28. Tom And The Yard By Joel Harris

I always liked the Vietnamese. I would go down to Tuy Hoa whenever I got the chance. Our unit ROK aviation liaison officer, Lt. Lee, introduced me to this place. He and the other Korean officers were fond of a particular Korean restaurant and that is where I was introduced to Bulgogi, a dish I still enjoy today.

I began to go into Tuy Hoa on my own. Whenever I went, I always tried to hire a particular pedicab driver who went by the name Tom. I don’t know what his Vietnamese name was. Tom was probably in his mid thirties, thin, with a broad smile under his immense conical hat. He wore his black silk pajama pants rolled up, I suppose, so they would not impede his cycling. His thighs were enormous and muscular.

Tom squired me around Tuy Hoa to the best restaurants where I developed a fondness for a local dish, which I think was called Um but which they called “Chinese soup” in English. A light broth with rice noodles, vegetables, meat and hot peppers, I found it delicious.

Tom also showed me the local Buddhist temple with its great gilded statute of the reposing Buddha or Phat in Vietnamese. Sometimes I would ask Tom to wait while I meditated in the presence of the statute, seeking some inner peace.

One of the nicest things Tom ever did was to invite me to his home for Tea and a light meal. He and his wife lived in a brightly painted block house, probably 400 square feet, in the middle of a rice paddy just outside Tuy Hoa. The floors were tile and the interior walls a smooth stucco. I was surprised how cool it was inside, coming in from the blazing midday heat. Tom's wife served us tea on the front porch. Typically subservient, she barely spoke, bowed, and rushed off, all the while smiling and seeming to be very proud to have such an honored guest, a Di Wi (Captain), in her home. Tom and I sat quietly sipping our Tea, gazing across the shimmering intensely green rice fields.

One day Tom mentioned to me that he would like to fly in a helicopter. Perhaps he considered them an upscale version of the pedicab, I don't know. I told Tom that if the opportunity ever presented itself, I would see what I could do. As it turned out an opportunity did come along, and not long after. I was assigned to fly ash and trash for the ARVN's for a week out of the MACV pad in Tuy Hoa. I got word to Tom that if would come to the ARVN compound on such and such a day I would see that they let him in. I asked one of my MACV buddies to help out and sure enough, at the appointed time, Tom showed up inside the compound at the helipad. Boy was he was beaming!

I had just received my mission, we were to pick something up at a nearby helipad and transport it to Cheo Reo. With the engine running, I motioned for Tom to get in. The Crew Chief helped and got him buckled in. We took off for the other pad and within minutes we landed. I had never seen Tom look so happy. But all that was about to change.

Several soldiers approached the helicopter carrying a wooden coffin. They slid it in right in front of Tom and the crew chief strapped it down. The coffin contained a dead Montagnard (or Yards as we called them) and the mission was to take him back to his family in Cheo Reo. Tom's demeanor had changed drastically. He did not look happy at all.

First, the lowland Vietnamese are not at all fond of the Yards. Second, I believe they have some type of taboo about dead bodies. Third, the rickety wood coffin was far from air tight, and this guy had obviously been dead for some time, if you know what I mean.

I was glad to take off and get some air circulating, but I don't know if it helped much in the back. After leveling off at 3000’ I looked around at Tom. He appeared terror stricken, wide eyes darting back and forth, looking very much like his was calculating his odds of survival if he jumped out of the helicopter.

We finally landed at Cheo Reo and the dead man's grieving relatives received his final earthly remains. Tom gave me a look of death and was sullen all the way back to the ARVN pad.

Because of the language barrier, I don't think I was ever able to adequately explain to Tom what had happened. Although we remained friends and I rode in his pedicab many times after that, Tom never asked me for another ride in a helicopter.
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Last modified: Saturday March 18th, 2023