The first sight of what we knew was our new home was, surprisingly enough, rather encouraging.
Outside of the sheer awesome beauty of the geography, the camp itself looked neat and clean, and from all outward appearances, the inmates carried themselves with the poise and nonchalance of a group that was well‑fed and healthy.
Very quickly, we were led down one of four lines of bamboo and thatch‑roofed huts.
After our escapade on the bus, it looked like Viet and I were going to be more friendly, so we hung closely together while the living quarters were assigned.
No sooner had we placed our bedding in one of the huts ‑‑ Number 4, our new home ‑‑ than we were summoned to a larger, centrally situated hootch, for a short briefing and then went back to the hut for the evening meal.
What greeted us was stunning.
Tables and benches made of bamboo.
Instead of squatting on the floor to eat as we did at Lam Son ‑‑ or anywhere else, for that matter ‑‑ here we ate at tables.
Throughout most of rural Vietnam it is not unusual to see farmers and peasants and laborers squatting around a fire ‑‑ or without a fire, for that matter ‑‑ to eat, smoke, or just simply discuss the pressing issues of the day. Only in the cities, or in upper class homes, did one find families who sat at tables during meals.
For a prison to provide such a comfortable means was an extravagance. And it was one of the first civilized symbols of Camp 52.
Compounding the pleasure of sitting on the bench with tables was our first ration of food ‑‑ an entire day’s worth, in spite of the fact that we had received rice that morning.
It didn’t take long to figure out that the food at Camp 52 was much better than at Lam Son ‑‑ in fact, compared to our last six months of subsistence‑level rations, this was almost beyond belief.
For every meal we were given some dried fish or some kind of meat. And we ate only cooked rice ‑‑ can you believe it?
Such a simple pleasure. We didn’t have to mix it with manioc or maize or potatoes. Just pure, unadulterated, hot cooked rice. Glory be.
In a few weeks we began looking as healthy and strong as the rest of the prisoners in Camp 52. Even Viet started putting some flesh on those skinny arms and legs of his.
At first, Viet and I were assigned to different work units ‑‑ he went on one of the bamboo details, while I was sent off to cut, faggot and shoulder thatches ‑‑ a job that wasn’t as easy as it sounded, or as easy as I thought it would be.
Pushing down sheaves of reeds and bulrushes and then cutting them with the sickle was no picnic. Before long, the sharp edges of the grasses would slice into exposed skin, much like paper cuts, leaving hands and arms and legs covered with a patchwork of hundreds and hundreds of tiny, painful lacerations. There never was enough time for these little cuts to heal, and many, many, times they became infected.
Under the searing rays of the sun the sickles would move through a field ‑‑ small, swinging pendulums attached to sweating, itching, bleeding bodies. Thirst and blisters and aching muscles made the hours drag.
After a few weeks, Viet got me assigned to one of the bamboo units.
With large stands of bamboo around the camp, most of the physical labor focused on “logging” and cutting up “nature’s most valuable gift to uncivilized man.”
Depending on what the bamboo was used for, there was a contingent of prisoners to make it ‑‑ sawyers, carpenters, furniture makers, thatchers and blacksmiths who took the bamboo and turned it into fences, boats, houses, bottles, chairs, tables, water buckets, umbrellas, paper, hats, water pipes, firewood, beds, baskets, ornaments or whatever the mind could conjure and the body could create.
Some of the prisoners from the northern provinces ate bamboo seeds and the soft and succulent shoots to supplement their diet, and many got fever some kind of bamboo shoots in Vietnam were harmful.
Cutting bamboo wasn’t much easier than cutting thatches, but at least there was shade. Many times as a child I heard the Vietnamese proverb, “It is more difficult to cut bamboo than to court a pretty lady,” and never before did some old saying hit as close to home as that one. The truth of the matter was that the simple act of cutting bamboo required substantial physical effort ‑‑ and a clever mind.
The problem, I quickly realized, was that I couldn’t just waltz in and cut down the bamboo, attacking it with brute force as one would any other tree.
Initially I spent a good five hours hacking away at all the bottom‑most branches, then cutting through the trunks. But the trees didn’t fall. In fact, they barely moved at all ‑‑ even when severed. Shit.
The bamboo grew so closely together that the numerous spiny branches at the top were all woven together with branches from the nearest trees, and those with other trees, and others, and so on, each holding up the other.
It was Viet who told me how to cut bamboo.
“A bamboo thicket is a cunning tangle of abatis,” Viet said, “comparable to a battlefield laced with landmines and booby traps.”
“Make a ladder,” he said, “then climb to the top of the tree, hack off the uppermost branches, slide down part way and cut through the trunk.”
With this advice also came a warning, for a lack of experience could leave a bamboo sawyer injured, maimed, or even dead.
It was a gruesome sight, Viet told me, when the sharp, bottom‑most part of the bamboo trunk slid down from its perch like a big harpoon, quickly and mercilessly impaling an unsuspecting worker below.
It was during these times in the thickets that Viet and I had much time to talk about the past. Viet told me of the time he was a journalist, and working as political warfare’s officer. And he listened while I relived my days as a fighter pilot.
We talked of women, and whiskey and beer. We told dirty jokes, and we complained about our lousy lot in life. We’d share our tiny supply of tobacco, and even our food, as we tried to explain ourselves to each other, dredging up long lost recollections of childhood and family, fantasies and fears.
“I miss my children,” Viet said one time as we sat and smoked a cigarette. “Two girls and a boy. Haven’t seen them in two years now, since the fall of Saigon.
“The oldest, let’s see, she’s 10. The war wasn’t that rough for them, but my wife says since the takeover they’ve had a terribly difficult time. They’re still in Saigon. You know, with my kids that age, I’m missing a lot of their growing up.
“My wife, she’s a good woman. Good mother, good lover. She says she’s getting by OK, but I think she doesn’t want me to worry.”
We sat in silence, passing the cigarette back and forth. I decided to change the topic.
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get out of this place?” I asked.
“The beach,” he said almost without thinking, “The beach you mentioned back when we were on the camion together.”
He smiled, then looked through the thicket at nothing in particular, and blew smoke out his thin nostrils.
“I want to sit in the cool water and let the waves come over my head. I want it to make me shiver. I want to taste the salt. I want to drink in it, smoke in it, eat in it, make love in it. I want to turn into a fish so I can live in it.”
Then he shrugged his shoulders, and sighed.
“We’ll never see that beach in this life, Ly Tong. Not in this life.”
For two months, 9 to 10 hours every day, day in, day out, Viet and I cut bamboo, then shouldered as many bunches as we could and, with all the others in our work unit, headed out for the trek back to camp.
One day, returning from our daily labors, we were greeted at the camp gate by a squad of soldiers we had never seen before. They looked straight and strack, like even their shit didn’t stink.
They all wore aviator glasses, and none of them smiled. This was a somber, serious bunch.
It was the 7‑Devil Group, and a new camp commander arrived.
They were all northern soldiers, detached to Camp 52, and their first order of the day was to cut the food ration in half. The second order increased the work quota. The tables and benches seemed no more useful for a quick and thin dinner. These new guards were stoic, no‑nonsense robots. In a matter of only a few hours, everything changed completely.
Within a day the camp had named the 7‑Devils, just like the Seven Dwarves, by their most prominent features.
“Black Lip,” a sergeant, was sturdy, dark skinned and menacing. He sported a scraggly, overgrown Fu Manchu, mostly for the macho effect.
“Bacteria” was a corporal, and he repulsed even some of his own colleagues with his bad breath and body odor, a striking stench that drew tears from and any unsuspecting passer‑by, but curiously he always called us “the bacteria of the society.”
“Fangs,” when he spoke, which was seldom, revealed incisors that criss‑crossed and canines that were abnormally long. God knows what his molars and premolars looked like. He was an orthodontist’s delight.
“Pimples” had pimples, and “Shithead,” the prison favorite, was the “Dopey” of the bunch.
We didn’t know their names, so we nicknamed them by their special characteristics.
The most hated was “The Monster,” a sadistic warrant officer. The most feared was “The Golden Revolver,” who was just plain crazy.
All seven were neurotic, and all seven were sadistically homicidal.
After a few days in camp, the 7‑Devils strolled around together, watching the prisoners intently, questioning them.
One prisoner, Lieu, whose job it was to tend to the vegetables in the camp garden, had just finished his work. On the way to his hut, he stopped and urinated in one of the trench latrines. He heard footsteps.
Lieu turned and saw one of the 7‑Devils approaching.
Rattled ‑‑ and oh, so scared ‑‑ Lieu hurriedly bowed in salutation, but without putting his penis back in his pajama pants. He was so shaken he had forgotten that he was still in the act of urinating.
Black Lip, however, saw it as an insult, and rushed up to Lieu.
“Goddam you!” Black Lip thundered. “No one bows to me while holding his father’s head in his hands.”
Black Lip clenched his right fist, leaned back, then fired it into Lieu’s face as if it were an arrow shot from a compound bow. Lieu, his penis still dangling out of his pants, staggered a second, then crumbled under the force of the blow. He was unconscious for five minutes.
Later, Lieu was ordered to present himself at the gate, and was beaten, once more, for good measure.
The whole incident involving Lieu and his unwitting exhibitionism sent a macabre chuckle through the camp ‑‑ prisoners and guards alike.
Gallows humor, maybe. Such were the peccadilloes of life in Camp 52.
Besides wanton and indiscriminate beatings, the 7‑Devils deliberately kept the camp on low rations. This served two purposes: it weakened the ability to resist, and it enabled the camp staff to pocket the money they didn’t spend on food.
It also created a camp of prisoners so hungry, so starved, that they were maniacally consumed with the thought of their next meal. This frenzied mind‑set over food led to quarreling ‑‑ and, of course, actual fighting.
The simple act of food distribution became a major competitive event. Usually, one man was responsible for dividing the rice and other foodstuffs into four large portions for the four prisoner groups. Then, one prisoner from each group divided the food even further, into single‑person portions.
However, with the deft use of a ladle, skillful hands could leave one group short on rice, without them knowing it. Or, with manioc, the different sizes and different lengths of the tuber made it easy to shortchange someone.
Food, or rather, the person in charge of it, was power. It was, along with black market items like tobacco, drugs or medicines, accepted camp currency. It meant the difference between comfort and squalor. And, it determined, for the haves and the have‑nots, the difference ‑‑ literally ‑‑ between life and death.
So, apportioning food equally by quality and quantity was a problem of extreme proportion, and usually every prisoner stood anxiously around the rations each day, watching with eyes just as hungry as their stomachs, ready to snatch the best portion whenever it presented itself. Very soon the prisoners of Camp 52 were no more than animals, waiting for their small victual victims of prey, pouncing voraciously on whatever morsel fell to the side or the ground or just momentarily was unprotected or unclaimed by its rightful owner.
Food was the most important, most worried about, most fought over piece of property in the communist prison.
The system had to be changed before the responsibility of food distribution became entrenched with one man or one group.
Viet led the way in my unit ‑‑ 4 ‑‑ setting up a rotation whereby each prisoner was, eventually, responsible for doling out the food. The day the designated prisoner passed out the food, he would take the last portion. The man who would pass out the food the next day got to pick his portion first. The man in charge the following day would pick next, and so on.
A typical daily ration consisted of two small dollops of rice, including a small bowl of thin vegetable soup. That was it. Nothing else.
There was practically no protein in the diet, except on rare occasions such as the lunar new year and Independence Day, when a few tiny morsels of meat were tossed into the bowl. Prisoners were almost totally preoccupied with food, and talked for hours about the holiday beef or pork or poultry supplements…months before the holiday arrived.
Sometimes, something out of the ordinary occurred ‑‑ like when a pig died of disease. The camp permitted the prisoners to divide the animal for consumption ‑‑ but then would eliminate that day’s ration of rice.
In some cases, prisoners would pilfer parts of the pig and bury them for later use. On one occasion, some of my friends, who had buried the pig’s tripe, dug them up during a particularly lean period of food rationing.
I was invited to share in the feast and ended up with two weeks of gastroenteritis for my trouble. Medical supplies were generally nonexistent and health care totally inadequate. Tincture of iodine was called emergency medicine, and other home‑made remedies were the prisoners’ only resort.
Feared and deadly diseases ‑‑ malaria and beri‑beri among us ‑‑ were so common we were like old friends. But even minor injuries and illnesses put a prisoner at great risk.
One of my friends, Capt. Cao Ba Thi, who often shared food rations with me was so sick that he could not eat, died in his hut at Camp 52.
He was father of Thu An, my later inmate’s girl friend in A‑30 prison, he died of bronchitis. Two weeks after the Lieu incident and after a half‑day of carrying thatch and bamboo, five prisoners were singled out by the 7‑Devils and cursed for their labors. Shithead ordered these five prisoner’s to kneel in front of the prison gate and, then, sauntered off for lunch and later a nap, completely forgetting his victims.
Except for The Five and their guard and the hot, midday sun, the place was deserted.
By 3 p.m., the guard had enough, and so he told them to go back to their huts.
Not a one of them moved.
