Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Viet Nam

Viet Nam: Some Loose Associations and Lots of Photos

Viet Nam was one of the places I never expected to visit.  I was at Penn State when things got real ugly resulting in the killings at Kent State, and at Temple Medical when the war ended.  Saigon.  Mekong Delta.  Words that had a chilling effect on a draft-age man.  As noted in an earlier post, the first draft lottery was televised live in either late November or early December 1969.  Chris, Paul and I had very high draft numbers.  Al didn’t.  We were sophomores at the University then.  Things began to change very quickly after Kent State in the spring of 1970. 

Some high school classmates and the siblings of others died in Viet Nam.  Their names are on the memorial in front of where Plymouth High School once stood.  It is sobering to see them.  We sat at the same desks and groused about the same teachers in school.  And then they died.  I didn’t. 

Two years ago as I write this, 20 August 2011 tertianship was officially over.  The three American tertians went to the airport together that Saturday morning.  The other two got on planes for the U.S.  I went to Saigon.  The memories of that visit continue to haunt me.  It was surreal to be there but not necessarily in a negative sense.   John Ngoc The, SJ, a tertian classmate, entered the Society in Germany.  Given that he was in the neighborhood, he arrived in Saigon a few days after I did to visit his siblings.  On 24 August he picked me up along with a Sister of St. Paul of Chartres and a driver.  A few hours later we arrived in the Mekong Delta where we spent three days at the motherhouse of the Sisters.  A trip on a boat up the canals feeding into the Mekong River blew me away.  I stood on the roof of the boot the entire time with the camera.  Each half day Sister Cecile had another adventure planned.  One morning John and I had tea with a high-ranking priest. He described the difficulty of dealing with a government that is hostile to religion as a high wire walk requiring a delicate balance.  The U.S. hasn’t reached that point of quashed religious freedom . . . yet. 

We visited families, churches, historic sites, beaches.  By the time we got back to Saigon I was almost paralyzed with fatigue and so delayed going to the scholasticate for one day.  

The reactions of the people on the streets of Saigon or in the areas we visited with the sisters were mixed.  Some stared.  Others offered massages, rides on motorcycles (more on that in a moment) or invitations to the War Museum.  I kindly declined all offers. 

I do not like riding motorcycles.  Never did and, after learning as much I have about the neuropsychiatry of head injury, I like them even less.  However, it was the only way to get around.  John drives a motorcycle very well but the 45 minutes on the back of one with him heading to the scholasticate were among the most memorable in Viet Nam.  I learned the meaning of a perfect act of contrition every time we leaned into a traffic circle that seemed to illustrate Brownian motion.  In the end, however, I would have changed nothing about those ten days. 

Vietnamese food is fantastic.  While I had heard about banh mi, the classic Vietnamese sandwich, I’d never had one until the second morning at the Jesuit community when one of the men went out to get some for breakfast.  I took one bite and thought that Schubert was playing a symphony on my tongue.  This sandwich is one of the most amazing combinations of flavor I’ve ever had in my life.  If only I had known about them when I lived near Falls Church.  But, I liked everything I ate there.  Though experienced with pho some of the other foods were new.  Amazing fruit.

I cherish the photo with the Vietnamese novices.  The hour and a half I spent with them was one of the highpoints of tertianship (as I wrote here earlier, tertianship did not end when the plane took off from Sydney).  I would go back in a heartbeat. 

The photos here are from that trip.  I turned 62 there.  I’ll probably forget whatever it is I do next week when I hit 64 (or maybe not as it may be a burger and a beer with another Jesuit, same as 63.  I do not do birthday parties) but 62 will not fade from memory, barring any cognitive disorders.  Even if a cognitive disorder hits, I’ve hundreds of photos culled from the several thousand I took there to remind me.  Wonder what kind of stories I'd make up?

I don’t know how I can ever repay John for the three days in the Delta.  If he gets to the U.S. I will have to try.

