September 2023
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Before Saigon: Brooks Toland

by Admin and Richard Turner, Contributing Editor
© SaigonKidsAmericanCommunitySchool.Com

Brooks Toland

Brooks Toland (1960-62)

in 1959, i attended the eighth grade in sherman, texas. had only been there a year, and hadn’t made many friends, though i do remember several awkward social gaffes. while there at perrin afb, dad received notice that he was appointed to be the air attaché to the american ambassador in saigon. he would be responsible for three countries, laos, cambodia and viet-nam and we would live in viet-nam. i have no memory of what my texas acquaintance/friends thought. my houston cousins thought it was weird. i think i was a bit apprehensive, but didn’t feel uprooted from texas since i hadn’t been there long.

in order to prepare for this diplomatic post, we would need to move to washington d.c. for nine months so my parents could learn to speak french, a bit of vietnamese and to become culturally acclimated. i recall an old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder set up in the tv room that played french words over and over.

for me, i was to spend my first year of high school in alexandria, virginia in an unbelievably enormous building with thousands of kids, all bigger than me. i had never changed classrooms before, nor had i learned to take notes. the huge, three-story high school in alexandria was a red brick square box and looked the same no matter which hall or floor i was on. i was lost a lot. literally and figuratively. it was pretty awful. coming from a very small, backwater town hours north of dallas to the sophisticated east coast was a culture shock.

as it turned out, the shock was pretty much in the same league as the shock when i arrived in saigon. the getting there, from alexandria to saigon, however, was wonderfully liberating. we drove crosscountry from virginia to san francisco, stopping to see relatives in houston and elsewhere along the way. dad must have sold the car when we got to california, and we had shipped our personal things over ahead of time. i was fourteen years old and ripe for adventure, though i don’t think i would have put it quite like that at the time.

the u.s. air force put us up on the s.s. president wilson, debarking from san francisco. the ship was a transoceanic liner, a precursor to the cruise ships of today, and very elegant. mom and dad had a cabin with a porthole or two, and my sister and i were in a separate cabin, right next door with two bunks. i can still smell the way the green palmolive soap in the teeny bathroom filled the cabin with that clean aroma. it was the first time that i had ever been separated from my parents, even though it was only by a wall. my very own door. no one could tell when i came or went. hmmm.

we steamed out under the golden gate bridge the summer of 1960, and it was incredibly beautiful. the memory of that remains with me today. [in fact, i have duplicated that sail under the bridge in 2004 from the deck of a freighter]. somewhere between the coast of california and oahu, i awoke in the middle of the night and decided to go up on deck by myself. it was a very daring thing to do, in my mind, and i am so very glad that i took the opportunity. there, in the middle of the pacific ocean, facing thousands of stars in a velvet black sky, i had my very first spiritual experience. one of those incredibly expansive experiences that an oppressed 14-year-old needed to begin to know herself.

on to the next stop of hawaii. in honolulu, we were met with local divers who flung themselves into the water to claim quarters that the passengers threw overboard. and there were leis and a tour of the island, where we saw scofield barracks and where my mom had spent some time growing up when her army father had been stationed there. from hawaii, we sailed to the philippines, then on to japan, i was mightily impressed with the taxi ride from the ship into town. all six lanes seemed fair game to our driver.

on board, the president wilson had a kid’s play room as well as a teen room that i hung out in a lot. i made some friends and was flirted with, though i didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. there was a pool aboard, and for the first time ever, i pretty much had free run of the ship. what i remember most of all is that i could order whatever i wanted for breakfast and the waiters would make it for me. at dinner one night, we even ordered a flaming baked alaska, and i was totally impressed. all heady experiences for a young girl.

hong kong was another eye-opener. we spent a couple of weeks there. i recall the sightseeing and the exotic atmosphere, smells, and tastes. we probably met with some diplomat or another in hong kong, but i don’t recall who. both my parents had wardrobes of clothes and shoes made for them for their new diplomatic and entertainment duties awaiting us in saigon. i just enjoyed the wonderful differences. from sherman, texas to hong kong in under a year. what a trip!

a short flight from hong kong to the saigon airport and the memories of that first day and night in saigon will always stay with me…especially the deeply vibrant tropical colors and the rich, exotic, fruity smells. yum.

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