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A trip forward into the past (part 1)

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veterans Chu Lai Airport

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  • Image © 2008 Ngoc Nguyen

9:11 pm, June 25, 2007

John Olsen called and asked if I would like to return to Vietnam to help place a memorial plaque on Hill 362.  This is like a bolt from the sky and I'm momentarily speechless. Finally, I say I will need to discuss it with my wife but I absolutely want to go. There was some talk about this kind of a trip at our last reunion.  A number of us discussed what a good idea it was. 

We contacted many different people and tour agencies, trying to find the best combination for what we want.  Our goals are to do a lot of boots on the ground kind of touring, using vehicle transportation as little as possible, as well as to climb up Hill 362 one more time, for a memorial service.  We communicated with ex-pats who live there and many others who have visited recently.  We are getting all kinds of conflicting reports on what to expect from the people and the government.

We finally decide on working with Ngoc. She has outlined a very detailed trip for us.  There are multiple e-mail communications between John and Ngoc which he shares with all of us.   She says that there may be some difficulties about getting us to our hill 362, but she will do the best she can.  The trip may include taking motor scooters from DongHa as far into the jungle as possible and then walking the remainder of the way.

April 25, 2008

I cannot believe it's time to go already.  I bought several new items to take.  Clothes for hiking in hot weather, some camping supplies, including a hammock to suspend between trees for sleeping. Some packaged food and a fair amount of endurance food such as Cliff Bars and Power Bars.  I borrowed a great back pack from my nephew and a fine stock of Dominican cigars.  None of us know what cigars will be available once we are in country.  I have packed and repacked so many times I don't know what I should be taking any more.  I am more nervous about this than I was willing to admit.

Our flight to Chu Lai is on a Vietnam Airlines dual prop job and we fly low enough to get good views of the northern delta area around Saigon.  We land at ChuLai without problems and we are the only aircraft on the tarmac.  One of the reasons we wanted to land here is that we guarded this air strip as one of our duties for a while back in '66.  There is much about ChuLai that seems like home.

Here is where we first meet Ngoc and Thuong.  They are waiting outside of the terminal at ChuLai holding a very large, red banner that reads "Welcome Back".  We are all excited to meet.  Ngoc is talkative and has a great smile and wants to tell us all her plans.  She is very excited to meet us and can't wait to get us started on our journey.Thuong seems somewhat aloof.  He does not smile as easily.

About 2 pm we bus out to a remote area to find hill 66 and some other areas.  We get off the bus and trek through back roads and trails. We pass an elementary school and the children inside are practicing an alphabet or numbers or something, in unison.  Soon, they become aware that we are outside and they all come out to see us.  Laughing and nearly all waving the peace sign at us, shouting in English "Hello!  How are you?" 

Walking through small vills and hamlets give us a sense of remembrance.  Flashes of time gone by.  Not all of it is bad, but the memories surface with a heightened sense of awareness that comes from having been in a life and death struggle - a lesson that never leaves.  We remember hedge lines of cacti, palm and betel nut trees, walking along the elevated paths between rice paddies, and feeling over exposed and vulnerable.  

As we walk from hamlet to hamlet, the word gets passed around about a group of Americans, and many of the villagers try to sneak peeks at us.  The children collect in groups of 5 or 6 and giggle at us.   This is a shy culture.  They have little expectation other than daily needs.  There are few demands on them.  Their civility is so deep, so basic.  It could not exist in the western world.  I can't help but wonder how they can be so calm, so open, and so polite after 100 years of war.

Dong Ha

We are much farther inland now.  Vietnam is less than 50 miles wide here, near the old DMZ.  Looking out the window of the train as we leave the coastal area and head inland toward the gentle eastern slopes of the Annamese range and the jungle, I get to watch the slow change of vegetation and elevation.  It is an interesting mix of sand, swamp and lush vegetation rising to low mountain jungles.  This is such a beautiful country.  It feels so rich and deep.  It has kept a missing part of my soul for over 40 years. 

to be continued...

Published on 11/15/08

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