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The Great Escape – A Vietnam Short Story Originally Written at Hemmingway’s Grave in Ketchem, Idaho

By Frank Byronn Glenn – Nov. 1, 2016 —

This was a short story I originally wrote in June of 2015, after my first visit to Earnest Hemingway’s grave in Ketchem, Idaho. I posted it to my blog, Spotlight on Democracy, shortly after that, and then recently I noticed that the blog had mysteriously gone missing — so I reposted it.  Hope you enjoy it.

The Great Escape

 Johnny Tudor was different from the rest of us – the American soldiers in Vietnam in 1968. He had studied the history of Vietnam at Ohio State University. He had studied the political history of the Indo-Chino Wars. He knew many of the details of the events that led up to the decisive defeat of the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954.  He had received his undergraduate degree in American History — and planned to attend graduate school when he got out of the Army — and ultimately teach at a small college or university.

He also saw the steady ramp-up of the public relations campaign and the political posturing and rhetoric that set the stage for the gradual involvement and eventual build-up of the American forces in Vietnam after the French defeat and withdrawal.

But more than anything, he knew — and understood — to the extent that an outsider could — the long and tortured history of the Vietnamese people. The periodic invasions throughout their history, and their nature and culture and the great pride they took in their commitment — their defiance – over hundreds of years long struggles — to rid their country of the invaders – their oppressors.

Once he got to Vietnam in person, though, he quickly fell in love with the Vietnamese people themselves. And his blue, twinkling eyes, his bushy thatch of straw blond hair, and his ready smile, drew the Vietnamese to him as well.

Johnny Tudor was quick to laugh, and his dancing, mirthful eyes and broad smile made him a favorite of almost everyone. He almost seemed to enjoy and revel in life — for life’s sake – in and everything Vietnamese. He loved their food, he loved their culture – and he learned the language so quickly it was almost as if he were born Vietnamese.

Underneath it all, he was as decent a human being – and man — as I have ever known – in Vietnam — or anywhere else – at any time in my life.

The old mama-sans watched over him devotedly, and followed his every move with pride and enjoyment – as if he was their own son. The young girls were all crazy in love with Johnny at some level or another — but he playfully, sweetly and tenderly rebuffed them at every turn – and continuously turned their devotion to him into opportunities to spend time with them – and continuously refocused their feelings and energies onto themselves and each other – and took advantage of their rapt attention to him to coach and assist them in learning to read and speak English, study, and learn skills and competencies – that’s what he called them – competencies — that would improve their lives in the immediate – or prepare them for more opportunity — or more independence — in the future.

One young Vietnamese girl in particular, a young girl from a formerly well-to-do Vietnamese family fallen on hard times — Bui Ti Bui – took a particular liking to Jonny. Not a romantic interest so much, although there was certainly a spark and a chemistry between them – but more of a soul-mate, kindred spirit – almost favorite sibling kind of a relationship.

She, too, was quick to laugh, had dancing eyes, and was quite mischievous in nature. She loved playing pranks and teasing, and, with some help and careful, patient coaching from Tudor, even learned to tell American GI jokes in half-way decent English – to the shock, surprise, and amusement of Johnny’s GI buddies sometimes – and to the great amusement, delight – and pride – of Johnny — each and every time she pulled one off. They were joyous co-conspirators.

Johnny would listen to the stories the Vietnamese told – of their pain and their suffering – in the war. Their loss of lives of loved ones –through indiscriminate bombings – and the decentigration and destruction of their culture and their way of life — the loss of their sense of self-respect through the indignation and humiliation of living in a country occupied by the Americans.

The overwhelming influx American dollars that came with the arrival of the Americans, had destroyed the local economies of many of the small towns and villages of Vietnam and for the people who lived in them. Bui Ti Bui’s family had been broom makers for their cash subsistence needs. They grew a little rice and a lot of vegetables like most Vietnamese peasants, but for generations they had built a reputation as one of the exemplary broom- making families of Vietnam. Their community found their brooms useful and of good value – so they liked them and they used them – and over time they bought a lot of them. The broom sales provided the family with enough income to be considered prosperous – and had supplied all the money the family needed to provide for the little things that make the difference between a subsistence living and a life of security and quality.

Before the Americans came, the brooms Bui Ti Bui’s family made had the equivalent value of a bushel of rice — enough rice to provide Bui Ti Bui’s extended family food to live on for almost a month – and there was even a little extra available for friends and neighbors, occasionally. Or for a community dinner together. After the Americans came, it was not long before one of the family brooms would barely buy a small cup of rice. And not long after that, no one would even part with a small cup of rice for a single broom.

Most poor Vietnamese families were forced to do extraordinary things to keep their families alive during these times. Many were forced to send their daughters into a life of prostituting themselves to the American and Australian soldiers in order to get enough money to live. Some had sons that went into the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and they used their meager pay to help support their families. If they were lucky, one or more of the old mama-sans and the young girls would get jobs on the American military bases and earned eight dollars a month for working eight hours a day, seven days a week, for a month – sweeping hooches, doing laundry, simple mending and repairs, and then ironing soldiers’ uniforms and hanging them neatly for work the next day. They also shined the soldiers’ boots, shined their belt buckles, and washed their linens and made their bunks each day.

