«1 James Dean In Saigon (or The True Story of the Clods) By Richard Turner Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved Presented by: Silverfox Company – ...»
In one of our joy of smoking conversations in Dick’s air-conditioned bedroom, Paul, Dick and I decided that our choice of cigarettes reflected our taste in literature. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Faulkner, Hemingway, none of them would be smoking Winston’s, unless of course they were bumming them at the end of a long night. That Faulkner smoked a pipe and Hemingway a pipe and cigars didn’t matter. If they were here they wouldn’t be smoking Winston’s with the Wenie brothers, Flaxie and their loser friends.
But tonight we were smoking Salem’s. After dinner we went to the Indian store and bought a bottle of red wine to drink as we walked around town talking about literature. The more we drank the louder we talked and the faster we walked and the more Salem’s we smoked.
Hemingway, Faulkner, Kerouac, Ginsberg. Down Hai Ba Trung to Le Van Duyet, right at the corner, past the Sportif, through the park to the Hippique, up Mach Dinh Chi, around the circle with the Trung sisters statue, into a warren of alleys off of Pasteur, coming out near where my father worked at the A.I.D. mission, then over to the commissary and from there back to Cong Ly and Paul’s house. Two or three hours of walking and talking.
We ended up drunk and exhausted sprawled on Paul’s front lawn vowing to either take the places of Hemingway and Faulkner when they died or to join the swelling ranks of the Beats.
Paul, who was from Falls Church, Virginia – Falls Balls, Vagina, as he called it – anticipated a solitary sojourn in the Deep South as his training period. I imagined myself going directly to San Francisco. Saigon, Vietnam to the City Lights bookstore non-stop.
Lying on our backs beside each other looking up at the stars we swore eternal friendship as we nursed our bloody hands. At some point in the evening one of us had spontaneously smashed his fist into the yellow wall beside the sidewalk to emphasize a point about Beats and Zen and enlightenment and drinking. (Some Japanese poet we had read about had reached enlightenment in the midst of a sake binge.) Then the other one of us, I really don’t remember who, smacked the wall with greater ferocity. We stood looking at each other and laughing at our competition to out-Zen each other. I poured some wine over our bloody knuckles, imagining it to be an antiseptic of sorts, just as I had poured beer over my cock after my first few visits to shantytown. I took a last swallow and handed the bottle to Paul who upended it and got a mouthful of the crap from the bottom of the bottle which he spat out as he threw the empty bottle into the street. Still laughing we slumped down against the wall. Had we reached enlightenment and didn’t know it? Were we drunk and didn’t know it? Is seeking nirvana a competitive sport?
Which brought us around to our current favorite literary hero, Kerouac, and reminded me to tell Paul something I would not have thought of mentioning had I not been drunk, because it wasn’t cool. In fact the incident I was about to relate showed me to be a callow asshole instead of the cool Beat that I aspired to be. What the hell, I thought, confession is cool. Confession is part of the Beat ritual. I can redeem myself in Paul’s eyes by the very act of telling him something stupid in this drunken moment. It wasn’t all that stupid, I guess. What happened was that when I arrived in Saigon in April of ’59 we were met at Ton Son Nut airport by the people my father was going to be working with. While they were shaking hands and helping my parents through customs, I wandered over into the gift shop area where there were some English and French books and magazines for sale along with shelves of lacquer paintings, dolls dressed in conical hats and Vietnamese slit-up-the-side dresses, python skins, crossbows and so on. After scanning the bookrack I went up to the guy behind the counter.
“Do you have a copy of On the Road?” “Onna Load?” he replied.
“On the Road, by Jack Kerouac.” “Kerlak?” “On the Road, book, travel, road, highway, route, map!” “Oh, road map!” The guy gives me a map of Vietnam. What a jerk! Not him, I meant me. How could I have thought that there would be a copy of On the Road in an airport souvenir shop in Saigon? I told Paul and he laughed some more.
