The Final Leg
By Dan New
A thousand miles before touching down, the jet's turbulence amps up to a magnitude that seems lethal. Its wings contort and twist violently against the powerful gusts. Stomachs turn and wretch. The plane's cabin tosses fiercely in the night air. Baggage rattles in the overhead compartments. A bottle of water rolls up and down the aisle, toying with our captivity. The attendants strap into their seats. The pilot's voice remains silent as I pray for forgiveness during these last moments of life.
As quickly as it had begun, it's over. A sense of safety manifests through voices and movement in the seats and aisles near me. My praying stops, having experienced the relief of a steady and sure airlift again. It lasted almost two hours. The final approach to Ho Chi Minh City has begun. The East Sea is calm below us.
In minutes, the Nippon Airlines pilot, eases the jet onto the ground. I hear the tires grip the tarmac and feel the torque of another landing. It's been 26 hours since leaving Hartford on this reconciliation journey. I am weary and wide-awake. The landing is at Tan Son Nhat International Airport. When I left this country four plus decades before, it was a military air base. The war had been at full throttle. I had vowed never to return. Yet, the memories of my time in this country, the violence, the grief, all continue to live in me and often visits me at night.
With my group of five, I stand fidgeting and anxious to exit as the flight from Tokyo taxies. My friend places a comforting hand on my back. I flinch at his touch. In painfully slow order, the plane empties row by row. For the second time, I deplane into Vietnam. Instead of descending a portable staircase to the roasting heat of the blacktop as I did the first time, I walk through a modern jet way to the main corridor. It sparkles with granite and chrome and moving sidewalks. I gasp at the impossibility of preparing for this moment. My friend is close to me, watching every step I take. I fight back my emotion, sucking in gallons of air to fill my lungs and to hold me in place. At 10:30 at night, something is wrong. I look through the windows to the landscape. There are no flares in the sky, no circling helicopters, no orange columns of tracer rounds, no MP's guarding the entrance — no signs of war. I walk ahead of my group, looking for signs of that which haunts my night hours. There are none. It is quiet. I am disarmed. My fear leaves in a breath and mixes with all in the present. My body relaxes. I look back to my gathering group of five. They are busy with their everyday worries. I smile, maybe, even laugh aloud, who knows?
Customs and baggage claim loom ahead. I find my passport with the visa affixed to one page. I unfold it and start to a line marked "Foreigners." The lines are long. I glance at the clerk checking passports. He wears the uniform of the North Vietnamese Army. On his khaki green blouse at the shoulder on each side is the symbol of the flag of the Socialist Republic of Unified Vietnam. It's a five pointed yellow star on a field of red. The red symbolizes all the bloodshed and the yellow star for the skin color. The stars' points represent the intellectuals, workers, traders, peasants and military. They represent the northern enemy to me. I am now in their power, under their control. My body stiffens again, the fear rises once more.
In a short while, I am next in line's queue. With the wave of his hand, I anticipate a confrontation. I approach this young soldier. He barely looks up as the optic scanner matches my passport photo. The only question he simply asks, "How long will you be in Vietnam?" "Two weeks." I reply and it's done. I find my bright yellow oversize LL Bean duffel bag by the revolving baggage ramp with my fellow traveler's luggage. It is all so simple. I lug my bag to another scanner. The uniformed guard helps to stack it on the conveyor belt. It runs through and I step into heat and humidity to gather with the others and cab our way to the Bong Son Hotel in downtown, Ho Chi Minh City.
Dan New is a Vietnam Vet turned writer who returned to Vietnam on a reconciliation Journey with Soldier's Heart in December of 2015.