Monday, 5 March 2012

Houses of Cards

Chapter 8

In mid December the North Vietnamese Army commenced a new offensive and launched attacks against Tay Ninh. That was the first time I recognized the name of a newsworthy location in South Vietnam other than Saigon. Bad news about that far away place gave me a new unsettled feeling, being acquainted with someone there and thinking about the dangers the conflict presented to that person.

Christmas season was approaching and since relocating to Vancouver last year I had not returned home to eastern Canada for a visit. My employer decided to shut down company operations and lay-off employees during the holiday period. Now facing ten days of unpaid time off I was free to visit my family and Montreal for Christmas. Before departing for Montreal I had been hoping to receive another letter or possibly a card from Phi Bang but nothing came. 

Throughout my visit in Montreal I followed newspapers accounts about the renewed fighting in South Vietnam. The front page of the Montreal Gazette featured a photograph of a baby in a hammock hanging in a ramshackle shanty that had been bomb-damaged. The reported location was not Tay Ninh but another village near Saigon. War. That had been Christmas Day in Vietnam. I thought about Phi Bang and wondered if she was near the conflagration. If so, was she safe? I wanted to tell my parents about Phi Bang but did not because I feared that my parents would not understand why their son was writing to a young lady in South Vietnam. Perhaps my anxiety was knowing that my parents would ask me why. I could not have explained to my parents because I could not give myself an explanation. Some things in life just happen.

I wanted to do some last minute shopping before returning to Vancouver, so one grey, snowy, afternoon, during that week between Christmas and New Year, I made a trip over to Fairview Shopping Center on one of those rickety old blue and white Brisebois Bus Line school-type buses that were passed off as public transportation. The bus arrived about twenty minutes late and was crammed full to squashed standing room only.. As was the bus, Fairview was crowded with shoppers searching for post-Christmas bargains. 

Unexpectedly I spotted Karen McLennan in the crowds. Taken aback, I looked again to be certain. Yes, she was definitely Karen and this time not an anonymous Chinese lady. For a moment my heart jumped with excitement and I could scarcely believe my good fortune. Karen had not seen me and I was about to go over and surprise her. Before I did though, someone else joined her. From the way he held her I knew that he was not just anyone. Instead, I was the one who had been surprised. I was disappointed and had to admit I felt little stabs of jealousy too, but enough time had passed so that this surprise really did not matter. I had not thought about Karen since I had begun writing to Phi Bang. Determined not to be recognized I retreated and remained anonymously hidden in the crowds. 

Seeing Karen again with someone else made me lose any more interest in shopping. Thinking back to our days in music classes, I would never know the answer to the "what if" question but, if nothing else, at least I now knew one answer to the "if not" question. I had seen that answer.

Leaving home, Montreal, and all that was familiar the first time was easy because I knew nothing about the silent solitude that had awaited me in Vancouver. Leaving home the second time was very difficult because I knew only too well that hated silence of an empty apartment that awaited me. Days later as I entered my dwelling and saw Phi Bang's photo on the desk waiting to greet me, I silently wished, "If only photographs could talk."

A Christmas card from Phi Bang was waiting for me in the foyer upstairs and I was grateful. Her card and letter were the only welcome back that I would receive at my three-room closet. By confirming the date on the postmark I was certain she had survived the conflict that had flared up in Tay Ninh. 

The scene on the card was a couple looking at a large full moon. The man and woman were standing beside each other and holding hands. Although the scene may not have had anything to do with Christmas, the card was beautiful and it was for me. For a moment I thought, "Why couldn't that be me with Phi Bang? 

"No! It could never be." a cold and clear commonsense logic immediately retorted.

During the first week of January 1975 the North Vietnamese Army overran Phuoc Long Province. Phuoc Long was the first province of South Vietnam to fall to the military forces of North Vietnam. For years the war had meant nothing to me and so I had ignored it. Now, my attention was drawn to every detail the newspapers and radio reported. Staring at the two photos of Phi Bang and looking at the card she had sent, I wondered if the tranquil images she had so fondly written and told me about were from the same Vietnam that was constantly in the news.

Sitting down at my desk to write to Phi Bang, I began listening to a recording of Beethoven's "Emperor" concerto. Beethoven's last piano concerto was a magnificent outpouring of triumph over adversity. Difficult to believe, the historical accounts claimed that Beethoven composed this amazing work while the city he was trapped within, was being bombarded by the artillery of Napoleon's armies. I saw a similarity between Phi Bang and Beethoven. Both had been living in war situations with battles raging all around. Beethoven's concerto did not reflect any of this. Phi Bang's letters did not reflect anything about war either. Had both been ignoring the overwhelming realities that surrounded them as if they were not there? Or did both reach from deep within to rise above their utterly hopeless situations in displays of the triumph of the human spirit over unchangeable despair? I had no way of knowing but I deeply admired both; Beethoven for the beautiful musical gift he left to the world and Phi Bang for the letters she sent to me that briefly brightened my mundane and dreary existence.

