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

The Price of Admission

A converted airplane hanger,admission fifty cents,outside the Hanoi Air Force Museum thick vines creep up the skeletal remains of deactivated SAM missiles forever frozen in the act of launch. Inside,directly past the entrance,a jet fighter canopy, the name PARKER stenciled in red paint,lays mute on the smooth cement floor. The walls are dotted with framed black and white war photos;M16s are shackled to the walls by thick iron nails. Large wood exhibit cabinets hold typed documents and war regalia. Not far from the fighter canopy lay rows of upright vacant ejection seats,as if the pilots had just bailed out. A half dozen green flight helmets,visors up,sit like obedient skulls waiting to tell their stories. A half dozen silk parachutes splay across the floor like giant squid risen from the deep.

I’m sitting in the cockpit of a 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 stack of M16s. Kneeling,I pick one up,wipe off years of dust,sit down cross-legged,cradle the weapon,go back in time. How long before Seth arrives I don’t recall. He listens patiently while I jabber:

“You see this button? You push it to split the rifle in half. Push here to release the ammo clip. This thing is the retractor rod.  Pull it backward,let it fly,you’re locked and loaded.”

I turned the rifle sideways,exposing the belly of the barrel.

“Here, in the grill,you keep a tooth brush to clean the breach. Only problem,they melt in fire fights. Now watch this.”

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

“That’s LSA. You squirt it on cotton patches to clean the bore. You do that once a week.”

I keep chattering. Then twice, from far off, someone calls my name. “Put the gun down,” he says. “You need to put it down.”

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