There’s Gold In Those Hills
Tên tôi là Giang
Let’s di di mau!
Come on, let’s fucking di di mau
Robert Lindsay woke up on the carpeted floor of room 103 at the Super 8 motel. A couple hours of restless sleep plagued by bone chilling nightmares of artillery fire and burning hooches, was still the best he’d managed since returning home five days ago.
The night had been for ambushes, and the day for shut eye. He'd been nocturnal for so long that rising and setting with the sun was proving to be a difficult task. One thing about boot camp was that they knew how to program folks into killing machines, but by God, they didn’t offer a hope and a prayer when it came time to reintegrate them back into society.
You’re a gook killing machine! A gook killing machine!
A lot of good that did when the gooks were seven thousand miles away. A lot of fucking good.
Robert got up, laboring his right leg that had taken shrapnel during a mission deep in A Shau Valley, and made his way to the small breakfast hall, where he poured himself a lukewarm cup of coffee and nibbled on a stale bran muffin.
Weighing heavily on his mind were his folks and Jenny Fitzgerald. In another life, another time, he stood stone faced in front of his old man, filled with piss and vinegar. Standing tall, chest puffed up with pride, as his father told him the stupidity of the decision he was making, and the lasting effect it would have.
You’ll never be the same, boy. No matter how hard you try to be normal, you’ll never feel right again. And for what? A losing war? Do you even know why you’re going over there in the first place? You think this is some John Wayne Gung Ho shit? You could die. Jesus, son. I went so that you wouldn’t have to. I sacrificed so that you wouldn’t have to!
Despite this, Robert hopped the Canadian border and volunteered in Plattsburgh, New York. A friendly recruiting officer shook his hand and told him about the importance of the decision he was making. He told Robert that a lot of Americans were defecting and crossing the border into Canada to avoid active duty. And that it was nice to see the reverse happening, too.
A Canadian fighting a war that wasn’t his to fight. Well, from what he was told, the damage of Communism spreading was a global threat. And last he checked, he was living on this spinning rock, same as everyone. So why wasn’t it his fight?
But now, he knew all too well how frighteningly right his father had been. Even after a few days, he watched out the window of the motel as folks carried on with their day as though their brothers, sons, cousins, friends, fellow human beings weren’t being blown to bits halfway across the world. Kids who weren’t even old enough to have a beer or place a bet were coming home in body bags. Old enough to die, but too young to live. He remembered Danson writing that on his combat helmet.
He couldn’t look at his father. He couldn’t look for fear of what he’d see looking back at him. Dead man’s eyes. That’s what Rickshaw and Devin called them back in Nam. And he knew he had it because once you saw the things you saw, you couldn’t unsee them. You couldn’t unfeel them. You couldn’t unbreathe them. You couldn’t wash them away like a great baptism. Those images, those thoughts, were projected out through your eyes. They were tattooed there like permanent damage.
Instead of going home, he walked down Main Street and stopped at Anderson’s Antiques. The proprietor of this dusty rank smelling antique shop was an old pal of his father’s, Reggie Anderson.
Inside the shop were old chipped rocking chairs, milk crates of vinyl records, toys, sofas, paintings, and at the back left-hand corner was Reggie, smoking a cigarette and reading the paper.
“Well, as I live and breathe. Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes” he said, coming around the counter with his arms spread out. He wrapped them tightly around Robert and followed the mauling with three hard slaps to the back. “A bona fide hero, in my little antique shop. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“It’s good to see you, Reg. I was thinking of the apartment upstairs. Could I rent it out?”
Reggie let out a long laugh before telling him his money was no good here. “Look kid. The apartment is yours, free of charge. A soldier’s discount. Mind you, the place is falling apart a little. But it’s fine to rest your head for the night. What are your plans anyway, now that you’re back in town?”
“I appreciate it, Reggie. And to be honest. I haven’t thought that far ahead.”
