On September 11, 2006, the fifth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, I parked my car in a lot on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, threw a computer bag over my shoulder, and approached the east gate of the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center—the 3000 acre desert sprawl of surplus military aircraft and parts known in Southern Arizona as the Boneyard. A woman in uniform waved me over, checked my identification, and told me to wait. Five minutes later, I found myself riding shotgun in a government van while Terry—my civilian guide—steered us deeper into the compound. As we bounced through dust and washboards, fields of helicopters—black and half-hidden in uncut grass—blurred past on both sides.
The time was 10:30 am. Five years and just over two hours earlier, American Airlines Flight 11 was picking up speed on a runway at Logan International Airport. Soon, very soon, the wheels of the aircraft would leave the pavement and rise with the oppressive load of fuel and turbines and over-packed bags. Captain John Ogonowski would pull up the landing gear one last time before cocking his head ever so slightly in the cockpit of the 767 to watch his beloved Boston relax and unravel below. Less than half an hour later, Flight 11 and three others like it would be converted to missiles.
On the edge of the desert metropolis, armed with a hunch and a few unpromising clues, I was digging through the memorial calm of that morning for artifacts of a comparable conversion, the remnants of another small fleet of passenger planes transformed by genius and ego into weapons of mass destruction. Here though, brains and audacity had been dressed not in the tunics and beards we’ve learned to associate with imaginative killing in the 21st Century. These were no relics of Islamic Jihad, no mere suicide bombs. Their creators, even in the 1950s, were beyond such crudeness. Theirs’ was an intellectual variety of warmongering, the brainchild of chemists—some willing and others accidental—in crew cuts and lab coats bearing the seals of major American universities. The end result of their tinkering—dubbed Operation Ranch Hand—was a technically sweet, environmentally catastrophic, humanly tragic, and ultimately ineffective campaign of herbicidal warfare.
During the late sixties and early seventies—the peak years of the military’s defoliation craze—C-123 cargo planes skimmed the forest and farmland of Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. From wing-mounted sprayers, crews emptied tank after tank of herbicides known as the “rainbow agents” for the various colors of identifying stripes on barrels used to store the herbicides. Ranch Hand’s mission was to uncover North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong hideouts, disrupt the flow of enemy supplies by exposing trails under the triple canopy forest, kill off the tangles of vines and trees that turned American and South Vietnamese supply routes into ambush tunnels, and clear the perimeters of bases. Its unofficial motto: “Only you can prevent forests.”
All told, between the winged nozzles of Ranch Hand and the jeep mounts and squirt guns used to douse weeds encroaching on the safe zones behind razor wire, more than twenty million gallons of herbicides saturated Southeast Asia over a ten-year span. The most infamous, and by far the most extensively used of the rainbow agents was Agent Orange, a potent slurry of 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid. Unseen in the compound that sloshed behind orange stripes on the drums crewmen hoisted and sometimes spilled in the hulls of warplanes, lurked a stowaway named dioxin, a byproduct of the production process and among the most poisonous substances known to man. Agent Orange killed trees, but it also, or more specifically the dioxin it carried, killed and continues to kill and maim people—American grunts, Vietnamese civilians, and, perhaps most insidiously, the unborn children of both. It is truly, as the Vietnamese say, and as the title of Janet Gardner’s 2007 documentary proclaims The Last Ghost of War.
To sort out strings of cause and affect involving the massive tangle of corporate and government entities that comprise the American military-industrial-complex is to wade into an arena dominated by gray spaces and shadows of reasonable doubt. Though certain symptoms in U.S. veterans and their children have been officially acknowledged as linked to Agent Orange exposure, the listing process has been slow and less than thorough. Unreasonably high burdens of proof, studies rife with conflicts of interest, the lack of funding and access to samples needed for conclusive findings in a field of science where conclusive findings are already next-to-impossible to reach, a bizarre web of law that obscures liability, and a claims system that can take years to navigate have left veterans feeling understandably impotent and betrayed.
