Friday, December 9, 2011

The Laundry VN

(C) James J Alonzo

In Viet Nam, there are places called base camps, and then forward bases. Base camps is kind of like a large area, where the soldiers can rest, clean up his gear, resupply, and general maintenance.

At base camp, in the interest of helping the local economy, women were hired to clean up our tents or hooches, do laundry, clean the mess halls, etc.

I had always had an ability for languages. Being able to speak Spanish and English, it wasn't hard for me to pick up Vietnamese language. Since I was able to understand the vietnamese people, I was often asked to intercede when there was a problem.

Some of the troopers started to complain that they were getting skin rashes. At first there were two or three complaints, and then spread to the others. They referred to the rash as a fungus, and the complaints became an every day occurrence at base camp.

Several of the troopers went to sick call where the medics gave them some kind of salve and were told they must of come in contact with a strange plant in the jungle. One of the medics asked me what I thought about the laundry ladies and maybe the soap. I had a few weeks earlier given Mama-San a large carton of TIDE laundry soap, with instructions that when she needed more to see the supply sergeant, and he would give her more.

We called the older ladies "mama-San" or if she was young "baby-San".  Mama-San's wash tub equipment consisted of three garbage cans. They filled the cans up with water from the local river. One can for washing, with a wash board, and the other two cans, for rinsing.
I went over to observe their procedure, and right away I saw they were using some kind of bar soap, and the soap was black in color!

"Mama-San, what you do?, I asked in Vietnamese.

"Ahh!  Emnoy, I wash G.I. clothes," she answered with her Beatle-nut smile.

(Beatle nut was a wild plant that was a mild narcotic, and it's users would have their teeth eventually turn black from rotting the enamel. There was no pain, and at the same time it tended to stain the lips red.)

"What kind of soap you use?" picking up a bar of this soap I started to smell it and suddenly snapped my head back from the extreme burning! I was sure I had just burned my nose hair off!!

"I use Vietnamese lye soap," she said laughing at my discomfort, " I get at market. Good soap, clean G.I. clothes real good!"

"But I gave you american soap," I whispered loudly, my throat burning, as my eyes continued tearing. "A big box of TIDE soap, good soap!"

"Ahh! Emnoy, I sell American soap, buy good Vietnamese soap, and get money back! Mama-San keep money!"

Clutching my face, I said through my clenched teeth, " Mama-San, lye soap is bad, number 10! American soap, good, number 1!  lye soap, communist! It make G.I. Itchy all over!"

Mama-San was no longer vibrant, but had a confused look on her face. I don't think she understood the rash thing. To her this soap was good enough for her, her family, why not for the G.I., sell the TIDE, buy cheaper soap, and keep the money.

I walked away and went to the supply hooch, and got another carton of TIDE.  Picking up one large box, I took it back to Mama-San, praising the soap, giving her new instructions, and how the G.I.'s would be very happy.

"Mama-San! You use TIDE soap, number 1 soap,,,good soap,,,you like, American G.I. happy!"

Mama-San smiled her black tooth smile, nodding her head in agreement. That took care of the problem. Or at that time, I thought!

A week passed and the rash problem became a plague! When I got back from the field, the problem was staring me in the face in the form of the commanding officer standing there, scratching, pissed at me because of his rash!

So I headed down to the laundry area, only to spot Mama-San and baby-San washing clothes with the damn number 10 black bar lye soap!

"Mama-San! What you do?" I questioned.

"Ahh, emnoy, I use lye soap---good soap! Clean clothes good, lye soap number 1!"

"No!" I said, stomping my boots!  "Lye soap is communist soap! Not good soap! What you do with number 1 American TIDE soap?" I demanded.

"1take Vietnamese black market," she said proudly. " I sell, make bouqoo pietas (money), buy lye soap, clothes for baby-sans, food, make family very happy!"

I stood there and realized what I needed to do. I went back to the supply hooch and got 2 boxes of TIDE. After extracting a solemn oath from mom-San,  I gave mom-San 1 carton soap for G.I. Clothes, and 1 carton for her black market.

(years later I would think that Agent Orange might have been the cause of some of the skin problems)


Kelly L. Derricks said...

Thanks for explaining what a beetle nut smile is!

I heard my Father had rashes after spraying AO

James J Alonzo-DiCenzo said...

Yes I am sure thAt the rashes were from A/O. Back then we thought it was from the Vietnamese women of I'll repute. Or sometimes referred to as "soils doves"

John Sloan said...

Beetle nut was mostly mountain yard people in Vietnam. Some were soldiers and very good ones! I was in Pleiku 69.