“Taking er a day at a time. Ain’t no sin in that. Have you been back to see the old man?”
“Uh, no. Not yet. I will though, soon.”
“Yeah, yeah, no doubt,” Reggie said. “You can take this here rocking chair, kid. There’s a mattress up there but nothing to sit in. We’ll get you a sofa too, in due time.”
He slapped Robert’s back again and held his hands there for a few seconds. “It’s good to have you back, kid. It really is.”
Robert looked at Reggie, whose hair was thinning and graying. His back was beginning to hunch. And he thought about coming into this shop with his father when he was a kid. How they would laugh and laugh, and even though young Robert hadn’t a single clue what they were talking about, he’d join in. He’d join in because they were men, and as a kid, all he wanted to be was a man. A strong, working class man like his father. Like Reggie.
The two of them would tousle his hair and Reggie would say, “You got yourself a good kid there, Billy. A real good kid. He’s going to do great things,” and his father would look down at him with a face filled with pride. A slight rise of the left side of his lip was all it took for the inside of Robert to feel like it was filled with a thousand butterflies that could lift his body off the ground.
And when the war came along, Rob watched his father eating his supper on his La-Z-Boy, bitter rage forming creases on his forehead. Walter Cronkite talked about the carnage in a place he’d never heard of. There were explosions, gunfire, grenades, and yes, there were body bags, too. But Rob was too young to think he could die. And now he realized that was how they got so many soldiers. Young kids who didn’t believe death would ever come knocking. But boy, did it ever.
Billy told the family how ridiculous the war was. How Ho Chi Minh wasn’t planning on taking over the world. How colonists had their foot on the throat of that country for so long that they were fighting back. That we would act the same way if colonists came into our country and tried to have their way with us. It was just Goddamn Lyndon Johnson who was in so deep that he couldn't pull them out now for fear of making him look weak.
He made a good point, but Robert didn’t want to serve for political ideological reasons. He wanted to serve because it was his time. And after his band The Freaks played The Dollar bar to a crowd of exactly three people, he wandered over to the closed antique shop and knocked on the door. Reggie answered, and there on that quiet evening, he told him he had to serve.
Reggie said, “Of course you do, son. It’s in your blood.”
That seemed like a million years ago.
How he wished he’d listened to his father
That evening he dreamed of the village in Quang Tri. How he looked around in disbelief that this was 1967, and not 1867, or 1767. These lives were so primitive, they were so simple.
There's a young woman named Giang, “tên tôi là Giang,” she says while offering a plate of rice. Robert gently waves his hand and shakes his head slowly back and forth. Schwarmy and O’Brien laugh as O’Brien slaps the plate out of her hands.
“Heeyyyy, Charlie. Come out. Come out, wherever you are,” Schwarmy is yelling with both hands cupped around his mouth. He puts his hands down and places them on the AK. He points it at women and children.
“Are you VC? What about you, kid? Are you VC? Hey O’Brien, do you think this little gook fucker is one of them?”
“Could be. They all look the same to me.”
They both bellow evil laughter. Robert is looking at Giang, who is attempting to pick up each individual grain of rice out of the dirt. By God, she’s beautiful, he thinks. And at that moment, he wonders if he’s on the wrong side of this thing.
He gets down on one knee to help, and she shrieks in fear. “No, no. It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.” She nods her head quickly, then resumes, not wanting to lock eyes with this man. Not wanting to trust him.
They clean up as much as they can, and she stands up, brushing her long black hair out of her face and holding the bowl tightly to her chest, fearing that at any moment, this soldier, who is playing Mr. Nice Guy, will knock it out of her hands and join his soldier friends for some laughter at her expense. But he doesn’t. He looks at her and smiles, and in the distance he can hear O’Brien, and Schwarmy calling out for VC.
They’re telling villagers who don’t understand that they’re about to get zapped if they don’t disclose the location of the Viet Cong that are hiding somewhere in one of these hooches.
