Americans often speak of “R&R” any time they want to escape the daily grind, have fun, and refresh themselves before returning to work or duty. The US military has used the abbreviation “R&R” for “rest and recreation”; this indicates a time that soldiers, airmen , sailors , and marines are given leave to relax and unwind. Some military personnel
have thought that R&R means recuperation, vice and recreation.
It was the latter part of the summer of 1967 and I was stationed in Saigon, South Vietnam. I had received a telecom that my next assignment would be forthcoming. I would soon be getting orders where I would be going when I left Vietnam.
Being faced with this choice and not having my wife with me created something of a problem. The location in Germany was great, but the job was with the Army and sounded a little bit doubtful; whereas the job at South Ruyslip sounded exciting in the big Weather Central there. Various co-workers advised me either way. After much deliberation and discussion, I had decided to take Bitburg, Germany.
As I was filling in my form, another message came in that said to disregard the previous message; they had the wrong person. I was going to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Of course, I was elated over this news and could only share my excitement with my wife by sending a tape and letting her know that we would be going to Hawaii after I left Vietnam.
My wife and I had always wanted an assignment in Europe or Hawaii but had never received such. At the end of August, I received word that I would have a choice of two assignments in Europe: one was a little place in Germany called Bitburg, and the other was in England, the Weather Central at South Ruyslip.
Hank Brandli with Indian Snake Charmer and a Black Mamba.
Military personnel serving a one-year tour of duty in Southeast Asia were given one week of R&R towards the end of their tour of duty. My feelings toward my upcoming R&R in September were reinforced by this latest news on my assignment. I had seen so many guys go to Hawaii, meet their wives, come back, and get screwed up both sexually and mentally. I strongly felt that I should get the whole tour of one year completed, and then meet my wife in the new permanent change of station assignment in the island paradise of Hawaii. This plan left me with choices on how to spend my one week of R&R.
Among the several R&R choices that people had in 1967 were: Bangkok, Thailand; Hong Kong; Tokyo; Taiwan; Australia; Singapore, Malaysia; and Penang, Malaysia. There were many factors to consider in choosing my R&R.
In the Straits of Malacca
I had already visited Bangkok twice, and had a great time; but I wanted to see other places. Hong Kong was a popular”buying place”. Jim, my roommate, had bought all kinds of goodies there. One of the captains who worked in the weather outfit bought six or seven wigs for his wife, one for every day of the week. But I didn’t want to go on a shopping spree. So, Hong Kong was out for me.
One of my bosses was pushing Tokyo, where he had gone to have a vasectomy. He wanted all of us, all of his underlings, to have vasectomies because they only cost $35.00 in Tokyo.
He extolled the benefits of having one, but this drastic
operation on our privates didn’t appeal to anybody that I knew. In fact, save
for this one boss of mine, I know of no one who went to Tokyo on his R&R to get a vasectomy.
Taiwan was another kind of sleeper that I’d heard about. It was said that they had an awful lot of plush massage parlors, steam baths, etc., and that the girls were extra friendly. Also, you could get good bargains on things that a lot of people had purchased in Hong Kong or you could have the extra treats that the Republic of China offered.
Australia was just starting to open up. Though it sounded exciting, it still was a very – let’s face it – Western country. You could go to Australia on your own some time. That kind of thing didn’t really appeal to me.
I wanted to relax and see some exotic place that I would never have a chance to see on my own. Since the US Government had the planes chartered and the places geared up for American GI tourists, I thought I would like to take advantage of this.
The place that really turned me on was first told to me in a story by Sergeant Bob Spath. Bob, along with Mel Meyer and Al Langley, was one of the most talented forecasters in the Weather Center. He was the kind of guy to talk to about where to eat, where to buy things, where to go for special sights, or any of the other exotic flavors that were available in Saigon and the surrounding areas. He had a special talent to assimilate into the Vietnamese, and his credibility had much to do with the choice I finally made for my R&R.
Doing the Saigon Squat
The Vietnamese people, unlike Americans, didn’t sit in a waiting room when they ate or when they waited for something like a bus. They all assumed what we affectionately called the Southeast Asia or Saigon squat. That’s right! They would get down on their two feet and lower their bodies in kind of a sitting position that looked extremely uncomfortable. They would sit on their haunches, so to speak.
And, they would sit and read the paper, while waiting for a bus, and they actually gave the appearance that they were extremely comfortable. They would play chess; they would eat and of course, relieve themselves in this position. Their toilets consisted of a cement platform with feet locations, a hole, and nearby water faucet.
From the time they were little children they had learned to sit on their haunches and do whatever,
and it was completely natural. They could probably fall asleep in this position. From the time they were little children they had learned to sit on their haunches and do whatever, and it was completely natural. They could probably fall asleep in this position.
