Child of War, Woman of Peace - Le Ly Hayslip, James Hayslip, Jenny Wurts (1993)
PART ONE. Living with the Enemy (1970-82)
2. Jaws of the Tiger
ED NEVER GOT A CHANCE to repair Judy’s troubled TV set, or the troubles in our marriage. Just before his fifty-fifth birthday, as the weather turned cold in Utah, he was laid off. Because of the hard outdoor work, his many disappointments, and too many cigarettes, he returned to California looking ten years older. Of course, Ed’s women attributed this to my poor care and I was inclined to believe them. I had been anything but a success as an American wife in the kitchen or the bedroom.
At least Ed was appreciated by his Utah boss who quickly steered him into a new job in San Diego. With the promise of a paycheck and the balance of his unused VA loan from World War II—plus “one dollar down”—we purchased a modest five-bedroom house that to me was as big as a hotel.
At first, I couldn’t believe how generous America was with its veterans. I wondered how the draft-age protesters who rioted on TV every night could complain about serving in an army that made them rich. In Vietnam, old Viet Minh and Viet Cong fighters were compensated only with gratitude. Even Northern regulars were pensioned with only a few pennies per month. The opportunity to turn Ed’s ancient war record into tangible wealth seemed too good to be true. It also rekindled instincts from my bad old days as a black-market hustler in the streets, fire bases, and air strips around Danang.
“A house for one dollar!” I kept repeating, amazed, after Ed explained the deal. “Why don’t we buy a thousand houses and rent them out?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Ed said with a smile. “You still have to make the monthly payments and I’ll be lucky enough to pay for the one we’ve got.”
Somebody was missing the point, but I didn’t press the issue. We moved in at the beginning of a ninety-day escrow and filled our little mansion with new furniture, also purchased for no money down. For people who loved cash so much, Americans sure went out of their way to avoid handling it. People who needed money least seemed to borrow most; and those without much cash always had to pay up front. Like so many Western institutions, the system of debt and credit seemed upside down. But who was I to complain? I settled down to try once again to become the best housewife I could be.
Every day I got dressed up like the women in TV commercials and cleaned my house and cooked our meals, using every kitchen gadget I had. Jimmy now had a room of his own and, being almost four, asked when he could go to school with his friends. I stared at him often while he played with his toys or sat leafing through picture books, swinging his legs under the chair at his too-big student’s desk, and thanked fate or luck or god that he wasn’t dodging shells or smuggling contraband. In my evening prayers at the makeshift Buddhist altar I constructed in our house, I began to thank the Christian God (half in English, half in Vietnamese—who knew what language the Western deity understood?) that my two boys had been spared the soul curse of their race. In the eyes of a strict Buddhist monk, of course, these well-intended prayers were a bit impious; but I knew that my ancestors, and especially my father, would understand and approve.
A few weeks later, though, I began to wonder if my intrusion into the American spirit world hadn’t provoked a nest of demons.
When Mom Munro and Erma visited, they always brought sweets and praised my cooking, which gave them both an excuse to leave me alone in the kitchen (a guest bearing food is excused from chores, and good cooks don’t need any help), which was fine with me. One October evening, though, they brought a bucket of candy.
“Oh,” I cried, “the boys can’t eat all this candy! They get sick!”
“It’s not for the boys,” Erma said, “it’s for Halloween.”
“Ohhh, Halloween.” I nodded knowingly, determined not to reveal my ignorance of every American custom.
I put the candy up out of Jimmy’s reach and went on with preparing dinner. For the rest of the evening not another word was said about Halloween, and I assumed it would be another jolly holiday like the Fourth of July with whizzing fireworks and so much loud music and feasting that even a displaced Oriental could understand well enough what to do.
I soon found out how wrong I was.
The next day, Ed and I returned from shopping only to find glowing devils scowling at us from neighborhood porches—as if the local spirits had taken advantage of our absence during the day to put the hex on us at night. I grabbed Ed’s arm as he spun the steering wheel into our driveway and demanded to know what was going on.
Ed chuckled, then got very serious. After parking the car, he looked at me with a strange expression.
“Spooks,” he said solemnly. “And goblins.” I had not encountered these words before, and the way he said them made me run to look them up in my dogeared English-Vietnamese dictionary. I was right: ghosts, ghouls, spirits of the dead.
After a poor night’s sleep and a morning made worse by screaming boys and Ed’s puzzling instructions to “get rid of that damned candy early,” I was startled by a mysterious pounding in our neighbor’s yard. I stepped outside to see Tony, a friendly teenager who often did odd jobs on our block, hammering nails in a coffin.
“Hi Tony.” I tried to keep my voice from breaking. “What you doing?”
“Oh, hi Mrs. Munro.” He wiped a shock of hair from his sweaty forehead. “How do you like my casket?”
Icy chills ran down my spine. “My god—who die?”
Tony grinned. “Aw, nobody—yet!” He winked conspiratorially as Erma had done when she gave me the candy. “It’s for my brother, Joey.” He stabbed the air with his hammer like a sword skewering guts and laughed maniacally.
I ran inside and slammed the door, heart pounding. I spent the rest of the day peeping out from drawn curtains while trying to amuse my restless boys with indoor play. Near dusk, while glancing nervously into the carport to see if Ed was home, I saw Tony drag the coffin down his steps. As he tilted it against the porch, I saw inside a ghastly white face, splattered with blood, both eyes torn mercilessly from their sockets. I had seen enough of war and torture in Ky La and at My Thi prison to recognize an atrocity when I saw one, so I ran to the kitchen and began a batch of chao—rice soup—and banh keo—the sugar rice cookies we use in Vietnam to placate vengeful spirits on Vu Lan, the day when Hell coughs up its tortured souls. I now knew what the big bucket of candy was for and why Ed and Erma were afraid to speak of such things openly. I fished the sweets out of the cupboard with trembling hands.
“Quick, Jimmy!” I barked, spilling candy over the floor. “If anybody—any thing—come to the door, give them this! And turn off that TV!” A giant lizard was devouring Tokyo and the last thing I wanted was more monsters in my house.
Just as I placed the first offering of banh keo cookies on the family altar, the doorbell rang and my heart jumped out of my mouth. Jimmy, cheeks bulging with expiatory candy, opened the door. On the other side were a dozen half-human monsters—people killed in past centuries: ghosts in burial shrouds, pirates with patch-eyes, beggars in rags, bloody ghouls with oversized heads.
“Trick or treat!” they shouted in singsongy ghost talk.
I jumped between my sons and the devils and threw a handful of candy in their faces.
“Here!” I shouted. “Take all you want! Take everything! Just leave us alone!”
The demons got very quiet, then scooped up the candy from the porch and darted into the darkness. The last to leave peeled up the skin on her face—the death mask of some long-dead princess—and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Munro.” The spirit was an ancestor of the six-year-old girl across the street who played with the boys on weekdays after school—the resemblance was amazing. “Maybe next year Jimmy can come with us.”
Oh my god—no! I slammed the door and locked it. Fortunately, Ed came home minutes later to handle the roaming spirits. I spent the rest of the night in bed.
A few weeks later we all dressed up and went to Mom Munro’s for a “Thanksgiving” feast—an ancestral festival without the ghosts.
Ed gave me a full explanation of the holiday: “You give thanks you’ve got a turkey, then you eat it.” I felt better about this festival because we wore our nicest clothes and all of Ed’s relatives would be there (his brothers and sisters and nephews from Washington State and cousins and nephews from the Midwest) just like a Vietnamese family. Despite all the talk I heard later about Pilgrims and Indians, the Munros were thankful mostly because Ed had returned from Vietnam in one piece, a sentiment I understood well. However, many things made Thanksgiving different from the Ta On feasts I remembered as a girl.
