April, 1971, finally arrived and Spring was in full bloom. What’s better is that I had just gotten out of the Army and was free for the first time in years. I had a couple of blankets, a pillow, some clothes, a few pans, and my horn, and that’s all I needed. I didn’t mind sleeping on the floor, at all. But I needed a place to live.

            Tommy Horne, the guitar player in our Rock band, also needed a place to live, so we rented a dumpy old apartment in the Ghent neighborhood of Norfolk, Virginia, and moved in. We flipped a coin and I got the back bedroom, Tommy got the front bedroom. Sleeping on the floor was never so sweet as it was that Spring.

            But Tommy was a few years younger than me and had a date for his draft physical coming up. If he passed, which he would, he’d be 1-A, which would make him a prime candidate for a trip to Vietnam, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

            One morning, he woke me up early. It wasn’t even noon.

            “Hey man.” Tommy said. “I’m going to the doctor and try to get him to write a note and get me out of the draft,” he said. “I’ll be back later.”

            I muttered something non-committal and went back to sleep.

            At four o’clock we were supposed to meet the rest of the band at the King’s Head Inn to load and set up equipment. It was Wednesday night, the first night of our two-week long gig. I was at home when John and Marty came by to get me.

            “Where’s Tommy?” John asked.

            “I don’t know. He got up this morning and went to the doctor and I haven’t seen him since, ” I said. “Maybe he’ll show up at the King’s Head.”

            We drove to the gig, and Tommy wasn’t there.

            “Just like him to skate outta this load-in,” Marty said.

            We set up the equipment and went home. I called his sister. She hadn’t seen him.

Nobody in the band had any idea where he was and it was getting late. The gig started at nine o’clock with or without Tommy. We knew if we showed up without a guitar player we’d get fired, and we couldn’t afford that.

            “I’m gonna call RB Sharp,” John told me.

            RB was a good local guitarist and knew some of our stuff, so with RB sitting in, we could get by without Tommy for the night.

            Tommy never showed for the gig. He wasn’t at home when I got back around two AM, and he wasn’t there when I got up in the morning. I called everyone in the band again, and no one had seen Tommy.

            The hospital Tommy had gone to for the doctor’s appointment was only a few blocks away, so I walked over and inquired at the front desk. Nobody had seen or heard of anyone called Tommy Horne.

            I called the police station. No Tommy.

            John came by and we made an executive decision. We called Tommy’s parents, in Florida.

            This may have been the wrong thing to do.

            They flipped out.

            “Tommy is MISSING? His mother screamed. “My Tommy! Oh my GOD!”

            His father, a retired navy Commander, was as bad: “Now, son, you tell me just what the HELL is going on! If this is some kind of joke, it’s not funny! How could he be missing?”

            I explained what had happened, made some quick excuses, and got off the phone. But that wasn’t the end of it.

            A little while later Tommy’s sister called.

            “DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID?” She yelled. “Now they’re worried sick! How could you?”

            “We were just…” I tried to say.

            “Well, don’t!” she screamed. “Don’t call them again! This is not helping!”

            “I’m sorry, we were… I thought maybe he took a bus to Florida or something.”

            “Don’t call them!” she shouted, and hung up.

            She had always seemed so nice before…

            We were out of options. John and I combed the neighborhood like we were looking for a lost dog, even occasionally shouting “Tommy!” and whistling. We went to every store and shop and inquired if anyone had seen a tall, bespectacled, long-haired hippie-kind-of guy.


            We played the rest of the week with RB Sharp on guitar.

            No one knew where Tommy was. No slightly decomposed bodies had been discovered by joggers. No alien spaceships had been sighted in the area. The police had taken our missing persons report and filed it under “Haven’t got a clue.”

            On Monday, I dragged myself out of floor around 10 AM and went for a walk.

            It was another brilliant, fresh spring day and the birds were chirping, The trees had sprouted new green leaves, and I’m pretty sure that somewhere, the cotton was high.

