Medic in MIG 21 cockpit, Hanoi Air Force Museum, Hanoi, 1995

The Price of Admission

Outside the Hanoi Air Force Museum, a converted airplane hangar—admission 50 cents—thick vines creep up the skeletal remains of deactivated SAM missiles pointing skyward, frozen in the act of imminent launch. Seth and I are the only persons present. A short and stooped very old man, wearing faded military fatigues and toting an ancient rifle, takes our money, hands us flimsy tickets, beckons us to enter.

Inside, directly past the entrance, a jet fighter canopy, the name PARKER stenciled in red paint, lies mute on the smooth cement floor. The walls are dotted with crudely framed black and white war photographs, by captured M16s shackled held in place by thick iron nails. Large wood and glass cabinets hold typed documents and assorted war regalia.

Not far from the fighter canopy, sprawled on the floor, lay dignified rows of upright ejection seats. It feels as if the desperate pilots have just bailed out. Nearby, a half dozen green flight helmets, their intact visors flipped up, sit like obedient skulls waiting to tell their final stories. Six magnificent silk parachutes splay across the floor like gargantuan deep sea squid plucked from the darkest depths.

I take a seat in the cockpit of a striped down MIG-21. After Seth snaps the photo, a young American enters the museum. While the two of them talk I wander away.

Medic on LZ Ramada after forty-six days in Cambodia. Vietnam, 1970In a dark corner on the far side of the museum, I spot a dusty stack of M16s. Kneeling, I pick one up, wipe off years of soot, step over a low wood fence, in a small empty room sit down cross-legged, cradle the weapon as if it were a lost child, or dearest friend, go back in time. How long before Seth arrives I don’t recall. He stands still, and listens patiently while I jabber:

“You see this button?” I tell him. “You push it to split the rifle in half.” And I push the button and the rifle cracks in two. “You see this one? You push that to release the ammo clip. This little thing here? That’s the retractor rod. Pull it backward, let it fly.” And I do that, and the spring loaded rod rams swiftly to place. “Now you’re locked and loaded,” I tell him. “Ready to move out.”

I turn the weapon sideways, exposing the perforated black plastic belly of the triangular barrel grill.

“Here, in the holes,” I tell him, my words racing like bullets, “we kept a tooth brush to clean the breach. Only problem, they melt in fire fights. Now watch this.”

I pry open the stock latch. Out slides a slim metal cleaning rod, a white plastic bottle of lubricant.

“That’s LSA. You squirt it on cotton patches to clean the bore. Once a week. Otherwise, she’ll jam.”

I keep chattering, strange hectic words jetting like rockets from my middle age mouth. Then once, twice, from far off, someone calls my name.

“Marc, put the gun down,” he says. “You need to put the gun down.”

Childlike, I look up at Seth, place the mute weapon on the cold cement floor, and I sob, and sob, for quite some time.


SA-2 Surface to Air Missile

The Vietnam People’s Air Force Museum