NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This is another one of those questions that my youngest daughter asked me to answer. I answered this question for her on March 7, 2021 and am publishing it here on October 21, 2021. I tell you that because some of the timeline may not match up when you read it. I can assure you it was crazy ... but also probably the best blessing I could have ever gotten. It probably shocked my kids and grandkids when they first read it ... but that's okay - I've been shocking them for awhile now.
Dear Samantha; You asked what was one of the craziest things that ever happened to me and I am going to tell you what that was. I want you to imagine this in your mind as you read it:
The beginning of a great relationship
The date is Wednesday, June 30, 1971. It is about 8:00 in the evening – a hot muggy night with temperatures in the high 90’s with about 90% humidity. I am tired even though I just got out of the shower and drove a jeep to the local Civilian Club at the Phu Loi Base Cap in Vietnam. I had an especially tough day and was looking for a nice cool Whiskey and Coke on the rocks.
I set down at the bar – this up until one month earlier – was the enlisted men’s club of the 539th Transportation Company (the Hexmates) … but they had recently retired the colors of the company and sent the company back to Fort Campbell Kentucky. The war was winding down and I, too, would be leaving Vietnam in my historical past, in 33 more days.
I was setting next to an acquaintance of mine. I can’t call him a friend because I don’t even remember his name. I just know we were drinking buddies. He was a civilian working for NHA (National Helicopter Associates) and was from the southern part of the United States. He also like whiskey and coke.
We ordered our drinks and after the first couple we had, and started to feel the buzz, a new girl walked into the bar – went behind the bar – and began to serve drinks. She was the cutest girl I’d ever seen. Being half drunk already I started to feel warm all over. I elbowed my buddy and said, “I think she is my future wife!” and we both laughed.
I noticed another person I knew from Puerto Rico (yes military) David Roseau was also chatting with her from time to time. Apparently, he knew her and I wanted to. I asked him what her name was. He said he called her “Lil Lee” and I thought he said “Lily.” So, that is what I began to call her. She did not seem to like it and had very little to do with me.
As she would bend over the ice chest to fill our glasses with ice before pouring in the whiskey and coke, we noticed, since she was wearing a mini-skirt, that she had pink panties on. I then told my drinking buddy, “For Damn sure now I know she is going to be my wife.”
He said, “Yeah right … you won’t get to first base with her!” For me it became a challenge.
In December of 1970 I had finished my first tour of duty in Vietnam and had extended for another 6 months. I did this because at the time I liked the job I had, the friends I had, the country, etc. and did not want to start all over at some stateside army base. Because I extended my duty, I was able to go home on leave.
In January 1971 before shipping back out to Vietnam my mother had told me that I’d only signed up for another 6 months to find a girlfriend to bring back to America. As I left the bar about 11:00 that night those words, “You’re only going back to Vietnam to find a girlfriend to bring back to America” was ringing in my ears, as I hopped in the Jeep and drove – not in a straight line because I was three sheets to the wind – back to my hooch.
The next day I was driving my shuttle bus around the basecamp. My job, since the 539th Transportation Company had stood down, was working for the Base Commander, and he wanted me to make sure his soldiers did not have to walk to and from one location to another if they did not want to. I drove all over the basecamp hauling soldiers (and sometimes hooch maids and bar girls) to locations they wanted to travel to. The “Shuttle Bus” was nothing more than an 18-wheeler with a trailer rigged with benches for people to sit on. It was a low-boy trailer with wooden sides and low enough to the ground for people to step up into the back.
On July 1, 1971 I happened to be passing the 539th company area and spotted “Lily” crossing the road. I stopped and called out to her. She jumped up on the running board of the truck and told me immediately that her name was not Lily it was “Le.” I told her I didn’t care what her name was I just wanted to know if she would be my girlfriend. I said, “I’ve only been in country for 33 days and would really like someone like you to show me around.”
I don’t think she understood a word I said and she got off my truck and said shaking her head, “You crazy Number 10 GI.” A number 1 GI was a great guy … and number 10 was a low-down scoundrel.
That did not stop me … I was back at the club at 6:00 PM that evening and was hitting on Le until the bar closed at Midnight. Then I followed her back to her Hooch to see where she lived. Of course, she did not know I was following her. She lived in the 605th company area (across the road from the 539th company area) in a billet that only housed bar maids for many of the Enlisted Men’s and Officers Clubs as well as a few secretaries and clerks. It was a building full of women with many men standing around outside that I had never noticed before – though I’d been to that area daily for more than a year.
For the next few days, I was back at the club drinking and flirting with Le. She could put away as much liquor as I could. On the 4th of July we had a huge party and we both got pretty lit. I asked her if she would marry me and she told me she was not sure.
