Nothing really goes smoothly in Vietnam, but somehow everything flows just right. Take the traffic. If you want to cross the street without getting hit, you just charge forward and go. The stream of mopeds carrying everything from water bottles to sewer pipes to pig carcasses will effortlessly maneuver its way around you.
Our first three visits to the places where our fathers died haven’t gone smoothly, but the flow has certainly been just right. Ron Reyes’s work on our coordinates and late night research by people like Jeanette Chevrony have given each of us the x that marks our spot. Getting to that x isn’t easy, though, even if the map is totally accurate and up-to-date. First you have to visit the area officials and compare information. Then you have to persuade the bus driver that you do actually know where you’re going, even though you’ve never been there before. And in the end, the road may be too rough for a big bus. That’s when you just go with the flow.
Margaret’s was our first site visit. We pulled up to a small village and realized we still needed to go about six miles down an unpaved road to reach the place where her dad’s plane went down. There was no way the bus was going to make it. It was getting darker by the minute, and we were getting desperate. As we talked about hiring a couple of scooters, a van pulled up. It was big enough for our group and the driver said he’d take us. We crammed in and took off. Six miles later we pulled up next to a steep hill and Ron jumped out to confirm the location. This was it. Margaret performed a beautiful service with letters and prayers. She lit incense and paper money and watched it burn. It was pitch black by then and we needed to head back. As we started down the road, our van was flagged down by a local official. He was pissed off that we hadn’t checked in with him prior to our visit. He asked for our official papers, but we had left everything in the bus, so he escorted us to the police station to talk with the higher ranking officials. We waited in the bus while our guide talked to all the officials, including the area vice president who had been summoned to check us out. After two hours of waiting, they asked me to join them for tea. They wanted us to know that our detention had nothing to do with the war. We just hadn’t followed protocol. They inspected our passports and finally let us go.
Ron’s site visit didn’t have the same official drama, although he did have to argue with the bus driver about where to go. He’d been studying Topo maps and knew the area by heart, so once we were on the right road, finding the dirt path leading to the site was pretty easy. We walked to a beautiful valley and looked on the hill where Ron’s dad was killed and some of the fiercest battles were fought during the Tet Offensive. It was impossible to imagine war happening here. The land was so lush and gorgeous, and the birds were singing. Ron knelt and laid out pictures and coins and other momentos on the ground. He left a beer and drank another in his father’s honor. Then he pulled out a few containers from his pocket. One was filled with soil from his father’s childhood home, another with soil from the high school where Ron’s parents met. He poured it all onto the ground saying he wanted to bring a bit of home to this place. He paid tribute to his parents by playing their favorite tune: James and Bobby Purify’s I’m Your Puppet. It sounded loud and true throughout the valley. We couldn’t help but tap our feet and smile just a bit.
Patty’s site visit took us halfway around Danang. She’d only just received updated information from Jeanette the night before, so we knew we were headed in the right direction, but Ron had to correct the driver again and point him to the right area. We parked and headed up a dirt road, past newly built houses and a large cemetery. As we walked further we started to see playing cards strewn along the path. I picked one up and turned it over. It was the Jack of Hearts. Patty’s dad’s name was Jack. We gave her the card at the top of the hill and she kept it close during her ceremony. Patty played some music her dad loved, then invited us to sing Amazing Grace with her. From that first note, the rest of us fell silent. Patty’s voice was lovely by itself, and echoed over the cemetery and out towards China Beach.
It is an honor to be with these sons and daughters as they pay tributes to their fathers.