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A When Steel Talks Exclusive
Yesterday, I awoke to the anniversary of my hospitalization at a New Jersey hospital upon my return as a combat controller in Vietnam.
The alarm clock sounded off like an afterthought. No wonder, when I walked out the door I stepped right into South Vietnam in the morning paper.
So, I’m back in Nam. I’ve been over there three times. The first occasion forced me, a draftee, to visit the old French disconnection. It was as a guest of the South Vietnamese themselves. I wasn’t alone. I joined 200,000 American soldiers in hopes of getting the job done and coming home alive.
The second time, I’d just begun my vacation in Bangkok, and was seduced into thinking that I needed to get a visa in Saigon to enter Thailand.
WHEN YOU COME TO SHOOT, DON’T TALK
Saigon almost kicked me out, just before a CIA officer in civvies arrived at the hotel in the nick of time. He shouted to three Vietnamese soldiers to drop their weapons. As hotel guards, they, along with the hotel, had pulled the old black market trick on me and, had the CIA officer not bellowed at them, my plan was way ahead of his.
The third time was no charm either. I went in to research and write a story for Esquire about fratricide. Black and white soldiers getting the job done on each other while the enemy Viet Cong hung back and salivated.
Funny, I thought I’d seen everything wrong in Nam.
THEY CALLED ME A COMMUNIST
And now, I’m in Vietnam again. Another round. I must have been born in a rifle chamber. At least, on Nam’s red clay soil, from the ground up, I’m clued into the rawness of the war, more so than Kissinger, Nixon and Ford, I always thought.
So, years ago, when I predicted to my buddies that today I was going to roll into Saigon with the smiles of the North Vietnamese and the laughter of the South Vietnamese liberators, I was called a Communist.
Yet, I believe I’m more American than so many Americans, having fought to erase those arid smiles and mocking laughter to boot, coming home with medals for the effort. Yet, I’m no communist. Back then, anyone who traveled to China was teased as such.
Dalton Narine soon after arriving in Vietnam
I presumed that Nam was worse than China. The baddest hell on earth. I had been sold on the Bata Asian soft shoes that some ARVNs (Army, Republic of Vietnam) grew to extol the Green Berets for their extensive use of said footwear on patrol. I eschewed such uniform of the boardroom boss in the bush, preferring the traditional jungle boots that moved some enterprising young Vietnamese to sell them to troops who needed an extra pair.
Just like I couldn’t look into the eyes of a seven-year-old waif who tried to push French prophylactics so that I could sleep with her 14-year-old sister without fear, which was so pervasive, the fear, that a hospital in Qui Nhon boasted of a ward, Dick Ward, to accommodate hundreds upon hundreds of Frenchies, those users of the rubber. Come to think of it, I had spent half my time fighting in a rubber plantation, which was anathema to our own principles. Plantation owners couldn’t swallow the war like that. Bullets ripped apart rubber trees, leaving the latex, the chief source of natural rubber, to go brave and run free.
A Buddhist girl whose family invited a few members of my unit to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, echoes the rubber plantation growers: “We want the war to finish so that we can live as people, without the Americans.”
The Buddhist’s words were tattooed on the faces of the ARVNs in the colors of grief and retreat hell; neon lights of truth that seemed to flash through the jungle at night:
VIET CONG, COMMUNISTS BUT BROTHERS
And it was printed in the manifesto on the minds of South Vietnam’s politicians, “Greed” and “Corruption” underscored.
If, as they say, war is hell, then America would have been treated as the Beelzebub of Indochina. A pity it took so many years of world opinion to exorcise America’s insanity from the minds of the bar girls on Tu-Do Street, downtown Saigon, many of whom acted like sisters to the Blackanized brothers sprinkling their DAPs and all, you feel me?
Or, from the culture of the Montagnards tribesmen. Even the beauty of Vung Tau, where my buddy, Slick, whose handsomeness was jettisoned there by a booby-trap grenade to the face, head blown off, a wife and three toddlers marking time until their breadwinner came home for good.
But today has come, and I’m thankful. My cousin had wished the USA would retreat homeward the very day he had regained consciousness on the Good Ship Hope, or so the liar said while Army officers and doctors tried to cheer him up with gruesome photographs of his four friends literally torn to pieces from a direct hit by a Rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) that whistled into their foxhole near the Demilitarized Zone.
