Saigon 1965 – The Start of the Journey

Tu Do Street

“Padre, I have a question about the Resurrection,” Alamo said while wildly waving a timeworn, hand-stained little book in front of Chaplain Pete’s face. 

Eight of us were gathered in Chaplain Pete’s “other office” for one of his frequent “Anything Goes” sessions. It wasn’t an office at all. He just called it that in his daily activity reports that the Army demanded and that no one in the Army ever read. The “other office” was a small, quiet restaurant just off Saigon’s famed Tu Do Street. The place was considered safe, in those days, because of the visible presence of  American MPs and Vietnamese police. It was one of the safer spots in town. This year, there had been two bombings already: a floating restaurant on the river and a popular cafe in the heart of the city. 

It was a French restaurant. It was probably unchanged from its recent past when Vietnam was a colony of France. French food meant wine, of course, but we were beer-drinking Americans. At first, we brought in our own from the Army-run commissary. But then, the restaurant began to stock American beer, probably from a black market source.

Someone must have run out of real beer and red printer’s ink at the same time on this particular Sunday afternoon. The Budweiser label was yellow, white, and blue instead of red, white, and blue, and the beer didn’t taste much like Bud. You can’t fool me, I thought. But then again, earlier that day. I had bought a package of fake flints for my Zippo lighter from a sidewalk vendor. Who would imagine that someone would paint tiny slivers of bamboo, each the size of a grain of rice, with silver-colored paint so as to sell them to unsuspecting GIs for a nickel apiece? Was that just an exception? Maybe not. 

In the military, the preferred way to address a chaplain is not by his rank, as you would any other officer, but as Chaplain, or as Chaplain so and so if you knew his name.  But in our group, our commanding general addressed the chaplain as Major. So, when not out and about, we also called him Major.  In the restaurant, where military courtesy was relaxed, the Catholics called him Father – he was a priest – and the rest of us called him Pete. The one exception was Alamo, who always called him Padre.

Pete extended an open hand towards Alamo, palm up, wiggling fingers in a way that signaled ‘go on, go on.’ “You said you had a question, Alamo,” he added. 

Alamo was still waving his book around. “Okay. My Catechism,” he said. He paused for effect. “This book here.” He paused again. Then opening the book, he slowly looked around the table and made eye contact with each of us. He wanted to make sure we were listening. With a thespian’s arrogant jerk of the head and a dramatic jutting out of his chin, and with his forefinger on the page before him, he started to read. Or so we thought.  “It’s a Bird. It’s a Plane. It’s Super Jesus.” He stopped and looked around and made eye contact again. Then he continued: “Able to leap through locked doors in a single bound. Faster than a speeding angel.”  

As the expression goes, you could hear a pin drop. There was near-total silence. There was a soft rush of air from a nearby electric fan. There was the clacking of billiard balls, maybe upstairs.  A Jeep outside screeched to a halt. As in the movies, all Jeeps always screech when halting. We all stared down at our plates. It was one of those moments when you wanted to laugh; it really was funny. Simultaneously, you felt embarrassed for someone who had just said something really stupid and rude to a priest. But then we saw that Pete was laughing. So we all laughed. We laughed so hard we couldn’t stop for a long time. 

“So what’s your question?” Pete finally said to Alamo. 

With that perfect sense of timing possessed by comedians and gifted debaters, Alamo solemnly and slowly asked, “Padre, how fast does an angel travel?”

We howled. Pete laughed so hard that he almost fell off of his chair. 

Yes, as they say, you had to be there. But it really was funny. 

It really wasn’t a question. Alamo was making a statement. 

Alamo was from one of Chicago’s north side Italian communities. If you didn’t know him, you would think he was a wannabe cowboy by the way he dressed when not in uniform.  People who didn’t know him thought he was a phony. He wasn’t. He just liked playing the part. Someone, we were told, had given him the nickname Alamo because of the big white cowboy hat he wore whenever he could get away with it, which was most of the time. And there was his ceaseless Gene Autry smile. Others said the big white hat made him look like some sort of dessert à la mode. Alamo, however, was a play on his name. Al, the first syllable, was for Albert and the other two syllables were a shortening of some Italian family name like Amorosini. Whatever the real reason for his nickname, he liked playing the part of a spaghetti-western cowboy lost in Saigon. He called Pete Padre because it was part of his image to do so. When he encountered one of the “mama-sans” who cleaned our quarters and did our laundry, he’d doff his big hat and address her as Seniorita. And was how he always said yes to everyone, even the General. “Sí, sir,” he’d say.  

