Exquisite Corpse - Issue 4
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Journey to the Underworld
by Susan O'Neill

     Our guide played his flashlight beam over the implements in the Viet Cong underground surgery room's display case. I bent close, drawn by the glittering familiarity of scissors and clamps, the handles artfully aligned in ringed rows. Had I, thirty years ago, slipped my gloved fingers into these very handles?
     It was possible. There was no shortage of irony in Viet Nam during the war.
     Nor is there today: Today, the Tan Son Nhat air base, where I entered the country to begin my year as an Army combat nurse, is the municipal airport for Ho Chi Minh City (still widely called Saigon by the Vietnamese). Today, the former Long Binh US Army headquarters, where I received my first assignment, is a huge industrial park. Today, the rag-tag, battle-weary Saigon I knew thirty years ago is a thriving metropolis, its skyline dominated by high-rises that include an aqua-blue Citibank building.
     And today, the Cu Chi tunnel complex, a vast subterranean Viet Cong refuge and supply line that ran beneath my old hospital compound, is a hot tourist attraction, a sort of War-Land Theme Park. Come to the Cu Chi tunnels. Pay your fee (US dollars, thank you), try on the Viet Cong fatigues. Buy film, or maybe a fake engraved G.I. cigarette lighter. Grab a cold coke from the machine. Check out the caged bears and monkeys and watch the peacocks preen.
     Ironies abound.
     The big public entrance to the Cu Chi tunnels is located about 35 miles northwest of Saigon. The tunnels themselves comprise a triple-decker maze of underground passages that, if laid end to end, would measure more than 150 miles. They stretch from the old Ho Chi Minh supply trail, where it crossed into Viet Nam from Cambodia, to the outer reaches of Saigon. Some of them date back to the French occupation, but most were built during the 1960s and early 70s. Viet Cong soldiers used them to transport and store armaments and supplies. They, and many civilians from the area around Cu Chi, also lived in the tunnels. For years, while bombs blasted the forests above them, an entire village worked, ate, slept, went to school, honored Buddha, hid, planned, suffered and died in the relative security of this underworld.
     I lived in Cu Chi for seven months in 1969 and 1970, when I was assigned to the Operating Room of the US Army's 12th Evacuation Hospital. The 12th Evac was my third in-country duty station. When I came to Viet Nam, I was initially sent to a small hospital up north. It closed down, and I was reassigned to Chu Lai, on the South China Sea. I stayed there nearly four months. Then, for a number of reasons--including my inability to get along with the Director of Nursing--I asked for a transfer.
     The Director of Nursing met my request with unbridled hostility. "I'll send you somewhere," she snarled. "I'll send you to the worst hell-hole in Viet Nam." And she sent me to Cu Chi. Or, as Bob Hope called it, when he dropped in for Christmas: "Cu Chi By The Sea--the VC."
     The 12th Evac sat on a thread bare, mosquito-infested plot of land located roughly 40 miles from the Cambodian border. It was a busy quonset complex, with a constant stream of casualties--GIs, South Vietnamese soldiers, civilians, North Vietnamese and VC prisoners of war.
     A great many of our patients came to us as a result of the Cu Chi tunnels. Back then, of course, we didn't know the tunnels were there; we couldn't understand why one particular tract of woodland about ten miles from the hospital gave us so many wounded. The US bombed that forest mercilessly, dumped gallons of Agent Orange on it, made infrared maps and sent in helicopters to get a good look, up close and personal. Still, the casualties came, some days at a trickle, some days in a flood, as if they had been ambushed by magic invisible warriors.
     Now we know that the enemy had indeed surfaced, almost magically, from camouflaged tunnel entrances concealed in that forest.
     Last February, I returned to Viet Nam with my husband Paul, whom I met in 1969 at the12th Evac, for a bike tour of the country with a 23-member group called "Discover Vietnam." While we were in Saigon, we took a 30-year anniversary side trip to Cu Chi.
     On February 16--which was also Tet, the Vietnamese New Year--we set out for the tunnels with six of our fellow cyclists in a minibus. Paul and I were the only ones for whom the trip marked a return; the others, some Vietnam vets and some not, came out of curiosity about the site.
     Tet is a time for visiting, so Highway One out of Saigon was jammed with commuters, young women and men bicycling in holiday clothes and whole families on small motorbikes--fathers driving, mothers cradling infants, young children standing on the seat space between them to see over the crowd. Our van muscled through this chaos, horn blaring, past dusty storefronts and tiny cramped bars, along a shoulder of the same gritty red clay I had once spent much of my work day washing from wounds.
