Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Having been clean and sober for about two years thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, I figured that the group therapy at the local veterans’ outreach center might be good for me, too.
When the facilitator asked me why I was there, I said I wasn’t sure, but that something about Vietnam felt unfinished. Talking or thinking about the war made me feel strange, even though my life was better than it had been in years.
Afterward, I hung around, feeling nervous and awkward as everyone prepared to leave. Then another vet shook my hand and said, “Welcome home.”
I left abruptly and hurried through the dark streets to my car. Once inside, I felt my eyes fill with tears. I’d been home twenty-three years and no one had ever said that to me.
I remember the smell of diesel fuel and shit. Iodine, its reddish yellow smeared on cuts and scrapes to combat jungle rot. Rats in my bunker, scavenging in the dark around my sandbag bed. Warm cans of Bud and small bottles of menthol to cool and flavor the strong Southeast Asian pot.
C-ration chocolate, aged and white. Cafe mochas made from C-rat coffee and cocoa and creamers. And C-rat peanut butter and jelly, affectionately nicknamed an “abortion” by some gallows comic.
Helicopters and weapons of destruction: K-bars, M-45s, M-79s, M-this’s and M-that’s. A second lieutenant petty tyrant with a crown of cheap gold bars, shot from behind by an angry, humiliated private. A short-timer with one week to go (“please, God, keep me safe and get me the fuck out of here”), shot and killed by a newly arrived, fearful, homesick boy of nineteen on his first night guarding the perimeter. And a little black box with a purple ribbon inside that links me to the blood ritual called Vietnam.
My husband is a Vietnam combat veteran who served in a Marine raiding battalion for thirteen months, going on one search-and-destroy mission after another. He was a point man, machine-gunner, and squad leader; was wounded in action three times; and was one of only a handful from his platoon who returned alive. Now, almost twenty-seven years later, he still suffers greatly from the horrors kept inside for so long, the rage at the worthlessness of it all, and the guilt of having survived when so many others did not.
Because of my husband’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, we live isolated in the woods and don’t go anywhere there might be crowds (especially Fourth of July celebrations). Since sleep deprivation triggers his symptoms, we encourage him to take naps. He can go from complete calm to raging fury in a few seconds because his boot-camp training and combat service removed all the stops to aggression. He had to be ready instantaneously to kill or be killed, over and over, for thirteen months.
We and our two children have been through many scary times, but we have also shared a great deal of love in our seven years together. I encourage my husband to talk, sob, yell, whatever it takes to keep this healing process unfolding. It pains me to know that there are so many veterans with similar problems who receive no care or understanding. More vets have died by their own hand than were killed in Vietnam.
A month after I turned eighteen, I received my registration form from the local draft board. I signed the line declaring myself a conscientious objector. There was no additional space provided for me to tell them I thought the war in Vietnam was stupid, immoral, and illegal.
The next morning my father found the form and read it. He gave me two choices: take my signature off the conscientious-objector declaration or be out of the house in twenty-four hours.
I spent my last night at home sorting and packing my few possessions. But there were two things I couldn’t take with me. I had earned one hundred dollars milking cows at a neighbor’s dairy and loaned it to my father; he now refused to pay it back. And the Honda trail bike that I had paid for by irrigating the neighbors’ fields was registered in my father’s name; he promised he would report it stolen if I rode away on it.
The following afternoon a friend gave me a ride to the nearest town. I had sixty-nine cents in pennies and about five dollars loaned me by friends. Within a week I had enrolled in a new high school, found an apartment with an understanding manager, and gotten a job washing dishes.
In February 1993 my parents came to visit me, got snowed in, and were forced to stay longer than they had planned. I was now roughly the same age my father had been when he had kicked me out of the house. He had known nothing then about Vietnam, yet he had been willing, even eager, to send his only son there, perhaps to die. I wanted to share with him my extensive library on Vietnam, which I had built in a continuing attempt to understand what had happened. I placed a thin volume by Noam Chomsky titled What Uncle Sam Really Wants on the table and explained Chomsky’s theories to my father. He gave the book a sidelong glance as if it were dirty and never touched it.
