Chu Lai beach, 112f, the scent of sally joints permeates the hot dry air. I’m lying on my back joint in my lips, the young bloods music playing loud. Most of us are in the water, swimming or surfing or just trying to forget what they remember.
“Hey, I’m looking for jingles” I answer, what for. I open my eyes and this guy looking like Brad Pitt before Brad Pitt looks like himself is leaning over me. I been assigned to 2 squad and I’m to bunk next to you. Says his name is Ken. I’m jingles or Don. I tell Ken to get to his boxers and enjoy free time cause 2 days, we in the shit again. Ken goes to the hooch and comes back in a few minutes and has a Ricoh TLS or something. He ask if it’s okto take pictures. Now I know why they put him next to me.
Some girls are working the guys and one comes over an lays on top of me. I know her well. Ken is looking at her cause she’s French Vietnamese and about as fine a woman as ever was. She whispers in my ear. “he baby”. I smile and tell her I pay. The fee is $5.00 and $2.00 credit fee. The girls know us and trust us to pay later in the day.
She slides over to Ken and climbs on top of him. Slips her hand in Ken’s boxers. I looked at his face and saw the sun in one eye and the moon in the other. It took Ken about 30 sec to release. She hugs him, kissed his neck, kisses his lips, lays close on him and tells him, I love you baby. About 15 min later, she takes her silk dress off and Ken’s boxers. A few guys and me watched as she took his boyhood away and made him feel like a man. She rolled over to me and said 10 dollar baby.
Ken said to me Don, that’s the first time I did it. Ken, in your life you will never find a woman that can be your angel like her. He looked at me like, a lost boy. Ken, we are walking corpses. Our souls are lost, humanity is a word. At 20, I learned there exist things worse than death. That girl makes me feel like I am alive, like I want to be alive. That girl accepts me no matter who I am or what I do. She is the angel of love and mercy, for all of us.
Ken told me hid dad owned a few banks. He wanted Ken to come to Nam and be a hero so when he came back to the bank, it would draw a lot of business. Ken made me promise something. He told me that if he didn’t make it to mail the letter in his pocket to his dad. I wonder how he knew he wouldn’t make it and how he knew I would.
A few days later we had to do a sweep of the village. It was just our 2 squad. We at the time were 11. We were looking for activity by VC. So we sitting smoking cigs and breathing. Then we heard a girl crying and screaming. We all ran to her defense. Then we stopped in our tracks as this girl squatted and gave birth to a baby. We were all so used to the taste, smell and feelings of death that this miracle took hold of us and unarmed us. Chuck, our medic went to her aide. He also was on his 4th tour and could speak Vietnamese. He talked with the girl and she said she was 14 2 days ago.
She said the VC came to the village an killed her 2 brothers and father. They took her and her sister and 4 of them raped them many times. She never saw her sister again. Her mother told her to leave because she can’t afford to take care of her and a baby. Mother told her to go and never come back. Kissed her good by and that was it. (14, dammit, 14, she delivered at 14, what does that mean?)
Then we heard a shot ring out. We all hit the ground. Chuck covered the girl and the baby. One shot, we knew it was a sniper. Roger had the M79 and looked up in a tree and fired. The canopy exploded and something fell with the leaves and branches. The partial remains of the sniper. Medic, Medic….calls out we run over to where the call comes from ….. son of a bitch, first out 10 days in country, first sex with an angel, the sniper chose Ken because no helmet on. East target. I looked at Ken humped over, head and face mangled. We stood around and kinda hurt and maybe saying prayers privately. I reached in Ken’s pocket as he asked me and put the letter in mine. It occurred to me that we found what we were looking for. VC activity, Ken paid the price and the girl, the aftermath of the VC rapes.
We got back to home as we called it an and we put the girl and baby on Ken’s bunk. Chuck said that we should call the girl Gai, meaning sister. For everyone of us, Gai was our sister. We took care of her and the baby and she took care of us. She would come lay with one of us after a while. NO SEX EVER! It was finding humanity and she needed to as much as we did. We got the MPs to give her ID as a civilian worker and she was safe on base. When we came back from a mission, the hooch had flowers all around, was clean, and a real feeling of life.
I sent the letter to Ken’s dad and I wanted to write my letter to him also. I couldn’t, because I had never with all I been thru or would, ever hated anyone as much as Ken’s dad. I wrote a small note that said….. I hope your satisfied that now you have your hero back home.
If you need to ask what these memories have to do with my photography, well……..