Placing my pen down on the note pad, I rested my feet against the table's rail and leaned back until the chair was balancing on the two rear legs. I was unable to concentrate on writing. What I really wanted was to ask Phi Bang about the war situation where she lived but I was afraid to ask. Instead, I set the chair back down on all four legs and reached forward for the pipe tin on top of the books. Smoking a pipe full of a Latakia tobacco mixture while deep in thought could be soothing. Watching my little chimney send clouds of smoke to the ceiling, I recalled a comment Mr. Douglas made last week about my pipe smoking, "Even if you're not really thinking at least it smells like you might be." 

Throughout the weeks following the fall of Phuoc Long, hostilities between the armed forces of the north and the south appeared to lessen. World attention, as far as I could determine, was centered on the situation in neighbouring Cambodia and the situation there seemed to be far more precarious for the anti-communist forces. Consulting my map, the South Vietnam-Cambodia border was very near Tay Ninh. "If Cambodia falls, is the road to Saigon through Tay Ninh?" I wondered aloud.

I folded the map and put it away for the night. Nothing I could do would change any of the events going on in Southeast Asia.

One Thursday night in late January the weather became abnormally cold for Vancouver. Temperatures dipped and remained about five degrees below the freezing point for several days. The cool, clear respite from the rain persisted into the weekend. Mark, Martha's latest boyfriend, had arranged a date with Martha for a Saturday afternoon hike up Hollyburn, one of the mountains of West Vancouver that overlooked Burrard Inlet and Vancouver. Unknown to Mark, Martha had invited her brother Matthew, and me to come along and unwittingly, Matthew and I had agreed to become half-invited guests on Martha's date. Martha could be full of surprises at times but Mark took things in stride. 

Our climb started below the snow line, at the end of a street where the suburbs abruptly stopped and the forest began. The trail was several miles of unbroken ascent. Not long after starting out we crossed the snow line and headed in to quickly deepening snow. Fortunately our route was hard packed from the many trekkers that had started out ahead of us.

A lifetime of living through eastern Canada's long, cold snowy winters had taught me a few points about the lighter side of winter life and I was determined to use my knowledge to full advantage. Even though the mountains overlooking Vancouver kept their snowcaps through much of the year I quickly noticed that Martha, Mark and Matthew were finding the snow somewhat of a novelty. They had little up close first-hand experience of life with snow. 

Observing that the trees had received a fresh covering of powdery snow, I took great mischievous delight in giving some of the not-too-thick-trunk fir trees here and there a vigourous shove with my foot when I was certain no one was watching. That usually provoked a small avalanche of snow to cavalcade down on the unfortunate person or two following behind me. Even more amusing was the fact that the persons behind me, Matthew and Martha, were not aware of what was causing the snow to pour off the trees. I chuckled with glee upon overhearing some of the comments and cursing about the snow. 

Eventually Matthew became curious and finally asked me, "Why do you keep stopping to kick some of the trees?"

"I'm trying to remove the build-up of snow from the bottoms of my boots." I answered, feigning sincerity.

"I think it's making the snow fall off the trees. I thought I was going to get buried back there." Matthew pointed out while he was brushing the effects of another induced snowfall off his coat and hat.

"Oh?" I questioned innocently, and then turned to stifle a laugh. I then offered, "Why don't you take the lead for a while?

Since starting out, I felt as if I had been climbing a never-ending flight of stairs. We eventually reached the chalet that was located on a ridge, and the only place along our route where the trail sort of levelled out. After breaking for a short rest we resumed our arduous ascent toward the summit. Now I felt as if I was climbing a second almost never-ending flight of stairs.

The view from the summit peak was spectacular and the sky above Vancouver was clear. The city looked so tiny and seemed far below.

"I can't believe we actually made it this far." Martha puffed, and then dropped down on the snow.

"Neither can I." I added. The climb was tougher than I had expected and more severe than I was accustomed to. While resting, I pulled my pipe and tobacco out of a pocket, filled the bowl with the usual fuel and then set it alight.

"Did you have to bring that thing along?" Matthew complained, and then he promptly lit up a cigarette.

"It's to keep the mosquitoes away." I quipped.

"There’re no mosquitoes." Matthew said.

"It works! I exclaimed, and continued puffing away contentedly.

"I brought a bottle of wine." Mark announced.

"You did?" Martha questioned in disbelief.

"There was no way I was going to climb to the top of this here hill and never celebrate if ever I reached the top." Mark replied in a deliberately twisted English. He then pulled the bottle out of his knapsack and followed with an opener.

"What do we drink it out of?" Martha asked.

