The Life and Times of Bruce Bramson


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Rex BOQ, Saigon

In 1965, the National Geographic had an article about Saigon, in which this photo appeared. The well-lit building is identified as the “Abraham Lincoln Library, a facility of the United States Information Service”. Now that I think on it, the USIS did indeed have the ground floor as I recall, but the rest of the structure was the Rex BOQ. The corrugated cover over the “rooftop club” had not been erected when this photo was taken. Le Loi Boulevard is at the right, heading southwest.

National Geographic Map of Saigon, 1965

This map, also from the June, 1965 issue of the National Geographic will help my readers identify some of the places I’ve mentioned so far. Much of the city was essentially off-limits to a tall american like myself: I stood head and shoulders above everyone in a Vietnamese crowd, and as such was perfect sniper-bait.

I continue with my letters—here are the next two:

21 April 1968

Dear Everyone~

I’m still using up this small paper that was all I could get when I first got here. Now that Xerox copies aren’t being made of my letters, I guess it’s OK.

Todd remarks in his last letter that the word I had in-tended to use was beaucoup. Now, “beaucoup” is correct as far as French goes, but it has been transliterated into Vietnamese as Boo Coo. Oddly I have been able to discover only two words of french origin that have come into every-day use by the Vietnamese, boo coo being one and “fini” being the other. But of course there are boo coo English words now coming into the language, one of the more amusing being “cao boi”. One reads about the Saigon cowboys in the states from time to time—they’re the Vietnamese equivalent of our “gangs”, and the starting point for their excursions is quite obviously american TV and movies. It is amusing. if rather tragic, to see some of them all dolled up in wild clothing (”Mod” is in vogue here right now)—and not one of them tall enough to reach my arm-pit. For the most part, they occupy themselves with minor thievery, draft evasion, and such, and so far have not gotten into the big-time dope and all that. SInce marijuana is indigenous and used at times by most everyone, there’s certainly no future in that!

The week here has been fairly uneventful. It is clear that any program I have hopes of establishing must wait until Dan Smythe goes—which should be fairly soon according to all the indications I can get. He simply has no vision whatever, and will delegate no responsibility. The operations group has been moved out of the lab, so now I have an office and a desk. By virtue of rescuing a typewrite from the PDO (Property Disposal Officer) and rebuilding it myself, I also have a typewriter. So far, no filing cabinet, and no supplies to work with whatever. When people bring in samples, I just tell them to report to their installation manager or commanding officer (as the case may be) that we are non-functional due to lack of supplies and I’m very sorry we can’t do anything for them. This alone should eventually bring about some pressure to get out from behind the eight-ball, probably about the time I finish my 18 months.

Dan’s latast bug is that I am supposed to visit all the PA&E installations on a sort of PR mission to tell them what the lab will someday be able to do for them, etc., etc. But as I see it, this is putting the cart before the horse: I concieve of myself looking ridiculous with a line like that, and would much rather make the tour armed with instructions and so forth showing capability NOW to do this that and the other, and please comply.

The weather remains about the same. Scattered showers now and then for brief periods, and continued warm. I am enjoying perfect health as the warmth seems to agree with me surprisingly well.

Looked for the April issue of National Geographic yesterday, but the March issue is still on the stands here at the equivalent of $1.50, yet! I assume it is the April Issue that has the article on Saigon, and it isn’t due here for another  day or so.

Todd’s letter expressed surprise about my finding a stamp-store in Saigon. You must understand that with the exception of the curfew, now 9PM to 6AM it is business as usual in Saigon, and  in the down-town section there are stores of every description open and doing a thriving business. Products from all over the world are readily available at fairly reasonable prices, if one shops around for them. There are at least three stamp stores down there, and I’ve passed others in various part of town. Everything is terribly overcrowded, and there are times when one can hardly move—walking—on the streets. The only businesses hurting now are the bars and prostitutes, since military passes are scarce, and the bars must close about 8:30. Now that Abrahms is to take over from Westy, there will be a wholesale removal of military from Saigon—a welcome and wholesome idea as far as I can see, but it will mean quite a bit of re-training of Vietnamese people when they go!  Apparently, Long Binh will become the military center for this area—already a large expansion program is under way to accommodate the influx.

Replying to Dad’s question, I still plan to get an 8mm movie camera, and possibly an inexpensive tape machine so I can send narratives along with the films. So far I haven’t had much time to explore this, though. Our PX privileges are limited to items $25.00 or less (recently upped from $10.00), which will allow for an adequate (though hardly hi-fi!) tape machine. The camera I have to get on the local economy, which will require some shopping ’round—and so far I haven’t even seen the model I want.

