Death arrives in many forms; sudden, violent, painful, lingering. Remembering that Saigon night in ICU; it came to call in a most pleasant, welcoming manner. All I had to do was relax to let the cool darkness envelop and spirit me away to a place I’d never been. I really don’t know why I stubbornly insisted on laboring for one more shallow breath. Dying would have been so much easier.
The hospital in Saigon kept me on oxygen for three days; pumping me full of adrenaline and bronchial-dilator pills before finally letting me shuffle out of their care. Although I didn’t have active tuberculosis, they said my lungs were ruined. I checked out of the ward and reluctantly gave notice to my employer, Continental Air Service. Ed Dearborn, the chief pilot, kindly replied there would always be an opening for me if I decided to return. I was on the next Air Vietnam flight to Hong Kong, having no idea what the future held.
Obviously, I looked ill; the first two hotels said they had no available rooms (Hong Kong innkeepers are superstitious about guests dying in their rooms). The third was hungry; overcharging me for less-than-first-class quarters. Turning the air-conditioner up, I washed-down some of the prescription Saigon-dilators with scotch, and slept for the next fourteen hours. Waking-up with a ravenous hunger, I Ordered breakfast from room service and took a steaming hot shower prior to the food to arriving. Answering the door with a towel wrapped around my skinny frame. Trundling in a clean cart covered in white linen, the waiter ignored me. With a flourish he set up the table with a large glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, eggs, sausages, and buttered toast with a wonderful pot of steaming coffee. It was the best meal I’d had in a long time. This was followed by a four hour nap; my date with death was slipping away.
While out on a stroll I bought a cassette player and some music tapes, before heading back to my room for more sleep. Dinners were lots of fresh salads and Kobe beef entrées followed by light music, a book, and more rest. Gradually, I weaned myself from the drugs as my lungs began to improve. A week in Hong Kong reinvigorated me to where I could make the flight to Honolulu without dying. While I was probably going to wind up in a recovery sanatorium in the desert, I wasn’t contagious and wanted to lie out in the Hawaiian sun for a couple of weeks spending some time with Toni, my little daughter.
BOAC, (now British Airways) up-graded me to first class when they saw I was flight crew. My disabled-soldier-of-fortune act went over well with the stewardesses who pampered me with food and drink all the way across the Pacific. In those days flying first-class in a Boeing 707 on British Overseas Airways Corporation was something really special. Nevertheless, the trip exhausted me and I was ready for bed when I checked into a Waikiki hotel. I didn’t want the Filipino family that was taking care of my Toni to see how weak I really was, even though my 125-pound emancipated body was a dead giveaway.
The next day I rented a car, bought some candy and flowers, and drove over to Anita’s just as Toni was returning from school. I had known Anita for years, she was the best friend of Nani, a Tahitian dancer I used to date; Nani danced off with someone else but Anita and I remained friends. The flowers were for her, the candy for Toni and Anita’s two daughters. She answered the door and looked at me for a surprised moment; “Dave, Dave you’re home – you’re here! Oh, my God, you’re here!
“I’m here,” I smiling said, “Can I come in?
“Yes, yes of course. What are all those for? Toni and the kids will be home any minute. Bob’s at work. You look so thin – let me help you.”
When Toni got home she threw her arms around me; hugging me so hard I thought she was going to break my neck.
“You’re staying for dinner,” not a question but a command from Anita.
The kids started to devour the candy before Anita snatched the box away, telling them; “No more until after dinner; do you want to get sick?” Putting it up on a top shelf where the children couldn’t reach, she good naturedly admonished, “You know it will rot their teeth.”
“I know but it’s only five pounds…”
“Hand me that vase I want to get these flowers in water before they wilt. You shouldn’t have…”
When Bob got home he broke out the beer and offered me a scotch. It was a grand homecoming and I wasn’t going to spoil it by letting them know I was going to have to spend a year or so in the desert. During dinner Bob wanted to know all about my adventures in Vietnam. I responded by making light of my flying and the living conditions, explaining I was little more than an airborne taxi driver who occasionally delivered packages when not drinking beer and chasing the ladies of Tu Do Street. This seemed to satisfy him and fit in with the image I carefully projected of a happy-go-lucky pilot. I saw no reason to go into detail on just how dangerous the work and environment really was; in the first place he would not have comprehended it, in the second place it would have frightened Anita and the children.
After dinner we watched television for a while. Toni proudly showed me a drawing that had earned her an ‘A.’ It was quite good for a second grader, my daughter had talent. “Gee, honey that’s very nice. Where did you get the idea?” I queried.
“I got it from that plant over there. See how its leaves are getting big?” she said as she pointed over to a potted palm Anita was tending.
“Yeah, it looks just like it – only better. I think you’re going to be a real artist when you grow up. Come here and give me a hug.”
Toni jumped into my lap wrapping her arms around my neck. “Daddy, are you going to stay home for awhile?”
“I’m going to try; how about you and me going to the beach tomorrow after school?” At that Anita’s two daughters, who were a couple of years older than Toni jumped up and shouted; “Me too – us too!”
Anita put on the stern-mother look, “You kids have homework. Besides, Uncle Dave wants to spend time with Toni.”
“Hey, that’s okay. Toni, is it all right if we take them along? I’m thinking of Makapu and some bodysurfing.”
“Of course; ‘Nita, I don’t mind. The kids are fun and I’ll have them back before dinner. We’ll only stay an hour or so – I don’t want to sunburn.”
“Well, okay. But you kids better mind Uncle Dave or I’ll skin you when you get home, do you hear?” Everybody laughed at that last remark. Anita was a good mother; there wasn’t a mean bone in her body; her bark was far worse than her bite. I’d pick them up after school and we’d make a beeline for the beach. With that settled, it was off to bed for the little ones and I could have a serious talk with Bob and Anita about Toni and my immediate future.
I explained how I’d tested positive for tuberculosis and that my lungs were full of clouds on the x-rays. It put them at ease when I told them I wasn’t contagious; however it was probably just a matter of time. I further explained what the doctors had said about me drying out in the desert for the next year or so. They assured me it would be no problem looking after Toni and that she was welcome in their home as one of the family. It was fortunate indeed that I’d saved my money since the desert-cure and Toni’s care was going to cost a small ransom. I went back to my hotel feeling exhausted but happy that things were going to be all right.
Makapu was a wonderful small beach around the corner from Koko Head far away from the tourists in Honolulu. The curl of the waves made it perfect for body surfing and the kids had a ball. I even tried a few; it took me back to my growing-up surfer days in Long Beach, California when I was about their age. The water always soothed me. Old King Neptune greeted me and sent a couple of nice rollers my way allowing me to show off for the kids.
“Hey, Uncle Dave, you’re not bad for a haole; where’d you learn da kine?”
“I’ve been surfing since before you were born. I learned when I was about your age.”
“Jeeez, that must have been a long time ago.”
“A very long time ago. Come on, ten more minutes and we gotta start home.”
“Aw – can we get another ice cream?”
“If you don’t tell your mother…”
It was a fun afternoon; the sun and surf felt good on my body. I seemed to be getting better and using the bronchial-inhaler less. Except, my face itched from the salt water; somewhere I’d contracted a Barber’s Itch from shaving, and my face was all broken out like a teenager’s. I made a mental note to visit a dermatologist the next day.