NOVEL EXCERPT: from WHO HOPES AND ENDURES AND IS PATIENT

On my bike the next afternoon I detoured away from the square and rode over to Memorial Drive and from there went across the Mass Ave. bridge to Boylston Street and the Boston Public Library. Though by 1982 the Vietnam War was to some extent still palpable in the air, and so, in my opinion, enough time had yet to pass for the topic to be sufficiently digested and reprocessed, I was somewhat surprised to find two entire shelves of books of all thicknesses and shapes about it in the second floor stacks. I fingered through four or five rows and carried a half dozen back to the small ashen-stained desk that looked out over the spacious lobby and entranceway. For three full hours I paged through them unfazed by the senseless muttering of what I assumed was a homeless man at the desk in front of me sitting slumped in his chair. He was young enough, I saw, that the irony he might be a vet of that undeclared and undecided conflict I was there to read about was real enough, and that kept me, and I presumed others as well, from complaining to the librarian and having him quieted down or removed.

Thus, in the second book I flipped through the pages of, I came to a display of photos on the evacuation of An Loc during the 1972 Easter offensive. It’d had such a direct bearing on Mai’s life that I sat with rapt attention in much the same way Mai must have when she went home with the book the librarian had brought out from the back room for her. I stared so hard at the pages of AP and UPI photos that with a little more effort I might have transferred my image onto them and joined her and her sisters and cousin on the ride along Highway 13 to Saigon, where her aunt and uncle waited to take us to their home, and where we’d stay until the NVA fought their way to the outskirts of the city and, before they entered it, we had no other choice but to head off to the coast and a refugee camp in Thailand.

It was a mesmerizing tour of a war I considered the most profound and tragic event of my generation. I couldn’t deny that the whole account, from Ho Chi Minh’s 1945 declaration of the an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam, to the partitioning of the country at the 17th parallel under the terms of the Geneva Convention, to the Vietcong insurgency in the south beginning late in 1956, to Kennedy’s increased military assistance and Johnson’s appeal for hearts and minds and all out expansion, was moving and powerful, and when I thought of the people I knew, Mai and Richie and Carl, the story yanked at my soul even though, at the same time, I understood war was an entry in the Human Books that took up much, much more space than peace. And this one in particular, this absolutely unnecessary and deceitful one, I came to the conclusion right there in my seat, was like a mistake that was made a million times over and there was no point making it a million and one and so it came to an end. Those intuitions would be backed up twenty-five years later after the release of previously sealed White House tapes showed that early in 1964 Johnson doubted the war was winnable, he knew there was no plan in place for victory, militarily or diplomatically, and yet he went ahead with his escalation anyway and upset the lives of millions.

That sent me to the shelves again. And sometime later I was back at my desk with a book in either hand. Adjusting myself in the chair, the volume I opened next, an oral history of Vietnamese Americans published by a small press out in Madison, Wisconsin, held me enthralled. The somber first person testimonials were quite candid, and ten and fifteen years after the fact I brooded over the plight of people helpless to the armies clashing around them.

While as a Liberal Arts student with a History minor I’d certainly learned enough about the two great World Wars to think I understood them, I will say that was the first time I’d read what the survivors, those who’d experienced the battles and bombings, had to say about what went on in their own words instead of what the exploiters of the material contrived about it for their personal and professional profit. Many of the stories I perused were eerily similar to Mai’s, so it almost seemed she’d gotten together with them to synchronize the details. And then there were entries like this one from a man who had eventually settled in St. Paul, Minnesota.

We were evacuated from the provincial hospital after it was hit by mortar fire, perhaps by accident, we weren’t sure, but it was too much of a risk to stay there any longer. About thirty among us who had crowded into it for sanctuary were killed and there was no time to bury them so we left them there as they were. The wounded were cared for in a pagoda further down the highway in Phu Due. There were no beds for them, and only a few mats for the most badly injured. The other patients had to lay on the dirt floor or on the bundles of rags we brought up from the basement. There was a shortage of tetanus serum and a child died of lockjaw. Her body was twisted like a snake under the rags and there was nothing we could do to make her ending dignified. Not far from her an old woman was dying of malnutrition. She told us she’d spent more than a month in a bunker in An Loc eating boiled rice and rice soup, and when her supplies of those ran out she ate anything that was edible. Her skin was the color of the finest china and there were flies all over her face. All the time the communist artillery fire continued to pour into Phu Due even though there were no military targets of significance to threaten them.*

