So, I run into the impossible traffic jam that the California Highway Patrol has created on the 405.
Somebody or another has abandoned a Tercel in the south bound carpool lane. Probably they ran out of gas. Maybe they stole the car and then they ran out of gas. Maybe the thieves are walking to go get gas for their stolen car right now. This is Inglewood. This is the sort of thing that happens around here every day.
But the Chippies are determined that no one should approach this possible terrorist threat. So thousands of cars must stop. Our freedom depends on it. Unless there is a traffic jam the terrorists win. Everybody agrees except me.
All the good, patriotic citizens stop but I am still subversive enough and free enough to notice that the cops are just arriving at this impending catastrophe. Everything is not yet quite shut down. So there is not yet anybody to stop me from cutting all the way over to the far right, northbound lane and just riding around the police.
Maybe a cop yells, “Hey!” But, that is the end of it. Not even the California Highway Patrol would ever mistake me for a terrorist. At least, not that kind of a terrorist.
And after that the traffic really isn’t so bad. Partly because so much of what should be here is still stuck behind me and partly because it is Palm Sunday morning. The transition from the San Diego Freeway onto the Ventura is effortless. And I am in a great mood because I am riding to my favorite event of the year.
For me, for almost 20 years, this run has marked the official start of the “riding season” in Southern California. Not that it is ever not riding season here. But, sometimes it rains. Sometimes the ring of mountains that surrounds this city is covered with snow and the only way out is through all that. But, today it is bright as a new penny and the temperature is going to hit the mid-eighties.
I don’t get any farther north than the bright, green hills of Calabasas before I just cannot hold it inside me anymore. I have to sing. And, I will be the first to admit it. I am funny when I sing. Well, maybe some people might say it is frightening when I sing but I prefer to think of the sound that comes out of me as funny.
Ventura Highway, in the sunshine! Where the days are longer, the nights are stronger than moonshine! Doo, doo, doo! Doo, doo, doo! Doo, doo, doo!
What’s So Funny About
I know. It does not look funny when you see it in print. But that is only because you cannot actually hear me. Imagine Bob Dylan imitating Meatloaf imitating Michael Jackson trying to drown out 115 decibels of slightly used, slightly modified Dyna Super Glide. Imagine that and you can decide for yourself if it is funny or not.
Me? I crack myself up.
Doo, doo, doo! Doo, doo, doo! Doo, doo, doo!
The traffic is light but from time to time it stiffens up. I find myself behind some good citizen in a little blue coupe in the far left lane who only wants to go seventy. There is a cluster of cars over to my right and I don’t particularly mind. We are all violating the speed limit and I am not in a hurry.
Don’t Make Me Tell Your Father
Suddenly a white van pulls up next to me and cuts me off. I have to brake hard to keep from getting clipped and frankly, speaking for myself, I think it sets a bad precedent to let anybody get away with this. I thumb my horn for maybe ten seconds while the white van bullies the blue coupe out of his way and then I set off in pursuit. The white van sees me, too, and runs.
I am not sure what I am going to do and even if I was I could not say it here but I am usually prepared to do something. The white van runs. I chase. We get up around 95 before the van is trapped by traffic. He has to slow and I pull up next to him. Sure, there is a possibility he might try to run me over but I have already thought of that. Maybe I know the freeways better than he does. Maybe I am playing chess while he is playing checkers. I want to look at him, anyway.
When I pull right up alongside he doesn’t look at me. In fact he isn’t even a “he.” “He” is a Korean girl who looks to be about 12-years-old and I can tell she is already terrified of me. Somebody must have fed her a load of misleading biker stereotypes. And, I don’t actually want to knock off her mirror or put anything through her windshield anymore. It is usually good enough for me if people are afraid to look me in the eye.
And, yet I want her to remember this close call she has had. I want her to think twice before she cuts off another biker so I glance over at her and I scream with all my might.
