Vietnam: Sorting it Out

 

us-army-helicopters-pour-machine-gun-fire-into-the-tree-line-to-cover-the-advance-of-vietnamese-ground-troops-in-an-attack-on-a-viet-cong-camp-on-march-29-1965

 

On Tuesday, January 10, 2017, the New York Times International edition was on the carpet outside of my hotel room.  I was immediately drawn to an article in the Opinion section. It’s title: Vietnam:  The war that killed trust.  Half of the page displayed a photograph of helmeted soldiers canopied by dozens of helicopters, similar to scenes from news-clips seared in the minds of people, like me, who were adolescents in the late 1960’s.  The observation and opinion of the Vietnam Veteran who wrote the article is that prior to the war most people believed that our government was incapable of lying.  Since Vietnam the great majority of Americans are distrustful and cynical of our institutions, especially government.   I thought it ironic and a bit providential that I would be reading this paper at this time.  My husband and I were in Hong Kong, about to catch a plane for Vietnam.

Vietnam.  Just the word triggers confusion, angst and wonder in me.  I must have heard it thousands of times when I was young, associated with stories of the jungle, rice paddies, agent orange, the draft, Hanoi Jane, protesters, LBJ, helicopters, napalm, and death.  Vietnam, a country that changed all of us in ways we may never understand, especially those who served in the armed forces.  While I was learning to question those in authority, he was learning to be fiercely loyal, to respect authority, to make quick decisions and to obey orders.  He was discovering love of country, duty, and a cause of greater good.

He was returning, 48 years later, to a place that never really left him; to the memory of a 21-year-old boy and a war that tried and tested him in unimaginable ways.  I came with him, hoping to catch a bit of insight into who that boy was, to somehow get a taste of what it’s like to be a soldier and to sort out my feelings about Vietnam.

The Air-force taught him how to use a compass and a rifle, repel from helicopters, swim, scuba, parachute and to perform basic medical procedures. His job was to rescue downed pilots; his motto, That others may live; his challenge, to survive.  My schooling and my friends taught me how to peacefully protest a war that was costing thousands of lives, and a government that misinformed, misguided and mishandled the whole affair.

We were joined by two friends who flew half-way around the world to walk with him as he re-visited a world we knew so little about.  Our first stop Ho Chi Minh city, formerly Saigon. On descent I thanked God for allowing this soldier to live and I thought I would kiss the ground when we landed, but I didn’t.  Just like everywhere else, people were hurrying off the plane to get in line for customs and baggage claim.  They didn’t seem to recognize the gravity of the moment.

We took in the sites in HCMC and also in Da Nang and Hanoi.  I saw gorgeous beaches and lovely smiling faces, ancient looking fishing boats crammed together donning brilliant colored flags, surrounded by floating baskets.  We marveled at the new construction, office buildings, condos and expansive bridges.  One bridge shaped like a dragon breathes fire at night.  Most of the people dressed in western clothing but we saw some of them squatting as if sitting on invisible stools and wearing those iconic hats that look like lampshades. We tasted unexpected dishes from unknown cuisine.  We merged into the stream of motorcycles and cars weaving in and out like swarms of fish around our rented jeep.  We circled a place called Monkey Mountain but saw no monkeys.  We walked around an outdoor museum displaying tanks and planes and helicopters, captured from the war.  We visited a bar at China Beach and ran into an old American soldier who annually re-lives his glory days in a rented room above the bar. We flew in a sea-plane over Ha Long bay and ogled at the majestic tree covered limestone formations, blooming in the sea.  We had drinks in an elegant resort made from extensive spans of bamboo.

Of all the things we saw, he said that he was most surprised that his barracks and hanger were still standing on the far side of the runway in Da Nang.  I would have loved to see inside those barracks but we couldn’t get close; another space left to my imagination. A new terminal has been built since he was there.  It stands next to the old one as a micro picture of the whole country and my feelings – the new next to the old.  I remember staring across the tarmac at the place where he once lived, served, and completed the task he was given.  Was he putting on his boots for a mission at the same time I was singing to Country Joe and the Fish?

As we rode along taking in the sights, we exchanged bits of information and second-hand stories gleaned from books, articles, movies and rusty memories, asking him if anything happened here or there.  Over meals together we talked of many things, urging his perspective on this or that.   He, good-naturedly shared what he could.  With him you have to read between the antidotes.

I came expecting some sort of clarity in seeing Vietnam through his eyes, the eyes of my soldier.  I hoped to catch the spark of patriotism, duty and love of country that he has and become more like the disciplined, loyal, selfless man that he is.  But alas, I have only my eyes in which to view the world.  Perhaps one has to give something, maybe all of oneself in order to see the greater reality.  I once tried to understand how Martin Luther King, jr. changed my life and I wrote a blog about those awful days of segregation.  I read it to an older woman of color who grew up in Mississippi in the 30’s and 40’s.  She looked at me with thinly disguised disgust and said, “honey, you don’t know the half of it.”

I have put my feet on the soil of Vietnam.  I have seen her people, tasted her food.  I have loved a man who lived, fought, saved lives and survived her war.  I feel like I know something about that strange and wonderful country, but only as a detached observer.  I keep hearing the words of my old african-american friend in the mouths of imagined Vietnam Vets shaking their heads and saying, “honey, you don’t know the half of it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good Will Mandate – (or How to have a Pleasant Christmas)

 

pleasantville-rice-crispies

The family begins to gather.  First, the child from out-of-town, then the children who live close by, the older grandkids, the aunt, the babies, a neighbor, a few friends, a dog or two (couldn’t find a keeper) and suddenly,  it’s Christmas!  And the festivities begin.

