Strange Meeting

Three years after the Americans abandoned Vietnam, in the depths of the Forest of Screaming Souls, NVA veterans search for the remains of men and women killed in combat. So begins The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh.

In 1995, when reading my paperback copy, I would fall into a trance, feel as if I were floating above my bed. What was happening, I did not know. Several months later, traveling in Southeast Asia I invented reasons to not locate Bao Ninh.

In New York I purchased the book in hardback; at the sight of Ninh’s dusk jacket photo I saw those we hunted, and who hunted us. That night I dreamt my platoon was trapped, out of ammo, trying to escape.

In the Fall of that year I wrote to Bao Ninh. Two months later his letter arrived:

On the occasion of Christmas and the New year,I am very glad to send you our warmest regard from Vietnam. I wish you and your family a new year full of happiness. I hope we will soon meet each other in Hanoi.

Summer 1998: I’m sitting in a packed auditorium at the start of a writer’s workshop. Ten meters to my right, five Vietnamese writers wait to be introduced to the audience. Their remarks concluded, single file they head to the exit at the rear of the room. Instantly I jump up, push past a gauntlet of crossed or outstretched legs. “Excuse me…excuse me…” I say, following my target.

“Bao Ninh!” I stammer as he nears the door. He turns round. The puzzled look on his face asks, “Who has called me? Which of the American’s knows my name?” From five meters we lock eyes.

“Moc Leby! Moc Leby,” he shouts, when I tell him my name.

We rush to each other with open arms. Ninh pulls me close, claps my back once, twice three times, as if I were a long lost friend. Overcome by deep feelings, I sob uncontrollably.  Ninh takes my hand, leads me away. “No…I’m all right.” I say, still sobbing.

A tall graceful woman draws near. Lady Borton provided medical aid to both sides during the war. A noted translator and writer, she has accompanied the Vietnamese delegation from Hanoi. Through her, Ninh and I speak excitedly. Then Ninh says he must go. We’ll meet tomorrow at noon.

“Yes…thank you,” I say.

That night, an old recurring dream: the invisible spirit grabs my feet, yanks them straight up.  I can’t move, scream and struggle, then wake, overcome with dread. But this time I fight back. Defeat the demon. Waking, I’m calm, free.

That afternoon, beneath a cluster of shade trees overlooking Boston Harbor, I sat cross-legged opposite Ninh. A muscular wiry man, then in his late forties, perhaps 5′ 6″ tall, he sports a tousled head of jet black hair. A wispy Fu Manchu mustache adorns his upper lip. We talk for three hours through a second interpreter. My questions are academic: What was did he do in the war? Could he talk about NVA tactics? What did his platoon talk about when not in combat? What were his feelings about the Communist party? He is thoughtful; patient in his replies. Finally, “Is there anything I’ve overlooked? Is there anything you want to add?”

“Yes,” says Ninh, leaning forward, eyes narrowing. Finally, a meaningful question.“The NVA were not robots. We were human beings. That is what you must tell people. We were human beings.”

I feel foolish, recalling too late that Ninh had spent six years in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade. Out of five hundred, ten had survived.

We stand up, dust ourselves off, shake hands, head back to campus.  Along the way, as Ninh stops for a smoke, I delve into my wallet for the small photo of my platoon I’ve carried for thirty years.

On the back of it I write,“To Bao Ninh, these good men meant as much to me as yours did to you.”3rd Squad Mini Cav on Compton. Front-Shake n Bake, Gary Williams, John Roop,Jim Lamb, Steve Melhop. Back-Mike Derrig, Ray Williams, Knuckles, Joe Dorio. An Loc 1969 He holds the photo, contemplates the young Americans with their steel helmets, sun bleached uniforms, hand grenades and M16s. Looking up, his face inscrutable, he asks, “How many dead?”  “Only a few,” I say. “Many wounded.”

Ninh tucks the photo into his shirt pocket. I check my watch. It’s past noon. We head to the student caféteria.

