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Wilson’s Vietnam Ruminations
I dedicate this book to my father, the late Dean Wilson, who introduced me to Haiku and the Japanese culture. I could not have written this book without his influence on my life. A special thanks to Dick and Eileen Hastings, who have encouraged me through the years; Michael Rehling who set up a webpage to showcase and promote my work; to Kathy Lippard Cobb, Jeanie Wilson, and Gail Goto, who have been there for me on-line and off-line; to Susumu Takiguchi and Debi Bender for believing in me; and to my friends and supporters in the World Haiku Club, the old Shiki Forum, Basho’s Beatniks, Cherry Poetry Club, Haikuhut.net, and Simply Haiku.
©January 2003 by Robert D. Wilson
Illustrations by Jerry Dreesen and Robert Wilson Photography by Robert Wilson
By Susumu Takiguchi Chairman, The World Haiku Club
Men kill. That much we are the same as animals. Men kill legally sometimes. Here, we become slightly different. Legalised or lawful killing. What a horrific concept this is! Should it really be allowed? What does it mean anyway not in a superficial sense but in a fundamental sense? Capital punishment, legal killing by the police, killing in self-defence and of course killing in wars. Between the lawful killing and unlawful killing there is an endlessly murky world where all ethical, legal and otherwise reasons or justification become suspect. So much so that one wonders if all wars are not suspect indeed. The number of causes, conditions and circumstances of war, especially in modern time, is infinite. No single or simple answer can explain this most human of all human activities. One kills and dies in defence of the country in the belief that its government is doing the right and just thing. What if that government betrays one? What if that government fails itself and fails the people it is supposed to serve? The war in Iraq is a case in point. Had lessons not been learnt from the Vietnamese war? No textbook of war or armchair generals can teach you more about war than being sent to the battlefield and going through action there. Being sent to the Vietnamese war must have been such a learning experience for the Americans. Robert Wilson, the author of the extraordinary tale and poetry contained in this volume, was one of many such young Americans who were wrenched from their happy-go-lucky teenage life, from the arms of their girlfriends, from classrooms and college libraries, from apprenticeship in a factory or from conventional “escalators” which would have led them to higher education, jobs or marriage. They were wrenched from ordinariness, peace and reasonable expectations from life this minute, and the next minute thrown into an unknown world where everything they knew was turned upside down. Wilson was sent to Vietnam in 1968 as a seaman. His team was stationed on a river repair boat barge in Dong Tam in the Mekong delta. They were a top-secret facility with a civilian engineer on board who designed weapons for use on patrol boats, including flamethrowers. Thus began his long story of very personal experience of war and a hazardous road along which he turned into an anti-war campaigner, not merely in the political sense but also and more importantly in what I call the “humanist” sense. For the former he took to the street. For the latter he has taken up a pen and produced an astonishing series of short writings with a piece of poem. This is normally called haibun – a term which I wish to avoid as both Wilson’s prose and poem go much deeper than the light-hearted and comical nature inherent to haibun
and therefore using such a term seems to me to be inappropriate. Rather, I like to think that Wilson has created a new form and genre of literature, whose name has not yet been coined. That such a creation as this has occurred may well be coincidental. I have observed Wilson’s progress as a haiku poet closely for some time now. To me, the creation does not seem primarily to be the result of his haiku writing. It is a creation which may indeed have been instigated by haiku but which in fact has sprung from much deeper fountain of Wilson’s inner souls and spiritual and psychological recesses where the memories of the war, thoughts and doubts about it and all other perceptions and sensibilities are stored. When such thoughts and feelings came pouring out, however, Wilson was helped by the skills and technique of haiku and haibun in putting them in a succinct, terse and chillingly objective form. So it was that a series of writings emerged, the like of which had never been seen before. People soon realised that they were confronted with a new way of looking at something they thought they knew. Wilson is a modest man. To read his Vietnam Ruminations was like thumbing through a diary of a serving soldier. The only difference is that it had the power to get the reader instantly captivated and glued to whatever page he or she happened to open. A power of the pen of a modest man, scratching the paper with honest observation, simple questions, unadulterated facts, non-falsified emotions and childlike criticism without embellishment or attempts to sound clever. In this regard, Vietnam Ruminations has something in common with haiku. The strength and quality of this work lie significantly in the very fact that Wilson did not try to use it as a platform for his political campaign or for moral crusade but maintained his self-discipline to restrict it strictly within the realm of art and literature. In other words, it is a work of art and not a cheap political tool or an instrument of self-aggrandisement. There is no need for me to take the reader through each one of the episodes of the tale told by Wilson about the Vietnamese war by my comments. Each one is not only selfevident needing no explanation but also may well be spoiled by such comments in terms of the pleasure the reader deserves to relish. Wilson was in the war in Vietnam during the TET offensive when the North Vietnamese Army asserted themselves militarily and turned the tide of the War, which was indeed the beginning of the end for the American presence. They were rocketed and mortared 6 to 7 times per night. And that was only a beginning. The enemy attacked when they least expected. Everything he wrote about in this series is something he either experienced himself or heard about while stationed in Vietnam. It was an experience that changed his perspective on life. He was only 18 when he was sent there, fresh out of high school. It was for him a passage into manhood. Wilson also developed a love for the Vietnamese people and culture while stationed there. These things are evident in and between the lines of his prose and poems.
Upon his discharge after returning to the U.S., Wilson organized and led all of the anti-war demonstrations in President Richard Nixon’s hometown and its surrounding regions. He was sent to a war without knowing either its meaning or what really would happen in it. Having survived as a cannon fodder, he came out of the war none the wiser but returned home only to be betrayed by a government of the country for which he chose to give his life. No returning hero, nor welling up of a sense of pride in having served the country. It was a disastrous and wrong war which shook the foundation of American way of life and that of the world. It was also a war which engendered genuine national doubt, which is a pre-requisite for a sane, mature and civilised society. The only thing he had left with of the war was his intense experiences and vivid memories of it in the minutest detail. In his words, “I went to Vietnam for the war and returned opposed to the war.” I am sure that his political campaign was worthy and effective. However, I am even more convinced that Vietnam Ruminations will move millions of hearts in the entire world, precisely because it is not a political tool but a profound literary work. It must now be evident that I have so far not quoted anything from Vietnam Ruminations nor given my views on any of his poems. I shall not do so at all, which is quite unusual for a foreword of this kind. This is because Vietnam Ruminations is unusual. Imagine an excellent exhibition of Rembrandt or Monet. I hate people using one of these hired tape recorders and listen to its account right from the start. These paintings do not, and should not, need such a machine, at least till after one has first seen the exhibition. I also hate people snapping busily in Rome or Marrakech or Kyoto without seeing anything with their naked eyes. In fact, I do not really know what I am doing here as Vietnam Ruminations does not need any foreword or ‘afterword’ or anything else. Vietnam Ruminations should be read without any such unnecessary bits and pieces. One does not even need to know anything about haiku or haibun to appreciate Vietnam Ruminations. Such is the extraordinary thing Wilson has created! I have mentioned above that I object to using the word haibun to describe Vietnam Ruminations as I fear it would detract people’s attention from the very essence of the book. Some new word is needed to describe it accurately without corrupting its poetic beauty and the strength of its realism. For want of a better word, perhaps the very word Wilson used, “ruminations”, would be the best. Basho talked about “fuga no makoto” (poetic truth, sincerity and honesty). Central to Vietnam Ruminations are truths also. These truths turned inside Wilson’s mind and heart into his firm conviction. Truths are one of the most difficult subjects for us mortals, perhaps “the” most difficult. Whatever truths may be, I have no doubt that Wilson has reached, or at least touched, them in Vietnam Ruminations. If haiku has helped him to do it, it has done something which it has never done in this way before and in this sense it is a truly remarkable and wonderful thing indeed.
Never alone, ashes painted with light speak of the past.
In every home I visited in rural Vietnam, there were joss sticks and a photo or photos of deceased loved ones on a mantle. It was the family altar.
picking lice from her sister’s hair -Summer breeze
There were no breaks, no restrooms, no Coke machines. The noon meal, the only reprieve from the rigors of picking rice. A worker could not afford to let her body relax. Many hours of hard work lay ahead. She ate, she smoked, she picked lice, unable to be still; anxious to finish the work she had started. Relieving one's self meant squatting down in the company of frogs.
transplanting new rice before the cricket sleeps this humid morning
I had it good compared to the Vietnamese working in the rice paddies. I got up in the morning, put on a uniform laundered and pressed by a Vietnamese laundrywoman, and walked with my shipmates to the chowhall on base to eat an all-you-can-eat breakfast featuring a choice of entrees, fresh fruit, and pastries. After breakfast, we returned to the YRBM-17, where we did our regularly assigned chores, complete with breaks, and an ample supply of soda pop. The Vietnamese villagers we were there to protect, didn’t have it so good. For most, the day started before sunrise. Breakfast was scant, if they had any at all. They worked long hours under a scorching sun. The humidity was 100%. Breaks were nonexistent. They relieved themselves where they worked. Lunch was a bowl of rice with, possibly, a piece of fruit, or a duck egg. The water they drank was polluted, drawn from the Mytho River. Their workday ended at sundown. Some went home to their families. Others fought with the Viet Cong. My buddies and I partied with one another when we didn’t have guard duty. We knew so little about our hosts...how they lived, how they thought, and what they believed. Most weren’t there because they cared about the Vietnamese. Many servicemen called the Vietnamese, Gooks...a racially derogatory term. Most served there either because they had no choice or because they felt duty bound to oppose communism. It wasn’t for a love of the country or its people.
Listen! A duck complaining to its master before the cock crows
Coming from middle class America, my culinary experiences were limited. That was soon to change. The Vietnamese people ate food I’d never heard of or dreamed of eating. One of their favorite delicacies is the Thousand Year Old Egg. It is a nearly mature duck egg that has been buried in the ground for a long time, then dug up. The egg is cracked and its contents swallowed quickly. The smell is putrid. When villagers ate shrimp, they ate them heads and all. They dined on small frogs, small birds, and lizards. They chased their meals down with polluted water. Soda pop was for the rich. Milk was nonexistent. The water buffalo is not known for milk production. Funny thing. Now that I am older and married to a filipina, I have dined on many of the foods I’ve just mentioned, including lizards and whole shrimp. The only one I don’t like is the thousand year old egg. I didn’t like it in Vietnam and I don’t like it now.
behind the darkness more darkness this lanternless night
The perimeters of our base in Dong Tam had to be guarded at all times to prevent enemy intrusion. This was especially important at night. Everyone on Base had their turn at guard duty, whether it was standing watch over the bay or at one of the three land perimeters. The land perimeters were the most dangerous. Teams of two stood watch. They had to be silent and refrain from using any kind of light. Otherwise, they would set themselves up for enemy fire. The area in front of the guardpost was planted with claymore mines and trip flares. Beyond this was the darkest darkness imaginable. The place was spooky. You would look out there and see nothing but you knew you were being watched. You couldn't relax. You didn't dare. Your weakness was the enemy's strength. Off and on during my stay in Dong Tam, the enemy fired at the guardpost. Sometimes a single pop! Other times, the rata-tat-tat of automatic rifle fire. Where were the politician's sons?
rustling leaves behind your smile a different world.
I shall never forget the Vietnamese papa san who told me he didn't want my country (the United States) in his country. He said he didn't want the Communists there either. For over a thousand years, Vietnam has been dominated by another country: China, France, Japan, and the U.S. [Indirectly, we had high stakes such as interests in Firestone Rubber, Shell Oil, and tungsten, to name a few.] In the rural part of Vietnam, the people live a simple, hard life steeped primarily in Buddhism. They couldn't care less about the money to be made from Vietnam's natural resources. They are a beautiful people with respect for life now and in the afterlife. Ancestor worship is practiced in almost every home, rich or poor alike
white owl painting the summer night with whisper
The night was eeriely quiet in Vietnam. Not a sound. Even the water said nothing. White owls were perched on a tall steel crane used for lifting gunboats out of the bay in Dong Tam. Every once in a while, like a small ghost, one would cut the night with its wings, emitting a small whisper, that, due to the quiet, seemed louder than it was.
firefly bathing the village with light
Cobra gunships are American military helicopters equipped with mini-guns, a weapon capable of shooting 500 rounds per minute. Every third shell is a tracer. When fired at night, it looked like something was watering the countryside with light. Nightly, the gunships scoured the countryside, killing whatever came in their way, indiscriminately. From far off, they looked like fireflies.
smileless people riding on bicycles made somewhere else.
The streets of old Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, were filled with thousands of people riding to and from their existence on bicycles, tricycles, and motorbikes. Almost everyone, male and female, wore a white shirt or blouse. Cars were rare; saved for use by local military personnel and high ranking officials. Vietnam is one of the poorest nations on earth. The people were used and exploited by those in power when I was there. They are today, as well. They hold on to their memories, their faith, and their sense of family. It is what keeps them going.
wearing a dragon’s skin, this overcast night--the tiger!
Tet is the Vietnamese New Year. Normally, it is a time for celebration. In 1968, it was the eve of a mass offensive staged by the Viet Cong. I was newly in country, walking with some buddies through the red light district in downtown Saigon. It was a surreal evening. Almost dreamlike. The weather was humid. Clouds kept the moonlight at bay. The street was overflowing with Vietnamese civilians and American servicemen. Newbies, our sense of adventure was on overdrive. We wanted to see and experience everything. No parents to tell us what we could or couldn't do. There was also an intangible something in the air, like an electrical current. It's hard to describe. Something was about to come down. The calm before the storm? There were an unusual number of funeral processions that evening. Small groups of Vietnamese citizens walking through the middle of the street with a decorated casket, the deceased's picture on top, carrying joss sticks and playing indigenous instruments. Only later, after I was transferred to my duty station in Dong Tam, did I learn the truth about the funeral processions. They were used to transport arms and enemy soldiers into the nation's capitol in preparation for the Tet Offensive.
does she dream, this girl picking rice before the sun wakes up?
Water buffalos were the tractors of South Vietnam. Only the well off could afford to buy one. Those who couldn't, plowed the fields with their backs... Women carrying loads on their backs no American woman would ever agree to carry. They had no choice. It was work in the fields or starve to death. People starving to death in the villages and cities of Vietnam were an everyday occurrence.
Beware! A dragon breathing on our shore this moonless night.
On board the river repair boat barge I was stationed on, a civilian engineer developed flame throwers for a patrol boat called the Monitor which was patterned and named after an American Civil War rivercraft of the same name, that boat being one of the world's first metal boats. The flamethrower would spit out streams of flame that charred everything in its reach. The monitors were dragons hungry for human flesh.