In their decades long struggle for justice, the only episode that Viet Nam Veterans can legitimately point to as a watershed occurred in 1984, with the $180,000,000 settlement of a class action filed by American servicemen against manufacturers of Agent Orange. Yet even then, the compensation fund was limited to the completely disabled or dead and accessible only to veterans and surviving family members who filed before 1994 (a subsequent Supreme Court decision would allow for certain exceptions). The agreement did not require Dow, Monsanto, or any of the other defendants to acknowledge fault, and even if one were to assume that every penny went to the 50,000 claims that were paid, the average one-time payment to each claimant would have been $3600. The actual average is estimated to have been as low as $1200.
When in 2000 a study conducted by its own scientists connected parental exposure to Agent Orange with a whole host of congenital deformities, the V.A. finally officially confirmed the role of dioxin in birth defects of the children of veterans—female veterans. It turned out to be little more than a public relations stunt. The American women—mostly nurses—who served in Viet Nam alongside their male counterparts number 10,000 out of a total of 2.6 million veterans—less than ½ of 1% of all Viet Nam Vets. Despite a slew of anecdotal evidence and several handfuls of independent research—American and international—contradicting the V.A.’s position, to this day, the only dioxin-related condition formally recognized by the federal government in the children of male veterans is spina bifida. Meanwhile, as veterans continue developing rare cancers, and rashes and neurological disorders flare up and disappear, the parade of defective children born to their girlfriends and wives keeps on flowing.
The Vietnamese were not able to leave when tours of duty were up, and the situation for soldiers and civilians alike is far worse. Throughout the country, in hospitals and rural clinics, children with cleft pallets and clubbed feet swing away afternoons in mesh hammocks and scoot over floors on hands under the patient eyes of nurses who live on practically nothing and aides who live on less. Cropland and fishing grounds have yet to recover from the wartime rain of dioxin. Entire landscapes are sterile. In the most heavily sprayed provinces, a forty-year plague of stillbirths and miscarriages has yet to subside. Impoverished parents struggle to care for fermenting newborns—sometimes so badly malformed they’ll live for a day, a week, a month full of retching and cramps, eye-sockets bulging and limbs shrinking in an absurd ballet of growth and corrosion. Their cries pile up like scratched albums turning too slowly beneath the corrugated tin of village roofs.
In the infancy of the new millennium, fresh legions of American veterans are returning, this time from theatres in Iraq and Afghanistan. They serve two, sometimes three tours of duty, participating in a new kind of guerilla warfare. When they come down with mysterious symptoms, they mull over nagging questions about the bromide vaccines, the pesticides, the depleted uranium, the rotten shells of nerve gas. They come home with the same Purple Hearts and are all too often treated to the same brush off from the VA and the military brass that their fathers suffered thirty years before.
As usual, those living in combat zones—this time appearing on CNN as flashes of sandals and hijabs, faceless rows of men in mosques, Arabs with AKs scowling from the backs of pick-ups—regardless of allegiance or creed, continue to suffer the most. Long after the soldiers have left, their homes will be fouled, their landscapes polluted with toxins and littered with unexploded ordinance. The matter of contemporary war consequence has possibly never been more pertinent or less honestly dealt with. But on that early fall day in Tucson, Bagdad and Kandahar were far from my mind. My mission was personal.
As the desert sun arced toward noon, I found the aircraft, seventeen in all. Like the litter of toys from a long-forgotten game, they’d been left to the elements, spread out in brown stubble on the far side of a chain link fence. They were still—thirty-five years after retirement—too contaminated with dioxin to approach. The Pushcart Prize winning essay spawned by that visit—“The Boneyard”—originally appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion Magazine and serves as the first chapter of the tentatively titled National Pastime: An All-American Memoir.
During my first semester of graduate school, on the recommendation of a friend, I checked out a battered copy of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s collection of autobiographical Vietnam War stories, from the public library in Logan, Utah. My father had served a combat tour in 1970 as an infantry Sergeant in Southwestern Viet Nam, and I was just beginning to explore the way his history had come to shape mine. The Things They Carried, my friend had said, would be a good place to start. A couple of nights later, after putting my son to bed and surfing the web for an hour, I crawled to the futon I’d been sleeping on since my wife moved out and pulled the O’Brien book from a stack on the hardwood floor. I drew back the hard black cover. The window fan was humming, and stream of September air leafed through the table of contents and copyright before I reached down to stop the fluttering pages. My left pinky landed just under the title of the opening story. My eyes fell on the first sentence: “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.” Six hours later, as the filter of pre-dawn was just beginning to lift and give form to the locust tree outside my bedroom window, I closed the book, flicked off the light switch, and fought the sun and the chatter of birds for an hour of sleep.
