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Fiction I Am the Grass

Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster

At the end of his first week his feelings of guilt and ambivalence were being replaced by a sense of good will and atonement, as if he and Vietnam were two bad people who had unexpectedly done something nice for each other

by Daly Walker

(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

I=BECAUSE I love my wife and daughter, and because I want them to believe I am a good man, I have never talked to them about my year as a grunt with the 25th Infantry in Vietnam. I cannot tell my thirteen-year-old that once, drunk on Ba Muoi Ba beer, I took a girl her age into a thatched-roof hooch in Tay Ninh City and did her on a bamboo mat. I cannot tell my wife, who paints watercolors of songbirds, that on a search-and-destroy mission I emptied my M-60 machine gun into two beautiful white egrets that were wading in the muddy water of a paddy. I cannot tell them how I sang "Happy Trails" as I shoved two wounded Viet Cong out the door of a medevac chopper hovering twenty feet above the tarmac of a battalion aid station. I cannot tell them how I lay in a ditch and used my M-60 to gun down a skinny, black-haired farmer I thought was a VC, nearly blowing his head off. I cannot tell them how I completed the decapitation with a machete, and then stuck his head on a pole on top of a mountain called Nui Ba Den. All these things fester in me like the tiny fragment of shrapnel embedded in my skull, haunt me like the corpse of the slim dark man I killed. I cannot talk about these things that I wish I could forget but know that I never will.

Discuss this story in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More fiction in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Road to Hill 10," by William Broyles, Jr. (April 1985)
A veteran's return to Vietnam.

"How Could Vietnam Happen? -- An Autopsy," by James C. Thomson, Jr. (April 1968)
Drawing on five years of service (1961-1966) in the White House and Department of State, the East Asia specialist James C. Thomson traced the slippery-slope of decision making that led to America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "No Hard Feelings?" (July 11, 1995)
President Clinton has finally established full diplomatic relations with Vietnam. Recent Atlantic articles explore Americans' ambivalence toward such a move.

TWENTY years have passed since the summer of 1968, when I flew home from the war and my "freedom bird" landed in the night at Travis Air Force Base, near San Francisco. I knew that in the city, soldiers in uniform were taunted in the streets by flower children. So I slipped quietly into a rest-room and changed from my dress khakis into jeans and a flannel shirt. Nobody was there to say "Welcome home, soldier." It was as if I were an exile in my own country. I felt deceived and confused, and most of all angry, but I wasn't sure at whom to direct my anger or where to go or what to do, so I held everything inside and went about forming a life day by day.

After I was discharged from the Army, I went home to Chicago and hung around there for a couple of years, haunted by memories and nameless faces. Devoid of hope or expectations, smoking dope and dreaming dreams of torment, I drifted from one meaningless endeavor to the next. I studied drawing at the art academy, cut grass with the grounds crew at Soldier Field, parked cars at The Four Seasons. Nothing seemed to matter; nothing changed what I was. I was still fire and smoke, a loaded gun, a dead survivor, a little girl on a bamboo mat, a headless corpse. I was still in the killing zone.

Gradually I grew weary of my hollowness, ran out of pity for my own self-pity. I wanted to take my life and shake it by the hair. I decided to use the GI Bill and give college a try.

I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the headquarters of the Weathermen and the SDS. I lived in a rundown rooming house on Mifflen Street, among all the long-haired war protesters and scruffy peaceniks. During the day I went to classes and worked as an orderly at a Catholic hospital, but at night, after work, I went back to my room to study alone. Through the window of my room I could see mobs of students marching through the streets, chanting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh" and "Bring home the war." What did they know about war? I watched them, and I wanted to kick their hippie asses.

It was in caring for the patients at the hospital that I seemed to find what I had been searching for. While bathing or feeding a patient I felt simply good. It was better than my best trips with Mary Jane. I decided to apply to medical school, and I was accepted.