It was my last attempt to talk to my father about anything.
Grants Pass, Oregon
I was drafted into the U.S. Army and, after basic training, sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia. Just two weeks after my arrival there, I and some other Latinos were chatting in Spanish when a white officer rushed over and said, “Listen, you sons of bitches. We don’t pay you in pesos — we pay you in dollars, so don’t speak that shit around here anymore.” After that, most of the dirty work was assigned to us. I was glad to finally be transferred to Vietnam — anything to get out of Georgia.
Before I left the U.S., I was told that our mission was to protect the helpless Vietnamese from the communist monsters who wanted to steal their freedom. We were to be good to these people, and keep them on our side. But after about a month in Vietnam, I saw the real picture. Nine out of ten soldiers hated the “gooks,” who “couldn’t be trusted”; they were all “bandits.” Everywhere I looked were Vietnamese faces — some blank, some full of fear or hate. Many would spit at us as we passed by. My main vocabulary became “Hey, you fucking gook.”
After that, there was dope and cheap booze to help me maintain my cool during the constant mortar and rocket attacks. And there were prostitutes and the clap. And there was Joe, who got drunk and ran over ten people with a two-and-a-half-ton truck. There were the five farmers shot “accidentally” in front of the perimeter, and the race war between the 82nd Airborne Puerto Ricans and the 101st Airborne whites. There were the MPs who ran the whorehouses and other MPs who got killed by some doped-up soldiers. And there was the race riot at Long Binh Jail, where the head cook was found frozen solid in the freezer. And there was my third Article 15 bust to private E-1 because I stole edible garbage to give to the villagers, and the threat of court martial for insubordination and refusal to work. And there was the grenade thrown into the master sergeant’s quarters, and more Vietnamese killed by drunken soldiers, and more soldiers killed and maimed by the war. And then home to Los Angeles, unemployment, drugs, booze, jail, hospitals, racism, and rejection.
Los Angeles, California
On a recent visit to Vietnam, I stepped out of the hotel lobby and began to wander aimlessly through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. People smiled. Some stared. Shopkeepers beckoned me over to sample their wares. Kids bumped into me to see if I was real, blurting out, “Hello!” and then running away.
On a whim, I turned off Tran Hung Dao Boulevard and took a series of narrow passages and alleys. I passed a group of seven young Vietnamese men seated around a makeshift table in the middle of a busy sidewalk, enjoying some cold beer and hot eel on a steamy afternoon. I doubt a foreigner had walked down that block in months, and the men waved me over with the enthusiasm of castaways who’d spotted a passing vessel. When I went to join them, they burst into a frenzy of welcoming activity: one scrambled for an extra stool, another went to get me a beer, and a third hurried off to find Minh, the only person in the neighborhood who spoke English.
Minh was about my age and had lost both his legs fighting the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He introduced his friends around the table, one of whom raised his glass in my direction and gave a short toast.
“What did he say?” I asked.
Minh puzzled over the translation, then improvised: “He says he loves you.”
“Oh! Well, please tell him . . . I love him, too.”
We launched into a long and rambling conversation, one which fortunately didn’t require much translation: I liked the eel. They liked my beard. We talked about the weather.
Then one man communicated, in pantomime as much as in words, that his brother had fought with the Viet Cong and been killed by an American, who shot him through the forehead, his brains coming out the other side. He reenacted the concluding scene three times for emphasis. I wasn’t sure how to respond.
Soon our table groaned under bottles of White Tiger beer and bowls of rice and boiled eel. My new friends explained to me that since I held my chopsticks near the bottom, tradition dictated I would marry a woman from nearby. I told them it was a tradition I could live with, and they laughed.
I wanted to learn their opinions on more significant issues, so I asked, “What do you think of the French?” expecting to hear some antagonism toward the former colonialists. But they just shrugged and took long pulls of beer. One made a joke about French cigarettes, and they laughed again.
“What do you think of Russians?” provoked a much more emotional response and several emphatic remarks. Minh attempted to translate: “They say Russians very bad.”
“What do you think of . . . Americans?” I finally ventured.
