combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2007

Steam Bath

During high school athletics, when I engaged in sports sequentially from season to season, I acquired a partiality for post-workout steam baths. Although some athletes found themselves washed-out by the steam bath, making it an ordeal after being wiped-out by hard exercise, I always found them relaxing and refreshing. For me, a steam bath was restorative ... clearing my lungs and cleansing my pores. It was a good way to relieve both mental and physical tension, and it even soothed the hurt muscles that were inevitably strained during these practice sessions.

There were, even then, in the post-war of American artificiality and superficiality, of Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver, intimations of evil doings in Turkish baths, but things were much more subtle and indirect in those halcyon days. A spa was primarily attractive to athletes, and hot baths were principally curative. The birth control pill had not yet been invented and the concomitant sexual revolution had not yet begun ... sex was private, and not a spectator sport; and gratuitous nudity was déclassé, not in your face exhibitionism. We were just as interested in sexuality as those who later claimed to have invented it, but, as the old saying went, "we did not do it in the street because it upset the animals". Later, in Vietnam and Thailand, the bath house would become an intermediate-level sex emporium, widely known as steam and cream, for women not yet driven by their destitution into prostitution, and for men too lazy to masturbate themselves.

My predilection for steam baths persisted in the Army, although the opportunities for indulgence were severely limited by the rigors of the training schedule. Even when we had a full day off from compulsory duties, we had uniforms to clean, boots to polish, gear to stow, and manuals to read ... things we were too tired or too rushed to do the rest of the week. If you could listen to some music on the radio or get a weak drink at the nearby canteen, then you felt like you'd had at least a little time off from the daily grind. Trekking halfway across post to visit the field house was often more trouble than it was worth ... but I missed the relaxation. My mind sought that clouded insularity like the comfort of a warm fuzzy blanket on a cold night.

unofficial pocket patch of the 1st
Special Forces Group on Okinawa
unofficial pocket patch of the
1st Special Forces Group on Okinawa

Before deploying to Vietnam, I learned to appreciate the Japanese variant of the steam bath on Okinawa. In the status conscious East, the Okinawans were considered to be inferior to those on Honshu, yet not as down caste as the Ainu on Hokkaido, but this seemed to make them more puissant and industrious. The Japanese bath was attended by a woman, fully dressed, who attended you while you first cleaned yourself, then soaked, and finally were massaged ... these businesses were, in fact, massage parlors and not steam baths. I had the opportunity to sample a number of establishments, some more refined than others, by simply wandering the commercial district until I recognized a similar arrangement. This was not uncommon for anyone in an Asian milieu, whether gaijin or native, because, while literacy is not universal, tradition is de rigueur ... restaurants put elaborate displays of plastic food in their display window, saloons put a sampling of drinking glasses and bottles showing brand names in theirs, and bath houses placed an assortment of towels and sponges in theirs. In America, jewelers and clothiers do the same thing. It didn't take a genius to figure out the displays ... it wasn't supposed to, since they were in business and wanted customers. Sometimes the attendant was also a server who would acquire drinks and snacks from a neighboring establishment, and these were often long and pleasant sessions of dim lit relaxation. When I could avail myself of the opportunity, I thoroughly enjoyed the pampering of the hot bath and massage treatment, but I still missed the total immersion of the steam bath ... it cleared your head and cleared your lungs, and the relaxation seemed more penetrating.

We all carry the baggage of our prejudices and preferences, some social, some historical, and a few innate. Something that I toted around in my psychic rucksack, and is probably, in some battered form, still moldering in the bottom of my experiential footlocker, was the idea of wartime comradeship. Some people are naturally gregarious, just as some are natively musical, but I am not. My friends have been few and far between, for whatever reason, and I've learned to function with or without companionship. Of course, in the military hierarchy, there are no friends, but you learn who is trustworthy, who is competent, who is reliable, and who is not, then act accordingly. A suggestion to a capable colleague is better than an order; and the man who requires an order is not worth dragging around in the field. But I had been reared on the legends of yore, on the tales of daring-do, on the war stories of old boots ... and although I had my suspicions, and I knew that my personal future would resemble my private past, I had hopes that the promised camaraderie was not entirely fictitious. I was not lonely (how could anyone be lonely in a roiling tumult of warm bodies?!), but I had more than the lonliness of command; for I could neither share intimacies with my troops nor with my peers, the former for their confidence, and the latter for their competition. I had hopes that war would leave me with unbreakable blooded bonds while it was scourging and scouring my naïveté.

the Thunder Tiger of the ARVN Liaison
the Thunder Tiger of the
ARVN Liaison Office,
later known as the
Special Commando Unit

After my first tour as an infantryman, where we tramped around in the Indochinese hills like a herd of cattle looking for an elusive enemy, I was assigned as an advisor to a company in a Vietnamese Airborne-Ranger battalion. I shared this duty with several other soldiers, mostly other Americans, but including a Korean and an Australian ... our counterpart had more potential advice and support than he either wanted or needed! He had enough talent to attain rank, but not enough family influence or money to get promoted. He'd been in grade as long as I'd been in the Army, in which respect his service reminded me of the old brown boot Army that valued the cadre system of retained talent ... my father had also been held in grade for years awaiting an available slot before the World War Two expansion. He was a fine leader who disdained encumbrances like helmets and flak vests and weapons ... he wore only his beret and carried only his swagger stick, in the French manner, when maneuvering in the field. He politely tolerated us, and since I had nothing to teach him, I kept my mouth shut and tried to learn from him.

