Front cover of book

The Long Way Home


1968, South Vietnam

White cottony puffs of cumulus clouds dotted the bright blue sky as Second Lieutenant Jeffrey Robbins, U.S. Army, walked along the narrow street, jotting notes in a steno pad. It was spring, the rainy season was over and incredibly mild weather bathed the sunny South Vietnamese countryside of Dalat.

Not paying attention, he bumped into a Vietnamese girl. At first, all he saw was the ever-present Vietnamese conical hat that protects from the bright sun. Surprised, he dropped his notepad and experienced a fraction of a second's flash of annoyance for the disturbance, and noticed it was a child about thirteen or fourteen years old. Perhaps a little tall for one so young, but maybe she was on a basketball team, he thought, his eyes smiling at his little joke. Vietnamese women tended to be around five feet tall. This one seemed to be about five foot four.

The groceries had tumbled out of her arms looked funny splashed on the pavement, their bright yellow yolks staring at him. Two jars were broken and a smashed melon lay on the sidewalk. Actually, he didn’t laugh, but he certainly was tempted, but realized he was at least partly at fault. Shit, now I have to make this right for this gook.

She stood frozen, terrified, on the verge of tears. He had a, Hey, it’s no big deal thought, but immediately realized it probably was a big deal to her and her family. Best not to make light of it, even if they are sub-human.

She began speaking her beautiful language, the almost musical tones of which he understood nothing. Her words were melodious, soft, and gentle. She didn’t look directly at him, but down toward the ground as she spoke. It probably was her way of taking blame for the accident. Maybe she was saying she was sorry for being in his way, but Jeff also apologized, and helped her pick everything up that wasn’t smashed or broken. He decided to do the right thing and insisted on replacing the eggs and other stuff she lost.

"Please, I’m sorry," he said. "I will replace what you lost."

She shook her head, "No, it be my fault." She was visibly upset and kept mumbling that she was at fault.

Jeff gently placed his hands on her thin shoulders and said "Vui long," several times, the South Vietnamese word for please, before she calmed down and nodded. He only knew a few Vietnamese words and quickly lapsed back into English, saying, "Please," and "It was my fault," several more times, jabbering on without thinking. It took several seconds before he realized it, she not only understood him as he spoke English, but had replied in English.

While they were both bent over, scrambling to pick up the groceries, replacing the unbroken ones into her mesh bag, he looked at her face and noticed she was strikingly beautiful. Her long, jet-black hair emitted a gorgeous sheen, almost a glow. Her brown eyes were soft and smiling even through her worried look. Her teeth were white and even, framed by the nicest smile and two absurdly cute dimples in her cheeks. Several seconds passed before he noticed she was wearing a beautiful white ao dai, the lovely, graceful, flowing national dress over black satin pajama bottoms. Jeff didn’t know the proper name for the pajama bottoms, perhaps pantaloons, so that’s what he called them. All the GIs called them pajamas, but if they were pajamas, they certainly were beautiful ones.

She refused his offer of assistance, he insisted, she refused, he insisted, and finally, if reluctantly, she agreed to let him replace the several broken grocery items. His insistence also extended to a sweet cake and soft drink.

They walked the two blocks to the grocery store, and he watched as she replaced every broken item on her list. His eyes followed her every step, fascinated by her. Such a beautiful child. She’s definitely not sub-human as the all the GIs said they were. All he heard from the GIs was calling the Vietnamese people gooks, monkeys, and other assorted derogatory names. Jeff grabbed several cans of fruit, motioning to the clerk to include it in her purchase. When she saw what he did, she shook her head and rattled off several phrases of Vietnamese, none of which he understood.

Jeff said, "Vui long," repeatedly, signaling to the store clerk to include it. It seemed silly, getting canned fruit in a tropical paradise, but a war was going on, and many things were in short supply. Who knows, he thought, completely captivated by this child, I’d have purchased canned bananas had she lived on a banana farm. Boy, talk about dumb. But he silently admitted he was happy meeting her, gook or no gook.

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