When this was translated, the man whose brother had been shot leaped from his stool, stood over me, and spoke for a full minute, punctuating his words with stabbing, sweeping gestures. I realized I had gone too far, and began thinking of how I could apologize.
Minh weighed all that had been said, and again opted for brevity: “He say he want move to California.”
Between my sophomore and junior years of college I took time off from school and ended up as a bartender-waitress at a VFW post in the Midwest. I met all kinds of characters there, like the man whose throat, I was warned, would get too relaxed when he was intoxicated, giving him a tendency to go into cardiac arrest; he died walking out the door on my first night of work. And the obese man who ran the illegal gambling ring in a back room; I would secretly deliver beer and screwdrivers to the gamblers through a hole in the wall. And the “upstanding VFW member” who hit his wife at the bar; my boss said I should ask them to take it outside. And the old alcoholic who would bring in sticky trash bags full of returnable beer cans, then immediately buy more beer with the refund money; he taught me how to roll my own cigarettes.
The most interesting character of all was Jerry, an ageless, lonely guy with a severe defect in his walk. He would lift one knee all the way up to waist level each time he took a step, while the other leg moved normally. Occasionally, on a slow night, he’d get me to dance with him for a few minutes by the jukebox. At first I was fascinated and entranced by the bizarre rhythm of lifting and sliding. But I began to worry when he started talking about the destruction of the planet; how only he and I would remain unharmed, and the two of us would be called upon to recreate the human race.
I quit my job one night after a guy grabbed me between the legs as I held a pitcher of beer in each hand. I returned to college to study ballet and literature, trying my best not to hate men. Somehow Jerry found out my course schedule and began appearing outside of my classes, even following me to the student lounge. I called the police, and a few months later I heard Jerry had been picked up walking outside of town along the interstate. When the police had asked him where he was going, he’d said, “To Vietnam. It’s time to stop the war.”
I was lying in an Army hospital in Long Binh, Vietnam, my jaws wired shut after a tracheotomy. Unable to talk, I had no outlet for the misery I was feeling. A week before, I had been shot three times in an ambush, and my best buddy had crawled out to me. He’d gotten within an arm’s length before a bullet had ripped through his eye. For an hour I’d passed in and out of consciousness, listening to him suffocate on his vomit.
A Vietnamese family was brought onto the ward — a mother and three kids, two of them with thick bandages on their faces covering shrapnel wounds. Even though many beds were empty, the nurse put the whole family in one small bed and immediately ordered the mother to start doing odd jobs around the ward.
Over the next couple of days, I noticed an orderly harassing the woman whenever the nurses weren’t around. “Hey, mama-san,” he would say, pretending he was jerking off, “boom-boom. You and me, baby. Boom-boom.”
One morning a Red Cross worker came around with a cart loaded with books, stationery, and brightly colored candy. The Vietnamese kids’ eyes bulged when they saw the candy, but the Red Cross guy waved them away, saying, “No, no, this for GIs, not for you. Scram!”
That did it. Hauling my sorry ass out of bed, I plunged both hands into the bowl of candy and loaded the kids up with as much as they could carry. Then I walked back with them to their mother. Standing beside her, I stared at the orderly, who was mopping the floor, and made a hand sign that indicated, “Enough!” Then I took a pen and stationery from the cart and wrote out, “Leave her alone, or I’ll report you.” He just smirked and kept on mopping.
That afternoon, I was back in bed feeling sorry for myself when the Vietnamese family came over. Silently, they helped me up and, supporting me by my elbows, walked me down the aisle to the lounging porch, where we sat together for an hour. They chattered steadily, including me through smiles, looks, and little pats on the hand. Over and over — especially when I tried to communicate by sign language — they broke into fits of hysterical giggling. It was as if they saw humor in everything.
The ritual was repeated every day until I was shipped out to Okinawa. Although we never actually spoke to each other, our visits were a refuge from a world of insanity and violence.
Grass Valley, California
My brother was in Vietnam for thirteen months. We sent him letters accompanied by Katz’s “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army” packages, cases of mandarin oranges, and tins of sardines packed in mustard sauce. His letters back told of loneliness and death. Only in his early twenties, he was already considered the old man in his group.
