After 32 years, 6500 miles, 3 airplanes and 4 hours in a rusty Russian sedan, familiar rice paddies and tree lines appear alongside a wide brown river. Mopeds and a few more people roam the frontage road yet this fertile valley is almost unchanged in the photo album of my mind.
Our car slows, stops. I'm here. Standing on the sandy shore of the Thu Bon, I stare across the wide river at the village of Nong Son and into yesterday. Why have I returned after all these years?
Rich Hoffman and I set out on May 5 of this year to recapture Vietnam. Our tour of duty will be three weeks. This time we are tourists heavily armed with dollars. Four years of working with Vietnamese refugees in California and my role as a Marine interpreter left me with positive cross-cultural experiences and memories. How bad could it be?
Nine long months in the infantry and the Marine Corps sent me to live alone in the village of Nong Son. My role as an English teacher and liaison with the South Vietnamese militia would require winning the support of villagers. It was hoped I might be supplied with intelligence to more effectively fight the Viet Cong in Quang Nam Province.
Now only Asian profiteers in search of hardwood forests venture this deep into the interior. As we travel along the back roads, wonder and humor on the faces of farmers working in the paddies stare back at us. Most rural Vietnamese look at tourists with frank curiosity and respond smile for smile.
The dignity found in these traditional communities replaces the city hustlers, beggars and vendors. Blond, physically fit and dressed in Tae Kwan Do attire, Rich draws a small crowd each time we exit the car.
In the mountains now we are swept away by lush and sensual memories pulling us into the past; the harsh perfume of noon time cooking fires, bright conical hats floating over rice fields, sing-song voices bargaining raw meat, sweat and humidity- all mix together melting away the years. My feet want to walk down the middle of a rice paddy. Are the adrenaline rush and paranoia still there just under the surface?
Nong Son village stands at the bottom of a 2000 foot hill. White, blue and green colonial French buildings in orderly rows still survive, saluting the patience of the Vietnamese in three wars of liberation. Our Marine security company once ran patrols from here and commanded the valley with mortars placed on top of the hill. Military historians would later characterize the Marine defense of Vietnam's only working coal mine as 'symbolic' with acceptable losses.
The same ferryman from years ago approaches. Thin and brown moving in slow rhythm, it's hard to distinguish arms and legs from his pole and long handled rudder. He smiles as he did so long ago but now his ancient skull strains against leathery skin impatient for its turn. He poles the boat closer to shore. Rich, our interpreter Mr. Chin and I climb in. Carved from a tree trunk the long slender canoe glides across the murky water and into the past. For many Marines this would become The River Styx.
Drifting across the silky brown Thu Bon I gaze down river. Once, we won the hearts and filled the pocketbooks of fishermen by dropping grenades stunning fish and bringing them to the surface. Later, the same fishing boats dropped us at launch points for patrols or ambushes into the valley.
Gently, the canoe touches the opposite shore. We step out and onto the soil of Nong Son. I'm here. I'm back and for a moment, young again. It's 1967. I'm stepping off the metal ferryboat that conveys my platoon into Nong Son on July 1. Then I carried 70 pounds on top of a flack jacket. Today I am sweating with a light rucksack and tee shirt. I look down expecting to see jungle boots and watch tennis shoes sink into the red mud.
Can I find my old plaster house? Is the classroom still intact? Will the students now middle aged, recognize me? So many happy memories in the midst of war and chaos; Vietnamese writing pen pal letters to my old high school, medical treatment for villagers, Marine vs. villagers in volley ball and soccer, intimate and clandestine discussions of war, politics and ethics in our secluded classroom and ultimately, my acceptance into this remote village near the Laotian border.
Our small group approaches the first buildings. Army officers in the same gray-green wartime uniforms and pith helmets step out onto the veranda and gesture to us to climb up the stone stairs. A red metal star flashes from a belt buckle. Our charming and eppervesant Mr. Chin suddenly becomes passive, obedient. Directed to enter a small office, we sit around a small circular table with the officers standing above, staring down. We wait. A cross-cultural standoff. Overhead a tired fan slices through afternoon heat.
Who are we? The hotel has our passports. Phone calls are made. Thirty-minutes pass. Hyper-vigilant, Rich scans the mood, exits and river below. Identities verified. Why are we here? To visit my wartime station. No American has ever returned here. Nong Son is not on the official tourist list. More phone calls. This time to Hanoi.
Mr. Chin does his best to lubricate the tension in the room but he is in deep water and obviously, afraid. Slowly curiosity wins out over suspicion and boredom. When will these men stationed in such an isolated region get a chance like this again? Tea and cigarettes are presented. I place a box of American Marlboros on the table. Mr. Chin finally relaxes and begins to cheerfully translate capitalism into communism.