Luv again~

As the next letter describes, I found and rented an apartment. Essentially, it was a single large room with a balcony looking out over Le Loi Boulevard. The “kitchen” had been stuffed into what was originally a closet, and was essentially non-functional. I opened the cupboard under the sink there and saw numerous beady eyes looking back (huge roaches). So I said, “OK fellas: I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me!”—I never went near the kitchen again! The bathroom was off in a corner, rather rudimentary, with only cold water. Where the toilet emptied I never wanted to find out!

Sat. 27 April 68

Dear everyone~

Well, quite a lot has happened this week—nothing really earth-shaking, but enough to keep me busy!

Monday evening our bus broke down on the outskirts of Saigon (Gia Dinh), and I guess they didn’t get it fixed overnight, because it didn’t show Tuesday AM. So, I took the opportunity to look for an apartment. The owner of the Hotel I’ve been in since reaching Saigon decided rather suddenly to convert it to apartments, and the prices he proposed to charge for them were outrageous, so I decided to move. I found quite a nice studio apt right downtown, a bit closer downtown than I really wanted, but too nice and convenient to pass up. The new address is 49/1é Etage Dai Lo Le-Loi. That’s No 49, upstairs, first floor, Boulevard LeLoi, in English! The cross street, if you have the Nat’l Geographic map handy, is Pasteur. The Long Binh bus comes in LeLoi and turns out Pasteur in the morning, and comes in Cong-Ly to Le-Loi in the evening, so I’m much better located in that respect. Can sleep until 0600, get ready and go to breakfast at the Rex BOQ (corner LeLoi & Nguyen Hue), and catch the bus just before seven AM: in the evening, barring hold-ups on the hiway, I’m back to the apartment by 1800. All this is really a big improvement over former location. The place has a ti ti kitchen, reefer, and all conveniences except hot water—and I intend to rectify that just as soon as I can!

As if to answer my question whether or not electrical storms are known here, we’ve had three this week already! Monday night’s was a ways off but quite a show; Thursday there was another visible from LB, and some rain there. But this afternoon, mua mua (monsoons) hit Saigon for the first time, really. It took me (and a lot of others!) by surprise: about 4 I stepped on to a bus bound for the Cho Lon PX; it was just spitting a little then, and didn’t look like it would amount to much. Within a few minutes, it really began to pour, and walking the fifty-odd yards from the bus-stop into the PX I got SOAKED to the skin. It continued like that for close to two hours; I got re-soaked getting back to the bus—by this time the PX yard was 6 inches deep in water. We drove through foot-deep water on the way back into town, and there were, of course, jillions of stalled cycles, cars, trucks and so forth all along the way. I got drenched again going from the bus stop to the apartment, and after shedding my wet clothes, stood in my front window to watch the pandemonium on Le-Loi BouIevard for awhile—it, too was nearly a foot under water in places. About 1545 I stretched out for a nap—and when I awoke an hour later the rain had stopped and the street was clear of water! it is still wet out, but not raining, and the temperature is now about 70 degrees—quite delightfully cool by Saigon standards. Amidst all the rain, there was much lightning—some of it struck very close to the PX when I was there: quite noisy and spectacular.

We are all expecting another Tet-type offensive by the VC on or about May 1. You may hear of it before I, as before! Hopes for any real peace-talks are dimming rapidly here. Radio Hanoi has, predictably, been making propaganda hay out of Johnson’s hedging on the location, as any idiot would expect them to do: I am as inclined as they to suspect his motives, in view of his shifting positions. It has been said by some that China has nearly fifteen Divisions of troops stationed along the NVN border to assure that Hanoi will not go to any peace talks. Naturally, with our absurd policy towards China, there is no way for us to properly assess their role in this whole thing. The big question that nearly everyone gets ’round to asking after being here any length of time is when—in Heaven’s name—are we going to wake up? And if we ever do, will it be, as usual, too late?

It’s about time I turned in. All is quiet now. There were six mysterious explosions around town (probably incoming rockets) about 0230 this AM but then all was quiet again. What tonight holds no one knows, as usual. My friends in the Bamboo Telegraph tell me the VC won’t do anything this time  but, as with all that one hears here, I don’t rely on that much: it’s a perpetual game of “wait and see”.

Love to all

More letters coming up!



Written by Bruce

December 14th, 2009 at 9:53 pm