I am not the sort of person who normally stays up all night plowing through a book, but I could not put O’Brien down. Something was there, something in the bluntness of his language and the cool description of the mundane and the macabre, something sacred and profane, some unsavory and absolute truth in those images of Southeast Asia. I felt as though I were sitting in a room with my father while he told me stories I hadn’t realized I needed to hear. One line stuck with me for days: “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.” Even now, many moons later, those words hold weight. They catch in my head like a vivid dream, cause me to sit up straight, to look off toward the horizon in anticipation of some big truck carrying sacred cargo.
Before the legal-work for my parents’ divorce was filed with the Lee County Court, before documents were signed and possessions divvied up, in the summer of 1985, my parents loaded my younger brother Keith and me into the back of the green station wagon, and we drove up the Rock River to an Independence Day gathering for Vietnam Veterans and their kin at Lake LaDonna. Essentially a dredged pond with a couple of diving boards lashed to a dock, a waterslide that threatened to cave in and was barely slick or steep enough to carry a child down the chute to the narrow pool at the bottom, a concession stand, outdoor amphitheatre, and modest campground, the facilities were far from fancy, but so were our tastes. My father had a cooler packed with beer, my mom had a book, and Keith and I had allowance money. Once we cashed our five-dollar bills for coins, we were set.
On the first afternoon, as she trudged back from the bathroom, my mother encountered a middle-aged man in a faded Army shirt and jungle hat. Like my father, he told my mom, he had served as a grunt. And now he lived in a halfway house. It was the only safe place, he said, and would she like to hear a story?
One afternoon outside Hue in central Vietnam his squad was on patrol. The Vietnamese boy had been gap-toothed and shaking. He walked toward the Americans with a grenade taped to his hand. He couldn’t have been more than ten. The man watched with big, frightened eyes as the child’s fingers crept closer and closer to the pin. It was as if the boy had not quite made up his mind, as if he was still grappling, in his young brain, with the enormity of decision.
“Stop, you little fucker. Stop.” The soldier was screaming. But the boy merely hesitated, twitched with recognition, and kept moving forward. At last, when he could wait no more, trembling, sweat soaking through his fatigues in long, thin lines, already anticipating the frenzy of pain and guilt, the man opened up his M-16.
A raw stillness grew and draped itself over the afternoon, the soldiers, the thatched roofs of the nearby village, the thin gray rills of cooking fires. Wrapped up in a cloak of the damp and oily smells of the war, the man had knelt and watched blood spread across the boy’s forehead while the child lay down to die in a rut of the red clay road. Years later, as he spoke to my mother, he cried. A faint and almost rhythmic choking sound came from somewhere deep in his throat.
“I had no choice,” he said. “I had no choice.”
These kinds of stories were common in the campground, and so were the hauntings and tremors that had taken root in the dark spaces of isolation that so many of the veterans occupied. The gathering of these former soldiers, the purging of painful narratives, the sharing of a type of horror that can only be believed by those who have felt it up close, in the bowels, released a cathartic energy that dripped from the green armor of the oak leaves sheltering the tents and campers. Demons were named and shed. The wages war extracts from the spirit, the emotional burdens, were lessened by degrees, if only for a few days. Not so the physical.
Men, if they come back from war, often come back missing parts. Anyone who has witnessed a Veteran’s Day gathering has seen the limps, the formless pant legs, the stumps and eye patches. What was striking about this particular congregation of vets was not that men with severed limbs or men whose skin crawled with the hard, raised lines of scars outnumbered whole men; this was to be expected.
What shocked were the children. For they too were maimed. The sheer number who hobbled or were pushed in wheelchairs along the dirt paths—some with clubfeet, some with arms like flippers, shrunken legs, some with cerebral palsy—was astounding.
