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Interview with Ruth Sese Abejon [11/10/2013]

Janice Wong:

Today is Sunday, November 10th, 2013 and we are interviewing Ruth Sese Abejon at the KKJC88.1 FM radio station on the campus of California State University Long Beach located in Long Beach, California. Sese is 63 years old having been born [birth date redacted]. My name is Janice Wong and I will be doing the interview. This interview is being done for the Los Angeles Region Greater Long Beach Chapter of the American Red Cross in conjunction with the Library of Congress and the American Folk Life Center. Sese served in a civilian capacity during the Vietnam war on tour in an all women's band with two comedians, the Harrison and Tyler show. Welcome, Sese, and let me thank you for your time and service to our country.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Thank you by your service by archiving it. It's a beautiful thing.

Janice Wong:

Let's start at the beginning, let's hear family details.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I was born in, Pasadena California 1950. Actually born in a hospital in Hollywood. But raised in Pasadena and went to Catholic school. There's my little my picture right here. That's me {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Let me just zoom right there.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Zoom right in to that little cutie with the pineapple hair {Showing photograph}

Janice Wong:

Look at you. What school did you go to?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Sacred Heart and then I went to a number of other schools, Washington and John Muir High School there in Pasadena.

Janice Wong:

Favorite subject?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Favorite subject, music. Is there any question? There's my graduation picture.

Janice Wong:

What year did you graduate?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

1969.

Janice Wong:

Look at that hair.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Right. Back in the day. So the thing about growing up in a community in Pasadena was that we were a small enclave of Filipinos living in about a four-block area. Our family migrated to the U.S. and got all together to create community for themselves because there was no friendly relations. At that time it was just after the Japanese world. My father was called a Jap on a regular basis.

Janice Wong:

Now, was your father born here?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

He was born in the Philippines. He came here by himself when he was 14 and he joined the U.S. Army, a sergeant in the Army.

Janice Wong:

In the U.S. army?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

During the second World War.

Janice Wong:

What is your dad's name?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

My dad's name is Mario Gadio (ph) Abejon.

Janice Wong:

Do you have a picture of him?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I don't have one with me, I'm sorry to say.

Janice Wong:

So he served during what war?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

In the Second World War. He was an MP. And the funniest sight is that my dad was about 5'7", 5'6", 5'7", a little guy by comparison to the people he served with. And he was in his full regalia and his hardhat and his blouse boots and marching along with, you know, a billy club and a gun. And he was half the size of the men he was working with. He looked after German prisoners that were brought to the south here in the U.S. during the war.

Janice Wong:

So he served here in the U.S.?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

He served here in the U.S. in the south. That's where he met my mom.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

In Mississippi, Louisiana area. And they had a prisoner of war camp, which I didn't know about, but they had a prisoner of war camp there. And my dad was one of the MPs that looked after these guys.

Janice Wong:

So he met your mom?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

He met my mom.

Janice Wong:

And what's your mom's name?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Lillian Ardette Abejon, originally Rickels (ph) born and raised in Mississippi and she was like a black sheep for sure because they called my dad a Jap the whole time he was in the service down there. And she was like you know {hand gesture} and so she met and married my dad and moved to California with him. And we all were raised here in the southern California area.

Janice Wong:

Brothers and sisters?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Brothers and sisters. Lots of them. You can see this is kind of a family picture when they were little. I have {showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Let's just, yeah.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I have three older brothers.

Janice Wong:

Older. Hold it higher.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Carliss, Arthur and Joseph Abejon {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

All right.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Two of the three served in the U.S, Air Force and Army.

Janice Wong:

During when?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

In the Vietnam conflict.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And this is just all of nieces and nephews and so forth. Yeah, let me show you a picture of my three brothers. These are my three brothers. Carliss, the first one on the left {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Umhum.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And Art, who was in the Army, and then my brother, Joe, who did not have to serve in the Armed Forces because he was the only male left. So he had a lot __ not to have served, which is kind of cool. But those are my three brothers. And we all lived together in Pasadena and grew up and went to college locally as did I, and there you go. That's it.

Janice Wong:

Okay. So you didn't move around a lot, you pretty much stayed in Pasadena?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

No, we grew up in the Pasadena area for the longest time. I moved to Oregon for a couple of moments, but I moved back within a year. Our family is very tight.

Janice Wong:

Okay. So it is now June 1970.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Right.

Janice Wong:

And what is going on?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Wow, what's going on now I'm actually singing jazz, volunteering at the jazz station and singing jazz.

Janice Wong:

Really?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yes.

Janice Wong:

So it was KLOM then?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

19 what year?

Janice Wong:

1970.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

1970, so sorry. 1970 I just graduated from high school. I am being recruited by a pair of comedians who are very funny and very lesbian, which is very interesting part of the conversation there. Anti-war activists and they are volunteering to go entertain the troops. So it's a very interesting mix of emotions going on as I joined this group.