Lonely guard, even the ducks avoid you this overcast morning
The villages between our Base in Dong Tam and the city of MyTho were infested with Viet Cong soldiers. The war in the Mekong Delta was primarily fought at night. During the day, the Viet Cong and the villagers blended in. People worked. The village paths were deserted with the exception of small children playing and ducks quacking. Shadows from the trees and tropical plants danced playfully. Viet Cong soldiers worked alongside the other villagers or prepared for the night in the confines of thatched roof homes and underground bunkers. The presence of the South Vietnamese Army was surprisingly scarce. Ironically, at the entrance to every village, there would be a lone guard, holding an automatic rifle, dressed in a freshly starched uniform. And for what? Everyone was at work. Could he defend the village against a detachment of the Viet Cong?
The Mekong River a multitude of sorrow; this brown water.
The Mekong River is a dirty brown, polluted river. Many secrets lay buried beneath its waters.
washing laundry by hand in dirty water-no koi
The conveniences many of us take for granted are nonexistent in the rural Vietnamese countryside. Toilets, toilet paper, sanitary napkins, tap water, telephones, etc. are luxuries few can afford. Supermarkets and drug stores are unheard of. Stooping down at river's edge and washing laundry by hand in the filthy water is the norm. It's been done like that for centuries. What other choice does a Vietnamese person have? Most in the countryside barely eke out a living. No one raises fish or contributes haiku on the internet.
To little children: Santa Claus with an M-16
As an American soldier, I was a Santa Claus to Vietnamese children. Wherever my shipmates and I traveled, children mobbed us, asking for gum, money, and candy. We were rich in their eyes. The children had charming smiles. Many were street-wise. Some were orphaned. All were poor. They competed with other children for the goodies we meted out from shallow pockets. The children didn't see our M16 automatic rifles as weapons of death. They saw us as purveyors of candy and other goodies they couldn't afford to buy.
End of Tet the marks on her back, a letter I'd rather not read.
At the conclusion of the Tet Offensive in 1968, a girl who worked as a laundrywoman on our base returned after a three week absence. Her back was covered with hideous burns. Her family had been tortured and murdered. It was a reprisal by the Viet Cong for her working on our base. She, of course, was an innocent. She worked for us to help support her economically strapped family. Her alliance was to her family, not to a political belief. Like many living in the rural provinces of Vietnam, she wanted to live a simple life free from another's tyranny.
dragonflies hover over rice paddies -another spoiled harvest.
I snapped a photograph of a dozen Cobra gunships (heavily armed U.S. military helicopters) hovering over rice paddies in the Mekong Delta, raining death on the enemy. The gunships looked like dragonflies.
As a child, I played baseball in my front yard you dodged bullets.
My childhood in Southern California was an easy one. Baseball, Cub Scouts, playing hide and go seek at night with my neighbors. I took it for granted that everybody's childhood was like mine. I learned differently when I was stationed in Vietnam. I remember, many times passing in a patrol boat by thatched roof homes huddled close to one another on the banks of the muddy, brown Mytho River seeing naked children swimming in the polluted water or paddling across a narrow tributary in small hand made boats. Seemingly tranquil during the night, the same area was a killing field at night.
Fireflies on the water's surface a house of mirrors.
Standing guard in the wee hours of the morning on the bow of the repair boat barge I was stationed on, was eerie, to say the least. You could never relax. Stories were told in the chow hall of Viet Cong frogmen who traveled across the small bay we were moored in, using hollow bamboo reeds to breathe through. Like ghosts, they appeared when a soldier's guard was down. The only sound during this watch was the faint lapping of waves against the barge's hull and the steady thump thump thump of my heart. In the distance, gunships sprayed the horizon with machine gun shells laced with tracers that lit up the sky. More than once, I saw my reflection in the water. At that time of the morning, at nineteen years of age, a variety of thoughts and questions danced in and out of my mind; some deeply introspective.
Dali painted me into someone else's dream that Spring and walked away
The Spanish Surrealist, Salvadore Dali, is noted for his wild dreamlike paintings that flirt with madness. Nothing in his paintings are like they seem. On closer look, the viewer sees pictures within pictures, some of them shocking. I was not prepared for what I experienced in Vietnam as a teenager just out of high school. I had no idea what the Vietnamese people believed or how they thought. My only realm of experience was my own from back home. As servicemen, we were taught nothing about the Vietnamese. In high school, we learned nothing about their history. Most of us originally didn't come to Vietnam to help the Vietnamese people. We knew nothing about them. We came because we were told that communism was knocking at our door and had to be stopped to avoid a domino effect. I went, I saw, and got my mind blown.
eerie spring night, mortars walking across the bay -footsteps of Godzilla?
For three weeks straight, during the TET Offensive in 1968, my base was hit by mortars six or seven times a night. The mortars were a psychological tool used by the Viet Cong to deprive us of sleep and to scare us. They never hit anything. They hurled one mortar after another into the narrow bay that separated the Navy from the Army side of our base in Dong Tam. The sound of the mortars reminded me of the footsteps of Godzilla as he walked through Tokyo on a rampage in the original Godzilla movie I saw as a kid. It was eerie. A few weeks prior, a team of naval and army engineers hired Vietnamese citizens from a nearby village to help with a field survey of the base. No wonder the mortars walked in a straight line across the bay inching closer and closer to our living quarters and work spaces with perfect precision. We were overjoyed when the mortar attacks stopped three weeks later. The lack of hitting a target by the Viet Cong became a joke. We thought they were blind as bats. We were sure they'd never hit us. Later that year, when we least expected it, they hit again; this time with deadly accuracy, hitting buildings, ships, and friends.
she looked down river. the shadow of an egret swam past
Women often piloted the small boats that traveled to and from the marketplace. Men were away at war or dead or bent over in the rice fields. There was no such thing as women's work and men's work. All were equal on the river banks. Women didn't load their children up in the family station wagon and head for the nearest shopping center to shop til they dropped and eat a tasty lunch. The monotony of daily life never changed. Early in the morning, mama san prepared what she had to sell, loaded her wares on a boat, and traveled across the brown, murky, unpredictable Mekong River with her children. Day in and day out, the merciless hot sun bore down on her bowed back. No sunglasses, no fancy dress, no carseat for her babies. Her hands, the texture of worn leather.
crossing the Mytho River, a sampan with two kinds of eggs
A sampan chugging across a brown water river fueled by a diesel engine was a common sight. Taxis, they ferried people and cargo from one village to another. Passengers sat beside stacked wooden crates laden with produce and poultry. The Viet Cong used the space below the cargo to smuggle in hand grenades, ammunition, mortars, and guns.
Saffron robed monks sweep me through the temple this humid morning
I asked a Vietnamese woman who worked on our base if she could arrange a visit for me to the local Buddhist temple. She smiled and told me she would talk to one of the monks. She returned the next day and told me the monk said it would be dangerous for me to visit the temple. What the monk meant by that I will never know. I told her to tell the monk that I wanted to visit the temple anyway; that I was interested in the Buddhist religion and wanted to learn more. She related that to the monk who reluctantly agreed to give me a quick tour of the temple. He had a nervous look on his face when he brought me inside. It was a dimly lit temple, the light emanating from flickering candles and burning joss sticks. At the altar were three giant golden Buddhas. The Buddha of the past. The Buddha of the present. The Buddha of the future. It was an otherworldly sight. The monk gave me a joss stick and taught me how to bow and pray to the three Buddhas.
in her wake a thousand bad movies she'd never see.
I am haunted by a photo I took in Saigon during the Vietnam War. A woman is walking down a dusty highway on her way to work or school. Behind her is a pillar of smoke. She didn't look back. What was past, was past. Only the future offered hope. Many movies have been made about the war. Most are cheap and exploitative. Their purpose? To fill cash registers with dollar bills. Most people are clueless as to what the Vietnamese people experienced, let alone the soldiers who fought the war. War is not glorious.
Autumn morning papa sans fishing discards from oily water.
I woke up one Sunday morning happy that it wasn't a work day. I was going to kick back, hang out with the guys, and go into town for a little rest and relaxation. I stood on the stern of our river repair boat barge, the YRBM-17, which was permanently moored at the dock in Dong Tam, a small base shared by the U.S. Navy and the Army's 9th Infantry. Looking out at the water's edge, I saw Vietnamese men snagging garbage out of the oily, diesel fuel covered water with makeshift bamboo fishing poles. Their catch was torn clothing, discarded sea rations, and anything else they could salvage. Our throwaways were their treasures.
sunrise tiny dark clouds hover over the jungle floor.
Life went on as usual during the daylight hours. People worked. People played. People rested. The hot sun caressing our faces like a jealous lover. For the most part, it was the only time many of us could relax, let our thoughts wonder to better times back home where jungles and mortars didn't exist. In Dong Tam, the war was fought at night when plows and baskets were replaced with automatic weapons and hand grenades. Water Buffalo were tied up. Candles were dowsed. The quiet pierced by flashes of light, pops of air, and sickening thuds. In the morning, the jungle floor was harvested by blowflies.
The trees had eyes monkeys long ago eaten summer quiet!
One afternoon, two weeks after I arrived at my duty station in Dong Tam, I was riding from Mytho, a nearby port city, to our base, in the back of a military truck. The guys and I were laughing and telling jokes, oblivious to any danger. All of us newbies to Vietnam. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we heard a crack! A sniper was shooting at us from a tree. The truck screeched to a halt. Instinctively, we jumped out, automatic rifles in hand, and took cover. Trees are everywhere in the jungle. It was impossible to know which tree the sniper was in or from what direction he'd been shooting. Or how far the sniper was from our position. We were sitting ducks. From that moment on, the war became real. We indiscriminately shot at the tops of trees in the horizon. Fortunately for us, the sniper didn't return fire. Hello, Vietnam!
Harvesting rice under the hot Asian sun knowing where to step.
People stooping to plant and pick rice in the rice paddies under the hot Vietnamese sun was a daily ritual. Backbreaking work for little or no pay. The Viet Cong planted boobytraps in the rice fields to maim and kill U.S. and South Vietnamese foot patrols.
She was thirteen no need for a prom dress in the rice field!
As soon has a child was able, she went to work. That was a given. Poverty reigned in the villages. Going to school was a luxury few could afford. One was a liability or an asset. A child didn't question her parents. Rebellion brought dishonor to the family. She worked, she rested, she worked again. No time clocks to punch, No eight hour work days. No child labor laws. The clothing on her back, the rice in her bowl, the knowledge that she was helping her family, these were her rewards.
Stained teeth betel nut softens the bite of the tiger
Betel nuts are extracted from the seeds of the betel palm. Middle aged and older women in rural Vietnamese villages chew the nuts. A mild narcotic, it is highly addictive. Those who habitually chew the nuts have grossly stained teeth. For many, it helped them deal with the burdens of an ever present, unstable war, the lack of control they had over their lives, and the threat of famine....a tiger roaming the perimeter of every village, eating whoever it wanted to eat, indiscriminately.
Not little monkeys or beasts of burden Human beings! Human beings!
Many American soldiers called the Vietnamese, "gooks". It was a degrading term, in the same league as "nigger" or "chink". We knew so little about the Vietnamese. We saw everything through our own eyes, our own plain of experience. The Vietnamese are smaller in stature. Many were uneducated. A humble people, they would smile and bow when they didn't understand what an American soldier was saying to them. I remember vividly, a couple of GIs spouting gross obscenities and derogatory remarks at a young Vietnamese man. The man didn't understand what the soldiers were saying . He bowed and smiled, over and over again. All the while, the two GIs laughed at him.
The typhoon! Even the enemy stays inside when trees bow to stone
Typhoon storms are horrendous winds laden with rain. Every year, those living in Vietnam and Southeast Asia experience this phenomenon. I was once asked to stand guard duty on top of a three story building in Saigon. The wind was blowing at 75 plus miles per hour and the rain was coming down in buckets. I felt stupid. Here I was standing guard on top of this building in the worst of weather and the enemy was probably indoors laughing at our stupidity.
you are your own shadow this autumn noon at river's edge
Every day, we passed by the same thatched roof home nested under a cluster of trees by the water's edge, on our way to the main river. We called this tributary, Route 66. It was a Viet Cong hotbed under the cover of night, the scene of many firefights between the Cong and river patrol boats. During the day, it was a picture postcard Eden. Hard to imagine danger lurking from those shores. The same woman, always without a hat, and clad in black pajamas, stood outside the home's entrance like clockwork whenever we passed by. The home, like all of the homes in the Delta, had no electricity. She had walked out of the darkness wearing black clothing Was she a lookout for the Viet Cong? Or just a curious woman?
The bright red sunset a none too subtle mirror; spring ploughs set aside.
The sunsets in South Vietnam were second to none visually. From one end of the horizon to the other, the sky was a bright red. It made me think of the blood that was spilled by everyone involved in the war. Vietnam was a killing field. At nightfall, plows were replaced with rifles, hand grenades, and mortars. A war with no winners. Broken bodies, broken homes, shattered dreams.
Laying on her back, she whispered to the cricket: "for my family."
Small bars catering to the sexual needs of American soldiers were a common sight in South Vietnam. The women who sold their bodies were a different lot then their western counterparts. I asked one why she did what she did. She told me it was a matter of necessity. Her husband was a South Vietnamese soldier who died on the battlefield. She had three young children and an elderly mother in-law to support. She did what she did to support her family and to finance her schooling at the University of Saigon where she majored in Economics during the day. It was do this, she said, or be a laborer unable to meet her family's needs. She wanted her children to have a future. Unfortunately, the future some of these women aspired towards, never came about, their bodies ravaged by venereal disease.
Terra cotta men squat on the earth waiting for rain.
Captured Viet Cong were jailed in a compound on the Army side of our base in Dong Tam It was a dusty, uneven patch of dirt surrounded by barbed wire. There were no toilets, no shade, and no running water. The conditions were horrid. Prisoners squatted on the ground (the customary way of sitting for a Vietnamese peasant), their eyes glazed over, the stench of human faecal matter permeating the hot, humid air. Dirty and unkept, the prisoners looked like terra cotta statues.
Moaning planks--there are visitors this afternoon
The thatched roofed homes in the villages of the Mekong Delta have no foundations. They are built on flat, dusty earth. During Monsoon season, the polluted waters of the Mekong River and its tributaries rise, flooding the villages. The same thing occurs every year. I once had dinner with a Vietnamese family in their small home during this season. The floor was covered with three feet of water. To get from one room to another, we walked on wooden planks. The planks moaned. Our host was not embarrassed. Planks were in every villager's home. The water was stagnant, dark brown in color, and reeked of methane; a breeding ground for malaria and bacterial diseases. Plumbing and flush toilets were nonexistent. Not much had changed in the past hundred years.
The dusty ground and the river look the same this afternoon.
The base I was stationed on in the Mekong Delta was built on what was once a rice field. To make the land level, army engineers and Vietnamese laborers filled in the area with dirt. Lacking imagination, ground cover wasn't planted. The base was a dirty island in the middle of a lush, green jungle. The eyesore of eyesores. Needless to say, the ground was hard as a rock during the dry season. It was a different story during the Monsoon season when torrential rains inundated the ground. Jeeps and heavy equipment sunk in minutes. The roads were a joke. The dirty brown Mytho River and banks of the Base were indistinguishable at times. I wonder if the base was returned to its natural state after the war ended.
silly men, you fed the fish with yourselves.