One night when I was a senior med student, a couple of radical war protesters blew up the Army Mathematics Research Center on campus. The explosion shook my bed in the hospital call room like the rocket that blasted me out of sleep the night of the Tet Offensive. I have never been a brave man, and I lay there in the dark with my heart pounding, thinking I was back in Firebase Zulu the night we were overrun. A nurse called me to the emergency room to help resuscitate a theoretical physicist who had been pulled from under the rubble. His chest was crushed and both his lungs were collapsed. He didn't need resuscitation. He needed a body bag. The war I was trying to escape had followed me home. Now I practice plastic surgery in Lake Forest, a North Shore Chicago suburb of stone walls, German cars, and private clubs. On my arm is a scar from the laser surgery that removed a tattoo I woke up with one morning in a Bangkok whorehouse. The tattoo was a cartoon in blue and red ink of a baby in diapers, wearing an Army helmet and a parachute with the inscription "Airborne." I feel that I am two people at once, two people fighting within myself. One is a family man and a physician who lives a comfortable external life. The other is a war criminal with an atrophied soul. Nothing I do can revive it.

Even as a surgeon I have a split personality. I sculpt women's bodies with breast augmentations, tummy tucks, face-lifts, and liposuction. I like the money, but I'm bored with these patients and their vanity, their urgent need for surgical enhancement. I am also a reconstructive plastic surgeon who loves Z-plastying a scar from a dog bite on a little girl's cheek or skin grafting a burn on the neck of a small boy who fell against a space heater. I love reconstructing a lobster-claw deformity of the hand so that a child can hold a spoon and fork. I'm no Albert Schweitzer, but every summer I spend a couple of weeks in Haiti or Kenya or Guatemala with Operation Smile, repairing cleft palates and lips. Removing the bandages and seeing the results of my skill sends a chill up my neck, makes me feel like something of a decent man, a healer.

Today, in late September, I am sitting in a window seat in a Thai Airways jet on its way from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City. I am headed to the Khanh Hoa Hospital, in Nha Trang, for two weeks of my own little Operation Smile, repairing the cleft palates and lips of children on whose land I once wreaked havoc, whose parents and grandparents I murdered and whom, somewhere deep inside me, I still hold in contempt.

I stare out the airplane window at tufts of white clouds that look like bursts of artillery flak, and I break into a sweat, remembering the descent of the airliner that flew me, a machine gunner, an Airborne Ranger, an eighteen-year-old pissed-off, pot-smoking warrior, cannon fodder, to Vietnam. The pilot lurched into a steep, spiraling dive to minimize the plane's exposure time to ground fire. I pitched forward in my seat, the belt cutting into my belly, my heart pounding. Until that moment I had felt immortal, but then fear came to me in an image of my own death by a bullet to the brain, and I realized how little I mattered, how quickly and simply and anonymously the end could come. I believed that I would never return home to my room with the old oak dresser and corner desk that my mother dusted and polished with lemon oil. Tears filled my eyes.

With the plane in a long, gentle glide, I gaze out the window and search for remnants of the war. I see a green patchwork of paddies and fields of grass, dirt roads whose iron-red dust choked me, whose mud caked my jungle boots. A sampan floats down a river. Smoke curls lazily from a thatched-roof shack. An ox pulls a cart. The land seems asleep, and the war only a dream. I drop back in the seat and close my eyes. Stirring in my chest is the feeling that a dangerous demon is setting itself free inside me.

I spend the night in Saigon at the Bong Song Hotel, a mildewing walk-up not far from the Museum of American War Crimes. The toilet doesn't flush. The ceiling fan croaks so loudly that I turn it off. Oily tropical heat drenches the room, and I can hear rats skittering across the floor. I feel as I once did trying to grab a little shut-eye before going out on ambush patrol. I can't sleep. My mind is filled with the image of myself dragging the lifeless body of a kid named Dugan by the ankles through mud.

In the orange light of dawn I board an old minivan that will take me north to the hospital in Nha Trang. The tottering vehicle weaves through streets teeming with bicycles, three-wheeled cyclos, motorbikes, an occasional car. People gawk at me as if I were a zoo animal of a breed they have never seen before. The driver is Tran, a spindly man with wispy Ho Chi Minh chin whiskers. He has been assigned to be my guide and interpreter, but he is really the People's Committee watchdog. When I was here before, I would have called him a gook or a slope, a dink motherfucker, and those are the words that come to me now when I look at Tran. I picture his head on a pole.

