The day finally arrived when my faculty advisor asked me to choose a topic for the Master’s thesis in sociolinguistics. What to do? Maybe some coffee and a piece of pie down at the Koffe Klatch would lubricate my imagination.
Sitting at the counter, I stared at fat round pies under glass. Indecision seemed to be the flavor of the day and I couldn’t decide between apple or rhubarb, cold or hot, à la mode or not.
The white jacket of a bus boy stopped in front of me and there, holding a water pitcher, stood my thesis. “Wada?” A Vietnamese immigrant in a small town in Upstate New York? Half a world away and fifteen years later, the past swept over me again….
“Can you hear me, Mac? Nod your head. Good.”
The sound of rain. A waterfall slid off the roof of my hut and poured down over cobblestones running to the river raging below. My fever burned hot and the medic from Echo Company shook his head, his distant voice fighting with the sound of the storm outside. “Mac, I can’t get the temperature down. Only thing for that in my kit is aspirin. You gotta drink as much water as you can.”
I said nothing. I couldn’t.
“We need medivac but a no-fly order is in effect until this storm lets up. I gotta get back up the hill before dark or they might shoot me coming in. Hate to leave you here alone.”
Behind him, four or five of my students stood against the back wall.
The security team leader stuck his head through the broken window. “Gotta go, Doc. Captain says now.”
“See you tomorrow Mac.” I felt someone pat my shoulder.
Motion. Whispers. Silence.
Cracks and patches in the ceiling plaster floated and danced above me in beautiful patterns sketching a map of my long journey from Los Angeles to Nong Son, Vietnam.
“We help you, Tai.” An elder pulled off my tee shirt and fatigue pants. Naked, and dizzy, I could only lay exhausted, unable even to wonder if my shorts were clean.
Over the river, thunder boomed. Two of the younger men stood me up. “We help, Tai.”
I leaned on them as they pulled and hugged me through the front doorway and into the monsoon. And there we stood. Under a torrent of water, two five-foot human crutches supporting a six-foot white ghost.
In just a few minutes, my temperature began to drop. Clarity returned and in a flash of lightning, I saw the smiling faces of my two saviors staring up at me. After fifteen minutes of Vietnamese hydrotherapy, we returned to my room and old Quang dried me off before the three of them laid me back down. He covered me with a dry sheet, tucked me in, and gently wiped my face.
He smiled. “Drink chai. Good.” Hot tea stank of rotten roots and dark earth. He folded his arms across his chest and stood like a statue of a midget gunnery sergeant in pajamas.
Quang turned down the lamp, gathered spectators, and left the room. Yet I felt the presence of another, softer energy somewhere nearby. Gradually the ceiling stopped crawling and I began to dream….
… An elderly woman with white hair sat cross-legged at the foot of my bed. In front of her, a charcoal brazier supported and heated a pot of tea. The dancing red glow of coals cast her shadow upon the wall as she chanted and rubbed a string of wooden beads back and forth between wrinkled and ancient hands. I slept the Sleep of the Dead.
A streak of sunlight splashed across the ceiling. Our monsoon had gone as quickly as it had arrived and taken my fever with it. I felt renewed, born again, lighter in body and spirit. The after-taste of terrible tea from the night before filled my mouth, accompanied by a raging hunger.
Quang leaned against a post in the open doorway, smiling. He nodded in the direction of the far corner and I twisted around to look. The old woman from my dream smiled back as she sliced vegetables, making Pho soup.
Something strange and wonderful was happening to me. The tough combat veteran, now a helpless patient ten thousand miles from home, won over by the hearts and minds of peasants in a remote Vietnamese village.
As a Marine, I was no good after that. The thought of shooting someone, anyone, belonged to a self who no longer existed. I had been recruited and initiated into the human race. I now knew the real mission: To do as much good for the village in what time I might have left to live.
Something had transformed me from within and now charged with purpose and meaning, I was full of energy. My days became fully alive and my body vibrated with urgency. I didn’t want to go to sleep. I knew this new life, this new feeling could end at any moment. I didn’t want to miss anything!
As the war around us intensified, I ate and slept in students’ homes as they rotated me around like a circuit-riding preacher. Returning to my own room in the mornings, footprints left evidence of midnight visitors. We never spoke of the danger. And in the Vietnamese way, only a gentle squeeze of my hand while inviting me to dinner sent the darker message that guerillas might visit that same night.
And so began the love affair of my life. Whatever intelligence, creativity, and strength I was born with was called forth, valued, and embraced by those around me for the first time. Giving and receiving became one. My naïve suburban soul recognized that something very precious and fragile filled every moment.
