When my turn for R&R came, I chose Hong Kong, primarily because my photographer pals assured me that shopping for cameras there was cheaper and required less hassle than in Tokyo.
After a few hours of air-conditioned splendor, our 707 charter dropped down out of the clouds, threading the gap between mountains and skyscrapers to land with a roar at Kai Tak Airport. I might have found the approach exciting if I hadn’t made too many assault landings in C-130s.
Herded off the plane, we were whisked through Customs and onto Army buses, officers on one, senior noncoms on another and the rest of us enlisted swine on the third. We drove slowly past a row of hotels, stopping at each as a beefy Special Services—not to be confused in any way with Special Forces—noncom bellowed out hotel room prices, meanwhile suggesting that the lower-ranking among us should choose one such place or another. I remained until there was no one but me and the burly Special Services sergeant. “What are you waiting for, the Ritz?” he bellowed.
I strode the length of the bus and sat down in the front row.
“I wanted to ask where you’d stay, if you were here for a few days and didn’t want to be around a bunch of drunken snuffies dragging whores up and down the hallways all night long,” I said.
He looked at me like a long-lost brother.
“A man after my own heart,” he said. Ten minutes later he dropped me at a backstreet Kowloon hotel; after a shower and a late lunch I found the camera store that Henri Huet had suggested and spent the rest of the afternoon happily trying to decide what to buy on my limited budget. I came away with two Nikon lenses, a tiny, half-frame Olympus with wide-angle lens, and, because PIO’s aged Remingtons were worn-out relics, an Olivetti portable typewriter.
After dropping my treasures at the hotel I was ready to play. Sure, I wanted a girl. Hell, I needed one. But I had done my homework, interviewing several guys returned from Hong Kong; I was looking to avoid the flocks of whores working the R&R hotels and the Suzie Wongs bleeding sailors in the storied bars of the Wan Chai District. Surely, I thought, there had to be at least a few Hong Kong girls who could sustain the illusion of a doomed romance for three or four days.
I found her the next day in an out-of-the-way restaurant in which my fair hair and pink skin stood out. She was dining with several half-grown children, running back and forth to fetch them dishes from the kitchen with an easy familiarity and when I caught her eye she gave me a dazzling smile.
I started for her table but she intercepted me. “Not here,” she murmured, pressing a card into my hand. The card directed me to exactly the sort of Nathan Road bar that I’d been avoiding: loud, smoke-filled and crawling with girls dedicated to vacuuming the pockets of visiting American servicemen.
She called herself Caroline Lee— not her real name, I’m sure—and she was really quite special for a working girl anywhere—and I don’t mean just her looks. We spent three lovely mornings sight-seeing and hand-holding; afternoons she disappeared for several hours—perhaps, as she explained, to care for an extended family that included siblings, elderly parents, an aunt and young cousins—and then found a good restaurant for a leisurely meal, followed by a night of gentle sex and much holding. I’m not sure which I needed more.
Her story, which even then I supposed might have been partly true, was that, desperate for money to support her siblings when their parents died, she had gone to work in a bar. Finally she had saved enough, with partners, to open a restaurant—but still needed to work as a bar girl several nights a month. With such a history, marriage to a respectable Hong Kong man was out of the question. A GI had proposed to her, she said, but she couldn’t leave her family and move to America.
We parted as old friends; I gave her the sum she’d asked for and all my remaining my cash. On the flight back to Vietnam I regretted not taking her address, before accepting that I would never know what became of her.
Later, back at Tansonnhut and drowning in the stifling heat, crushing humidity and stomach-churning stench of jet fuel, I waited hours for an up- country flight. Returning from a latrine call I found a young GI, dressed in civvies for R&R, squirming with anticipation in the next chair. He was perhaps nineteen, fair hair cropped close—a strapping, eager kid from the Big Red One, the First Infantry Division, who wanted everyone to know that he’d volunteered for an extra ninety days on LRRP—long range recon patrol—just to get a second R&R and return to Hong Kong and the girl he’d met there.
Before I could refuse he thrust a packet of photos at me. I recognized with a start the colorful logo on the envelope as twin to one in my AWOL bag. He pulled out pictures of his Hong Kong fiancée, the girl he was going to marry and take back to Kansas or Oklahoma or some such place—and I found myself looking at the lush curves, the long, shiny dark hair, the flawless olive skin, Eurasian eyes and the slightly off-kilter and unmistakable nose of Caroline Lee.
“Her name is Caroline,” he gushed. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
He’d met her on her very first day as a hostess in a bar on Nathan Road, he said, and he’d been sending money every month so she wouldn’t have to work there. His Mom was okay with him marrying a Chinese girl who might be a little bit Portuguese on her mother’s side. He didn’t care if she’d maybe been with another man before they met because she was special. They were in love.
“Very pretty,” I said, biting my tongue and agonizing over what, if anything, I should tell him. I settled for keeping my mouth shut and hoping that when he got to Hong Kong he wouldn’t be able to find the lovely Caroline.
It was a long flight back to An Khe.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.