     We turned off the highway and traffic thinned; fields and rice paddies and long, raised earthen dikes replaced the little buildings. Even after 30 years of population growth and governmental change, the territory looked familiar. I was surprised to see nascent rubber plantations, slender trees growing in tight straight rows on land that had once been defoliated by Agent Orange.
     We pulled up to the tunnel complex and filed out of the van, into the headquarters. Past the snack bar, past the incongruous little zoo, past the gift shop and an unsettling clutch of life-sized mannequins dressed in jungle fatigues and camouflage ponchos. A banner over them exhorted us to "Please try to be a Cu Chi guerrilla--wear these uniforms and military equipment before entering the tunnels."
     We were picked up by a guide, a thin, sallow-faced young man in military fatigues. He led us to an open pavilion and sat us in a row of wooden chairs. He plugged a video into a player that sat up front on a shelf, beneath a picture of Ho Chi Minh, and wandered off for a smoke.
     The grainy black and white silent film was narrated by a woman in strangely stilted English. While cheerful workers picked fruit and harvested latex, the voiceover spoke of "merciless American bombs" which were "determined to kill the peaceful village" of Cu Chi. "Like a crazy bunch of devils," intoned the narrator, "they fired into everything--property, people, even statues of Buddha."
     Abruptly, the film cut to the town's literal decent into the underworld. Soldiers and civilians dug with intrenching tools and hauled dirt into the woods in baskets, laboriously extending the old French-era tunnels, carving out sleeping chambers, kitchens, the rudiments of hospital and school rooms.
     I slapped at helicopter-sized mosquitoes--some things do not change--and watched silent scenes of children reciting lessons in an excavated classroom and American bombers strafing a forest. As Viet Cong officials hung medals on "American-Killer Heroes"--Tran Thi Gung, the School Girl Fighter, and Ba Vi, the Bombmaker--our guide returned. He snapped off the VCR.
     Any questions?
     I asked about the relationship of the tunnels to the compound that housed my former hospital. He traced the points at which they converged on a big display map. I could see that the bulk of the passages were located under the woodlands, where we were now, as far as five to fifteen miles from the 12th Evac.
     Still, there was a spidery sub-system of tunnels beneath our base. What had they contained? The map didn't specify. Perhaps it was something important, for which we provided a particularly safe cover; the guide didn't know.
     But he did know an interesting story about the hospital. The guide had a friend, he told us, whose mother had lived in a nearby village during the American War. She often came to the 12th Evac seeking antibiotics for imaginary illnesses, and she brought what we gave her down into the tunnels.
     This reminded me of our MedCap missions. Every week during my time at the 12th Evac, volunteers from the hospital staff set up a mobile clinic in a hamlet near our compound. While our dentist sat people in his portable chair and pulled rotten teeth, we nurses and corpsmen helped the doctors examine villagers who lined up on long benches and folding chairs. They brought us tumors, fevers, infections, fractures and tuberculosis; we gave them minor surgery, salves, injections and great quantities of medicines.
     I wondered, now, how much of this had found its way into the town below us.
     At length, our guide led us into the forest. He gathered us in a clearing and challenged us to find a tunnel entrance that he insisted was hidden in plain sight. We swept the ground with our fingers, kicked at dirt and moved leaves about with our feet. It wasn't there. Satisfied that we were stymied, the guide took two strides, reached down into the pine needles, and pulled up a wooden trapdoor. We had walked past it, over it, around it; we gaped into the hole, amazed. He showed us an equally unobtrusive air vent, a waist-high anthill between a couple of trees.
     We couldn't use the trapdoor entrance because it was too small, so our guide led us to a sort of Disneyland access nearby, a larger square hole shaded by a thatched roof and hung with a narrow ladder. It had been widened to nearly twice its original size to accommodate Western tourists.
     The guide went down before us, brandishing a flashlight. We descended awkwardly, conscious of our clean clothes and aging knees, reached the bottom and followed him through a packed-clay passage. This, too, had been enlarged, but I had to walk bent over. I'm 5'3"; the going was considerably tougher for Paul, who's a foot taller.
     After several yards, we emerged in a squarespace where we could stand erect. A bare electric lightbulb illuminated two narrow cots and walls covered with green plastic sheeting, a bedroom. Originally, it had been lit by an oil lantern, a duplicate of which dangled from the bamboo poles that reinforced the ceiling.
     We negotiated another passage, then entered a spacious Council Chamber. Beams the size of tree trunks held up the roof, and the room was fitted out with flags, banners, an easel-mounted map and a mannequin dressed in a smartly-pressed officer's uniform. A half-dozen other mannequins in fatigues and civilian clothing sat around a long, rough-hewn picnic table, their painted eyes fastened on their ersatz commander. The effect was very creepy.
