Someone, broom in hand
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.
– Wizlawa Szymborska, “The End and the Beginning”
While the world watches the wars and the cleanup in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Syria, I must write about Song Be. I need to tell you how it was.
How it is.
Thirty-six years to the month after my father was killed on his third tour of duty in Viet Nam, I stand on that same soil with a grassroots organization called Sons and Daughters in Touch. Though everyone in the group has lost someone in that war, it’s the first time any of us have been to Viet Nam. I am not alone when I eventually look out over a valley northwest of Saigon—or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called—my eyes searching for the river my father was to cross with a prisoner on his way back to the remote Special Forces camp near the Cambodian border at Song Be in 1967. The river is Song Be too, and something about that name still sounds melodiously sad, has since the day a uniformed soldier knocked on our door in southern Illinois with the news.
I was 17 back then, a junior in high school living in a small town surrounded by silence about that war. Though I know it had to be on the news, I never watched, and nor did my teachers or friends mention it. If pushed I would have said that my father was in Viet Nam, though what did that mean to any of us back then? And what might they have said? The thin blue aerograms from my father arrived without an address, which meant I had no idea where he really was.
If pushed I would have said that my father was in Viet Nam, though what did that mean to any of us back then?
Originally I didn’t want to come on this trip because by the time 2003 came around, I thought I already knew everything about that war. I’d written a book about my father and had spent years researching the details. What else was there to learn? In spite of this, I went because my sisters were going and I didn’t want to be left out. In Los Angeles where the group first gathered before we set out on our three-week journey, I wanted to turn around and go home immediately. There were so many of us, all strangers, and I’d never met another son or daughter of a dead warrior. The scene in the auditorium with everyone wearing T-shirts that said They were our fathers overwhelmed me. The veil of privacy was being lifted and it was my first glimpse at the enormity of loss. The notion that I wasn’t alone was both comforting and unsettling. When I called home to say all this, I was encouraged to keep going. I’d already paid, so why not? I boarded the plane holding my sisters’ hands.
Except for ghost stories echoing out of the earth—the stories we never heard or told—I found out that there remains nothing mysterious at Song Be. Just the ordinary, like any other humid day near a forest of dust-green trees and a valley of erased footprints and children born long after the war gathering around to watch us watch. Still, I know that history lurks here.
But first I have to tell you how I got here. Because one doesn’t just drop into Song Be, one spends a lifetime arriving. And when you finally get here, it is best to go with likened souls—people you don’t know exist until you are on a plane with them. You find out that you are not the only one who grew up without speaking to another dead soldier’s son or daughter, which is to say you are not the only one who grew up inside one of war’s secrets and carried its shame in your lap. It’s the first time in my life I don’t have to start my story at the beginning, nor do I feel like I have to hide any of the facts anymore. I don’t have to pretend I grew up like my civilian friends.
We walk alongside French tourists in Singapore before we get to Viet Nam. They look at us; we look at them. The French Indochine War. The Viet Nam War. The American War. Call it what you want. We would have to go far back to begin a conversation between us, back to Dien Bien Phu in March of 1954, back to the story of the tiger (Viet Minh) and the elephant (the French), or further back to the first world war when the French shipped Vietnamese over to France to dig their ditches. Or later, when the Americans like my father came to advise the ARVN, and we took over the French space, slipping into a war that lasted for decades and brought me here.
When we first see Viet Nam from the plane, the entire group of us—all 50 sons and daughters—rises as one and looks out the windows. The stewardess fears the plane will tilt from our weight and insists we sit down. There is an excitement in the air as if we are returning home. Suddenly—or so it seems—we are really here, and I will soon find out that the people next to me carry the same grief, so there is nothing to hold back anymore. I watch one adult daughter sitting with her brother, he with his arm around her, rubbing her back for comfort as she weeps. Another daughter stands in the aisle clutching her small pillow from home. One of the retired vets who has come along as support staff puts his hand on her back.
It’s March 4, a sky-blue day, as we touch ground and arrive in country at 0300 hours. The plane’s door opens to air heavy with moisture, 95 degrees.
How to describe the surprise of arriving in the actual place—not a movie or a history book or a rerun on television, but the past and the present colliding inside me like a double vision with the stagnant waters of memory stored in my body. I suddenly imagine all of us as soldiers with heavy rucksacks and unknown futures, a line of men who cannot turn around and change their minds. Now what was once only photographs in my father’s albums, stories from his letters or the CBS news is suddenly real. I enter Viet Nam with an open struggle against forgetting.