It was like a dream. The moon was full. The faint sound of singing awakened me. I peered out the leeside portal of our sleeping quarters on the YRBM-17 and saw two drunken sailors walking arm in arm towards the water on a dock that ran perpendicular to our barge. It was about two in the morning. The two men were singing a country western song. I remember coughing. I always blink when I cough. The drunken sailors were gone. The next morning at chow, a sailor told me the drunken seamen walked off the dock and drowned. Most of those I served with in Vietnam were ill prepared to fight a war they didn't understand. A tour of duty was one year. They were lonely. The culture was foreign. The pay was minimal. Unlike those who served in past wars, those serving in South Vietnam were afforded no honor for their participation in the war. Servicemen drank, smoked marijuana, or prayed.
After work she walks into the jungle with a different hat.
There was an old saying on Base: "They're our friends during the day and our enemies at night." Most of the women who worked on our base were single females in their early to late twenties. The majority washed and ironed our clothing. The pay wasn't good but it was a step up from working in the rice fields. Most were looked upon as potential sex objects by young servicemen fresh out of high school locker rooms. More than once I heard guys proposition them, using unsavory language. Some pinched their butts and grab their breasts. This was degrading for the women and a total lack of respect. They weren't whores. They weren't enamored with American servicemen. They had families to feed. The sexual harassment was epidemic. Base commanders looked the other way. And when one of the woman frowned and called her harasser a pig, the guys would laugh and make fun of her. These women put up with the harassment because they desperately needed the money they earned from their jobs. No wonder some of them were the enemy at night. For them, we were a meal ticket. Our politics, unimportant. Americans in their eyes were subhumans with no respect for the Vietnamese people and their culture.
I wish they were gnats, those things whizzing past me slapping brown water.
One can never relax in a war zone. The element of surprise is the enemy's trump card. I'll never forget the day I was sailing in a small one man sailboat in the tiny bay that separated the Navy side of the base with the Army's in Dong Tam. It was a hot Saturday afternoon in the height of summer. Their was no wind. Sail down, I was laying shirtless, looking up at the cloudless sky, daydreaming about home... when, all of a sudden, silent poofs of air whizzed past me, some of them slapping the water beside the tiny craft. It didn't take a scholar to know what was happening. Enemy fire! A sitting duck, taking cover was not an option. I unhooked the mast, secured the sail, and paddled like a mad man towards the safety of my ship, hoping none of the bullets had my name on them.
See the umbrella! Whose hands is it in? Laughing water.
When it rained in Vietnam, it rained. In torrents! During the Monsoon season, it rained every day for months. Usually at night. I'd never seen so much rain in my life. I was born and raised in Southern California. Sailors pride themselves as being a tough lot. When I purchased an umbrella from one of the villagers who worked on our Base, to shield myself from the rain, I was immediately the butt of ridicule and jokes by several of my shipmates. This didn't stop me from using the umbrella. I wasn't your average bear. Eventually, the hazing died down. Interestingly enough, when it was my turn to go back to the United States, guess who wanted to buy my umbrella?
Autumn dusk clinging to the sailor's shadow, an orphan.
We looked forward to the weekends. This was our time to go into Mytho for a little rest and relaxation. Mytho is the nearest port city. Just a few miles from our base. It was a half hour's cruise by patrol boat up the polluted Mytho River, a tributary of the Mekong River. Ashore, we behaved as typical sailors, visiting the bars, brothels, restaurants, dance halls, and curio shops. In our wake was a cloud of children, hoping for handouts of gum and candy. In a way, we were their entertainment for the weekend. I remember one child well. She was a nine year old orphan with a bowl shaped hairdo. And what a mouth! She cussed like a sailor and possessed a cocky personality. She also spoke good English. Whenever a certain noncommissioned officer came ashore, she'd cling to him like glue to paper. The NCO was the consummate drunk; weaving in and out of the red light district with a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey in his hand. She served dutifully as his protector, negotiator, and interpreter. Where he was, she was. In return, he gave her special attention, made her feel important, and provided her with food and money. It was as if she had a father. Then the man was shipped Stateside.
Shortened day a monk steps into the darkness without his robe.
It was not uncommon to see saffron robed Buddhist monks wandering through villages between our base and Mytho, the nearest large city. They never spoke. They never smiled. They were either alone or with other monks. The area was infested with Viet Cong soldiers. The villagers of the Mekong Delta wore two hats...one to keep the sun off of their heads during the day and another to make them invisible in the inky black darkness that never spoke. The monks were an enigma. Religion of any kind is not tolerated by Communists. Not today and not yesterday. The only other religious people I saw were a couple of Vietnamese Catholic nuns who operated an orphanage in Bien Duc, a village halfway between Mytho and our base in Dong Tam. They too were an enigma. Were they who they said they were? What about the monks? I remember the time a Buddhist monk told me it would be dangerous for me to visit a temple in Mytho. Why? So many whys.......If only I could ask the darkness.
She squats in the shadow of another the heat!
The heat in Vietnam is intense. And the humidity, sweltering. Day in and day out, those laboring in the rice paddies work out in the open, subjected to nature's sunlamp. There are no shade trees or soda machines, The skin of a longtime laborer is leatherlike and weathered. A young person's beauty fades when they enter the rice paddies. The days are long. The work is backbreaking. The weather merciless. There are no fancy skin creams to rub into the skin at the end of the day. The only protection is the hat on top of the laborer's head and the clothes clinging to her brown skin.
flowing down river, petals from the lotus flower
The day the YRBM-17, the river boat repair barge I was stationed on, was hit by enemy rocket fire, is a day I will never forget. It was the day the Vietnam War jumped out of the television screen into my lap. I was eating with my shipmates in the base chow hall when the rocket fire hit. Instinctively, we left the cover of the chow hall and ran towards the YRBM-17. Looking at the rockets exploding, not knowing which way to go, forcing myself to concentrate on survival, shelving, for the moment, the fear that wanted to surface.... focusing on the now in a sea of adrenaline .....one day I was sitting on the sofa with my family watching news reports about the war, munching on popcorn. Seemingly the next day, I was dodging rockets and automatic fire. Out of nowhere, the telltale whistle of an incoming rocket. My buddies and I kissed the deck, the sky raining shrapnel in every direction. When we got back on our feet, a shipmate lay before us in a pool of blood.
This resort called Hell -Death stood before me with an outstretched hand
We regularly went on runs to the garbage dump a few miles outside the Base gate. It was a public dump, although the public seldom used it. Vietnamese villagers are a resourceful people. They wasted nothing. They found uses for almost anything. The poorest villagers watched as we unloaded our garbage. Torn or stained clothing, old magazines, half eaten food, cardboard boxes, broken furniture, metal containers, used paper. Things we had no more use for. Villagers combed through our garbage, looking for items to salvage and recycle. It was a dusty, smelly, fly ridden place. A hellish oasis in the middle of a tropical paradise. One hot, humid summer morning stands out. My shipmates and I had just dumped the garbage from the day's duty assignment. I pulled out a candy bar pirated from a box of sea rations (canned and freeze dried food used by those on the patrol boats during river duty). It tasted lousy. I tossed the remainder of the candy bar on the dusty ground and half buried it with my foot. The moment I pulled my foot away, a skeletal man dove to the ground and stuffed the candy bar, dust and all, into his mouth. He swallowed it whole. Coming from America, I had never seen starvation before. It was an eye opening experience for me. I am still haunted by that moment.
So many places I couldn't go, the winter it didn't snow
In the United States, most of us experience four distinct seasons. In Vietnam, every day seemed like summer. I arrived in South Vietnam in February of 1968. It was the eve of the Tet Offensive. The Vietnamese New Year had just begun. Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, was not a safe place. Viet Cong soldiers and weapons were being smuggled in by the droves. There was an air of expectation in the air. We sensed something was up but didn't know what. New to the country, I knew nothing about the Vietnamese people. I was 18 years old and away from California for the first time. My buddies and I wanted to party. To sow our wild oats. Nightly we squandered our money on women and drink, going from one bar to another. It was exciting and scary at the same time. My previous duty station didn't prepare me for what lay ahead. We partied the three weeks my buddies and I were in Saigon. The concept of war hadn't become real yet. That would change when we were transferred to our permanent duty stations. For the moment, we were waiting for our assignments. I ended up in Dong Tam, a base occupied by the U.S. Navy and Army, 37 miles southeast of Saigon, in the Mekong Delta. In Saigon, we were advised to stay away from certain areas. We were told that these areas were suspected hotbeds of Viet Cong activity. Off limits were movie theaters, marketplaces, and establishments off of the main highway. Life was one big party for the moment. We resented being told where we could and could not go. I look back now, and realize how fortunate many of us were. I left for my assigned duty station a day before the offensive began. All hell broke loose in Saigon. It was a bloodbath, the winter it didn't snow.
newly planted rice paddies painted with the dragonfly’s shadow
The Huey Helicopter we were flying in to Saigon, from afar, looked like a giant dragonfly. Its shadow cut a steady swath across the patchwork quilt of rice paddies below. I sat next to the chopper's gunner, his hands tightly clutching the trigger of a fifty caliber machine gun, his eyes scouring the countryside like a hawk in search of a field mouse. An enemy sniper could strike at any moment, shooting at the chopper with an automatic rifle. A rocket or a grenade could be launched in seconds. It was the gunner's job to see the enemy before they saw us. If fired upon, his accuracy as a marksman was vital. In a firefight, his life expectancy was twelve seconds. More than once I saw the empty burned out shell of a downed helicopter hanging from a specially equipped helicopter as it flew to wherever they took these metal behemoths. Relaxation was a luxury in South Vietnam
the sky rained rockets that lanternless night -umbrellas useless
The whistle of an incoming rocket. It came when we least expected it to. A shrill, airy whistle not unlike the sound emitted by skyrockets at a fireworks show. As the sound grew louder, the muscles in our bodies tightened; our nerves tensed. We dove for cover and prayed that it didn’t have our names on it. When it exploded, deadly shrapnel (chards of sharp metal) shot out like tiny bullets, cutting a murderous path. This was in addition to the crater the explosion created. When the sky rained rockets, no one was safe.
our shadows wore different hats the summer you called winter
The Vietnamese are a complex people with a richly diverse culture. The average American soldier in the late 1960's, knew little or nothing about them. Most of us fought in the war because we were drafted, sought out adventure, or felt it our duty to rid the world of Communism. The majority of us couldn't point out Vietnam on a world map let alone tell you about its people. We were sent to Vietnam to protect American economic interests like Firestone Rubber, Shell Oil, and other U.S. entities. We were taught nothing about the country we were supposed to protect in regards to its history and culture. Many servicemen called the Vietnamese people, “Gooks”, which is a derogatory name similar in nature to “Nigger” or “Wop”. What does that tell you? Our attitude and disrespect of the Vietnamese culture worked against us as time wore on. So did our lack of a clear vision. We fought in an unpopular, politically confusing war. A war orchestrated by politicians whose sons did not participate. The real Vietnam War was a war few of us experienced or knew about. It was the ideological war fought away from our bases in the homes and backstreets of this complex nation. It is a war still being fought today.
it’s still running, the newscast I walked into that winter
One day I was watching the Vietnam War on television in the comfort of my parent’s middle class suburban home, snacking on tortilla chips. The next day, I boarded a chartered TWA airliner in Fairfield, California, that flew me across the ocean to the Republic of South Vietnam. In less than 24 hours, I was in another world. A world far different from anything I’d known or experienced. I remember looking out the window of the airliner as it touched down and taxied down the runway towards the terminal in Tan Sa Nhut Airport in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Helmeted U.S. Army soldiers armed with automatic rifles stood guard in front of planes and helicopters. Disembarking from the air conditioned airliner was like walking into a Finnish sauna bath. It was over 115 degrees Fahrenheit with 100% humidity. A U.S. Navy noncommissioned officer escorted myself and four other sailors through the airport to a waiting jeep. En route, we were told not to let any of the Vietnamese carry our bags. Aboard the jeep, we traveled down the busy highway leading to the Navy processing center that would be our home for the next week and a half until we received our permanent duty assignment. We passed thousands of people riding on bicycles, tricycles, rickshaws, and motorbikes. Almost all of them wore clothing that looked like pajamas. The highway was dusty. The air, polluted. The roadside, unmanicured and filled with litter. The storefronts were old, uncared for, and from another era. Some were burned out shells. Women wearing straw hats sold food cooked in open air woks on the sidewalks. Others sold toiletries, baskets, and cooking utensils. It was like walking into the television set I was watching the previous day and becoming a part of the newscast. Little did I know that when I returned home eleven months later, the newscast would continue to play in my mind. One never forgets being in a war.
In a cage for good luck -the unfed cricket
The United States promised to defend The Republic of South Vietnam from the ravages of Communism. My country sent supplies, trained their military, and flew in our own armed forces. Many Vietnamese people saw us as their savior since we had never lost a war. Alliances and partnerships were built. Hope was in the air. Many idolized Americans and wanted to be like us. The Republic of South Vietnam was a poor country. Millions lived in poverty. On more than one occasion, I saw people starving to death, pleading with a passerby to help them. A lot of South Vietnamese believed an alliance with the United States would transform their economy. This didn’t happen, of course. The U.S. talked big, but their heart wasn’t in helping the Vietnamese people. We were there to protect Corporate America’s economic interests. In 1975, we deserted the South Vietnamese people, leaving them to fend for themselves. I liken our role in South Vietnam to that of a little boy who puts a cricket in a bamboo cage to keep as a pet. The little boy gives it lots of attention at first, but soon, when something better comes along, ignores the cricket. Without food, it dies. When the United States backed out, the Army of North Vietnam took immediate control of South Vietnam and reunited it with the North. Unfortunately, many of those who supported the United States were tortured, persecuted, and forced to live in reeducation camps. A Vietnamese friend of mine who fled Vietnam in an overcrowded boat, remembers seeing former South Vietnamese soldiers tied spread eagle in his village square and severely tortured as a public example. I often think about the Vietnamese I came to know when I was stationed In South Vietnam in 1968. What are they doing today? Are they still alive? And what would their lives be like if my country hadn’t deserted them?
go to sleep, young friend-like the scent of jasmine, your memory lingers
Many soldiers on both sides gave up their youth, dreams, and lives during the Vietnam War. They fought the War out of duty and patriotism to their respective countries. They are remembered by their families and friends. They are honored in memorials by their governments. They died young, their futures shattered in a war my government later said was a mistake. Some of those who died were my buddies. I miss them. My prayers go out to those who lost loved ones in the Vietnam War no matter what side they fought for.
summer of summers -swallowed up by the dragon, too many lives
The dragon never slumbers. He has been awake for over a thousand years, eating soldiers and civilians alike. In his wake, a trail of bones.. If only they could speak.