Most American units in Vietnam operated autonomously, being wholly independent of the people for whom they were fighting and dying. Most Americans could have been unwittingly operating in the hinterlands of Virginia or Georgia, and they could not detect friendly dinks from enemy gooks, regardless of age or armament. But because our unit was foreign, our operations were more reminiscent of colonial wars than modern American op 'til you drop methodologies. I'm sure that pressure was brought to bear at regimental and higher command levels to emulate the faster paced American model, but this was their country and they knew its secrets far better than we could by our hurried approaches. A result of this technique was that we went on full unit operations for a particular period, most often with a defined mission, and then returned to our base camp for stand-down, which involved refitting and retraining with replacements. This cohesive unit integration was in marked contrast to the U.S. routine of piecemeal replacements introduced into a field unit on continuous operations. Each stand-down gave the troops an opportunity to improve their skills, and time to relax in their own community, often with their families. The contrast was more than strategic, it was philosophical. The Vietnamese had been fighting for centuries, and expected to continue fighting indefinitely, while America believed that war was abnormal, and that peace could be imposed by a combination of the carrot and the stick.

Our base area was situated near what had been a resort city that rapidly modernized with the arrival of American forces and U.S. dollars. It still had the ambiance of an old world town, with traffic circles and circuitous alleys, but the tailor shop now proffered party suits with custom embroidery, and the French restaurant was flanked by a massage parlor. Some things were uniquely Asian, such as demure China dolls shaded by parasols, or combat veterans holding hands while strolling. Food vendors plied their trade from pushcarts, schoolchildren wearing uniforms were herded like ducklings, and otherwise modest Orientals would relieve their bowels directly onto the dazzling beach before indifferent sunbathers. If a round-eye didn't die in the combat zone (wherever that was), then he could die from the water or the food, the insects and reptiles, the insane driving or just bad joss!

As was my wont, I sallied forth into this warren in search of relaxation for my too many aches and pains. One of the Occidental arguments against steam baths in the tropics was that the proper response to torrid humidity was air conditioning! ... but the Oriental (at least the ones who are not selling dirty ice to the lazy GIs) drinks hot tea to cool off in the heat. And it is this psychology that makes a robust steam bath so refreshing in muggy weather. So the typical fare was the ubiquitous steam and cream establishment, where a tea kettle's worth of vapor was pumped into a bare room before you were escorted to a cubicle for a lackadaisical massage, often by a childlike female walking on your back with her dirty feet, before some slicky boy would pander extra service for only double the price. Such enticements were enough to drive a man back out into the field!

From the American perspective, one of the peculiarities of Vietnam was the fact that only certain units, lead by trusted commanders and composed of vetted troops, were allowed near the national capitol. These were principally airborne, ranger, or special forces elements, whose advanced training and superior qualities were wasted, in the opinion of most Americans, on regular guard duty ... except that most Americans have never experienced a coup, which was common in Asia and other unstable regions. Consequently, our battalion, after defending its own base area during the Tet Offensive, was dispatched to the capital for reinforcement. After being relieved, we were reconstituted and were dispatched to another problem area near the DMZ. A late spring resurgence in the Chinese district of the capital drew us back for another operation in the shadow of the flag pole. After each of these forays our battalion, of necessity, stood-down for replacements and refitments.

On my first trip to Gia Din, I was struck by the exotic contrast with Vietnamese and Japanese society. I'd been to the rebuilt cities of past wars in Okinawa, Korea, and the Philippines, with their admixture of abstract concrete modernism, of old European expatriatism, and ancient native preservationism, but I'd not visited the baroque Chinese culture exported to Hong Kong and Taipei. Cholon was better than the Chinatowns of Seattle or Frisco. It was more convolute and involute ... which made its pacification far more hazardous ... but it even smelled and felt more intriguing. When the sweep was finished and after we settled our charges into temporary quarters at the race track, we broke out into roving bands of wandering tourists, ambassadors in olive drab uniforms. Some went to House 50, the most notorious safe house in Southeast Asia, the worst kept secret of the war, for a marathon session of gambling and drinking. Others went bar-hopping in Saigon, and would end up in cyclo races after curfew ... sometimes as the riders, and sometimes as the pedalers. I dropped out of a group aiming for the broad jump record in several whorehouses, and began wandering the district ... the very same district where the White Mice would not venture, and where we'd just finished fighting for two straight weeks!

