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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Gift - #BlogBattle

Time for #BlogBattle, the weekly keyword-inspired flash-fiction competition hosted by Rachel Ritchey.

This week's word is...wait for it...ORCHID.

Well, okay. Orchid it is. (And we are also linked to Weekend Whispers and Still Saturday, and with Wedded Wednesday, on the awesome Messy Marriage site.)

The Gift

Another day, another bridge guard to pull. Only this time the bridge was a mess of broken metal in the riverbed, which begged the question, why are we guarding this?

Note to self...if something you're ordered to do in Viet Nam seems stupid, do it anyway. 'Just because' is a perfectly justifiable answer over here.

But the sunset was lovely. The sun dropped behind the clouds that had built up over the Highlands, and when it dropped from view the air seemed ten degrees cooler. The clouds were backlit, outlined in flaming oranges and silvers and yellows and golds  Too many shades to count.

And the river turned from its daytime brown to a ribbon of reflective mauve, the sluggish daytime flow transformed into delicate smoothness.

"Ah gots to take a craaap," said Sonny, as we sat on the turret watching the transcendence of the day.

He took off his CVC helmet, and I put mine on, losing the beginnings of the Asian night-sounds to the hiss of Western static. 

Sonny dropped off the side of the tank and ambled down the embankment road, looking for the right spot. I had once had a dog that would take about half an hour to do just that, and I hoped Sonny was smarter than the dog.

Biff handed me up a box of Cs. "Dinner," he said, with a smile. "Can we heat 'em?"

I looked across the river. Everything was quiet, and the ARVN platoon on the far embankment was lounging and smoking. They would have been doing that, oblivious, if Charlie had been about to drop a company-plus assault in their laps. ARVN readiness wasn't a very good combat indicator.

I shrugged. "Yeah. I guess." Then a dreadful thought crossed my mind. "id you check for peaches?"

Biff nodded. "I went through 'em earlier. The peaches went into the river." The canned peaches in some boxes were bad luck.

"Good." We'd have a better chance of survivng the night. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside.

Sonny was smarter than the dog. Duties completed, he climbed up the glacis, reached into the driver's hatch to give The Dude a friendly rap on the head, and leaned against the turret. "They's havin' some kinder party down yonder, in the ville."

"Yeah??" Why he thought I'd be interested in a Vietnamese party, I couldn't say.

He took awhile before saying more, and his voice was choked. "Ah think it's a birthday party."

I looked at him, and he was not looking at me. He was pretending to look across the river, but the lovely evening light showed that he didn't turn his head far enough. A twilight-limned tear was sliding down his cheek.

"They's singin' now, TC."

I took of the helmet. Far away, I heard a familiar tune, but the inflections of the voices that raised it were utterly alien.

It was Happy Birthday, sung in Vietnamese.

The Dude must have heard it too. He'd slipped quietly out of the driver's hatch and stood with us on the deck. "Party for a kid," he said.

"Yeah, Dude. A kid." Sonny was still looking across the river.

Some of the riflemen we had as protection had stood up, and were listening as well.

"Think we should crash the party?" asked The Dude.

I was surprised; the way he said it was out of character."No...I don't...well, what do you mean?"

"We could bring them something. Something valuable. Something from the C's?"

It was a nice thought, but the most valuable things in the C rats were toilet paper and cigarettes. I couldn't picture us as America's ambassadors, the Wise Men from afar, dropping in on a child's party bearing asswipe and lighting a Lucky Strike for the birthday child.

"I was thinking franks and beans." They were something of a delicacy for us. It would be a sacrifice.

"We could give them ham and..."

The Dude interrupted me before I could finish the profanity that described ham and lima beans, the meal that looked like the contents of a baby's diaper. "We're trying to win their hearts and minds, TC. Can't do that while they're puking."

"Franks and beans, then. Give 'em everything."The Dude was right; it would be a good gesture, and probably good for our souls to be eating spam until the next resupply.

Biff had worked his way around the gun from his seat to the loader's side, and looked up through the hatch. "We're giving what to who?"

"Whom," said The Dude.

"Whom are we giving our best stuff to, then?"

"No, who  are we giving it to...or even better, to whom are we giving it."

Biff told The Dude what he could do with his English lesson, a suggestion that would be anatomically awkward, and The Dude smiled and said, "You're welcome."

Sonny had field-stripped the C's in the gypsy rack for the gifts, and asked, "Who's gonna stay with the tank?" We obviously couldn't leave it unattended. I mean, there was a war on. Someone might steal the hubcaps.

"I'll stay," said Biff, resentment dripping from every word. All two of them.

"Well, let's go be the good guys." The Dude jumped off the tank, and Sonny followed, sliding down the front, using his pulled-up blouse as a sack to hold the cans.

Biff leaned out of the loader's hatch. "Guys? I was just kidding. Those things aren't kosher anyway."

"And he's been eating them every time he can grab a can," said The Dude. "He's going to need a long talk with his rabbi."

