combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2006

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 Duan's head.

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 round-eye.

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 would.

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 anyone do?

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 historical criticism.

Table of

C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones