Vietnam: Waters of Death, Rivers of Time
Vietnam is defined by its rivers and waterways, the way Western Colorado is defined by its towering, red spires of sandstone, pinion forests, and bluffs of ancient volcanic ash. At just 3.5% of the land area of the United States, Vietnam has over 17, 000 km. of navigable waterways. The United States, including Alaska, has some 41,000 km. of rivers. Vietnam is a country of water and jungles, and its entire eastern border abuts the South China Sea. The waters of Vietnam have cut paths into my life. And, though a half a world away, have betimes enfolded me in their inky depths.
My oldest son had a friend who was at one time his sweetheart in high school, Sam (Samantha) Taylor. She graduated from high school with my son in 2006 and then from CU in Boulder last Spring. She had a degree in physics and was teaching English in China. Sam was killed February 17th, 2011 when the tour boat she was on suddenly sank in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, which is north in the Gulf of Tonkin. Eleven others, including another American girl, were killed along with Sam, in what is reported to be the worst accident involving a tour boat since Vietnam was opened to foreign tourists 25 years ago. There were 15 survivors including Sam’s boyfriend.
Sam was 22 and had landed a job teaching English in China. She was on a tour of Vietnam with her boyfriend when their boat appears to have capsized during the night. What prevented Sam from escaping the boat as it sank is not clear. Why wasn’t she able to surface with the other survivors? Were the doors to their cabins closed and the pressure of the waters rushing in too great for them to be opened? Was she sleeping soundly and passed without even knowing her life was ending? I am a parent, and these are questions that a parent will ask as they try to process the news that a young person has died, even if that young person is the former sweetheart of an eldest son.
Of their daughter, Sam’s parents said, “Samantha was every parent’s dream. She was such a sweet child. She was God’s gift. And unfortunately He only gave us that gift for a short while.” I didn’t know Sam or her parents beyond a casual acquaintance, but I shuttled my son many times to her house and she was always present among the group of friends that accompanied him through his high school years. She was a special girl in his life, and I ache for my son and for Sam’s parents and siblings. Her death is unfathomable, not unlike the murky waters of Ha Long Bay.
Vietnam’s Dam Doi river is broad and dark and home to the Ngoc Hein bird colony, one of the largest protected bird sanctuaries in Vietnam. It has thriving populations of waterbirds living within its thick mangrove forests. It is a place of reemerging life. Its waters, once bloody and perilous, soaked suddenly back into my consciousness on January 30, 2011.
I received an oddish call from my oldest living brother midweek. He told me that a man who had served with my eldest brother, Don, on the USS Towers from 1968 to 1970 called and wanted to meet the family in Moab to visit Don’s grave. The USS Towers was a destroyer during the Vietnam War, and my brother Don was a Radarman 3rd Class on that ship until he was transferred to Vietnam in 1970. The man who made the call was Peter Dekker. His home is in New Hampshire and he and a friend were taking a ski trip to Utah. Peter wanted to make the 3 1/2 hour trip from Salt Lake City to Moab to visit the grave of his lost friend. For Peter it would be a pilgrimage.
We met at my brother’s home on Sunday, January 30, 2011. Peter arrived around 10:30 A.M. and we visited for a time. When Peter entered the house his eyes immediately filled with tears and his first words were, “I’ve been needing to do this for 41 years. This is something I should have done 41 years ago.” Peter is a man in his early sixties, stout but fit with a healthy tan, a full head of salt and pepper hair pulled into a Jeffersonian pony tail, and a elegant goatee. He spoke with great emotion, recalling his years on the USS Towers with my brother, Don. He spoke of Don’s intellect, and of his sometimes impetuous personality. They were both radarmen, working in closed quarters, and executing tasks which required focus and sensitivity. Don once spoke of the “selective hearing” needed to be a radarman, the ability to discern the slightest variation in tone or intensity of the myriad blips and pings coming from the radar screens. They seem to have been very close during those years on the Towers. The most difficult memory for Peter was when Don opted to be transferred off the ship to the mainland where he would serve on a Swiftboat. Peter intimated that the officer directly over them disliked Don and that the friction between them had become intolerable. Don, perhaps in a moment of frustration or anger, opted to go to Vietnam. This was the irreconcilable moment for Peter Dekker. He had stayed on the Towers, served out his term, gone home to his wife and made a successful and happy life for himself as a horticultural designer in New Hampshire. Don transferred off the Towers, took up the machine gun on a Swiftboat patrolling the Dam Doi river, and returned home to Utah at the age of 22, in a casket.
