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.”