Just another WordPress.com weblog

Anthology Of An Ordinary Life

Spring Of 2006
Lawrence Tan



In a conversation with an old schoolmate of mine regarding his trip to China, he described certain places that are so remote, that time seems to slow down to a crawl and most of the ancient ways of life still prevail. These communities are mostly self-sufficient; the people are happy without much ambition and rarely need to travel to the world outside, just like their ancestors hundreds of years ago. Furthermore, thanks to their remote locations, these communities have so far succeeded in avoiding the frontal impact of the annual double-digit economic growth of the country. On one evening along the riverbank that runs through the city, my schoolmate witnessed a group of men bellowing out a few verses of a folk song, to which a few girls on a balcony across the small street started to sing in reply. This went on for a while. I can only imagine how beautiful that would sound! I cannot remember if I have ever seen such happy people myself. 

Despite this happy story, I am having a little trouble trying to picture how someone could live an entire life in one place or even be born and die of old age in the same house. In my mind, when these people look back in time, they would not recall much because there was not much to remember. Admittedly, these rather uneventful lives could have occurred more often in the pockets of peaceful periods in human history.

        At my age, just the mere thought of looking back at my life and failing to see anything but a blur of a number of forgotten years should have disturbed and frightened me deeply. However, that did not happen to me, and I believe that it did not happen to my generation; most of us have been affected and scarred by tragedies and sufferings caused directly or indirectly by the war—the Vietnam War that is. Most of us who survived have plenty of stories to tell. Even though my stories seem to be unique and indeed the mosaic of my life, from a further perspective they are merely a few small pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle of my generation. Within that context, my stories are just those of an ordinary life.

          I have always treasured my past—the good and the bad times. I always have in me nostalgic feelings for things that I once possessed. I have the sustaining feelings of longing for a certain time, a certain place and the characters that had been intertwined in my life in the distant past. As time goes by, my memory starts to fail me of the smaller details of things, like a disintegrating photograph weathered through time. I am sure someday there will be nothing left but just a blur in my mind. A certain smell or a familiar tune or melody can bring my heart instantly back to that lost time and place. All I have to do then is to close my eyes… I like to communicate and to share beautiful things. After all, when I am gone, I have the feeling that these emotions are the last things I will ever have and they will be lingering somewhere out there. For these very reasons, I try to carefully package these images and feelings and keep them as close to me as I can and bring them along with me for the rest of my journey. I have recorded some of the more significant events of my life, will record more as time permits, and will put them together like a scrapbook in the following pages.

            Although some of these fragments of memoirs seem to have a chronological sequence, they are intentionally scattered and mixed with other independent dissertations and poems. As with this collection itself, not all the pieces that appear in it necessarily have a beginning or an end. In fact, I hope that after one finishes reading these pages, the images will seem to blur together as if one was waking up from a long dream with the feelings still lingering. As for me, I would not want the melodies interrupted, nor would I want to be awakened from my dreams.

June 1, 2008 Posted by | Anthology Of An Ordinary Life, Title | 1 Comment

A Little Tango Moment

The following short poem was an inspiration by my first few visits to the Freedom Plaza in DC years ago when I started getting acquainted with Tango. I wrote it and I managed to lose it through the shuffle, or I thought so. Recently it has resurfaced on one of those FB memories. For those who are not familiar with it, Freedom Plaza is an open plaza situated at the intersection of the 14th Street and Pennsylvania Ave in Washington DC. This is an outdoor free Milonga every Sunday evening from 7:30pm to around 10pm, from mid May to the end of September every year. You can google or you-tube it.  Admittedly, I have not been out there for the last few years, but the thought that this annual event is still available is comforting. Here are a few lines to record my raw impressions about the event.

At the Freedom Plaza

Under the starlit sky of a lazy Sunday night
Beneath the halos of the elevated street lights
Traces of a warm ending summer breeze
Capriciously frolics as it pleases

And as the first ever so seducing notes hit the air
Slowly and irresistibly, the silhouettes fall into pairs
On these souls, ‘Poema’ starts casting its spell
The start of a journey, where the hearts melt

Like magic, they all begin their balancing ritual
Then the first steps, the salidas, as usual
The first shots of adrenaline, what a rush!
Propel the pulsating heartbeats into their first crushes

Following the lead of their men, The boleos and the planeos
The taunting adornments and the inviting backward ochos
Helplessly, the men chase after with the giros
Like a beautiful choreograph, all end with different terminados.

October 12, 2018 Posted by | Poems | Leave a comment

Reunion in Montreal August 2011

August 11th 2011

The flight home is pretty short and smooth. The official flying time from Montreal to Dulles Airport, Virginia is only one hour and twenty minutes. At least this flight home is not delayed as the one going up to Montreal. I have not taken any vacation trip, I meant just for me, for a long time. Those trips to visit my mom in California, to take the family to places when the kids were younger don’t count. This trip is really for me. The expectations are wonderful, the excitements built up and accelerated as the trip approached. Gees, I get to see my schoolmates, some of whom I was with in the same classes just about forty years ago or I only heard of their names and saw their dissertations on the forum. It goes without saying that I had a lot of mixed emotions. I don’t really know what to expect because I realize people change over time.

