Forty years ago, I was a freshman in college and had just moved from Georgia to Oregon. Typically, I made it a habit to avoid all news coming out of Vietnam.
But if ever my father’s death felt like it was in vain it was on this day 40 years ago.
The Fall of Saigon, historians call it.
The day Americans gave up the fight that should never have been. The fight that Congress waged only from behind protective doors of their great marble enclave. As usual.
Growing up, I didn’t know any Vietnamese people. I only knew of Vietnam and its people through the news clips played on nightly news with Walter Cronkite. And through my father’s death in that war. It was easy to conflate his death with a people I didn’t know and a history I did not understand.
For far too many years I stayed rooted in that spot I’d dug all those years ago, never thinking about what the American War in their country did to the Vietnamese, or about the losses they suffered, about the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, they lost. About all the ways in which their countrymen had betrayed them, too.
Some people when faced with crises seek out as much knowledge as they can on the subject. Others avoid it. For most of my adolescent and early adulthood I fell into the latter bunch. Now, as you likely know, I try to gather as much information as possible.
I went to Vietnam in 2003 with a group of others like me, Sons & Daughters in Touch (SDIT). I learned more in those few short weeks than I had learned in a lifetime of living. But prior to that trip, I had met and befriended Vietnamese people. In telling their stories, Xuan Nguyen and Quang Pham, changed mine. Xuan (Lucy Reiman) is featured in the documentary Regret to Inform. Quang wrote A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey, which ought to be required reading in high school history.
I was thinking about Xuan and Quang yesterday while reading an article in The New Yorker about the poet W.S. Merwin. It’s an excellent article about how Merwin moved to an ugly plot of land on Maui that had been scraped of its natural habit. Not even native plants would grow there. The land had been over-forested and then scarred by the long-abandoned pineapple industry.
Merwin, the son of a Presbyterian minister, got a notion to redeem what was lost. So he set about the business of planting trees. Palm trees. For the past 40 years, on everyday that he was able, Merwin has planted a tree. A documentary about Merwin and his tree-planting ways is being shown on PBS. It’s title – Even though the Whole World is Burning – comes from one of Merwin’s poems.
The palm forest, like Merwin’s poetry, has become a kind of prophetic stance against contemporary life: bearing witness to individual, almost foolish acts of creativity while devastation abounds, said the writer of that article I read.
Oh, that we would all be so willing to give ourselves over to acts of creativity while devastation abounds.
Xuan and Quang certainly gave themselves over to acts of creativity. Quang, a U.S. Marine, penned his courageous book and gives talks around the nation about his story of relocation and his father’s “reeducation”. Xuan, an extraordinary seamstress, used her skills to build a school in Vietnam. Young girls are educated there. Everyday since they left Vietnam, Quang and Xuan have been reforesting scarred land, redeeming what was lost through almost foolish acts of creativity.
That poem of Merwin’s, the one that provided the title for the documentary, is called Rain Light. It is fitting, I think, on a day like today. A day of remembering the Fall of Saigon and the burning that took place that day and scarred the hearts of so many. Listen as Merwin recites it:
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of After the Flag has been Folded. (William Morrow).