“Please understand our situation,” the tired and thirsty quintet pleaded. “If we leave, Shithead or Black Lip will beat us to death.”
They begged the guard to accept their refusal ‑‑ which he did, as it was no skin off his nose if they stayed where they were, and he knew that the prisoners probably were right. One screwup and they’re dead.
“Those goddam officers,” the guard thought to himself, “they’re so goddam dumb. So goddam stupid.”
To the astonishment of The Five, the guard then ambled off.
So there they were, the group of five, the wide‑open gate and no guard. The decision was, understating it, a bitch. None of the prisoners spoke, but there was a conversation of sorts going on nonetheless. Something silent, but abstract and compelling, something excruciatingly intense and exhausting.
To stay, or to walk.
For a very long, long, long time, none of The Five even moved. Then eventually, as the minutes mounted upon one another, the decisions were made.
Tri was the first to go.
Everyone held his breath and watched Tri as his head turned from side to side. He stepped out to his right and kind of crouched, his head cocked, waiting for some unknown reaction, but building courage with each movement of his body.
There it was, he thought to himself. Freedom, just a stroll away. Tri strolled.
Nervously, like a thrice‑kicked cat ready to jump back into the jungle or back in line, he walked until he got beyond the far side of the outer gate. Then he ran.
For about 100 meters, he ran hard. Gut‑hurting, muscle‑ wrenching, going‑for‑the‑gold hard.
Then, he stopped dead in his tracks ‑‑ and started to walk again, slowly, like he was just another lowlife peasant on his way back from the fields, just another part of the geography, another grain of dirt that made up the road he was escaping upon.
Tri was gone, and four remained ‑‑ and, one by one, each walked out. They sort of meandered past the front gate, slowly, casually, hearts beating like a Nubian drummer on slave warship.
No commotion, no attention. Be calm. Please, legs, don’t, DON’T, die now.
Then, they were gone, their movements covered by the melodious cacophony of the birds, and the hot breeze that meandered through leaves and fronds and boughs and stems and seedlings of the plants of the jungle.
It wasn’t until much later, at the dinnertime roll call, in fact, that their absence was discovered.
Immediately, the camp went crazy.
Everyone was put under extremely intense security. Surveillance was increased, and the guards paid much more attention to what the prisoners were doing ‑‑ from the time they awoke until lights out.
The tension was terrible.
A day passed, and, while Viet and I now worked in the blacksmith’s shop, The Monster came up behind Viet, who was leaning against the wall, because he got fever without being given medicine and was refused to have a day off, “What are you doing there?” asked the interloper. Viet, almost being in coma, didn’t hear…and didn’t answer. I moved to tap Viet on the shoulder, to get his attention.
But before I got to my friend, The Monster, reaching so quickly, and quickly in so much of a rage, grabbed Viet’s hair ‑‑ what little of it there was ‑‑ pulled him straight up so that his toes dragged along the hard dirt floor, and slapped his face two, three, four times.
In his delirium, Viet screamed, “What the hell was that, you goddam fuckhead! Eat shit, OK?” and rushed at the guard as if he ready to fight.
I grabbed Viet and pushed him against the spinning whetstone, holding him as he cursed over his shoulder.
The Monster stood silent.
Lifting his rifle level with Viet’s face, The Monster pointed it just below Viet’s nose, barely touching the twitching, quivering upper lip. Calmly, in a deathly monotone, The Monster told Viet to open his mouth. Until that time, Viet began to get back his consciousness.
Slowly, like the doors of some ancient Tutankhamen tomb, Viet’s lower jaw fell wide open. Then, with the silent, savage glee of a rapist upon his victim, The Monster placed the end of the barrel inside Viet’s mouth, resting the cold, hard, black‑ steel tip of the muzzle against the back of Viet’s throat.
“Shut it!” The Monster ordered. Viet did as he was told, his lips wrapped around the rifle as if it were some huge straw stuck in the ice shavings of a cocktail.
It tasted oily, Viet thought, smiling to himself at the irony of this, what probably was his last thought.
I could not speak. I tried to move, but couldn’t. I saw only two men, one with his rifle in the mouth of the other. The Monster’s command held me fast.
“Move and you’re both dead.” The Monster murmured, without so much as even looking at me. “Rotting in the grave dead.”
The three of us stood there, waiting.
Then, suddenly, The Monster jerked back the rifle, catching Viet’s two front teeth on the front eyesight.
The teeth, ripped from the gums that had held them for so long, fell to the ground, one to the front, the other to the side of The Monster.
Viet screamed wildly, madly, his legs lashing out like whips, his hands rushing to the aid of his wounded mouth, covering the pain.
Blood flowed in torrents. He fell to his knees, then flailed about in a state of near dementia, feeling about feebly, then frantically, for his teeth.
“You motherfucker,” I seethed at The Monster.
I ran to my injured comrade and wrestled him into submission, took off his shirt and placed it over Viet’s mouth. Viet went limp, and, after a short while, I could hear the muffled moans through the shirt.
“You goddam motherfucking sonofabitch,” I screamed. “What kind of shit have you got for brains?”
The Monster said nothing. Then he smiled, raised his rifle and drew a bead on my forehead.
“Open your mouth,” he ordered.
The monster took two steps, then placed the end of the barrel on the bridge of my nose, right smack between my eyes.
As if falling asleep, my eyelids slowly quivered closed.
Below me, Viet was still whimpering incoherently, oblivious to the precarious predicament of his friend. I started to shake, and could feel the skin on my face grow taut and dry. My mind went blank. I waited.
Then, a disincarnate kind of feeling took over. I was enjoying the last moment of my life. Weird, but I was, well, happy. Like a waterfall breaking the dam, giving my body goosebumps, making me tingle all over. I was waiting for death, and yet, I wanted to smile.
Without my knowing it, The Monster lifted the rifle, pointed it toward the sky, and pulled the trigger.
The Monster barked out orders barely heard by me, who soon was surrounded by guards who were dragging me by my wrists and elbows and hair. Within moments I was foot‑cuffed and confined in the disciplinary room.
The room was just a small hut with a thatched roof that leaked whenever it rained, and bamboo walls were almost wrecked off. The only items that were new and solid were the wooden fetters and the lock.
In fact, the fetters were so new they were still sharp at their edges, and easily cut into my ankles.
Iron bars and concrete were unnecessary in this primitive enclosure. In fact, the austerity of it made the punishment worse. Any guard could easily see any movement of the poor, ragged, shackled prisoners, who lay on the bare ground, racked by cold winds and the inescapable, depressing stab after stab of leaking, dripping monsoon rain.
Some of us endured this torture, some of us didn’t. Many broke under the treatment and, in despair, were driven to suicide.
For a day I stayed in the cell. No food, no water, no one, no hope.
At mid‑day, four guards opened the cell door. One took me tightly under my arms, another by the hair, holding me so high I barely stood on my tiptoes.
Then, in strode The Golden Revolver.
His real name was Cao Minh, and he exuded an aura that was a mixture of menace and nihilism, spawned and suckled from his time in the South Vietnamese police forces. Then, as now, Cao Minh assumed his favorite position ‑‑ standing feet apart, arms akimbo, ready to reach for his gold‑plated .357 magnum revolver, like some James Bond meets Billy the Kid movie.
“Kneel,” he bellowed.
The Golden Revolver drew his .357 and, holding it tightly and arrogantly with his right hand, rested the barrel against my forehead. Slowly, like a man caressing his lover, he slid the piston, ever so gently, down the top of my nose, across my cheek, over to my ear, then down the side of my neck.
I could feel all my body’s heat focusing on the point where the barrel was touching. I didn’t know what to do.
I just reacted, hearkening to my military training, responding like I was part of some Pavlovian experiment.
I said very slowly, “The twelfth clause of the provisional revolutionary government’s policy says not to insult, not to beat and not to dishonor the prisoners. If you don’t obey your own government’s policy, I won’t obey your order.
The guards pushed me towards the disciplinary cells, binding my hands behind my back, then cuffing my feet and tying them to a peg nailed into the bamboo wall, just high enough so that I hung upside down. All my body weight rested on the top of my head, which was touching the ground.
It seemed like I spent an eon trussed up like this, ankles screaming, my head booming in pain with each heartbeat.
“Not on your knees here. On your face. How do you feel now?” the guards jeered. “Honorable!” I spat back. “Six men treat me like the animal, but who is the animal, who the man?”
“Ha!” laughed The Golden Revolver, staring at me
and greatly amused. Then, turning as if to leave, they quickly twirled on one foot with the deftness of a ballet dancer, and, all in one continuous motion, swung their other feet into my groin, my back, my neck, my head, my shoulder, my face.
The shock to my body made me hunch over in a putrid sort of pain, breathless, with waves of nausea overcoming me. It felt as though they had kicked my manhood right up into my throat, and my entire body reacted to the trauma that had taken over my testicles.
“Cowards,” I shouted indignantly. The loud screaming that sounded like the last voice of the prisoner facing the falling guillotine toward his neck as my prison inmates imagined and related to me later had the power to scare all guards running away from the cell. Later they came back, ordering me to construct a scaffold and to dig a grave. “When I gut you with this knife, how happy I’ll feel,” The Golden Revolver taunted. Eventually tiring of their sport,
they left me in the yoke.
The next day, the guards carried me to the center of the compound where the entire camp had been mustered. In front of this large assembly, in a line and on their knees, were the five prisoners who earlier had escaped. Their hands were bound behind their backs. A sixth man was also there. He, too, was bound, but he was bent over and a guard stood with one foot on the man’s head, forcing his forehead to scrap against the ground.
I stood to the right of the line-up surrounded by a small detachment of guards. The Seven Devils stood off to the left and, except for Shithead, each show no more emotion than a statue. Shithead smiled nervously, his eyes racing from side to side. He looked like a rabbit ready to run.
The Monster was the first to speak.
“These are the most reactionary and the most obstinate of our citizens. We give them the opportunity to work free of capitalist exploitation, and still they want to leave. They hold on to their wicked ambition to subvert our People’s Government. Today, before this People’s Court, they have had their trial, and they have been found guilty of their crime. And what is the punishment?”
The guards pushed the escapees’ frantic faces into the dirt. This looks bad, I thought. My head was throbbing with pain. Very, very bad.
“Observe,” said the Golden Revolver as he broke from the ranks of the Seven Devils. He held a gold plated .357 Magnum above his head.
“I have only one cartridge,” the Monster proclaimed, “which means that only one of you will die this week.”
The Golden Revolver took the cartridge from the Monster and placed it into the cylinder of his gun. The revolver glistened in the sun.
“One of you will die this week,” said the Monster, “And another the next.”
Click, click, click, click, click — the Golden Revolver spun the cylinder. I knew that a cartridge from a .357 Magnum could splatter a man’s head even after it had passed through the metal body and rear and front seats of his car. The Golden Revolver stood over the first prisoner in line. His face was pushed into the dust and gravel. The Golden Revolver put the pistol at the back of the man’s head. The prisoner darted up as if to run away. Guards rushed in and shoved him back down the ground. The Golden Revolver pulled the trigger. The prisoner’s body collapsed.
“Empty chamber,” said the Golden Revolver. The prisoners who were watching recoiled in unison and an involuntary spasm of sound rippled through their ranks. The Golden Revolver took one step to his left and pushed the face of the next kneeling prisoner into the dirt. His second victim squirmed. I felt sick. “I don’t want to die,” screamed the prisoner, “I don’t want to die.” My head was dizzy. The gun clicked.
“Another empty chamber,” said the Golden Revolver, and he moved to the next man in line.
“One dies now,” said the Golden Revolver, “but all of you shall die eventually.”
Again the sound of coming death. Again the click of the gun and the sigh of relief. I closed my eyes. I thought I would faint under the weight of this nightmare. In a daze, I heard a fourth click and then the voice of the Monster.
“Two reactionaries and one bullet,” he said.”Which one shall die now and which one shall live?”
I opened my eyes.
“We’ll let Ly Tong decide, won’t we?”
I could see that the fifth man was Tri. The sixth still had his face in the dirt. The Golden Revolver grabbed him by the hair and held him up like a trophy from the hunt. It was Viet. His mouth was red and swollen from having his teeth yanked out and blood was streaking down from both sides of his lips.
“No,” I shouted. “No, you asshole, I won’t. I won’t be a part of this.”
A guard sent a fist flying into my stomach. Viet looked at me with the appeal of a man who had everything to live for. Months earlier when we were working together in the forest, Viet had told me about his family and his home by the sea.
“I miss my children,” he said. He had two girls and a boy, and he hadn’t seen them since the fall of Saigon two years earlier. “And I miss the sea. I want to sit in the cool water and let waves come over my head. I want to taste the salt. I want to drink in the sea. I want to smoke in the sea. I want to eat it. I want to make love in it.”
There was still hope for Viet, but for me there was nothing to desire. There was no one waiting for me if I got out. Outside of this prison, society was just another bigger prison. Under the communists, Vietnam was nothing but imprisonment, torture, starvation, terrorism, oppression, exploitation and inhumanity.
I heaved trying to catch my breath and said, “Take me. Take me instead of Viet.”
