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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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03.01.09

Numba One Culinary War Story

Food Memoir


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During 1968 and 1969 I served as an Army Medical Service Lieutenant in South Vietnam. I arrived a few days before Thanksgiving and hoped with luck, to be back in the world before Christmas of the following year.

I drew a few good early cards and got assigned as a platoon leader to a field medical company that had medics strung out along a fairly wide swath of territory, operating aid stations and humping with grunts in the jungles. Given the logistics of this arrangement, I found myself travelling around the country more than most. This was both a great path to adventure and perhaps more than a bit too out there for my own good.

Our base camp was on the coast. I was assigned a jeep driver named Bob Shank. He was a good looking, strapping Kansas farm kid, built like the steers he likely lifted as weights to get in shape. He had no evidence of common sense but plenty of hot temper. This imbalance came to the attention of our company commander, a career man, a captain, a Mormon, and a complete jackass. Everyone down to the dimmest of wits among the men instinctively knew to stay out of the captain’s way….all except Sp4 Shank. The captain sensed Shank’s glaring weakness and set out to exploit it. It didn’t take long. By my second week in country, after a few of my not so subtle pep talks that were supposed to pass for counseling, Shank lost his temper and decked the captain right in front of half the troops in Vietnam. The officer had barely gotten back to his feet when he ordered his assailant to a 10 day pre-trial stint in the infamous Long Binh Stockade, better known by its universal pejorative, the “LBJ”, affectionately named after the tragic US president who, along with the brilliant brain trust carryovers from JFK’s Camelot, dragged the nation into and through the Vietnam nightmare.

An hour later, Shank and I boarded a Huey, he bound to me by a handcuff, I armed with a .45 pistol and the handcuff key securely attached to my dog tags. My TDY (temporary duty) orders were cut for a week………..just in case I couldn’t get either a chopper or fixed wing out of Long Binh right away and had to make my way back north by other, more creative means.

The infamous LBJ was straight out of central casting…………..if you’d ever seen pictures of Mississippi’s Parchman Farm or done time at Louisiana’s Angola Prison, the LBJ was your home away from home. All stockade personnel sounded like the cast of “Cool Hand Luke”. “Boy” was less a racial slur than one of the very few nouns the prison staff had in their vocabulary, with hog, grits, dust, mule, pot likker, moonshine, and “tootache”. Needless to say, Shank’s intake processing SOP was written by an Army bureaucrat channeling Dante. He began to cry, pleading with me to spare him this 10 day all expense paid trip into the abyss. Alas, there was nothing I could do. I had my own doubts about getting out of there, having surrendered both my ID and weapon through a hole in the stockade fence upon entry.

It being close to three PM, I rushed from the stockade to the airstrip in a furious attempt to get on any flight north before night set in. By day, the Americans owned Vietnam. By night, it belonged to the VC. No one took to the air except the few Medevacs called out to the bush to rescue the wounded. Few ventured out in trucks unless they were armored vehicles….and that did little to prevent ambush, mines, etc. Civilian Vietnamese disappeared at about 5 PM, reinforcing the generally held suspicion that they had spent a hard day collecting military intelligence for the VC.

I got to the airstrip just before 4:00 PM. Nothing was coming or going. The sole building was a corrugated metal pole barn-type structure, with few seats, many GI’s, and tons of Vietnamese. By 6:00 PM it was quite apparent we were going nowhere. During the very long day I had overlooked one crucial thing…food. The punch took place early in the morning. I was on the chopper by noon. We set down near Long Binh around 1:00 PM. It took the better part of an hour to get to the LBJ. Food at the stockade? Please.

By dark I was famished. There was no snack bar, no PX concession, no nothing, except a few mamma sans in their conical straw hats squatting by large food baskets. Most of the Vietnamese were leaving the hangar area. Most of the mamma sans were packing it in as well. I asked a GI what they sold. His pithy reply: “Gook food LT and you know, GI’s not supposed to eat that stuff……..you get beaucoup sick. Besides, who wants to eat it?” I did. It was that or my boot.

The mamma san had what looked like a take on a hero sandwich wrapped in white paper. “Chung Oui (Lt) numba one. For you 100 P “(piasters, dollars, diamonds, jelly beans, whatever). “Anything to drink?” “33 Beer”…….I’ll just take the sandwich.” Even the biggest nitwit American knew that 33 Beer in a bottle was an invitation to a lacerated throat. A well established urban legend among GI’s was that “33” contained ground glass. Forty years later and I still can’t bring myself to drink one. Even without the glass it was rumored to taste something like second rate San Miguel.