"Unless someone brought along cups, we'll just have to pass the bottle around." Matthew suggested.

"Talk about roughing-it." Martha grumbled.

"We could always go back down to the chalet, buy some coffee, and spike it." Mark suggested.

"Like railway tracks?" I asked as an aside, not expecting a response.

"What?" Mark asked, puzzled by my comment.

"Don't mind him.” Matt interjected.

“He's got a one-track mind when it comes to trains.” Martha added.

“What trains?” Mark asked.

“You just said the wrong word an got him started." Matthew explained.

"What word was that?" Mark asked, sounding even more confused.

"Spike." Matthew explained.

"What happens if you put too much spike in the coffee?" Mark unexpectedly threw at us.

"Easy! You get hammered." I quipped.

"No! You get nailed." Matthew countered.

"No!" I argued, "You get hammered."

“You don't get it! Spike...nail...see?" Matthew argued.

"But I do! What do you think the nail gets out of this? Definitely hammered." I concluded.

"Wrong answers." Mark interjected.

"Then what's the right answer?" Martha asked.

"Coffee that's good to the last grope." Mark replied.

"Sad." Matthew stated, shaking his head.

"Very sad." I concurred, shaking my head in agreement.

"Yeah. It's a wonder he doesn't get sued by that coffee company." Matthew added.

"Well, are we going to open the bottle here or wait 'til we go back down to celebrate?" Martha asked, returning our attention to the subject at hand.

Seated in the snow at the summit we opened the bottle of wine, passed it around, said a few words of profound wisdom in turn, and then took a swallow. When my turn came, I glanced at the Pacific shore far below us, thought about Phi Bang, then said solemnly, "Here’s to a place and someone far away.”

"What’s that supposed to mean?" Martha asked, her curiosity had been piqued.

"Someone in Vietnam.” I stated.

“Vietnam?” She asked and sounding bewildered.

“Yeah. It’s a long story. I'll tell you about it later." I replied.

“Why later? We’re not going anywhere now.” Martha persisted.

"Did you serve in Vietnam?" Mark asked, jumping back in to the conversation and sounding genuinely curious.

"No! I'm not American" I replied, surprised by the question.

"I was just wondering because you mentioned Vietnam." Mark said, 

"Have you been to Vietnam?" I asked, wondering about Mark' unusual question.

"No, but two good buddies of mine from school went to Vietnam a few years ago. They weren't Americans but they joined the Marines." Mark replied. 

"Why would they do that?" I wondered aloud. 

"Both got sent over and ended up spending a year there. They came back in one piece...lucky I guess." Mark continued.

"Since the fighting started up again Vietnam is front page news again. I just know someone there, that's all." I said, thinking about Phi Bang.

As we descended from our lofty perch overlooking Vancouver and returned to the realities of life in the big city I told Martha about Phi Bang. A while later, I was dropped off near home and walked the rest of the way. Facing the locked dark brown door to my basement suite I really did not want to have to enter and cross over to the silent world inside, at least not yet. 

Kitsilano Beach was deserted but that was no surprise. People in Vancouver could comfortably endure the milder days upon days of rain, drizzle and grey but native Vancouverites seemed to have an impatient intolerance for the few cold days winter sometimes brought. Standing defiantly on the bluffs and facing the cold northwest winds blowing in from across English Bay I watched the last traces of reds and purples of sunset quickly darken into blackness. The thousands of city lights on the slopes of the opposite side of the bay looked far more numerous than the stars. Thinking about Phi Bang, I was wishing that she could have accompanied me on the afternoon climb up Hollyburn.

"Why am I spending so much time writing to Phi Bang? How long will our letter writing go on? How long can it go on? Does she think about me? What does she think about me? Does she ever ask herself questions like these about me?" I silently wondered.

Questions running through my thoughts were far more numerous than answers. I gradually realized that I was writing to Phi Bang as if she was a close friend, a very close friend with whom I could share my deeper thoughts and feelings. The paradox was that I had never seen her, never met her, never actually talked to her, never heard her voice...from every possible logical conclusion that could be drawn from my culture and conditioning, Phi Bang was a complete stranger. But was she?

February 14 was approaching and, as I contemplated that particular date, I realized that five years had passed since someone special had been a part of my life. Had it really been that long since I could say that I had once been in love with someone? Yes, that long. Today I felt that such a time had never been, but a love relationship must have occurred. How else could I account for and rationalize the emptiness and sadness that persisted long after she severed our relationship and said good-bye to me? I always thought that falling in love with someone would be something that would last forever but reality for me was that love was something that seemed forever elusive. Falling in love with someone special was something that only happened to other people, and I silently envied them.

