91. “We’re Americans, Don’t Shoot!”

Day 5:  Sài Gòn.  Two of us, my cabin-mate (I’ll call him Phil) and I are busy sucking down a few ice cold beers in one of the bars and as was becoming the norm, flanked by local femme fatales.  Before we realized how late it was, already we had broken the curfew missing our boat back to the Trans Western.  

Desperate to get outta there we made quick inquiry for a way to return to our ship, to anyone who’d listen.  We needed someone with a boat who’d take us out to the anchored ships, for pay of course.  One Vietnamese man with very little English stepped up to the job.  We three made haste to his boat.  

So now we’re putt-putting through the dark waters under black velvet skies, studded with stars brilliant as diamonds.  I see little twinkling lights of the ships anchored all around the harbor.  

In my mind I’m thinking, how on earth are we gonna find our ship in all of this?  They seem so close to each other from a distance but as we get nearer, they’re all really far apart from one another.

Marines on constant patrol are no doubt hearing the putt-putt of the small gasoline engine of this little man’s smallish boat.  Suddenly there were two spotlights splashing us in harsh white light and our boatman quickly shuts off his motor; he definitely doesn’t want to get his ass shot off in any language, of that I’m sure!

Feeling the panic, Phil thinks quick and takes off his tee shirt.  He stood up and began to wave his white shirt, “Don’t shoot, we’re Americans!” he yelled out in fright.  I didn’t think twice and removing my shirt, I too stood up and did the same. ‘Don’t shoot, Americans, we’re also American!’  

We’re waving our shirts and they’re getting closer; upon reaching us, I’m guessing they relaxed only a small bit, assessing we are most likely harmless.  

They cuss us out. “What the hell are you guys doing out here after curfew …(then pointing the barrel of their guns at the boatman)… with him!?”  ‘We missed our boat outta town and … and we made a desperate decision’, I nervously explained.  

They talked amongst themselves for a moment and then ordered us to climb aboard their boat.  The Vietnamese man was also brought on board.  His little boat was tied up to theirs and after identifying us with our ID cards, we were transported to the Trans Western.  

Boy did we get an ass-chewing and that was just by the Marines who picked us up!  The Skipper had yet to have his go on us.  Upon arrival we had to of course, be re-identified to the guard soldiers on board our ship; up the rope we went.  

The patrolling Marines left with the little man still in their custody; I’m thinking most likely they escorted him back to shore.  This type of scene may have happened to others before us and most probably would occur again in the years to come.  

Phil and I made tracks for the mess hall.  All this excitement made for a great appetite.  A few of the Marine soldiers were down in the galley enjoying some grub.  

We made fresh coffee, tuna fish sandwiches with some crunchy pickles and proceeded to eat as though that would fix anything.  I tell ya, what a night!  To our immediate relief, the Skipper’s ass-chewing was not on tonight’s menu.  

Retiring to our cabin I was on autopilot until my head finally hit my pillow and I was able to think for a moment.  I was filled with gratitude that my butt was not blown to bits by the US Marines!  Or anyone else for that matter.

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87. Some Things Do Change

We’d only be reminded once; miss the boat coming back, guilty of not obeying the rules, considered on our own and most critical of all, placing ourselves at grave risk.  Curfew is impressed upon us and well, bottom line, I had no interest in finding myself in this position.

For legitimate reasons, war zone dinner time was bumped up by about an hour. The best result of this in my mind was how it freed up the crew for the rest of the evening.  We were eager young men looking for adventures. After clean-up and the next morning’s breakfast set-up, we readied ourselves to go ashore.

Our ship soldiers were fed dinner and ready for rotation with the swing shift. These morning Marines were also our ride into town.  It would be the graveyard shift Marines who’d return us to the ship and we’d best be on their boat coming back this way.

Bright Lights & City Nights.  The Marines installed for safety on our ship, these very large lamps. They’d burn bright, one forward, one aft, and aimed down at the water surrounding our ship, all night, every night.  I must say I did feel rather unassailable with all that the Marines were doing to keep the ship, its contents, us included, safe, day and night.

