The Girl in the Oxygen Tent
While gently peeling off a blood-soaked bandage glued to an above-the-knee stump, I paused and looked at the hazy image. Among all of the torn and burned male bodies, Lan’s rectangular space seemed to be of a different world. Stiffly upright and blurred behind plastic walls, it looked like the girl was floating on a carpet that would soon fly away.
The Vietnamese girl was pretty with soft, unblemished skin; high cheekbones; and stoic eyes. But I sensed an undue amount of knowledge and sorrow to burden a pubescent girl. Lan’s lips formed a natural pout, but her head seemed too big for her slight body. Always seated while awake, dressed in powder blue pajamas with orange-stripped tigers, her long black hair fell straight to the bed. Her hands were diminutive with barely discernible fingernails.
We bonded primarily through our frequent mutual English and Vietnamese lessons during lulls in the action and when Lan wasn’t in respiratory distress. She learned faster than me. Whether anyone understood our accents outside of the tent was of no matter. We understood each other. And I was able to make her laugh. I often came in on my days off to visit her, and her face would brighten to the extent that was possible. I gave her a large Panda Bear that I bought in the street market. Lan clung to it when she slept.
As the days went by there were more frequent episodes of life threatening shortness of breath with loud wheezing. During a remission, Lan, with a sheepish expression, asked, “Mr. Lay, can bring me when you go home?”
I answered in English, “I don’t think so Lan. It’s too far away. Why do you want to leave your home?”
She looked into my eyes and sadly said, “So I can live. I think I die here. I want you take care of me.”
I wanted to take care of her, but I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t know much about myself at age 19.
I began my twelve-hour shift noticing that Lan’s bed had been moved closer to the nursing station. She lay in-between a white body cast and a bilateral, above-the-knee amputee--the former a narcotic-induced, sleeping American soldier with multiple fractures of the spine and the latter a post-operative, weeping boy. Despite the continuous flow of oxygen through the tubes in her nose, Lan’s respirations were more labored that day. With tightening facial muscles and hands balled up in fists, she tried to speak but could not utter more than a whispered, “No talk now.”
Lan managed a weak grin when I tried to pronounce her name. I could not initiate the L sound from the back of my throat no matter how hard I tried. She couldn’t pronounce the R of Ray very well either. I lifted the plastic wall to give her a fashion magazine, but Lan’s tiny left hand wearily dropped it on the bed. All the doctors and nurses called her Baby San. That’s what they called all the Vietnamese girls.
As I tipped and rolled a tall, green oxygen tank toward Lan, I could see apprehension in her eyes. She was taking quick sips of air. I lifted the plastic of her tent to position the heavy tank next to the head of her bed. Lan was so delicate and fragile; I was afraid she would break like a dry twig. I gently put my hand on her shoulder. My presence seemed to alleviate some of her anxiety, but relief was fleeting. The wheezing was louder on that day, evolving into a death moan.
An old woman was allowed to keep vigil. After combing her granddaughter’s hair while softly singing in her ear, she emerged from the tent and returned to her position on the floor, cross-legged with a downward gaze under her straw-colored, conical hat. As she looked up, I studied her face with deep furrows that ran like tributaries of a river through sagging flesh. As she looked down to the worn, fading yellow cloth satchel in her lap, she was whispering something. I thought she was praying. I did not know her name. We called all of the old Vietnamese women Mama San.
I was irrigating a deep wound in a young man’s abdomen; the bloody liquid was dripping into a narrow, curved silver pan when I turned my head to a high-pitched, agitated noise. The old woman was lifting up her granddaughter’s plastic wall with her right hand and waving to me with her downturned left hand, shouting, “Bác śi. Bác śi.” There was urgency in her voice. Bác śi means doctor. I was only a medic.
I took off my sterile plastic gloves and after they dropped to the floor, I put my right hand on the old woman’s shoulder, and more firmly placed my left hand on her forearm. I wanted to carefully pull her away from under the oxygen tent as her right hand was under the girl’s head. But her arm stiffened and with her left index finger pointing up, she screamed, “Nâng lên! I went to the other side of the bed. Lan was supine with her eyes fixed on the ceiling, and her mouth was sucking air like a fish out of water.