In Vietnam, for example, we began thanksgiving feasts on our hands and knees, praying to our ancestors. We thank Ong Troi—“Mr. Sky,” the god of all—and Me dat (mother earth) for the food in our bellies and the water in our wells and fields. We offer thanks-in-kind (food and rice wine) as well as miniature paper clothes, money, and incense, which we burn to help lost spirits find their way into the light. Only after the burnt offerings have ascended to heaven—nhan tan khoi lanh—do we sit down to enjoy our meal. Such niceties, though, are not the American way.
“Okay, everybody,” Erma shouted from the kitchen, “come and get it!” From the moment we arrived, the men had either lounged around the living room or were out in the yard with the bigger kids tossing footballs and curious plastic plates that soared like airplanes. Of the women, only a couple helped Erma and Leatha prepare the meal, which seemed the height of rudeness. In Vietnam, on a big holiday like this, the men would tend the altar while all the women and younger children busied themselves in the kitchen. The bigger kids would find firewood and do whatever chores were needed so that the adults could tend to the food and rituals. Leatha’s festival was more like a birthday party at a restaurant, with a pretty but spiritless table, servants and guests, but no thu tu—order and piety—and overt respect for our ancestors or the elderly who would soon join them.
When everyone was seated willy-nilly—young next to old and men next to women in violation of all propriety—Erma asked everyone to bow their heads. This to me was a position of shame, not prayer. I crossed my arms over my chest, the way we show reverence, and immediately drew rude stares. I think Erma’s guests thought I was acting angry and aloof, not pious, but what else was I to do? After a few rhyming words, which no one repeated except “Amen,” her husband Larry began to carve the big American chicken.
“Hope you like turkey, Le Ly,” big Larry said in a friendly voice, heaping pile upon pile on my plate. “You’re so skinny, you have to eat twice as much!”
“Just give her a wing, Larry,” Ed said quietly. “I’ll take the rest.”
Everybody laughed but I didn’t know why. Ed wasn’t joking. In Vietnam, letting youngsters pick over the carcass while elders ate their fill was not just good manners, it was survival. In a land where one’s teeth seldom lasted past forty, the older generation often depended on the younger to give them the softest food. As long as I had known Ed, I had used my strong teeth to strip and chew bones that had already yielded most of their meat. That night, the turkey proved too tough and dry even for me to eat and, given my nervous stomach, even the wing wound up co duyen—decorating my plate.
“Come on, Ly,” Erma coaxed, seeing most of my food untouched, “think of all those starving children in Vietnam!” She smiled and half the guests laughed with her.
Leatha interrupted them. “Oh, Erma—leave the poor girl alone. She always eats like a sparrow.”
I would’ve been glad to tell them what I knew of starving children, which was way too much, but my English wasn’t up to it. Anyway, a happy feast day just wasn’t the time. The void left by my silence was replaced by conversation about the price of turkey and how happy everyone was that Larry could still get things so cheap at the navy commissary. American talk.
While they chatted, Erma heaped more mashed potatoes on my plate. The narrow smile on her plump face reminded me of the jack-o’-lanterns that had scared me so much on Halloween.
“Give her a break, Erma,” Ed said testily. “She can’t eat for her whole damn country!”
“Well, I just want to show her we’re being generous. I just want her to be thankful for what she has.”
“Thankful?” Ed threw his napkin on the table. “I’ll tell you about thankful! In Danang, we lived next door to the regional hospital. Every day I’d come home for lunch past a crowd of peasants from the countryside—people wounded and sleepless from nonstop shelling and stinking with dysentery and God-knows-what other diseases. Half of them couldn’t stand up—”
“Well, it’s a good thing they had a hospital,” Larry offered with a weak smile.
“Hell, half the people didn’t have legs!” Ed’s face was redder than his wine. “I’m talking about people blown to pieces and sick and starving and you know what? That wasn’t the worst of it. What really got to me was when I’d drive by in my fancy American pickup truck, these people would smile and wave to me like I was some kind of goddamn tourist on his way to the beach! That’s right! They were happy to be there, happy to see me, and thankful as hell they were still alive! So don’t lecture Ly about thanksgiving. Don’t expect her to do handsprings over your turkey. She knows exactly what she’s got, and what she left behind.”
After the awkward silence that followed, one of Ed’s young nephews asked, “Did you actually see any VC while you were there?”
“Yeah, Uncle Ed,” another said, “I hear things have gotten pretty bad over there. A lot of our guys are getting killed.”
Ed shrugged. “A lot of people get killed every day over there, not just our Grunts and Charlie. For every American casualty there must be a dozen—two dozen—villagers, farmers, babies, grandmothers—” He looked at Leatha and shook his head. “Hell, half the kids in Quang Nam have been wounded or beaten or walk around in bandages—” He broke off and took a swallow of wine. “I don’t know what we can do about it. It was a poor country to begin with and the war sure isn’t making things better. Let’s just hope the Paris peace talks succeed. Maybe the whole damn nightmare will end.”
“Are you saying we shouldn’t be there?” the same nephew asked.
“Hey, I just go where they tell me. As far as I can see, we’re doing what we think is right. If it is right. I mean, who knows for sure?”
The nephew, a young man of military age who seemed to know war only from TV, movies, and comic books, made a face and didn’t seem to appreciate Ed’s views. As for me, I gave Ed’s leg a secret squeeze under the table and was as proud of him as I could be.
Winter in California is the season of the wet monsoon. The days of cold rain, intermixed with patches of summer sky, made me miss Vietnam’s Central Coast. My Asian bones told me that Tet—the chief holiday in Vietnam—was coming up.
In America, holidays arrive first in merchants’ windows. Since to me all vivid American packaging looked the same, I’d failed to notice the leering pumpkins and goggle-eyed turkeys. Now, the stores were filled with displays of a jolly man in a red suit—like a fat, bearded Uncle Ho—pulled in a sleigh by Buddha deer with big red noses. Because the fat man was in every store and on every package, I knew something big was coming up.
For Tet, we villagers got excited about how many pigs, chickens, and ducks we would slaughter. How much we could eat and how many people would come to help us eat it was a measure of how successful our year had been. Small debts were forgiven and big ones were paid off whenever possible so that everyone could begin the new year with a clear conscience. We swept the graveyards, polished our family headstones, and burnt offerings to our loved ones. Still, the two big celebrations, Christmas and Tet, seemed to have little in common save the winter solstice.
“What is Christmas?” I finally got up the nerve to ask our next-door neighbor, Rose, Tony and Joey’s mother.
“Only the best holiday of the year!” she gushed like a little girl. Indeed, I had begun to realize that all of America’s holidays were geared in some way to children and spending money in stores. This latter tradition, of course, seemed perfectly natural, since our own custom of burning money to honor our ancestors had been accepted in Vietnam for centuries. In America, though, as nowhere else in the world, money is life; so making and spending it quickly takes on the colors of a religion.
As we sipped our green tea, Rose explained how the orgy of toy-buying formed the very core of this glorious Christian holiday—how the amount of money you spent was a sign of God’s favor and a signal to your family of how much you loved them.
“But Jimmy and Tommy have lots of toys,” I protested. “And they already know Mom and Dad love them. Anyway, Ed get mad at me if I spend too much!”
“No, he won’t,” she assured me. “It’s Christmas. That’s the whole point. In fact, he’ll get mad if you don’t spend money. He’ll be pleased you’ve become so American. Come on. I’ll show you how to do it. Shopping is my middle name.”