In the small working class town of Dixon, Illinois, many in my boyhood cadre—part of that group of notoriously directionless flannel shirts known as Generation X—were born to Viet Nam Veterans. Our lives, especially the early years, have been filtered through the sieve of America’s most complicated war. Its lingering shadows—the divorces, the flashbacks, the disquieting sensitivities of our fathers to television violence, the distance of men whose hearts sag with combustible loads of grief—were the temperamental chaperons of our youth. Beneath the small town smear of corner taps and Catholic churches, the aluminum clink of little league games and the buzz of waterside picnics under willows on the grassy bank of the Rock River, they ran through our families like wild horses crossing an open plain—easy to spot, but hard to contain, and still harder to break. While our pack of unkempt hooligans roamed the woodlots and schoolyards of Dixon, our families lived parallel lives. Our burdens were eerily similar.
In one conspicuous respect, however, my house, the Quick family home, was a bit of an anomaly. At 311 Park Street, the physical scars—war’s visual expression—were uncommonly active and bright, prone to rhetorical flourishes, great leaps of imagination, and eye-catching turns of phrase. In the fibers of the body, our plot began twisting, and our road forked away from the others. In the flesh, our story—mine above all—became singular. When my father came home, three years before my birth, his back and torso were covered with a rash diagnosed as chloracne—the first, and for many years the only symptom officially recognized by the V.A. as related to Agent Orange exposure. The rash lingered five full years.
But the damage did not end there. Along some unprotected route of my father’s molecular highway, the scab of the toxic wound had broken, and fluid leaked through permeable walls. In the process of reproduction, traces of the chemical were picked up by the efficient courier of semen and carried to the first of his offspring. As cells replicated and began to take human form in my mother’s womb, the uninvited traveler jotted strange notes on the expanding pages of my body in a language my DNA could not decipher.
When I emerged from my mom, my left hand was mangled and shrunken, my urethra—nearly sealed shut—opened on the underside of my penis rather than its tip, and half of my foreskin was missing. The medical terms for my congenital deformities are syndactyly and first-degree hypospadias. Like most newborn males in the maternity ward of the Morrison hospital, the second part of my anatomy to meet a scalpel, after the umbilical cord, was genital flesh. Unlike the others, I wasn’t circumcised. Instead, a little more than a year after my birth, a urologist scored open the hole under the head of my phallus so that I could pass urine without waking the house. In truth, it was a minor procedure, my first and only genital surgery, for the hypospadias was mild. The operations on my hand went on until I was six.
Not surprisingly, at a fairly young age, I learned that I was not quite the same as other people, that there was something different, something, by the time I reached the easily bruised years of adolescence, I’d come to see as grotesque. My response—contortion, a tendency toward concealment, the development of adaptive mechanisms—has spun both the fine details and the overall texture of my life in a web of cause and effect that I am only beginning to unearth. Though I’ve cleared dust from the silk as carefully as I can and tried to follow the design, my only tools are questions, no less porous or broad than the history they attempt to interrogate. Still, imprecise or not, they are all I have, the only shovels in the bed of my truck, the only devices I know how to use, the one place I can start.
How then has my father’s war—the physical facts and the emotional residue—shaped my own story? How has it shaped the stories of other children, both American and Vietnamese? The journey through those questions, the effort to clean out the wounds of a lifetime, to mend, with untrained hands, the intimate fractures, to pull free the hidden thorns, and to log a record of my labor, to add one small scrap to the wisdom to the collective, would prove to be the most arduous of my life. It would lead past broken men in the shadow of the Boneyard, over the edge of deep cracks in the crust of familial pathos, and drop me down long dormant fissures in my own interior ranges. It would squeezes me through dark and claustrophobic corridors and spit me out in damp fungus between the toes of caverns heaped with unrefined sewage from the past.
Eventually, it would sweep me across the ocean to the long emerald arms of Viet Nam where I’d follow the murmur of my father through the folds of a landscape rich with an old and familiar sorrow and sewn with the persisting germ of dioxin. While summer rain fell on rice paddies, I’d sink into the warm heart of a people who’ve welcomed a fortune much crueler than mine with laughter and a boundless capacity to forgive.
On June 5th, 2008, aided by the modest funds of a Milton O. Riepe Fellowship from the University of Arizona, I disembarked China Air 681 and began a five-week odyssey through the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. Traveling alone by motorbike and train, I retraced my father’s tour of duty, examined the legacy of the conflict known in Viet Nam as the American War, and compared scars with the collaterally damaged. I filled three handwritten journals and a digital voice recorder and took more than 1,000 photographs. Despite acting on reckless impulse far too often, I mostly steered clear of trouble on my way to building a narrative arc and discovering a second family before I flew home to begin piecing together the threads of National Pastime.