It helps to remember that it was 1965, long before the internet and smartphones. Spaghetti Westerns, filmed in Italy’s countryside, because it looked like the American West, were something of a fad in stateside movie theaters. 

It was a time, too, when in America’s South, civil rights marchers were being beaten by cops with nightsticks as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Many of the marchers were priests and pastors. An Episcopal seminarian named Jonathan Daniels was shot to death by a cop while protecting a young, black civil rights activist named Ruby Sales. One of the marchers in 1965 was Father Kim Dreisbach, my friend, who I did not know then but would meet many years later. 

That year, 1965, saw combat forces arriving in Vietnam in much larger numbers than before. Helicopters were now the cavalry’s new mount. The “Cav” had given up horses long ago and moved on to tanks. Now, in the Vietnamese “up-country” the Cav rode into battle on attack choppers.  

In Saigon, each morning, at exactly six o’clock, Air Force Sergeant Adrian Cronauer kicked off his Armed Forces Radio show by yelling out a long, drawn-out, “Goooood morning Vietnam!.” Soldiers everywhere listened on portable radios. Robyn Williams, who immortalized Cronauer in the movie named for the greeting, was a bit of an exaggerated figure.  The movie, nonetheless, painted a reasonably accurate picture of the city of Saigon as I knew it in 1965. 

Now, some fifty-five years later, I can’t recall why I was sitting in one of Father Pete’s bull sessions. I wasn’t Catholic. I was Episcopalian, or at least that’s what was stamped on my dog tags. I had been confirmed in the Episcopal Church when I was twelve years old for no other reason than it was the expected thing to do if you grew up in an Episcopalian family. Catechism class to prepare me for the event consisted of memorizing the Apostles’ Creed and learning at least five of the Ten Commandments. Being twelve, I don’t think I had any idea about the Resurrection. Yes, we all said the line, “On the third day he rose again.” It was part of the creed we said in church each Sunday.  No one asked and no one wondered if I knew what it meant. No one asked if I believed it. A few years later, by the time I arrived in Saigon, a mixture of public school and university classes had taught me a lot about science. I had a pretty good idea about how the universe and the earth had been created billions of years ago. I understood and believed in the theory of evolution. I had a pretty good idea about what worked and didn’t work in the world. In other words, I had a sense of the laws of nature. The Bible, from Genesis to Revelations, made little sense. I was a Christian in name only. In 1965, I had no better understanding of the Resurrection than I did when I was twelve.

In Rome, in 1965, the Second Vatican Council finally concluded with a series of commitments to change. Times were changing. Although Bob Dylan and most other “hippie” singers were routinely banned by Armed Forces Radio, Cronauer gave Alamo a bootleg copy of “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” It was on a reel of tape with about a dozen other “subversive” songs.  Alamo thought the song fitting, not only for society but for the Catholic Church. He played it over and over on his portable suitcase-sized reel-to-reel tape recorder. He played it until the high-fidelity magnetic tape wore out. 

Times, indeed, were changing. Father Pete could now say the Mass in English. In response to one of the goals of Vatican II, preliminary work began on a new catechism for the Catholic Church that Pope John Paul II would finally promulgate in 1992. It would be very different from the catechism Alamo was now holding in his hands. 

“Alamo,” said Pete, “Humor me. Read what your catechism really says.” 

Alamo, who had his finger stuck in the book at the exact page, began. “Keep in mind,” he said, “this catechism is talking about the body of Jesus after the Resurrection. It reads:” 

Question 409: What are the qualities of a glorified body? Answer: The qualities of a glorified body are: (1) Brilliancy, by which it gives forth light; (2) Agility, by which it moves from place to place as rapidly as an angel; (3) Subtility, by which material things cannot shut it out; (4) Impassibility, by which it is made incapable of suffering.

“What’s wrong with that?” said Pete.

“It’s yarn spinning, Padre. It’s okay if you’re explaining Mark Twain and the ‘Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,’ but not Mark, the saint, and Matthew, Luke, and John. At school, we had this nun, Sister Penelope. Best teacher I ever had. Sister P told us to ignore the embellishments in the catechism and not to make up stuff.”  

Again, Alamo paused and looked around. He went on. “Talk about not making stuff up. Just for fun, Sister P would pick on a student and ask him where Jesus got the clean clothes and sandals he wore on Easter morning. Where did he wash up after his ordeal? Remember, his followers didn’t recognize him. Kind of like me on Sunday mornings, all spiffed up.”

I chuckled. But no one joined in. 

“What’s your point?” asked Pete.

“Not my point, Padre. It’s Sister P’s point.” And with that, Alamo got up to visit the restroom.  Others started to speak up. 