Janice Wong:

And they knew you as a musician, singer?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

They knew me as a musician and drummer. They picked me up at the Local 47 musician's union. At the time I was a member there.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

So I auditioned with them and my colleague and I decided to join this group that was going to Vietnam just for the experience of it because I just graduated from high school. So this is a picture of us getting ready to go at the airport. It's not a very good picture, but it's kind of fuzzy.

Janice Wong:

Had you been out of the country before then?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I never traveled. I never been on an airplane. I had been to Mississippi. Never been on an airplane, never been out of the country and never been much of anywhere. {Showing photograph} I find myself getting on an airplane here at LAX on my way to Andrews Air Force base going to Vietnam.

Janice Wong:

So they find you, they recruited you as a drummer?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Right.

Janice Wong:

And there was all women. So what are the other pieces of the band?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

The other pieces of the band--let me find a picture real quick. There's a bass player {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Umhum.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And her name right there {Showing photograph}. Right there. Susie Capetta (ph) who's the bass player {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And let's see here. This is Carol White who is the guitar player and the bandleader. {Showing photograph} She's a good friend of mine that I knew.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

So she actually recruited me to go on and audition for this group. And I thought just another fine mess you got me into, but it turned out to be a great adventure.

Janice Wong:

So how many in the band?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

There's four all together in the band.

Janice Wong:

Wow.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Sorry. Three in the band and two comedians. So five in the group.

Janice Wong:

Oh, small group?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Small group, right.

Janice Wong:

Okay, so they get you over to where?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

They just us from LAX to Andrews Air Force and then we caught a plane. Our first stop was Japan.

Janice Wong:

Where in Japan?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Tokyo. So just one quick performance in Tokyo.

Janice Wong:

And that was for the troops?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

For the troops, right. It was actually with the U.S. location in Tokyo.

Janice Wong:

So the comedians and you guys in the band kind of did this under the guise of the U.S.O.?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Right, it was a U.S.O. tour that they recruited us for. So we met with the U.S.O folks here, and then they cleared us to go with all of the shots.

Janice Wong:

And passports?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And passports and security.

Janice Wong:

Was there any training?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

No training, just lots of immunizations, and lots of basic warnings to stay close. We had two passports. We stayed close to our escort. We had a captain escort with us the entire time we were gone.

Janice Wong:

Two passports?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Two passports. They kept one and we carried one.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

So I think it was in case we got kidnapped or I don't even know.

Janice Wong:

Because I found about the red passports yesterday, which are the unofficial if you get caught we don't know you passports.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

No, we didn't have any of those. We had two official passports that were issued by the state department in order for us to be able to identify ourselves if we get separated or something.

Janice Wong:

So you get to Japan to Tokyo and you just quickly, just entertained the troops?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Just random, one quick one on the plane and back to Guam and just stopped for a moment. We did Hawaii on the way, too. And we didn't get to perform there either. So we were basically just stopping at places that had locations to fuel up and get ourselves over to Vietnam. Our first location was in Vietnam. And then after that we went to Thailand.

Janice Wong:

Oh, okay. What did that feel like? I mean you probably entertained before this?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Oh, yeah, it was really exciting and quite the adventure. I had two brothers in the service at the time. So I had one in the north of Udon in Thailand. And then I had a brother in Hoopon (ph) in Thailand. So they flew us into Vietnam and we did some touring there. But the emotions were more like excited adventure. I was too young to be scared, too naive to be scared about where I really was. I had no concept of a war zone.

Janice Wong:

How many people did you entertain, how many guys?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Oh, my God, depending on where. For example, this is--I got some pictures here. Can I just start here?

Janice Wong:

Sure.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

This is a picture of us landing on a carrier. This is the first shot {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Wow. Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And here's another one. And these are the Navy welcoming us aboard {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Do you remember who these people are?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

No. They actually didn't give us their names. They were just our escorts. They were the greeters.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And so as we landed, they welcomed us aboard. Ushered us off to the Bay of Tonkin where we were welcomed aboard, and we entertained in the hole. This was the Ranger, I believe, USS Ranger. And they gathered the crew in the flight bay below. It was the size of many, many football fields and an ocean of men standing there. We got a small stage built. And we get on stage. And I'm looking out and I'm thinking those people are all moving. The whole bay was swaying together because it was standing on a ship that was moving. I was like oh, my God. If you look out the bay door, you could see the horizon changing. It was very strange. But we did our show there. And we some anti-war jokes and they really got it and most of them were like it was pretty funny stuff.

Janice Wong:

Wow.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

We did--I mean the punchline was, I mean make the world a little gayer to get cleared to lunch because we were addressing everybody.

Janice Wong:

During that time?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

We weren't allowed to really be overt about it, so we made it a joke. We just wanted to acknowledge everyone in the group, you know. We had young Latino men there that were 15 or 16 years old in the crowd. How do they get in the Army? How did they get in the Navy at that age they had to have lied or produced some sort of document that was false.

