Wednesday, March 8, 2006
The FOD is informally run by Tony Accamondo, a tall gentle man with white hair and a big smile. I say informally because this org is as much a democratic state as any of I've seen. Along with Tony there's Dr. Ed Kelly, a retired surgeon who does miraculous things like finding surgical tools and prosthetics from hospitals back in Pittsburgh and providing them for the injured kids in Danang. There's also Roger Costello, an Australian vet who deals with the organizing and paperwork and implementing of the various functions. There are two wonderful women – Mary Lou and Arlene – who seem to know the ins and outs of foreign travel and diplomacy and devote their time and talents to making things happen.
There's also Noreen Doloughtny, who's going to be part of our documentary. Noreen was eight months old when her dad was fatally wounded in the war. She's come along to try and find the actual physical space where he was shot. She's spent much of her life reconnecting with the guys from his platoon and outfit, traveling to veteran's events across the country and learning as much as she can about him. Her mom still lives in Pittsburgh as does her grandmother and they serve as her base camp. Noreen works in the IT department at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. What most amazes me about her is her determination. She's has tracked down anybody and everybody who can give her a clue to what kind of man her father was. She's found pictures and his military ID and keeps a blog about her quest and where it's taken her. Her dad would have to be pretty proud of her, if he had any idea how she's devoted her life to preserving his memory.
As we're loading up this morning, it hits me that we're like a big circus. Or at the very least, a mixed version of the old Motown traveling shows. On the big bus are the FOD and all the presents we've brought for the kids at the school and clinic. In a smaller van traveling behind is the QED crew along. We must look pretty funny too. Mark and Dino have maneuvered themselves into the van so they're sitting facing Boone, Perry and Chris so they can get their reactions as we travel. Meanwhile, Darryl, Huong and I try to keep our heads out of camera and microphone range. Meanwhile the driver tries not to be distracted by all our monkey business while simultaneously avoiding cars, bikes, buses and us yelling slow down, speed up, stop here, hey what's that?!
Our first stop is at the clinic the FOD helps to fund. Dr. Ed has brought along a box of surgical tools he's going to present to one of the surgeons. The doctor we're going to meet has a brother who works as a surgeon in Pittsburgh. The world really is as small as people say. Inside the clinic, there are lots of older people getting physical therapy. One man seems to be learning how to operate a wheel chair, while another sweet looking older lady tries to move a hand that appears to be permanently locked against her chest. I think of the fancy equipment I used in PT when I was recovering from a broken leg, and how these folks have so much less to work with.
Patients with physical deformities – and we don't know whether they're congenital or caused by the war – are supported, literally, by relatives. One man strains to fit his feet on a pedaling machine while a female family member holds him about the waist. Another lies on his side and quietly moans. It would be disheartening except that the nurses and patients all have time for a quick smile or nod for us. And we meet a young Vietnamese woman from the states. The difference between her and the poor Vietnamese people around us is striking. She's tall with beautiful clear skin and perfect teeth. While practical, her clothes are pure America – a polo shirt and khakis covered white a white medical coat. She sounds like she's fresh from Orange County and she has a great story about coming here and giving her time to help her people and how being raised in the states, she could barely speak Vietnamese when she arrived in country. She's a physical therapist and seems to really love the work she's chosen for herself.
I am continually struck by the generous nature of the people around us. I hear myself complaining about how hard it is to get a doctor's appointment. Many of these people are seeing a doctor for the first time in their lives. Not to mention their ongoing physical afflictions. It's a feeling everybody should have once a month, and not just by reading a newspaper or watching TV. A stark, sudden realization of just how lucky you are and how much you have to be grateful for will really take the starch out of you.
We've got a tight schedule to keep, so we finally separate everybody from their new friends and head back to the vehicles. As we drive, the city fades behind us and major highway opens in front of us. Along the road, the city disappears and is replaced by lots of low, faded houses surrounded by frail stands of palm trees. As we travel, we see rice paddies, real green lush rice paddies with little kids prodding water buffalo along the edges. It's like every Vietnam movie you've ever seen and nothing like it at all. Ladies go about their daily chores with pointy straw hats and long rods across their shoulders, with baskets hanging from either end. The main concession to modern life is everyone wears what look like surgical masks, to keep out all the grit and smog from the road.
Also, each little house seems to have a chicken or two, and a skinny cow tied to a fence. There are little garden plots surrounding the houses and lots of funny little dogs. Most of the dogs in the country looked like they all had the same mother and father. Short and tan with bristly hair, kind of like an Australian sheep dog without spots. But just as much attitude.
We finally come to a stop on a dusty sun-drenched road. It appears to be the main street of the town and there are small stalls selling vegetables, a gas station and not much else. It's here that we leave the vehicles and start walking toward the children's clinic. There are about 20 of us on foot on what's not much more than a path, and there are still motorbikes passing in both directions, horns beeping. On either side are houses that are little more than shacks. Or if they're really houses, they seem to consist of one large room with the front door wide open.