We cross the Saigon River on Highway One, Vietnam's aorta, the artery connecting Hanoi with Saigon. The French called Highway One "la rue sans joie." We called it "the street to sorrow." During the war I often traveled this road in convoys of tanks and half-tracks whose treads pulverized the pavement. I was always high on Buddha grass. Armed to the teeth. Frightened and mean. I was so young. I didn't know what I was doing here. A few miles out of Saigon, Tran slows and points to a vast empty plain overgrown with olive-drab grass and scrub brush.

"This Long Binh," he says.

"Stop," I say.

He pulls off the road and parks by a pile of rusty wire and scrap metal. I climb out of the van and stand, looking at acres of elephant grass blasted by the tropical sun. I think of Long Binh when it was an enormous military base, a sandbag city of tents, barbed wire, and bunkers. We called it LBJ, for "Long Binh Jail." It was where I spent my first night "in country," sweat-soaked on a sagging cot, listening to the distant chunk of artillery, fear clawing at my chest. Now all I see is emptiness. Nothing to verify my past, nothing to commune with. How hot it is. How quiet.

Since Nam, I have spent a lot of nights with bottles of wine, reading the poetry of war -- Homer and Kipling, Sandburg and Komunyakaa. Through the haze of my thoughts, words by Sandburg are moving. The words are about grass and war and soldiers in Austerlitz and Gettysburg and Waterloo, but they are about this place, too. Shove them under and let me work -- I am the grass; I cover all. I gaze out at Long Binh's grass. It ripples in hot wind like folds of silk.

I climb back into the van, and we jostle on through paddies and rubber plantations, green groves of bamboo and banana trees. I have the strange feeling that my life has shrunk, that just around the bend an ambush will be waiting. I lean forward in my seat and ask Tran if he remembers Long Binh when the American soldiers were here.

"Vietnam believe it better not to remind of the past." He speaks looking straight ahead through aviator sunglasses. "We live in present with eye on future." The words sound rote, as if he is quoting from a propaganda paper. "Vietnam want to be thought of as country, not war, not just problem in other country's past."

On a berm old women in conical hats spread rice and palm fronds to dry in the sun. Charcoal fumes waft from cooking fires. White-shirted children with red kerchiefs tied around their necks march to school. Two men, brown and bent like cashew nuts, face each other over a big teak log and pull a crosscut saw back and forth slowly, rhythmically. For a brief moment the smell of gunpowder comes back to me, and I see little Asian men running headlong through tall grass, firing weapons and screaming. I see GIs running through smoke with green canvas stretchers.

THE arrangements for my mission in the coastal city of Nha Trang were made through Dr. Lieh Viet Dinh, the director of Khanh Hoa Hospital. The morning after my arrival, Dinh sends word to my hotel that he wants to meet me for a welcoming meal at a restaurant on the South China Sea. I have been told that Dinh was once in the North Vietnamese army and now is a high official in the province's Communist Party. What does he want? For me to say I'm sorry?

I hire a cyclo driver to pedal me to the restaurant. Mopeds with their exhaust tinting the air blue and bicycles piled high with cordwood tangle the streets. The Sunday-afternoon sun is so bright it hurts my eyes. But there is a cool ocean breeze and the scent of bougainvillaea in the air. Under flame trees with brilliant-orange blossoms barbers trim hair and clean wax from ears. Street vendors hawk flowers and loaves of French bread. Everywhere I look, I see Vietnamese getting on with their lives. I marvel at their serenity. They are no different from the people that I was taught to distrust, that I once machine-gunned. This street is no different from streets that I once helped to fill with rubble and bodies. A man on a Honda raises his index finger and calls, "Hey, Joe. U.S. number one." But I look away from him.

