|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen The Tuong
Nguyen did not come to the major lesson that day. Why? God knows! Many decades have elapsed, yet what happened to him on that fatal day remains an unforgettable and heartbreaking memory for me. By 'fatal' here I mean that he had to pay dearly, very dearly, for missing that lesson. "Anyhow, when it all comes down to it, it doesn't matter any longer," I comfort myself.
Our tank course was drawing to its close. When we were led for the first time to a 36-tonne reddish-brown steel tank standing menacingly in the middle of the show area, we were all taken aback; but now, happily, we could easily manipulate the gargantuan armoured car. Sometimes, when we were in high spirits, we made it go round and round, and sometimes when we caused it to rumble across residential areas and saw a pretty rural girl standing by the roadside, we stuck out our heads to wave our greetings to her. The most difficult part of driving was to change the direction that the heavy vehicle was moving by pulling the switch while forcefully pressing the gas pedal down, the second-lieutenant instructor told me and the other students.
Looking around, I did not find Nguyen anywhere. "How could he dare to skip this important part, since there will be a lot of practicing on the driving field all day long?" I wondered. Worse still, our unit commander was not aware of his absence. When I began writing this account - after more than forty years of atrocious war, natural calamities, epidemics and poor living conditions - my question remained unanswered.
* * *
Then one morning, we set off to the battlefields. A convoy of tanks roared up for a few minutes, then started to move. Soon they raised a cloud of red dust and quickly darted to the railway station. Unfortunately for us, while we were going fast, the first T.54 tank stopped abruptly. At once, all the others with 500-hp engines halted too. When the red cloud of dust gradually dispersed, we heard a heart-rending shout. Our commander shot towards the nearby village carrying a disfigured body in his arms, which was covered with blood. A driver pulled a smashed bike from the bottom of the heavy vehicle. By its side, Nguyen stood motionless with a pale face. Oh dear! His tank had caused a terrible accident. It turned out that while his armoured car was running at full speed, a woman led her bike across the road in front of him. He ran over her and her bone-shaking bike.
Although the accident was terrible, due to our orders to keep marching no matter what, a record of her death was made pending a court martial's decision later on and her body was immediately buried with the representatives of the local civil authorities and police as witnesses. Meanwhile, Nguyen was ordered to resume his position. Come what may, marching orders came first!
It was mid-summer in 1972. The Quang Tri campaign had turned unfavourable for our side. Valiantly fighting, besieged on all sides, our forces suffered great losses. As a result, the battlefield command had to depend on supplies from the North.
* * *
Two years had elapsed. Our tank unit took part in numerous engagements. We won many battles, but we also lost a few. What struck me most was the tank-against-tank fight on the dunes south of Cua Viet Estuary, right before the ceasefire came into force according to the Paris Agreement: a golden page in the history of the Tank Service. At crucial moments, Nguyen always took the lead, defying danger. On many occasions, he left his tank behind and went on foot to observe the terrain. If a salvo of AR.15 machineguns had hit him, he would have been the first wounded soldier. Thanks to his outstanding exploits and driving skills, he was awarded an Order of Merit.
Then we left the frontlines in the Central Region for Tinh Gia, a half-mountainous district in the southernmost province in the North of our country. There, our unit would be supplemented further with fighters and weapons. In the daytime, we practised tactical lessons and repaired pieces of equipment; in the afternoon we played sports. Early in the evening, we took part in artistic programs. We were waiting for a new campaign to be launched. While Nguyen still remembered the aftermath of the accident and was ready for legal action, we almost forgot it. Nguyen and I belonged to the same volleyball team in our company. We once obtained a top prize from the tank brigade.
One evening, like so many others, we had a friendly match with Company 3. On the afternoon of the previous day, the net post had been broken. Immediately, our company head ordered a T.54 tank with a 100-mm barrel raised high for tying the net cords. The referee would sit on top of the heavy machine to conduct the match with a whistle in hand. Fighters of both companies shouted loudly to encourage their players while the ball flew to and fro over the net.
All of a sudden, a strange noise came to us from the gate of the barracks of our unit. Usually, when the diesel engines of our tanks and armoured cars roared up, none of us paid any attention to their loud din. But now all of us glanced at the gate. A jeep with a fluttering pennon proceeded to the front court. On the vehicle, there were three military men: a non-commissioned officer wearing army rank and badge with a red band on his sleeve and two soldiers holding rifles fixed with brilliant bayonets. The car stopped in front of the headquarters of the company. A few minutes later, the petty officer made for the volleyball court together with our company leader. All of us stopped short. I felt that something very serious was about to happen.
"Who's private first-class Nguyen?" the officer asked in a sedate voice.
"That's me, Sergeant," Nguyen answered.
"We have a warrant to arrest you, a tank driver of Company 1. When you committed the crime, you were still a private," he declared in a serious manner. "Now, my guardsmen's attention!" he said to his own men.