Janice Wong:

Unless their parents signed.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Really, could they do that, so maybe that's how they got in.

Janice Wong:

Parents' permission.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Oh, wow.

Janice Wong:

Some of them--if they were in trouble in school, the choice is go to jail or go into the military.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Service, I see. So, yeah, so many of them were just very, very young. And we just wanted to include everyone. We knew that they were some percentage of people out there who were probably gay and lesbian, you know, and bisexual, transgender, whatever, and no capacity to be who they are at all during that time period. As a matter of fact, they were hazed and harassed and name calling in the '70s. Yeah, beat up murdered, thrown overboard, disappeared, all of those things. So I think it's important that, you know, we spend some time looking at the whole spectrum of people that were aboard the vessels and in the Army. And because the two comedians were lesbians at the time, they were bent to make sure to acknowledge those folks however they could do it.

Janice Wong:

What kind of music did you play?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

We played a lot of original stuff. There was a lot of comedy going on, and some of the music was really __ and they would do stuff like, again, we want to represent for everybody. We would do stuff like Hava Nagila for the Jewish folks in the group. We would do Lazy Mary, get up, we need the sheets for the table, an Italian funny song. We tried to represent for everyone, to address and acknowledge everyone who was in the service over there because we knew how important it was for them.

Janice Wong:

Nice.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

So it was a pretty funny deal. Yeah. And we also did a Hawaiian skit, and I mean skit. This is one of the comedians in the group that was doing a spoof-off of a Hawaiian dance.

Janice Wong:

What's the name?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

This is Patty Harrison {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Okay. Got it.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And the other comedian is Robin Tyler. So these were just some shots from some of the shows where we were on stage. This was actually, I believe, at Ben Tre in Vietnam. And we did some short show there because what happened was we--this is another shot from there. {Showing photograph} About ten minutes after this shot was taken, we were ushered off stage because these guys were all sitting on bare boxes and kegs and booze bottles, and they were extremely high on not just booze, they were high on, you name it, Thai stick, heroin, you name it. And they were just very, very high. And I can't see why they wouldn't want to be given where they were. I mean the downside of the conversation is that as much as I enjoyed the trip and the entertainment, what I saw that crucially changed who I am is the impoverished way that people were living, the locals, the locals, the Vietnamese and the Thais were hand to mouth in many ways. While it's a culture, there is also by comparison to our way of living, the big disparity in their ability to--I mean they provide for themselves. They got their rice patties and, you know, they sustain themselves from the sea and all of those kinds of things, but I mean whoever has got a handout for them is who they will be loyal to. And I can't blame them.

Janice Wong:

Right.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

So many of the things that I saw going on--we had the opportunity to visit with a Vietnamese nurse who was in the hospital at the time. She's a south Vietnamese nurse.

Janice Wong:

Do you remember her name?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I don't. I never actually understood her name. She kept saying it, but I couldn't understand it.

Janice Wong:

That was at a hospital?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

It was a U.S. hospital. She was injured. She's a south Vietnamese nurse.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

She was in a U.S. hospital, military hospital.

Janice Wong:

Where?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Umm, Kuan Yin.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Kuan Yin, I think. And we had the opportunity to chat with her and find out about her family, and so when we were in Saigon we actually visited with her family. We were able to get something to look up where they were. She gave us a sense of where they were. We snuck out essentially and went to visit this family who was very, very courageous and bright.

Janice Wong:

You went to their home?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah, went to their home. Spoke French and spoke English. One of the people with us spoke French and so our communication was mostly by translated French. They were very gracious and very welcoming. And we were very fortunate to be able to visit with them. And the compelling thing for me was the visits to the hospitals. This is just one picture we got out with. {Showing photograph}. We lost a lot of our photography that was taken. We had lots of film that was sent for processing by mail by us from Vietnam to the U.S. and it mysteriously disappeared. And I say mysteriously because a lot of it was shots while we were on carriers. We shot planes taken off and trying to __ when we were supposed to be flying into __+ area. So we don't know --

Janice Wong:

There was no military security saying don't do that?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

They didn't tell us to not take pictures and so we were taking pictures. We took them all over Thailand. We took them all over Vietnam. And just a couple that survived the whole thing, this is Moon River in Thailand. I don't know how we managed to get this one. I think we processed this when we came back.

Janice Wong:

Moon River.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

So that's Moon River in Vietnam. And you know we--things that were innocent looking, like I saw a bus made it through, you know, the film processing and printing, but other than that, we didn't get much back. It's just a shot of us at the hospital entertaining. It's Carol White, Robin Tyler, Susan Capetta, and Patty Harrison.

Janice Wong:

Wow.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

This is in the same hospital we saw the __ woman in. So, yeah, here's--one of the things that was actually compelling also is we met so many young men in the Army over there. When we were on the ground, the way they would get us around is they would pull us up--land us on a helicopter. Pull us out of the helicopter and pull our gear off of the helicopter and load the gear into a truck and usher us off in a van or a jeep with a machine gun mounted behind us and a machine gun mounted on the truck in front of us and rush us through the jungle through the next location.

