Revisiting the Vietnam War

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During my visit home over the holidays, my dad and I sat at the bar table sipping white peony tea.  He was nibbling on a cinnamon roll, I was snacking on some leftover Goi Cuon (Vietnamese spring rolls) my mom made earlier in the evening.

My father fought in the Vietnam war.  It’s where he met my mother.

There are a slew of Vietnam veterans scattered throughout the country, but few managed to bring back a local from the war torn remains of Vietnam.   Even fewer of these couples managed to keep their relationship together through the final, and most difficult hurdle: Culture Shock.  Even if Vietnamese woman were to escape her homeland and be with the GI of her dreams in the supposedly “happily ever after” ending following the Vietnam war, many of them experienced extreme culture shock from their new American home and intercultural marriage, and few could adapt to the foreign world they were living  in.  This is best portrayed in the movie Heaven and Earth, where after ten years of marriage the Vietnamese wife of a GI leaves the safe haven of the USA and, eventually, goes back to Vietnam.

It has been almost 50 years since the Vietnam war.  My father is getting older, and now he tends to open up more about the war than in the past (he never shared war stories when I was younger).

Over a pot of white tea, he suddenly turned to me and said: “Did I ever tell you about Big Joe?”

Big Joe

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I was just a journalist, so I wasn’t allowed to have the heavy duty weapons.  I only had an AK-47 slung over my right shoulder, a bag containing my notebook and tape recorder cradled on my left shoulder.  I was covering a story near Cu-Chi and it was an absolute mess.  I interviewed a guy once that actually infiltrated those dark, damp tunnels trying to hunt out the viet-cong.  Now that is fear.

Crawling through a pitch black, narrow tunnel with your enemy all around you–the only thing keeping you from death being the rifle in your hand, shooting blindly in the dark.  Many of those guys never made it out of the tunnels–but if they did, they were never the same.

I wasn’t armed with heavy artillery like the other soldiers, so I tried to pick my war companions well.

And no one made me feel safer than Big Joe.

Big Joe was a 6″2′ black man, built like a rock with a stone hard face to match.  He always had  two pelts of bullets slung over each shoulder and crossing at his chest.  He was like a big, black version of Rambo.  I felt safe in his presence not only because he was physically built to fight a bear bare-handed or had enough artillery on his body to shoot down an entire VC army.  I trusted him because around his neck (along with his array of ammo) were rosaries.  I remember they were red and silver and worn and close to his heart at all times.  He whispered a hail Mary before each battle under his breath.   I clung to him like a scared child clings to their parent during a lightning storm in the dark.  But he didn’t mind.  Big Joe never showed us, but I’m sure he felt like it was his duty to look out for me–for all of us.

Suddenly, a rain of gunfire.  Firecrackers in the sky.

“Get down!” the other soldiers scream, and we immediately drop to the dirt floor in a nearby trench.

“The enemy isn’t supposed to be here!” the other guys panic.  “We might be outnumbered!”

Everyone was afraid to stand up.  To face the enemy.  To be shot.  There was panic everywhere.

Big Joe saw me inch near him.  He looked me dead in the eye, “you afraid, Mike?”

I don’t know why, but I let out a roar of laughter and said “well Joe, there’s a bunch of guys firing at us and we’re ambushed–doesn’t look so good!”

He let out a big, hearty laugh.  The other men looked at us, fear in their eyes.

“What are we going to do?”  A voice cries in the distance.  Another round of shots fires above us.

“Quit being pussies,” Big Joe breaks the heavy air of silence.  “We’re going to shoot ’em, that’s what.”

Big Joe stands up, loads up his machine gun, and shoots a spray of bullets in every direction.  He probably killed ten VC in those few short moments.

The other men began to stand up and shoot.  I stood up and loaded my gun.  Big Joe stepped forward and fired in all directions.  The VC dropped like flies in the grass.

It wasn’t just that time.  Big Joe was always doing that.  He stood up when the rest were afraid.

Now, that’s what bravery is.  Standing up first.

“Do you still talk to Big Joe?”I asked my father after he told the story.