For many nights, thereafter, after the bar would close, I would walk Le home and spend the entire night with her sitting on the ground outside the building she lived in and we would just talk about everything. I would talk about my family and my growing up and she would talk about her family (that she was not very close to) and her life. We would look up at the stars and dream about our lives and how they would turn out if we got married and she came to live in America. However, she still did not say she would marry me … only that she would think about it. However, I did notice that I’d moved from a number 10 GI to a number 1 GI in her eyes.
Then I blew it!
When you lie you must come clean eventually
Along about the 25th of July I had to come clean with her. We were outside her hooch on a clear night looking up at the stars and talking about how things could be if we did get married. I asked her again if she would marry me and she would not give me an answer. Then I told her she must make a decision because I only had 9 days left before I was due to go home on August 3, 1971.
Man, she got mad. She started to call me every name in the Vietnamese book of Bad Names … and she called me them mostly in Vietnamese … though a do recall a few “F-Bombs” being thrown out there. She basically told me to “Get the hell out of my life and don’t come back!”
I walked home that night (about a mile and a half) feeling very dejected, discouraged, despondent, dispirited, downhearted, unhappy, and downright miserable. I had lost the love of my life and it was all my fault and I did not know how I was going to fix it … though I must in the next few days or I could lose her forever.
About 3:00 the morning of July 26th we were attacked by mortar fire. Not many … just enough to go under what was called a “red alert” that sent us out to our bunkers on the base perimeter. That’s when I got the idea. It would be just one more lie … but it would let me know if she had feelings for me or if it was all for show and dough. I had already written a letter to mom and dad and told them of my intentions to marry this girl and said that I needed them to send me $2,000 so that I could make sure she had money to live on while we worked to get her to America. I had not yet received the money but I was almost certain they’d received my letter.
Another lie to get me out of trouble
That morning about 7:00 I had one of my buddies drive my truck to the 605th Transportation Company area while I hid on the floor board. He drove up the hooch where Le lived and pounded on the door. When she finally came out, he shouted that I’d been killed a few hours ago by one of the mortars that came in. She had a broom in her hand as she had been cleaning the room, she stayed in.
She began to cry hysterically. I opened the door of the truck and jumped down yelling, “Damn it I knew you loved me, now you need to say yes to marrying me.” Man, I thought she was mad the night before … she took that broom (thank God it was all straw) and began to beat me with it. I stood there and took the beating like a man till she calmed down and fell into my arms kissing me. I held her till she stopped crying – then our eyes met.
I asked, “Yes?”
She responded, “Yes!”
That was July 26th and the next several days was like paradise. I know longer had to sit outside her room and talk in the evening (and yes, I met her every night at the club) – I was now allowed to sleep next to her in her room.
My check from mom and dad finally came in just a few days before I left the country. Le and I took a trip to Saigon to find a lawyer that could help her with her passport and visitor’s visa. Today they have what is known as the K-1 Fiancé Visa – back then it was simply a visitors Visa that would allow the person to come visit America for 90 days. If they wanted to stay, they had 90 days to tie the knot or be deported back from where they came. We found a lawyer, Vinh Van Ro, and I was told the fee would be 93,000 Piasters. I liked to have fainted until Le told me that would be about $350 American Dollars. I paid the man gladly. I was no good at legal paperwork and Le certainly wasn’t.
Almost blowing it again
I got home safe and sound and took off to see some cousins and grandparents in Alabama. While there I met up with an old girlfriend. One that had married someone else and broke my heart. She was – what I thought to be – my first love. By this time, she was divorced so we decided to meet up and “hang out.”
I first started having feelings for Carol when I was about 11 years old and those feelings continued until she married right out of high school and I joined the military. It was a long-distance relationship where we only saw each other in the summer time for a few weeks and nothing more. I have no idea why I thought at such a young age (11 to 16 or so) that I thought I could make such an arrangement work. However, I did spend many hours and a lot of money talking to her on a pay-phone because Dad would not let me call her long-distance from our house phone and her dad would not let her accept collect calls from me.
When I was in basic training, she did send me a letter letting me know that she was getting married and that it was over for us for good. I respected her for letting me know – but it hurt none the less. Rejection is never good.
When I returned from Vietnam and found out she was going through divorce proceedings I got to thinking (very wrongly) that perhaps we could make it work after all since we were both now young adults.
After my trip to Alabama, I went to finish my Army Career at Fort Hood Texas and wrote a “Dear Jane” letter to Le. In my letter I wrote all about Carol and our relationship growing up and told Le that she should not waste anymore time on me. I know this crushed her … but at the time I thought it was the right thing to do.
Le was not much for writing letters but this is the one time I got one back from her. Actually, because she did not know how to write at the time … she had to have a friend write it for her. I learned in this letter from her, just how badly I did hurt her. She had already given up her job and her work pass and was prepared to come to me when she received my letter (with all necessary paperwork in hand). I felt terrible.