Well, very few non-Vietnamese guys could even get down into this position, let alone hold it. I couldn’t for many, many months. But good ol’ Bob Spath, he could assume the “Saigon squat” just like a native. He would sit there reading the paper or looking at weather maps in the office at the Weather Center. Every time he saw me, he would assume this position, at which I would break into gales of laughter because he did it just like the Vietnamese. I worked on it for many months and finally could get close to it, but I was never comfortable at it. My knees were killing me. I thought I was never going to get back into a vertical position again. Bob, however, would jump into that position and just squat right down. I used to kid him about it. I would have loved to return to Boston to take the MTA (or “T”) and assume a “Saigon squat” reading a newspaper while waiting for the next train. It would be priceless to watch the looks on the faces of the proper Bostonians and view their amazement at what the hell I was doing.
Bob Spath, master of the “Saigon squat”, took his R&R in Penang, off the coast of Malaysia. This long Malaysian peninsula continued from the southern part of Thailand. On the map it was very long, skinny, and looked like a snake extending out with the Indian Ocean on the left, the Gulf of Siam on the right, and separated from Sumatra by the Straits of Malacca. There were two R&R locations or sites on the Malaysian Peninsula” Singapore and Penang. Singapore was very famous as a “Hong Kong southwest”. In Singapore, you could buy the goodies of the Orient. You could buy cameras from Japan, motorcycles from Japan, and silks from Thailand You could buy jewels, silver, jade, paintings, watches, Swiss watches -- anything in the world. It was sort of a free port Mecca for tourists.
North of Singapore, in the country of Malaysia, was another R&R place called Penang. Penang was an island just about 30 miles off the west coast of the Peninsula that the Australians occupied in a small part as a military base. To get there, one had to fly into Butterworth Royal Australian Air Force Base and then take a ferry to the island of Penang. The island itself had restaurants and hotels. It was really a local tourist island such as Bermuda or the Bahamas would be to us in the United States.
Bob had told me how he had spent his five days on Penang in a resort that was overlooking the Straits of Malacca. The food was fantastic and inexpensive. And the beach was outstanding and quiet. He proceeded to tell me all these classic stories. One in particular was about this small little motel resort. It was about 10 or 15 miles outside the actual city of Penang. Here you could buy beautiful filigree silver, pewter; you could buy jade, or just about anything, as well as have a relaxing atmosphere to go to every evening or afternoon or whenever you didn’t want to do any shopping.
Well, Bob convinced me in about half an hour that’s where I was going -– how exotic. I would be going to Penang, Malaysia, a place that I would probably never again have the opportunity to visit. It would eventually be closed as an R&R site because not too many people went there. Most of the GI’s were looking for one big exotic whorehouse or one big exotic Macy’s to buy goodies. Very few were looking for the things that Penang offered.
I got my alert for Penang the last week in August. It was for a five-day R&R tour that would begin around September 19th, two months before I was scheduled to go home. Naturally I had sent a tape to my wife and told her how excited I was with this place. We had both loved quiet beach atmospheres. I planned to eat the good seafood which this place offered.
When you began an R&R flight, you would naturally get your orders, and you would have to report to an oddball location out on Ton Son Nhut called Camp Alpha, which was almost like a tent city. You would report to these makeshift buildings with your orders, be given your boarding pass, and check your baggage for the flight. Then you would be put on a bus and driven to a remote part of the base. At this point, at least in our case, a Pan-American World Airways DC-6 propeller plane would depart for a three- or four-hour trip to Penang, Malaysia.
Camp Alpha was dusty, dirty, and sweaty. It gave you many suggestions that you would never get to your destination. Something would happen: the bus would break down; they would lose your orders; they would lose your bags. In spite of appearances, it all worked out very smoothly. I was amazed when I actually sat down on the plane. They let officers on first, and I was the third officer of a total of four to board. The rest of the plane, for some crazy reason, was filled with young Army GIs that had the Big Red One on their uniforms, signifying the fact that they were part of the 1st Infantry Division from Lai Khe. They were singing and carrying on and just having one hell of a time in the back of the plane. The other officers and I, although we felt the glee that these young kids felt, were a little more reserved. But we were full of the same anticipation.
Stories had spread about what we were going to find at Penang. I soon found out that all these young GI’s were going down to Penang to get laid. Evidently they had heard that there was an unbelievable amount of local girls who didn’t cost that much: there were Indian girls, mixed breed girls, whores of all shapes and sizes. These guys were going to have one big gang-bang in Penang, which was completely opposite to the way I pictured Penang. I pictured myself sitting on the beach, eating fish at a lovely little table, palm trees blowing, and eating fresh fruits of all kinds. All these guys could talk about were the whorehouses. So I didn’t know what to expect. I guess Bob Spath had told me one thing and these other 80 or so guys on the plane were expecting something entirely different. So it made the trip for me a little bit more exciting because I really thought, “What the hell are we gonna have down here?”
