The Limping Man
Seated alone on a sunlit terrace, with a cup of designer mocha
and a deck of Chesterfields close at hand, I notice a
squib filling a segment of an inner page of my newspaper about a
Vietnamese fisherman who'd been devastated by hurricane Katrina.
This was the third time he'd been made destitute. The partition
of his homeland had displaced his family, then the fall of the
Republican regime again made them refugees, and now, when most
Americans were ready to retire, he was compelled by a natural
disaster to rebuild his livelihood. Without fanfare, other
émigrés were helping him. It reminded me of
another, very different terrace, long ago.
Seated on the dusty terrace of a roadside café in the
delta of Viet Nam at the break of day, I read a Vietnamese
newspaper, with a cup of strong coffee and a pack of
Capstans close at hand. I was a curiosity to the ancient
woman who ran this modest stand, and she was too polite to
interfere with my obvious frustration, my seething anger over the
way things were being done in this remote war. The early morning
light that made this rich land glow with transcendent beauty
should have soothed me, but I am an American, honest and
idealistic and impatient.
Because of my preoccupations, I failed to notice the slight
Vietnamese man who hobbled up to my position, so I turned my fury
upon myself, and forced myself to remember my manners. Leaning on
a crutch, he asked to join me at the small table. I gestured him
to sit and share the space as we drank our coffee.
He was probably a little older than he looked, which is a common
trait among Asians, and he had a damaged leg that wouldn't bend.
Masking any incredulity with courtesy, since experience has shown
that most foreigners don't bother to learn anything about the
culture they're visiting, he asked me if I really could read
Vietnamese? I told him, truthfully, only a little ... that I keep
trying to learn. I note that reading, more than conversation, is
a good way for me to improve my grasp of their language. We
continue to talk in the brilliant dawn.
He's a former Regional Force soldier ... what most GIs denigrate
as ruff-puffs ... who was shot through the knee on a
combat operation. His leg was saved, but it will no longer flex,
so he was medically discharged. His brother was killed-in-action,
leaving him to care for two families. He's looking for work, for
any kind of a job.
I tell him that I don't know of any work but, now that I know
that he's searching, I'll be on the lookout for something. I tell
him to keep me in mind if he runs into any difficulties ... we
can use this café as a message center. I stop by there
from time to time and will check with the old lady who runs the
stand. She'll let me know and I'll do something ... I don't know
what, but I'll help ... somehow.
He politely thanks me for my generosity, even though I haven't
done anything except promise ... which echoes in my head
like the promises my country has made to his country. He finishes
his coffee, briefly stops by the counter, and stumbles off into
the early morning light to look for work.
As I watch him hobble down the road, I fume over all the
injustices, implicit and explicit, inherent in this little
pissant war. I'm angry enough to rob Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden,
Benjamin Spock, et al, of all their money in order to provide for
people like this decent disabled vet ... the very people they're
ready to let die. What's the good of having any guns if we can't
point them at the right people?! I want to put a bullet in Le
It's time for me to go to work as well. I police the small table,
folding my newspaper and tucking away my cigarettes, and approach
the old woman to pay for my drink. She waves off my payment. I
ask her why, and she tells me, "Because the crippled man paid for
your coffee too." I'm speechless with chagrin. And I'm touched by
the kindness of strangers. I'm also impressed by the old lady's
virtue, since she could have exploited my ignorance of the
limping man's gesture by collecting twice for the same
transaction. I looked into her old face and knew that she was
incapable of cheating ... even of cheating me, a big-nosed hairy
I asked her to let me know if the limping man came by again. I
told her that I'd like to help ... somehow. She said that she
Now I'm really mad. If there were someone, or
even something, responsible for all this, I would gladly pay real
money to rip their (or its) throat out!
For the rest of my tour, I kept a lookout for the limping man. I
never saw him again. I've never forgotten him.
I'm not really religious but I prayed for him. What else can
I pray for him still ... even though it may do nothing. I've got
to do something. Anything. Everything.
It bothers the hell out of me to this day. Perhaps I wouldn't be
as bothered if I hadn't encountered recurrences. I wish that I
could wish that these instances had been unitary, or even hadn't
happened at all, but what would that say about me? ... so unaware
and insensitive that I could not notice the integrity of the
limping man? ... so much of an ugly American that I
could not detect his humanity? ... their vitality?
This burden of bothersome insights is simultaneously enchanting.
There are times when I wish to hell that I could be free of this
damnedable spell that Viet Nam has cast upon me, then something
like this remembrance comes along, and it is evident that it will
never happen. I am chained to this rock, and recognize that I
shall die of exposure, but at least it is solid and substantial
... a fitting site for everything that limps within me.
by William S. Laurie
... who is a veteran of the advisory experience in Viet Nam,
founder of COUNTERPARTS, an association of Second
Indochina War advisors and advisees, and co-editor of its
newsletter, the SITREP. His book reviews have
appeared in the National Viet Nam Veterans
Review, the Journal of Southeast Asian
Studies, as well as the column in this magazine. He is
the author of numerous short stories and essays, and is co-author
with the late Frank Brown of an annotated bibliography of
American fiction about Viet Nam. He has lectured widely and has
published a pamphlet on the myths of the Vietnam War. He is
working on a playscript and two book-length manuscripts of