The party wasn't hard to find. Kids having fun in Viet Nam sound like kids having fun anywhere, and if we were in any doubt, as we turned up they alley a whole flock of them ran around out legs, chasing after a half-deflated soccer ball.

The war has to stop for fun, sometimes.

"Wait here a sec," said The Dude. He'd paused to read a sign in Vietnamese on a hootch we were passing, a sign lit by the lowest-wattage bulb ever built. And it flickered. He went to the door and rapped smartly. The door fell off its hinges into a dim room, and out flowed a torrent of angry Vietnamese words.

The Dude listened apologetically, and then picked up the fallen door, laying it gently sideways in the door frame. He spoke in what I thought was a placating tone, but my knowledge of Vietnamese was such that he might have been telling them that we were going to drive our tank through their miserable hootch if they didn't shut up.

He turned to Sonny and me. "Be right back. Going to get some orchids."

I could hear the smile in my loader's voice. "Mah uncle Bubba's got one a them. 'Bout a hunnert acrees. Grows p'cans. Y'all are real nahce, givin a kid orchids."

The Dude paused and asked, obliquely, "Your uncle's named Bubba? What's his real name?"

"That is his fer real name. He's got it tattooed on his shoulder."

"So he doesn't forget," murmured The Dude, and disappeared into the dim hootch.

A moment later he emerged, followed this time what could only have been Vietnamese for 'Please come back again soon, and bring you dollah!" We were only supposed to use MPC's, the Monopoly money that we were compelled to trade our greenbacks for when we arrived in-country. And the locals couldn't use MPCs, so we wouldn't be destroying the economy by spreading dollars around, since they were worth more than their weight in gold. Way more.

Yeah, right.

The Dude held something that looked like a bouquet. It was a bouquet.

"It's a different country, TC," he said.

If someone had given me flowers for my tenth birthday, or whatever, I;d have been seriously angry. Flowers were for girls.

And the soccer players sure made it seem like the birthday child was a boy.

Sonny asked, "So them's from the orchid y'all bought the kid?"

The Dude stopped in mid-step, and hesitated. "Something like that."

The party hootch was festooned with dim but colorful lights, and there was the sound of laughter within. I hoped that The Dude wouldn't knock on this door.

he didn't. Instead he called out a greeting in Vietnamese, and a moment later a short, plump and pretty mamasan gave us entry. Her eyes widened at seeing three Americans, and her smile widened even more when she saw the cans of franks and beans.

She called back into the hootch, over her shoulder, and a very formally dressed young boy came to stsnd next to her. He was wearing a long tunic, scarlet and gold, and wore a hat that reminded me of Jackie Kennedy's pillboxes, only it was a deep blue, again gold-trimmed.

He bowed formally, and as The Dude bowed back, Sonny and I emulated him. Half a dozen cans slipped from Sonny's embrace. The child paid them no heed, but mamasan scrabbled across the dirt for them.

Then The Dude said, in very clearly enunciated Vietnamese, "Vua choi lan, quan choi tra." He handed the orchids to the boy.

Mamasan gasped and put her hand to her mouth, and I wondered if her husband was going to come out and shoot us for whatever The Dude had just said.

Then she grinned broadly, and bent to whisper into her son's ear. Then she spoke to The Dude. She talked too fast for me to follow even if she'd been speaking English.

The boy looked up at The Dude, put his hands together, and said, "Cam on bac." Even I knew that part of it was 'thank you', but the full phrase eluded me.

The Dude bowed again, very low.

And abruptly, the boy turned and went back to the party. Mamasan hesitated, looking first to The Dude, and then to Sonny and me. For a moment I thought she might kiss us, but that's not the Vietnamese way.

She gave us a smile that was far more fulfilling than any kiss could be, and closed the door.


  1. awwww, that was a lovely thing! I'm terribly curious to know about this birthday gift. Is the flower giving a tradition in Vietnam? What formal phrase did The Dude use? I love that you did it in Vietnamese like you did. We saw it all with TC. :)

    1. Yes, Rachael, flower-giving was an important gesture in the past, but like the rest of the world, Viet Nam has changed. The years after the War saw the end of centuries of traditional culture, and it is a loss.

      What The Dude said to the child was "A king collects orchids, while a mandarin collects camelias."

      The child replied with a very formal "Thank you", which placed The Dude nearly on the 'respect level' of his own parents.

    2. I love how you fit the word orchid in this, and I like the Viet Nam culture. "A king collects orchids" :)

  2. And the adventures continue. . . Nice.

  3. First of your stories I've read, but somehow not surprised at how wonderful it was, after reading many of your Blog comments. Great job. Great story. Congrats. Hope you won the weeks' contest.

    1. Elaine, thank you so much! Your comment really made my day. I am so glad and grateful that you took the time to read, and respond.

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  6. Lovely story. I would've never thought to give a boy flowers, either. :)

  7. Thank you for sharing at Weekend Whispers!