Tell Him What?
by Ray Kemble
People called my father a “card.” Growing up I never knew what that meant. Later I looked it up. The American Heritage College Dictionary defined “card” as “an eccentrically amusing person.” Then and there I knew why my father was called a card.
In 1969 I was in Vietnam, an artilleryman with the First Infantry Division. I was based in Lai Khe, about fifty miles northwest of Saigon. Although it was only an hour’s drive, it was wartime. Soldiers in Lai Khe had few opportunities to visit Saigon. However, when I was given my first opportunity I planned to make a phone call – a landline phone call – to my mother and father in the Bronx. In 1969 we had no cell phones, no email, no Skype. Our only recourse was to be patched through by a network of “live” operators, from Saigon to the U.S. Reservations were necessary. I’d been warned this patching would take time and ask for lots of patience on my part. Even then, at the final plug-in, the connection might break down.
As soon as I arrived in Saigon I went to the U.S.O. to make my appointment. Predictably the phone center was packed with soldiers wanting to make calls. I was told to return at 10 AM the following morning. I arrived a few minutes early, excited and a little anxious; I hadn’t spoken to my parents since I’d said goodbye in the concourse at JKF. I was instructed to go down a corridor of booths and wait for the phone to ring in my reserved booth.
It wasn’t long before my phone rang, launching me on an 8,900-mile landline odyssey.
“Captain, you there?” The Saigon operator was clear and sharp.
“Be patient, please. I am putting us through Jakarta.”
The Jakarta operator picked up. A male. His voice too was clear, if slightly fainter. “Hold, Saigon. I am routing through Ankara.”
Moments later the Ankara operator joined us. “Sorry, please, we have an overload in Rome. I will try Salerno.” The connection to the Ankara operator was more tenuous: lots of pops and hisses. Then nothing.
“So sorry, Saigon,” the Jakarta operator said, sounding really sorry. “I will try direct to Athens.”
Again crisp and clear, the Saigon operator was speaking to me. “Captain, I beg your patience.”
What else could I do but be patient? I sat there, a weak, filmy bulb overhead and a tiny fan turning scratchily.
“Athens? I have a priority request, Vietnam to the U.S. Can you help?”
I could hear the Jakarta operator’s voice, but I could not hear the voice speaking from Athens. Several minutes passed. I remained optimistic; I assumed the Saigon operator was hearing both Jakarta and Athens, and she would come back to tell me if there were problems.
When the line came back to life, I was hearing Zurich. I say “hearing,” but the voice, male, sounded as far away in my ear as it was on the face of the Earth. He seemed to be talking to several international operators at once. “Ja, it’s good. Talk to Oslo,” he said. “Here now is Oslo.”
Remarkably, I could hear the Oslo operator. Her voice was wafer-thin, but I could understand what she was telling Saigon, through Athens and Jakarta. I understood I was about to be patched across the Atlantic to the U.S.
More remarkably, I was still connected.
The next voice was Bangor, Maine, routing station for all East Coast military calls. One of the international operators working assiduously to put through my call must have asked about the hour in Bangor. “Eighteen hundred hours, ma’am. Six PM, Eastern Standard.”
“We are almost there,” my Saigon operator said to me. There was a celebration in her voice. “I am so happy for us.”
The Bangor operator – I imagined him at his table, facing his operator’s console, an ashtray of half-smoked Kents beside an opened paperback. He was making that final plug-in, the plug-in I’d been warned would sometimes fail.
But then there was the robust ring of my parents’ phone, a masculine, not-to-be-ignored ring. I could visualize the phone, in the Bronx 8,900 miles away, on my mother’s end table in the hallway, resting on a doily: a jet-black ATT&T phone with its big rotary dial. Beneath I could see my mother’s Book-of-the Month selections – Hawaii and The Shoes of the Fisherman – stacked, with the King James Bible set on top.
My mother’s voice, wavering, as it always was when she answered the phone. Recognizing me, she began to cry.
“Oh, Ray! Oh, oh! Come to the phone, Bill. Hurry. It’s Ray.”
What I heard next, beyond my mother’s tears, was my father’s voice. Likely he was at the dinette table, finishing his supper.
There was a pause, a sure sign my father was trying to think of a good one. And, at last–
“Tell him we’re eating.”
I then heard my father running for the phone.
He was a card, like they said.
Recently retired after a full life in the theater, as an actor, director, and playwright, Ray Kemble, a born New Yorker, served in the U.S. Army in field artillery in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. His first overseas tour was in South Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division. Ray returned to the States to command a basic training company at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. His last year in the U.S. Army was in Lai Khe, Vietnam, with the 1st Infantry Division. Upon discharge, Ray relocated to Colorado. Among his more oft-produced plays are “Libbie,” based on the correspondence and journals of Elizabeth Custer, and “All That I Have Lost,” based upon war poetry from ancient times to the present. It is only since his retirement from full-time theater that Ray has tried his hand at writing in other genres. Ray lives in Denver with his partner Mell.