I was inside the plastic tent, pulling the head of the bed up to a 70-degree angle, and I placed two pillows between Lan’s back and the bed while yelling for help. Her eyes were big circles looking straight ahead--they never moved--and she began rhythmically sipping more air, but in looking at the movements of her chest, I saw rapid and shallow respirations and her lips were blue. She was suffocating. After giving an inhalant that opened up Lan’s airways, the nurse left the tent. Lan was breathing better, but her eyes were still wide with fear.
The old lady slowly picked up each of the contents of her bag, to include clothes and photographs scattered on top of her granddaughter’s bed, and she methodically put them back into her satchel. She resumed her seated position on the floor. The old woman’s black pajamas had holes in the knees, and the black silk bunched up above her ankles revealed deformed, dirty feet. She looked up and said through rotting and missing teeth, “Gooood Bác śi.”
Minutes later, I looked at Lan’s gaunt face and asked, “Is that better?” in Vietnamese. She nodded but only slightly; her sliver of a body was limp from fighting for every breath. But she suddenly became rigid with eyes fixed forward. The grandmother caressed Lan’s face while singing something in her ear--I thought it was a nursery rhyme--and the terror slowly left Lan’s eyes, leaving a wilted body in its wake. The old woman withdrew, turned, and held my left hand with both of her hands and said, “Dep wa”. She said I had pretty hands. “You no work.” I looked at her wrinkled, deformed hands. Bagging groceries was not exactly manual labor, nor was zipping up body bags.
The two rows of beds in the bright white, rectangular room were filled with men, all young; a boy soldier; and a dying toddler with third degree burns. There were more Vietnamese than Americans as we were withdrawing from the Mekong Delta,
I remember the constant droning of standing fans blowing hot air and collarless blue surgical tops serving as pajamas and cries of anguish and blurs of green fatigues and black boots streaking by. There were tubes coming out of chests and noses. There were bags of urine and silver bedpans and the smell of Betadine and wounds with thick flaps of flesh and blood. And there was Lan, alone, floating, of a different world.
I got drunk that night. There were two Vietnamese bar maids on duty with long black hair and perpetual smiles. They wore traditional silk dresses called Ao Dai, slit from the waist on both sides revealing silk pants. Tuba’s dress was dark blue over white pants. Miss Fe wore bright orange, and I saw black silk through the long triangular opening of her dress.
Miss Fe was petite and pretty. She moved from table to table without making eye contact, going back and forth from the bar with beer cans, sensually moving inside her silk. As she stood at the bar waiting for another tray full of beers, I asked her to be my girlfriend. With her head bowed by shyness, she softly said, “No can do.”
From behind the bar, Tuba overheard my plea and said through laughter, “Hey Lay. Too much beer Lay!” She was raunchy, laughed loud, and looked you in the eye without restraint. No one put Miss before Tuba. I would have loved to go out drinking with her.
I wondered how a Vietnamese girl with asthma ended up in the intensive care unit full of broken bodies of men and boys. How utterly terrifying it must be to struggle for every mouthful of air. I wanted to save her.
Greg Monaco, a medic from the ER, sat on the bar stool next to me. Greg, a tall, skinny guy with a mop of curly black hair; a thick, black fu Manchu; and big eyes, perpetually at half mast, asked, “What’s happening Ray?”
I answered without turning my head, “Lan’s still fighting for her life. If I could, I would bring her home.”
“A little young don’t you think?” he said with a smirk.
Looking at Tuba wise-cracking her way up and down the bar, I said, “There’s nothing sexual about it.”
“No? Ever read Lolita?”
Shaking my head no, I answered, “I think I’m drawn to her vulnerability, her helplessness. I’m thinking of coming back as a civilian.”
“To take care of her? You’re full of shit”, Monaco guffawed.
“I wrote to the Swedish Hospital in Saigon. But they want doctors and nurses—not medics.
“Ah! So, it’s not just Lan. You’re feeling guilty, like we’re doing something horrible here.”
“Maybe. But I’m also drawn to the culture. The importance of duty, loyalty, respect for family. My family’s falling apart.”
With a raised voice, Monaco cried, “Who are you trying to bullshit? I think it’s the women. No wooing necessary here. And all the dope. Or maybe you want to be a hero. But here heroes aren’t possible. Not us to them.”
