Mr. Bob, the Chicken Engineer: Toward Understanding the Real Vietnam

Mr. Bob, the Chicken Engineer: Toward Understanding the Real Vietnam

by Robert C. Hargreaves


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, January 24

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781458213518
Publisher: Abbott Press
Publication date: 01/28/2014
Pages: 108
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.26(d)

Read an Excerpt

Mr. Bob, the Chicken Engineer


By Robert C. Hargreaves

Abbott Press

Copyright © 2014 Robert C. Hargreaves
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4582-1351-8


Chickens, Chickens, Chickens

Green coconut milk—you can't beat its fresh, tangy coolness on a hot tropical day. The memory still lingers of my host nimbly climbing the tree in front of his house and cutting down two coconuts to share as we discussed chickens. Chickens? Yes, chickens—the common bond between a Vietnamese peasant and a young American volunteer.

In 1965, I was fresh out of college with two degrees in agriculture, ready to take on the world. I promptly signed up for two years in Vietnam with International Voluntary Services, the organization used as a model by President John F. Kennedy for the Peace Corps.

Vietnamese names are all monosyllabic, so naturally I became Mr. Bob. Their closest term for poultry specialist translates as "chicken engineer," so everywhere I went I was introduced as Mr. Bob, the chicken engineer. This sounds just as funny in Vietnamese as it does in English, so introductions were always filled with merriment and laughter. Taken in good humor, this tag helped as people weren't likely to forget me.

I was ready for the next two questions that always followed an introduction: "How old are you?" and "How much money do you make?" The Vietnamese I met were all convinced that every American was fabulously wealthy. All Americans have cars, don't they? Almost. Few besides government officials and Americans had cars in Vietnam. Even ten-speed bicycles and electric coffeepots were considered luxury items.

The Vietnamese wanted to learn how we did it, or at least have some of the magic rub off on them. Several confided in me that their ideal was to have a Japanese wife, Chinese food, a French house—and an American income. They were usually disappointed, even incredulous, when I told them I was making eighty dollars a month. That was about the same amount a Vietnamese professional with a college degree was making. This was a lot more than the average peasant earned, but it just didn't sound fabulously wealthy, and it wasn't. Even the Vietnamese hired at the airbase to do KP duty were making more than that.

This was rapidly becoming a sore point. Vietnamese professionals, especially those who could speak English, could earn three times as much working for Americans. But their country needed them where they were. Furthermore, it was scandalous that prostitutes and bartenders were suddenly getting rich. Everywhere I went, I heard the complaint that the traditional order of respect—God, king, teacher—was being turned on its head and becoming prostitute, restaurant owner, and cyclo driver.

However, the worst complaints were about the children. The US military started a policy of giving candy to the children they met. Soldiers would throw candy from their convoys as they passed through towns. It didn't take long to hear horror stories of children being pushed under the wheels of moving vehicles as they jostled for the candy. The soldiers began passing out money, cigarettes, and trinkets. One soldier confided in me that he felt so sorry for the kids that he gave away his entire paycheck every month.

When I first arrived in Phan Rang, there wasn't a beggar in sight. But it didn't take long before I couldn't go anywhere without being besieged by a mob of forty or fifty children, all shouting, "Hey, you, suh lem!" (This was their pronunciation for Salem cigarettes.) Very soon children were getting more money than their parents were earning and becoming openly defiant of them. Many left home. Hippies in Vietnam? In Vietnam they were called cowboys. This in a society where family was everything. Every home had a shrine to honor the family's ancestors. Nothing was worse than dishonoring them.

At least Phan Rang didn't have peanut girls. In downtown Saigon, there was a little waif on every corner selling bags of peanuts, and these girls raked in the money from the GIs. If you looked, it wasn't hard to spot their adult handler, usually watching two or three girls. This was big business!

One day, as I drove from Nha Trang to Phan Rang with a load of furniture for my new house, the first convoy of American combat soldiers was on their way to Phan Rang. Families lined the road, cheering and waving American and South Vietnamese flags. Vietnam had experienced warfare of one kind or another since the thirties. People hoped that the Americans would bring a quick end to this one, but the war only got bigger and anti-American sentiment grew with it. Within six months, people were throwing rocks at my front door, so we moved to another house inside the compound of the Catholic high school.

Vietnamese aren't ones to let feelings stand in the way of business, and chickens were business. Eggs were selling for seven cents each. I quickly compiled a list of seventy people asking for my help in getting American chickens. The local Vietnamese chickens were small and scrawny, and their eggs were half the size of the ones laid by American chickens. They weren't very different from the wild jungle fowl that chickens had been domesticated from. I occasionally saw some of these jungle fowl on my trips around the province.

The main reason eggs were so expensive was that 70 percent of the chickens died each year. About half of the deaths were due to disease and about half to poor nutrition, poor management, or predation by dogs and rats. Yes, rats eat chickens.