“I thought we were going to talk about miracles today,” one of the guys said. 

“We are,” said Pete. “The Resurrection is a miracle.”

“Yeah. But Alamo is just griping about his little catechism book, again. He’s doing it all the time.”

Someone else said, “I thought we were going to talk about miracles like cures in Lourdes or our Lady of Fatima,” said one of the other guys.  

“And what about fake miracles like weeping statues?”

“What about the Cards beating the Yankees in Game Seven last year? That’s a miracle, right?”

“Wasn’t there this dude in Spain whose leg grew back after it was amputated?”

And so it went for a while until Alamo returned and Pete spoke up. “I want to hear what Alamo has to say. Let’s give him ten minutes. Then we’ll talk about non-Biblical miracles. If we don’t finish today, we’ll continue next week. Does everybody agree with that?”

After some grumbling, everybody did agree. 

Alamo stood up and turned his chair around so the back was to the table. He sat down again, now straddling the chair like it was a horse. He rested one hand on the back of the chair like it was the horn of his saddle. With the index finger of his other hand, he tapped the brim of his ten-gallon hat and said, “Giddyup.” He actually said, “giddyup.” He was play-acting, which was his way of dramatically controlling this small group. He began by telling us about his dad. 

While Alamo was in high school, his father had worked for a company that “pressed” phonograph records. Then one day he stumbled on the sidewalk in front of his own house. There was nothing wrong with the sidewalk and he had been walking alone. There was no one to blame for his fall and no one to help pay the bills. The year 1965 was the first year for Medicare but the accident was before then. Alamo’s father was too young to receive any benefits, anyway. Unable to walk without crutches and confined to a wheelchair most of the time, he was forced to quit his job. Alamo’s mother went to work to support the family.

With a lot of time on his hands, Alamo’s father started reading and thinking about his religious beliefs. One of the first books he read was Alamo’s textbook, “The Baltimore Catechism No. 3: With Explanations,” the same book Alamo had with him in Saigon. He also read books that Alamo’s mother brought home from the public library, where she worked. 

“He was in a lot of pain,” said Alamo. “I wanted him to go to Montreal or even Lourdes in France, but he wouldn’t go. I often prayed to Brother André Bessette,  a monk in Montreal, who was credited with curing thousands of people who couldn’t walk. I don’t know if we are supposed to pray to people who are not saints, but this was my dad.”

He looked over at Pete. “Padre. Was it okay?”

Pete was smiling and gesturing with two upturned hands as though weighing one thing against another. “Sure,” he said, “God always listens. You did the right thing. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” 

For me, a non-Catholic, this was heavy-duty stuff. I found it fascinating. 

Alamo continued. “I remember the day my father told me flat out to stop trying to get him to go anywhere. He didn’t believe in miracles anymore. The healing of the blind man was a psychosomatic cure, he said. The wine at the wedding was a big misunderstanding. He figured someone found some wine they didn’t know they had. As the story was told and retold, it got better until it was a miracle. The Resurrection of Christ was a spiritual thing; it wasn’t an event. He figured that nothing physical happened. Even so, he sometimes let my mother take him to Mass.”

“But he didn’t believe,” someone said. “Isn’t it a problem?”

“We should pray for a miracle,” said Pete. Go on, Alamo. Any more wisdom from Sister P?”

Alamo continued. “Yes. As she explained to us, many people in these scientific times believe that nothing happens if it violates the laws of nature.  Does that mean they don’t believe in miracles? Mostly, that’s true, she told us. And mostly, they don’t believe in God and that’s not good. 

“Others believe in God and miracles, but for some strange reason, they believe God only works miracles with the laws of nature. They want everything to have a scientific explanation.  In England, there’s a biologist who argues that virgin births are scientifically possible. So Jesus could have been born of a virgin. It happens with guppies, so why not humans. But then she ran into a problem. She realized that with a virgin birth, Jesus would lack the essential Y chromosome needed to be a man. She figured there must be a way for God to manipulate things. I remember telling this to my father. He laughed. ‘The virgin birth didn’t happen.  It’s a metaphor,’ he said.

“Sister P made changing water into wine very interesting. Wine is about 85 percent water anyway. This simplifies the miracle quite a bit. For every one-gallon jug of wine, only about two cups of water need to be converted to other stuff like sugars, yeast, and those all-important chemicals that give the wine its good taste. Of course, this would mean taking molecules of water apart, stripping them down to atoms, and then breaking them down  further into sub-particles and building new atoms from all those little parts. Some carbon would be needed. It is an essential atom that is not in water but you have to have it for wine. According to Sister P, who taught both science and catechism, the heat required would be that of a white-hot star. That would end the wedding feast and our entire solar system instantly. You’ve got to admit that the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume understated things when he said that miracles are violations of natural laws.

