While Tu and Mi and Quy and the villagers were fighting in the mountains of the Central Highlands, I had the honor of serving with a Ranger Company, ‘E’ Company, 50th Infantry (ABN)(LRP), 9th Infantry Division, the Long Range Patrol, which later became ‘E’ Company, 75th Infantry (RGR), 9th Infantry Division, in the Mekong Delta, far to the South. It was there that I met my friend and comrade, Nhan, who played such an important part, guiding the warp and the weave of our tapestries together. Taking frayed and blood stained threads and weaving a new, bright, lively tapestry of life.. Someday I will tell some of Nhan’s story but this is Tu’s time. Besides, Nhan eschews publicity.
(Author’s Note: On one of my early missions with the 9th Infantry Division’s Long Range Patrol I was assigned the position of Assistant Team Leader and carried a radio. We had set up in a swampy area (DUH! MEKONG!!!) but the Point reported sounds to our front so we pulled back. The Team Leader told me to call in a situation report (SITREP) but my radio would not work. The TL looked at it and asked, “Where’s your antenna? It must have come off at the last position. Go get it…” “Last position”??? Ya mean the one that we just left ’cause of all the freakin’ movement??? THAT “last position”? But I was a dutiful soldier and not too God-awful bright, so off we went. Another LRRP and I crawled back to our previous position. I felt around the grassy ground and found the antenna. I turned and tapped my buddy on the shoulder to signal our departure. My buddy turned to me… but it wasn’t my buddy. It was a very surprised very young VC with an AK-47. His weapon was pointed to his front, toward my team’s position. My weapon was pointed at him. I was shocked and stunned. Totally unconsciously, I pulled the trigger, more from being startled than any finely-honed battle reflex. A single shot rang out and he dropped like a stone. I looked down at the rifle in my hand with surprise, initially uncertain where the shot had originated. It took a moment for the event to sink in. My buddy asked, “Are you hit?” That shook me back to this Universe. When I replied in the negative he turned, then we both ran like hell but when I had fired, the team, thinking “Hostiles!!!”, opened up… in our direction… so my buddy and I had to dive and chew mud then low crawl through the muck and swampy water while “friendly” rounds whistled over our heads, until we reached our position. And, yeah, I can still see him…)
In February of 2010, 12 days before my 65th birthday, God whispered “stroke” in my ear. Thankfully, he didn’t shout. For a time my left side and speech were even less coordinated than normal but I recovered quickly. Nhan had been inviting me to visit Viet Nam for 4 years so in April, 2010, I went. Forty-one years to the day after I had left Viet Nam behind for good, or so I thought at the time, I stepped out of the airport at Tan Son Nhat and saw my old friend standing in the crowded plaza. He was flanked by two young women as he had been severely wounded and had lost an arm and a leg in the closing days of the war. One girl was a beautiful young woman named Nhi. She was his ward. The other was Lan. She was his friend and neighbor. Nhan had engaged Lan to be a guide and “bodyguard” when I wanted to go on excursions to markets and places of interest. As Nhan was less than agile, it was left to Lan to babysit me and assure that I was not too swindled in the markets… or massage parlors.
I will not go into the whys or wherefores of Lan being in Ba Ria or of her childhood in the mountains. Life was hard in the mountains at best. When there is a disabled parent, especially a father, it gets harder. Let us just say that her family was so impoverished that if they hit the lottery they would rise up to be poor.
She had to forgo much to help put her brothers through school. At around 18, she lost her husband, a medical student in Hue City, to a motorbike accident and was left with three small children. The rice fields were not producing enough money even with her side job as a “Birth Control Counselor” and neo-natal care counselor. You see, education and child rearing are expensive. If a poor family had two children, Lan would counsel the woman on birth control lest the burden of cost for education mean that the youngest would not go to school or an older child might have to quit so a younger sibling might take their place… especially if girls were involved. Lan had first hand experience. Lan had about 3 years of formal education before having to return to the paddies to help put her brothers through school. In the post-war years, it became very, very apparent that the path out of the rice paddies was through the schoolhouse doors.
She eventually, traveled South from the Mountains to a small, but rapidly growing, cross-roads city of Ba Ria where, with the help of a long time friend, Miss Yen, she found work in a restaurant. She cleaned tables and toilets; she washed pots and dishes and waited tables and she cooked… for 14 hour a day and 7 days a week. One day off a month. All for $200/month, half of which she sent to her mother and children, and she was glad of it! At night she retired to a bare room with another worker and slept, fitfully, on a pile of ragged blankets. Eventually, she met Mr Nhan, who owned a restaurant nearby and they became drinking buddies. But her spirit could not be repressed. She had a quick wit and sharp tongue and she was very, very easy on the eyes. She had many suitors but her hard life had left a mark and she preferred to remain unattached save for Nhan and her immediate family.
Lan spoke zero English and I the same in Vietnamese. We had epic misunderstandings and she walked out on me for days at a time but after that first month was up and I had traveled and seen some of Viet Nam, I was hooked. I had not felt so at peace with myself or the Universe in many, many years. Coming “home” to Viet Nam had demystified the dark imaginings and nonspecific fears left behind by the Horrors of War Fairy. I returned to the states but was haunted by that woman that I KNEW was so deep and had such a story to tell. I wrote e-mails to her, through Nhan. He was our middle man. In four months I returned, this time for 3 months and Lan and I rented a large house and prepared to marry. It is said that seven men in Ba Ria cried.
