The Numbers System

Upon my return to CONUS in 1970; I began a Graduate Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. One of my first tasks was to write a paper on a topic which I have long since forgotten.  In completing this composition, I used the style of writing which used adjectives to describe and enhance nouns. I had used this manner of writing with success as an undergraduate. When my composition was returned; I was in for a big SHOCK!!! .  Although I received a decent grade from the professor for my effort: he further commented that in Graduate School; the form of composition which I had used was not acceptable. In my writing, if I wished to describe something; I should use terms in the composition which were quantifiable. In other words, no more adjectives such as: long, short, hot, cold, beautiful, ugly etc...  In order to get what I wanted; which in this case was a Masters Degree, I had to make major alterations in my style of writing. This I did and the rest is History, so to speak. Today, both my writing and conversation are almost totally absent of non-quantifiable adjectives. The lone exception is when I occasionally use the Vietnamese “Numbers System”. I sometimes think how easy life would be if we all used this System which we all learned in the Republic of Vietnam, to rate someone or something.

In one the first conversations which I had with a Vietnamese Mama-san at Cam Ranh Bay upon my arrival in-country I was told, “G.I. numbah wan; V.C. numbah tehn”.  I did not have a clue as to what she had just said to me. It was something about G.I’s and the V.C.. So, I just stood there and looked stupid (which was not too hard at the time). She then retorted, “G.I. FNG numbah tehn”.  Not knowing what she had said; all I could think of doing at the time was to walk away. Over the course of my stay at Replacement Depots at Cam Ranh Bay, Long Binh and the Rear Area of the 23rd Artillery Group; I heard these number adjectives used by both the Vietnamese and U.S. Troops. I still did not know what the Hell these people were talking about. Moreover, I felt too stupid to ask.

When I got to Alpha Battery, 6/27th Artillery at Quan Loi and I had gotten to know some of the people in the FDC Section; I related the number adjectives which I had heard and wondered about the meaning of such expressions. I also related mama-san’s retort of “G.I. FNG numbah tehn”.  When I said this, the persons that were listening broke into uproarious laughter which was rather disconcerting to me. The person to whom I was speaking (whom had less than a month remaining in-country) looked me in the eye and said, “She called you a dumb ass”. Then more loud laughter came forth. Again, I looked as stupid as I was feeling at that moment.

Fortunately for me, this person made the Vietnamese system of “Number Adjectives” comprehensible to me. In this system, he explained, if something is really, really good; the Vietnamese give it a number one or “numbah wahn” rating.  On the other hand, he explained, if something is really, really bad; the Vietnamese give it number ten or “numbah tehn” rating.  Then, the whole system made sense to me. When you heard a noun given a particular number value; it was being quantified in a very simple, yet unique manner.

After I learned the numbers system and a few other terms; I was somewhat able to communicate with the Vietnamese. Most of these other terms I have forgotten save for a few. On the other hand, I find myself using the Vietnamese number system often in order to describe someone or something.

Cases in point are restaurants. When a server brings me a really appetizing plate of food; I sometimes catch myself blurting out, “Numbah wahn”. The server generally does not have a clue as to what in the Hell I am saying and like me the first time that I heard it, walks away.  On the other hand, if a Vietnam Veteran hears this number expression; the person will smirk or laugh and give me thumbs up. I guess that I could say my Vietnam experience has more effect on me than I really care to admit.

In closing, I hope that you, the reader, will give this story a “numbah wahn” and not a “numbah tehn”.


Gary Graham   Now and Then

Norman, Oklahoma




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