I’ve blogged already about my membership in the National Conference of Editorial Writers, a professional group whose title is self-explanatory. NCEW sponsored overseas journeys for those of us who wrote or edited opinion commentary for a living.
A landmark journey occurred for me in the fall of 1989. It was my first extended overseas adventure that didn’t involve service in the U.S. military. That’s part of this brief chronicle of a chapter in a career that brought me great joy and excitement.
In 1989, NCEW put together a trip to Southeast Asia. I got permission from my bosses at the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise to go along. The trip would begin in Bangkok, Thailand; it would proceed to Hanoi, Vietnam; then to Phnom Penh, Cambodia; then back to Ho Chi Minh City (which the locals still refer to as “Saigon”). It was a fabulous sojourn to a part of the world some of us had seen up close two decades or so earlier while we served in the military.
We toured the Hanoi Hilton prison where U.S. prisoners of war were kept; we toured the killing fields of Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge committed horrific acts of genocide against their own people; we saw the lake in Hanoi where the late John McCain was captured in 1967; we met with dignitaries in all three countries; we saw the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, that was just beginning to recover from decades of war, misery and torture.
The official portion of the trip ended in Saigon. Some members of our party went on to Indonesia; others of us ended the official tour at that point. I sought to return to Da Nang, where I served for a time as a U.S. Army aircraft mechanic. I was stationed at a place called Marble Mountain, assigned to the 245th Surveillance Aircraft Company; we maintained a fleet of OV-1 Mohawks.
I wanted to return there. The travel agent who managed all this arranged it for me and two of my colleagues to fly from Saigon to Da Nang.
We arrived in Da Nang, checked into our hotel, caught our breath and then began touring the region.
We drove out to Marble Mountain, about 8 or so miles south of the city. We got out of our vehicle and began walking along the sandy stretch just north of Marble Mountain. I noticed a few remnants of aircraft hangars. I saw pierced-steel planking we used to taxi our aircraft that had been repurposed as fences for residents; they hung flower pots from the PSP.
Our guide, a young woman named Mai — a dedicated communist who also was delightfully efficient at her job — began explaining to me how the Vietnamese had swallowed our entire military presence there after we left the fight in 1973.
That’s when it hit me! Right in the gut! The war was over!
The shooting was occurring when I arrived 20 years earlier; it was still occurring when I left. The war had ended. At that point, I broke down. I sobbed like a baby. My friends who came to Da Nang with me backed away, as did Mai. They left me alone.
Then just as suddenly as it came, it stopped. I wiped the tears off my face. Took a huge breath — and realized I had just shed emotional baggage I had no idea I was carrying around.
So it went. A career in print journalism enabled me to experience a kind of catharsis I never saw coming.
How cool is that?