Shadows and Dreams

 “Vung Chua Mountain looms ominously over the city of Qui Nhon in Vietnam as a silent sentinel wreathed in a thin mist. Qui Nhon is a crescent shape, coastal city in the Bin Dinh province of central Vietnam and hugs the coast along the South China Sea. Due to its proximity to the warm ocean the easterly winds wafting over the sea drag moisture up into the cooler mountain air creating a mist that rings the top. Vung Chua the place where kings rested, means “Ghost Mountain,” and when looking up at it from the city when clothed in mist and fog, it’s easy to see why.”

 So begins my personal memoir of my year in Vietnam, a time and a place wrapped in a fog as thick and deep as those we encountered on that mountain. I write this, not out of any sense of heroism, an oft used phrase today describing our military personnel, but out of my own need to make sense if that time. There is also that deep need to explore my own inner feelings about that place, after all, in that one year my whole life changed. The journey I thought I was on took many twists and turns, certainties were tested, life was changed, and the road that emerged would take me into unexplored territory.

 There are many things I remember with a clarity as bright and clear as fine crystal. The smell of diesel fuel, the sound of the choppers, the rumble of trucks, the unique cracking of an AK-47 and the responding pop of M-16 gunfire. The Vietnamese peasants, eking out a living in the slums of the city, homes made out of the debris we thought useless, children running around dirty and naked, young girls selling themselves in the doorways and markets. The acrid smell of the cooking pots being watched over by aging mama sans, their lips and teeth red from chewing betel nuts, while young men and woman tried to find love in the messiness of war. On our mountain, hootch maids cleaned our rooms, washed our sweaty jungle fatigues, while old papa san burned our shit.  

 War, is not all glory and our worst enemy was the tedium of daily living. In the quiet moments, when I’m alone, I’m suddenly taken back to that year and the memories flood back in a torrent. Yet, as time continues to march on, those memories fade like shadows as the sun slowly sets. I wonder if I’m remembering truth or something I wish happened but didn’t. We all, in some way, embellish our past. Accomplishments take on epic proportions way beyond the reality and that small fish we caught now is our own “Great White Whale.” Our tales grow as as we look back, censoring those parts that weren’t our best moments and creating monuments of our better days.

 I am no different, I am still a human being and like many, I to want to be remembered as a decent person. However, underneath, there is that part that seeks to be heard, the part that lies in the wasteland of memory, where the leafless trees reach out and the ghosts haunt the living. Fear dominates this place, our failures rise up out of the ground as skeletal hands that seek to drag us under the cold, dark earth. 

 So now, I begin the journey into that land where truth and fantasy dance together in a waltz, ever so slightly out of rhythm, a place that is at once both comforting and disconcerting. 

3 thoughts on “Shadows and Dreams

  1. Although, many people looked at our Vietnam war veteran’s, as baby killers and wrong for fighting the war. I wouldn’t be here in America, had it not been for your service in Vietnam. Thank you for your service. And your past doesn’t define who you are today. So don’t let those negative stigmas affect you.

  2. Ghost Mountain and the Train to Nowhere

    Towards the end of my tour of duty in Qui Nhon, Republic of South Vietnam, I began to push the envelope and take unnecessary risks. One of those was to explore the dark back alleys on the outskirts of the city where our Military Police patrols usually didn’t go. Fortunately, I survived myself and lived to tell this story.

    It was a dark night as we edged our quarter-ton down an alley just wide enough to slip thorough. On one side we encountered hooch, after hooch, made of tin and corrugated steel. On the other was barbed wire, sandbags and the occasional ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam) fighting position. It was just about dawn. Fog and mist combined with feint light to create an eerie sense of foreboding.

    Up ahead a shadowy figure began to emerge, as we moved ever so slowly, closer and closer. “What the hell is that,” I asked. “Damned if I know,” my driver responded. It wasn’t moving so we pressed on. As we got nearer, it began to take shape. It appeared to be a 19th century steam locomotive, gradually revealing itself from the darkness and mist. It was on a single strand of side track, standing alone, a transportation monument to a time gone by. We had apparently taken an alley which led to Qui Nhon’s railhead.

    Despite the mist and fog, the sun began to rise and ever so slowly, in the distance, Vung Chua mountain began to emerge. It was shrouded in mist and haze and seemed to gaze down upon us in the city below.

    Vung Chua was known to the locals as Ghost Mountain and this early morning it truly lived up to its name. Mysterious and beautiful. So regal when compared to the filth of Qui Nhon below. As we continued down through the railhead, I thought of my wife, Betsy, back home and wished somehow I could share this moment with her.

    Many years later, a crew member from a flight that took aerial photographs of Qui Nhon back in the day, saw an e-mail of mine which mentioned coming across that old locomotive. He had a photograph of that very alley and the old steam engine therein. What an amazing confluence of events. When I look at that photograph I can’t help but ask myself, “What were you thinking?” Other alley adventures didn’t go quite so well as this exploratory patrol; but God had other plans for me. Despite almost being shot on one occasion and being surrounded by anti-American agitators on another, He reached down and pulled me out of the quagmire that was Qui Nhon, Vietnam.

    As I reflect back on Ghost Mountain and that train to nowhere, I remain eternally grateful.

  3. Padre. I was surfing the net when I came across your piece about Vung Chua, Ghost Mountain. It was beautifully written and brought a tear to my eye as I reflected upon my tour of duty as a Military Police Officer in Qui Nhon. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Reading your blog, I could see Vung Chua once again. Isn’t it amazing how 9 months can be such a seminal time in life? It changed me forever. I still go to a weekly PTSD workgroup for Vietnam Veterans at the Brockton, MA VA. Keep on writing. I’d love to hear more about your experience in the ‘Nam.

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