The plane landed at Butterworth Royal Australian Air force Base, and we were shuttled off into a bus and driven for about 20 miles. The bus was put on a huge ferry that took us out into the Straits of Malacca and to the island of Penang.
Penang was the first British trading post in the Far East, established in 1786. It is a bustling city with a unique blend of the East and West reflected in its heritage buildings, as well as in its lifestyles, food, and customs of the local people.
Georgetown, named after King George III of England, is the seat of the State's administration, commerce, education, social activities and entertainment. Among the places of interest in this city are Khoo Kongsi, Kapitan Keling Mosque, Sri Mariamman Temple, Fort Cornwallis, and Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram, a Buddhist temple with one of the world’s longest reclining statues of Buddha nearly 110 feet long.
He proceeded to make a call right from the ferry and gave me the bad news that the place was completely booked by regular tourists from Australia, and that I might be able to get it the last day or so. But he assured me that there were two or three other fine hotels that were not that far away and that I could catch a cab for a very nominal fee to take me to the beach. I could still eat lunch at this place and have the best of both worlds.
He recommended the International Hotel, formerly called the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, which he said was also on the Straits of Malacca. He said it was a more modern hotel that had a swimming pool and beautiful scenery. It was also quiet and air-conditioned.
My disappointment immediately changed to one of delight. I was now looking forward to staying in a hotel that Somerset Maugham had stayed in, and where he had written some of his famous novels. Other famous guests at that hotel included Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Tyrone Power. And yet I would still have access to this gorgeous serene beach area that Bob Spath had so highly recommended.
The ferry docked about half hour after it departed. We once again got on the busses and proceeded to a local bank where we converted our American Express traveler’s cheques, our piastres or whatever we had, into Malay dollars. A Malay dollar went pretty far in Malaysia. I would discover this little financial tidbit a little later in my stay.
We waited in lines – lines that I hated. The one thing I endured for my whole tour in Vietnam which, to this day, still bothers me is a line. Everywhere you had to wait in line – wait in line for a toilet, to cash a check, wait in line for food, for an elevator, wait in line for a bus, wait in line for the BX, wait in line for a ration card, wait in line for snack bar items, wait in line to go into a club, to go to a movie -– there were endless lines. And these weren’t short lines; some of them were unbelievable. And this was just one more episode to get behind me before my real R&R could begin. All I had left to do was get through this line in the bank, convert my money, then go over to some other place and show my shot records. When this was done, we were finally allowed to go to our hotels and begin our time of rest and recuperation.
It turned out there were only four or five other US servicemen staying in my hotel. Most of the others were staying at a hotel – I don’t remember the name – that was, I believe, the “big whorehouse in the sky” to all these guys. Anyway, they were all going to stay there, close to the action, close to the bars, close to the center of the city. And they were all running and yelling and screaming, excited and laughing and joking and hauling their bags and practically tearing out of their uniforms to get at the action.
The International Hotel was only about one or two miles away. It was all that the R&R guy had told me. I discovered that it was modern and had a huge lobby. They had my reservation. A young boy brought my bag up to my room that overlooked the ocean - the Straits of Malacca in the East Indian Ocean. My room was on the second floor of a two-story, Holiday Inn-like facility, only a little larger than a Holiday Inn, and a little more exotic. The bellboy opened the room. I immediately went inside to a huge air-conditioned suite, a bedroom with a little sitting room off to the side, and a bathroom. The air-conditioner was extremely comfortable. The window and the telephone were near the a/c, and there was no television. I immediately drew a bath. I had a bottle of booze in my suitcase. I started to drink the water instead. I had heard about the water being from natural springs in Malaysia and how delicious it was. We were informed by the R&R officer that there was no problem in drinking the water. It was cold and tasted delicious. I got into the bathtub and soaked for a while. I could feel the stress of the war floating away. Away went the dust, the fatigue, the work ethic that had been ingrained in me, the bombing missions, the weather patterns, the busses, the trucks, the hubbub of Saigon cowboys. I just let it all soak away as I sat in the bathtub, a huge bathtub in a large room at the International Hotel in Penang, Malaysia.
After I got out of the tub , I shaved, put on a pair of slacks and a short-sleeved shirt, took my wallet with all my money in it, locked the door and went down to the lobby to take a look around. Off to the side of the lobby was a large patio with a big swimming pool and an outdoor bar. I went out and saw that there were only a few people around the pool. I sat and was immediately greeted with a friendly smile by one of the Malay waiters. He asked what I would like to drink. I told him a Beefeater martini on the rocks with a twist, hold the vermouth, and there it was. I think it was fifty cents. I couldn’t believe it. I had a couple of these, walked around, and looked over what Somerset Maugham must have looked at for years. They had cannons emplaced around the walls. Below the walls were the rocks where water splashed continuously. There was very little wave action; nevertheless, the waves splashed up against the rocks.
