Chiêu Hôi was an Army Psyop program that encouraged Viet Cong troops
to defect to U.S. controlled forces. The name means, "Open Arms."
to defect to U.S. controlled forces. The name means, "Open Arms."
Mau Than orphanage was a tiny wrinkle in the faded green canvas of Vietnam. Mau Than means "Big War." It’s how the people who had lived through decades of war in that tortured land referred to the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Big War of the Lunar New Year.
That bloody combat brought a flood of misery from which an endless stream of little faces trickled. The Vietnamese called mixed race orphans máu xâu – bad blood – motherless waifs half a world away from their fathers in Woodstock or West Hampton or Watts.
My first tour of duty left me somewhat less than human: cold, distant, and self destructive. Being a free-roaming Supply Sergeant with horse-trader skills and a backstage pass to the Cambodia incursion meant seeing far more than the average troop. Veni, Vidi, Vesania.
A Presbyterian chaplain who knew me showed up at my hut late one night with King James and Jack Daniel’s. He had counseled me early in my first tour and I had told him that, as a teenager, I was headed for a Catholic seminary until I revolted in High School and abandoned The Faith. He was the first non-priest I ever spoke to about my religion or, more accurately, my lack of religion.
I can’t remember his name, but he reminded me of Larry Hovis, the guy who played Sgt. Carter on the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. He said he was from Upper Sandusky, Ohio, which I had always thought was a made-up comedic name, so I teased him about not being from “Lower Sandusky” where the the rich Ohioans came from. He was patient with my lame humor, probably knowing that I, like countless other G.I.’s, was afraid to talk about God, good and bad, or sin and holiness while in such a moral mess as The Nam.
He took off his Captain’s bars, tossed them on my wire spool table and we talked: death and sadness, body bags and condolence letters, pain and the booze, and whether or not it was possible to go home again. Half a bottle later he asked if I was finished with Vietnam.
Hell yes. “Yes Sir, I am.”
He let me sit with my thought for a moment. “But Martin, is Vietnam finished with you?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. The end of a full year of senseless risks, loneliness, heat prostration, ringworm, and deep-scar regrets was mere days away. I was so short I couldn’t see over the top of my boots.
Hell yes, I’m finished with it.
But a few weeks later, stateside, in surreal familiarity of my parent’s home, unable to feel the embraces of my family and sadder than I had ever been, I knew what he meant.
Christ was finished with the cross the moment he picked it up. He didn’t crucify himself – but, until he was upon it at Golgotha, the cross wasn’t finished with him.
I wasn’t Christ, and it wasn’t personal. But it was more than just war; it was my needed sacrifice.
The concrete block walls of Mau Than were pocked with innumerable craters, divots blasted by errant small arms fire over the years. A few larger holes here and there marked where 50 caliber rounds had made it into the kitchen or classroom or the nursery where children huddled on the floor over swaddled infants, waiting and praying for safety and silence and daylight.
The French had left the legacy of Jesus - a single, ordained Vietnamese priest and a handful of village women trained to assist him. Not nuns like the Dominican penguins who taught me the Baltimore Catechism and twisted my ears when I stepped out of line. These Vietnamese women wore modest ao dai’s and held themselves out as mere helpers, not Brides of Christ. Humble.
Their smiles were pulled down a bit by enduring sadness; their pallor spoke of sleepless nights. Yet they never gave in to the hopelessness I gave in to when the kids went to bed and I listened to the crickets and waited for sunrise, lying on their concrete floor with my weapon and my worries.
I knew each woman by name but, when talking to other soldiers or my Commanding Officer, referred to them as “The Angels.” The Angels saw Christ and Buddha as brothers and somehow were inspired by both of them in they demonstrated their selfless embrace of Self.
There were thirty-two little faces when I first arrived at the compound, but that number rose and fell many times during my stay. Three infants entrusted to each six year-old, three six year-olds to each teen and the Angels who took care of the odd-outs so that order could be maintained. A children’s platoon in the struggle to survive.
A month before Christmas I put it on every G.I. I knew to send home for toys. Stateside toys, none of that cheap-o garbage shopkeepers hung by wires in sidewalk-market Saigon. A real toy or two would grease my wheels and assure my men a friendly trade relationship for what they wanted in the Spring. You want some fresh beef steaks and ribs for a 55 gallon drum barbecue? Get me some Tonka Trucks. You want a VC souvenir to impress your girlfriend? Medals or flags or sidearms? Get me some Mattel dolls and dress-up games. Scratch my back, Jackson.
It was so simple.
I had the Long Binh Post tailor whip up a Santa suit, traded some detergent and canned hams to a peasant theater company in Cholon for a scraggly chin beard, and grabbed olive drab laundry bags from my own supply room.
The beard was a long wisp of grey hair knotted into a strip of mesh sewn to an elastic band. By department-store Santa standards, it was an out-and-out reject, but here, where simple things are pressed into service to serve a higher purpose, it was the very thing.
