And there I Was
And there I was, surrounded, on the eve of Tet, a lone American in Da Nang, without a weapon. But the circumstances now are a little different than 34 years ago when I was lost in Da Nang after curfew. Now I am surrounded by beautiful Vietnamese women preparing my bride for our wedding. Where I am now is in room 303 of the Thuong Hai Hotel sitting on the bed. We are about a click or two from old MAG 11 and about two clicks from Dog Patch. The hotel is new, near the airport and the city seems filled with young people who have never known the war.
Across the room Thu An is getting bands of her hair carefully sprayed and placed into a little bun so it will accept a corsage and veil. How I got here is a really long story but now that I am here I am continuously performing mental health checks to see if I am crazy. There is no answer other than I love her and don’t want to be without her. How many former Marine Vietnam veterans return for a look see and end up getting married? Probably not enough.
Later today we will go to a Chinese restaurant and have the wedding ceremony and party. We have two hours in the function room to get it done. Thu An has taken care of everything by herself, from photographers to limo to the beer and she is worried about whether it will fall together perfectly. My part is easy. All I have to do is slip into the suite she had made for me and accompany her through the ceremony.
The photographer’s daughters are all over her getting her hair ready. My attempts at getting a few ‘in process’ photos are met with giggles and the rapid placement of hands over her face. I think she is beautiful without all that stuff but I guess she doesn’t want to be seen until finished.
Now that the hair is done, its time to put on the gown. We were taking photos last night until 0130 so the gown should still be warm. It still fits pretty good but the zipper is jamming. One more hard tug and its all over, the zipper pulls apart. Each time they zip it up, it pulls apart. There is talk but there is no panic. A cell phone appears and the call goes out, in the mean time its back to makeup.
Within ten minutes, a new woman enters the room with a full garbage bag. Together they all look at the zipper and appear to declare it history. Out from the garbage bag is pulled a white gown with gold highlights. Thu An passes quick judgment and jumps in. It looks good on her, the right length and all, but its a little too big at the waist. The bag lady pulls from her pocket a roll of fabric. She unrolls it to reveal tiny scissors, a few needles and a small spool of white thread. She pinches at the darts at the waist to gauge the excess and then snips the thread holding the two darts together. She threads a needle, pulls the dart together and with a few quick stitches tightens the waist up a bit. After the same treatment to the other side, we’re looking good. Triple A couldn’t have been any faster and it had all the look and feel of a professional roadside service call. And then she was out the door with the old gown. No panic, instant service, everyone happy.
The time comes. We get out of the limo and enter the throng of family and friends waiting for us to arrive. I see some old friends. One, Aunt Hue, was married to an American GI during the war and speaks fair pidgeon English. Its good to see her and be able to talk to someone, anyone with some degree of ease. We laugh when I ask her if she thought I would really do it. She says a simple yes and smiles. Inside the restaurant we climb the stairs to the function room doors and stand to welcome the guests. The guests arrive and move in promptly. We greet many people I have met before during my earlier visits and there are many I have never seen before. They all shake my hand and wish me good things in Vietnamese. The children try out a ‘Hello’ They are smiling and look at me with total acceptance. They are amazed at Thu An standing next to me in her radiance. There are plenty of ‘dep lam’ meaning beautiful. I know who they are talking about and I’m glad to be able to stand next to her. Their warmth and obvious good will for an almost total stranger take all the rough edges off the free-floating anxiety I have felt for such a long time now. As they take their seats at the tables we are called in by the MC. We mount the stage, turn and face the guests to begin the wedding. I flash back to 34 years ago when I was lost on the streets of Da Nang on the eve of Tet; a lone Marine, without a weapon, after curfew, terrified and surrounded by Vietnamese, not knowing who is a friend and who a foe. And here I am.