1. Dispatch from Gate 94

Things have changed a bit since the first time I packed up to go to Vietnam. My bulging canvas cylinder of an army-green duffel bag has turned into a hi-tech red nylon case - complete with wheels - in hopes that some of the country has been paved. But this bag also has shoulder straps – I guess need for a rucksack was permanently ingrained in me at the Infantry School.

Instead of a packed pile of olive drab cotton fatigues, towels and skivvies, a helmet and nomex flight suits - I now have easy drying micro-fiber shirts and rip-stop trousers with zip off legs - made in Vietnam. My shoes are rot-proof synthetics that Velcro tight over support stockings – a G-suit for the 19 hour flight. 60 years and 45 pounds of baggage this time. The last time at 21, I was hauling the weight of my world.

That first flight was on a tired government charter by World Airways. We made two stops crossing the Pacific for fuel and visits to some other American conquests – Midway and the Philippines. I flew tiny spotter planes in Vietnam. Today’s plane is a huge 747, which is longer noise to tail than two of my flights in Vietnam. I was not always a careful pilot, and you taxpayers got the bill.

The departure lounge is full of faces of the new America. The ear picks up tonal dialects of Southeast Asia, the harshness of Korean, the choppy gate of Japanese and singing of Mandarin - interrupted by those speakers switching into English as needed.

Many Vietnamese wait to board: Young businessmen - and women, with Blackberrys and briefcases; students in shabby style; and a pair of red robed monks copying my haircut. At least my bare scalp is the same this time - but more naturally so.

I can only imagine the changes to Vietnam that have passed since I last left there as a scarred and cynical soldier. Those years of combat represented a major portion of my then adult life, and undoubtedly altered me, for better or worse, away from the life I would have otherwise lived. Pointless to ponder.

So now I sit jammed in a frequent-flier’s economy seat with far less room than I ever remember. The headrest in front is reclined into my keyboard. My knees grind into an in-flight magazine. It would be funny if not for the little paper napkin (that outweighed the pretzels with which it was served) which read: “United has the most leg room of any US carrier.” We HAVE changed. A plane full of our infantrymen, accustom to more roomy foxholes, would have rebelled.

But this old traveler just looks out the window onto the largest thing on earth. I will cross the Pacific Ocean in the span of 4 hit movies and 5 meals that surpass the finest C rations. I naively had no fear the first time I crossed this ocean on my way to war. The second time I knew better and was rightfully apprehensive. This time, I fear only that, like America and Vietnam, I have changed too much for this to be the adventure it should. Tomorrow night we land in Saigon, and then we shall see.

- Rod en Route

2. Dispatch from Tan Son Nhat

Something was abuzz as we exited the terminal’s arrival area. Customs and Immigration had been painless, and with bags in hand, we found a sea of faces - all turned to us as we open the double doors into the late night heat.

Tan Sun Nhat airport no longer has its squadrons of US Air Force jets, but their huge concrete hangers are still there. The ramp where I first climbed down into the humid heat bomb of Vietnam is now covered with US built Boeing airliners, from all over the world. 40 years of change for the better.

We pre-booked a hotel off the web and airport pick-up was included, so we scan over the heads of the shorter Asian crowd for some type of shuttle bus or van. A group of white faces, Brits by the look of them, lean on their bags appearing to wait for another of their group - but instead they were looking for me! … or they thought they were.

Behind them stood a man, holding up a sign on a long stick that read “Welcome to Vietnam Mr. Rod Stewart”. After a 19 hour flight, this was a very welcome sight to us – but not to those tourists. A collective groan went up as this balding American and his jet lagged wife turn out NOT to be the rock star and consort they had hoped for. We piled into the hotel’s sedan and headed into the heart of the city.

Saigon is not as I last found her – she is now 6 million and growing. The ubiquitous smell of the GIs burning their shit with diesel fuel is happily absent. Starbucks has not arrived, but a “Gucci Coming Soon” was plastered across a storefront. Now officially called Ho Chi Minh City, she is not “just another big city” … not yet. Bicycle rickshaws are still about, but the 3 to 4 million Honda and Vespa scooters have replaced the bicycle. Toyota sedans can’t be far behind. The beautiful girls ride past, not in the gorgeous flowing silk au dai dresses and conical hats that I had admired so much - but in designer jeans and pant suits – chatting away on cell phones. The traffic is epic.