"Papa Noel" the nuns chirped; a myth-gift from the French when these women were children themselves. Before the Call, before the Fall, before it all - Mau Than, Big War, and thirty-two cups of milk.
My buddies did me right. Christmas Eve I had two, maybe three hundred little gifts, wrapped with ribbons and love by the housegirls and off-base girlfriends of my men.
The excited mama-sans crowded my Supply Room, singing along with a radio as they worked, stopping only to fuss over the arrival of a very pregnant fourteen year-old baby-san. The girl was incongruously dressed in a baggy halter top, high heels, and mini-skirt stretched over her swollen stomach, but she held the women in thrall with her gaudy P.X. friendship ring. She bragged that her G.I. had promised to take her home with him to Fresno. Then I saw the hope and fear and cheery sadness in the older women’s eyes. I breathed in life and breathed out weariness.
The next morning we loaded the bed of my three-quarter ton truck with toys, love, shame, and guilty American generosity. The white Army star on its hood brought only a hint of Yule to its chalky olive drab paint job, so one of the good ol’ boys from the Motor Pool wired a set of deer antlers to the top of the radiator grill and we strung strips of red cloth along the fenders and doors. It was pathetically beautiful.
We nodded to each other that it was precisely the touch that Santa’s vehicle needed.
But, damn, kids just see the toys, right? Kids just get the here and now of a present, unfettered by analysis of motive, the knee-jerk reaction to holly wreathes, the love that dare not recognize these step-children of Woodstock and Watts.
A toy is a toy? Chiêu Hôi!
Christmas Day, 1969, Long Binh Highway, 10 a.m., 90+ degrees 90+ percent humidity, and a light drizzling rain that eventually would give way to afternoon monsoon torrents.
Driving the wet streets into Bien Hoa, I found myself alternately laughing and crying, caught up in the lunacy of my outrageous clown act. The people I passed smiled and waved and called out, but I felt like an orphan myself – wearing someone else’s clothes and having only a ghost family, millions of miles away in The World.
The pillows stuffed into my jacket and pants provided an outrageous commedia pot-gut, as if I have put on all my excess weight at one sitting – gorged at some Yule “All-You-Can-Eat Smorgasbord.” When I returned from my jaunt, the housegirls squealed with with laughter, probably never having seen a joker like me in the flesh.
But behind their laughing eyes I saw a glimmer of respect, a certain reserve, that seemed to say, “He does this for children. He has love in his heart. He can’t be all bad.”
It’s nothing… I thought, …nothing given the big picture.
So here he comes, that jolly old "Ho-ho-ho," a chin-whisker, sweat drenched, bowl full of jelly and his garland streamered three-quarter ton sleigh. No reindeer. Just rain. Just dear.
Listen to him! Now he chuckles out "Ho-ho-ho Chi Minh!" waddling to the cane-chair throne in the ox-path dust, Nouc Mam spiced fish breeze, Chipmunks Jingle Bells blaring, G.I.'s laughin', sunshine, breakin' through the sky for a midday cloud-break courtyard party.
Too many images. I can no longer separate them.
Brown face, bow, present. Black face, bow, present. White face, Tan, Smallpox pocked face: bow… bow… bow… present… present… present.
"Hey, Mimsy, bring Santa a Coke!" I yell to one of my troops.
But Christ, I'm chokin' for a beer!
And the kids lined up again for round two.
Face, present, eyes, present, smile, tear, present… `til the line finds its tail and rolls, rolls, rolls. I gave them all I had that day, knowing all the while it could never be enough.
Finally all these little arms are full of toys and the Angels whisper their wishes, tellin' Santa to ask Sergeant Higgins if he could bring sinks and toilets, and beds and peace, for the children and all, at least for a while.
I was on it, figuring how to wangle it all when a group of orphans just out of my sight slammed me back into my war-weary mind. They yelled and mouthed gunshots and explosions.
Mouth-sounds I remembered from long ago, when I played with my brothers in our back-yard cowboy/gangster/war battles. Sound effects I added as I fired my cap pistol and charged or fell to the ground in the throes of lingering death. Playing, but also practicing, rehearsing and learning; preparing for a future I could not know until I met it – a war I could merely imagine.
And how they played, under the gathering clouds, those boys and girls of Mau Than! With G.I. Joes and high-fashion Barbies, plastic pistols and Nurse "Take-A-Temperature" first-aid kits, tin jeeps and tanks and Betsy Wetsies and sparrow-sized choppers, bridal gowns, bows and arrows, toolbelts, high heels and outsized, gaudy friendship rings.
Fighting, nursing and imitating what they saw all around them. Celebrating Christmas the way American kids do, with the kind of toys American kids get.
And I thought, I am of this, for this is the way I made it.
As my tears and sweat ran down someone else’s whiskers.
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