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A Brush With History

By: Skipper Anderson

Pat and I were friends almost from the delivery room. I was born at the end of August and he was born seventeen days later, on September 11th. We attended the same Catholic grade and high schools, played together, shared an almost religious love of baseball, hung around with the same girls, stood by each other always, were each other’s best men and, when I was drafted, the moron enlisted in the Air Force with the spurious (albeit superbly loyal) reasoning that if I was going, he might as well, too. These things I mention as background for what happened later in Asia.


 

 

Most people I knew while serving in Vietnam attempted to schedule their R&R (Rest & Relaxation, though the idea was to get little of the former) about 8 or 9 months into their one year tour. The thought was that you would be down to less than 120 days left in country following R&R. A person had a choice of destinations: Hawaii, Sydney, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Singapore, Taipei, or Tokyo. Hawaii was reserved for married couples. So, my first thought was Sydney because of the abundant tales concerning tall, blonde Aussie gals who loved Americans. Even if this was bullshit, the siren call cannot be ignored. Then I got a letter from Pat. He was stationed just outside the Taiwanese capital of Taipei. He assured me I’d like Taipei far more than any group of willowy Australian beauties. It would be the best time ever, a hoot, epical!

In late April 1970, I took a helicopter to Cam Ranh Bay, then a C-130 to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. I was informed that my flight would leave the next day, and told to go enjoy both my extra day off from the conflict and the local night life. For no reason that I can remember, I ended up in Cholon, the Chinese area of Saigon. The night was spent drinking with some Australian soldiers (Australia, along with New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines, provided troops in support of the US effort). I woke up in the airport the next morning with no idea of how I had gotten there. A memory exists of dancing on the bar singing, Waltzing Matilda, and having one of the guys from Down Under call me a moron for not choosing Sydney. Ya gotta love the Aussies!

Near death from the hangover, the flight to Taipei was blessedly short, and I was delivered to my hotel by late afternoon. Following a quick call to Pat, we began a week of drunken debauchery which is, I am certain, still listed as essential in the R&R playbook. This was no different than the thousands of other guys, and some gals, who were away from the war for a few wonderful days. In honor of Bacchus, no expense was spared. As an example, during my stay I spent around $1200, which would be well over $10,000 in today’s currency. Upon awakening the first morning in my palatial room, I ordered Mandarin Duck and a wonderful lobster dish, along with a bottle of champagne. Money didn’t mean shit!

Most of our activities during my stay were low class in nature, perhaps even white trashy. We did manage to spend a day at the beach, and even visited an elegant Buddhist temple. Late one morning, after a few adult beverages, Pat was making suggestions on how we should spend the day. He then dropped this bombshell: Chiang Kai-shek lived in a palace in this very city! Why, one might ask, was I so astounded by this news? Allow some elaboration.

The date World War II began is arguable. Some historians say it started with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Others, the invasion of Poland. On a global scale, I believe it wasn’t until the US was drawn into the conflict. Regardless, in 1942, almost the entire civilized world was trying its damnedest to be uncivil. Germany, Italy and Japan were the miscreants. Leading the crusade against these brigands were Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the US. China and France rounded out the Big 5. As of April 1970, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin were all dead. Charles de Gaulle and Chiang (who fled to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War) were the last surviving cast members of that compelling drama. This would certainly be my only opportunity to get to meet any of these characters. Late that morning, Pat assured me that we would try to pay a social call on the Generalissimo and the lovely Madame Chiang.

Our hometown paper ran a section titled, We Saw You At. Patrick spun a tale of a picture taken of him and me arm in arm with Mr. and Mrs. Kai-shek in front of the fireplace, perhaps with snifters of brandy, and, of course, 50 cent cigars. When we got home, we would be celebrated as local heroes, wined and dined and pursued, naturally, by discerning females. Hell, we were probably doing our part in bettering relations between our two countries. If this sounds like Ralphie’s daydream about his rifle in, A Christmas Story, you are not far from the truth.

After a few more drinks to brace our courage, we took a taxi to as close as we could get to Chiang’s compound. The place was formidable. There was an impressive wall surrounding what was apparently a park with a mansion in its center. I remember this area as being spotless, as if peasants came out at night and swept and dusted the grounds and streets around it. One sensed that this was a place of destiny.
We disembarked from our ride about a block away from the entrance. Walking toward the main gate, you could see the sun reflected off the lovingly polished bayonets. As we got closer, you could see the crisp perfection of the guards’ uniforms. About 20 feet out, I saw that these fellows were as tall as I was and looked fierce. Rather than disturbing me, this was exactly what I would expect at the estate of our ally.

So, brazen as brass, we approached the sentries. From out of the gate appeared, smoke-like, the captain of the guard who looked as if he had graduated from the Shaolin Temple. He asked us our purpose. We told him we were there to pay our respects to the Generalissimo and his wife. He betrayed no emotion, looked us over as if we were beneath his contempt, and said simply, “Go.” Not to be dismissed so easily, I said something to the effect of, “Look here my good man.” The Captain quietly issued an order to the guards, and they snapped to present arms. The choice was clear, retreat in disgrace, or take a shiny bayonet to the nether regions. We departed in abject defeat; rejected at the gates of history.

Young people are resilient, so Pat and I quickly moved on from this disgrace. I spent the remainder of my visit as soldiers are meant to spend time off. As a measure of the success of my R&R, when I returned to my company, several guys told me, “You look like shit!” Mission accomplished.

In later years, Pat and I would occasionally discuss our close call with history, always with laughter. I believe that with good friends the story is as important as the outcome, but it sure would have been nice to have been celebrated in our home town.
Chiang died in 1975, the last surviving member of the Big 5. Madame Chiang passed in 2003 at the impressive age of 105. Neither ever got to meet Pat or me. Pat joined his ancestors in 2002, taking part of my soul with him.

In an historical footnote, Dick Nixon went to China in 1972, eventually bypassing Taiwan and making mainland China our partner. Screw you Chiang!