I decided to walk down to the center of town. After I had a couple of drinks, I walked down a beautiful paved, tree-lined, balmy area. On the left hand side of the street were large parks and beautiful homes. On the right hand side were shops and the outskirts of the city. I gradually worked my way around like a spider into the center of the city where I was greeted with movie theaters showing “James Bond” movies and stores selling all that was advertised – pewter, silk, and cameras. I went to one particular store and looked over the filigree silver pins which were selling for $1.00 a piece – gorgeous pins made of fine silver shaped into flowers, fish, or butterflies. They were very, very popular to send home to wives and mothers and sweethearts as gifts. They were probably worth ten times that much back in America. I had looked around and figured that these items were the best deal. So, in a day or so, I went back and picked-out some of the merchandise that I would bring back from Penang. There were pedicycles, such as I had seen in Thailand and Saigon, abounding everywhere. A pedicycle is a bicycle-driven vehicle where you would sit in the back. I immediately hailed one and had him drive me around the city. He took me around to the shipyards, their Wall Street, their banking areas, around to the movie theatre district and the different bars. I immediately spied a bar that stuck out – the Boston Bar. I, being originally from Boston, had found a bar named after my hometown on the other side of the world. I would be there for a drink that night.
After I had seen all there was to see, including some excellent looking Chinese restaurants, I had the pedicycle take me back to the hotel. I would be visiting some of these places again before I left the island to sample some of their delicacies.
It was later in the afternoon, almost supper time, and I decided to go down to one of the fine hotels that had a restaurant on the top floor overlooking the city. This was recommended to me by a couple of people. I took a pedicycle to the restaurant and went upstairs to the top floor where, overlooking the city of Penang, was this very modern, very plush restaurant and cocktail lounge. I went into the lounge, had a couple of drinks and immediately entered into conversation with an Australian who looked very much like Trevor Howard, the movie actor. But this Australian had been in Southeast Asia, and he proceeded to tell me his views. He was a commando commander. He told me how the war was going and how he would handle the war if he were in charge. He continued on about how the Korat plateau in Thailand was for defending by tank commanders against the onrush of hordes of North Vietnamese or Laotians or Chinese. A lot of things he said made sense. Thailand was the country to defend -- not all of Southeast Asia, not South Vietnam. We should all fall back and set up our defenses in Thailand, specifically around the Korat plateau in the center part of Thailand. Then we would be in a position to just dare anybody to cross the boundary into Thailand. In other words, we should protect Thailand, which was really the future, the hub, the center of Southeast Asia, and that’s where we would maintain a strong deterrent against any possible aggression. And the rest we would give up or let go, whichever way their destiny desired.
Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram
Worlds Largest Buddha
The R&R officers who were in charge were unbelievably courteous. They gave us briefings when we were on the bus and when we were on the ferry. On the ferry, they told us the good places to go and they pointed out sights. It was just like a regular sightseeing tour, and we really hadn’t even arrived at our destination. I asked one of the R&R clerks about trying to get a reservation or trying to get a room in this hotel overlooking the ocean:
this small, quaint, palm-tree-studded villa, located next to the beach.
Of course he was right. I had been in the Korat plateau. I had witnessed what he spoke of in my satellite pictures. He was indeed right as far as the weather, terrain, and overall geographic stratagem.
After four or five drinks, we were feeling no pain. We went into the restaurant and had a sumptuous meal topped off with what looked like a cantaloupe/watermelon combination with ice cream on it. I don’t know what this fruit was, or what it was called; but I do know it was delicious.
We said goodbye. His family was staying in the area. The Australians had apartments in Penang, and they took the ferry over to work at Butterworth to fly their planes or whatever their particular organizational requirements were. We said goodbye about 8 or 9 o’clock, and there I stood in front of the hotel, slightly under the weather, but nevertheless eager for some more exploration of the city.
As I walked down the street in the general direction of my hotel, I spotted the Boston Bar. Well – I must go up. It was on the second floor, and it was a typical bar like in any city in the world – overhead fans, dimly lit, girls in every corner, and of course a continuous influx of young GI’s who were with me on the Pan-American DC-6 that had arrived at noontime.