Little chicken coops litter the yards and trash is everywhere. This far out in the country, there's no such thing as garbage pickup so people throw plastic grocery bags full of trash in the ruts on the sides of the roads. The trash is periodically burned once it reaches a certain point. We finally come to the clinic and are immediately surrounded by small children. They seem to be the neighborhood kids, some still in their school uniforms. They don't appear to be sick but are totally curious about this strange caravan of people. We start handing out candy and bubble stuff and suddenly there are twice as many as there were before.
The kids are so cute and little and curious that we have to tear ourselves away to get inside. In one large room, there are about ten kids playing with appear to be moms or nurses. Some barely move and are in big strollers or wheel chairs, their spindly little legs hanging unused from their bodies. Some are smiling and active, but their limbs won't take them where the rest of them want to go. The ringleader is a loud and lively little boy who seems to have Downs Syndrome. He's a feisty one though, and wants choose his own candy and shouts when he doesn't get his way. He also has a clubfoot. You immediately get misty when you see what these kids have to deal with, but at least they're getting some care. I think of the many more who aren't.
We keep traveling through the small community, avoiding ditches and chickens and family gardens. We visit a few more houses where someone who lives there has some sort of disability, using involving the loss or crippling of a limb. One young woman has two sons, neither of who seems to be able to stand. At another house, a middle age woman has had both her legs amputated and has dealt with continuing infection and sores for a number of years. A wheel chair wouldn't help because the rocky land around the house is too uneven. There isn't enough wood or space to build a wheel chair ramp and besides, they could never afford one.
For our boys, this trip is even more surreal than it sounds. Perry says, "Man, thirty years ago you'd never walk down a road like this out in the open? You'd be dead before you passed that tree," he says pointing to a twisted palm. "Closed in like this, with nowhere to run. And if a sniper or a grenade didn't get you, little kids would run up to you and hand you a cold beer. But you better not drink it, cuz lots of times, it would be filled with ground glass."
How did it feel to be them? To be standing there in a Hawaiian shirt with a camcorder instead of a 30 pound pack and a M-16? What was it like to have little kids grab your hand and ask for M&Ms instead of handing you a live grenade? All I could think was what had been the point of all that pain and fear?
By the time we finish our walking tour and trudge back to the buses we are all filthy and hot. It's another day in the 90's and the only shade seems to be behind the bus where our driver is enjoying a quick smoke. Lunch is lots of bottled water, fruit, a baguette and a little candy. Food doesn't really keep in weather like this, even with a cooler on board. Besides, we still have miles to go before we hit the elementary school, also funded by the FOD.
After another colon jolting drive, we finally found the school. The sign on the gates read "Hoa Son" and were topped by a number of colorful flags, with the red and gold Vietnamese flag in the middle. It's a wide flat campus with little trees struggling to grow in the heat. It's clean and well kept and loud, the way an elementary school should be. I get there early because Darryl, Huong, the lady from Foreign Affairs and myself have elected to ride in the van while everyone else arrives by bus. The problem is, the roads are too narrow and steep to fit the giant Loretta Lynn-sized tour bus, so they show up about 30 minutes after we do.
Mary Lou, Chris, Boone, Perry and a few others carry armfuls of helium balloons while Tony's son (Tony Jr.) and Thanh's nephew (T) bring in a huge box of pencils and candy. The kids are having a hard time concentrating on their outside gym class once they see us. But teachers are the same everywhere and before long they have the kids organized into groups of circles on the school's grounds. Military-ish music blasts from a loudspeaker and the kids start to do a choreographed dance, singing songs about the glories of their country and their leader Ho Chi Minh.
They are so cute you could pass out. Nearly all of them wear blue pants, white shirts and little red ties. Little toes point and hands curl as they act out the words to the songs. This is the third time today I've found myself teary-eyed in this place. A hundred tiny faces sneak shy looks at me before they remember they're supposed to be doing something important. When the dancing's finished, the kids mob us. Mark and the giant TV camera fascinate them. Everybody knows what it is because as poor as they seem, many of the houses did have satellite dishes parked on their roofs.
We tour the school, thank the principal and hand out our treats. We see a small dental office where kids from a Pittsburgh elementary school have donated money to pay for dental exams. They've sent snaps of themselves smiling and waving at the Vietnamese friends they'll probably never meet.
We finally leave the school to head back to the FuRama. But our day isn't over yet. Tonight, we'll have a big sit down dinner sponsored by the Foreign Affairs office and World Vision. They're the humanitarian group whose flag we travel under. I'm exhausted but Darryl, Dino and I head off to dinner while everybody else stays in and gets some rest. Before I go to sleep, I'm reminded of a line from a Jim Jarmusch movie – the world is a sad and beautiful place.