Vietnam

BY Patrick M. Hughes

 

June 1998 / updated Mar 00

 

IT WAS COOL, OR MAYBE COLD…WINDY AND RAINY LIKE IT GETS SOMETIMES IN SAN FRANCISCO IN THE EARLY SPRING. I THINK IT WAS BOTH SAD AND EXHILARATING, BUT FRANKLY, I CAN’T REMEMBER CLEARLY. IT DIDN’T MATTER. ALL I CAN RECALL IS, THAT IT WAS TIME TO GO. SO I WENT, JUST LIKE YOU.

 

MEMORIES ARE ALL WE HAVE NOW. SEATTLE. SAN FRANCISCO. OAKLAND. TRAVIS. ALAMEDA. GUAM. SAIGON. BIEN HUA. ME THO. CAN THO. SA DEC.

VIETNAM - WE WENT, EVEN THOUGH WE KNEW…WE KNEW. VIETNAM - THE WORD SINGS TO US, WITH TWISTING AND TURNING MELODIES HIGHLIGHTED BY THE SIREN’S SONG, LIKE A TRADITIONAL VIETNAMESE SINGER, HIGH PITCHED AND HAUNTING, ASSAULTING THE WESTERN EAR WITH SADNESS, CONJURING UP PLACES, FACES, SOUNDS AND TOUCHES, THOUGHTS AND SMELLS, AND MEMORIES.

 

 

WATERWORLD, DEEP MUD, LEECHES, MYSTERIES IN THE NIGHT, AND DIRTY BROWNS CONTRASTING AGAINST THE VIRBRANT GREEN…SO GREEN THAT YOU HAD GREENOUTS, SO GREEN THAT IT SEEMED THE WORLD HAD TURNED GREEN, UNTIL THE GREEN BLAZED INTO SUNLIGHT AND ONCE AGAIN YOU COULD SEE REALITY.

 

 

LA DAI. DI DI MAU. CHIEU HOI. DUNG LAI. DICH BOARD. HET ROI. BODY COUNT. ROLL EM’ OUT.

 

SAILORS MANNING ATCs CARRYING US INTO A CANAL, AND INTO SHORE IN A FORM OF PENETRATION THAT WAS RITUAL AND ALMOST SEXUAL… INTO THE WATER, AND OUT AGAIN, IN AND OUT, OUT LONG ENOUGH SO YOU DIDN’T REMEMBER EVERYTHING ABOUT BEING IN, BUT IN LONG ENOUGH SO YOU WERE GLAD TO GET OUT AGAIN…ONLY TO GO IN AGAIN…AND AGAIN.

 

VULNERABLE, SOAKED THROUGH YOUR LEAKY SKIN AND WATERLOGGED BONES, INTO YOUR LIQUID SOUL. A CYCLE OF TRIAL BY MERE EXPOSURE.

 

NEW GUY. LIEUTENANT. ALWAYS WATCHED, ALWAYS SEEN. HOLD ON TIGHT. FIGHT.

 

MONITORS AND APBs, NOISY AND SWARMING AGAINST THE WATER; HELOS, NOISY AND SWARMING AGAINST THE AIR; AND GRUNTS, LESS NOISE…MORE ELEGANT, CROSSING THE DEADLY OPEN PADDY, THROUGH THE HONEY POT, SNAKING INTO THE TREE LINE IN A DEADLY DANCE WITH CHARLIE, SWARMING AGAINST THE NIGHT.

 

WHO MADE US DO THAT? WE DID. WE DID IT FOR MANY REASONS, BUT IN THE END WE DID IT FOR OURSELVES, BECAUSE TO NOT DO IT WAS UNACCEPTABLE. MED CAP. RUFF PUFF. SNOOPY’S NOSE. THE WAGON WHEEL. FOOTBALL ISLAND. THE COCO CANAL. HELL.

 

IN WE WENT…AGAINST ALL ODDS…BECAUSE…JUST BECAUSE. SMALL SIGNS RESTING NEAR THE BARRIERS THAT WERE FORMED BY THE HEDGEROWS AND THE TREES - TU DIA - DANGER! DO NOT GO THERE! DEATH AWAITS! IN WE WENT.

 

CROSSING BLUES, OVER OUR HEADS IN MUDDY DIRTY THICK DARK WATER…FILLED WITH FISH AND SNAKES AND FECAL DROPPINGS AND THE TRASH OF VIETNAM…AND DREAD. HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THAT? CAN YOU TELL SOMEONE ABOUT WALKING THE MUD SUCKING BOTTOM OF A CANAL, LIFTING YOUR WEAPONS AND AMMUNITION AND YOUR BELONGINGS AND YOUR LIFE OVER YOUR HEAD AS IF YOU COULD SOMEHOW SAVE THEM FROM YOUR DROWNING BODY SO THAT WHEN YOU EMERGED WET AND WEARY AND REBORN AGAIN FROM THE FETID WATER…YOU COULD FIGHT AGAIN, AS IF NOTHING HAPPENED, EVEN THOUGH YOU KNEW IT DID? CAN YOU TELL SOMEONE?