Paul had been in a boarding school in the Philippines before coming to Saigon, in fact he’d been kicked out of the place. Before that he’d been with his family in Beirut where his father had been working for the C.I.A. I think. Saigon was my first time out of the states. I considered Paul more sophisticated because of his travels, even though I was certain that somewhere in his overseas past he must have done something as dopey as my asking for On the Road in the Saigon airport gift shop. Maybe he had done something like it back in Beirut, showing his ass in some situation where he assumed wrongly that American stuff could be picked up anywhere. But I couldn’t think of any such instance. His stories of Beirut were all cool: the whorehouses in the center of town, the men jerking off in the cinemas when Bridget Bardot movies were shown, saying, “I come, I come” in Arabic. The Corniche, that promenade along the sea, the bookstore that sold Kalhil Gibran books in English. Everything was cool, nothing was out of place in his stories.
But even cool people get sick. Paul threw up on the coarse grass. His older brother Joe used to say that he didn’t care when or where Paul vomited just as long as it wasn’t on his Moto Guzzi, the Guch, and his motorcycle. The acid in the puke would ruin the paint job. After Paul finished vomiting we decided to make one more pass by the Sportif, which was lucky because that’s when Elvis showed up.
“OK, we’ll go get Kerouac from the fleabag hotel he’s staying at. He’s up there lying on the bed sweating, smoking a Gitane or a Bastos, or a Gaouloise, smoking and sweating and thinking about writing. He would have been out with us the night before and is still hung over.
That’s it, coming out of a hangover, smoking a cigarette, an ashtray like the heavy glass one Jacques threw at Larry that day of the fight at the Sportif, balanced on his stomach going up and down with the rise and fall of his breath. He’s unshaven, smelly, smoking and sweating and writing about it.” “No, he’d already be down at the bar across the street drinking Pernod or whatever he could con someone into buying for him. He’s a cheap shit. A cheap shit and a complainer and he’s tied to his mother’s apron strings.” “So is Elvis. He’s tied to mama Gladys’s apron strings. And he’s too damn polite.
Don’t quibble.” “Whatever his character flaws, I doubt that Jack would want to hang around with us anyway. He must be thirty-five or forty right now. He wouldn’t give a shit about us. He’d already be tired of us telling him how many times we’d read On the Road. Hell, he wrote that ten years ago.” “He did? I thought it just came out two years ago.” “It did, but he wrote it in the forties. All that stuff was about America in the forties, not the fifties.” “I don’t give a damn when he wrote it. It’s the America I’m going home to when I leave this place. Drugs, driving, women, music, talk, friends, craziness that’s going to be my America come July 4, 1961.” “Why leave, Dick, you’ve got that all here.” “Yeah, but Vietnam isn’t my country.” “The French think it’s going to be.” “What do they know.” “Anyway, to get on with it, let’s drag Kerouac out of bed or out of the bar across the street and take him out to one of those opium dens we talked about. We could introduce him to James Dean out there in Cho-Lon. Remember all that stuff he wrote about Mexico City when he was staying with William Burroughs. He was high all the time, pot, hashish, pills, whatever he could get his hands on.” “William Burroughs, now there’s someone else we could invite.” “Who’s he? I’ve never heard of him.” “A friend of my dad’s came back from Paris in May with a copy of a book Burroughs wrote called Naked Lunch. I read part of it. It’s filled with queers fucking and sucking and murdering each other. Everyone’s a junkie. It’s gross shit. On second thought, let’s leave Burroughs out of this. He’s too weird. Withdraw the invitation.” “Let’s stick with your basic Beats, rock and rollers and rebels.” “So we introduce Kerouac to Dean in the opium den. Do you think they would get along?” “A corpse and an alcoholic? Sure.” “James Dean is a worm eaten mass of flesh and bones, a corpse rotting in the frozen ground of Fairmont, Indiana. He’s been dead since 1955, five years already. Jack Kerouac is probably passed out in his own puke on a doorstep in North Beach. Yeah, I think they’d hit it off real well.” “As long as we’re getting realistic here, the only authors we know of who have actually been to Saigon are Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene.” “And Audie Murphy is the only movie star who’s been here.” “Audie (To Hell and Back) Murphy! What was he doing here?” “He was the star of The Quiet American the film made from Greene’s book about Americans in Vietnam. Haven’t you seen that? My dad took the whole family to see it before we came to Saigon. Some of his friends are extras in the film. It’s not that bad considering that Murphy is in it.” “What does he do, kill commies the way he killed Nazis in To Hell and Back?” “That’s what he thinks he’s doing, but he fucks up and gets killed himself. The book is a lot better than the movie. You ought to read it. It’s got some great descriptions of Saigon. In fact it opens with a scene that’s a lot like what we’re looking at now, crowds on Rue Catinat. It’s a good story but Greene is awfully critical of what Americans are doing here.” “What are we doing here?” “I don’t know, I’m drinking a beer. Ask your dad, ask the ambassador, ask M.A.A.G.
