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 title, but I couldn’t remember it… until I found JD Salinger in Hanoi. Salinger’s story is called, “For Esme:—With Love and Squalor,” a brilliant story from his book Nine Stories. It’s about a soldier’s chance meeting with a child and the encounter changed his life.
This story I want to tell is a U.S. soldier-story, too. I’m traveling with a small group on this trip. Three of the men are veterans of the U.S. war in Vietnam. 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. It was 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 . There’s a book of his photography from his visits called Lost in Vietnam, and in the book he describes one small child who he’s never forgotten. He says her body was so frail and her eyes were vacant when she first came to the orphanage. Over the weeks, in hopes of engaging with her, he slipped off his wrist watch with a twistable band and she touched it. She liked the watch and began to look at him and engage with him, 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? When we got there, though, we found that the orphanage was no longer there. But we met Sister Ane Nguyen Thi Tinh of the order that had run it. The building was now a retirement home for sisters of the French order. Sr. Ane welcomed us. We heard a bell sounding, and it was a call to the sisters, not to prayer as I thought but to lunch. We met many of the older nuns at their lunch. And 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.
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.
Every time is the first time. Every time contains the possibility of eyes shining at the sight of a twisting watch.
Have followed your letters to your daughter. Wow, a fascinating journey!
Hi Margaret. It’s exciting to imagine you reading as I wrote. I have so much more to tell. Thank you!
Hi Terry. I finished rereading all this pieces together while in Hawaii. What an extraordinary picture of your experience back in Vietnam. Thank you for inviting us to join you. The caves!! I’d never heard of the existence of the caves. Now I want to know more.
Wow, you read them in Hawaii. I had a long re-entry and did not finish the stories I have to tell. I will return to them. Thanks for being with me.