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In the Heat of the Curfew

by Harley Kooker,

MCC Vietnam, 1966-1969

Heat hung heavy that August evening.

It was 8:30pm, a half hour before curfew, but already the few hundred inhabitants of Đông Hà, Việt Nam, had settled quietly inside their open doored, incense-permeated shelters. It reminded me of chickens going to roost back in Pennsylvania—even the soft, mellow glow from kerosene lamps seemed to create the aura of the dust-covered, 15-watt night lights in the chicken house.

The fire-spewing, house-rattling 175mm artillery pieces on the U.S. Marine base just 200 yards away reminded me, with a shock of double concussion, that Pennsylvania was 10,000 miles away. It seemed an unfathomable distance as I unsuccessfully tried to piece together my shattered daydream of similarities between the two places.

All the vendors had scurried off the streets and into the forbidding darkness of obscure footpaths woven throughout the town by shortcut-minded kids. Even the mangy dogs hesitated to stray out of their master’s barbed-wire-surrounded properties. 

In fact, the only movement in the streets belonged to South Vietnamese soldiers. With feet dragging, they headed toward their night guard positions, burdened with outdated rifles, hand grenades, and ammunition boxes. Some smoked blackmarket American cigarettes; others trudged along in time to the subdued tunes of a sad song droning from a hard-used transistor. 

Gayle, my co-worker, and I were reading in half-slid-off-the-chair positions. Killer, our inferiority-complexed dog, groaned and rolled over into his uniquely spastic position for sleeping—legs straight up in the air. 

A hard rap on the door brought me to full stature in one muscle-flexing motion. I’ll never forget the pale-white face belonging to our quivering, curfew conscious, part-time interpreter, Hoa.

“What on earth are you doing outside so close to curfew?” I asked in disbelief.

“You must come down to the dispensary—right now! Someone is badly injured,” he muttered through his chattering teeth.

In two seconds, Gayle and I were out the door tearing for the Land Rover. Hoa was already swallowed up by the darkness as he cut down a footpath, taking a shortcut to the dispensary. The British powerhouse seemed to take twice as long as usual to start. I was eager to race it down the street, but experience reminded me to creep along painfully. So close to curfew, a speeding vehicle could incite a rain of bullets from the guard positions. Our leg, arm, and face muscles were pulled tight with expectation.

I jumped out almost before the Land Rover stopped in front of the dilapidated excuse for a dispensary. Half of Đông Hà, just six miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, seemed to be milling around, all very serious, all speaking in hushed voices. The only light came from the weakly flickering kerosene lamps inside.

With a burst of speed I was inside. At the sight, my heart skipped at least two beats and my stomach felt like it was being jerked into a massive heavy knot. For a few seconds, which seemed like an eternity, I just stood there, staring, stupefied.

Lying calmly on a hard wooden bed was Phương, one of the cutest 12-year-old girls I’d ever seen. She was hideously disemboweled from the rib cage down through the pelvic area, her viously-torn abdominal organs lying beside her on the bed. Caked with mud and dried blood and clad in simple peasant clothes, she lay there looking up at me pleadingly, completely conscious and wide-eyed. She only muttered one heart-tearing phrase: “đau quá,” it hurts.

Another blast from the 175s on the base brought me to my senses, and in my simple Vietnamese I tried to explain a complex contradiction—we would do our very best to help her and she shouldn’t worry. 

Gayle ran back to the Land Rover for the stretcher we carried with us. I tried calmly to move all the stunned townspeople back and nearly lost my temper at their obstinacy. 

I turned back to the injured girl and carefully slid a clean towel under her displaced organs, no longer moist and motile, but still and sticky. Without watching her face, I placed them back inside the cavity in which God had intended for them to function and covered them with a towel. 

With extreme care Gayle and I lifted the tender form onto the stretcher. Someone volunteered to carry the intravenous bottle alongside us as Gayle and I tried to move her swiftly but smoothly through the parting crowd to the Land Rover. The innocent girl winced as an innocent but thoughtless kid bumped into the stretcher in his eagerness to get one last look before we placed her in the vehicle. Her scared mother and dumbfounded brother climbed in beside Phương. Her brother tenderly held the IV bottle.