Ventura Highway, in the sunshine! Where the days are longer, the nights are stronger than moonshine!
That does it. Sure enough she fights her way over to the right, as far away from me as she can get and I see her taking the very next exit. It makes me happy when I win these little contests on the freeway. It makes me feel grander and more important than I am. It makes me laugh out loud. I swear, the best I ever get is in sixth gear.
A few minutes later I see the sign for Camarillo Springs Road. I am headed to the Vung Tau Spring Run, sponsored by the Vietnam Vets Motorcycle Club -proudly and patriotically “Knocking You Out Since 1984.”
The name Vung Tau was intended to be broadly ironic when this run started in 1992. Now, it has become obscure. So, I would not be shocked to learn that half the participants see no more humor in the name Vung Tau than in my singing.
Once Upon A Time
Once upon a time, Vung Tau was the Asian Riviera. The French, who taught the locals to drink wine and bake good bread called it Cap Saint Jacques.
And, then there were a couple of wars and in 1966 it became an in-country Rest and Recuperation (R&R) Center. Vung Tau was a sanctuary for everybody: Americans, Australians, the ROKs from the Republic of Korea, the southern Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the northern NVA and the Viet Cong.
“Fuck ‘em all but nine.”
“Six pall bearers, two road guards and one guy calling cadence.”
For many guys, a couple of days in Vung Tau was as good as it was ever going to get in Vietnam. There was no laundry service, no television, and no air-conditioning. But, you could sleep in Vung Tau. You could close your eyes and go to sleep and dream on actual sheets on a metal cot with a real pillow. There was food in Vung Tau. Not C-Rations or LRRP rations but food on a plate. You could get a beer or a drink of whiskey in Vung Tau. The place had showers and flush toilets. Showers! Flush toilets!
You could even get a woman in Vung Tau. Probably, she cost you five dollars. Maybe less. Eighty-five percent of them had some interesting disease-gonorrhea, syphilis, shankroid, the dreaded Black Syph-but nobody cared because she was a woman. She was always little and mostly young and mostly pretty and cheap and she, whoever she was, was probably the last woman you were ever going to hold anyway.
Oh you knuckleheads. Dumb, dumb knuckleheads. Marching down the Avenue. Six more weeks and you’ll be dead.
Vietnam might have been the last gasp of Iwo Jima, the ghost of Guadalcanal. There were two classes in Vietnam. Some guys lived like animals and fought like animals until they became animals. Some guys were REMFs: Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers. “Those REMFs in Vung Tau. What do you think they’re doing right now?”
“Mother..fuckers! Probably drinkin’ beer!”
The war did not last forever: Except for sixty thousand or so Americans and a few million Vietnamese.
Eventually, the United States of America decided to adopt as its official policy the wise words of the illustrious writers of the Smothers’ Brothers Comedy Hour. We declared a victory and pulled out. The last American combat troops left on March 29, 1973 and Vung Tau went back to being the Riviera. And, it stayed that way for a little while.
Most of the bars closed down. Most of the whores drifted away. Every weekend a few hundred thousand people would drive the forty-five miles north from Saigon to swim in the spectacular, blue South China Sea.
French restaurants returned to the torn cliffs above this sea. Everything was repainted. The Buddhist temples became improbable shades of yellow and blue. The Catholic churches were white. This was during the two years while there was peace.
You know the rest. Disco. The culture wars. The lessons of Vietnam and all that.
The End Of The Road
I pull up to a booth at the end of the road. I pay my money and get my meal ticket, my headlight sticker and my wrist band. It must be eighty already.
You know exactly what this run is like because, really, there is only ever the one run. The clubs arrive mostly in packs. There are multiple chapters of some clubs. Others send only four or five guys. One club sends one nomad. The independents and the civilians and the loners on the fringe like me dribble in.
There is probably one woman for every seven men. A surprising number of the women are dreams. I don’t see one nightmare the whole time I’m there.
