by Brent MacKinnon
The day finally arrived when faculty advisors in the linguistics department asked me to choose a topic for the master’s thesis. What to do? Maybe some coffee and pie at the local restaurant would lubricate my imagination.
Sitting at the counter, I stared at fat round pies under glass. Indecision seemed to be the flavor of the day and I couldn’t decide between apple and rhubarb, cold or hot, á la mode or not.
The white jacket of a bus boy stopped in front of me. “Water?”
And there, holding a tray of water glasses, stood my thesis: a Vietnamese refugee.
Over the next months, Vinh Lu came to my apartment three nights a week on his way home. He was thrilled that an American on our distant planet of Upstate New York had once visited his own land and spoke his language, both of us survivors of the same war.
So I began tape-recording interviews, making language acquisition notes for my thesis, and when trust found its way into his heart, I asked Vinh to tell me of his village life in Vietnam. He had just been relocated to the United States from a refugee camp in the Philippines and, true to Vietnamese character, he poured out his memories in a flood of emotion.
During our last week together he brought his diary to my home and with the help of his English, my Vietnamese and a bilingual dictionary we struggled to translate excerpts at random. I learned that like many of the Marines in my infantry unit, Vinh had been drafted into military service.
One evening after completing the translation a difficult passage, I laid the diary down on the kitchen table and looked across at my savior. Our wrinkled green tablecloth seemed to ripple in a wind from another time, another place. The same fertile rice paddy in my reoccurring dream lay between us, as it once had in the past…
I looked down at the passage again. Opposite me sat a fellow warrior, my new friend and a Viet Cong guerrilla.
The Diary of Vinh Lu
Song Vau Village
February 12, 1980
They are all dead now, all except me.
My brother Binh died yesterday here in our village holding a rake out in front of him like the rifle he once carried so well. His last target was the resident ghost of an enemy who over the years had become his friend. Nights around the fire, Binh laughed and told us the dead American boy waited for him in the next life. They are together now; gone to that place we all must one day visit.
The war had made Binh unafraid. In those rare moments when he did not smile, he stared into the darkness over the river and provoked the shadow world with his whispers, “We shall meet soon.”
Only in this did he move from the common heart we all shared in our village. And while we feared the many phantoms around us, we forgave Binh a thousand times for he was ever our friend, our living spirit and the best among us. We loved him like no other.
Our land is full of ghosts, wandering souls who died violently, ripped from their bodies and their unfinished lives. Confused and with no living family to honor them, no altar where they receive veneration and nourishment, they cannot guide new generations through this troubled land. Their fate is to wander, wander without purpose, without end.
A poet to the last, Binh fell, face down in the season’s harvest, his thin body pushing up a gentle fog of rice dust. Pierced and illuminated by the morning sun, the mist wrapped him in a shining shroud. I watched his last breath flow silently out his scarred body without complaint and become one with the chi of our village. In tender caress, pollen settled upon him, blessing his last moment.
This small cloud was his only cremation. We no longer had wood to coffin our dead. Profiteers stripped our valley of hardwood a decade after the War of Liberation against the Americans. Our young people care nothing for the past, know almost nothing of history, and the always corrupt Southerners exploit our future as they ape the lifestyle of the foreigners who almost destroyed us. What did we really win? The poor remain poor. It seems only the face of the tax collector changes.
Binh and I once felt the excitement of youth. Are all young men so easily seduced by promises of a glorious cause? Did the American boy Binh killed believe the propaganda in his own village? I remember when the political officer first came to us and began the classes, our first of many. Most of all I remember his announcement that soon, the men of my village must volunteer.
Son Vau Village
April 9, 1963
All the men of our village sat on the ground in obedient rows, legs crossed with calloused, anxious hands folded in our laps. Why were we not in the fields? Facing us, six armed NVA soldiers stood side by side and in front of them, a small tidy man in a Northern uniform.
He did not smile. “After a hundred years our victorious national forces expelled the French, their imperialist occupation and their hired mercenaries, The Legion.
“Peace and reunification of our country seemed near. Our hearts joyful and full of gratitude but in a last dishonorable act, the French armed and anointed their Catholic puppets. Branding our beloved national leader and our People’s Army as communist they looted the last of our treasury and sailed away.”
He nodded towards the border. “True, we now accept help from the Northern Dragon. When no one else steps forward, then a bargain must be struck. The cost of business with Beijing is always high. We will deal with them in the season of reckoning. Now in their fear, the Southerners welcome yet another devil from the West. ”
Binh could talk without moving his lips, and just as in our lower form school days, his goal was to cause me to laugh so that I might reap a rich harvest of consequence. It was a game we played. I owe him much for this gift. He forced me to think and speak quickly, early training for my career was an interrogator.
My brother’s whisper mimicked the nasal pinch of the northern official.
“And as soon as Comrade Dwarf removes the sugar cane stalk from up his ass, we can plant it and see what the harvest will really be.”
I managed to choke down a giggle with a spasm of gagging. Binh pounded me on my back and apologized to our guest.
“A childhood affliction, Comrade. He may not be fit for a Home Defense Team.”
Healed instantly by the political officer’s silence, I sat at attention, put on my respectful face and waited.
“Your name, Afflicted One?”
“Vinh Lu, sir.”
“Our first team assignment will assist you in regaining your health and through this, appropriate behavior. You will assume command of daily drills on the soccer field. Consider this an opportunity.”
“May I assume that your partner in this little charade is your twin?”
“His privilege is to write daily evaluations of your performance as drill instructor.”
Binh smiled and saluted. “Yes, Comrade!”
