On those hot humid evenings in Saigon, the little Vietnamese kids would hang out with plastic bags, catching insects under the rather dim streetlights. They would collect anything they could. Then they would sell the buzzing, writhing mass to local itinerant cooks with carts on wheels that are called dai pai dongs.
After plunging the whole bag into boiling water, the cooked bugs were then sorted by desirability. The best were huge flying monsters called Vu Diep.
A total delicacy, they would then be tossed into a hot wok bath of boiling oil, stir fried with noodles, and served with nuoc mahm (Vietnamese fish sauce) or a wonderful Vietnamese chili sauce that can now be bought at Safeway in the ethnic foods section.
I tried them a few times, and crunchy as they were, I was admittedly rather put off by the idea of eating bugs. I will admit that if I had been blindfolded I would have likely mistaken them for those fun little fried minnows that serve as crispy, tasty appetizers that I love.
On our military compound, on Tan Sohn Nhut Air Force Base, stood a bulletin board lit from above by a bilious, florescent light where work schedules and other dicta were pinned behind glass. It was our responsibility to read the ever-changing material daily. At night the insects were attracted to the light and hung out around the board. I happened by one evening to take a read. As I put my hand against the side casing, a huge Vu Diep flew out and crashed into my neck and down my shirt, startling me half to death. They are rather clumsy fliers, constantly bumping and crashing into things.
After doing a clever little dance, I managed to retrieve the rather stunned intruder from my clothing. I happened to have a small paint jar in my pack, so I put him inside. The next day, back at the graphic arts department, I took the jar out. He was buzzing furiously, so I carefully removed him and scotch-taped him to my drawing table. Taking some regular thread that we all had for sewing buttons onto our uniforms, I carefully fashioned a little collar. Attaching the other end of about three feet of line to a thumbtack, I carefully removed the tape. He immediately flew to the end of his tether.
Everyone in the room was quite amused as he flew round and round in a perfect circle ... a classic airline holding pattern. Well, that lasted a while, and then I decided to take my new pet for a walk. Very obligingly, he buzzed right along on his leash as we went from one department to another, visiting various friends of mine who were delighted to meet my new friend who would light on any desk or file cabinet and wait while I chatted. When we were ready, I had only to give him a small tug and we were on our way. Finally, we got up to the General's Office. His assistant was a good friend, as he arranged all the general's photo ops. The general always called me by my first name, as I was in his office a lot doing A&D (Awards and Decorations) photos. He happened to come out from behind closed doors to find me with my little pal, talking with his aid. He had a laugh, shook his head, and just said in his deadpan way: "Tom, this war must really be getting to you."
Another bug story involves mosquitoes. The darkroom, where I did the headquarters' photo processing, was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. No one could figure out where they came ... somewhere under a counter or through a lesion in the invincible bunker. Their solution was to give us "mosquito coils." These were round, spiral, incense-like pesticides that were lit at one end. They burned about an hour, producing a fog of blue smoke. They really did the job, killing everything in their path. Years later, I learned that they were horrifically toxic and were banned. ... Great – now I have to subtract a year of my life span when I take those "How long will you live?" surveys.
Well, some of the hardier pests escaped the toxic incense, and fled out into the main workroom of our graphic arts department. Annoyingly buzzing around everyone trying to work, they were relentless. One day I was standing beside the drafting board of one of my close friends who was from Elizabeth, New Jersey. I had an X-acto knife in hand. A mosquito lit on his desk, and without a thought, I threw the knife onto the table Rambo style. In a one-in-a-million shot, I actually skewered the mosquito!
Everybody had to come to see firsthand that "sure-shot Tom" had indeed nailed the hapless victim – its legs flailing. We thought of leaving it as a warning to others. But, of course, the real thing about this incident is that everybody had to stop by the graphic arts department to see it. They were doing what was referred to as "skating," which could be defined as taking a self-proclaimed, unauthorized break from office tedium, and finding a place to hide out for ten or fifteen minutes, and have a Coke or a smoke.
In those days, smoking inside closed buildings was a way of life. No one thought about cancer or the sensibilities of that rare breed of us called "non-smokers." Fortunately, smoking was forbidden in photo darkrooms, as ashes could stick to wet negatives hanging in rows to dry. Of course, toxic mosquito smoke was okay. Nevertheless, the graphics art department was far and away the most popular skating rink in the whole headquarters. Just about everybody in the entire complex made at least one daily pilgrimage to visit the "bohemians." We were just so entertaining! Even the high-ranking non-commissioned and other officers, made their obligatory visits. As one major said wistfully, "Out of the entire headquarters, this is the only real fun place to skate!"