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The suitcases stayed in basements and attics, untouched for years, sometimes moved from place to place with my other belongings. The story of my birth, the small-town romance between the homecoming queen and captain of the football team, was like a fairy tale.
Each day, I read Hugh’s letters and then biked out into the countryside. The letters were familiar territory – I admired his penmanship, imagined listening to his words, tried to identify with this stranger who occupied some place within me – but here I felt close to him for the first time.
It was early in the monsoon season and I went to the Cu Chi region between Saigon and Tây Ninh where the Angry Skipper guys had humped through the jungle.
Like most of my generation, I had grown up with the American mythology of the Vietnam War: napalm, burning bodies, fucked-up kids with M 16s, “Apocalypse Now.” What I found instead was peaceful and beatific.
A few days later, I found a ride north to the bend in the river, tucked deep in the Tây Ninh Province. The old map matched up quite well with the current road system. One of the new roads ran directly to the bend in the river. I leafed through “A Pocket Guide to Vietnam,” also from the suitcases. A thin snake sped across the path and wind rustled the leaves. I’d always had the feeling I had let Hugh down somehow. Like many of the people interviewed for this article, he did not want to give his full name. I can do what I wanna and I don’t have to take nothing from nobody.” Today is a good day for Jon, despite the rain and the cool weather. Like alligators in the sewers.” Jon offers me a sip of vodka. He tells me to stay safe and to watch out for trains when I go back walking into the tunnel.
During the war, Ho Chi Minh sent arms and supplies down through Laos and Cambodia and across the porous jungle around Tây Ninh, not far from Saigon. Helicopters ferried the platoons above the thick canopy, dropping the men into clearings to spend months living in the bush. He had a boxy haircut and surprised eyes and didn’t look much older than fifteen. It had been published by the Department of Defense in 1966 and was crinkled with water damage. We skirted Black Lady Mountain and continued toward Cambodia. In just a few turns we were on the new dirt road headed to the water, just north of Landing Zone Ike, the dirt base where my father had slept the night before the ambush, just a few clicks from the place where Sgt. I heard the putt-putt of an old engine and the faint bass of a local pop song. Still, it seemed almost gimmicky to be here, to be searching for such a big answer on this random spit of land. Maybe by not having my own children, or by not being able to easily settle down, always searching. He has been living here for a while now, in a small space between two support beams that can only be reached with a ladder. There’s no hassle compared to the streets, you know what I’m saying? “You’re the first person to visit this week,” he says. I can get why, it’s a spooky place when you don’t know it. I hear him talk to himself as I go away from the entrance and from the white sky.
I must have wanted them to say, “Hey Hugh, you’re just like your old man,” but they didn’t say it. None of them remembered Hugh but one man remembered the incident.