The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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I am transcribing my letters from longhand, exactly as written. It seems I was enamored of the mdash in those days: I used it far too often! After a while, I was able to obtain a typewriter, and these letters I should be able to reduce using OCR. We shall see…

Bear in mind, while reading the next letters, that I had been in Vietnam all of 18 days, and was beginning to get my eyes open!

Thursday, 15 February 68

Dear everybody –

Two letters, both mailed on the 10th, arrived today from home. I think improvement in delivery will be observed when commercial flights into Saigon are resumed The only way in (except military) is still Air Vietnam from HK or Bangkok. Pan Am has flown in a few charters, but no scheduled flights yet. Apparently, mail is going out on a better schedule; this is bound to lead to confusion and crossing of letters en-route, but so it goes.

I am well, and by no means hungry. Except for my first experience with “Ho Chi Minh’s Revenge” (the local euphemism for “Montezuma’s Revenge” in Mexico)—probably brought on by food but possibly encouraged by Primaquine (malaria pills)—there is little news. Vietnamese curfews have been relaxed somewhat again, a good sign.

The clippings and articles are much appreciated and I’ve been passing them around. Oddly, I liked W. Lipman’s article concerning his contention that Johnson and Wilson have failed to observe the meanings in power-shifts in Asia. The LA Times article “perspective” has only one debatable issue—re the declaration of martial law, which they see as smashing the “constitutional facade” built after the Buddhist revolt. This is unfair, from the present vantage point—only time will tell whether or not the “facade” is restored along with the return to normalcy. A coordinated attack (by outside force) in any part of the US would almost certainly be met with the same response, as was, for example, Hawaii following Pearl Harbor.

There is really little to distinguish calling out the Nat’l Guard to cope with internal disorders, or declaring Martial Law in the case of external attacks. Such times require prompt decisions—even if they later turn out to be the wrong ones—and simply cannot wait for a debate by a National Assembly. Even in the recent [USS] Pueblo fiasco, the decision on retaliation or negotiation was made by one man, regardless of what sort of “constitutionality” or other terms it (later) becomes couched in . . .

And Peter Arnat, who probably sat out the attack in his suite at the Caravelle [Hotel in Saigon], speaks of “man-high mountains of garbage in front of the BOQs”—implying falsely that the garbage accumulated only there: and the “man” to whom he broadly refers must have been (like himself in all probability) prostrate with “Beer 33″. The Vietnamese men are, indeed, small in stature, but the least of them—vertical—stands well above any garbage piles I’ve seen (though he would doubtless be entirely lost in the piles in New York or Memphis. . .

For that matter, on a pound-for-pound basis, the stamina of the Vietnamese (whatever their political persuasion) has to be admired, for it far outstrips our own. A larger-than-average VN man, for instance weighs in at around 120 lbs. One sees commonly pedicabs (operated by one man) carrying whole families, not to mention articles of furniture, malfunctioning motor-bikes, large potted trees, and such manner of things—and all accomplished for wages that amount to less than a pittance. . .

The women, in general a bit smaller than the men, are, when under 30-35 years old, amazingly beautiful and congenitally feminine in intriguingly subtle ways. The national garb, called an Ao-Dai, (usually seen in slightly modernized version—i.e., without the closed, high-neck collar—introduced by Madame Nhu) adds marvelously to the effect. The women age very quickly—seemingly almost over night; one never see an aging woman, only young ones or old ones. Some of the old women have their own grace and charm, most notably in their calmness and wisdom. . .

Now, with american civilians here, it is another story altogether. I speak mostly of men, because there are very few american women here. All but a very few are here

Beer 33

primarily for the money; second for the women & booze—both of which are much more readily available than in the states; thirdly (in many cases) to get away from family or other obligations; and last and least, to work. PA&E’s management (I don’t doubt that other companies are the same) is composed of a boneyard of retired military people, few of whom have any apparent abilities beyond boozing and girl-chasing, at which they apparently excel. Earlier I mentioned the local beer—”33″ (Ba-moui-ba, usually pronounced incorrectly as “bammyba”). It’s facetiously referred to as “half formaldehyde and half embalming-fluid”. It’s not a great deal stronger (in alcohol) than US beer, but the only beer I ever tasted that was worse was English “Bitters”. For myself, I drank half a bottle-ful, sent the label home for a souvenir, and will never touch another one! Like anything else, one can acquire a taste for it—it’s not unusual to see some nut here put away a dozen bottles in an evening’s time—but why to bother with doing so is a great puzzle to me, bad as the stuff is! And hard liquor—US brands—without all the domestic taxes, are incredibly cheap, and hence sell extremely well. The VNese drink very little, if at all, and never drink 33!

