The Saigon River glitters under moonlight, reflecting a sampan highway for Viet Cong en route to a firefight with American forces.
(Image courtesy Hadi Zaher)
All night long, her flaxen hair shimmying like disco lights in the full moon, the river showered its blessings on our predicament. In the pitch of the blackout, the candle on the bamboo table flickered wanly; the wick, ungraceful in the gluey wax, wasting away. How grateful I was that a compassionate moon loitered above the upstairs porch while we, the matter and I, a Trini in Nam, deliberated over an argument for spiritual mediation.
Now, Iím seeing things that remind me of other things. This scene playing out before me ó the moon river, the river moon ó proves that I may have been more than a little prescient in M.P. Alladinís art class at the British Council, where Iíd carved it in wood a mere eight years ago at the age of 12.
Eventually, the flax on the downstream current glittered off and took the argument out of sight, a good ways behind the American cargo boats so big and fat down at the docks that they leave footprints on the water.
The Saigon sun was already rinsing its face in the river when my girl and I tangled out of the sofa, bedraggled like leftover trees in a storm. Like rubber trees in the Michelin Plantation following a napalm run by F-100 fighter jets slamming the VC up and down the infamous Iron Triangle. I nourish no suspicion toward occult lore (though it grew up around me on Laventille hill, Belmont and Behind the Bridge. So the bellwether might well have been a nod to the order of the day. It would take more than an omen, I swear, for me to back out of the task at hand.
Anyone can be saved. It would be the sermon of the day.
Fr. Brylcreemís Cathedral, Saigon
At midday Mass in the city, something spooky turned up. I had a pull in my heart. It felt like a coachman's twitch on the bridle, and it punched in on time during the sacrament. Ushered along by a sip of wine, the spare little wheel from God arrived at the soul cold and damp.
All of a sudden, it seems, melancholia was sketching the mind a dull jab jab blue. Would that I could dress it in buttery pastels, like Degas' paintings! Then I could pick up the pre-monsoon wind sweeping the aisles; watch it flattening out through the canted stained-glass windows and emptying into the steam bath gridlock outside.
Such a head trip would not be enough to lance this unholy mess or pry open the clutch on my heart. Instead, I'm left to surrender only to principles, or whatever influences the whip hand under these circumstances.
At the end of Mass, we, this grave matter and I, catch up with the Vietnamese priest in the sacristy, where truth, unhinged from conscience, summons up a surprise confession that gives the cleric enough reason to be disturbed. His olive face admitting some sag, the bantamweight priest, fortyish, at once gathers himself. Sitting at a wooden desk, small in the fullness of the twin-spired cathedral, he fidgets with thick black-rimmed glasses until the comfort zone on the nose is secured. A short drama unfolds when he plants his elbows as a fulcrum to plop his head in stubby but delicate hands that he swings like a pendulum on double-time.
ďAmericans. Americans.Ē he murmurs in a French-Vietnamese accent. ďYou Americans. So arrogant.Ē
Such sanctimony! In itself it carries an ironic surfeit of arrogance. Would he have been brave enough to speak so to the French as they tried to reunify North and South Vietnam? What a way to thank the Yanks for our service!
The priest affects an air of disgust, as if borrowing attitude from the pulpit. He brushes back dark, stringy, Brylcreemed hair that humidity has rearranged. Smooths limp noodles neatly into place, packs the strips of dough into his bowlish skull, the halo slipping off, tumbling down the chasm between his arched torso and the straight-backed wooden chair.
The signal is to retreat from this icky battlefield, just as a homily from the lectern at the cathedral in downtown Port of Spain begins to well up in flashback ó Stephen being stoned to death in the Book of Acts. A dread story that hasnít drifted too far from my moral consciousness. Well, ainít that a bitch.
We are in dangerous space now, between the cape and the bull. Have we already inherited the insanity of the fight? I canít speak for him, but this new American ó they call me ďPreece,Ē short for altar boy ó is supposed to be enjoying a three-day respite from combat. Picking up new glasses, the old ones waylaid in the scramble of a rocket attack at a firebase in Phuoc Vinh.
Now, here we are, exchanging 'robber' talkó not unlike rival mafiosos ó in a crevice of God's soul. "You won't be able to get away with it." Oh! How he merits a sniper's stare, this enemy priest. His face, all but an impotent disciple of authority is flushed. Fr. Brylcreem is now dead to my needs.
I wheel back to the sanctuary.
Darting eyes hurdle serried racks of votive candles and their wobbly lights bare-ass naked and divine amid the pious hush; beyond the early rows of pews, smart and soldierly in their close- order drill.
There they are. My friends, Pinky and Maria. Their faces flash surprise at my unmistakably altered state.
They worry over this ersatz assassin's blanched complexion, his peculiar grip on the dagger.
Theyíd been keenly aware that Iíd sat up all night. Both 22, they travel as an offbeat act that crosses dogma with erotica.
Maria, the coolheaded one, juggles religious and secular responsibilities. A Mexican-American nun who counsels Saigon whores.
Pinky, the passionate other, a civilian nurse, wears a prickly aura beneath gossamer charm. A wedding band, still new and shiny, wears on her right hand, though a divorce from a bomber pilot serving in the war is in the mill.
We check out of the cathedral, out of this cul-de-sac of curiosity, the swelter of Fiat cars and motocyclo traffic slapping at us like a boxerís paw, the soot swinging back with the carriage of the priest.
The tinny voice!