wading through shadows past thatched roof homes, soldiers clutching guns
Villages in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam are built in naturally shady areas. This is out of necessity due to the extreme heat and humidity. Banana and palm trees are everywhere. I found the villages to be extremely beautiful and surprisingly cool. Most of the homes were look-alike thatched roof houses with dirt floors, no plumbing, no electricity, and no windows. The villagers lived simply, having little or no money. They learned to make do with what they had and turned recycling into an art form. This, of course, is a far cry from the neighborhood I grew up in as a young man. Compared to the villager’s homes, I lived in a castle. Their homes, however, were comfortable, cool inside, and kept neat. The big leaves from the banana trees and the fronds from the palm trees provided ample shade. I loved visiting Bien Duc, a small village between my base in Dong Tam and the city of Mytho. Many times I rode on the back of an Army truck and jumped off as it drove through the village. The village was off limits to American servicemen. Viet Cong were known to live in the area. I didn’t take the warning seriously and willfully disobeyed it. I and a couple of buddies would walk down the shady dirt path that led to the village from the road. We’d take photographs, talk with South Vietnamese soldiers, and visit with the villagers in their homes, shops, and schools. The people of Bien Duc were friendly to us and we were friendly to them. To me, the village was a refuge from the madness of war. I fell in love with its inhabitants. They were some of the nicest people I have ever met. Unfortunately, our visits there came to an abrupt halt when a noncommissioned officer spotted us eating at a roadside cafe, commanded us to get into his Jeep, and took us before the Commanding Officer.
your smile! the gift you gave me that winter day, still lingers
During my visits to Ben Duc, a tiny village between Dong Tam and Mytho, I made friends with a 16 year old boy, three years my junior. I have a photograph of him standing beside his bicycle smiling for the camera. He wore black shorts and a white dress shirt that day. The same outfit he wore everyday. He loved Americans and told me it was his dream to some day live in the United States. He was one of the lucky ones. His father owned a small brewery, assuring the family of a better than average income. The boy didn’t have to labor in the rice paddies. He went to a private school. His hands were uncalloused.. He lived in a home with electricity and a tiled floor. And he owned his own bicycle. I remember one afternoon, asking him if he had ever slept with a woman? Blushing, he said,” No.” I took him to a brothel in Mytho and asked a prostitute to sleep with him. She turned up her lip and grimaced, saying she only slept with American soldiers. The thought of sleeping with a Vietnamese teenager disgusted her. The majority of prostitutes in South Vietnam slept with American soldiers to feed their families. They did it out of necessity. Maybe the thought of sleeping with my Vietnamese teenage friend disgusted her because the reality of it was too close to home. My friend’s smile still visits me when I think about my stay in South Vietnam. He lived in the middle of a war zone, an area infested by the Communist Viet Cong. People he knew were slaughtered and maimed. His future, uncertain. And yet, he smiled. I never saw him without a smile. He taught me the meaning of hope. Who knows, maybe he made it to the United States. I hope so.
summer breeze, a letter from home paints over the now with some day
Most of us were away from our families for the first time. We were separated from our families and the neighborhoods we grew up in. We were stationed in a country on the other side of the world with a culture completely foreign to our way of seeing life. And, of course, there was the War. There are no certainties in war. It is a crap shoot. Maybe you’ll make it home. Maybe you won’t. This reality never strays far from a soldier’s mind. We were isolated from our families, our culture, and the world as we knew it. I was 18 years old and newly graduated from high school. I never knew how much I loved my family until I was away from them living in a war zone. Suddenly, they were the most valuable thing in my life. I lived and died for letters and packages from home. In my spare time, I’d daydream about my family and neighborhood friends. Thinking about them was what gave me hope and kept me going. That “some day”. Needless to say, mail call was a major event.
pain revisited this winter day. a glimpse of childbirth?
I will never forget my mother seeing me off when I left for the Republic of South Vietnam that winter day in 1968. It was the first time I saw her cry. She suffered much pain bringing me into this life. When I boarded the plane that took me into the ascending dragon's lair, she felt more pain....the pain a mother feels when she thinks her son might not return. That moment is forever frozen in my subconscious mind and strengthened the bond we had for one another. Luckily, I came back in one piece. In 1997, I held her hand as she breathed her last breath. I am still reeling from the pain.
swallowed by the earth this autumn day -dreams undreamt
Thousands of people died in the Vietnam War. Not all of the dead were soldiers. Many were innocent civilians. People with no axe to grind. No political goal to fulfill. Men, women, and children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their lives snuffed out by napalm, bombs, hand grenades, mortars, rockets, automatic rifle fire, knives, and human hands. There are no shiny black memorials to commemorate their existence and the sacrifice they made. Their dreams, their hopes, their aspirations relegated to what could have been. And for what? A war, America's leaders now say, should not have been. The memory of these people should not be forgotten.
it didn’t have to happen, this rice field devoured by pests
In Vietnam, veneration of the elderly, is a way of life. It is ingrained in the culture. Showing respect to those older than themselves is a time honored tradition. Disrespect is taboo, even to an older brother or sister. Heavily armed American soldiers, barely out of high school, often went into South Vietnamese villages. Sometimes they were passing through. Other times, they were searching for the enemy. Older people were ordered around by many of these young men. Disrespect was rampant. My country was supposedly in South Vietnam because we cared about the nation’s well-being. In reality, we were there to protect our economic interests. We knew little or nothing about the people we were charged to protect. Our treatment of South Vietnamese civilians furthered the cause of Communism and helped bring about the fall of the South Vietnamese Government. I liken this disrespect to the pests that devour a rice field. Once a pest is introduced to a rice paddy, unless it is eradicated immediately, it will reek havoc to the planted rice and destroy the crop. Had we supplemented our warrior spirit with love, caring, and respect, maybe the war would have ended differently. This is the first war the United States lost. So many servicemen died. It didn’t have to happen.
hat and beard shaped the same. one up, one down
Retirement is nonexistent in Vietnam. It is one of the poorest nations on earth. Social security and pension checks don’t exist. One works until he can no longer work. Every member of the family pitches in. The work ethic is paramount to survival. In America, we have it made. Those 55 and older qualify for senior citizen discounts. Most retire when they are 65 or younger. A time to rest and play. In the South Vietnamese countryside, it was wasn’t uncommon to see leather skinned old men with a flowing white beards laboring alongside younger men and women. They worked hard with a natural rhythm sown by experience and acceptance of their lot in life. I admired them. Sitting in front of a television set in their twilight years courting dementia is not part of their mindset. They are the village elders. The people others look to for advice and counsel. Whenever I walked past or met a Vietnamese man or woman older than myself, I bowed my head, to show my respect. This is the Southeast Asian way. Whenever I could, I visited villages for no other reason than to be amongst the people. To learn from them, to see life through their eyes. Life is a school. For a season, they became my teachers. Especially the elderly.
twilight -soldiers and the jungle wear the same uniform
Soldiers dressed in jungle greens navigating through green foliage. From a distance, hard to spot. Soldiers on patrol depended on camouflage. They also depended on their ability to spot camouflaged Viet Cong, who were practiced masters . Vietnam had been at war off and on for a thousand years. The Viet Cong were fighting on their own turf. We were not. Soldiers on patrol in the jungle experienced something a non-soldier will never experience. You can't relax. You can't make noise. You constantly scan the perimeter for signs of the enemy. You are unfamiliar with the terrain. Your heart is beating a million miles a minute. Booby traps wait for you to step on them. Highly poisonous snakes lurk in the foliage. You know you could be shot at at any moment. If you are attacked, bullets could come from every direction at once, leaving you nowhere to run or take cover. Bodies are falling. Your buddies and the enemy. Carnage that will haunt you forever in dreams and waking thoughts.
summer night -a headless soldier laying on the beach
A soldier stationed on our base in Dong Tam snuck across the canal bordering our facility to have sex with one of the local girls living on the canal’s banks. This was an unsecured area known to harbor Viet Cong and was off limits to Base personnel. He did not return to his bunk that night. In the morning, a Navy patrol boat saw what was left of the soldier laying on a beach beside the canal. He had been decapitated. His head was placed in a slit in his stomach along with his genitals. Whether or not the grizzly scene was the work of a disgruntled parent or the Viet Cong, was never answered.
bullets or raindrops? both left a trail that Fall
Two things hit us hard that autumn, the Monsoon rains and enemy fire. I'd never experienced heavier rain. It almost never rained during the daylight hours. But, when nightfall came and the hot tropical sun traveled to the other side of the world, the rain came...in torrents. So much so, that in minutes, military vehicles would sink into mud that, moments earlier, had been dry earth. Often accompanying the rain were hurricane force winds. The rain and the wind created an eerie symphony. Providing a counter melody were the creaking and whining of the boats moored on the docks beside our River Repair Boat barge. The rains were often destructive, laying havoc to roads, bridges, and communication lines. That same Fall, the enemy struck our base hard. Mortar and rocket attacks were common day occurrences. Firefights on the perimeters were also commonplace. Automatic rifles from both sides pelted the area with lethal projectiles, leaving a trail of blood in their wake.
this lanternless night, bamboo stakes, dipped in excrement, wait for brown boots
Boobytraps killed and maimed thousands of American servicemen during the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong had limited supplies and money. One thing they didn't lack in, however, was ingenuity. They were able to fashion boobytraps out of almost anything. One of the most lethal of their boobytraps was the punji stake. Concealed underwater in rice paddies and beneath jungle foliage, they were crudely made bamboo stakes dipped in animal excrement. When an unsuspecting soldier stepped on one, the razor sharp point of the bamboo stake would pierce his foot. The animal excrement guaranteed immediate infection. Soldiers on patrol in the jungle were far from hospitals and infirmaries. Especially those deep in enemy territory, experiencing day to day combat. If improperly treated, gangegreen would set in, eventually necessitating the removal of the infected soldier's foot or leg. The pain from the wounds were excruciating. They were the lucky ones. When fired at by the enemy in a boobytrapped rice paddy, soldiers instinctively dove for cover. Some of them landed on punji stakes, ripping open their stomachs, chests, or bowels. Death soon followed.
forced to shoot others this manchild, one year a thousand summers
Nothing changes a young teenager quicker than when he is forced to kill another human being. Young boys were drafted into the Vietnam War right after graduation from high school. At eighteen, their lives had centered around going to school, playing sports, courting girls, helping out at home, and other youthful pursuits. Overnight, they were transported across the ocean to a foreign land where they were armed with automatic rifles (machine guns) and told to shoot the enemy if attacked. I had a friend who was forced to shoot a nine year old girl who charged at him with a hand grenade. He told me it was the most horrible thing he ever had to do, killing a little child. But as he told me, “What else could I do? It was kill or be killed.” The taking of a human life changes a person forever. Gone is the innocence of youth, the naivete of adolescence. Some soldiers had to kill others on a daily basis, witnessing some of the most gruesome sights imaginable. Psychologically, of course, it took its toll. Some of my friends had glazed over eyes. Others drunk or drugged themselves to oblivion on a nightly basis. Others I know are plagued even today by horrendous dreams of what they experienced and saw during their stay in South Vietnam. The sad thing is, when we returned stateside, after completing our tour of duty, few of us received counseling. After discharge, we were sent back into the civilian world, emotionally dysfunctional. Drug addiction, alcoholism, and post traumatic syndrome laid waste to many of my fellow servicemen. I too, went through hell and back. It was only through years of counseling and spiritual journeying that I was able to rise up from the chasm of self destruction and reoccurring spectres to a headspace today that gives me peace of mind and inner happiness.
summer has ended -what are they to you, these people in the dragon’s belly?
More than once, I was invited to have supper with a South Vietnamese family. The families I dined with were not rich. Most barely eked out a living. The meals they served my friends and I, however, were second to none, usually consisting of rice, shrimp, a kale -like vegetable, and dessert. The meals were delicious and abundant. Better than the food, however, was the hospitality. Our hosts treated us like visiting royalty, insisting we eat more, giving us the best seats, continually asking us if we wanted refills for our sodas. The South Vietnamese people are some of the nicest, most considerate people on this planet. The Viet Cong were everywhere, especially in the Mekong Delta region where I was stationed. Those who offered hospitality to American servicemen, paid a high price for their generosity. Sooner or later, they would be tortured, killed, or forced to serve as spies by the VC. The Communists were merciless with those who sympathized with the American war effort. I have seen their handiwork first hand. Backs with burn marks and horrible bruises. Backs that had been brutally beat. And that wasn’t the worst. Our guests gave to us and asked for nothing in return. Never once did they pump us for information. They gave because that was who they were...generous, giving people. We, supposedly, were in South Vietnam to help and protect the people from the evils of Communism. Our presence in the war gave many a false hope. A hope for a day when they too could be free from war and poverty. The United States left Vietnam in 1975, withdrawing from a war that claimed an excessive amount of human lives. The Republic of South Vietnam’s government was toppled instantaneously by the North Vietnamese armed forces. What happened next to those who helped the American war effort was not a pretty scene. Thousands were killed. Thousands were tortured. Others were forced to attend reeducation camps. A Vietnamese friend of mine who later managed to escape from Vietnam as a boat person with his extended family, told me of former South Vietnamese policemen who were tied spread eagle in his village’s square and hideously tortured as an example for all to see. Do we, who served in the Vietnam War, ever think about our hosts today? Are we concerned about the welfare of the Vietnamese people we were formerly charged to protect?
where are you, papa? you didn’t show me how to plow the field
Children lost their fathers during the Vietnam War. Some lost their mothers. On both sides. Lessons untaught. Examples unlearned. Lives scarred by anger, loneliness, and the absence of a primary role model. One day, a parent is there. The next day, he or she is not. War shows no mercy, no preference. People die. Families are torn apart. We must not forget this. I long for a day, idealistic me, when war is no longer a reality. I saw firsthand, the ravages of war. Soldiers and civilians were shot, maimed, and psychologically scarred for life. Over a million lives needlessly erased from this earth. And for what? Oil? Tungsten? Rubber? Power? Where were the politician’s sons and daughters during the war?
odd, a jasmine flower in hell's bosom
The former Republic of South Vietnam was an enigma for those of us who fought there during the war. It was a mixture of heaven and hell. Hell, because of the war. A war that forever changed our lives, took away our innocence, and left us with emotional scars that will haunt us until we die. The sights and sounds of that war are not the kind that go away. We saw and experienced things at a young age no young person should have to see or experience. Unfathomable horror. Bleak loneliness. And a fear that leaves you numb for days afterwards. We were sent to the battlefields without psychological preparation. And when we returned Stateside, most of us were denied counseling. The Republic of South Vietnam was also heaven. Heaven, because it is one of the most beautiful places on earth, bar none. I was stationed in the Mekong Delta region, a rich rainforest laced with intersecting rivers and waterways. It was like living inside a National Geographic Magazine centerspread. There were tall palm trees, lush green foliage, beautiful flowers, exotic animals, and much more. A nature photographer's dream come true. A touch of Hell. A touch of Heaven.