It couldn’t last, after three months I became a casualty, not of violence but of hospitality. Each day, students manipulated and competed to bring me home for a meal. While flattered, I knew that my performance as the new teacher and oddity in the village was much in demand. My repertoire of excruciating tonal accents, a few card tricks, songs, and amusing cultural body language entertained families in desperate need of distraction. After many meals of mystery cuisine, I began to lose weight, energy, and the ability to concentrate. River fever ended my stay and the Doc of Echo Company called in a chopper.
State University, NY
Vinh Lu came to my apartment two nights a week over the next months on his way home from work. He was thrilled that an American on our distant planet of Upstate New York had once visited his own land, spoke his language—and both of us, survivors of the same war.
So I began tape recording interviews, making second-language acquisition notes for my thesis, and when trust found its way into his heart, I asked Vinh to tell me of his village life in Vietnam. He had just been relocated to the U.S. from a refugee camp in the Philippines and, true to Vietnamese character, he poured out his memories in a flood of emotion.
During our last week together he brought his diary to my home and with the help of his English, my Vietnamese, and a bilingual dictionary we struggled to translate excerpts at random.
One evening after completing the translation of a difficult passage, I laid the diary down on the kitchen table and looked across at my savior. Our wrinkled green table cloth seemed to ripple in a wind from another time, another place. The same fertile rice paddy in my reoccurring dream now lay between us—as it once had in the past….
I looked down at the passage again. Opposite me sat a fellow warrior, my new friend and a North Vietnamese Army veteran. I continued to read:
They are all dead now, all except me.
My brother Binh died yesterday here in our village holding a rake out in front of him like the rifle he once carried so well. His last target was the resident ghost of an enemy who over the years had become his friend. Nights around the fire, Binh laughed and told us the dead American boy waited for him in the next life. They are together now; gone to that place we all must one day visit.
The war had made Binh unafraid. In those rare moments when he did not smile, he stared into the darkness over the river and provoked the shadow world with his whispers, “We shall meet soon.”
Only in this did he move from the common heart we all shared in our village. And while we feared the many phantoms around us, we forgave Binh a thousand times for he was ever our friend, our living spirit and the best among us. We loved him like no other.
Our land is full of ghosts, wandering souls who died violently, ripped from their bodies and their unfinished lives. Confused and with no family to honor them, no altar where they receive veneration and nourishment, they cannot guide new generations through this troubled land. Their fate is to wander, wander without purpose, without end.
A poet to the last, Binh fell, face down in the season’s harvest, his thin body pushing up a gentle fog of rice dust. Pierced and illuminated by the morning sun, the mist wrapped him in a shining shroud. I watched his last breath flow silently out of his scarred body without complaint and become one with the chi of our village. In tender caress, pollen settled upon him, blessing his last moment.
This small cloud was his only cremation. We no longer had wood to coffin our dead. Profiteers stripped our valley of hardwood a decade after the War of Liberation against the Americans. Our young people care nothing for the past, know almost nothing of history, and the always corrupt Old Guard exploits our future as they ape the lifestyle of the foreigners who almost destroyed us. What did we really win? The poor remain poor. It seems only the face of the tax collector changes.
Binh is gone now. Across from me, his chair sits empty and the chessboard calls out, aching to come alive like a rice paddy in dry season. Our game waits for troops to move back and forth, striking now from a distance, now close enough to touch the enemy and always manipulated by hands from above.
Sometimes when the wind blows down from the mountain, I can still hear our voices as we played….
I opened with king’s pawn and asked my opponent, “Do you think the Americans honor their ancestors as we do?”
Binh sat across from me, our chessboard serving as venue for yet another discussion.
“Their dead tell us stories.”
He stared at his hands and at their twin shadows cast down upon red earth behind my house. The hand with the missing two fingers dug into his vest pocket.
“Why do I still carry this?” He slid a faded photograph across the chessboard.
The past rushed over our soldiers on the board and pulled us back into the time of suffering. In the picture, an old couple stands on a porch somewhere in America. They are waving at their loved one as they have for seven years and always will until the photo finally fades and like their beloved family member, they too disappear.
Binh rubbed the stumps above his knuckles and moved his knight forward into jeopardy.
“He took my fingers and I took his life. Why does my hand itch only when I think of him?”
“Binh, you itch for you know the young peasants they sent here to fight were like us, pawns in the hands of greater players in a game we could not imagine. They died as we died, calling out to mothers or sweethearts and clutching photos not of leaders but of family.” Camouflaged by two pawns my bishop slid into position.
“Perhaps you are right, Vinh. I still see him in my dreams. A child, really.”
He looked down at the board, saw the danger, and asked quietly, “Where is your picture?”
