first appeared in War, Literature and the Arts
by Bruce Guernsey
"Chew Doublemint: it cleans your teeth and breath,"
Gene Autry used to tell us at the end of his show on Sunday
nights. He'd just emptied his six-shooter into some scruffy
bad guy and had rid the town of evil, but my favorite cowboy's
dental advice had little effect on my mother. "No," was all
she had to say, which meant in no uncertain terms, no gum
for me, despite my pleading at the grocery store.
The memory of tugging at my mother's sleeve came forcefully
back to me last year on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City when
a rag doll of a child, this unwashed little girl, kept tugging
at my shirt with her dirty hand, a green pack of clean-Gene's
version of toothpaste in the other. "Don't buy it," John said.
"If you do, she's yours for life." Little did I know at the
time how true those words would be.
John is John Balaban, a good friend now, but then my experienced
guide around the city where I'd arrived as a faculty member
with Semester-at-Sea, a unique program of worldwide travel
and shipboard study. Vietnam was our fourth port of call,
and Balaban had joined us in Hong Kong, our previous landing,
as an interport lecturer. This was one of his many visits
to the country. A specialist in Vietnamese culture, he'd been
a conscientious objector during the war, courageously helping
to find medical care for napalmed children.
"No," I told her, taking his advice and echoing my mother,
but this kid with the smudged face was more daring and persistent
than I was at her age. I kept thinking that had she a mother
like mine to swat her bottom, she wouldn't keep after me this
way, buzzing about like a fly. "Mister, mister," I heard wherever
I turned, but I didn't give in.
That night, back in the safety of our ship, the SS Universe
Explorernicknamed "The Great White Mother"I heard
similar tales from my colleagues about street children like
"Double," as I had come to call my tenacious shadow by the
end of the day. Over drinks and dinner, Balaban explained
to us that these kids had no certain set of parents and were
essentially homeless. "They do look out for one another,"
he went on to say. "A kind of extended family," but he warned
that we'd continue something that had gone on since the war
by buying the candy and gum they had to sell.
Later, in the snug of my cabin, I was struck by the pathos
of a child trying to market the very sweets most kids beg
for as I had. Thank goodness she vanished, I thought, but
falling asleep, I saw her again, her thin, oversized dress
slipping into the crowd outside the fence at the dock. Giving
in to my guilt would be good for me, not her, I kept
saying to myself like a bedtime prayer. Balaban is right and
so was my old lady. And what would the equivalent of twenty-five
cents really mean out there anyway? Yes, it's a good thing
she's gone, but where I wondered, where?
I didn't sleep well that night. Dreams are the soul's home
movies, someone once said, and somehow home and TV and images
of the "American" war, as the Vietnamese call it, all got
confused in my head. The next morning, at the old American
Embassy where I'd gone with Balaban to take some pictures,
was I sleeping or awake? Everywhere litter was blowing about,
bits of paper and shredded strips of palm leaves from the
whirring blades overhead, the chopper lifting, desperate hands
reaching, trying to grab on, then falling back to ground,
wailing faces wedged in the bars of the locked iron gate.
I stood now at that very place and it all came back to me:
the last days of the war, the horror of that evacuation that
I watched with my fellow Americans in our living rooms as
our country abandoned the many thousands of South Vietnamese
who would surely die. The Embassy was sealed off still but
hardly regal now, overgrown and falling in.
"Mister, mister," I heard in my waking dream, and even John
was amazed. How she found us I have no idea any more than
I could explain how a lost dog finds its way home. Was she
even the same child, I wondered, because today her hair was
combed and her hands washed as if she were meeting someone
special. She wore the same long dress, however: a gossamer
hand-me-down from who-knows-whom that made her look even smaller
and younger than the eight or nine she probably wasthat
made her look almost transparent, more wraith than flesh.
But in her fist there was the pack of Doublemint. She was
back, and she was real.
By the end of the day, I finally gave in. Balaban, my version
of Virgil, had gone into a shop and the little girl and I
were alone. "Listen," I said to her as if she could understand,
"if I buy some gum will you go away?" Resisting her salesmanship
hadn't worked, so I thought I'd try the other, though something
inside of me kept saying, no, no. But what was this voice
saying "no" to, I wondered--to buying the gum or having her
leave? "No, no, please don't, don't go," yet who was saying
this, her or me?
I offered John a stick of gum when he came out. I thought
he'd be miffed, especially when I told him about the extra
quarter I'd given her for a tip, but he, too, seemed to admire
her incredible persistence and maybe even missed having her
around the way I did on our way back to the ship. While watching
for pickpockets and dodging motor scooters, I couldn't help
but search the twilight for my small friend, but like any
shadow at dusk, she was nowhere to be seen. Was she only after
my money, little as I gave her? I was strangely sad, felt
somehow abandoned, and spent the evening with my children
who were students on board.
They were wisely not taking any of my courses, but I wanted
them to know about a Vietnamese story I'd just taught called
The Key by Vo Phien. It deals with a family's having
to leave behind a very old and feeble grandfather during the
hurried evacuation. In that frenzy, the narrator forgot to
leave a key for the old man who is his father, to open a trunk
where his valuables are stored. Having made it safely to America
with wife and children, the narrator wears the key around
his neck like a cross. No matter where he goes, even in the
refugee shower where he tells his tale like a penance, he
wears that key, opening his heart to all who will listen.
The Vietnamese have a deep tradition of ancestor worship.