The Golden Revolver gaped at me. “You really mean it?” He let go of Viet and walked over toward me. For the fist time, his face was excited. He’d been waiting all this time for a chance to kill me and now he had it. “So, you’re next?”
“Yes, go ahead,” I said.
The Golden Revolver raised the pistol above his head like a priest offering a chalice to the heavens. To the Seven Devils, this was just part of the ceremony, but for the Golden Revolver it was a chance to check the next chamber of his gun. It was empty. So while lowering the pistol to my head, he turned the cylinder and skillfully put the bullet against the firing pin. The Golden Revolver looked at the People’s Court and said, “I will satisfy Ly Tong’s request.” But his hands were trembling as he put the pistol between my eyes. He was sweating and his face was pale.
“Go ahead and shoot me,” I said with determination.
My voice gave him the strength to pull the trigger. There was a click. Viet fainted. Then there was silence.
“A blind cartridge!” cried the Golden Revolver.
The miracle of the blind cartridge not only save my life but the lives of the others who had been sentenced to death. A couple of days after this game of Russian roulette, an official from the Ministry of Justice inspected Camp 52 and commuted the sentences of the condemned men to solitary confinement.
Two months later, the Seven Devils did something completely opposite in tone to their show of execution. They singled out seven prisoners and praised them for their labor. Up to this point all that the Seven Devils had meted out was degradation and death. So when they showed favor to some of the prisoners, we knew something was up.
What were their motives? Were they trying to ease the tension caused by the threat of execution or had the seven prisoners bribed their guards into giving them a light work load?
In all camps, there were three tiers of prisoners. The majority wanted to be left alone. They lived from day to day, they ate, they worked and they tried to stay out of trouble. Among them, however, were a few who, perhaps because of their rebellious spirits, couldn’t help but passively and sometimes actively resist the camp authorities. These prisoners were cursed at, chained and beaten. They always suffered physically, but their minds and their spirits were at ease because they received the admiration of their fellow inmates
A second group of prisoners received better treatment from the guards. With money their relatives had sent them, these prisoners bought some of the easiest jobs in the camp. They were the camp cooks, drivers and group or unit leaders.
The third tier of prisoners received the best treatment of all. They were known as “antennas” and their job was to spy on the other prisoners and act as informers. In return, they were rarely given any work to do but to report on others’ acts and thoughts. Yet such reward seemed slight in comparison to the antennas’ constant fear of reprisal. They knew that someday they would pay for betraying their fellow prisoners.
So in prison, being praised by the communists was not an honor and being condemned was no disgrace. But being praised by the Seven Devils was unheard of. How could they act as benefactors when only two months earlier they had played the roles of executioners?
Anyway, the prisoners chosen for praise were reassigned to the gardening or cooking groups. Both assignments meant that these prisoners were assured of getting enough to eat. For those in the garden could surreptitiously eat the vegetables they tended while those who did the cooking could set aside rice or meat for their own consumption. The greatest reward for the favored prisoners, however, was permission to go outside the camp gates.
Two months later, all seven took advantage of that permission and promptly disappeared. They were long gone by the time the guards discovered their escape. That evening the Seven Devils had the rest of the prisoners gathered in the camp yard to be counted. When everyone was accounted for, the Monster spoke:
“We, the caretakers of Camp 52 have learned an invaluable lesson. We were told you were like children. Do not trust them, we were told. We listened but we did not agree. We felt that these seven prisoners were hard working, that they deserved praise. By giving them special recognition, we were demonstrating our decency and our pride in Camp 52. And what was our reward? A breach of faith. A betrayal of our trust. You know as well as I that it’s only a matter of time before these parasites are captured. They will receive their punishment. As for you, your punishment will begin tomorrow. You could have reported their scheme to escape. You could have prevented their betrayal. Because you didn’t, you, too, must suffer.”
The next day the atmosphere in the camp was very tense. All of us were afraid. We had to work harder, eat less, and we were constantly under the guards’ supervision.
After the ordeal and miracle, I seemed almost oblivious to time, place, and activity. I went about my daily routine of chores in a daze. There was no point to care of survival, or death and I didn’t really care what the Seven Devils did next. I had no fear, but it was a bravery born of a holy belief, I didn’t care about anything.
I don’t know how long I lost my grip on reality, but it returned when we began the move to Camp 53.
Camp 53 ‑‑ my next step in the new government’s series of “educational” institutions ‑‑ was just a short 90‑minute hike from Camp 52.
The brief trek through the countryside and the welcome sight of new scenery was refreshing ‑‑ as refreshing as prison life can be, anyway, under such inhumane circumstances.
Compared to our previous prison, the new surroundings seemed as sumptuous as the Saigon Hilton would appear next to a dingy, dirt‑floored roadhouse.
Here, the prisoners still worked like fiends all day with lumber gangs and sawyer crews, but we also could take time to tend our own private gardens and raise chickens.
Better organization at Camp 53 meant fewer run‑ins with our custodians, who would slam rifle butts into faces for no other reason than a prisoner’s eyes met theirs.
With organization also came grueling, gut‑wrenching work that ended lives on a steaming mountainside just as surely as it could earn favors from the lazy guards who would snooze in the shade of a giant teak.
Where the hell all the wood we cut went was anybody’s guess ‑ ‑ quite possibly some of the exotic tropical hardwoods made their way through international markets to adorn the dens and offices of the same American commanders I fought with during the long years of struggle against the communist scourge.
Felling the trees was no problem compared to the arduous and dangerous task of taking the huge logs down precipitous mountain paths. I looked back on my days combating the bamboo thickets and wondered how I could ever think life then was tough.
This was a bitch.
First, we’d cut the wood, then dive for cover when the trees ‑‑ as thick as a car and tall as a radio tower ‑‑ would croak their death cry and crash to the ground.
Even when one thought he was a safe enough distance away from falling timber, a long branch from the careening tree might whip by and slash off a finger or lash through an arm like a steel wire through an uncooked fillet.
The real work came after the logs were trimmed and cut to 10‑ foot lengths.
No yellow, diesel‑powered modern machinery here to strip the timber off the muddy mountainside. Instead, it was true “man‑ power.”
Twenty of us ‑‑ ten to each side ‑‑ would hoist those huge logs upon shoulder‑mounted carrying yokes and stare with dismay down the same rain‑greased trails we ascended that morning.
Bare toes clenched like a falcon’s claws in that goo, grasping for some sort of hold as we’d lug a log all the way down the mountainside, past brooks full of sharp, chipped rocks that could slice a foot or shin open as easily as an axe.
The day we discovered the true deadly nature of our task, was thickly overcast with a steady drizzle that wettened the already slick mountain trails like pig‑fat on a griddle.
On rainy monsoon days, the prisoners who would normally help each other with the day’s work and share rations for survival, turned into grappling beasts, wrestling and arguing for the smallest log for the dangerous haul down to the valley.
Our team wound up with a teak monster that had grown for centuries in the sweaty jungle sauna. We were ordered to get on with the business at hand. With a deep foreboding, we hefted the behemoth to our shoulders, bending like bamboo under the bone‑crushing weight of what would become some Moscow commissar’s desk and chairs.
“Front men” knew their task was the most crucial of any on the team, because if they fell, the rest of us would lose our hold on the enormous weight of our burden, possibly resulting in calamity.
We made it without incident to the first small level spot on our two‑mile journey downhill. That is, with no more injury than the cuts and bruises on bare feet slamming through mud and onto protruding roots and rocks with about three times the force it takes to crush a tin can.
The group didn’t know it until later, but the sullenness of the two largest “front boys” was the result of the dysentery that stained their pajama bottoms, leaving them weak and weary and unable to digest even the last few days worth of the mealy rice that was our staple ration.
The weakness brought on by the disease went unnoticed among the rest of us, most of whom also had digestive problems or festering cuts and wounds to tend.
We depended on those front boys to bring us down safely the same as they had 100 times before.
And they almost did.
The four at the front paused briefly as they teetered on the next precipitous stage of descent. Their pause, however, lasted only as long as it took the momentum of the log to overtake their inertia and start us skidding and stumbling down the path.
The biggest guy ‑‑ I never knew his name, but he had pimples across his shoulders ‑‑ was our downfall. As we slipped and skidded down a particularly muddy incline strewn with sharp rocks, he faltered, and fell to his knees.
Immediately we recognized our plight, and we pulled and worked to maintain our balance as the timber slowly eased out of our grasp, despite our digging, clawing fingernails searching desperately for a hold on the slippery, mud‑caked bark.
“For God’s sake, look out!” shouted one of the crew as the log bore down on the big man, bent in the intestinal agony that wrecked his stomach and abdomen.
Just a sapling when the first European adventurers traveled to the fabled lands of the Orient, the tree had survived through the centuries, sucking moisture and nutrients from a stingy soil, living through forest fires and diseases, escaping ‑‑ until now ‑‑ the fatal sting of man’s axe. Now, it was destined to become a killer of man. Centuries of history written on its many rings smacked into the back of big guy’s head with the sickening thunk of a ripe gourd smashing against a rock.
Screams filled the forest as some of the prisoners watched the log shear off the big guy’s head with the neatness of a buzz saw, while others watched the careening timber rip the skin off their own legs, caught either next to or underneath the mass.
No one lost a leg, though, for the muck that tipped and tormented us also saved us, as arms and legs found a forgiving refuge deep into the ooze as the freight‑training log smashed down the trail and into the woods from which we had stolen it.
We dug a shallow trench and buried our man in the red soil, knowing he would feed the nutrient‑poor land with his body and help the hateful vegetation flourish.
With such events almost daily occurrences, I tried to steel my mind and body against them.
While nearly everyone carried some memento of civilization with him ‑‑ cans for rice, and water for drinking or cooking scavenged wild vegetables ‑‑ I shunned those conveniences and concentrated on toughening myself for the day I would leave this prison life and steal through the jungles to join the family of man.
My companions, for instance, constantly wore out shoes ‑‑ either from the constant wear and tear of forced hikes to work, or the jungle rot and mildew that ate away every item not made of rock or steel. Instead, my bare feet hardened into a thick mass of corns that allowed me to stride across sharp gravel as easily as a person with a pair of rotting, rubber‑soled combat boots.
My skin was my only clothing, save for a pair of shorts. The covering from my birth grew tough and strong, while others preferred to hang rotting rags on themselves in caricatures of “decent men.”
“Where’s your food and drinking water,” a guard asked me, possibly spoiling for a fight in this terror‑land of justice‑by‑ emotion.
“I eat it all,” I replied.
“What’s the use of carrying food when three times my ration isn’t enough for breakfast?” I said. “I can get my water from any stream during the day.”
Nobody again asked me about my light load and lack of possessions, even though fellow prisoners sometimes offered me residual of the manioc and maize, when their relatives brought them better food on their visits.
The prisoners looked forward to those visits the same way a starving man dreams of steak dinners. At Camp 53, each prisoner could receive only a certain amount of food from his relatives during these visits ‑‑ usually about 2 kilograms. This was the food that kept everyone from dying of starvation and malnutrition, and most prisoners hoarded their food caches in efforts to make the supplements last until their wives, fathers or daughters brought another ration, 3 months later.
Visiting hours ranged from 15‑minute chats full of family news to half‑hour discussions that left time enough for information concerning the outside world. The time allowed with loved ones swung on the whimsy of whichever guard pulled the duty for the day.
Wide wooden tables separated the visitors from the prisoners, as dozens of families crowded the room, and husbands and wives and lovers and friends had to shout across the tabled wooden expanses to hear each other.
Very few secrets were passed at those meeting halls, and the width of the table made it extremely difficult ‑‑ though not impossible ‑‑ for families to pass money that a prisoner could use to buy favors or store for use in an eventual escape.
As bad as visiting conditions were, even worse were the times when families could not afford to travel the roads to the remote camps to offer life‑giving food, love, morale and news from beyond the camp propaganda broadcasts.
The one tidbit many of us dreamed to hear was word of the war between Vietnam and Kampuchea. A long and drawn‑out war, we thought, could mean a chance of fewer guards, meaning possible escape ‑‑ or even the draft, which in any case would have gotten us out of our miserable conditions and back into the world, where escape from the communists might become easier.
Not too long after the giant tree felled the largest man in our camp, the guards transferred me to the sawyer group, which waited in the shade each day for the mountain‑crowd to haul in the logs of their labors.
Besides the shady relief from the unrelenting tropical sun, I also enjoyed better rations for board‑cutting. The guards let us rest briefly if we were ahead of our sawing quota, and we could use the time for tending the gardens of gourds we kept a short distance from our work stations.
We’d saw all day and sweat gallons pulling those long hand‑ saws through wood as hard and tough as iron.
But life as a sawyer was better ‑‑ even more so since the Seven Devils seemed to have eased off their hard‑ass regimen, and treated us more like dogs than cockroaches.
Maybe they got bored with their sadistic games and stumbled off to other diversions that kept their angry clubs off our backs. Or perhaps they had taken a few of the ugly mountain girls into their shacks, getting “regular” in the sack.
