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Saigon, Sweat and Spades

"Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane. Don't know when I'll be back again. Oh baby, I hate to go."
- John Denver


I hated to play Spades. But three guys can't play cards, and they needed a fourth.

They were Army just like me, motion picture guys assigned to document the transition of the war from an American war to a Vietnamese war.

Looking back, I may have been too hard on them. I liked one of them a lot, and the other two were OK if your standards were fairly low. But they had this thing about their card game. They believed cards were created to fill every vacant moment, every idle minute.

For hours upon hours, we played ... mindlessly, unmercifully, endlessly. Spades.

Ceiling fan whining, chameleons scouting the walls, street noises washing through open windows. Deal the cards.

Awaiting orders, stranded without a ride in a sweltering Saigon hotel. Spades.

Sweat dripping, begging for a merciful end to the game, pleading to give it a rest, to get out of that room, to do something - anything else but Spades.

Finally, I rebelled. I was sick of it... the game, the room, the company. I needed fresh air.

At the end of a hand, I threw down my cards. "I'm out," I said. "Find someone else."

As moans and protests followed me out the door, I headed up the stairs to the rooftop bar.

We were staying, waiting on a flight up-country, at the Rex Hotel, a hangout for American officers and war correspondents who gathered for daily war briefings, dubbed "the Five O'Clock Follies" by journalists. I attended once, saw no value and never went back.

I went up those steps two at a time and made my way to the bar. There, in that rooftop retreat lit by overhead strands of colored lights, I lounged against the rail, sipped on a bottle of Tiger beer and half-listened to a pretty Vietnamese singer's imitation of Tina Turner.

Below, ARVN guards hunkered down in their sandbagged perches at the hotel entrance, vendors and beggers filled the sidewalks, and cyclo drivers competed with hookers and mini-taxis for the attention of every American afoot.

On the roof, I was above all that. The night was warm. The beer was cold. Nobody hassled me. And life for a few moments was very good.

As the sun disappeared behind the low hangars of the air base to the west and yellow lights lit the Saigon streets, I tuned out all but the loudest traffic noises below.

It was somewhat magical, a bit mysterious, and totally real. Slowly, quietly, on my own terms I regained my senses.

And no more Spades.

Since that day, I've never been able to sit comfortably through a card game.


Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. This Focal Point column was published Nov. 2, 2014.

Photo: Spec. 4 Dave Berry on a convoy to Bao Loc, South Vietnam, 1971.

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