I went over to the bar and had a drink and was immediately approached by an exotic looking girl with very black skin, but very, very pretty. She sat and asked if I was a pilot or on R&R, which I said I was. She asked me what my rank was and I told her I was an officer and a captain, and she thought that was exciting. She asked me where I was from in the States. I told her I was from Boston. She proceeded to tell me how she worked in Boston for many years. She worked for the Perkins Institute for the Blind. She spoke flawless English. She was instructing handicapped people and was married to a very wealthy man. She went on and on. To this day, I don’t know if she was telling the truth or not. Somebody told me later that she was just piling it on and was full of bananas. But she told me she was now working as a bar girl. Her husband had divorced her. She was originally from Ceylon and had come to Malaysia and married this guy from a very prominent family. She kept telling all this, but, let’s face it, she was a hooker. She wanted me to come back to her room, and for $25 she would show me all the tricks. Well, I really wasn’t interested, but I was enjoying the conversation. I was enjoying the atmosphere even more, because there was this one girl across the room who was dancing with all these GIs, and she was really a knockout. She was about six feet tall; she was statuesque; and she had the most beautiful body I had seen any place in a long time. She looked like a movie star. Anyway, she was the highest priced hooker at $25 for a half hour, and all these guys were queuing up to take her in the back. The girl I was with was telling me all about her. I was asking her different things about the VD rate and what have you, and she was laughing and kidding around, and she said, “They’ll find out.”I was there for one or two hours. We had a few dances. I had a couple more drinks and bought her a couple. She had the most unbelievable complexion. I wanted to touch her skin because I thought it was like velvet -- I thought it would leave a little black mark like charcoal. I told her how flawless her complexion was. She smiled. We had a couple more drinks and said goodnight, much to her disappointment. I know she was getting a cut of the drinks I was buying her at the bar, so I didn’t feel as though she was giving me free conversation. But I enjoyed the moment and the atmosphere. My first night was drawing to a close, and the fact remained -- I had been in the Boston Bar.
I went back to the hotel at; I guess it was 11 or 11:30, after a good long walk. I couldn’t sleep. I went down to the pool area, and there were a couple of girls swimming. There was a young American with whom I quickly became acquainted. He was from Massachusetts as well. He was an Army Lieutenant. We struck up a conversation, and he proceeded to tell me that these girls were Australian school teachers. I made a mental note of it. I was tired and went to bed. This was the end of my first night. There would be three more nights of my R&R, a total of four nights and five days before I’d go back. I wanted to make sure I maximized my every day.
The next morning I awakened about 8 or 9 o’clock, went downstairs, and there was Jim, the Irish Lieutenant from Massachusetts. He was waiting to have breakfast. I asked if I could join him and he said yes. We sat on the terrace, were given a menu, and ordered some eggs and bacon. The waiter asked us if we would like some fresh squeezed orange juice. I said, “Oh, yes that would be wonderful!” He brought out two large 16-oz glasses of orange juice. It was a hot climate and the terrace wasn’t air- conditioned. Jim and I drank down the sweet juice. I said, “My God, that was delicious. I gotta have another one.” I called the boy over. “Hey, I’d like another one.” He looked me like – what – are you crazy – you’re so extravagant, you Americans. I asked, “How much was that?” He replied “One dollar.” I clarified, “A Malay dollar?” He said, “Yes.” I exclaimed, “Beautiful, bring me another one!” I couldn’t pass up the chance to drink fresh squeezed oranges for 33 cents for a 16 ounce glass. It was an unbelievable breakfast.
Jim had commented to me, asking if I had drank the water, and I said yeah. He said, “I think the water is not as good as the R&R guy said it was, or, the water is so pure that my system can’t take it because I really got the runs something fierce; in fact, I’m not leaving this hotel!” I said, “You gotta be kidding me. I feel fine.” I told him my plans for the day were to get my buying out of the way, and then we parted company.
I hired a pedicycle, and had the driver take me to the shopping area. I went to this beautiful store where they had filigree silver. I had enough money with me and bought 15 little filigree silver pins for a buck apiece, put them in a little bag, and proceeded to the other stores. I wanted to buy a pewter mug. I had been reading Robert Roark, Hemingway, and every author that ever talked about any place where they drank out of pewter mugs. Malaysia was the area where most of the pewter came from. I thought I would get a pewter mug or silver mug or whatever they had. I went into this one store and saw some beautiful pewter mugs; in fact, they had pewter mugs, pewter salt and pepper shakers, pewter everything. A friend of mine was getting married, and I thought here’s a beautiful gift for him. So I bought that and I had acquired another bag of stuff. One salesgirl told me that I should really buy a solid silver mug, which she proceeded to show me. It was displayed in this beautiful showcase in this beautiful jewelry store that looked like it could have been Macy’s in New York. I looked at the silver mug, and I was really tempted. But it was something like $85 -- which I’d buy today, but back then, $85 was ridiculous. But it was solid silver –- a gorgeous mug.
