Sarah Beall grew up on the East Coast of the US where she got a BA in English literature. She went to Vietnam with the American Red Cross, and moved to Switzerland where she married a Spaniard and stayed teaching English to businessmen and adolescents. She followed family to the south of Spain where she has pulled out drafts and is catching up on her writing.
When we write we cross an invisible threshold into the secret place of our hidden feelings and depths. We think the unthinkable and say the unsayable. We write for others to recognise themselves in our characters and share their intrigues, to marvel at the humdrum or the horror or the magnificence of worlds created. When we write, we live again.
Rendezvous in Hong Kong
How can I touch the past again, when the hot tropic sun burned my skin like a thousand needles and the sound of out-going mortars exploded endlessly in my ears? Firefights blasted within a mile of us, but we were protected from the dangers of war.
It was December 1968 and I was in our American Red Cross Clubmobile Unit in Lai Khe. We were 110 Red Cross girls in South Vietnam, here to say to the soldiers, ‘We’re here because you’re here.’ Our job was to rescue the soldiers’ morale. They called us ‘Donut Dollies’ since our predecessors had handed out donuts and poured coffee for the troops in Europe during World War II. Now the climate would have killed donuts, although in support areas we still poured coffee.
University graduates, many of us were daughters of military men. We played board games with GIs in Red Cross centers and created quiz games which we took out to night defense positions, the troops’ camp sites on the front lines. Flown out by helicopter during the day when the Viet Cong, called ‘Charlie’, was asleep, we felt safe. Charlie only came out at night. We would visit six or seven of these camps taking our quiz games which were supposed to help the troops forget the horrors of the night.
We were a liaison between the military and the Red Cross – politically neutral, whatever that meant, something about not being photographed pretending to shoot a howitzer. Our invisible rank was that of First Lieutenant, so we socialized with the officers when we weren’t trying to cheer up the enlisted men. For me, we were a tempting frill in a war where everything was unreal except the green plastic bags carrying the muddy and mutilated corpses back stateside.
The French believe that soldiers in war need nurses and whores, but we knew that the GIs appreciated our innocent activities as a diversion. For most of them we meant an hour’s distraction and a dream of home. For me, we were goody-two shoes arriving in pairs with all-American smiles thinking this war is an odious sin against youth and sanity, but, saying, ‘I’m here because you’re here’. Flash smile. Look but don’t touch. You miss your girlfriends and brides back home, that’s who we’re here to remind you of, but look and do not touch. We’re simply your friendly Morale Booster Girls keeping your spirits high. I tried to hide my cynicism the best I could. I had wanted to serve my country right or wrong, but had quickly turned against the war. However, I accepted my responsibility and would see out my year.
Along with Air Force and Army nurses, we were an abnormality in the combat world of men, but our job was to remind them of home, their brides and girlfriends who were waiting for them to come home. How many times had enlisted men accused me of preferring officers to them; how many times had men from New York accused me of preferring Southerners; how many times had blacks and whites accused me of being racist? All that, because we were so few and because I was engaged to Winston. We weren’t supposed to start up relationships with men while serving our tour, but no one could stop us. I’d be seeing Winston the next day, which was all I cared about.
As I was finishing the ‘Information and Games Booklet’ for two new girls in our unit, Lt. Goodman came into our office. He was wearing flip-flops and his feet were dusty. Sweat stains darkened his jungle fatigue shirt under his arms. He looked jaded the way all the men did after months in country.
‘You still meeting your grunt in Hong Kong?’
I would never have stayed in this death trap if I hadn’t met Winston. I was too selfish to give myself to such a grotesque lost cause. My disillusionment had begun in the first few hours after arriving in muggy Saigon. Everywhere I looked I had seen young civilian Vietnamese men walking around and sitting in cafes and I wondered why our soldiers had travelled 10,000 miles around the earth to save them. I was repulsed by the war’s uselessness and waste. A political gimmick called the “Domino Theory” was making a lot of money for some fat businessmen supplying military PX’s (post exchanges) which sold every imaginable gewgaw to the soldiers when they weren’t risking their lives in the field.
‘Where will you meet up with Winston?’
‘I made a reservation for us in the Peninsula Hotel two weeks ago.’ I cleared my desk and stood up.
‘Why don’t I radio his unit to see if he’s left the field yet?’
At the communications centre, Lt. Goodman shouted into the mouthpiece of his headset. ‘Get me the 4th platoon, C Company for Second Lieutenant Winston F. Donnelly.’
I held my breath.
‘Affirmative, it’s C Company’. He looked at me and I nodded. He was unshaven and had bags under his eyes. I gazed out the door. The last pink clouds of sunlight streaked the sky, then faded fast into blackness; the sultry night air would bring no comfort from the heat.
‘Try B Company then,’ Lt. Goodman was yelling again.
I looked out at the silhouettes of the rubber trees lining the dirt road like sentinels.