I  sent home the wrapper from a packet of toilet paper. I wonder at the significance of the fact that it is one of the few items one see still labelled in French. . .

In fact, a gov’t decree forbids any signs in any language except Vietnamese. One sees a few—many of course on US reservations—but around Saigon proper, very few. About the only common one is “WASH CAR” along the Long Binh-Bien Hoa highway. The entire area is “off limits” to US civs & mil pers, which leads one to suspect—accurately—that the sign means something altogether else than what it says. . . (They also do wash cars, incidentally!)

It’s now 10:30 pm—ooops! 2230—and time for bed. I’m feeling better now. The distant booms of artillery to which one becomes rapidly accustomed here have begun, and can be expected to last throughout the night as usual.Tomorrow arrives earlier than one wishes. So – love to all – hope you’re well and not too worried about me: I plan to enjoy this experience, and so far have not for a single moment regretted coming over.

Love –

That’s a modern bottle of Ba Moui Ba (which simply means “thirty-three” in Vietnamese), but the label is pretty much as it was in 1968. I’m told the beer has improved vastly: I certainly hope so!

So, how, after only 18 days in country, could I have discovered the sorts of things described in the letter above?  It turned out there were not a few people I came into contact with, PA&E folks and others, who were utterly disillusioned by the situation, and had no qualms about saying so: in these letters I am largely parroting them. Despite their misgivings, though, they were still in Vietnam! The reason for that, of course, was money. The eighteen-month rule for tax-free status almost guaranteed that guys who signed up for 18 months (as I did) would stay: they had nowhere else to go except home, which would negate their tax-free status.


Saturday, 17 February 68

Dear Folks~

Your note and clippings of Feb. 13 arrived today. Only four days, so I guess delivery is improving. The clippings are very interesting—most especially John Randolph’s one on Saigon as a “Sin City” ready for a knifing.

From what I’ve seen so far, I’m willing to bet that if the VC had not attacked, that article would never have been written. Yet everything he says of Saigon (and much more he didn’t say) is entirely true, VC notwithstanding.

It is clear to me that one of our biggest  mistakes in this “effort” has been to create the opportunity for the existence of companies like PA&E, RMK-BRJ,  and the various others who bring in the U.S. civilians. I cannot believe that any of the work we or others are doing could not be done through normal military channels just as effectively (if not more so), and at far less cost. The question boils down, of course, to the reasoning behind the existence of contractors to the military in a place such as this.

Certainly, the arrangement is not expedient, liaison between the military and the contractor’s employees gets to be a problem at times—frequently a bottleneck. The facilities constructed, operated or maintained by civilian firms are probably no better than the military could do for itself. There must be some other reason for the existence of our companies—and that reason is really very apparent here.

The U.S. civilian population here serves mainly as a channel for pumping money (US $) into the economy, in the mistaken belief that this will in some way benefit the Vietnamese. Americans being what they are, however, (cf. previous letter) the results aren’t as predicted (by economists, anyhow).

There are about 11,000 U.S. civilians here. They all have all the privileges of the military, can use most military recreation facilities and so forth. The only real distinguishing features between the civilians and military are 1) no uniform 2) higher pay 3) do not live in military quarters (some exceptions).

The single most prevalent local institution that figures into the economic situation is “the shack job”. Anything from 80.00 to 120.00 [dollars] a month buys the services of a mistress. There is nothing clandestine about it; the PA&E Asst to Chief of [redacted], who lives in this hotel, has his “wife” with him—a very charming Cambodian lady. While the “shack” is officially grounds for terminating, it is used only when they want to get rid of someone and can’t get anything else against him.

Now, one’s mistress is almost always not one’s maid. That’s a separate matter, though most maids only take care of one or two customers. They do all the laundry (for both), cleaning, bed-making, etc., for a monthly fee. So there’s another 50-75.00 per month going into the economy. Both the maid and the mistress, incidentally, pay VN income tax at a rate of about 40%. So does the hotel or apt-house owner; rents are running now 150-250.00 per month depending on location & conveniences.

There are other curiosities, though. For instance, it is commonplace for both military and civilians to get PX items to give their girl-friends and/or mistresses as gifts; this is perfectly legal. The most common items are cigarettes, beer and liquor. Now, the receiver rarely consumes these items, but sells them instead. (This is usually not taxable, because it is untraceable). Hence, a fellow who pays the equivalent of $1.00 or 2.00 for drinks in local bars is often paying for the very same liquor he bought for $1.00 or 2.00 for the whole bottle! The same for the other items mentioned.