Monaco stood up and shouted on his way to take a piss, “All I know is, I wanna get the fuck out of here.”
Walking into the unit the following morning, I gasped when I saw a body wrapped in a white sheet. It was Lan’s bed. The old lady stood next to her dead grandchild. She looked up at me and then bowed her head, softly crying while fingering the edge of her cloth satchel. I tenderly touched Lan’s shoulder with my fingertips, silently saying a simple Buddhist prayer she had taught me.
I wheeled a gurney into the unit. The old lady put the satchel on her granddaughter’s chest, and when a nurse tried to remove it, the old woman forcefully pulled the satchel and put it back. No one tried to remove it after that.
Lan couldn’t have weighed more than 60 pounds. The grandmother walked by the side of the gurney as I pushed it out of the unit through the double door. I looked down at the old woman’s heavily callused, purple and black-splotched feet. I wondered how she could walk on hot cement with nothing on her feet.
With her tremulous right hand, the old lady put an X on a hospital form at the front desk. I watched through an open door as she took her granddaughter in a cyclo driven by an old, toothless man with the same straw-colored, conical hat, only his was coming apart at the seams. The body was wrapped in a yellow and red striped cloth and laid horizontally on the grandmother’s lap.
Still standing in the doorway, I stared at the old man mechanically going up and down like a piston, and the triangular vehicle went down the road, almost disappearing in the shimmering heat. An MP in a helmet took a long time unwrapping the body. I heard the old lady squawking. I wondered how she was able to take her granddaughter’s body out, wrapped in South Vietnamese flag. Who was Lan? The grandmother looked 80, but she was probably no older than 50. The cyclo driver must have been close to 80; otherwise, he would have been in the bush fighting on one side or the other.
At the end of my shift, I went to the mess hall, but I had no appetite. The food was always shitty anyway.
Lew Raskin sat across from me. He was a short, chubby guy with thinning dark brown hair behind a receding hairline. Lew was a young lieutenant and a pothead. He was as comfortable mixing with us peons as the brass. He had a graduate degree from someplace—most of us barely got out of high school if that. Raskin wasn’t a nurse or doc; I’m not sure what he did. But I remember what he said.
“How’s the chopper pilot doing?” Raskin asked while dousing his powdered eggs with hot sauce.
“He died Tuesday. He was just 19.”
With his bushy brown eyebrows raised above his black-rimmed, thick glasses, he incredulously asked, “Of a gunshot wound of the leg?”
“Lower leg. But it shattered the tibia and fibula. He died of a blood clot to the lung. He knew he was going to lose the leg, but he told me, ‘At least I’m going to get the fuck out of here.’ No more than an hour later, he was gasping for air.”
Shaking his head, Raskin whispered, “19 years old. And for what?”
“What do you mean for what?
Raskin looked into my eyes and said, “What the fuck are we doing here? We hear the boom, boom, boom, and feel the vibrations night after night. B-52s must be taking out entire villages. The whole fucking war is one big My Lai.”
Thinking of Lan, I asked, “Why do so many of us call girls baby san? Even adult women. They have names.”
Raskin stared into his coffee. “It’s easier if they don’t have to remember names.”
“But Lan had a name. She had the same feelings that I do. Some of us think all Vietnamese are the enemy. Yesterday, after Monaco gave the old papa san with a limp some shit, I was glad the chaplain pointed his finger in his face while saying, ‘He’s on our side.’. Maybe I would see them differently if I were getting shot at rather than seeing all the suffering. I don’t know.” We both got up.
The next day, Miss Tam, a Vietnamese Operating Room nurse I had befriended, came into the unit and gave me a note: Lan Phong Dam, 1259 Binh Thuy, Can Tao. Monday 12. The nurse said, “Lan funeral. You come.”
The following morning, I took a cyclo down the main highway for several miles. The driver, another toothless old man with a faded, chewed up blue New York Yankee hat stopped before a grey concrete bridge over one of a hundred tributaries off the wide Mekong River. While rapidly gumming, he pointed to the dirt path that ran along the river and said, “You go.” After I paid him, he lingered, mumbling something.