While Tony baby-sat my two boys, we spent the rest of the day on a pilgrimage from one toy temple to another. Since I had to arrange in advance with Ed to get cash or a check for anything, Rose helped by lending me the money for everything I bought. Still, the few things I felt brave enough to take to the register seemed miserly compared to the cartloads of rubber, plastic, and cardboard she purchased for her own two kids. Compared to me, she must have been a fabulous mother and very devout worshiper. When we got home, we wrapped the presents like conspirators.
Ed was not the problem I had feared, showing how infectious the “Christmas spirit” could be. Ordinarily, money fell from his hands like raindrops in a drought. A week before the big day, though, he brought home a small tree like the ones we had seen at Yellowstone.
“Oh, how pretty!” I exclaimed, thinking he had bought a houseplant. “But it won’t live long without roots!”
“It’s not supposed to,” he answered, looking now like a department store Santa—all white hair and red cheeks. “We’ll throw it out after Christmas.”
This news disturbed me. Trees were sacred. For Tet, we cut only a small branch of the bong mai plant and waited for it to blossom. If it did, it meant we’d have good luck the next year. Of course, the reason this plant was selected was because its cut branches tended to flower—a symbol of how our own lives bloom from our ancestors’. Only later did I realize that evergreens held a similar message for Christians and, in some ways, it fit the Christian message even better—that life persists after death.
The “big day” itself came and went like most other Munro holidays, although I lost a little sleep on Christmas Eve waiting for a fat, red-suited burglar to break into our house. It did not seem unnatural to build a holiday around such a shadowy figure, since most Vietnamese holidays were based on ancestral ghosts. What really seemed strange, though, was adults admitting that Santa Claus was a hoax. It seemed cynical, if not hypocritical, to tell your children one thing when you really believed another. Consequently, when I told people I had no problem believing that the spirit of Saint Nicholas visited every house in the world on Christmas Eve, I drew only blank stares. “Poor Ly,” I imagine they thought, “the simple child really believes in Santa!” Why not? It was the most spiritual thing I had yet seen in America.
In any event, the family got through its Christmas “ceremonies” as quickly as possible. They made no effort to savor the ritual as long as possible—our impulse in Vietnam. Kids and adults ripped open the presents we had so painstakingly wrapped. Each seemed locked in his own little world, forgoing that priceless piece of eternity we had supposedly gathered to share. In the midst of all this “official” happiness, I could feel nothing but sadness.
That night, we drove to Leatha’s for a family supper and my stomach knotted up in fear of another Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, everyone talked about who spent how much for what presents and forgave me condescendingly for not knowing I was supposed to buy gifts for all the adults as well as just the children. In the midst of Ed’s big family, I missed my own more than ever. On the one day of the year when Americans gather to celebrate eternal life, I felt myself beginning to die. Even an evergreen can’t live when its roots have been cut off.
At home after Christmas dinner, after the exhausted and hysterical boys had fallen asleep amid piles of Styrofoam and vinyl and colored paper and flameproof stuffed animals, I told Ed that I had to go back to Vietnam.
The days after Christmas passed in slow motion. To his great credit, and as had become the pattern in our marriage, Ed seemed to know my heart even before I did. For a month he had been quietly looking for new contract opportunities in the war zone—partly because he had gone through his savings faster than he’d hoped (one last high-paying Vietnam assignment would set him up for years), but mostly because he had seen how difficult it was for his relatives to accept his alien young bride as their own. Also, in Vietnam he would live cheaply and supervise others, whereas in America he must toil like a workhorse and pay dearly for the honor of living in the world’s richest country.
By New Year’s Eve, the idea of returning to Vietnam had blossomed from wishful thinking into a plan. Appropriately, we celebrated this out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new holiday with a young navy couple about to be transferred to Danang. It was the first time I had really felt like celebrating since I had arrived.
Just before twelve o’clock, we put on funny hats and made a ruckus with whistles and kazoos. Although it fit my mood very well, making noise at the stroke of midnight was an odd tradition. In the Vietnamese countryside, we tried to be absolutely still at midnight in order to hear the next year’s omens. If you heard a dog bark, for example, it meant you would be troubled by thieves and intruders. If you heard a hooting owl, you knew the gates of hell would open to receive your neighbors. If you heard a rooster crow, which is very unusual for that time of night, you knew the harvest would be good. (Consequently, we were usually prepared for bad seasons.) With so many things to go wrong and so few things that could go right, it’s no wonder we peasants strained to listen to nature’s voice.
Although I couldn’t take the New Year’s auspices because of our racket, they must have been propitious. A week or two later, in mid-January 1971, Ed got a two-year contract for a construction project near the town of An Khe: a strategic location in the An Tue District, a mountain fortress that dominated Highway 19 all the way to the Laotian border. I celebrated this good news privately by cooking up sweet rice as a sacrifice to the Phung spirits, which, just as my father promised, had followed me to this strange new land and seen me through many unexpected trials and torments.
Because the house was still in escrow, we were able to back out of the deal without losing too much money. We put all our nice new furniture into storage, which for me was no sacrifice although Ed’s women seemed pretty upset. Ed flew off at the end of the month and I was to follow with the boys a week later after the complex paperwork of a returning Vietnamese national was complete. When I recalled how expensive and exhausting it had been to leave my native country—a tedious, venal process filled with back-door payoffs and administrative booby traps—I was not surprised to see Uncle Sam put a few roadblocks of his own into the path of returning Vietnamese. But I could already smell Danang’s salty air. No counselor, fee, or mountain of paperwork was going to change my course.
The week I spent at Leatha’s getting ready to go was one of the longest of my life. Ed’s relatives were naturally very distressed to see him going back into harm’s way just to make more money for “his little Vietnamese gold digger.” I avoided them whenever I could, doing extra chores for Mom Munro—sometimes over and over again just to stay occupied and out of the way—but inevitably I would get caught and have to listen to their lectures.
“You know I love my brother very much,” Erma said, tears welling. “It hurts me to see him risk his life needlessly just for you.”
“Ed want to go back himself!” I answered cheerily. “He want to make more money.”
“Is that all you think of, Le Ly?” She shook her head in disgust. “Well, little lady, there’s more to life than money. Do you want to see him killed by the Viet Cong?”
Now we were onto a subject I knew something about. “He be okay. I take care of him. Ed number one!”
Erma grunted, “You’ll take care of him as long as the money holds out!”
As for Leatha, her happy American grandma’s eyes turned Vietnamese old overnight. “I won’t be around forever, Ly,” she said, rubbing her eyes beneath her glasses. “I want my son to be near me. I know how you feel about your own mother. Surely you can understand my feelings.”
I wanted to say, “Yes, I do know how that feels, which is exactly why I have to go home!” but didn’t. Instead, I listened to Erma’s and Leatha’s complaints and laments all the way to the airport.
My heart was airborne well ahead of the big jetliner. The Paris peace talks were going well and I was sure the endless, stupid war—which had wracked my country for so long, pursuing a course and will of its own that defied both sides—would finally be dragged to a halt.
After we settled into our seats, I began writing a letter to Mom Munro and Erma “bequeathing” my fine new furniture, the boy’s American toys, and everything else we had left behind to their family. I thanked them for their kindness and attempts to understand me and wished them a happy life. I swore on the bones of my ancestors that they would see Ed—whole and happy—after two years, but after that our future would be found in Vietnam, where builders like Ed would be needed to reconstruct our country. If he chose to stay, I said, he would spend his final years surrounded by the children he loved, a faithful and attentive wife, and a grateful people. Could they offer him anything better than that in El Cajon?