Well—the whole business goes on and on. It’s all here. In effect, by allowing the expatriates to create here what they feel is some sort of utopia (more often euphoria!) there is created a channel for dumping thousands of dollars per day into the economy. The evidence of it is everywhere, but as I’ve previously mentioned even that which gets in by this route fails for the most part to filter down to the indigenous poor; and the inevitable inflation in this system really hurts them the most. One can really believe they will inherit the earth. . .

With great justification, many Vietnamese come to look on us as Santa Clauses. Every now and then a VC turns up (usually dead) who was employed by a U.S. company! Regardless of their political persuasion, every possible ruse to part U.S. civilians (& military) from their money or possessions is used, from outright thievery & trickery right on up. It’s become a high art—and great sport—here, the philosophy being, of course, that with everything to gain and nothing to lose, why not?

Well—why not, indeed? We set ourselves up to be taken, so we certainly can’t complain when we are. But on a different tack, is this really the way to win friends and influence people? Can it be safely said that these policies instill any degree of patriotism among the populace? Any degree of sympathy for “democratic processes”? Or for that matter, any degree of real freedom—the sort we espouse so strongly? I think not—and I think events in the past few weeks have shown it conclusively. If anything, the general populace tends to feel we failed to protect them, and/or that our presence here caused the assaults in the first place.

Another curiosity is the policy of non-aggression. South Vietnam has no guerillas in North Vietnam. It has, in fact, precious few troops anywhere near the DMZ. Holding that part of the country, and bombing near Hanoi is strictly our business. But down here, we never engage the enemy—we wait until he engages us. Today as we left Long Binh around 1 O’clock, we were massing a line of tanks along the LB perimeter; a hundred or so VC were actually visible setting up some positions a half-mile away from the road. Similarly, the road from Long Binh on out to Bien Hoa complex was “red” all day – i.e., closed to all but emergency traffic because of VC activity in the fields that were formerly jungle but now have been burned off, nearby. For a while, a bunch of them were out there digging a trench WITH A TRENCHING MACHINE (in broad daylight), and all we could do was watch. A single mortar well placed would have stopped it cold—but that is “aggressive”, so we have to wait and wait and wait—and when they open fire, we can go to work. I make no claim to be any kind of military strategist, but the situation just doesn’t make sense to me . . .

One reads in the States, incidentally, that the Black Market has been wiped out in Saigon. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. What has happened, fairly recently, is to close up the channels by which money made on the black market could be sent out of the country—obviously this goes counter to the plans of getting it into the country in the first place. But (discretely, of course!) one can play the black market all he wants as long as he spends it all here—all it does is stretch one’s dollars a little farther in terms of goods & services bought. Here again—though BM operations are grounds for termination, a rather high PA&E official told me himself where to get the best rates on converting “green” (U.S. $) into piastres. The official rate is $1=118$. The unofficial rate hovers around $1=170$ (transposition of the $ sign designates US Dollars or piastres [piastre = dong; piastre was a holdover from the French].

I’m happy to report the dispensary had just what I needed for the minor gastrointestinal disorder that kept me busy for a day or so. It’s one of the occupational hazards one encounters here.

Will do some looking for an apt., and may add to this tomorrow.

Sunday PM, 18 Feb

Last night was a bit noisy. The long-expected “third offensive” apparently was mounted, somewhat haphazardly it turns out. Tan Son Nhut was hit again, and a number of delta towns were struck by mortars, but no follow-up ground action ensued. Nevertheless, from 3 this AM on our sleep was frequently interrupted by very loud blasts from various directions.

Went down-town this AM—things are picking up, and a number of stores were open. Went out to the main PX in (Cho Lon) and picked up a few minor items needed—and found out where it is located. Looked at a couple of apts in the AM—not much good came of it though. Most of them were too far from the bus-line to be suitable. But I’m in no particular hurry—and with the raft of resignations from PA&E (and other companies) resulting from recent action, there ought to be some good places on the market soon. Napped in the afternoon—catching up on sleep lost (or at least interrupted) this early AM. Had a pleasant dinner with a congenial group here this PM, and am now about to turn in with the Asian ed’n Time & Newsweek—which should answer your questions re those periodicals in last letter.

How about a subscription to Scientific American for my B-day? That will solve the problems of checks going around the world several times—and it’s the one magazine I haven’t seen hide nor hair of since I got here.

