GOLDEN TORTOISE, THE
Publication Year: 2005
Published by: Red Hen Press
Title Page, Copyright
I especially acknowledge my early war and writing mentor William Herrick, veteran of the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and Jim Lantz, medic in Viet Nam who awarded me his patch, both of whom died while I was completing this book, and Preston Stern, grunt and resister in the war, whose tenth anniversary of death...
Poetry, Pilgrimage, and Healing from War
Return to Sacred Mountain
In the cauldron of the mind, the horrors of war can boil and rage for a lifetime. In the intimacy and privacy of the healing relationship, those horrors are invited to parade in full panoply before a single witness. It was there that I served, there that I went to war. During a quarter century of...
Poetry and the Healing Journey
As a poetic form, haiku appears to be spontaneous, fragmentary, nonconceptual, imagistic and immediate, like the experience of war itself. Further, as haikuist and critic Ikuyo Yokimura of Gifu Women’s University in Japan has observed, haiku and war share a natural link in that haiku is fundamentally...
Return to Sacred Mountain
I: Viet Nam
After strolling among the early morning hoards along the Sai Gon river, I take the road west out of the city. I pass through verdant rice fields and villages rolling toward the Cu Chi Tunnel complex. I stop for water in this thronging countryside where the local people say that during the war they...
Like so many GIs during the war, I retreat to Thailand for “R&R.” I find lodgings in a simple guesthouse perched above a dirty river in Ayuthea, the medieval capital of Siam, one hour north of Bangkok. There I meditate on my journey, on war and the human condition...
III: Floating Upriver
Lady Black Mountain
One year later, I return to Viet Nam to further explore how war affected the Vietnamese people and land, how they carry it, and how to help our vets. I travel through Tay Ninh Province, fiercely bombed and burned during the war. I revisit the mountain sacred to all Vietnamese, once the scene of myths...
In Ho Chi Minh City, I become friends with a 13-year old street girl. Tuyen, the sole support of her mother and baby sister, is one of the seemingly infinite number of street vendors —children, the elderly, the disabled—hawking postcards and books to tourists. She attends school during the day then must...
The Mekong Delta is green. The palms lining its shore are green. The tall grasses are green. Its floating clumps of water lilies are broad-leafed green. The water itself is muddy green. The air, damp, thick, humid, and heavy, smells green. And even the gray clouds blanketing the sky seem tinged with...
I stay with a local family in their house perched on stilts and mud. I sit on their porch above the eternally flowing waters through nights so deep it seems like only sounds, not sights, exist. With the roosters I greet the awakening sun...
A Veteran’s Return
We are guided to his old outpost. The triple canopy jungle is gone. The concertina wire, tanks, foxholes all gone. We survey crop fields that fade in the forest’s edge. The Vietnamese “beat swords into ploughshares.” Everything we left behind is used....
I climb the steep, carved stairway snaking through the marble causeways. I arrive at the first of several Buddhist pagodas. A veteran’s daughter, who says she has never before entered a non-Christian place of worship, steps forward to be enveloped by chanting monks...
As I travel from mountain to sea, from city to village, jungle to paddy, and old firebase site to thronging market, faces, encounters, stories collect like an album of snapshots. The very word itself is telling; a snapshot was originally a quick, unaimed shot with a gun...
I arrive again in Ha Noi, long time capital first shown to Ly Thai To, a Vietnamese king, 1,000 years ago by a dragon that burst from its lake waters and flew to the sky. Ta Vong, the lake in the center of the proud city, once hosted the golden tortoise, messenger of the...
IV: Ice Moon Setting
We begin this journey as we did the others, in Ho Chi Minh City again, rising with the sun to stand among the throngs on foot, bicycle, cyclo, or moped crossing the Khanh Hoi Bridge...
With the privatizing on the marketplace and growth of tourism, Thai and Japanese foot massage parlors are becoming popular with both foreigners and some successful Vietnamese businessmen who can afford them. Young men and women from the north or the countryside clamber for these long...
In a country swelling with new vibrancy and pride, it is easy to forget those who suffered from the southern defeat. Through the crowded streets and before a museum’s war photographs, my 40 year old cyclo driver dubs me “elder brother” and in clumsy, vivid...
