Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Picture That Changed the World

Below is a short story I wrote based on this graphic picture of the execution of Vietnamese soldier Nguyen Van Lam during the Vietnamese Tet Offensive in 1968. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo was taken by Eddie Adams of The Associated Press. This powerful image shocked the world and played a key role in turning American public opinion against the continuing US involvement in the war. So Nguyen Van Lam was thrust into the pages of history. His death contributed to the defeat of America in Vietnam, a defeat that cast a dark cloud over US foreign policy for the rest of the 20th Century. It always intrigued me why we never knew who this person was until only recently. And even today very little is known about him. We do know he has a wife who mourns him to this day. To her he remains MIA as she has never managed to find his body. His death marked a violent start to the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Earth Monkey. It was a year that changed the world. It was marked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia crushing the freedom movement born in the Prague Spring. Time Magazine says 1968 was Like a knife blade, the year severed past from future. To Newsweek Magazine it was The Year That Changed Everything.

Leonard McDonnell

Tet 1968: A Love Story

Nguyen Van Lam knows things. His name means knowledge, understanding, and his friends call him Bay Lop -- the seventh child, born in the seventh month. He doesn't believe in fortune tellers and he's not deeply superstitious, unlike his wife Mai
He just gets a feel for things.
He knew this was not going to be a good year. So far all the signs were proving him right. The first person through his door for the New Year was a policeman. He burst in gun-barrel first, after smashing the door in, three hours after midnight. He held Mai against the wall while his fellow soldiers ransacked the house. But Lam wasn’t there.
It was the third raid in as many weeks. Lam isn’t home much these days. He knows events are coming to a head and he has to lay low.
Sitting alone in a darkened room listening to the distant crack, crack, crack of fireworks, he felt a deep sense of dread. The firecrackers that used to so lift his spirit in the New Years of his youth, this year had a more sinister sound.
He reached for the red parcel, illuminated by a dusty shard of sunlight streaking down from a gap in the shutters. It was the New Year present Mai gave him the last time he saw her. He’ll never forget the image of her wiping tears off her cheek with the back of her hand as she passed him the present. It was only hours after the raiders had left their home. He made a brief visit to wish her a happy New Year, even though he knew there was little to be happy about.
Mai was standing amid the ruins of the kitchen. She was determined to do everything she could this year to ward off bad luck. She cooked for weeks and brought food to the temples. She adorned her kitchen altar with everything she could think of – sweetened fruits, watermelon seeds, papaya, sugar-apples, mango and coconuts. She even cooked nián gao pudding to sweeten the kitchen gods and fa gao Prosperity Cake. Now the food lay scattered across the floor. She couldn’t clean-up, because to clean during New Year celebrations would bring bad luck.
She had worked so hard for months to ward off what she felt was an impending doom.
Her brother and her best friend had both been killed by the invaders – the invaders that were hunting for Lam. She knew this was the Year of the Earth Monkey and the leader of the invaders was an Earth Monkey, this was a very bad omen. The fortune teller at the temple told her that her man would be a great warrior who would send the invaders away and bring peace to the city. But “great warrior” was how they described her brother, and he was dead. Mai didn’t want a great warrior, she just wanted her husband home.
As he slowly tore open the red paper parcel, Lam remembered that today was the second day of the New Year, the day they would traditionally visit Mai's family. The basket of food she had prepared for the occasion was one of the few items to survive the raid. He recalled it sitting on the kitchen sink with a bunch of flowers as he left Mai crying. He wanted to reassure her that everything would be OK, but he knew it wouldn’t, so he just kissed her on the cheek and left saying nothing.
He laughed when he saw what was in the parcel. It was his favourite plaid shirt. Mai bought it for him six months earlier at a street market. It reminded her of the shirt worn by a bronco rider she had seen in a magazine picture from the Calgary Rodeo. “It’s a cowboy shirt,” she said as she held it up in front of him to check the size. “The Earth Monkey comes from Texas, he’s a cowboy. Texas is where the cowboys come from.”
Mai believed that aligning Lam’s destiny to the future of the Earth Monkey – the leader of the world, the leader of the invaders – would help bring good luck in the year of the Earth Monkey.
Lam took off his dirty, green uniform and pulled on the cowboy shirt. The feel of the flannel, freshly washed and ironed, immediately brought him back to that sunny morning when he and Mai, got up early and went to the market.
As he did up the last button the door burst open and soldiers pushed him to the ground. They punched him repeatedly in the face as the crackers continued in the distance. His arms were tied behind his back and then two of the soldiers frog-marched him out into the bright sunlight and down the Saigon street.
Press cameras were flashing in his face as he recognised the enraged Police Chief stepping forward. The two soldiers left him and Lam felt deep fear, not so much for himself but for Mai. As the cameras stared, hungry for action, he knew he would never see her again.
The barrel of the Police Chief’s pistol was cool against his temple and he winced as he felt the loud crack against the back of his hand. “No!” said Mai feigning fury and threatening to hit him again with the bamboo spoon. “You know it’s bad luck to eat from the altar Lam.”
“Lollies don’t make luck Mai. We make our own luck.”
“It won’t kill you to wait until after Tet. You’re not a child. You could show some respect to your ancestors – for my sake, Lam, even if you don’t believe.”
As Mai stood there pleading with him, Lam was struck by how beautiful she was. Her hair was up in a ragged bun, pierced with a chop stick. This was just how she looked the first time they encountered each other. She was making rice-paper rolls at a back table in her family’s restaurant. As he walked past he took one and she gave him the same disapproving frown she was giving him now. But it wasn’t totally disapproving – it contained a whisper of affection. It was that whisper that drew him back to her restaurant with his friends many times. He would position himself so that he could glance up and see her working at the same table, while his friends joked, gossiped and rummaged through the events of the day.
It wasn’t long before they worked out what was going on. “Bay Lop’s in love,” they taunted whenever they realised his attention was not on their conversation. “Or maybe it’s the food she’s making that he’s lusting after.”
Lam knew that lust didn’t have anything to do with the spell he was under. He was consumed by desire – an overwhelming desire just to hold one of those delicate hands.
He will never forget the first time it happened. As a soldier he had often found himself in situations that tested his courage, but none compared to the courage he needed to muster in order to reach out and take Mai’s hand.
The occasion was their third date. As usual, her mother accompanied them everywhere they went. However, this time her need for a new mortar and pestle overcame her need to keep the youngsters apart.
She went into a rambling kitchen shop, leaving Mai and Lam waiting alone out in the street.
Lam still wasn’t convinced that Mai liked him. He didn’t know whether or not she was only coming out with him at the urging of her mother, who seemed very keen on him as a potential husband for her daughter.
Mai rarely spoke on their previous outing. All the talking was done by her mother.
But nevertheless he summoned up the nerve to seize the moment and reach out for her hand. He was terrified that she might pull away, leaving him devastated.
He closed his fingers around hers, scraping his fingernails on part of the rope binding his wrists, as blood gushed from his head on to the Saigon street, and the world stared through the camera lenses.

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