The early Vietnam war years through the eyes of a U.S. military brat: In May of 1962, Naval Chief Petty Officer Bryant Arbuckle flew to Saigon to establish a new Armed Forces radio station. Next to follow were his wife and three boys, Leslie among them. Saigon Kids is the candid, recondite slice of fourteen-year-old military brat Les Arbuckle’s experience at the American Community School (ACS) during the critical months of the Vietnam War when events would, quite literally, ignite in downtown Saigon. In 1963, Saigon was beautiful, violent, and dirty−and the most exciting place a fourteen-year-old American boy could live. Saigon offered a rich array of activities, and much to the consternation of their parents and teachers, Les and his fellow military brats explored the dangers with reckless abandon running from machine gun fire, watching a Buddhist monk burn to death, visiting brothels late at night or, trading currency on the black market.
Coming of age in the streets of Vietnam War torn Saigon: When Les first arrives in Vietnam, he is a stranger in a strange land, expecting boredom in a country he doesn’t know. But the American social scene is more vibrant than he expected. The American Community School is a blend of kids from all over the globe who arrived in Saigon as the fuse on Saigon was about to ignite. As the ACS students continue their American lifestyle behind barbed wire, Saigon unravels in chaos and destruction. In spite of this ugliness−an ever-present feature of everyday life−Les tells his story of teenage angst with humor and precocity.
Coming of age tale with a twist: The events leading up to the Vietnam War provide an unusual backdrop for this coming-of-age tale with a twist. Saigon Kids will also make a perfect companion to the documentary film (sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts) currently in production. The film chronicles the lives of “military brats” living in Saigon in the volatile years from 1958 to 1964.
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About the Author
After a stint with the 50th Army Band at Fort Monroe, Virginia Les attended the Berklee College of Music (BA) and New England Conservatory (MM). He is a professional saxophonist living near Boston, Massachusetts with his wife, Joyce Lucia. He has performed with a variety of musical acts including The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Lou Rawls, Bernadette Peters, The San Diego Symphony Summer Pops Orchestra and The Artie Shaw Orchestra. His recordings for the Audioquest label and he is featured on the recordins of well-known jazz musicians Kenny Barron, Mike Stern, Cecil McBee, John Abercrombie and Victor Lewis.
Read an Excerpt
Coup: November, 1963
Saigon is boiling hot. Next to me, dozens of spinning wheels and the metallic grinding of tank treads have set Le Qui Don Street sizzling with energy. A half-track belches a black cloud of fumes, so I grab a clean breath and slice through the diesel haze with one hand covering my nose. A juggernaut of Vietnamese military vehicles rumbles noisily down the street, stretching for a half-dozen blocks as the army approaches the palace of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of the Republic of South Vietnam. The autumn air is dead still, thick with heat and sweat and the promise Of violence.
My father's warning–to get off the street if tanks are rolling–rings in my head like a fire alarm, so I pick up my pace, rushing to get home before the shooting starts. Right now, the streets of Saigon are no place for a fourteen-year-old American boy. I'm the only person in sight who isn't armed.
On the corner a half a block ahead, a Vietnamese officer squawks orders at a squad of ARVN (Vietnamese Army) soldiers hustling to assemble a .50-caliber machine gun behind a pile of sandbags. In the back of covered transport trucks, Vietnamese troops sit quietly in the shadows, hunched over their loaded weapons, staring silently into space. The soldiers look scared, knowing, as they surely must, that today some of them will die.
At the intersection with Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street, a tank wedges into a space in the column and a soldier's head pokes out of the manhole of the turret, his face grim beneath his steel helmet. I wave, but he ignores me, concentrating instead on the slow, relentless thrust of the line ahead, clearly afraid for his life.