In my mind’s eye as I descend the stairs, I see my father leaning his back against a rubber tree with his AK-47 resting across his knees, or his partaking in a Tet celebration feast with sandbags piled high behind him. I see him squatting with a map in his hands and young soldiers looking like teenagers focusing seriously on his directions. I take a deep breath as I follow my sisters and try to ground myself in today.
A group of women dressed in maroon and white traditional ao dais greet us outside the Ton Son Nhat Airport. They carry a sign that reads: Welcome Sons and Daughters: In peace, honor, and understanding. As we pass them one by one they hand us roses. A slight but heavy breeze surrounds us. Outside the gate we see old men squatting as they cook in the parking lot and play cards. Palm trees in the distance. A fat sun inside a red haze.
The first night we stay at the Rex Hotel just around the corner from where the author Graham Greene wrote his book The Quiet American, and not far from Tu Do Street where my father once took black-and-white pictures of the markets with women wearing cone-shaped straw hats. It’s an elegant old hotel where young people in beautiful silk ethnic clothes serve us tea. Purple and white orchids hang in the lobby, caged birds sing in the hallways, and a waterfall pours down from the third floor near the elevator. We meet up with our red team leader Colonel Tom Morgan, a retired West Point graduate and Special Forces Viet Nam War vet, for dinner on the roof terrace. Flowering hibiscus and a clear view of an exotic city encircle us. Tom wears a straw hat for the trip’s duration, is short and muscular, and has a quiet and calming demeanor. He is the age many of our fathers would have been, which makes his presence seem essential to this pilgrimage.
We sit together looking out over the city as he tells us that this hotel used to be called “The Pentagon East” back in those days, and that only journalists and a few officers stayed here. He recalls a steak dinner on this same terrace, the cigars he smoked while sipping Remy Martin, and the smoke clouds from airstrikes in the distance, what he came to know as “Puff the Magic Dragon,” or “Rolling Thunder.” I pause to think about a book with the latter title written by a friend of my father’s, with my father as a character. The imagined view is at once a movie and my life.
Just then a woman on another team joins us, and when she realizes we’re discussing the war, she leans over and says to Tom, “I think we need now to get rid of those terrorists in the Middle East as fast as we can. We could use our smart bombs to do it.”
Tom pauses, leans back in his chair and then looks her directly in the eye. “The problem with those bombs,” he begins quietly, “is that they do not have human judgment. An American was killed by accident with one of those just last year.” The table grows quiet with tension until the women mutters disappointments in Tom’s hard-won outlook, and leaves. It occurs to me right there and on the spot that even soldiers might not agree with whom my father always referred to as “the higher ups.” It’s the ones on the ground who figure out the truth. Or as my father used to say about those in charge, “they don’t know their ass from their elbow.”
I enter Viet Nam with an open struggle against forgetting.
When we are divided into teams by the places our fathers were killed, part of me is confronted with just how big and devastating the war was, how much I really do not know. It’s an odd position to be in, a new place with added characters I had not construed in my version of the war. On the one hand it’s what I always wanted—not to be alone with my grief—and on the other hand, I now will have to include these strangers on the red team, the gold team, the green team, and the silver team. I fear it might take away from the narrative that has defined me for decades.
American vets, nurses, and a priest come along as support and guides. My sisters and I belong to the red team, and we head in our small van into War Zone C, commonly called the Third Corp. We are nine daughters, one son, one widow, two vets, two ex-military nurses, and one Vietnamese guide named Huy. This, unbeknownst to me in that moment, will become what I carry home with me, what becomes the most treasured part of this journey. In a way we are like a family with the same DNA, finally meeting each other for the first time. No longer are we stuck on isolated islands.
Before each team leaves in opposite directions, we tour the city, and then eat lunch at the Indochine Restaurant where I sit next to Norma from Twin Falls, Idaho. Her young husband had been killed in the war, and though her children do not feel up to this trip, they paid her way so she might come. She mentions losing her nametag and journal in L.A. before we even got on the plane—a metaphor of sorts we agree, though neither of us can say of what. As if she knows I need to hear this, she tells me of a dream she had just the night before. In the dream she tried to climb through a window, she and a long line of children behind her. Through the window she sees a group of silent, uniformed men working on a broken airplane. They turn to stare at the children as if they have been waiting all along for their arrival. “You know,” she whispers in my ear, “the fathers know we are here. They’ve been waiting for us.”