 

CROSSING PADDYS, CROSSING BRIDGES, CROSSING THROUGH TREE LINES, CROSSING THROUGH VILLAGES, AND CROSSING TIME, SO THAT THE SMALL SIGNS WERE A MERE MEMORY, A MEMORY THAT BLOSSOMS IN BRIGHT LIGHT AND SMOKE AND FEAR WHEN THE HAND GOES UP AND YOU SEE IT, OR THE EXPLOSION HAPPENS, AND YOU HEAR IT, SO YOU KNOW IT WASN’T YOU…IT WAS THEM, THE OTHERS, BUT YOU KNOW WHO…CROSSING THE LINE BETWEEN MOVEMENT AND BATTLE.

 

 

AK. SKS. PONY EXPRESS. HUNTER-KILLER. SNIPER. MINE. RTO. RADIO NOW…HOW? BOOBY TRAP. RAP. BODY COUNT. DUST OFF. DOG TAG IN A BOOT. MEDEVAC. CRACK. ROCK AND ROLL.

 

WAR! IT CAME FAST AND SHORT AND HARD. IT CAME WITH SURPRISE AND WITH A VIOLENT SEIZURE OF THE SENSES SO THAT WHEN IT WAS OVER, FOR THE MOMENT, THE EDGE OF FEAR WAS STILL THERE. WHERE? AND ON WE WENT.

 

HE - ON THE DECK. RESUPPLY. RAINBOWS IN THE DISTANCE. MIKE BOAT. ZAP. JAYHAWK. MOONSHINE 79. STARLIGHT. BUCKSHOT. SIT REP. NDP. CLAYMORE. SAPPERS. SEA SNAKES. NO BREAKS. ARMED FORCES RADIO PLAYING “SITTIN ON THE DOCK OF THE BAY…” “IT’S JUST ANOTHER DAY HERE IN SAIGON - WHERE ARE YOU?” “IN THE DELTA?” “HAVE A GOOD DAY GI.” “SIN LOI.”

 

 

WHO CAN FORGET THE SOUND OF MOTORS IN THE SHALLOW WATER, THE SOUND OF ROTOR BLADES IN THE AIR, AND THE SOUND OF AN EXPLOSION IN THE DISTANCE. WHO CAN FORGET THE SMELLS, EARTHY AND STRANGE, TEXTURES IN THE NOSE…FORMING DRIPPINGS FROM YOUR EYES… WAFTING UP FROM THE LAND AND THE WATER AND THE FOOD AND THE CORPSES, IN A MYRIAD MIX OF ASSAULTS AGAINST YOUR MIND, SO THAT …THE SOUNDS AND THE SMELLS AND THE SIGHTS BECAME COLORS AND IMPRINTED THEMSELVES AGAINST OUR THOUGHTS.

 

HOT CHOW. VUNG TAU. HUEY. SPOOKY. BEAUCOUP. MAMA SAN. BABY SAN. WHO KILLED WHOM? AND HOW? DIDI MAU. KIEN VAN. CAI LAY. CAI BAY. THE PLAIN OF REEDS. SANDBAGS. CULVERTS ON THE GROUND. DIRTY BROWN. FIRE SUPPORT BASE DANGER. ANGELS IN THE NIGHT. IN THE WIRE! FIRE! RED PLATOON, DAGGER COMPANY. PERIMETER SECURITY.

 

 

MORTARS INCOMING. MEDIC! BASE CAMP BLUES. EXTRACTION. TRACTION. PURPLE HEART. K-MART. REMEMBER?

 

WATER EVERYWHERE. PADDYS FILLED WITH HUMAN SMELLS, GLISTENING IN THE DISTANCE. RAIN CLOUDS ROLLING IN WITH MONSOON STRENGTH. PALM FRONDS FILTERING THE SUNLIGHT. MAMASAN AND KIDS SITTING IN A PACKED MUD FRONTYARD…WATCHING AND WAITING. WATER BUFFALO MOVING SLOWLY IN THE HEAT. THE VC MOVING QUEERLY THROUGH THE SCENE, GHOSTLIKE, AS IF THEY WERE PART OF THE BACKGROUND, AS IF THEY BELONGED THERE - IMAGINE THAT. STOPPING AND THEN MOVING AGAIN, IN RYTHYM WITH THE SURGING RIVER TIDE.

 

 

THERE WERE NO DRUMS, BUT YOU COULD HEAR THE DRUMBEATS IN THE DISTANCE. OR WAS THAT YOUR HEART.

 

HOW YOU GONNA ACT? IT DON’T MEAN NOTHIN…SHORT TIMER. BAC SI. MPC. TE TE. SIT REP. REMF. INCOMING.

