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Diary of a return to Vietnam

12/20/87 p.m. Dallas. Shortly after takeoff, flight attendant Leslie Clark, wife of a Vietnam vet, approaches me. She says her husband served with the 25th Infantry Division. She thanks me for going back - says she wishes her husband would too - she feels it would help him. Later, the airplane captain seeks me out. He's a pilot who flew jets out of Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon in '67-68. He says returning is ``brave.'' Says he'd like to go back, but never will. When I deplane in Los Angeles, both the pilot and Leslie are waiting for me at the door. ``Thanks for going back and for understanding,'' they say. Both are misty-eyed. I'm amazed. The long journey is truly under way at last.

12/28/87 a.m. Seoul. I'm at the window of my downtown hotel. It's 3:06 and I can't sleep.... I think I'm frightened, not for my safety, but for something more central, more immediate. I guess I'm afraid of not what I'll learn additionally about Vietnam, but what I might learn anew about myself.

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12/30/87 a.m. Bangkok. In just a few hours, I'll be returning to Vietnam. It still doesn't seem real. My mind is seething with images, memories, impressions, - so that even though I need to, I cannot sleep, not this night. My apprehension is so powerful, I wonder if it is visible to others....

Even after seeing combat and becoming acquainted with the real horrors of war, I still wasn't fully aware of the immorality of my own participation in it. That knowledge has come to me more slowly over many years. It is not an awareness that leads to personal tranquillity, but is, in fact, a realization that unsettles me profoundly in a part of my heart where I rarely even allow myself to tread.

So terrible are these memories and truths that I've never allowed them to come fully to the surface. I fear I will finally be forced to confront them head-on before this day is over.

I am not ready. I want to call it off. I want to turn back.

12/30/87 p.m. Yen Phu. Sitting on my bed in Room 235 of the Thang Loi (Victory) Hotel, watching the sun sink slowly over Ho Tay Lake, I watch the lights begin to wink on across the water in a small fishing village....

I'm glad to have a private room, for I cannot imagine being forced to share my thoughts and feelings this evening with anyone. 1/9/88 a.m. Da Nang. The waves on China Beach advance and retreat the way wartime memories ebb and eddy around the obstructions of my daily routine back home, repeating over and over the gentle whisper of Ho Chi Minh. ``The wheel of life turns without pause .... Men and animals rise up reborn.''

The waves on China Beach advance and retreat, and I kneel upon the sand and weep the grief I've hoarded for 20 years. 1/10/88 a.m. Highway 1. To get a better feel for the character of Vietnam, I ought to bicycle - or better yet, walk - the length of this road. But that would be difficult, mostly because many Vietnamese have never seen an American. They are fascinated. Curious. Even a bit frightened - not of me or my past connections - but of my strangeness. My skin color. My height. My beard. My clothes.

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To stop in any small town, at any time, is to precipitate a near-riot. In minutes, and solely by word of mouth, the news is passed. People of all ages come from all over to look at me, to touch me. It's like being an alien. Everyone wants to see me, to learn about me, but no one knows who I am or what I'm doing in their village.

The kids approach first, shyly but inquisitively. It doesn't take long to make friends with them. I pass out a handful of ``superballs'' which I have brought along just for this purpose, and soon the balls are bouncing wildly all over the highway. Next come the teen-agers, bolder, and even more curious. Shortly thereafter come the grandmothers, who can be the sweetest and the most fun. Sometimes they pinch me hard just to see if I'm real (I learn to yelp in pain immediately and loud; they like that).

The middle-aged men usually hang way back. Many of them, of course, are former guerrillas, and thus are understandably reluctant to approach. Some feign indifference. But others edge closer, too interested in an old enemy (whom most never met face to face) to resist. Grandfathers are usually the last to arrive but are often the most friendly.