When we read in the newspapers about the Tet Offensive scheduled for February 10, 1969, we realized everyone — including my brother — would be in great danger. Then on February 9, my father died of a heart attack. The Red Cross said they’d do their best to get my brother home for the funeral, but they couldn’t promise anything. The Tet Offensive began as planned. Entire battalions were wiped out. Several days went by, and there was no word of whether my brother had been located — or even whether he was alive.
My family is Jewish, and tradition requires the deceased be buried the day after death. Dad’s family tried to pressure us into going ahead with the funeral in my brother’s absence, but we knew my father wouldn’t rest in peace until his beloved son was safe and sound. So we waited.
Finally, four days after my father had died, my brother called from the Los Angeles International Airport. The army had plucked him out of the jungle by helicopter and put him on a transport full of soldiers who had lost loved ones. He took a commercial flight out of Los Angeles and arrived in Florida still wearing his filthy combat fatigues. Vietnamese dirt clung to his body. Jungle rot covered his feet. Crab lice crawled on his genitalia. He hadn’t slept or shaved in days.
We scraped the filth off his body, soaked away the crabs with medicine, fed, bathed, shampooed, and shaved him. Then we tucked him into bed in his old room. He woke hours later with nightmares of the war. But he was home, and we were finally able to bury my dad.
The doctors said my father died of a deteriorating heart. But we like to believe Dad died so he could bring his only son home from the war.
New York, New York
It’s 1967, and I’m a student at UCLA. My friend John has theorized that he can keep out of the draft by cutting the tendon between his thumb and forefinger so that he won’t be able to pull the trigger of a gun. He’s doing it slowly, day by day, millimeter by millimeter, with a razor blade. It doesn’t even seem to bleed very much.
I go to Camp Pendleton to see my boyfriend graduate from boot camp. As I drive in, I pass a field full of boys kicking their right legs into the air and screaming, “Kill!” in unison, over and over.
I attend rallies, protests, and peace marches. I go to the office of Students for a Democratic Society and look at the map of South Vietnam divided up into U.S. oil interests. At a Westwood coffee shop late one night, I meet a silver-haired gentleman in a business suit who tells me he is vice-president of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’s Southeast Asian holdings.
I’m at a New Year’s Eve party in Santa Cruz. A guy named Rocky who just got back is going on and on about how much he “loves to shoot those gooks.” He says he’s going back so he can kill some more.
It’s June of 1971 and I’m delivering mail in Los Angeles. It’s a bright white day around noon, and soon after I drop the mail through the slot at one house I hear a woman screaming. She will not stop, although a man tries to comfort her. Later, I find out that I have just delivered their dead son’s last letter from Vietnam.
I work as a therapist at an inpatient drug-and-alcohol-treatment facility for homeless veterans. Almost half the patients are veterans of the Vietnam War. They all suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Their extreme anger and sadness result in a high rate of relapse to the addictions that have kept them on the streets and on the fringes of society. They have lost all faith in such institutions as voting, “family values,” and the American Dream.
This is a terribly tough group to work with on a daily basis. It is my job to try to ease the pain of a man who had to kill a fatally wounded buddy whose screams of agony threatened to give away the unit’s location; my job to reassure the former sergeant whose entire squad was wiped out while he was in surgery that the deaths were not his fault.
In order to survive, my organization must fight for federal grants, most of which go to such issue-related groups as veterans with AIDS, or sexually harassed veterans. We constantly have to adjust our program to fit the issues that have the attention of the media, and thus the government. Perhaps if the Pentagon allocated a portion of its war chest to cleaning up the aftermath of its wars, we could focus more on therapy than on fund-raising.
I can’t work here forever. The hours are long and the pay extremely low. At times, memories of my own combat experiences in Vietnam are triggered by my work. Yet I feel that I can’t leave. If I don’t stay and do this work, who will?
Carl A. Anderson
The Army psychiatrist looked bored and unmoved. I had just delivered a fifteen-minute tirade denouncing him as a tool of the war machine and telling him that, if drafted, I would either move to Canada or go underground. I had talked of napalmed children and called our military intervention in Vietnam one of the greatest moral crimes in history. Yet this man, who now held my fate in his hands, just sat there, looking down at the papers on his desk, playing with his pen, not writing down anything.