I sealed the letter and tucked it away for mailing in Honolulu. Looking past the boys sleeping peacefully in their seats, I scanned the sparkling blue water and let my thoughts race toward the wonderful life I knew awaited me: the best of both worlds, East and West.
When we finally landed in Saigon, Jimmy pressed his nose against the window and gazed in wonderment at the jungle and paddies from which he came. I had first seen the variegated Mekong River from the air five years before when the overloaded DC-3 from Danang arrived to deposit my mother and me on the sunbaked tarmac at the beginning of our exile from Ky La. It would end a year later with my shameful return to Danang, the birth of little Jimmy out of wedlock, and the start of my new career as a black marketeer. Now, with the prospects of peace at hand, the velvety green landscape seemed as inviting as a tourist poster; the meandering river, a bride’s silver necklace instead of a slave’s iron chain. My softened, citified feet now itched for the loamy soil of China Beach and the last few paces of their age-long journey: from the pavement of cat-eyed America to the hard-packed dirt floor of the house where I’d been born.
As soon as I stepped from the airliner, though, reality—and the oppressive tropical heat—smacked me in the face.
I had forgotten, even after one brief year, the searing Saigon temperature. My thick American makeup immediately began to melt. Jimmy, who was carrying my bag while I carried Tommy, pulled against my hand and cried hysterically when he saw the first Vietnamese uniform.
“I hate this place, Mama Du!” he shouted, startling me with the first Vietnamese word I’d heard from his lips in months. “I hate these people!” He hid behind my legs until the Republican soldier passed. I bent to comfort him as a flight of four camouflaged American jet fighters screamed low over the runway. We scampered into the terminal like mice in a thunderstorm.
Now Tommy was in tears and it was all I could do to keep from crying myself. We snaked through the crowd to the customs tables, trying to collect ourselves. Bits and pieces of the Vietnamese language, music to my ears, floated by as I wiped my sons’ faces and fumbled through my purse for our paperwork. I now became painfully aware of the deadly conflict that lurks in the heart of every wife and mother. As Phung Thi Le Ly, I had put my right to independence above my duty to serve my husband, no matter what. I knew in my heart that if Ed decided to go back to the states and the peace talks eventually broke down, I would still want to stay in this country. As Le Ly Munro, however, I treasured above all else the well-being of my sons. By bringing them back to the only place on earth I felt I could be happy, I had put them in mortal danger. I could feel my father’s unhappy spirit grumbling in the jet-blast. Yet hadn’t my mother told me, on our exile to Saigon, that “Good seeds grow in any soil”? Why should the shell-pocked land of home be less nourishing to my two good boys than the hard-paved streets of America? It all seemed so clear, yet at the same time murkier than the turbid swamps around Ky La.
We cleared customs easily (getting into Vietnam during the war was always faster than getting out!) and found a cab to take us on the ten-minute drive to the hotel where I would contact Ed and plan the next leg of our trip. The only thing the ragged cabby would talk about was America—what it was like, how he longed to travel to the “land of gold,” and how such travel would be easier when the much anticipated treaty between the North and the South was signed. Although I was still upset, with upside-down thoughts about right and wrong and duty and love buzzing around my head, I was happy to hear a lilting country accent and to watch our driver’s crafty peasant eyes regard me in the rearview mirror. After one very long year, here were feelings I understood, situations I could handle. I felt my power grow with every dusty, bouncy mile.
Our hotel was a seven-story concrete blockhouse which, although relatively new and the largest on the street, already had a typically run-down, seedy Saigon look to it—especially after San Diego’s steel and glass skyscrapers. What had impressed me only a few years before as Saigon’s sophistication now looked merely third-world shabby. Inside, the walls and floor were well scrubbed (as they should have been; manual labor was plentiful and cheap and uniformed hotel workers were notably silent and efficient) with rooms that were blessedly air conditioned.
After I took care of Tommy and changed my clothes, I watched my first sunset back on my native soil: a red football slowly sinking behind purple palms, with neon signs flickering over the storefront windows. Through the tightly sealed glass, I studied the bustling street—cars and buses and motorbikes and military vehicles and siclo pedicabs and bicycles and pedestrians passing noiselessly as in a dream: a silent movie about my past.
After a blissful night’s sleep—the kind of “open palm” sleep you enjoy only on home turf—we got up and went out to buy our airline ticket to Danang. “We’re going to see Ba Ngoai—your real grandma,” I told Jimmy, preparing his ear for the Vietnamese words he would gradually have to remember.
I sent a wire to Ed, giving him our flight information, then spent the rest of the day padding around the city—at least the parts we could easily reach—stuffing our senses with all the sights, sounds, and smells I’d hungered for in America: the earthy stench of the local fish market; the ranks of vegetables drying like brightly uniformed soldiers in the midday sun; the street children, clothed in little more than smiles and love, darting around our legs. Slowly we acclimated to the searing heat. We returned exhausted and the boys went down for their naps without the usual protest. I brushed my hair out long, went barefoot, and put on my lucky red ao dai. Ceremonially, I packed away my American clothes and put them out of my mind. Instead, I thought about tomorrow.
When I had left Vietnam to join Ed a year earlier, I was too ashamed—of marrying an American, a much older man, and of going off to live with the enemy—to tell my mother. Now I felt like meo mat mua—a prideful cat coming in from the rain. And what about my sister Lan, who did not suffer me kindly as a little sister even when times were good? How would she receive me now? And Hai, my oldest sister, our mother’s only caretaker in our bombed-out, almost-abandoned village? Would she welcome me as she had done on our exile to Saigon, forgiving me all my sins, or would she shelter our poor mother from more heartache by keeping “black sheep sister Ly” at arm’s length? I didn’t and couldn’t know. Nobody but Lan had written to me in America. I could only follow my conscience, my higher self, and right now that little voice inside me had lots of apologies to make.
The next morning we left Saigon, but not my doubts, far behind. In my unsettled state of mind, the flight to Danang seemed longer than our trip across the ocean.
Danang and its big air base, although cooler than Saigon, was as frantic as I’d remembered. With the constant roar of jets and grinding trucks and clanking tanks and the distant whump of artillery, my homesick eyes were more anxious to spot a bunker than pagodas or colorful peasants. Getting through the jammed-up streets to our hotel, in fact, was an hour-long nightmare: I’d made the same trek in twenty minutes on my old motorbike. The French-style hotel was open to the air, although a few rooms had evaporative coolers. Our antique bed was festooned with mosquito nets like sails on a wooden ship. It was noisy and uncomfortable, but it was home.
Without delay, I readied the boys and took a siclo to Lan’s house, which had changed little since I’d last seen it a year ago. The only exception was her live-in boyfriend, an American contractor named Peter Bailey. If he turned out to be like Lan’s other boyfriends, it would be wise to give him a wide berth. With no telephone to call and no particular reason to send a telegram (which, in wartime, only scared the recipient), I arrived unannounced, if not unexpected. Lan’s eyes lit up when she saw me.
“Bay Ly!” She used my family number-name, the title of the “number six” child. “Ong cha oi—Oh my god—come in! You made it after all!” She seemed happy to see me—a good start. She also seemed very pregnant; perhaps a gift from her American boyfriend. The child would be similar to the other Amerasian she had borne with a different GI lover. In this respect, too—creating life from the seed of death-dealers—Lan and I were sisters.
“Where is Ed?” Lan looked past me and the boys to the empty street.
“He’s in An Khe. We’ll go there after I see everybody.”
We followed Lan into the shabby little house. Except for the furnishings deemed indispensable to Americans—electric fan, stereo record player, and a small TV—hers could have been the house of any big-city “tea-girl.” It had homemade curtains, a worn dinette, and walls adorned with religious calendars, cracked plaster, and geckos.