….oh, my Leica M4….. no film for 2 weeks.
26 thoughts on “February 28th, 2018 … Vietnam … Lost Souls, Humanity Found and a Leica M4”
Well put together story Don
Thanks, Joe, I had 50 years to get it together.
Peace brother and thanks, for all you do.
Brings back stuff from a long time ago, I used to walk down this road and take pictures of the people and then come back a couple of days later and hand out prints. I could do no wrong on that road, I would get picked up by the white mice for being in VC territory but everyone just used to wave or want to share food which they had next to nothing or Vietnamese white lighting that the farmer would dig out of his backyard, in mason jars of course! Also had a bar down in Cholon where I could leave my camera bag and two lenses and come back hours later and everything was still their.
Thanks, Bill. It’s nice to hear experiences from a Nam brother. I will try to come back to this in a day or so. I am so drained I have no energy to breathe.
Man … oh …. man … no one should have to remember some of the things that you have to remember! I’m not sure if you are a better writer or a better photographer but you are damn fine at both … that’s for sure!
I, for one, don’t need to ask what the memories have to do with your photography, All the best and more!
Thanks Michael. The thing is for me, that after 50 years, I remember the smells and feelings and faces and bodies and more as if a moment ago. I thought by writing about my life events that lived in my mind and heart, they would leave me and i could move on. As it turns out, those memories aren’t holding me back at all. I am living them again because then I knew what my life was and now, haven’t a clue.
Peace brother and I pray you never have to have memories like these.
Powerful story Don. Keep more like this coming.
Thanks Ray. These memories or stories have been resting for 50 years, It’s Time I deal with them.
Thank you, Don.
Thank you Tommi. Whether you know it or not, you have always been a source of pure inspiration for me.
Don, never happened to me before but I think I just read a whole photograph! All the best to you and yours. Pete
Thanks Pete, perhaps we read it together, peace for you and yours.
I am in a really good place Don. Feel better than I have for a long time. Lost over 40 pounds since last year, light on my feet, changed PD meds for others that have less side effects. Have the love of a good woman, 7 grandkids. All is well. All the best to you, keep clicking and good light.
Pete, great to hear. Ya know when an ace photographer like you sends me a comment like this, and there’s no mention of a camera. Alls well in the world.
Thanks for sharing these personal thoughts on what happened overthere. They are priceless because it’s the truth and the stories of a guy who was overthere. Somehow all of you lost some of your innocence. How is it related to photography ? This period of your life as painful as it was made you.
Jeff, so right you are. I remember getting home and first thing was to see my mother. We were in the kitchen and she looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re not my son, where is my son?”
Personal narratives provide a much needed ‘rich history’ of the human side of conflict that tends to get glossed over or neglected in the official accounts. Would be great to see a collection of reminiscences like this together with some pictures you made in Vietnam in book form eventually but maybe you could do other things with it, too… Hope to read more anyway.
I decided long ago to leave the photos sleep. I mean, how would the friends and family of those I made photos of that didn’t get home alive even feel? I never wanted to find out, still to this day.
Nobody knows the changes you go through but yourself, after coming back to the world after I was discharged , I realized …everything was the same as it ever was but I wasn’t . Awesome work!
Rob, your exactly right. I didn’t know myself when I returned and still miss the guy before Nam. My mother kinda killed me when she told me she didn’t recognize me…but not her fault. I assume blame but it woke me up. I have never slept since.
I hope you find peace my friend, it’s an elussive dream tho, but go for it
Peace, my friend, peace.
And to Gai, and to Ken.
Thanks for the warm wishes. I never knew what became of Gai. My unit decided that when we go back to the world, we would never be in contact again. Seems they are all in my mind anyway and I look forward to seeing them again afterlife. As for Gai, i dream that a GI married her, brought her home to a small town, they had kids and made a nice safe life together. I wish that for her more than my own happiness.
Some connections are stronger than time and distance and, yes, death. To all of us who have not lived through what you had to live through, your words are a brief window into the unfathomable, and I think we need to thank you for sharing the unshareable.
Have a good weekend, Don.
Thanks, Giovanni. It means much to me not to be judged. I do a strong job of that myself.
That was really sad but necessary for us to hear and for you to tell. I hope that Gai found some kind of happiness at some point in her life.
Thanks, Tina. I never knew what happened to Gai but I dream that she was ok and in the US with a hubby, kids a nice house with a white picket fence. All in a dream, all in a dream.