“There is another way that is infinitely better. C. S. Lewis, a British guy, argued that miracles can exist within the natural world without violating natural law. Sister P puts it more simply. Nature knows nothing of miracles and miracles have no need of nature. She called miracles God’s ultimate sleight of hand.  Nothing happens scientifically. Nothing is assembled or disassembled. Think of it this way.  God simply says what he wants. And it is. It doesn’t happen. It is. That’s all. The ancient Hebrews understood this better than we do. A literal translation from Genesis reads, ‘And God said let there be light and light is.’

“Sister P argues that we have three choices when it comes to miracles.  We can reject them all together and put all our trust in nature. We can imagine a complex deconstruction and reconstruction of matter, the swapping in and out of molecules or atoms but from where and to where and how so.  Or, we can assume that nothing happens through nature. Rather, by the word or will of God, history ends up with a miraculous result. Nothing happens for that to be so.  

“The measure of a miracle is the result,  not the way it happens. If you and I want cookies, we mix the ingredients and bake the mixture in an oven.  Well not really; we write home and someone bakes them and mails them to us.”

Home baked cookies were treasured in Vietnam. 

“If God wants a cookie, a cookie exists. He doesn’t make it. He doesn’t bake it. It just is.

“Jesus didn’t change water into wine. I know we need to be cautious about taking scripture too literally but read about the wedding at Cana.  Jesus asked the servants to fill some jars with water and then draw some out and take it to a wedding official. There is nothing to suggest incantations or magic wands or laying on of hands or any of the literary devices used for magical transformations. It’s not like a fairy godmother waving a magic wand and changing a pumpkin into a coach to transport Cinderella to the ball.” 

I heard it: the measure of a miracle is the result. But, I wanted to say but how? But I knew there was no how.

“Angels don’t travel fast,” Alamo went on. “They don’t travel at all. When they go from one place to another place they don’t move: not through the land or sea or space between. And they don’t take any time getting there. Thomas Aquinas figured this out 700 years ago. As it is for angels, so it was for Jesus. Didn’t the authors of this silly catechism ever read Summa Theologica? John’s Jesus didn’t rise up. He didn’t shed his burial wrappings. He didn’t roll back the stone and walk out of the tomb. And time has nothing to do with it either. He is risen. He is where he needs to be, dressed as he needs to be. He didn’t pass through locked doors. He was simply in the room. He didn’t travel to Emmaus, he was simply there, along the road when he needed to be.  None of what Sister P told us is contrary to scripture. It is what scripture says.”

Note: Many years later I would visit St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, where I saw racks and racks of abandoned crutches, walking canes, and wheelchairs. I was just a tourist then and I did not even think about Alamo at the time.  A few years later, in 2010, Brother André was canonized as Saint André of Montreal. And now, thinking back and remembering, I wonder what happened to Alamo and his father. 

The Resurrection of the 8-Ball

Nguyen Hue Street of Flowers, Saigon, 1965

A couple of days later, Alamo and I were sitting on the hood of our Jeep in front of the USO on the Street of Flowers in downtown Saigon. Because we were attached to an intelligence unit someone, oxymoronically, thought it would be prudent if when in Saigon, we wore civilian clothes so as not to look like Americans. So, with a GI haircut, a button-down plaid shirt, starched khakis, and a pair of highly-polished Bass Weejun penny loafers, I was trying to not look like an American sitting on an Army jeep with big white letters that read US ARMY. 

The USO was a club for American servicemen run by volunteers from the Salvation Army as well as Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish agencies. It was a place where you could get good sandwiches, borrow books, copy music to audiotape, and make a ten-minute phone call to your family in the states. Calls were actually amateur radio transmissions to a ‘ham’  near your home who would splice his shortwave radio to the telephone company’s wires and ‘patch you in.’  After saying something you had to say the word “over” to let loved ones on the “other end of the line” know it was their turn to talk. 

Amidst the racket of car horns, bicycle bells, and the angry shouts of nearly-runover pedestrians, we were eating street vendor lemongrass chicken while waiting for Alamo’s scheduled call to his father.

I’m thinking as I write this that Alamo may have mentioned the Shroud of Turin. I just can’t remember. It seems he should have.  Alamo was always bringing up what were to me esoteric tidbits about his religion. Had I heard about this place or that, this relic or that, this saint or that? I don’t think I cared much and I certainly don’t remember much. He would have thought of the Shroud as one of the great mysteries of the world. He would have mentioned that it contained a picture of Jesus. I would have remembered that. 