The sound of the convoy has smothered the usual manic chirping of the birds, and a torrid, dreamy stillness has settled over the neighborhood. Translucent razor-sharp spears of light slant through gaps in the canopy of tall elm trees above, churned-up dust sparkling in the rays like glitter in a fireworks show. I hurry past elegant colonial-era villas: haunted mansions secure behind locked gates and shuttered windows, their occupants as invisible as ghosts. The squeal of tank wheels and the inescapable drone of engines charges the atmosphere as the rebel forces push their way toward the presidential palace, only two blocks from my home.
Then I hear a pop and a high whistle, and the whole world explodes. Near the palace, a tank jettisons a massive blast, and the shock wave hammers my chest like a medicine ball. Machine guns leap to life, punching out a staccato thukka-thukka-thukka as another mortar whips into the air. The ground quakes. I hear excited shouts next to me, then the tailgate of a troop-carrier truck bangs open. Soldiers scramble out, dashing toward the palace with their weapons ready.
I panic and bolt for home, my heart pounding so hard it feels like the buttons on my shirt are going to pop off. I fly around the corner onto Phan Dinh Phung Street, skitter past our front gate, and throw open the screen door. I see my parents squatting under the dining room table and my father, Doc, begins waving wildly, yelling, "Down! Get down!" I lurch frantically through the living room, drop to the floor, and slide across the tile on my chest, coming to a stop under the table. The next tank-blast shakes the entire house, and the table legs chatter against the floor like castanets. The malignant odor of cordite drifts through our open windows.
I glance towards the front of the living room where my youngest brother, Lowell, only nine years old, cringes wide-eyed under the coffee table next to the couch. He looks like he's going to make a run for the cover of our table until Doc holds his hand up and shouts, "Stay there!"
Our dog, Irving, is a blur of black and brown fur, running wildly between the door and table as each nerve-wracking explosion triggers a fresh round of nerve-wracking barking and whining. Finally, Doc eases out from under the table crouching low, grabs Irving by his collar and shuttles him out to the rear courtyard. He pushes Irving through the door, slams it behind him, and scoots back under the table just before the thunder of anothervolley.
"Jesus Christ!" he blurts out. "I haven't heard anything like that since the Marshall Islands!"
Mother seems calm, but the queer little smile on her face isn't a happy smile. It's a terrified, doing-my-best-but-I-don't-know-if-I-can-take-anymore smile. Her curly, dark hair is a tangled mess, her head pressed firmly against the underside of the table. Rivulets of sweat drip down her neck, darkening her red blouse. Her thin hands shake violently, and I realize she's on the verge of hysteria.
Suddenly, the color fades from her face and her expression goes blank. "Where's Lynn, for God's sake?" she asks, feverishly clawing at Doc's arm. The shakes have got a grip on her throat, too. "Does anyone know where Lynn went?"
Lynn, eleven years old, is my other younger brother. She's forgotten that he's hanging out with his friend David Phu, at David's house out near Cholon.
"He's at David's house," Lowell shouts.
The pop and whistle of yet another mortar sends Irving racing in circles, barking, whimpering, and jumping against the screen door. A deafening tank blast judders our front windows so hard that it seems like the glass should shatter into a thousand pieces, but it doesn't.
Doc peels Mother's clenched fist from his forearm and takes her hands in his. "It's all right, Miggie. He's all right."
"Well, why doesn't he call?" she asks. Tears roll down her cheeks.
"He's probably under a table, too," I say, and instantly regret it.
Doc puts his arm around her and shoots me an angry stare. "They probably shut the phones down, Miggie," he says, gently. "It's standard operating procedure in a coup."
Doc massages Mother's shoulder, reassuring her that Lynn will be safe at David's house. He gives her a cigarette, but she can't keep the match steady enough to light it, so he lights it for her. She sucks down a lungful of smoke and suddenly I feel ashamed for making wisecracks.
To me, nothing could possibly taste better than a cigarette, right now. Adrenaline loves nicotine. While the battle roars down the street, it occurs to me that Lynn has gotten the better deal in this nasty situation. He can hang out with his friend until the violence stops, but I'm stuck here with no pals and no way to sneak a smoke. Watching Mother crack up is making me antsy and nervous, and I want to run somewhere, do something, but there's nowhere to run and nothing I can do.