Although at times we shared a few controversial debates on the forum where we seem to be on opposite sides of the arguments, I have decided long ago that I have to put all that away and see all the friends as I knew them in the classrooms or the playground of our dear and beloved high school. The place where we first met, with short hesitations, and then we became bonded for life. It is an occasion for me as well as for some others to put faces to the names on the forum. I feel emotional when I see my friends growing old as I think we have to think about one another because we will never know if all of us would be still here in the next few reunions.

Regardless of backgrounds, regardless of different levels of achievements in life, regardless of how we manage to be still around and congregate in that one spot, for those short moments where we all celebrate our love and friendship. In all the gatherings that I had the privilege to be part of, at Fung Pe Suan’s residence, LVNam’s restaurant and of course the Gala, I saw a bunch of bobbing heads of grey hair but I also saw all these kids that I knew for over half of my life. I have to admit, I don’t know any of the girls there. I was thinking that if I had a little twist of faith, my path would be a little bit different, I could have known one of these special girls, fell in love like so many of you, and maybe bring her with me to this occasion.

I must thank the Montreal Committee for organizing such a smooth and superb program. It is indeed so wonderful to have this gradual build up of excitements from the intimate get-togethers of the smaller groups, to mainly the class of ‘69 and then culminated in the Gala. There is no doubt that this is the product of many months of efforts and planning of the Montreal Committee and of course with the full participations of the Montrealais who personally took care of the arrangements of logistics for those who come from as far away as I am to those who come from Europe and Australia. I just regret that the get together did not last long enough; it seems like they went by so fast. On the other hand, I think the girls may think that’s just about enough! Because they had to do all the cooking(well, except Pe Suan and Tuan who did do a little bit of barbecue here and there). It seems like I had a little too much to drink every night in Montreal! But I did not have to drive thanks to LNKhanh.

LNKhanh is a wonderful friend in all senses of the word. He really took good care of me and Phap. We were all MBA(Married But Available), at least for our stay in Montreal. I have the feeling that I will never forget the little girl that stole my cookie. Please do not ask or wonder no more. I believe it had happened to all of you, there are certain events however trivial they were, like a scent, a color or a sight, which is only significant to you because it happened in one of those special moments in your lives. Anything that happens in Montreal will stay in Montreal, period.

At this juncture in our lives, I think we can occasionally meet new acquaintances but it is no longer easy to make new friends. Therefore I gladly resort to reconnect with my new old friends or old new friends if you will.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | letters, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Morning After


Lawrence Tan

Last night I stopped by the Table Tennis Club after work looking for some action. But to my dismay, the place was packed, I had never seen more new faces. All tables were playing doubles and they all had paddles queued up. I just stayed for half an hour watching and chatting with some of my acquaintances and then left. Feeling depressed, I decided to stop by a Karaoke place, thinking about getting some songs in to lift up my Friday evening. Last night, I had never seen so many bad Karaoke singers all in one place in the same evening. I admit that the music system there was not the best that I have seen. There were two or three parties going on at the same time, celebrating something or the birthday of someone. But a lot of people went up on the stage and brutally murdered the songs. The music went on one direction, but they decided to sing the other directions, either off key or off beat. But I have to give it to those people, they definitely had a great time. They even gave me a piece of their cake. I sat in the back by myself with my CDs the whole time, enjoying my beer and trying to make up for my ears since they were hurting.  I did not even finished my second beer, I left the place and went home feeling more depressed.

I woke up about 5:30 this morning, a Saturday, realizing that I had left my lights on all night long. I must have been very tired after what occurred last night. I turned over to my laptop which is always next to me in my bed, my sole source of comfort at night, and started my favorite list of songs, turned off the lights, closed my eyes and started my process of waking up.

Loneliness is no longer a foreign feeling to me, in fact I often feel comfort in it. It is a strange thing, but it must be a familiar feeling to a lot of people out there, because I don’t believe I am the only one who feel this way, at this stage of one’s life. My mood is completely soaked in that of “Fly Me to The Moon” in Tony Bennett’s voice and then my heart raced in Josh Groban’s “To Where You Are”. I am convinced that the authors of these songs must be truly gifted, bestowed with such levels of perceptions and feelings and then able to verbalize into these pieces of musical jewels that can pierce your heart. As the morning light started to slowly invade my space through the blinds of my windows, I finally got off my bed. I should have felt happy since this was a Saturday and I did not have to rush to work, but I went through my routine still feeling depressed. It is definitely a familiar feeling that had occurred from time to time. 

I sorted all the mail that I picked up the night before, went to the kitchen and rummaged through the fridge and decided to pack a few food items and then I headed out to Leesburg while everybody in the house were still sleeping soundly. The traffic was light since it was early Saturday morning. The drive was relaxing with my favorite CD on, I often put a few of my favorite songs on repeat. But my heart still sank and I could not shake off the  feeling of loneliness. I have driven my kids for so many years, to schools and to lessons. I always chat with them if they were not sleeping in the car. And even if we did not have conversations, I always felt the presence of their beings, a source of my joy, a reason for my being. I just realized that I had been driving alone a lot lately, and indeed I had a chance to get more intimate with my songs and my private thoughts.