A few weeks went by and I could not get Le or Carol off my mind. I had to make a decision to go with one or the other … what would I do. After much thought and soul searching, I came to the decision that Le was actually the girl for me. I packed an overnight bag and on Friday evening in September or early October I headed back to Alabama. I was going to have a long-talk with Carol and let her know that I’d decided to try to win Le back.
I drove all night from Fort Hood to Birmingham. I arrived at Carol’s house about 7:00 in the morning on Saturday to talk to her. However, she said when she came to the door, “I do not have time to talk now. My ex-father-in-law is in the hospital and I have to go see him.”
Knowing that hospital visits were not allowed that early in the morning I felt this was nothing more than a brush off and that she too felt the relationship between her and I was over – yet again. I gave her my grandmothers phone number and told her I’d be leaving early Sunday Morning. I went to visit my grandma (Maw) and spent a couple of hours telling her about my dilemma. Her indication was that I would probably be better with the girl from Vietnam than the girl from Birmingham since the girl from Vietnam was giving up a lot and the girl from Birmingham had nothing to lose.
I waited, but Carol never called me back. I called her on Sunday morning and told her that I was headed back to Fort Hood and that I was going to do everything in my power to fix the broken heart I gave Le. It was over between Carol and me.
Winning back my love
I got back to Fort Hood late Sunday night and set down in my barracks with a flashlight and pad of writing paper and wrote a very long letter asking Le to forgive me for breaking her heart. I told her all the things I’d done wrong in our relationship and begged her to reconsider coming to America to spend her life with me.
I wrote her almost everyday thereafter and it was a long-time before I got a letter back from her. I believe it was in December 1971 when I finally got a letter telling me, “I can forgive but I will never forget.” She indicated that she was going to try to renew her paperwork to leave Vietnam and meet me in America but that it may take a little while.
Now all I had to do was get out of the Army and meet her at Chicago O’Hare International Airport when she arrived.
Mom and Dad started receiving notices from Chicago O’Hare that a young Vietnamese Girl named Nguyen Thi Le was coming into the airport. Each time they went to meet her (I was still in Fort Hood) it happened to be the wrong girl. All they had was a picture of her that I’d sent them but they made sure it was the right girl before bringing her home, based on that photo alone.
January 27, 1972 – Thursday
I got out of the Military at about 8:00 in the morning. I went through my ETS evaluation (where they try really hard to get you to reenlist) and was offered $10,000 and another stripe to sign up for 6 more years. I politely told them “no” and got in my 1971 Mustang and headed north to Chicago.
At about 9:00 that night I got tired and was about to pull over and stay at a motel. I called home from a payphone at a gas station and there was no answer. My first and only thought was that mom and dad had gone to get Le since she was due in sometime this week. Why else would two “old people” be out this late?
I got in the Mustang and continued to drive. Somewhere in southern Illinois I actually fell asleep and ran off the road doing about 70 MPH. I ended up about 50 or 60 yards from the freeway and it was closer (about 10 yards) to the road below the freeway. Apparently, I’d been taking an off ramp when I went to sleep.
I got my bearings by looking at a paper map (we did not have cell phones or Google back then) and realized it was 3:00 AM and I was only about 50 miles from home. I drove on.
At 4:00 in the morning (approximately) I wrapped softly on the front door of Mom and Dad’s apartment. They lived on the top (3rd) floor of a run-down apartment building in Argo, Illinois at the time. Mom came to the door in her nightgown smiling and said, “You have a package waiting for you in your bedroom.” I ran to the bedroom, opened my vinal sliding door and there she was. Sitting cross legged, white as a ghost, shaking and sobbing. I held her in my arms crying until day light when we finally stopped crying and started to talk in the best way she knew how. I could tell she was scared, hurt, angry and in love all at the same time.
April 8, 1972
This was the day that your Mama and I got married. Finally, after one hell of a courtship we were saying “I do” forever. As of this writing that was 17,868 days ago (or 48.9 years). In just 29 more days we will be celebrating our 49th wedding anniversary. This, after many friends and family members, stated they would be surprised if our marriage lasted 6 months because all my wife was interested in was gaining entry to the U.S. and getting her green card.
I think we have proven that she was interested in much more than a piece of paper or a country that provided more opportunities than any country in the world. Your Mama has never wanted to be anything but a loyal wife and mother – and she has done that very well.
Now that you know that this was the craziest thing that ever happened to me, I hope you also understand that it was also the best thing that could have ever happened to me. From this chance meeting at a Club in Vietnam on a hot summer night your Mama and I have produced 4 great children, who to this day have provided us with 8 wonderful grandchildren with potentially more on the way, not to mention the chance of great grandchildren since 6 of the 8 grandchildren are female – and that the two males could also get married and produce great grandkids.
I believe that chance meeting on a hot summer night in a club in Vietnam was all part of a master plan and that your Mama and I are truly soul-mates meant for each other. I love her so much!