            As I walked by the park near our apartment, I noticed people playing, full-grown adults, happily playing with colorful balls and balloons. One teenage girl was trying to get a kite into the air and failing miserably. She seemed to be deliriously happy dragging the poor little kite across the grass.

            And there he stood.

            Tommy Horne.

            He was one of a group of people throwing a ball back and forth.

            I hurried over.

            “Tommy?” I asked, not quite believing what I was seeing. He seemed surprised to see me.

            “Oh! Hey, man!”

            “What… Where the hell have you been? We’ve been looking all over for you! Who are these people?”

            He chuckled a little, backed away from the group, and pulled me aside. “They’re from the Nut House,” he whispered.

            I stared in disbelief at his new “friends.”

            He put his hand up to prevent anyone from hearing and said, “I got stoned before I went to the doctor and started crying in his office. He gave me a note and told me to take it to the nurse at one of the hospital buildings nearby.”

            He paused and waved at a woman that seemed to be in charge of the outing. He turned back to me, and continued:

            “When I got there, two orderlies grabbed me, took all of my clothes except my underwear, and put me in a straight-jacket. They shot me up with something, and threw me in a padded cell.”

            “Holy shit, ” I said. “Why didn’t you call? We had to hire RB Sharp!”

            “They wouldn’t let me call or talk to anybody. I gotta stay there another week, and then he’ll write me a note to get me out of being drafted. He’s gonna tell ’em I’m nuts!”

            Looking back on this incident now, after almost fifty years, I have to confess that the doctor may have been on to something.



The Superman Contest

The Superman Contest


When I was five and a half years old, my family lived in a big two-story house near Mission, Texas. My brother Lee was eleven and my youngest brother, Lowell, was only one, so my brother Lynn, four years old, was my best friend. We spent more time playing with each other than any of the kids we knew, which wasn’t many because of our constant moving. Lynn and I were best buddies.

         Television was in its infancy, so we had to wait until four o’clock each day to watch our favorite TV show featuring the greatest superhero of all, Superman. We sat quietly enthralled as Superman resolved one crisis after another with his awesome powers, flying through the air at supersonic speeds to catch a falling Lois Lane or crushing a bad guy’s gun like so much putty. Plus, he had x-ray vision, and that was just cool.

         As soon as the show ended, we’d rush into the kitchen and tug at Mother’s skirts, pleading for her to “Make capes for us! Make capes!”

         Mother would take a couple of dry dishtowels and tuck them into the back of our shirt collars, securing them with safety pins. Then Lynn and I would dash into the yard with our arms outstretched, swooshing around the trees and bushes, swishing air through our teeth for effect. Though cursed with limited earthly powers, we imitated Superman in every possible way. We were two Supermen, battling the dastardly forces of evil that threatened to destroy our yard.

         But one day it dawned on us that something was wrong with our play. There was only one Superman, and here we were, running around like there were two Supermen. Only in Bizzaro World could such abject nonsense persist. One of us, it seemed, was going to have to play Jimmy Olson or Perry White. It just wasn’t right to have both of us skipping around the yard with our capes flapping in the breeze.

         “Let’s have a contest,” I suggested. “Whoever wins the contest gets to be Superman.” Lynn agreed. It was the American Way.

         I’m not sure which one of us thought up the idea (probably me), but we decided to hoist a rock into the air and take turns dropping it on each other’s head. The brother who survived the test with the most composure and grace got to be Superman.

         We scoured the yard and garage for a suitably large rock and a good length of rope. Lynn threw one end of the rope over a low-hanging tree branch and I began tying the rock onto the other end. When I was done I stared hoisting the rock into the air. Lynn stood under the rock, bravely waiting for the inevitable.

         Now, Dear Reader, you might think that I would never drop a large stone on my brother’s cranium, but I assure you that I had every intention of letting go of that rope. I also knew that my turn would be next, after which we’d decide who performed most like the real Superman. But before I could release the stone, it slipped out of my poorly tied knot and scored a nasty bull’s-eye on the crown of Lynn’s head.

