Category Archives: Memoir

from the heights of Po Nagar – a memory

temples at our back,
below: river, town, the sea.
holding hands we dream,
find the street where we had lived,
the house in which our love bloomed.

*     *     *

© Gregory V Driscoll 2013

Note:  In 2003 my wife Lan and I returned to Viet Nam,
after 35 years of absence, to visit her family, many of whom
live in Nha Trang on the central coast.  Po Nagar is a temple
complex built in the Indic style on a promontory across the river
from Nha Trang.  The Cham people built it from the 9th century to
the 12th century CE.

Sketches from a Notebook – Memories of Vietnam (7)

Nha Trang – July 1968

Our last day in Nha Trang – then to Sài Gòn, and, some days later the plane that would carry us to the States. Lieutenant Vy had asked me to drop by his office at the Province Headquarters.

The buildings of the compound were skeletal white under the noon sun. It was so quiet now, so clear. The blasted main building stood a grim memory of the recent offensive.

Vy’s office was in a newer edifice, not far from the sands of the beach, in that corner of the complex bordering the sea and the river. A few palm trees were diligently perennial and noncommittally shady. I entered the stark office.

A desk stolidly placed near a sea window, and a large, multicolored wall map of Khánh Hòa Province faced each other. I heard water running into a basin.

“Vy?” I queried, turning toward the half-open door of the bathroom.

“Ah, Vinh! I’ll be right out. Just got back from Ninh Hòa. Must wash off the road dust a bit to feel refreshed, you know…”

I gazed at the map, noted Ninh Hòa’s location, then the river, the bay, the island of Hòn Tre, and the other islands. Vy stepped into the room. We shook hands and sat down, he on a corner of his desk, I in a chair beside it.

“So you and Lan leave today?”

I nodded assent. He lit a cigarette.

“I envy your going. I… I must stay on and wait for them next time or the time after…”

I looked at him ready to say what was on my mind.

“Yes. They will assassinate me one of these days. A provincial intelligence officer is good game…” He had lowered his voice suddenly, “Or his family.”

Just then an aide entered, saluted, handed Vy some photographs, and went out. Vy crushed his half-smoked cigarette into a seashell ashtray.

“Look at these.” He handed the photos to me. They were of partially submerged boats some yards off shore, some bodies, opened cases of weapons.

“Early this morning, up the coast. They were trying to bring in supplies and munitions. They were spotted and got it in the water. Ten killed – one prisoner.”

I placed the photos, face downward, on the desk. Vy rose and walked out onto the verandah. I followed. We stood looking toward the crystalline blue sea. A breeze, warm as a woman’s touch, was coming off the water.

“Nha Trang is still beautiful in the midst of this damn war. But for how long? When I was a child here, there was no fighting, no violence. Only the sea, the sky, and the fishermen setting out at night and returning with the dawn.”

He turned. The breeze had mussed his hair.

“You should go before you miss your flight.”

I looked at my watch and nodded. I offered my hand. He took it in both of his.

“When there is peace, Vinh, you and Lan must return to Nha Trang, to us, eh?”

“We will.”

I went down the steps and climbed into the panel truck. I drove off in a whirl of dust.

*    *   *

(c) Gregory V Driscoll  2013

Sketches from a Notebook – Memories of Vietnam (6)

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.

*    *   *

(c) Gregory V Driscoll  2013

Sketches from a Notebook – Memories of Vietnam (5)

Sài Gòn – March 1968

Mr. Minh and Lan and I sat listening in the dark of the small family store. The garish phosphorescence of coasting flares occasionally pierced the upstairs window, leaped downwards, and highlighted our bodies, our faces. We could hear the crunching feet of the police as they went from house to house searching. Their nervous words sometimes broke through the clatter and banging of the doors and bolts of the houses to us. The yapping of a neighbor’s little dog once or twice scampered through the alleyway. Then there would fall once more an ominous silence—though really it wasn’t a silence but a rising and falling, nearing and retreating whir or hum or buzz. What is that? we three wondered wordlessly.

What is it?

Still we said nothing in the dim light. We only looked at one another, then at the window, then at the heavily screened door of the kitchen, then at the floor. We kept listening to that whir, that hum, that buzz…

On the boulevard a jeep rumbled past. The police were already next door. Their muffled voices almost quieted that ever-present whir or hum or buzz. I got up from the sack of rice on which I had been sitting. I climbed the steep stairs to the floor above, the steps coughing beneath my weight.

I looked out the window, over the dark red tiled roofs, toward the river. On their parachutes, one by one the flares slowly drifted down, first turning the darkness there into faux daylight, then slowly fading, then finally dying in chemical extinguishment. Here I could feel the whir, the hum, the buzz. It filled the air, alive and moving and doing. Then I saw silhouetted against the flares’ unnatural light what made the devilish, unending sound. Some miles away hovered seven or eight helicopter gunships. They sent red streams of lead into the buildings, the vegetation, the streams, the dim night below them. These were the whir, these were the hum, these were the buzz – rising and falling, nearing and departing, busy on their rounds and swoops of death.

*    *   *

(c) Gregory V Driscoll 2013

Sketches from a Notebook – Memories of Vietnam (4)

Nha Trang – January 1968, Tết Mậu Thân, the Year of the Monkey

The woman and the boy lay on the cool tile floor of the kitchen, as they had done all through the night. Their ears still hurt from the staccato burps of automatic weapons. They shuddered when, outside, dirt and stones and shrapnel spurted about from the quick doom of grenades.

