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I met Wendell Affield at a writing workshop in Northern Minnesota. Workshops can be strange settings, for the simple reason that a group of strangers must come together to discuss highly personal work. Wendell’s piece was especially charged.
It was an excerpt from a memoir that dealt with his return from Vietnam, where he had served on a gunboat in the Mekong Delta. The piece was striking for its unflinching honesty. He was able to capture the sense of desolation experienced by the veterans of that war with restrained dignity.
But there was one passage that stood out. Wendell recounted an incident in which a number of anti-war protesters stormed a bus transporting him and other wounded veterans, eager to inflict further injury. He described the soldiers within as terrified.
I asked Wendell whether his perception of the events of that day might not be skewed by his intense emotions. Would anti-war protesters really behave in such a vicious manner? Why would they attack wounded soldiers in broad daylight?
Wendell was quietly adamant. He’d been there, and this is what had happened. As we talked, his face reddened with frustration. He told me, quite correctly, that I was too young to remember how it had been back then for returning soldiers like him, and probably too ideologically blinded.
In the end, I issued a few unconvincing bromides about the risks of writing about events that remain so raw, and we moved on to another piece. But I felt terrible. As a teacher, the last thing I want to do is undermine a student, particular one like Wendell, who struck me as an exceptionally gentle soul, and was clearly engaged in a painful personal excavation.
A few months later, rather out of the blue, I received a note from Wendell, along with an article he’d written about the confrontation with the anti-war protesters. Wendell had returned to the scene of the episode, talked with some of the locals, and done considerable archival research in an effort to reconstruct what had happened. What he discovered was astonishing.
As it turned out, the anti-war protesters apparently had confused the bus Wendell was on with one that was transporting members of the National Guard to Chicago, where the bloody riots of the 1968 Democratic National Convention were in full swing. This explained the belligerence of the protesters: they’d thought they were confronting soldiers who were about to descend on their comrades.
I mention all this by way of suggesting the deep respect I have for Wendell, and especially his determination to tell his story accurately. After all, it would have been easy enough for him to dismiss my questions as naïve and presumptuous. Instead, he did what every serious writer must: he investigated further, in pursuit of the truth. This, it seems to me, is the highest duty of any memoirist in this age of fraudulence and solipsism.
I could speak at length here about the merits of Muddy Jungle Rivers: its eloquence, its emotional generosity, its urgent and haunting prose. But the book’s enduring virtue is that it records, with utmost fidelity, the unspeakable horrors of the author himself, as a young man adrift in the moral chaos of war.
No story is more important to this historical moment, in this country, which has been at war for over a decade now. Whatever rhetoric politicians might use to glorify these military adventures, they boil down to the same story, which plays out all over our country: young men, most of them without many other economic options, are sent far from home, to countries they’ve never heard of, to fight an enemy they barely know. They move through utterly foreign landscapes as human targets. They endure both tedium and occasional bursts of violent chaos. When they can no longer resist the impulse, they struggle to understand the greater purpose of the risks and burdens they shoulder. And at the end of all this, the fortunate must return home and seek to make peace with what they’ve seen and done and suffered.
This is the story Wendell has set out to tell. It might be said that it is the essential story of our country. At the very least, it is our saddest. As you venture into the world Wendell draws so vividly, let me offer one final observation – that the purest measure of our decency as a nation resides not just in our willingness to provide these men medical and psychological care, but to listen when, like Wendell, they muster the uncommon courage to tell us what happened to them. — Steve Almond
Chapter 19 – U Minh Forest
Our riverine assault boat division made a six hour run west on the Mekong River through monsoon drizzle carrying a full platoon of army troops on each Tango boat. We were moving deep into the U Minh Forest, located near the southwestern tip of South Vietnam. There had been no outsiders since the French departure in 1954. The American war had missed these people—predominantly farmers—in this remote area until now. Buddha had returned from a boat captain’s meeting and told us that the VC had training camps, hospitals, and POW camps in the vast jungle swamp. He said they even came there on R&R.
At dusk our boat column received sniper fire when we turned south into a smaller river and passed through the large town of Can Tho. We were ordered not to return fire; speed up, get past. It was a common tactic of the VC to fire on us from populated areas—if we returned fire and wounded villagers, it provided them propaganda.
I drove into the night; the boat quieted—the well-deck packed with sleeping troops, our gunners lying on the deck between their turrets behind me in the cox’n flat, Buddha topside between the turrets trying to stay awake. Professor sat in the corner behind me dozing. I followed the colored lights mounted above the boat ahead of me as we snaked slowly south on narrow dark rivers. Sometime during the night fog set in low, about a foot above the water.
In the early morning hours I must have hallucinated. Mixed diesel fumes and fog hugged the river, hung in the still air, and drifted me back to the train I’d ridden through the Cascade Mountains of Washington when I was sixteen. It had been dawn as the locomotives crawled toward the summit tunnel and diesel fumes hovered, sucked into the open-doored boxcar. The rising sun had illuminated the white peaks of the mountains across the valley. Looking down at the fog bed resting in the valley, I seemed in another world—above the clouds.