A few years had passed since I last looked at Valentine cards in stores. Deliberately at this particular time of year I avoided stores with card sections. I did not need or want reminders of that lost happier time with no way to return. This year would be different. After leaving work, I detoured over to a downtown store that I knew would be selling cards. In one letter Phi Bang had told me that she loved flowers and I was determined to buy a card that pictured flowers. Displayed were hundreds of cards to choose from and all were dotted with little red hearts and silly rhyming verses inside. None of these were what I wanted. Finally, amongst the neighbouring birthday cards, I discovered a beautiful card with pictures of exotic flowers that looked like lilies. The inside of the card was completely blank and just right. 

By the time I had walked back to my First Avenue lodgings, I had decided to write to Phi Bang and try to explain to her about how I felt about her. Writing out my feelings was awkward and I felt that I was unable to adequately express my feelings in words.

"Do you know what day February 14 is for people in North America? It’s called Valentine's Day. That day comes only once a year and is supposed to be a special day for people in love. Do you have the same in Vietnam for February 14? If not, do you have a similar day at another time of the year? You once told me that you like flowers so I chose a card that pictured flowers. Five years have passed since I sent a card like this to anyone. There is no one special in my life, no girlfriend in my life, but I’m hoping things will change. 

Phi Bang, a few weeks ago I placed your picture on my desk. This way I can look at you. Sometimes I even talk to you, but all you do is silently stare back at me. In some sort of way you have become important to me. You dominate my thoughts a lot of the time. Do you think it is possible for someone to love another person that he or she has never met? If it’s possible then I think it has happened to me about us. 

Phi Bang, I wish you were here. I wish you could one day come to Canada. Do you think that could ever be possible for us?

Do not say anything right away because I am afraid of what you would say to me. Phi Bang, just promise me that you will write to me again after you read this letter. Yes, I am afraid for the future. I am afraid for you. When I started to write to you I was hoping to find someone special but I never expected that writing letters would amount to anything. Where will our writing lead? Toward a far away place? To a place we do not know and know not where it is?

As I write these lines to you, I also wonder about how you will interpret my meaning."

Putting the pen down, I paused to think about what I had written. "This is crazy." I thought, "Here I am afraid to bare my thoughts and feelings on paper and Phi Bang is on the other side of the world, probably dodging bullets, and completely oblivious to what I’m thinking about and doing at this moment."

Written words on paper were as close as I could come to explaining my thoughts and expressing my feelings but words alone did not seem to be enough. Carefully folding the sheet of paper that I hoped could change the direction of my life, I slipped the pages inside the card and sealed the envelope. I was hesitant and unsure about mailing the letter and card. Spoken words cannot be taken back but written words can be, if not sent, but as soon as the envelope was dropped into the letterbox then my written words would become irretrievable.

Impulsively, I picked up the telephone and called Martha. She knew about Phi Bang and my months of letter writing and I wanted her input on one point.

"Martha, I have a question for you. Just say yes, or no, but don’t ask why." I said as soon as she answered the phone.

"What?" she answered, somewhat surprised by my abruptness.

"Is it possible for someone to fall in love with someone they’ve never met?" I asked, immediately getting to the point for my call.

"What are you talking about?" she asked.

"Just answer, yes or no. Do you think it’s possible?" I replied.

"No." she said.

"Thank you." I acknowledged, and then hung up the telephone.

About two minutes later the telephone rang. Knowing Martha as well as I thought I did, I was certain she would call me back. I would have been surprised if she did not.

"What took you so long?" I asked, assuming the caller would be Martha. 

"Mark is here so I can't talk to you now. But don’t do anything crazy!" Martha said.

"Thanks. Call me later if you want the rest of the story." I said.

"I will." she replied, and hung up the telephone.

Convinced that something had to change in my life and determined to try to do something about it, I went out and mailed the card and letter to Phi Bang. One small step, perhaps the first in a journey of many steps.

As February 14 neared, I was hoping to receive a letter or card from Phi Bang. Nothing came. Valentine's Day came and went but still no card and no letter or word from her. As each day passed, my expectations wilted. I gave up waiting and assumed that Vietnam did not have any such thing as Valentine's Day.

On the last day of February I received a letter from Phi Bang that included her response I had been waiting for.

"We cannot speak of love. Not know what is love. I too young for you and for love. My love, you are too young to think such about love. You must study first. Go back to school to study. If not then love only sorrow and too much tears.

What about another dear love lady in your place and life? You not tell me any about her such thing. Why? Why you write about only five years ago love? You do not love now? Not any one other person in Canada for you? It is too much believe for me to think you only want to love Phi Bang. And then what? Do we must say 'sayonara' like that word in the movie with same name? Do you know that story movie? So very sad like in Vietnam. Must I think you to want that we live like such and then to die like such? You are not Vietnamese person and you will not understand to know like Vietnamese person. How you can know? You not live here at my country.

