I was in Vietnam in 1969 with the First Infantry Division. In October, I’d been there eight months, with four to go. I’d been accumulating R&R, so in mid-October I asked for a four-day pass. My plan was to hitch a helicopter ride to Saigon and book a room at the downtown USO. I’d been to Saigon only once before, for only a day and a half, and I wanted to see the city properly before going home to the States.
Also, while staying at the USO, I might try a phone call home. I’d been getting letters from my mother regularly, but I’d not spoken to her or my father, and of course not heard either of their voices since our goodbyes on the LaGuardia concourse.
And a phone call would give me that chance I’d been waiting for: to catch my father off-guard!
My father was a card. That’s what I heard people call men—and they were mostly men—who found humor in everything, the sort who pulled legs and cracked wisecracks. Well, that was my father: a card-carrying card. I was envious, the way he’d always come up with the unexpected. Once—just once!—I hoped to catch him when he wasn’t ready. I wanted to surprise him when he didn’t have a smartass comeback. A phone call from Vietnam might just be the ticket. Why not, I thought, why the hell not?
International phone calls were hardly trouble-free in 1969. There were no satellites circling the Earth. All global calls, no matter the distance, traveled by landline. Calling another country meant trusting to miles and miles of coaxial cable: all those muscular ropes of wound copper slung aboveground or buried underground or deep-sixed under the sea. A call from Vietnam to the Bronx, New York—even if it went the somewhat shorter and somewhat more reliable route across Europe—was making a call of just under 9,000 miles.
There were other considerations, too. If I wanted my call to ring in the Bronx when my parents were likely to be at home, I’d have to allow for the day. North America was on the lagging side of the International Dateline. Today in Saigon was still yesterday in the Bronx. And the hour. The Atlantic coast of the North America was on the opposite side of the world, twelve time zones from Southeast Asia. Twelve-noon in Saigon was only midnight in the Bronx.
Rain was pouring down when I landed at Tan Son Nhut, the airfield on the outskirts of Saigon. I found an Army bus that would take me downtown and drop me off at the door of the USO. Once I’d booked my room, I made my telephone reservation. I completed the USO’s reservation card, giving my name, rank, service number, and the city and telephone number I wanted to call. I told the man, an enthusiastic Vietnamese, that my call had to arrive in the Bronx in the early evening on any of the three days I’d be at the USO—my parents’ suppertime. I agreed to 0600 hours—six a.m.—the next morning, Saturday. Once my call was underway, it would all depend on how long it might take a dozen international operators at a dozen international call centers to make a dozen correct patches. If all went well, my call, initiated at six a.m. on a Saturday morning in Saigon, would ring in my parents’ Bronx apartment a little after six p.m. on Friday evening. “Ten, fifteen minutes it gonna take if everything okay,” the clerk said, marking my card. “There a problem, then who knows, maybe a half-hour?”
I was up before dawn on Saturday. Separating the curtains, I looked out on a soaked Saigon. The plaza was a sheen of rainwater. U.S. sentries milled about in front of the USO, flak-vested, protected by a sandbag berm. A tracked vehicle stood idling, looking like a dangerous cat, with its slash yellow headlamps burning. I dressed and climbed aboard the USO’s one functioning elevator, a brass-gated leftover from the days when the building was an elegant French Colonial hotel. The morning clerk gave me an index card with “Booth 44” and motioned me away to the Call Center, a room that had formerly been the hotel’s dining room.
I found a regimented maze of old phone booths, line-upon-line of booths, each booth with a pair of bulbs above its lintel: a white bulb and a red bulb. I assumed the red bulb meant the booth was occupied. As early as it was, quite a few of the red bulbs were already lit. The room was basted with the sound of men’s voices, soldiers whispering hushed confidences to sweethearts and wives and families back home. I paused before I went into Booth 44.
It’d been a long time since I’d been in such a tight space. Where I was stationed up north we had the choice of sleeping in a bunker belowground, or aboveground in a tin-roofed hut. I’d tried sleeping belowground, but the bunker was airless and stank of mildew and felt like being buried alive. And now Booth 44: I saw it as an upended coffin. But I went in and pulled the accordion-door shut. A frosted ceiling bulb the size of a wad of bubblegum came on and a small fan above the booth’s phone started to spin; the bulb gave lousy light and the little fan squeaked like an injured mouse. I held my wristwatch up to the poor light and saw that it was only three minutes of six. I was early.
