Thursday, June 17, 2010

Vietnam 1964 - Part VI

Williams, a Navy Second-Class Electronics Technician and my roommate, talked constantly. Fortunately, I didn't have to spend all day with him and he was frequently gone in the evening, except when Jeffrey lived with us. Williams worked at the Headquarters Message Center and I believe he had a favorite girl in a favorite bar that kept him busy, and occasionally broke. He also shacked up with her for about two months, when I didn't see him at all, until, according to him, he was ordered to move back to the hotel because he was becoming a security risk. He had a high security clearance and he would lose it if he fraternized with Vietnamese women to the point of living with them. I thought she kicked him out because of his constant prattle, although I had no idea what he could possibly be talking to her constantly about since they spoke different languages. Except for that period, he seemed to be around the hotel more when he had no or very little money. I could barely tolerate being around him. I don't think I ever told him to "shut up," but I came close many times. And, Katie bar the doors if I said something he didn't agree with or that he thought he knew more about than I did. I would hear about it for hours. Sundan felt the same as I did, but he closed the door between our rooms so he didn't have to hear him talk. I couldn't do that.

One Sunday afternoon, Sundan and I decided to walk down Le Lai Boulevard to the Central Market. Williams invited himself to go along. I'm sure that I cringed, and Sundan probably did too, but neither of us were impolite enough to tell him that we didn't want him with us. So, we were trapped into spending what I thought would be no more than an hour with Williams. It turned out to be several hours on that day, and the start of a bigger problem, although not long lasting, with him. Going to the market with Williams was like going shopping with your mother, sister or wife. He spent long minutes at each stall, touching everything, looking at and haggling over prices for things he had no intention of buying. Sundan and I saw everything we needed to see in a glance and we were ready to move on, but not Williams. Sundan and I waited and waited.

The Central Market, the largest red-roofed building in this map, was more of an open air market back then. It  was a hodge-podge of stalls covered with canvas or tin along open-air isles. The first thing I noticed was the smell, that same overpowering smell that I noticed in my first few hours in Saigon. It overpowered the smell of the market's open drains and gutters that sometimes came wafting through. The smell was stronger around marinated meat, so on that day I learned that the strongest smell in Saigon was associated with the Vietnamese diet and their sweat. It didn't take me long to spot the marinade sauce in jars and learn its name, Nuac Mam, made with fermented fish oil. The jars were sealed with strips of bamboo tied tightly around the rim, not tin lids like we used in those days, so I could smell the sauce through the bamboo lid. I was surprised to learn that a sauce would cause an entire city to smell like it does. I experienced a similar phenomena when visiting South Korea where garlic is in everything they eat and sweat and garlic odor permeates the air. I eventually developed a taste for Asian food, including Nuac Mam, but it took awhile getting it passed my nose. I still prefer the more potent Vietnamese Nuac Mam to the Americanized Nuac Mam used in Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. today. But, on that day, the market was packed with sweaty people and, frankly, they stank of it.

The food stands were pictures that I'd seen in National Geographic brought to life. Plucked chickens and ducks and other skinned animals the size of house cats and perhaps squirrels were hanging on strings, pigs' heads in a pans, slabs of beef and dried and smoked meat on trays and flies buzzing everywhere. Sea food stalls had squid, octopus, shark, and the ugliest fish I'd ever seen and a whole array of unappetizing sea urchins, snails and other sea creatures. There was a stall to buy snake meat, alive or already skinned, and snake skins. The guy pointed to me then to a live cobra in a cage and made an eating motion that I understood as him asking if I wanted to buy the cobra to eat. I'd have to kill it and skin it, of course. No thanks, I waved with my hands to show that I wasn't interested. There was a smoke shop that sold smoking pipes of all sizes and shapes, including water pipes with long rubber tubes for drawing the smoke, as well as Lucky Strikes, Camels and Marlboro cigarettes that were probably stolen from the Khanh Hoi Port. Williams had to touch the merchandise, of course, and picked up several pipes to look at and haggle prices over, but he didn't buy any. But, he did talk for what seemed like fifteen minutes on how to smoke hashish with water pipes. "How do you know?" I ask him. I don't recall that he answered my question. I never saw him use drugs in the hotel, but I suspected that he did outside of the hotel. He sometimes seemed to be under the influence of something other than beer or liquor. Ski, an Army Military Police Spec-Five and our fourth roommate and who was about as gung-ho as anyone I knew, would have turned him in or arrested him if he caught him.

Anything that fit in a stall and could be sold was sold in the Central Market and we didn't make it out without buying something. Williams took an interest in a shop that sold live monkeys and ferrets and, of course, he had to "hold one." So, the guy harnessed a monkey, similar to this one that are now rare and endangered, and let Williams hold him. Then he took a ferret out of its cage, snapped a leash on it and handed it to Williams. Then Williams picked up the monkey again. Back and forth for fifteen minutes or so, all the while talking about how to care for a monkey (there didn't seem to be anything Williams didn't know - just ask him), until I was growing more impatient than I already was. Thinking that I saw where Williams was headed, I complained first. Something along the lines of, "You're not going to buy a pet, are you?" He nodded. "Shouldn't you ask us, first? We live there too and I don't want to come in some night and find monkey shit on my bed." "He won't shit on your bed." "Wanna bet? It's a wild animal and they shit wherever they want to. It'll probably bite too."

