February 16, 1968
Papa-San always came straight to the mess hall in the mornings for his Ca phe.* Usually we were cleaning up after breakfast, and he would sit outside and sip from his tin cup. He arrived before the other Vietnamese because he rode his bike up the 300 yard dirt road to the mess hall (all the others walked).
I noticed his bicycle had a derailleur and a double chain ring which allowed him to climb the hill. Papa-San saw me looking over his bike and he said, “French.” The vintage bicycle was an aqua color and had chrome fenders. There was a metal badge on the front labeled Helyett. It was obviously a high quality bike for its time. Attached over the rear fender was a woven basket which held all his barber tools.
As we drank our Ca phe and talked (Hua would interpret), Papa-San told me of a French officer who brought the bicycle to Vietnam and rode the dirt roads. Papa-San cleaned the bike after the rides and kept it in good condition. When the French left Vietnam, the officer gifted the Helyett to Papa-San . . . it was about 20 years old.
Papa-San’s style of riding was different. He leaned forward with his forearms resting on the hand grips, and his right hand gripped the stump of his left wrist. I asked him if he rode this way for stability, and he said, “No want VC to see hand.” Hua explained the missing hand marked him as an enemy of the NVA/VC.
When we finished our chat, I stood up and saluted Papa-San French style (palm facing out). He accepted my salute by bowing to me. We enjoyed talking, and our curious friendship was developing.
* See previous “Papa-San” blog
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