I unwrapped the sandwich. It consisted of a baguette (in 1968 I knew nothing of baguettes, except that they may have been a backup group for some R & B singer). The bread was slightly sweet. Mama san boasted “rice flour”. It was wonderfully light, slathered with what appeared to be mayonnaise (no chance of it being Hellman’s. And so at that very moment, 10,000 miles across the globe, my late mother had a sudden unexplained [sympathetic] burst of heartburn similar to the one she experienced after her first unwitting exposure to Miracle Whip years before).

Nestled inside the baguette was what I came to later know as pate. It had a definite liver taste. Normally, given my food sophistication at the time, that alone would have been a deal breaker. However, it had slices of long white radish (later revealed to me as Daikon), some cucumber, and a musky but somehow also very fresh tasting, leafy herb (turned out to be Cilantro). God!! What a combo!! I’d never had anything like that. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven as a kid when I ate a sausage & pepper hero when my parents took my brother, sisters, and me to Manganaro’s Grocery on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan in the early 60’s. My other food epiphany was the “Dagmar” a submarine sandwich at a famous roadside stand in the Hamptons named “Gene’s”. This sandwich, however, was light, elegant, savory, French, exotic, and satisfying. “Mamma san, this is great. What is it?” “Oh Chung Oui, Numba One Rat!!”

My first instinct was to defer to my well developed gag reflex, cultivated and honed to a fine edge after years of being force-fed East European Jewish fare such as boiled chicken and kishke. On second thought, after considering among other things that vomiting was definitely conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, coupled with the confidence that the mamma san was playing to American cultural and racial stereotypes in her best self-deprecating style, I maintained composure and perhaps even commented on the exceptional quality of said rat. Several of the GI’s close enough to overhear the exchange took the stereotype sucker punch and guffawed themselves into delirium. A great joke and on an officer at that. A great story to retell back in the bunkers. The mamma san and the dumbass college boy.

Moving ahead approximately 10 years, one Saturday morning I chanced to wander into a place called the Saigon Market; a modest storefront that had just opened next to Cincinnati’s famed Findlay Market. As I walked through the door I was blasted by smells that transported me back in time. Our olfactory sense is the undisputed the king of memory. The first blast was the nuoc mam, the famous fermented fish sauce made along every road I travelled in Vietnam by itinerant, independent producers. One’s first whiff is an epic event. That’s another story for another time. The second aroma was the Cilantro. Not yet ubiquitous, Cilantro was easily confused with Italian Parsley at least visually. It was often returned for an exchange after the uninitiated experienced its unusual taste that one either took to or was repelled by.

I wandered through the aisles, noting packaged goods I remembered from the villages and towns I’d explored during my travels and with my extra TDY time. As I returned to the counter with a bag of White Rabbit candies (what a gourmet !!) I noticed a tray lined with a lace doily, with about a half dozen examples of that infamous sandwich arranged in an orderly stack. I asked the clerk what they were. “Banh Mi” she said, going on to tell me that these were iconic creations in Vietnamese cuisine….merging the French with the Vietnamese and other Asian influences. The pate was a chicken liver pate……..chicken, pork, and beef. The texture was fine, unlike a country pate that I’d become rather adept at after we got our first Cuisinart. Naturally, I bought one. It was wonderful. Great but not as special as the one at the dark airstrip prepared for me by a cynical woman surviving the chaos, violence, and sadness of war…………Her joke at my expense seemed a small price to pay if it made things the slightest bit easier.

2 Comments on "Numba One Culinary War Story"

Cynthia

Great story. Thanks for sharing that. I smiled at some of the terms, as it brought back for me tales told by many friends I know who were in Vietnam for the war — especially “beaucoup,” which seemed to be a favorite adopted word.

Of course, rat is not an impossibility in that part of the world (I even have photos of a rat BBQ stand in Thailand), I don’t think it was every used for paté. ;-)

I do love your sensitivity to the food vendor’s situation. And I’m glad you loved the sandwich. It’s true that the first time is so often the sweetest — they way a think is “supposed” to taste. But pleased that you got to sample the sandwich again under less harrowing circumstances.



Sky Full of Bacon » Blog Archive » 7 Links of Terror: Number One Rat Edition

[...] At Michael Nagrant’s Hungry Mag, Barry Strum recounts the time he tried his first banh mi… at a military prison in Vietnam in 1969. Which sorta puts worrying about how politically [...]



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