‘I see,’ Lt. Goodman dropped his voice. He stood up abruptly. ‘That stupid radio operator just landed in country and doesn’t know a thing. We’ll try again at the Colonel’s. Let’s go to supper.’
Winston and I had been planning our escapade ever since we’d met on Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, my first assignment. There, the war was remote except for the exploding sound of F-4 fighter jets taking off and their pilots’ stories of dropping napalm or bombs we never saw. Of course there was also the horror of pilots never coming back. When we weren’t taking Kool-Aid to the mechanics on the flight line or writing letters for wounded GI’s in the hospital, the other Red Cross girls and I fled to the beach.
On one of my days off, I was sitting in the sun with some Air Force nurses when a pale man came smiling out of the South China Sea towards us.
‘Silka, this is Winston,’ said one of the nurses, ‘he’s a patient on my ward.’ He turned to pick up his towel and I was stunned by the sight of red sores all over his back and the backs of his legs.
‘Have you been wounded?’ I was used to witnessing the war’s prey in the hospital, but they were covered with bandages.
‘I have 70 stitches where shrapnel was removed. I crept into a tunnel when a hand grenade went off. I hope to get back to my men near the Cambodian border as soon as the scars heal over.’
His bravery drew me to him and as his wounds healed we glided over the silvery beach glancing out at the South China Sea. We travelled the world of those who think with one soul. At night he stole from the hospital into my room where we whispered about our future together and made plans to meet on R&R leave in Hong Kong.
Now Lt. Goodman and I walked in silence. When we arrived at the porch of our villa, there were no lights on. Betsy, one of the three other girls, met us at the door with a flashlight saying that the electricity had gone out.
‘I’d better get over to the Colonel’s; see you girls over there.’ Lt. Goodman didn’t seem very sociable tonight. Normally, he loved to chat with Betsy.
‘How’ll I pack in the dark?’
‘Worry about it later,’ said Betsy. ‘Let’s go to dinner.’
We always ate our meals next door with the base commander, Col. Lloyd, and his staff. Dinner was spooky by candlelight. None of the men told their usual raucous tales and we girls were too tired after a fourteen-hour day to force conversation.
Back in our villa, Betsy started putting paperback books into a big sack for the field the next day. We delivered books donated by local Red Cross chapters in the States for the men sitting guard in tanks along the road to Saigon.
‘Just think of me off to paradise while you’re sweating in the sun tomorrow.’ I lit a candle and hurried to my room, an after-thought stuck on the back of the house. Someone had painted it a dull green which took on a greyish tint in the candlelight. I began filling my suitcase. How nice not to wear our pale blue dacron uniform for a change, I thought. Strange forms danced on the wall as I folded shorts, blouses and sundresses and laid them in the suitcase.
I was getting into bed when Betsy came in. ‘You’d better get your bathrobe on. There’s someone here to see you.’
‘Winston!’ I cheered, throwing on my robe. I grabbed the penlight off my night table, slammed past Betsy and tore into the living room, blind in the dark and blind in love. I heard Betsy go back to her room.
Beyond the glow of the sliver of light, through the mess we always left on the wooden floor where we cut out magazine pictures and pasted them on cardboard to make our games, I slowed down and walked carefully to be sure not to step on the scissors.
On the porch in the muggy black air, I perceived Winston in green army fatigues with his back to me. “You made it!” I shouted as I shone the tiny flashlight on him. A whiff of insecticide hit me and I wondered why they would be spraying in the dark. In a slow-motion instant I noticed the insignia of double bars on his right-hand collar and wondered how Winston could have been promoted to captain; then I perceived a tiny cross on his left-hand collar and I watched the chaplain take off his cap and come in.
‘Good evenin’, Silka,’ he spoke with his kindly Baptist drawl. ‘Why don’t you sit down?’
I sank into a chair and he took my hand. His hand was big and warm like a baseball player’s engulfing mine. ‘Col. Lloyd asked me, on his behalf, to perform perhaps the worst duty in my career.’ He paused and looked away for an instant.
‘We all appreciate you girls’ choosing to come here for your country, but, as you know, the good Lord giveth and the good Lord taketh away. I’m so sorry, Silka, I must announce that Second Lt. Winston Franklin Donnelly was killed in action on November 27th.’
‘Oh, no!’ I hid my face in my hands. ‘NO!’ My whole being shrieked within me and I sat dumb.
I stood up, groped my way out onto the porch and stared into the darkness. The chaplain followed me out.
‘That’s impossible!’ I yelled. ‘Lt. Goodman radioed out to his camp. He’s got to be on his way to Hong Kong.’
‘Lt. Goodman called me early this evenin’ and asked me to come here.’ The chaplain put his arm around my shoulders, ‘Now, Silka, tell me about Winston.’
In the darkness, I could make out two soldiers striding by our house on their way to guard the perimeter. One of them beamed a flashlight on us and snickered to his buddy. ‘Look at that captain moving in on the Dolly.’
‘Yeah,’ the other answered, ‘them officers got it made.’