When the price of brooms collapsed shortly after the arrival of the Americans, Bui Ti Bui’s family had fallen on terribly desperate times. They had no choice but to force Bui Ti Bui’s older sister Lia, a well-educated, sweet, tender-hearted, French-speaking soul and a local Vietnamese – and French language poet of some renown, into a life of prostitution in Saigon. They used the dollars she earned from the American and Australian soldiers to keep the family alive.

On her sixteenth birthday, Lia pulled a .45 caliber pistol from the holster of the American Major she had just prostituted herself to, and put it to her head, pulled the trigger, and killed herself.

Bui Ti Bui’s family never sent another daughter into prostitution – but the oldest two sons had both been conscripted into the ARVN army when they were teenagers – and their pay helped support the family. Both of them were killed — at the same time — in the same place — on December 25th, 1968, by an errant American air-strike intended for some unfriendlies a short distance away.

Johnny Tudor really loved the Vietnamese people. Not only their histories – their long struggles – but the people themselves. He felt he understood their hearts. He understood them because he spent many long hours with them, in off duty time – hearing of their joys – their sorrows—their hopes and dreams – and their deep longing for that peaceful, normal kind of life that they hoped to have when the Americans had finally gone home and the long healing process was complete.   A time many of them believed they, themselves, would never live to see.

One morning in late February in 1969, Johnny Tudor returned from his early morning guard shift and stopped by his hooch to drop his weapon off before he went to chow.  Bui Ti Bui was standing on the backside of his bunk, watching him enter across the bed. He winked at her —  and smiled. She smiled back — and flashed him her trade-mark single-pinkie wave — and a giggle.   Johnny  tossed his AR-16 assault weapon up onto his bunk. The weapon discharged on impact, and fired a .22 caliber high velocity ammunition round into the forehead and out the back of the skull of Bui Ti Bui – killing her instantly.

Johnny ended up in the psyche ward somewhere over on Long Binh Post for a few weeks – before he came back to the company and resumed his duties. He was different, though.  He was just a shadow of his former self when he returned. It seemed as if the light had gone out of his eyes – and the joy out of his life.  The once robust thatch of yellow hair now hung limp and lifeless down the side of his head. He was thinner. His face was gaunt – and his eyes had a haunted, hollow look to them.  He moved slowly – trance like — at times. He never laughed and he never smiled again — that I ever saw.

He still showed up for work at his job at Signal Corp each day. He still went to the mess hall and ate, though sometimes just once a day. And he still pulled guard duty when his turn came up.

One night in early spring, the day after pay day, one of his guard duty comrades for the night found me playing Acey-Deucey in the hooch a little after mid-night – and said that Johnny was down at Guard Post 3 with his assault rifle to his head, saying he was “taking the AR-16 special to Never-Land tonight.”

When I got down to Guard Post 3 Johnny still had the weapon to his head. He was leaning back against the bunker, the stock between his boots with the barrel right in the middle of his forehead, two inches above his eyes.  I sat down on the steps in the doorway leading down into the bunker beside him and we talked for several hours. A little after 5:30am he finally took the AR-16 away from his head and leaned it up against the outside bunker wall. The early morning light was splaying softly across the top of the bunker.

Johnny said he realized that what had happened to Bui Ti Bui had just been an accident. A horrible accident. He said that he knew that it wasn’t his fault – technically – that Bui Ti Bui was dead. Because it wasn’t intentional. He knew that. He said he recognized that war was horrible – and that sometimes things just happened that way. That war itself was just that way. That sometimes things just happened that way in war — and there’s was no real understanding it. They just happen. And there’s no reason for it.

He said he felt better now. He said that he really appreciated me coming down to the guard post and talking with him. He said I was a good friend – his best friend in all the world. He said he loved me. He said we were going to be all right – we were going to get through this –and get back to the states– and get on with our normal lives.

I went back to base-camp and went directly to the mess hall for breakfast. I got my morning ration of S.O.S. and a stiff, thick, black strong cup of coffee.

Guard duty officially ended each day at 6:30. At 6:31am the Officer of the Day came into the mess hall and walked directly over to the table where I was eating.

“Johnny Tudor just put a “16” bullet though his head — and he’s dead as a door-nail down at Guard Post 3.”

I didn’t say anything. I just sat there looking down at my hand on my coffee cup – staring at the faint puff of steam wafting up from it.

“Poor son-of-a-bitch”, the Officer of the Day said, shaking his head. “Sorry, Greer.”  He about-faced and walked stiffly away from me across the mess hall the way he had come in  and back out the door and into the company street.

I sat for a few minutes after he was gone. Just not thinking. I don’t know how long I sat there because I didn’t keep track – and no one bothered me.

I guessed that was it, then, for Johnny Tudor. Johnny Tudor –big, beautiful, happy, smiling – wonderful Johnny Tudor – had finally done it. He finally figured it out. He finally found a way to tell the United States Government — the mighty American war machine – the politicians – he had finally found a way to tell them all – all of them – to kiss his ass!

Johnny Tudor was out of here. He was finally out of this god-forsaken, blood-sucking, soul-killing – joy snuffing — war – world – and life — he had been born into.

Johnny Tudor was gone. Going, going – gone. Johnny Tudor was free at last.