Who knows? Whatever the reason, the evil vacuum created by their change in attitude soon was filled with another, more ominous harbinger of ill‑will and inhumanity.
There he was, hair still jet‑black and cropped close, the Fu‑ Manchu manicured expertly. The short, stocky build, the scarred face…and the deadly eyes. It was “Bad Cop.”
This time he wore new, finely sewn black pajamas, and he strode through the camp with a menacing grace and self‑ consciousness that suggested a tiger, not a man, moved beneath that well‑fed skin.
“Bad Cop” was herdsman when the communists took over the North. In the people’s court trialing his landlord, he was provoked by the agit groups to accuse his old master, stoning him to death, to avenge those hard days serving this family. This revolutionary spirit in the class struggle had helped him being promoted in the new regime. This experience taught him the lesson that the more blood‑ thirsty he was, the brighter would be his future.
I watched now, as he wiped the sweat from his brow with his three‑fingered left hand, and watching his reflexes, his moves, I knew he would enjoy dealing harsh retribution to anyone who even attempted resistance or escape.
He had no need to wait very long.
Four escapees from prison 52, who had spent three starving months in the jungle, had been captured only days before by villagers with guns who had no trouble surrounding and subduing the quartet that thought they could make their way through Laotian border and the third country would whisk them to paradise.
Instead, the four landed square in the maw of Camp 53. These “special guests” were housed in the disciplinary hut, apart from the barracks the rest of called “home.”
Prisoners speculated that they eventually would see the four, dragged screaming from the torpor of their waiting to the special room the guards used to ask their questions with rubber‑hosed punctuation.
Our captors proved more imaginative than that.
The first to notice the fate of the four was the old man who carried water for the guards and who we often saw scurrying his stick‑thin carcass across the compound, lugging two 5‑gallon buckets of shit to the trenches we used for latrines.
“The hut’s on fire,” the old man shouted, dropping his waste‑ buckets, spilling the effluence on himself and the compound.
“You shit‑eating asshole!” swore one of the Seven Devils as he pulled back his truncheon to beat the old man. “That’s none of your goddam business, unless you want to roast with them!”
The prisoners, aroused from their midday tasks, streamed to the line of barbed wire and clenched the awful, rusty spikes in their fists as they listened to the terrible screams and howls of agony emitting from the burning shack.
We watched helplessly as the flames shot out of cracks in the hut’s walls and leapt to the thatched roof, where the wind whipped the blaze into an inferno ‑‑ a wavering, pyramid‑shaped orange plume with flickering feathers of red and yellow lifting the branches of trees high overhead.
Like a roll of thunder, the holocaust sucked in huge streams of air, creating a roar that drowned out the pitiful cries of the four men inside.
Some of the prisoners tried to climb the wire fence to help the burning men, but the guards knocked them off the fence and beat them savagely.
The prison officials waited until the last flames had died out before they allowed a party of volunteers to try to save their comrades.
We approached the smoking, scorched ruins and found three of the dead escapees, their charred and smoking bodies curled into fetal positions against the ruined foundation of the earthen floor.
One man, Quach Giang, still was alive, though only barely. I carried him to the prison infirmary, as his barbecued flesh sand skin sloughed off in chunks in my hands, making me vomit again and again. The odor of the cooked flesh was too much to suppress.
But for Quach Giang the suffering had just begun.
Medics in the filthy, fly‑ridden camp clinic lopped off his feet, using no anesthesia. He lay there screaming until he was hoarse.
The unsanitary conditions and the guards’ refusal to administer antibiotics to prisoners, much less escapees, ensured Quach Giang’s slide from hungry man on the run to half‑man eaten by the butcher‑medics’ knives.
Greenish, oozy infection spread in Quach Giang’s legs, and two weeks after the fire he lost both limbs to amputation.
The camp doctors cut off the remainder of his legs a little later, after the fly‑deposited infection spread nearly to his groin.
Then Quach Giang got what he wanted: freedom. Prison officials let him go home, as they usually did in such cases. What the prison officials lacked in patient care they made up for with their diagnostic acumen ‑‑ rarely did a sick or severely wounded prisoner live more than a month or two after his release from camp.
At home, the obsessing of the accident on his escape and his betrayal became the daily nightmare. Everyday Quach Giang recited to his wife the story of the days he returned to jungle where his group hid themselves. Tortured by the thirst, he slipped into the plantation to steal sugar canes and was caught. Even worse, after he was caught he did not know how to delay the arrest of his companions and give them enough time to get away. He asked only that he be served a big meal with steamed chicken and a bottle of wine before leading the village security men to the forest where his friends were waiting for him. All of the others were surrounded and captured. Quach Giang suffered, not only from the pain of his burns, but also from remorse for having betrayed his friends. He later committed suicide at his home.
The aftermath of the fire, which the camp administrators blamed on the neglect of prisoner upkeep, nonetheless rekindled new horrible, vistas for the “torture expert.”
The rebuilt “disciplinary room” that replaced the burned hulk of the hut featured many small rooms built of clay. Their low ceiling did not allow enough room for prisoners to sit up, and the compartments were neither wide enough nor long enough to stretch out.
Wooden stocks in the door of each room held prisoners’ feet outside, in the corridor, where mosquitoes, flies, snakes and rats regularly visited to gnaw on the exposed flesh of the miserable victims trapped in this new, improved torture chamber. For fun, the guards would strike or kick the bare soles sticking out of the doors.
The first customer in this structure, invited was old Capt. Cuong, a former officer in the South Vietnamese military security branch who was now the camp barber.
Cuong spent several days, and was subjected to the most hideous tricks of the modern torture trade.
We saw him alive for the last time on Communist National Day, which is the one day of the year that the Vietnamese communists deign to show all the benefits of a “workers’ paradise.” Perhaps as a reward for surviving the torture so long, the guards allowed Cuong to crawl on his hands and knees back to the main compound.
Cuong told us that “Bad Cop” wanted him to reveal the names of all the former agents and security men in the South Vietnamese regime, but that he refused to talk for fear that dozens would die at the hands of torturers and assassins.
He told us he didn’t expect to survive the torture, and that he planned to end his life that night.
Before sunset, Cuong ate his last meal, which was as plentiful as the one reserved for the capital convict before his being executed on the electric chair, thanks to the National Day, laced with rat poison.
We stayed up late that night to bury Cuong.
“Confess your crimes.”
“Work hard. Score merit. Study, study, study. Re‑educate and you’re homeward bound.”
The former administrators, bureaucrats, soldiers and commoners of the old South Vietnam followed these prerequisites for release from the prison camps almost to the letter. The promise held before them, like a warm ray of sun through months of cold monsoon rains, was a return to civilization; families and full bellies; the freedom to stroll to the local marketplace where one could gossip and buy sweet meats; or read a tattered book or newspaper ‑‑ even if the news for public consumption was strained through a fine communist cheesecloth of propaganda.
The prisoners shuffled along, day by day, month by month and year by year, lulled by their own beliefs in the rules of fair play and confident their acquiescence would earn them an early release.
They continued to couch their bruised and battered minds in a gauzy world of hope, even as the communist regime near the end of 1978 closed the original re‑education camps 52, 53, and 54, merging them into a prison called “A‑30,” where professional police, well‑trained in subjugating already‑tormented psyches, took over from the relatively oafish conscripts who had pushed and prodded their imprisoned countrymen the previous three years.
Three years. After three years of hope, escape, grueling punishment and numbing torture, the administrators of the new Prison A‑30 told me there was no end in sight.
My ordeal had just begun.
The prospect of dozens more rainy seasons, a multitude of days spent grubbing for lizards and insects, and restless nights breathing the tuberculoid atmosphere hacked up by hootchmates drew me deeper and deeper into a dark miasma of despair as I squatted on my heels in the ankle‑deep dust of Prison A‑30’s reception compound.
The prison was separated in a broad river plain into two camps ‑‑ A and B ‑‑ which were about a half‑mile apart. Residing away from the barbed wire that corralled the 5,000 inmates in these two enclosures were the neighborhoods of the little area called “Mai Lien residence,” comprised of groups that had been given special preference as rewards for obedient behavior, whose wives and families were allowed to settle with them.
I thought that the stifling, humid air heaving in and out of my lungs felt much the same as would the suffocating water a drowning man sucks into his throat as I gasped futilely for survival. It made me think of my own precarious situation, as well as the lieutenant and Capt. Trung and their ride between Suoi Dau Prison and the disciplinary cells at Nha Trang. The thought of the doomed lieutenant made my body quiver briefly, and I tried to focus my mind away from the past.
I watched as, in the deep dust, a large fly broke free of the dozen small black ants that had attacked it, wings broken, but narrowly escaping a sure fate of being eaten alive.
The fly struggled in the dust, trying to spread its mangled wings, and stumbled on spindly legs for the cover of a fallen leaf. With all the power of its hundred‑lensed eyes, the fly still did not notice the small red ant that approached from behind, raising its venomous stinger for a quick execution.
The red ant’s attack was swift. The small insect mounted the fly’s back and dug into its victim’s thorax with mandibles capable of shredding rubbery jungle leaves.
The venom slowly moved through the fly’s system, slowing its writhing convulsions as a column of the killer’s comrades lined up for dinner. Four of the tiny brutes efficiently slashed off the fly’s head and brandished their prize.
Stupid fly should’ve checked his tail flaps, thought I.
My concentration on the brutal struggle suddenly broken, I let out a whoosh of the breath I had held for the past minute and fell backwards off my precarious, but Orientally stable, crouch.
The young man chuckled, half from amusement and partially out of embarrassment, and offered a hand to help me, who already had sprung back to his feet.
“Ly Tong? Is it really you?” the youth asked.
I rubbed my right shoulder as I regarded the tall, skinny boy before me.
“Well, who the hell else would it be?” I answered, a bit miffed that such a young and gangly prisoner would disturb my reverie ‑‑ and land me on my ass in the powdery dust.
“We were in Lam Son together,” the youngster replied, stretching his sunburned skin and slightly too‑round eyes into a broad grin. “I used to bring you manioc, and you’d tell me tales of your adventures fighting in the clouds high above the battlefields. I’m Hanh.”
I was stunned.
“But you were just a boy of 14 when you sat at my feet,” I blurted. “That was, that was three…three years ago.”
How many little kids had grown up in the communist prisons during these three long years of death, disease and starvation!
It was obvious the boy, now standing a head taller than I, was one of the first by‑products of the American Marine “advisors” who first came to help South Vietnam against the Viet Cong.
Hanh’s round eyes, pale‑red skin and fuzzy, dark‑brown and curly hair attested to his parentage ‑‑ his mother, some young village girl entranced with the tall, swaggering Marine. And the father, some American Midwesterner a long way from his home, his wife and his children.
Like so many of this Amerasian breed in this new republic, Hanh not only suffered the abuse of North Vietnamese soldiers, he also was shunned by many of his South Vietnamese countrymen, held at fault for a matter that began and ended in the moist, sweaty passion of a hazy night long, long ago.
Running the streets even before the Viet Cong bombed the Presidential Palace, Hanh eventually was arrested and deemed an enemy of the new state for the thievery and black market activities that, oddly enough, keep the economies of so much of Southeast Asia from bankruptcy.
“It’s so good to see you again,” Hanh said, bowing in the Oriental gesture of greeting, and pumping my hand in the fashion popular in the larger, Westernized cities like Saigon and Hue.
“Hey, stop it now,” I said, embarrassed for the boy’s such open and honest display of affection.
I laughed and, placing my hands on my hips, stepped back to examine Hanh’s lanky frame clothed in torn, mildewed pajamas, and shod with sandals that more resembled bundles of straw than the cast‑off bamboo footwear that for most prisoners were standard‑ issue.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go see who else we can find.”
“You’ll be surprised,” said Hanh as they started walking together, I having to turn my head and look up whenever I wanted to speak or listen to the boy. “All sorts of people from the other camps have arrived here. Most of us thought the camp was full, and then you guys from 53 showed up.”
The heavy dust of the reception compound puffed up in little powdery geysers between my toes as I and Hanh elbowed through the crowd of milling prisoners, past rows of flower beds oozing up from the earthen floor that cast a riotously incongruous dash of color on the dirty brown‑and‑gray background.
“I’m sorry to see you in this place,” Hanh said. “But we’ve got something extra here that I think you’ll like.”
The young man hesitated, then said…”Women.”
I gasped audibly as my eyes quickly scanned the camp, stopping suddenly when my gaze hit the horizontal lines of barbed wire, then beyond to a camp compound that, yes, now I could see them, dozens of ragged, stumbling, stooped, dirty….women!
“Miss Thu An has come here to the men’s compound many times to look for you,” Hanh continued enthusiastically.
I turned slowly to face the bubbly youth, my brow creasing into a scowl of puzzlement and displeasure at having my leg pulled.
“Yes?” I growled. “Who is this Miss Thu An?”
“What? You don’t know? She’s the beautiful girl you met in Lam Son the week before you escaped,” Hanh said. “You remember her, don’t you?”
Slowly, the images returned. I remembered.
