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by Joe Baginski
11/29/2013 / Short Stories
I'm afraid that not everyone is going to find this particular story intriguing because the context in which it is set is war, more specifically, the ruins of war that make men's post-war lives a living hell; a nightmare which seems to never cease. But as my reader, if you will look beneath the context of this story and peer into the heart of the person about whom I'm writing, perhaps you will find what I found. What I found was a man like me, potentially like all of us really, a man trapped in personal memories, a man who had destroyed everything he once loved in the vain pursuit of a lie. He was an alcoholic living in destitution and without any hope of any kind of deliverance. The only hope he clung to was that one day he would drink himself into oblivion and that he would cease to be. He lived to die. He is a Vietnamese veteran of the American War; I'll just refer to him as The Veteran.
I met The Veteran while traveling with Tim in Vietnam. The instant I laid eyes on him I was fascinated with his persona. He was atypical, simply not cut from the same cloth as every other Vietnamese vet I had met. He was quite thin, even by Vietnamese standards and most likely a chain smoker. When I first laid eyes on him in the dim gray light of the restaurant where he was seated, a cloud of cigarette smoke hung in the air over his head like a blanket of fog over a wintery, California marsh. We made our way to where he was seated.
He wore a navy blue blazer that I guessed never left his body; it was stained and motley looking, not at all like jackets worn by other men his age. His trousers showed evidence of wear and tear and upon closer inspection revealed an accumulation of grime and filth which would have only been possible if they too were worn continuously for weeks on end and perhaps for months. He obviously lived in his clothes.
The Veteran had long, shoulder length hair and wore a French beret cocked to one side of his head. Wearing round, dark framed, eye glasses, his rather longish face was framed in a ragged beard which from appearances, had never been trimmed or in any way shaped which might suggest that he had some concern for good grooming habits. He was an outlier among Vietnamese men in an interesting sort of way. My immediate impression was that he was a deviationist, marching to a drummer that he alone could hear and marching to a cadence that kept him out of step with the rest of society. I looked forward to our conversation.
He rose to his feet to meet Tim and me as we approached. He grabbed Tim and hugged him and speaking in Vietnamese said things to Tim I did not understand, but Tim recoiled from the touch. He then turned to me and vigorously shook my hand as if we had been old wartime buddies. We took our seats on plastic chairs the size that children might comfortably use and even though the day was gray, cool and drizzly, we ordered traditional steeped, black Vietnamese coffee served over ice. The conversation between us began immediately, translated by Tim. It started with the usual questions about where I had come from, was I married and how many children and grandchildren I had. Other veterans soon joined in the conversation bringing their own chairs and seating themselves wherever they seemed to fit into our growing circle. There were six of us.
In a gathering of war veterans, war stories soon come forth as memories percolate into consciousness and that consciousness spills out in tales of woe, horror, grief and sometimes humor. I noticed that as the conversations became more pointed, The Veteran ceased contributing and withdrew himself from the gathering. He pushed his chair back from the circle and picked up what turned out to be a sketching pad and began working in earnest. At length, through Tim's translation, he asked me to turn my head just slightly more to the right and to maintain a steady pose. He was sketching me. In about ten minutes time he tore his sketching from his pad; and there I was, seen through the eyes of my former enemy. I wouldn't call the likeness he drew astonishing, but it was recognizable and I was humbled and grateful for his personal gift to me.
With that, The Veteran stood to his feet and proclaimed that all this talk of the war was depressing to him and that he was sick of it. He was tired of living it every day, tired of being dragged down into the chamber of despair that it all represented to him and sick of the memories that such talk evoked in his soul. He confessed that he saw its visions in the night and drank its poison until he lost consciousness as empty bottles of vodka shattered on the floor all around him. Motioning Tim and me to follow him, he moved quickly out of the restaurant. Outside, he invited us to his home just down the forlorn, one lane dirt track on the other side of the rice paddies.
Under the now steady rain, we mounted our motorbikes, Tim and The Veteran on one and me on the other and we splashed our way down the track to the house of The Veteran. Within a few wet and dreary minutes we pulled up in front of the walled home of The Veteran. He opened the iron barred gate and we drove our bikes into the security of his yard. The yard was utter chaos. It was a field of weeds, derelict and uncared for, a place that forbid comfort and in my analytical mind spoke volumes about the turmoil inside its owner and caretaker. The house itself was a cold gray color that had not known paint in any recent lifetime. In places the concrete walls were cracked and crumbling and I wondered if it was even in fact habitable.
Once inside I saw that it consisted of only a single room with no closets or bathroom. From appearances, it did not seem that anyone actually lived there at all. I can't begin to describe this man's wretched living conditions because I have never seen anything like it before; the filth, the clutter, the garbage strewn about. It was an inexpressible disaster area like a building long ago abandoned and marked for demolition in which derelicts had deposited their debris for eons without restriction. It seemed impossible that a human could comfortably call it home. Trash, loose papers, a dirty dish here and there on the floor and empty vodka bottles carelessly tossed about. With no electricity and no running water the only cooking appliance was a single-burner propane stove sitting amidst other miscellaneous nondescript belongings on the floor. His bamboo sleeping mat was rolled up and tossed on a pile of garbage.
He found a stool for me and dusted it off and motioned me to be seated. Tim pulled up a bucket and turned it over and was seated while The Veteran went outside and soon reappeared with another stool upon which he sat. I tried to hide my shock and disgust but I was soon overcome by a different emotion as tears clouded my eyes as the Spirit revealed the abject poverty, hopelessness and despair of this man's soul. I grabbed him by the shoulder and I began speaking to him in carefully constructed English phrases while Tim translated.
Through my veil of tears I told The Veteran that he was loved by God, the Creator of the universe, a God who came to die for his sins and pardon him and to set him free from his prison. I prayed that God would bind the evil presence filling the house and set this man free from the chains that bind him to the utter lie of the devil. And then I said to him if you want to be set free from this prison I invite you to pray for this release through the gift that Jesus Christ has made available to all men who believe.
Looking him square in the eye I asked him point blank: "Do you desire to have this freedom that Christ only can provide, a freedom from sin and a new life in Christ?" He looked me squarely in the eye and nodded yes. With that I led him in the sinner's prayer which Tim translated and he repeated. After he prayed, he was so excited and overjoyed that he frantically began a search to find a gift for me, something, anything that might express his appreciation for what I had delivered to him. Rifling through the clutter he pulled out the only thing of value that he could find and he gave it to me. It was a shirt. Not just any shirt, it was the shirt of a North Vietnamese soldier that he had proudly worn in combat.
To comprehend the meaning of his gift you have to climb into the psyche of the Vietnamese soldier who has given his all for the liberation of his nation. He has committed his life, sacrificed his family, forsaken property, given up employment, and any claim to the pursuit of happiness to face uncertainty, privation, starvation and death itself for as long as the conflict lasted. That shirt was the only badge of honor bestowed upon him by his nation for his sacrifice. It was the only material thing of intrinsic worth in the possession of The Veteran and he had just given it to me. I tried to refuse it but he persisted and I relented. As I took it from him he kissed my hand, the very hand that 45 years ago, might have been used to try to kill him on the battlefield, he kissed it and in so doing etched his portrait into my soul. Please pray for The Veteran; God knows who he is because he's etched upon Christ's heart as well.
Joe Baginski is currently serving on the mission field in South Asia where he participates in delivering Bibles to closed or tightly controlled countries. He is in frequent contact with the poor and persecuted leaders of house churches in these countries. His blog: www.breaduponthewatersasia.com
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