“Wars don’t end when peace treaties are signed. They echo through the lives of our children.”
— Tim O’ Brien, combat veteran and author of “The Things They Carried”
I dug my bare feet in the white sand of the Nha Trang beach in December of 1994, 25 years after my father had.
My father, U.S. Army Special Forces Sgt. Jimmy Godwin, spent most of 1969 in a fierce battlezone in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, but he came to Nha Trang beach at least once. I’d heard the story. He sat in the sand with a Green Beret whose nickname was Dutch, and they talked for hours. Jimmy’s feet got sunburned purple, couldn’t put his boots on and Dutch piggybacked him through the streets of Nha Trang back to their temporary quarters.
That was one of Jimmy’s good stories. He had those. Most soldiers do. On the day I stood on the Nha Trang beach, slathered in sunscreen, I’d already heard a few of Jimmy’s war stories, though he was selective, maybe because Jimmy and I hadn’t actually known each other that long.
At 23, I’d come to Vietnam, in a way, to get to know him better, which was odd, since he wasn’t in Vietnam. Jimmy lived in a cluttered apartment in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he was getting divorced for the third time.
My fiancee, Gabrielle, sat on a blanket a few feet away. (Her father had once served here, too.) We’d been trying to read, but people kept wanting to practice their English on us. Gabrielle had more patience for this than I did. One boy in his late teens had just been trying to talk to her. “He said he studied English by reading romance novels,” Gabrielle said. “It was so sweet.” Just then a group of boys approached us.
“Hello! Are you American?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You buy T-shirt?”
“You like chip?” one boy said, brandishing a can of Pringles.
“Oh, no thank you,” Gabrielle said. Our bellies and bags were already full of these.
A shirtless, barefoot boy, maybe 10, pulled a stack of what looked like pictures out of his pants pocket and held it up with his one arm.
“You buy postcard?” he said.
“Maybe later,” I said, simultaneously proud and ashamed of my sales resistance. I wondered if these kids’ parents — or grandparents — had hit up Jimmy and Dutch.
Gabrielle and I had come to Vietnam with a group organized by the Friendship Foundation of American-Vietnamese, a nonprofit based in Cleveland. Our original plan had been to distribute school supplies and build a playground at a Nha Trang-area orphanage. The government, however, had killed our project at the last minute, giving no reason and turning our charity mission into an 18-day Vietnam vacation.
Before we’d arrived, I’d foolishly imagined that the war’s legacy would be abundant and obvious, but I’d been wrong. As we traveled, I kept trying to impose scenes from “Platoon” or “Full Metal Jacket” on every hillside and rice field, but they wouldn’t stick. The war’s legacy was there, of course, I just didn’t know where to look until I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Just outside Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), the Cu Chi Tunnels served as the launching site for the 1968 Tet Offensive and stretched, by some estimates, about 150 miles. By 1994, they’d become a tourist attraction. Our guide, a pleasant man in his 30s who spoke English, seemed a little pleased with himself as he told us, “During the war, Vietnamese fighters used a network of underground tunnels to avoid capture and evade enemy fire.” Enemy. I was surprised the word stung.
At 6-foot-3, I had to bend over, my back scraping the top of the tunnel. Our guide, slightly amused, told me: “Very narrow, as you can see. But we have widened them since the war so that visitors like yourselves may pass through.”
I needed a moment to process this.
The Vietnamese had widened the Cu Chi Tunnels so that a large American could pay money to learn how it felt to be a skinny Vietnamese insurgent fighting large Americans. My head hurt, possibly due to an overdose of irony.
Part of the exhibit replicated a Viet Cong military office complete with a desk, flags and what looked like military hat with insignia. Our guide gestured toward the hat. “Would you like to have your picture taken?” he said, as if these were mouse ears at Disneyland.
I declined, although the Cu Chi Tunnels turned out to be the Magic Kingdom compared to another tourist stop: the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression. Located near the center of Ho Chi Minh City, the Exhibition House (later renamed the War Remnants Museum) offered graphic depictions of acts of cruelty committed here by soldiers from other countries, including, but not limited to, the U.S.A.
The Exhibition House’s main room displayed a series of enlarged photographs; one showed an American soldier, sneering, hair buzzed — he carried a necklace made of human ears. Another featured a small, thin, presumably Vietnamese man falling out of a helicopter. Two Caucasian soldiers peered out of the chopper, which had an American flag emblazoned on the side.
Gabrielle and I stood together in silence, our eyes wet. The Vietnamese government, I reminded myself, had done as bad, or worse, to their own people both during and after the war. But that didn’t change that I believed the picture, though not, perhaps, what the Exhibition House wanted me to believe. Its intended message seemed to be: Look what outsiders have done to the Vietnamese people. The real message of these pictures seemed to be: Look what war does to human beings.
What had it done, I wondered, to Jimmy Godwin?
Some time after Jimmy and Dutch had left the Nha Trang beach and returned to their unit, Jimmy found Dutch’s body after a mortar attack. Jimmy came home to South Carolina in 1970. His wife, Anne, whose picture he’d carried into battle, gave birth to me in 1971. Soon, she realized that while Jimmy loved us, whatever he’d brought back from Vietnam was bigger than him and us and even love. Jimmy knew it, too. That’s why when Anne left him and took me back to her hometown in Kentucky, all Jimmy could do was let us go.
Mom remarried before I was 2; my stepfather adopted me, and I didn’t meet Jimmy Godwin until I was 18. In the five years between that meeting and the day I stood on Nha Trang’s beach, Jimmy and I had seen each other maybe six times. We didn’t yet know how to relate to each other, we just knew that we wanted — needed — to, somehow.
The truth is I’d gone to Vietnam to impress Jimmy, and it had worked. When I’d told him I was going, he’d said, “Outstanding! And it’s great that you’re getting to go without a rifle.” Visiting Vietnam also helped me understand that the answers I wanted weren’t waiting on the other side of the world, but perhaps in an apartment in Fort Wayne. I visited Jimmy many times after Vietnam and asked him questions whose answers were hard to hear but good to know.
Gabrielle is my wife now and we have three sons. Jimmy met them before he died five years ago. By the end, he said he didn’t think about Vietnam as much anymore.
I still do, especially this one image that’s stayed with me:
That same day in Nha Trang, we decided to buy some postcards from those kids after all. We found that group of beach hawkers just playing in the water. The tallest of them took our junior postcard salesman by the hand and swung him around as the waves crashed into them.
The one-armed boy just laughed and laughed.
(Originally published in the Louisville Courier-Journal, November 10, 2013.)