The captain pushed a table aside and removed a small hyacinth mat. He then lifted a plank of wood and descended into an opening in the floor, instructing Son My to follow. The narrow shaft led to a door, which Chien pushed open, revealing a well-lit tunnel…”
by michael c. keith
An Dung had named his first born child Son My for two reasons: it was the name of the district in which he had lived his whole life and, with what little English he possessed, he knew it made some reference to fatherhood. While his two daughters gave him pleasure, his son was the source of his greatest pride. Already, he could handle the family’s ox like a full-grown man, and his natural wit provided him many laughs as they labored together in the fields. Like all parents in war-torn Vietnam in the late 1960s, the welfare of his family was An Dung’s gravest concern. American soldiers had been sighted in the district on several occasions, and in response the Viet Cong had dug deep caves beneath most of its villages, including his own.
As Son My’s birthday approached, his father grew excited because he had obtained a special gift for him. Earlier in the month, An Dung had come across a glittering object in his rice field. When he picked it out of the mud, he realized it was a lighter, an American Zippo lighter much prized by locals. He wrapped the precious object in a rag until the day’s work was done and upon returning home carefully dried its innards. To his initial disappointment, he found it was missing its flint, but then he thought it was better to give a youngster a lighter that made no flame. The next morning he hid it on top of the roof to dry in the sun, and on the day of his son’s birthday, he presented it to him.
“Father, what is this?” asked Son My, his eyes wide with delight.
“It appeared in the rice field out of nowhere. It must be a talisman. Look at the symbol on it, Son My,” said his father holding the lighter close to his son’s eyes. “Perhaps something magical. It will give you good fortune.”
Son My clutched the gift to his chest. “Thank you, father. I will always keep it with me for the luck it brings.”
“Now a special supper for my son who is ten years old on this day,” announced An Dung, removing palm fronds from freshly baked Basa fish.
Before Son My’s family was able to partake of the feast, loud words from outside shattered the serenity of the moment.
“This is Captain Chien of the National Liberation Front inviting all young people between ten and sixteen years of age to attend a special film of wonder and joy in the village square in one hour.”
“May I attend, father? I am now old enough,” asked Son My.
“I fear you must or we will be punished for preventing you,” answered An Dung, resignedly. “They are Viet Cong recruiting boys to do their work. I have heard of their cunning methods. Please come home to your family.”
“Of course, father,” promised Son My, eagerly digging into his birthday meal.
* * *
“Greetings, young people of our great motherland. The army of the National Liberation Front hopes you will enjoy what you are about to see,” announced Captain Chien, to an audience of two-dozen children.
Son My could not keep his eyes off the rifles and ammo belts that hung from the shoulders of the men standing next to their leader. He was at once curious and frightened by the scene as he sat in the back of the crowd and attempted to be as invisible as he could. The noise of the generator used to power the movie projector made it difficult to hear all of the captain’s words.
“It is the duty of all Vietnamese, regardless of age, to run the American dogs from our beloved country. You can honor your nation by showing your bravery. Now we will watch the film,” said Chien, nodding to the young man at the projector.
A shaft of light split the darkness above the heads of the audience and a burst of color appeared against the sheet hung on a rope between two structures. Son My’s heart leapt at the sight before him. He had never seen an animated film before. In fact, it was only the second film he had ever seen. The first had been a black and white agricultural documentary provided by the local officials. The film he now watched had been dubbed in Vietnamese but depicted a world entirely foreign to him. The main character was a boy who could fly and, wherever he traveled, a tiny fairy with a shimmering contrail accompanied him. A place called Neverland was their home. Children did not grow up there and always had exciting adventures. Son My could not imagine a better place to live and more than anything wished to be there.
The moment the film ended, Son My slipped away and returned home. He could not wait to tell his family about the wonderful story that had stolen his heart.
“This boy could fly and take people to wonderful places,” said Son My, bursting with enthusiasm. “It was truly magic, father, like the gift you gave me.”
“What did the Viet Cong say after the picture? They beguile you first, and then they take you for their cause.”
“I did not stay. I wanted to tell you about Peter Pan and how he could fly,” explained Son My. “Perhaps your birthday present will give me the power to fly, father.”
“Only birds can really fly, Son My. I worry the army will come for you,” responded An Dung, anxiously.
“They did not see me, father. Don’t worry. This will protect me,” offered Son My, confidently displaying the Zippo lighter.
* * *
It took a very long time for Son My to fall asleep as his thoughts continued to be filled with images from the film. When sleep finally came to him, his dreams gave him flight, and he joined Peter Pan and his friends on their romps to many extraordinary places. In the morning, he awoke eager to play with the other village children. It was the only day of the week he and his father did not work the field.
Although the sun had barely risen, there were several children in the village square running about with their arms outstretched pretending to fly. The sight delighted Son My, who joined them as they made wide circles around the small dirt clearing.
“We can fly,” they chanted, until they were breathless.
Momentarily exhausted, they fell to the ground giggling but quickly returned to their play.
“You!” shouted an adult voice from nearby, and Son My knew the call was meant for him.