Our driver is Tuan, who no sooner finds we are Americans than announces he is anti-communist and a Catholic. He was in the Vietnamese Rangers during the war and agrees, almost wistfully, that that was a long time ago, when we were both very young. Many ex-soldiers here put their English skills to good use in the tourist industry.

It is lucky break that I learned English as a youth as my lack of language gifts are again reinforced. My phrases of Vietnamese have been mostly forgotten. I love hearing Japanese and Germans settling their hotel bills using my native tongue. Kind of makes me feel like a Latin speaker during the homogeny of the Roman Empire.
It is Friday night so we try to walk off my spinal kinks by joining other couples strolling along the Saigon River. My back injuries flaring up as I return to the land of their birth seems an ironic form of “Uncle Ho’s revenge.” 19 hour flights are not an advance of civilization.

The Saigon is connected to one of 9 navigatable branches of the Mekong River. On our first morning, as soon as we can negotiate a breakfast bowl of pho noodles and a cup of Vietnamese coffee, we will hop on a bus heading south, to start our journey on this mightiest of Asia’s rivers.

- Rock Star Rod

3. Dispatch from the Mekong

Like slavery and other such human vices, colonialism is now considered bad. It had its period of respectability that has come and gone. But if we can admire the antebellum mansions that American slavery made possible … then it is OK for me to lust after the old river steamboats that once carried the colonial masters up the great rivers of the world. Mark Twain glorified life on the Mississippi; Kipling told the British Empire of the "great grey greasy Limpopo”; and Indochina served up even better sounding rivers like the Irriwaddy … and the Mekong.

Years back, Jean and I sat with dusty backpacks on the bank of the Irriwaddy, and watched an old river steamer work her way past the ruins of Pagan, Burma. That, we thought, is the way to travel! And so too did a Burmese company that has put back into service two of these boats on the Mekong – local built copies of the ones that once injected our Western ways into the watery veins of their Orient.

The SV Mekong Pandaw sails out of the Vietnamese port of My Tho - up the Mekong into the heart of Cambodia. More than a week of slowly passing through this great delta - where roads are few and life happens by the water. Anchoring mid-stream at night, and then nosing a plank to the shore, or allowing small local boats to deliver us into villages and markets. Perfect travel - easy physically, rich visually, and constantly reveling new and interesting facets of this jewel of a river. I highly recommend it.

This is NOT the Swift-boat from Apocalypse Now, or even the African Queen … no pigs and chickens or sacks of onions. Varnished teak and polished brass everywhere - a uniformed crew from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam - and 44 lucky travelers. Jean has a knack for digging out travel gems like this. I also highly recommend finding one like her to travel with … a queen of diamonds as well as hearts.

Ashore, a Mr. Thanh buys me a chilled coconut. He is from Hai Phong and uses his BA in English from Hanoi University to stay solvent until his swimwear company can ice a deal with buyers in Australia. He is of an age that knows of my war. We sip and talk. He tells of growing up hiding in the banana grove while American bombers leveled his town and mined its harbor. His is more interested in internet sales strategies.

Then he warns me away from 5 old Viet fishermen who sit nearby - motioning to share their Pepsi jug of rice whiskey … at 11 in the morning. I don't heed his advice. The whisky is killer. Shooters followed by a slice of jackfruit and a small rock of salt. It even tastes a little like Tequila. Mr. Thanh does not join in. He is educated, well off, and from the north. The divide is palpable.

Aboard, again the common language is English. Even the crew slips into it when national tongues need straightening out. The chef is Cambodian and Jean is quickly in his good graces with her refined interest in his art. The strange fruits and local spices are a treasure to justify colonial conquest. Food is varied and fresh - and that most important item of western invention is always available – cold beer.

We will ride as far up the Mekong as the dry season water level will allow. From there, we plan on flying to Hanoi and dig into the main course of this trip. But first, a side dish that is mandatory in this part of the world - Angkor Wat.

