BANGKOK, Thailand — There are fancier bars in Southeast Asia, wilder ones too. But since 1971, Lucy's Tiger Den has been the place in Bangkok for Vietnam vets, oil workers, war lovers and journalists.
All of that is almost over. Lucy's will be shuttered sometime in December, says owner A. J. (Tiger) Rydberg.
The 13-stool crossroads for former soldiers, ex-CIA pilots, construction workers and assorted military types has become a post-Vietnam institution. But the bar isn't filled the way it was when American solders on rest and recuperation and oil workers on leave flocked to Bangkok and the bars around Pat Pong Road.
"Business is terrible," Rydberg said from his chromed wheelchair by the dark wood bar.
Time, Age Took Their Toll
Lucy's is a victim of the oil-business slump, rising Bangkok real estate values and, mostly, of time and aging.
Rydberg said he will leave in December for the Philippines to open a new Tiger Den with his third wife, Betty, a citizen of the Philippines. No arrangements have been made for the new venture, however, he said.
In the dimly lighted Lucy's, photos of hundreds of men and women--some in uniform--are spread on the dark walls; going with Rydberg. Other memories, banners and bar stools, will go on sale at an auction and farewell party after Thanksgiving, he said.
Behind a hostess lounging at the bar, stickers shout "Vietnam Vets Are Not Fonda Jane" and "American Legion Member and Proud of It." Pictures of tigers compete for wall space with a large Confederate battle flag.
It's a friendly place, a home ground for a community of men and women far from home or without a real home.
Part of Another Era
The old slogans are on the wall, but Lucy's has always been non-political the way soldiers are non-political. This has been the refuge of people who had to do the work, not make the speeches. And like the slogans, Lucy's seems part of another, rapidly passing era.
Just when Americans are showing increased interest in the Vietnam war, the physical realities of that war and its immediate aftermath are disappearing. On the long flight over Vietnam from Bangkok to Hong Kong, over Laos and the lush Vietnam jungle to the sea at Da Nang, you can see that the bomb scars are long gone. The crippled and maimed below and in the United States have died or learned to cope. Soldiers who were young men are middle-aged. Honda is making motorcycles in what used to be Saigon.
Rydberg, the 71-year-old former iron worker from Oakdale, Calif., opened the bar in 1971 with Lucy, the Thai woman he married. That was after he arrived in Thailand from a construction job in what was to become Bangladesh, just invaded by the Indian army.
He had gone to South Vietnam in 1966 to help build a U.S. airfield at Bien Hoa, went to Thailand to work on a "secret" B-52 bomber base at Utapao in 1967, then back to Vietnam.
Best-Run American Pub
In Bangkok, he and Lucy built the smallish bar into what for a time was known as the best-run American pub in Southeast Asia. After a few years, they moved to the opposite end of Pat Pong Road. They were divorced three years ago; Lucy is in Bangkok but doesn't come into the bar.
A diabetic, Rydberg doesn't drink anymore. His arms are bone thin and half his right leg has been amputated in two operations.
"They didn't get all of it the first time so they went back," he said between healthy bites of the steak a hostess brought. He jokes about getting a peg leg and an eye patch.
Lucy's has bar girls--it's Bangkok, after all--but they don't hustle patrons.
The plain, four-story concrete building that houses Lucy's is to be remodeled, forcing everyone to leave, Rydberg said. It's on busy Surawong Road, a few doors from the neon strip of crowded sex and stripper bars on Pat Pong. Tourists bound for the sex shows don't often stop at Lucy's, and Rydberg refuses to pay taxi drivers to steer customers there.
Outside, people dart through the stream of cars, motorcycles, packed buses and tuk-tuks, Bangkok's canopied and chromed three-wheel motorcycle taxis.
"Imagine. They're going to build a shopping center here," Rydberg said.
"I could open another bar in Bangkok, but it wouldn't be the same. Hell, anybody who used to come here is passing through Manila now. We'll call it Betty's Tiger Den."
As he talked about war stories and about Lucy's, Betty sat down next to him, opened an insulin kit and, as he raised his shirt, wordlessly injected him in the stomach. Rydberg didn't miss a beat of his conversation, except to eat more steak.
His 13-year-old daughter from the marriage to Lucy has been taken out of a local Catholic school and is in the Philippines, as are Betty's daughters, he said.
Crowded for 'Hobo Feeds'
Lucy's is dead on weeknights, but most of the stools were occupied on a recent Friday night when Rydberg had one of his long-established free "hobo feeds."