Now, I also must tell you very deep I feel, hope, want to love, but I am very afraid to think that. It will die if too young and you will be too sad for that thing which called love. You must think about happy days of sunshine, where no tears can be to fall like rain. With me there can never be like that for you. This thing you tell me I always keep close my heart and not to forget. So many happiness I have for souvenir when old. I cannot imagine such wonderful like that.

If you not afraid of many tears, such sorrow and pain to die, as like love for only one season, then we can find love. You must not cry at time when to say good-bye. You must be brave."

Mystified, I carefully read and re-read the words of her reply. With a sigh of disappointed confusion, I wondered, "What does she mean?"

For the last few weeks I had been hoping with a guarded optimism that maybe, just maybe, Phi Bang might be interested in me. At the same time I kept reminding myself that it was almost impossible that someone on the other side of the Pacific Ocean would be interested in anyone on this side. Not only was the distance so great, the division between east and west was greater.

My first reaction was to escape for a walk along Kitsilano Beach, my usual place of refuge when confronted by confusion and disappointment. Instead, I chose not to go. I wanted to know without a doubt exactly what Phi Bang meant with those words she had carefully chosen. I read through her letter several more times because I did not want to make any mistakes and misinterpret her meaning. Did her words truly state the meaning she wanted to convey to me? I could not be certain. The ambiguity bothered me because I was uncertain about what she wanted me to understand. Trying to think or understand like a Vietnamese person was impossible for me and I had no one to go to for an opinion or advice. Having chosen to follow this uncharted course, I was very much on my own.

Placing Phi Bang's letter aside I decided not reply right away. Later I would re-read all the letters she had written to me over the months to plumb her words for a better understanding about her and her thoughts. I wanted to know if she had intended a different meaning in the words of her last letter. I needed a few days and think about Phi Bang's choices of words and phrases.

Two days later another letter came from Phi Bang.

"To find love you must reach in bag with 99 snakes. You must choose venom snake. If not then you will die. Love like that. I tell you Phi Bang is very bad snake. Only can be too sorrow for you. Maybe not snake for my dear love. You must be ready for that chance. Are you ready? Do you think you can choose like that? I very afraid. Very afraid you choose wrongly.

How you can know what is love? Do you know expression about love? When young must depend on woman to know what is love. When old, must depend on the love to understand what is woman. Do you know about this? Do you think this true? Tell me!

In my country only sadness. So very heavy sorrow. Can't believe about love. Too great to think such thing like that. My dear love, I not forget your kind words. When old, I remember that wonderful idea that you write. Too much to imagine such possible like that for us. Do you know, a time for us? A place where there is not any tears again. A place for only to be sun shining. Search your heart my love for that place. I know, you will find that place. The place called notre pays de soleil.

Do not be sad to think about such. Too much to think. Please tell me! Inside I want to hear the words 'my dear love' or 'beloved' but, so much to imagine like that for Phi Bang. Not know which person I suppose to hear like that from. Can such words to say from dear love in Canada never seen? I believe it too crazy such possible for us.

Write to tell me what I must supposed to say to you my dear love.”                                         

The meaning behind the 99 snakes was baffling and certainly descriptive enough to give me something deep to think about. Parts of Phi Bang's letter were cryptically ambiguous and her meanings could have been interpreted in several different directions of thought depending upon how I wanted to perceive them. All I wanted was to clearly and unmistakably understand her meaning. I did not want to read my thoughts, desires or hopes into her words.

I thought about the last sentence of Phi Bang's letter, and read it aloud, "Write to tell me what I must suppose to say to you my love."

Pausing, and then looking at Phi Bang's photo, I continued talking aloud as if I could have been talking to her and then began to write down some of what I was saying.

"I don't know what I am supposed to say to you Phi Bang. If you were here now, in this room, I probably would not be saying anything at all. The truth is that I wouldn't know what to say to you. I'm the one who couldn't even find the words to ask someone out on a date to a Beethoven concert. But then you wouldn't know about that. No one does.

Phi Bang, don't tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me what you feel. If you love me, tell me that. I want to hear those three words from you but only if they are sincere. I don't ever want to read them in a letter simply because the words may be easy for you to write down on paper. Yes, you are right. What do I know about love? Nothing. Yes, you are right. It is crazy for me to say that I love someone I have never seen, but agreeing with you does not change the way I feel. Am I crazy? Do you think that I am crazy?

You tell me that you want to remember my words when you are old. No! Old and years from now is not what I want. You talk about wanting to remember, but I want to talk about living and loving. Now, not years from now. Yes, we may be too young but when will we not be too young?”

I stopped writing, placed the pen down on the desk and just stared at the sheet with my words. I was afraid to say anything further because I knew that what I was writing was not what I wanted to write. What I really wanted to say to Phi Bang, but in not as many words, was, "Come away from that horrible war. Come to Canada." 