- Riverine Rod

4. Dispatch from the Killing Fields

Because of my war, some of America may actually be able to find the Kingdom of Cambodia on a map. Some might even recall that some really bad stuff happened here but it was far away - and there were many other channels to watch. America had left, done with wars in these parts - and the memory and bitterness kept news of the aftermath off the front page and out of our conscience. To bad ignoring it did not make it really go away.

All over Cambodia, the Killing Fields are still fresh. Human bones still wash out of the mud, and those that put them there are still around. After all the years of butchery and crimes - that reduced this nation to a starving corpse - only 4 Khmer Rouge leaders have been charged, and none have reached trial. The Buddha tells us that to forgive brings merit - but I think Cambodians, the ones that survived, maybe are just too tired of killing to take revenge.

We arrive abeam Phnom Penh after dark and drop anchor in the middle of the river - which here is at least a mile wide. Crossing from the Viet part of the river into the Cambodian part, changed nearly everything. Big boat traffic almost ceased, electric lights ashore became rare, and the population density more than halved. Even the style of local boats changed from the standing double oars and painted eyes of Vietnam, into a Cambodian form with swept-up bow and stern. They row standing up, one from the front and one at the rear, like a gondola in Venice

At dawn we move to the city dock (an ex-US Navy barge fitted to rise and fall with the river level). Across the road stands the Royal Palace where the present king is housed. His house glistens gold with architecture both Buddhist and Hindu - all set off in neatly trimmed gardens. We tour it and the National Museum. Most of the historic artwork of this culture now graces the mantles and bookcases of well accessorized McMansions, or smart SoHo lofts. We have seen stupas with hundreds of carved stone figures - all now headless. Much of what little remains is in this museum, and we luck into a great guide - good knowledge and passable English.

She is an orphaned student, about 45 years old. Pol Pot's lads killed all her family and ended her schooling. Hell … they ended her whole school system! Later we walk through a downtown grade school that was used to jail and question thousands of suspects. The instruments of torture are left in place. All but 13 prisoners were sent to a field outside of town where their sculls are now stacked high in witness to a tale that would be otherwise be beyond belief. The last 13 were killed at the school, still chained to a classroom floor, as the Vietnamese army arrived to stop the insanity.

Jean steps over the strips of clothes and bones that poke up after the rain. Hundreds more such fields are scattered around the country … but life goes on. The capital of Phnom Penh, emptied then, is now re-populated and bustling. Their king has returned. Laughing children peddle by in school uniforms while I drip sweat on a keyboard in a well stocked canned goods store / internet cafĂ©. The trees and grass now grow green atop the Killing Fields.

I can't help but wonder, as we watch delicate little Cambodian girls dance their ancient art form - how could one culture produce such beauty and such horror?

I hope my telling this tale puts our petty problems in perspective - and improves my Cambodian dreams.

- Rod un-Rouge

5. Dispatch from Angkor

There is a worldwide election taking place. The old, tired and Greco-centric "7 Wonders of the World" is getting a long overdue update. If you vote, don't forget this place! There is nothing to compare.

We steamed up the Mekong to just above Kompong Cham (you will need a good map). The Moslem Cham people of this area rebelled against the Khmer Rouge and as a result there are not too many of them left. But enough about the bad old days.

We were blessed by dry weather, a cooling breeze - and the incredible warmth of the Cambodian people we met while strolling through their villages and temples. I can almost imagine the invading armies that carved up the ancient Khmer Empire, being just invited in by the hospitable welcome that seems a part of Cambodian DNA.

The handshake, our relic of showing your sword hand is empty, is not used. The French cheek kissing is also out. Pressing together of the palms with a smiling nod of acknowledgement seems so much more civilized - not to mention sanitary in a time of bird flu and friends with runny nosed pre-schoolers at home.

But to really see their core of civilization, to find the soul of these people, to remove all doubt to their claim of having built a Wonder of the World - you only need to view the cities of stone called Angkor Wat.

