February 2024
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Saigon Kids Stories: Blisters

by Kevin Wells (ACS)

Nha Trang BeachPeople with good sense that live in the tropics know to stay in the shade two hours either side of noon. The very civilized just close, go home, suffer through the heat and grab a light mean and a nap.

This is civilized behavior and we would do well to remember this in our later years. Back when I lacked good common sense and when exploring new things at the beach at Nga Trang, I ignored the rules. Actually, I guess I had not learned the rules. The pool had shade within just a few steps and I did not get a burn there. No, I got it on the beach.

On the beach at Nga Trang, people seemed to come from all directions to watch the crazy Americans swim in the mid-day sun. There was a vendor who stayed sleepily open to sell Segi Cola and 33 Export for anyone who was there, and most of the few customers there had the common sense to enjoy the sea breeze in the shade in the mid-day sun

Not me! I was sure that a white tee shirt and the rudimentary sunblock products available in 1960 would protect me from sunburn. Besides, I was in the water and it was overcast, and I would be OK, right?

Wrong. Seawater and even the slight abrasion of cotton meant that the scant ultra violet protection I was getting lasted just minutes. In addition, the cotton tee shirt afforded scant, if any protection, and being wet is not equivalent to being submerged. Apparently clouds, even thick clouds, have only a slight effect on ultraviolet light in the tropics.

At the end of the day, it was obvious I was fried.

By 8:30, the blisters were developing, and by 11:00 PM, the blisters held several pints of fluid. We are talking major league blisters, three of which could not be covered by an adult hand and held the dermis 1/2 inch away from the next layer in. I was getting a little wacked out because I wanted a blanket.

None of this was a good sign. The protocol my father learned in his WW II medic training was treat for heat prostration and prevent and treat shock and that is what he did. Shock was not out of the range of possibilities. I had a watcher all night. I was told I managed to sleep with three points of contact, my knees and my forehead, tripod fashion.

I was hauled to the nearest physician early the next morning. There was a language barrier of his French and my parent’s rudimentary grasp thereof. He wanted to swab me with iodine, lance the blisters, bandage the back and stand by for developments.

That seemed reasonable to me, but for reasons I do not remember, my parents did not trust the physician and they just decided to go back to Saigon and take me to the US Naval Dispensary. String-pulling and (perhaps) a financial inducement (or two, or three) got us seats on the next Air Vietnam DC3 going back to Saigon.

By flight time, I was very tight in the blister department. There were none on the back of my legs, so I could sit, but I could not sit back in the seat, I had to lean forward and grip the seat in front of me. The flight attendant insisted that I not do that. I showed her the blisters. I got to do that. In fact, I got to fly most of the way back to Saigon standing up holding the baggage bins. Most of the trip was well within the atmosphere’s convection zone so it was rough, but sitting down would have been much worse. The trick was never letting go!

After landing at Saigon, I was past the wacky stage and was having a strange food delirium; I was determined to have pickles, a Coke, and popcorn. All I could think about was Coke, popcorn and pickles. On the way to the Dispensary, and in the process of slaking my thirst and hungers at home, the blisters broke.

So my father painted my back with iodine, stuffed me in the car and we went to the Dispensary. Solicitous nurses changed the bandages, I was given a strict hydration regimen and the ubiquitous salt tablets.

The Coke, popcorn and pickle urges were gone that night. For months, I looked like I had some strange amphibian camouflage pattern on my back.

Later, after I learned something about human physiology, I can to appreciate that the food urges were just results of the residual blood chemistry imbalances. A quart of Gatorade would have worked about as well.

And I have only been on a beach three times since then. Two times were in the winter. One time I visited the beach on the South Carolina coast on St. Patrick’s day. I wore a raincoat.

I don’t do beaches.

That is my story and I am sticking to it.

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6 comments to Saigon Kids Stories: Blisters

  • Kenneth R. Yeager

    Great story. I’ve been sunburned a number of times in my life, but nothing to compare to that story.

    I spent three months in Djibouti back in the last 1970’s doing a TDY. The Embassy was right on the beach and just about every day another fellow and I would don our bathing suits, grab a small inflatable boat and our diving gear and hit the water for an hour or so (full disclosure – weather in Djibouti is HOT, as in Hades, and the Embassy took a three hour lunch break). After the diving, we would lie on the beach and soak up some sun. Needless to say, after a couple of weeks we were both tanned, VERY tanned…I have never again been so dark in my life. Well, after my tour in Djibouti ended, I was told to go to Niger and to pass through Paris, pick up my visa and fly down to Niamey. I organized my travel to Paris to give me one full work day in Paris plus the weekend and so notified my wife-to-be of my arrangements and could she fly over to Paris on Friday evening? All set. I picked her up at the airport and brought her to the hotel where we began to dress to an evening out on the town. As I shed my clothes, Gisela stared at me….WHAT? She stated she had never seen a Caucasian so dark, with, of course, the exception of the small area that had been covered by my French bikini (I was thinner than). After her shock, we dressed and headed out.

