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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 120-129
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from War Child
We didn't see much of the war between the North and the South, though it was never far away. The war was on the other side of the canal, over the hills in the mountains and jungle. We never saw the battles or the skirmishes in the swamps and paddies. To us the war was the distant thunder of howitzers, the shudder of our bungalow door, the helicopter blades whipping the air. The war was green and yellow star clusters flaring across the moonless skies, the prison searchlights, and the air-raid sirens. It was the sand-filled burlap bags of the bomb shelter and the faces of strangers springing from the dark under the lantern light. The war was the muffled reports of assault rifles somewhere in the jungle, the cadences of soldiers marching through the streets of Da Nang. The war was orange-robed monks leading funeral processions through streets littered with the fresh dung of oxen.
Sometimes the war was sticks of incense burned for prayer, sometimes olive-green tin cans of C-rations labeled with black stars. Sometimes the war was canisters of spilled chemicals and sun-blistered barrels of tar in the slums and shantytowns where we lived. But the war was mostly news over the radio and stories overheard from our neighbors. Stories of the death of a son, father, or distant cousin. Stories like the ones my mother told of how our fathers died. I imagined what must have happened to my father as my mother told neighbors her version of the story. While my mother and her friends drank tea in the afternoons and read the veins of tea leaves held over candles to tell their fortunes, I saw my father crossing a bridge over a narrow river. I saw the hump of the rucksack on his back, his ammo clips, and his rifle. I imagined the pineapple grenade arcing in the sky and bouncing on the wooden planks of the bridge. Then my mother would tell the story of how Sa's father died: how he had run from an exploding helicopter on a landing zone and how a rotor blade had cut offhis head.
We never knew for sure if the stories were true, but we knew our fathers died the deaths of heroes. Sometimes we thought our fathers were still alive, that they walked the streets of Da Nang, that they would pull up in a jeep or jump out of a helicopter that landed nearby. We wanted to find our fathers. We often searched the faces of the soldiers patrolling the streets and sometimes we mistook a client for a father.Whenever my brother and I got our [End Page 120] mother alone, we asked her about our fathers. We asked her about them during the typhoons that trapped us in our bungalow.
Once during a typhoon, our mother lit sticks of incense to pray to the Buddha, and my brother asked her if she had pictures of his father. She shook her head and knelt down and prayed for our safety. Though she said no, we always wondered if she had the photographs. We wondered if she hid them in a footlocker given to her by one of her clients. She kept it locked up in a far corner of the bungalow and was careful to guard its contents from our eyes. It was full of secrets. As the typhoon winds ripped up the corrugated tin roofs of the shantytown, flung the roofs like paper into the air, and whipped the rain against our door, we begged our mother to let us see what was in the locker.When our begging failed, we asked her questions about our fathers and questions about America.
"What did he look like?" we asked her as the typhoon winds howled and water seeped under the door.
But her answers were always brief, and she pretended to be busy counting her bills and coins and stuffing them in empty tea boxes stacked up against the bungalow wall that...