Drrrrr-clackk! The sound of the phone was odd, more like that of a gourd filled with stones. The suddenness jolted me.
“You are telephoning the U.S. of A., sir? New York City? That is correct, sir?” The voice was Asian, female, young, wide-awake, efficient. “It will take only a few minutes, sir. Please, I ask that you be patient. I will keep you on the line. If I should lose you, sir… but I will not ‘lose’ you, sir!” I felt her smile at our colloquialism: to lose. “If that should happen, sir, I will ring you right back.”
Maybe it was my confinement, but I thought of the outdoors. If the rain had stopped, the city would soon be brightening. The sun would be coming up from the dark blue lip of the South China Sea, going higher and higher as the metropolis below grew hotter and hotter. Saturday was market day in Saigon. Very soon the sellers of vegetables and fish and small eatable creatures would be pouring into the town center. Vietnamese soldiers, too, would be joining them, patrolling nonchalantly yet emphatically armed with their slung weapons. The sellers would make use of the sandbag berms, propping and balancing their trays and cages; others would take advantage of the shade between the military vehicles, nudging their carts in and laying out their wares. Then the townspeople would begin arriving: families; men in clean white shirts and pressed trousers; women, some in the traditional rainbow-hued au dais and others in tank tops and jeans; youngsters straining at their parents’ purview; and elders, gray-haired, bearded and braided, moving cannily through the crowd. And then the city’s wheeled menagerie: the lame buses burping their diesel smoke; the old taxi cabs braying their impatience; the little Pedi-cabs weaving about on their three toy-like wheels; and the bicycles! everywhere, the bicycles, of almost comical variety, from shiny ten-speeds with their rip-stop nylon panniers, to old wretched one-speeds with their wicker baskets and duct-taped frames. No one paying much attention to traffic flow; all that matters is going from here to there.
I was also thinking, too, how I was now finding my confinement strangely comforting, not coffin-like at all but more a cuddle or a protective squeeze. All of us in our boxes, safe and set aside from a dangerous world.
“Bangkok, chi, chi…” This new voice was male, somewhat farther away. I heard my USO operator speak to the voice—
Then my phone went dead. No tone. Nothing. It was six-oh-seven.
But quickly: Drrrrr-clackk!
“Sorry, sir. Everything is all right.”
After a flood of crackling sounds, yet another voice was on the line, again male (I thought. It was almost inaudible): “’Allo? Hyderabad One-one. I am here. ’Allo?” What came next sounded almost like a disagreement between my USO operator and the Indian operator. “No, no, no, madame, you are not understanding. Kabul is down. I cannot give you Kabul. That is how it is, you hear? I will ring Karachi. A moment, please.”
What a miracle all this was, this magical blip of current I’d dispatched, a bead of electricity that was at that very moment darting, diving, probing, with every mile looking for a workable path around the world!
Six thirteen. I discover a toggle: I was able to turn off the fan. I might sweat, but, oh, the sweet silence!
But then we ran afoul of another obstacle. I was seeing the difficulties involved in making these international landline calls. The Karachi operator (female, mature; scratchy, but that may have been the growing distance): “Ordinarily, my dear, we would go through Tabriz, but, for whatever reason, Tabriz is just not answering. Offline, I have to imagine, who can say? We will go instead through Ankara. Ankara is always reliable.”
The apartment in the Bronx wasn’t much: five and a half rooms (the half room was my bedroom) on the second floor of a two-family house owned by a Polish widow-lady, a Mrs. Angeski. It amused me to think that my telephone call was on its way to that apartment, traveling nearly 9,000 miles from my dark booth to the dinette where my mother and father were eating unawares. In my mind’s eye I saw our Bronx telephone, a squat black rotary telephone with a thick sausage-curl cord, resting on an end table on top of a sun-yellowed doily in an alcove to the side of the dinette. In a few minutes the telephone would ring—jangle, more than ring, more like an alarm bell—and my parents would jump, turn and look at the telephone, then look back with wrinkled brows at each other, not able to conceive who might be telephoning at an hour when everyone would be at supper.
