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