To this day that small scene at a table in a foreign restaurant with Norma millions of miles from home eating food I’d not seen before has the power to tighten my throat and make me cry because I think Norma’s dream was the truth. It occurs to me now, as it did at that luncheon, that American souls have been left in Viet Nam, and that many never came home. Maybe my friend Maria back home is right when she tells me my father is now a Buddhist monk wandering the streets of Viet Nam, trading war for peace. Who will ever know?
That night we eat dinner on an old boat in the Saigon River, the place where Graham Green’s character Pyle is murdered. I drink a Vietnamese beer and listen to one of the vets tell us that his 19-year-old son is headed with the 101st to the Middle East, but that he has no idea where he is now. I have a son that age myself, and suddenly I am not just the child anymore hearing tragic news, but I am also a parent imagining the news. As I stare at the moon rising as full as the watermelons filling baskets on mopeds around the city, I remember that 60 percent of the names on the Black Wall are under the age of 21, and my perspective again gravely turns.
“You know,” she whispers in my ear, “the fathers know we are here. They’ve been waiting for us.”
The next day we are off to what we call “the field” to find the places where our fathers were killed. Along the way into War Zone C, Huy stands at the front of the van to teach us some Vietnamese phrases and geography. He tells us that Viet Nam is the second biggest rice exporter in the world, points out the water hyacinths and water buffaloes we pass. He informs us about the government, from the central offices in Hanoi down to the provinces, districts, and communes; then describes this country as two rice baskets hanging from opposite ends of a famer’s carrying pole with the Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south. When my father was here, I thought of this place as merely a war, a confrontation. I saw in his photograph album soldiers barbequing on a makeshift grill, snakes in the compound, and a memorial service for a fallen fellow soldier with heads bowed and an opened bible. In those days there were no Vietnamese in America, and all I knew of this country was that my father spoke with reverence for the Buddhist monks he spoke with during his R&R and for the beautiful lotus flowers he witnessed when floating in a sampan in rice fields.
While we listen to Huy’s facts, we look out the van’s windows and see a place alive, colorful, and teeming with people. It’s a country of contradictions, I decide: orchids near fetid garbage, rivers that you dare not swim in snaking through rich green countryside, remnants of the war like rotted chinooks next to a population born after the war. I see beautiful women picking lice out of each other’s hair on front porches, shanty poverty next door to brand new businesses, and active temples in a communist country. I try to memorize it all as we pass white herons in the rice fields and uniformed children riding their bicycles to school; I don’t want to forget anything. The surrounding hills rise from pale brown to sun-bleached yellow to a green as lush as the ones I know back home in upstate New York.
As we stare at the landscape, Tom holds the microphone and gives us a bit of military history, how the United States started at first in so-called nation building with advisors like my father trying to win the hearts and minds of the people. Westmoreland had asked for more troops in 1965, he said, because he knew we couldn’t win otherwise. Images come to mind instantly: I am 15 in 1965 and living with my grandmother on New Street in New Jersey, waiting for the mailman to bring me a letter from my father, slipping in and out of my new high school without mentioning the war and feeling like a stranger in my own country.
“In 1969,” Tom continues, “Life magazine put in a picture of every American killed at the battle of Hamburger Hill that week. The sight of those young individuals caused an uproar in the States,” he says, “and we became a further divided nation.” As he talks further, I can see myself at Alfred University that spring of Hamburger Hill, the year I went to the White House with my family to receive my father’s posthumously awarded Medal of Honor from President Nixon. I walked on campus a divided nation of my own: daughter of dead warrior, student of the humanities, a smiling girl with a broken heart.
In the spring of my freshman year my Aunt Val called me to tell me about the invitation to the White House and that the army would be sending me an airplane ticket. Unfortunately, the date corresponded to college finals week. I was afraid to tell my professor because I was sure he would think I was just trying to get out of taking my exam. Furthermore, I thought he would think less of me because of my association with the war. Me hiding all semester behind my cheerful smiles and studies at the library. I remember his eyes opening wide, his turning of his head sideways in a kind of surprise, like the war had suddenly become real to him too. Of course he let me go, but it’s his look of wordlessness that I took with me to the White House.
By the time we come to our first site visit after Tom’s talk, I have been anticipating this all week. Suddenly I feel a palpable quiet sorrow from the entire busload of sons and daughters as the van stops in the middle of nowhere. The group hushes and everyone watches Tom get off the bus with his compass and researched coordinates. He brushes the red earth with his shoes to find a piece of the airstrip still left at Quon Loi, once home to a large American Air Force base. We get out and follow him, standing together shoulder to shoulder under the tropical sun, in memory of Treva’s husband and her daughter Sister Agnes’s father, Captain Jim Atchison. This is where his plane took off before it crashed, Tom tells us. We look out toward the cabbage-green hills of Cambodia, trying to imagine the sound of choppers, and what this place might have looked like the day Graves Registration collected his personal effects. We are mute as he speaks, the kind of hush you bring to a church. Sister Agnes the nun bows her head and stares at the ground.