In traditional village agriculture around the world, chickens are simply allowed to run loose and fend for themselves. With this method, you're lucky to get five or six eggs from a chicken and two or three extra birds to sell or to eat each year. But this way of keeping chickens doesn't cost anything in terms of money or labor. Keeping the chickens in a pen, house, or cages increases production tenfold, but now you have to provide a complete feed, which isn't cheap, and have a source of clean water. As I traveled around the province visiting each facility, I found a wide variety of methods of keeping chickens. Most farmers had houses or pens for their chickens, but they didn't have a source of feed, so I developed a recipe for chicken feed using rice, dried fish, and pigweed. It was a hard sell to convince farmers to use this new feed, but the ones who didn't weren't very successful.

I had originally been promised inexpensive baby chicks from the Vietnamese Animal Husbandry Service in Saigon, but when I went to get them I was told the program was having problems and the chicks weren't available. I was able to find another source, and then we were in business. Most of the people I was working with wanted ten or twenty chicks, which I sold at cost. I had business in Saigon about once a month, and every time I went I brought back four hundred or five hundred baby chicks.

The place where I got my chicks was actually north of Saigon, in the iron triangle, a center of VC activity. My guardian angel was doing a great job, though, and I never had any difficulty. One month, I couldn't make it to Saigon, so I asked another IVSer to get the chicks for me and put them on the plane. He ran into a traffic jam and was stuck for several hours. When the traffic began moving again, his jeep wouldn't start. He was all alone out in the countryside. Then a motorcycle came up behind him, and as it passed, the driver began shooting! My friend suffered a flesh wound in the arm and later counted six bullet holes in the jeep. Several US Army trucks passed, but they didn't stop. Finally, a South Vietnamese Army jeep stopped and gave him a ride back to Saigon. I never asked how he did it, but I got my baby chicks!

Getting the chicks was just the beginning. I started a vaccination program, tried to ensure adequate feed and water, and did a lot of troubleshooting. Some of the flocks got sticktight fleas, a kind of flea that doesn't jump off but stays on the head, bright red from the blood it engorges. One person put his chickens in a fenced area with a planting of bananas, and the chickens ate the banana plants—the plants all fell over. At one village, people insisted I take them to the next village that had featherless chickens. They thought that was great—you didn't have to pluck them! I had experience with featherless chickens at UC Davis and knew they weren't that great. They ate more feed and got sunburned. But I couldn't convince the farmers, and they bought some. When I visited again, they informed me that the regular chickens I had sold them had all died but the new featherless chickens were still healthy. I couldn't get them to see that their chickens had probably recovered from whatever made them lose their feathers and had then brought the disease to the American chickens.

For my first Thanksgiving in Vietnam, International Voluntary Services gave a canned ham to all the volunteers. I should have been thankful, but I wanted a turkey. Hey, I'm a chicken engineer! But there were no turkeys to be found in Vietnam, at least not fresh ones, not even in the military PX. The post exchange did have canned turkey, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes, so I had the fixings for a real Thanksgiving. I even got white potatoes for the mashed potatoes and gravy. White potatoes don't do well in the tropics, and Dalat, in the mountains just west of Phan Rang, was the only place in Vietnam that grew them. They were tiny, only two inches across, but hey, it worked. The feast was too much to eat by myself. Besides, what's Thanksgiving without a big gathering of family and friends? So I invited all the Vietnamese specialists I was working with and put on the spread.

I ran into trouble on the pumpkin pies. I couldn't find the spices I needed, and it was too late to go back to the PX in Saigon. No one in the marketplace could help me. The proprietors of the small restaurant where I ate for ten dollars a month never heard of them. This is the Far East, right? Isn't this where spices come from? There were names for all of the spices I was looking for in my English-Vietnamese dictionary, so they should have been available in Vietnam. Then someone reminded me that the Vietnamese have a word for snow. Panic! I finally learned the spices I was looking for were in the Chinese medicine shop, right in with the ground tiger bones, bear bile, and cow placentas. And the nutmeg was a whole seed I had to grind myself. Next problem – where to bake the pies? The Vietnamese cooked on charcoal and didn't use ovens. I didn't have an oven. I finally arranged to use the ovens in the military advisers' compound, just in time for my dinner.

I made four pies—one lime meringue, one apple, and two pumpkin. I made an extra pumpkin pie to make sure I had some left over for myself. The dinner was a big success except for the pumpkin pies. None of my guests had ever seen or heard of a pumpkin pie before. What's a pumpkin? Well, it's a kind of squash. The only squash they knew was related to the zucchini. Here was something brown and squishy. No one would even try it. The lime meringue and apple pies quickly disappeared. Now I had two whole pumpkin pies to myself. Delicious.

I was determined to have a real turkey for my next Thanksgiving, even if I had to raise it myself. I discovered two old kerosene incubators in storage at Nha Ho. They came complete with old rats' nests and a twelve-inch green-and-red lizard. I never could get the incubators to work right—they didn't have a thermostat and the temperature fluctuated too much. My Montgomery Wards catalog had a small electric incubator for three hundred dollars, but I didn't have three hundred dollars. They also had thermostats for two dollars, so I ordered one and tried building my own incubator. The thermostat was a simple device consisting of a gas-filled metal wafer and a reverse switch that turned off the electricity when pushed. The wafer expanded with heat and pushed the button off. As it cooled down it contracted and the electricity came on again. A long screw adjusted the temperature by moving the wafer closer to or farther away from the switch. I used an ordinary light bulb as the heat source.