* passage created from my readings in several archive sites no longer available online

(2010)

WORD OF THE DAY

– improvisational response to a word received in my In Box from Dictionary.com

desiderata\dih-sid-uhrey-tuh\plural noun

  1. Things wanted or needed.

Go with energy and excitement and with a good awareness of your surroundings, and a surge of concealed fear as well, into the noise pollution, hurrying, skateboarding, sidewalk sprinting, bike dodging, speeding hell that is New York City, and know that if you prefer peace and stillness and a quiet, calm contentment you will have to move out of the 600 square feet you are overpaying a thousand dollars a month for, with the knocking steam pipes and 1970s oven and frantic scratching in the thin plasterboard walls, walls that do not soften the banging and bickering and violent humping and climatic liberation of your neighbors, nor do the leaky windows much deter the drawn out honking up at the corner from those unwilling to wait more than a second after a light change, though in such situations it is recommended you do not rush out to your steps to output words that might further upset such driver as he, and it will be a he, as he already is that, upset to all get out, and you do not want to add to his instability by speaking truth to ire, just as you do not want your fragile psyche or jaw bone upset to a debilitating disorder, so it is best to ignore him and continue forth knowing you are well and whole, and you are able to go off and do whatever it is you do to satisfy your sense of self and/or earthly needs, but do remember in those matters it is best to remain skeptical at all times, as the competition downtown, uptown and everywhere in New York town is fierce and cutthroat even as there is much to be heard about ideals and justice and level playing fields, so be sure to make it a policy of yours to not be lured into that folly even if you are simpatico with all three and in desperate need of the latter, and if it is a level playing field you are desperate for it is likely you are a freelancer working at an hourly rate with an annoying agency behind you and a domineering boss in front, in other words, you are in a situation that has you biting your tongue often, and if it so happens you are not a freelancer, be assured you will be, sooner or later everyone is, and so recall in such matters it is best to smile and take it, or grin and bear it, whatever your preference, doing one or the other in order to continue your tenuous, itinerant, standing with a sense of good feeling all around, but in no way should you let any of that interfere with your goal, whatever world-renowned acclaim you have in mind for yourself at the end of the rainbow, even if that arc of spectral colors is something you see only when you are out of town, though, take note, it is wise not to press too much of that bewildering fantasy on family and friends, not even on your spouse-companion, whomever it is you have chosen or been the chosen of to spend your time and find release with, as he/she/they might be more established in their profession than you are in yours and believe they have clearance to be brutal in their judgments and thus would not hesitate to put forward the question why do you continue to reach for the stars when you are forty, you are still paying off college loans, you’re credit card is maxed out, your current freelance gig is up Friday and you are without other prospects at the moment, nevertheless, you might retort to he/she/they, forty is young nowadays, there is still time to fulfill that dream of awards and prizes and vast public attention you will achieve in the prestigious venues that reject you now but will not do so forever, so yes, those will come, in due course, and whatever else might be bandied about after that by said spouse-companion, do not flinch if your assertion is taken as a signal you are not growing into your years but avoiding them even as the mirror undeniably tells you otherwise, you are presently as fearless and deluded as when you started out, beat up you may be but humble you are not, you do not surrender, and that is not a bad way to be, each life unfolds in its own way, soon you will be the light at the end of the tunnel, singular, bright and clairvoyant, and what is yours to believe is yours and yours only and you will continue to ignore those foolish rejections and punishing defeats and misfortunes that stagger but do not drop you, such is life, as they say, but you are not they, you are much more than the freelancing spouse-companion of a more advanced talent, you are a unique creation of god, you possess a vision that is your own, one with the potential to awe and inspire and by all means you intend to push ahead with that goal through all the clamor and confusion and mockery, the utter indifference that comes with your address in New York, and as you go on with that you must remember to strive to be happy, to seek harmony with the universe, and remember too to look both ways before crossing Houston Street.

(2016)