“He didn’t make it.”

My dad paused.

“He was a good guy, Big Joe.  A really good guy.  I’ll never forget those rosary beads.”

The Mass Must Go On

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“You ever had a martini, Mike?” father Jack was mixing the holy grail of alcohol in Vietnam: A dry martini with an olive.

“Think I’ve had one of those, father” I smiled and took the drink from his hand, relishing in the sweet concoction I so fondly remembered from days long past.  From home.

“Bet you never had one in Vietnam” he winked at me and finished mixing up his martini (with slightly more vermouth).  We clinked our paper cups together and drank.  Sometimes, that was all you could do here.  It was an escape.

Father lived in downtown Saigon.  He lived in a  very simple apartment; the paint was peeling from the walls, and the furniture, if you could call it that, was rotten wood years old.  The table legs were wobbly, the tablecloth covered in stains.  We stood near the open window, the light streaming in from the afternoon sun.  A few other GIs were with us gathered in the living room sipping martinis in our humble little Dixie cups.  We laughed and told jokes on the inside, but outside the world was a war torn mess.

Father invited us to his house every Sunday.  This week, he gave us a special treat: Real alcohol.

Father Jack had nerves of steel.  He volunteered to go to Vietnam of his own accord and had been there since the beginning.  He had been preaching mass in Saigon for over ten years.  I don’t even want to know what the man had seen in his years, but all I knew was his sermons helped keep us afloat.  Not just us GIs, but the Vietnamese as well.  It was the one place where the our two cultures could merge together.  It’s where we congregated and spoke the same language.

I remember that church.  There was no roof.  There were no walls.  It was just a husk of a building, the broken pillars being the only thing keeping the place upright.  It was meager for a church; the framework stood hollow and tall over us, but the splintered pews that lined the inside to the altar at the front gave it that indistinguishable look of a church.  We came here every week for mass in Saigon, and each pew was always full.

We were having mass.  The priest had just blessed the eucharist and turned bread into the body of christ; wine into the blood of our savior.  Then, we heard it: an ear shattering explosion a stone throw away.  A rain shower of bullets.  Screams erupted in all directions and we dropped our heads down into the pews.  People were scattering and shouting outside the church confines.  Chaos ensued.  Another explosion echoed in the distance.

And through it all, I heard father Jack at the altar chanting the blessed sacrament. Despite the explosions, the gunfire, the screaming, the running, the shouting and the debris–he managed to stand tall.  He held up the eucharist and continued like nothing was amiss.  The bomb that dropped only a mere meter away was, to him, just a baby crying in the distance.  Unwavering, he carried on with mass.

The orchestra of explosions and gunshots subsided.  The helicopters were gone, the intruders taken care of.  Slowly we began to peek our heads up from beneath the pews and felt safe enough to stand again.  Father Jack just finished the prayer of the blessed sacrament and stood at the head of the pews, waiting patiently for us to come and receive communion.

“Father,” I finished my last swig of martini and looked him in the eye.  “Don’t you get scared?  Don’t you want to run away?  I mean, how the hell do you do it?”

He laughed and finished the lat sip of his martini, “God sent me to Vietnam, Mike.  I must carry out His mission.”

The bravery to stand in the face of fear is the greatest gift from god that any man could hope to have.

Result of the War

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My parents never returned to Vietnam since the war ended.  My mom hasn’t visited her homeland in over 35 years.

Me, on the other hand, knew I had to go.  As soon as I began work in Japan, I was already scheming a trip to Vietnam for my upcoming holidays.  I had to see my mother’s country and hometown.  I had to go to Vietnam–I had to go to Saigon.

I went to the war memorial museum in Vietnam.  I was alone.  The war museum is most likely similar to the one in Nanjing.  It’s extremely biased toward the Vietnamese by portraying the American soldiers as animals that raped and pillaged Vietnam.

I wanted to think it mere propaganda, but I knew it was true.  There were photos of dead women and children piled on top of one another, American soldiers surrounding them.  There was an entire gallery dedicated to the lethal and everlasting damage of agent orange.  The ruins of what was once the lush and breathtaking tropical scenery of Vietnam reduced to ash.  American soldiers shooting and killing civilians.  Hundreds of half-Vietnamese and GI children abandoned in orphanages.