“You’ll want to see Mother,” Lan said over her shoulder, heading for the back door.
“Mom’s here?” Now it was my turn for big eyes. My heart began to pound. I put Tommy down with Lan’s little boy, Eddy. Clad only in a torn T-shirt, he stared at my sons suspiciously as they began exploring the house.
“Of course. She’s doing laundry. She comes over all the time to help with the housekeeping. I’m a working girl, Bay Ly. And if you think you’re going to roll in here on a red carpet and—”
She started to tell me how I was still her little sister, her subordinate in every way, but I tuned her out and focused entirely on a little gray figure a dozen yards away, ragged and wet as the clothes she sloshed in her bucket.
“Mama Du,” Lan said flatly, “look who’s here.”
My mother squinted into the sun, sheltering her eyes. Her face was as wrinkled and dark as a moldy quince—yet more beautiful to me now than Leatha in all her makeup.
“It’s me, Mama Du,” I squeaked. “Bay Ly!”
“Oh,” she said blankly, as if someone had just told her the time. “When did you get back?”
My heart sank to my toes. “This morning.”
“Well, you look healthy.” She wiped the perspiration from her forehead, glanced at the sun, and turned back to her laundry.
I looked dumbfounded at Lan. My sister silently stretched out her arm, palm down, and waved her fingers, motioning me back into the house.
“What’s wrong with her, Chi Lan?” I asked. “I’ve been gone a whole year!”
“What do you expect?” Lan said. “You abandoned her after all she did for you. You went to live in Saigon.”
“I went to America!”
“She never believed that. I showed her the stamps and postmark on your letters but she couldn’t read them and wouldn’t believe them if she did. Now she’ll never believe it. Who would go to America and come back?”
Tears flooded my eyes but I held them in. When I was little, my big sister sometimes made me cry in front of our mother. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction now.
“So—have you eaten?” Lan asked, finally remembering her manners.
The standard, polite answer among all peasants everywhere would have been “Yes, we’ve eaten,” but, in fact, we had left the hotel without lunch. Even though I couldn’t swallow a thing now, the boys were always hungry.
“No. I’m sure the boys would like some bun ca” (an old-fashioned fish noodle soup).
“Okay, I’ll go to the market.” Lan put a kerchief around her head and held out her hand, this time palm up.
So much for family hospitality! I gave her a cold look, opened my purse, and pulled out the few piasters she’d need for the ingredients.
As Lan left, my mother came in with a basket of dry laundry, all neatly folded. She saw the boys and dropped it at once, extending her arms under a big, gummy, betel-dark grin.
“Hung! Chau!” She always used Jimmy’s and Tommy’s Vietnamese names. “Come to Ba Ngoai!”
Jimmy went screeching to the brittle old lady he remembered so fondly and Tommy toddled after, uncertain and wary—good reflexes to cultivate for life in a war zone. She ushered them out back to play and when they were gone my tears broke like a summer cloudburst.
That night, while our mother tended the kids, Lan told me what had happened in the war, to our family, and around Danang since I left. With U.S. forces blockading the North and mining Haiphong, cutting off its war materiel from China and the Soviet Union, and with peace talks making progress, everyone had high hopes that the fighting would soon be over. As had been the case in the war with the French, everyone expected the treaty to redefine a few boundaries, establish some new political rights, and prompt another mass migration of people from one district to another. After that, life would surely get back to normal—or what we remembered as normal during the brief lull between the French and American wars. U.S. soldiers had been steadily withdrawing and business for bar girls like Lan was beginning to fall off, as it already had for the merchants and black marketeers in every city. Like the countdown to the treaty, the days before Lan’s American man abandoned her were certainly numbered. I did not get the feeling she was anxious to go back to the rural life. But that was Lan’s problem, not mine.
We decided that the boys and I could live in Lan’s old one-bedroom Danang apartment, which she sublet to GIs, until Ed came north from An Khe. Its torn-to-hell couch, broken chairs, and on-again-off-again refrigerator were four years older than the last time I’d used them and a bit more weathered, like me. But I couldn’t complain. I was glad I had to pay Lan only one week’s premium rent before Ed appeared in his dust-covered American sedan to carry me off.
Because Ed had been living in the construction barracks and had not yet found a place for us to live, we decided to leave the boys with Lan and my mother—along with Thanh, the faithful young housekeeper who had worked for me and Ed before we left and who now worked for Lan. Thanh had been elected to tell my mother of my departure for America, an onerous task she peformed better than any sister. Loyalty like hers transcended wages.
The day-long drive with Ed to An Khe was, for me at least, like leafing through a childhood photo album. After America’s broad vistas, craggy mountains, and stark plains, I had forgotten how dense and verdant our little corner of the world really was. We passed black-pajamaed girls prodding water buffalo with a stick; old ladies bearing shoulder-poles that would have bent the strongest laborers in the West; and roadside shrines declaring our spiritual connection to the trees and paddies and eternal sky around us. My old reflexes, which had been so embarrassing in America, now seemed perfectly natural—even valuable. I reminded Ed to drive in the center of the road to avoid land mines and to take new roads under construction whenever possible, since the Viet Cong rarely attacked the peasant crews. We encountered several bands of hitchhiking government soldiers but I told Ed to pass them by—they could easily have been cowboys. This time, he did exactly as he was told.
We arrived at An Khe around dusk. The only vacancy was at a sleazy bar with small rooms out back, which were used by the local hookers. Our “bungalow” was equipped with a ratty straw mattress and sheets mottled with stains, but we were exhausted and just lay down on top of them in our clothes. As soon as we shut our eyes, the headboard of the bed in the next room began to bang against the wall and Ed sat up, cursed, and lit a cigarette. It was answered soon thereafter by headboards in the other rooms—the mating call of An Khe!—and we couldn’t help laughing. I congratulated myself for leaving the kids in Danang and fell asleep, leaving my “third eye” open to watch over Ed.
The next day we looked at a furnished triplex in the country, which was being vacated by one of Ed’s co-workers. It was a beautiful place. Our neighbors would be an American ambulance driver, a physician, and a middle-class Vietnamese family with three kids. The house was surrounded by fields and trees, with a U.S. MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) housing facility, a small hospital, and a Vietnamese high school across the street. A few miles in the opposite direction was the sprawling military base at Qoc Lo 19, the strategic center of An Tuc, now defended mostly by Republican forces because of the American withdrawal. The house had its own well and a communal bathroom, which was very clean, but what I liked most about it was the small pond, stocked with fish, near a coconut grove that reminded me of the area behind my father’s house at Ky La. Ed saw me fall in love with the place so he rented it on the spot.
We went back to Danang to retrieve the children. Little Thanh, a girl about my size but with a flatter, almost Chinese face that complemented her stocky build, decided to leave Lan and come with us as our maid. It was like old times, but with the war winding down and my own family less than a day’s drive away, it promised to be good times as well. Besides, with Ed’s long workday and a mess hall at the construction site, my wifely duties would be minimal. Even motherhood took a holiday as Jimmy entered Catholic school and Tommy spent most of his time with Thanh. I had plenty of time to read and catch up on a year’s back issues of popular Vietnamese magazines. I renewed my acquaintance with the Buddhist monks whose solace and instruction I missed, and took long walks around the pond with my father’s spirit. In every way, it was the paradise I’d dreamed of in America, but never found.
In a few months, though, that paradise became a hell and my life would be changed forever.