“Oh, yes. Yes, I do,” I replied in a hushed voice while the memories almost blotted out by six months in the metallic hell of isolation in the Conex container flooded back.
I had seen her just once, when she was visiting her father.
Thu An was dazzling then. Her dark eyes sometimes seemed like strobe lights, flashing mischief and mystery back and forth, back and forth. Her laughter was deep and sultry, her lips thin and chiseled. Though she was not that tall, I remembered her long, smooth legs, her full breasts, her small and delicate arms and hands.
In my mind’s eye, I remembered her striking beauty, and how my loins had stirred when she laughed and shook her long “shag‑ cut” hair, the only remnant of the years she spent abroad studying at colleges in the United States.
I last saw her for just that one afternoon when she spent nearly a day in the shade of a prison shack, talking with her father. I remembered reclining on the hardback of a long‑deserted termite mound, watching her fluid movements and the glints of light on the soft sheen of her perspiring face.
But I couldn’t remember everything, and I felt mixed up. The long hours in the Conex had muddled my mind, switched reality with fantasy with reality. I wasn’t sure anymore ‑‑ especially when it came to matters of the heart. It was somewhere between drug and dream, and there was no way to know which was which. I knew I was vulnerable.
In various discussions in Lam Son, her father had told me that Thu An was quite taken with America and hoped to eventually settle there, but that she returned to Vietnam to see her family as often as she could. The money, he told me, wasn’t a big problem because of his job as a regional government supervisor, plus the South Vietnamese government’s subsidies for overseas studies.
About the same time the Viet Cong fire had knocked me from the heavens, it turned out, Thu An took her last school vacation ‑ ‑ it was spring break ‑‑ to visit her family. Shortly after she arrived home, the North Vietnamese regulars stormed Saigon’s airport.
The only way out of the country became the mad rush of thousands to the U.S. Embassy, where helicopters lifted the families of a few hundred mostly high‑ranking and well‑connected bureaucrats to the safety of American ships cruising just off the coast a few miles away in the South China sea.
Thu An had remained in South Vietnam, trapped, unable to penetrate the noose of military might that the northern soldiers soon tightened around the borders of South Vietnam.
I remembered how I had thought of her plight ‑‑ then just a few months old ‑‑ as she had lifted herself from the shady shelter where she and her father conversed. She had brushed her pajamas as she stood. The regulation garment that on most people hid all features, on Thu An subtly revealed the long, straight legs, the swelling hips, and the high, firm breasts of her tailored frame.
She carried herself erect and proudly, and when I spoke with her briefly at the prison gate, I had been quietly enraptured with this girl whose aspirations in the wild and wonderful and free West had been cruelly caged by men, politics and the communist lust for world domination.
Three years and a few days at A‑30 slid through the hourglass before I saw her again.
The memory of her face remained entombed somewhere in my mind the three years since, but I knew the details had grown hazy and I wasn’t sure if I would recognize her again. In fact, I quite possibly already had passed her many times without knowing it.
The prison grapevine began bearing the fruitful news of my arrival at A‑30 mere moments after I passed through the prison gates and, for four days Thu An made excuses to travel to the men’s compound to collect food for the women in hopes she would meet me about whom her father had spoken so warmly and admirably, around whom prison legends were beginning to grow.
My escapades ‑‑ particularly my refusal to buckle under to my jailers, and my escape from Lam Son and subsequent months in a Conex cell ‑‑ all became part and parcel of the legends and lore that desperate men use to pass the time and bolster their own flagging reserves of courage and endurance.
And so it was an extremely oppressive day, with the clouds hanging low and the air ringing with the chorus of a million insects, when Hanh and I trudged across the compound to fill our barracks buckets with water from the dirty and dry well.
We passed the open door to the hootch when Hanh, in another of his near hallucinogenic fits, grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard.
“That’s her!” Hanh whispered, nodding his head in the direction of the slender woman who glided gracefully across the compound yard toward the commissary. “That’s Thu An.”
The woman ‑‑ with long, straight black hair hacked off nearly at her waist ‑‑ walked with the same confident loveliness and elan that I remembered from Lam Son. The blazing dark eyes also were there, but now I noticed for the first time the added alertness and wariness that such a beauty needed in an environment of burly, homesick soldiers and desperate, sometimes demented, prisoners.
I gazed at Thu An over my shoulder, pretending to draw water. The woman’s eyes stopped on me and lingered. The slightly veiled questioning in her glance burned my memory as though I had looked into the crackling electric‑blue glare of an arc welder.
Nonchalantly Hanh followed her into the warehouse, away from the hundreds of dull but prying eyes that surveyed the camp scenes from every hootch and shade tree, and there he arranged a meeting between us.
“She wants to meet you at the soccer field tomorrow afternoon,” Hanh reported.
Meetings at the athletic field were not that unusual, because many prisoners would meet at the open area to talk at day’s end and to catch the cool breezes that were absent from the sweltering barracks in the summer.
Not many, however, did much more than loll in the shade ‑‑ they were too exhausted by their 10 hours of labor in the rice paddies or in the forests with the lumber crews. I wandered along the edge of the field, stepping over the sprawled‑out prisoners ‑‑ both men and women ‑‑ who quietly conversed while at the same time alertly watching the guards, with weapons drawn and cocked, who patrolled the area.
As I passed a tree, a work‑calloused hand reached out from behind the trunk and touched my left cheek. Even in the sweltering humidity, the static electricity caused a spark. I wheeled around slowly and stood face‑to‑face with what I first thought was a vision.
“Ly Tong,” said Thu An, “I’m glad you are still alive,” and she placed her hands gently ‑‑ like two fallen leaves ‑‑ on my chest, rested her face on my shoulder…and then began to weep softly.
“So many have died,” she continued quietly. “My father, half of my village…the babies still are likely to never see their first year.”
I was overwhelmed. Her genteel forwardness was unexpected. I drank in the salty, unwashed aroma of her hair as I amazed at how, though we had never known a moment alone together, she nevertheless approached me as if we were long‑time lovers, no longer separated by time and place.
“I..I..I have thought of you often,” said I, holding her tightly, feeling her legs against my legs, her stomach against my own, unable to control the long dormant movements of my manhood. “But I never knew for sure what you were. Or who you were. I wasn’t sure if I was making you into something you were not. I was so confused. All I know is that you were the first woman I had seen in a long, long time who seemed more in control of her fate than anyone else at Lam Son.
My god, holding her is ecstasy, thought I.
“I had the same impression of you,” said Thu An as she clung to my shoulders and then leaned back to look into my eyes. “I wondered whatever happened after they took you from the isolation.”
The couple quickly loosed their embrace when a guard strolled past, looked at them menacingly, and then silently pointed the Kalashnikov barrel at their heads.
Without knowing it, both I and Thu An were simultaneously agonizing over our fate: though we had seen each other only once before, and then barely exchanging only a few words, the impression each had left was burned into our minds.
At times it had been an opiate, where both, it seemed, had dreamed for years of the other, fantasizing about the imaginary lover, hoping our love for the other was not unrequited, surviving for days ‑‑ sometimes weeks ‑‑ on what each would say, what each would do that moment we finally met again. It helped each survive.
What neither had reckoned was that when we did, in fact, come together, it would be in a place where our physical love likely would arrive stillborn, with never, ever an opportunity for it to run, to soar, to sing.
Our spiritual love stood a fighting chance, but even the smallest open displays of affection had to be avoided at all costs so as not to draw attention to ourselves. For one to openly carry on with romance in prison meant the rape of the woman or the mutilation of the man. Or both.
“I was brought here last year after failing in my escape by boat.”
Thu An and I met every chance we could. Sometimes, weeks would pass and we wouldn’t see one another. On other occasions, Thu An would conspire to work at the rice mills to see me pass by with a lumber gang or rice field crew to or from work.
We would wave to each other, and on the rare occasions we stood together, we would gently hold hands or run a finger along the other’s thigh.
I, too, anxiously awaited Thu An, when she passed by the men’s compound on her way to the bathing stream with the women. She would return an hour or so later with damp, glistening hair, and smile demurely at her imaginary lover, both of us desiring to hold each other’s naked body and roll and tumble in the clear brook’s waters.
All that separated us was the razor‑sharp concertina wire that could shred skin and sever limbs in an instant, and the automatic rifles that could nearly cut a person in half with a single rapid burst.
Despite the constraints, we did manage to pass one another gifts and letters. Most often, I wrote poems to Thu An. She would read them late at night to reassure herself that she was not alone in the neutered surroundings of prison.
For her part, Thu An would pass letters to me ‑‑ and even managed to slip me a pair of rubber‑soled sandals that she made for me by cutting up a cast‑off truck tires.
The sandals, I never wore.
Instead, I marched to the fields carrying my precious gifts strung over my shoulder, showing them proudly, much as one’s fiance would display a ring of lavaliere.
It was a touching sight.
Here was I, a pilot who had wooed and won many, many women in my life, from debutantes to go‑go dancers. Here was I, a lady’s man of some repute during my flying days, who compared with his comrades the stories of female conquests in the same breath as the latest joke.
Here was I, a once comfortable, once confident bon vivant who now toiled unshod in the fields and forests and took the pain of the sharp rocks and grasses and slivers and hot tarmac while putting aside many sandals that were offered by other ladies during my previous prison time because I was sworn that the men must jack the sky with his barehead, must trample down the earth with his bare feet (this old saying indicates the unsubmissiveness of the hero), now had no other choice but carrying her sandals over my shoulders to prove that, I did, really, reserve the great affection to this woman, this Thu An.
No, the sandals I never wore but carrying.
Although my refusal to wear the sandals drew praise from the romantics and admirers around me ‑‑ many of whom would go on to further spread the Ly Tong lore ‑‑ the captive pilot’s dirt‑caked feet were the subject of many complaints from bunkmates in the barracks, where prisoners slept head‑to‑toe to avoid coughing in their neighbors’ faces.
“Goddammit,” came the usual refrain each night. “You walk in shit and mud all day, and then stick those reeking dogs in my face all night.”
“Hey, smells like home. My home.”
“Why don’t you wash them or something? Christalmighty, they smell up the place something sickening.”
“Wash ’em or we’ll shoot ’em, right?”
I, despite the controversial effect my feet had on my bunk mates, refused to acquiesce, retorting instead (and with much confidence) that I would clean my feet when my accusers “clean out the shit that’s clogging your brains.”
Of course, neither side conceded, but the serio‑comic banter continued daily nonetheless.
Aside from the wonder of loving Thu An, the sheer enormity of Camp A‑30 provided newcomers with so much sight‑seeing, as it were, that months passed before they became familiar with the entire operation.
In fact, one point of pride among camp officials, and pain for prisoners, was that for four consecutive years A‑30 was selected the champion camp along the bamboo gulag, due to the apparent productivity and discipline of its captive citizens.
More than 200 hectares of rice paddies and hundreds of hectares of sugar cane, tobacco, bananas, manioc, maize and other crops blanketed almost the entire valley of Camp A‑30.
The weary plough‑buffalo and oxen whose bodies were nothing but bone and skin with sparse hairs that were trembling each time the gad‑flies stuck their needles through were a common sight each evening when the drovers would bring their beasts to the stream between Camp A and B to drink and wallow, stirring the muddy stream shared by prisoners. Beast and men watched each other with glassy eyes, comprehending each others plights in the new situation. The communists cleared waste land for cultivation to the extent that there remained no pasture for them to graze on, and exploited to the utmost, prisoners as well as beasts, so that the sight of the male fatted buffaloes running and bellowing after their females, in their being in rut had become the remote scene of the past only.
Under prisoner power and beast power, the camp constructed a sugar mill, rice mill, a power station and entered the age of mechanized agriculture with the dozens of tractors, trucks and automobiles that camp administrators “purchased.”
This artificial town, however, ran on pure corruption, and a great deal of the machinery running to and from was the result of bribes handed to the camp by monied inmates.
The process was quite simple: the A‑30 prison board often would grant a short leave to wealthy prisoners, who would return to the camp from their villages with the prices of their furloughs ‑‑ cars, trucks, tools and fertilizer ‑‑ whatever each particular prisoner had for the camp to appropriate for a week or 10 days at home.
Most of the camp “chauffeurs” drove what once were their own cars ‑‑ only now the camp owned the machines and the prisoners benefitted with the resulting easy jobs.
One prisoner, a former merchant in the days before the war, owned several fine cars ‑‑ a Renault, a Mazda and a Citroen ‑‑ in his home village, but for months he steadfastly refused, as probably would anyone,to part with them. Not that they were beautiful pieces of tooling or industrial art, but because his three sons used the vehicles as taxis and produce‑haulers to support half of his extended family of cousins, nieces, uncles and elders.
In fact, in only the Citroen did any seats remain. In the others they were removed in the interest of hauling and transport capability ‑‑ and whenever the cars needed cleaning and washing, the windows and trunk were flung open and buckets of water flung in.
Through their records, however, the A‑30 camp board knew of this valuable property and conspired to obtain it.
They began by assigning the flabby, overweight merchant to one of the lumber gangs, detailed to hike 10 kilometers in the hot sun each day to the nearest bamboo stands.
