I had been sent to DaNang for psychological warfare training. I was not interested in the training and remember little of it. I did eventually make art work (the face of a tiger) for a leaflet to be dropped on the Vietnamese. Supposedly, the Vietnamese feared the tiger, a symbol of a stalker that is silent and always present. During this training period in DaNang, I met Lan.
While participating in the training, I was housed in a hotel. It seemed very quaint -- the architecture French, small and old. It was near the time of the Tet holiday, when there is usually an offensive by the North Vietnamese. There were sand bags, concertina wire, and a machine gun on the first-story roof, just above the entrance. I was given a bed in a room on the second floor.
I was amazed at how comfortable the men stationed there were. For months, I had been sleeping on the ground or in a hole I dug. Now I had a real bed in a building. The soldiers there even had music.
Lan was thirteen, but she looked much younger. I first saw her at a ferry crossing on the Macong River. She was playing with other children and intermittently flirting with me. One young girl noticed a Catholic medal around my neck, the patron saint of paratroopers. She said, "Catholics number ten, Buddha number one."
Lan retorted, "Catholic number one."
And they began to argue.
Lan was a beautiful child with large alert eyes that looked directly at me. I tried to speak with her. An M.P. appeared almost immediately and told me I could not speak with the children.
Later, I was standing inside a concrete parapet waiting for a military bus. Lan came over, leaned over the wall, and spoke to me. The M.P. again appeared, this time more aggressive, and said that if he caught me talking with another Vietnamese, he would throw me in jail. He chased the children away.
I was disappointed and very angry. I had no opportunity to be with any of the "people," and I was excited to be able to talk with this young girl who spoke English. This exchange was perhaps the most pleasant event since I had arrived in Vietnam, and this M.P. was stopping me. I asked him why he was doing this, and he said that sometimes the children carried hand grenades because they could get close to the G.I.s. I was extremely disappointed.
One evening, a couple of days later, I was sitting in my room writing a letter. Some of the guys asked if I wanted to go to a whore house, but I was content to stay and enjoy the comfort and security. Later, someone came to my room and asked if there was a "Chip" here. I said, "Yes, that's me."
He said, "Someone is at the front door asking for you."
I was confused and thought it was a mistake; how could someone possibly know me here.
When I got downstairs, waiting at the front gate was Lan, the young girl from the ferry crossing. Later, I discovered that she lived not far away and knew all of the G.I.s who were stationed there.
She was truly amazing, young and pure. I still remember how she looked at me -- close, direct, with clear brown eyes as if she was in love with me. She drew me in with such tenderness.
Lan was small. I remember how she stood on the curb while I was in the gutter. She straightened my uniform while she told me that she wanted me to meet her father. I looked at the soldier standing guard at the gate. I asked if I could do that. With a knowing smile he said, "Just don't let the M.P.s catch you."
Lan took my hand and pulled me into a run, saying, "We hurry; don't let M.P.s see us."
She turned, pulling me from a dimly-lit, side street into a dark, narrow walkway. This passage was strange, surreal, and frightening. Like a carnival "fun house," stark-white faces emerged from dark doorways like masks. Hands reached for me. As one grabbed me, Lan pulled harder and said, "Come."
We turned right into another narrow walkway, behind and between houses situated close together. We went into what seemed to be the back door of a house - her home.
There was a wooden platform on the right. There lay a baby, her young brother, on a reed matte. Wide-eyed, naked. Lan went into the other room and quickly emerged with an old man. She introduced her father, who could not speak English.
Lan interpreted our conversation. She had learned English -- I presume mostly from the G.I.s, considering her "raw" vocabulary. Her father showed me pictures of his many children. He was very polite and proud. Soon he returned to the other room.
Lan and I sat facing one another across an old wooden table. We talked. Eventually, she asked me for a photograph of myself. The only one that I had with me was a high school graduation picture in my billfold. When I gave it to her, she pulled out an old cigar box, opened it, and gently placed my picture inside. As she did, I noticed that the box was filled to the top with pictures of other G.I.s. I asked for one of her.
submitted by Paul Owen
Bovina, New York, USA
submitted May 1998
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