But I would not write any more on the subject. I would have to search deeper and honestly face my feelings first. Was I romantically fantasizing about rescuing Phi Bang from the war? Was I only desperately trying to fill a void in my life? Did I really love Phi Bang or did I just think that I did? Had I only fallen in love with a nonexistent imaginary person that I had created in my mind based upon assumptions made from the letters I had been reading and re-reading over the last few months? Many questions came to mind but no clear answers. Then again maybe I had the answers and was shutting them out because they were not the answers I wanted to hear.

I picked up the black and white photograph of Phi Bang, looked at her for a few moments and silently implored, almost demanding, "Tell me you are really the person I think you are! Tell me you're real! Tell me I'm not wrong! Phi Bang, you asked me to tell you what I want to hear you say to me. I just did!"

The continuing silence of the three-room closet was the only response.

The deceptive calm in South Vietnam was not to continue. Before the end of the first week in March a new North Vietnamese offensive struck at Pleiku. A week later the North's forces attacked Ban Me Thuot. As news reports came in I consulted the map of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam that I had obtained from the National Geographic Society. After some searching, I was able to pinpoint the locations of most of the towns named in the news. The troubled areas were away from Tay Ninh. The news reports also indicated that the situation was not going well for South Vietnamese forces. Soldiers were not in a strategic retreat trying to regroup. They were fleeing southward in unrestrained panic and chaos.

From my review of the map I speculated that the communist forces were determined to take over the central region of South Vietnam to separate the country into two parts thus isolating the northern region. From details of skimpy new reports and the relative safety of being half a world away from the conflagration, I could easily make a second guess analysis of what may have been going on. In truth I really had no idea what was going on there or how desperate the situation may or may not have been. Likewise, I had no idea if my ignorance was a good thing now or bad.

By mid March Ban Me Thuot had fallen. In short succession Pleiku fell too. The government of South Vietnam insisted the provinces were strategically abandoned and South Vietnamese Forces had not been militarily defeated. The government's version of events was impossible to believe. Pictures in the newspapers depicted columns of wounded and frightened soldiers and throngs of civilians trying to escape in crammed vehicles over severely congested roads. The news media were reporting stories of fleeing thousands being killed by the unrelenting North Vietnamese forces, a horrible tragedy that later came to be known as 'The Convoy of Tears'. The pictures of fear, panic, death and devastation I saw in the magazines and newspapers were so very real and yet Phi Bang continued to write about a beautiful country that she very much loved. She did not write anything that even hinted at the conflict and destruction going on in South Vietnam. Was she oblivious to the war or was she just consciously ignoring it? That was a difficult paradox for me to fathom.

As the first day of spring approached I wrote and told Phi Bang about maple syrup, explaining in detail how it is made. Recalling my experiences with the sugaring process, I shared with her stories about the spring seasons when Ted and I tapped some maple trees. We collected the sap in large pails and hauled our watery loads through the woods to my grandfather's house. On the large wood-burning stove in the kitchen we boiled the sap down into maple syrup. I also wrote and told her about the time my grandfather accompanied Ted and me into the woods to check-up on our work. Grandfather had been rather amused by some of the pails that had been enthusiastically hung on taps that had been carefully drilled into the south side of beech trees. He asked us how much sap we had collected from those particular maple trees. None, we told him, because the pails had remained empty. With his guidance we relocated the taps from the beech trees to maple trees. Sure enough, sap started dribbling out of the pipes and plinked into the pails. 

A few years later and the last spring season in which I tapped maple trees, was the time I attempted a desperate last effort to try to restore the broken relationship with my former girlfriend. One bright warm mid-March afternoon I had retreated into the wooded area near home and by chance met up with my former girlfriend. For a school project, she was trying to tap a maple tree and collect the sap to produce maple syrup but she did not know how to do it. I offered to show her and help her with the project. She accepted my offer. We spent the entire afternoon together while I drilled holes in the trees and improvised on the rest. We did not have the genuine hooked spouts that commercial producers use, but the plastic straws we cut into short lengths worked just as well when they were carefully shoved into the freshly bored openings. Into each selected tree I also banged in a nail, just above and slightly to the side of the downward path of the sparkling clear dribbling liquid. On the nails we hung empty tins that I had rigged with wire loops. For those few brief days the hours together were almost a return to the way things had once been between us. Throughout that week I carried a delusional glimmer of fragile hope she would change her mind about me, but my hope slowly faded away with the melting snow and end of the sugaring season. Nothing had changed. She did not want me and the pain of re-rejection hurt; really hurt.