Accustomed to a life standing behind store counters and lifting only jingling coins, the merchant’s body could not keep pace, and his health soon began to deteriorate.
In the name of “humanitarianism,” the camp administrators rushed to the merchant’s aid, offering to send him home on a two‑ week leave ‑‑ on one condition.
As everyone who watched knew would happen, the merchant returned to camp driving the old French Renault. And, within the next three months, the camp administrators had extracted from him the Citroen and then the Mazda by threatening to return him to the lumber crews if he didn’t bring the other cars to camp, one of which he was allowed to drive as his new job.
The merchant eventually took several leaves to his home, returning each time with a progressively less valuable item. It was common knowledge throughout the camp that he planned an escape from the country with most of his immediate family, but the administrators didn’t seem to care anymore ‑‑ especially after already having sucked his family’s fortunes dry.
Camp A‑30 also had other dealings with the communities in the surrounding regions.
There was the camp soccer team, the music band and the theater troupe, all of which traveled to the little villages to entertain and to show off what a fine job the communists were doing re‑educating the “students.” These well‑fed, well‑groomed and well‑dressed propaganda exhibits also allowed the country folk to witness the “civilized” and “humane” manner in which some of the opponents of communism were treated.
When I and my group first arrived at the camp, we marveled at the soccer, the stage, and the sounds of the music. It was so wonderful, so welcome to souls that for so long had seen only the dark side of humanity.
Naturally, the shadowy camp administrators grinned with delight as their charges clamored to attend the concerts or plays in the crowded meeting hall ‑‑ even though one of the main reasons for their popularity was because the events were co‑ed, allowing the men and women to mingle, to talk, to satisfy their hungry eyes.
It was odd, in a way, that these people ‑‑ humiliated, beaten cruelly, starving, some seeing their friends or relatives executed with merciless efficiency ‑‑ could be placated with such athletic or cultural simplicity.
But these obvious placebos did, nonetheless, provide the prisoners with an opportunity to escape from the horrors of their own lives, their dismal destinies, their tunnels with no light at the end.
In addition to the psychological pacifiers that sport and play‑acting and music brought to the inmates, Camp A‑30 also had its flower beds.
Along the “Path of Enlightenment” that led through the gates toward freedom, lay vast beds of scarlet red flowers symbolizing, of course, the revolution. However, in other gardens scattered around the camp, from the entrance to the commissary to the soccer fields to the center compound, bloomed a myriad of flowers in what could only be described as a colossus of color in otherwise drab, gray and green and brown prison compounds.
After my arrival, however, these rainbows of vegetation soon departed. As I and a few other prisoners were pulling weeds from a flower bed one cool, hazy morning, a communist lieutenant colonel from the north strolled by, remarking on the many tidy plots.
The prisoners stood, then moved to the edges of the little gardens while this mighty North Vietnamese pooh‑bah, a North Vietnamese lieutenant colonel, rapsodied “Camp A‑30 is as beautiful as an 18‑year‑old girl at her debut.”
The gardeners, I included, raised their eyebrows almost in unison and grinned at the remark.
“Holy shit,” I murmured to no one in particular. “We’re held here against our will, they abuse us at will, we wonder how they will kill us, and numb‑nuts talks about debutantes. Hey, will you give us a break? How about a party for us ‑‑ a coming‑out‑of‑ prison‑party, OK?”
The stubby army officer turned when he heard the giggles, then narrowed his eyes and glared at me as the others shifted uneasily and glanced nervously and quickly from side to side.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, sir,” said I, holding my palms up nonchalantly. “I was just telling my friend here that if you think these gardens are glorious now, you should see this place next spring.”
“Oh, really?” the lieutenant colonel brightened his scowl and smiled. “Is that because the rains bring all these flowers into their full, glorious blossoming?”
“Well, sure, it’s kind of like that,” responded I, who had not been in A‑30 long enough to see the arrival of a spring. “You’d love it. It’s when the cactus blooms between the barbed wire.”
The pudgy communist’s face reddened, and he clenched his fists white while his eyes bulged. He stared at the grinning Ly Tong for a full 15 seconds and then quickly spun around and marched back to his waiting staff car.
The next day the guards ordered all of the flowers destroyed, except for the central courtyard garden and the long lines of cactus that grew between Camp A‑30’s double row of barbed wire fences.
In the long run, though, the flowers were more of a loss to the camp cadres than to the inmates, mainly because the latter were less interested in aesthetics than the vegetation they could scratch from the ground to supplement the boiled rice and maize they were given in quantities barely sufficient to sustain a dog.
Not all prisoners, however, woke each morning ‑‑ that is, if their growling bellies would let them sleep ‑‑ to face the specter of slow starvation. Only those who had no families or whose relatives couldn’t afford to give away any of their hard‑earned food had to work like jungle beasts to keep their bodies alive yet another day.
Among the wealthier prisoners, though, hoarding was refined to a high art. And one prison group, whose members called themselves the “Zimbabwe” for reasons I never really fully understood, carried their contraband rations in pockets sewn into the linings of the long nylon raincoats they wore even in the hottest weather.
The big raincoat pockets also provided mobility. The Zimbabwe never hid any food anywhere else, where it might rot or be stolen. They either carried it or ate it.
Their pockets fairly bulged with the fruits of their meal‑ obsessed labors. The Zimbabwes may have looked a bit queer, but their relatively well‑fed bodies attested to the nutritional value of the lizards, millipedes, grasshoppers, crickets, snakes, frogs, crabs, snails, mice, rats and other bugs and vermin they collected and often ate ‑‑ whole, sometimes ‑‑ on the spot.
They carried maize, bananas, manioc, potatoes, sugar cane and anything else they could pilfer from camp warehouses and fields.
The concealment also was necessary to keep them from being caught with the hoarded food from the prison fields, for which they could be ‑‑ and often were ‑‑ charged with sabotaging production, taken to the disciplinary compound, cuffed in wooden leg stocks and beaten or allowed to perish on minuscule rations.
Although almost all of the prisoners in the camps scrounged the fields and woods near their work assignments for edible roots and insects, the Zimbabwes presented everyone with comic relief as they dashed through fields chasing flying bugs or grasshoppers, their long nylon coats flapping behind them like swooping kits or low‑flying bats.
Humor aside, the Zimbabwes were so efficient at foraging that the entire region around Camp A‑30 soon was quite visibly raped of any vermin or edible roots, and the grim reality of the dangerously low and pitifully poor food supply hung hauntingly before each prisoner.
Many prisoners would snatch the buds off of banana trees for fruit‑soup, or they would cut whole bunches of the ripe bananas and bury them for nearly a week’s worth of secret snacking.
Others turned to collecting anything they could find, from grubs and snails, to the delectable field mice.
To catch them, some would rig twig traps at their burrows and then shove a wad of smoking green grass into the burrows to smoke them out. Others simply turned their garden hoes into trenching tools to swiftly dig up the holes and catch the grayish‑brown rodents. The less ambitious, however, awaited the opportunity to nab the mice frightened out of their hiding places by men clearing jungles or fence‑lines and during the field‑cutting of the harvest season.
Sometimes the large mice, in a final and desperate act of defiance, would bite the attacker’s hand with razor‑sharp teeth. Many of the men dropped their night’s dinner on the ground, their hand spouting blood. Those who held on, despite the tiny slashing teeth, choked their little victims until they died.
During the harvest, prisoners used sticks and sickles to hack and kill the mice whose nests they had destroyed with the crop cutting.
From the women’s camp, through Thu An, I was served a steady supply of another protein‑rich meat ‑‑ toads ‑‑ mainly because most everyone else refused to eat the tough‑skinned little amphibians with the horrible appearance.
Prisoners weren’t the only ones to suffer. Peasants, hungry and miserable, often would wait in the thick brush and ambush the prisoners to steal the baskets of rice carried from the fields. The imprisoned men often saw a mother or aunt scolding a 5‑year‑ old for not being sly or quick enough to run off with some prisoner’s food.
Sometimes, while the prisoners labored in the fields, the low‑ranking guards who didn’t have enough clout to merit better food, hung around the forest edges, digging up roots to cook later.
Or, at night, the throbbing, nauseating ache of hunger would drive the guards into the prisoners’ cook shacks where they would steal the manioc and corn that was soaking in water for the breakfast meal.
As camp stores and field crops continued to disappear through pillaging and “over‑grazing,” the prison administrators, instead of easing up on food supplies and rationing, began to clamp down even harder on the foragers. Offenders were severely punished ‑‑ some were placed in solitary confinement, where their chances of survival were almost nonexistent. Others were whipped or beaten to bloody pulps.
The first thing the communist guards would do before putting them into the cells was that they forced to take back what was lost by hitting, kicking the food thieve’s stomachs. With their expertise of beating, all these victims had to vomit out everything including the digestive juices and blood, and at the same time reflex initiated resulting in rectal contraction and expulsion of the fecal material out of its intestinal tract.
Nong, my friendly inmate, was one of the survivors from this charge. He used to be tall and sturdy with large and thick chest, but after his right rib cage was broken, he looked like an athlete who was lifting weighs only with the left hand, and so everytime he took breaths to vibrate high notes of the song “We have a good harvest.” his left lung was like a sail swelled out in the wind driving his port forward, unbalancing his right part that shriveled since that punishment.
Still, food grew even more and more scarce, and prisoners who used to scrounge a spoonful of uncooked rice for nighttime chewing began to show up in the weeds during rest periods looking for anything edible, but hoping for snakes.
Snakes were a staple dietary supplement for some of the more physically fit prisoners, though by now most of the smaller grass snakes and burrowing snakes had disappeared ‑‑ either through their inability to sustain themselves on a reduced vermin supply, or because they themselves had become the prey of an increasing number of hungry humans.
Nonetheless, many of the venomous varieties such as cobras and kraits still survived, along with some pythons.
During brief rest periods I often would stalk the fields and forests with a former Air Force lieutenant named Lang, pitting my snake‑chasing skills against the pilot who one day might have been my wingman, had the war continued.
Late one afternoon we both spotted the tail end of a snake near the jungle’s edge, slithering away from us toward a water‑ filled drainage ditch. Lang jumped forward and, seeing it was a python ‑‑ and a very large one ‑‑ he hopped and dodged as he tried again and again to grab the speeding reptile.
The snake hit the water, Lang following with a splash in hot pursuit. Lang quickly submerged himself in the muddy, waist‑deep water and came up with the writhing 10‑foot beast, trying to whirl it like a bolo. The wet scales, however, slipped through Lang’s grasp and the serpent flew off into deeper water. Lang plunged again and again to regain his hold each time the snake surfaced for air.
Finally, Lang gasped and swam toward me where he clutched a handful of grass on the ditch bank to steady himself from the waves of nausea caused by his hyperventilative diving.
I crouched on the bank and watched for signs of the snake, which had to eventually re‑surface for air. In a few minutes, the still ditch water riled with small concentric rings the python’s head made when it poked its scaly nose into the air.
I sprang from my perch and hit the water like a rocket, my hand firmly grasping the slippery rope of the snake’s 16‑inch midsection. Carried by the momentum of my dive, though, my shoulder and head crashed into the muddy bottom of the ditch, stunning me momentarily.
Somehow sensing vulnerability, the snake intuitively turned on its attacker, using the side of its body to probe for weaknesses, then curling its length around my neck, shoulder and chest.
I knew I ‑‑ and not the snake ‑‑ was now in grave peril. Unable to see under the water, I fought panic while my feet sought some firmness in the mud, seeking something solid or stable so that I could propel myself upward to the life‑sustaining air.
But before I could, the huge python whipped its bottom half tightly around my legs, immobilizing me.
Then, it started squeezing.
Malnourished and weak, I tried to summon fighting strength that slowly was ebbing from my exhausted body. I could feel the increasing pressure of this long, pulsating muscle coiled around me, and, arms flailing, tried to claw my way to the surface of the murky waters.
The head of the snake went after one of the arms, and I could feel the scales sliding over my legs, my waist, my back and chest, my neck. . . undulating over and around me in waves, tighter and tighter.
I was running out of air, and very soon would come the panic, then quickly would come the final hopeless burst of frantic strength to gain escape, and lastly the peace and ease of surrender.
I fought to remain conscious. Then, preparing for my last lunge at life, for some reason I let my body go limp.
Amazingly, the serpent did likewise. Still, by stopping its constrictions, even ever so briefly, it allowed me to avoid blacking out.
And at that exact moment, I felt another presence, another thing, something else that was wrapping around me and the snake.
It was Lang.
Grabbing the tangled bundle of man and beast, Lang pulled them down to the bottom of the ditch where he set himself on firmer ground, squatting with the big package until the muck reached his neck. Then he sprang upward.
The trio shot through the water, breaking the surface in a roiling mass. I gasped for as much air as the constrictor would allow while Lang groped about for the snake’s head.
I was immobile and near unconsciousness, but I was alive. I lay on top of the water, face up, breathing in short bursts, still encircled by my bewildered attacker. But now the snake was faced with another foe, this one more vigorous and determined than the enemy it had successfully subdued only seconds earlier.
