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  • Writer's pictureKirk Kellerhals

To Have and to Hold - By Vietnam Veteran, Melvin Macklin

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

I have come to the gut wrenching conclusion that some moment of our life—or the entirety of life itself; I don’t know which—is nothing but one, tragic irony.

Someone long ago posited the notion that is it better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. For some that may aptly apply; for me, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I have, at this point in my life, discovered that the memory of someone whom you have loved deeply, and lost, can linger on in the heart like a tortuous, burning flame that is never extinguished. This happens, I often think, when a love one dies, or when we let love slip away. For me, this happened in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. I was a staff sergeant stationed in Da Nang, the country’s third largest city located in the southern part of the nation. Not long after I arrived at Da Nang, a call went out in my unit for volunteers to go into town to the local orphanage to spend time and help out the children. It was a way for the United States to booster its public relations I surmised. Two days later, a truck load of guys, I included, climbed into a truck and soon found ourselves at the children's home. The fact that we were in the midst of the enemy and could get killed at any time didn’t seem to enter our minds; then too, the MP escorted us and carried rifles and plenty of ammunition.

The very first day, as soon as walked through the gate into the orphanage courtyard, I saw her. She spotted me looking at her, and it was love at first sight. This tiny, frail, somewhat sad, yet hopeful little urchin of a girl stood with a group of her friends, looking out at me with bright, shining eyes that sparkled naturally. I motioned to her specifically and she suddenly burst from her group of girlfriends and playmates and came up to me and stood dead still—I looking down at her and she looking up at me. I told her my name was Melvin and she—through limited English words and phrases and motions—made me understand that her name was Tho’m (which in Vietnamese, I was told, means “Little Pineapple”). I had great difficulty pronouncing that seemingly very simple word. I wanted to articulate “Tho’m” as in the American word “tomb” because that was the sound I heard when the Vietnamese would say it. (Now, after all these years, I still have not gotten the sound correctly.) It seemed like hours before I finally could twist my tongue and get the muscles in mouth to work together to even come close to the right pronunciation. After repeated attempts at Vietnamese phonetics, I finally manage to say [tome], as in a heavy book. Even that wasn’t truly on the mark because of the way the Vietnamese sharply accents an initial “t” somewhere between the back of the teeth and the middle of the mouth. Since she accepted my pronunciation, I let it go at that. Then I got a surprise: Tho’m could not say my name. It was literally impossible for her. When she, as well as all the other Vietnamese, including the adults, tried to say the name “Melvin,” it invariably came out as “May-ben.” I soon concluded that the sound of the letter “e” followed by the letter “l,” and the sound of the letter “v” as pronounced in my name, just didn’t exist in their language. Tho’m soon decided that it was too hard for her to say my name. It was much easier to just say “GI” or “You American” like most all the children did. Today, a great joy comes over me whenever I recall that first experience of culture shock.

Also, like all the children at the orphanage, as far as I knew, Tho’m did not have any relatives; three main reasons accounted for this: the war had killed their parents, their villages had been totally destroyed, or they were the offspring of American soldiers and Vietnamese girls, and consequently, had been shunned by mainstream Vietnamese society.

