It was a warm sunny morning, and I decided to do some laundry. I was scrubbing a pair of trousers when Mama-San first approached me. She was an older woman and very small in stature (mid-40’s and no more than 5 feet tall). Using hand language she asked me what I was doing. I responded to her by making a ridiculous remark, like “Washy Washy.”
Britt was cleaning a burner unit and observing the situation. Finally he came over and introduced us, explaining to Mama-San I was the new Mess Sergeant. She was pointing to the wash bucket and waving her hands at me in disapproval. Britt explained that Mama-San takes care of our laundry, and she is insulted that I am washing my own clothes. I asked about the price for this service, and he said it was different for each person (but worth it).
I gave Mama-San a complete uniform: hat, utility shirt, trousers, green T-shirt and socks. She ordered her companion, “Hua” (a teenage boy), to take my rolled-up laundry to Dai Loc on his bicycle which was a 30- minute ride.
Mama-San’s teeth were stained black from years of chewing Betel Nut. I suspected that she didn’t chew the stuff while on the hill because she was always smoking a cigarette; her brand was Salem. Although many Marines smoked (as I did), I found Mama-San’s habit a little repulsive. She also wore a white-gold cross and when I asked to see it, she held it for me to view and said, “Catholic.” She always wore the same outfit: a faded white blouse, traditional black pajamas and flip flops. If it was cool enough, she also wore a light green (shrunken) wool sweater.
Later in the afternoon Hua returned with my clean, dry laundry. I asked, “How much?” and Mama-San said, “You buy me cigarettes” and gave me $3.00 in MPC (military payment certificates). Confused, I asked Britt, “Why is she giving me MPC?” He said, “She wants you to buy her a carton of cigarettes.”
So it turns out the Vietnamese were not allowed to use MPC but couldn’t purchase American cigarettes without it. It was the black market in action. They do my laundry, I buy their cigarettes, and they re-sell the cigarettes for a profit . . . everyone was happy. Mama-San was the queen of domestic procurement, she was able to acquire almost anything (seamstress or basketwork, candles, cloth, bamboo utensils, etc.). Military supplies or weapons were off limits.
“MAIL CALL,” was announced and everyone gathered around as Top called off names . . . “Hermit, Lackey, Gopher, Ptomaine,” and the names continued. Noticing the disappointment of those not receiving mail, I put the letter in my pocket planning to read it later in private.
Mama-San wanted to see my letter, and I let her hold the unopened envelope. She held it to her nose and sniffed (as Marines did), and her eyes got big, “AMERICA.” She handed the envelope back, and I closed my eyes and sniffed . . . it was comforting.