The Vietnam Conflict was unlike its predecessors in that no unifying sense of purpose ran through the troops—especially by the late Sixties, when the futility of the war was becoming increasingly clear. Many of the GIs were drafted, came from poor and minority households, and generally didn’t believe that they were fighting and dying for a better world. What’s more, as part of a well-intentioned but ill-conceived effort to provide GIs with fixed discharge dates, the Pentagon was piloting a policy of individual troop rotation. The results were weakened attachments among soldiers, who moved from company to company, and a deep sense of isolation that only persisted as each man returned by himself to the odd calm of civilian life. In the words of Frank McCarthy, veteran and plaintiff in the Agent Orange lawsuit of the early eighties: “The thing with us—we came back one at a time. We were snatched out of society, put into a war situation alone, snatched out alone, and brought back into a society that was apathetic to our needs.”
And then, they married and had children. While there are exceptions, the majority of veteran fathers do not speak freely of their time in Southeast Asia. There are no reenactments of Vietnam battles in city parks on Memorial Day. At VFW lodges, Vietnam Vets sit by themselves in corners, not entirely comfortable with the past and not entirely accepted, even by veterans of other wars. Their stories are not shared—at least verbally. Children of vets are left only with nuance and innuendo and the sneaking suspicion that much of the dissonance in our lives can be traced back to events that took place long ago in a far-off land.
In large part because of this unresolved—and in many cases, unspeakable—personal and societal trauma, the conflict in Southeast Asia has spawned thousands of books, including hundreds by actual combatants from all sides. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few mass-produced propaganda screeds, quality translations of Vietnamese war writing, especially that of authors from the conquered south or disillusioned northerners portraying less than ideal images of the peoples’ party, can be difficult to find. The Sorrow of War, a semi-autobiographical novel by Bao Ninh—veteran of the North Vietnamese 27th Youth Brigade—provides easily the most lyrical and honest portrait of the horrors of war and the betrayals of peace from the hand of a northern soldier. Phan Thanh Hao’s masterful 233 page long English translation, released by Pantheon in 1995, erases none of the flag-blind brutality or post-war despair of Kien—the novel’s veteran protagonist. In his even hand and refusal to make concessions to the party line, Bao Ninh is singular.
War literature from American GIs is far more available. Tim O’Brien’s brutally honest combat stories and essays are widely considered by critics to be among the best of their kind, just like those of Bao Ninh. It’s no accident that each man occupies a very similar stylistic and moral territory in his respective culture. Thobias Wolfe, Nathaniel Tripp, Larry Heinemann, Philip Caputo, and John Balaban are among other American veterans in the canon whose attempts to represent—through fiction or memoir—an intimate knowledge of the realities of combat in Viet Nam have achieved commercial or critical success.
Some of these men have returned and documented their spiritual passages through space and time. Two of the better known are Bruce Weigl and Larry Heinemann. Weigl—combat veteran and successful poet—comes back to adopt a young girl. Along the way, he pens The Circle of Hanh, published in 2000 by Grove Press. The memoir’s 208 pages chronicle a process that nearly breaks him but ultimately rewards he and his wife with a child who becomes the book’s namesake. Heinemann’s Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnam is just that—a trip with the emotional and sometimes belligerent narrator back to the paddies and dirt roads near Nui Ba Den, the Vietnamese name for the massive cone that looms above the town of Tay Ninh and its surroundings. The 256 page Doubleday publication appeared in 2005.
Still, these are writings of the first generation, words from the veteran himself. The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam by Tom Bissell and Falling Through the Earth: A Memoir by Danielle Trussoni are the only two books with subject matters and points-of-view that truly collide with those of National Pastime: An All-American Memoir. The children of Viet Nam Veterans, Bissell and Trussoni each examine the consequences of a father’s combat duty through the lens of a Midwestern American coming of age in the Eighties. What’s more, we’re practically neighbors. Trussoni chronicles a childhood in Onalaska, Wisconsin, a town of 15,000 barely four hours up the Mississippi River from Dixon—my own hometown of 15,000. Bissell’s journey begins a few hours drive and a ferry ride north of Trussoni in Escanaba, Michigan—another town of roughly 15,000—on the southern edge of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Like Dixon, Onalaska and Escanaba are mostly white and working class. But despite those parallel beginnings, our stories and our books take very different shapes.
