16 - The End/Dispatch from Happy Valley

"If you give a boy a whistle …" is Jean's observation of a human condition we have all experienced. If we have it - authority, power, machine or toy - our first option is likely to just use it.

In 1971, I was given a whistle - command of some Birddogs. We flew into the hills to the west of Tuy Hoa everyday. And everyday we would fly near a pretty little valley, with rich rice paddies at the bottom, orchards up the sides - and a system of caves where the two met. We called it Happy Valley. It was in a "free fire zone," meaning anyone found in there was automatically a bad guy that we could blast, no questions asked. I took it upon myself to do just that, for little more reason than just because I could.

I enthused another "boy" to join in my game. His "whistle" was a platoon of helicopter gun-ships - and more than a few of our mornings were started by popping over the top of a ridge to surprise those down in Happy Valley - me going in first to find targets - his guns coming in hot, not far behind.

Our human targets on the ground were growing food - food not controlled by the South Vietnamese government, and therefore was food available to "Charlie," the Viet Cong. Such was the logic that made this Happy Valley a valid military target. Good enough for boys with whistles.

The last time I went into the valley, it was going to be a fine day. The clear sunrise would make good shadows of the little bodies trying to reach the safety of the caves - before our rockets and bullets rained down on them. And that day, as sometimes happened before, out of those caves came a stream of bullets in return. Some passed thru the aluminum skin of my plane and one continued up through the floor of the cockpit between my feet. It continued up even further.

With hindsight, I realize that these targets were just farmers - staying on their land in spite of our "Strategic Hamlets Policy" which attempted to move everyone in this agrarian country into "relocation centers" that were no better than nasty refugee camps. Places where rice farmers were fed rice from Louisiana while crammed into crime, hate and most of all - a desire to return to the family fields - fields like the ones in Happy Valley.

When the plane was being inspected for repairs, the maintenance chief asked me to come out and sit in the cockpit. He then ran a long thin fiberglass antenna up through the holes in the plane, along one bullet's path. He pushed up until the tip of the antenna poked me in the throat, right under my chin.

I sat for a moment, then noticed the map case I kept on the door of the plane. The canvas case had belonged to my grandfather, left over from his war - and it was full of holes. The chief then asked me to hold out my hand and into my palm he dropped a bent-up stainless-steel hose clamp. It was a robust little bit of hardware, made in America. The clamp had deflected the bullet into the maps. Otherwise it would have gone into my head.

I have a photo of me holding the damaged map case, smiling like it was all a boy's game. Not the first holes in a plane, and not the last. The hose clamp is home in a drawer, as is the remains of that bullet - which had lodged in the maps inside my grandfather's case. I kept the case too - I kept it all … including the memory of that valley and those little shadows. Is that why I'm back here?

Jean and I finally got to Happy Valley - after a difficult couple of days filled with little events that makes travel with some kind of goal so rewarding. We found the old farmers who have lived there all their lives. They offered us mangoes and tea.

We found their fields beautiful, their children and grandchildren happy - and I found out some more about my past - and about myself.

Back home now, and everyone wants to know how a return to Vietnam affected me. I was asked a telling question: If I was given the chance, if I could somehow regain - not my youth or naivete - but the drama, the life/death importance, the compression of time and the intensity of emotion of being at war … would I do it again?

I paused before I answered, and that pause WAS the answer. Just pausing to consider was an admission that all the wounds, guilt, pain, and passage of time has not overshadowed my human cravings ... my innate acceptance of war as a force of my nature.

War certainly affected my life, my family's, and that of the too many others - friend and foe - that intersected with mine. But never have I had such freedom or such responsibility, such fear and yes … such fun. I say this not to endorse war, but to admit that after this return to Vietnam I am probably no different than the rest of humanity. If you give me a whistle, I will still be … just a little boy.

- Rod Resigned