A former Marine talks about working in Vietnam.

A Job’s a Job
Submitted by Dick B

Yes. I got my first paying job in Vietnam a while ago. And a good job it was.

We were visiting Thu Ba.s house to discuss with the family a little baby-sitting we needed done while we were in Sai Gon. Her brother Duc was on the floor with Thu Ba.s daughters making paper shoes. Since everyone was talking turkey, I offered to help him in exchange for the cup of coffee he had just made for me. He looked up at me, laughed at my offer and cleared a spot on the floor next to the girls. These are paper shoes not for walking but for offering up to dead ancestors. The dearly departed appreciate their survivors sending to the spirit world dapper paper clothes and shoes for them. After a short ceremony these will be set on fire. Duc makes these shoes for the retailers of such things as a little cottage industry.

He had some soles built up and was in the process of gluing the uppers to them. All the pieces were made from old cigarette cartons with a master pattern and were exactly the same. The glue was something home made in a bowl. He showed me how to fold down the tabs that had been cut around the edge of the upper and spread the glue around the inside of the tissue paper on the sole. Then he gave the upper a squeeze between his thumb and index finger and slid it into the sole. Once the upper was inside the sole and located in the proper place he unloaded the tension so the tabs of the upper met the inside of the glued tissue paper of the sole. He dabbed the glued paper against the tabs. First in a few opposing places to hold everything together, then around the rest of it. His other hand was inside giving the tabs a firm backing. He did it with a cigarette gently dangling from his lips and the smoke streaming by his eyes. I reflected on a career of performing last minute miracles on airplanes and thought, .this will be a piece of cake.

I picked one up and folded down the tabs. Thu Ba.s girls sat on each side of me and offered encouragement between giggles. I dabbed on the glue to the tissue paper with first one finger, which didn.t feel right for some reason and then another. I looked at the girls who smiled back and nodded with their heads to keep going. I squeezed it together a little but it just jumped out of my fingers. I squeezed a little harder and then tried to slide it into one of the soles. I got the sides dabbed down but the tip wasn.t all the way in. I pulled it back apart trying not to destroy the delicate tissue paper.

I tried it again. I got the upper into it and dabbed it in a few strategic places to keep it from squirming around. I attempted to get my other hand into it but it was just a little too big. I clumsily manhandled the thing until it finally looked almost good. It was good enough I guess because everyone seemed to take joy in this small accomplishment with nods and quips. I thought I was a natural so I picked up another sole and glued up the tissue paper. I then got another upper and rolled down the tabs. This time I couldn.t seem to squeeze it right and get it into the sole. I struggled getting it lined up and my relatively big hand inside just made a mess of everything. I took it apart before the glue set it all together.

I was determined to get this paper shoe together and gave the whole process another go. It just wouldn.t fit right and the more I struggled with it the more my hands shook. A feeling of being in medieval Asia, as a young apprentice, under the watchful and critical eyes of a master swept over me. That sensation started the sweat rolling on my forehead. Everyone watched in a thick silence while I fumbled around with this paper shoe and made a mess. Then, Duc broke the spell by reaching out for it. I gave it to him with a feeling of being foolish and incompetent. I looked at my scarred hands, first one side then the other, as if they had betrayed me. The whole mental edifice of having skill dissolved in my brain. Duc looked at it through the rising veil of smoke coming up from the cigarette dangling from his lips. He pulled it apart a little here and slipped it around a little there and within a minute he had another completed paper shoe.

Everyone spontaneously started to talk and laugh together. I felt much relieved and started to laugh too. After all, I was only a guest, not an apprentice and the deal was for a cup of coffee, not to make the last flight out of Da Nang with a load of doomed Amerasian babies. We moved from our positions around the shoe pieces and set up an assembly line. My new job was to glue the three pieces of the soles together and hand them off to one of the girls. I glued the pieces about fifty shoes together and slowly drank my cup of coffee. My appreciation for the Vietnamese sense of humor was renewed. I also realized I had forgotten one of the great and noble truths of aviation maintenance. Things just ain’t as easy as they seem.
More when there is more.

Dick B

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