Vietnam: Sorting it Out

 

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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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A view of Paris

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It was a curious mix of history and art that summer; a harmonious  blend of tranquil neutrals dabbed with vibrant color bleeding subtly into the more aggressive, impatient stokes and angles of stone and stucco.  They arrived  at their apartment in Paris by way of rolling rural farmlands after visiting the beaches of Normandy.
From their balcony they could see the Eiffel  tower pointing towards the heavens and rising above the ordered rows of terraced rooftops.  That is how they spent their apartment time,  looking out.  For, inside, the furniture was sparse and cheap and they had long ago outgrown sparse and cheap.  “I  chose the room for the view,” he said.
If there had been long strands of beads hanging from the doorway to a mattress filled with water, or a dresser filled with jeans and halter tops, she would be certain that she had lived there before.  “Just like some of my friends who spent a college-summer abroad,” she said.
 “Bohemian,” He said.
She liked the city and the sound of cars breaking and accelerating, accentuating the race toward the future.  She was attune to multiple dialects  blessing or insulting receptive ears.  From her window,  fabulous foreign faces worthy of Renoir, impressed themselves upon her.  She thought she saw a familiar one, a high school friend.  But she quickly dismissed the likelihood of him being here, now, and completely unchanged in 40  years.   The strong aromas of bread baking, laundry soap and garbage alternately wafted in with the breeze and dissipated once identified.
Outside they walked for miles on sidewalks crammed with people, shops, cafes, and museums. They saw old masters hanging in gilded frames mingling with tatted, pierced, spiked, youngsters.  They listened as a girl in tight jean shorts played Vivaldi on her violin.  A car playing rap music passed by.  They ate fresh crepes and drank old wine. They bought a gift for their grandson who would be born at the time of her mother’s 90th birthday.  She felt energy flowing through her as if she were plugged in to a source of vigor that heightened her sensitivities and reversed the advancement of the last few decades.
Perhaps it was because they had come from the battlefields of world war II, frozen in time.   Normandy, a beautiful, tranquil place and stage for a terrible war which birthed the acts of valor to which the French pay homage.  She thought of the thousands who gave their lives to preserve the only way of life she had ever known.  WWII was her father’s war and he had come home.  He lived to be 70.  And though he was not buried then and there with the thousands in that memorial cemetery, to her he was just as gone .
Her husband’s war was very different.  It became a dark chapter in history and left a rancid taste in the mouths of the American youth in the 1960’s and 70’s.  Drafts and protests, unclear message and mission, dead soldiers and heroes, none the less.  Her husband talked some about that time. He had flown in a plane of the same model as one they saw in a Normandy museum.  They spoke of returning to Southeast Asia some day.  She wondered if the future held that possibility.  She wondered who he was in high-school, before Vietnam, before they met.
Her father used to say,  “you can’t put an old head on young shoulders.”  But he was wrong. He should have known what young people don’t, that youth is indeed a state of mind;  old – the full  richness of experience, reflection, knowledge, connection, and life – a story captured with pen, paint and voice punctuated with spilt blood and drunken wine.
In Paris the past presses urgently against the future as if all answers lie somewhere in between.  In this space she rested her wise old head, no longer grey, against the strong shoulders of her husband’s 18 year old self. She grabbed his hand.

Israel

“Tell me about your trip,” my friends ask, curious about my first visit to Israel or just being kind.  So I begin to try to adequately describe a piece of geography where seemingly every square inch tells a story of world-changing significance.

“The Jordan river is way smaller than you think,” I weakly begin.  “We ate breakfast on the Sea of Galilee and saw a fishing boat that has recently been discovered that dates back to the time of Jesus.  The Dome of the Rock is huge and impressive, we were not allowed to go inside.  The stations of the Cross are just tile numbers in buildings around the old city and people crowd the narrow streets doing business in the market, as if nothing ever happened there.  We visited an olive factory and bought some crosses.  The fort at Masada is quite moving and the view from the top is staggering.  We saw the Dead Sea.”  I ramble on in no specific order.  I pull out my cell phone camera roll for a little memory boost and try to ignore the nagging image that my heart recalls.

I see a wall.  It is made of beautiful cream-colored  ancient stones, piled way above the bobbing heads of the people who line it’s base.  They are rocking and chanting and praying, reaching up, out and over the wall to an unseen hand.  They are placing little scraps of paper into crevices in the wall.  One can’t know the content of their lamentations but it’s easy to imagine that they contain some version of unuttered need that screams, “I am in need, hear me.”

The wailing wall

Less than 6 miles away there is another wall.  It is made from ugly columns of dirty concrete and topped with tall rows of electric wire. To enter Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, one must cross this formidable barrier through turnstiles and checkpoints.  Scrutiny from guards shouldering rifles is a daily ritual for those passing from one side of the wall to the other.  The wall begs to be breached and the lamentations of the Palestinians are as unique and numerous and as they are evocative.  Each mark expressing a cry for help and the need to be heard.

I profess to have little to no understanding of what it is like to live in this region of profound historical and religious heritage and ever-present fear of imminent conflict.  As an outsider, I try to wrap my mind around the people who stand and weep before both walls and wonder if I too should weep.

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Is there any hope?

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

Ephesians 2:14 NIV