farts.” “So Graham Greene probably wouldn’t want to come to the party. Cross him off the list.
What about Maugham?” “He was here two months ago when you were in Bangkok with your parents. There was a party on one of the French ships tied up in the Saigon River. Mrs. Duthie told us about it so we went down and had a few beers with Mr. Maugham.” ‘What was he like?” “I don’t know, we never got near him.” “But we did get extra credit for it.” “Well, he’s an old fart anyway. He wouldn’t have much to say to any of the other invitees. Drop him.” “So, who have we got? Dean, Kerouac, Elvis, ourselves, anyone else?” “How about Ginsberg? He and Kerouac are good friends.” “Yeah and you could have him over to your English class to do a reading. That is if you were still teaching English.” “You’re not teaching anymore? What happened?” “I got shit-canned last week while you were at the beach up in Nah Trang.” “What brought that about? I thought you got along real well with those guys.” I had been teaching English to Vietnamese army officers at the Hemingway School of English behind the central market three evenings a week. I started doing it when I dropped out of school. It was fun. I made good money for it. The guys were OK too. It was a big deal for them to get time off to learn English. It meant that their chances of being sent to the States for training were good. That meant promotions and pay raises for them so they worked hard. Most of them were quite a bit older than I was but they addressed me by my family name instead of by my first name although I tried to get them to call me Rick. They said that they never called teachers by their first names. I guess I didn’t either. But then I never had a teacher who was younger than I was. So, I’d teach them conversational English from this stupid book called Life with the Taylors, and after the lesson they’d ask me all sorts of questions about the States. Was it like the movies they’d seen? How much money do Americans make? Are the women easy?
Have you ever seen the Grand Canyon? The usual shit. When that got boring I would ask them questions about Vietnam just to get them to use their English. I learned about places to go and things to eat, mostly pretty innocuous things. There was one guy in each class, must have been a colonel or something, he rarely said anything, just observed. I think he was some sort of a spy.
So we never talked about women or politics or Elvis. Which was OK. I was getting paid for it and the guys were learning something. The one time that the spy was absent a couple of the more articulate guys let on that everything in Vietnam wasn’t “hunky dory” as my dad would say. They said something about there being a lot more communists out in the countryside than the government newspapers reported. But I didn’t press it. What the hell did I know? There had been a few bombs thrown around Saigon and I’d overheard my father talking about terrorism in the villages, assassinations and so on. There were bars on the windows of our house, metal grates on the windows of the school bus. There were parts of Saigon that were considered dangerous. We couldn’t travel in the countryside at night. But so what. That’s Vietnam. It didn’t mean all that much to me. There weren’t any commies at the Sportif or the Olympic. No one was lobbing grenades into the Continental Café. It’s a stupid attitude I guess, but how was I to know any different. American aid was god’s gift to Vietnam. According to Time magazine, President Diem was the Churchill or the De Gaulle or the Patton or the MacArthur of Indochina, whatever that meant. The French were leaving of their own accord and we, as gracious allies were lending a hand in the fight against international communism, keeping those dominoes from falling. Everything was hunky dory.
These guys would get to go to the States where Life with the Taylors would come alive for them. That’s what pissed me off and what got me fired. Life with the Taylors presented the most bland, unexciting, middle-class, bourgeoisie view of America you could ever imagine. The Taylor family stood for everything that Elvis, Jimmy, Jack and Allen stood against: conformity, control, security, dependability, and tradition. Not bad values in themselves, but you can get too much of a good thing.