As I was sitting there looking at the mug, all of a sudden I got this unbelievable cramp in my stomach. I knew I had to go to the bathroom in five minutes or less. I asked the girl in a kind of desperate cold sweat fashion “Is there a toilet in this place?” She looked at me, smiled and said, “Right through the door.” Well, I thought, “Great – this is great – there’s got to be a toilet, just like the US – like Macy’s in New York. There’s going to be a bathroom, a great American bathroom, right through the door. I mean, the store has got glass cases, silver, inlaid lighting, gorgeous glow – I mean – sure – no problem,” I said to myself. So I proceeded through this door, and there I entered this -– I don’t even want to call it a courtyard; it was a stable; that’s what it looked like -– a stable. And there were three or four cement footprints, a la Saigon, with straw thrown around, and like a hole in the cement where you were supposed to squat and do your thing. I couldn’t believe this. The stink was like the worst barn I’d ever been in. And here I had just come out of the most luxurious jewelry store that you could find in any city in the world, back into 200 B.C. I said what the heck is this? I mean there was just no way I could do this routine! I immediately looked down at this sight – straw and cement and cubicles and smell, and I just panicked. I said, “Oh, my God.” I grabbed my bag and ran out of the store, got a taxi to take me back to the hotel. I don’t know how I made it -– I did make it. I proceeded to spend my afternoon with Jim, around the pool, around the toilet, around the hotel.
However, all was not lost. We struck up a conversation with these Australian school teachers, one of whom was a real bitch. As far as she was concerned, we were American mercenaries, and she didn’t want anything to do with us. The two girls were both single. We told them we were married, and just wanted to see the city. One of them was really nice. She wasn’t the most attractive one; the bitch was the attractive one. Nevertheless, we talked a while, and they had to go teach school and they left. We found out that they were staying in the same hotel as us, but we didn’t know what room.
The rest of that afternoon and that evening Jim and I stayed around the hotel. We ate in the hotel, but did not drink any more water.
The next day was my third day, second night -– I only had two to go -– I went downstairs and there was Jim. He was talking to two American girls. They were nurses and were on an overlapping R&R. They were going home the next day. They were with a Roman Catholic priest, a young military chaplain, also from Massachusetts. They were going to go out to the beautiful hotel by the sea that Bob Spath had originally told me about. They were going to rent a car to do this, and asked if I would like to come along. The five of us could go. I thought this would be great.
We took off about 9 o’clock, drove along the coast -– beautiful coastline. It looked like Cape Cod or Florida or any of the beautiful seaside areas -– waves splashing against beaches, palm trees, grassy areas, sandy areas, rocky areas, roads that came extremely close -– within 50 feet of the ocean -– and disappeared into heavily wooded areas.
We pulled into the parking lot of the beach hotel, walked around the patio and out to the main beach area, which was covered with tables where people were eating their breakfast. The beach was another 150 feet or so away. It was just what Bob had described to me – gorgeous, quiet, idyllic surroundings next to a beach frequented by Australians and wealthy Malaysians who were on their vacations. This was their place, and that’s why I couldn’t get a room.
Well, the five of us went into the bath house, put our bathing suits on, went swimming at the beach, and spent a few hours frolicking in the surf. After we finished, we all looked at each other and decided to go eat. I told them what Bob had said about this place; that the seafood was unbelievable and you could get served right on the beach or you could get one of these small tables where you could sit around on mats and they’d bring you drinks and food. We all ordered a couple of exotic drinks -– Mai Tai’s and Singapore slings. We decided to order their seafood; fresh fish fixed with all the trimmings. They brought it all out, right to the beach table. We sat by the sea and had a fantastic meal for some ridiculously low price -– about $2.
After the meal was over, we sat and talked and relaxed. Suddenly we were descended upon by a couple of magicians whom Bob had also told me about. They performed their magic feats right there in the sand beside our table, making things disappear, doing pea tricks, and all kinds of little rituals. After they finished, we applauded, they stood up and we gave them a couple of dollars and they were excited.
Then, as from nowhere, a snake charmer suddenly appeared. He had a big black mamba, supposedly a poisonous snake. He had his little trumpet. He played his little flute. Out of the basket like the old Indian cobra routine -- and he proceeded to do all his magic tricks and asked if we would like to take pictures with the snake around each one of our necks while he blew his little flute. At first I was reluctant but after some prodding, finally agreed. The priest snapped all kinds of pictures of all of us. We paid a small fee for this unbelievable on-the-spot entertainment. It was like something right from Ed Sullivan’s show, “Toast of the Town.” I couldn’t believe we were actually doing this gig.
After lunch, we walked around the grounds, went back in swimming again and finally, at about 5 o’clock, we decided to go back to the hotel. When we got back, the five of us each went our separate ways. I told them I had other plans that night. I really just wanted to go to a Chinese restaurant and wasn’t sure if they all wanted to do this. They were leaving the next day and had to pack. Jim was still having abdominal problems and didn’t want to go adventuring. He figured he had done his thing for the day. So I went back to my room, had a nice hot bath, cleaned up and decided to go to a Chinese restaurant.
