What did you do in the war, Barry?

Two or three Swimwatch articles ago I mentioned that one of our life guards served in Vietnam. Since then Barry has been telling me more about his time “in harms way”, defending our way of life. How is this relevant to swimming, you may ask? Well, Barry’s war resulted in him acquiring swim coaching status most coaches envy and few achieve; but more of that later.

Barry’s war did not have an auspicious start. For two months he was posted to Camp Eagle just 40 miles from the North Vietnam border and close to Hue, Vietnam’s ancient capital. Camp Eagle is where a Viet Cong shell killed a soldier in the hut next to Barry’s. It’s also where Barry was assigned the daily task of burning the camp’s human excrement. This inspiring work involved removing full cans from the latrines, mixing the contents with liberal quantities of aviation fuel and setting the delightful mixture alight; a shit of a job.

Proving that the blackest cloud can have a silver lining, Camp Eagle is also where Barry met Hank. It seems that Hank was one of those guys who know everything that’s going on. You know the sort; a guy with a line on every deal, every wrinkle. Anyway Hank found out that the US Army had decided to coach the South Vietnam teams taking part in the prestigious South East Asian Peninsular Games. They needed coaches in basketball, swimming and track. Hank had some experience in basketball and Barry had swum for three years on the Southern Illinois college team. They would apply. It had to be a step up from his current job; from burning shit to international swim coach.

Hank got the basketball job and Barry became an international swim coach. He flew to Saigon, booked into the up-market Dia Nam Hotel and presented himself for work at the exclusive Circle Sportif Saigon. Their club pool was to be used to prepare South Vietnam’s swimmers for the Games. For three months and for two hours each day Barry coached the national team. His remaining hours were spent enjoying the delights of the Saigon Club or taking in the city’s tourist spots. Not a bad way to defend democracy.

All good things come to an end. Sadly the US Army would not let Barry travel with the team he had so diligently prepared. Through some misguided sense of propriety they decided Americans and Barry in particular should not be seen to be too involved with the preparation of the Vietnam Team. Barry had to stay in Saigon and begin the search for another job. He certainly did not want to go back to Camp Eagle’s toilets.

He was in luck. The base in Nhatrung needed an 84G20, photo-lab technician. You probably don’t know this but Nhatrung was Vietnam’s plum posting. It was in the far south and near some of Asia’s best beaches; a beautiful spot to serve out the remaining seven months of Barry’s war. Perhaps Barry thought he may be able to fit in a little surfing at those acclaimed beaches.

A week later he reported for duty at the Nhatrung base. It was everything Barry imagined. His photo lab mates told him the nearest beach was just three miles away at Cove Hon Chaum. The surf was fantastic; so good in fact that they had rented a two story house right on the beach. If he liked, they said, Barry could become a partner. That didn’t take much thought and Barry was soon part owner of his own surfing heaven. Not only that, he would build his own surf board to conquer Vietnam’s perfect shore break.

The board was soon built. Barry seems a bit vague about the source of the foam and fiberglass and resin. However he’s a very honest bloke so I’m sure it was all above board, if you’ll excuse the pun. The Board was painted with a large red peace symbol and Barry was ready to roll.

Now, I have to tell you I’ve been fortunate enough to see photographs of Barry’s beach house and photographs of Cove Hon Chaum taken from the house. It’s beautiful. I’ve seen beaches all over the world, in New Zealand, the Virgin Islands, Hawaii and yes, even Brighton Beach in England. Well if Barry’s photos are to be believed Cove Hon Chaum is the match of any of them; lovely white sand, beautiful tropical flowering plants, clear blue sea and sky and a perfect break.

For seven months Barry developed air reconnaissance photographs during the week and honed his surfing skills over the weekend. Exactly one year and two days after his arrival in Vietnam Barry was on an airplane home. His tour of duty had not been wasted. Barry says he’s never met anyone that had a better war. In one year Barry was converted from raw recruit to international swimming coach, well qualified life guard and a pretty bloody good surfer; an Army of one.

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