His rucksack feels like a thousand pounds on his back, so he takes it off and rests it against a hooch that he believes to be Giang’s. Inside there are two children running around, chasing each other with little pieces of bamboo, and Robert thinks of the beauty of childhood wonder. How kids could find the good in anything and how he wished that one day you didn’t wake up to find it all gone. Never to return. That warm feeling replaced with aching worry, anxiety, and a deep hatred for what you allowed the world to do to you.
He follows her inside, and she turns around. She thinks for a minute about what she’s going to say and then tells him in English that her grandfather worked in California. She struggles to get it out, but he’s happy. Her English is much stronger than his Vietnamese.
“He says there’s gold in the hills and the water sparkles like diamonds”
Robert says that’s beautiful. He’s never been to California himself but once thought about it. Like many kids who are called good-looking one too many times in school, he thought he could go to Hollywood and make it in the movies. But here he was, a long way from those corrugated steel letters that overlooked the La-La Land.
Outside, the sound of artillery fire shakes Robert from his daydream in horrific fashion. Giang jumps and looks behind her to shield her children, except they aren’t there.
She shouts with a primal screech that makes Robert feel like vomiting, and if he had anything more than half a C-ration and a couple sips from his canteen, he’s sure he would have spilled it all over the hooch.
Bianh! Dihn! Bianh! Dihn! Bian! Dihn!
Giang runs outside, Robert follows closely behind like a shadow. He fears the worst, because in his four months of humping through mountains, swamps, and fields of grass that grew far above his head that had to be cut with a machete, the worst that he could imagine happened. In many cases, it was even worse than he could imagine.
Now is no different as he looks at two lifeless bodies in the center of the village. They’re piled on top of each other in opposite directions, like a human X. Their bamboo sticks next to them. Schwarmy is standing next to the bodies, a smug smile draped across his face, and Robert has never wanted to take the life of another human being so badly in his entire life.
Giang is running to them, her hair flowing behind her as Robert watches, lifeless like a statue. O’Brien has a zippo lighter that he took from the Reverend when he fell on Hill 106. The Zippo says, Jesus Saves, and he’s burning the hooches with it. The dry heat erupts the homes in seconds. Clouds of pitch black smoke rise like a dark omen. As Robert watches the clouds of smoke and sees O’Brien winking, a homemade cigarette dangling loosely from his mouth, two more gunshots echo with the screaming of villagers. Robert feels his body, he’s rubbing up and down his chest, his neck, face, and back to make sure that the bullets aren’t lodged in his body somewhere.
He isn’t hit. But Giang is lying with her children. Still. Robert can feel the salt from his tears stinging his sweating face. He runs over to Schwarmy, eyes of hatred and blood that’s boiling so hot his entire body is in danger of combusting.
With the butt of the AK, he smashes Schwarmy’s nose. And climbs on top of him, delivering blow after blow to his face.
Behind him, he can hear O’Brien and the rest of the platoon. Walker, Cross, Frankie, and Lem, yelling out as the village goes up like Pompei.
Let’s di di mau
Come on, let’s fucking Didi Mau
There’s no VC here. I repeat. There’s no VC here. Let’s go. Come on, let’s go!
He takes one last look at Giang and the children, before he’s pulled off of Schwarmy by Walker, and his head keeps replaying her voice again, and again.
Tên tôi là Giang
There’s gold in the hills and water sparkles like diamonds.
Robert screams her name, and downstairs Reggie looks up at the ceiling with a somber look. It’s 3 in the morning, and he’s already on his second cup of coffee. He’s dusting and reorganizing. Moving a chair from one dusty corner to another. Piling the jigsaw puzzles of beautiful landscapes into perfectly neat stacks.
Robert is still screaming.