 

 

AND ON WE WENT. INTO THE LZ’S AND INTO THE SHORE LINES, ACROSS THE PADDYS AND INTO THE HEDGEROWS AND INTO THE TREELINE OF OUR MIND’S EYE…SHOT, HIT, DOWN, DEAD… AND INTO THE AMBUSH AS IF IT WERE ALL NEW, EVEN THOUGH WE HAD JUST DONE IT AGAIN AND AGAIN. AND THEN, IF WE LIVED, IF WE HAD NOT BEEN MAIMED AND INJURED, WE LEFT THE BOONIES AND RETURNED TO THE FIRE BASE, TO THE SANDBAGS AND THE DETAILS AND TO GUARD DUTY. WE ATE HOT, WE SLEPT DRY, WE DRANK AND DREAMED, AND WE WOKE TO SUNUP. WE HEARD MORTARS, LIKE MUSIC, IN THE NIGHT…BUT THEY DID NOT HIT US. AND WE HEARD AFVN PROCLAIM THAT IT WAS INDEED VIETNAM. “GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM!!” AGAIN.

 

 

PROUD MARY, KEEP ON ROLLIN…JERIMIAH WAS A BULLFROG…THREE DOG NIGHT. FIGHT!

 

PADDY STRENGTH. JUNGLE FATIGUE. HARDCORE RECONDO. YOU KNOW. SMOKE EM IF YOU GOT EM.

 

 

IF YOU LEFT THE PADDYS ON A HELO, LYING IN THE OPEN BAY WITH A BUDDY BY YOUR SIDE, OR ON A BOAT WENDING YOUR WAY OUT TO THE SEA, AS YOU LOOKED OUT ACROSS HORIZON TOWARD THE DELTA, AT THE RAIN CLOUDS SWEEPING OVER THE FLAT EXPANSE OF LAND IN THE DISTANCE, YOU RECALLED THE NAMES OF THOSE THAT DID NOT GO ON. YOU SWORE YOU WOULD NEVER FORGET. DO YOU REMEMBER THAT? DO YOU REMEMBER THEIR NAMES?

 

 

FUNNY PAPER. AO. PILE ON. CHECKERBOARD. TANGOS. PBR’S. TIGER SCOUTS. BUNKER. TUNNEL. DON’T SHOUT. WE ARE OUT. NEVER AGAIN. WHEN?

 

IN THE END, WE WASHED AWAY THE MUD BUT KEPT SOME OF THE MEMORIES. WE FLEW AWAY ON A FREEDOM BIRD BUT KEPT THE MEMORIES, AND WE PUT AWAY OUR FEELINGS LIKE HOT COALS, STORED IN THE CORNER OF A CAMPFIRE, READY TO BURN AT THE SLIGHTEST TOUCH BUT READY TO BURN OUT TOO, AND DIE IN ASHES, LIKE A TIRED SPIRIT.

 

BUT WE KEPT THE MEMORIES, FRAYED AND THIN, LIKE OLD SOCKS, ROLLED UP AND NOT QUITE CLEAN, BUT STILL WEARABLE, RESTING IN THE RIGHT DRAWER OF OUR MIND.

 

 

IN THE END, WE TOOK UP NEW LIVES, WE MADE PROGRESS, WE ACHIEVED, AND WE MEET TOGETHER TO REMEMBER…OUR MEMORIES. AND THATS ALL THEY ARE NOW…JUST MEMORIES. MOST OF THEM GET BETTER WITH TIME. YOU CAN STILL WASH THE MUD OFF WITH A HOSE. YOU CAN STILL WEAR THE SOCKS.

 

CHARLIE LIVES DOWN THE STREET. REMEBER PADDY FEET? TOURS ARE AVAILABLE TO MY THO. WHOSE TURN IS IT TO GO? THERE IS ONE VIETNAM, AND ONE UNCLE SAM. HO CHI MINH IS DEAD; A U.S. AMBASSADOR SLEEPS IN HIS BED… IN HANOI.

 

 

THE WALL EXISTS (58 THOUSAND). SOME ARE STILL MISSING… WE DEMAND A FULL ACCOUNTING. STILL COUNTING… DOUBTING? WHO KNOWS? WE WON THE BATTLES AND LOST THE WAR AND MORE. WHO KNOWS?

 

 

SAIGON IS STILL SAIGON. HO CHI MINH CITY IS A FIGMENT OF SOME COMMUNIST’S IMAGINATION. HANOI IS JUST A SEPIA MIRAGE. IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHO REALLY WON, VISIT SAIGON.

 

MEMORIES ARE WHAT WE HAVE NOW. BANANA TREES WITH BIG LEAVES. STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER. CLEVER. DEFOLIANT AND AGENT ORANGE AND POST- TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER. NEVER. EVER. AND ON WE GO.

 

DELTA TANGO. POP SMOKE. DEROS.