During the previous six years, I had participated in many antiwar rallies and had been confronted by FBI agents and policemen, some of whom threatened my life. But this was different. There was no crowd of friends, no special sense of solidarity. This was just me. The stage had been set the day before, when I had refused to sign a loyalty oath at my pre-induction physical, prompting the commanding officer to scream that he wanted my papers on his desk “first thing Monday morning,” so that he could make sure I was sent directly to Vietnam.
So now it was down to me and the psychiatrist. Then I realized that he had probably heard all this before. Nothing I had said was particularly new to him. I was just one more scared kid trying to get out of going to Vietnam.
I spoke again, my voice deeper and more calm. “All right,” I said, “if you want to send me to Vietnam, go ahead. But when I get there and they order me to shoot a Vietnamese peasant, do you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to shoot the motherfucker who orders me to do it — I’m not kidding!” It was the truth. At that moment, if faced with the devil’s choice of either killing a Vietnamese fighting for his own land or killing the man forcing me to commit such an atrocity, I would have chosen the latter.
All of a sudden, the psychiatrist began writing furiously. “OK, that’s enough,” he said, handing me my papers. “Take these outside to the desk.”
Drenched in sweat, I staggered out of the room and handed the papers to the soldier at the desk.
“The captain says you’re disqualified for at least a year,” he told me.
I never even looked at him. Stumbling out the door, I took in a deep breath of cold air. I was still free to carry on the fight to end the war.
San Francisco, California
It’s October 1968 and you fly out from Minneapolis to San Francisco to be with him for the weekend before he’s shipped out again. You and he drive down the coast: Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey. You tour Berkeley, Fisherman’s Wharf, cross the Golden Gate to Sausalito, then head back to the city to shack up in a cheap hotel in the wrong part of town.
He’s drinking a lot and you’re scared. You make love. He’s rough and quick, and his tears drip onto your cheek. You sit up, ask what’s wrong, and he begins to sob. He screams about the jungle, snakes, bullets, getting shot up by “those slanty-eyed bastards,” coming home in a body bag. You feel your anger rise up, the urge to remind him that he’s the one who quit school, signed up, left you.
The next morning in the airport, the goodbyes are cool. You turn around once to wave, but his red-sweatered back disappears into the crowd.
Back home, you join the protests and march down to the state capitol building one sunny afternoon with new friends. You spend that night writing a Dear John letter you now wish you’d never sent.
S. Dianne Moritz
Southampton, New York
In October 1994, my husband and I visited Nha Trang, a Vietnamese beach town on the South China Sea. After a morning of exploring the town, I persuaded my husband to spend the afternoon on the beach, one of the most beautiful in the world. In case we needed money, I stuffed a twenty-dollar bill into our bag.
Along the dirt paths that led to the beach, women had set up stands selling drinks, gasoline, cigarettes, and snacks. There was also a stand that collected rent on the canvas beach chairs. The charge was ten thousand dong, a little less than a dollar. I pulled out the twenty, but the woman didn’t have enough change. I said I would buy a bottle of water, too, another twenty thousand dong. It was still not enough. She went to find more money, and we proceeded down to the beach, carrying the water and the twenty-dollar bill.
Not long after we sat down in our chairs, three women approached us. One, who wore a traditional conical worker’s hat, asked if I wanted a pedicure — I’d already had one. How about a manicure? Wary of contaminated cuticle clippers, I said no. How about a massage? This was tempting, but I remembered the twenty-dollar bill — she wouldn’t have change either — and regretfully declined.
The other women wandered off, but this woman remained, squatting next to me. She admired my rings, and we compared skin colors, placing our arms side by side. She put her hands on my arm and leaned against my leg. She had learned English from an American man whom she and her two sons lived with in exchange for cooking and cleaning (and, presumably, massages). She told me she loved this man very much and hoped he would marry her someday. I said I hoped so, too.