There is an American Flag flapping in the breeze. There has to be an American flag and another flag with the POW symbol just under that. There are always between fifteen and two dozen booths.
As always, the Soldiers For Jesus Motorcycle Club wants you to know that Jesus loves you. He does not care how you look or what you have done. “Jesus Loves Bikers Too.” The Messengers of Recovery are there to give back “what we so freely took before.”
Nothing Ever Changes
I have been around, looked, seen, remembered long enough that I am seeing dozens of people both again and for the first time. The bodybuilders with big arms are still bodybuilders with big arms but now they have grey hair. The happy, friendly 230 pound guy is now a happy, friendly 260 pound guy. The little guy who would fight anybody smiles more than he once did. Many of the wives and girlfriends seem to have become new and improved.
One booth sells a selection of flip flops. Another booth has a very nice assortment of Bowie knives. Everybody gets a nice roast beef sandwich, some potato salad and a big spoon of chili. The chili was better last year. Sometimes there is music. Sometimes an announcer talks and talks. Many things I do not actually need are raffled off.
“Hi. How you doin’? Good to see you. Peace. Welcome home.”
I walk up to a guy and give him a hug. Then I give him some money and he gives me a tee-shirt. He tells me to, “Hold it up.”
I don’t particularly care what it says. I just want it to fit. “Better make it a double XL. They shrink.”
The front of the shirt advises readers to “Support Your Local Red and Black Dago.” The back announces, “Fuck With One Answer To All.” Which I think nicely sums up the whole idea of a motorcycle club.
Wearing this is probably going to lead to either my hospitalization or a really interesting story some night in some bar down on the Rio Grande. Maybe both. Sometimes you have to actually go out and earn your stories.
The Red and Black, as everyone already knows, is no longer just the one motorcycle club. Motorcycle clubs thrive on war and recession. Now we have both. Which explains the kid standing next to me with the red and black side rocker that says Iraq.
“How you doin’?”
“I’m doing good.”
The clubs roll themselves into balls that leak around the edges. Officers from one club pay their polite regards to the officers of other clubs.
“Thanks for coming.”
“This is great.”
“I want you to meet….”
Not everybody gets a handshake. Every so often a spontaneous hug fest erupts. The more beer the more hugs. There is only the one run.
What Victory Means
During the two years while there was peace the North Vietnamese outflanked South Vietnam in Cambodia, Laos and in the demilitarized zone. There was nobody to stop them.
A law called the Case-Church Amendment prohibited the United States from giving South Vietnam any aid that could be used for combat purposes. So, the South Vietnamese ran low on bullets and grounded a fifth of their air force.
Morale plummeted. About 30 percent of the South Vietnamese Army became addicted to heroin. Their officers sold it to them.
Toward the end President Ford asked for $722 million for South Vietnam. Congress said no.
The end began in March 1975. The North Vietnamese overran the Central Highlands cities of Kontum, Pleiku and Ban Me Thuot and on March 25th the great panic broke. A quarter of a million refugees tried to run, drive and run to the coast: East on Highway 19 for Qui Nhon; east on Highway 21 for Nha Trang. People claimed there were only a quarter of a million of them anyway-farmers, shop keepers, deserters, whores, Buddhists, Catholics, grandfathers, mothers and children. Fifty thousand of them made it to the coast.
The North Vietnamese Army followed them every step of the way and killed as many of them as they could. General Sherman said war is hell but he was wrong. Hell is a parade of refugees 140 miles long under artillery fire.
The Street Without Joy
Everyone who has ever seen an air burst knows that it is the fiery foot of a big, invisible elephant, an elephant a hundred feet high. Boom! The fiery foot stomps down and a cloud of smoke and dust erupts. When the dust clears you can see the big, invisible elephant’s foot has flattened everything. Boom!
Whole herds of invisible elephants ran through the refugees day after day. No, don’t see refugees. You see refugees in commercials on television all the time. The word refugee has ceased to mean anything.