At the edge of the square stood Captain Chien, pointing in his direction.
“Come here,” he ordered, waving his hand, and Son My complied.
“You are the boy that left before I spoke last night,” said the captain, staring solemnly at Son My. “Why did you leave before the others?”
Son My stammered and quickly fabricated a reason for his untimely departure. “I had a stomach ache from the Basa fish, sir.”
“Ah, a stomach ache that allowed you to sit through the entire picture but forced you away as I was about to speak. I see. How convenient,” said Chien, nodding his head and arching his right eyebrow.
“I am sorry, sir,” said Son My, softly.
“What is that in your hand?” inquired the captain.
For a moment Son My did not know what he was being asked and then realized he was clutching his birthday prize.
“Let me see,” said Chien, extending his hand, and Son My reluctantly handed him his precious charm
“Ah, a dead American soldier’s lighter. Did you kill him?”
“No sir. My father gave it to me for turning ten years old. Do you see the symbol on it, sir? I think it’s magic.”
“Yes, it does possess great power. It is the peace sign of the American revolutionaries. They are our comrades, and they, too, wish their soldiers out of our country,” offered Chien, returning the lighter to Son My.
“Why would the soldier carry such a sign?” asked Son My.
“Because even the American soldiers are against their government’s war on the Vietnamese people,” replied Chien.
“It is a good symbol then, sir?”
“Indeed, a very potent one. What is your name, boy?”
“Son My, sir”
“Like the name of this district. Very good. Come with me. I will show you where the fighters for freedom camp.”
Son My reluctantly followed the captain to the edge of the village to a small shack.
“Come. Don’t be afraid. We are your people,” said Chien, nodding for Son My to follow him inside.
The captain pushed a table aside and removed a small hyacinth mat. He then lifted a plank of wood and descended into an opening in the floor, instructing Son My to follow. The narrow shaft led to a door, which Chien pushed open, revealing a well-lit tunnel. Within a few yards, they reached a larger opening occupied by several of the men that had accompanied their leader to the film the previous evening.
“Come sit with us,” directed Chien.
In the time that followed, the captain and his men spoke of the glory of their cause to liberate their homeland from the foreign intruders. At the end of the discourse, Chien led Son My back through the tunnel and outside.
“Come tomorrow, and I will show you how you can serve the great cause,” said Chien, smiling at Son My.
“I will, sir,” replied Son My, impressed by all he had seen and heard.
* * *
Son My’s father was waiting for him when he returned home. He had heard that his son had gone with Captain Chiem and feared the worst.
“Where did he take you?” he asked, relieved to see the boy.
“Father, I wish to join the fighters. They seek to return the country to its people and chase the Yanks from our land. Is that not a noble thing?”
“Yes, my son, but they will use you as a means for achieving their goal by having you blow yourself up to kill Americans. We do not wish to see our child exploited in such a horrible way. When you are an adult, you can fight like a man if you choose.”
“I will gladly give my life to unite our nation, father.”
“They have already indoctrinated you for their purpose, but your first responsibility is to your family. Please do not return to Captain Chien,” pleaded An Dung.
“Yes, father, I will obey your wishes,” agreed Son My, disappointed.
Son My’s family was surprised and relieved when the NLF captain did not come looking for him. A week later they learned that the freedom soldiers had departed.
“It is because they know a large number of Americans are headed toward our village, and they have relocated to launch their offensive against them,” revealed An Dung.
“What shall we do, father?” asked Son My.
“We will leave for the forests in the morning and remain there until it is safe to return,” answered his father.
* * *
As the roosters crowed and the tropical sun ascended the pale blue sky, the Dung family slipped from their village, crossing numerous rice paddies before reaching the place where they would conceal themselves from the American troops. While making their camp, Son My noticed he did not have the magical gift his father had given him, and the idea of being without it greatly disturbed him. This is when I need it most to bring good fortune to us, he thought. While his family foraged for fruit to sustain them, Son My slipped away with the intention of returning to his house to find his precious charm.
While he retraced his family’s path across the rice fields, he spied a battery of American soldiers heading in the same direction. He kept out of sight as he accelerated his pace to his village. If only I could fly like Peter Pan, he thought longingly. The soldiers were close behind him when he reached his house. He dashed to his sleeping mat and looked amongst its covers. Nothing. He then looked under it, and it was there that he located his treasured amulet. How did it get there? he wondered, grabbing it with great relief for having found it.
It was at that moment that he smelled smoke and heard the American soldiers rushing about outside. Soon flames shot through the thin walls of his house, and he realized he was trapped.
“No, lieutenant . . . no!” shouted a nearby voice.
He recognized the words but had no understanding of their intended meaning.
As the fire closed in on him, he clutched the Zippo lighter tightly. Soon he began to lose consciousness, but as he did, he sensed his body was floating upward. “I’m flying,” he mumbled. “I’m flying.”
Within seconds the flames had enveloped Son My, but he had reached Neverland long before they had completely consumed him.
(illustration: ernest williams III)
Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir, three story collections, and two-dozen non-fiction books. More at www.michaelckeith.com