I never felt more discord than when I was in that museum.  It was a strange dichotomy.  A feeling of hatred filled with remorse; sympathy and betrayal all mixed into one.

War is terrible, and the Vietnam war especially atrocious.  Lives were lost.  Innocence was destroyed.  Americans fought for something vague and out of reach.  Vietnam was a country torn in half politically; brothers fighting one another, people dying for a cause that neither side was sure of.

And there I was.  I was a result of the war.  I stood at the exit of the war museum and looked back to a world of memories I never had, but that were eternally part of me.  I was a strange hybrid, a mix; something that, I’m sure, wasn’t supposed to happen.  The war was terrible, but without it I wouldn’t be here.  The war made me.

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I finished my last spring roll and looked at my dad.

“You know,” I poured him the last cup of tea.  “I want to hear more of your stories from Vietnam.”

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8 thoughts on “Revisiting the Vietnam War

  1. olivier rebiere says:

    Reblogged this on Cristina & Olivier Rebière (english) and commented:
    Well,

    What a beautiful, and sad, story about your dad and his friend “Big Joe”…
    What a beautiful story about… you.

    I know that it is sometimes difficult to have a serious discussion with parents who suffered a lot during the past: the wounds are not well healed and maybe they think we – the children – are not ready to hear their confessions. Sometimes they express themselves in awkward ways because they did not completely “heal” themselves and did not figure out everything completely… Even if we linger to hear these healing words, these phrases that will alleviate suffering and, most of all, the unknown, these “unspoken” things, the silence hurts so much because you just don’t know the truth. And it is unbearable. Sometimes life does not give you any chance: how many abandoned children or orphans do not know anything about their past? It is horrible…

    But your dad decided this was the right time for you to know a part of his past, a part of yours, he gave you another piece of the puzzle… He talked to you just like that, without warnings, out of the blue, and you were wise enough not to say anything stupid, but just hear his story and “align” yourself with him just like that, in a second… That is true wisdom 

    It is also clear to me that you had to go to Vietnam and make this first pilgrimage, because it won’t be the only one. You will have to go there maybe a couple of times more during your life in order to grasp the reality of this beautiful country, and correct your present “vision” (product of your strong feelings at the museum for example… but these feelings are “too strong”) about it in order to make your own, not the one you think it is for now… Because it is also your country in the end and you have to be at peace with it… And you will be 

    I think you will continue to write your book about your parents as you were told in Bali, because it is important to you, because you want to know what your “genesis” was. You have to build your own “past” in order to move on… that is why you are so eager to learn a lot of cultures and languages. So keep on learning !

    And, if you allow me to make a personal comment about your feelings, I would like to correct your assumption “the war made me”… It is bold, it is strong… but it is not entirely true. I would write “I am a child of love… Of a love born during the war…”.

    Please think of it. Please let this idea enter your mind peacefully, calmly. See if it will be yours someday, if you are OK with it: your parents fell in love in the middle of hell, their love was the first best thing they WANTED to create… The second thing, well… it is you : you are a child of love, not of war. Because I do not think they fell in love because of the war: the war was an “opportunity”, as the fall of the iron curtain was for me and Cristina… The love they lived was THEIR choosing, THEIR will, so you certainly were not any accident. You ARE not an accident. The war did not make you.

    You are a child of love.

    Olivier

  2. olivier rebiere says:

    Well,

    What a beautiful, and sad, story about your dad and his friend “Big Joe”…
    What a beautiful story about… you.

