Feb 20, 2020
In 1972 or 1973, I was working in Saigon as a paid teacher and my life was rather dull. I had applied to Carnegie Mellon University for a playwriting program. And I sent them a copy of one of my plays. It had been about two months. We wouldn’t get mail every day, but when we got some mail it came three or four days at once and I looked at the letter and the first one was addressed to me and said, “You’re accepted by Carnegie Mellon.” So I thought this was very good. I was one of three people. I was overjoyed.
And then I looked through another letter and it said, “You have a scholarship.” It wasn’t a great big scholarship, but it paid my tuition. So that was my happy day.
I told the three or four people who were around me. I said, “It’s great. It’s great!” Their attitude wasn’t, yeah well okay. But I came back into the States in 74. I went to it for my first year. It was a two year program.
I was excited at the time because I thought my life had fizzled out, you know? I was thirty-something, 33 or so and then this came. It’s just opportunity. I no longer have to face cold case and cold case and cold case.
It reminded me of a friend of mine, James Lee Burke. He’s a writer of some sort. Now he has published a lot of books. But for his first book, “Half of Paradise,” he sent it to something like 50 or 60 publishers. And got it back each time. And then 61st, they published it. Moderate success. He published. He wrote a couple of movies. He’s a very successful guy.
Carnegie Mellon was the only place I had applied to. I wrote to a friend and said, “I’m going to this apply to this place.” And he wrote back and said, “I hear that.” But he said, “Don’t be disappointed.”
It was a hard thing to get into, a hard program.
Well, after I got there I saw that not too many guys can afford to take two years off like that. But for me it was a great, great two years. Every day I was in the theater.
Before I got accepted there, I had knocked around, taught English in Hue. You know Hue, Vietnam? I taught for one year. I was on the plane going for an R and R to Singapore, when the Tet Offensive… Across the country. But I was out of harm’s way and I did not know that.
I ended up in Vietnam because when I was 31 or so, I was walking and I was working at LSU, the public relations office, and I said to myself, “Go check that employment board.” The bulletin board down the hall and on the second floor. So I went and I saw this advertisement for international voluntary services, $70 a month. They took you to Vietnam and then they paid your way back if you had stayed for the contract. And so I said, well, why not? So I wrote off to those people and they said, come on. They sent a man to interview me and he said, come on.
Not too many people were to go to Vietnam. I was excited to go. I was looking forward to getting there. Then on the first night, there were about 30 of us international voluntary services and they took us to a restaurant first night and it was the God awful worst restaurant I’ve ever been in. Dirt floors and I said, “God, if this is how they treat new volunteers…” That was the first thing I did.
Vietnamese food is iffy. There is a certain flavor to Vietnamese food that I don’t particularly like. So I spent a lot of my time getting food from Indian carts. I love Mexican food and Indian food. It’s pretty easy to find Indian food in Vietnam. You got some shops, some little carts. Everything was sold from a cart. They sold a dish that was Indian in a place run by Vietnamese. They cooked in Indian style. Every night I’d walk out to the cart. I couldn’t find any Mexican food there.