Ballad of a GI
((or, ‘The Wine of Sydney’) (August, 1971))
I t was a warm evening in Sydney; the war in Vietnam was a long way away, and you could see lights in many of the city’s buildings, it made for many shadows, the streets were dusty with cars passing alongside our bus. The street corners were lit up by stoplights, and the moon, cast a rippling glow across the bay. In the park by my hotel there were boats tied to a dock, and as I sat in the bus with a young sixteen-year old girl to my side, I thought of a cold beer. The bus had stopped beside my hotel, had picked me up to go onto a night tour of the city, with some of the local city girls, we were American GI’s, on leave from Vietnam. Miss Andréa, stood up, she was the young handsome hostess, our tour guide, about thirtieth. Nice looking but too old for me to flirt with, I was twenty-two at the time.
“Where’s George?” she asked the bus driver.
“He’s out sick tonight, I was assigned to drive in his place!” said the driver, with a husky voice.
“All right,” she said, “but we got young girls on the bus, drive safely.”
(The girls had simply responded to an ad in the newspaper for free tours with vacationing American GI’s, from Vietnam, on leave that is, no strings attached, no expectations. And it was usually a one night thing, and the hostess assured the parents, each and every girl would return back to the tour office safely, by ten o’clock, it was a four hour tour.)
“I hope we can go someplace where we can get some cold beer and dance,” I said to the young beauty next to me.
The bus jerked as it stopped at a red-stop-light, and a man and woman walked unsteadily across the street.
The girl next to me, she was slim, a young woman, with a lovely milky white complexion and deep rooted thick dark brown hair. She was very clean looking and neat.
“That’s a nice hotel you’re at,” she commented, “they just built it.”
“Yes, I suppose it could be.”
“Maggie, that’s my name,” and she put out her hand to greet me proper like.
“I don’t want to be rude, but I’m twenty-two, and you’re just a kid.”
“Really,” she remarked.
“Yes, that’s the truth.”
“How long you been in war?”
“Six months, why…”
“What do you do?”
“I work hard, that’s all that matters.”
“I live on a farm with my family, and grandma, she’s been ill lately.”
“Is she as lovely as you?”
“She thinks so,” and she laughed.
“I think so too, too bad you’re so young.”
“I’m sixteen,” she remarked.
“Where is your farm?”
“It’s really far out, but I heard about this program and farm life can get tedious, so I got permission to go on this one time tour with American GI’s, a lot of the girls from my High School are doing it.”
“Well, as you can see, nothing to it at all.”
“How old did you think I was?”
“Fifteen or sixteen...”
“Ma didn’t want me to go at first, she says I look older.”
“Your face looks sixteen,” I said hesitantly, but her body looked more womanly, except I didn’t say that, I didn’t have to, I think she sensed it.
“How much did it cost you for the tour?”
“Fifteen dollars I guess, that’s what I gave to the hotel manager, and he gave me a ticket, and I gave the ticket to Andréa, when I got on the bus.”
“So that’s how it works,” Maggie commented, “we go free.”
“You mean as long as you talk to the American GI’s?”
“Not necessarily, they just said Americans are always gentlemen, so enjoy the evening, and I’ve heard that before anyhow, and it seems to be so. And I was curious.”
“I heard Ockers, or is it Ozzies, aren’t all that gentlemen like?”
“I think you mean, Aussies, and I think some folks would agree with you,” and she smiled. I felt then I was better off leaving that area alone, although I heard that several times in less than a week. So I figured I’d be a little more delicate with her, by not using any slang, we talked about popular things: Elvis, and the Beatles, and president Nixon, and I mentioned my hometown in Minnesota.
Then out of nowhere, she turned about and kissed me on the side of my cheek, and smiled at me.
I was very tolerant of people back then, and she had no real experience or worldly knowledge of people. She was reacting out of impulse I figured, perchance, out of a paperback romance.
“Oh, my Gosh, my girlfriends will go wild when I tell them what I did.”
The bus then stopped and we all went into a nightclub. As we all walked in, I thought here is a farm girl who comes all the way into the big city, we had sung a few songs on the bus, and somehow she took a daring leap for a kiss—walked about the city together, and I must really look safe, harmless, on the other hand she appeared so innocent, how could anyone take advantage of her…but my idea was then, and always has been, a friendship is more important than getting laid every time you find yourself attracted to a girl. And if it doesn’t work out, you’re friends. The ratio between girls and boys are pretty much the same worldwide, 100 girls to every 105 boys, so it was the last time I read, and who’s to say—during war times perhaps it reverses itself, I had found out the percentages in Australia were better for men—no reason to take advantage, all you needed to do was be available, and in some cases, useable. So she went fishing and she caught her fish, testing her femininity out. She’ll be gone tonight and tomorrow she’ll be on my mind, and in four more days, I’ll be back in Vietnam, like a trout caught in a mud puddle, so I told myself.
“How do you like my country?” she asked as we all stood in a group circle, in the nightclub.
“It’s pretty big,” I said, and I stepped up to the bar, left the group for a moment, and ordered a cold beer—drank it down in three gulps, as the hostess ordered two bottles of Champaign, with a tray of glasses. Then I rejoined the group.
Maggie stood next to me, we hit glasses, and drank the Champaign, “It’s my first time I’ve ever had alcohol,” she said.
“It’s a fine night,” I remarked.
“We’ll have to go in fifteen minutes,” said Andréa, “you girls will have to get on the bus; the Americans can stay here if they wish, or otherwise we’ll drive them back to their hotel.”
“I’d like to stay a while longer,” said Maggie, to the guide. And I heard her say, “You don’t know him, or them, plus, you signed a piece of paper saying you’d agree to have us return you to where we picked you up, at a given time, specifically, our tour office!”
She explained it again to me; they could get in trouble if she’d not go back with them. She was now holding my hand, lightly holding my hand. Then I walked out with her and the group of girls onto the bus, a few GI’s stayed behind at the club, and we were back in our original seats. As we drove back to my hotel, she laid her head against my shoulder, she was tired, perhaps not even noticing it, but she had fallen to sleep. At the hotel I woke her up, and she gave me her phone number.
The next day I had tried to call her, but no one answered her phone. I had picked up the phone several times throughout the week, each call was long distance. In-between the calls, I ran about the city, and out to the beach area, and to a few nightclubs for shows and drinking with girls I never knew, and just living it up. Then I received a phone call from the Hostess—the night before I was to catch my plane back to Saigon, I had asked her to check into what was going on, why no one was answering the phone but it was ringing so she had given me the correct number, “Maggie called,” she said, “the other day, sorry I didn’t get to you sooner, but her grandmother died, and she’s been awfully busy with the funeral,” she told me.
She didn’t tell me to call back, and I didn’t ask why. I just said “Heh!” and left it at that. It isn’t any good, I think it’s better left alone—I told myself: she’ll always remember that kiss and I’ll always remember she said: ‘Americans are gentlemen,’ and that glass of wine. But it makes you wonder how it might have turned out if things had been a little different.
By gosh, that was forty-years ago, this year.
No: 738 (2-16-2011)