the memories I brought home that winter didn’t turn off
I envy those who have never fought in a war. They aren’t haunted by the memories those of us who have served in a war have. War is glorified in the movie theaters and on television. Gore and violence sells. It also desensitizes people. As a child, I watched my fair share of violence on screen. Then I went to the Republic of South Vietnam. Suddenly, what I saw on the screen was more than acting. I was center stage. Doing live theater. Real bullets. Real rockets. Real mortars. Real people dropping dead. Real blood. Real fear. And just 18 years of age. When I returned, I did what many did when they returned from the war. I tried to forget what I saw and experienced. And to no avail. Drugs and alcohol couldn’t erase the memories. Certain things a person can never forget. The horrors of war is one of them. I exchanged a cap and gown for jungle fatigues. So did thousands of others. We saw, we experienced, we felt, and were changed forever. There were no ticker tape parades to welcome us home. Some thanked us. Others cursed us. In Washington D.C., there is a monument to honor the memory of Vietnam War veterans. The same Washington D.C. that later said our participation in the War was a mistake. War continues to haunt and ravage the world, leaving a trail of blood and ruined lives in its wake. War is not glorious. It is real. Too real.
autumn evening now the space between each shell a deafening quiet
For three weeks straight, during the TET Offensive in 1968, the Viet Cong lobbed one mortar after another onto our Base in Dong Tam. The attacks occurred late at night and early in the morning. Needless to say, sleep wasn’t something we got a lot of. The enemy attacked five to seven times an evening. Erratically timed, we never knew when to expect an attack. We just knew that they would come. When the mortars came, they came with a vengeance. We were sitting ducks. There was no way of anticipating where they would land. It was a dice game with no winners. It was the deafening quiet between each mortar that I remember the most. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t do anything but hope and pray that my name wasn’t on one of the incoming shells. Wideeyed like a deer staring at a car’s headlights, I’d stare out at the bay and wait. Every night. Every morning. Death taunted us. Our imaginations, larger than life. We were the hunted, unable to see the hunter. Base morale sunk to an all time low. We grew tired, antsy, unsure of our futures. Bridges to all roads leading to our Base were wiped out. Mail could not be delivered. We were cut off from our families, our linkline to sanity. Supplies didn’t get to us. Our dreams put on hold.
tunnels everywhere -not a seasonal worker, the dragon
For a thousand years, Vietnam was at war. The Vietnam War was one of many wars. For centuries, outsiders have trampled on her soil, raping her of her natural resources. Originally, Vietnam was a single nation. Later, it was partitioned by the French into two nations. At the end of the Vietnam War, the two nations became one again. Exploited and poor economically, the Vietnamese people didn’t have the wherewithal to fight conventionally, nor did they have the resources their conquerors had. The one thing they did have, however, was patience and vision. They knew they couldn’t rid themselves of their conqueror’s yokes overnight. It would take time and sacrifice. Decades turned into centuries. Thousands of lives were lost. Throughout the years, Vietnamese guerilla army units dug an elaborate system of tunnels under the earth, many of them interconnected. They used the tunnels to house hospitals, armories, soldiers, supplies, and other necessities. Some of the tunnels were multilayered, burrowing deep into the ground. The Chinese, Japanese, French, and American armed forces knew of their existence but had no idea how many there were nor the vastness of its reach. During the Vietnam War, we were unable to pluck the enemy from its lair, no matter how many bombs were dropped and villages raided. After every attack, the Viet Cong would reemerge, seemingly invincible. The enemy refused to be conquered. Because they were born there, the Viet Cong knew the land better than their attackers. They dug, they hibernated, and they waited.. Their patience paid off. The little dragon defeated its enemies in 1975. Unfortunately, the little dragon today has become the domesticated pet of a political system heavily influenced by a former conqueror, The People’s Republic of China. I remember the old South Vietnamese farmer who told me that he didn't want the U.S. in Vietnam nor the Chinese influenced Communists. He wanted to be left alone to farm and govern his own destiny. The cycle continues.
louder than the parrot the soldier in the field drinking beer
Americans by nature are a loud lot. In comparison, the Vietnamese people are softspoken and rarely raise their voice. It is considered rude to yell or speak loudly. This is due in part to the Buddhist influence. Many times I walked through villages in the Mekong Delta. Always it was a peaceful experience. No loud music, no screaming kids, no blaring television sets; the air permeated with the soft whisper of woman doing chores, children playing, animals grazing, and the fluttering of banana leaves. A lot of soldiers drank heavily. This is not uncommon in a war zone. Unfortunately, the use of alcohol erases all inhibitions. This made for loud voices, aggressive behavior, and a lack of moral restraint. Several of my buddies drank themselves drunk on weekend leave. Their voices pierced the quiet countryside; their frustration, fear, and prejudices magnified tenfold. They became obnoxious, disrespectful, and grabbed at passing women with sexual abandon, oblivious to their complaints. They were armed, the women were not. The only police in the village, South Vietnamese Army guards who didn’t want to make waves. Unrestrained, the drunken soldiers did what they pleased.
short night, mamasan sees her husband’s face in the clouds
I asked a young South Vietnamese mother in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, one afternoon in October of 1968, where the father of her children was. “I’m not sure,” she said. “He’s in the Army fighting the Viet Cong. I don’t know where. I haven’t heard from him in seven months.” “I bet you get lots of letters from him, huh?” I asked. Her lack of an answer and the look on her face said it all. Many of us living here in the United States lost a loved one or a friend in the war our government called a conflict. We mourned our losses. We erected memorials. We weren’t the only ones who suffered. Thousands of South and North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians lost their lives as well. Deep down inside, the mamasan I talked to, knew she’d never see her husband again. A cloud of doubt and uncertainty hung over her. A peace of the puzzle missing. All she had were memories and a faint glimmer of hope that was fading with each passing day. What would she tell her children? How would she support them? What would happen to them if South Vietnam succumbed to the North? America could walk away from the “conflict”, which they did in 1975. Those living in Vietnam could not. And still can’t.
burnt flesh and jasmine co-mingle this afternoon
American jets dropped napalm bombs on Viet Cong strongholds. It was also shot from flamethrowers and delivered via missiles. Napalm, when it comes into contact with human skin, sticks to it and ignites, causing a person to become a human torch.
in the elephant grass, spent shells made of skin
Many of us in America know of someone who died in the Vietnam War. Some of my schoolmates and friends perished in combat. What almost never comes to mind, however, are the untold thousands of civilians who died during the war, including women and children. Missiles, mortar shells, napalm, boobytraps, and automatic weapon fire killed all who came across their path of fire. What I saw in South Vietnam will haunt me forever.
curio shop--in the back room, a woman shredding dog meat
Dogs are eaten in Vietnam. In America, where dogs are revered as pets, the practice is repulsive. They are considered members of the family. Almost human. Vietnam, on the other hand, is an extremely poor country. Poverty is rampant. Starvation a stark reality. Having a pet dog is inconceivable. To the Vietnamese, dogs are a source of meat, nothing more. The meat is nutritious, just as safe to eat as beef or pork. Once, during shore leave, I ate what I thought was a water buffalo sandwich in a riverfront cafe in Mytho, a small city in the Mekong Delta, not far from our base. I told the waitress, “This is good water buffalo.” She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “That not water buffalo, GI. Too expensive. That dog.”
everyone looks older in the rice field -short night
Planting and picking rice under the hot sun is back breaking labor. The days are long. The nights, too short. After a while, a laborer’s skin takes on the appearance of dark brown leather. The weather during harvest time is well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The humidity, one hundred percent. Works starts early in the morning before dawn and isn’t regulated by a time clock or child labor laws. It is a matter of necessity. Babies born, dreams doused, lives expired...the rice field is a jealous lover. When we were not on the front line or pulling guard duty, American servicemen worked an eight hour day. We took frequent breaks and guzzled soda pop. After work, we showered, ate dinner, and socialized until lights out, our laundry and ironing done by cleaning women.
it's no movie i am dodging shrapnel this afternoon
I remember the first time our base was rocketed. We were eating dinner in the mess hall when out of nowhere a shrill whistle pierced the din of our conversation. Instinctively, my shipmates and I dove for cover. Shrapnel from the explosion fell on the mess hall roof like hail stones. This was the first time the Navy side of the base experienced a direct hit. I felt like a sitting duck and said to my shipmates, "Come on, guys. Let's go to our ship. It's never been hit before." We got up from the table we'd taken cover under and ran out of the mess hall towards our duty station. Another whistle. Our ship was hit. I looked behind us and saw a rocket explode two hundred yards away. The sky was raining shrapnel. We continued running towards the ship. Another whistle. We kissed the pontoons our ship was moored to. I looked up and saw one of my shipmates laying in a pool of blood. We yelled for a medic and ran up the gangway, grabbing our weapons, donning helmets and flack jackets, and heading for our general quarters stations. In the blink of an eye, that evening, we became the actors in the war movies we'd watched stateside. Only we weren't acting and this wasn't a movie.
joss sticks and ashes on family mantle — whispering
In almost every home I visited in rural Vietnam, there were joss sticks and a photo or photos of deceased loved ones on a mantle, beside an urn containing their ashes. It was the family altar. The Vietnamese talk daily to their ancestors .
we gave each other nicknames, pretended we were cartoons that summer
It was hard being separated from my family for an extended period of time. I’d never been away from them for more than eight weeks, and that was during bootcamp. Now I was overseas in a strange land participating in a war I thought I understood. I was nervous, lonely, and sometimes, disoriented. I was eighteen years old. My world, prior to going to Vietnam, was centered around sports, surfing, dating, and dancing. Like most new bootcamp graduates, I came to Vietnam unprepared for what I would see or experience. Separation from family, a different culture, tropical weather, a military bureaucracy, a war governed by politicians instead of generals...it was a confusing time for many of us. To make sense of the situation we were in and to keep our sanity, we formed small groups. A cache of friends we could relate to and bond with. Everyone on base had a group they belonged to. We needed each other. We became the family we had left at home. We gave each other nicknames. My buddies were Top Cat, Slow Man, Boats, and the Great Randini. I was The Whippoorwill. We drank, we got high, we did whatever we could to forget about the war zone we were in the middle of, the pain we felt, and to exorcise the ghosts our subconscious minds regurgitated from time to time. On duty, we worked and did what we had to do. War is a team effort. You ask no questions and do as you are told. Needless to say, we lived and died for the off duty hours when we left the newscast and became a Saturday morning cartoon.
little girl, the egg you are holding is made of metal
A new guy came aboard the YRBM-17, the river repair boat barge I was stationed on in Dong Tam. He had a far off look in his eyes and a countenance that said he’d been to Hell and back. He stuck out like a sore thumb. Like most of us, he was barely out of high school, but you wouldn’t know it. A frown was permanently etched into his face, he socialized with no one during off duty hours, and rarely spoke. When he did, it was in a low growl. Chronologically a teenager, he was an old man, a spent shell void of life, hope, and joy. It was a sad sight, something none of us could relate to. It didn’t take a psychologist to figure out that our new shipmate was a time bomb waiting. to explode. He was only with us a month and then reassigned. We never saw nor heard from him again. I asked him before he left what was bothering him. He told me he and some shipmates were walking through a village a few months prior when a nine year old Vietnamese girl charged at them with a live grenade. It was kill or be killed. He shot her dead with his M-16 automatic rifle, an event that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
we wore the wrong hat that summer... even the oxen smiled
Every day in the former republic of South Vietnam felt like summer. There were times when it reached 127 degrees farenheit. The humidity in the Mekong Delta region was 100%. I remember stepping off of the airliner in Saigon when I began my tour of duty. It was like walking into a giant sauna. Jungle fatigues with steel toe combat boots and metal helmets were standard issue for servicemen stationed in South Vietnam during the War. it was essential garb, but uncomfortable to wear in the sweltering weather. The majority of the citizenry, of course, wore loose fitting silk pajamas, sandals, and hats to shield their heads from the sun. We were not accustomed to the weather. Our clothing was drenched. We drank water, soda, or beer, every hour on the hour, accompanied by salt tablets. Another reminder that we were strangers in a strange land.
what I don’t see worries me, this jungle with eyes
I couldn’t relax when I was in the Republic of South Vietnam. Even when I was off duty in a so-called “safe” town. No serviceman could. There was a saying regarding the Vietnamese: “Friends during the day, enemies at night.” The Viet Cong didn’t wear military issue clothing. They wore civilian clothes. There was no way we could tell en enemy from an ally. During the day, they were invisible, which made them all the more dangerous. They lived next to our base in small villages, worked in the rice fields, walked past us in town, and sold us drinks in bars. Some even worked on our Base as surveying assistants, laborers, and laundry workers. It was that kind of war. There were eyes everywhere.
the myna's song eclipsed by what wasn't heard
I visited several small villages in the Mekong Delta region of the former Republic of South Vietnam in 1968. During the day, while many parents and older siblings labored in the rice fields, the sound of children playing filled the air. Public schools were nonexistent. Grandparents looked after the young children. Providing a countermelody to the chorus of children were the songs of parrots and other jungle denizens. It was a welcome cacophony. Silence in the villages, on the other hand, meant one thing. All hell was about to break loose.
when the cicada stops singing summer is near
The cacophony of cicadas are a familiar sound in the jungles of Vietnam. The sound is monotonous and unpleasant to the ear. Their song, however, was a soothing sound to soldiers on patrol. Most servicemen were under twenty years of age. We were fresh out of high school and emotionally unprepared for war. When the jungle seized its song, our hearts took its place, pounding out a cadence driven by fear, nervousness, and apprehensiveness. Something we couldn’t see was out there, watching, waiting, the lull before the storm. At any moment, from any direction, we could become the target of automatic rifle fire and hand grenades. The death, the carnage, the horror, beyond comprehension or reason.
please, Lord Buddha, more than a stoney stare this winter
The majority of the people in the former Republic of South Vietnam are devout Mahayana Buddhists. Infused into this belief is a mixture of Animism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship. The Vietnamese are a very religious people. Holding onto one’s faith during a war is not easy. I know, I participated in one. What I saw and experienced will haunt me forever. Imagine what it was like for the Vietnamese villagers, and other nonmilitary personnel. How would it affect your faith if you saw family members and friends maimed and slaughtered? Your sister lit up like a torch from napalm?
early spring --not like home, this hole in the wood floor
I flew by chopper from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to my permanent duty station, the YRBM-17, in Dong Tam , located in the fertile Mekong Delta region of the former Republic of South Vietnam. The year was 1968. I was 18 years old and had been in country a week and a half waiting for my permanent assignment. In some ways, Saigon was like any other duty station. There were lots of bars, brothels, and restaurants. All had flush toilets and running water. During my first free weekend in Dong Tam, I went on shore leave with some of my shipmates to Mytho, a nearby port city hugging the shoreline of the Mekong River. Ashore, we made a beline to the nearest restaurant, anxious to eat something different than Base chow. Built on stilts over the river, it looked like a nice, clean place to eat lunch and forget about the war. An easy thing to do when you are new in country and haven't yet experienced the reality of war. After downing what I thought was a water buffalo sandwich ( I later found out it was dog), I asked the woman behind the counter where the restroom was. She smiled and pointed to a door behind me. I opened the door and was instantly bewildered. There was no toilet or sink. Just a hole in the wood floor leading to the river below. Welcome to the Mekong Delta, sailor!
