Return to Vietnam.
It wasn’t until I found my way down Trang Thi Steet in Hanoi and then to Hai Ba Trung that I found JD Salinger. He was there in translation in Vietnamese on a street with a sign that read Book Street. I was looking for a bookstore, but that’s another story. First I have to tell this one. I wanted to set this story up by referencing another, but I couldn’t remember it until I found it here. It was “For Esme — With Love and Squalor,” a brilliant story from Salinger’s Nine Stories, about a soldier’s chance meeting with a child, and the memory of their encounter was part of his healing from war.
This story I want to tell is a soldier story, too. I’m traveling with a small group in the country. Three of the men are veterans of the U.S. war here. Two of them, Chuck Forsman and Mike Stempe, were in the Information Office at Headquarters, 1st Logistical Command, I Corps in Danang. They were photographers and reporters for the I Corps newspaper and sometimes their work was picked up by Stars and Stripes.
Not far from their headquarters was an orphanage run by an order of Vietnamese Catholic sisters, called Thanh Tam. Mike and Chuck used to go to the orphanage on Sundays. “It was about a half mile from our compound,” Mike said. “It was freedom to us. We got all pumped up. ‘Let’s go see the kids.’”
Chuck has been back to Viet Nam four times since he was here as a journalist with I Corps. His book of photography, Lost in Vietnam, presents a collection of photos from his journeys back. The book includes a memory of a small child he has never forgotten. He met her one Sunday at the orphanage in Danang. In the book he writes that when she first came to the orphanage, she didn’t look at him; her eyes were vacant and her body was emaciated. Over the weeks, in hopes of engaging with her, he slipped off his wrist watch that had a twist-able band and she was drawn to it. She touched it. The watch was a small first connection between them and a friendship began.
On this trip, when we got to Danang we all wanted to go with Mike and Chuck to find the orphanage. Could there be a way to trace the children who had been there so many years ago? We found, though, that the orphanage was no longer there. The building was now a retirement home for sisters of the French order. We met Sister Ane Nguyen Thi Tinh of the order that had run the orphanage, and Sr. Ane welcomed us to come in. Inside, we heard a bell sounding. It was a call to the sisters, not to prayer as I thought but to lunch and we met many of the older nuns at their lunch. There, a remarkable thing happened: a sister introduced herself as one of the nuns who worked in the orphanage in 1969 when Mike and Chuck had been in Danang. They talked and exchanged memories of that time. Chuck put down his camera and listened.
After the war, Mike Stempe became a teacher and continued to find satisfaction working with children. He taught in Alaska for many years and as a photojournalist created a book of photographs about Alaska.
This trip we’re all on will be Chuck’s fifth trip to the country. He and Mike have been documenting our journey at every step as if they are seeing the country for the first time.