This is a case in which a few (or a lot) of photos speak louder than my barely articulate remarks above.   
A homemade swing in the Delta.  Three different kinds of wood but nicely finished and planed.
Cockfighting is popular in Viet Nam.  Fighting fish and fighting birds are also prized.  Wouldn't want to tangle with this dude. 
Note the motorcycles heading in opposite directions in the same lane.  And the pedestrians weaving among them.  Scariest place ever to cross a street.  Very liberal interpretations of traffic laws, if one can call them that.  No American should ever try to drive in Viet Nam.  Or ride a bicycle.
A sidewalk entrepreneur or two near the motherhouse.
Self-portrait in a hat shop window in Saigon.
Child protective services would probably frown on this.  While helmets are required of motorcycle drivers it appears they are not required of passengers, no matter how young.  No one of any age riding a bike wears a helmet. . .
. . .as illustrated below.  A downpour was just ending when I took this.  Both this and the one above were taken from a moving van.  The driver was a quiet man who was unruffled by all challenges on the road.  He chain smoked.  I wanted to join him.
The boat is the one we traveled in the canals.  The boy in the photo, probably about sixteen, carried two sacks of potatoes that the family gave to the sisters. They weighed a minimum of 75 pounds.  He carried them on his shoulders in bare feet on a rocky road.  
A church gong and confessional in a newly constructed church in the Mekong Delta.  The pastor here had been a prisoner for ten years for helping the South Vietnamese army. 
Young girl on her bicycle.

Boys on a Friday afternoon.  They were pure joy to watch as the hyperacted all over the beach and pier.  It reminded me why I still love Friday afternoons.  They mugged shamelessly when they noticed the camera.  They hadn't quite seen it at this point.  Or noticed the guy who didn't look too Asian carrying it.

"Brithday" flowers from the sisters.  John and I concelebrated Mass for the 65 sisters in the motherhouse at 5:00 AM on my birthday.  Afterwards we were invited to join them for breakfast in their refectory.  All of them sang Happy Birthday to me.  In English.  And presented me with the flowers.  The sign sits on the mantle across from the computer.  John was laughing hysterically at the look on my face when this happened.  He obviously knew because our birthdays were posted in the tertianship. All of the photos below come from that day. 
After Mass we went on a short excursion just across the Mekong River to a sort of ecology park.   There was a "monkey bridge" to cross a stream.  I crossed first, as should be obvious from some of the pictures that I titled, "Cross Over the Bridge."  Can't you just hear Patti Page singing that in the earworm part of your brain now?

The bridge. 
John thinking about it.  But he couldn't allow the old man to best him.
Both hands!!!!  Ma, he's using BOTH hands!!
By George I think he's got it!
Preparing to celebrate Mother General's feast day.  Young nuns, candidates (in the Vietnamese dress) and deaf dancers.
Deaf breakdancers.  These guys were terrific.  I was winded watching them.  I could breakdance too, with all the emphasis on break rather than dance.
Mother General (second from left) and the dancers. 
With the novices.  One of the highlights of the year for reasons I am still sorting out.  They do not wear shoes at conference or at Mass.  They also do not wear shorts or t-shirts at conference, Mass, or meals. Refreshing.  Nothing feels as good as cool granite or wood under bare feet when the air above is hot and humid.
Finally, my favorite shot from Viet Nam.  The setting is a market place not far from the SJ community.  I was shooting without much thought to composition as I feel very self-conscious and slightly guilty when doing "street" photography.  Pretty much shooting, turning, shooting and so on.  Didn't notice the young boy in the red shirt with the great hair until the photos were downloaded.  The focus was on the woman in the middle.   This is one of the few photos in my office.  It sits next to the computer.  I frequently stare at it wondering what is behind those eyes.  White-haired old man, obviously not Asian, probably American, in Saigon.  What has he heard of the war in school or from his family?  Did his dad or granddad fight in the war?  On what side?  Does the army-like hat say something or is he keeping the sun off his head?  
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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