So, another week begins –

Love to all–

We’ve been reading a lot lately about the foul-ups by the civilian contractors in Iraq: we learned nothing whatsoever from the experience in Vietnam! I later worked in several other nations where, though there was no war, there were a lot of U. S. expats whose primary purpose was to feed money into the local economy at a low enough level that less of it could be skimmed by the government (as opposed to funneling it through the government directly, where almost none of it trickled down to people who needed it).


Many years later, I wrote one of my “feelthy storiez” that incorporated some of my experience in Vietnam. Here is the relevant excerpt (from Back to Heartbreak Motel):

“Seeing that diminutive jockey sent me back to Vietnam once again. Viets are small people, and I thought the boys were especially cute. In those days, the ubiquitous garb for youngsters up to puberty (and occasionally well beyond) was a pair of brief shorts, sometimes a tee-shirt, and clogs: rarely much else. For a leg man like myself, it was paradise!

“I had arrived there with a group of other “round-eyes” just before the famous Tet Offensive launched by the VC in 1968: while that raged, we were confined to a small fairly modern hotel away from the city center. I knew nothing about Vietnam, so latched on to an older man who was returning for his third tour of duty:  he knew the situation well, and explained that as long as we laid low, we were in little real danger. The VC were after much bigger fry. But, almost two weeks without sex was a problem for me, then in my prime, and the situation was made worse by one of the boys on the hotel staff, who got steadily sexier-looking as the duration of my sexual deprivation increased. It seemed to me the lad made more than the usual number of excuses to visit our room, and subtle glances convinced me his gaydar had registered me appropriately. With my mentor around most of the time, I could not approach the boy, but I resolved to do so as soon as the coast was clear.

“However, my first encounter with a local fellow occurred in the whore-house just a short distance from our hotel. Once we were able to move about,  C. A. introduced me to getting a “steam-job and a blow-bath”, as it was locally known. I discretely enquired if the house had a masseur: of course they did, yet another vestige of the french occupation, I suppose.

“My first encounter was a revelation: I had never had any kind of massage in my life, but the practice of bathing first (useful, given the hot climate) was particularly enjoyable for me. The masseur’s name was Hung: he was small, wiry and strong! Yet, his touch was gentle as he soaped me all over, then rinsed me with cool water. After drying me off, he put me on his table face-down and went to work. He really knew his stuff! I found his rubbing, pounding, and punching very relaxing. When he tapped me to turn over, he discretely placed a small towel over my private parts and went to work on the rest of me. Of course, when he got to my legs, particularly my thighs, the little towel rose up majestically; I’m sure he knew it would. His touch became lighter as he worked his hands up into my groin, played with my balls, and ran his fingers through my pubic hair. By this time, I had let my left arm drop over the side of the table so I could explore his bare legs, and as he began working with me under the towel, I slipped my hand into his shorts: he had a nice little boner, but my fingers had almost no pubic hair to run through. When Hung put one hand around my engorged prong, two weeks’ of  frustration—repeated visual stimulation by the young boys all around, but no contact—worked their magic! He jacked me with his right hand as he fondled my shriveled balls and whisked the towel away just as I  got off: my gawd, what a mess! I shot my wad over and over, flooding his delicate hand: he in turn came in my hand. It was glorious! After another wash, it was over.

“However, it was commercial: not very expensive, true, but done for profit, not for fun. I resolved to find some play-mates who might be as intrigued by me as I was with them. The boy, Nguyen, at the hotel was at the top of my list, but the place was so small and intimate I knew anything I might do with him would be known within minutes.

“As soon as things returned to normal after Tet, I sub-let an apartment near the city center. I engaged Nguyen to help me move a few sticks of furniture into the place, at the conclusion of which he seemed loathe to depart. The massive bed captured his imagination, and he had long since captured mine. Seated close, I stroked his glabrous thighs, which was all he needed to begin stroking my somewhat hairy arms. His hard-on pushed at his shorts, and within minutes we were both stripped bare and pawing madly at each other. He seemed as taken with my body-hair as I was with his lack of it, and he was not at all bashful about sucking my dick, as soon as I had tasted his. He had a small prick, but in perfect proportion to his size; on his pubes there was not much more than the suggestion of a bush, and there was not a trace of fat anywhere. When he came, I thought I might drown: he seemed able to shoot forever, though he eventually calmed down.

“For the remainder of my tour in Vietnam, Nguyen dropped in several times a week; we carried on the same way every time, but neither seemed to get tired of it. I became hooked on the Asian somatotype, and remain so to this day.”

This is a snapshot of the masseur mentioned in the excerpt above

Nguyen was younger, and much better looking!

That’s all for this page: the saga will continue as time permits.



Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Posted in VietNam

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