Janice Wong:

So you were in danger?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

We were totally in danger. They--what they would do is they would take one of the flatbeds and put a back up on it, and put us a flat bed and the guys would line up on the beer boxes and whatever they had to sit on. And so they would shoot a brammer (ph) and you could hear the shooting way probably ten miles away. And they'd shoot a brammer (ph) while we're playing. You could hear the gunfire while we're playing the show. So it was really pretty crazy.

Janice Wong:

How did that feel?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Insane, you know, again, I was too naive and stupid to be scared until I actually saw the hospitals.

Janice Wong:

You were 18?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I was 18, too stupid to be scared.

Janice Wong:

You're the same age as the guys that was serving your audience?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yes, exactly as the guys there, yeah.

Janice Wong:

I mean being from Pasadena and there and being around gunshot and war?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Gunshot and war and military equipment landing on top of a plateau and barely getting stopped before we went off the other end and we were so naive and we were wearing little white hats with little red canoes at the top, little round things on the top. Pretty funny, The guys were like you need to take those off now. We were like oh, okay. We didn't know any better.

Janice Wong:

Right.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

We didn't know any better. And had I known what I know now, I probably wouldn't have done it.

Janice Wong:

Yeah.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Because they did shoot at us, you know, they did shoot at us. We were billing in. We were billeting in camp what was, as we found out, a little Vietnamese whore house. The military had taken it over.

Janice Wong:

Wow.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

So they cleaned it up obviously and they billeted us from there, but we had trouble with even American military trying to get in while we were there. These were guys that were in the country and came out of country for R and R for a day or two, and they were sent right back in the country again. And so they weren't right in their minds at all, some of the things they said to us, some of the jeers and stuff that came from some of the crowds. The one that they had to remove us from these guys were just too high. They were crazy. So it was acting crazy and trying to crawl on the stage. It was pretty wild stuff. Some of the young guys over there we actually did some pen-pal things with. They would give us addresses and we wrote back and forth to those guys, and eventually they dropped off. We don't know if they survived or what the deal was. This is--in one of the letters that I received, this is a shot of a helicopter that was sent to me by a guy named Joe {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

And what does it say on the back of the photo?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

It says "Remind you of anything? We're still here!" {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

And he is Vietnamese?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

No, he's in American Army.

Janice Wong:

Okay, wow.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah, he's one of the guys that were over there. And then our escort, by the way, was a guy named Joe Dturk (ph). And when I was in D.C. I went to the war memorial to see if I could find his name because I hadn't heard back from him. We wrote to him for a while. And we looked at the wall and we couldn't find his name on the wall. So hopefully he survived. And he came back, and he had a life here. Has a life here. But he was the 90-day wonder captain that was assigned to us. He was literally a 90-day wonder. He just graduated from academy or wherever. He was, you know, this clean-cut little white boy with this little short hair cut and all military gung-ho kind of guy. And he was carrying--the only thing he's carrying is a weapon, some kind of automatic pistol. He's not carrying a sidearm. He's just carrying a little sidearm. Of course they had--I guess--I guess around us they had more security than we could see.

Janice Wong:

So you weren't armed?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

No, they didn't arm us. We weren't actually military. We were U.S.O.s. So we were civilians working in theater being protected by the military. And I didn't feel unsafe at any point in time, but we did hear mortar fire overhead, yeah.

Janice Wong:

Plus you said you were just south of the DMZ?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah, north, the north most point where we went was just south of the DMZ.

Janice Wong:

Wow.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

That's crazy.

Janice Wong:

So what was like a typical day for you?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Typical day for us would be to get up and go have some breakfast that we couldn't identify because we couldn't tell what it was. And off to our first show. We would do a couple of shows a day. So they would load us onto the helicopter or load us onto the transfer, whatever it was, truck, trailer, whatever. And they would rush us through the jungle to go wherever we were going. They would fly in and land us. And then they would load our gear up for us and we'd set up our gear. Probably take about 20, 30 minutes to set our gear up. Do a show. Pack it up. Back into the helicopter. Back into the transport. Off to the next location. And there were two or three shows a day depending on how far we had to go. It was an exhausting day.

Janice Wong:

And it wasn't seven days a week though, right?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

No, it was about four or five days a week.

Janice Wong:

But still three shows a week?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah.

Janice Wong:

That is like Vegas.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Right. It was almost as bad as Vegas, yeah, but the audiences were much more interesting. But you know the thing that was very interesting about flying over the land is that we would take off and fly and beautiful lush jungle, and then we would fly a little further and see this huge ball and just like no growth for 150 yards in either direction of it. And then fly some more beautiful rice patties. People actually working in the rice patties with those water buffaloes working in the rice fields. And then all of a sudden big bomb hole again.