“Yeah, right,” I would have said. “Another one of your miracles?”

“Let’s go inside and shoot some pool,” I had said. It was very hot outside. The USO was one of the very few buildings in Saigon that had air conditioning. Even the top brass would come there to cool off.  It was crowded. 

What followed next, I remember very well.

“Imagine,” said Alamo as he selected a cue stick from a rack on the wall. “You’ve sunk balls 1 through 7, and all you have to do is pocket the 8-ball.  It’s an easy shot. If you do it right, the cue ball will strike the 8-ball in the right spot, and the 8-ball will go into the corner pocket to your left. The cue ball will ricochet away to a safe resting spot.  Of course, you lose, if you sink the cue ball by mistake. Do you get the picture?”

I nodded yes. But then I asked, “What’s this all about? Why don’t we just play instead of imagining a game?”

“Hang on,” said Alamo. “It will be clear in a minute. Okay?”

“Okay,” I answered. 

“Okay, back to the game we are imagining,” said Alamo. “I should mention that everyone is watching.  You point to the left pocket and say, ‘8-Ball in the corner pocket.’ You chalk up your stick, blow off the extra dust, and line up on the cue ball. You pull back and then with just the right amount of speed, you thrust forward. It’s a perfect shot. The cue ball rolls forward and strikes the 8-ball straight-on, at just the right spot. The 8-ball  rolls slowly towards the pocket and drops in. The cue ball comes to rest in the middle of the table. A perfect win: 8-ball in the pocket, cue ball on the table. 

“So,” I said.  What was he getting at, I wondered. 

“Wait. It gets better. A stranger walks up with the triangle rack ready to rack up the balls for another game and so you go around the table pulling out all the balls from each pocket. 

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Where is the 8-ball?’

“The stranger ignores you and puts the other 14 balls into the triangle. There’s a gap in the middle where the 8-ball should be.  Everybody is watching with curiosity as he removes the triangle. ‘Go ahead and break,’ he said. And you do. And when all the balls come to rest, there is the 8-ball right in the middle of the table.  No one saw it appear. No one saw it moving. But everyone sees it now. And then an instant later,  it is gone.”

Alamo stopped. Then he said solemnly: 

Then their eyes were opened, 
and they recognized him; 
and he vanished from their sight.

“That is how I think miracles work. That is what I think C.S. Lewis is trying to tell us. After you buried it, the 8-ball never moved, not so much as a molecule or an atom of it changed. Nothing moved in and nothing moved out. But it was gone from the pocket. Then it was where it needed to be. Then it vanished from your sight. 

“It just appeared and disappeared at will without any motion. Don’t think of anything happening. This is maybe what Thomas Aquinas is trying to tell us with his angel allegory.  A miracle is a result, not an action. A miracle is a God-chosen result that is different from the one we expect from nature.

“That’s nonsense,”  I said.

“Maybe. But it’s the nonsense I believe in.”

Long after I had internalized this idea and subconsciously fooled myself into thinking I had come up with this idea on my own, I called it results without process. I also continued to call it nonsense. And I came to believe in that nonsense. 

I later realized that Alamo had combined or mixed up a couple of different parts of the Resurrection narrative: the empty tomb and the Emmaus encounter. I thought, at first, that he made a mistake. Then I thought he didn’t. It doesn’t matter. 

Note: Botanists tell us that some plants have seeds that seemingly intentionally delay germination for as much as a half-century until conditions are right. Some seeds germinate as soon as they touch the soil. It was that way with the seeds Alamo scattered. I came away with enough faith (a mustard seed comes to mind) to keep me in the church. It would be many years before I realized how much I was fascinated with the Resurrection. It took more than fifty years to remember that day in Saigon in 1965. It did happen quite suddenly when I saw the  photograph of an American soldier in Vietnam wearing a big, white cowboy hat. 

How much do I actually remember? How accurately?  Alamo was real and so was his cowboy hat. So, too, were his extraordinary well-formed opinions on theology.  Father Pete and his “Anything Goes” sessions in the Tu Do Street restaurant were real, though I attended very few of them. The actual words used by Alamo and others are at best a fictionalized reconstruction in an attempt to capture the gist of what was said more than fifty years ago.  I think I did well.

I internalized his theology and made it my own. I thought I had figured it out by myself. I never wondered why I was so interested in the Resurrection, and thus the Turin Shroud, until I saw that picture. 

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