When we got ready to leave, my husband went to get the bike, and I returned to the stand by the path. The woman who rented the chairs proudly showed me her accomplishment: she had collected 170,000 dong from the other stands. She presented my change in packages of ten thousand, each wrapped with a dong note. I thanked her and took the money in both hands. My husband pulled up on the bike and said, “Aren’t you going to count it?”
Susan J. Kreidler
One of the earliest photographs in the family album is of me at two years old, standing inside my father’s combat boots, saluting.
I was raised to follow in his footsteps. By age ten, I knew all about guns, how to do a PLF (parachute-landing fall), and how to spit-shine those boots.
When my father left for Vietnam in 1962 as a Green Beret “advisor,” we were all proud. When he returned, he didn’t talk much about it, and we didn’t ask.
As a teenager, I rebelled against my parents, authority, and the war. Like many army brats, I attacked my father’s principles and forced him to defend himself, not so much against me as against the pain he was beginning to feel.
After divorce, years of heavy drinking, and total withdrawal from the family, he died last October.
I finally knew he loved me when, days before he died, he told me that, had I been drafted, he would have driven me two thousand miles to Canada.
Pensacola Beach, Florida
I volunteered to go to Vietnam as a helicopter door gunner. I got my wish and was assigned to the northern tip of the Iron Triangle, a pathway for North Vietnamese coming out of Cambodia and heading toward Saigon.
One day we were flying a routine mission at treetop level when we came over a clearing and found about 150 North Vietnamese Army regulars drying out in the sun, their uniforms spread over rocks and hung in trees. I started shooting with glee, and the pilot began firing rockets. All of a sudden I had this one fellow in my sights. He knelt down and looked right at me. Our eyes locked. My bullets were going all around him, a human being kneeling on the ground and looking at me. I didn’t want to kill this person.
Just then, the pilot banked hard, the rotor blades swept across my line of fire, and I shot the tip of one blade off. The helicopter bounced and rattled, and the pilot screamed, “We’re hit!” I kept my mouth shut.
On the way back to base, I realized I had been playing soldier and didn’t really want to kill anyone.
The next day was my twenty-first birthday. I had grown up.
William Fielding Stroud
New York, New York
Mike was the hero in my house. Photographs of him snapped in the Vietnam underbrush for Life magazine hung in the hallway: Mike striking a pose at the head of his patrol, captain’s bars where his old sergeant’s chevrons had been. “Blood bars,” he called the officer insignia: when a platoon is wiped out down to a half dozen men and a buck sergeant gets that wasted crew to the rear alive, there’s a promotion in it, whether he likes it or not.
Mike got to shake LBJ’s hand when the old Texan awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to one of Mike’s men — posthumously. Rose Garden ceremony. Television coverage. The dead soldier’s mother didn’t attend. His father had died in Korea. No wife, no sister, no brother. Mike flew the medal home to his mother. She died the next week.
A few years later, Mike accepted a second Congressional medal from a second president. Also posthumous. The men Mike led into battle got a lot of medals.
Mike resigned in 1972. He died before he reached forty-five. He’d put on a couple of hundred pounds since Vietnam, and his heart gave out. After his funeral, I studied those Life photos, looking for courage in his gesture or his expression as he called his men up to cover him. I never found it. Sure, the way he carried his rifle, the rakish angle of his helmet, the brace of his leg all made a good magazine photo. But I couldn’t get past the eyes. No courage there. All I could find was fear.
I was eighteen. It was my first time in a motel with a man. I felt as if my love for him would ignite the sheets. Yet he would not take my proffered virginity. I cried.
The next month, incomprehensibly, he went back to Vietnam on a voluntary second tour of duty. We wrote. I numbered my letters in case they reached him out of sequence. He was due to return in less than a year, and we would get married. Then his letters became less frequent. He wrote and said he’d married a Montagnard woman because it was “expected of him.” Not long afterward, my dad called me at school and said my love had been killed.
After the funeral, I was told that his mother secretly wished I’d gotten pregnant by him. I now wish, with all my body and soul, that my virginity had been sacrificed to our love, instead of spilled like a tipped bottle of tequila on the floor of the basement bathroom in my parents’ house four months later, with a stranger.