         Lynn’s hands flew to the top of his skull as he left forth a cry of such anguish that it could have bent steel. Blood gushed through his fingers as he bolted for home, his little legs churning as powerfully as a locomotive’s wheels. He was moving faster than a speeding bullet, and with a well-timed leap I figured he could clear the roof of our house in a single bound.

         Once Mother’s initial shock had subsided (a few more years and she wouldn’t bat an eyelash at our injuries) she tenderly applied iodine and a few Band Aids, patching Lynn up as good as new. For many years thereafter, I could easily see the purple jagged scar that marked the top of Lynn’s head like a lightning bolt.

         After the Superman debacle, Mother gently suggested that we play Davy Crockett (ABC 4:30 pm) Davy was an extraordinary frontiersman, trapper and “Indian fighter” but he was still just a human being from planet earth. We could plausibly have a whole carload of Davy Crockett’s running around the yard.

         But there were still important decisions to be made, such as which one of us got to wear our only coonskin cap, and who got to wield our only genuine tomahawk.

My Nha Trang Vacation

My Nha Trang Vacation!


In June of 1963, our family of five had been living in Saigon for six sweaty months. We were familiar with the city, but had never been anywhere else in Vietnam. Saigon had been mired in turmoil since we arrived, and the day school let out for the summer a Buddhist monk immolated himself in protest, not far from our house. Angry demonstrations were common and the city always teetered on the edge of violence and political insanity. We needed a break.

         My father, Doc, decided that our best bet for a little relaxation and some quality beach-time would be a few days in Nha Trang, a small resort town north of Saigon, on the coast.

         As every Brat knows, military vacations are not the same as civilian vacations. Being in the military gives a soldier certain advantages, but these advantages are not always so advantageous. A simple plane flight to vacation-land might be on a commercial airliner, but more often than not, it’s on some sort of military standby junket or a US-Government-issue plane (God help you). My family had experienced our fair share of both.

         In typical cheapskate fashion, Doc arranged for us to fly to Nha Trang on a bare-bones military transport plane, for free. The plane was old and the seating was primitive: both sides of the interior featured worn wooden benches, designed for the hard-assed soldiers of a much earlier generation, maybe World War I or the Spanish-American War. I think I may even have seen Lindbergh’s initials carved into one of the benches…

         The trip got off to a tenuous start when the crew outfitted our whole family with parachutes, which led us boys (me, 13, Lynn, 11, and Lowell, 9) to a lot of wild speculation. We knew that parachutes were exciting and beautiful, but Mother seemed a bit nervous about strapping on the silk. The crew was very nice, calmly explaining that the chances of having to bail out into a snake-filled Vietnamese jungle, teeming with Viet Cong, were very slim (maybe one in twenty), which did nothing to quell Mother’s fears. Maybe if they hadn’t winked at us boys while they explained this…

         Fortunately, Mother had a fresh pack of smokes and this was definitely a smoke-all-you-want-we don’t give-a-crap flight. Doc seemed amused, but tried not to look at Mother because of the recrimination in her eyes that suggested she harbored a burning desire to throw him out of the plane without a ‘chute.

         While we kids prayed for a flack-attack (so we could bail out like seasoned paratroopers, floating safely to earth near one of the strategic hamlets) Mother lit up and hunkered down. Doc looked on patiently, and I imagined he was counting the money he saved by flying us in like so much contraband.

         After a bone-rattling flight of less than an hour and a hair-raising landing that left my stomach in knots, we skidded to a halt at the military airstrip outside the town. We stripped off our parachutes and caught a cab to the slightly decrepit Hotel Nautique, Vietnam’s version of the Bates Motel.

