"Over the Hump"

By Valerie Schumacher

Leaving Viet and our driver Hung was very sad. Leaving Pleiku was not.

Airport security made Diane load her montagnard crossbow with the checked baggage because it was a dangerous weapon. Visions of Diane standing up midflight and firing her crossbow. Diane the Huntress.

I thought our close calls were over till that plane took off. As we dropped and rolled and veered through the air over Pleiku I clutched my bullet and my medals and prayed. And I'm not even religious. Nancy took a picture of me and laughed. Diane said, "I thought you didn't believe in a Higher Power."

"I don't," I replied.

"What do you think - that you're God?" she retorted.

Just gotta love her, I thought. "No," I sighed, briefly forgetting our unskilled pilot. "I think I have attributed power to these things around my neck. And, if I believe they have power, they have power. And they will keep this thing in the air."

"Hmmmph," she snorted.

I wanted to stick my tongue out at her. The very idea made me feel better. Diane had power, too.

I pressed my nose to the glass and said goodbye to the Yaly, the crater, and the montagnards. The highs and lows of Pleiku.

We landed on one wheel at Da Nang and careened down the runway. I hoped the flight from Phu Bai to Hanoi would be better. Couldn't be worse. Short of crashing.

We met our new guide Tuyen in the Da Nang airport. He was a perky fellow who talked too loud. But it was unfair to compare him to Viet. Immediately, he took us out to Hoi An, not even letting us stop at the hotel.

On the way, we passed Rocket Alley; and I looked for Graverobber's water tower landmark, saw the remnants of the old base in the shadow of Marble Mountain. I shot out the window furiously, forgetting the word for "Stop!" in Vietnam- ese, hoping the pictures would not be too blurred. We skipped Da Nang's Disney.

At Hoi An, we parked beside a small howitzer. Children played amid rusted tank tracks. Tuyen had brought with him an elderly gentleman named Dong who sported a black beret. A professor of literature from Hue University. Dong spoke almost no English, but we took a shine to one another and hung out together the entire afternoon in Hue.

He smiled indulgently as I stooped for a good look at the biggest dead rat I'd ever seen, led me into ancient houses and pagodas, and helped me pick out just the right little marble elephant for the Amerasian woman from Da Nang who works across the hall from me. We had this rapport, Dong and I. He kissed my hand when we said goodbye.

I'd been to Hoi An the prior year. In that year since, it had exploded from a quiet, ancient town of Portuguese, Japanese, and Vietnamese architecture into a tourist mecca of art boutiques, cafes, and gift shops. The charm I'd known is nearly lost. The final blow was hearing the electronic clamor of video games. Hoi An was better without the Super Mario Brothers.

Back in Da Nang, we were rushed off for dinner out on the town. The busboy made me a little white bunny out of a washcloth, charming me to pieces. He said, "You take it home as souvenir of Vietnam."

My oddest yet sweetest souvenir of Vietnam, a white bunny from Da Nang.

I wandered the street in the darkness beside the port where the big ships anchor, chatting with booksellers and schoolboys who wanted to put their English to use. The others had commandeered some cyclos, putting the drivers in the seats and pedalling the bicycles themselves. Dinky Dau Americans invade Da Nang.

My Australian friend, Lloyd, called me in my hotel room. The night before he'd called me at the Pleiku Hotel, complaining, "You sure are hard to reach! I called the Yaly half a dozen times. You told me the wrong hotel!"

"No, I told you the right hotel," I replied. "It only turned out to be the wrong one."

This night in Da Nang he said, "Hey! I've got an American journalist here in Hanoi who wants your pictures of the bomb and your story. But she must have it immediately."

No thanks was my reply. Think I'll keep a low profile in country.

The next morning, we left at dawn; and my favorite guide from last year came to see me off, presenting me with a brass montagnard bracelet. I didn't tell him I'd bought 10 in Pleiku. His was special, though I cannot now tell it from the rest.

We drove north on Highway 1 past the beach where the 9th Marines came ashore. Surreality on the Hai Van Pass of Clouds. Sprays of water catapulting off the mountain, the wild tangle of vines and jungle, spirit houses with burning joss sticks barely visible through fog so dense it seemed impenetrable. Held onto those medals to keep us from missing one of those serpentine turns.

I remembered the word for "Stop" in Phu Bai and got out to photograph that chalk-like sand, seeing visions of Rags chasing down rats in the night, flashlight in his teeth.

Big ole howitzer sitting next to a quonset, bunkers like toadstools. Some of FNG's favorite bovines plodded by with a small boy whose hat said "BOY". The water buffaloes sniffed the air as we ventured near, eyes rolling back in their heads before they shied clumsily away. As a kid, I used to ride our bucking Black Angus; but she didn't have horns like these guys, and I was in no mood to be skewered.

We visited the Thien Mu Pagoda where the monk Thich Quang Duc's car is still ensconced amid dangling orchids, a photograph of him flaming in the streets of Saigon on the bumper. The monks tended to their canaries and their vegetables as children karate chopped their way across the neat lawns.

On to the Forbidden Purple City where a woman waited for tour busses, her hand outstretched for alms for the hydrocephalic baby in her arms, its eyes so wide and wild it broke my heart.

"It will not live," Diane pronounced as I rifled my pockets for dong.

I saw the burned boy from last year, who'd pushed me and called me a bad American. He did not recognize me, but I sure recognized him.

We wandered the ruined citadel. Lovely, ancient, bullet-ridden, and powerful. I think not of Mandarins in that haunted place, but Marines. How they fought in those long avenues. A mortar still resting amid the bricks it shattered. Walls with donut holes, a fanciful roaring lion with its eye shot out, found- ation only where a palace used to stand, cracked flagstones where elephants used to herald the emperor. I looked upon the empty gold throne and in my mind saw that picture of a Marine at rest with his M-60 draped across his lap, bandoliers strung across his chest.

A Vietnamese man with one leg, looking older than he probably was, swung by on matchstick crutches and nodded hello.

Copyright 1995 By Valerie Schumacher, All Rights Reserved