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Recollections: Returning to the Delta
By Dan New
The tropical sun has long since set. We trundle aboard a long narrow vessel, passing a young Vietnamese who steers our passage across the black flowing river's murk. Hanging my hand over the gunwale, water glides through my fingers and memory through my mind. The explosion of an RPG and the heat of its detonation reemerge. I sit stoically awaiting the dock on the other side of the river. The conversation and excitement of my fellow travelers fills the boat. For me, the rapid fire of .50 and .60 caliber machine guns rattle in a distant memory. I hear the panicked voice of our Warrant Officer as our tug circles midriver. The blood of the dead, the heat of that day, the smell of the smoke of our weapons and the dank river fill my senses.
Struggling to remain present and to not let my panic be known, I practice centering breaths. Nausea and cold sweat mix with the day's long travel. Looming with emotion, I hide in plain sight with no wish to be discovered, supported, soothed. Soon the boat bumps to the shoreline. We manage our packs to the solid earth in the pitch-black.
A receiving line greets us as we trudge the pathway on uneven stones, past the overgrown foliage that brushes against our skin. The cicadas sing their welcome and avoid their own predators. I can barely see the outline of the person in front of me. Our line stops and starts with each greeting like wedding guests entering a reception. Vietnamese language filling the air out in front of me. The cadence seems sharp and foreboding in the dark. It's time to lock and load but I have no weapon. When it's my turn, there are no introductions only the embraces of three Vietnamese.
First, a stout short man with dark pajamas then a woman, ancient and bent, and finally a thin tiny fellow.
We gather in an open area to hear our room assignments and the introductions of our hosts, two Viet Cong and a North Vietnamese Army Major. They fought many years against the Americans but now welcome us.
Our conversations are translated by Song, a former South Vietnamese air force pilot. He spent years after the war hiding only to be imprisoned for three years and then re-educated for another four. His re-education consisted of crawling on his hands and knees between rows of rubber trees on plantations in the highlands. He was one of the few to survive. Yet now he embraces his captors, introducing them with grace and dignity.
Tan Tien is the lord of this land, a few acres on an island in the Mekong, the reward for his service. His welcoming speech includes the raising of his shirttail to bare a wound's remnant inflicted by his enemy that almost took his life. He introduces his wife who cannot stand as she suffers from the effects of Agent Orange. Then the tiny man welcomes us. A North Vietnamese major who had walked the thousand-mile Ho Chi Minh Trail.
They feed us a feast and sing their poems to us. It's a welcome so foreign and unexpected by and to me, my emotions mix with an embarrassment of their vulnerabilities and a softening at these former enemies. We introduce ourselves one by one. I listen more intently. Tan Tien was a teacher whose school house was demolished by US bombing in the early years of the war. He felt he had no choice but to join the resistance and defend his country. He never taught again hindered by his injuries. His sadness is worn dearly on his aging face. Yet there is no malice in his voice. I am drawn to him.
We sit in the circle lit mainly by candles. It is my turn to speak. I tell of my time on the river and the friends that I have lost. As I speak, Tan Tien moves to a seat next to me. His hand reaches out to touch my thigh and he pats me gently. I turn to look at him. His face bloated with emotion. When I finish, he embraces me, holding tightly, speaking in a sorrowful tone, words that I cannot understand. When our hug ends, he keeps his arm around my shoulder and his hand embracing mine. Tears stain his cheek. He teaches me the lesson of peace all these long years later. He comforts and welcomes and offers compassion to his onetime enemy. I am overwhelmed by this man's capacity to love, I retreat from his advances as a rose's thorn from pricking my skin, his touch pierces my heart, my fingers tighten gently to return and acknowledge his kindness, all in a moment, an unforgettable moment.
Dan New is a Vietnam Veteran having served in the US Army in country 4/67-4/68. He is retired, lives in Upstate, NY and loves to write.