The snake lifted its head back and opened its mouth wide, hissing loudly as it bared its fangs and flicked a long, pronged tongue.
With his right hand, Lang grabbed the snake just below its jaws and held it tightly. The snake recoiled powerfully, but could not loosen the man’s grip.
Quickly Lang completed the noose with his left hand, and from behind the mighty python’s head, squeezed the serpent’s throat with the vise his two hands made. Then Lang’s thumbs slid over the top of the triangular skull and, like two heat‑seeking missiles, found the snake’s eyes.
Lang straightened his arms as he lifted himself up out of the water, bringing all the pressure he could muster to come to bear on the slippery eye sockets. He gritted his teeth while compressing his hands around the snake’s head, shoving his thumbs deep into its eyes, crushing through the sockets, mashing them and the bones around them.
With that, the snake loosened its hold on me, who responded with a long guttural exhalation, half of which was the result of relief, the other half a recognition of the pain that shot through my chest with this first full, unimpeded breath.
Lang, ignoring the python’s tail that was now wrapping around his own waist, used the meat of his palms against the sides of the slithery, squirming snake’s jaws, then pushed them together slowly and steadily ‑‑ until the entire skull collapsed into a jellied mass of mesentery.
The snake’s body squeezed around Lang almost epileptically, then relaxed, and eventually, fell away.
Lang slung the dead reptile around his neck like a Hawaiian lei and swam over to me, who was floating on my back, looking straight up into the beautiful blue sky, breathing life into his aching lungs, silently ecstatic just to be alive.
“Ly Tong, are you all right?” Lang asked, using one hand to cradle his friend’s head while using the other to paddle them both toward the ditchbank.
“I’m OK, I think,” I said weakly, smiling at the man who had just saved my life. “Is the pool party over?”
Lang grinned widely.
“Let’s get the hell out of here and get the fillets on the grill,” Lang whispered to me. “We’ve got steaks tonight.”
The days, weeks, months and seasons coursed across the valley of Prison A‑30 as the internees continued their hourly struggle for survival.
I saw little of Thu An ‑‑ once a week, perhaps, if we were lucky ‑‑ but the mere sight of her, knowing she was, at most, only a couple hundred meters away, was enough to sustain my emotional and psychological needs, in spite of the harsh physical demands I, and everyone else, continually faced.
The monsoon season brought with it a killer pneumonia that afflicted the weakened and defenseless bodies of men and women who worked each day to the point of exhaustion, driven by sadistic, power‑hungry captors who rewarded the efforts of their minions with food rations far too meager to sustain human life.
Many inmates would contract the fatal disease in their sleep while they lay under the drip‑dripping of a three‑month‑long tropical rain that would seep through the sieve of rotten roof thatch, soaking them to the bone and then subjecting them to the deadly effects of hypothermia.
Only last year the prisoners could duck out of line on their way back from the fields to gather thatch for their barracks roofs. But this season they found only flimsy corn stalks and short, dry grasses ‑‑ all that remained after the nightly prowlings of villagers seeking the protective vegetation for their own roof repairs and grass for their starving water buffalo.
The rain continued, and so spread the pneumonia ‑‑ for there was no medicine to be spared for the prisoners ‑‑ in my barracks until Cadre Thu and other camp leaders figured that if they didn’t allow their captives to fix the hutches they soon would be left with a campfull of corpses.
“No, they wouldn’t want to let nature and the harsh elements take away the pleasure of destroying us themselves,” mused I, as I queued up along the Pathway of Progress with my bunkmates, under low, drizzling clouds.
“Can’t handle a little rain, eh, Ly Tong?” Cadre Thu sneered haughtily. Thu, a young jailer, who just grew up during the late years of the aggression war of communists, was completely different from previous military jailers who were wizened, wiry soldiers who, as boys had fought against the French at Dien Bien Phu, had risen to the rank of officer in the revolutionary army, but aspired to nothing higher because, it would take from them the pure joy they found in jungle warfare and throw them into the perilous world of military politics.
Thu claimed a full head of straight, jet‑black hair. His black eyes were small and beady, ever searching for something wrong around him or making things wrong or right, according to his own whim.
For such a young man, Thu was malign and smart, unrelenting in accomplishing tasks set before him, and quite without pity or remorse when it came to punishment or intimidation. His clear and husky voice spat out words in a clipped, no‑nonsense tone that warned his subordinates he was not about to be messed with.
Thu bared his beetle nut‑coated teeth and shoved his face so close to mine that the prisoner looked cross‑eyed down his nose at the little chubby‑chinned, monkey‑mouthed menace.
“No…no, of course not,” said Thu, answering his own question. “You panty‑waists sat dry and comfortable in your officers clubs on the air bases, waiting for the fight to come to you while the freedom fighters lived in the jungle, grubbing for worms with their rifle butts.”
I grinned at the image of communist soldiers sitting in the rain‑soaked jungle with wriggling worms hanging from their blue lips.
Thu caught the grin and was not amused by it.
“Yeah, you’re a funny guy,” Thu grumbled. “Laugh when you see where you’re going for thatch.”
The column of men slogged out of camp, through the muck that oozed up over and around their sandals and onto their ankles and calves.
They walked, they slipped and some fell in the boggy mire that reminded some of the sojourners of previous work details, years ago, on the deadly mountain paths during logging details.
To me, the mud seemed to give off the cold stench of blood and urine ‑‑ the same sordid smells that wafted over the logging crew the day a giant teak trunk smashed a man into a mountainside like a pestle grinding mustard seeds in a kitchen mortar.
Gradually, the group left the bare, cultivated and picked‑ over regions of the valley, and after several hours entered the narrow trails that wound aimlessly through the jungle.
Under the tropical triple‑canopy of leaves and parasitic plants that drew their moisture from tall and strong tree‑hosts, the steady rain gave way to brief, dry pockets of jungle where the thick foliage created a watertight ceiling.
Thu halted the march in one such pocket to rake his wet hair back with his fingers.
The rain continued far above the tired and slumped‑over men, but for those still conscious enough to notice it, the pattering drops of rain on the leaves gave way to the rumbling sounds of myriad rivulets of water sluicing down pipelines of leaves, branches and tree trunks.
Thu stood to one side of the clearing, conferring with one of the armed guards who accompanied work parties everywhere. He returned from the conference visibly shaken and ordered the men to walk back down the trail several hundred yards.
As we filed past where the guards sat huddled in a circle on their haunches, I and the others saw the reason we were ordered away: there, still filling with water, were several handsized paw prints of a tiger.
The edges of the tracks crumbled as they filled with rain, but all could see the impressions of huge claws in the mud ‑‑ as if a large man had slammed his hand into the muck and curled his fingers to create deep gashes in the earth.
“We’ll keep the tiger from a meal today,” Cadre Thu joked nervously, eyeing the tiger tracks. “But if any of you bastards decides to run, think about this beast’s jaws clamping around your neck while its claws rip at your skin.”
The prisoners sat down the trail from where the guards peered cautiously into the thick foliage that permitted a view of just a few feet before huge leaves and ferns blocked the line of sight.
“Aw, shit,” grumbled a prisoner next to me. “We’re going to have to sleep in those leaking huts because of this goddamed tiger.”
“To hell with that,” I said, jumping up. “A couple days ago I stashed some thatch not too far from here.”
Several co‑prisoners protested, imploring me to remain, reminding me that the large, striped cat obviously nearby was nothing to be taken lightly ‑‑ and certainly a batch of thatch was not worth risking one’s life for.
I waved them off and continued, deep into the jungle.
I hopped over fallen tree branches the size of a man’s torso and climbed atop tall tree roots to peer about for my stashed thatch.
Tall fern‑fronds lashed my bare stomach and back, while the only sounds evident were my sharp snaps of breath and the water‑ closet sound of the little rivers in the leaves far overhead.
I came up short suddenly when a large, water‑laden leaf dropped its rainwater and rebounded with a loud whoosh.
I listened closely and could hear the sounds of twigs snapping under the weight of the water…. or was it fallen foliage crumpling under the heavy, soft pads of a man‑eating tiger?
Another frond leapt skyward with a weight‑releasing whoosh, and the crouching I jumped and spun around to confront the sound.
“Sure as shit, that was a tiger,” I thought to myself.
Or is the beast casting that shadow next to that tree?
Wait, no, it’s over there by those rustling leaves, I surmised, getting jumpier with each passing minute and cursing the trickling water streams that masked small sounds ‑‑ like those of a tiger panting in anticipation of its prey.
Caught up in my imagination, I drew several sharp breaths through my nose, sniffing the air for what the instructors in my air force survival training had told me was the telltale rank odor of a tiger.
I didn’t know a tiger had any odor, for that matter, and even if it did, wouldn’t it have to be too close ‑‑ and too late for its victim ‑‑ before any smell became evident?
I continued to peer at the stripes of shadows and light between the tall trees and jungle grass, sniffing at the air, thinking “yes, yes…oh god, the smell.”
It was either a sudden chilly draft wafting across my back, or the fear that slowly crept up my legs, that caused me to shiver convulsively.
Is this what I would face on the day ‑‑ if it ever came ‑‑ that I escaped? Through a dark jungle full of wild animals and barely a thing to eat?
How could I survive such an ordeal if I couldn’t even master the little madman inside me ‑‑ the tiny person who was raised and nurtured in the civilized villages and cities?
I thought of the bustling streets, the tall concrete hotels, the sunny cafes of years before ‑‑ and then the relaxing resonance of Thu An’s voice, the soft squeeze of her hand and the gracious beauty of her face, her enticing lips, the inviting beauty of her breast and thighs ‑‑ when, thankfully, a warm calmness washed over me. I would face this beast, I decided, just as I had faced the dangerous man‑beasts of the prison camps.
I wrenched a dry branch from the leaves that suspended it above the rot of the jungle muck and snapped and peeled both ends, then with my thatch‑cutting sickle I sharpened them to fashion a rather large cudgel with jagged, skin‑piercing points.
With this six‑foot protective staff braced across my chest, I reasoned, no tiger would risk trying to clamp its jaws around me. Besides, my sickle could easily slit the belly of any big cat that got close enough to make a leap in an attack, I thought.
During my busy preparations, I recalled a folk story I heard long ago that claimed a man could frighten away a tiger ‑‑ and even stop it from charging ‑‑ by staring straight into its vertical pupils.
With all thoughts of gathering thatch behind me, I sat on the trunk of large fallen tree and prepared to stare down the tiger that had yet to be seen. I glared intently at the tree before me, intent on practicing this mesmerizing craft.
Suddenly, the jungle silence was broken with the distant, low growl of the invisible tiger, which quickly lifted me from my tense but quiet repose.
Then, suddenly, from behind me, I heard a voice.
“There he is!” called out the guard, one of several Cadre Thu brought with him when a count of the prisoners revealed my absence.
I heaved a sigh of relief, in spite of some disappointment that there would be no tiger.
“Here we think this little bastard has tried to run away and we find him sitting in the bush, waiting like tiger bait,” Cadre Thu chuckled to no one in particular as he strode up to the shaken me.
“What do you suppose would happen if you met a tiger here, so far from the group?” asked Thu, who smiled at the thought of this major pain‑in‑the‑ass finally disappearing forever.
The tiger again growled, from far off, turning the attention of the men from the situation at hand. Slowly, and still looking toward the muffled sound from the jungle, I swung around and addressed my captor.
I’ll risk a battle with a tiger.
“A hero is risking his life?” Cadre Thu distorted.
I behave as a hero towards human beings. But towards vicious beasts and especially savage human brute, I’ll risk my life!
As had become part of his regular pattern in such similar crises, Thu’s face began to swell up like a red, ripe pomegranate, and the little monkey spun on the greasy muck and stomped his way through the slime back to the trail.
It was the last time I and Cadre Thu would face off like this, because, upon our return to camp and soon after Thu’s report to his superiors, the prison authorities transferred me from his soon‑to‑be thatched barracks to brand new House 3, home of another prisoner group.
House 3 ‑‑ where the hard, incorrigible cases were kept ‑‑ ironically was one of the better lodgings in camp and a welcome relief from the moldering, rotting, fallen‑down hulk that had for so long been my home.
The barracks was one of seven recently constructed to replace the dilapidated dwellings that the communist conquerors initially said they would need for just a few years while they re‑educated the former soldiers, capitalists and politicians of the fallen south.
The structure featured modern long‑lasting construction that foretold of years of continued use in the prison camp system.
Tiled roofs kept the interiors dry, and a concrete floor, with regular sweeping, providing a somewhat clean appearance next to the packed dirt and straw to which I and my inmates had become so accustomed.
Rows of concrete cinder blocks represented the bunks, which were topped by one more rows of wooden plank places of rest suspended about five feet above the concrete beds.
I stumbled into the barracks, ignoring the unnecessary shove from the guards.
The 130 prisoners in the long‑low building were just rising to the harsh shouts of their cadre leader when I entered.
“Great,” said the cadre leader as he strode up to me and squinted through sleep‑blurred eyes at his new charge.