Let there be armfuls of packages, overstuffed bellies, crackling fires, joyful singing, lots of laughter, game playing and couch napping.  Let there be peace on earth, re-runs of It’s a wonderful life, and harmony in our home.  That’s the plan.  That’s my goal.  There may be a grandchild or two that has to spend a little bit of time-out on the stairs or a dog that may need to be put in his kennel to get us there, but we will have tranquility in this house.  I am declaring a temporary nix on all unintended little jabs that quickly escalate into hurt feelings or wounded pride.  I’m also tabling the myriad of discussions that could arouse a little too much passion from an incredibly passionate family.  Why? Because I’m the mom and it’s Christmas.  We can get back to those inflammatory subjects another day.  My mother mandate for Christmas 2016 is: GOOD WILL WILL FLOW

Taking a cue from the way certain political figures field challenging questions, our family now has a brilliant strategy – don’t respond at all to something you’d rather avoid, just simply change subject.  We invoke state capitals as our diversion tactic.  For example:

Auntie, “Have you thought of giving your child less sugar?”

Son, “What’s the capital of Vermont?”

Someone, “Lansing?”

Someone else, “No, Montpelier.”

The rest of us pick up the game, dropping the potentially toxic conversation. Voila, crisis avoided!  

We actually tried this at our last family gathering.  One would think that our Thanksgiving was a scene straight out of Pleasantville.  Perhaps it was a bit too nice and a tad less colorful than previous holidays so I briefly consider lifting the good will mandate. Quickly evaluating probable conversations that might occur over eggnog, I envision,  “Can you believe the President Elects choice for Secretary of State?”

My knee-jerk reaction, “what’s the capitol of North Dakota?”

 

 

united_states_map_with_capitals

 

 

 

 

 

Visitors for Christmas

3-dancers-line-drawing-chris-carter-artist-dip-pen-ink-web

Here I go again.  It’s that most wonderful time of the year.  Anticipation of and preparation for the season awaken my creative energy and unlock my secret longing for perfection. I envision a totally unique greeting card, individual well-selected gifts, an enormous glittery tree, a front porch to rival Southern Living, and a simple but elegant dinning table. I am dimly aware that frustration, angst and tension may quite possibly be the end result, but it’s still early and hope abounds.  Armed with an arsenal of ideas from Pinterest, I get busy, going through box after box deciding which treasures will go back to the attic and which ones will come out for this year’s grand decorative theme. Gas logs blaze and Christmas music plays, enhancing my yuletide experience.

I fondle some precious ornament, perhaps the one my daughter made in grade school. I hum along to some unnamed melody that suddenly turns sad and familiar at the same time.  I’ve been set up, the trigger is pulled and he appears. He, as in The spirit of Christmas Past, stepping forcefully into the room dragging his good friend Melancholy with him.  After years of futile resistance, I now consider them odd little friends.  My only concern is how long they will stay.  It may be hard to shoo them away this year, because this is the first Christmas without Mother.  I greet them with a sigh and give them time to properly air the memories so that they can leave and I can get on with the present.

They ask me to pause over this red crinkled glass ball,  an ornament from my childhood.  It hung on mother’s tree. Remember that Christmas when Daddy bought Mom all those fancy clothes?  She good-naturedly tried them all on, making the living room her runway, and her children her adoring audience.  The next day she returned everything, anticipating an enormous credit card bill.  Remember the story of how Papaw made Daddy promise to bring Mother home to see him every Christmas before he granted permission for Mother to marry him? How about my first Christmas as a wife of just one month?  We had that crazy little tree with no ornaments so we hung fruit from the branches.  Daddy made such fun of that tree.  I crossed-stitched and framed a dozen ornaments like this cardinal to hang on our next year’s tree.  Here is the wooden rocking horse that reads, “baby’s first christmas”.  Our first baby, my baby girl.  And then two boys. Children, turned teenagers and now adults. I can see their toddler faces on Christmas morning surveying three separate piles of toys from Santa, and that slight pause before they recognize theirs and dive in.  Then all the other Christmases we excitedly wait for each of them to come home because none of them live with us anymore. Now they bring their babies.  We have grandchildren, lovely, loving grandchildren.  One, so new he has no teeth, one has all his baby teeth, two are already middle schoolers, in braces.   They’re growing so fast. Everyone grows so fast, grew so fast.   Mother, you tried to tell me that.  I heard you then,  I believe you now.

Memory hits me hard and brings out a year’s worth of carefully checked emotion.  My senses are all hyped-up.  I see Christmas in all it’s  hysterically twinkly sparkle, it’s spectacular calm and its remote sadness.  I hear choruses radiating throughout the atmosphere and penetrating deep inside my head.  Christmas is strangely new and comfortably familiar.  It feels like long hugs, quick kisses and an achy gut.  It tastes of all things wonderful.  Christmas fills me up and breaks my heart.  It smells like pine trees, cookies, apples and mother. Yes, it sometimes smells like mother.  Mother and Channel no 5 , a fragrance she defines.  That perfume was probably under every one of the trees of my youth, wrapped in department store paper next to her box of Whitmans Sampler.

I get up and go to my room.  The bottle that I took from her house when we packed up her things is on my dresser.  I take it in my hand and unscrew the top.  I ceremoniously put a dab of her scent on my wrist and rub it against my other wrist the way she used to do.  I lay down on my bed and try to smell her, let her presence surround me.  Mother and the memories of 64 Christmases become this moment, this Christmas, and suggest the probability of future holy days.  

In a little while, a new guest arrives.  Her name is Gratitude and she is powerful.  With her in the room, I can allow the Spirit of Christmas Past and even Melancholy to stay.  They expertly choreograph the delicate dance between what was, and is, and is to come.

bottle