Doc is busy eyeing the front door as if he's expecting soldiers to rush in at any moment, so I slide closer to Mother and try to offer some sort of consolation, hoping I can calm her down a bit. But I'm not really sure how dangerous our situation is, or what to say. I suppose a misplaced mortar round could blow the house apart and kill us all, but it doesn't seem likely, although you wouldn't know it from the look on Mother's face. I put my arm around Mother's shoulders and peer out the open front door as an American Military Police patrol drives by slowly. Hopefully, the MPs will make sure the battling armies point their weapons in the right direction.
The Vietnamese radio stations have gone off the air, but according to Doc, the American radio station, AFRS (Armed Forces Radio Station), is still broadcasting. Until the assault on the palace is over, AFRS will provide the only information available beyond what we can hear or see happening in the streets outside of our house. "When things calm down," he says, "I'll turn on the radio and see if there's any news."
"Will you go get Lynn?" Mother asks.
Doc considers her request for a moment, then says, "Maybe when things quiet down alittle."
'But what if they evacuate us?" Mother pleads. "What if they make us leave withouthim?"
Doc rubs her shoulder for a moment then looks into her eyes. "We're not going anywhere without Lynn, Miggie. I promise. Okay?"
She nods and swipes at her teary red face with her forearm.
"Do you guys know where he lives?" Doc yells.
"Yeah," Lowell says.
"No," I say.
"Over near the market, on the way to Cholon," Lowell adds.
Taxis won't be cruising the streets, but we're one of the few American families that own a car, a big black 1949 Ford. I think Doc is planning to go get Lynn, but the only person here who knows where David Phu lives is Lowell.
After an hour of huddling in fear under the table, Doc suggests we go upstairs and sit in the hallway between the bedrooms. "We'll be safer there — no windows or opendoors."
Lowell runs to the stairs and goes up first. Mother sends me up next, and Doc follows her with the radio tucked under his arm. We sit down on the floor in the dark hallway and lean against the walls to wait.
It's quieter in the hallway. The battle is focused on the palace, so even though shells are still falling, they sound farther away. After a while, Doc decides to fetch a couple of cocktails from the downstairs bar. Mother needs a drink, badly. He crawls down on hands and knees.
A few minutes later, I hear shattering glass and Doc cursing: "God damn it to hell! Shit!"
I immediately think he's taken a bullet, probably from a well-hidden sniper with orders to shoot amateur bartenders on sight. When Mother hears the breaking glass, she's struck with terror, and Lowell looks like he's going to cry.
Mother gasps, lifting her hand to her open mouth. But before she can scream, Doc calls up, "I'm okay, I'm okay!"
I'm not sure who's most relieved, Lowell, Mother, or me. Hearing her shriek would have been scarier than having my hair set on fire, and Lowell's lower lip is still quivering.
Then Doc yells, "Leslie! Come get your mother's drink!" I slither downstairs and crawl back with a scotch and soda, handing it to my grateful mother. She takes it in her shaking hands, the ice cubes clinking against the glass like wind chimes. She lifts the drink to her mouth and drains most of the booze in one needy gulp.
About an hour before sunset, the shooting slows down, so Doc decides that there will be no better time to rescue Lynn. He mouths a few comforting lies to Mother, then Lowell follows him down the stairs and out the back door into the alley where we keep the car. I remain in the upstairs hallway with Mother, who looks like she's going to start crying again.
"Do you want another drink?" I ask.
She hesitates for a moment, then hands me the glass.
"Scotch and soda," she says softly.
I hurry downstairs and mix the drink as quickly as possible. I glance at the stairway to make sure Mother hasn't followed me, then rush into the alley behind the kitchen, fish a half-finished cigarette out of my pocket and light it. I take a few fast harsh puffs and crush the butt under my foot before hurrying back upstairs with Mother's drink (which tastes awful).