I sip perhaps the strongest tea ever poured. As a foreign invader and former occupier of Nong Son, the army personnel are interested in my experiences and perspective. Hoping to retrieve my story without providing any information of their own they begin to gently probe. More employees and troops collect in the windows and doorway. We are yesterday come back tall pale ghosts haunting those old enough to remember.
The Vietnamese officials are concerned that I may understand their conversation. Vietnamese is a tonal language and my ear of out of tune. Most of it passes by and blends with the squeaking of the fan overhead. Captain Kiet asks what intelligence I was able to collect while an "operative school teacher." Humor seems the best choice. "I was both young and stupid and found out only one thing! I liked teaching and it has been my career." Laughter. They appreciate evasion.
Captain Kiet feels more comfortable. He smiles, keeping his hand on my forearm. I remember adult male students walking home and holding hands with me along the street outside the window. Scary the first time. He suggests that we may be able to stroll the frontage road and walk 10 meters into the village along the way. Am I man enough to hold hands?
Mr. Chin exhales. He may earn his bonus yet. We rise, march down the steps and head into the ville. Over there is the volleyball court where Marines beat the villagers. Next to it is the soccer field where the Vietnamese ran circles around the taller heavier Americans. Behind the playing field is the classroom where students thrilled to my nonexistent teaching skills.
The Nong Son coal mine is now a government-run and army administered operation. The entire former population was relocated after the War of Liberation. A few of the stucco buildings received new paint but all the landmarks, buildings and huts stand there exactly as they did in 1967. Few returning American veterans will find such a moment. Most former US sites suffered fates similar like our old battalion base at An Hoa. A name change in 1975 was not enough. An Hoa is now underwater as the result of new dam construction.
Nong Son. Where are the former children and adults? Both taught me how to reclaim my humanity in the middle of the killing fields. They are scattered now just like the Marines once stationed on Nong Son Hill, each completing their own destiny. For many, their lives ended on patrol, others as 'collateral damage' or at midnight July 4, 1967.
Captain Kiet takes my hand and leads me to a side street and walks us uphill half a block. We peek around the corner and I see my old plaster apartment attached to the end of a row of identical units. My room, where we had a Halloween party and bobbed for mangoes, where adults cried when I translated letters from their American pen pals. My room, where I wrote letters to the parents of dead friends from Foxtrot Company. Is my journal still buried under the floor? I'd like to read the thoughts and feelings of the young man I used to be.
As we walk back the way we came I hand Captain Kiet a small package of a dozen 'exotic' American vegetable and fruit seeds. "My friend. These are from my family to your family. When I come back next year, I want some rutabaga pudding." Looking at the picture of a rutabaga on the seed packet he shakes his head and then laughs.
We stop and stare up at the top of Nong Son Hill where Foxtrot was over run on July 4. Who won? Brutality. "Mr. Mac, I apologize your old friends are not here." Captain Kiet is sad for the first time, thinking perhaps also of lost comrades. The two of us stand with one foot in the past and another in the moment. He brings us back to the present. "Perhaps we make new friends today."
Coming down the road is a dignified and well-dressed man of fifty. He is hard to read but the news he carries cannot be good. Captain Kiet assumes his official persona. "Mr. Mac, I introduce you to Mr. Kinh. He fought against your group on top of hill. He last one here living." Mr. Kinh's eyes bore into me. I want to share a beer, discuss battle tactics, small unit action and personal survival. Healing, reconciliation, a psychic cease-fire. You know, like on 60 Minutes. This former freedom fighter feels something far different. Polite and stiffly formal, he offers his hand but there is no connection. There are only two men reaching across the years each with old wounds, some yet to heal. Offended I have returned a second time Mr. Kinh turns and walks back into his village, his people and his own past.
Minutes later the canoe leaves the shore and I look over my shoulder. Nong Son is still there, different now but forever the same. In midstream, I pull papers from my rucksack and read the lists one last time. In my hands are the names of all the Foxtrot Marines killed in action; one hundred and forty two. Gently, lovingly I tear the papers into many pieces and release them to the waters of the Thu Bon
Back now in Hanalei my skin is brown from the sun over Quang Nam Province and the red mud of Vietnam is still on my shoes. I live quietly at the end of town beside a river. It's muddy most of the time. Some nights when the wind blows down from the mountain and rain beats a rhythm on the broad leaves outside my window, I hear again that dark music from another time, another place.