"We're present, Sergeant!" they responded in a sharp voice, then proceeded towards Nguyen with their guns pointing upwards.
"What the hell are they doing?" one of our soldiers muttered angrily.
"Shush! It's a military order!"
Nguyen, in shorts and vest, remained standing motionless, face drenched with sweat. He looked totally depressed. The two guardsmen came close to him. The petty officer opened a pair of handcuffs.
"Just a minute!" resounded an ear-rending shriek from Khanh on top of his tank. At once, he jumped down onto the ground. His left hand was holding an AK gun, while the forefinger of his right hand was on the trigger.
"What's Nguyen's crime? If any of you touch him, I'll shoot him dead!" Khanh warned. His eyes had turned bloody red.
The executive officer halted abruptly. The atmosphere felt extremely tense. We were all proud soldiers coming back from crucial battlefields, but Khanh was said to be particularly rough in nature. His finger seemed to tremble on the trigger.
"Who dares bully a soldier of Company 1?" he asked in a menacing voice. After that he took one step forwards. We did the same. The two guardsmen retreated to a defensive position.
Right at that moment Lt. Le Tam, company head, stepped forwards. He directed Khanh's gun barrel towards the hillside, then told him in a soft voice, "Khanh, give me the gun at once!" With resolution, he snatched the rifle out of Khanh's hand, opened the cartridge belt, took the bullet out of the gun, aimed it skywards, pulled the trigger, locked the safety bolt and hung the firearm on his shoulder.
"Soldiers of Companies 3 and 1, my dear friends!" He ceased talking abruptly and looked down. He kept that posture for a long while. All of us kept silent. We could hear the breeze blowing to us from the grove of eucalyptuses. All of a sudden, I perceived some sniffles. "Perhaps some of our newcomers don't know this," he went on. "Two years ago, on the way to the Southern front, tank driver Bui Nguyen caused a terrible accident. We tried to solve the heart-breaking incident but in vain: the victim's family lodged a lot of petitions to the Military Department of Legal Affairs."
"Oh dear! What's the use of sending their petitions to that department?" someone whispered.
"In this matter, I'm to blame too, for failing to announce the case to all of you. I thought that our superiors hadn't investigated the issue due to the fact that this is wartime. Well, allow me to introduce to you the legal officer of the Military Department of Legal Affairs, who is in charge of leading Nguyen to the military detention camp pending the verdict of the court martial," he said, eyes in tears. "Listen to me, will you? Let these men do their bit, my friends. We belong to a disciplined revolutionary army." Obeying their commander's order, the men all moved aside.
Nguyen had only an hour to wash himself and pack all his belongings. After that he embraced everybody, then got in. As the car shot away on the familiar red dust path, we kept watching Nguyen in his faded uniform, sitting between the two bayonets brilliantly sparkling in the fading twilight.
None of us believed that Nguyen would be put into prison. We thought some day he would come back to us and declare that he was found not guilty because the victim's clan had withdrawn their petitions and he would join our volleyball team again.
* * *
To all frankness, when I got to this point, I did not know how to put an end to the story. Some people told me to ask readers for their opinions, while others suggested that I should ask as many people as possible to make it more objective. The first man whom I asked for advice was a U60 veteran,. He told me that I should mention Nguyen's going to a new economic zone when the war was over. A successful businessman was so hesitant that I was compelled to suggest, "Well, what if we let Nguyen run a business? Is that OK?"
He stared at me, surprised. "Please forgive my rudeness when I say that to become such a man is not easy at all. I myself have had to go through a lot of doors so as to get enough jobs for my workers. I feel greatly ashamed about that. Broadly speaking, those who join critical engagements like Uncle Nguyen must weigh the matter more carefully before entering into the business world. Can you willingly exchange your glorious past, even your dignity, for that dirty give-and-take life?"
My search for the end of my imaginary figure got very complicated. Nevertheless, my hope did not die out completely. On my way home, when I dropped in on my eldest daughter's house, I met a group of young people, male and female, who together with my grandson were about to attend the birthday party of one of their female friends. I made up my mind to ask them for a solution to the ending of my story after they had listened to it carefully. Surprisingly, they just kept mum. I figured that they did not pay any attention to the account I'd just told them because they were busy preparing for that important event. So I said goodbye to them all after a few minutes of silence.
"Have a good time, kids," I said in a joyful voice.
"Thank you, Granddad. Goodbye!"
In the end, I thought, why should I have to resort to other people's opinions? Let his fate be on trial in due course.
"My beloved Nguyen, how much I've missed you! I wish to meet you again to ask which pretty girl you ran after so passionately that day that you had to give up your final major lesson. You paid dearly, very dearly, for it!" I muttered in a choked voice. "My dear Nguyen, where have you been living?"
Translated by Van Minh