    Anyone remember the Army warnings about sunburn? We were told that getting sunburn was damaging U.S. Government property (we were OWNED by the Army) and we could be subject to an Article 15. Ah, the Army has an answer for everything.

    For the past seven or eight years we spend two or three weeks on the beach on Sylt and even there, in the northern climes of Germany, one can get a good sunburn should the weather cooperate, which has not been the case the last two years and this year ain’t looking too promising so far.

    To All – Love the stories. Keep ‘em coming.

  • Frank

    I told myself, several weeks ago, not to write after I had several tequilas.O.K., I am breaking my promise to myself, but old folks really do get away with a lot. I so wish that when I was a teenager my folks would have said “no big deal”. We even get senior discounts! Gosh, the folks that should get them are those guys in their twenty’s with ten million kids.
    Sun? I love it! I am one of those people that never use sun screen and I am out doors all the time. Of course, I hope I do not write next year and say I have some sort of skin disease.
    In 2009, my son and I were at the beaches at Hoi An (near DaNang). The young girls selling their jewelery, and whatever to coffee makers, came walking along the beach. They were dressed like they were Eskimos from Alaska. They told us they did not want their skin to become dark. Of course I was laying out in the full sun in a swim suit without sun screen.
    Oh, by the way, in 1968 while serving near Hue, I came down with heat stroke and heat exhaustion! I know, we should all take precautions.

    Gosh! I already saw an error in what I wrote! I am not so sure that Saigon Kids are that forgiving! Their English teachers weren’t! Night! Frank

  • Sarah Rogers

    The majority of my major sunburns were the beaches of Nga Trang. I remember how wonderful the sun felt, I remember how painful the burn felt, and I remember I would then do it all over again!
    Now I practically live on a beach-miles of beaches all around the island- and seldom go. If you can’t lay in the sun and feel that burn, what fun is it?
    We have lots of Japanese visit the islands and they walk the beach completely covered, face, gloves, socks and of course long sleeves and slacks. Does this sound like fun?

  • Suellen Oliver Campbell

    Sunburns…been there, done that, many times. At my current age I am over with the pain, peel, and back to pale. It never seemed to work well or last long, with my skin coloring.
    However, while at Lander College in S.C., we female students would engage in a yearly Springtime ritual. There was a small(10x20ft.), wall-enclosed area on the roof of the cafeteria where we would gather every afternoon following classes to soak up the rays. The chest-high cinderblock wall blocked the breezes on cooler days, and created a Scandinavian sauna effect on warmer days. Up there on the roof we would coat ourselves with baby oil, pack together like sardines and proceed to toast ourselves for hours, occasionally passing around a spray bottle of oil and water to “cool down” and re-grease. (Melanoma in a plastic bottle.)
    Some more daring girls would tan topless, which was a bit risque for ultra-conservative 1960’s S.C. standards. One afternoon,after over-hearing word of our daily rooftop sunbathing activity, curiousity got the best of one of the very few male day-students on our campus. With a few dollars in his pocket, he headed out to the small local airport. You can only imagine the screams, and panicked flip-flopping among the greased-up, topless “sardines” that day when the roof-top was buzzed several times by a low-flying plane. “Shark-attack” twelve o’clock high!!!
    Kevin, does your wife remember the rooftop?

    • Kevin L. Wells


      Margo has never confessed to the rooftop topless thing, but does know that it was going on.

      I was an active pilot during my undergraduate time at Clemson and yes, the ladies did the same thing there also.

      Of course, to maintain legal altitude over populated areas it was simply impossible to see much without 7 x 50 binoculars and the image resulting was very jumpy.

      Of course, back in those days, it was my imagination that was important!

      The Student Court System handled a few such cases but the offense was unauthorized use of the rooftop. The Dean of Women would have had a stroke just forwarding the charges to me (as Student Government Attorney General) if she had the certain knowledge that I and every other male would get to apply his imagination while looking at the accused!


  • Suellen Oliver Campbell

    Oh, those Deans of Women! One in particular at Lander seemed to enjoy making our lives miserable with the silliest complaints and suppositions. It turns out she was having a fling with one of the geeky professors…quite shocking back in “the day.”

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