|South Vietnamese Refugees On US Ship April 1975 US Navy photo|
In the beginning was the word, and the word was war, delivered in the sonorous voice of Walter Cronkite on the nightly news. Forbidden to watch, just as Mom made us put our heads down in the car when we passed a highway accident lest we catch a view of carnage, I played outside in the summer evenings. A bevy of dolls and stuffed animals watched with glassine eyes as I launched tennis balls with my bazooka, never wavering as my own eyes followed the thwup thwup thwup of Hueys overhead. One day I too would sit casually with my feet dangling above a chopper's skids; at least I believed so, never mind the fact that I was a girl and thus would not be allowed to enter the hallowed gates of righteous bloodshed.
John from the house on the corner went away, and the adults talked desultorily on the back porch among tinkling ice cubes and chirring insects as I listened through the bathroom window and scrubbed a week's worth of dirt from my skin. I heard things like Hong Trong and gook which sounded like what was currently floating in the tub and whispers which mingled with the hot breeze but were caught by the window screens before they reached my ears.
School started, and I was informed that I mustn't stand at the bus stop alone; parting the new avocado colored drapes, I informed Mom that, yes, there was someone at the bus stop. Lying down.
"George," said my Mom in that tense subdued tone reserved for Trouble, "go and see what or who is over there on the lawn, please."
And so Dad struck out across the street as I was hustled into the kitchen, lest I witness anything that would scar my tender mind. He was back in a few minutes, laconically replying to Mom's query, "just John. I took him in the house" and resuming his morning ritual of cornflakes and coffee. In that place and time kids didn't respond to dark parental looks with pestering questions, and so I mulled things over in my own mind on the way to school. John was home; perhaps he'd been wounded in the rice paddies, or saved a buddy by carrying him on his shoulders through the jungle and was so exhausted by his heroic homecoming that he'd collapsed on the front lawn. Or maybe he'd been in the field so long that he couldn't sleep under a roof any more, like a modern Mowgli. Then again, he could have just gone out with his buddies and come home dead drunk.
The truth lies somewhere in between, although no one seems to remember that day but me. The few times that I saw John, I looked him over for some sign, a message, but there was nothing; he was just a big kid, growing his hair long, tearing around on his motorcycle and setting off M-80s in the street on holidays. Eventually he moved away, and I never gave him another thought until now.
I grew old enough to warm food in the oven by myself, until my fingers plunged through the soft crust of a doughnut and came away covered with burning jelly that wouldn't readily come off.
"It's like napalm," murmured Dad, soaking the offended digits in a bowl of ice water, then explaining what he meant. I closed my eyes that night and tried to imagine the throbbing, blistered, dime-sized burn multiplied one thousand times.
In April 1975 I turned 12 and stood unsheltered and riveted in front of the RCA screen as compounds and streets burned, hordes of South Vietnamese crowded flight decks and scores of noble Hueys were consigned to a watery grave far from home. Saigon fell or was liberated, not the first time that opposites were also the same thing in the unruly world of adults. I was a Girl Scout by then, honoring God and country by collecting badges for cooking, knot tying and memorizing the phonetic alphabet from Alpha to Zulu, as well as learning to overcome my fear of Daddy Long Leg spiders so I could put them in the detested Pam's sleeping bag.
One day the call came; thousands of refugees, many of them children, were being housed on the grounds of nearby Fort Indiantown Gap, and our services were desperately required to collect toys, clothing and personal hygiene items for them. Looking back, there might have been a touch of humanitarian hysteria from our leaders concerning the project; we were a troop of 20 girls, and some 30,000 Vietnamese and Cambodians were cycling through those barracks.
We arrived in our self-described puke green uniforms decorated with pins and merit badges, bearing our boxes of toys, coats, toothpaste and tampons. We sang songs including one about a laughing kookaburra which was distinctly ridiculous; and those people, strangers with foreign chatter and even more foreign smells sang an equally dissonant song in return. We smiled for the newspaper photographer, vaguely uncomfortable yet aware of our temporary importance; our "guests" did not smile, aware of their temporary safety. Smiling is not a universally understood language; fear is. The children were not delighted, but rather silent and rigid ; two boys fought silently and grimly in a corner over a roll of forgotten Lifesavers in a cast-off coat pocket. I wondered if we should have bought them a Coke, so that we could all hold hands and teach the world to sing.
We went back home, and the refugees were parceled out among far-flung American communities and local towns. Many, maybe even most, went on to sink roots, raise families, start businesses, and weave themselves into the fabric of their new country. I wore bell-bottomed jeans, a mood ring, and an ecology pin while acing World Cultures class and flunking Trigonometry. I smoked pot and decorated my room with chains of metal pull tabs and lush green plants that I peered through, in my stupor, imagining flying at treetop level over the jungle.
In the end was the word, and the word was peace with honor, delivered in the sonorous voice of Richard M. Nixon on the nightly news.
But words are lubricious things. Honor and truth are sometimes concealed within reality.
Sort of like the jelly in a doughnut.
One of the iconic 70s Coke commercials: I'd Like To Teach the World To Sing
Word count: 959
Most of my A to Z offerings will be much shorter, but I really wanted to keep this story whole.