    I know that it is sometimes difficult to have a serious discussion with parents who suffered a lot during the past: the wounds are not well healed and maybe they think we – the children – are not ready to hear their confessions. Sometimes they express themselves in awkward ways because they did not completely “heal” themselves and did not figure out everything completely… Even if we linger to hear these healing words, these phrases that will alleviate suffering and, most of all, the unknown, these “unspoken” things, the silence hurts so much because you just don’t know the truth. And it is unbearable. Sometimes life does not give you any chance: how many abandoned children or orphans do not know anything about their past? It is horrible…

    But your dad decided this was the right time for you to know a part of his past, a part of yours, he gave you another piece of the puzzle… He talked to you just like that, without warnings, out of the blue, and you were wise enough not to say anything stupid, but just hear his story and “align” yourself with him just like that, in a second… That is true wisdom 

    It is also clear to me that you had to go to Vietnam and make this first pilgrimage, because it won’t be the only one. You will have to go there maybe a couple of times more during your life in order to grasp the reality of this beautiful country, and correct your present “vision” (product of your strong feelings at the museum for example… but these feelings are “too strong”) about it in order to make your own, not the one you think it is for now… Because it is also your country in the end and you have to be at peace with it… And you will be 

    I think you will continue to write your book about your parents as you were told in Bali, because it is important to you, because you want to know what your “genesis” was. You have to build your own “past” in order to move on… that is why you are so eager to learn a lot of cultures and languages. So keep on learning !

    And, if you allow me to make a personal comment about your feelings, I would like to correct your assumption “the war made me”… It is bold, it is strong… but it is not entirely true. I would write “I am a child of love… Of a love born during the war…”.

    Please think of it. Please let this idea enter your mind peacefully, calmly. See if it will be yours someday, if you are OK with it: your parents fell in love in the middle of hell, their love was the first best thing they WANTED to create… The second thing, well… it is you : you are a child of love, not of war. Because I do not think they fell in love because of the war: the war was an “opportunity”, as the fall of the iron curtain was for me and Cristina… The love they lived was THEIR choosing, THEIR will, so you certainly were not any accident. You ARE not an accident. The war did not make you.

    You are a child of love.

    Olivier

  3. Shanghai Ronin says:

    I just wanted to say thank you so much for your supportive and meaningful comments. It means so much to me!

    Yes, my dad didn’t talk about the war at all when I was younger. I think now that he’s older, he realizes that it’s now or never. Last time I was home, he talked to me about it almost as if he were finally releasing a long lost secret that he’s been dying to tell someone. I’m also glad to revive his friends, Big Joe and the priest, even through a humble little blog such as this. It’s memories that make a person.

    I also wanted to say you and Cristina, your amazing story that spans Romania and France and the entire world, is truly inspirational. You two, and your family, are also a miracle of love (and war)!

    It’s a strange feeling, to know that without such an atrocity, such as the Vietnam war, I would’t be here today. Same goes for you and Cristina. I don’t see it as a bad thing; but rather, a good thing. War, one of the worst atrocities to ever face mankind, can create a wealth of new opportunities and experience. War can even, in a strange way, create new life and love.

    Anyway, I imagine you’ve been to Vietnam before? You are very right in the fact that I will be back there. Vietnam is a truly magical place. I’ve been many places in the world, and Vietnam really touched me in a way no other country did (even by food standards alone). I have so much to learn about the country–and myself.

    Again, thank you so much for your supportive and truly wonderful comments. Hope you’re doing well!

  4. olivier rebiere says:

    Mary,

    Blogging is to share something to other people.

    Correction: blogging is WILLING to share something to other people.

    We choose to blog for different reasons.

    To me, first, blogging is trying to go “fishing”: you carefully choose your byte, your location, pick up your preferred pole and other accessories, and finally prepare to catch a “fish” – the readers you would like to please or captivate. Sometimes I do it myself because I have some information or “good” opinion to tell…

    Secondly, another interpretation would be: you blog to throw a message in a bottle. Maybe someone will read the message and… deliver an “answer”, even if we do not really believe in this possibility.

    When I read your lines above a week ago, I was suddenly struck by the fundamental “error” you were making, naming wrongly the cause of your birth and your presence here on earth: you were choosing a wrong path to discover yourself. So I allowed myself to intervene and make something about your “bottle”. I crossed a line somehow. But I had to.

