DONG HA TOWN, VIETNAM
The old woman next to me rises just as the Fasten Seatbelt sign lights up and moves toward the restroom. Weve begun our final descent into Da Nang and leaning across the empty seat I take in the world outside and below. Rice paddies bordered with banana trees, with avocado and papaya, mango, all comprising shadier compounds where who-knows-what grows. I look over my shoulder and the old woman is visiting a young man, leaning over his seat. The flight attendant speaks to her in Thai, she responds in Vietnamese, nodding, and holds her ground. Outside is a world that seems painfully bright, and what I see is at odds with the staccato montage in my mind.
I had an uncle, a very close family friend, based in Da Nang with a transport company called up from reserve to fight the American War here in 1969-70. He used to send home twoinch reel-to-reel tapes for us to listen to. What exactly he spoke about I dont recall, but I do remember the timbre of his voice as it sprawled toward us from what I always imagined an impenetrable darkness.
Perhaps I imagined this blanket of night because the separation was so sudden, like the closing of a door at bedtime. Perhaps the images fed home to the supper time TV were so bright they invoked the viscous dark of my memory. Perhaps, even as a child of seven and eight, I knew something was terribly wrong in the world though it remained unspoken, just as the marital difficulties of my parents remained muffled shouts from down the hall. What I do know is that by the time I turned eleven and Watergate broke over the back of America, I was already disillusioned, distraught and resigned to my annihilation, to all our annihilation, in the blind fury of the Cold War.
I was not annihilated. We were not annihilated. The weight of history sits in my lap. As the aircraft banks toward the runway at Da Nang I settle out of the sky toward a job no one can describe to me, yet a job Ive nonetheless spent two years pursuing, first with one NGO and then another. I am flying into Da Nang and somehow feel as if I return, not arrive --- a thirty-nine year old white male from the northwestern United States preoccupied with what we did here, and the lingering legacy of that doing. The stories of friends that were conscripted, of friends who volunteered their youth and good conscience, crowd round me now, tales of death and dissolution, of camaraderie and clarities. How often have their stories echoed the words of Dickens? It was the worst of times, it was the best of times
Below me and rising up is a place where many friends have stood before. My head is suddenly a chatterbox. The old woman who had the window-seat all the way from Bangkok sits with the young man some rows back; I slide into her seat and buckle up. Here is Da Nang: the airstrip, the old control towers and Quonset hangars, the pillboxes
this the first reality of a life Ive chosen as the bumping lurch of wheel to tarmac becomes the taxi to the gate. Here, my own experience, my own direct and primary experience of Viet Nam, begins.
I navigate customs, collect my bags and step into the heat. Taxi drivers wave placards bearing foreign names at me. Other taxi drivers try to herd me into their waiting vans. An old man, a retired schoolteacher with some English, sits next to me and helps ward off the swarming curious. People touch my white skin, laugh, ask questions I cant yet answer. I scan the parking lot for a vehicle with a sign on the door that says Clear Path International, but there is none. I watch and listen and feel the first sheen of sweat rise to the surface to do its work.
Families are being reunited, grandchildren being seen for the first time, brothers throwing arms round one another; I realize nothing of this awaits me, that I must go backwards, that we all must go backwards, to receive such welcome. Half an hour, then an hour passes, and then towering over the locals I spy our Executive Director, beside him my immediate supervisor, the current Incountry Representative. We greet one another and load the baggage and then I sit stunned in the air-conditioned van. Apologies, flight times have changed, how are you and we must go straight to the hospital, and in moments we arrive.
Introductions are brief. Two doctors from the States are working with Vietnamese counterparts to perform corrective surgeries --- mostly polio, rickets and clubfeet. The elder of the docs has come to do this work for the last four years, and the cooperative effort is called the Vietnamese Medical Project. We are here because VMP is coming up to Dong Ha next week to work assessing landmine and exploded ordnance survivors, and hopefully do some corrective surgeries there. Peeking through the operating theatre window I see video equipment, SLR cameras, a bunch of folks milling about. Asked if Id like some scrubs so I can enter the theatre, I accept and five minutes later am watching two doctors surgically revise a burn victim.
This is my second hour incountry, and little do I realize that such immediate, immersive, insertion as this is all the introduction, all the phasing in I will receive. I am to hit the ground running, keeping my mouth shut except to ask clarifying questions, keeping my ears and eyes open except to sleep. Introduction after meeting after luncheon after meeting after introduction after dinner awaits me: this rhythm will not be broken but merely punctuated by a nap, or an evening at the beach with the staff I will inherit, playing guitar and singing songs. But what I do realize in my second hour incountry is that Ive already been welcomed and shown kindness, that Ive already felt the absolute loss of the familiar by being submerged in the alien (except, of course, that I am the alien), that the world Ive known exists only with regard to my expression of it, and that my expression of that world can never be the same.
This is not Chinatown in Seattle or San Francisco or Vancouver, British Columbia. This is not the official story of anyones press. This is not a world I could possibly imagine or contain, but hopefully a world in which I can find a new version of the truth of my expression. I am here to work with and through a bureaucracy to help individuals injured, and families stressed by, the legacy of a war nearly thirty years gone.
I am not alone