Reggie thinks about his time in the service. A little cafe in the south of France. A cute little nurse named Marie. Reggie, smiling so much that his face hurt. Marie laughing at all of his strange Canadian jokes, and strange Canadian humor. He remembers a small birthmark just above the right side of her lip that looked like an apple. Her smell. Lavender wafting off of her and into his nose, calming him and making him fall in love with her.
Then the tanks. The explosions and Marie.
He can’t go see Robert because there’s nothing to say. Nothing with any form of truth, anyway. He’d love to go upstairs and tell him that it will fade, and she will be forgotten, whoever she is. But it wouldn’t be true. No, sir. Not true at all, Reggie thought as he took another sip of his coffee. Smelling lavender, and thinking about the apple shaped birthmark.
Robert came down the stairs at a quarter past nine. Reggie was showing an old woman some China from the 1920s. She seemed interested in the floral designs on the aged white cups, and Reggie was closing in on the sale. A little flirting, touching her shoulder, and laughing like she was the funniest person on earth. Her cheeks were flushed, and she was waving her right arm at him saying, “oh would you stop it?”
Robert smiled and snuck behind the counter where a half-empty pot of coffee was sitting on a burner. There were paper cups next to it, and he poured himself one. The coffee was old, no doubt, but he still went back for a second cup.
After a few minutes, the old lady left and said she’d return with her grandsons, who would help her carry it all. Reggie said, “fine by me, ma’am. Looking forward to seeing you.” Again, she blushed and left as the bell above the door dinged.
“You’re a natural,” Robert said, raising his paper cup and smiling.
“Did you see that diamond necklace? The old broad has money. That’s when old Reggie has to turn on the charm.” He winked. “Say, what are your plans for the day, soldier?”
Robert knew what his plans should be, and that was to visit his father. But he was scared, something that Reggie read on his face instantly.
“Look, kid. I’ve known your father for a long time. And I don’t know what you’re expecting to happen when you see him, but he’s just going to be happy that you’re home. He’s going to want to crack a cold beer with you. And you won’t have to say a word about the war, kid. Not a word. Your old man and I have sat at The Dollar for over twenty years now, drinking, laughing, sometimes talking and sometimes sitting in silence. But always, always knowing that we understood what was floating around each other’s brains and knowing that just having someone who understands is a lot better than trying to forget it, kid.”
“I know, Reg. I do. But every time I’m about to head over that way, I think about the way we left things. Him screaming, and me standing with my chest puffed out like I knew a fucking thing about anything. He knew, Reg. He knew.”
Reggie placed his hand on Robert’s shoulder and said, “Of course he did, kid. But you know what? Your father stood in front of his old man too after Pearl Harbour and told him he was enlisting. Your grandfather spent two years in muddy fucking trenches. He had words for your father. Being young, kid. Being young means being full of pride. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to serve your country. Not a thing at all. And your old man understands that, kid. I promise you he does.”
And with those words, Robert left the shop. His father was likely working, so he’d wait until the evening to go pay him and his mother a visit.
That evening, as he headed down Main towards his folks’ home on Union, a cool fall wind blew, massaging his face and making him feel good for the first time in a long while. He passed the embankment that overlooked the freight yard, and he remembered parking his old man’s Ford and kissing Jenny deeply. Kissing her and thinking that life couldn’t possibly get any better than that moment, and now, he was sure that was right.
Jenny was off to college, and he remembered her Dear John letter. The one that said she loved him, but time didn’t stand still because he wasn’t around. The world kept moving; it kept spinning, and her life couldn’t pause. She was going away, and if he wanted to visit her when he returned, he was more than welcome. But it would be as friends. Not as lovers. And she had attached a picture of them, standing on his front lawn, getting ready for prom. Jenny’s long blonde hair, and big smile. She had to get braces the week before, and he remembered her crying because of it. And when she came to his house to show them off, her eyes puffy and red, he thought she had never looked more beautiful.
A grunt buddy named Damien had looked over his shoulder, and said, “you got yourself a beauty there, Jordan. Don’t let her get away.” And he responded, “I’ll try, brother. I’ll try my best.”
