CHU LAI, Vietnam - I didn't serve in the Vietnam War but like many of my generation, I knew a lot of people who did.
While I was sweating out my lottery number, 102 - I remember it to this day, more than 30 years later - quite a few of my friends and relatives were over there fighting and sometimes dying.
I couldn't help but think of them on a recent media tour in Vietnam. The purpose of the trip was to cover golf and golf courses in the country - not exactly tough duty - but everywhere I went, my thoughts inevitably and usually against my will, turned to the war.
This set me apart from most of the Vietnamese people, two-thirds of whom weren't even alive in 1975, the year Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, fell. Even the ones I spoke to who were alive at the time, including some of whom fought in it, from both sides, didn't seem to dwell on it. All the Vietnamese I encountered were genuinely friendly and curious.
After all, Vietnam has had a war since, known as the Sino-Vietnamese War, when the country sent troops in 1978 to help Cambodia against Pol Pot, after Pot's regime, supported by China, massacred a number of ethnic Vietnamese during repeated raids into their country.
Still, the thoughts wouldn't leave me. From Da Nang, I called up my best friend, who had fought in the war. We had talked about his Vietnam experiences many times but this time was very different - I was there. He could hardly believe it, even though he knew I was going, and you could tell, over the cell phone connection and half a world away, he was reliving some of it.
Specialist 4 Tom Cain is about as forgiving a guy as you can imagine, and has enormous respect for both the Vietnamese people and the Viet Cong soldiers he helped fight - "Sir Charles" as he and his fellow G.I.s sometimes referred to them. But, there was no denying the ambivalence in his words and voice. Then and there, I decided to break away from the press group for a day and visit Chu Lai, where he had been stationed.
Chu Lai was a U.S. Navy base during the war. It had an airfield and served mainly as a support facility for the larger base in Da Nang, where only a few days earlier, the remains of six American soldiers missing in action during the war were handed over to American authorities.
Chu Lai is still a military base maintained by the Vietnamese government, which has plans to turn it into a industrial and transportation hub. My Lai, the site of the infamous massacre, isn't far away.
"Think about the ghosts," my friend said.
As we approached Chu Lai, the land changed. Vietnam is a crowded country, but suddenly the crowds were gone. Ominous may be overstating it, but it was certainly bleak, until we hit the sea. The terrain became clay-colored, rising into dunes, bordered on one side by the South China Sea. Low hills were in the distance, hills I knew to be named by the troops there at the time as numbers like 54, 69, 707 and others.
Directly ahead was a small military building, with a guard rail lowered across the entrance road. Inside was a soldier watching us, and as I raised my camera to get a picture, the driver, a Vietnamese named Ho, gently grabbed my hand. I didn't argue.
By that time, a steady rain had turned into a fierce storm and we turned and drove toward the sea, following the road as it turned to parallel the water. There were no other cars, only the thunder and lightning and a herd of water buffalo wandering aimlessly in the middle of the road.
Deciding to wait out the rain, we turned into one of the dozen or so open-air bars that line a road close to the base, the only shelter around. A woman brought us drinks and while Ho settled in to read the newspaper, I paced and tried to think about ghosts.
But I couldn't, and so as I watched two boys in small, circular boats that looked like bathtubs getting tossed around on the storm seas, I settled on thinking about what it must have been like to be in this beautiful place by the South China Sea with people trying to kill me.
Even that was difficult, so eventually, I wandered next door to another bar where a group of women greeted me warmly, and where I spend the next few hours. None of them spoke English but they laughed hysterically when, not knowing what else to do, I stared singing Elvis Presley songs. After an hour or so, a soldier joined us. He didn't speak English either but he was as friendly and welcoming as the women. He bought me a drink.
The rain never let up and eventually we left, mission only partly accomplished. At least I got to see the place that had had such a dramatic effect on my buddy's life.
The U.S. and Vietnam have had official diplomatic relations for about 12 years now and the two countries continue to cooperate on different levels, including finding and identifying the remains of American soldiers missing in action. Authorities predict that task will take at least another five to seven years.
Writing about golf in Vietnam is such an innocuous thing, compared to what happened there between our two countries in the years spanning 1965 to 1975. Already, I've received a few negative comments and I can surely understand that.
October 30, 2006
Simply select where you want to play, find a tee time deal, and golf now!