“Afe, back down, back down,” Buddha yelled. I grabbed the throttles, threw them into reverse, and revved the engines. I barely missed the boat in front of me—somehow I’d crept up on him when my mind had drifted. “You been driving all night—why the hell didn’t you wake somebody up to take over?”
Troops were stirring in the well-deck. The smell of heating C-rations wafted up from below through the hatch near my feet. A sergeant climbed the ladder, stuck his head through the hatch. “They just called on my radio—we’re about half an hour from our insertion point.”
“Did you hear that, Buddha?” Professor called up from behind me.
“Yeah, after they’re dropped we’ll move south to wait for them—we can eat then. Everybody get your flak jackets and brain buckets on and get in position.”
“I’ll be glad when this operation is over,” the sergeant said, slapping a mosquito. “We didn’t get no sleep last night. This is my second tour in the Delta and I never seen mosquitoes this bad.”
Our radio came to life with last minute instructions and the sergeant went below. I raised my armor shields while the gunners climbed into their turrets.
“Swing her in Afe. Drop the ramp.”
I pulled up toward the shoulder-high grass on the riverbank and pushed water inland. I dropped the ramp and Snipe stuck his head up through the hatch and said the troops were stepping off into a foot of water. I watched them move toward a tree line on the far side of the paddy—at least they’d be on high ground when they reach it, I thought. From my cox’n flat I watched an officer, the sergeant, and the radioman come together in the tall grass talking and pointing across the rice paddy. A moment later the officer picked up the radio handset and spoke into it.
The army had 105mm howitzers mounted on barges—towed by LCM-8s—for mobile artillery support. When operations stretched beyond the range of stationary artillery, these units accompanied our boats to support the troops. Upon reaching the area of operations, they were anchored securely to the riverbank and could instantly respond to fire mission requests. I knew they brought up the rear of the column because several times during the night I’d heard the radio checking on them, urging them to keep up. From around the river bend, about five hundred meters behind us, I heard a blast followed by an explosion thirty meters short of the tree line. The officer spoke into the handset again followed a moment later by another blast and explosion—this time on target. I could almost read his lips the third time—fire for effect—a moment later the tree line erupted as we watched from the safety of our boat. Five minutes later the artillery barrage stopped and the troops advanced.
“Crank her up, Afe. Let’s move upriver,” Buddha said, repeating the radioed orders.
I beached the boat at our troop pick-up location near a fisherman’s hooch, shut the engines down and climbed topside. Buzzing flies, the sing-song chatter of children trying to get our attention, and the distant thud of artillery filled the morning air. The children seemed different—inquisitive but not begging.
“Afe, take Crow and Dennis with you. Check the area—search that hooch behind Papason—make sure there aren’t any surprises.”
I loaded a 12 gauge shotgun, filled my pockets with extra rounds, then strapped a .38 caliber revolver to my waist. Dennis and Crow took M16s and extra clips of ammo. We jumped off the boat onto the sandy riverbank.
An ancient Vietnamese man squatted in the sand, sun shining on his leathery face. Arms extended, elbows resting on knees, his hands hung limp, like bats in a cave. One eye closed, the other at half-mast, his wispy goatee was stained with betel nut juice. Flies crawled undisturbed as they explored his wrinkled face. He was barefoot, wore baggy black pants and a ragged shirt. Faded scars laced his bony hands. He remained motionless when I approached—made no hint of my existence. It was disconcerting. For a moment, anger flashed at his impertinence.
Back home, on the Indian reservation near our farm in northern Minnesota, there had been an Indian man who sat on the ground, cross-legged on a blanket and listened to the powwow drums—they said he was over one hundred years old. He couldn’t hear anymore, never spoke, but loved the rhythm. When I was a child he fascinated me—his white filmed eyes staring into the sky while his fingers tapped light cadence to the drums. “He feels music through the air,” an elder told me. My older brothers and I had Mohawk haircuts that summer and played cowboys and Indians—they always made me the Indian.
“Is the old fuck dead?” Crow asked, waving his hand a few inches from the old Papason’s face.
“Let him be. He’s not going to hurt anybody. I’m going into the hooch. You guys keep an eye out back. Buddha can see the front if anything happens.”
“I want to go in,” said Crow. “Maybe I’ll find a souvenir.”
I looked at him and motioned with a wave of my gun barrel to move around to the back. The front yard was bare dirt—sugar sand and black delta silt. Flies rose sluggishly as I approached the little house.