The restaurant is a rickety tile-roofed pagoda perched on stilts over a beach of sand the color of crème brûlée. Below, in a natural aquarium, sand sharks and tropical fish dart among the rocks. In the distance a soft vapor hangs over mountain islands in the bay. The restaurant is empty except for a gnarly little man sitting alone at a table with the sun splashing off turquoise water behind him. He is a militant figure with penetrating black eyes and hollow, acne-scarred cheeks that give him a look of toughness, a look that says, You could never defeat me no matter how many bombs you dropped. I know he is Dinh. The contempt that boiled inside me during the war bubbles up. I can feel it in my chest.

He calls to me to join him. I settle into a wooden chair across from him and extend my hand for him to shake, but he ignores it and offers a stiff little bow of his head. Nervousness dries up the saliva in my mouth. A waitress in a blue ao dai brings us bottles of Ba Muoi Ba beer. With her lustrous black hair and slim, silk-sheathed figure, she is beautiful and exotic like a tropical bird. The shy young girl with a dimple in her cheek that I took on the bamboo mat in Tay Ninh would be about her age now. I wonder what became of her.

In English that I have to listen to closely to understand, Dinh talks for a while about the Khanh Hoa Hospital, the only hospital for the one million people of his province. He tells me that my visit has been advertised on television, and that thirty children with cleft lips to be repaired will be there. His jaw tight, his voice intimidating, he tells me that the hospital has trouble getting medicine and equipment because of the American embargo. I pick up my bottle of beer and press it to my lips and tilt it. The liquid is warm, with the slight formaldehyde taste that I remember from the war. I look at Dinh's slanty black eyes and stained teeth, thinking how easy it would be to kill him. I've been taught to do it with a gun or a knife or my hands. It would come back to me quickly, like sitting down at a piano and playing a song that you mastered a long time ago but haven't played in years. Suddenly the thought of operating on little children in all this heat and dirt, with archaic equipment, jolts me back into the present. I ask him who will give the anesthesia.

"My doctors," he says. "Vietnamese doctors as good as any in the world."

The waitress brings a plate of lightly fried rice paper, bowls of rice and noodles, and a platter of sea bass smothered in peppers, onions, and peanuts. She gives me chopsticks and Dinh a metal spoon. When we begin to eat, I see Dinh's hands for the first time. I am startled. Now I know why he didn't shake with me. His thumbs are missing. I watch him spoon rice onto his plate, clutching the utensil in his thumbless hand. He has learned a pinch grip between his second and third digits, like children I have operated on who were born with floating thumbs or congenital absence of the first metacarpal bone. Using his fingers as if they were tongs, he wraps some fish in a sheet of the rice paper and dips it in nuoc cham sauce. The sauce smells rancid, and a sourness rises up my esophagus.

"I hear you in Vietnam during war," Dinh says between bites of fish and rice.

"Yes," I say. I can't take my eyes off his hands.

"Where?" he asks.

"South of here, along the Cambodian border near Tay Ninh."

"You see Nui Ba Den," he says. "How you call it? The black virgin mountain. This fish good. Dip your fish in nuoc cham."

I picture that black-haired man's head skewered on a bamboo pole.

"Yeah, I've seen Nui Ba Den," I say, feeling as if he must somehow know what I did on top of the mountain.

"Were you Army surgeon?"

"No. That was before I went to medical school. I was with the infantry." I take a gulp of beer. "That was a long time ago."

"Not so long ago," Dinh says. His lips curl into a smile that is filled with crooked yellow teeth. "Americans always think time longer than it is. Americans very impatient. Vietnamese very patient. We believe life is circle. Everything comes and goes. Why grasp and cling? Always things will come around again if you give them time. Patience is why we win victory."

In the filthy little village across the bay I can see tin-roofed shacks, teeming streets, the haze of smoke from cooking fires -- the thick stew of peasant life.

"How about you?" I ask. "Were you a doctor during the war?"

He wipes his mouth with his shirt-sleeve and says, "In war against French colonialists, I was Vietminh infantry man. Fifteen years old."

He raises a maimed hand and, with a wave motion to demonstrate high altitude, tells how he twice climbed the mountains of Laos and Cambodia on the Ho Chi Minh Trail -- once to fight the French and once to fight the Americans and their Vietnamese puppets. He was wounded at Dien Bien Phu. I wonder if that was when he lost his thumbs. I'm fascinated by his thumblessness. The ability to oppose a thumb and a finger is what sets us apart from lemurs and baboons.