Sometimes I wonder the purposes of our beings; are we here just to run through the course of our lives. Or are we supposed to make a difference for others‘? In a narrow sense, we all have responsibilities, to ourselves and to our families. But that is really it. The more we think we know, the more foolish we sound. This kind of reminds me of the story of the Monkey King who thought that he had outrun the grasp of the Goddess, just a few jumps and he was thousands of miles away and thought he had escaped. He etched a poem on the side of the hill at the end of his run, trying to prove that he had been there, way out of the Goddess‘ reach. When he returned, feeling triumphant, it turned out that he was just etching the poem at the base of the Goddess’ fingers of her palm! 

What did people do when they got to our age? How are they supposed to feel? I supposed that we should be able to tell since we are here now. But honestly, I feel lost, I had never been here before. However I am not willing to give up, at least not just yet. As my level of energy goes dwindling down every year, I will try my best to hang on to it as best as I could, as long as I could. I have seen older folks, either due to their physical or mental exhaustion, they had surrendered, had totally given up and resort to the dreadful and seemingly meaningless existence of the last years of their lives. I am scared but I will not go down without a fight. Whatever is left in my last breath, it will be all for my songs, and let them be my witnesses. Nobody would be able to take that away from me.

March 8, 2009 Posted by | Stories, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Farewell to a Teacher

Frank Loch


      Like all the people who have known Frank for many years, I am not quite prepared to bid farewell to him. I am still in a state of shock and cannot quite accept the fact that Frank has left us so soon. My family and I met Frank and Lenna sometime in the summer of 1990, at a party at Tyler Beam’s house celebrating the success of the Yamaha competition with the kids. That morning I had just let Felix quit his piano lessons because we anticipated the heavy load of homework as he was starting high school. That same afternoon, we were so impressed by the kids and the music at the party that we made an appointment with Frank to visit the studio which was at the time above the Carpet Yarn in Vienna. Little did I know, we had started a relationship with Lenna and Frank that has lasted to this day. Looking back, I don’t believe it was just a mere coincidence that we met the teachers; all three of my kids have been truly blessed with good karma to cross paths with them and be under their tutelage. I would like to celebrate Frank’s life by sharing with you my memories of him. 

        Personally, I always pictured Frank as a talented teacher full of energy. Not just because he paced back and forth so fast while he was teaching my kids, but because I could feel the intensity of energy that emanated from his musical compositions. I could never forget the times when he taught the kids the Ballad as he was composing it. The kids could not wait for the subsequent week to learn a new section. Eventually, Frank completed the Ballad as the kids had it ready for the concert. What an exciting time that was! At the concerts, I always wondered how he could transform the kids to such performers on stage. The students flawlessly performed all the awesome pieces such as Transformation, Awakening, Silent Spring, Berceuse, Reflection in G and last but not least Remembrance. As I have spent the time with my kids at almost all their lessons, I also had the privilege to be close to some of Frank’s pieces, which many times had moved me deeply. The skillful arrangement of the powerful sequences that almost push one to the edge is followed by a soft and almost lonely and lamenting violin segment that always got me. I believe music reflects the deepest and most intimate parts of a composer’s feelings; there are no words with which to describe the amplitude or the depth of these emotions. Frank has been so generous to share his feelings with all of us. 

       Over the years, my children have had lessons with a few music instructors. But I have always thought of Frank and Lenna as their only true teachers. It has always been much more than about the technique to interpret a piece of music. Listening to the kids perform over the years, I felt that they performed from their hearts. I hope and I believe that the SMS teachers and their music have indeed enabled my children to experience and appreciate these beautiful feelings. They are such valuable gifts! I believe some of us are born with these faculties; however, without an inspiring teacher, these inner feelings tend to stay dormant and lost for the rest of our lives.  

      I can never forget Felix’s first concert at the Reston Community Center. During the intermission, I had a chat with a lady about Frank and how great the music and the studio were. In the back of my mind, I was trying to see if I could get her to switch her kids’ piano teachers to Frank and Lenna. She patiently let me finish talking and then she calmly said to me “I know, I am his wife!”.

       First, Felix started his lessons with SMS, while Vivian enjoyed hanging around the studio. Eventually, I also let her join SMS. I still remember the day when I went to the studio at Bowman Green and announced that Vivian just had a baby sister! Eventually Yenni started her first piano lesson with Frank. She was so young that Frank used to spend time singing with her before letting her get on the piano. Yenni now plays a variety of music as well as Frank’s pieces. The last few months, Zoe, Felix’s daughter, started her lessons with Lenna. Except for the few weeks a year that we went on vacation, I cannot recall a time when we have ever stopped piano lessons. Indeed, time did fly! Up until the SMS studio closed two years ago, we saw Frank almost every weekend. Frank has given my children and me a rare experience that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. It is all still so unbelievable!

      This morning I saw a Boxster on the road and I thought about Frank. I wish I had conveyed these thoughts of mine to him, but I did not when I could have. We will surely miss Frank a lot. 

May 12, 2008 Posted by | letters | 1 Comment


Summer 2003
Lawrence Tan

Like a wildfire across the forest
Like a hurricane across the land
I was swept under…

Like a tornado across the plain
Like a torrential monsoon rain
I was taken over…

Helplessly stricken
Long hair
Dark eyes
Intercepting all my thoughts
I am losing control…

What do I have to say?
When is the right time?
Where do we go from here?
Why, we are running out of time?