It was a one-room hut—no door—constructed of vertical small posts, covered with bamboo-and-grass-thatch walls and roof, with a hard packed dirt floor. The dominant feature was an ornate brass bed frame. Ten scrawny chickens perched on the bare springs—each tied by the leg. The brass was green-hued and caked with generations of chicken manure. I watched a fresh-laid egg bounce from the hen’s puckering butt, down through the springs, to the shit-crusted floor. They were small black chickens—like bantams—and reminded me a bit of snakes when their heads shot forward, snapping at flies. Manure ammonia blended with fish smell. Flies swarmed in protest at my invasion of their sanctuary. Near the hooch doorway, against the wall, a large dented copper pot simmered on a low charcoal brazier. I realized that was the source of the fish smell. I hooked the lid of the simmering pot with the shotgun muzzle and peeked. Fishheads and entrails rolled lazily in bubbling broth, flies hovering just beyond the heat halo.
“What the hell stinks in there?” Crow asked, sticking his head in the back door. “Fuck, how can you breathe?”
“Lunch cooking—are you hungry.”
“I’m glad it’s you in there, not me.”
Near the brazier stood a long, low cabinet, doors askew on broken hinges. Gallon jugs of nuoc mam, Vietnamese fishsauce, rested in a corner. On the floor near the brazier lay an assortment of vegetable greens and roots—stock to be added to the fish head broth, I assumed.
An oil lamp covered in spider webs and fly scat hung from a bare overhead roof brace in the dim windowless interior. In the far corner, a pile of bedding lay wadded on the floor.
Retreating from the hooch, I shouted to Buddha that the people were just farmers and fishermen—no sign of them supporting the Viet Cong. Crow, Dennis, and I returned to the boat. Several young children, standoffish when we first arrived, now trailed us. They’d never seen Caucasians or Black men in their lives. We gave them C-rations, showed them how to open the cans and packets, and quickly gained their confidence. I glanced shoreward—the old papason hadn’t moved.
We must have fascinated the children. Vietnamese have no body hair. One child rubbed my arm, pulled the hair on it then began rubbing my tattoo. When it wouldn’t rub off he spit on it and rubbed harder. I laughed, pushed him away, rumpling his hair in a playful gesture. He frowned and jumped back and I realized I had committed a taboo. Vietnamese culture frowned on touching the top of another’shead. Stonewall was surrounded by children. The boys, more bold, stroked his black skin, like petting a puppy. The little girls looked on in silence. I snapped a picture and several children darted from our boat back to the riverbank. I’d committed another taboo. In snapping the picture, I captured their spirit. On the main river, people were beyond such superstitions.
Late afternoon, out of boredom, Crow, Dennis, and I extended our search to the surrounding area. Along the sandy riverbank, fish nets hung drying in the sun—cleaned of debris, repaired, ready to set out again. A weathered sampan rested on the bank above the high tide mark. Mounted on the stern was a single cylinder outboard with a small propeller attached to the end of a long shaft. Flies swarmed above juices at the bottom of the boat.
Patrolling north, inland of the hooch, I spotted an abandoned French fort with six-foot-high dried mud walls. Corner guard towers had collapsed and aged timbers jutted skyward. Grass and trees flourished in the once-packed parade ground. I recalled a story Professor had told me of how—late in their war—the French government had abandoned troops in remote areas and I wondered at the tales of terror this fort could tell. Horror of being left behind; families back in France left to wonder about the fate of their loved ones.
We circled inland from the river and discovered a cemetery entrance guarded by a small shrine. Beneath a stone canopy were two statues—Buddha and the Virgin Mary. I thought again of how Professor said the Vietnamese were a blend of many cultures—Buddha, the ancestral god, Virgin Mary, the French god, left by missionaries a generation ago.
“Hey, a souvenir—that’s what I’ve been looking for,” Crow said, reaching into the shrine for the Buddha statue.
I looked at him and shrugged.
“I’m going back to the boat. Fucking gooks could pick us off here. We wouldn’t have a chance.”
“Go ahead. I’ll be along,” I replied. Dennis followed Crow back to the boat and I listened to the silence as the breeze rustled above me.
The cemetery was shaded by mangrove and nipa palm. Leaves whispered of agonies endured in an unfriendly environment;of torment inflicted by invaders. Professor had talked of different cultures trying to force their ways—Angkor,Mongolian, Chinese, French, Japanese, now Americans. The Vietnamese endured, like the palms above me, battered and damaged in typhoons, yet surviving, sprouting new growth, new generations.
Like the elder sensing drum rhythms, I sensed Vietnamese ancestors watching me and thought again of the Indians at home. They had family plots at each homestead and what, I had thought as a child, were above-ground crypts for their dead. Here, even though I was unable to read the inscriptions, I studied headstones that afternoon in the shaded jungle cemetery—history embedded in the lichen-covered characters. No enemy here.
I returned to the riverbank and found another boat crew lounging in the shade of coconut trees. They had enticed the children into climbing trees, cutting the large nuts, and tossing them down. I was amazed how kids scampered up the trunks and danced around the crown like small monkeys. It was a happy afternoon as we lazed in the shade, hacking through thick husks to the coconuts, savoring the sweet juice and white meat, playing with the children. That evening the army troops bivouacked near the riverbank. Sarge came aboard and told us it had been a quiet day but he expected to see shit the next day. Before dawn, the troops boarded the boat and we moved south, deeper into the U Minh Forest.