Phi Bang wrote back telling me about rice cakes and promised to send some to me. A few days later a package arrived in the mail. True to her word, she sent me rice cakes together with instructions about how to cook them. I did not know what to think. I had never heard of rice cakes nor had I ever seen anything like them. They were extremely hard and dry and looked like plastic biscuits. After reading through her letter describing how to cook them I then tried to cook some. After pouring a generous amount of cooking oil into the frying pan I turned on the stove. While waiting for the pan to heat up I was wondering if Vietnamese people would use a wok. Anyway, I did not have a wok so the frying pan would have to do. When the oil started smoking, I slid one of the dried cakes in with a spatula. The dried wafer quickly puffed up to several times its original size. When the rice cake started to turn brown, I removed it from the pan and blotted it on a paper napkin to drain the oil. I cooked several more before turning off the stove.

"What do I eat these with?" I asked myself aloud. The rice cakes were very different from anything I had seen before. Phi Bang did not tell me what to eat the rice cakes with. I tasted one and thought it rather bland and tasteless.

"Maple syrup! These would be perfect with Maple syrup." I resolved, and set out to mix Asian and Canadian foods.

"I wonder what Phi Bang would think if she saw this?" I silently questioned and then answered, "She probably never will but I’ll write and tell her about it."

On March 26 the first soldiers from North Vietnamese forces stormed unopposed into Hue, the ancient capital. A few days later the northern provinces of South Vietnam capitulated as remnants of the defending military forces fled further south by sea, air or whatever means they could find. Da Nang quickly fell on March 30. 

By the end of March the situation in South Vietnam was hopeless. The South Vietnamese military forces were in shambles and not in a strategic retreat for regrouping into defensive positions. They were shattered and defeated forces that could no longer react quickly enough to counter the events which were rapidly unfolding. Numerous provinces had fallen since the beginning of the year, the first surrender of territory the government of South Vietnam had ever officially acknowledged and conceded to North Vietnam.

Reports in the news showed embassies in Saigon besieged by thousands of citizens desperate to leave. Those events were not lost on the news media and photographers. Expressions on the faces of the Vietnamese people captured on film were those of panic and terror. Photographs said what words could not; a population on the verge of anarchy trying to flee by whatever means they could. People scrambling to escape from Saigon were using their relatives, friends, acquaintances, even willing complete strangers, for sponsors and as a means to get out the country. I did not want to believe the chaotic scenes were real.

News about Vietnam became more disturbing each day. A possible defensive line was being drawn from Tay Ninh in the northwest across the country through Xuan Loc and east toward the coast. First reports in the news indicated military success for the South Vietnamese forces at Xuan Loc. The defenders had repulsed repeated attacks made by the numerically superior forces of the North Vietnamese, inflicting heavy casualties while sustaining only light casualties in exchange. As the ferocity of the battles intensified, however, the Xuan Loc defenses began to crumble. Newspaper experts wrote as if the government of South Vietnam was in difficulty and faced imminent collapse. I took that to mean surrender to the North was inevitable. News media continued to convey images of a population gripped by fear and despair. Everyone in Saigon, it seemed, wanted out by any possible means. 

Upset by the dismal news reports, I sat down at my desk and wrote to Phi Bang. In the process I vented my frustrations about being completely powerless to change anything.

"As soon as I think that I have possibly found someone to live for and to die for, my time for love may never come. The communists, those forces of darkness and evil, are poised to grasp everything and pull it all away from my reach.

Is there no justice? Are opposing political ideologies worth the needless bloodshed of uncountable millions of persons caught up in the mire? Tell me, what useful purpose does any political ideology serve? Has there ever been a politician anywhere in the history of time that has ever truly served any useful purpose for mankind? Not many as far as I can tell. If there is such a person, would not he or she have to compromise his or her integrity and humanitarian principals in the process of attaining that position of power? Even the so-called good politicians are not so good at all. Turn over any stone and there are always snakes.

Phi Bang, I don't have to worry about your bag of only 99 snakes. That should be simple in comparison to politicians and the horrible world mess they are leaving in their wake; some deliberately evil and most in the delusion that they are leaving the world a better place for an always elusive tomorrow."

After ending my letter, I placed the pages into an envelope and set it down beside the pipe tin on top of the books.

The following morning I grabbed the envelope, tore it and the contents into several pieces and forcefully tossed away the remnants. With the situation in South Vietnam untenable, I began to be cautious about what I wrote in my letters to Phi Bang. What would happen if the communists took over and started censoring mail? I feared that my hastily written angry words could harm Phi Bang if my letters ever ended up in the wrong hands on the way to her.

Phi Bang wrote again and said nothing about the deteriorating situation in Vietnam. I do not know if she just did not know, or did not want to know, or if she knew all to well and was afraid to talk about her concerns. I did not know how to deal with my feelings of complete and utter helplessness, hopelessness and uselessness. Almost daily the radio and newspapers commented about military activities and the astonishing victories the North continued to achieve. I desperately wanted to ask Phi Bang a lot of questions but did not.