When the Kings of Angkor were building this vast complex, London was still a village. Visitors then mostly came across Tonle Saip Lake from the Mekong - we did likewise. This unique water wonder reverses its flow during the rainy season and more than quadruples its area into a vast inland sea - and provides perhaps the largest freshwater fishery on earth. This protein, and the rich rice lands around it, provided the surplus food and wealth needed to construct this huge complex of exquisitely carved temples and walls - truly an epic in stone.

Several days with a tuk (motor scooter pulling a rickshaw) and driver are required to take in just the most popular sites. Angkor Wat is just one of dozens of complexes here that were covered by the jungle for ages. The scale hard to comprehend - similar to exploring a jungle-choked island of Manhattan a thousand years after the last human turned off the lights. Some sites are still climbed by ancient old trees, their roots snaking across walls and pushing apart tons of stone.

Each evening, tourists choose a high tower to watch the sunset over the jungle. In the distance, other "Wats" poke up where other tourist do likewise. The hoards of locals selling trinkets, food and drinks are prevented from entering the walls by a small army of minders and guides - except last night as we sat atop a tiered mountain of a temple called Pre Rup.

I am offered a beer - "OK, only two dollar, very cold." I counter that the price is expensive (bargaining is expected). It soon became clear that the inflated cost was needed to support the police captain who allows selected vendors access to the temple's thirsty tourists. I raise my beer in salute as the captain struts by. His English is excellent and he has no problem addressing the subject.

He joined the police 10 years ago after doing his military service. His brother got him the job when money to continue schooling could not be found. As the captain in charge of all the monuments in the Angkor area, he is paid $22 a month - while a mere guide gets that much per day. To augment, the captain gets a buck for each of the beers and sodas sold atop the temple. He offers an extra police badge for sale, I demure. The eight year-old boy selling postcards pays him another $15 a month. Still the captain is thinking of quitting the force and buying a tuk--tuk scooter to cart around tourists. We pay our tuk driver $10 a day. He can't afford beer.

But I can. And today it is HOT! Sweat drips into my shoes. And even if it's a wet heat, one must stay hydrated! Drafts of wonderfully cold Cambodian beer are about 75 cents. So we take a day off and prepare for a trip into the jungle to visit the thousand year-old underwater carvings of the 1000 Linga (phallus). Just another wonder of the world, in this wonder-filled country.

- Sun-Roasted Rod

6. Dispatch from the Linga

In 1969, some lost traveler bent down to examine strange shapes under the cool clear waters flowing down a jungle shaded mountain stream -high above the plain of Angkor. These were the long lost 1000 Lingas, painstakingly carved into the stone streambed to bless the water that flows miles away into the massive and complex waterworks around Angkor. Now cleared of mines, it is a unique attraction for those ready to make the trek.

A linga is a sacred stone phallus revered by Hindus - and until modern science interfered - symbolized a irreplaceable part of the cycle of life. They may not need us boy-toys anymore, but once we were gods! I would love to have my Indian neighbor here to pester with questions.

The later arriving Buddhists have usurped the older Hindu stuff. Stone Shivas and Brahmas wear saffron robes now, and are tended by shaved headed old nuns. The Roman church did the same thing - with old Jupiter and Minerva statues simply getting new names as their Pagan temples became Christian churches. And that big black Kabala in Mecca was getting marched around long before the Prophet was born. Religious adaptation defies the strict dogma that too many believe is sooooo pure and eternal.

The jungle is dry but humid, and buzzing with life. Breeze cannot reach us as we climb up the valley. Some botanist with too much time has placed tags near the bigger trees - but both Khmer and Latin names are Greek to me. One big root, polished by hikers shoes, identifies itself - shining like only black ebony can. It is a magic place. Alas, we passed a lot of log trucks driving up to the trailhead.

Reaching the stream, the old watchman shows us around as I hold the hand of his
little orphaned ward, just turned 6. She is shy and tiny - they both show signs of past malnutrition. I can understand why movie stars must adopt one of these kids after using their picturesque land as a backdrop for some Hollywood fluff.

My life is a storybook compared to their nightmares, and each legless or footless beggar gets a small bill or two - and a smile - and with my palms together, a slight bow … why? I don't know. Regret that life ain't fair? Frustration that I can't make it fair? Or maybe just guilt - that my culture produced that land mine.

