“In the old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand, and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction; a hand is put into their’s, which leads them forth gently toward a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.”
I ran across this passage from George Eliot’s “Silas Marner” not long after coming home in 1968, and it captured, for me, what I had just experienced in Vietnam.
As a Military Policeman, assigned to patrol highways 14 and 19, it was impossible not to notice the dark-skinned “Yards” in the area. Dressed in loincloths, riding water buffalo and carrying crossbows, the Montagnards looked completely foreign to me. So different were our respective appearances that, I believed, it would be impossible for us to ever know one another. I was wrong, and it was the Yard children that built the bridge between our two worlds.
These small children were members of the Bahnar tribe, and each day they would congregate at our checkpoint hoping to receive any unwanted C-rations from American soldiers. They couldn’t speak English, and we certainly didn’t understand Bahnar, but we discovered there was much more to communication than language. It all began with a smile.
Without warning or reservation, I found myself completely captivated. That’s why Eliot’s line, “…and the hand may be a little child’s…” meant so much to me. “My kids” epitomized what was good in the world, and served as my reminder that there was more to man than his violent nature. It was through their love and acceptance that my soul was saved from the blackness of war.
When the Army no longer required my presence in Vietnam, I was returned to my home in California. It would take 26 years, countless hours of worrying, several miracles and some amount of luck to reunite me with these special people. Armed with only old photographs, I was allowed to return to the Central Highlands in 1994 to search for my first children. Since that reunion, I have been back to Vietnam many times to visit my extended and ever growing Bahnar family.
During one of these trips I was fortunate enough to bring my wife and son with me. Our guide suggested a trip to Vinh Son orphanage in Kontum and, once again, I watched the magic of a small child captivate. This time it wasn’t just me. In fact, if it had been allowed, my wife would have brought one of the little girls home! Once again, it was the smile.
It’s impossible not to open one’s heart for these children and their caregivers. Since our first meeting, we’ve maintained a close relationship, and I am proud to be on the board of VSO. Your donations work…I’ve seen it firsthand.