Liar, liar, your heart’s on fire.
So they sent him home to LA.
Not so with Brother Cloud, a Black Muslim who changed his name on the front line, ripped off his US Army insignia and name tag from his fatigue shirt, cursed the war and his superiors, and took the first available chopper back to Cu Chi. He, too, thankful in a sense because “brothers can now get down to business in their own world.”
BE WARY OF the homeless on BENCHES, BRIDGES Better handout cash to homeless Vets?
Dalton Narine recovers from severe bites by a thousand or so Marabunta ants while on patrol in the Ho Bo Woods.
Vietnam veterans of any creed or color still can be found fighting the dread in their makeshift foxholes under flyovers and bridges and on park benches anywhere in the country, their behemoth stack of grocery carts filled with soiled clothing, bundles and knick-knacks, their heads drooping on their chests, life ebbing away.
But all the brothers of the Blackanized army at Long Binh in 1969, as well as Long Binh Jail (LBJ), I know don’t give a damn whether Nugyen Van Thieu had stashed US gold, or, well, the Viet Cong, then; because the brethren had already ostracized themselves psychologically and physically from, as they referred to NAM, “this Cracker war.” And all of them can produce 212s (less than honorable discharges) to substantiate their indifference. Heroism notwithstanding, it was that kind of war, too. Some people loathe the truth on sight, but it’s better to take it in especially now that history has absolved us.
Vietnam will never be the same as we met it. Better, perhaps, never worse. Bar girls will never be responsible for the overflow on Dick Ward. Vietnamese Piastres will never be black-marketed. Marijuana, plasticized and flip-topped, will never get to Marlboro country on Nugyen Hue Street.
Nui Bai Den hill will never again be a tomb for grunts.
Cyclos and taxis will never see the green in the eyes of Americans, that dull gray the drivers swear they see in the Yankee brains. Better perhaps for the country, but never worse.
And if the horses never resume running at Phu Tho race track, or Notre Dame Cathedral in downtown Saigon never again advertises morning Mass, and the small Buddhist temples at Qui Nhon never dress up in saffron and gold, or the fishing vessels never put out to sea, uncontrolled, from Nha Trang, or my French Vietnamese friend, Martine, never sings songs of joy, then the sacrifice of that freedom will have to atone for the debauchery that characterized the Vietnam debacle.
And, those refugees who escaped to freedom through the Tan Son Nhut airport keyhole? They will be smeared all over the United States like the stench of nuoc mam on AID rice. America’s compassion very well could have overridden Vietnam’s compassion, which, until the end had been a public testimony of black vibrations, written by a bastardized culture in, yes, red ink.
CAPTAIN AMERICA’S WINGS
Those refugees who were unable to climb aboard Captain America’s wings, if nothing else, will have one consolation: The United States, having strip-mined their psyche and exposed it to the horror-thoughts of Calley-ism and the B-52, will have left them their eyes. Their weeping glasses.
Ha! Calleyism, that war lord they tossed out of NAM because, a former United States Army officer, he was convicted by court-martial for murdering 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968, during the War.
And so it went, Bro. Galivanting with US billions to preserve a lie.
An African American commander leads US troops through the jungle near the iron triangle area. Right after I bumped into a tree full of marabunto
Wait till you read the pair of black soldiers who crossed over to the NVA and were shot in front of multiple Brothers. That’s for another day. Riveting, Bro.
The candle below wells up in my heart because I was part and parcel of the, well, brouhaha.
The flame rose and fell, the skinny smoke hanging until the fat chin-mounted guns and rockets found their targets.
Dalton Narine back home from Viet Nam War. “I became a better man and better writer”
Graduated at the top of his class as an Air Traffic Controller, utilized his radar skill in the jungle and the Vung Tau tower. Served with the First Infantry Division in Phuoc Vinh. Disabled Vietnam veteran. Wrote for The Village Voice. Won writing awards at The Miami Herald & Ebony magazine. On final draft of first screenplay.
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Dalton Narine is a Belmont-born Trinidadian who dabbled in the arts and wrote about Trinidad & Tobago culture. He spent the other half of his career as a filmmaker and TV broadcaster during T&T’s annual Carnival. Narine is an avid collector of calypsos by The Mighty Shadow, a singer, he says, who had a knack for telling stories on himself and his own country that, at last, has embraced him.
contact Dalton Narine at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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