San Antonio, Texas
My first encounter with the Vietnamese was having my watch ripped off my wrist while the truck I was riding in crept through a village. The combat veterans who were transporting me fired shots into the air and threatened nearby peasants in a vain attempt to get my watch back. They then castigated me, the FNG (fucking new guy), for being so stupid and filled me in on the untrustworthiness and duplicity of the entire Vietnamese race. It was the only lesson in Vietnamese culture I would ever receive from military sources. According to them, Vietnamese who were supposed to be on our side didn’t give a shit about their country or its form of government; their main objective was to cajole, coax, connive, or steal all they could from the deep pockets of the Americans; and because they all looked alike, you couldn’t trust any of them.
This racist perspective, passed along to every FNG in some form or fashion, was, in my opinion, responsible for most if not all of the animosity and conflict between Americans and Vietnamese. In my case, two incidents stand out.
The first happened one morning when I got out of a truck to relieve myself and unwittingly “watered” a family shrine by the roadside. An elderly Vietnamese woman came at me with her broom. When I realized the nature of my offense, I tried to apologize and offered her some money. She spat at my dollars and stared at me with a contempt that made me cringe.
The second incident occurred at my company headquarters, when a young Vietnamese woman carrying an Amerasian child stormed into the office, told the newly arrived CO that I was the father of her child, and insisted that I marry her and take them both to America. The child was obviously at least two years old, and I had been in country for only eleven months, so the CO told her to get out. As she walked past, she looked at me with desperation bordering on despair and begged me to give her some money. I physically pushed her and the child out the door.
The old woman refused my money and wanted only respect, which I was unable to give her, her ancestors, her traditions, her country. The young woman seemed to have forsaken all these things and wanted only my money. To me these two are a microcosm of the effects that Americans had on the Vietnamese people and their culture.
The phone rang while we were eating dinner. As an insurance agent, I was used to getting calls at home from clients. This time it wasn’t a customer but Fred, a man I knew from the country club.
“I saw your name as a sponsor of that stop-the-war ad in tonight’s paper,” he said belligerently. “Get your head out of your ass! You peaceniks don’t know what you’re talking about. If we don’t stop those commies in Vietnam, they’ll be invading Australia next. Wise up, Sam. You’re going to lose a lot of business supporting that kind of crap.” He hung up.
None of my sons went to Vietnam. They objected to the war and did whatever they had to do to stay out of it. I did lose some insurance business. But some of my friends lost their children. When Fred’s son reached draft age, he went to Canada and never came back.
My two sisters and I, all of us in our early teens, were on the porch of our grandparents’ townhouse when a car pulled up and a man got out — a tall, thin man with a beard, wearing sunglasses. He came slowly up the walk. My sisters and I were speechless, but an unspoken acknowledgment passed among us: this stranger was our father.
These were the things I knew about my father: He was a Marine, had fought in Vietnam, and had earned a Purple Heart. He had later been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and had disappeared from our lives when we were young. It wasn’t his fault, everyone said. It was Vietnam. I always associated the words father and Vietnam. I couldn’t think about one without remembering the other.
Our father climbed the steps to the porch and offered my sisters and me only a nod hello, like you might give a stranger. Then he went inside.
A flurry of activity ensued within the house. We heard my grandparents’ voices, my mom’s, my aunt’s, all shouting, “Frank!”
My mom led him back out through the front door onto the porch. “Frank,” she said, smiling nervously, “these are your daughters.”
“Oh,” he said, still not recognizing us. “These are my daughters. Yes.”
And he turned and went back inside.
Theresa A. Bakker
I was taking a cab from my meditation teacher’s loft in the Village to La Guardia Airport. To make conversation, I asked the driver if he was from Vietnam. He said he was, and asked, “Have you seen my country?” I told him I hadn’t but had seen pictures of Vietnam that were very beautiful.
Suddenly, he struck the steering wheel with the flat of his hand and shouted, “Is wrong for Vietnamese people in U.S. go back visit there now!” Surprised, I asked him why. He yelled, “Is wrong for them support that government! Is very wrong!” and pressed harder on the gas pedal.
