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A Memory Fragment of the Vietnam War

Photograph Source: Harry Rose – CC BY 2.0

“Write about the garden,” Erwin said. He’d run it in the Progressive.[1]

I’d showed him the diary I’d kept, fitfully, while in-country. Short entries. Just a passing note on the garden I’d planted to pass the idle hours between operations.

We billeted with the Infantry, but no one except Division up at Chu Lai had the reins on our unit. We gathered intel on infrastructure, came and went as we pleased. A lot of down time, lots of time in the local Ville at Mr. Hue’s roadside food stand with the three tables under a rickety awning. Ba Hue served me the soup with the chicken feet floating on the surface, a delicacy she said. They’d taught me how to use chopsticks, and I pliered that delicacy to the side of my plate. They laughed.

I think it was the soil that inspired the idea, sandy like on Long Island. Duc Pho was near the sea. My old man always had a few plants in the back yard. Tomatoes like the sand, he would say.

It amused Sgt. Hieu when I ran the idea past him, a couple of rows of something alongside the Counter-Intel tent, next to where the interrogators slept.

Hieu seemed to actually like Americans. He was Catholic. Some history there I’m guessing. He volunteered to locate manure. Oscar and Melvin, our shit burners, would bring it to the compound.

There was an old man on the outskirts of the Ville, Hieu said. He kept a green house. We rode the jeep down the access road, and a mile or so up the Red Ball, before turning into a shaded lane. It was a magical setting.

The old man had silver hair, wore a nice shirt and trousers. Hieu treated him respectfully, not the way he roughed up the black pajama toilers in the hamlets we’d drop into looking for where the cadres hid themselves, or where they stockpiled their baskets of rice.

The old man was a relic of the ancien regime, dignified in his bearing. We spoke in French, mine pidgin, his fluent. I paid him some dong, and we left with a box of seedlings.

Hieu had Oscar and Melvin dig three rows. They were amused as well. What the hell is the Trung Uy[2] up to now? They’d been a big help to me in wrangling a crew to build a screened in patio for the unit clubhouse, all bamboo framed, tongue and grove, not a single nail or metal fitting.

Now they happily laid in rows of seedlings, tomatoes, cilantro and peanuts. Their hands were agile in the soil. They’d been here before. I stood to one side, like a foreman on a job site.

Every day I sprinkled water on the plants, watching them grow. I don’t remember how long it took. But when Hieu dug up the first peanut plant, I was amazed to see how the shells clung to the roots of the plant. That’s one of the good things I did in Vietnam. I planted peanuts.

I never did write this up. Sorry it’s late Erwin.

Notes.

1. Erwin Knoll was editor of the Progressive from 1973 to 1994.

2. First Lieutenant

 

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Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening

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