The Land Rover fired up on the first spin of the starter. To prevent a pain-striking lurch, I slid the clutch as we inched out onto high No. 9 and headed toward ‘D-Med,’ the medical evacuation hospital on the sprawling U.S. Marine base.

The short ride was long enough to get the story. Phương and her younger brother were tending the water buffalo in her father’s field about three miles northwest of Đông Hà. Unfortunately, it happened to be located in one of those save-no-lives, free-fire zones which the Marines shelled occasionally. At approximately 4:30pm the screams of incoming artillery split the air, and as Phương ran for cover she was hit by a jagged chunk of fiery-hot exploded shell. It took her mother and father three hours to carry her into town.

“Lemme see your ID,” blurted the grouchy U.S. Army grunt at the base’s gate. “What are the gooks in there for?” he asked in his typically-tough Marine style.

“The girl is badly injured—we’re taking her to D-Med. The woman is her mother and the boy her younger brother.”

“Gotta call the marshall about this.”

“Look, man, the girl’s dying—I’ll take full responsibility for the Vietnamese; they aren’t gonna hurt anybody.”

“Okay,” he said. He waved us through. 

The 200-yard stretch of mud-packed road to D-Med seemed to take forever to pass over, thanks to the ruts, holes, and rhythmic washboard effect of tracks created by the monstrous tanks which frequented the road.

Gayle was already out and headed for the back door before I could bring the beast to a stop in front of D-Med. We practically raced through the wide-open door into the huge, brightly-lit emergency room with Phương carried between us. It wasn’t a busy night—only two of the forty stretchers were occupied. IV bottles dangled expectantly from the ceiling at each litter. The repulsive antiseptic smell of a hospital never smelled so sweet. About five or six corpsmen were slouching around.

“We’ve got a badly injured Vietnamese girl—where can we put her?”

Nobody moved. One green-clad corpsman smarted off mockingly. “Bet the gook says she was hit by an American artillery!”

Before I could react to the repulsive, infuriating language, another snarled “Stick the gook in the corner over there—we’ll get around to her later!”

Later! I almost lost it, but collected my thoughts in time to realize that these guys were calloused to it all. Badly mangled persons were dragged in every day, twenty-four hours a day. 

Patiently but firmly I tried to sound convincing. “Could someone please look at her now? She’s had her guts ripped out and she’s dying fast.”

No one moved. 

Suddenly everyone snapped to life when the graveyard shift doctor strode unexpectedly into the room. Immediately, one of the corpsmen came over and took the IV bottle out of the hand of Phương’s brother and led the way to a stretcher under a bright light. The doctor and a corpsman expertly transferred Phương to the taunt, clean litter. The doctor began barking orders. 

“Warm water. Towels. Replace that IV. Schultz, get the lead out! Prepare the OR.”

A few minutes later Phương was carried through swinging doors labeled “Operating Room.” Phương’s mother stared after them, completely bewildered, and asked where they were taking her, what they were going to do, and whether she would die. 

I explained to her that they were going to put her to sleep so that she wouldn’t feel the pain and then repair her wound. I told her I didn’t know if she would live or not, that we wouldn’t know until after the operation. She insisted that she and her son be permitted to stay with her daughter. After securing permission from one of the medical officers, she was shown to the recovery room and the bed her daughter would occupy following surgery. Weary with worry, she flopped down on the floor beside the bed and clutched her son to her. Leaving a set of new clothes for Phương, Gayle and I promised to return in the morning.

Sleep was hard to come by that night. The account of how it happened, the sight of her desecrated tender form, the calloused hardness of the corpsmen, and the worried, longing look on her mother’s face all flashed through my mind like wild streaks of lightning through a pitch black sky. 

My mind and senses responded in sporadic dullness. I remembered having the same feeling a year earlier following an operation as the effects of the sodium pentathol wore off. I fell off to sleep as one penetrating question kept running through my mind, hundreds of times over. Why her?

Returning for a quick check the next day, I entered the recovery room cautiously. Deathly silence sent a wave of chills down my spine. The bed was covered with a clean, sterile sheet. Neatly folded at the foot of the bed was the new set of clean clothes. 

I stood there completely broken. And all I could do was cry.

Reprinted from Christian Living, Volume 19, Number 3, March 1972. Used with permission of MennoMedia, Harrisonburg, VA.

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