Janice Wong:

Agent orange?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I don't know about that. I don't think we were exposed to it. I pray we weren't. You know, I haven't had any problems as a result of it.

Janice Wong:

That's good. You would know.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I think I would know.

Janice Wong:

Right. I know.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And the button yards. We had the opportunity--I don't remember where we were. We flew in and landed on a plateau, and they got the airplane stopped, and then we took a hike and we went to meet the montagnards, the mountain people that lived there. And we had chocolate bars with us. They told us to stock up on chocolate because the kids were going for the chocolate. And we would break off pieces of chocolate and give it to them. These guys would show up in loin cloths, and just very primitive folks and very short, very small people.

Janice Wong:

And what do they call them?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Montagnard. I think it's a French word.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Mountain people.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And they were indigenous folks from Vietnam, I guess. I wish I knew more about them.

Janice Wong:

I wish I had a picture.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I actually don't. Did have pictures and they got lost. But these folks would come down and we'd interact with the kids and give them candy and stuff, yes. The Hershey bar in Vietnam is very different than here. It's made out of wax. I guess it wouldn't melt so we'd bite into them like yuck.

Janice Wong:

Had to stand up to the humidity.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yes, exactly and all full of wax.

Janice Wong:

And what is your favorite memory?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

My favorite memory was interacting with family there, and being able to as much as it's not a fun thing, being able to interact with that family and with the guys that were in the hospital, and really feeling like you were actually contributing to their day, made something, a little joy in their day, a little homecoming from there. You know, we brought boxes. We had boxes of cookies sent and stuff like that. By the time they got there, they were crumbs, but we got to do that kind of a thing. Deliver cookies and deliver mail. Sit and read to these guys or sit on the side of the bed and talk about their lives and where they are from. That was most rewarding. The shows were what we do so it was fun. It was--and the travel was interesting, but mostly the personal contact with the guys in Vietnam to really have a conversation with them about their homes.

Janice Wong:

So let me take a minute here because, you know, we're doing this--Red Cross volunteer, so did you run into the Red Cross while you were there?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

We did. Like I said, in Japan, we had a location that was in Tokyo that was a Japanese location and Red Cross folks were there. And then we saw some Red Cross folks in Vietnam, I couldn't--I don't actually remember where.

Janice Wong:

And what were they doing?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

They were just being observers. They were taking care of like almost like a little U.S.O. kind of a location where you come in and sit down and chitchat and read books and there were magazines available and coffee and that kind of stuff, but --

Janice Wong:

It was hospitality kind of thing?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Hospitality in Saigon, yes.

Janice Wong:

So it wasn't in a nursing capacity?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

No, not at all, not at all.

Janice Wong:

Okay, so like hospitality to the troops?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yes.

Janice Wong:

Oh, like a little canteen?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Sort of, yeah, sort of. It wasn't very big and it wasn't very sophisticated. I mean, the places we stayed were--I mean the architecture in Saigon was incredible. It was beautiful, you know. And the elevators were--the elevator we had in the hotel--we were in the Meyer Court Hotel in Saigon. And the elevator was like maybe, you know, three feet by three or four feet, a couple of people could stand in. And it was swinging in the shaft. All of this ornate iron. It was a really old building, so I imagine it was probably built in the '30s or the '40s. And you got to the top of the roof, there was two bunkers with machine gun mounts in them, and they had vials of gas in them. I think it was nerve gas. We took pictures of it. And actually--I can't find those pictures, but actual nerve gas canisters there. Was also not supposed to be there, I guess.

Janice Wong:

Wow.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

But, yeah.

Janice Wong:

So did you feel safe in Saigon?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I did. I don't know why. Again, I was probably too young to be--too stupid to be scared really. Ignorance is bliss.

Janice Wong:

Exactly.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I mean as an adult, I probably wouldn't have done it, not knowing I was going to get shot at, not knowing the carnage I was going to see because when we were in the hospitals as much as I don't like to not think about it, there were guys there with big pieces of their body __+ and young guys who are going to go home and they are never going to be the same. Their families are never going to be the same. It was bad.

Janice Wong:

So --

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And I know they actually buffered our experience, too. They kept us away from the most horrific stuff. Good thing they did.

Janice Wong:

So how was the reception from the local people towards you guys? I mean with the military it was--yeah, we love you or we hate you.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah, exactly. And we probably were only exposed to the people that were at least friendly. There were mamasans that were doing laundry and folks like that who were around doing things, but I think they probably buffered our experience with that as well because I know very well people didn't want us there.

Janice Wong:

So if you would have calculated how many shows did you do?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Oh, my God.

Janice Wong:

Hundreds?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

No, I don't think hundreds, probably 20, 60 or so.

Janice Wong:

In what duration, what amount of time?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I don't remember how long honestly, a few months.

Janice Wong:

That's all? That's a lot.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah, totally it's a long time ago. To try to remember all of this stuff is like my brain is probably fried, shipped out of here __+ sorry.

