Thursday, March 9, 2006
Noreen's dad was infantry and from the moment he stepped off the plane, he was "in the s…" If you saw the pictures of him, this skinny little white kid not more than 21. All big eyes and loopy smile standing there with Noreen's mom on their wedding day. She looks like she wasn't much more than 18 herself. Next thing you know he's shipped off to Vietnam and dead soon thereafter leaving an 8 month old daughter who'll spend the rest of her life wondering who he is.
That's the story we're telling today. We thought it would be a good idea for her to see this place with the boys. Everyone's grown fairly close in the little bit of time we've been together, and they provide a kind of weird comfort for each other. Especially Boone, who was in the Big Red One. From what I've heard, those men saw a lot of heinous combat and if you could just see Boone. He looks like B.B. King only bigger and nicer and the idea of somebody shooting at him just makes you all squeamish. He knew what Noreen's dad had to face everyday of his short life in country and nobody really wanted her to go there by herself.
So, we're off again, driving like a bat out of hell. Hey, have you ever had a pomelo? They look like grapefruits and even smell like them. But the rind and skin are much thicker and inside, the fruit is sweeter and juicier than any grapefruit I've ever had. If you're hungry and thirsty, they can go a long way toward lunchtime. That and peanut butter crackers. I have a renewed love and respect for the peanut butter and cheese snack cracker and will never again cross a large body of water without them.
Our decision to take the big bus that day left me with a few more wrinkles in my forehead. First off, we were told that Chu Lai was about an hour away. In fact, it was more like two and a half. Secondly, that time needed another half hour added to it because the bus we'd chosen to take for comfort was way too big to navigate the narrow country roads. Every time we met up with another large vehicle – and there were a lot of them – we'd have to squeak past each other. This was particularly enjoyable when we had to share a goat path with an 18-wheeler carrying a full load of propane tanks. Nice.
Eventually we reached the iron gates of the cemetery. Spread out in front of the gate were small circles of some kind of wood. It looked like someone had been sawing broomsticks all morning. Our driver said this was manioc, and that the people left it to feed the animals.
Most of the burial grounds – public and private – we saw resembled the way they do things in New Orleans. Neat little cases sit above the ground and have a stone or tile lip for incense. There were over 500 graves in this cemetery and many of them contained men whose names were never known. In the center was a huge monument surrounded by a red stone wall. The wall was covered in a carved mural of all the many wars fought by the Vietnamese people. Men in helmets with machine guns scowled out from their places under the throwing arm of warriors in loincloths.
The effect was doubly striking because there was really nothing else around it. Small broken-down farmhouses stood across the road but other than they and our bus there was nothing. Luckily, Huong, our government guide, knew a little about the scarcity of the area so she had us stop on the way and pick up flowers and incense.
Noreen and the boys took the gifts to the center monument and offered a prayer for all the souls seeking rest. The flowers served as a gift and the incense was lit to create a link between the living and the dead. Huong said the smoke was lie a chain, drawing your spirit to that of the people buried around you.
It helped Noreen a lot to finally see this place and know that her father wasn't the only one who'd lost his life here. True, the people buried on this ground had been his enemies, but now they were all somebody's dad or brother or son that they'd never seen again. Boone took it all pretty hard and at one point he had tears in his eyes. He just kept saying all these men, dead. Look at all these dead men.
At some point, a man of somewhere between 50 and 60 years old came into the cemetery and bowed and said hello. Our interpreter said that he was the cemetery's caretaker and was solely responsible for its upkeep. With our guy translating, he wanted to know why we were there and we explained that the men were veterans from the "American" war paying their respects to a fallen comrade. And then the war stories started. It's funny, but even with having less than five words in common, those four men – and the interpreter – must have talked for 20 minutes. It ended in handshakes and hugs so I think everything went pretty well.
At some point I went back to the bus to get some new tape and found about half a dozen kids watching us from their yard. The oldest was a 16-year-old boy and his little sister (and all her gabby friends). He had had some English classes in school and so asked our names and where we were from and I think he wanted to know what we were doing there but didn't know exactly how to ask and not be rude.
They were really funny because they had no idea what I was. You don't see a lot of African Americans in Vietnam (except the ones on TV) and you certainly don't see a lot of black women. Now it wasn't that Boone, Perry, Chris and Darryl aren't various shades of black – because they are. But for some reason, I was very curious to a lot of people. Perry kept saying because my hair was braided into two pigtails that I looked like a Cambodian. A man even gently rubbed my arm in one airport and when I looked up at him, he just smiled and hurried away. But the kids got a big kick out of our different skin tones.
At one point I put my arm next to Noreen's (who's as Irish as she can be), and then Boone put his arm next to ours. This brought peals of laughter from the girls. But not nearly as many as when Chris tried to ride one of their bikes.
We hit the road a little while later and made it back to the hotel around suppertime. I still hadn't been in the pool yet, but I sure made the most of that shower. Since it was our last night in Danang, Thanh had arranged a barbecue on the beach for all of us so we could spend one last relaxing evening together. It was a beautiful night and I could hear the waves crashing on the shore, even if I couldn't get in them.