The fleeting glances
The teasing words
The warm embraces
Oh! They are all fake!

Like a ravaging fever
Like a sustaining chest pain
My soul is tormented

Like a cold winter night
Like in a darkest sky
My heart freezes over…

Grey sky
Blue heart
My pain
Your pleasure…




December 27, 2006 Posted by | Poems | Leave a comment

Cinema Phu Vinh

Lawrence Tan

Some had lived in their Cinema Paradiso, others had been on their Polar Express… I had Cinema Phu Vinh.

             Cinema Phu Vinh is the only movie house in Phu Vinh, a small town and the administrative seat of Vinh Binh aka Tra Vinh, about  200km Southwest of Saigon;  like in all small towns, the people are mostly friendly, unsophisticated and very easy  going compared to  those folks from big cities like Saigon. Most of the major business  owners were well known to the town folks by their first names. My  Uncle ran the  movie house. He lived in a complex attached to movie house with my grandparents  and my younger brother. It seemed  like my Uncle had this business for some time,  just like the movie house Tay Do in Can Tho. After the family business went  drastically  wrong and took a turn for the worse up in Saigon, they settled in this  town since the early 60s. I stayed up in Saigon and over time,  lived in different  relatives’ houses to continue my education. I spent many summers of my adolescent  years in Vinh Binh. Until the  last recent years, I did not realize how deep this place  had found its place in my heart.

I liked the movie house PHU VINH a lot. Every evening, the cinema PHU VINH opened for business around 5ish. The      retractable iron gates of the curved structure were pulled back on their tracks, and the people were welcome into the lobby via three  wide entrances. PHU VINH was located on the edge of the Centerville, looking from the movie house into the streets, connected to its  right towards the center of the town were the row houses of various businesses.


First, we had the popular neighborhood dive Hong Lac, which offered an unimpressive menu of noodles and other beverages such as coffee, beer and soft drinks. A Chinese family ran Hong Lac. The cook prepared the noodles in a small kitchen that occupied a front corner of the entrance where there was always a huge pot of boiling water next to a similarly huge pot of piping hot broth. They normally offered two kinds of noodles, a white flat one made of rice flour and the egg noodle, an angel hair-like yellowish noodle with a small body, supposedly made of flour and eggs. The fresh noodles were placed in a deep perforated ladle then dipped into the boiling water until it was cooked. After the water was well-drained, the noodles were placed into a fresh bowl. A few slices of cooked pork were then placed on top of it with some bean sprouts and chives. It was also customary to add a dash of fried lard to enhance the flavor. Add a few ladles of hot soup, and it was ready to serve. The menu and the layout of the place seemed to be pretty typical as I have seen it in many family restaurants. The menu was poor but the food was always good. I especially craved for those little pieces of hot peppers marinated in vinegar. I always had them in my bowl of hot noodle soup. On the weekends, Hong Lac made an effort to offer a small variety of baked pastries that went very well with a cup of hot coffee and condensed milk. It was definitely a casual place for the locals as a number of patrons could be seen folding and resting one of their feet comfortably on the chair while carefully sucking in their hot noodles. They must have practiced since their early childhood to feel comfortable in that kind of contorted position.

Next to that small restaurant was my friend, Manh’s house. He lived with his father, an herbalist, or Chinese doctor, his mom and a younger sister. Manh’s house was very humble. It was decorated with a few Chinese paintings and a large mirror on the wall along with a large calendar featuring some popular Chinese actresses or singers. The important thing was that it bears both the Gregorian as well as the lunar dates. There were a few chairs for the patients or guests and a small table on which there was always a small cushion in the shape of a pillow. It was used mainly for his dad’s patients to comfortably rest their left hands on it, palm up. His dad could read their pulses by gently placing three of his fingers on the patients’ wrists. By reading the pulses of a patient, the Chinese doctor could potentially detect the sources that caused the imbalance of the Yin and the Yang energy, the root cause of the sickness. He would then prescribe a concoction of various kinds of dry herbs and roots to help the body to regain the harmony of the inner energy emitted by the various organs. As each of our organs is categorized as Yin or Yang, they each have a counterpart. Each pair would emit a certain inner energy, maintaining a balance in a healthy body. If one organ acts up, it could upset the balance and the harmony of the inner workings of our body and therefore it causes us to be sick. The principle is to detect which part of your body was running wild, and the normal cure is to calm it down or trigger its counterpart to regulate it and bring it back to the normal level of activity. On the wall opposite the paintings, there was a built in set of shelves and small drawers labeled in Chinese where all the different kinds of dry herbs were stored. The preparation instructions would normally be to add four bowls of water to the herbs into a pot. Bring it to a boil until there was only two bowls worth of liquid left. The resulting cocktail normally tasted and smelled obnoxiously horrible. You would let it cool down, squeeze your nose and then try to swallow that stuff as fast as you could. Every time I am sick and think about that stuff, my system seems to speed up the recovery by itself.