Tonight, as we fly out of Cambodia, over Laos and toward Hanoi, I watch the dark landscape below. Little of my culture has reached it yet. I peeked into Laos in 1968 but must pass it by tonight - maybe again someday. But I have too much input to process already - and approaching is a place that greeted me much too warmly the last time I flew in - North Vietnam.
- Sighing Stew

7. Dispatch from a Hanoi Rice Bowl

Hanoi - what a place! Everyone is so very busy - seemingly every second. The old quarter is a warren of tiny shops, each displaying a pile of the street's specialty product. There is a whole street for lacquer ware, one for flowers, shoes, baskets, brushes, sewing thread, coffins, even one for packing tape. Sales are brisk but supply-side economics hasn't arrived and competition is fierce.

Like Saigon, the scooters are everywhere. They flow through the narrow streets without any pattern or discernable reason to succeed. Scooters are parked in tight knots blocking most sidewalks and alleys. These little 40cc putts are able to carry: (Jean has picture proof) … one neatly attired office worker; or up to a family of 5; or 2 people and 3 big pigs; or 2 people and one small cow. The loads on the bicycles are equally impressive - with bundled piles often coating the bike into invisibility - skills leaned on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, no doubt.

The new Air force Museum is near their Air Force Headquarters and guards strut their AK47's. The grounds are littered with F-4 carcasses and other assorted airplane parts. It also has a big display of anti-aircraft weapons of interest to me and every other pilot who flew over here. From reading their bombastic descriptive captions, it is amazing that any of us ever got back.

Jean is told of an under-tent restaurant where most traditional dishes are available, each prepared in little booths surrounding the family-style seating area. We walk over the French railroad tracks after seeing Uncle Ho's tomb and the Ethnographic Museum. The restaurant is off the beaten track and we get lost - and then found by a gentleman who taught himself English while working as a driver at the Korean Embassy. He kindly walks blocks with us until the restaurant is in view. It is packed - mostly by Viets from the offices nearby, and a very few "round eyes" - looking both embassy and business types.

Jean is in cook's nirvana, and as always, the local foodies reciprocate her interest with detailed menus, cooking tips, and ingredient translations - some requiring hilarious pantomime for the meat courses. "If you eat that, you will die!" - a quote from a culinary coward we once met in Africa - is again invoked by Jean or me, just before some unknown substance is wolfed down, smothered in fermented fish sauce and a Campbell's Soup smile. Mmmm Mmmm Good!

A beautiful Vietnamese lady sits on the bench next to Jean - impossibly high cheekbones, flawless milky skin, and a neck that must be graced by additional vertebra. She flashes a smile as I show frustration over which dipping sauce I should use with which plate of delectables. She tells us about the food and offers hers to taste. We give her a souvenir San Francisco pen, but ask to borrow it back to take food notes. She then gives us a pen - made in Vietnam. Ours? Made in China.

The men seated next to me offer me a taste of something to "make strong." I am beginning to think sending over Viagra could save all manner of species that Asian men think "makes strong." Snake blood, tiger testes, bird nest, duck embryo, bear paw, rhino horn … are some that I have passed up … well except for the duck embryo. Jean was not impressed.

Beer is about 25 cents a mug on the street - literally - as the kegs of Bia Hoi (fresh beer) are plopped outside where locals squat at the curb for an evening cool-off, along with their city.* All the food is fresh, frequent and fabulous! After a few days of playing tourist in Hanoi, and drinking and eating ourselves into a state of gluttony, it is time to move on. Our car, driver and a sharp young translator await. Let's see what we shall see.

- Roddy Rotund

* Our personal best is 17 cents for a liter of beer in Istanbul - a record that probable will never be broken.

8. Dispatch from the Ho Chi Minh Trail

I open my eyes and dawn's aurora backlights the jungle. Other eyes look back into the sweaty cave formed by my mosquito net. Without my glasses, I cannot make out the species, phylum - or even count the legs clinging to the netting. Arachnid or insect … or even reptile? It don't matter … everything living in Cuc Phuong National Park is protected. A lost world of forest and butterflies first opened up as the Ho Chi Minh Trail was being cut south from Hanoi. It is the first national park in Vietnam, opened by Uncle Ho himself in 1969, right in the middle of my war. He thought it a pretty special place, and we do too.

