Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness. Colossians 3:15

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Vietnam, Vietnamese and memories

"Victory in the war forfeited, at least here was evidence of a hard-fought battle won."

"This is what that war was all about," a fellow volunteer commented to me back in 2005 as we watched a gathering of thousands of Vietnamese men, women and children gleefully celebrate another year of freedom of religion in America.

A Vietnam War vet, Mike expressed pride in what he'd fought for: To liberate these Catholics from Communist oppression. Victory in the war forfeited, at least here was evidence of a hard-fought battle won.

Father Jack Lombardi, chaplain at the National Shrine Grotto of Loudes in Emmitsburg, Maryland, told me that this year's Vietnamese celebration was "HUGE," which I interpret to mean larger than the 4,000-plus attendance that we saw there three years ago. The many acres of Grotto grounds "belong" to the throngs on that day. And it is a spectacular sight to see.

Having lost most of my eyesight, I rely now on memory to conjure up details from my sight experiences; and I no longer can drive, so I've had to give up the pleasure of being a regular volunteer at the Grotto, along with the privilege of partaking in such a celebration again. But permit me to recall for you some of my thoughts on that glorious celebration.

Volunteers gather early at the Grotto on Vietnamese festival day. Father Jack enunciates the plan for parking and traffic flow and bus arrival and disembarkation; we get an overview of the entire operation -- where vendors will set up, where port-a-johns are situated, where we volunteers will be stationed and needed throughout the day -- and we're clued in on the schedule for activities and Mass, which we're free (and eager) to attend.

The Vietnamese women are beautiful: Petite, elegant, porcelain-like, gracious, grateful ladies. My volunteer friend Mike, the war vet, comments as we look on, in a moment in the day when we get a break from frenetic activity, that the women here, wearing exquisite ankle-length silk dresses, display colors and styles that signify their cultural heritage. So at a glance, they all know each other socially, if not personally.

For most here, this day is a reunion. They come to the Grotto annually from points all over the Mid-Atlantic and East. They bring packed meals and meet up at the picnic grounds. They exchange gifts and buy new ones from a myriad of mobile shops set up to sell Catholic books and music and sacramentals that are unique to their language and interests. And everyone dresses in their finest suits and silks.

So as Mike and I watch, the folks gather for a procession. We admire young girls and boys dressed all in white lining up to walk with clergy and a throng of followers along the Grotto path. Praying and singing, they revel in this day -- free in America to praise God and to be Catholic.

There's a very interesting series published recently in the Cumberland Times-News written by William B. Ketter, vice president of news for CNHI, the newspaper's parent company, in which he chronicles his eight-day motorcycle trek -- part of a two-week vacation in Vietnam -- along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This apparently was the primary north-south route used by the Communist North to transport weapons and ammunition to its troops in the South, where American troops and civilians fought and perished.

In his photograph that accompanies his story online, Mr. Ketter looks to be too young to know anything first-hand from the 1960s-'70s era of the war. He says his trail tour started in the northern mountains and ended 850 miles later at DaNang on the southern sea tip. My brother has mentioned DaNang. He doesn't talk about his service much; and when he does, it's mostly with Mom. I remember sitting at the dining room table and writing him letters, while watching grisly combat scenes sent home by war correspondents on the nightly TV news. I would've been nine or ten years old.

Jim served in the Navy Seabees, a year in Vietnam (1965-66). He's seen soldiers and civilians maimed and killed; and he had some close calls himself --like a mortar shell that dropped in front of him, as he lay on his belly taking cover in a raid, and didn't explode. He jokes that he backed away from that one like the cartoon characters we see who miraculously crawl tenuously out of a bad situation on all twenty toe and finger tips. A deeply religious person, Jim does, in fact, believe that was a miracle, an answer to many prayers for him to survive and come home well.

I imaged a cartoon character, too, when my favorite ICU nurse Than (in April of 2006 when I underwent a very complicated heart surgery), daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, revved up the machine to administer prescribed respiratory therapy for me. The machine that she handled seemed to weigh as much as she did; and I asked her if her teeth chattered when she wielded that monster to roll it over my back and penetrate the depths of my clogged lungs with its "vibrative" powers. I joked that her feet probably came off the floor and that she doubtless shook and trembled for a considerable time afterward, like the cartoon characters that we see with lines indicating motion drawn all around them.

Than was my favorite nurse because she was sweet and thoughtful, thorough and professional, and Vietnamese -- and I felt protective and appreciative of her on levels beyond my immediate need and total reliance on her at the time. I asked my best friend in the hospital, respiratory therapist Clifton, if he could watch out for Than, help her with that monster machine, and just be there for her (as he was for me) if she needed a helpful hand or a friend during the lonesome night shift.

Clifton brought Than to visit me one night after I was stepped down to the Acute Care Unit. It was great to have the chance to thank her and to show her that I was moving forward on the long path to recovery and to say a farewell. Clifton told me later that Than was becoming a friend of his and his family's. I was so happy to know that Than, a young single woman working hard to help others and make a living alone in the city, would have a good and dependable friend and mentor in Clifton.

I told Than about the Vietnamese celebration at the Grotto. I wonder if she was there this year.
copyright Nancy E. Thoerig 09-20-08

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