The muddy river and thick jungle with a path in-between lay before me. The path was hard mud and I could hear women rapidly chattering on the other side of the vegetation. I was soaked in sweat. I heard a continuous buzzing sound in the thick bush and had a throbbing sensation in my throat as I realized something could come crawling out of there and bite or sting me dead. As I passed by two boys fishing with tree branches for poles, I stopped abruptly as a rat the size of a big cat ran out of the jungle, across the path, and down the wet muddy embankment.
I finally saw a clearing and some huts around a slight right bend of the river. I stopped. The nearest hut looked like it was made of bamboo and tin cans that had been flattened; I could see repeating patterns of red, white, and blue and the words Pabst Blue Ribbon and Coke-a-Cola were overlapping. There was a group of five old men in crisp white shirts; three wore long, thin black ties and all but one was smoking. I paused and took my cap off and ran my right hand with fingers extended from my forehead through my drenched hair several times. The humidity was suffocating. I wondered how people could live in such heat. They didn’t seem to sweat.
Three old women, dressed in familiar loose fitting, white cotton blouses and black silk pants, carrying what looked like heavy pots entered the hut, one after the other. I smelled nuoc mam, which is a fish sauce with an odor like a decomposed body, but it magically makes food taste better if you can get past the initial stink.
I looked at my elongated shadow stretching from boots to cap. Streams of sweat were rolling down my back. All of the men looked at me while chattering rapidly, but upon my prolonged gaze, they quickly turned away. Familiar sounds, like a marimba: mo, hi, ba, bo—up, down, up, down—it was hard for me to believe such strange sounds conveyed the same thoughts and feelings that we had.
A canoe glided past in the muddy water, overflowing with green and yellow produce surrounding an old man and two boys. The squatting boys were laughing at me, and the standing old man yelled something while pointing at his cargo, apparently trying to sell me something. I turned around, wanting to disappear.
I suddenly thought about the Viet Cong. My body tensed as I remembered a door gunner saying, “The VC can waltz into any Mekong Delta town whenever they want. It’s their fucking towns.” He clinched his fists. “Hearts and minds my ass.”
I lit a cigarette and watched a woman walk out of the hut, purposely swinging her arms in a long arc. She wore a white Ao Dai with white pants under the slit, white gloves that went to her elbows, and large, dark sun glasses. Some of the men said something to her and she cursed them while walking out of my view. She was taller than the men with black hair down to her waist. Wearing white silk that sparkled in the sun, she could have been walking down some grand boulevard. Even though her fashionable sunglasses covered her eyes, I knew she was beautiful.
Standing awkwardly tall and pale, conspicuously dressed in olive green fatigues, I took my Army cap off and pushed the beak of it into my back pocket. I kept wiping off the sweat that was continuously rolling down my forehead with the large sleeve of my fatigues.
I stood behind two rows of silent people of all ages. I felt a wave of panic because of what they might think of me. I was on the edge of a place I did not belong, intruding on something sacred.
I was able to see over everyone in front of me and as my eyes scanned the circle, I saw at least thirty women and many young girls. There were far fewer males: the five old men and a few small boys. The rest were fighting or dead.
Miss Tam, the Vietnamese nurse came out of the circle and walked over to my right side. I bent down as she whispered while pointing between standing figures, “You see body. Dat Lan on table. Dey wash an make clean. Dat mother.”
She was pointing to the elegant woman in white silk standing at the foot of her daughter.
Lan was still wrapped in the yellow and red stripped cloth, but I could see her face. Her eyes were closed. It looked like there was white powder on her forehead and cheeks. There was a chopstick between her teeth. The nurse stood on her toes while looking up at me and said, “Dey put rice n money in mouth.”
A monk in an orange robe, bare right shoulder, and shaved head walked through an opening in the circle. He stood over Lan’s head. Putting his palms and extended fingers together, he prayed out loud. There was no other sound. I watched the mother. She touched the casket but did not shed a tear. I thought of the widow of JFK. Was it grace or shock? Or were her feelings dead from too much exposure to a never ending war.
After the monk stopped his prayers and moved back into the circle, the dead body was placed in a simple, sand colored wood coffin. The cloth remained under Lan in repose. There was stillness until the grandmother started to shake and sob, and she turned to her daughter and wrapped her arms around her, but Lan’s mother stood stiffly; her arms hung limp and never moved. I heard wailing from other women and children. Four of the old men looked down at the ground or into the jungle; one was quietly weeping. Besides the nurse, no one paid any attention to me.