"We have little to fight with," Dinh says. "After we shoot our guns, we pick up empty cartridges to use again. We eat nothing but tapioca roots and half a can of rice a day. For seven years I fight hungry." I listen to him tell of his wars, and it takes me back to mine. Cold-sweat nights peering out of a muddy bunker through concertina wire at tracers and shadows. Waiting. Listening. Grim patrols through elephant grass and jungle greased with moonlight. I can hear screams, see faces of the dead. What is memory and what is a dream? When it comes to the war, nothing seems true. It seems impossible that something that tragic, that unspeakable, was once a part of my life. Suddenly I'm overwhelmed with emotion. I wonder if Dinh ever feels like crying. In the shallows below the restaurant a sea turtle snaps at silver fish trapped in a net.

"How about in the war against America?" I ask. "Were you a doctor then?"

"I was surgeon in the war against you and your South Vietnamese puppets."

"Where did you serve?" I ask. "Were you in a hospital?"

"My hospital the forest. My operating table the soil of the jungle." He holds up both hands and rotates them for me to see. "I have thumbs then. I clever surgeon. I operate on everything from head to toes." He looks up at the ceiling as if an airplane were circling overhead. "Your B-fifty-twos drop big bombs. They make earth shake. They scare hell out of me."

Dinh flashes a smile that makes me uncomfortable. He takes a drink of beer.

"Were you wounded?" I ask.

"You mean my hands?"

"Yeah. What happened?"

He rests them on the table, displaying them as he talks. He tells me that he was captured in the central highlands, not by Americans but by South Vietnamese Special Forces in their purple berets. When they learned he was a doctor, they chose him for torture. They tied him to a stake under merciless sun and every day pulled out one of his fingernails with a pair of pliers. At night they locked him up in a tiger cage. He speaks softly. On the eleventh day they cut off his thumbs. Then they cooked them in a soup and told him to drink it. He hadn't eaten for two weeks, so he did.

"How did you survive?" I ask. "Why didn't you go crazy?"

"I pretended to be somewhere else. Somewhere at a time after our victory. I always knew we would win."

Dinh looks at my hands.

"You lucky," he says. "You have thumbs to do surgery. I can't even eat with chopsticks." He raises his hands, flexing his fingers. He glares at me with eyes as hard and black as gun bores. "This should happen to no one."

We finish our meal in silence. Under the afternoon sun the restaurant is stifling, and I feel queasy. I can get down only a little rice. But Dinh eats hungrily, shoveling in the food with his spoon as if to make up for all those years of rice and tapioca roots. When his plate is clean, he rinses his hands in a bowl of hot lime water with tea leaves floating on the surface.

He looks up at me and says, "To take the smell of fish from your skin."

IN the morning I walk from my hotel through steamy air, on streets boiling with people, to the hospital. Around the entryway dozens of crippled peasants and ragged children with skin sores squat on the powdery earth. Everything is dusty. I understand why Vietnamese peasants call themselves "the dust of life." A boy with weight-lifter arms calls to me in English from a bicycle that he pedals with his hands. He wants me to fix his paralyzed legs.

Khanh Hoa's pale-yellow façade gives me an impression of cleanliness and light, but inside, the wards are dim and grungy, with no glass or screens in the windows to keep out flies and mosquitoes. Often two patients occupy a single narrow bed, with family members sleeping on the floor nearby to assist with the feeding and bathing, the emptying of bedpans. A tiny, toothless woman with skin like teakwood waves a bamboo fan over a wasted man on a mattress without sheets. She gazes at me with longing. Everywhere I go, someone with sorrowful eyes looks at me as if I were Jesus.


(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Daly Walker is a surgeon and a Vietnam veteran. He is completing a collection of short stories and is working on a novel.

Illustrations by Jeffrey Decoster.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; I Am the Grass - 00.06; Volume 285, No. 6; page 88-97.