Shortly before my mother died, she asked me, “If you could take a cruise anywhere in the world, where would you go?” I couldn’t answer her immediately. Her question had uncorked a train of thought, an internal debate that I had avoided confronting for years.
I am a veteran of the Vietnam War. Over our 17 years of marriage, my wife, Christle, had asked me about my time there, often suggesting we visit Vietnam together. How could we? Vietnam was a place I left in 1966, praying I would never have to return. But Christle sensed the deeper truth…I was curious about the place; I wanted and needed to see for myself what life was like today for the people of a country that I left so torn apart by war.
My mother was greatly surprised when I told her that Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam, was where I’d go if I could take a cruise anywhere in the world. She remembered what it was like when I returned to the States after the war, how the hostile reception I received at college made me feel out of place and isolated from my peers. However, unbeknown to me, she booked a cruise to Vietnam for Christle and I, and it was my turn to be surprised.
That was like her. Mom was a spontaneous sort who would bestow generous gifts unexpectedly and with pleasure. Sadly, during the time leading up to the trip, my mother died of a blood clot that formed after a fall.
Her gift took on even greater poignancy and meaning. Christle and I flew to Bangkok, where we boarded our cruise ship, Ocean Princess, bound for Vietnam. The crossing between Bangkok and Vietnam was of course familiar territory, having covered the region before on the USS Cavalier.
I was a young naval engineer serving on the Cavalier at the beginning of the war, responsible for maintaining assault boats. We were stationed in the Philippines when the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred, which ignited the conflict with America. The Cavalier was dispatched, along with 1,500 Marines on board, to Vietnam. We patrolled the region for 57 days. Still in the early years of the war in 1966, after making an assault landing at Chulai, we returned to Da Nang running personnel, equipment and supplies, with me going ashore on the assault boats, helping to maintain them during their missions to the different bases we’d established.
As Ocean Princess approached Vietnam, I was getting anxious to land. I particularly wanted to see the city of Da Nang, its harbor and the neighboring China Beach recreation area. Arriving ashore, I was struck by the distinct odor of decomposing vegetation, water and cooking street food. That much remained the same as no place in the world smells like Vietnam. The city itself had grown up to a bustling hive of people; who thronged the streets and zipped through them on motorcycles. In one case, we saw an entire family and their belongings transported on one small bike.
We visited many of the places I’d been 40 years before–as well as others, like the Cu Chi tunnels built by the North Vietnamese, that I had not yet seen.
It was at the tunnels that I met a little kid of six or seven who clearly had a mental disability. She was waving at everyone and having a good time. She was with a little girl who had no hands. I knew what that meant. She was almost certainly a victim of Agent Orange, the poisonous defoliant the U.S. sprayed over the area. Besides taking so many lives during the conflict, Agent Orange embedded the region with a tendency toward cancer and genetic mutation that continues to plague the people.
In facing that girl, I was confronting the very reason I had been so wary about coming to Vietnam. You see, the USS Cavalier shipped Agent Orange to Vietnam. Early in the war, I didn’t know what it was or the horror it would create. Ever since, I knew all too well of the lives it destroyed, Vietnamese and American alike.
But that little girl expressed no anger at me for what had happened to her. She approached me with a smile on her face and brightness in her eyes which struck me right in the heart.
I had other, smaller rapprochements on this journey. Leaving Vietnam, I laid a wreath at sea in remembrance of one of my friends who was killed there. On board, I befriended a lawyer, who just happened to be an organizer of the 1968 antiwar march on Washington, DC, a leader of the crowd that made me feel so alienated when I returned. Thanks to the passage of time, we were able to understand each other.
I realized my mother’s gift had opened the door to many profound gifts. Through her kindness and intuition, she provided the way back to Vietnam and my healing. There, through the smiling acceptance and unspoken forgiveness of that little girl and the many other Vietnamese who welcomed me, I was able to put aside much of the guilt that had gnawed at me for so long.
My mom was gone, leaving an echoing hole in my life, but because of her, another hole had been filled.
Christle and I often talk about this cruise and how experiences like this allow us to heal and go on with peace in our hearts.
Les resides in Rogue River, Oregon and has cruised 11 times with Princess.