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Manoa 12.2 (2000) 49-56

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The Thief of Tay Ninh

Kevin Bowen

I look at the picture in the newspaper: a man stands on a bunker by a ridge, carrying the flag of the North Vietnamese. The caption says QUANG TRI, 1972. I look at the picture, can almost feel the wind blowing in from the mountains. I know this place well. The man has come to the place four years after we left. His presence here on the page sets me on a journey to another photograph, one found in a book in a small library: a photo of a room full of women standing before a raised altar--one woman bending, dressed in bright, flowing robes. She wears a turban on her head, money sticking out of the folds. She is lost in a spell, the caption says. The two women beside her fan her face. Lilies spike up from the altar behind the swirl of incense smoke. In the front row, a small boy looks quizzically into the camera.

Where do I begin? Like so many, I remain confused about those days. When I look back, I wonder how much of it was real, how much imagined; perhaps I should start with him, the thief, for so much of it, so many memories of that place, remain tied to him.

What struck us all from the start was the craziness of it--a thief in the middle of a war--and the way he appeared so suddenly, only after the move south. It was as if he had been some ghost, waiting for us. Life was to be much better for us there in the south. Much better than up north. Only mountains and rain up there. And cold, the cold that had surprised us all. Nothing to do up there, all day sitting around the bunkers, passing radio traffic, listening to the North Vietnamese trying to jam us. At night, guard duty or maybe sitting up on the berm to watch LZ Jane or Betty down the road get hit, listening to the far sound of the guns, seeing the red flares parachute down in the smoke, wondering if it would be our turn next. Maybe once or twice a week pulling road security, sweeping for mines--the rest of the time digging new bunkers, fighting off the rats. Even the rats we got used to.

But the thief, no. It was as if he had been there waiting for us even as the first planes flew in, waiting there among all the abandoned buildings and bunkers of the base, the scattered old buildings, the wood stripped from their sides, tin roofs caved in, sandbags bleeding back into the earth, the base camp like a great bleached skeleton spread out over a half square mile [End Page 49] in the midst of acres of deep-green paddy--the rotting structures sitting like that, maybe since the days of the French.

The thief made his appearance soon after we'd arrived. We were still living above ground then. We were playing cards--Blackburn, Rodriguez, Willy, and myself--sitting in Willy's area in the hootch. Blackburn was winning, Rodriguez was telling the story of LZ Julie again. The rains were falling. Outside, the duck boards swam a few inches above the mud, weaving a maze through the compound. Once or twice we could hear a footstep pass along on them, a door slam shut in another hootch--someone getting back from radio watch. It was when Blackburn got up to go outside that it came to us, the distinctive panicked sound of men running. I can still hear Blackburn's rough voice calling to us through all the years that followed.

"Hey, you. Hey you, hey you, stop--" He yells, his voice choked, half in panic. "Hey, someone, stop him!"

Rodriguez, Willy, and I leap fast, but by the time we are outside the hootch, all we see is a hunched-over figure running off in the darkness. Rodriguez, half in shock, stands, shaking his head, waiting for us back in the...