“I have a beautiful connection with Telkom in Patra, sir. That is Greece, sir.”
The USO operator was doing all the work. All I could do was sit quietly and be patient.
I was unable, for whatever reason, to hear the voice of the operator in Patra. The next voice I heard was the operator in Torino, Italy: female; clear, strong, middle-aged (I guessed), her English excellent but suggesting she had no time to waste. Next came Le Havre: once again, female, only this time youthful-sounding, her English not nearly as good but equally pressed for time. I heard the Le Havre operator say something about “Southampton,” and, after a long string of clicka-clicka-pops, a male voice: very British, elderly (again, I was guessing), obviously at ease and comfortable at what he was doing.
“Bear with me now,” the Southampton gentleman said. “I suggest we go through Bergen. I’m having great success with Bergen. Awfully good fellow at the other end tonight.”
Tonight? But of course. Touching my fingertips to count the time zones, I realized it was the very bottom of night in Southampton, only a handful of minutes after midnight.
After Bergen came Reykjavik, but after Reykjavik my call began to stumble. The Iceland operator tried one unresponsive relay station after another, trying to get my call across the Atlantic. Finally a voice picked up: far, far away; female; sounding not all that sure of what to do. “Iqaluit, Iqaluit, this is Iqaluit. What do you need?” My USO operator explained that Iqaluit was in Canada, on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay. She comforted me in telling me that, as soon as the girl in Iqaluit learned that ours was a call from Vietnam, she wasted no time but made a Hail Mary pass with my call to Churchill on the distant western shore of Hudson Bay. Churchill was a more capable communications center.
My USO operator apologized. “This is taking longer than I had hoped, sir. I’m sorry.”
My watch now read six twenty-one.
Canada’s main, south-central communications center in Winnipeg was able to vault the northern border and patch me into to Minneapolis. My call was now in the U.S., but in the heartland; it would have to be routed back to the East Coast. I’d be arriving in the Bronx like a returning boomerang.
Patterson, New Jersey…
Six thirty-three. Then, finally…
Brang! Brang! Brang!
I knew that ring! Even at a distance of almost 9,000 miles, and through a dozen plugs in a dozen switchboards in a dozen countries—Thailand, India, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, England, Iceland, Canada—and a half dozen switchboards in a half-dozen cities from Minneapolis to the coast.
My breathing grew shallow. I knew that ring!
“That is your number now ringing, sir. It has been my pleasure to help you today.”
“Thank you! Oh, my God, thank you!” I was effusive, unashamedly. My “partnership” with my USO operator had come to its end. “You have an absolutely beautiful day,” I said.
Five rings, not unusual for my parents. They would have stopped eating. They’d be staring at the phone in the alcove. My father’s fork would be in midair, a bit of boiled potato balanced. My mother would turn back to him, looking somewhat panicked. “Who the hell could that be, you think?” my father would ask no one in particular.
Six rings. They are going to answer, aren’t they? Oh, please…
“H-hello?” My mother’s voice, quavering.
I wasted no time in saying “Hey, mom!” and assuring her I was okay. I imagined her shouting back across the room—
“Oh, my God! Bill! Bill! It’s Raymond! Bill!”
“Raymond, Bill. Raymond’s on the phone—from Vietnam!”
My father said something. It sounded like he hadn’t gotten up. Whatever it was he said, I couldn’t make it out.
“What’s that you want me to tell Raymond?”
Silence: a puzzling pause. I imagined my father had gone back to his supper.
What I heard next was as clear and loud as could be:
“Tell him we’re eating!” he yelled.
Ray Kemble is relatively new to the writing game, having recently retired after a life’s career as an actor, director, playwright, and theater administrator. His nonfiction has appeared in Diverse Voices, Zero Dark Thirty, and Down and Dirty. A New York boy by birth and rearing, Ray has called Colorado home for going on forty years. He welcomes communication at email@example.com.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Tell Him What?”
Author Ray Kemble begins with an unassuming premise, that of a soldier wanting to surprise his father with a phone call from Vietnam. During the course of that call, we’re given a strong sense of place and a long-gone era, combined with good tension, and taken on a journey halfway around the world through many countries. And at the end of the journey, the author has delivered not only a strong character-driven story, but also a completely unexpected surprise both to the character and to the reader. We say, “Well done!”