The man in the white suit was tall and dignified and walked slowly but with great precision through the front door of our house. The gold buttons on his jacket were so pretty. I knew he was someone important. When he removed the cap from his head, Mom threw both hands around her mouth to stifle a scream and she doubled over at the waist. My dad went to her and she buried her face in his shoulder. I didn’t hear any words from the man in the white suit and I didn’t understand why mom was crying. “What happened?” Everyone in the room, my brothers, my sister, a cousin, and some neighbors, must not have heard me because no one answered. “Why is mom crying?” I persisted. One of my brothers, I don’t remember which one, choked, “Don’s been killed. Don’s dead.”
Days earlier, on May 16, 1970, Don had been at his machine gun which sat atop a Swiftboat on the Dam Doi river in Vietnam. His Swiftboat had been part of a three-boat troop invasion of the Dam Doi. The boats came under enemy rocket fire from the banks of the river and the lead boat directly in front of them took a direct hit which disabled it. At that moment Don reacted and began firing at the enemy positions along the riverbanks. He was subsequently hit, the shrapnel penetrating his chest and mortally wounding him. Don was pronounced dead at the Third Surgical Hospital in Binh Thuy, South Vietnam, the following day. In exchange for his blood and his young life, Don was awarded the Bronze Star for Meritorious service, The Purple Heart, the Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal from the United States Navy.
The sky was clear with a few fast flowing clouds, a brisk breeze chilled us and the air felt surprisingly clammy for the Utah desert. The LaSal mountains, which are a resplendent backdrop for the Sunset Memorial cemetery, were icy blue, splattered with fields of the whitest snow. Peter walked hesitantly to Don’s gravestone. No words. Don is buried next to my parents, and both stone markers are of gray granite and stark simplicity. I walked up to Peter, my emotions escaping a weak attempt at poise, and I put my arm around him. We spoke about healing and passing years, and my two oldest living brothers shared their memories of Don.
Peter did not know that Don’s name now graces the largest Bachelor’s Enlisted Quarters on the San Diego Naval Base, Snyder Hall. He was pleased to learn that Don had been chosen out of a hundred Vietnam-era Naval heroes to receive this honor. His sacrifice had been memorialized, his name given, on what would have been his 41st birthday in 1989, to a massive concrete and steel structure that houses thousands of young sailors. This was a happy revelation to Peter, and it perhaps, began to assuage the unspoken sense of culpability that seemed to be the impetus for Peter’s pilgrimage. We stood in the cemetery for a while and let the tears and time run their courses, until the wind and wet air began to bite our exposed skin.
I have not heard from Peter since that day. He strikes me as a sound, unassuming man, grateful for the good life he has made for himself. Somehow those moments with Peter brought clarity to the benighted picture of the Vietnam War. There will be no satisfying answers for the national and political questions about that war, but some things are clear; the blood of those who gave their lives is sacred, friendships never die, memories soften and sweeten with time, and the healing and reconciliation of things mortal and eternal will not be fully realized in this life.
The young should never die. A parent should never have to bury their child. These are aphorisms that reach back to our first human parents and their hearts that broke with the harsh demands of a fallen and mortal state. There is little mercy in nature and the conditions of mortality are pitiless. The young die, parents bury their children, and it is a swift boat that takes us down the river of our life time. There is little comfort to be had for those who have said goodbye too soon to their darling youth. Time doesn’t heal, it only dulls the memories of pain and loss. The only mortal comfort lies with our faith in The Living Savior, Jesus Christ, and the promise that He made to us; a promise big enough to reach through the past eons of human history and into eternity. And it is this; that when we step off the boat into the realm beyond this brief earth life, there will be a landing party to greet us. And the children who left our grasps suddenly and unexpectedly will be there to secure our step as we disembark and enter into God’s eternal home.
By Marjorie Haun 2/27/11
teacher degree online…
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