While she's nursing her drink, I tell her I'm going to close the door to the balcony in my bedroom. I know the door is already closed, but she can't see that from where she's sitting. I crawl in on hands and knees. Thanks to the battle, no one had noticed the bulge in my pants caused by the fat lump of bills in my pocket, money I'd made trading currency on the black market. I pull the bottom drawer out of my dresser and stuff the wad of cash way in back, where Lynn and Lowell won't think to look. I push the drawer back into place, then hurry back into the hallway where Mother is still quaffing herdrink.
Around forty-five minutes later Doc comes through the back door with Lynn and Lowell. He pours himself a Scotch, straight up (plus a fresh drink for Mother), and they crowd into the upstairs hallway where Mother and I have been waiting.
"Is it bad out there?" I ask Lynn.
"Every street is blocked off," he says.
"If I didn't have my AFRS ID card they'd never have let us through," Doc says. "One of the benefits of being with the press."
Mother is calmer now that Lynn is back, or it could just be that her third Scotch has worked its magic.
At sunset, Doc suggests we try to get some sleep. "It could be a long night," he says.
We crawl into our rooms and flop on the bed, but a minute later Doc steps into the room. "Under the beds, guys!" Doc says. "If a mortar round hits the house you'll be wearing the ceiling!"
The floor under my bed is cool against my back, but the slats supporting the mattress are just a few inches from my nose. I see the legs of my desk on one side of the room, the dresser against the wall opposite. Lynn and Lowell are under their own beds, on either side of me. Our bedroom windows face out onto Phan Dinh Phung Street, where the lights of speeding police cars pierce the darkness of my room, red streaks racing wildly across the walls. In the distance, the sporadic crackle of small-arms fire and the mournful wail of an ambulance siren punctuate the uneasy silences. There's nothing to do but wait. Morning will come, eventually.
The gunfire continues all night, making deep sleep impossible. The bed is too low to allow for tossing and turning, so I remain on my back, like a corpse. When I finally manage to doze off, a fresh volley from the .50-caliber machine gun down the street snatches me awake and I whack my forehead against the slats, which amuses the hell out of Lynn and Lowell.
Since we'd arrived in Vietnam, I had concluded that a normal existence wasn't possible here–this coup d'etat was just the insanity du jour, part of the constant conflict between the Vietnamese Army (who had the support of the people), and the Ngo Dinh Diem administration which was on the verge of turning it into an all-out civil war. The profoundly disturbing events of the previous eleven months were just as extraordinary in their own way, a macabre carnival of anger, violence, and suffering. But every crisis seems to generate a new one in its wake; nothing is ever resolved. For months, I've watched in astonishment as South Vietnam's government careens from one disaster to another, like a drunk smashing into garbage cans as he staggers down a dark alley.
As I drifted into sleep, I remembered that I'd initially felt utterly miserable about leaving Florida to move to Vietnam, a country that was rapidly turning into an absolute madhouse. I realized how silly I'd been.
Saigon was the best place I'd ever lived.CHAPTER 2
In 1962, no map I had ever seen included a country called Vietnam. In late May of that year, my brothers and I had been looking forward to another long, hot summer in Florida when my father received orders from the Defense Department to report for duty in Puerto Rico. Doc had told us that in a few months, we would sever our ties to Pensacola and the dull, hot suburb of Warrington where we lived, and begin life over again at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Celba, Puerto Rico. None of us wanted to move, but a military family isn't a democracy. Military transfers are commands, not suggestions or requests.
A couple of weeks later, on a sunny day in June, Lynn and I got off the school bus at our usual stop, the corner by the bridge over Bayou Grande, just down the street from our house. I was twelve, soon to be thirteen, and Lynn was eleven. We walked up the hill from the bridge, and I noticed my parents new Fiat in the driveway next to the black 1955 Cadillac belonging to my older brother, Lee. But it wasn't even three o'clock. Mother and Doc never came home early unless one of us was bleeding too much for a Band-Aid, so we hurried inside to see who was hurt.
