I got these orders to Vietnam, you see. They said to report to "Coronado, San Diego" for training. I was afraid, and full of doubts (am
I really going to kill innocent peasants?) But I was curious, too. It was 1968, and the tall, clear-eyed Navy lieutenants we had as instructors in Coronado still believed in the war. The Tet offensive, only a few months old, was a U.S. victory, they said. I was impressed, but still curious.
For our Vietnamese language classes we had Vietnamese girls. "How do you feel about the war?" I asked one of them in the hallway after class.
Miss Quoc, a delicate young instructor who used to say "is that right?" when she meant "isn't it?" or "doesn't it" let the question slide off with a nervous, static laughter. Miss Yen, a more serious instructor who taught us in the afternoon, stared emotionlessly at the floor. "I don't believe in the Viet Cong or the Amercans." I was curious and enchanted by these Vietnamese. I used to wait in the parking lot after class and watch them walk to their cars. There were about ten or fifteen of them. The maroon or turquoise silk skirts of their ao dais fluttered like butterfly wings in the wind and exposed their black pajama pants. Their black hair, dark glasses, and white smiles evoked pictures of Madame Nhu arriving at LA. International from Saigon. At our last meal together before I caught the plane for Travis, I warned my parents not to be surprised if I came home from Vietnam married.
A Navy lieutenant I met in Danang told me to look up this wife of a Coronado attorney when I got back "to the world." They owned a lot of houses in Coronado and she'd find a place fore me. Mrs. Campbell, the lady, also ran a dress shop and commanded her maid in Spanish. With the same authority in her voice, she told me to get into her white T-bird. As she drove me around to look at houses, she kept slapping me on the knee and saying how she loved young Navy officers. Why, her first husband had been an Annapolis man and a virgin. Far into the conversation I casually asked if those Vietnamese girls still lived and taught in Coronado.
"Animals," she snapped. "That's what they are." And then she began telling me how the Vietnamese girls used their jobs to chase young naval officers ...
I went back to the language school to see if I could find any of the teachers I knew. Miss Quoc had gone to France. "For health reasons," I was told. Miss Yen was there but didn't remember me and didn't really seem to want to chat. Mr. Hoan, the director of the Vietnamese staff, and I talked about my experiences in Vietnam. (I learned later that Mr. Hoan had been vice-president of South Vietnam in 1964 under Khanh, two coups after Diem's overthrow.) I asked about the Vietnamese restaurant that used to stand on Orange Avenue in Coronado.
"That is closed down now," he said wistfully.
"Kevin. Hey, Kevin. This is Co Phuong, our duty chinaman. Co Phoung, this is Kevin. He's really big on Vietnamese." With no less grace, my roommate drags me over to meet someone at the MCRD Officers' Club one Friday night. I stumble over a few Vietnamese phrases, but all she does is giggle and anxiously look over my shoulder for other possibilities. She looks Mexican, I think to myself, and wonder if she's part French. Co Phuong, it turns out, married a lieutenant commander dentist who brought her to San Diego with him. Three days after arrival, she sued for divorce. "Why don't you go back?" I naively ask. "Don't you have any feeling for your countrymen still there?"
It's October 1972. The woman officer in charge of the Naval Amphibious School language school warns me that any official information about the language school would have to be approved by the Public Affairs Officer. So I settle for an interview with the new Vietnamese staff director. Walking down the dimly lit hallway to his office 1 notice that there are only four Vietnamese faces left on the staff bulletin board rogue's gallery.
Mr. Hiet, the director, greets me warmly and we sit down with a Mrs. Huang. I mention the week-old story in the L.A. Times about Mr. Hoan, his predecessor. The story said Mr. Hoan was running a Vietnamese restaurant in Mountain View.
"Oh, yes. I too have a Vietnamese restaurant, in Monterey. My sister runs it. There are about four in the San Francisco area."