Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Carrying rice to Newcastle

ROSWELL, New Mexico — Taking rice to Vietnam may sound as absurd as selling coal to Newcastle.
Yet, that is precisely what I will be doing when I depart for Vietnam in mid-February.
Last week, the United Parcel delivery person rang my doorbell. When I arrived at the front door I saw a package from Sacramento, California. Goodie, a late Christmas gift. However, when I opened the package, I found a 10-pound bag of rice.
I had been expecting the rice. It was for my friend Dinh Ngoc Truc in Hanoi. When he visited the United States for the first time this past October, Truc spent quite a bit of time with me, touring through New Mexico, driving through parts of Arizona and Nevada on our way to Las Vegas, and then staying several days with mutual friends outside of Sacramento.
Ken Fritz, former president of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, met Truc in November 2010 when he and another friend, Tom Krumland of Roswell, joined me on a road trip from Hanoi to Saigon. Truc, who works for the International Press and Communication Company in the Ministry of Culture and Information, put the trip together.
We toured Vietnam War battlefields and museums from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon is officially known. The Vietnam news media gave our visit radio and television coverage because of one unique character of the tour — Truc had been a Viet Cong antiaircraft gunner in the mid-1970s. Though he was in military uniform after U.S. involvement in the war ended, there was the novelty of two former U.S. Army helicopter pilots touring old battle sites with a former member of the VC.
Visiting to old battlefields more than 40 years after Ken Fritz and I completed our tours of duty as helicopter pilots during the war was eye-opening. The Vietnamese we met went out of their way to make us feel welcome. We were traveling at ground level, my descriptions for no frills. As a result, we did not hang out with other Westerners, so the reactions of the Vietnamese were genuine.
I had known Truc since October 2008 when he escorted film producer-director Richard Max and cameraman Stuart Dunn during filming of the HELICOPTER WARS: VIETNAM FIREFIGHT television documentary for Windfall Films of London. The documentary is about a mission in which two U.S. Army Huey helicopters rescued 126 South Vietnamese soldiers and a U.S. Special Forces advisor under fire in May 1967. Al Croteau, the gunner aboard the helicopter I was piloting, joined Tom Baca, the pilot of the second Huey, and his copilot, Larry Liss, went to Vietnam for filming in the actual landing zone.
In December 2009, my wife and I visited Hanoi and spent time with Truc, touring his hometown and going to Ha Long Bay for New Year’s Day 2010.
Ken and Truc hit it off well on the November 2010 trip, so when he learned Truc was making his first visit to the United States in October 2011, he invited us to his home.
When we arrived, Ken and his wife Marcia had outlined a schedule of things for Truc to see in the Sacramento area. One was the California Military Museum. During our visit, Truc noticed the figure representing a Viet Cong soldier in the Vietnam War section did not have a proper uniform. Truc said he might be able to help the museum secure a real VC uniform for the display.
The next day Ken and Marcia took us for a drive through the many miles of rice fields around Sacramento. Marcia’s family were some of the original settlers in the area. The family crop was rice. We drove down a lengthy country road until we came to a farmhouse and outbuildings. We met Marcia’s cousin, who described mechanized rice production to Truc.
That night, Marcia prepared a bowl of local rice for Truc. He pronounced it superb and said he would like to carry some home with him when we flew back to Hanoi.
The next morning, Truc and I stopped at a Sacramento super market on our way to Los Angeles for his return home. Truc bought several bags of rice to carry in his luggage.
I’m sure his wife liked the rice, too. As I started putting a schedule for my next trip to Vietnam, Truc and Ken included me in an email exchange. It was decided I would carry Sacramento rice to Truc in Vietnam.
On my return home, I would bring back a Viet Cong uniform for the California Military Museum.
Things certainly have changed since February 1968, when I left Vietnam immediately after the Tet Offensive. I had completed a 12-month tour of duty flying helicopters.
I knew I would not return. Nor would I ever see another Viet Cong uniform.
Was I wrong.

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