    I am happy that you give me thanks for my “support” (although I did it for you, not for the thanks or my ego), but the point is that sometimes, when you clearly see that something is going wrong, that someone is about to do a terrible mistake by “naming” a strong feeling, you must act, like a normal human being, “helping” another, acting like a “talking mirror”. Kindly. With soft words, in order to make the other person think and reflect about what he or she is going to make…

    Yes, I already was in Vietnam, and it was quite a disappointment. Not because of the people, the monuments and so on, but because of me. Because of the difference between what I was thinking I would see, and what was reality: yes, another misperception, another distortion of reality caused by ignorance. And, again, ignorance generates suffering. That is why I insist that you go back to Vietnam and “get used” to it, so that it will become something concrete, real, and so that you can let go any misperceptions you would have had of this country. Apart from what is your dad telling you. Because “his” Vietnam is already something of the past…

    So, in order to suffer less, you have to come close to reality, and accept it. That is why I wanted to “wake you up” a little bit.

    And about Vietnam: I admire its people, its culture, the history, its fierce resistance against invaders. As a Frenchman, I feel responsible for what happened in the “Indochine” of that time, even if I did not take part to the fighting back in 1954. I know about napalm, American invasion, massive destructions and killings. I feel so sad about it.

    And yes, you are right: war is an “opportunity”, the strongest one in fact. If you allow me to go on with the metaphors, I would say that playing the game of life is not trying to get the best cards on your hand. No. It is trying to play the best game you can with the cards you got at the very beginning. You do not choose these cards, of course. Life “gives” them to you. Now that your dad has begun to speak (and if you are wise enough to let him speak and stay still, if you take care to create the appropriate “quality time” with him, be sure that he will go on) you unveil some of the “hidden” cards of your own game.

    Sadly, your dad won’t be able to tell you all you want to know. Accept this fact. But be kind with him and with yourself. Forgive him. He is just a man. A courageous man until the end, because he has enough guts to tell you a part of YOUR story, because he is now exposed to your judgment, the opinion of a young and daring adult. So be grateful and smile to him with all your heart, even if he is not right now with you.

    You see, the world is small: one of the men I admire is Vietnamese. He is a monk. He changed my life in a way, when I began to read his simple and strong words. His name is Thich Nhat Hahn. If you have time to read only one book of him, try “Peace is every step”. It is enough. It will help you.

    Because, as you will see and as you noticed already, “words can heal”. His words healed me deeply. I am grateful to him.

    Writing to you about blogging, about words, I strongly believe in the value of correspondence: I am ready to have one with you, if you feel so. If you do not, I will continue to read your (b)log entries on the journey to finding yourself…

    Take care Mary,

    Olivier

  5. Todd says:

    Well thats some pretty heavy stuff, I mean how your connected to it and all. Heaven and Earth…a good movie, I watched it so many times. I think Oliver Stone directed that, and Jones did a great job in it, much more than I can say for his goofy japan commercials. During my time in the military, most of the E8 E9 etc had been in Nam and were a bit different than us new breed. During my time, we kind of leaned on the laurels of war stories, since there wasnt much going on until the gulf war started. So allot of what we learned was based in Nam and Beruit, even our training. I remember sitting in the auditorium for some “enactment” training and a guy in black pajamas and straw hat came running down the aisle; he was role playing the enemy, then we got a lecture on jungle warfare..lol. Their wasnt internet in those days and Id go to the base library and read every book on the war in Nam. Theyve changed all that up now. Viet Nam is a magical place, I can only imagine what it must of been like to been stationed there. I also visited the cu chi tunnels. I asked the tour guide if he knew about any POW camps; he wouldnt comment but the vibe was he knew. It was a sureal experience, it would seem impossible to beat such a people who were that dedicated. He said they would make shoes out of tires and put them on backwards to fool the GIs, all sorts of gruesome booby traps as well. I also went to the war muesem and saw John Kerrys pic..lol. Some crazy stuff. I went to that church you show also, and had a Japanese tour guide for a latter tour to some town where the fish would eat nuts. The usual scripted misery so broke from that noise and enjoyed my stay at a colonial style hotel. Some veteran biker taxi took us around the city, nostalgic about the war days. I was in sensory overload in that place and will never forget it.

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