Falling Through the Earth was published by Henry Holt and Co. in 2006. Sadly, over the course of its 256 pages, Danielle Trussoni never actually makes it all the way to Viet Nam—at least psychically. While one must acknowledge the unique difficulties faced by a Western woman traveling alone in Southeast Asia, the lack of any real attempt by Trussoni to understand the Saigonese or to engage in authentic conversation are disappointing, and even her most soaring prose cannot cover the dearth of authorial curiosity. She essentially spends three days being harassed by a thief in District One of Sai Gon. On the second of those days, she joins a party of Western tourists on a minibus to the Cu Chi Tunnels. That evening, once the cloistered group has been deposited back to Sai Gon hotels, Trussoni shares tropical drinks—in her own words, on “a five-star rooftop”—with an American couple she’s met on the trip. The next morning, after a brief confrontation with her stalker, she books another minibus, this time for Nha Trang, a beachside resort town on the South China Sea. And that’s it. The Vietnamese narrative reads more like appendix than journey. The only compelling threads of Falling Through the Earth—and the bulk of its words—are set in Wisconsin.
The 432 pages of The Father of all Things, published by Pantheon in 2007, come closer in both form and content to resembling National Pastime. Tom Bissell spends far more time in Viet Nam than Trussoni. Accordingly, Bissell grants his trip narrative and its related historical strands more space to develop. Anecdotes and associations have the legroom to relax and stretch out into meaningful stories. The prose feels less rushed. Long swaths of manicured dialogue reveal nuance in the personalities of central characters. Still, in the end Bissell’s experience has little in common with the solitary and unpredictable motorbike rambles and long distance train rides that form the core of National Pastime.
Though exponentially longer than Trussoni’s, the account of Bissell’s time in Viet Nam covers less than two full weeks. A driver and an English-speaking guide accompany his every step, managing all the details of his itinerary. More importantly, Bissell brings along an American companion—John, his ex-marine father. Exhibiting an arrogant naivety about the moral ambiguities of combat, the younger Bissell tries like hell to bait his veteran dad into tearful admissions of guilt. The elder is a thoroughly perceptive and stubborn curmudgeon who sniffs out his son’s antics and usually has none of them. Sometimes confrontational, other times incredibly poignant, their banter and the story of the tenderness that slips though its cracks into the space between father and son on a landscape where the former “had been made and unmade, killed and resurrected” shape the emotional core of The Father of all Things. The story unfolds beautifully, and it is nothing at all like mine.
I fly into Tan Son Nhut Airport alone. Nearly six weeks later, I fly out alone. From my first day in country to my last, other than a sharing a few meals with Thomas Hutchings—a former Air Force intelligence agent—I avoid white flesh and tourist traps as much as possible. The happy gangs of Australian students stomping through the backpacker districts repulse me. I ask no one to help with my plans, hire no translator, and pay for no guide. I refuse to deal with the minibus operators and their sweaty Western clientele and give over any control of my time, my whims, my freedom to make last minute turns down empty dirt roads or to stop for coffee whenever I like. With no experience and one full hand to grip the bars, I rent a Honda, almost run down some locals, receive a quick lesson from the owner, and learn to pay closer attention to the road and the throttle. A free man on wheels, I give myself entirely to the Vietnamese landscape and the human beings who gather its fruit and bear its sorrows.
For the most part, neither lets me down. Only two encounters frighten me in any serious way. On my second day in Sai Gon, a couple of incredibly shortsighted choices made on jet lag and Tiger Beer culminate in an hourly room of a less than legitimate hotel. While one woman works my naked back with slaps that seem unusually loud, another crawls out of a corner armoire and creeps toward the bag that holds my passport, bank card, camera, and digital recorder—every important thing I own. They are trying to roll me, the man at the front desk is surely in on the act, and I have no clue how to get back to my room at the Hotel Betty.