I hired a pedicycle instead of a cab, and he drove me through the streets, down some of the side streets that I hadn’t seen before, through the residential area of Penang. It was so quiet; all you could hear was pedaling of the pedicycle. It was a beautiful starry night, beautiful smell of flowers, balmy but comfortable. He drove me over to the Chinese restaurant where I proceeded to gorge myself on their five or seven course deluxe meal with Peking duck. It was delicious -– truly a culinary treat -– and I enjoyed every bite.
After that, I hired a pedicycle and had him go the opposite way back to the hotel. I didn’t get back until 10 or 11 o’clock. I went down to the bar. Jim was still there talking to the Australian girls. This time I joined them, and we had a few drinks. One of them asked me if I would like to have her take me on a tour. She told me she had this little car that was just like a miniature Rolls Royce, which was actually a Bentley. She asked me if I would like to see the sights. She had the day off. I said, “Wonderful!” The next day at 9:00 she was going to take me and drive me around and show me some of the temples, the zoos and the schools. We would go out to lunch at this exclusive club she belonged to. It was tremendous. She was from Australia, a school teacher, and was living in Penang for a couple of years. There were about 10 or 15 of these girls scattered around who were teaching the Australian dependents in the school system. For the life of me, I can’t remember her name.
Sure enough, she had this gorgeous little right hand drive car that did look like a miniature Rolls Royce and was really a collector’s item. She asked me what I would like to see, and I said, “You be the guide. You take me wherever you think is worth seeing, and if you take me to lunch at that exclusive club, it’ll be my treat.” I’d brought my bathing suit because she said they had a gorgeous swimming pool. She took me to a Malay zoo where the monkeys came right over to you, jumped all over the hood of your car, and all these other exotic animals were just free to roam out in the wild; yet they were still semi-tame. You had to be careful if you got out of the car.
She then took me to a huge Buddha, a reclining Buddha (see atch), where we parked the car and went inside and saw this huge gold statue on its side, with a smiling face. We had to remove our shoes and walk in our stocking feet. There were hundreds of tourists, local people either paying respects or just sight-seeing, looking at this reclining religious statue. Behind the statue were all these little cubicles with pictures of people and little glass windows behind which stood a little vase where each of the families had been cremated. There pictures and their names were all engraved on the glass vaults that were about 12x12 inches. I was impressed with this technique when I think of all the burial grounds in the world that could be used for farms or what have you, that instead are being occupied by huge coffins containing embalmed dead people. It seems barbaric to me. Being buried at sea or cremated seems more logical and ecological to me.
After the tour of the Buddha, it was lunchtime, and she drove me along the coast to this exclusive Australian club. It had a huge swimming pool, tennis courts, and overlooked the ocean. It also had a beautiful restaurant and bar. She was able to admit me as a guest to this club. While there we went for a swim in the pool, changed our clothes, had a couple of drinks, and ate a nice lunch. She then proceeded to show me some of the real jungle areas, describe some of the conflicts that were going on between the Malays and the Chinese and the Indians, Thais, and the Australians and all the mixes that were available on this Malay Peninsula.
She drove me the school where she taught. It was a typical school for little children. They had little desks and little seats. I sat in them. I told her how I had seen Australia everyday from a satellite picture and that when I got back to Saigon, I would mail her a picture of Australia she could show her students. She could tell them that this picture was taken from a weather satellite 500 to 800 miles high; where you could see the Darwin Area – the greatest plateau. You could see almost 75 percent of the country everyday. I had pictures that I used to just throw in the rubbish and I would be more than happy to put them in an envelope and send them to her*. She was very excited and grateful because she had never seen a weather satellite view. She was intrigued with the fact that we had weather satellite views of Australia, the Malay Peninsula, Saigon, Southeast Asia, and North Vietnam and that we obtained black and white photos of these areas at least three times a day. As a schoolteacher, she could see the importance of these space vehicle photographs.
While in the school I started feeling wicked cramps again and had to use one of the little toilets. And let me tell you, these toilets were tiny for some strange reason. But anyway, I was having a problem, and it was not a comfortable situation.
As we drove back to the hotel, my Australian friend had asked me if I would like to go to a buffet dinner at her best friend’s home where they were celebrating her birthday party. I immediately accepted, whereupon she said she would leave about 7 o’clock later that evening and offered to drive me. I went back to my room, freshened up, went for a quick swim, shaved, and put on a fresh outfit. I met her in the lobby at the bar near the swimming pool, where we had a drink and then departed for the home on the outskirts of the city.
The trip took us about 30 minutes. We arrived at this suburban community that could’ve been Anywhere, USA. We went into the home, and I was immediately introduced to all the Australians, whereupon I was called the “Boston Yank” or “Hank the Yank”. I kinda liked it; it was just like the movies. They asked me what I did in Saigon. They were fascinated with the fact that I could see Australia everyday with our satellite pictures, and were even more intrigued when I told them I was sending some photographs to my schoolteacher friend.