Doc had come straight from his office at the Pensacola Naval Air Station and was still wearing his khakis. Stem to stern, he looked like the epitome of the Navy career man: above, a razor-clean, regulation crew cut; below, sharply creased pants ending at high-gloss brown shoes polished to a mirror finish. Five rows of colorful campaign ribbons decorated the space above the left breast pocket of his jacket–testaments to his service in the Pacific during WWII and Korea. His right sleeve was adorned with several long black hash marks, each stripe denoting a length of service, one for every four years. In the Navy's career system, the hash mark was the sign of the lifer.
Lee had picked up Mother early too, so we knew something important must be in the air. She was wearing high-heeled shoes, a slim red dress with large white polka-dots, and a necklace of fake pearls as if she were still at the bank, standing behind the teller window taking customer deposits and cashing checks. Her knees were touching Doc's as she sat catty-corner on the edge of the worn couch in our living room. About the only time my mother ever cried was when Doc was reassigned. When Lynn and I walked in, it looked as though she'd been crying for a while.
My three brothers and I gathered around to hear the bad news. Lee was perched on the arm of the couch, next to Mother. Lowell, my youngest brother, was sitting cross-legged on the floor, in front of the coffee table. The living room was dim; the drapes were closed, and no one had bothered to turn on a light. Lynn kneeled down on the rug next to Lowell. I dumped my saxophone case and books on the brown carpet and sat down. Then Doc said, "Vietnam." I had no idea where or what that was.
Mother apparently had never heard of it either. "Where?" she asked.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Saigon Kids"
Copyright © 2017 Les Arbuckle.
Excerpted by permission of Mango Media, Inc..
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
Chapter 1 Coup: November, 1963 10
Chapter 2 Orders: 1962 18
Chapter 3 Military Brat 23
Chapter 4 Vietnam 29
Chapter 5 Chi Lang Street 40
Chapter 6 The My Canh Restaurant 49
Chapter 7 Spike 54
Chapter 8 Saigon 64
Chapter 9 The American Community School 81
Chapter 10 Fight! 95
Chapter 11 Cathouse 107
Chapter 12 Blast-Off 117
Chapter 13 Marie's Party 123
Chapter 14 Sax Education 135
Chapter 15 A Cinder an a Bonfire 144
Chapter 16 Catholics and Buddhists 155
Chapter 17 Go-Carts 164
Chapter 18 More Sex Education 179
Chapter 19 Mrs. Tyson 186
Chapter 20 Flying Sandwiches 197
Chapter 21 Coup 207
Chapter 22 Masters of the Night 220
Chapter 23 New Year's Eve 231
Chapter 24 The Substitute 247
Chapter 25 The Capitol Kinh Doh Theater 256
Chapter 26 Monkey Love 263
Chapter 27 Dating? 271
Chapter 28 Down by the River 283
Chapter 29 California Bound 288
Chapter 30 Leaving 297
What People are Saying About This
"I was totally enthralled with Saigon Kids and found it to be a wonderful account of Southeast Asia . It is a timely, warm and at times, humorous account of two completely at-odds cultures. You won't be disappointed. Les cleverly captures the sights, sounds, language and smells of Saigon during a unique period of turmoil for both the South Vietnamese and in-country Americans. I highly recommend this read for an enjoyable and fascinating journey. “Saigon Kids” is an accurate overview on what it was like to live in this Vietnamese City. I know because I was there.” Lee Hansen, AFRS Saigon Radio Disc-jockey, 1963-65 "This is a vivid, beautifully written coming-of-age memoir set in Saigon during the tumultuous year that led to full-scale fighting by U.S. troops. It's also a hilarious white-knuckle tour of misadventures that, had they any idea, would have done in Les Arbuckle's parents." - Laurel Delp, Writer, Editor