Not much remains at Quon Loi. The airstrip rotted away years ago and is now concealed with lots of red earth, or terre rouge as the French called it. Except for the research that Tom has done before our trip, you might never know a war was fought on this spot. Mark from Georgia says the red earth reminds him of home and oddly makes this place feel familiar to him. Huy hands each of us lighted incense and we place it in the ground along with the fresh flowers Sister Agnes has brought. Next to our makeshift shrine, Tom reads a World War I poem by Lawrence Binyon called “To the Fallen.”
Afterwards Huy says we must say prayers for all the war dead. Moments later it occurs to me that he means his brother, his uncles, and his father. Again, the war grows. I am ashamed I never considered the grief of this country, the sorrow of millions moving like a field of flowing lava eventually covering more than I can imagine. I feel like a so-called ugly American so caught up in my own loss. It is humbling right there on the spot. My eye catches his and we both nod our heads. As we get back on the bus, we notice butterflies everywhere in this deserted place. Huy tells us that the Vietnamese believe them to be souls of the departed. We do not doubt him.
Huy points at things we pass along the way to the next site like the Dao Tieng Reservoir built by the Russians, a billboard suggesting having no more than two children, or tall statues of soldiers going off to battle with a waving flag. It feels like too much to take in; I want sometimes to close my eyes, but I don’t, fearing I will miss something important. It’s a long list with little time to linger as the van moves to the next site over narrow pitted roads. Tom holds up a map and points out places like Minh Thanh and Bo Dop, Special Forces locations once written in my father’s letters. I’m not sure why but I am surprised they are real places and that other people know about them.
On the van we talk as we make leaps both backwards and forward to the future our fathers never saw. Carol, a blonde middle-aged woman who works as a hospital chaplain and who sits next to me tells me the story of living in Cambridge, Massachusetts before her father was killed. When her fellow students found out, no one would sit with her in the high school cafeteria. People called her mother and yelled into the phone that her husband was a baby killer. “It was so lonely,” she said. The mood in the bus grows dark and exhausted from more tearful memorials and information piled on top of another.
“My father was killed at…” repeats itself in our continued conversations, but I never grow tired of hearing these words because in spite of the great loss surrounding them, the words normalize what always made me feel like I was from the moon. This matter-of-fact conversation is a relief because it puts my story into a broader context. Maybe this is as near as I will ever get to the word “closure”—an overrated word, we all agree.
Mark, whose father died on the last day of his mission while four-year-old Mark trick-or-treated back home and whose father was the first African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor, suddenly connects his laptop computer to the microphone and reenacts Robin Williams’s Good Morning, Viet Nam! With that tender and funny gesture we can feel our spirits pick up. He plays the music of James Brown, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Simon & Garfunkel. Stop and remember me. The springtime of our life. “Now for a weather report,” he adds. “It’s hot in Viet Nam. It’s damn hot.” We laugh hard and sing along.
Before we get to Kelly’s father’s site the next day, she shows us a collection of her father’s drawings of the men and battles he knew. Her favorite is the one of American food like hamburgers, something she says he craved just like she does now after a week of rice. Kelly, the youngest among us, tells us that she never met her father because she was born after he was killed. Strangely, she did not know of his existence until she was 18 years old. That’s when her mother announced the life of Specialist Willy Parnell, who had been a side-door gunner to protect an Australian pilot back in 1968. Parnell was 21 and had just married Kelly’s mother, his high school girlfriend, but had to promise his commander first that he would return for six months extended stay if he let him go home to marry his pregnant sweetheart. Kelly, who now does make-up for actors in Hollywood, always thought her mother’s second husband was her father. But when Kelly was 30 years old, her mother handed her a box of her real father’s things. Most treasured were his drawings, because she too likes to draw. Tom searches the correct coordinates again and we stand for another service. Someone spies a small plastic heart on the ground that says “I love you” across it, then hands it to Kelly who is weeping like a little girl. We are all sure her father left it for her, the daughter he never got to meet.