I looked up at my hut behind Binh. Under my bed inside a cracked and peeling plastic card, a strange Western man wore grey robes. In one hand, he held a long tree branch, curved and pointing down. His other hand held a cross. I was frightened by his long beard and I seldom pulled him out from his hiding place. At first, blood covered the plastic but over the years it dried and flaked away. A thumbprint in the blood once pressed upon the chest of the man but it too gradually faded.
Binh asked, “Do you ever think of the boy whose fingers held that image? Could it be his father? A farmer perhaps, with many buffalo?”
I thought for a moment and answered. “During my only trip to the South, I passed a Catholic church. A man sat behind a folding table selling pieces of paper. Thinking they were lottery tickets, I opened my pocketbook to buy one.”
“And one for me of course!”
“Of course, Honored Brother. As I handed the city man one hundred dong, I saw that the paper held not numbers but pictures, pictures of Western men and women in ancient costumes like our little puppets wear in historical dramas. Among these many images lay the bearded man!
“The peddler seller saw my curiosity and said, ‘Friend, I see you are on a journey from the country and as a Catholic your eyes are drawn to our holy Saint Christopher. He will protect you until you return home.”
Binh asked, “Did the American soldier come from a famous family of priests, or do his people buy an image and pray for protection?”
I took his knight and added it to my pile. “Obviously the spirit in the picture did not do his job.”
My brother studied his shrinking number of troops. “He would have been better off with a lottery ticket, perhaps.”
“Yes, a strange people,” I said. “They sent their sons far away to die or go mad. Who will take care of their parents when they are old? Their family line is broken. There will be no new generation to honor their lives, no wisdom for new generations, and no memory of their passing.”
Triggering an ambush, Binh placed my queen in jeopardy. “Why did they come?”
“These things I studied when I interrogated prisoners. They brought with them strange words, words the French did not bring. There is no translation and thus no understanding. Here, I wrote them in my memory book. ‘Democracy. Communism.’ Some kind of city government official perhaps. I do not know.”
We stared at the chess pieces on the same board we used as boys, the same pieces when Binh had all his fingers and my wife and child still lived.
Binh sighed. “Well, at least we have peace now.” Around us, our longtime neighbors, poverty and illness, did not disagree.
My apartment, NY
Vinh stared out of my window at the falling snow. “One day, Mr. Mac, the images on these photos will disappear completely but not until another generation becomes one with their stories, accomplishments, and most importantly, their names. No one dies in my homeland. Each day their names are on the lips and in the hearts of family and friends. Not to be remembered, not to continue contributing to future generations: to suffer such a fate would be as though one had never existed.
“Our people pray, not to a statue or image of a God nor do we practice ancestor worship as the French assumed. No invisible god such as the Catholic missionaries brought with them can contribute as our ancestors have, as the land does, and as we will for our own descendants.
“These photographs conjure more than nostalgia. The wisdom they passed on to us emanates from these photos and stretches; their faces speak to us of the teaching and hold the direction of our moral compass.
“We honor them daily with their favorite fruits, flowers, incense, and a candle to symbolize the goodness they bring. The flow of generations moves through us, joined forever to the past and to the future of our own children.
“Any family member who is blessed to live beyond a half century is revered as the repository of our collective life and is sought out for guidance in matters both public and private. We harvest these sweet fruits from the sages and cook a recipe for our own palate, satisfying our hunger for the divine in everyday life.
“My grandparents and their parents survived the Chinese Mandarins, the French, the Japanese, and the French again. These barbarians came uninvited to our land. Each left, defeated—by the ancient wisdom, stubbornness, and sacrifice of our ancestors.
“In our village few of us knew how to read, but this changed. The only gift of the French and their imperialist missionaries is their alphabet. We now use their system to read and write Vietnamese, replacing many complicated Chinese characters.
“During the occupation, the French collected men from our region disguised as a penalty for the failure to pay taxes. They forced them to labor for their plantations, forestry, and railroad construction. Many never returned, or limped home as amputees, punishment for lack of cooperation during servitude.
“After a century, those hard days faded away with the French. But as it has always been our fate: peace came to visit and stayed but a brief season.”
Vinh stared into his tea cup. “Then you came, Mr. Mac.”
He pulled a tattered photograph from his shirt pocket. Outside, snow continued to fall. “This is Mother.” He slid her back into the pocket over his heart. “She died on the boat.”
My friend stood and lifted his parka off a nail on the back of my front door. He turned and smiled. “One day I will look down upon my children from the wall in our American home and worry them with right thought and right behavior.”
The thesis found approval and I graduated that same summer. To this day I reflect on the long reach of the God of War and wonder: Will any of us who survived ever be free of His touch? ◆
This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2023 issue of Parabola,
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