Then there was a pool hall of only two tables. I wonder how they made ends meet after all. Then there were a few more houses of the same size before we reached the intersection that took us to the municipal bus stop. These houses were pretty narrow but long. I think they were about 14 to 16 feet wide at the most. Connected to the left of PHU VINH was a row of three houses, all connected inside and served as our residence. We used to live in all of them before we opened the one on the end, the widest house, which was about twice as wide as the others, for the Pho Map noodle house. That’s right, besides the movie theater business, my uncle ventured into the noodle house business. That was all right for me since Pho is like McDonald here in the States, it could be breakfast, lunch, snack and sometimes dinner too. Every now and then I asked the cook to drop a raw egg into my piping hot bowl of noodles. Beyond the noodle house wall was a small lot of land that ran along the side of the movie house protected by a wall. Next to our residence was
the gate to the side of the movie house. The auditorium had three wide double doors that opened to the side. When a show was over, we normally opened all the double doors to let the people leave the auditorium in addition to the front door to the lobby of the theater. Beyond the wall that bordered the side of the movie house was a neighborhood of wooden houses on beaten earth floors. A bicycle ride of about five minutes in this direction would take us straight to the riverbank.

PHU VINH was built on a corner lot; its facade follows a wide curvature that covers the two streets that intersect. The main structure that houses the theater was at least three stories high, and its opening was supported by two columns which divides the front into three wide openings with a set of cement steps that follow the curvature of the structure. Each was well finished with a full bull nose edge. Walking up the steps into the lobby area, the entrance to the auditorium was on the left of the structure. On the right hand side, one could see a recessed area protected by some decorative grids. Equally distanced within the recessed area were two small openings for the ticket windows. Most of the recessed area was covered by a curtain. The lobby was normally decorated with all the colorful posters and black and white photos of the current movies, as well as some of the upcoming films. Above the recessed area was a set of stairs. At the top of the stairs, there was a steel door labeled in red “Authorized Personnel Only”. It was the access door to the projection room.

Of course, I had access to the room, but I was not allowed to take any friends up there because of the materials and equipments. The room had a low window open to the auditorium. There were also three other small openings for an old slide projector and the two film projectors. In the back of the projection room, there was a window to the roof which we could easily climb through with the help of a chair. We would be on top of our residence, overlooking the area called ‘Lo Heo’ across the
street and a wide dirt path to a poor residential area that would lead to an area unknown to me. I had a few friends living there, but I never ventured far beyond their houses. The movies were shipped to us from
Saigon via buses. They all came in sets of reels of 35mm films. Each reel was about two feet wide housed in a steel box. One of the projectionists, Mr. Trong, normally examined them for defects at least one day ahead of the first scheduled show. The only furniture there was a work table in a corner and a few chairs. The slide projector was used to project paid advertising slides. Two projectors were necessary to cut over from one reel to another reel. Each reel was numbered; we always loaded up the subsequent reel while the current reel was running. As the end of the current reel was coming close, the lead portion of the subsequent reel was started on the next projector. We would need two people to synchronize the cut over of the two projectors so that the audience experienced a seamless projection of the movies. We then took the finished reel down for rewinding and loaded up the subsequent reel on the same machine.

The Indian movies were normally the longest. They were just about one hour longer than the others because of their songs and dances. We marked the beginning and the end of each dancing and singing sequences during the first show. We would cut them off temporarily and reconnect them before we shipped the movie back to the distributor. It saves us and the audience time and the cost of showing it. The cutting part is self-explanatory. To reconnect two sequences of film, we used a sharp razor blade to thin up the lips of the connection frames of both section of films, lined them up on top of each other aligning the holes on the side then applied some acetone (nail polish remover) and press it down hard for a few second. The lips of the two sections then melted and effectively glued together.

The projection room had a schedule to follow, but it was really controlled by the office downstairs. Depending on the situation of the ticket sales, we would start the show on time or a few minutes late. The person who made that decision would push an electric buzzer that signaled the projection room to start the show. On cool evenings, I would bring my snack up to the projection room, open the back window for a breeze, prop my feet up on the window towards the auditorium and watch the movie comfortably, like from a first class balcony seat. The projection room normally kept in low light when the movies tarted.

In front of the entrance to the auditorium where the tickets were checked and in front of the tickets windows, there were a set of rails that suggested that lines should be formed. But I don’t think a lot of folks knew what they are for. When popular movies were showing, the people were always on top of one another. From inside the ticket windows, we would see about five hands sticking through, clinching on their money. Not like in the States side where the moviegoers and the ticket booth are separated by a glass window, our ticket booth is designed to be a display case running along the entire wall except the two openings for the ticket purchase and above that just enough to see the customer. Now, that would work well when people keeps the line and one party purchases the tickets at a time. But, that is never the way it works when we have the showing of a popular movie. Everybody was on top of one another, sticking their hands through the windows and shouting for their orders of tickets. As we took the money out of one person’s hand, we would have to squeeze it and ask the person for number of tickets and the kind of seating because they were priced differently. That was how we knew what that particular person wanted because sometimes we had a hard time matching a hand with a person in the a pile of people out there. I guessed all the girls out there going to the movies like that didn’t mind me holding and squeezing their hands.

