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The tension between my family and the Viet Cong was as thick as the dense jungle landscape surrounding my mother’s village. The animosity had been fermenting since the Viet Cong first started to persuade residents of my mother’s village to join their cause. Spewing credos of communal brotherhood, they initially appealed to the destitute villagers. But soon after, their sense of community changed to one of entitlement. They started to harass the female villagers and bullied the older ones. They pillaged goods from the local shops taking whatever they wanted. In addition to free meals and housing, they insisted on weekly payments from the destitute village.
When dissenters voiced their concerns, the Viet Cong tried to swiftly quash any resistance with brutal force. But they were still recruiting and didn’t always have the numbers to quell all the dissidents.
During one fateful skirmish, the confrontation escalated to a violent clash. As fast as milk tans coffee, the scene erupted into a vicious battle. In the end, most of the Viet Cong fled for their lives; however, one was left behind.
His dead body lay broken among the high grass. No one knew his name. Such was the impression the Viet Cong made on the villagers that the corpse was immediately decapitated. The severed head was then paraded around the village like a victory banner. With pride and conviction, the man marching through the streets with the detached head established his reputation that day. That man was my uncle, Bac Noan.
As my mother’s older brother, his title Bac translates to elder uncle. Reserved and stoic, he usually kept to himself and restricted any conversation to nods and headshakes. His hands were strong and calloused from the many years working as a carpenter. My mother remembers him as a strict disciplinarian who would often cane her when she misbehaved.
He inherited my grandmother’s stubborn facial features. The lines underneath his eyes were like worn cracks in the pavement. On the rare occasion he laughed, the tips of his eyelids would smile upwards. He had a soft nose that was barely distinguishable and his ears fanned out like the sails on a boat.
Growing up, I remembered my uncle strayed away from large crowds. He was usually found on the fringes with his arms folded tightly across his chest. Short in stature, he had a thin, wiry frame. His arms and legs resemble the slender spokes of a wheel. He skulked during family gatherings and preferred to eat at the kid’s table. The times he was thrust into the spotlight, he behaved like an actor auditioning for an un-rehearsed role. Attention to him was like a swarm of angry assaulting bees, relentlessly stinging his vulnerability.
He didn’t believe in status or fame and always had deep creases in his brow unveiling his persistent concentration. His lips were constantly pursed. He adhered to traditional Vietnamese principles and lived his life accordingly.
The only times he was stirred into action was when his principles were compromised. Provocation was the last thing he wanted, but when his beliefs were challenged, he cast off his inhibitions and became a man compelled to action.