It was another “year-in-country” or “Tam biet” [good bye] party and Wade Hamlin was knee wobbling S**t-faced. He sat slumped over the mess bar staring into a half-empty glass of Canadian and water. The cigarette dangling out the corner of his mouth had burned down to the filter. As he started to speak the long gray ash, which had been hanging precariously, dropped into his drink. Mumbling to himself he pulled the butt from his cracked lips and ground the remnants in a brass shell-casing ashtray.
“Damn it! Here I am trying to deal with a delicate personal crisis and I ruined a dose of Doctor Feelgood…I oughta’ be shot in the short curlies!” Glancing questionably at me, his sunken eyes reflected the hurt and turmoil within. “Damn, damn, damn, why did I open that friggin’ letter from that cheating, cold-hearted, money-stealing bitch?”
Wade not waiting for a reply slid the glass across the bar to Joe Tanner whose night it was to duty bar-tend, “I screwed up my drink Joe, please pour me another. Easy on the water I got some serious problems of the heart to deal with. My Sea-pappy, Eddy here, has been listening to me whimper and moan since mail call, so top him off, he probably needs it…”
Wade gave a long sigh, played with his fresh drink and in his drunkenness began to ramble, “Joe, old Eddy here has had me under his wing for 300 days tomorrow…he didn’t think I knew it, but I did and I appreciate his concern and guidance. Did you know we came over on the same flight? Yep, this was my first overseas assignment after OCS. Guess he saw I needed a father figure… right, Ed?” Showing concern, I nodded.
“Yep, 300 days ago we were flying across the Big Blue. I was in love and excited about my first great adventure! I know I bored Ed to tears talking about my gal, my future plans and showing photos. Shoot, now it’s all down the tubes. Think I’ll go jump in some rice paddy and drown my dumb pitiful ass!”
A game of Liar’s dice was making its way down the row of happy-hour revelers. The loser, per house rules buys the bar a round. John Miller, new in country sitting on Wade’s left, carefully peeked under the cup smiled and said, “Wade, there are three aces and a pair of ducks.” Wade, without looking pushed the cup to me saying, “Eddy, three aces and a pair of treys.”
I leaned down, shielded the cup from view and peeked under…there were four aces and a five. Did, I want to stick my buddy Lonesome Lou Elliot with the tab? He along with the infamous “Boom-boom” Bennett had seats on the“Big-bird with the Golden-tail” [Braniff] in the morning...should I ruin his last evening in Nam?
As a farewell gesture I decided to give him a slight out. With a sheepish grin, I slowly slid the cup towards him, “Lou, old Straight-arrow here declares, “Four aces and a four!” He looked me in the eye, “Eddy my boy yooou are lying through your pearly whites…ain’t no way, Jose! Four aces my ass!” With an exaggerated flair, Lou lifted the cup skyward and moaned, “Ooh, you stuck it in me…what a buddy!”
I slapped him on the back, “Hey, I gave you an out, but I know you did it so you could buy your bunkies a farewell drink before going home.” Someone yelled, “Let’s all show our deep appreciation to Lonesome Lou, the last of the big Saigon “Dong” spenders for this next round of cheer!” In unison the bar sang out, “THANKS A-HOLE!” Ooh-rahs and laughter followed.
Above the bar, equally spaced along its length, were twelve brass hat hooks. Each labeled with a month of the year. Strings of silver-chained dog tags hanging from the hooks reflected those who had gone before. They glittered in the crude bar lights reflecting an aura not unlike those of some mirrored ballroom. The dog-tags were part of the Tam biet ritual held just before bar closing at 2200 hours each night. The ritual required each of those returning stateside to dance the length of the bar and return, setting in motion the row of tag chains as they maneuvered among the bottles, glasses and gauntlet of trouser tuggers.