While pointing at several people wearing what looked like white turbans, the nurse said, “Family. Bother. Sister. Family.” The old woman emptied the contents from her threadbare, yellow cloth satchel, one item at a time, into the coffin. It looked like the same things that spilled all over Lan’s death bed. There was much weeping now. I thought of Westmoreland’s asinine remark about the Vietnamese, “not valuing human life like us.” There was a slight breeze, but it only blew sticky, hot air. I couldn’t breathe.
The men came forward and with one at each corner, they lifted the coffin above their shoulders and began to mechanically carry it down a path through the thick, dark green and brown vegetation with flickering rays of light. The monk in billowing orange followed the men with the raised coffin, his hands remaining in prayer, and everyone fell into line behind the monk. I was the second from the last person in the procession; the nurse was behind me. The path opened up to another large clearing, and there was a rectangular hole in the ground. The men carefully laid the coffin next to the freshly dug hole--large piles of dirt were on each side of the grave--and then they merged into what was now the same circle except for the monk, grandmother, and mother. The latter three were standing on the near side of the coffin with their backs to me. The old woman put another photograph in the coffin for her granddaughter’s journey.
Suddenly, I heard the heavy thump-thump sound of a helicopter and as it got louder, most of us looked up to see a Chinook, a huge American helicopter with a distinctive loud thumping sound coming from its two big blades. Inexplicably, the massive helicopter lowered and menacingly hovered for minutes that seemed like an eternity. It was such an intrusive sound. It finally flew up and out of sight, its thumping only slowly fading away.
Some in the circle began lighting what looked like paper objects and dropping them near the coffin. The slight breeze brought a pleasant smell of incense. The four pallbearers came out of the circle; two of them lifted the coffin, allowing the others to lay a red and dark blue blanket under it. Then the four men lifted the four corners of the blanket with the coffin and lowered it into the grave. I saw a triangular piece of yellow in the blanket as it was lowered, sagging with the weight of the coffin. The mother never flinched.
With my head above the two rows of people in front of me, I saw two boys emerge out of the circle with two shovels each, and the four men began shoveling the pile of dirt on top of the coffin. You could hear the sickening sound of dirt hitting wood. No one else moved, but I could hear crying. The monk in orange reappeared. He said some prayers and many in the crowd joined in. The mother did not. Then, in response to words from the monk, the crowd began to disperse. I looked for the woman in white silk, but she was gone.
While reversing direction on the path, the Vietnamese nurse walked along side of me, taking two skipped steps to my one. Miss Tam explained, “In Vietnam, family cum back after three months an sit. Only family. Monk put cotton over head an ring bell an dey pray. Dey want bring spirit back. After dey burn paper house an odder paper things, den spirit come back from odder world.” I thought it was no more ridiculous than the malarkey that I was brought up on.
We reached the main road and before we parted, the nurse said, “I go home now. Very sad. Girl die from too much smoke from bomb from sky.” Nodding my head, I felt intense shame.
I hitched a ride in an American deuce and a half to get back to my base. Standing in the open back of the truck looking at glimpses of the wide Mekong River through thick vegetation--glimmers of water and flat boats and shacks--I didn’t even know the cause of the respiratory distress that killed Lan. Our bomb. And I realized that while Lan was wrapped in the colors of the South Vietnamese flag, her coffin lay on top of the red and dark blue blanket, and the triangular yellow was part of a star: the colors of the Viet Cong flag.
The Monsoon’s blinding rain came without warning as if the sky just opened up and dumped all that it had stored up. I took my cap off and lifted my arms heavenward, allowing the water to run down my body.
Synopsis of The Illegal Veteran’s TBI*
The protagonist in this short story, Harry Zapata was an undocumented Mexican-American brought to the United States as a boy by his mother. He served in the Iraq War as a medic and sustained a severe traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb. Betrayed by the military and ultimately by the only country he had ever known, he sought identity through a connection to the Zapata family in the country of his birth.
Harry’s famous great-great-grandfather, Emiliano Zapata was also betrayed by his country; he was ambushed and killed 100 years earlier in the small state of Morelos. Neither hero nor martyr, Harry found the family connection he sought but paid the ultimate price.
*Traumatic Brian Injury