These children, born overseas to Vietnamese mothers and U.S. servicemen, were known as Amerasians. They grew up as—as one source puts it—the leftovers, the dregs of the Vietnamese conflict; they were products of two cultures, but they belonged to neither. Because they had been abandoned by their military fathers, many were, in turn, abandoned by their mothers at the gates of orphanages. Some were discarded in garbage cans. Schoolmates taunted and bullied and attacked them and mocked their features that gave them the face of the enemy—round blue eyes and light skin, if their fathers were white. If their fathers were black soldiers, they would have dark skin and tight curly hair. Because their eyes were round, they were often called “Monkey eyed.” They were also called “children of the dust” and were swept aside like dust on the floor. If they couldn’t find shelter, they became street beggars, living in the streets and parks of South Vietnam’s cities. My buddies and I were able to visit the facility whenever the Viet Cong were not around. When fighting was going on, we were confined to our units. For weeks, I would go to the orphanage and help the nuns by giving English lessons to the children and, many times, feed babies and change diapers—anything to help the nuns who were overwhelmed. There were less than two dozen nuns who were taking care of what I perceived to be a hundred children or so. I have never forgotten how the small, tiniest of the little infants lay for hours on end like corpses in their cribs, almost totally unconscientious of the world or their surroundings because the nuns simply couldn’t get around to them due to the sheer numbers of orphanages in their care. I remember how these little ones, as if by miracles, at the slightest sound of someone coming near their beds, would awaken—like Lazarus rising from the dead—struggling to pull themselves up in their cribs to reach out their frail little arms, just crying to be picked up and held and attended to. Tho’m, was much older, around age six or seven. She was so frail and petite, her age was indeterminable, and as busy as we soldiers would be, I never had time to view her official record. Standing next to her friends, she was small, thin and diminutive. To me she was too skinny, as though she ate very little. She reminded one of a China doll that might break at the slightest touch. However, she was as cute as button with a round little face that could melt one’s heart like butter. As far as I recall, she had only one dress that she wore on the days I would arrive. We soon had forged a bond that simply could not be broken.

For a long time, she called me “GI,” as did most of the children when referring to an American soldier. On the days the children knew we would be coming, Tho’m would always stand by the gate waiting for me. If she was not there, as soon as we arrived, other children would run and call out to her to let her know that I was there. They would all yell out “Tho’m, Tho’m”! A minute or two later, like a little ball of lighting out of nowhere, Tho’m would come running at full speed and fly up into my arms. Soon she began to say, “Dah-Dah.” As I alluded to earlier, it was almost impossible for the Vietnamese to pronounce some English sounds, and it was particularly hard for Tho’m to pronounce the American word “Daddy.” No matter how hard I tried to get her to say [Dad-dee], it always came out [dah-dah]. About four months of being part of each other’s lives, I told her I wanted to talk to her about something. At twenty-three years of age, I had never fully contemplated the idea of fatherhood, but I knew this beautiful human being had been sent into my life for a purpose, and the idea of being a father became more and more appealing. In this moment, for the first time in my life, I realized that the most precious gift god could give was the love of a child. I suppose the fact that my Army buddies had begun to refer to me as “Papa” might have been a factor as well.

In the courtyard, I sat Tho’m down in a swing and asked her if she would like to come to America; if she would like to be my daughter. I guess I was shocked that without hesitation, Tho’m responded with a loud, “OK, GI!” and then she sealed the deal with a strong, loving, trusting hug, and then a big kiss. She continued to hug me and would not let go. Both she and I began to feel the tears tricking down my cheeks and onto hers. By this time her English was improving, and I was able to get her to understand that I would soon take the initial, legal adoption steps necessary to make our dream a reality—a relatively easy process since they were the unwanted anyway. Tho’m had the features of the Amerasian: deep dark eyes and long, straight, sort of rough textured jet black hair. However, what was most telling was her skin tone. It had a slightly deeper tan shade that stood out. It reminded me of the color of the mulatto.

A particularly special moment for me is one I will carry to the grave. It was a first. Tho’m loved to be held and petted, and she always wanted hugs. One day she reached out to be picked up. When I lifted her up off the ground, she put her head on my shoulders and said to me three words I have never forgotten: “Anh yêu em” [An-you-em]. It was Vietnamese for “I love you.” How beautiful those words sounded! I repeated the words to her and then asked one of the nuns how to say something I wanted to tell Tho’m. The lady told me I should say, “Anh yêu em nhiều lắm” [An-you-em-yew-lăm]. When I said those words to Tho’m, she beamed like a ray of sunshine. I had said to her: “And I love you, too, very much.” From Vietnam, I sent my mother pictures of Tho’m, asking how she liked her new, soon-to-be granddaughter. The first thing my mother said, in a way that was completely unique to my mom, was that Tho’m was a somewhat “curious looking fella.” I immediately wrote back: “Mom, she’s Vietnamese. They all look curious! Just like we look curious and different to them!”