Sundan complained too, saying "keep the damn thing out of my room." Williams bought the monkey anyway and kept on talking as we started back to our hotel. It started raining, one of those drenching Vietnam monsoon downpours, before we got far and the monkey went crazy, screaming, curling its lips back, baring its teeth and jumping to the end of its leash and on Williams then to the sidewalk then back on Williams while Sundan and I walked far enough behind to be out of the monkey's reach. A dry monkey may be cute, but a wet monkey stinks of urine and looks like a miserable rat. We took cover under an awning and Williams finally got the monkey under control. It stopped raining after a few minutes and we made it back to our hotel with the monkey. He named it Jeffrey. Years later when I heard Bill Cosby's comedy routine about a screaming kid named Jeffrey on an airplane, I always thought of that monkey.

Ski, short for Jablonowski (I think - which is why we called him Ski), was there when we arrived. He was the opposite of Williams. He was spit and polish Army. He spent more time polishing his brass than I spent in the hotel. He rarely said a word. He already had a low opinion of us, and all Navy personnel in general, when word got around about Sundan and my escape from the restaurant, which had by then become a funny story at the Enlisted Club. Ski overheard Sundan tell the story, as only Sundan could do, at the club one night after a few drinks and Sundan had us rolling on the floor with laughter. Ski ask Sundan what he would have done if there was no balcony, no escape, from the second floor. Sundan shrugged, "Ah don' know. Shit, I guess," so innocently that we nearly split our sides laughing. Ski didn't think it was funny. All he said was, "Idiots," and he was serious. That made us laugh more. So, when he saw us walk in with that wet monkey, he looked at us and said, "You're crazy." I resented being lumped in with Williams, but I couldn't help but laugh. He thought a little better of Sundan and I when he learned that the monkey was Williams' idea, but only a little.

The first thing Williams did was let the monkey lose in the room. That was a big mistake. The monkey leaped from Williams to Sundan's bed, then to Ski's bed, climbed the drapes and stopped on top of Ski's closet, leaving muddy paw prints on everything it touched. It also had apparently grabbed one of Ski's newly polished brass collar devices from his night table on its way and it was rolling it over in its paws, inspecting it. I was dumbfounded, speechless. Ski was outraged. He said more in the next five minutes than I'd ever heard him say in an entire day, and none of it is printable. He was a big guy and one punch from him would have killed Williams. But he didn't hit Williams, although I thought he was going to. Williams chased the monkey until he caught it by cornering it in the bathroom.

Our next problem was the maid. She refused to come in the room after she discovered Jeffrey. So, we had to find her and convince her that Williams would make sure she could clean the rooms and take care of the laundry without being bothered by the monkey. It turned out that she could take care of Sundan's and Ski's room, but not Williams' and my room. Williams kept the monkey tied to his bed and that also put my bed within the monkey's reach, at least enough that the maid wouldn't change the sheets. So, I made my own bed for awhile and put my dirty sheets and clothes in Sundan's room for her to pick up. Jeffrey was becoming the nuisance that we knew he would.

Williams fed Jeffrey bananas. I asked him, "Don't monkeys eat more than bananas? Don't they eat nuts and other fruit?" feeling sorry for the monkey and to encourage Williams to feed it better. But, it didn't phase Williams. I began bringing dates and figs from breakfast for Jeffrey and, as far as I could tell, the monkey loved figs and preferred those over bananas. I became convinced that Jeffrey didn't like Williams. He let the monkey lose when Ski wasn't around and sometimes the monkey would jump to my bed and hide behind me and watch and bare his teeth at Williams the instant he turned him lose. He always had difficulty catching Jeffrey, but that never stopped him from turning him lose. He would pet it and brush it which seemed to only annoy the monkey more but Williams seemed to think that he was training Jeffrey to be more responsive, to bond with it better. He talked constantly about bonding with Jeffrey. One day it escaped through the door as Sundan came in. The monkey went up the center staircase to the top floor before Williams took two or three steps out the door. He tried to entice it to come to him with a banana, but that didn't work. Someone opened a door on the top floor, curious about Jeffrey's screaming, and the monkey went in the room and Williams caught it there. So, even our neighbors began complaining.

The last day we saw Jeffrey was the day that Williams forgot to check and close the balcony door next to my bed. We opened the balcony doors on days when the temperature was reasonable. As soon as Williams let Jeffrey lose, he jumped over me and was out that door like a flash. He had probably been eyeing that open door from the moment I opened it. By the time I could get to the balcony, only three feet from my bed, Jeffrey was on the roof, three floors above, looking down at me, his little head peaking over the edge of the building. I don't recall that he had anything to hold on to as he scaled the building other than mortar joints. It was an amazing climbing feat. Williams grabbed his banana bait and ran out to the sidewalk, but I could have told him not to bother. Jeffrey was gone and he wasn't coming back. Jeffrey was an interesting and amazing little animal. On the other hand, Williams hadn't learned a thing. He bought another monkey, but I think he kept it at his girlfriend's house. All of us threatened him with bodily harm if he ever, ever brought another animal to the hotel. Sundan, Ski and I were reaching the end of our rope, so we were glad Jeffrey escaped. I think he lived with us for three, maybe four weeks.


1 comment:

Dan said...

I would think that would be restless nights for those 3-4 weeks with a monkey in your room. Lucky for escaped.