Jean is waiting for me to wake up. She knows I will want to see the huge grey hunting spider that streaks, mouse-like across the floor of our little Park Service cabin - she also wants me to evict him.

We have hired a translator and driver to escape the hectic din of Hanoi.
The as-seen-on Discovery Channel attractions like Halong Bay and the hill station at Sapa are axed from our trip list. Packaged tourists and the things they expect are not what we are craving. We want to talk and be with the people of Orlando, not just see Disney World.

The old Ho Chi Minh Trail is being paved over and made into a major north/south highway - it will be traveled by big trucks rather than the loaded-down scooters and bikes they used to feed their winning war machine. Hopes are high to complete it all the way to Saigon by 2010 for the 1000th birthday of Hanoi city. The project is running behind schedule as cost, corruption and the god-awful terrain slows progress. It will be a welcome addition to the narrow and poorly engineered Hwy1 that is now the only N/S route.

I, and a lot of my fellows pilots spent a lot of time and effort bombing, strafing, shooting, and laying mines - attempting to put a crimp into Uncle Ho's pipeline. I would climb into a tiny plane, built by Cessna for the Korean War … and another young man would climb into the small observer's seat behind me, and off we would fly. Both of us would peer out of the open windows, searching the ground for something to kill - or something that was trying to kill us.

These overloaded obsolete little aircraft were kept flying by even younger young men - that most of us pilots hardly knew. We flew mainly by day, and so they pulled long nights to repair and make ready for the dawn's early light.
It was the height of human trust for us pilots to bring back a plane, broken or damaged, and hand it to a pimply-faced kid to fix. In the morning he would say, "She's ready to fly, sir," and we would hop in and without a pause, fly her over the jungle covered mountains to the likes of the A Shau Valley, or into the DMZ, or as a few of us did, into North Vietnam itself. (Even into Laos, but you didn't hear it from me.)

Even more trusting were the Aerial Observers in the backseat who were not pilots, but ground officers trying to watch the targets, while the pilot snapped his control stick right and left - dodging the treetops or worse … dodging tracers or puffs of smoke that popped open as anti-aircraft shells hunted the little plane's path. Our observers used the open window for other things too, and most lost weight during their tour.

Today we fly down Hwy 1 in the back of a four-door Ford. Troung, our interpreter/guide and his young driver, lounge in the front seat - answering our nearly unbroken stream of questions. Questions are interspersed with gasps and "oh my gods!" as Jean digs nails into my knee and another unavoidable crash is avoided. They explain everything except our questions about Vietnamese traffic "customs."
I try to relax and become like those trusting Aerial Observers. Somehow we will pull through. The huge bus, head-on to us with horn blaring, would somehow get over before we met - without flattening the 2 bikes peddling along the left gutter with 20 foot sections of reinforcing rod sagging between them. This while we are passing a truck simultaneously passing a scooter loaded with caged pigs. There is nothing I can do but to accept my fate, place my trust in my pilot, and try to do my duty as a good observer.

From my observation, it seems the centerlines on roads here, are totally arbitrary. It moves right and left as traffic load requires. A bus, 2 scooters, 3 bikes and our car going south - requires more road for passing - and all do at will. While the smaller crush (bad choice of words) of vehicles coming in the opposite direction, somehow knows to form a single line at the edge of pavement, or even sidewalk, to allow us by. Right-of-weight. The horn is used in all situations. In spite of the seeming havoc, the only casualty we have seen so far, has been one slow chicken with a poor sense of timing.

We bounce across a new bridge where the stumps of the old one, maybe flattened by my brother's F-4, still rust in the dust. I ask, and Troung tells me that his father, my same age, fought in the South. He had never been outside his tiny mountain village until he walked down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, past this beautiful national park, to fight the Americans. He was at first afraid of Americans with their "Buddha helmets" and modern firepower and "would not attack." After the Viet Cong showed him we could be killed, he "did his duty." He was "very lucky as there was a doctor nearby to keep him from bleeding (to death) when his arm was blown off."