         We dumped our bags in our rooms and took a walk around the town. I immediately began scanning the area for a covert place to buy cigarettes, hoping for the rest of the family to be distracted by a display-case of trinkets in a shop or a one-legged beggar fluent in French. But it was not to be. Buying or smoking cigarettes in this situation was impossible, and I resigned myself to a nail-biting vacation from nicotine.

         When dinnertime rolled around, Doc hustled us down the street to “Jacques,” a restaurant he claimed was world-famous for it’s lobster. A waiter (who looked more like Uncle Ho than Don Ho) seated us at a table in the nearly empty restaurant and Doc ordered for us all. He ordered just one lobster for all of five of us.

         I knew then that my father was a cheapskate of Biblical proportions, the Navy’s own Jack Benny. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him squeeze a 10 piaster note until the water buffalo mooed and gave milk. I figured we’d each get one tiny mouth-watering bite of this fabled lobster and then be force-fed bread and water: typical grim fare for POWs. Some vacation.

         While we contemplated the small bowl of butter that had been placed beside our plates, Uncle Ho sashayed out of the kitchen with our lobster and I realized how wrong I was.

         We were going to need more butter. Lots more.

         He staggered to our table and set the platter down. We stared in awe at the tail of what must have been the biggest lobster in existence, bigger even than the giant lobsters we had once seen in a holding-tank in a mid-town Manhattan restaurant. This antediluvian crustacean was enormous, served bottom-side up on a huge platter. The tail had been split open lengthwise, revealing mounds of succulent white meat.

         We grabbed our forks and knives and fell to devouring the beast, slashing off burger-sized chunks of flesh and wolfing it down, rivulets of butter dripping down our chins. But even after an arduous full-scale assault by three hungry boys and two adults, we came nowhere near finishing it.

         Score: Doc, one. Me, zero.

         After dinner we went back to the hotel and fell into bed sated, swatting at the flies and mosquitos that hummed in through the holes in the screens. Did you know that if you pull a sheet over your entire body, mosquitos can pierce your skin right through the sheet? No? Neither did I.

         The next afternoon, Doc arranged for a boat trip, a “Three hour tour”, to a small island offshore where we could swim and relax. Our boat was about 30 feet long, with inboard engines and a small platform on the back where we could practice diving. We dropped anchor near the island and we boys wasted no time jumping into the warm, sparkling shark-and-barracuda-infested water. It wasn’t deep; the bottom was only about 10 feet away and the island was an easy swim if we wanted to try it. We soon discovered that the water was also full of small invisible jellyfish. We couldn’t see them so avoidance was impossible. With every stroke we felt tiny little lumps of clear jelly rub against our limbs and bodies, each touch delivering a small jolt of pain.

         But we had fun anyway, cruising through the water with the snorkels and fins, chasing after schools of colorful small fish and diving off the platform. Mother and Doc downed cocktails and talked with the Skipper, a heavyset gruff-looking Frenchman who drank too much and joked about the sharks he said were everywhere (har har har). This put Mother completely at ease (ha ha ha). Fortunately, we never saw a shark, but a few sinister-looking barracuda cruised by, ignoring us as we frolicked carelessly in the water, getting zapped over and over by the jellyfish.

         But the thought of a shark approaching our small (3) group didn’t faze me one bit. I wasn’t a particularly fast swimmer, but I figured I could swim faster than Lowell, and maybe Lynn, and that was all that was required. Although Lynn and I would surely mourn Lowell’s demise at the hands (fins? teeth?) of a Tiger Shark, we wouldn’t for a second hesitate to clamber aboard the boat without him. Sorry, Lowell. “Survival of the fittest” and all that…

         Our shark-less fun went on for a few hours without a cloud or a drop of sunscreen in sight. As far as I knew, there was no such thing as “sunscreen,” anyway.

         The Skipper finally pulled up the anchor (while he was still sober enough to do so), we climbed aboard, and the boat puttered back to the village. We were tired, and water-logged, but happy. And it was at the entrance to my hotel room, that I discovered the awful truth when I brushed against the door.

