As Good As Vietnam Gets
Why We Travel To Vietnam Sometimes Involves An Uncle
In the early spring of 1966, my mother steered the two-tone ’56 Chevy we owned at the time up Adams Street in Dorchester. It was unseasonably warm, and I wore a one-piece jumper over a striped shirt. My first two front teeth jutted from the bottom gum, and my mother worked the AM tuner past Sergeant Barry’s Sadler’s ode to the green berets, looking for Petula Clark or the Beatles.
She caught my attention in the rear view mirror and grimaced. “Old people music,” she said. I was sitting in the back seat, oblivious to my destination, or to the fact that she was planting a seed that would send me to Vietnam.
Why we go where we go when we travel sometimes matters. Usually, it doesn’t. It’s simply a matter of the beach, warm temps, an escape, or one for the bucket list. But sometimes we can trace the roots of our travel, and when we do, there’s often a story.
That morning, my mother put me on an Ottoman in the photographer’s studio, and pranced about behind the camera, making faces for smiles. When the pictures came back, my father sent one to his brother, Paul, a Merchant Marine radio communications officer, who carried it to Vietnam in early 1968 when he took work on a floating generator barge maintained by the Vinnell Corp. in Cam Ranh Bay.
Paul was 30 years old at the time, too old to be there under more dire circumstances, but lured by the money, and the possibility of adventure. He’d grown up in South Boston, one of six boys who would later claim they would have all turned out differently, and for the better, if their sister Dorothy hadn’t died as an infant. As it was, there weren’t any moderating influences beyond what their mother could muster from the poverty that gripped them. Their father was an on-again, off-again presence, undone by one bottle after another, leaving my grandmother to “drag up” her sons, as Dickens observed of child-rearing among the poor.
Paul was flaxen haired, and painfully small as a child. He was, my father believes, a victim of the photography instructor at the Boy’s Club, which confused Paul for the rest of his life, or so we sometimes think. In Vietnam, though, Paul made friends with a woman who lived in a village not far from Cam Ranh. He would visit her by day, and sometimes by night, and what I remember most about his telling of the story is that the trips back to his ship at night were exhilarating, wild rides through territory more controlled by Viet Cong than Saigon soldiers.
She was a painter, this woman, and one day he brought that picture from the Adams Street studio. See what you can do, he told her. And she did what she could do. When it came to the toughest part, the eyes, she faltered, and so she painted a boy with shades of Asia in his face.
Paul returned from Vietnam after two years, flush with cash. He bought a small cottage by the sea in Manomet in 1970, and he gave my parents that picture. It hung in our house inside a modest gold frame throughout my boyhood, this slightly Eurasian version of myself but moreover a reflection of my flaxen haired uncle who roamed the world on ships, dispatching post cards and occasionally coming home to visit. Mostly, he was away, though, out there somewhere, indulging what the world had to offer. For a long time after he died in 1991, I would dream that he was still on his way home, that he hadn’t really died as young as he had. It was just a joke.
He knew for sure that he’d fathered a child in Central America, and he believed there was a child in Vietnam, too. When I went to Vietnam in 1992, I carried his picture. My trip was going to take me through Cam Ranh, and I wondered whether there might be some kid, grown up now, who’d have more than a passing resemblance to the boy who sat down on Adams Street one day in 1966. I still wonder.