Janice Wong:

No, you're good. You're good. So about 60 performances, and so you were there and you said you were there from June to September?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Probably more like August through September.

Janice Wong:

Okay. Three months?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yes.

Janice Wong:

That's pretty heavy intense three months.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah, but it was so busy. We were moving and shaking the whole time so we didn't have time to stop and think about much. When we got to Thailand, we were in--we were in Bangkok. They flew us out of Bangkok into the north and to the south. One of my brothers was in communication. He was in the Army in communication.

Janice Wong:

Did you see your brothers while you were there?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yes, I saw both of my brothers while I was there, yeah.

Janice Wong:

What was that like?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

That's the whole reason I went there. I went to see my brother, Art, who was in the Army. And seeing him was wonderful, he was the talk of the base. He was a happy guy for the first couple of weeks because they sent our press kit ahead of time, and he's like that's my sister. So he had a really good time with that. And when I got there, he was just so starved for family. It was really hard, you know, because my brother is rely stoic kind of guy, right, strong guy. And he was just broken down when I got there. He was just like hugging on me and stuff. It was so good to see him. And he's a private guy, and to see the way he was living. He was living in a barrack so nothing was separating him except lockers, between their beds and I'm like oh, my God, this is so not him, you know, so I don't know how he adjusted to that. It had to be really hard for him. That's when I really realized part of what it took for them to adjust coming out of their home, graduating high school, join the service and trying to stay out of being drafted, and then being tossed into an entire new reality. All of a sudden they are in a boot camp and they their heads off and their identities essentially stripped, and make out a new identity there and now a soldier or an airman. And they do all of their training and stuff, you know. At least they had choices about what they went into because both of them joined. And I had a brother that went into communications, and my other brother was an electrician, he went into electricity. So he worked on the aircraft. So he was an aircraft electrician. So they weren't getting shot at, but they were too close for comfort for me. I think they were flying. We didn't hear much about it because it was probably classified. They were flying in and out of the air.

Janice Wong:

Did you write your brothers?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I didn't write to them a lot. I would write them once in a while, but we didn't get a whole lot of information when they were writing.

Janice Wong:

Right.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

It was just like I would send them cookies or anything. Not a lot of information forthcoming. It's just like the mysterious disappearance of the pictures that we sent back. I must have sent back 40 or 50 rolls of film that we shot over there to processing at Kodak in Hollywood. And we never heard from them again. So that's kind of mysterious.

Janice Wong:

Somebody has them.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah, well, there you go. Library of Congress, I hope. I wouldn't think so. But wouldn't it be fabulous to be able to have them. I would have loved to be able to contribute them.

Janice Wong:

So what was the last place you toured at?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

The last place was Vietnam.

Janice Wong:

Vietnam?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Back out of Vietnam.

Janice Wong:

So was the contract up or why was that the end?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

The contract was up, yeah.

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

That was enough. We had gone long enough. We had been shot at. We did get shot at a couple of times. You could hear them shooting at us. We were too high in the helicopters for them to actually get to us.

Janice Wong:

What was that like being in a helicopter?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Oh, I loved it. That was the adventure of a lifetime. The guys put us into--leave the guys open inside of a slick, huey slick. And they put us in the straps, and let us hang out. It was very cool. And the guys would take off stuff and give it to us. They gave us all of their patches.

Janice Wong:

I was going to ask you. We're going to have you describe that.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah, and then the guys would take the little bungee things out of their bottom of their pants and give them to us so we could bungee our pants so the air would blow up our pants while we actually in the helicopters. They were so sweet. They were so glad to have somebody involved.

Janice Wong:

Cool.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

They were so sweet and they just gave us stuff.

Janice Wong:

Did they give you coins?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah, we did. We had some funny money. It's at home.

Janice Wong:

Are they military coins?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

That, too. Where's that? Let me show you this real quick. I have a couple of things that they gave us. This might be the money. This is one of the--one of the things they gave us. This is military funny money right here {showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Oh, okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah, they gave us to spend while we were there, although we had American money we were passing around, too. That was the Department of Defense {showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Yeah.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

There's Abrams (ph) {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Okay. Let me get this side.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah, General Abrams.

Janice Wong:

General Abrams?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah. But more than this one, this one right here is the one that I cherish more. And we had some other things, too, but these were the guys in the trenches {showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Let's get that one first.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Got it?

Janice Wong:

Yes.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

These were the guys. And while they actually poised this picture that is how they lived, wet up to their waist. __+ water up to their feet. They were continuously wet. We were wet all the time. So I can't imagine being them.