In Viet Nam, it is illegal to cohabit without benefit of marriage; at least officially. I did not know this. So, when a fat little prig showed up on his motorbike and threatened to rat us out to the police, I was ready to punch his lights out… but Lan intervened. She said that the guy was an “official” and he wanted a bribe to be quiet. “How much?” I asked. 300,000 VN Dong, or about $15.00. I looked at him and, in my best Jersey accent, told him, “I’m from New Jersey. That’s not a bribe; that’s a TIP!” Sadly, one of my best lines ever passed without being understood, much less appreciated… Pearls before swine???
Al Capone once posited that an Honest Politician is one that stays bought. The pudgy little bastard didn’t stay bought. A week or two later Lan got a call from the local precinct boss, Captain Kiếm, that I was to move to a hotel or be arrested, immediately! “Thanh Kiếm” means “The Sword”. I think he made that up… Anyway, he threatened to come the next day with 6 policemen to arrest me for violating the flower of Vietnamese womanhood or some such nonsense. I told him to bring 8. Yeah, I know. Ya don’t have to say it. “Jersey asshole”.
I called the USA Consulate in Sai Gon and they were as much use as the typical federal bureaucracy… less than NONE! Lan and I went to the CO-OP MART in town and purchased a bottle of Jack Daniels Black that Lan took to Mr Kiếm’s private residence in the hope that he would accept the gift, drink himself stupid and drown in his own vomit. But instead she apologized to him for not having me check in with him initially, but only out of ignorance and no disrespect intended and that we had begun the process of marrying and would he please accept this gift of American intoxicant as a sign of respect and leave us, the Hell, alone… He did. In point of fact, we soon became fast friends and he has introduced me as his American uncle. Swell…
We had, in fact, initiated the marriage processes… plural.
We, Lan, Nhan and I, had taken a bus to Tam Ky, the province capital of Lan’s village. Vietnamese law requires that citizens marrying non-citizens must do so in their home province. Don’t ask. The bus was a “sleeper” with racks covered with thin, very thin, pads. They were not designed for almost 6 ft tall, geriatric, 240 lb fat guys who had recently endured a stroke! The trip took 22 hours of sheer agony. I could manage to crawl INTO my assigned rack but extricating myself was a communal effort with Lan and some helpful bus-mates pulling me out by my legs. I had new sympathy for beached whales. The prospect of returning to Ba Ria the same way prompted thoughts of living in Tam Ky for the rest of my life; that or ritual suicide. We took the train back.
We made the first round of paper work and were told that we would have to return 3 more times as the phases of the bureaucratic process unfolded. They DO love their bureaucratic processes. We took the opportunity of the near, 40 km, proximity to her village to visit her family…
The family had been alerted that Lan was coming home and that she had an American boyfriend in tow. Not just an American but a former soldier! The news was met with mixed reactions; anger and disgust. The last time the Americans had come to visit, it had not turned out well.
On the 2 hour ride to the village in a taxi about the size of a shoe box, Lan explained some of what had transpired during the American War. I considered jumping from the cab and running.
As the road slowly changed from broken pavement to muddy ruts, I had a lot of time to observe the “Old” Viet Nam. Little girls still led hulking water buffalo around by a ring in their nose and the reddish-brown cattle still wandered along the road. The ubiquitous rice fields, green and lush, were everywhere. Coconut palms, heavy with nuts and little wooden two room houses. Chickens that were never penned wandered in search of a seed or a bug. Motorbikes carrying dozens of piglets or ducks or chickens or rabbits… or dogs, in cages. Families of 5 and even 6 putted by.
We did not go directly to the village. Lan wanted to stop and pay respect to Uncle Bon. Bon has a large, stone house in the city of Tra My on the main drag. He lived there with his wife, 5 of his 6 daughters, the 6th being a teacher in a nearby city, his aide and a chauffeur. Bon was doing well.
We were greeted and seated for a meal with Bon’s family. I made a point of staying neutral without being too deferential or looking too uncomfortable.
The table was low and the chairs were little, red stools, not really suited to my bulk. Bon was short by our standard but a thick, stocky man, heavily muscled with a bull neck and a look of one used to giving orders. As we ate, I produced a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey and Bon almost smiled. I ate whatever Lan and Bon put in my little bowl without overly perusing whatever it was or trying to smell it. I kept saying to myself, “It isn’t killing them; it probably won’t kill me.”
After the meal, Bon ushered me to a table in a common area. Prominently displayed on the wall was his portrait, in uniform, flanked by numerous citations and military honors. Chance? I don’t think so. Bon did show some deference by having the whiskey brought in along with glasses and ice. The libation was poured and we sipped. Ah, Mother’s Milk. Then Bon looked my in the eye and asked, through Nhan, “You fight Viet Nam?” It was then that I realized that I was wearing a Ranger Company Reunion T-shirt and cap… “Yes”. “Where?” “Mekong.”
For a moment that lasted a little too long, he started into my eyes. I could see fire and fury reflected there and years and years of hardship and pain. Then he said, “Long time ago” as he reached over and poured us fresh drinks. I had passed a test. I get to live. Unbeknownst to me at the time, there were two M-16’s stashed in the shed out back. Yes, those two. After all, one never know, do one. Over the years that I have known him, Bon’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed. He was touched by tragedy when his granddaughter was diagnosed with leukemia and it was up to him to foot the bills. Then he was swindled out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by some Ha Noi slicky boys. But, in the long run, I wouldn’t bet against Bon.
Bon was a builder. He builds roads, schools, office buildings etc. I asked him if he was an engineer. He looked at me like I had just farted in church and said, “I HIRE engineers!” Message received… and understood.
After the recent typhoon of November 2017, Bon had traveled to Ha Noi and came back with a million dollars or so in rebuilding contracts. His prospects are good.