The next letter from Phi Bang contained two different butterflies that had been very carefully preserved in plastic. The butterflies were somewhat similar to species that I had seen in eastern Canada but in spite of the similarities, the butterflies from Vietnam were distinctly different.

Do you like butterflies? They are very beautiful to look at. Also very too much fragile. Also very easy for me, and also my friend, to catch and to keep for school. I think already you know my friend Lien. I have study about subject lepidoptera for extra mark. Are you surprise I can know about this word? I think maybe Phi Bang to astonish you for this to know such.

Do you know that butterflies love flowers? Phi Bang also love flowers too much. There are so many beautiful flowers in Vietnam. Do you think Phi Bang is like butterfly or like flower? Which one? You must tell me. I wait your answer reply to me. 

I think the butterflies too much like us. Maybe our love too. Very beautiful and only last for one season then to die. Do you think our love to be like that? Do you have like these in Canada? Write to me and tell about that.

Phi Bang's letter also contained details about her family. On a separate page, she sent me a complete list with everyone's full name and age. She also told me that she wanted to study medical science because her mother had died from cancer. From bits of details I had read in several previous letters, I assumed this to mean that she wanted to join efforts in the search for a cure for cancer. She also told me about the day her mother died. On that particular day her mother's situation suddenly worsened and Phi Bang's father sent her on the motorcycle to get the doctor. Phi Bang described to me that she was crying so many tears that she was not able see the road clearly while she was driving. By the time Phi Bang had returned home, her mother had passed away. Nothing more could have been done. From the way she wrote and chose her words, I knew that she was still upset about her mother's death.

To me Vietnam was a troubled country. The Vietnamese people seemed to have such a sad, almost fatalistic outlook directed toward life as only being able to offer nothing but grief, sorrow, unhappiness and death. Was this truly the Vietnamese outlook on life? Was this the way Phi Bang looked upon life? The death of her mother and living her entire life in a country at war must have influenced her outlook on life but I really did not know. I wanted to ask her but did not. Perhaps Phi Bang's family had thus far escaped the loss of a member from warfare, but she probably had friends who had lost family members. Phi Bang did not write anything about how the war may have affected her or her family. I could only guess and make assumptions based upon what I had seen in the news and read in the papers and then hope that Phi Bang’s life in Vietnam was really not truly that awful.

Her following letter included two little flowers joined at the stems. The center of each flower had a trace of dark maroon or brown encircled by a set of tiny dark yellow petals. Phi Bang told me that in Vietnam the flowers are a symbol for love. She claimed that even after ten or twenty years of being kept in a book, the colour would not fade, even though the love may fade.

“This flower call Immortal flower. Even though keep for 20 or 25 years the colour not fade. Two flowers for you like us. You can keep for memory about Phi Bang. After love gone you can see color not change. My dear, promise you not to forget about me, your dear love friend Phi Bang in Vietnam.”

Phi Bang's letter had come from Saigon rather than Tay Ninh. I wondered if her departure from Tay Ninh had to do with the recent collapse of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, or the sudden and hurried departure of Nguyen Van Thieu, or just a crumbling South Vietnam that appeared to the world like a falling house of cards. Phi Bang did not tell me why she was in Saigon nor did she mention how she had managed to travel there. Had she journeyed alone or was she with her family? Was she just one other person that had been among the hoards of thousands of desperate citizens fleeing ahead of the unstoppable advancing forces of the North? With fighting going on around Tay Ninh, Saigon and along the main road between the two cities, I wondered where she had managed to find the flowers. Did she stop to pick them up along the way? I did not know but I was relieved to learn she was safe in Saigon and that she had given me an address there to write to. But for how long would Saigon remain a safe place? 

The answer was not long to follow. In the predawn quiet of April 27, the first attack on Saigon in five years commenced. A raging fire was ignited by the shelling and rocket bombardment. By the time the flames had subsided at least ten people were confirmed dead and more than five thousand were homeless. On all sides of the city heavy fighting continued while the Americans were busily occupied with their continuing evacuation of personnel from Saigon. What remained of South Vietnam appeared like a sinking ship. People were fighting each other for survival and to escape at any cost. Lifelines to safety were anything that could fly or float at sea. 

As events quickly unfolded I worried about Phi Bang. Completely helpless and unable to do anything at all, I prayed to God and asked Him to protect Phi Bang from harm. My action and words seemed so trite, so feeble and so useless. War was a situation I was absolutely powerless to change or do anything about and I feared my desperate pleas would be ignored. After all, who was I to ask anything from God? 

On April 29 the late night news on the radio carried an unconfirmed report that Saigon had finally given up fighting and surrendered to the North Vietnamese forces. In spite of knowing that the end had been inevitable, I still did not want to believe it. After turning off the radio, I lay on the couch, stared at the ceiling and wondered, "God, if this is true, what will tomorrow bring?"

The Oddblock Station Agent

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