Excerpt from An American Sin, by Frederick Su
Chapter 26 Crosscountry

[David Wong is the antihero protagonist of An American Sin. His great sin is the killing of a Mama-san and her granddaughter while on long range patrol in Vietnam. It is an act that has nearly consumed him. In this chapter, Wong starts his journey to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Along the way, as excerpted here, he meets the hero of My Lai.]

July 1990

Past the Idaho Panhandle into Montana, the mountains have fallen back and the terrain opens out into wide valleys and plains. The dry green mountains and wide open spaces caress his eyes, fulfilling his vision of the beauty of the American West. The settlements are sparse. A few tourist spots beckon, “Good food, great coffee. See Moose, Elk, Wolves, Bears.” But Wong doesn’t stop. His singleminded objective is Glacier. He checks the map. He has to take Highway 93, north, before Missoula.

He is not far from the turnoff, listening to country music again when he hears a small clunk. He presses on the accelerator. Nothing. Oh, no! he thinks. His momentum is enough so that he can pull onto the shoulder. When the car stops, the engine is dead. He turns the ignition, hears the whir of the starter motor, but the engine does not catch. He gets out and checks under the hood. Nothing seems amiss, but he needs someone to turn the starter motor before he can make a diagnosis. Cars and tractor trailers whiz by him.

He stands in dumb amazement, mad at his car. How can you do this to me? he berates his car. “I guess Jean was right, after all. Here I am, stuck in the middle of nowhere,” he mutters to himself.

For fifteen minutes he fusses with the car. With the ignition set to on, he uses a voltmeter to measure the voltage coming out of the primary wire on the coil. He looks over the distributor. He checks the connections on the battery post, measures the voltage of the battery. He is only guessing. Without anyone to help him turn the ignition to start, he can’t do much of anything.

Suddenly a Ford pickup pulls up behind him. A cowboy gets out. “Ya got some trouble here, pardner?” The cowboy is about fifty, almost six feet tall, with lanky strength, brown hair, a weather-worn, wrinkled face, and clear blue eyes. Wong has never seen such clear blue eyes in a man before, and it catches his attention.

“Yeah, sure do. My car just died.”

“Well, any way I can help?”

Wong smiles. “How about turning the engine over for me?”

“Sure. By the way, name’s Bob Jensen.” He extends his hand.

“Hi! I’m Dave Wong.” He shakes his hand. “Sure appreciate your stopping.”

“No problem.” He slides into the seat under the large steering wheel. “Let me know when.”

Wong pulls out the high tension wire from the coil to the distributor, holding it in a bamboo salad tong about three-eighths of an inch from the engine block. “Okay, hit it!” The starter and engine turn; a large spark arcs across the gap. “Okay, hold it!” He replaces the wire into the distributor. Now, he has a suspicion. He opens the oil filler cap, sees the rocker arms and valves. “Okay, once again.” The engine and starter turn, but there is no motion of the rocker arms. “Okay. Good!” He walks back to the driver’s side. “Well, I think I know what the problem is,” he says.

“What?” the cowboy asks.

“I think it’s the timing gear.” He wipes his hand on a rag.

“Well, hey, do you need a ride into town or how about the nearest phone?” Bob asks.

Wong looks at him, smiles. “I’d appreciate it. Yeah, I can call AAA.”

Bob gets out of the car. “You’d better get some of your stuff then. There’s a gas station and restaurant up ahead. They got phones there.”

Wong closes the hood, grabs a light jacket, locks up the car, and jumps into the truck cab.

“Can’t tell you how much I appreciate your stopping.”

“Hell, no problem. I’ve been in your position before. Ain’t no damned fun, I tell you,” Bob says, grinning, as he starts the engine. “So you’re from Washington, huh?”

“Yep, north of Seattle, a town called Marthasville, near the Canadian border.”

“Oh, I’ve been there. Nice country. Whatcha doing way out here in Montana?” He checks his mirrors before merging onto the freeway.

“Driving across country.”

“That’s a mighty old car you’re using to go across country, don’t you think?” Bob pulls out and accelerates, his pickup bouncing over some bumps.

“Yeah, but I know it and I know how to fix it.” Wong looks over his shoulder. “Well, at least most of the time.”