Troung's university education, and that of his brother and sister, were paid for by the State because their father's arm never returned home. Though a Catholic and a Montagnard, he mouthed a Buddhist thought, "Out of all evil comes some good."

Then comes his questions back at me, and the one I dreaded. After a couple of days together, he must have suspected. My age, rusty phrases of his language, knowledge of his history, knowing how to squat without a chair - and of course … the subjects of my questions.
He looked me in the eyes. "Were you here? Were you in the American War?"

Troung is the age of the children I chose not to have … not to have maybe in part, because my answer was "yes". Tonight, saying goodbye, I was shaking while gripping his hand. I asked him to tell his father I was sorry for all the evil … and to tell his father he had made a good son. "Out of all evil comes some good."

-Shaky Stew

9. Dispatch From a Catkiller

Americans flying in this piece of sky 40 years ago would be dodging surface-to-air missiles and the "Bandits" arising from the Mig fighter bases that were down below - known to our pilots by the code names Crab and Lobster. Flying down from Hanoi today, we trust Air Vietnam's shiny new AirBus 321 to pass us safely and in comfort. Breakfast is served. We pop out in drizzle about 1200 feet above the rice paddies, on final approach to Phu Bai airport, the old home of the 220th Recon Airplane Company … call-sign "Catkiller."

The airport is way bigger now, and the modern runway covers much of where our compound stood - trees cover the rest - but the old control tower is still there, almost lost behind a big new terminal befitting its status as the regional airport for the ancient Imperial Capital city of Hue.

You can travel easily and cheaply here. Flight Hanoi/Phu Bai - $53. Airport Mini-bus to Hue - $2. Hotel overlooking the old Citadel - $24. Having a big rat run across Jean's sandals while dining at the floating restaurant on the Perfume River - priceless! Jean sits still for almost anything, but it was a very big rat!

We do the sites. The huge red flag again waves over the main gate to the Citadel. It cost 150 US Marines to pull it down after the North took Hue during the Tet Offensive. The cost to the Imperial vintage buildings was high too, and evidence of battle is easy to see. But some of the old imperial glory has been restored. The Forbidden City is now open even to non-eunuchs, thank goodness, as the vasectomy would be inconvenient to verify at the ticket booth.

The little airstrip the Catkillers used inside the old walls is gone. All aircraft there were lost on the first morning of the Tet attack. But the Duy Than Hotel is still going strong - and Missy Kim, Bargirl number 4, sends her best to old friends in America - you know who you are. She may be a little long in the tooth now, but that tooth is the gold one, and it still has some sparkle.

It is raining and Jean opts for the dripping doorway of a noodle shop for a bowl of the national dish - pho - pronounced "fur". It is great stuff, goes well with good local beer, and table manners allow it all to be slurped. A little different pho recipe here than up in the north. Hue has pride in its regional cuisine left over from the Imperial Court - where 50 chefs made 50 dishes each day for the Emperor - and no repeats for a year. But I will repeat pho a lot.

We plot our assault on the DMZ assisted by a modern cell phone net, and a girl who works at our hotel. She is from a village just north of the Ben Hai River in an area of the DMZ some Catkillers knew too well. She is excited that I know where she lives. The population of Vietnam is young, too young to remember the war - they react to it as I might have if greeting an old Luftwaffe pilot 40 years after WWII - curiosity not animosity - even though both my parents lived in London thru the Blitz.

They young Viets have a buoyant optimism and good humor - better off than their parents and confident that life will be even better for their children. They are a pleasure to be with. But tomorrow we will be with the old generation - as we arrange to hire a 63 year old ex-officer from the losing side, doing guide work out of the town of Dong Ha. That's our destination for tomorrow - and another old home of this old Catkiller.

- Soaring Stew

10 - Dispatch from the DMZ

The last time I stood to attention and saluted on this spot, I was getting a medal. A crazy general had decided the hilltop called Con Thien was a good place for an awards parade. Con Thien means "Hill of Angels", but the GIs and Marines who worked here called it "the meat grinder." It is reported to be the most heavily shelled spot of the American War - just a rocket lob south of the border between the two warring Vietnams.