Janice Wong:

Exactly.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And at the end of the day, the thing that's compelling to me is that I don't think we needed to be there. As much as the promises we made and the promises we broke, I can't justify having been there. You know, I went because I had two brothers. I didn't have an opinion about the war until I got back, until I'd seen firsthand. I was naive. I was uninformed. I was in high school having fun, you know. I was doing what all of us were doing at home taking for granted those people who were, you know, on the ground, boots on the ground, wet boots on the ground with jungle rot, you know, fighting a war that I don't think we belonged in. To what end? What were we trying to accomplish? I just don't get it. Having been there and seen that, you know, watched the guys losing parts of their body, and no legs or no arms and no shoulders. Shrapnel to the head and most compelling drug use, opiates, booze, Thai stick, you name it, they were smoking it and drinking and shooting, whatever it was. And I can't remember those lives going back to normal. The drugs alter your brain, but the experience alters who you are.

Janice Wong:

Life changing?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

The experience of being there and killing people, high school kids killing people.

Janice Wong:

Trained?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Trained to kill people. The you-are-me mentality. It's pretty incredible.

Janice Wong:

So once you got back--so how did you get back? What was your point of entry here?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

We came back from Saigon. I think we flew into San Francisco and then we flew into LA. We must have stopped somewhere else, but I was in a fog by then, I was totally in a fog. And truthfully, to tell the truth, probably a little PTSD, just all of the stimulus and all the unfamiliarity and all of the carnage. Having seen the guys in the hospital and having people shoot at me, you know, having heard mortifier overhead. There's nothing that can duplicate that sound or image or that experience.

Janice Wong:

So when you got back because it's still 1970, did you see anti-war protesting?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I saw it everywhere and, you know, while I didn't jump up and be an activist about the whole conversation, if someone would sit down with me one-on-one, I would tell them what I thought. I was, you know, Filipino, the only girl, the youngest, and my job was to get pregnant and take babies which I didn't take that job by the way, thank you very much. So I was more quiet than I could have been. I didn't have a voice. I hadn't developed a voice of my own yet.

Janice Wong:

So this one-shot gig so you didn't re-up to do it again?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I certainly did not. Once was plenty. Thank you very much. And actually I came back and I started to play music professionally. I was on the road playing music.

Janice Wong:

Drumming?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Playing and drumming and singing on the road.

Janice Wong:

Oh, okay. So that has been your livelihood?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

The evolution of my livelihood was underway, you know, heading for my jazz, I had a trajectory towards jazz and big band stuff.

Janice Wong:

And so along the way since 1970, any reflections from that time overseas, and that whole experience, how did that affect your life moving forward to your whole adult life?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yes, that was like a place that shifted my trajectory. From--I was really self-centered when I went over there. I couldn't see anything being what I wanted. I was breaking out. I was finding my own voice and becoming my own person, I was 17 or 18, you know. That is what I was doing. But what I realized was I was a citizen of a very big planet. And the planet included a lot of people like me and a lot of people who were very different than me. And what was really clear to me early on was that if we didn't figure out how to live together, there wasn't going to be a planet. We were all just going to keep killing each other. So for me, my life took another turn all together. You know, I started playing music professionally, but I went around the world in a very different attitude.

Janice Wong:

Meaning what?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I went into international business. I was a customs house broker here in Los Angeles. I did import/export. My work took me around the world, both my musical work, and my import/export work took me around the world to Europe, to Japan. I was a vice-president for a Japanese corporation. That took some negotiating. And at that time period Japanese women were serving tea, and by the way, they did expect me to serve tea. I respectfully declined. There was a way to do that, and I had to find a way to be a little more conscious of the nuances and cultures, and to be able to communicate in a way responsibly where people could get my communication, and it would be inside of a more respectful framework. And so that's what my life has been around, it's really developing relational communication with people like me both musically and international people and life, and being able to navigate our differences. And I think that experience in Vietnam was really key. It was the catalyst to my whole life's endeavor to do that, to communicate verbally and nonverbally and, you know, to respect cultures and choices. So cultures meaning ethnic, religious, spiritual, sexual orientations, all of those things, all of the differences that make us the diverse humanity that we are, you know, because we're like woven. And if you think about a net, we are like a net of humanity, and that every knot there is somebody that is just a little bit different, and we're all holding the web of life together. So how can we not get along everyone? So my life has been about generating peace and generating communication and collaboration as opposed to black and white, enemy or friend, good or bad, right or wrong. Life has got so many shades, so many other shades. Full spectrum of the rainbow is available, so I'm about culturing that.

Janice Wong:

So any other life lessons you take away from that time you were there?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

No. Life lessons? Like all of my life is one big lesson as a result of that.

Janice Wong:

Umhum.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yeah.

Janice Wong:

So as we wrap up this interview, was there any, like, big adjustment once you got back?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

The biggest adjustment would be growing up. It was a big grow-up moment to come back and really realize that, you know, not just this concept or the pictures on TV of people dying, flying and dying, and being wet and in jungle rot, losing arms and legs, losing eyes and losing their minds and losing their lives.