Shortly after we arrived, one of my girlfriends borrowed the MACV dining hall to give a party for her husband. Ed and I attended, along with many others. This time, I wore my American clothes; to honor Ed, of course, but also for vanity—to impress the other Vietnamese girls, most of whom were dying to go to America.
At first, the party was pleasant but a little dull. We knew most of the guests already and, seeing them every day, had nothing new to talk about. Later, though, many interesting people from the An Khe base arrived. One was a U.S. Army major named Dante (Dan) DeParma, a military adviser who spoke some Vietnamese already and was learning much more in his assignment. He was Ed’s height (I came up just to his chin) and was a little older than Anh, Jimmy’s father. He seemed more mature than the American servicemen I’d met before Ed, yet he was handsome enough to capture and hold a young lady’s eye. Like Ed, he wore glasses but instead of making him look bookish or elderly, they gave his face a clear-eyed, sensitive aspect—like a physician’s. I listened, enchanted, as his soft, melodic voice drifted between English and Vietnamese. With his boyish grin and sparkling eyes, he was more charming than anyone I’d met in a soldier’s uniform. I could almost hear my father’s voice behind the wit and humor and compassion of his words. After ten minutes with this wonderful newcomer, I felt inebriated. My face flushed red and my heart pounded in my ears. My breath came so fast and shallow I thought I might pass out. I knew, too, that I was in terrible trouble.
I spent the rest of the evening torn between heaven and hell. While Ed and I visited with other couples, my eyes kept searching for Dan. More than once, I caught him staring back at me with an inscrutable smile on his face, and I became more flustered than ever. By the time the party was over, I was a nervous wreck and later that night had to pretend I was getting sick in order to deflect Ed’s amorous advances. I just couldn’t cope with another man until I’d sorted out my feelings for Dan. I was no desperate refugee now, but a woman with two children who had “been to America.” That alone kept me tossing and turning all night.
The next day I came back from market and Thanh told me that an American officer—speaking Vietnamese—had been to the house asking for me.
“Who was it?” My heart jumped, afraid and excited.
“He didn’t say. He’s going to come back, though.”
The next day I was in the kitchen when Thanh answered the door.
“Co Ly dau?” I heard a masculine voice ask. “Is Ly at home?”
I hurried out, beaming. “Hello, I am Ly.” I recognized Dan at once. “What may I do for you?”
He didn’t answer right away, but just stood there taking me in, as if reassuring himself that I was the person he remembered. I prayed he wouldn’t be disappointed, turn on his heels, and leave.
“I’m Dan,” he finally said. “We met at the party the other night.”
“Oh yes.” I offered my hand. “I remember. How are you?”
“I’m very well, thank you.” He took my fingers like a gentleman helping a lady across a stream—from someplace she had been to the next place fate or luck or god would take her.
“Listen, Ly,” he said, “I don’t have much time right now, but I wonder if you could do me a favor?”
“A favor? Of course.”
“I’m new at the post. I don’t know anyone around here except the GIs I work with. I’m looking for someone who can tell me about An Khe—the local population, what people really think about the war and all of that. The other night, you seemed like one of the few Vietnamese who understands Americans. I just wonder if we might have tea some afternoon—to talk. Maybe you can help me with my Vietnamese. I know it’s not so hot!”
We laughed together like people who had known each other all their lives. I felt the minefield of love and honor and duty close in around me.
“Your Vietnamese is very good,” I said, “much better than my English. I would be happy to help you.”
“Wonderful! Perhaps tomorrow, then? About this same time?”
“That would be fine!”
He took my hand again and it was all I could do to let his go.
The next day—and every afternoon thereafter for a week—Dan and I took tea on our porch. While Thanh served us with a motherly frown, Dan told me about his immigration from Northern Italy as a child (which explained his old-world manners); his wife, who could bear no children; and the American sons they had adopted. In his words I heard no bitterness about his war experiences or at nature for denying him a son, only compassion for his wife and his love of life and living. I told him little about my life before Ed, but much about my misery in America and how I longed for a life of peace in the land of my ancestors. We agreed that, no matter what politicians on either side might say, continuing the war would be madness and that nobody would win if new fighting broke out. By the end of the week, my heart was his and I knew he felt the same, but we agreed to do nothing about it.
I now had to face the consequences of my actions. I was not ashamed of my feelings for Dan—on the contrary, they lit up my life—but I was not proud of them either. If nothing else, they forced me to look my own loveless marriage in the face. I had been miserable in America and had no desire to go back. It was in its way a war zone as lethal to my spirit as the battlegrounds outside Ky La.
Now Dan had come along—to appreciate me for what and who I was, not what I should but could not become. Our attraction was so strong and sublime, transcending even the flood of passion, that the sin of infidelity seemed insignificant compared to the crime of turning away a soulmate. With peace about to bloom in my country, would I be wiser and more pious to return with my children to my “war” in America, or follow my destiny with Dan in the land where my father was buried? It was a question that answered itself.
Midway through the second week, all my doubts had vanished. When Thanh’s censuring looks chased us from the house, we took long walks through the grove or just sat by the pond—talking, laughing, or sharing the silence of the day. By the end of the week we were holding hands as we walked and Dan couldn’t leave without kissing me goodbye.
At the beginning of the third week, Dan said, “This is pure torture. Eventually you’ll be going to the States and I’ll be reassigned to God-knows-where. What have we got to hope for?”
“Well, if it makes you feel better,” I said, “I won’t be going home with Ed. I make up my mind last week. If he wants to stay in Vietnam, that’s okay, but I cannot make him happy in United States because I cannot be happy myself. How can Tommy and Jimmy be happy if their mama du is so miserable?”
“Will you ask Ed for a divorce?” It was a question and a plea.
“To be honest with you, Dan, I don’t know. Ed is a good man. I owe him my life. But he will not want to keep hold of something that is not his.”
With that we went on with our lives but continued our chaste little affair. Dan was wonderful with the boys and came to dinner often, sometimes with friends from the base. Ed enjoyed his company, too, and regarded him as a family friend. Even the landlord, who sometimes tended the grounds during the day when Dan came over, smiled and waved whenever we appeared, hand in hand. Only he and Thanh shared our little secret, such as it was, and as long as my maid was assured no vows had been broken, she was content to leave well enough alone. In fact, she came to look forward to Dan’s—“the Major’s,” as we respectfully called him—tea-time visits almost as much as I did.
By spring 1972 the climate in Vietnam—especially around An Khe—began to change. Although the Paris accords had produced the illusion of peace for the rest of the world, nobody in my country was fooled. The faster the Americans withdrew and flooded the land with arms and equipment before the legal deadline which would end that aid arrived, the bolder the Northern soldiers and local VC cadres became. Despite terrible B-52 raids on Hanoi and Haiphong, Northern regiments captured Quang Tri, just inside the DMZ, and seemed to threaten everywhere else. Although they generally avoided the big battles that would have drawn America back into the war, the Communists pressed their advantage in local skirmishes, sabotage, and terrorism that kept everyone on edge.
Abruptly in March, after our first year in Vietnam, Ed was told that he’d soon be transferred—probably to Saigon or Danang, the last bastions of the once formidable American presence—because enemy pressure was too intense.
“You’re lucky,” our Vietnamese landlord said after I told him the news at the water well. “We’ve heard rumors that something big is about to happen. This place isn’t as safe as it seems.”
I put down my bucket, alarmed, and thought of Dan. “What do you mean? What about the big army fort? The Communists wouldn’t dare attack it!”
“There aren’t as many soldiers around here as there used to be. Without American support, our troops aren’t as anxious to fight. Things could get bad very quickly.”
That night, Ed’s worried expression only compounded my fear.