The entrance to the auditorium, at times, was just as chaotic. We had from groups of people who did not buy enough tickets on purpose and tried to squeeze through the entrance. There are also kids who hang around in the lobby and asked the moviegoers to take them in as their children. Eventually, we know all these kids. Therefore we normally had two big guys checking tickets at the entrance, Ta^m and Xua^n, who was a Cambodian Vietnamese. People who came in late didn’t want to pay the full price of the tickets and tried to negotiate at the door instead of buying tickets. I guess we did allow for that. We always had a wooden box, as tall as a bar stool. It has a locked cover and a small slot for those occasions. Therefore, a family member or a trusted person was always at the entrance until closing time. Sometimes when I was short of cash, I would ‘volunteer’ at the entrance at the start of a show. My uncle would not mind as long as I didn’t abuse it, just enough for pocket money for the evening.

The blaring music seemed to contribute to the atmosphere of festivities outside the movie house. Sometimes my friends and I feasted on all kinds of snacks out there, like the marinated fruits such as the guava, green mango, tamarinds, and etc…. I loved having my fruits with a touch of salt and mashed red peppers, which sharpened their tastes. Then we would have a variety of sweet soups served warm or those cold fruit smoothies. The activities soon ended as we were about half an hour into the last show of the evening. The merchants started wrapping up, closing down and wheeling their food carts home.

It was then bed time for me as another good and fun day had concluded.

December 27, 2006 Posted by | Stories | 1 Comment

Another Time, Another Life

August 2004
Lawrence Tan

            Of course, I would not have asked much of my children. Just their mere appreciations of the lives they have in this land of opportunities would have made me happy. But even that sometimes seem so hard. But how can I blame them? Their point of references in life and mine are so far apart. Indeed they are so far apart…


A few years ago, my son threw a cyber party in our basement. We had about anywhere from fifteen to twenty kids. What followed was a kind of party I had never seen before. The kids must have brought in with them eight to ten computers. We ordered a bunch of pizzas and got some soft drinks. Within a short time, they had all the machines configured and networked together, and connected to the Web using our DSL line. They formed teams of two to three kids per station and started a cyber war. The participants included other teams on the Web too. These were the combatants in all kinds of fatigues. The idea was to score and to survive in a shoot out game within a cyber world, in some cyber town. The kids who came to the party were boys and girls, some boys with earrings, head shaved and with bandannas. That reminded me of the images of the pirates, as I saw them in some comic books when I grew up. Some came with strange hairstyles with colorful highlights, others with no style at all, just like straight from their beds. These were all college kids and Felix’s high-school friends. I did not think I had seen a quieter party before. They just sat there in groups and immersed in their own world, clicking their mice and tapping frantically on the keyboards all through the night. I came down the next morning and saw a few of them spreading out on the floor sleeping among the empty soda cans and pizza boxes, just like a true battlefield! It looked like they had a real good time. I was wondering what I was doing when I was at their age. I was also in a war, but not the cyber kind…


Out there in the fields, everything was so unpredictable. Sometimes we moved from place to place, other times we camped in one place for months on end. At times, like cub scouts, we got to learn all the fun stuffs, like to tell whether a cannon projectile was passing over us and into the distance or it was time to duck just by the way it whistled, or to recognize the unmistakable cracking of an AK47 versus that of an M16. The spots we stayed for months were the barren plains in Quang Tri or in the
mountainous hills overlooking
Hue. From hill 362, I could tell where the city was in the distance, the size of the palm of my hand when it lighted up at sunset, making it feel so homey and me so distant and lonely. Have you ever seen those Chinese classical paintings depicting the mountainous hills that seemed to float on a layer of cloud? Well, indeed, every morning we seemed to wake up in a middle of an ancient painting. All we could see was the scattered hilltops popped up here and there among the clouds. It was so deceivingly peaceful and magical. The clouds gradually dissipated later in the morning as the sun came up higher. The irony was that we all realized that concealed in it were all kinds of booby traps and deadly ambushes devised by the beloved humankind.

A savvy soldier must equip himself with a nylon hammock in addition to the government issued stuffs. When we camped in a location, we set our defense perimeter, and then we set up our makeshift shelters. Basically we spread out, tied our hammocks to the tree trunks or to two strong posts planted on the ground; the poncho was used as a tent over a skeleton of wooden sticks made out of the tree branches, tied to the posts and above the hammock. On the rainy season, we collected a few pieces of rocks or branches and made a small-elevated platform on one end of the hammock, for our backpack so that the running rainwater on the ground would not soak it. Sometimes, that was home for an extended period. Due to the humidity from the ground, it was not healthy to sleep on it unless you had a protective layer. The nylon hammock was a more versatile and essential item that one would think. It was our bed and ultimately, it was our personal body bag. We used it to wrap the body of a fallen buddy, tied both of its ends on a stick and carried it to the extraction point where they were picked up and transported back to the base camp. I carried a corporal who slipped and fell into his own booby trap on a rainy day. He died instantly, we could not find one of his arm. I did not go and collect his body parts; but I helped carrying his body out to the transfer point. He was not particularly heavy; he was a small man. He was from the region. He was kind of a loner; he hardly spoke to anyone. I remember he always carried a nylon bag of tobacco, tied to his belt. He let me try it once, and I almost flipped over! But for some reason, a few months before, during the New Year, to my surprise, he gave me a hundred piasters for lucky money. I carried the back end of the stick, and when walking uphill, his feet kept knocking at my stomach, while I could see the fresh blood still dripping from the bottom of his hammock. Yes, there is always a first time to everything. Some guy who stationed on the same hill as the corporal told me that he reappeared at night asking them to find his missing arm!

