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First Night in Town

By Richard Epstein

The Plane touches down after a steep decline
The door opens, I squint hard in a searing sun.
I breathe shallow in furnace-like air
Heat waves shimmy and wiggle
to escape the scorching concrete

Hueys and Cobras park in single file
A Caribou roars as it backs up to unload
its cargo of steel helmeted 19 year-olds
And there stands the enemy–
a thin old man, black pajamas,
worn flip-flops and leathery skin.

His hands and feet are tightly bound.
His eyes covered with a soiled rag.
Head bowed, he stands along in the sun.
I look up at a sign above the terminal door:
“In Case of Mortar Attack, Lay on the Floor.”
No one to meet me, I catch an Air Force bus into town.
Metal bars and wire mesh cover the windows all around.
“To stop grenades,” the driver explains.
An MP stands in the open doorway, ready to let loose
with a burst from his M-16. “Got to be ready,” he said.

Thin lines of emerald green give way to banana groves,
with French villas shaded by tall coconut palms.
Shanties of wood, thatch, and tin perch on stilts
above brown waterways. In the heart of the city,
the bus stops at the Myercord, a BOQ not far
from the Presidential Palace. I got a room and
hailed a blue and yellow taxi held together with wire and glue.

Waves of bicycles, pedicabs and smoking motorbikes
whiz noisily by. Foot-powered food carts dot the streets
with smiling black-toothed mama-sans preparing
fried bananas, noodle soup or squid.

Taxi drivers play pick up games with a wicker ball.
They pass with their heads, elbows, and feet.
A barber cuts hair on the sidewalk, and old men play
Chinese Checkers on the hood of an American car.
Slender girls with shiny black hair, almond eyes,
and high cheekbones float by like butterflies
in their colorful ao dais. I rent a room
in a small hotel and watch parachute flares float
over Cholon from a rooftop garden edged with
Christmas tree lights. A gunship circles overhead
and I watch 122mm rockets draw red arcs across
the night sky. My new home–Saigon.

Richard Epstein was trained in microwave radio repair (Army MOS 26L20), and assigned to a mountain-top radio relay site in the northeast corner of Thailand.  After his release from the Army, he worked in Vietnam and Thailand as a technical writer and field engineer. Richard hosts an open mic venue for veterans on the National Mall every Memorial Day and Veterans Day. He can be contacted at

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