Bob laughs. “So where you going across country?”

Wong looks at Bob, his black cowboy hat pushed back off his forehead. Wong still has a distrust of cowboys, a carryover from his Nevada days. He decides he likes this cowboy, but he doesn’t immediately answer.

Bob looks over at him. “That is, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Wong hesitates some more, then sighs. “I’m going to the Vietnam Memorial.”

Another silence, broken only by the loud thrum of a tractor trailer passing them. Bob’s face turns serious. He holds his right hand toward Wong. “I was in ’Nam in ’67-’68, 123rd Aviation Battalion. Flew fucking helicopters.”

Wong relaxes, shakes his hand. “It was a helicopter war, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, damned right,” Bob says. “Just mount those M-60s on the chopper and cut loose.”

“I was with the First Marine Division, Da Nang and then Phu Bai.” Wong looks outside at the rangeland passing by. “Fought in the Tet offensive at Hue.”

Bob whistles, pushes his cowboy hat back. “Yeah, I heard about you Marines in the Battle of Hue. That was some heavy shit, huh?”

Wong smiles, tightlipped. “Yeah.” He does not want the emotions flooding back. He looks away, out the passenger window. Bob sees his action, claps him on the shoulder with his big hand. They have pulled off the freeway, going up the exit ramp toward the gas station and restaurant.

“Look, Dave, I was out there at the Vietnam Memorial a couple of years ago. It’s a hell of an experience.” He reflects a moment. “I don’t meet too many vets anymore. Maybe I’m too damned busy with the ranch. But let’s get your car hauled into a garage and fixed. And, if you’ve got the time and don’t mind, I’d like to invite you to spend the night at our ranch. Vicki, my wife, wouldn’t mind at all, and she’s a damned mean cook.”

[After dinner one night, Bob tells his family and Wong what happened at My Lai.]

“The sons of bitches were shooting women and kids,” Bob says, looking to Mike, letting his words sink in so his son can understand. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. Putting them in bunches and mowing them down with M-16s and even M-60s. I saw three villagers running from American troops, who weren’t far behind. The villagers hid in a bunker with several others already there. I put my chopper down between them and the troops. I said, ‘What the fuck’s going on? What are you doing, shooting civilians?’ I had given orders to Colburn—who was manning the M-60 in the chopper—to cover me. The fucking lieutenant said, ‘Orders, man. We got orders to waste the whole village, not let anything live.’

“I said, ‘Well, you’re not gonna shoot those civilians!’ I pointed to the villagers in the bunker, then I pointed to Colburn. That kinda cooled ’em. They just sat down and took a smoke break. We couldn’t fit all nine civilians into the chopper.” Here he pauses, reflecting, then looks at Wong. Wong drops his gaze. “We asked one of the gunships down to help us out.

“There was a boy, about seven or so. He was protecting his three-year-old brother, hugging him. He was on the ground, just looking at me. Trembling. Sad eyes.” Bob shakes his head. “I couldn’t let him stay there. We had to refuel. What if we couldn’t get back in time? I mean, there were still those murdering sons of bitches roaming about. I lifted him and his brother into the chopper, pushed them in among the others. One small tear rolled down the kid’s cheek. I still remember that tear.

“I loaded some of the civilians on the one gunship that landed and the rest on ours. Another gunship flew cover until we could ferry them all to some safe place. But we were running low on fuel.” His weather-beaten face is set with disgust, even after all these years.

“I saw a ditch earlier, filled with bodies—old men, women, children, babies. Some motherfucker was going through the ditch finishing off anyone who moved or moaned. I couldn’t believe it. Could not fucking believe it! Couldn’t believe that these were American troops!

“Before we took off for refueling, we did one more pass. Colburn saw movement in one of the ditches. We landed and Larry stepped into the dead bodies and retrieved a little girl. She was catatonic. Then we flew back for refueling. By the time we got back from refueling, we couldn’t find any more villagers, at least any that were alive.

“I reported it to my C.O., and nobody believed me or the gunners at first. They thought I was someone who got unduly excited in combat. Jesus!” The rancor still sits hard on him. “But I did get them to stop the massacre through the chain of command.” He looks at Wong. “Even in war, there is still Right and Wrong.”

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