War Relics Market
In a typical afternoon downpour that squeezes humidity out of the torpid air, I walk with both veterans and civilians through crowded streets to a poor section of Ho Chi Minh City. Tiny storefronts crammed with goods by day become one-room houses by night....
Eight Americans, men and women, vets and civilians, pick our ways through heat and traffic. We arrive at the busy intersection where in 1963 Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself to protest the Southern regime’s religious oppression and war frenzy. I bow before...
Night on the Sai Gon River
It is my last sunset in Viet Nam’s largest city. The laughing boatman’s firm grasp helps me leap from the dock and climb the roof of his caique. As the disappearing sun drags its light from the sky, the river night opens hidden...
Tay Ninh Snapshots
I travel again through Tay Ninh province, once the severely battered Iron Triangle. I am welcomed into the home of Phan Thanh Tam. On this narrow road, outside this very house where I now sip his coffee, he was the boy running beside his sister Kim Phuc in the...
The depth of greenery and fertility make our war seem long ago and far away. But the tall jungle is gone; this green is new growth. Peel it back and both land and people reveal secrets and scars. A Vietnamese veteran confides...
Again I sleep, again awaken in a cot between veterans and civilians in a guesthouse over the river. Again the darkness that once held terror seems infinite and hidden life is revealed through what we cannot see....
The Veteran Awakens
I have traveled half the world and half a century to swim this ancient murky river without fear and to sit on this rail porch as dawn slowly draws its curtain open to reveal mystery in simplicity. Amidst rooster caws and changing colors, I watch the first ice delivery...
To the Vietnamese, the South China Sea is not named after the northern giant that so often invaded and occupied their lands. Vietnamese call it the Eastern Sea, home and element of their ancestral father the Dragon, who brings the waters that make their land fertile...
After the storm, I climb rain-slick stone steps up many levels of pagoda, each with its Buddha or Quan Am altar, ascending a bell tower standing as if on watch for the return of the dragon from the sea. This solemn seaside temple...
I stay in Hoi An, a coastal town between My Lai and Da Nang. During the colonial era it was an important port. Now it is renowned for its silk and tailoring. Middle aged boatwomen, who look much older than their years, ask...
My feet fly me to the closet-sized shop of my friend Son, the young sculptor whose name means Mountain. A scholar in love with philosophy, language and literature, he had to drop out of college in order to support his ailing...
I finally locate my friend Son. Once again he sits me in his seat of honor —the only rickety chair in his tiny shop. Before we talk “of cabbages and kings” he explains why he is now often out of his shop and difficult to locate...
We can never know when the gates of memory will part another inch. But the return of forgotten scenes of tenderness or humor are green shoots on dry twigs—signs of healing. Perhaps awakened by the hospitality we find...
The Pass Above the Clouds
My Hoi An days recede as we climb the coast-hugging mountain road snaking north. Monkey Mountain rises out of the Eastern Sea, a green explosion from an aqua bed. My bus stops at a summit called The Pass Above the Clouds. We seem poised...
In A Mountain Pass
In Hue, we boat upriver to visit Thien Mu Pagoda, perched on the banks of the Perfume River. I pass through its entryway, tapping the largest bronze bell in Viet Nam, hugging a giant marble statue of a tortoise. Long a teaching center of the union of...
Thien Mu Pagoda
Viet Nam reputedly esteems women more than any other Asian culture. In Ha Noi the Army Museum honors the thousands of women who lost three or more male relations during the war. A Woman’s Museum documents...
Song of the Vietnamese Women
In a guest house on the Mekong River, on a barge on the Perfume River, on a full moon night along the riverbank in Hoi An, in a concert hall beside Ha Noi’s Lake of the Sword Restoration —in all these places I listen to musicians...
V: The Legend of King Le Loi
Myths and legends simultaneously record history, reveal psychology, preserve and promote culture, and illuminate a people’s spirit and soul. Thus, we only truly arrive in another culture when we penetrate its mythology...
Notes to The Legend of King Le Loi
The dragon is the ruling spirit and ancestral father of the Vietnamese people. He is Long Quan, Dragon King, Emperor of the Water, whose realm is the sea. The myth of the origins of the Vietnamese people is that Long Quan married Au Co, the mountain fairy, who gave birth...
