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