He traveled to us out of the long past age of empires. An enduring farewell from a golden age of romance. The Frenchman roamed a war-torn land with only a cloak of enchantment. Walking daily amongst death and nightmares a mantle of kinship to all men protected him.
A little background: On firebases (FB) someone was having a beer bust at almost all times. The principal occupations were arty and infantry. Some big wig had decided long ago that we should have a little bit of down-time. If not everybody might just pick up their toys and go home.
This particular FB was set up astraddle a little road to some little village. The in/out points had a checkpoint but most passed though with little trouble. Two 105’s straddled the road at each end. One on each side of the road as there was no berm to fire over should we need to drop them all he way down. The main attraction to our location was the empty and unclaimed old chow tent beside us.
No idea where the tent came from. It was there when we set-up and there when we left. It served as a common party tent. Make shift benches & chairs along with 3 large used wire reels set on their sides. Having a party there whenever we had time off was great. We also had to keep the place cleaned as it sat in our AO (Area of Operations).
Now, there are always mysteries going on if you know how to look. Our mystery was Mike. I cannot remember his last name & no one was sure if that was his first name. Mike came by and partied with us often & would also stop to talk now & again. Who knows from whence he came?
Mike decided he wanted to join our battery. He was a Spec 4 and I assumed he had little control over his future. I was wrong. One morning he reported for duty & the chief put him to work. It was strange, but I liked the guy.
Mike had wavy natural blond hair & was a nice looking man. He was the type that upon entering a big room with lots of chicks he would be like a magnet to them. He talked and laughed getting along with everyone without exception. He and I were drinking, smoking & listening to Dylan tunes one night.
A little guy nicknamed “Bullet” stopped by to listen. Out of nowhere Bullet made a dumb statement (which he was prone to do ’cause high was his normal state).
Mike stood-up, took Bullet by the arm & escorted him out from under the party tent. What followed amazed me. Bullet standing looking at him. Mike proceeded to slap the krap out Bullet three times in rapid succession..
Then he leaned over & whispered something to Bullet & released him. Bullet then said, “Thanks Mike”, turned & left.
All the locals like to see and say “Hi” to Mike. The women were always fawning over him. The curious thing is they all called him “Sit-tem” which passed for Steve. When I asked him one day about this he just said it was another name, no big deal. Patrols generally blew the normal ones in place. Double-rigged or over-sized explosives got EOD attention.
Which is where the Frenchman came into the act. Mike encountered a middle-age surveyor one day . The wandering Frenchman worked for Pacific Architects and Engineers (PA&E). He provided services to the US Military. Of course the EOD guys invited the curious surveyor and his two helpers to, “come by & throw back a few,” with us.
Here is a story summary gleaned from this odd old wanderer.
To protect the innocent (and because I just don’t remember) I’ll call the Frenchman Jean. Jean was an amazing character in Vietnam: A survivor. He was born and raised in the North. The son of a plantation overseer (not an owner), Jean had survived. He survived the communists and the WW II occupation by the Japanese.
Jean and his aging parents had fled the family home in front of the Japanese advance. They fled into Cambodia and on to Laos avoiding the Jap invasion. He lost his parents to Asia and Jean fled to France to start a new life. He found himself an outsider and considered “suspect” by the natives of post-war France.
Returning to Vietnam he found work with the French then locked into a war with the communists under Ho Chi Mihn. The French taught Jean the art of survey. He practiced the skill until it become obvious the French Army would lose this fight.
Jean joined the flow of displaced Southern Vietnamese seeming contradiction of common sense. They fled into the North.
Aside: The first time I heard of this practice struck me. We had a hired old papa-san to help with some carpenter tasks putting up a new bunker. Asked where he was from he said , “Hanoi.” He had ventured into the south for high-paying work with the Americans.
Further, his family remained in some village outside of Hanoi & had no plan to follow him south. He sent most of his money back to them. To top it all off he claimed he would go back because it was “peaceful” there. Well, there was an education for a young American man-of-the-world grunt!
This much of Jean’s past flowed in ease with his telling. The rest seemed halting and sporadic report . It remained full of holes and vague, not spoken, facts. The French are craftsmen of the artistic shrug. “Ah, oui…..” Our Mike was an excellent under-study. He was able Jean’s movements with a limited French vocabulary.
Jean seemed quite open about his two helpers. Both young Vietnamese were health and of obvious Viet Cong military age. Jean opined at lease one and perhaps both were communist spies. Shrugging in true style he added, “I did not hire them.” I assumed that he would be dead if this were not true.
The Frenchman visited once more, never seen again, at least, by me. He took an empty bunk each visit with us. His helpers slept in unnoticed under a corner of the party tent. Jean was engaging, gracious and genial . We did not seek his relationship with the communists.
Where most Europeans died by communists hands, Jean and Co. survived. All three carried their PA&E employee cards displayed in open display. Laboring to establish new villages for those natives relocated they often moved about.
Looking back across the mountain of years there were many loose ends and big questions. It reads a little like the dust jacket on an old war novel. In retrospect, Vietnam itself now seems an unreal experience.