The first time we reported to our unit, it took us two days to get there. About twenty of us were driven about over an hour from the city to the foot of this mountain. The road ended there and next to a large creek. From there, it took us about six hours to climb the first hill. We all equipped with about four hundred rounds of ammunitions, four grenades, a week’s worth of food, a bag of water, a rifle and your personal stuffs. Some kids also had to carry an M72 (Light Anti-tank Weapon). The climb was our first true challenge to our stamina. It was really hard uphill with all that stuff on our back. Some kids cried as they realized that it was no picnic at all. The sight of the hill was just terrifying, even though there were a few plants and vegetation; the entire mountainside was practically destroyed by B52 bombings. The remaining trunks of those big trees were all charred, scattered all over and to the distance formed such a macabre landscape. Our destinations were the units along the way into the mountain. I and another kid, Man, we were unfortunately assigned to the unit that was engaging in a firefight at the time, deep inside at the most forward position.

What was going on here? Wasn’t the cease-fire supposed to be in effect? It turned out that the cease-fire was only observed in locations visible to the International Committee, but it was largely ignored in other places. We were supposed to be the fresh troops filling in for the KIA or MIA. When we got to the top of the hill, we rested for about ten minutes and we were rushed on. The scout tried to get us there before nightfall, but I fainted due to exhaustion. They managed to revive me, but we stayed over night at one lookout spot and continued the next day until we reached the Company. Along the way, we crossed a creek; its water was knee high. It looked so pretty; the water meandered into the distance, just like in a painting; under normal circumstances, it would be a romantic spot for a picnic, deep inside the mountain! As we approached the unit, sporadic gunfire and explosions could be heard. Suddenly, I saw two soldiers heading towards our direction, on their way out. I remember one with a bloody arm on a makeshift sling. The other must be his escort. I asked them where they were going, the injured guy cracked a smile, seemed all excited and said to me: “I am going home, man!” At that moment, I told myself, “Rats! Is that how you can get out of this place?” And then I thought, “Or it could be worse!”. When we arrived at the destination, a barren hill surrounded with tall trees, we were supposed to present ourselves to the commanding officer there, but he dismissed us immediately and ordered us to spread out and find a foxhole or a shelter. As I was settling myself down in one of those holes, a guy came over and asked me about my emergency address. I asked him for what purpose, they already had all my information back in the HQ. He said that this was different; they wanted to know where to ship back my body! Much later, I thought the fellow might just follow procedures, since we were on the battlefield; but the way he said it sounded like that would be an eventual outcome. What an initiation ceremony!

The next morning, I was told that I was dispatched to a forward squad and asked to leave some of my personal stuffs that I did not need behind. The sergeant would take care of them until I came back (sic!). I was briefed that the squad that I was going to join down there was so close to the enemy that we were not
allowed to use a spoon to eat out of the tin can. We used those broad leaves to scoop the food instead. We were supposed to whisper to each other’s ear only. Two of us were taken to that location to join three others already there. We were asked immediately to dig our own foxholes. We had to do it carefully, one scoop at a time, trying to make no noise. We spent all day doing that and the foxholes were still too small. Twice a day, someone carried the food down to our spot since we could not cook there. Besides the path I came from, there were two paths downhill from our locations, towards the enemy’s locations. We took turn to eat. Some of us guarded the paths; the safety pins of the grenades were all straightened out, ready to be pulled. The safety switch of the M16 was set to the off position, and ready to fire. We crouched there until the guys who finished the meal came and tapped on our shoulders. Then we reset the safety switch of the rifle and the pins of the grenades and made the switch. Those paths were guarded twenty-four hours.

At night we heard people snoring. But it was hard to tell which direction it came from. At times, at 7 o’clock in the morning, they fired their machine gun randomly at our directions. The first morning we were there, Man and I jumped into one of the fresh foxhole close by which we thought it was too small for one person. When the firing stopped, we had a hard time extracting ourselves out of it. I had never been so scared, almost peed in my pants! Following the barrage of gunfire, a voice came on a bullhorn: “Good morning everyone! Did you all had a good night sleep?”. Even when we were in the business of killing people, somebody still maintained their senses of humor! Some propaganda and finally some of their revolutionary songs followed the announcement. For a short while anyway, because not before long, we started to hear the cannon projectiles flying over our heads and crashing over the source of the broadcast which quiet them down for a few days! But the 7o’clock ritual in the morning continued every once a while. At one time, we were given the order of preparing to attack. Therefore, everybody geared up and waited for the green light. At that moment, I looked up in the sky, thought about my family and quietly said goodbye. We waited a whole afternoon and then came another order to stand down. Oof! What a relief! The next day another regiment came and replaced us. It took us one full day to pull out of that mountain. That was pretty damned close!