“What’s the trouble?” I asked, hoping he would reveal something about conditions on the American base, and, indirectly, what the future might hold for Dan. “Don’t tell me you have bad news too?”
“Yep—I’m being recalled to Saigon. Rumor has it they’re going to ship out the foreign workers. And I’ve got another year to go on my contract!”
“So—you just go someplace else. Or they pay you off, right?”
“It doesn’t work that way. The fine print says they can cancel the contract if conditions get too rough. Worse than that, I lose my tax benefits on the money I’ve already earned if I go back to the States. One way or another, I’ve got to find a way to finish my contract.”
We talked over alternatives during dinner, trying to cheer each other up, but with my mind preoccupied with Dan and the danger he might face, I didn’t have much sympathy for Ed’s tax problems. Later, after the traffic in the street died down, the crickets and cicadas started their evening concert and I stared up at the bright, full moon. It was a still, humid night of such rare beauty that I couldn’t imagine anything going wrong anywhere in the world. A neighbor’s dog barked and Ed cursed it. Then, without warning, all hell broke loose.
Explosions came from the direction of the base—then an ear-shattering blast from the MACV building across the street. Dishes jumped and knickknacks toppled from the shelves. A thousand-pound hammer banged on the walls, dropping pictures, which shattered on the floor. All of a sudden the room was filled with dust.
Tommy was nearest so I grabbed him and dived under the table, covering him with my body. Jimmy ran screaming from his bed and squirmed under my outstretched arm, followed by Thanh, who huddled against us. The lights blinked and went out. Explosions flashed white on Ed’s awestruck face as he stared, silhouetted, out the window. After a short, tense pause, the din began again, louder than ever, crackling and snapping like New Year’s firecrackers.
For what seemed like an eternity, we lay quivering and helpless. I cursed myself silently for being caught unprepared: we had no family bunker—even a stray shell landing nearby could tear our house apart. Worse, the anguish I felt for Dan, at ground zero of the attack, eclipsed any fear I had for myself or my husband, or the empathy I usually felt for my brother Vietnamese who had to endure these terrors daily. It was just one more way the war could drive you crazy.
After twenty minutes, the explosions finally stopped. Working quickly and silently, we packed the things that we could carry—mostly food and water, barricaded the doors and windows (as if that would’ve stopped anyone), and waited for the dawn.
An hour after the attack, the crickets resumed their chirping. We went to our beds and tried to sleep, but every dog bark and creaking timber woke us up and sent us diving under the table.
In the gray morning light, Ed crept through the eerie silence to the hospital and learned that although the big army post had held, all civilians, Vietnamese and American alike, would be evacuated as soon as possible. A short time later some trucks with MPs appeared and drove us to a small airstrip where a waiting twin-engined transport took about two dozen of us, still dazed and uncomprehending and with little more than the clothes on our backs, to Saigon.
The “Pearl of the Orient”—Vietnam’s great, sinful capital, was beginning to fill with refugees from the Communists’ sudden offensive, making accommodations tight and everything else even more expensive.
We rented a small apartment and Ed went every day to his employer’s office, trying to determine the status of his contract. One day he came back looking very discouraged.
“Well, it’s over,” he said with a brave smile.
“What over? The war? The fighting?” My heart jumped for joy: Now that we were safe, at least temporarily, I could only think of seeing the Major again.
“No, of course not,” Ed sniffed. “My job. The contract’s been canceled.”
“Well, what you going to do?” I thought surely he’d want to go back to America and we’d have our final battle about our marriage and I’d at last be free to join Dan.
Ed shrugged. “I was thinking about that on my way home. How would you like to live in Canada?”
I frowned. “Canada? Too cold! Too much like Yellowstone.”
“We’d only be there for six months. Then we’d go back to San Diego and start over.”
I didn’t have to say anything. Ed could see I wasn’t crazy about his plan.
“You go to Canada first, like you came here first last year. You find a nice place to live, then I come with the boys.”
Ed frowned. “I don’t like that idea. It’s not safe for you in Vietnam.”
“That’s why I have to stay. I have to see my family one more time. Danang is a big city. I’ll be okay. Tommy and Jimmy will be fine. You go to Canada and do what you have to do. We’ll come along later.”
Ed knew he had no choice. His company would pay to relocate him, but they wanted his decision soon. A few days later, he handed me an envelope with some money to pay our way to Danang (including Thanh’s fare), then back to Saigon for a flight to Vancouver. We kissed and hugged on the sidewalk outside our building and he got into his shiny truck with a couple of co-workers and drove off to the airport. Despite his many kindnesses to me and the boys (not the least of which was saving our lives!), and despite the fact that I genuinely cared for his well-being and hoped he would be happy, I earnestly prayed that I would never see him again.
Jimmy, who understood a lot more than he could speak, asked when we were going to see Ba Ngoai—his beloved grandmother.
“Soon,” I told him, hustling them both upstairs. My mind was already buzzing with plans. “But first, we go see your friend the Major in An Khe.”
In those days, people got to An Khe two ways: either by convoy from Qui Nhon or by bus after a plane ride from Fleuku. Since most civilians had departed, the Qui Nhon road had been closed, which may have been the government’s way of saying it was no longer contesting Communist control in the area. So after a one-hour flight to Fleuku, we joined the crowd at the bus station and I asked around for the time of the next motorcoach to An Khe. A sweaty baggage handler, red with the dust of the area, only laughed at my question.
“You’re crazy, little sister. Nobody goes to An Khe. VC are all over the place.”
“But I have to get back to my home and husband.”
“Then flap your wings. Only the birds get into An Khe.”
I took Jimmy’s hand and Thanh grabbed Tommy and we scrambled back to the airstrip, where small military cargo planes, including helicopters and artillery spotters, swarmed in and out like bees in a hive.
“Look, I’ve got to get to An Khe,” I told the officer, a Vietnamese captain, in charge of QCs guarding the line of Hueys. “My husband is there. I’ve got to join him.”
“No way,” he shouted back above the whining turbines. “Even if I had a chopper, I couldn’t spare the space. Charlie’s all over the place. For all I know, you could be a VC agent!”
Indignantly, I produced my visa and endorsements showing that I had just come in from America and was married to a U.S. citizen. I let him see Ed’s picture but kept my thumb over the name. I could see the officer weakening.
“What is his name and rank?”
“He’s a major—an American major. His name is—” For a horrible instant I could not remember Dan’s odd-sounding Italian name. During those wonderful weeks, I had always referred to him as “the Major” or Dan—I couldn’t even picture his name tag, although he had worn it on his uniform every time I saw him. “Demara,” I blurted out. “Major Daniel Demara.”
The captain led me to the operations shack where he picked up a phone, presumably to call An Khe.
“Nobody’s heard of him,” the captain said, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. He didn’t hang up and I didn’t like the way he was looking at me.
I waved and yelled “Thank you!” and got out of there quick. My temper now took over from my anxiety. Here I was, less than a two-hour drive from the love of my life—and he might as well have been on the moon!
Near the airport gate, I spotted a man in bell-bottoms and a flowery shirt leaning against a dust-red car smoking and reading a paper. He didn’t look like a cabbie, but those days anybody with wheels was an entrepreneur.
“Bac Oi!” I shouted, “Excuse me, uncle! How much to go to An Khe?”
The man looked startled, not so much at my request as by the two screaming kids and bewildered teenager I dragged in the dust behind me.
“Why, a hundred dollars—American.”
“I only have piastres.” I rummaged through my purse. Of course, I had plenty of American dollars, but I wasn’t about to let him know it. If he didn’t kill me and take what he wanted, then the rest of the crowd surely would.