Getting ahead of the story with a personal thought here; I wished I would carry an AK-47 with me whenever I went ashore.  Man I tell ya, once the soldiers allowed myself and a couple of the other guys to hold and get a feel for their weapons which had become an extension of their own bodies.  

Admittedly it grew on me real fast!  They demonstrated the gun and then offered to let us shoot them.  We were surprised but accepted the offer of course! The guys made certain we understood that we would only discharge the weapon into the ocean.  I fired off a few rounds aimed at the sea.

For many reasons I’ll say here and now, what an insane time that was.  War I mean and the way people’s thoughts change … doing things which under other circumstances may never have taken place?

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20. Aftermath of a Life Unrealised

Silently returning from the cemetery and in the ways of our tradition, I stopped at the front of our home to *cleanse.  Then I went indoors and I bathed before I could settle myself to rest.  My mother, my wife, my sisters and the other family women were already in the house preparing for our evening.

We are sitting in the living room – just looking at one another or blankly into some space on the wall or the floor, it didn’t matter.  And the tea that was served didn’t taste the same.  There was nothing much to say and I for one couldn’t.

In the early evening the pundit came to perform the puja.  We all prayed together for our baby, our son, my angel, asking God to keep him safe and close to Him.

The next day Hemma’s father came to my house and declared he had come to take his daughter home with him; that they would take care of her there.  I asked my wife if this is what she wanted and she said, “Yes.”

She then asked me to go with her.  I couldn’t, I could not even imagine going over there with them.  I did want my wife, I needed her to stay here with me.  This was our home.  She left that same day.  

I was sure we needed each other to try and bring a sense of comfort in this shared broken-hearted pain, to mourn together but no, it seemed she needed to go back to her father and mother, to their home.  I didn’t know if there was a right or wrong in this event; I tried to understand but it was really all too much.

Weeks passed, I was feeling heavy-hearted and I thought many times how my wife must be getting on.  Although I had all the blessed love and support of my dear family, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being all alone.  I couldn’t bring myself to go anywhere, much less out of my room, not even to work.  

One weekend it happened that Noori came down to the house to see how the family was getting on.  I know she had clues from her best friend, my little sister.  I suppose Noori thought she ought to wait a while before coming over.  I know she wanted to see for herself how Gary was doing.  Perhaps she also thought Hemma may return …

She went straight into the kitchen and prepared tea for the family.  Then she brought a cup into my room for me.  No one seemed to mind that we stayed in the room for long hours, just talking.  My mother knew this was more helpful at this point than anything else.  

Noori reminded me of her promise; that she’d be around for me in case of emergency, and if ever I needed a different ear that would listen.  She said, “I am here to share your grief, your pain and I’ll come as often as I can so you can always use my shoulder to cry on.”

This girl helped me so much just by being there for me.  I was able to breathe again as I had someone to talk with, like a best friend who provided for me a way to express my feelings without reserve, about my child and how I was feeling with regard to the rest of my world.

We were getting closer and I was comfortable now with my support network.  Everything happened so fast!

One day Hemma sent her two courier pigeons my way with a note.  The message basically was an ultimatum which stated that if I wanted her back in my life, I would have to move into her family’s house.  

Otherwise she’d never come back to me.  Why oh why did I have a feeling this wasn’t my wife’s voice in these words?  What a sticky situation and what a demand!

Unimaginable!  No, no and still, no!

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*cleanse    – it is in our tradition when immediate family and the close relatives return from a funeral to the home we must first approach the basin of water which has been set-up next to a smoldering fire outside the house.  A mango leaf is in it.  

We take the leaf, dipping into the blessed water, sprinkling it upon ourselves 3 times and then turn to the smoke of the fire, bringing the smoke towards ourselves in a blessing sort of way; like it’s preventing any unwelcome whatever from the funeral location.  Then bathing and fresh clothes follow.