Lan pressed herself still closer to the chill security of the floor. She mused: In years past on this day, the first of all, her family had always eaten roast duck, fried spring rolls, and the traditional bean-and-rice cakes, squared and round. They had visited close friends and relatives, to wish them joy and prosperity. The younger children would each receive a pittance wrapped in red paper. Red was the color of happiness and good fortune. But this year, on this day, the first of all…

She moved her head to glimpse her nephew, Nên. His eyes were closed, his cheek flush against the white and green tiles. Was he dreaming of home, of his family? Could he see the fishing boats coming to shore, the sun just up, an orange promise hovering an inch or two above the sea? He had come to visit his aunt Lan and her husband, to bring, from his family to theirs, good wishes for the new year. But this day, the first of all—

Lan heard someone shouting above the din of the firefight. She began to weep. Of a sudden she felt her husband dead. He worked at the airbase, between the runway and the paddies, not far from the Special Forces compound. Later, she thought, she would have to clean every corner of the house. She would buy fruit and chickens, candles and joss sticks and ceremonial money. She would offer them for her husband’s spirit…

The gunfire ceased. She looked at her watch, the watch her husband had given her.   11 a.m.   From habit she began winding the timepiece. Nên raised his head from the floor. Then they both lay still as before.

Five minutes passed without a sound.

Lan traced the pattern on the tiles with her finger.

Ten minutes…silence still.

She sat up and toyed with the charm on her necklace.

Now fifteen minutes had passed…then footsteps, a pounding on the door!

Lan sprang to her feet.

“Who’s there?” she said in a soft, quavering voice.

No response but more pounding on the door.

“Who is it?” she screamed.

There was only silence, and the sounds of someone breathing hard – Lan’s breathing and Nên’s breathing and the breathing of whoever stood mute beyond the door.

Then there boomed another voice in the street: “No, no! The next house. The house on the left…”

Footsteps splattered on the concrete, then on the gravel and into the road.

Quiet.

Lan fell to her knees. She sobbed. Only then did she realize she had not screamed – she had uttered not a sound.

She had been as silent as death.

*    *   *

(c) Gregory V Driscoll 2013

Sketches from a Notebook – Memories of Vietnam (3)

Sài Gòn – December 1967

We were on the sidewalk, half the time chatting, half the time just letting the hundreds of sights and sounds of the boulevard engulf us – senses, mind, and all. Inside the family’s store, Đức’s three younger sisters sat waiting for customers, and playing at Chinese cards. From where I stood I could hear the occasional clicks of the narrow wooden cards striking the counter and the girls’ banter and their glee when they made a trick.

Past Đức and me went three-wheeled pedicabs. One bore an old peasant woman, her teeth blackened from the juice of betel leaves; another, two young women in white outfits – high school students who lowered their eyes as we glimpsed the sweet bloom of their faces. And yet another carried a wiry little soldier with sunglasses and bearing flowers wrapped in red paper. Every cyclo had its driver, his skin darkened by the sun, clothed in loose-fitting shorts and blowing shirt, sporting a pith helmet, and puffing an infinitesimal cigarette. Up and down, up and down went the muscular pistons of the cyclo drivers’ legs, propelling the quaint vehicles along the tree-lined street.

So watching we passed the minutes, Đức and I. The afternoon was aching to sleep, but the sun forbade it. For there was still food to be sold, and goods to be handled, and children to come running home from school.

Then, in the near-distance there was the constancy of a little drum…and a rattling…and a piping. Closer and closer now… Yes, we could see the drummer, and the man with the rattle, and the piper. Behind them two men toted an altar that held the photo of an old, old man. The bearers walked before a fantastic, slowly moving carriage, decorated with dragons’ heads and tails, silk banners, and painted red and black and gold. Following this hearse were lines of people, led by the dead man’s family, the women in the long white robes of mourning, the men with white bands of linen tied about their heads. A full ten minutes it took for the procession, from drummer to last straggler, to pass us. As each person shuffled past, we looked at him or her, and they at us. We were silent.

The drumming and the rattling and the piping melted into the rising noise of the early evening traffic. Đức and I turned and entered his father’s store.

*    *   *

(c) Gregory V Driscoll  2013

Sketches from a Notebook – Memories of Viet Nam (2)

Nha Trang – October 1967

The room was simply furnished. I sat there in a low, wooden armchair, and waited for Mr. Thanh to return from his printing shop. A large, faded photograph of a man in traditional garb dominated the room. Below the portrait on the wall was a high set of drawers, the top of which served as a family altar covered with a red cloth. The bronze candlesticks flanking the photo glinted in the warm light of the late afternoon.

I could hear Thanh’s wife in the kitchen, scolding her cook. I put my glass of lemonade on the circular, glass-topped table. Under the polished glaze were dozens of small photos meticulously arranged against a blue-green background. The snapshots were of Thanh, his wife, Hoa, and children – together and separately – pictured in the mountains near Đà Lạt, and at the shore in Nha Trang.

A breeze touched the coconut palms outside the wide, half-shuttered window that gave out onto the front yard. The leaves of a wall calendar chittered, then quieted. The orange and red calendar bore the legend, Bière La Rue: Phnom Penh, Saigon. I rose from the calm austerity of the chair, to walk over to the other large piece of furniture, a long, low cabinet. I leaned forward to see better the things symmetrically placed behind the sliding glass doors. There was on one side an open painted fan and an empty bottle of pink champagne; on the other side, a bottle of scotch whiskey and a camera case. Between these was a set of variously colored drinking glasses. On the shelf above rested an expensive portable radio. The cabinet’s blue-and-white mottled top bore a small figure of the Buddha, and two vases filled with joss sticks.

“Chào, anh Vinh!” a gentle voice said interrupting my inspection.

I turned. Mr. Thanh stood in the doorway leading from the dining room. In his left hand he clutched a battered leather briefcase. With his right hand, Thanh gestured leisurely toward the round coffee table and the wooden armchairs.

We both sat down to talk until the call to dinner.

*    *   *

(c) Gregory V Driscoll  2013