On the last day of the workshop Ninh stands center stage at Harvard’s resplendent Yen Ching library. Somewhat nervously, he bows to the sizable audience, holds his book close to his face, begins to read. The dreamy lilt of his voice is tender, modest, lyrical. Ten minutes later Ninh bows to modest applause, then steps from the stage.

A handsome vigorous man and heavy combat vet, Larry Heinemann, author of Paco’s Story, winner of the National Book Award, steps up to read Ninh’s work in English. Clearing his throat, adjusting his shirt collar, his booming voice fills the hall with the sights and sounds of the horrific battle in the Forest of Screaming Souls. The terror of the bombardment wiping out an entire NVA unit, so astoundingly dramatized, transfixed the audience. When he snaps the book shut Heinemann motions to Ninh, who now receives thunderous applause.

That night five Vietnam vets and the five Vietnamese, all former NVA, meet at a well known Boston bar. Among the Americans: Andy, a heavy combat Marine; Larry Heinemann; Allan Farrell, a professor of languages, and Special Forces colonel stationed in Laos; tall lanky Chris, an Army sergeant wounded his first month in country. The Vietnamese, each an established poet or writer, had spent years in combat. After two rounds of beer our grim mood gives way to easy banter.

I sit close to Ninh. Throughout the night he sits erect, sips shots of whiskey, chain smokes American cigarettes, hardly speaks. After a time someone asks him which side had the better automatic rifle. Ninh says the AK47 was superior.  Submerged, rain soaked, caked by dust or clotted with mud it never failed to fire. But, he says, the M16s small tumbling bullets caused terrible internal wounds which caused great suffering and many losses. Someone else asks, “What was your saddest memory?” Ninh, gazing into the curling blue smoke of his cigarette, through Mr.Mau says, “Finding and burying our dead.” At that moment his face went blank and we all went silent.

Toward 1AM, as the high-spirited group continued to drink and jabber, I pantomime to Ninh. He nods agreement.

“Would you?” I ask Chris, offering him my camera. He’d been shot in the neck. An angryserpentine scar works its way from his jaw to his collar bone. “Sure, Doc,” he says.

Ninh and I put our arms around each other. I barely manage to hold back my tears. “Smile, Doc. C’mon, smile.” It’s all I can do to clamp my jaw shut. After Chris takes the photo I take his and now he chokes up. Whatever Ninh felt he did not reveal it.

“Be right back,” I say, heading to the loo, but once out of sight l walk to a liquor store. “I’ll take that bottle, and that one, and that one,” I say to the clerk. “Can you wrap them, please?” Larry had mentioned that Ninh liked Jack Daniels.

No one notices my stealthy return. During a lull at the table I carefully set out the gift-wrapped bottles. “Way to go!” says Heinemann. “Yo,” he says, thumping the table, “Make a speech. Thank the NVA for being here. Thank them for reading their poems. For telling their stories. Tell them the war has been over for quite some time and we are honored and happy to be their friends.”

His words rang true but in years past we soldiers, we veterans, we American’s and North Vietnamese, would have shot each other on sight and thought nothing of it. Some things you don’t forget.

I hand the fourth bottle to Mr. Mau. The elder of the group, he’d fought the French and the American’s. Everyone claps and smiles at his eloquent remarks.

Then it’s Ninh’s turn. He seems genuinely surprised. “Open,” I say. As he gently tears open the wrapping paper, the familiar stout bottle, the bold black and white label, slowly come into view. Ninh’s eye brows rise in utter disbelief.

“Jack Daniels!” he shouts, and jumps from his chair. Clapping my back three times, he can barely contain himself. “Jack Daniels! Jack Daniels!”

Earlier that day Larry had told me the  Vietnamese government had few resources to treat war trauma. For veterans and civilians, drinking was a common and acceptable way to drown their PTSD. Ninh, said Larry, had acquired a taste for the scorching American brew that brought him relief from the sorrow of war and its aftermath.

I think of Ninh often. It’s been twelve years since that extraordinary coincidence, that turning point. To this day I don’t fully understand the meaning of my sobs. Some say it was grief for my platoon, for the men and women we murdered. I don’t know. But I do know this: in peace time and war time, we are all human beings. All of us.