         “Ow! I think I’ve got a sunburn,” I said.

         My mother looked at me, then at my legs.

         The expression on her face told me everything I needed to know.

         I hurried to the bathroom mirror and took a gander at my face and shoulders. It takes a while to redden up thoroughly after hours in the sun, but I had done it in record time, a testament to my complete lack of melanin and good sense. I was as red as our well-boiled feast of the previous night.

         My legs stung like hell and I realized that taking off my shorts would be impossible. Mother slathered the burns she could reach with Noxzema, a greasy white salve, the presence of which does nothing except inform onlookers that they are, at the very least, better off than you.

         Score: Doc, two. Me, zero.

         All night I wallowed in my bed, an instrument of torture that with every move I made popped the scores of large blisters that had sprung up all over my body. My face was burned, my shoulders were burned, my arms were burned, my back was on fire…

         Doc and Mother had spent the afternoon sitting beneath the umbrella on deck, so they didn’t get toasted at all (at least not in the “sunburn” sense of the word). Lynn escaped the worst of it and was an attractive light pink (WTF?). Lowell, who had apparently won the DNA lottery (My great-grandmother was Cherokee; Lowell got it all), showed not a trace of anything resembling sunburn. He was as brown as an old pair of shoes.

         For the next two days, I rode around Nha Trang like a stiff, afraid to move lest I break a blister and leak fluid all over myself and the cyclo seat. We visited pagodas and temples, markets and restaurants, and I suffered in silence, enjoying it all through the pain.

         Our return flight was just like the flight to Nha Trang, including parachutes, chain-smoking, and another hair-raising landing. It took a week to recover from my sunburn, and even today I can see a few scars on my legs from the blisters that popped during my visit to the beautiful coastal town of Nha Trang. The scars are souvenirs that I never have to worry about losing.

         My Nha Trang sunburn was just one of many I acquired as a youth, and the benign skin cancers that I now suffer are a tribute to my time in the sun as a Military Brat and surfer. But, as my wife likes to remind me, the cancers that result from too much sun are easier to deal with than the ones that result from too little.

         But what does she know? She’s as dark as my youngest brother, and browns to a lovely, healthy brown in the sun. The word “Sunscreen” is not in her vocabulary, nor is the phrase, “Red as a lobster,” or “That hurts like hell!”

         But there’s an upside to my pain: my dermatologist’s children have beautiful teeth.



A slice of untold history from the Vietnam War

The reader reviews on and the comments I’ve been seeing on my Facebook page have been overwhelmingly positive, which allays many of the fears I’ve been entertaining lately. About the time “Saigon Kids” was set to debut I realized that, as much as I might want to see my book in print, publishing my memoir was also a thing to be feared.
Saigon Kids is a history book of sorts: a slice of untold history from the Vietnam War, stories about the kids I went to school with and their struggles to lead a normal life (in a country that was turning into a madhouse), and more personally, the history of my family. Readers who are total strangers get to learn much more about me and my family and friends than I am sometimes comfortable with, but I suppose this is the price one has to pay to publish a memoir. I’ve read hundreds of memoirs, and in the best of them, I have begun to feel like I know people I have never met, and probably never will. They are all friends, these memoir-ists, friends I’ve never met, but people with whom I now have a bond, of sorts.
Another aspect to this memoir is that although there are millions of military, Foreign Service, and Diplomatic Corp Brats from the Cold War era, little has been published to reveal the trials and tribulations these Brats experienced on a regular basis, stateside, and overseas. A few self-published Brat memoirs can be found if you look hard enough, but there are none I know of available in Barnes and Noble or independent booksellers. Certain themes in Saigon Kids will be familiar to any Brat, but the events described in the book are unique to that time and place.
I only hope that the larger community of military Brats will discover and enjoy “Saigon Kids.” In many ways, it is their story, too.
Les Arbuckle
October 16, 2017