The reverberating tags would chime a pleasant metallic strain as the dancers shook hands with each man, removed their dog tags, kissed them and ceremoniously hung the chain on the appropriate month’s hook…thus closing the bar. As we went to our bunks, I promised Lou and Boom-boom, I would drive them to Tan Son Nhut at 0500…but first, we needed to get broken-hearted Wade to his sack.
Returning to Headquarters after seeing my friends off on the “Freedom-bird”, the Da Nang Project Officer asked if anyone had seen Hamlin. I covered, saying he was not feeling well last evening, perhaps he had gone to sick call…I would check on him. I chuckled to myself; old Wade was surly suffering from a self-inflicted case of commode huggin’ influenza! I knew damn well that he was still in his bunk, but I was somewhat worried as I had never seen the youngster so despondent or wasted. If I hadn’t gone to Tan Son Nhut so early, I would have rolled him out at reveille.
As Wade had mentioned at the bar, we had come over on the same stretch 707. Young and full of vinegar he bent my ear through the entire grueling flight. I didn’t mind it, as it helped take my mind off the long flight, what lay ahead and my cramped aching legs. He described in minute detail of falling in love with a girl from college. Her name was Mary Ellen, a shapely brunette from Chicago. He lamented of meeting the families, becoming engaged, planning a wedding and having a big family. She worked for IBM and they were pooling their money to buy a new home on his return from Vietnam and finishing Reserve active duty. He had allotted his entire salary except his combat-pay to their account. They promised to write everyday and vowed to be true. I smiled, when you are “twenty-something” life is a wondrous thing, and love is not yet jaded…
Wade reeking of booze and cigarettes was still in his skivvies. He was sprawled out on his back across his bunk, feet dangling in the heap of dirty green utilities, pistol belt and boots scattered about on the floor. He had been crying to the point his chest was still heaving in uncontrollable spasms. Ten months of Mary’s correspondence was strewn across the bunk. Postmarks, lipstick and cute little smiley things punctuated many of the white and pastel envelopes. Some were neatly grouped in string wrapped bundles.
For sometime, he had apparently been reading selected letters, letting the pages fall as they may. Without acknowledging my presence, he passed the crumpled letter he held to me. It was the one he had received the day before. The letter, some six pages long boiled-down to this: Soon after Wade left for Vietnam, Mary began going out after work with her co-workers for a few drinks, which became a regular occurrence. An associate, a handsome man about town soon overwhelmed her with his persistence and charm.
Being lonesome and vulnerable, they began an affair. He moved into her apartment…parties and fancy weekend getaways followed; they led the high life. Soon the joint account was emptied. To maintain the elaborate lifestyle, she needed Wade’s allotment to continue. To ensure that it did, she kept up the farce by writing him more frequently, with ever-increasing expressions of passion and eroticism. Her lover dumped her two weeks before she wrote the letter. She was three months pregnant…
I carefully folded the stained pages and hesitantly handed it back to Wade. Seeing the helpless concern in my face…madness filled his eyes.
Screaming in woeful gasps he turned in a heartbeat reaching for the pistol. I dove on top of him, grasping the gun barrel and wrenching it away! It was a short struggle, for in reality, it was a desperate cry for help. He rolled over, dropped to the floor and drew himself into a fetal position, his body convulsing with guttural sobs. A broken, despondent young man, he retreated within himself. Wade was returned to the States…
“Sixty-four days and a wake-up” later, I too, did the Tam biet dance of farewell! I strutted shamelessly down the bar setting in motion the row of symbolic silvery chimes of those who had preceded me. The smiling faces of comrades, who had shared those times, those treasured moments, are etched forever in the deep recesses of a sailor’s heart.
I went on to other duty assignments, never looking back, riding the crest of my prime, cherishing each fleeting moment. Life’s brief season in the sun was a wonder beyond words…Oh, to live it all once again! Now, as I traverse these golden years, the rhythmic metallic tinkle of some distant porch chine will drift across the warm summer expanse and for a brief magical moment, I will be transfixed in another time…“Tam biet”