     More passageways; more bedchambers. Then came the tiny operating room, with its little glass instrument case.
     At the 12th Evac, we had operated in an air-conditioned multi-room Quonset Each individual surgical room had its own adjustable steel table and movable lights. We worked with an array of fairly sophisticated instruments, and never lacked sutures, sponges and bandages. It wasn't Stateside, but it was more than adequate.
     For the Viet Cong, however, furniture and supplies were sparse. The tunnel's operating room was a spartan field set-up with a table that was, literally, a table--the eating kind, with a wooden frame and a hard, flat surface. If the surgeon wanted it higher, his assistants had to prop it up with something--wooden blocks, perhaps, or books. It was surrounded by a camouflage curtain that might have been made from a parachute. I had no idea how the place was lighted--maybe with a lantern, or by assistants holding flashlights. I also didn't know where the instruments came from--but I could imagine the odd clamp or pair of scissors disappearing from a sink at the 12th Evac, or from a hospital trash bin, and reappearing here, in the hands of a VC surgeon.
     All these major rooms were located in the topmost of the three tunnel levels. Our guide generously offered to take us down to the second level, if we really wanted to go. And, of course, we wanted to go. All of us. We were Americans, after all, and Americans are Ever Game.
     So we slipped through a small door--and immediately scrambled down, into a tight, hot, airless channel. We dropped to our hands and knees, because walking was no longer an option. Even crawling soon became difficult; if these tunnels had been widened, it hadn't been by much. Gone were those cleverly-crafted ventilation holes; the air was static and thick with the odors of damp clay and mold.
     I couldn't breathe. As I lost the air, I also lost the light from the guide's beam--Paul was ahead of me, blotting it out with his bulk. The passage narrowed further; my shoulders brushed the side walls as I pulled myself along. I began to pant; my hands grew slick with sweat and dirt.
     Heart hammering, I forced myself ahead, my knees grinding against the hard clay floor. Then I felt, more than saw, a faint, dusty tracing of light. It grew more solid, more real, until it outlined Paul's creeping form ahead of me. I felt the passage widen and slant upward.
     We popped out, literally and almost comically, into a small, airy thatched-roof kitchen. I stood up, brushing red grit from my knees, gasping the sweet air that flowed in with the sunlight through spaces high in the walls.
     Our guide motioned us into seats placed around a wooden table. He set cups of lukewarm tea before us and passed around a bowl of something that looked like pieces of peeled banana. It was boiled manioc root, he told us. This, he said, had served as a major nutritional staple for the Cu Chi tunnel dwellers. We each took a piece; it felt dense, like boiled potato. I nibbled at it, and found it starchy and bland, very potato-like.
     At the gift shop, I passed up the replicas of VC ammo vests and the plastic helmets, and bought a documentary photo album by Vietnamese photographer Duong Thanh Phong.
     The running commentary inside was propaganda, comic-book simple and sometimes muddled. But the artful black and white pictures truly told the story: Ranks of Vietnamese demonstrators protesting the American bombing, torches and placards raised high; men carting dud bombs off in shoulder harnesses to recycle them into useful weapons; girls--mere children--sitting in a circle with their rifles at their sides; kids huddled in a hammock inside a bombed-out American tank. A man widening a passageway with a trowel; another reading a book in the sunlit end of a tunnel.
     As we walked back to the van, a non-veteran in our party marveled about the tunnel dwellers' tenacity. To be willing to live underground for months, even years, in those claustrophobic mazes--to crawl from one musty room to another through airless wormholes, scavenging food and ammunition by night, giving birth, going to school, perhaps even dying without the warmth and light of the sun--this was true dedication.
     It was. The tunnel-dwellers, pitting their entrenching tools and re-wired dud bombs against Phantom jets and defoliants, were the quintessential feisty underdogs--literally, in this case. Again, the irony: Americans love underdogs. If we'd seen them in a movie, we would have rooted for them.
     I left Cu Chi remembering an old joke. It goes like this: a father is eating breakfast with his family when his kids ask him the difference between the words "involved" and "committed." "See this egg?" the father says. "The hen, she was 'involved' in this meal." He points to the bacon. "Now, I'd say the pig, on the other hand, was 'committed.'"
     Thirty years ago, for whatever reason, the US was involved in Viet Nam. After each of us served our year, we went home. Even those who died here were ultimately sent home to be laid to rest. Home, for us all, was the US; it had nothing to do with this country.
     But the Vietnamese, of course, were home. And no one who sees the Cu Chi tunnels can doubt that they were committed, meat and bone, to that home.
     Was it naïveté or arrogance that made us so sure we could bomb that kind of commitment into submission?
Email: skoneill@hotmail.com

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