The party lasted for many hours. The food and the drinks were superb. I was feeling no pain when we bade our farewells at some ungodly hour. I went over to the little Rolls, sat in the front seat, my friend went around to the right hand side, and started the car. I don’t know whether I was expressing my gratitude or it was the liquor, or the warm balmy air, but I slid over next to her, put my arms around her, and kissed her. It was great with her being in right drive seat. She kissed me back. We kissed again. We were really getting involved when some little voice inside told me we’d better head back to the hotel. My mind was racing with all kinds of thoughts and possibilities. I was so grateful for the times that she had showed me in the last 36 hours, and yet the smell of her perfume and the vision of her body really began to excite me. “God,” I said to myself, “I’ve gone this far, I hope I’m not going to end up in the rack.” My body told me yes, and my mind said, “Cool it.”
We had many conversations on the drive back to the hotel. I was asking most of the questions. She was filling me in with various parts of her background, which kind of led me to believe that she was a real free spirit, and I mean a free spirit. She had no qualms about anything. Her family life back in Australia was none too great, and whatever relationships she developed with men or women were au natural. I was really thinking how I was going to get out of this situation gracefully.
We got back to the hotel parking lot, and she parked in her reserved spot. We sat there and talked. She slid over next to me, and we kissed again and again and again, and it was really getting hot and heavy when she suggested we go up to her room for a drink.
My plane was leaving in the morning around 8 or 9 o’clock and it was already about 2 o’clock. I really had to watch out. We walked through the lobby and up the stairs toward her room. For some reason I had thought she lived on the complete other side of this huge hotel. It turned out that her room was only five doors down from mine. Now I was really turning restless and antsy. Should I go in her room with her? Could I control myself? I kept saying to myself, “Sober up, Hank; you’ve come this far. You’ve got to remain a straight arrow.”
She opened the door to her room and we went in. She turned around and put her arms around my neck and invited me into the bedroom. I stood there for what seemed like a long delicious moment -– and I had to use the bathroom. I was saved by my incontinence problems. In the bathroom, I immediately took cold water first, looked in the mirror at myself, and said, “Now, look it, you can get laid if you want to; but is it going to be worth it? It’ll never be the same when you go home. It’ll haunt you. Cool it. Get out of here. Tell her.” I decided that’s what I was going to do.
I came out of the bathroom, and there she was on the bed completely naked -- beautiful.
I walked over to the side of the bed, reached down, took her hands, pulled her up beside me. I put my arms around her, aware of her voluptuous nakedness. I pulled her close to me and kissed her, this time not as warmly or sensuous as before. I looked her in the eye and said, “Look, I’m going back to my room, go to bed, get up and go on my flight. I had a wonderful time, and I don’t want to spoil it. You might think I’m a prude. That’s ok with me.” She didn’t. She looked at me in kind of bewilderment, kind of amazement and could understand. She kissed me, walked me to the door, and I said good night.
I walked down the hallway to my room, went in, called up the hotel clerk and told him to wake me at 6:30am. I climbed into bed and went to sleep. I got up in the morning, packed my bag and walked down the hallway past her room, past her door. I stopped. I thought to myself, “Boy that was a close one.”
The ferry ride across the bay was beautiful. As I looked back at Penang, I thought of the wonderful five days and four nights I had spent there. I was grateful that I hadn’t gotten with my school teacher friend the first night or it really could have been a complicated five days. All the young GI’s were talking and yelling and shouting about how they screwed this girl or that girl and they acted like it had been one big orgy. I don’t think they saw the island, met the people, or saw the sights. I was very fortunate, I thought to myself. I washed away the war for five days, washed away the Saigon smells, the dust; but now, I was going back. I think I was going to make it. I think I was going to make the remaining 60 days and get back to my wife and kids.
We landed at the Ton Son Nhut Air Force Base. I called up my friends at the site. They picked me up, and took me downtown. Penang was no more. I was back in Saigon.
* As promised, I sent several large brown envelopes postage free full of weather satellite photos from NASA’s Nimbus and NOAA’s Essa polar orbiting 500 mile high spacecraft to my Australian schoolteacher friend.
In 1987, Spaulding Gray, an actor, wrote a great play called "Swimming to Cambodia” that became a movie. It was about his experiences in Penang while he was there acting in the movie "The Killing Fields". His descriptions of the beaches and the ocean were very similar to Bob’s and mine. Just recently, Mar.2004, Gray’s body was found in the East river. He supposedly committed suicide.
Mar 23 2004 heard on the radio this morning that the guy in Southeast Asia who holds the record in the Guinness Book of World Records for living seven days in a glass cage with hundreds of snakes used to drink whisky after he was bitten and just shrug it off. Well, he did so after being bitten by a big black snake and a day later he died. The snake? A deadly-poisonous mamba, the same one that I had wrapped around my body about 40 years ago!