When I tell this story, one drawn out from deep inside a dark pocket of the war, most people don’t understand why Kelly’s mother was so quiet on the subject. I know it had something to do with the times and what it felt like to know a soldier in Viet Nam back then. The national shame of it all. People directed their anger at the troops and their families as though they were the ones to blame. It’s hard for many Americans to remember—even some of my civilian peers have forgotten just how divided we were, how hateful words made everyone defensive. Kelly’s mother’s fear made her hide beloved memories in an attic box.
It’s late afternoon by the time we reach Song Be. As soon as we get off the bus we see a downed American C-130 plane sitting on the ground. Windows are blown out, door gone. You can still make out a star on the olive drab paint of the tail, its damage left as a sign for the victors. Tom wants to hold the memorial service for my father right here, but I say no. “I have to find the river.” Me, the daughter who wasn’t here in 1967 in the month leading up to the Tet Offensive and the year the officials called “a year of progress” in their final year-end report. I was back home preparing for the junior prom, wearing the pearls my father had sent me for my 17th birthday earlier that week. Tom does not argue but leads the group down the road without question.
We find that the valley I want to enter has been fenced off so we can only imagine the Song Be glimmering through the foliage down below. The monsoon season is months away so it isn’t half the river I had conjured up. Nor is the jungle as thick. It looks more like forests I’ve known in North Carolina or upstate New York. I turn with my sisters to face the Song Be and recall the narrative as told by the military.
As a company advisor to the Civilian Irregular Defense Battalion (mercenaries, Cambodians, Chinese Nung, and Montagnards), my father was trying to cross the river with a prisoner. It should have been an easy crossing, but our father (who art in heaven, my youngest sister always adds) decided to let the prisoner’s arms loose so they could both move better. When the prisoner grabbed a grenade from my father’s belt and started to throw it at the ARVN and the American officers nearby, my father jumped on him without thought, and the two exploded immediately.
That’s why I know that my father remains in the soil of Viet Nam.
Everyone in the group lights incense while my sisters and I each hold on to a bundle of flowers Tom has given us. One sister reads a poem called “Ivory Buddhas,” which she wrote about our father giving each of his daughters a Buddha necklace after he saw men wearing a Buddha saved from ambushes. Back in country, he forgot his, she wrote. I wish I had brought something precious to leave here like the picture of my family posing on a beach in Barcelona when I was 12. But instead I read what I glued into my journal by chance the night before I left my home. It’s a quote from Joseph Campbell that has taken on a larger meaning since coming here with other sons and daughters and meeting people like Huy. Where we had thought to travel inward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.
Suddenly, I know this is the real reason I’m here and what I will bring back with me. I will leave this place not only with memories and fellow travelers, but with the story that I share and will continue to share with other children of soldiers all over the world. And someday down the road when I am a college professor and have Vietnamese students, I will want to hear their stories, their parents and grandparents’ stories. I will recognize them and feel a kinship.
The red team surrounds us as my sisters and I reach out for each other: one with a khaki floppy hat, me with my notebook, another with her camera and its lens dangling from her shoulder. Butterflies fly around us. On our way back to the van, the sky opens around some dark clouds and long rays of light push their way through like some epiphany or divine insight. One of the nurses picks up a stone and puts it in my pocket. I turn around and look back one more time at Song Be.
Maybe this is as near as I will ever get to the word “closure”—an overrated word, we all agree.
It is on our way home, back to “The World, home of the big PX,” that we learn that the war in Iraq has begun. We stand in a long line at the Singapore Airport waiting to fly to Tokyo and then Los Angeles, as we look up at the wall television at CNN. President Bush announces the war’s beginning, saying that sacrifices will have to be made. Many of us roll our eyes in disbelief that our country is back at war. The word sacrifice stands out from all his other words. We know it is a far bigger word than it first appears. There is much that can never be swept up entirely when the war is over. And children are one of the many sacrifices. So many stories will continue into the next generation on both sides. Nothing whatsoever sentimental about war.
While I watch more of the news, I pay attention to a writer in our group from Colorado wearing dirty jeans, on this trip to pay homage to his older 18-year-old brother who never returned, and a brother and sister from Texas whose father is still considered MIA. Close by is Father John whose right leg is buried at Hamburger Hill. Behind me is Barbara, a nurse from Seattle, wearing a jacket with the phrase They were our fathers embroidered across the back next to her father’s Sea Bee patch. We are grown-ups still carrying the war with us.
On the plane I look out the window as we take off, and the land slowly disappears. We are inside a big cloud. Then above the cloud. Then all the clouds are gone. We are on our way home. It’s March 17, 2003. I close my eyes and remember.
Header photo of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. by Zack Frank, courtesy Shutterstock.