Sorry I had started talking to him at all, I asked him in a quiet voice why he felt that way.
“Is very corrupt, that government. Very corrupt.”
He began to slow down a little, and lowered his voice as he told me his story: He had been an officer in the South Vietnamese Army. After the fall of Saigon, he received notice to report to the North Vietnamese Army for “reeducation.” Many of his friends fled, but he trusted the request. They sentenced him to prison for an indefinite period.
“Is not like your prison here, you know,” he said. “They give you very little food, very little. Every day, one bowl manioc root or yam. You know how Vietnamese people like rice? One time week, bowl this big.” He took his hands off the wheel and cupped them together. He told me that his wife was permitted to bring him supplies every six months, but that he was often relocated without notice and did not receive his wife’s delivery.
I asked him if he still had his teeth. “I have three this side, five that side,” he said, pointing. “We cook bugs with food, get a little more. That’s why I have teeth.”
As we pulled up to the terminal, he said, “I got out after six year. June 10, 1981, we leave for U.S. That North Vietnamese government is corrupt! Not like here!”
I wobbled down the runway in my unfamiliar pumps and stateside stockings, longing for the crumpled green fatigues and combat boots that had been my wardrobe for a year. Then I saw my family: my little brothers, grown half a foot taller in my absence, and my baby sisters, sporting gaps where front teeth had been; my mother, beginning to gray, smiled damply, and my father examined the tops of his shoes. I was happy to be home, to have survived.
During the two-hour ride to our family’s house, the conversation was disorienting.
Me: “My chopper to Tan Son Nhut couldn’t leave for hours because of all the incoming.”
Them: “The high-school track team is probably going to win district again.”
Me: “I wonder whether that triple amp I worked on two days ago made it.”
Them: “Sissy got your card in time for her first-grade Valentine’s Day party. The other kids were impressed that you didn’t have to put a stamp on the letter.”
Me: “No, honey, it’s not from smoking. After a while blood turns your fingernails brown. . . . No, not my blood, sweetie — the soldiers’ blood. They got shot in the war and I tried to fix them.”
At my homecoming dinner, it seemed to be expected that I would censor out references to my recent experiences. Somewhere between “please” and “mashed potatoes,” however, I inadvertently uttered the F-word. Silent seconds passed before I realized my blunder.
“Into the kitchen, young lady!” ordered my mother.
I was stunned. In Vietnam, the F-word had been an obligatory part of speech.
“I will not have that kind of language in my house!” she yelled. “And you are not to discuss that . . . that place in my presence!”
Several days later, I requested a change of orders. At month’s end I was on a flight back to Vietnam, to rejoin my other family, who all wore the same ugly colors and shared the same shitters, the same mud, the same nightmares. Amid moderate incoming, I landed once again in that awful, beautiful land where we learned to bleed and cry and die like grown-ups, where we had the right to say whatever we fucking well pleased.
The closest I ever came to Vietnam was when my uncle died there. After that, we often had to take in my cousin Mike while his mother wandered around using hallucinogens and falling in love with scary strangers. My cousin never knew his father, but he had a shrine to him: his father’s uniform and medals, and a framed photograph. My mother worried that Mike would follow in his father’s footsteps.
Mike did grow up to join the army, but he later got busted for drugs and went AWOL. He was caught in New York City, high on coke, and put in prison for six months. After that he got clean and sober and was born again. We haven’t talked for a few years.
When we were little, Mike used to stand up and put his hand over his heart when we’d sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” When we got to the line “Land where our fathers died,” he’d sing, “Land where my father died” instead and start crying. Funny thing is, this isn’t where his father died. His dad died in Vietnam.
San Francisco, California
I am traveling in China, but instead of being outside savoring the culture and smells of this land, I am inside reading The Sun.
At first, I thought my friend had given me a subscription to the Baltimore newspaper. That’s crazy, I thought; I follow the Phillies, not the Orioles. But when I started reading the Readers Write section, I understood. The readers’ memories of “Vietnam” [October 1995] and “Graduation” [November 1995] made me laugh and cry. Maybe I’ll contribute in an upcoming issue. Until then, thank you for such memorable reading.