I stopped into an art gallery to admire the carved ivory on display in their front window. They had elaborately carved chess sets, in both Chinese and European style, figurines, cane handles, and notion boxes, but the most interesting were delicate balls and cubes, each entirely covered in carving, nested within one another! ... the middle had been carved through the piercings of the outer, and the inner through the piercings of the middle! ... the workmanship was magnificent! And even at wartime prices, when art is less valuable than food or bullets, I could not possibly afford them. Such craftsmanship is probably entirely lost today. There were teak and mahogany objet d'art, and some brushstroke and oil paintings toward the rear of the shop. I bought a small scroll, an oil painting of a nude woman in profile, and an aluminum cigarette case carved with the traditional phoenix and dragon symbolizing yin and yang. There is no point mortgaging the future for a bankrupt past ... I still remember those wonderful works and wished I'd had enough money to indulge my desires, to aid the shopkeeper, to help the artist preserve his lifestyle, but less than a year later all of my purchases were destroyed when our FOB was overrun, and thirty-seven of my comrades died. I presume that the shopkeeper and artist, as capitalist lackeys of the running dog imperialists, later died in the labor camps that the Vietnamese communists euphemistically called re-education camps.

I was standing under an awning on the crowded street, pistol in shoulder holster, scroll in pocket, painting propped against my leg, while I ate a hot bowl of spicy noodles, idly scanning the changing scene. One of our battalion medics approached me looking refreshed, and as I finished my meal, he ordered his in flawless Mandarin. I have to admit that while we were all extremely well qualified for our jobs, not all of us resembled the Hollywood ideal of specimen soldier ... in fact, most of us would have failed as poster boy candidate of the elite. This medic was so innocuous and ordinary that it would be easy to underestimate him, which I surely did not ... our medics were trained to perform field surgery and underwent the most demanding practicum in the entire Armed Forces. Furthermore, I happened to know that this medic was on his third tour, which is incredible for a combat medic. He was not only extremely intelligent but extraordinarily capable. I commented on his appearance as he scrutinized the nude propped against my leg, and he told me that he'd just visited the best steam bath in country.

I wasn't one to disclose my desires or interests, but waited for others to signal some shared similarity. I had been too often scorned or rebuffed to easily risk private disclosures. So his comment practically made me gasp with shock. It was like the time during my first tour that I was on a recon in the Central Highlands and the team sergeant suddenly quipped: "I'd give anything for an ice-cold Dad's root beer right now." ... not an ice-cold beer, but a root beer! ... it was as if he'd read my mind! My face must've transformed, because he said: "You too huh?" To which I could only reply, "Damned right!" The medic must've misinterpreted my gulp, because he defended himself, explaining that it was relaxing and refreshing, it took all the kinks out and was almost as good as chiropractic therapy. I immediately apologized and demurred, saying that I had been looking for a good steam bath as long as I'd been in Vietnam. Mollified, he commented further on the bathhouse, telling me that an old woman ran it. He precautioned me that it was not a whorehouse, and then laughingly, that if it were, it would have to be much darker or the customers would need great imaginations! "I mean," he said, "she's toothless and wrinkled and nicer than my grandmother!"

I visited with him while he finished eating, and then we parted on opposite courses. I followed his directions and found the storefront bathhouse, and felt completely human for the first time in Vietnam. I don't know what might constitute the ideal bathhouse but the essential element is thick, hot, rich steam. Some are tile or marble tiered, with rheostatic lighting and piped music. Most have a heater that can be dashed with a bucket of water to generate more steam. This one had wooden benches in a low concrete room. The old proprietress locked away my clothing and my weapon, giving me the key, and taking special care with my painting so it wouldn't get damaged. She spoke Chinese, Vietnamese, French, and English, and was very attentive ... checking on me regularly and asking if I wanted tea or some other beverage. The floor was inches deep in circulating water and I wondered how she made a living with having to replace the wooden benches from rot and the expense of cleaning with so few customers ... for I was her only one for the two hours I spent there. But then I also wondered how most civilians in this war-torn land made a living without resorting to some form of exploitation or prostitution. War is always harder on civilians, who die more than soldiers, and whose deaths are more ignoble.

When our battalion was again sent to that area in the spring for further counterinsurgency operations, the medic and I visited the Cholon bathhouse together, making an evening of it. We bathed and steamed, dressing for dinner and drinks, and then returned for another steam bath before gathering our sidearms and returning to the battalion's staging area. Later operations took us into the Ashau Valley, so we never got to revisit the best little Chinese steam bath in Vietnam. It was the very best thing that happened to me in that God-forsaken land. I've always wondered if that kind old lady was tortured to death for her counterrevolutionary acts of generosity. Her decent humanity still touches me today.

by Pavlovich Bakunin
... who served as an infantryman and advisor in Vietnam, is retired from the U.S. Army, and now writes freelance; his work has appeared previously in this magazine.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones