Meeting A Man Who Wanted to Kill Me
I am sometimes quite bewildered when I am in a powerful situation that is emotionally engaging and should, by all desserts, have some significant, memorable meaning yet I cannot perceive what that meaning should be. Earlier I wrote about one such experience in “the color of small money”; today I will write about another such experience that occurred earlier on that my first return trip to Vietnam in 1998.
I was staying in a small hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon to most people, and, upon learning that I had hired a car and driver for a day, the receptionist asked if I would take along her cousin and his friend so they could practice their English.
My ultimate destination that day was the city of Tay Ninh approximately 90 km to the northwest of Ho Chí Minh City. The city is the home of the Cao DÂi religion, an indigenous Vietnamese faith that includes the teachings of the major world religions and has as its three saints, Sun Yat-sen, Victor Hugo and Nguyen Bánh Khiêm. This religious group controlled the section of Vietnam around Tay Ninh during the American War and its own army kept the fighting well controlled and away from its colorful temple and compound. I was going specifically to see the colorful temple buildings and the worship services which are open to the public.
It was a hot day and, of course the hired car, a dark TOYOTA Cressida, although in fair condition, had no air-conditioning. We had set out early and when we stopped for breakfast, I realized that the young couple had planned on going the entire day without food or drink because of the expense. I bullied them into actually joining me by telling them that I wouldn't eat or drink unless they did and that I would then blame them for my suffering, It was easy to be generous when breakfast for the four of us, driver included, cost less than the equivalent of $4.
Around lunchtime, we were driving along a relatively flat area when I saw a small village restaurant set back about 200 yards from the main road along a small road that ran on top of a paddy dike. There were perhaps two dozen houses ranged along the road on either side of a small store and a typical restaurant, a concrete pad with four corner posts and a corrugated slanted tin roof. Drinks were kept in a plastic cooler and cooked food was prepared on a small brazier over coals. The furniture was the small plastic variety that Westerners would think of as childrens' furniture but that is common throughout SEA.
In a country where private cars are rare and at a time when foreigners were even more so, the arrival of a large Toyota Cressida could not have attracted more attention if we had arrived on pink elephants.
People had already started piling out of their house to see a car when the door opened and a large pink foreigner got out and a veritable melee ensued. Women picked up their infants to show them and small children scooted behind their parents' legs. My translator couple explained that we had stopped for lunch and we went up into the restaurant and sat down. The four of us talked quietly and the rest of the crowd was absolutely still with totally innocent curiousity. Remember, this was soon after the country has opened for tourism, long before the major influx of Westerners, we were in a private car and well off the beaten path. After just a few minuted, the crowd seemed to come to the consensus that, if they couldn't understand us, we couldn't see them and they drew their chairs up to our table and, in no time we were at the center of a quiet, attentive crowd.
Eventually someone asked my translators a question for me, which I answered. Then for the next 20 minutes I answered questions through the couple.
“where was I from” the United States
why had I come to Vietnam. I had been here during the American War
where was I? I named the small town.
What did I think of Vietnam? It was very beautiful and the people were very friendly and courteous.
Then came many questions about my life and my family. I passed around pictures of my family and bought cigarettes for the crowd.
Finally we got up to leave and a veritable receiving line formed to say goodbye and shake hands. As we got close to the car, a little man who had rushed away down the street shortly before, pushed forward through the crowd and said something to my companions. He was dressed in the classic style one pictures when they think of an asian farmer, pants cut off above the knees, a simple loose shirt, flip-flops on muddy feet and a cone-shaped straw hat.
The young man said, 'He said he was in Bien Hoa City where you were and at the same time, Sir.'
I smiled. The farmer spoke again. “He said he was shot by a helicopter.' and the farmer, with a smile, pulled up his pants leg to show the shiny patch the size of a quarter where a high velocity bullet had punched through the meat of his thigh. There was undoubtedly a matching patch on the dorsal surface where it had exited.
In 1968, during the Tet offensive, a large force, perhaps one thousand VC, had rushed across a wide open field on the perimeter of the huge Bien Hoa Air Base. Another group had been supposed to rush the main gate and take the helicopter flight line but this group never appeared, perhaps it had been vaporized by B52 strikes. In any case, enough helicopters got off to repel the attacking VC with massive casualties. This was at the beginning of the offensive and the bodies lay out in the sun for four days until the situation stabilized and the bodies could be gathered up. During those four days the badly wounded died and the rest crawled back into the surrounding fields.
So, thirty years later, I stood in the blazing mid-day sun in a small village in the middle of Vietnam looking down at this little man who, if he hadn't been shot, would have seen it as his duty, if not privilege, to shoot me. I had no idea what to do or say. He held out a small composition book and talked to my companions.
“He wants you to write down your name and your family name and the city where you live.”
I ducked into the rear seat, came out with my travel journal and, through my companions, asked him to do the same.
So there we were, side by side, leaning on the hood of a Toyota, , each writing a message neither one of us would be able to read . We returned each other's books, looked at mutually unintelligible scribbles and we both smiled, We shook hands again, I gave one final wave to the crowd, which they returned and we four travelers got in the car.
By the time our car had reached the main road, the crowd around the restaurant had dispersed, I don't know if that little farmer ever thinks about that meeting and, if he does, I can't imagine what he made out of it. There might be a message somewhere in there but I sure as hell don't know what it is.
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