Our instructor turned his narrow shoulders to us and pointed to a map of Quang Tri Province nailed on a tree. Few of us had ever visited the locations drawn on the map. Why would we? Our land, our animals and the Thu Bon River sustained, nurtured and healed us when sick. All this was soon to change.
I squirmed and mumbled. “What’s a drill?”
February 12, 1980
Son Vau Village
Binh is gone now. Across from me, his chair sits empty and the chessboard calls out, aching to come alive like a rice paddy in dry season. Our game waits for troops to move back and forth, striking now from a distance, now close enough to touch the enemy and always manipulated by hands from above.
Sometimes when the wind blows down from the mountain, I can still hear our voices as we played at war…
February 1, 1976
Son Vau Village
I opened with King’s pawn and asked my opponent, “Do you think the Americans honor their ancestors as we do?”
Binh sat across from me, our chessboard serving as venue for yet another discussion.
“Their dead tell us stories.”
He stared at his hands and at their twin shadows cast down upon red earth behind my house. The hand with the missing two fingers dug into his vest pocket.
“Why do I still carry this?” He slid a faded photograph across the chessboard.
The past rushed over our soldiers on the board and pulled us back into the time of suffering. In the picture, an old couple stands on a porch somewhere in America. They are waving at their loved one as they have for seven years and always will until the photo finally fades and like their beloved family member, they too disappear.
Binh rubbed the stumps above his knuckles and moved his knight forward into jeopardy.
“He took my fingers and I took his life. Why does my hand itch only when I think of him?”
“Binh, you itch for you know the young peasants they sent here to fight were like us, pawns in the hands of greater players in a game we could not imagine. They died as we died, calling out to mothers or sweethearts and clutching photos not of leaders but of family.” Camouflaged by two pawns my bishop slid into position.
“Perhaps you are right, Vinh. I still see him in my dreams. A child, really.”
He looked down at the board, saw the danger, and asked quietly, “Where is your picture?”
I looked up at my house behind Binh. Under my bed inside a cracked and peeling plastic card, a strange Western man wore grey robes. In one hand, he held a long tree branch, curved and pointing down. His other hand held a cross. I was frightened by his long beard and I seldom pulled him out from his hiding place.
At first, blood covered the plastic but over the years it dried and flaked away. A thumbprint in blood once pressed upon the chest of the man but it too gradually faded.
Binh asked, “Do you ever think of the boy whose fingers held that image? Could it be his father? A farmer perhaps, with many buffalo?”
I thought for a moment and answered. “During my only trip to the South, I passed a Catholic church. A man sat behind a folding table selling pieces of paper. Thinking they were lottery tickets, I opened my pocket book to buy one.”
“And one for me of course!”
“Of course, Honored Brother. As I handed him one hundred dong, I saw that the paper held not numbers but pictures, pictures of Western men and women in ancient costumes like our puppets wear in historical dramas. Among these many images lay the bearded man!
“The peddler seller saw my curiosity and said, ‘Friend, I see you are on a journey from the country and as a Catholic your eyes are drawn to our holy Saint Christopher. He will protect you until you return home.”
Binh asked, “Did the American soldier come from a famous family of priests, or do his people buy an image and pray for protection?”
I took his knight and added it to my pile. “Obviously the spirit in the picture did not do his job.”
My brother studied his shrinking number of troops. “He would have been better off with a lottery ticket, perhaps.”
“Yes, a strange people.” I said. “They sent their sons far away to die or go mad. Who will take care of their parents when they are old? Their family line is broken. There will be no new generation to honor their lives, no wisdom for new generations, and no memory of their passing.”
Triggering an ambush, Binh placed my queen in jeopardy. “Why did they come?”
“These things I studied when I interrogated prisoners. They brought with them strange words, words the French did not bring. There is no translation and thus no understanding. Here, I wrote them in my memory book. ‘Democracy. Communism.’ Some kind of city government official perhaps. I do not know.”
We stared at the chess pieces on the same board we used as boys, the same pieces when Binh had all his fingers and my wife and child still lived.
Binh sighed. “Well, at least we have peace now.” Around us, our longtime neighbors, poverty and illness, did not disagree.
Fredonia, New York, 1981
Vinh Lu, Interview Notes
Vinh stared out of my window at the falling snow. “One day, Mr. Mac, the images on photos will disappear completely but not until another generation becomes one with their stories, accomplishments, and most importantly, their names,” he said. “No one dies in my homeland. Each day their names are on the lips and in the hearts of family and friends. Not to be remembered, not to continue contributing to future generations; to suffer such a fate would be as though one had never existed.
“These photographs conjure more than nostalgia. The wisdom they passed on to us emanates from these photos; their faces speak to us of the teaching and hold the direction of our moral compass.
He told me how they honor their ancestors daily with offerings of
fruits, flowers, incense and a candle to symbolize the goodness they bring. Family members who live beyond a half century are revered as repositories of the family’s collective life and history, and sought out for guidance.
Vinh’s ancestors had seen much, surviving the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and then the French again.
“These barbarians came uninvited to our land,” he said.“Each left, defeated by the ancient wisdom, stubbornness, and sacrifice of our ancestors.
Those hard days faded away along with the French. But as it has always been our fate, peace came to visit and stayed but a brief season.
Vinh stared into his tea cup. “Then you came, Mr. Mac.”
He pulled a tattered photograph from his shirt pocket. Outside, snow continued to fall. “This is Mother.” He slid her back into the pocket over his heart. “She died on the boat.”
My friend stood and lifted his parka off a nail on the back of my front door. He turned and smiled. “One day,” he said, “I will look down upon my children from the wall in our American home and worry them with right thought and right behavior.”