“Another goddamned trouble‑maker for me to baby‑sit. Cadre Thu told me about you and your penchant for wandering off,” he said. “So listen up smart ass, I’m your new cadre. The name is Ly, and I don’t give a rippling shit if you do wander off, because we’ll have you working where the guards can draw a leisurely bead on you before you ever get close to a forest of bush.”
I said nothing, instead taking measure of this man, only the latest of my many tormentors.
“Plant your ass over there,” the cadre ordered, jerking his head toward the assortment of concrete and wooden bunks in the far corner of the barracks.
I returned the stares of my new bunkmates and flung myself into one of the wooden beds ‑‑ any of which were far more comfortable that the worn‑out straw and packed earth I had slept upon the previous four years.
“Nice place,” I commented to a prisoner who had walked over to stare at me.
“But where’s the toilet?”
“You’ll recognize that soon enough,” said the prisoner breaking into a mischievous grin. “It’s just like any other barracks you’ve ever seen.”
I frowned after walking over to the nearby corner and eyeing the familiar bucket, brimming over as always with the nightlong wastes and refuse of men relieving their swollen bowels and bladders.
“Be it ever so humble,” I said, as I squatted over the pail.
I soon learned what Cadre Ly meant about wandering off from his work. When his group arrived at an open area of immense rice paddies, I quickly surveyed the scene and surmised that any of the guards would have a direct shot ‑‑ with plenty of time to aim ‑‑ in that vast, open area if a prisoner decided to escape, or even search for shade during break time.
So large were the rice fields, that when my group had completed pulling wild grasses and weeds from the entire plot, we had to again begin pulling the new weeds that already had grown high in the paddy we cleared only days before.
Exposed to the weather, with no shade from the sun and no bushes or high grass to protect us from the wind, the men suffered horribly.
In the summer, the hot, relentless tropical sun pierced the humid haze to scorch our bent‑over, fully exposed spines. The work was tedious and tortuous, and I, like the rest of my group, began the first few days of my chores on my feet, stooping and crouching in a slow crab‑walk to pull the grasses that otherwise would choke the delicate rice plants and destroy hopes for a successful harvest.
“Ah, Christ,” moaned the man to my right near the end of the first week.
“My legs are shaking so badly, I just want to lie down.”
And so he did.
Far off, on one of the dikes holding back the water in the paddy, a guard motioned to Cadre Ly and pointed in my direction.
The cadre and the guard raced across the field as other guards took up positions and aimed their weapons across the paddy at the prone prisoner.
“Lang, you goddam sonofabitch, you get up right this minute,” Cadre Ly screamed.
God, does insanity run in the family or does the sun simply drive them all nuts, thought I as I watched the cadre’s fury rain down on the prostrate Lang.
The sunstroked man rolled over onto his back amid the kicks and yells of the enraged cadre.
“You don’t want to stand up, do you?” yelled Ly. “Fine, don’t. In fact, I’ll help you relax.”
With that, Ly ‑‑ a small, swaggering psychopath of a man ‑‑ began whacking the bare soles of Lang’s feet with the bamboo swagger stick he affected like some self‑important British lieutenant.
Lang moaned and slowly crawled to his knees while Cadre Ly continued the thrashing, now on Lang’s back. Lang trembled, wobbled a bit, and reached out to pull a handful of weeds.
“Look at that,” exclaimed Ly to the chuckling guards. “He just needed a little inspiration.”
Then the cruel cadre strode off to the shade of a bush to wait out the heat of the afternoon.
With that little lesson in mind, all of the prisoners joined Lang on their hands and knees as the relentless heat beat them down lower to the ground.
Despite the first few days of cut and bruised knees, the prisoners soon developed hard callouses in response to the long ordeal of crawling over covered rocks and spiky grass shoots.
In the winter, long lines of prisoners bent and toiled through the rain in paddy mud as deep as their bellies as their emaciated bodies shivered convulsively and continuously under their useless garments, and I, alone of the prisoners, had neither shirt nor hat and clenched my teeth against the lashing rain and chill wind.
The weather sapped the prisoners of their strength and, at times, I became so fatigued while dragging a rice field with primitive implements, I would fall down and hang on the harrow that grooved the field while a water buffalo dragged me along, its tail and hooves constantly switching
mud and filthy water into my already red and sore eyes.
At the same time, huge black leeches would crowd around my body, greedily sucking at my blood, leaving their festering sores on my skin. Parasites and leech bites, combined with animal excrement, left all the prisoners with scabies that kept many of them up all night scratching sore, crawling skin.
On one of the less inclement days in the fields, when a cool breeze kept the bugs away, and fluffy clouds, for most part, hid the sun, I was plowing a paddy.
Strolling along behind the plow and the lumbering water buffalo, I stooped over to pick up snails, worms and insects that the plow had revealed, popping the protein‑rich creatures into a container tied to my waist so I could eat them later.
My concentration, however, flagged, and the plow zigged and zagged crookedly across the paddy.
Cadre Ly, ever watchful, rushed out from the field’s edge, shouting, “You fool, you’ve fucked up the plowing! You’re on the roster for tonight!”
Even while the prisoners struggled to endure this exhausting, hellish existence, the communist cadres continued their nightly “analysis” sessions, trying to turn their wretched charges toward the “higher socialistic road to progress.”
That night, I scolded myself in front on the assembled prisoners for my “unprogressive” attitude toward labor.
“The scolding words of the Cadre Ly, that I “fucked up” the plowing, not only made me see my mistakes, but they also liberated me from something that has been haunting me for a very, very long time,” I said.
“You see, seven years ago, when I was a pilot and also in charge of an officers club at Phan Rang Air Base, we held a party one day to honor some guests who were visiting from headquarters. I ordered the cooks to fix some special dishes for the occasion, but they ruined several of the entrees.
“I was angry with them and told them, “You guys sure fucked up the cooking.”
I then turned and fixed my eyes on Cadre Ly. “After uttering those uncouth words, I have been ashamed of my rudeness, lack of good breeding and my coarse language. I’ve been pained and miserable for seven years because of this low‑class, barbaric vocabulary.
“But today, after hearing these same words from the mouth of a cadre, a highly respected person in this society, I feel relieved. If someone as socially significant as the cadre can use these ill‑bred, uncivilized words, how could anyone blame a “puppet” like myself for an unintentional lapse?”
Cadre Ly jumped to his feet, his fists clenched and his face turning a bright shade of scarlet red. He glared at me long and hard, and then stormed out of the meeting.
The comment first brought gasps from the guards and prisoners alike, but quickly came the grins and chuckles as the cadre’s quick departure signified a rare but significant moral victory for the prisoners.
The daily grind of the fields, the beatings and the nightly mind games continued to take their toll, but developments at the end of 1979 shed a different light on the hopelessness of their sorry existence.
It was a bright, sunny day in December, as I was marching with the woodcutters out to the jungle, that I passed a short, stocky man in black pajamas and sandals. The Fu Manchu mustache jogged my memory, but it was the long, thin scar traversing the man’s face that shot an overdose of adrenalin through my body.
“Bad Cop!” I exclaimed to myself as my eyes locked into the black slits of darkness that glared from the face of my former adversary.
An involuntary shiver climbed up my back as the barrel‑ chested man with the black leech on his face exchanged a look of recognition, then lifted his three‑fingered left hand in a mock salute.
What in the hell is he doing here? I thought. My heartbeat shifting into high gear. Shit, that’s all I need.
Later, I learned that “Bad Cop”, the professional terrorist who long ago had sent me to Dien Khanh prison, was merely passing through on his way north. From this I surmised that our meeting was purely by chance.
Still, it unnerved me.
The reason for “Bad Cop’s” presence, though fleeting, was the result of another event of which I and my fellow prisoners soon became aware.
We heard of China’s attack on North Vietnam from our guards, most of whom grumbled that they might be sent to repel the massive Mongol hoards from the north.
A war involving Vietnam was what all of the inmates prayed for, as it might give them a chance to either get out of the camps by enlisting in the army, or slink away under fences left unmanned because of a pressing need for soldiers at the front.
It was the second ‑‑ and only ‑‑ option that came to my attention.
Soon after hearing the news, I stood in a short line of men at one of the camp well waiting my turn to draw water for my barracks, when a former airborne office named Khao sidled up next to me.
“Have you heard about what’s going on down in Saigon?” Khao asked.
I just looked at the man and shrugged.
“A circle jerk, I suppose, with all confusion of trying to get troops and fuel and supplies up north.”
“Naw,” said Khao. “It’s better than that. China and our beloved conquerors have cut some kind of deal. The government is releasing Chinese nationals from the camps to go to Saigon. Chinese ships are supposed to pick them up there at the port. Supposedly it’s to protect them from the Viet’s bent on revenge.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Hell, I don’t see any Vietnamese in this line, do you? They all sure look like Chinese to me.”
Khao chuckled and jabbed a friendly elbow into my ribs.
“Yeah, right. I hear most of the guys who are going to Saigon aren’t Chinese in any way, shape or form. Somehow they figured a way to convince the commies to let them go.”
The turmoil of such an exodus, plus the war itself, might just be the ticket for prisoners to melt into crowds of soldiers and peasants traveling north and south along the highways of Vietnam.
Escape. That’s what it meant.
Accordingly, every afternoon I would join Khao and other prisoners to crowd around the two loudspeakers in camp to hear the latest reports of war’s progress. The prisoners would hotly discuss the next probable developments of the war, as each one secretly held close to his heart the possibility that the conflict would open an avenue of escape.
Some field hands made the best of the chaos, conspiring with nearby villagers to sell them stolen portions of the camp’s manioc harvest so they could earn money to buy themselves freedom. Bushels of rice and entire flocks of ducks began disappearing under similar circumstances.
While the entrepreneurs toiled in their back‑room deals, other prisoners ‑‑ the pessimists ‑‑ grew gloomier with every tidbit of news that indicated an escalating conflict with China.
They believed the war would result in a lengthening of their sentences. One prisoner, horror‑stricken at the thought of growing even older in the camps, hanged himself.
But as the war continued, there dawned a new understanding in me of the changes that continued to occur all around me.
Through the prison grapevine, I heard that people of every stripe and color ‑‑ peasants and proletariat and communists alike ‑‑ were leaving Vietnam in droves. Some were departing in boats, while others were making their way over the Vietnam‑Cambodia border and traversing that strife‑torn nation to the refugee camps on the other side. Most of the prisoners were just simply going home.
But not me. Over the weeks and months, I watched as my closest hootch‑mates gathered their tiny, worthless belongings and waltzed their way out of the dreaded hell‑on‑earth that was Camp A‑30.
Finally, in May, Thu An visited me outside of my barracks.
I had not seen Thu An for weeks, and I stood there before her, shirtless and sunburned, my bare toes spread wide from months of sandal‑less toil in the paddies and jungle. The shaggy hair and drooping mustache that I refused to cut in defiance of camp authorities made me look like the half‑wild man‑animal I feared I eventually might become.
I looked at her almost in thanksgiving, and, with tear‑ swollen eyes, basked in the heavenly aura of her tingling, sensual beauty.
“I am being released tomorrow,” she whispered. “My family is going to try to leave Vietnam on a boat. I wanted to say goodbye before we left.”
Horror‑stricken, my thoughts turned immediately to the chilling remarks of fellow inmates who told of Thai and Viet pirates who fell upon these “boat people” well out into the high seas, pillaging them, whipping and torturing the men, bludgeoning to death the tiny children, raping the defenseless women and then throwing them all overboard for the sharks to feast upon.
I looked down into Thu An’s sad, searching eyes.
“Be careful,” I said tenderly as I stroked her long, black silken hair. “So many of us have died already. I want you to live so we might one day meet and make love, alone with each other. I don’t want you to go, Thu An, but go if you must. I love you.”
Thu An smiled weakly, tears running down her cheeks.
The two would‑be lovers embrace, I holding Thu An tightly, clinging desperately to what I knew was a life‑giving part of myself. I could feel her tears dropping on my chest, the barely perceptible shaking of her soft body that accompanied the quiet sobs, and I looked skyward, weeping openly.
Then, in front of cadre and guards and prisoners alike, we kissed.
I told myself to remember her warm, moist lips, her breasts and thighs pressing hard against my own, the dazzling light that shown from our love at that moment. But, then, after a second, I could think no more, and I held her even closer, trying frantically, dizzily, to swallow her into myself.
The gentle nudge of a guard’s hand returned us to the camp, to reality. I looked despondently at the guard, who then nodded and slowly eased himself away from the couple.
I again gazed into Thu An’s eyes, kissed her gently on the forehead, then reached around my back, grabbed her hands, and released myself from her.
Thu An looked at me for a long, long time. She drew a deep breath, exhaled inaudibly, then mouthed the words “I love you.”
With silence ringing in my ears, I watched the guards escort Thu An from captivity.
When the last of the three barbed‑wire gates closed behind her, Thu An turned and looked longingly through tear‑blurred eyes at the man standing alone in the prison compound next to the brilliant blues and reds and yellows of the flower garden.
I, my body limp and lifeless from too many goodbyes, lifted my head, squared my sagging shoulders and raised my arm in farewell.
Then, she was gone.