silly man he’s building his house in the rice field
During the Vietnam War, I was stationed in Dong Tam, a military base in the volatile Mekong Delta region near Mytho, 37 miles southeast of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Dong Tam was jointly occupied by the U.S. Army and Navy. Desolate and void of plant life, the Base, in contrast to the surrounding countryside, stood out like a sore thumb. Dong Tam was a tiny desert in the middle of a lush, tropical jungle. The Base sat on a desolate, dusty piece of land next to a man-made bay where rice fields had been previously. Dirt extracted from the ground while making the bay was used to fortify Dong Tam’s earthen foundation. The engineers who designed the Base knew little about the terrain and the affects the weather would have on it. Every year, Monsoon rains visit the Mekong Delta. The rains come down in thick sheets and are unlike anything Americans experience in their country. When it rained, the desert-like terrain on our base was instantly transformed into a thick sea of light brown mud. In minutes. Jeeps and other military vehicles were swallowed up. The Vietnamese planted and harvested rice there for centuries. I wonder what went through their minds when they were evicted from the rice fields and an American military base was erected in its place.
who will be next? a harvest i don’t want to think about
During the height of the Vietnam War, one of my classmates in high school told me he wanted “to go to Nam and kick some commie butt!” It was a popular sentiment in America during the mid sixties when the anti war movement was still in its infancy. Many of us went to South Vietnam to protect the free world from Communism. It was a long and protracted war with no winners. Thousands of lives from all sides were extinguished. Countless others were scarred forever, physically and mentally. War is not a lark. It is not kicking another person’s butt. It’s taking the lives of human beings like yourself. The memories never go away..
a rice field full of ghosts -listen
The rice field is where many villagers who live in the Mekong Delta region of the former Republic of South Vietnam spend the majority of their time. Rice is the main staple, the basis for all meals. For some, the only staple. A poor nation then and now, farming is done by hand and plow. Machinery and technology, relegated to textbooks and showcase farms. Planting and harvesting rice is back breaking work. From sun up to sun down, laborers are bent over under the hot, humid sun, their hands calloused, their skin like leather. During the Vietnam War, villagers continued the daily ritual. It was a necessity of life, more important than a war orchestrated by politicians. Rice fields in the Mekong Delta are everywhere. Soldiers had to walk through them to get from one location to another. Aware of that, the Viet Cong placed mines and booby traps in their enemy’s path. Firefights between the Viet Cong and American soldiers in and around the rice fields were commonplace. More than soil fertilized the villagers rice crops. If the rice fields could speak....
light in the village this autumn night --human candles
Napalm jelly is a mixture of gasoline and a thickening agent. It sticks to its target while burning. A person hit with napalm, dies a slow, hideously painful death. Some villages, thought to be enemy strongholds, were bombarded with the weapon via flamethrowers and incendiary bombs. There were nights when it rained napalm. Human beings were set on fire, burning like macabre candles.
orphan, who will feed you this starless night when sidewalks slay dreams?
The streets of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and other cities in the former Republic of South Vietnam were filled with orphans and homeless children during the Vietnam War. Directly or indirectly, they were victims of the war. Whole villages were bombed. Families extinguished. Mothers and fathers fighting for one side or the other, laying dead in rice fields and jungles. Half dressed toddlers holding the hands of older siblings begging soldiers for money or food were commonplace. Their wounded looks and half smiles, haunting. Some of the children on the streets were “love children” of American soldiers who promised to marry their Vietnamese girlfriends and didn’t...they returned home after their tour of duty, leaving behind them empty promises and a family with no means of support.
lift me, dragonfly
out of your namesake’s mouth -winter nears
Serving in Vietnam during the war was a form of gambling. You win, you go home. You lose, you don’t. The odds were fifty/fifty. Sometimes, less. When I first arrived in-country, I felt invincible. I was 18, fresh out of high school, and didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I’d watched the war, like most Americans, on television sets in wall to wall carpeted homes. The images on the nightly news showed the U.S. Military overpowering the enemy. My family and I rooted for Uncle Sam in between bites of popcorn. This mindset changed the first time I was fired upon. The War became real. It was no longer something parading surrealistically in front of me on a glass screen. Bullets whizzed past me. Metal from exploding mortar shells fell down from the sky. Blood flowed like water. The adventure was over. I wanted to go home...In one piece.
manchild waiting for the harvest spring could not deliver
We were continually nervous, unable to relax, all the time we were incountry. That is the nature of being stationed in a war zone. Safety was short lived. Any moment an incoming missle or mortar could maim or kill one or all of us. We were young men, fresh out of high school, living in a strange land, fighting a war we didn’t completely understand. Overnight, we went from cruising the boulevard in souped up cars and living in comfortable homes to a life that courted death. Day and night we waited for the moment when all hell would break loose. Many took drugs or drank themselves into oblivion. The Vietnam War. Waiting for a harvest spring could not deliver.
dragon, like an old friend, you visit me this autumn
Vietnam is called the land of the Ascending Dragon. As a sailor during the Vietnam War, I was stationed in-country for eleven months. Not a particularly long time under normal conditions. But these weren’t normal times. I was 18, newly graduated from high school, still in the throes of adolescence, and living in a war zone. It was a mind numbing experiencing. I left the former Republic of South Vietnam in 1968, glad to return home and continue on with my life. Little did I know that what I experienced in Vietnam would follow me home and influence my life even today. Many of my values and perceptions on life were challenged during my tour of duty. I was forced to grow up overnight, face skeletons I’d hidden in my closet, and make life changing decisions without my parent’s advice. Today, I am in the autumn of my life. Like an old friend, the dragon continues to visit me.
whose shadows are they, these spectres from across the river?
Those living in the villages near our base played host to shadows almost every night. Outside their thatched roofs homes, soldiers did what they did. The villagers knew well enough to stay inside and wait for the night to pass. This wasn’t their war.
a long day --the water they drink bathes the oxen
There was no running water in the villages of the Mekong Delta. Indoor plumbing was nonexistent. Bottled and filtered water, luxuries soldiers purchased on shore leave. Villagers drank from the polluted Mytho River. They also bathed in it and used it as their toilet. So did the oxen.
you furrow the skin of those who furrow the ground this long day
The Vietnamese sun is a hard task master. It breathes on the faces of those laboring in the rice fields, seven days a week, transforming their skin into leathery masks. Cosmetic creams and beauty treatments are for the rich. Villagers get up before dawn, work long hours in the rice fields, and return home at night to thatched roof houses without ovens, refrigerators, and running water. It is a life few of us in the West understand.
Cock, you too fight another’s fight this balmy afternoon
A Filipino friend of mine didn’t joined the rest of us when we went on shore leave to Mytho, the port city nearest our duty station in Dong Tam. Off base, my shipmates and I did everything we could to forget the war. We ate, drank, partied, and frequented the local brothel. We were young, away from home, and still alive. When I asked my friend where he was going, he grinned, “To a cock fight. It’s a tradition. Something we do in my country every Sunday.” I knew nothing about the Philippines. My friend served the Navy as a ship’s steward, a fancy name for a butler. Coming from a former U.S. territory, Filipino males were allowed to enlist in the U.S. Navy. Most served as stewards and cooks. My friend didn’t relate to our culture. His lifestyle was, in many ways, similiar to the Vietnamese. The Republic of the Philippines and Vietnam are neighbors, living across the South China Sea from each other. My shipmate blended in with the local populace and went places we could never go to and feel safe. In a cockfight, two men engage their roosters in a fight to the death. The feet of the cocks are wrapped with metal spurs. Released in an arena, the roosters claw at one another, fighting for supremacy. Feathers flying, backs arched, they bandy for position, hungry for the right moment. The real victor, of course, is not the cock who wins the fight but the rooster’s owner. He is the recipient of the bets placed on the fight.
one thousand years of slumber, this dragon in a bamboo lair
For a thousand years, Vietnam was coveted and ruled by various foreign powers including China, Japan, and France, due to an abundancy of textiles, petroleum, and minerals. When the French were forced out of power by Ho Chi Minh, the country was partitioned into two countries: North and South Vietnam. The North was governed by Ho Chi Minh and the communist government he set up. The South was governed by a dictator closely aligned with American business interests. A war broke out between the two countries. Hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered and killed.
memories zipped up in a body bag this starless night
Over 50,000 American soldiers died during the Vietnam War. Thousands of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers also perished. They fought for their respective ideologies and paid the ultimate price. Once living, breathing human beings, they are memories. We went to war unprepared for the reality it presented us. Many died. The remainder of us went home after our tour of duty, haunted by mental pictures that will plague usfor the rest of our lives.
december morning --going from one war to another
In early December of 1968, my tour of duty was over. Dressed in civilian clothes, I boarded a plane in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and flew across the Pacific Ocean to California. I was happy and sad. Happy because I was in one piece and would be with my family and fiance. And sad because I loved Vietnam. It’d been my home for a year. 1968 had been a tumultuous year. The flower power and anti-war movements joined hands and plunged my country into social upheaval. It was not the same country I’d left. There was a war of the mind overturning homes and communities. Our way of life had been questioned by those brave enough to question it. They were labeled radicals, communists, and unamerican by those who wanted business as usual. Walls tumbled down. Battlelines were drawn. People were shot dead or wounded by soldiers and the police. I remember watching four policemen holding down a female peace marcher, spread eagle, while a fifth policeman beat her with a baton. Drugs played havoc with the minds of those who at first, sought simple truth and alternatives to a reality they couldn’t buy into. A havoc that threatens to destroy our country even today. Minds were blown. Morality as we’d known it, tossed out the window, to be discussed later in self help books and self actualization seminars. Support for our participation in the Vietnam War was waning. There were no welcome home celebrations when we came home from Vietnam. The country was at war...with itself.
who is using whom this humid evening when war is resting?
I had been in-country a week and a half, temporarily housed in a converted hotel between downtown Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and the airport, waiting for my permanent duty assignment. My shipmates and I partied each evening, going from bar to bar, brothel to brothel. The tone in the streets changed radically the week before the Tet new year celebrations began. None of us knew why at the time. Everyone was in a hurry, as if tomorrow would never come. The streets were more crowded than usual. Vendors hawking their wares. Homeless urchins begging for money. Bargirls standing in every doorway. A thousand eyes watching us as we walked through the redlight district doing what sailors do at night when the war is somewhere else. Two days later, I was sent to my permanent duty station in the Mekong Delta, via helicopter. The night after my arrival, all hell broke loose. It was the onset of the Tet Offensive, a three week, nonstop attack by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. Rockets, mortars, automatic rifle fire, hand to hand combat. Day and night. That explained the urgency in the streets of Saigon before I was
overcast night --- the skeleton you bring me is older than the last
All of us on base were required to stand guard duty on a rotating basis. The security of the base depended on it. Located in the Mekong Delta region of the former Republic of South Vietnam, the area was a hotbed for Viet Cong activity. Some nights were quiet. Others were forays into hell, the air pierced with automatic rifle fire and incoming mortars. On guard duty, you stared into the darkness, minute after minute, hour after hour, listening, waiting, watching...your body tense, your imagination taunting you with pictures of what could be. You never let your guard down. The night had eyes. Especially on an overcast night. It was a darkness unlike any darkness I’d encountered...an eerie rainforest of nothing. Dense, inky, and quiet. Too quiet. Even the cricket knew to be silent. Standing watch at night brought me face to face with mortality, a concept I hadn’t entertained as a high school student. Before the war, I thought I was invincible. Death, something that visited the diseased and old people. Facing mortality, my deepest thoughts and feelings surfaced. Psychological skeletons, previously suppressed, came to life. Nobody to impress. No masks to wear. My senses clear, unmuddied by alcohol and marijuana. The longer I stood watch, the deeper my thoughts. Fear, hatred, self doubt... skeletons of every shape and size appeared out of the darkness, waging war with my mind. A war I am still fighting.
he poles his boat through tall reeds painted with shadows
The port city of Mytho was 13 miles from our base in Dong Tam. The city was divided by a canal into two sections. American servicemen were allowed to visit the southern section only. The other section of the city was off limits due to the presence of the Viet Cong. We made a beeline to Mytho on the weekends we had shore leave. Bars, brothels, and curio shops were on every corner waiting to take our money. The area between Dong Tam and Mytho was a flat countryside dotted with small villages, rice paddies, waterways, and patches of jungle. We traveled there by truck and boat, depending on what was available at the time. Traveling by boat, we cruised out of the Base’s harbor, up a narrow waterway lined with tiny hamlets, onto the Mytho River, a tributary of the Mekong River. The Mytho River is, at points, several miles in width, and navigated by a variety of vessels. American and South Vietnamese patrol boats regularly cruised the polluted brown water on the lookout for enemy boats smuggling arms and soldiers. The enemy inhabited some of the thatched roof houses lining the shores of the narrow waterway leading to the Mytho River, using them as lookout posts, due to their proximity to the base. Prostitutes beckoned us to come to shore, fishermen waved to us, and smiling children called out for gum and candy. Always, however, there were those watching us from the shadows, recording our movements, the types of boats we traveled in, the regularity of our trips, in preparation for carefully calculated mortar and rocket attacks that almost always came at night.
dangling from your hand the severed head of someone not unlike yourself
War can turn a young man into a monster. Strip him of innocence. Sculpt him into something far removed from what he was before he was plunged into a battlefield he was unprepared to enter. A group of teenage soldiers posed for a photograph with a buddy holding up the severed head of a Viet Cong soldier. They were smiling, like deer hunters after a successful hunt. The severed head the soldier held above his head belonged to a human being. A person, not unlike himself. The soldier and his buddies didn’t see the their prey, however, as a human being. They saw him as a “monkey.” “A gook.” A canvas of skin painted with their hatred and scorn. In a war they didn’t understand, pumped full of fear and adrenaline, soldiers watched fellow soldiers drop like flies. The carnage beyond comprehension. Like something from a horror movie. Experiences that scar people for life, alter their sense of right and wrong, slay their inner child. The dehumanization of the Viet Cong Soldier was a venting of anger, a way of dealing with the horror movie circumstances forced them to act in. It was a dastardly, inexcusable act. A scene perpetrated over and over again by soldiers on both sides of the battlefield. War can destroy a person’s soul.
lizard, come into my home and eat the flies
In America, lizards are not welcome house guests. Many people are repelled by them. In Vietnam, and other parts of Southeast Asia, this is not the case. Lizards eat flies, mosquitoes, and other unwelcome insects. Nature’s exterminator. A cost efficient, toxic free method of removing disease carrying pests. In the former Republic of South Vietnam, it was not an uncommon sight to see small gecko lizards crawling on walls in restaurants, bars, stores, and homes. Looking through an Occidental’s eyes, I was repelled at first, thinking the owners of these places to be unclean and backward. Little did I know.
