Sài Gòn – April 1968
Trần văn Trung was a Cảnh Sát, a policeman – a “White Mouse” as the Americans derisively called members of the south Viet-Namese National Police. His uniform of gray trousers, white shirt, and gray, leather-beaked cap was as immaculate as on the morning I had first met him, more than a year before. The badges on shirt pocket and hat bristled with blinding darts of light. He was a first sergeant, of ten years’ service.
He descended the steps of the Court of Appeals to greet me. He looked much older than I remembered him. His eyes betrayed some inability to adjust – to what I dared not guess. His grip had lost its former vigor, its tenacity, its commitment.
As we walked about the courtyard – I: trying to probe, to find out discreetly; he: so politely evasive, trying to summon the humor and pleasantness of past meetings – the otherness of him, the great change in him was a transfiguration. “Trung,” I began again, then stopped. He looked at me, not avoiding my eyes. In his were the friendship of the past, and – was it pity or some bitter understanding or an inkling of disillusion?
The noon whistle shattered the building tension.
“Well, Vinh” he began haltingly. “Maybe…no, let’s, let’s go get something to fill our bellies.” He laughed, but it wasn’t genuine.
I climbed onto the Vespa behind him. We burst like a shot into the street bustling with traffic. We threaded our way through the maze of moving bicycles, jeeps, taxis, and pedicabs. We stopped at a light, and then at another.
We were now in Chợ Lớn, rushing, I supposed, toward Trung’s home. It would be good to sit again in that small cool garden where so many times before I had dined, and joked with his children, and taught them some English. But now the area was not the quarter I had known. The recent street fighting had scarred it. There were pockets of destruction, deserts of brick dust, the mere memories of homes. American tank-tracks had broken up the asphalt.
As we turned into the street on which Trung lived, the void of violence, the very ghost of it surrounded us. Once familiar buildings were but splintered brick and charred beams. A few women and children were still hunting relics in the ruins.
I understood now. With my hand I pressed Trung’s upper arm. I felt him dying, beneath the white cloth, of sorrow. But I couldn’t see his face…
We made a wide, careful turn through the traffic, then sped back toward the heart of the city.
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(c) Gregory V Driscoll 2013