Monday, November 22, 2021

Story Behind the Story: Out of the Fog of War

(Editor’s note: This is the 90th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Bringing us today’s contribution is Paul A. Barra, a writer and retired chemistry teacher in Columbia, South Carolina. He has had five novels published, plus a non-fiction book about a Catholic high school founded without diocesan approval. His most recent novel, 2019’s Westfarrow Island, was shortlisted for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion award. His short story “Assignment: Sheepshead Bay” was selected for the Mystery Writers of America anthology When a Stranger Comes to Town, released earlier this year by Hanover Square Press. Barra is a decorated former naval officer, and once served as a reporter for local papers and the senior staff writer for the diocese of Charleston, South Carolina. In the essay below, he recalls a few of his experiences during the Vietnam War and how they affected a new crime novel he’s hoping to publish.)

(Left) Paul A. Barra

One of the pleasant memories I have from my tours in South Vietnam, prosecuting what the locals referred to as The American War, was that of a boy the GIs of the Ninth Army Infantry battalion called Salém. He was perhaps 10 years old, and he hung out by the army base in a Mekong Delta village outside of Mỹ Tho, begging any westerner he saw for a Salem cigarette, a popular brand of menthol fag in the 1960s. I never saw him smoking, never smelled cigarette smoke on his person, so I suspected he sold them to Vietnamese military men, all of whom seemed to smoke.

Salém was a hustler, but he was so enjoyable to be around—and so helpful in his inimitable way—that every American I knew liked him. He had taught himself to speak English, a sort of colloquial patois full of army slang, and became so proficient at it that I used him as a translator a few times. He spoke better and understood more than the sullen ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) translators occasionally assigned to us. The difference was, Salém liked our language and worked at learning it. He liked Americans.

Unfortunately, Salém also drew the ire of the villagers he lived among. They regarded him as an outlier in a society that tolerated the U.S. soldiers assigned to the area but wished they would go back across the Pacific Ocean. Their country had been at war almost continually since World War II; the South Vietnamese people were tired of foreigners occupying their land, filling their lives with noise and danger, and enriching the corrupt bureaucrats in Saigon. Salém seemed to genuinely appreciate that we were not any happier being there than they were having us, and that we were fighting and dying to maintain their freedom. Maybe the everyday folk thought Uncle Ho was the lesser of two evils. Maybe he was.

One morning, early enough so that the humid air was not yet pressing down on me and raising a sheen of perspiration, I sat drinking coffee on the deck of a village bistro overlooking the mighty Mekong River, waiting for the crew of my gunboat to come back from shore leave. Mornings were not only relatively cool but also relatively safe. Charlie was back at his civilian occupation, waiting for darkness to resume his secret killing trade. Salém sauntered up and sat opposite me in the shade of a yellow umbrella.

“Would you like coffee, Salém?” I asked him.

“Yes, plea’, Dai Ùy.”*

I pushed a few đồng over to him; he pushed them back.

“Dey no like me,” he said, raising his chin to the waiters inside.

He had a sad kind of smile on his face, the only time I ever saw him the least bit downcast. I went into the bar and bought him a cup of coffee, dark espresso-type stuff with a layer of sweet condensed milk on top. To this day it is my favorite drink in the morning.

Salém and I talked about life in the United States. He told me how his dream was to live in California. By then it was 1972, and the end of the Republic of Vietnam was fast becoming evident. “Vietnamization” was another failed Washington scheme, and small North Vietnamese Army units were already being spotted in the southern provinces. I wanted to help Salém escape to a better life, where I was certain he would succeed as an entrepreneur. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

My change of station orders came through when I was back in Saigon, and I found myself on a Pan Am airliner heading east without ever seeing him again.

I think of Salèm often these days, wondering what became of him, if he was able to charm the Communists the way he did us. If he survived. It is a great regret of mine that I hadn’t then the courage and drive to rescue him. It wouldn’t have been easy, but there were ways. I adopted a child from Regina Pacis Orphanage in Saigon, our eldest daughter, and got her home via the auspices of a charity-minded worker at the U.S. Embassy; maybe I could have adopted Salèm. Maybe I could have just sneaked him aboard a plane with a diplomat going home on leave, the way our daughter came to us.

There were also Republic of South Vietnam ship commanders who enjoyed almost complete autonomy once they sailed away from the capital and who proved they were amenable to using their vessels to supplement their puny Navy salaries, sometimes to the detriment of their duties.

Once we escorted two merchantmen up into Cambodia, then stood by loading inexpensive dried apricots for the VNN (Republic of Vietnam Navy) crew to sell at a profit in Saigon while an ARVN outpost was under attack. The outpost advisor called me for assistance; we continued loading our illegal cargo. Our guns stayed silent.

I may have been able to bribe a commanding officer heading off to Guam for a ship overhaul to take Salèm with him to that U.S. territory, but I didn’t try.

When I was writing my latest crime novel manuscript, Sgt. Ford’s Widow (now in the hands of my agent, Pamela Malpas), I wanted to write into it a refugee from the war in Vietnam as a way to remember Salèm and to elucidate the difficulty of someone of low status in Southeast Asia acclimating to life in a huge western country. I chose to set my story in Wyoming, a state about as opposite from the Mekong Delta as is possible to imagine, and made the refugee a middle-aged woman, illiterate, wounded, and no longer capable of having sex. I didn’t want the character to be a child, because I don’t generally like coming-of-age stories, although she turned out to be a 40-something who comes of age—in a manner of speaking.

My character, Linh, arrives before the onset of the Boat People and Little Saigon; she lands alone, in the dead of winter, different and completely reliant on her protector, Gil Ford, a private eye. She ends up teaching herself to speak English by watching television, to drive and shoot a handgun and, eventually to investigate crimes. By the final chapter, she rescues the protagonist, who rescued her, and solves a mystery. Now she is ready to serve as a main character in a series, and maybe even to star in her own novel someday soon.

Past regrets may not be correctable, but sometimes for a writer the pain of his or her failure can be softened by the work of his hand. That’s another of the many benefits of writing that I’ve just now discovered.

* Dai Ùy is military rank, lieutenant in the Navy, captain in the Army.

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