See mothers wearing white and black, sadly trudging along, alone, their faces blank, their white blouses spattered with brains. See exhausted men stopping by the side of the road to sleep, no longer strong enough to be afraid, using bodies for pillows. That is what you should see when you see the word refugee.
Then it got worse. Then the whole country unwound like a ball of yarn. Half of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, a million men, just disappeared. Poof.
The panic stricken and broken refugees streamed south on the coast road, Highway 25. Some of them made it onto ships that sailed into the coastal cities.
War is an excellent business. Enterprising merchantmen packed the refugees into cargo holds, 8,000 passengers a ship. Everyone had to pay, 8,000 fares per ship. Then the freighters headed for the southernmost port. And, you already know what that place was called.
The North Vietnamese moved 26 divisions into the south. Qui Nhon fell on March 31st. Tuy Hoa and Nha Trang fell the next day. All of this stampede of humanity headed to the one place that must be safe, the one place the Americans were sure to defend out of decency, out of sentiment, out of shame. Everybody went to Vung Tau.
No one will ever know how many -if only there was a better word, how many-refugees died on the roads. At least a quarter of those who went to sea died on the ships-of hunger and of thirst and of depravity.
The army deserters threw away their uniforms but not their guns. They took what they wanted.
When the ships got to Vung Tau the locals seized their last golden opportunity to get rich from the war. They sold the thirsty refugees water for two dollars a glass. Four hundred thousand refugees swarmed into Vung Tau every week.
Even after Saigon fell desperate refugees continued to pour into Vung Tau. It was the last way out. Refugees with money to pay or something to sell crowded onto junks and trawlers and pushed out to sea and prayed that the Seventh Fleet would save them, that somebody would finally save them.
Most of them were not saved. Most of them died at sea or returned to port and were sent to camps where they could be re-educated. That was Vung Tau.
And all of that is what is now bitterly funny about the funny name Vung Tau. Funny the way I am funny when I try to sing. Funny the way people think I am when I spit out the word “communist.” I am such a scream. I am such a right-wing oaf.
I am still me after all this time. I am a little different but mostly I am still the same.
I drop my money. I pay my respects. I start my Spring and I leave before the hard body contest. It is not that I do not enjoy looking at women or that I do not think the women here are worth looking at. Partly it is that when I look at them none of them seem to be looking back at me.
Mostly it is because I think I should write something about this run, about what I see and how it feels to be here, and just considering what I might say seems to put me in a rotten mood. Maybe the problem is God is punishing me with this bad mood because it is Palm Sunday and I came here instead of going to church.
Nah. That cannot be. I was happy on the way up. Whatever it is, I have to get out of here.
The Cure For Everything
Fortunately the answer to all my moods and ills is sitting just over there in that parking lot. Nothing brightens me up like a motorcycle ride.
I skip the freeway. I have all the time in the world. It is still early in the day. I cut through lettuce fields and the herb fields over to Port Hueneme and the coast. Even at the coast it still must be 75. There is a two hundred foot sand dune on one side of me. Sometimes the road isn’t more than a hundred feet from the waves. Sometimes I can look down on the Pacific Ocean like God. I can see everything clear and bright.
And, I am still not out of my mood yet. I should be happy by now but I am not. It is the defective part of me, I know. It is the part of me that is not normal but I do not mind. I can live with me just fine. Just fine. You should wish you were me. And, when I get like this, I do not give a damn who you are or who you think you are, you should never dare to look me in the eye. The only cure is to ride.
The foam is white as cotton. The ocean is a rolling, perfect mosaic of turquoise. Those waves have been crashing against those same brown rocks for the last 10,000 years. Nothing ever changes. Not really.
And, today the Ventura coast looks just like the South China Sea. The way Vung Tau looked once upon a time. And, some days I like to look at it when I ride. But, today I look away.