VI: River of Peace
Conversation in the Jungle
I return to Ho Chi Minh City with a group of American veterans, their siblings and children, and educators and healers who want to add blood and soil to their ideas. My co-leader Steven Leibo declares that a professor’s calling is...
With a free market and opening society, the Vietnamese are feeding themselves again. But they are in need of enough jobs, services and resources to support their burgeoning population and legions of disabled and orphaned parents and children. They are worried...
I travel through the Mekong Delta, viewing the results of doi moi, which means renovation. Viet Nam’s liberalizing policy was adopted in 1986 to free their hungry land from the depression of economy and spirit resulting from war and Communism. Since land...
Serving as a courier, she met her future husband, who became a VC unit commander, while fighting the war. Unlike American GIs, the Vietnamese troops were in the war until it was over or they were wounded or killed. Their company commander married them in...
During the war, rice was the symbol of the North and bamboo of the South. Together they show a reunited land. And with children first, these three are the most important components of Vietnamese culture, declaring its fertility, longevity, and...
On A Pleiku Street
We fly to Pleiku in the Central Highlands to revisit sites where several of our veterans served. During our war, Pleiku evolved from red dust crossroads to crowded military support base. Now it has become a busy market town tossed between the old and new...
Except for army slang Jack did not learn a word of Vietnamese. For the most part, the only natives he met were prisoners. Looking back, he says, “I came to a war, not a country.” Now he is learning Viet Nam as he learns the rest of the world. And he declares...
Tam was six years old when his village was taken by the North, 3 years before the fall of Sai Gon, “or its liberation,” he says. His family moved back. His father was sent to a reeducation camp. Not important enough to imprison for long, he soon returned...
“’Purple mountains’ majesty’—here too,” I think as we roll north along the bumpy layers of the western mountain range that borders Laos. We pass through villages occupied by minority Jarai and Bahnar people. A loudspeaker blares words our guides do not understand...
The Road to Dak To
We leave a green-shadowed valley. The thick tree line opens. We climb a hill crest on which a small stone church perches. This mound was so fiercely contested that after the battle for its possession the local people dubbed it...
I visit with the woman who previously guided my group through My Lai, telling us of the loss of her aunt’s family during the massacre. She has devoted her life to witnessing that tragedy. It continues to unfold...
My Lai Guide-2
Outside Pleiku the mountain erupts from the plain, one end twisting like a giant neck and head, then leveling off on its green summit. To military strategists it was the perfect place for lookout posts and landing pads. American forces surrounded it with...
On Dragon Mountain
His head swirls and stomach wretches. A torrent of curses and vomit pours from the mouth of this usually polite, quiet, gentle man. A few of us tend him and nurse the return of feelings buried and frozen under a rigid combat-zone control...
Hue struts beautifully along both banks of the Perfume River. It was an imperial capital of Viet Nam in medieval times where generations of kings built a grand, sprawling Imperial City with numerous palaces, residences, libraries. It was made famous for...
With 2½ million dead from the American War alone, tombs in Viet Nam sprout like rice. Many are in large military cemeteries for Northern and Viet Cong dead only; none for the dead of the Southern Army. These cemeteries contain central patriotic statues in...
Every step we take jogs free old war stories. Many cause pain and confusion. Some we misjudge. Strolling through a village market, veterans recall its old dangers. Some report their grief and terror at seeing children used as human...
We travel to the old Demilitarized Zone that once separated North and South. We stand on the 17th parallel, once a place of forbidding violence and terror. I climb on the shell of an American M-44 tank standing as a memorial to the feuding past...
Village in the City
We wander alone or in pairs around the city’s many natural lakes and through its crowded market streets. We are welcomed into the embrace of this Viet-French labyrinth of neighborhoods and shops. I wander the streets of this busy metropolis as I have the...
Last Day in Ha Noi
During the war, in their final days in-country, GIs were called “short.” You had survived this long and might make it home; both relief and confusion reigned. But short on this tour means a final day for reflection and thanksgiving, for saying...
After the Sword
When we grieve, honor and replace what we have stolen, when we restore what we have taken, when we receive the forgiveness we cannot give ourselves, when we are helpers and servants in rebalancing the cosmic scales, when everyone becomes human...
Page Count: 120
Publication Year: 2005
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