The first time I was atop Con Thien, I just wanted the little ceremony finished, so I could get onto a helicopter and get the hell out of there. This time, I had flown halfway around the world to climb into the old French bunker on the top, look north to see what the Demilitarized Zone looks like - and hear what this hill's angels may have to say to me after 40 years.

Walking through the elephant grass-lined path up the hill, there is little sign of its past infamy or glory. But closer attention notes bits of sandbags and identifiable debris mixed into the soil around the rubber trees that are being planted to cover most of our former bases around here.

We meet a man and wife, armed with hoes, clearing rows through the brush to plant saplings. They are paid 4 dollars a day to plant the trees, and get to sell any scrap metal they find - iron bombs and steel junk, brass bullets and copper wire - bringing in another couple of bucks per day. He pointed out their recent finds - a handful of bullets and 2 live M-79 grenades - he pointed with half a hand.

A De-Militarized Zone is the maximum oxymoron. Like the one in Korea today, the Vietnamese DMZ was the most militarized place of the war. Both sides had jets; both sides had tanks; both sides had huge artillery guns, and both sides lived underground - us in bunkered bases like Con Thien, and them in underground villages like the Vinh Moc tunnels.

We drive across "Freedom Bridge" into the North to go down into this amazing tunnel complex, now a tourist draw. Some parts are 60' underground. It housed an entire village dedicated to keeping supplies flowing to the DMZ forces attacking the South. Over 2 miles of large, stand-up size tunnels with kitchens and sleeping areas - and even room for the 17 babies born there during the war - 16 are still alive and in the army.

The small museum houses a 12.7mm anti-aircraft gun for me to try on for size. On the wall is a photo of a Birddog that was shot down nearby - that's what Catkillers flew … Army O-1 Birddogs. And these tunnels, the guns that protected them, and the bigger guns they supplied, are what Birddogs hunted.

As I stand in a tunnel entrance, it is easy to see why they were so damn hard to find from the air. The holes that held their protective anti-aircraft guns
without their camouflage, are easy to see from ground level - we pass several sets. Looking up, I can imagine how my little white face must have looked, peering down from a Birddog - a tempting target. They missed me, mostly … others were not so blessed.

One was my friend Lee. We went to flight school together - he lived next door. We had famously rowdy poker games - he once won another pilot's Oldsmoble, then gave it back the next day. He danced on the tabletops at the officer's club, we dueled with champaign corks - we lived life large. And he was large, and of a body shape that was not flattered by our flight suits, and so picked up the nickname "Blivet" after a joke of the day about "10 pounds of shit in a 5 pound sack".

He became a Catkiller, one of several of my classmates that were sent to the unit. I volunteered to join later. We were roommates in Phu Bai and he was my mentor - teaching me how to stay alive while flying in the DMZ. I was in my plane, Lee and his observer Steve, were nearby in theirs. We hung over a target talking on the radio - and then a shell came up and picked him. Not much more to say. Not much more is known. He was one of the best of us. I guess the angels didn't know.

It took effort to find the spot in North Vietnam where Lee ended his last flight - some research in Washington, the National Archives, CIA documents, MIA researchers work, etc. - and most importantly, my own maps from that time.

The maps were kept for many years by my mother, sent to her by another Catkiller that was taken too soon, Terry Scruggs. He became my new roommate and shipped all of my stuff home after I was medi-evaced out to a hospital in Japan. Thanks again Terry.

A good road now runs north from Con Tien toward the site … past the National Cemetery where tens of thousands of gravestones stand … across the Ben Hai River, and across the DMZ into North Vietnam. A cow path leads me further thru any mines, up a draw, past old trenches and craters and I am alone. There is a tiny creek running clear, adding its babble to the birds. This could be the spot … or not. It is not important - I am here for me, not them. 40 years is a long time but you are never too old to cry.

Trees have grown tall around a meadow, flowers bloom, bananas grow wild - it is a place at peace. May Donald Lee Harrison and all the others be at peace - and may the angels of this beautiful country never again take wing to war.

- Reunification Rod