rice sifted through fingers calloused with what wasn’t supposed to have been
On the nights and weekends when the war was somewhere else, many of us headed for the redlight district wanting to forget, for a brief moment, the nightmare we’d been thrust into. On one of those forays, I visited a bar located on the top floor of a hotel that once catered to Saigon’s elite when South Vietnam was under French rule. The dimly lit ballroom was a brothel, the paint on its walls peeling, a shadow of what it once had been, when the rich drank exotic drinks from long stemmed glasses and dined on food the majority of the people in Vietnam never heard of. Bar Girls were everywhere, dressed in tight, revealing dresses, catering to the needs of servicemen like myself. Unlike their counterparts in the United States, they were not addicted to drugs and didn’t live with a pimp. Many were war widows. Most had extended families to support and saw their profession as a temporary means to provide their loved ones with the necessities of life manual labor and a wartime economy could not provide. I sat down on a bench and looked at the available Bar Girls, contemplating which one I would select as my girlfriend for the evening. Seated a few feet from me was an attractive woman, approximately nineteen years old, cradling a young infant. Dressed like a Bar Girl, the look on her face said, “Not tonight.” Curiosity got the best of me and I asked her who the father of her baby was. She told me he was an American soldier she’d met in the bar eighteen months earlier. They’d had fallen in love, lived together, and got married in a civil ceremony. When it was time for her husband to return to the United States, he promised his newly pregnant wife he’d come back. She told me she was waiting for her husband that night as she had done almost every night since his departure. Hearing her story saddened me. I knew her husband would never return. He’d used her. Her hopes of a better life for herself and her son, something they’d never realize. A few years later, in 1975, The United States withdrew from the War, the fate of the Republic of South Vietnam’s citizenry, in the hands of it’s communist captors. Bar Girls, like the woman I’d spoken with that evening, especially those with Eurasian children, were sent to reeducation camps. Life in the camps were harsh, the work strenuous, the treatment unbelievably cruel. A life that wasn’t supposed to have been.
silent screams keep me awake at night the air thick with heat
During my tour of duty, I gained a respect and admiration for the Vietnamese people and their culture. Some of them became friends, inviting me into their homes for a meal, sharing with me glimpses into their lives, their beliefs, and their outlook on a variety of subjects. I met them in their villages, on base where some of them were employed, and in the cities and towns I visited during shore leave. Many were appreciative of our presence in their country and wanted the liberty we enjoy in the U.S. They looked up to Americans and expected us to win the war. Unfortunately, there was a heavy price to pay for befriending us. The Viet Cong had eyes in every village and city. Informants kept track of those who befriended us. When the enemy launched an offensive, they were ruthless to American sympathizers, setting fire to their homes, laying waste to their rice fields, submitting them to the kind of torture we see today in horror movies. I remember a laundry worker my shipmates and I hired to do our laundry and ironing. She was a sweet spirited married woman in her early thirties with a perpetual smile on her face. She worked hard for little pay and never complained. All she wanted was to feed and clothe her family. During one offensive, she and the other workers were away from our base for three weeks. She returned a different person. Gone was the smile on her face, the hope in her eyes. Her brothers, sisters, parents, and husband were slaughtered. Her house burnt down. On her back, horrible burns and welts, an example made by the Viet Cong to warn others of what would happen to those who support the American and South Vietnamese war effort. There was nothing I or my shipmates could do to help this woman or the other contract workers on base during the offensive. We were preoccupied with protecting the base and ourselves.
Many nights, I couldn’t sleep, thinking about their fate, picturing in my mind what the enemy was doing to them. I was also afraid for myself, not sure if I’d make it home alive. It was a tug-o-war of the senses. After my tour of duty, at least I was able to leave the war. This laundry worker and others like her had to remain in it. And the worse was yet to come. In 1975, the American military withdrew from the War. The Republic of South Vietnam fell to the Communists within hours of our departure. What happened next was not a pretty picture.
from the jungle floor this spring morning, a father’s whisper
The streets and villages of the Republic of South Vietnam were filled with homeless children. They wore ragged, dirty clothing, were unbathed, infested with lice, and had no one to care for them. Most traveled in small groups, scavenging collectively for food, clothing, and shelter. It was safer that way. They had no place to lay their heads at night. The only future they thought about was an immediate one...forging an existence out of nothing. They competed for handouts, scraps of food, leftovers foraged from garbage cans and sanitary dumps. They called out to passing American serviceman with outstretched hands. Those unable to fend for themselves, died from starvation and disease. Others were swallowed up by the darkness that preys on unprotected children. The war claimed the lives of many of their parents, thrusting these children into a sea of bleak uncertainty. The dreams, hopes, and comforts they’d grown up with, replaced with the need for survival. All that was left were memories...
without legs i am a tree stump watching the harvest
The armed forces representing both sides of the Vietnam War claimed to be fighting for the good of the Vietnamese people. The war, however, did more to devastate the country and its citizenry than to help. Villages and cities were leveled, rice fields torched, the economy drained. Innocent people were slaughtered...victims of rockets, bayonets, booby traps, mortars, bullets, bombs, and napalm. Others were maimed and disfigured; burn victims, people without arms and legs; without sight or voice; the ability to support themselves and their families taken from them, a death sentence in itself.
the riverbank this short night--staring mutely
I never let my guard down when I was in South Vietnam. I didn't want to return home in a body bag. Day or night, the possibility of enemy attack was eminent. It happened when we least expected it to. My first ride down a picturesque, serene river canal in a river patrol boat past waving children and smiling villagers standing in front of their thatched roof homes, gave me a false sense of security. The war seemed to be somewhere else. I came to South Vietnam thinking we were a welcome presence, the savior of a country combating Communism. I was naive. Most of us were. We were sparrows flying into the mouth of a two headed dragon waking up from a long slumber. Night patrols were especially deceptive. With no electricity and air pollution, the sky above was an astronomer's paradise, liberally painted with stars and constellations one didn't normally see in America. It was breathtaking. The only sound came from the patrol boat's diesel engine. It was like navigating through a dream. Unfortunately, some dreams are nightmares. Out of nowhere, a stream of light, the sound of a monster's footsteps, the dance of metal rain. We'd shoot into the darkness, spraying the riverbank with automatic rifle fire, hoping the nightmare would end. Praying we'd live to see the sun rise. The adrenaline rush, unbelievable. Our hearts keeping time with the dance of metal. So much for the war being somewhere else.
left for dead a bloodsoaked body praying for words
enemy rockets hit our base during lunchtime. We were at ease, eating lunch in the mess hall, talking about home and whatever else sailors talk about when the war is somewhere else. It’d been a while since since the base had been attacked, and to my knowledge, had never been attacked during the day. The telltale whistle of an incoming rocket shattered the moment. A loud boom! Metal rain danced on the mess hall’s tin roof. Instinctively, we took cover under the dining tables. One rocket after another came. I felt like a sitting duck. I told my buddies to head for our duty station, the YRBM-17, a river repair boat barge docked nearby, telling them it had never been hit. We ran out of the mess hall, the sky raining rockets, some landing behind us, others in front of us. I remember someone yelling at us, ordering us to join them in a sandbagged bunker. It was not a time to think. Instinct said to run. As we neared the dock, the YRBM-17 was hit broadside, leaving a gaping hole in what was once the entrance. One of my shipmates lay on the steel pontoons in a pool of blood. He looked dead. His body crumpled up, his eyes closed. A person crouched nearby appeared to be a medic. The rest of us climbed aboard the YRBM-17, assuming our battle stations as dictated by a Naval regulation called General Quarters. After the attack, I learned that the sailor I thought lay dead on the pontoon in a pool of blood was still alive, desparately trying to call out for help but unable to move or speak. The person near him was not a medic but a frightened sailor frozen with fear. My shipmate miraculously lived through the ordeal and was shipped out to a hospital in Saigon then Okinawa where he underwent a series of operations.
on her mother’s back--the rice field singing lullabies
Most women in he United States give birth in a hospital. The average stay is 48 hours. Many rooms come equipped with televisions and telephones. Mother and child receive twenty four hour care. In rural South Vietnam, it was a different story. When a woman gave birth, she could not afford hospital care or the luxury of taking a few days off from work to recuperate. Soon after giving birth, she wrapped her baby up, put the infant in a makeshift harness attached to her back, and continued to labor in the fields under the hot sun.
who is the enemy this autumn afternoon? burning babies
Images of the Vietnam War continue to haunt me...eleven months forever etched into my mind. Imagine what is etched into the minds of the Vietnamese people who woke up to the war every morning, year after year? French, Chinese, American, North Vietnamese armies burning villages, raping women, killing and torturing families, laying waste to rice fields, polluting rivers, turning what was once heaven into a Daliesque portrait of hell. War movies draw big audiences at movie theaters. War is entertainment to those who have not fought or lived in a war zone. Thankfully they have not experienced what some of us have seen and felt. What many in the world continue to experience. I hope they never do. Beheaded corpses, bodies burned beyond recognition, human candles, friends and family members gasping for breath, missing limbs, the stench of death, the end of dreams, horrors that defy description or imagination. Who is the enemy? It is not the villager who works day and night in the rice field to provide sustenance for her family, who prays to the ashes of her ancestors at night, wanting to be left alone to carve out the dreams others don’t want her to dream.
in the jungle winter and spring walk side by side
I never got used to the weather in the Mekong Delta. The region is part of a rain forest liberally laced with rivers, canals, and rice paddies. It is hot and humid, even at night. At times, the temperature reached 127 degrees fahrenheit. We were required to take salt tablets hourly to prevent dehydration. Our clothing was soaked with perspiration an hour after stepping outside, morning or afternoon. Heat waves undulated above the jungle floor. Every day felt like Summer regardless of the time of year. In the battlefield, we wore flack jackets, jungle fatigues, combat boots, and helmets. Off the battlefield, we wore jungle fatigues, combat boots, and a soft hat. The Vietnamese working on Base and those who lived in nearby villages wore white or black silk pajamas and sandals. So did the Viet Cong. They were dressed for the weather and never perspired.
the wind? weeds whisper what others were afraid to say
I was sent with some of my shipmates to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) for an eye exam and new glasses. It was a welcome break, flying by chopper out of the war zone. We landed at Tan Son Nhut Airport on the outskirts of the city, were met by a driver, and transported by Jeep down the main highway into the heart of Saigon, where the U.S. Naval Optical Facility was housed. Motor vehicles were not the norm during the war, a luxury saved for the military, law enforcement, big business, and the rich. The highway was a sea of bicycles, motor scooters, and pedicabs going in every direction, ungoverned by motor vehicle laws. Half way to our destination, on the right side of the highway, I saw an abandoned racetrack. According to the driver, it was built by the French during their occupation of the country. Once an opulent watering hole for the rich and powerful, the racetrack’s stadium was boarded up behind a chained link fence; the track overgown with tall weeds, its existance irrelevant to the hundreds of thousands of people passing by it daily, most of them struggling to make ends meet. During its zenith, the racetrack was a testimony to the arrogance and insensitivity of the country’s colonial rulers and the affluent citizenry in bed with them.
his scream sounded reveille that autumn morning
The U.S. Navy Seals are an elite special forces unit. It’s members are well trained killing machines. Their specialty is covert operations. A tight knit unit, they hung out with their own. When Seals came into a bar, the rest of us cleared out. A drunken Seal was to be avoided at all costs. They were the miltary’s assassins, intelligence operatives, men who did whatever it took to accomplish a mission, bar nothing. Early one morning, at the break of dawn, four Seals cruised into Dong Tam Bay in a PBR (patrol boat). They rarely came to our base. They had their own quarters near Mytho City, several miles away. Rumor had it they been drinking. Accompanying the men down the dock towards shore was a blindfolded Viet Cong prisoner, dressed in black pajamas, his arms tightly bound with rope. They took their captive to a storage shed near the mess hall. One of the Seals tied his legs and removed the pajamas. Operating a hand cranked electrical generator, with wires attached to their prisoner’s genitals, another Seal barked out a question. When the prisoner refused to answer the question, the Seal cranked the generator, sending currents of electricity into the man’s body. The young Viet Cong soldier’s high pitched scream woke up the base.
in the pail, one shrimp; myself the marketplace. buy!
I took it for granted, growing up, that everything I ate came from the grocery store, with the exception of the occasional fish my family and I’d catch during a camping trip. Going to an open air marketplace every day was a foreign concept to me. My mother and father went shopping on a weekly basis, buying in bulk, making good use of a large freezer. Life as a serviceman during the Vietnam War was an education in more ways than one. It opened my mind to a different way of thinking. The Vietnamese are a resourceful people with little money. Refrigerators, freezers, and gas stoves are for the affluent, a minority in Southeast Asia. People go daily to the marketplace to purchase the food they need for the day. Fish and poultry are alive; red meat freshly butchered; fruits, vegetables, and rice, newly harvested. I remember one evening after eating dinner, talking to a Filipino shipmate. He told me that life in South Vietnam was similar to life in his country, which wasn’t far away. I asked him for an example. The following day, during shore leave, he took me to the marketplace in nearby Mytho, a city eleven miles from our duty station, Dong Tam, in the Mekong Delta. We purchased newly slaughtered water buffalo and a kerosene wok. That night, he cooked a delicious meal that he said was common to the Filipino and Vietnamese peoples. Fascinated, I asked him for another example. He took a slice of meat, secured it inside of a mop bucket, place a rock inside, attached a line (rope) to the bucket’s handle, and gently lowered the bucket over the ship’s railing into the muddy brown water. With a smile, he said, “Wait until morning.” The following morning, my Filipino friend pulled up the bucket. Inside was a six inch fresh water shrimp; a delicacy not served in the mess hall (base cafeteria). “This too,” he said, “is a food common to both of our countries.” Being stationed in the Republic of South Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War was more than the blood and guts pictured on television and in movies. It was an opportunity to learn about another culture; to see through another’s eyes. Interestingly, I am married to a Filipina and own a second home on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. My experience in South Vietnam laid the foundation for the life I enjoy today.
time taunts me this lanternless night, with a faint song
My last night in Vietnam was surreal. It was as if I were awake and dreaming at the same time. Outwardly, I was joyous. I was going home to my family and friends in one piece. My tour of duty was over. The following morning I would be inside of a TWA airliner contracted by the military, flying above the ashes of the nightmare I’d entered eleven months prior. Earlier that evening, I partied in a Saigon bar with others who were going home. We drank beer, danced with bargirls, and celebrated until the bar closed. Most of my shipmates spent the night with a bargirl. I didn’t. It wasn’t because I was puritanical. I was as hedonistic as the rest of them. It was as if I had stepped into a dream. I was sitting on the edge of a cement planter on the roof of the brothel above the bar. The night was overcast. The moon peeking impressionistically from behind a semi transparent veil of clouds. The smile on my face earlier in the evening was gone. During my tour in-country, I had developed a love affair with the South Vietnamese people and their culture. In the morning, I was leaving the country, and would probably never return. I was happy and sad at the same time. Happy to go home to family and friends and sad to leave a culture I felt a kindred spirit with. A light on the front porch of a penthouse apartment came on. The occupant of the apartment, the brothel’s madame, a young woman in her mid twenties, dressed in a tight fitting silk dress with slits on each side, walked out to where I was sitting and asked, “You’re going home tomorrow, aren’t you, GI?” “Yes,” I said, looking surprised. “How did you know?” “I’ve seen that look before, GI. You like it here, don’t you?” It was as if she had read my mind. There was compassion in her eyes. An almost mother-like quality to her demeanor. She sat down beside me and held my hand. She asked me questions about my family, focused me on returning home. Encouraged me to grasp the future ahead of me. We talked for over an hour and a half. When there were no more words, she stood up. “Come, spend the night with me,” she whispered, pulling me toward her. “It’ll be my thank you gift.” “Thank you gift?” I asked. “I know it’s not enough but it’s the best that I can do, GI,” she said. “You flew across the ocean to fight for my country. You risked your life for us.”