The second run in takes place on the edge of a Montagnard village forty kilometers west of Dong Ha near what I expect to be the last leg of a motorbike loop through the Demilitarized Zone. Night settles on cobblestone along the Quang Tri River, when the road cuts through a small field where three young men kill time. As I pass them, a stone whacks the spokes of my front wheel. I turn my head to see a pair of adolescent eyes flaming with hate and addiction and an arm reach into the grass for another rock. I pop the clutch and gun the Yamaha, praying for the bike to respond. It does, and the stone pings away and lands harmlessly in the sand, the immediate threat gone. Just east of Ba Long, ten kilometers from its promised connection with Highway One at Quang Tri, so is the road. I turn around, speed into Ba Long, and flag down a teenager in front of the only sign of modern commerce in the hamlet—an open room where a few children pound away on the keys of old computers. As he studies my map, he shakes his head, motions for my pen, and marks Xs all over my planned route. Smiling, he points me back the way I’ve come, back toward the gang in the field and the rutted path shared by dogs and ducks and goats and laughing children riding water buffalo in the dark.
Andrew Pham understands how those lightless hours in the Central Highlands might unfold. Twenty years after his Saigonese family’s harrowing boat escape, he bicycles the length of his native land in a meditation on loss as he attempts to come to terms with his Viet Kieu—literally translated as “Vietnamese sojourner”—identity and let go of a long-festering shame over his sister’s suicide. In 1999, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux published Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Journey Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, the memoir of Pham’s less than triumphant homecoming. Over 352 pages devoid of gloss or melodrama, Pham welcomes us into the most personal quarters of a spiritual journey that is part thrill, part disappointment, and part danger. From the relatives who demand handouts as a kind of a penance for the imagined affluence of Pham’s American lifestyle to the often brutal and always inept communist regime to his own heavy bag of self-loathing, Pham spares no one or nothing the microscope of unfiltered attention. His refusal to turn from uncomfortable truth works in tandem with the smooth muscularity of his prose to help Catfish and Mandala achieve the rare combination of commercial and critical success reserved for truly transcendent literature.
Andrew Pham and I are both single men in our early thirties traveling alone on two wheels. Both our stories are as much about coming of age as coming to terms with a fractured past, and neither makes any concession to modesty or political correctness in its search for emotional truth. Each of our narrative voices is that of a deeply flawed man who makes no effort to mask his failures or addictions—past or present—and both are raw and intense and lyrical. What’s more, our bodies are both tied to the chemical formulas of the landscape.
In the end though, Pham is a native and I am not. His language may be rusty, but his muscles and neurotransmitters still hold memories of a tonal youth that carry his tongue into places and people I cannot enter. On a bike with no engine, the challenges he faces are different—sometimes subtly and other times starkly so. As Catfish and Mandala reveals, brushing off the demands of an unintelligible stranger is a far different thing than telling an aunt to get lost. As to which terrain is less hospitable—the strained history of the exile or the foreigner’s functional deafness and illiteracy—that will be for readers to decide.
One part travelogue, one part archeology of family and self, one part cultural and environmental critique, National Pastime: An All-American Memoir takes a good, hard look at what it means to be the crippled, firstborn son of a Viet Nam Veteran covering the territory his father bled through four decades before. It documents the occasionally ugly, occasionally sublime odyssey into the layers of a wounded and beautiful country and a wounded and beautiful life.
As I spin past rubber trees and rice paddies to gather wet clay from the ground where my father’s fire base once stood, sip coffee with old men on the ripe and frenzied streets of Ha Noi, play with disabled children on the tile floor of the Tay Ninh Peace Village, and sit in silence among bullet holes and ghosts atop the one un-restored gate of the Hue Citadel, deciding whether or not to pocket a few broken pieces of the old imperial capital, I meditate on the points in space and time that seem to carry the highest concentration of scar tissue—in myself, my father, and our nation’s engagement with chemical weapons. Even when my vision fails me, when the meditation becomes muddy, my posture impossible to hold, I have to believe I’m moving toward epiphany, that place of letting go and healing, the place where meaning emerges from chaos. There are gaps, to be sure, but I trust the dots, the images, the exposed strata, will produce, at the very least, a crude pattern, an outline of dissolving stitches, and create some measure of clarity, of wholeness—a brief dream of catharsis for reader and author alike