So now I tried it out and got a nice hatch of baby chicks. I put the chicks out in their new home with a light bulb to keep them warm. The next morning they were all dead, attacked by huge red ants. The next time around I built a platform for them and put the legs in bowls of water to keep the ants out. This time I succeeded in raising the chicks. I never did get my turkey—I couldn't find any hatching eggs. But my incubator was a big hit with the people I was helping to raise chickens. I built four more and loaned them out. Now I really was a chicken engineer.


The Thap Cham Pig Company

My first two months in Vietnam were spent in language study with three Vietnamese English teachers on summer vacation. In September I arrived in Phan Rang, a small provincial capital of eighteen thousand on the central coast. Phan Rang's one claim to fame was its nuoc mam, a fish sauce used by the Vietnamese as a condiment on nearly everything they ate. Nuoc mam was made by filling huge barrels with layers of fish interspersed with layers of salt. The barrels would then be filled with water. For six months, the liquid was drained from the barrel once a day and poured back in the top. The result was a concentrated, pungent, overpowering fish flavor.

There was only one telephone in town, at the post office, and it was usually out of order. The only entertainment was a movie theater that showed Chinese movies with French, English, or Vietnamese subtitles. You never knew in advance which it would be. The trains had stopped running several years earlier because of Viet Cong activity. The small airport opened in the morning four times a week for the arrival of the ten-passenger Air America shuttle flight that flew from Saigon to Da Nang and back—one day in one direction and one day back twice a week. As soon as the plane left, the resident flock of goats would wander back across the runway.

When I first arrived in Phan Rang the only other American in town was Larry Laverentz, the USAID (US Agency for International Development) representative. This gradually expanded to a small American community consisting of three USAID officials, one USIS (US Information Service) official, several American doctors and nurses who rotated in and out on a monthly basis to volunteer at the local hospital, myself, and three other IVS volunteers. A Navy SEAL, known to the rest of us as "the spook," kept to himself and was seldom seen. A military adviser (MACV) compound of a hundred American soldiers was located just outside of Phan Rang, and American movies were shown there once a week. I could also eat there whenever I got tired of rice and nuoc mam.

The USAID office had a radio transmitter for regular communication with Nha Trang and the rest of the world. Nearly all my own communication with the outside world was through the shuttle flight. I averaged about one trip a month to Saigon for supplies, and I usually brought back four or five hundred baby chicks in the back of the plane as well. My Vietnamese friends kept telling me, "Don't go to Saigon! It's dangerous!" True enough, but how else would I get the vaccines and antibiotics I was using? Most of the fighting in Vietnam took place around Saigon and in the north around the DMZ. The shuttle flight arrived in Saigon just after dark, and the sky was always lit up with fireworks—curving red trajectories of tracer bullets, searchlights waving back and forth, and repeated bursts of flares. In comparison, Phan Rang was just a quiet backwater.

This all changed with the American buildup and the arrival of combat troops. In a short time, there were more Americans than Vietnamese in Phan Rang! At least it seemed that way. The first I knew of it was the sudden appearance of a long chain-link fence around the airport and much of the surrounding countryside in preparation for a new airbase for B52s and seven thousand airmen. This was also to be the headquarters for the 101st Airborne Division. Th irty miles to the north a huge new naval base was planned for Cam Ranh Bay.

The Vietnamese were quick to dream up plans to cash in on the new American presence. Dozens of crude booths were built in front of the entrance to the new airbase as soon as the fence appeared, with vendors selling souvenirs, beer, and soda. Vietnamese questioned every American they could find about the possibility of employment. And a small delegation of Vietnamese villagers appeared at my door, asking for assistance in obtaining a contract with the airbase for garbage to feed their pigs. While others were dreaming of sales and jobs, these people were dreaming of garbage. Mountains of beautiful, edible garbage.


Excerpted from Mr. Bob, the Chicken Engineer by Robert C. Hargreaves. Copyright © 2014 Robert C. Hargreaves. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction, vii,
Chapter 1 Chickens, Chickens, Chickens, 1,
Chapter 2 The Thap Cham Pig Company, 8,
Chapter 3 A Home Away from Home, 19,
Chapter 4 Toto, I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore, 26,
Chapter 5 The Land of Rice, 33,
Chapter 6 I Didn't Come to Fight a War, 38,
Chapter 7 Winning Hearts and Minds, 45,
Chapter 8 More Grapes, Pigs, and Chickens, 54,
Chapter 9 Vacation Travels, 62,
Chapter 10 Ghosts from the Past, 70,
Chapter 11 Back to Vietnam, 73,
Chapter 12 Cambodia, 79,
Chapter 13 Resource Exchange International, 85,
Chapter 14 Listen to the Chicken, 94,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews