Going to Australia for R&R from Vietnam was one of the most sought after locations during the war. This article is about a 17-year old girl who worked in Kings Cross meeting young American soldiers during their R&R and then keeping in touch after leaving. One such soldier was special and she’s invited to his birthday party 38 years later. Did any of you keep in contact with someone you met on R&R?
life is about to change for seventeen-year-old Catherine when her mother insists she take a summer job in Kings Cross—Sydney’s sleaziest suburb—famous for its strip clubs, nightlife and underground activity. It is November 1967. Sydney has just opened its doors to American GIs on R&R and Catherine is in the perfect place to meet them. It’s not long before she finds herself charmed by the well-mannered American servicemen and fascinated by the diversity of the Cross. As the GIs come and go, she skips classes to spend time with them and eagerly awaits their letters after they leave. The author has published a fictional memoir titled Please Write – A Novel. This article is one of the many memories she recalls from that time.
A slide from the projector confronts the party gatherers. Phil appears in his military gear, left hand draped over his door mounted M-60 machine gun. The ammunition belt is loaded. He’s about to go on another mission. The resignation on his face and his loose stance reveal to the camera and to those in the room that this is not the first time he’s flown through the jungle canopies and over the fields and rice paddies of Vietnam. All present are aware, as the result of varying degrees of information shared, just what this picture represents.
February 9, 1967, Bien Hoa, Vietnam. I’m hunkered down in my bunker guarding the perimeter on my first day in country. Because I’m a Spec 4, Military Operation Specialty, Crew Chief, they’ve put me in charge of the ammo dump at the replacement depot while I wait for them to process my orders to the 1st Aviation Brigade. Out of nowhere, the sky lights up with mortars from VC rockets. People grab their helmets and guns and run to their positions screaming because their sleep is interrupted again. It doesn’t seem real. The tracers make a spectacular display. I’m having my own party with the best fireworks for miles. I’m twenty-one today. Tomorrow morning I’ll still be singing Happy Birthday. When they do their rounds, they’ll think I’ve lost it but if I’m going to see my twenty-second birthday I’m gonna have to find a way to make the most of it.
February 9, 2006, Key West, Florida
A series of events triggered by a phone call nine years ago has led me to Phil’s Key West birthday party.
“Yes, of course, I remember you. Wow.”
February 16, 1967, Vietnam One week in-country and I hate this place. I already feel like I’ve been here a year. Today we fly the slick into Hobo Woods. I’ve lost count of how many times, but I could check the log. Our job is to resupply the troops on the ground with ammo but because the medivacs can’t keep up we bring back the wounded as well as the body bags. We explode our machine guns on the ground as we hit the jungle canopy where the thunder of the rotor blades reverberates through the trees and foliage in a roaring howl. Our tracers bounce off the ground. Charlie’s tracers come back at us. As we unload metal and load flesh in a hot LZ, the guys on the ground yell all kinds of shit we can’t make out in the thick of machines, guns and people moaning and crying, twisted and silent. Finally, we have done all we can. No more missions today. As crew chief, I clean up the slick and prepare it for tomorrow while my gunner cleans and checks the weapons for worn springs, broken parts and any other unusual wear. I haul bucket after bucket of water to the slick and throw it inside but the blood won’t come out. I scrub and scrub but the blood still won’t come out. What I can get rid of are pieces of bloodied skin, bone, muscle tissue and flesh. The remnants of battle punch me in the stomach. I scramble out before I fall and throw up as if it’ll never stop. Three hundred and fifty-eight days to go.
Sunday morning, Christmas Eve, 1967, Sydney, Australia “Get out the Christmas tablecloth for me Dearest, and set the table, will you? We’ll use the good cutlery. Have a look under the sideboard. I think that’s where I put the box last time I moved things around. Oh, and set out the wine glasses. Are the matching serviettes there? Do they need an iron?” Granny calls from the kitchen.
She dollops the leg of lamb with the lard she keeps in a ridged silver tin that once contained raspberry jam. Drippings, she calls it, collected from previous roasts. She sprinkles generous amounts of salt, scooped up in all her fingers, over the fatty meat. Her taste buds, desensitized by sixty years of nicotine assault, crave a more than usual amount.
“I wonder if he lost the address,” I say when Phil, at six-thirty, is half an hour late.
“Can you get hold of him? What’s his phone number?” Mum asks sipping her third glass of wine.
“I don’t know where he’s staying. I forgot to ask.”
Three generations of women drift into the lounge room and sit by the Christmas tree, mesmerized by the green, red, yellow and blue Christmas lights while we wait for our guest to arrive.
“What do you know about this bloke anyway, Jan?”
“Not much. Just that he’s a really nice guy. He’s fun. He’s…”
“He’s late is what he is. You can’t trust these blokes. They’re here today, gone tomorrow. You’d better start watching yourself or you’ll end up in all sorts of trouble. I spoke to Mollie yesterday and she’s not happy with that new record shop you’re supposed to be running. She’s closing it at the end of January. What are you going to do then? I think you’re spending too much time talking to these American fellas when they come in and not putting enough effort into your work. You are damn lucky I got that job for you! And now you’re going to lose it. You’ve got to work. I can’t do it all by myself anymore! And I think you’d better get out of the Cross. You seem to be distracted up there.”
“It’s fine, Mum. I’ve already lined up another job. And, I kind of like it at the Cross. It’s interesting.”
“Another job? Doing what?
“Waitressing up there! No bloody way! I won’t have it!” She gulps down the remainder of her glass and stands to get a refill.
“Well, let’s eat,” Granny says. There’s a perfectly good dinner getting ruined out here. I think he’d be here by now if he were coming, don’t you? We’ll go ahead and have ours. I’ll do up an extra plate and keep it in the oven in case he turns up later.”
“A taxi just pulled up out the front.” Mum interrupts her trip to the kitchen and rushes to the bathroom where she checks her hair. “Someone’s getting out.”
Granny serves the roast and vegetables. There’s enough wine left for each of them to have a sip. I fill my glass with water from the tap. After the main course, I cut the cake that has become my Christmas contribution. We drink tea. Granny deals the cards for a game of Five Hundred. At eleven-thirty we walk to St Joseph’s Catholic Church to attend Midnight Mass. I ask Phil if he wants to go to confession, only because everyone else is.
Back home Granny slices homemade potted meat and serves it on warm toast. We sip more black tea tempered with milk, slow to make the next move as the inevitability of separation closes in around us.
“I’ve got a second wind. I’ll drive you back to your hotel, Phil,” Mum announces.
Granny eases herself out of the chair and makes a dash to the kitchen with the help of chairs and a wall along the way. She fills a tin with Anzac biscuits she has specially made with coconut and oats for Phil to take back to the war.
Mum insists that Phil occupy the privileged position beside her in the green Morris Minor, which relegates me to the backseat.
We grab a few last words about life and what’s important as though we have forever to figure it out. Mum listens or is lost in her own world of unrequited thoughts. We drop him off at the Crest. He waits at the curb while I scramble out of the back to take up the seat of privilege. A final hug and then we are gone. He is gone.
The El Alamein Fountain is a traditional landmark and meeting place in the heart of Kings Cross
January 5, 1968, Vietnam Everyone’s picking up a lot of movement. The VC and the North Vietnamese are all over the place. Every single one of the outposts are getting hit. Something big is about to happen. A mortar just went off and blew a pen and notepad right out of my hands. I’m supposed to leave in a week but they’ve decided no one is going home until this thing is over. It looks like the NVA has planned this to coincide with Tet, the New Year celebration, so now they’re calling it the Tet Offensive. We’re flying almost twenty-four hours a day resupplying ammo, carrying troops and evacuating wounded. I’m so short now I just hope and pray I make it out of here alive.
January 6, 1968
I received a very pleasant surprise. Your letter was lying on my bunk. Yesterday I wrote you a nice long letter but it flew out the window as we were flying along so I’ll try again.
February 9, 2006, Key West, Florida Consequent birthday images tell of Phil’s marriage, his role as a protective father to his daughter and his love of risk whether it’s in sport or business. The screen goes blank. The guests are satisfied. They know more of Phil now than they did before. Their imaginations will continue to process and fill in the blanks for as long as they need. The palm tree fronds on either side of the screen dance in both obedience to and, defiance of the cold front beginning its passage over the island. Spotlights shearing from their roots to their tips put them clearly on stage. Palm trees are the common denominator in the three points of reference, Key West, Vietnam, Sydney, that have connected time and place this evening.
Phil spends the rest of the night pushing around a rusty old walker frame my husband, Tom, has found on the street. It is decorated with red, white and blue streamers and a horn that he squeezes for entertainment.
As fun and laughter slide into good-bye and thank you, Phil and Carol work their way through a parade of guests. As usual I find myself at the end of the line.
“It was a great party, Carol. Thank you for including the slide my mother took.” I cannot adequately express what her gesture has meant and deal with it by turning to Phil.
“I don’t think I wished you a happy twenty-second birthday.”
The years turn back again like pages in a book.
“Do you realize that if you hadn’t walked into the record shop thirty-nine years ago I wouldn’t be living in Key West?”
“It works both ways. If you hadn’t been there when I walked into the record shop, I wouldn’t be here either.”
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