The old men are talkative, and are eager to discuss farming and fishing. Do you grow rice in America? How do you catch fish? I show them a nearly worn-out photo of my son, which is quickly passed from hand to hand. His blond hair and open smile draw ``oh's'' and ``ah's'' from the crowd, and an aggressive matchmaker offers me a local girl as a potential wife for Leroy....

But a middle-aged woman on the outside fringe of the crowd reminds me sharply of a former reality by shouting an all too familiar phrase, ``Go home GI, go home!'' 1/10/88 p.m. Nha Trang. I find it increasingly difficult to sleep on this trip....

I'm having formless dreams, impressions without plot, images without recognition. Things I've seen. Pictures I've taken. All the intense experiences in the last couple of weeks piled on top of that closely hoarded collection of seething memories from the war. My brain and heart are working overtime - overloaded with complicity and good intentions.

I can't keep up with the incoming flood of information. My input is days, weeks, months ahead of my output. But I want more data. I'm hungry for it. I'm dying of thirst for Vietnam. I cannot slake that need.

I need faces and names. I never got to learn who these people were last time. I spent a whole year here before, but I don't remember a single Vietnamese person I knew.

So far I have the names and addresses and photos of 81 people whose hands I've shaken, whose families I've met, whose meals I've eaten, whose kids I've held.

I want to meet these folks. To hold them. Touch them. Smell their life and sweat. I want to know they are alive, especially the children. I need to be reassured that we didn't kill or poison them all. Or destroy their individuality or their collective spirit.

I wallow in the happiness of the children, and am buoyed by their smiles and laughter and sense of life and purpose. A sleeping baby. A pregnant woman. A nursing mother. A young couple holding hands and making ``moon eyes.'' It feels very good to know that Vietnam lives! 1/18/88 p.m. Cu Chi. Sitting on the porch of Nguyen Van Sen's farmhouse, I can see the site where I was stationed 20 years ago. Sen raises sugar cane, wheat, and rice in fields reclaimed from the sprawling 25th Infantry Division base camp.

For a while, I just wander about the area, lost in thought. I am not unhappy, but reflective. My capacity for remorse has been exhausted. I'm ready, eager, to start thinking ahead. About what I might do in the future regarding Vietnam.

What I'd believed was a bottomless well of grief has dried up. I'm too full now of new names and faces and places and experiences and ideas to have room or time for that old sorrow. Maybe my hosts understood that - expected that - and have arranged the entire visit to conclude this way. On a hopeful note. Or perhaps this reconciliation has been my own personal agenda all along. 1/22/88 p.m. Honolulu. Coming through Customs, the agent (a vet) is astonished to see ``Vietnam'' visas stamped in my passport.

``You went back?'' he asks. ``Really?'' He's now only going through the motions of examining my bags.

``You went back voluntarily? I hated it. Hated it.''

He pauses, lost in thought, then turns up the Viet Cong pith helmet, complete with red star, that I'd traded my Bass Pro Shop hat for. The inspector is stunned.

``Where'd you get this?'' he asks, almost in a whisper. I tell him.

``I hated Vietnam,'' he repeats. ``Hated it.'' He's lost all interest in my luggage now. He looks at me, but doesn't even see me. I wait. Finally, the question comes, hesitatingly. ``What's it like, now?''

He asks: Have I been to Da Nang? Did I see the air base? What's the city like? How are the people? Do they hate us? I tell him that most do not.

He's silent for a moment, then says, ``If I were them, I would.''

Finally, the inspector passes me on through, but as I leave, he calls me back, takes me aside, and asks, ``Do you think I could go back sometime?'' 2/7/88 p.m. Springfield, Missouri. I've been back for a couple of weeks now, but I'm still having a difficult time readjusting. I'm still back on that journey that, in some basic and profound way, has altered forever who I am.

I know I wasn't ready to come back yet. Part of me remained in Vietnam in 1968, and another (larger) piece of me stayed this time. I've got to go back, and soon.

I've been too busy since I returned to examine whether I've gained any valuable perspective. But last night for the first time ever, I dreamed about Vietnam at peace.

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