice of weapons to choose from.

Anyway there was an incident involving our colonel, his sergeant, who belonged to yet another minority, and two female Vietnamese soldiers. The colonel who was the provincial adviser broke our colonel, and I believe destroyed his career, who was replaced by another old army colonel.


Goodbye Van Kiep

At about the time the new colonel arrived there were some US army engineers doing some construction work on the American compound. They were very undisciplined and amongst other things either didn't shave or tried to grow beards. The new US colonel blamed this on my beard giving a bad example. He banned me from the mess. I had been on the base for over two years and he only two weeks.

I was by this time rather tired. I had only had one proper weeks leave and needed a breath of fresh air. I could probably have carried on quite well without the messing facilities but we had always had very good relations with the army at the camp but were in no way subject to their dress code. I had always considered myself very correctly dressed, always in clean pressed khaki drills when I came on or off duty, plus my beret or bush hat. So I said good bye to Van Kiep never to set foot there again. When a year later I was ordered back I refused and went to Tay Ninh instead.

I went to Saigon and became one of those odd bods who hung around the office for some time before deciding to leave the country on long leave.

During this time the new colonel killed himself whilst driving down the road to Vung Tau at night without lights at high speed and slammed into a broken down lorry. Rather a waste to get killed that way when he could have been honourably killed in battle.

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