I’m on my 2nd Johnnie Walker Gold Reserve (with a Perrier chaser), thinking business class service is pretty darn fine on this Cathay Pacific flight from JFK to Hong Kong, my first stop before going “in country” a few days from now.
As soon as I finish this post, I’ll turn on the entertainment center and choose from among some three dozen movies available on my personal screen. Then, before landing, my seat will transform into a cocoon cozy enough for me to catch 40 winks.
We’ve come a long way baby from the flight to Vietnam that I recall in 1970. Then, I left a cold and dismal Ft. Lewis, WA, boarded a charter flight with about 200 other unfortunate souls sitting three across in uniform, and skied up to the war. That flight stopped in Hawaii, Guam and then terminated in Cam Rahn Bay. Today’s non-stop polar route to Hong Kong flight is about 16 hours. The passage to Vietnam in 1970 was an eternity.
Sometimes I think I am making this up, because it sounds so weird whenever I recall it. The chartered jet airliner to Vietnam had only one movie: True Grit, starring John Wayne. It’s a fact, though. I watched it all three times it was shown. I don’t recall a thing about it. To this day, I studiously avoid it. You’d be surprised how many times Turner Classic Movies retrieves True Grit from the vault.
I’m not a John Wayne or a western fan past or present. But I did like my Scotch even
then. The Vietnam flight came up short there too. The most potent drink they offered us was milk. Milk in those waxy containers. Like we were elementary school children. I guess they didn’t want a couple of hundred drunk GIs on their hands heading into a war zone. I think they ran an equal risk that these guys would rebell and force a landing in Tahiti, Mr. Christian style. But we all behaved. Maybe there were cookies. I don’t remember. I can’t get past the milk. Now you know why I take my Starbucks black. No milk—soy, almond, goat, cow or otherwise.
We stopped in Hawaii and Guam, long enough to refuel. We did leave the plane, and I have a recollection of killing time at an outdoor snack bar with some of my travel mates. Maybe we got a beer. Can’t be sure. What I can still feel, however, is the humidity. We were still in our US khaki’s—rumpled, sweaty, cranky and scared. We didn’t know what we were in for.
But what we really didn’t know was that our fate—-whatever it turned out to be in Vietnam—-was a way lot better than that of our brothers who left Tacoma on the flight immediately preceding ours.
Here’s the way deployment worked at Ft. Lewis back then. For about two weeks after reporting in, we were subjected to the usual Army bullshit of processing and “hurry up and wait”.
Every day, we’d turn out to learn if our name made it to the manifest for a flight out. The list was posted on a wall like college school grades. Meanwhile, we were put to really good use “policing the AO”, military speak for picking up cigarette butts; or pulling guard duty (what were we guarding against in Tacoma, WA? Runaway salmon?), or doing KP. The Army had a way of making life so miserable for thinking, breathing, normal individuals, that we rooted everyday for our time to come—to head for Vietnam!
The day it was my turn for a flight out, I gathering my gear and queued up on the tarmac at the appointed time. One by one, we ascended the ramp into the belly of a chartered civilian airliner. No boarding passes or seat assignments necessary. When that plane was full, off it rolled and the serpentine procession shifted to another plane standing by. Like filling tubes of toothpaste on an assembly line.
I got on the second plane. The first one never made it to Vietnam. It took a different route, through Alaska. There, it skidded off the runway and 45 soldiers were killed.
We didn’t hear about the crash until we reached Cam Rahn Bay. But it was major headlines back home for the better part of a day and a half as we travelled. The BW (to be) was frantic. Friends K&R, who had driven me to the airport 10 days earlier, and knew well my departure date, did their best to distract her from the story. My family was distraught as they scrambled to get more details. I was oblivious, drinking milk through a straw and cursing the visage of John Wayne.
Once we finally landed and learned of the disaster, I was able to get word home that, for me at least, all was well. I checked my head, my fingers, my nose and my toes. All intact. I chalked up my good fortune to a destiny that I believed would hold me safe and secure going forward. But at the same time, an undeniable chill went through me. I realized that my life was now in danger as never before.
No such fears on this trip. We’re been planning this adventure for years, plotting, arranging, researching, getting tips and help from all sorts of actual and self-proclaimed experts Vietnam. There is no war. And having the BW as my companion this go around is an equal comfort.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being nervous, anxious, eager, scared and excited all at the same time. Ever since we pushed the go button, I have been tumbling through a worm hole of memories and emotions.
Partially this is about going to Asia—pretty far outside my comfort zone for pleasure travel. Also about being away from it all with Natalie, something we haven’t been able to do in more than five years, ever since her parents got too sick to leave for an extended time. And of course, there is the 800 pound gorilla in the luggage: a return to Vietnam. So, while it may not be the bumpy ride that Bette Davis warned against, I’m keeping my seatbelt fastened nonetheless. At the very least, it will be an interesting trip.
Now, where is that movie remote?