Bells in the church tower strike telling blows in counterpoint.
Ha! You Americans!
In Vietnam, I am American.
In America, Iím immigrant.
In the bush, a plain olí grunt, door gunner and a combat controller.
The new ugly American.
Such a dichotomy! I must analyze later this strange creature, its head braided in a stars and stripes bandanna, dropped just so in the lap of my psyche. Another contretemps looms. The order of the nightís events.
Wait a minute!
Hold up! Not yet.
For right now, that bright afternoon on a Christmas Day of my early teens is re-indexing itself, spitting hot shocks of neon and setting the brain on edge.
A young church colleague, who, like myself, lived in a slum community, but who, unlike me, mindlessly gravitated beyond the altar, found himself in the mad embrace of a knife fight on a street Behind the Bridge.
Truth to tell, not a real bridge. More a synthetic construct without girders, a demarcation line between a city teeming with mercantile mercenaries and its victims, including teething gangs that would lop off an arm over a tart or a steelband issue.
In such an environment, yes, it was there that I lost one of my best friends.
There are no sermons for the hardships that delineate a culture at war under colonial exploitation. Not Homerís. Not Miltonís. Not Shakespeareís.
Life in the bush shapes those born into its lore. Not that each of its denizens is prepared for death, but it continually flashes before their eyes.
The brackish dry river and the polluted Gulf of Paria are one and the same tributary of horror.
So now Iím left to ponder such pop-psych trauma as a heady mix of virtue and sin. Iíve been in-country only a few months, and already a lot of us are lost in the devilís little acre, shuttled back so soon to the States in coffins wrapped in the Stars & Stripes.
Dalton Narine on patrol in the Ho Bo Woods
Well, then, before the nightly curfew reigns, shall I kill the sonofabitch prior to taking Pinky to dinner? Or, for the second day, R&R (rest & recuperation) at her digs, the Viet Cong having bombed the military hotel a few hours before I arrived in the city.
And then what?
Forget the glasses. The city is virtually shut down. Cong on the loose and the brain is in pain.
So you taxi to the villa that the military rented to house your main man, a Trini, and two buddies (medics who worked on disease prevention in a Saigon lab), cross yourself at the swimming pool where a fourth, a New York friend of mine during basic training, had drowned; say hello to the three maids, then talk your boy into borrowing his .45 cal. pistol. In the field, that is joke, you tell him. After all, you walk with a M-16 and a M79 Grenade Launcher. Bo-dow!!!
Coming in from the bush, you just canít walk into Dodge just so with the single-shot M79. But itís what I needed. Firing a 40mm high explosive fragmentation grenade from the shoulder could blow apart the shanties in Cholon. It would be madness times mayhem. You get shot by the 79 the round would burn you to death. It would be a head trip to watch the VC roll around, his body broken apart, his buddies running away or looking around in fear of the second shot.
Almost curfew. Anybody on the streets till dawn is dead meat, your main man warns.
Why the rush?
You canít tell him, because heíd suggested a tailor who had more dough to blow than the VC in civvies. But you canít wait. In the morning you gonna be humping in the boonies with the M79.
So what you goní do, bruh?
Get back into the rickety cab, pull the 79 from under the back seat and pat it gently, dawg.
One more dead VC.
PS: Troops were paid in dollars, which they could convert in unlimited amounts to the local currency with merchants and Vietnamese at the black market conversion rate, which was much more favorable to the GIs who profited big time from the more favorable exchange rate. Troops shoved shiploads of electronic merchandise back home during the war. It wasnít greed. Thatís how the war rolled.
Back to surreality: This soldier went to great lengths checking the VCís dough in the dark, far from the madding troops asleep in their hooch at the firebase. Sneak a poncho from the hooch; grab rucksack and flashlight; drape the poncho over your head; count the dough behind a sleeping chopper. (dough? what dough?) There it is! Right there I lost my sanity.
Doní mean nuthin,í bruh.
Such slogan emanating from the bush would become a catchphrase that gave new meaning to a war in freestyle. It ended the damn war, for Christís sake.
Doní mean nuthiní
The author gets ready to move out into the jungle from his firebase in Phuoc Vinh.
Dalton Narine joined Trinidad All Stars as a teenage tenor panist in 1959. His father threatened to beat him up if he caught him playing the instrument, but Narine soldiered on and his dad gave in.
Dalton Narine joins Trinidad All Stars as a teenager, rehearses the Bandís 1959 Bomb, Intermezzo, in the garret of the Maple Leaf Club on Charlotte Street.
Dalton Narine is an award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker. He migrated to the United States and has worked as a journalist and as a writer for the New Yorkís Village Voice, Ebony, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and an editor for The Miami Herald. Narine, who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a decorated veteran of the American war in Vietnam.
Dalton Narine watched a movie among friends and was harassed for watching the credits roll. He was 12. They laughed at his quip that someday his name would be scrolling like that on a movie screen somewhere. Little did they know it was a prescient warning.
A similar scene played when Narine stopped learning the piano and walked into a panyard. Nobody believed him until they saw him playing classical music on pan on JíOuvert. Eventually Narine co-founded the iconic PAN magazine and became senior editor.
Narine, an award-winning writer for two newspapers and a magazine, started working on a novel. But the chair of Columbia University film school steered him toward a screenplay instead. Your story is a movie, the professor said. Today Narine is working on his final draft, with two more screenplays in his head.
contact Dalton Narine at: firstname.lastname@example.org