And then came the lost—and a hurt that has plagued me since I left her, forty-nine years ago. Out of nowhere, the event which would come to be known as the “TET Offensive” hit, and I never saw Tho’m again. It was then—and still today—for me, the death and loss of my child. The loss of a daughter whom I never had the chance to share in her life. A daughter I have never forgotten; a daughter that not a day goes by that her spirit isn’t felt; a daughter for whom I still feel ache. Even after all these years, after building and continuing my life and family here at home, Tho’m still sings in my heart and my memories of her are just as strong as ever. A parent who has suffered the loss of a child never suffers the loss of that child’s memory. When I saw dead Vietnamese bodies lined up in the dirt, along the road sides I, understood there existed people and forces in the world that simply had to be stopped at all cost: people who had no compunction whatsoever about slaughtering innocents simply to gain possession of a strategic piece of land or a farmer’s livestock or rice supply. I wanted to get Tho’m away from this possibility as soon as possible. When I witnessed the division and civil strife trying to free themselves from communist oppression, I felt my presence in Vietnam was justified.

When I stared into the sullen and empty Asian faces, which at times seemed to give way to the slightest flicker of hope amidst the putrefied smells of the Vietnamese streets and the stench of physical and mental death, I could sense the people’s need for assurance that the destruction and havoc visited upon them andheir land would not—could not—be the final, dark results permanently etched in their minds and hearts. Like other free people, they too, desired the fruits of independence and peace. I knew, like all the other children at that orphanage, Tho’m wanted something to call hers, somewhere to belong, someone to have and to hold. And whenever I held her close to my heart, I knew just how much I wanted the same.

The Tet Offensive was inhuman—and relentless. I lived through fourteen days and nights of unceasing bombardment of U.S. forces by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese militia. The brutality and the sheer evilness of men’s souls never became so poignantly carved in my mind as during that period of total chaos. The evil for me was that because all diplomatic relations with the Vietnamese had been cut off, towns and cities all over Vietnam were now off-limits to American soldiers. We were never again allowed back into the cities. We were not allowed to return to the orphanage. Orders had come down from the highest command center. For the first time during the war, I experienced true horror: the horror that I had no way to let Tho’m know what was happening. Three years ago, I re-visited Da Nang with hope of finding my little girl. I knew that after four decades I was facing an impossibility. She would be in her early fifties about now. Even if I passed her on the street, how would I know her, or she me? I kept telling myself—or something kept telling me: “You will know her. You will know her.” After a week back in Da Nang, I found the orphanage still standing. It had been renovated, and a new wing had been built onto the old structure. I found remnants of the old United States Marine based still standing, fragments of the military hangers from which American jet fighters and helicopters launched their assaults on the enemy. I found everything I wanted to find except Tho’m. I wanted to see her, to look into her eyes and somehow try to explain to her why I could never get back to her. To apologize for leaving her so abruptly, without a word. I was never able to erase the one painful image in my mind: seeing her standing by the gate of the orphanage, waiting for me to appear, getting down from the back of the truck. Now, as I look back over time, feel that I myself actually had a hand in contributing to this tragic irony, that of losing my little girl. I now understand my mistake was not fighting to get back to Tho’m. I had allowed time, bureaucratic red tape, and ignorance and stupidity on my part to keep us separated. I now realize that the minute I landed back the United States, I should have immediately begun fighting with everything in me to return to Da Nang Orphanage on the South China Sea and bring my daughter home, no matter what it took.

I plan to return to Vietnam again next summer. Perhaps, like so many Americans, take a summer residence there after retirement. But that’s not the main reason I want to return: I, much like the practitioners of some Eastern philosophies, have always been a firm believer that death in this life is not the end, but a beginning. The divine creator of all life and all things has created an existence beyond our mortal state. Our bodies cease, but our lives—our souls, our essence—continue and carry over into a new plane. Because of this, I am able to hold to the dream that perhaps I will yet be able to find Tho’m and undo and erase that tragic irony that has been, for me, so much of this life. And if it doesn’t happen while I yet walk this side of life; if I don’t see my “little pineapple” again in this existence, I am convinced I will find that darling, little wisp of an urchin again in the next.

Melvin L. Macklin, December 2018

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