Janice Wong:

And you said you've kept in contact over the years?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Not over the years. We lost contact with a lot of these guys. We wrote for a year or two these guys, and obviously they get promoted and some of them probably got killed. Some of them came back. I don't know. Some of them probably deserted. Some of them were not wanting to be there.

Janice Wong:

Did you keep in contact with any of your band members?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Oh, all of my band members, yeah. I am still in contact with Carol White. Robin Tyler actually is a gay activist and one of the first women to be married as gay marriage became available.

Janice Wong:

Wow.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Robin Tyler is still in California. Patty Harrison is actually still in southern California. And they are still __ with each other. Susie Capetta (ph), I don't know where she is. She's probably around somewhere. Interesting, we had to go and get her. She was out marauding with the fellows while we were over there chatting with them and so we had to go and get her when it was time for us, lights out, we had to go and find her and bring her back. She was just like chatting and stuff. Look at the odds. Look at the ratio of men to women over there, it's crazy.

Janice Wong:

No kidding. So I do want you to describe the patches.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Oh, you know what, I wish I knew who all these guys were. This is a Vietnam ribbon. {Showing photograph}.

Janice Wong:

Oh.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

And they gave us one, you know, obviously they didn't award it like it was an award. It was pretty cool. I don't have the purple heart with me, but we played basketball and volleyball with the guys, and we skinned our knees, so they gave us purple hearts. I don't have it here.

Janice Wong:

How funny.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

But it was very funny. They did it as a joke. But we visited all of these guys. I think it's infantry there. We visited all these groups of folks. When they see this, they'll recognize them as the go devils. And some paratroopers gave us their wings {showing photograph}. Each of the guys gave us their patches. I don't know who these guys are here. Didn't have any words on them. Got them?

Janice Wong:

I don't know what I did. I think I just screwed up.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Oops.

Janice Wong:

Why don't we describe the...

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Sure. The ribbon, non-ribbon and infantry. I don't know whose wings these were. Somebody was flying. This is the 208th, 47th infantry. Oh, 208 North, 47th infantry panthers. And we got the airborne guys gave us one of these little things. {Showing photograph}. This was a patch, and I don't know how I got this. Somebody gave it to me, I think, but it seems "Freedom. Whatever It Takes. Then Peace." It's this oxymoron of a peace sign with a couple of bombs on it, which I find very weird. There is the go devils. And the red devils and the paratroopers {showing photograph} and somebody's--I don't know what that is. I guess it's the rocker and stripes. And I was told, I'm not sure, I think this is a Vietnamese, South Vietnamese badge. I am not sure whose. I will have to go and see if I can find that.

Janice Wong:

Infantry?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Yes, infantry there. And I can't imagine __+

Janice Wong:

Okay.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I got to come home, not everybody did.

Janice Wong:

So did I ask would you do it again?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Well, you know what, would I do it again, oddly enough I probably would, now that I think about it, the experience of it. Because it make a difference, because it really does. Moment of home is worth so much to the guys who were over there, but frankly I would more than go do it again, but probably at the cape of peace, which is what I'm doing now. You can't change people's cultures, you know, like we are over currently in a religious war. You can't compete with religion. You might as well not even go there. People are welcome to their beliefs, and we just have to put our foot down and not try to impose it on people. We have to get along with folks.

Janice Wong:

So anything, any final statement that we haven't covered?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I don't think so. Other than, you know what, I want to revisit this really quickly, this conversation about gay and lesbian people in the service, because I spent a fair amount of time staying in the closet myself.

Janice Wong:

When did you come out?

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I came out when I was 23, and that's fairly early for the time period. That's fairly early. There were women who did not come out until they were 40, and they were married and had six kids. But I just want to revisit that with the people who were in service in Vietnam. And I thank I owe it at least to have this conversation on camera, so it's historical archive. And that is while I was there, I met women who were gay and lesbian. We had some men, mostly women who were billeted in an Air Force base. And they were in service like anybody else. They were in uniform and they proud to be Americans. They were inasmuch peril or inasmuch danger as anyone else. Yet, they were serving in an environment where they were being harassed, raped, beat up, disappeared, murdered. And that's just something that needs to be a historical record because people--just this whole don't ask, don't tell thing was a step in the right direction, but such a slap in the face for the individuals who served and died for their country like everyone else. So I just need to represent those people in this conversation as well because I'm sure as I sat on that bed, that side of the bed in the hospital bed, not too far from me, there was somebody that was gay or lesbian who had given up a piece of their body and probably a whole lot of their mind serving in the country and being of service in protecting what they thought was right for their country so it's important.

Janice Wong:

Okay. So, Sese, I want to thank you again for doing--agreeing to be interviewed for the Veteran's History Project for the Library of Congress. Thank you for your time and your stories, and this very important part of history --

Ruth Sese Abejon:

I appreciate you doing that.

Janice Wong:

-- for sharing that. So this concludes the interview.

Ruth Sese Abejon:

Peace. (End of recording)

 
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  October 26, 2011
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