I gave him the piastre equivalent of a hundred dollars—part of which was to have been our airfare to Canada. If my father’s spirit was watching what I selfishly did with my husband’s money and to Tommy, Ed’s natural child, whose life I had no right to risk, he decided to keep quiet—probably out of disgust. Women in love are very formidable, especially to their own conscience.
“And we’ll have to go now,” the man added. “The government troops have just swept for mines.”
“That’s okay, we’re ready to go.”
He looked behind us as if expecting something else. “No luggage?”
“No,” I smiled lamely, “just us!”
He was almost as suspicious as the captain, but the hundred dollars was very persuasive.
After stopping at the bus station to check travel conditions, we set out for An Khe, driving slowly and staying squarely in the middle of the road. The driver didn’t talk much for the first half hour, just steered nervously, scanning the brush and the road ahead. Then, when nothing happened, he relaxed and jimmied a cigarette out of his pocket.
“You know, the real problem isn’t the Commies,” he said, lighting up and resting his arm on the window. “It’s the damn American patrols. They blast anything that moves. Shoot first and let God sort ’em out, that’s what they say.” He did not seem to think that having American dependents on board would make any difference to a point man’s itchy trigger finger.
Whenever we approached peasants heading toward Fleuku, which wasn’t often, we’d stop and ask them about conditions farther on. To the last they advised us to turn around, and my driver always gave me a chance to do so, but I told him to keep going. The once busy road—usually filled with cars, buses, convoys, and motorbikes—was eerily empty, but that wasn’t half as spooky as An Khe when we arrived that afternoon. Even the great houses of its few wealthy residents stood empty and boarded up. Its bustling streets were bereft of everything save browsing chickens, stray dogs, and scattered soldiers wearing combat gear and worried faces.
Following my directions, the driver took us straight to our house, which, at least on the outside, looked just as we left it. We got out and I gave him a big tip, mostly to thank the local spirits for protecting us on the road. He drove off quickly, as if the highway was already being rolled up behind him. I smiled and waved to the lone QC (Vietnamese military policeman) standing guard at the entrance to the MACV building across the street. He didn’t respond.
Inside, things seemed the same but with a subtle difference. The boys ran after their toys and Thanh and I went to the kitchen to check the food we had previously packed—some rice and cookies and a jar of fresh water. Only after I knew we could survive awhile in the field would I worry about finding Dan. A cool breeze rattled through the window. I began to think more clearly.
Of course—that’s what’s wrong: the windows are open!
“Boys!” I shouted, “come here quick!” Thanh began stuffing supplies down her blouse and I grabbed a kitchen knife and hid it behind my back.
The boys scampered in and a familiar voice followed them from outside. “Whoa—hold on!”
It was our landlord in a sweaty, half-open workshirt. He wore a military pistol stuck in his belt and a relieved look on his face—almost as relieved as ours. “What are you doing here? Everyone’s supposed to be gone!”
“I could say the same about you!” My initial relief turned to caution. Whenever the Communists took over, the landowners were usually the first to go—to underground jails or deep-jungle prisons or simply into the bush for a quick bullet through the head. It was unlikely that anyone associated with Saigon’s monied class would stick around without good reason. Could our trusty landlord actually be a Viet Cong agent?
“Well, all this belongs to me, doesn’t it?” he waved his hand around the room. “Do you think I’m going to leave it to looters? Right now, they’re a bigger problem than VC. Of course, I only have to fire one shot and the QCs come running. But what about you? Why did you come back?”
“Everything I have in the world is here,” I said without much exaggeration.
“Oh, I see. The Major?” The landlord raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“Yes. Have you seen him?”
“He came by a few days ago looking for you—”
My heart rose to my throat.
“—but I haven’t seen him since. He didn’t leave a message.”
“How can I contact him and let him know I’ve come back?”
The landlord stroked his chin, “Maybe we can call him on the MACV radio. They’ve been very good about helping civilians.”
I sent Jimmy across the street with the landlord—mostly to get him out of the way while Thanh and I tried to put our house in order, but also to let Dan hear Jimmy’s voice on the radio and assure him it was us. Within a few minutes, a jeep stopped in front of the house.
“Mommy—the Major!” Jimmy cried, as if it was Christmas morning. “The Major’s back!”
I ran into Dan’s arms and gave him the biggest kiss anyone—including our chuckling landlord and stupefied Thanh—had ever seen.
“Ly—tinh yeu tren tran chien,” Dan sighed, squeezing me tight. “Love in a battle zone, eh?”
“I couldn’t leave you behind,” I sobbed. Tears flowed from us both uncontrollably.
We went inside and Tommy—who missed the comfort of his father and who was worried about his mother and terribly confused and frightened about everything—blurted out “Daddy!” and grabbed Dan by the leg. We laughed through our tears and Dan picked him up and gave him a big hug. Of course, the nickname stuck. From that moment on, Dan was “Major Daddy.”
Unexpectedly, the next seven days turned out to be the best in my life. Our passage to An Khe had been uneventful because the Communists had intentionally suspended operations all over Vietnam. Their plan was to gain some advantage then halt just short of provoking a U.S. response. They wanted Americans out of the country for good and were willing to bide their time. Although the South Vietnamese military and vestigial American forces remained on high alert, one warm lazy day ran into another without the slightest hint that the war would resume in earnest. My new An Khe “family” made the most of it.
I told the landlord that Ed and I had separated and Dan moved into the house. Our “wedding night” was as blissful as I ever dreamed of as a young girl contemplating my marriage to Tung, the boy from the neighboring village whom the matchmakers had chosen for me. All that ended years ago with Tung’s death on the battlefield. If I had learned one thing from that terrible time, it was that life’s first duty is to live. And in the ghost town An Khe had become, our new “family” bubbled life from every pore, from every childish giggle, every shared bowl of rice, every stroll around our pond, every sigh on our wedding bed.
But such is the nature of bliss: it cannot last forever.
The day he moved in, Dan had a special field telephone installed so that he could communicate directly with the base in case of an emergency. In the deep silence of the first night of our second week, the telephone shrieked into the blackness.
“DeParma here,” Dan said in a sleep-husky voice. His eyes grew wide in the dark. “Son of a bitch!” He slammed down the receiver.
“What it is?” I asked, rising to my elbows.
“Regulars. Moving in from—”
At that instant explosions began, more distant than the first attack but still too close.
Dan literally jumped into his pants and was almost out the door by the time Thanh and the boys reached our bed.
“Stay put.” He cradled his M-16 loosely on his shoulder like a boy going out to hunt rabbits. “Keep all the lights out. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
For the rest of the night, we huddled together and listened to the distant barrage. Unlike the first attack, South Vietnamese aircraft now streaked overhead and we knew something big was going on. I sang a little song to calm my sons—and myself. It was “Our Warriors,” a tune of praise I learned during the war with the French. Tonight, I sang it like a lullaby.
Daddy guards the Ngu Hoanh Son mountain,
Barring the way to the Viet Minh.
We ourselves wait through the night,
Beneath the warbirds—
Beside the tanks.
We rally at Son Da
Though the enemy is overwhelming.
Like fish in the sea,
We are safe in our dark caverns.
The boys—and even Thanh—eventually nodded off, children sleeping through a summer storm. But I could not. Not only did my worry for Dan and fear about the battle keep me awake, but my conscience hurt me too. I had committed the sin of adultery, if not in my heart, then at least in the eyes of god, my father, and our aneestors. I had taken my beautiful babies and an innocent young girl back into the shadow of death to satisfy my own desire for a dream-happy life.
Now the jaws of the tiger were snapping shut. Through its teeth, I could see nothing but the night.