"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Jesse Gump: Enemy Mine

While stationed with the Korean 9th ROK Infantry in Ninh Hoa, South Vietnam, we paid for locals to come on base to wash our clothes and other odd jobs. One of the hired workers assigned to me was a young Vietnamese girl named Tai. She was seventeen years old. Over time Tai and I became good friends. She had taken great pains (and patience) to teach me Vietnamese words whenever I asked. Eventually, I came to believe I loved her. Then one day she stopped coming to work and another woman, an older lady, took her place. I didn’t know why or if there was any reason at all.

Weeks later, just before I rotated back to the states, I received a message from Tai. She knew I was leaving soon and she wanted me to come to her village to say goodbye.

The next day I made the two mile walk down Highway One and along the flooded rice paddies into the small town of Ninh Hoa. I wasn't sure how I was supposed to find Tai, but it turned out not to be a problem. Obviously I had been watched from the moment I stepped foot inside the village because Tai met me before I'd gone fifty feet past the first dismal hut.

Her smile said she was happy to see me. My own smile reflected hers. She was careful not to touch me as she led me toward her home where she lived with her family. The house was as poor as the rest in the village. Its construction was a mix of small bricks, woven bamboo, and rusting sheets of corrugated tin.

Tai motioned me through the doorway. Inside was as rustic as out. Short bamboo platforms perched above a dirt floor strategically covered with straw mats. She slipped off her flip-flops, but I kept my boots in place. She pointed toward one of the raised platforms and I sat.

"I needed to see you," she said in a hushed tone. "I have things I must tell you."

"Why did you stop working at the base?" I interrupted. "I worried that I'd insulted you or somehow made you angry."

She put her hand on mine. "I'm not angry. I asked you to come here so I can tell you the truth about me before you go home."

I glanced around the room and noticed for the first time that we were completely alone. And it was quiet, as if the world outside had suddenly stopped moving. "I'm leaving next week."

"Yes, I know." She reached inside her pants pocket and then held out her closed hand. "I want to give you something."

By reflex I held out my hand. She opened her slender fingers and dropped a thin gold ring into my palm. I looked at the ring and then back to her face. "I don't understand."

"You're a nice man and have a good heart. I want you to always remember me because I love you."

An odd feeling coursed through my body and jolted against my brain. It was a heady mixture of elation, depression, and tense desperation. Sensible responses eluded me. "I love you, too. I'll come back for you."

She smiled and kissed me softly on the cheek. "That's not possible. There are things you don't know about me."

I struggled to make sense of her statement. "What do you mean?"

She took a breath as if to brace herself. "Do you remember meeting my uncle?" (This is another story altogether.)

"No, I've never met any of your family."

"Do you remember the evening when you and your friend stopped for beer at the village just south of here? Some men were there eating. Vietnamese men."

I did remember. Having beer with the enemy is not an experience easily forgotten. I nodded.

"The man who waved when you left was my uncle. If it'd been anyone but you, he would have killed them."

My muscles tightened as the meaning registered in my head. "You mean your uncle is Viet Cong?"

She avoided the question. "Do remember the times I asked you to buy me soap for my laundry and aspirin for my headaches?"

The feeling that I was about to hear something I didn't want to hear flooded my senses. I nodded again.

"It wasn't for me. It was for my uncle and his friends. I'm a VC sympathizer."

Even though I'd seen it coming, the shock of her words caused me to stand. "I should go. Suddenly I feel very uncomfortable."

"Do you hate me?" The pleading in her voice and on her face was clear.

At that moment I didn't know what I felt. She had lied to me to help her uncle and their friends – my enemies. Yet if not for her and her uncle, I would be dead. Except for the lies she had never hurt me, and she said she loved me. She had given me a gold ring so I would never forget her. In a moment my thoughts coalesced into a response. "I could never hate you, Tai. I will keep this ring so I'll never forget you."

"You should go. Everyone in Ninh Hoa will wonder why we've been alone for so long."

It occurred to me that she had taken her own risks by inviting me to her home. "Yes, I know."

The village came back to life when I stepped outside. People talked and children played and motorcycles putted. I looked back at Tai. Tears glistened her face. My eyes watered, too.

"I will pray for you," she said.

"And I for you." I pointed at my rifle and my army clothes. "Maybe someday these will be gone and we can be best of friends, or the best of lovers."

Tai smiled. "I would like that." She turned and went back inside.

A small crowd of Vietnamese children had gathered in the street. I touched the pockets of my fatigues but they were empty. I walked to the small shop at the corner and spend every last piece of MPC in my wallet on local sweets and candy. The kids had a feast as they followed me to the edge of the village.

I walked back along the rice paddies to the base. I never said anything about Tai or her uncle. The following Wednesday I rotated back to the states.

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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