COCONUT BOY (in Evening Street Review #20, Spring 2019)
Mr. Phan stands and faces the passengers, his small frame mostly hidden by his seat back, a microphone in his hand. He blinks through thick, round glasses. Nodding in one direction, his eyes grow large; in another, bisected. On his periphery, rice fields blur by, water buffalo, shrines sending the smoke of lemon grass incense to ancestors.
Mr. Phan responds to a question. “No, no wifi on bus. You no need wifi. Wife you need. Without wife, you die. Without wifi, you live. No need wifi.” He sits.
The U.S. war veterans chuckle. Their wives, too. They shuffle their daypacks, water bottles, emergency TP, and cameras, ready to aim and fire. The wives wonder quietly if this trip will quell their spouses’ nightmares. The vets don’t talk about why they have come.
The bus rolls on, its engine humming to memories. Battle maps and stories meander from one seat to the next.
Mr. Phan stands again, says he will explain what happened to the South Vietnamese after the U.S. left and the war against the communists was lost. “There are three groups,” he says. “First group, ARVN soldiers, they are ordered to report to local police stations. They are afraid to go, but they go. They are sent to reeducation camps. Can you guess for how long? One year, two years, five years, ten years, more. Depends on rank. Officers spend many years. Some do not return, ever.”
The veterans, in their sixties and seventies, lean across the bus aisle, laughing through their own stories. “It was Typhoon Con 1,” one of them says. “That meant wearing a helmet at all times—even to the shitter. I had a first lieutenant who didn’t want to wear his helmet. Refused to wear it. I told him to keep that fucker on his head. So the next day he strutted out for morning ablutions with nothing on but his goddamn helmet.” “Yeh,” another says, “I hadn’t had R&R in months—one thing or another. The colonel found out. Ordered me to meet my wife in Hawaii. Then the typhoon hit and local travel was shutdown. The colonel said, ‘You’re going anyway. Your wife is waiting for you,’ he said, ‘the typhoon be damned.’ He even sent his own driver to get me to the transport plane. Now, that’s a lesson in leadership.”
“Second group,” Mr. Phan continues, “wealthy people. What you think happens to them? NVA goes through their houses, their businesses, takes everything valuable. Takes their houses. Sends them to farms to work for people they rob with their privilege. Man owns jewelry store. Has black chain on door. Soldier scratches chain. Is gold. All man’s jewelry made into chain. Soldier takes gold. Man goes to reeducation camp.”
The veterans huddle closer now, standing in the aisle, half again as tall as Mr. Phan and twice as loud. They support each other on the rocking bus, swaying to the rhythm, one memory segueing to the next, vying with Mr. Phan’s microphone. “That major,” one vet looks ready to spit, “he was a jerk. He insisted on going on patrol. His gunny told him he shouldn’t be doing that, but he wouldn’t listen. Some guys just hope they’ll be heroic. He was one of those guys who wanted the glory. He stood up at the wrong time and took one in the face. He had it coming. Guy was a jerk.”
“Third group,” Mr. Phan says, “group three is regular people. Like my family.” He pauses, looks for passenger eyes on him, nods at the few he finds. “I tell you what happens to us. I am twelve. My father is teacher. He and my brother stay in our house in Saigon. My mother and I go to our coconut farm in Me Kong Delta. Small farm. We grow coconuts, but we are not able to sell them. They go to government. We cannot sell coconuts, we cannot buy rice. Government gives us too little. We need rice to live. So we go at night, we take our coconuts and sell on what you call ‘black market.’ Big risk. Very dangerous. We sell them so we can eat. We are afraid. But we must eat. We are hungry always.”
The veterans shift. Some of their weary knees can’t take all the bumping. Some have guts grown large with their accumulated years, throwing them off balance. A few are slim, as upright as in their youth. Their stories continue while they pass the Que Son Mountains and Antenna Valley. “That’s where that SPIE went bad.” “What’s that?” a wife asks. “SPIE, special purpose insertion and extraction. It was called ‘Thunder Chicken.’ Eighteen November 1970 at sixteen-thirty,” a vet says. “It was a war cloud,” says another. “Two hundred feet visibility. The helos came to extract a unit. The birds flew around the long way, fifty feet above the river from the north and then up Antenna Valley. One bird flew up the creek, and a team led them in by sound, by radio. Picked up seven men, hanging on the rope, a cargo harness. The bird turned the wrong way. We lost fourteen Marines and one Navy corpsman.”
Mr. Phan carries on. “My mother,” he says, “she takes me to visit my aunt and my cousin, Hung. Hung is boy, my age. He wants to leave Viet Nam, to escape. Says I come with him. I am not certain. I am afraid. I do not want to leave my mother. She says I decide. I think I leave. I think I stay. Hung says, ‘Come with me.’ But I do not know what to do. I worry. I decide no. Hung leaves, alone. Very, very dangerous.”
The veterans have faded to silence. Settled in their seats, they look out the windows, retrace death on maps, nod off. The wives take fuzzy photos of concrete homes guarded by ceramic dogs; sheets and clothes drying on bushes; honking motorbikes loaded with pigs, building materials, furniture, people—four on some bikes, even five; a cemetery with no bodies. It honors the village’s MIAs.
Mr. Phan persists. “A month passes,” he says. “We visit my aunt. She does not hear from Hung. We say she will hear soon. ‘He is probably on boat. He writes when he lands,’ we say. Two months, six months. We visit her again. She does not hear from Hung. She worries and worries. A year passes. We visit her. My aunt is sick. No message from Hung. She says he will return to her. More months. We visit. My aunt is dying. She sees me and sits up. ‘Hung,’ she cries, ‘you are back, my son!’ We never hear from Hung. He is gone. Maybe boat sinks. We never know. My aunt dies. My mother says, ‘You must go back to Sai Gon. Get education. Become man. You cannot be coconut boy forever,’ she says. I go, study to be English teacher. Must learn communist slogans in English. Now, today, I here with you.”
Mr. Phan bows his head.
A vet mumbles to a window, maybe to a dream, “They wouldn’t have what they have today if we didn’t do what we did here.”
Mr. Phan removes his glasses. Wipes his eyes. Returns the glasses. Smiles. “Now we go to Hoi An,” he says. “Town on coast. Very nice. Old shipping port. Good shopping.”