Every block formed a memory in his head about childhood. Bike rides, and comic shops. Georgie Flannagan’s little malt shop on the corner of Evangeline and Mill Haven. The candy stripe swirling in front of Paul’s barbershop. He thought about going in there with his old man to get a haircut. His father went first and when Paul asked what he wanted, he told he wanted the “Daddy Cut”. He laughed, and so did his father. They walked out that day looking like twins, and he’d never felt so much pride in himself, in his family, and in his town.
Before he knew it, he was crossing up Union Street. Maggie’s German Shepherd, still barking behind a chipped white picket fence. “Hey, boy,” Robert called, “How are you, boy?”
The dog responded with a couple of happy yips and yaps, and Robert thought he would like one and wondered if Reggie would let him bring a pup to his small bachelor pad.
Then he was standing in front of his childhood home. The three story, old Victorian that was built in 1890. Faded auburn Cape Cod siding, and brown shutters on his bedroom window. The garden stones that formed a snake formation up to the three steps that led to the front door. His mother’s garden of beautiful blooming flowers, bright purples, and pinks, whites, and yellows, all sitting neatly in a bed of red mulch.
Robert stood, unable to move for a few moments. Then he heard voices coming from behind the house. He recognized the sound immediately as Bob Collins, doing color commentary for the Red Sox game. His father was back there. He knew the old man was sitting on his favourite patio chair, with a cold beer in his right hand, and a cigar between the fingers on his left, or hanging from his mouth.
Robert’s heart was beating madly as he walked past his Ford truck, where he and Jenny loved each other, and talked about the future. And as he came around the corner of the house, he saw his father staring out at the river and the Appalachian mountain range in the distance.
He had a pair of jeans on, and he was still wearing a dirty work shirt. Robert walked up the deck stairs, and his father looked to his right and saw his son, for the first time in almost two years.
“I heard you were back in town,” he said. And Robert nodded. “You lost some weight.”
“Haven’t been eating much.”
Then he reached into the cooler that was sitting at his feet and hauled out a beer, placing it on the arm of the chair next to his. He didn’t say a word.
Robert walked slowly to the chair and sat down. His first beer with his old man. How many times he had asked to have one with him when he was a teenager, and his father replying that once he was old enough, they could drink beer and listen to ball games all night. But not a drop until then.
He popped the tab and took a long drink, nearly downing half the can before he took it off his lips. He let out an exasperated, “Ahhhhh,” and placed the can back on the arm of the chair.
“How are the Sox doing?”
“Down two runs in the seventh. We have two outs, but there’s a man on first and third. Johnny Curtis is pitching. Needs to stop throwing that damn curve. His fastball can’t be hit.”
“Who are they playing?”
“Milwaukee. Damn Brewers are streaky, but when they’re hitting, boy are they ever.”
“Yeah. It’s been a while. I’ll need a refresher course.” He swore he could see a hint of a smile form on his father’s weathered face.
“You came to the right place. Your mom is at Bingo with Wendy Alton, and Becca Sherman. Should be back in an hour or so.”
Then the two sat in silence for a while. Every time Robert’s can was empty, his father grabbed him another one and placed it in the same spot.
In his head, he could still hear the voices of the 103rd, but this evening they weren’t as loud. He looked over at his father and knew that inside his head there were voices, too. Good ones. Bad ones. There was always a war waging inside his skull, as there would be for him. But sitting there, he realized Reggie was right. He didn’t need to discuss what had happened, and his father didn’t need to tell Robert what he saw. The point was they had both been to different iterations of hell, and they both returned.
Robert looked at the view. The sun was a brilliant orange flame that was setting behind a mountain range that he had taken for granted his entire childhood. Smokestacks billowed from the paper mill as the water sparkled.
tên tôi là Giang
tên tôi là Giang
There’s gold in those hills. And the water sparkles like diamonds in the sun.