carrying the carcass of a dragonfly, a bigger dragonfly
The sun was relentless that summer afternoon, like it was every afternoon in the hot, sticky Mekong River Delta. I took my time swabbing the upper deck of the YRBM-17, an ugly gray river repair boat barge permanently moored in the man made harbor at Dong Tam, an American military base forged out of a rice field bordering the jungle and a tributary of the Mytho River. Overhead, I saw a large pea green chopper working its way across the blue sky. An airborne tow truck, it was hollowed out in the middle, carrying in its wake, the wreckage of a Cobra Gunship, a small combat chopper downed by enemy rocket-fire. I wondered where it was going and why it was being towed. The gunship was damaged beyond repair. A bullet ridden shell that would never return to the country that built it.
the reeds sing to me this stillborn night--moon sleeping
Standing guard on the Base perimeter in the early hours of the morning was an unsettling experience. Especially when the sky was overcast, which it frequently was, during the monsoon season, and the moon went into hiding. We were the hunted and the hunter. Tense. Alert. Married to the now. The Viet Cong came at night, under the cover of darkiness, like a quiet tiger, padding ghost-like across the jungle floor in black pajamas, watching and waiting. Ready to pounce.
war hero, asleep beneath a rice field ripe with land mines
The Vietnam War ended when the U.S. Military left the former Republic of South Vietnam in 1975. North Vietnam annexed the country, creating a united Vietnam. We in America commemorate the sacrifice of 50,000 plus. U.S. military personnel who died during the war. It is important for people to remember that over one million human beings lost their lives. Many more were maimed, raped, and mentally savaged. Today, buried beneath the fertile soil of this country, are thousands of live land mines, bombs, and booby traps that still threaten lives some 27 years after the war ended. During the war, the amount of ordinances dropped into the province of Quang Tri alone was larger than that dropped in all of Europe during World War II.
stretching after a thousand years, the dragon wakes up
Vietnam is a sleeping dragon. She was colonized for over a thousand years by China, Japan, France, and the U.S.(economically); every country wanting a piece of the pie. South Vietnam is rich in oil, rubber, and mineral resources. Vietnam today is struggling to chart its own course, the dragon rising from its nest, adjusting to the world around it.
browner than the earth he tills—the rice farmer
Workers in the rice fields of Southeast Asia spend long hours toiling in the hot, humid sun. From sun up to sun down, they labor, often without the help of a water buffalo. Those who have done this all of their lives have skin that looks and feels like leather. Stationed in South Vietnam, I noticed two things about the people living in the villages. They looked younger than their counterparts in the United States until they reached their thirties, when working in the sun took its toll. They now looked older.
ripe fruit--a soldier’s arm dangling from a tree
The former Republic of South Vietnam is a tropical paradise; very different from what I am used to in the United States where there are four distinct seasons. In Vietnam, there are variations of one season: summer. It is almost always hot, humid, the ever green countryside and jungles teeming with exotic plants and trees. On some days, the temperature got as high as 127 degrees Fahrenheit with 100% humidity. After an hour in the hot sun, our uniforms were soaked, our bodies dripping with sweat. During a fire fight, soldiers couldn’t always retrieve those who died. Bullets and mortars were flying in all directions. Bodies were left behind. Or what remained of them.
summer rain... in his hands, the entrails of a friend
Soldiers grow close to those they fight alongside with. They do everything together. A bond is formed only another soldier who’s been in battle can understand. Pretences are jettisoned. A person’s fears and eccentricities exposed. I will never forget those I served with during the Vietnam War. They were my friends. People I entrusted my life with. Many soldiers died horrific deaths. Sights surpassing anything seen in a horror movie. Many of those who fought in the Vietnam War are haunted today by what they saw and experienced. Writing this series helps me to exorcise these ghosts.
floating cones--villagers walking in the moonless night
Most villagers in the Republic of South Vietnam wore black silk pajama-like clothing and cone shaped straw hats. They still do. The clothing is light, inexpensive, easy to care for, and ideally suited for those living in a tropical, humid climate. The straw hats shield villagers from the affects of the hot sun, especially those who labor in the rice fields. Due to the war, nightfall was a lightless affair. Lights gave away positions; made people targets. During the monsoon season, darkness in the villages was especially thick, the moon often hiding behind clouds. Walking through a village was a challenge for American servicemen. Doing it quietly, even more of a challenge. Villagers, on the other hand, navigated the tiny paths between buildings and straw thatched roof homes with ease. Dressed in black and dark skinned, the villagers were invisible at night with the exception of those wearing straw hats.
near the ground that will claim her, the old woman hawking rice
Retirement is something most of us living in the United States look forward to. Thanks to Social Security and pensions, it is a time to rest, to do the things we always wanted to do but couldn’t. This is a foreign concept to the people living in the Mekong Delta region of southern Vietnam. There are no pensions or social security checks for the laborers in the rice fields and the vendors in the marketplace. Life is hard. People work until they can no longer work. They go to work before dawn and work long hours. The only rest they get is the rest they get at night. There are no bowling alleys, movie theaters, and shopping centers to visit when the work day has ended. The villagers do what people do in homes lacking the modern conveniences we take for granted: cook, sew, mend, repair, build, wash clothes by hand, and prepare for the next day.
In Mytho City, it was commonplace to see old women stooping next to the baskets of rice, fruit, or vegetables they were hawking in the marketplace. Their skin, leathery from exposure to the sun. Their backs, bowed from years of hard labor. Survival, their motivation.
butterfly --there are no leaves to land on this year
Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide/defoliant, was regularly sprayed by American aircraft on selected jungles and rice fields in South Vietnam between 1962 and 1971. It was used to defoliate areas the enemy inhabited; and the crops serving as their food supply. Agent Orange transformed sprayed areas into grotesque wastelands. All in all, eleven million gallons were sprayed. It is a highly toxic chemical compound that can cause severe health problems such as spinal bifida, diabetes, and cancer. I was stationed in an area that was heavily sprayed. I have not been affected so far by any of the after effects. I know of veterans who haven’t been as lucky. Their health has suffered. So has the health of some of their children. Veterans hospitals in the U.S. offer testing for symptoms related to Agent Orange exposure and pay those affected a monthly settlement. They also cover medical expenses. I wonder how many thousands of civilians living in the sprayed regions were affected? Do they have any medical recourse?
painting shadows on rice paddies—the heron
The rivers and canals in the former Republic of South Vietnam were eerily still...as if painted on the landscape. Surrounded by jungle, small villages, and agent orange defoliated moonscapes, navigating these waterways was perilous, day or night. Electricity was nonexistent in most small villages. You could not see inside a thatched roof home or building, but the people inside could see you. When cruising past a village in a patrol boat, we sensed a feeling of being watched and studied. The enemy didn’t wear uniforms in the Mekong Delta. They wore civilian clothes. It was impossible to know who was the enemy and who wasn’t. As with any soldier in hostile territory, those of us cruising up or down the brown waterways, courted anxiety. We never knew when the enemy would strike or from what direction. We had to be alert; taking nothing for granted. Every noise analyzed, every shadow studied....the air permeated with anticipation.
removing snails from the rice paddy—a long day
Rice is the most important food crop in Vietnam. It is served at every meal. Sometimes it is the meal, served plain without condiments, vegetables, or meat. Poverty and starvation are real. No kernel is wasted; nothing sent spinning down a disposal or fed to pets. Because of its importance, the tending to and care for rice fields is taken seriously. Pesticides are not affordable, necessitating the use of manual labor to rid rice fields of natural enemies like the snail which can denude rice plants seemingly overnight. Day after day, before dawn and into the night, laborers wearing cone hats search for snails, plucking them out of the watery paddies, one by one, with the same care one takes to rid a family member’s hair of lice. Nothing is taken for granted. The harvested snails are eaten as food or sold in the marketplace.
two kinds of fields—one for sowing one for dying
Laborers picking and planting rice in the rice paddies of the former Republic of South Vietnam was a common sight. Rice is the principle crop in Vietnam. It is eaten at every meal. The laborers I saw worked long hours, their backs arched over, their hands calloused, the sun overhead, emitting a heat I’d never experienced before in the United States. The majority of the laborers in the fields were women. Many of their husbands were dead, disabled, or fighting for the North or South Vietnamese armies. Unlike their American counterparts, the women wore no makeup, sunscreen, protective gloves, or work boots. Their skinned was leathery from excessive exposure to the sun. At the end of the work day, which started before sunrise, they returned to a home without modern conveniences. No flush toilets, ovens, refrigerators, air conditioners, curling irons, blenders, and other things so many of us take for granted.
no sleeping in... a young girl prepares herself for the rice fields
Young girls in America have it made. Many sleep in on the weekends. The only work they do are the few jobs assigned to them by their parents such as cleaning their rooms and helping out in the kitchen. Once their chores are finished, most are free to play with their friends, hang out at the mall, see the latest Hollywood movie, or to engage in some other past-time indigenous to affluent youth. Life for girls in Vietnam is not the same. They are expected to work alongside their parents. Many in the fertile Mekong Delta region get up before sunrise and labor for endless hours in the rice fields, their hands and feet calloused, their backs bent over, not in prayer, doing their part to sustain the lives of family members. It is a hard life. Something most of us in America have trouble comprehending.
just like yesterday—two bowls of rice
I grew up in middle class America. My family and I ate as much as we wanted to eat. None of us went without. There was always money to buy a hamburger and french fries. We drank soda pop like water. Starvation was something we read about in National Geographic and Life Magazines. Going to the Republic of South Vietnam during the War changed my outlook on life forever. I was thrust into a culture far removed from anything I’d experienced. Poverty in the Mekong Delta region was the norm. There were no food stamps and welfare programs. No fast food restaurants and public housing. On several occasions, I saw people starving to death, pleading for food with vacant, lifeless eyes. Even today, their faces visit me in dreams.
floating down river that day ...my youth
I came to Vietnam a naive teenager. What I saw and experienced there, changed my perception of reality. Death, cruelty, extreme poverty, the adrenaline rush of being attacked, the fear afterwards......taunting me in dreams I didn’t want to dream and still dream.
in the reeds a caiman made of metal
Night and day, U.S. Navy river patrol boats cruised up and down the narrow canals, tributaries, and rivers in the Mekong Delta region of the former Republic of South Vietnam, searching for the enemy. Some of the boats were armed with flame throwers. Others were equipped with mortars and a modern day gatling gun called a mini-gun. Firefights occured when one least expected them to, the enemy shooting from both sides of the banks, sometimes from just a few yards away. Most of us drank a lot when we returned to our Base...to forget.
in the rubble of a bombed church, children playing
Children are children, they have a need to play. Not all children have the luxury of playing in a playground built by service clubs and tax deductable donations. Vietnam, then and now, is a poor country. When I was in South Vietnam during the War, villages and towns in the Mekong Delta were often the targets of rockets and mortar shells. Playgrounds didn't exist. Nor did public schools. Children played in the shade, sometimes in the ruins of buildings, using for toys, whatever their imaginations could think of. Some were naked. Others wore shorts and and t-shirts. Their childhood didn't last long. As soon as they were able, they went to work in the rice paddies. Children in a war zone grow up fast.
after the rain, an endless line of ants
During the Monsoon season in South Vietnam, it rained every day, the downpour torrential, the wind a bully punishing everything in its path. Coming from California. I was unaccustomed to this kind of weather. I remember one time, leaning almost to the ground in order to walk a few hundred yards, the wind clocked at 75 miles per hour. It took me fifteen minutes to get from the whorehouse I'd spent the night at in Saigon to my duty station, a converted hotel used to house sailors traveling in and out of country.
in the jungle, even the crickets knew to whisper
At night, on guard duty, it was eerily quiet, the jungle outside the Base perimeter in Dong Tam. I could hear my heart beat, the flight of an owl overhead, the footsteps of a cockroach skittering across the guard post deck; my senses on overdrive, my body tense. The enemy clothed in darkness, gauging our weaknesses, biding their time, Buddha-like and still, like a frog watching a fly. Most of the time, they did nothing. Just knowing they were there set us on edge, a psychological war we knew nothing about. And when they did attack, it was when we least expected them to.
sunrise petals replaced with skin
What a difference a morning can make. The night before, a couple friends and I partied in Mytho City, an urban center 13 miles west of our duty station in Dong Tam. We drank, smoked dope, and caroused with prostitutes, our way of coping with a war we were ill equipped to handle. The morning after, all hell broke loose. Rockets bombarded the base. The sky rained shrapnel. Mortars came from all directions. The enemy attacked when we least expected them to. Soldiers and base workers ran in all directions, unsure of where to go, a path of adrenaline in their wakes. To their battle stations or the nearest bunker. Our lives, for a moment, a crap shoot without dice.
new rice--a woman in the shadows giving birth
There were people in the villages I visited in the Mekong Delta who barely eked out a living. They lived from one bowl of rice to another. A concept I wasn’t familiar with coming from a middle class family in affluent America. Long before sunup, villagers readied themselves and their \families to work in he rice fields. They labored in the fields well past the 8 hour work day we are used to. The weather was sometimes 127 degrees with 100% humidity. A day off was a luxury they could not afford, even on the weekends. A pregnant woman did not take time off to prepare for birth, nor could she after the baby was born. Her family had to eat. \She labored under a relentless sun, her back bent over, her newborn in a sling hanging from her chest...the nearest hospital, several miles away.
in the jungle, a christmas tree made of skin
Imagine for a moment, celebrating Christmas in the jungles of the former Republic of South Vietnam. The year is 1968. You graduated from high school the previous year. This is your first Christmas away from home. And the first time you have been out of the country. You are eating canned rations with some of your buddies. Reminiscing about past Christmases. Making the most of a difficult situation. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the unmistakable sound of an incoming mortar. And another. The sky is raining shrapnel. Bullets whiz past you. There is nowhere to hide. You and your buddies dive to the jungle floor, your weapons aimed in the direction of enemy fire. Your hearts beating a hundred miles an hour. As soon as the firefight starts, it stops. It is time to clean up and assess the damages. Your first Christmas away from home. Hanging on the tree in front of you, bits and pieces of someone you’d reminisced with an hour earlier.
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