Despite how he cleaned himself in that hot, steamy water,
the voice in Vo Phien's touching story can never wash away
his memories. I couldn't get "Double" out of my mind either,
and vowed the next day, after I visited the market, to find
her. I'll buy every pack of gum that kid has, by God. Every
stick of the stuff.
I happen to love markets and go to them each time I visit
a new country. Some people claim that to know a culture, study
their burial rights. I say instead, go to where they live,
to the place they buy their food: to where the colors delight
and the smells arouse, or don't. Then you'll discover through
your senses who these people are. My visit to this particular
one made me realize, even more, how little we knew, and know,
about the Vietnamese.
Arranged with the wonder of a child's eye, the central market
place in Ho Chi Minh City is a coloring book of lively lemons
and purple dragon fruit piled high against an orange sky,
a dazzle of line and light. Wandering the web of aisles, it
didn't take long for me to lose myself in vast deserts of
rice tinged nut-brown to angel-white in dunes the size of
pyramids. The aquarium I kept as a kid never swam with the
motion of the fish in the chilly stalls I came upon, silver-pink
and mooney-gold on beds of ice where tiger prawns the length
of lobsters still crawled a coral reef.
I think I bought one of each, of the fruit at least. Stepping
out into the hoots and horns of the city reminded me of leaving
the shelter of the Saturday matinee, still dreamy, still riding
with my heroes like Gene Autry in the latest western and rubbing
my eyes at the light. The traffic soon brought me back to
my mission, and I hired a cyclo to take me around town. A
shadow needs to eat, I said to myself. Good thing you bought
all that fruit. It's bound to spoil, so you'd better find
A cyclo ride is exciting. The driver, the Vietnamese version
of a gondolier, sits behind and slightly above his passenger,
peddling deftly around the city's many flowered circles: a
scary but aesthetic experience as carts and wagons, trucks
and cars, merge with the flashing spokes of spinning wheels,
meshing together in a myriad of colors. It's like being in
Bags of fruit for company, I rode my hired tricycle wherever
I pointed, much to the confusion of the driver in his cone-shaped
straw hat. "Where go?" he wanted to know, but I had no answer,
other than to wave my hand like a wand, hoping my missing
friend would magically appear. "There was a girl," I finally
tried to explain, almost an hour later, and he nodded his
head. "Girl," he understood, and we took a right down a side-street
I'd not yet seen, to a bar where the hanging beads for a door
swayed softly, seductively. Sorrow came upon me in a rush.
This, of course, is where she might someday be but not with
gum to clean your teeth and breath. At that moment there was
nothing more I wanted in the world than "clean," nothing more
than to be a kid again, riding his trike down the block, but
even the fruit beside me seemed to leer up luridly. "The zoo,"
I blurted out, "take me to the zoo." That's where kids go,
and opening my map, I found the city gardens.
I paid him well, my driver, who departed shaking his head,
confused by my lack of direction, baffled perhaps by my manhood.
"Girls" were undoubtedly one of his typical fares, but what
could he think of some lost guy interested in monkeys and
elephants? And a humble zoo it was besides. I bought some
peanuts to feed the sad-faced pachyderm that came snuffling
toward me, its face full of flies. A group of small children
all in school uniform came by, but "Double," of course, was
not among them. Some older girls, too, in their late teens,
wearing the emblems of their status: traditional white blouses,
silky-long over their flowing pants, so beautiful.
How ironic, I thoughtno, how sadthat the same
word in Vietnamese for "America" is this very one, "beautiful."
I almost tried to say it"mehi," or something like that,
as I'd learned from John Balabanso lovely were these
young women before me, in procession like they were going
to communion, but the chattering of monkeys woke me from my
wanderings, and I made my empty way back to the "Great White
Mother," needing the warmth of her sheltering arms but realizing
at the same time how privileged we all were in her protectiveness.
The ship was always there to welcome us back, to feed and
tuck us in, her motion a cradle, forever rocking.
We set sail the next morning early, long before anybody might
be at the gate to wave good-by. I waved back anyway, climbing
to the top deck at sunrise, a symbolic gesture to a country
I'd first known as a time, not a place; not a country at all,
in fact, but a war I'd done my best to stay out of. White
and well-educated, I had learned how to use the deferment
system. I was lucky in the draft lottery, too, where to come
in last was to win. But having now finally been to this haunted
land, it was time to rethink what was lost or won. "If you
do, she's yours for life." Balaban's words still echo. How
did he know? Could it be that he, too, walked hand-in-hand
with the same little girl? Is that why he keeps returning?
Is this what he meant?
Fortunately, busy work with classes kept me busy. For a while,
at least. My shadow still hid in the dark and tugged at my
sleeve again a few days later out at sea. Some students I
hadn't thought much of, the giggly and studly types, told
in our daily "core" class of something they'd done in Vietnam.
We were all required to attend these general meetings which
were often a drag, but not this one.
"She was like such a mess, this little girl. I mean, she was
like, you know, dirty." I was stunned at what I was hearing.
So that's where she was, my Doublemint! These students, as
they went on to tell us, had taken her out to buy some clothes.
Amazing! Out of all those thousands of children on the streets,
they'd dressed her up that last day. I felt relieved.
No wonder we couldn't find each other: she was with them,
being cared for, I at that moment believed.
And part of me still does. After all, as I was warned, she's
mine for life, just like the country she'd come to mean.