I think I was down at that spot for just about a week, I felt like months! It was during the rainy season. We had some bouts of torrential rains. We pulled out during nightfall to avoid their spies and scouts. Because moving in numbers like that would be so vulnerable to their artillery. On our way out, that beautiful little stream became a ferocious and roaring torrent. Due to the continuous rainstorms, it had swelled to become a much deeper and wider monster. We had to fall a tall tree on its bank to bridge to the other side. We strapped our rifle over our shoulder, sat on the tree trunk and slid our way across. I could feel the current pulling my legs really hard. There must be no mistakes or you would fall off and pulled away by the current into the dark water. We hardly had any moonlight that night; it was almost pitch dark and that made it even more difficult. At the other side of the bank, we had to climb a steep hill. On the way up there, I dropped my plastic bowl. I froze and listened to its fall knocking on the sides of the hill and realized how high up I was, and that scared the heck out of me!

One guy got lost in the dark. He started to call out, with the echo in the mountain; there was no way for us to know where it came from. One of us started to call out to him too, hoping for him to find his direction back to the column. Unfortunately, the poor guy’s voice seemed to be more and more distant and eventually faded altogether. The poor kid! He would probably last a few days and died out there somewhere in the mountain.

After another hour of walk, we rested at the foot of this hill overnight. We were so tired. I hung my hammock and fell asleep in it. Suddenly, I was awakened by the rain and realize that I was thoroughly soaked in it! I managed to gather some dry branches and attempted to make a fire under a canopy of some big trees that were not affected by the midnight rain. I was so cold. I trembled so much that I could not even strike a match. Finally, some guy came over and helped me. We had that fire going for a while anyway. It was warm and it was good. I changed into dry clothes in my backpack. My blanket and my hammock were all wet, but I had to fold and tie them to my backpack. Everybody woke up by then. We were ready to move out. On our way out on the trucks, some one pointed out to me when we passed by the Hamburger hill, Bastogne.

In those long and more peaceful locations, if we were to stay in a spot for an extended period of time, we would collect the carton boxes from the supply trips to make the tent floor, dug up just a few inches around it as water drain, just in case. That carton floor would give us a little bit more room to sit around with a few persons. Your tent was all you got during those cold and rainy days. In the daytime, I tied the hammock to the top of the tent to get it out of the way. My tent could accommodate four persons for a card game. We sipped tea or coffee along with a smoke or two, under the valuable candle light in the evening. Every now and then, small teams of soldiers passed by our station. And it was such a delight to see somebody that you knew. Even a hasty cup of tea or a small exchange of greetings and news of other acquaintances were so heartwarming. Out there, that was all you got. That was your family.

I read the Vietnamese version of The Godfather by Mario Puzzo the first time. I borrowed it from a deserter. A few of them were dispatched to our company; we had one in our squad. They were mainly used as slave labor, they were not given any weapon nor combat boots, and I was told when we engaged in a firefight, they would be rushed upfront as bait, either barehanded or sometimes they were given a grenade. Their rations were much meager compared to ours, so every now and then I gave the guy what I could spare. Officially, we were not to befriend with them, we were supposed to treat them like dogs, until they were re-instated. At times, I felt so sorry for the guy. They did not look any different than anyone of us. One guy completed his sentence and got re-instated. He asked to stay with us because our unit operated closed to his hometown and we had been together for a while. He was handed a helmet, an M16 and a pair of boots, a backpack with some extra stuffs. He was clearly so happy, he was then treated like one of us again, just promoted from the status of an animal to a foot soldier!

In one of those rare occasions where we camp in the outskirt of a village, at least we could see the people, notably the woman and girls, not like in the mountains for months without seeing a female. During that stay, I witnessed some strange stuff. A sergeant and I were invited into a house. While we were sitting there and chatted, the sergeant said that he could tell fortune. He asked the owner of the house to light up three incense sticks and decided to examine a girl, a guest of the house. He started out by closing his eyes and recited something then he sniffed the smoke from the incense sticks. Then he described to the girl, to her astonishment, accurately the location of her house and the different things around there such as a well, a big tree, the location of her bed, and etc…It was really scary. He talked about her problems in general terms to which she all agreed, and finally he gave her some advices. He was a northerner, and we were in the outskirt of Hue. I would not believe it if I were not there myself!

The daytime was so humid and warm. I was all sweaty in my khaki uniform. I tried very hard to take a nap in my hammock under the shade of the poncho. Suddenly my buddy woke me up by sticking a cold glass on my cheek. It was a glass of lemonade on ice! Oh! Heaven, where the heck did you get that? I said. He asked me to follow him. We walked for about a quarter of a mile to the village. He went in a house behind a stall where they sold a few kinds of soda and some snacks. He talked to the owner who handed him a guitar and then he started singing and playing the guitar at the same time. When he finished, a few folks and some kids applauded, then he turned around and asked the owner to give me a glass of hand squeezed lemonade on ice. What a guy!

Even though we seemed to stay far behind the battlefield but we were not totally immune from the war. I heard over the radio that one of the units in the hills just attacked and took over a hill successfully. Before the cheering was over, the bad news came. Somebody stepped on a booby trap. A few killed and a few injured. I was part of the team to go and pick them up. We set out early in the morning and did not reach the rendezvous point until the afternoon. Two of us carried a wounded guy. He was wrapped in his poncho like all the dead, except that they did not cover his face for him to breath. Every now and then, he asked me for water. I let the paramedic take care of him and not offering any water fearing that it would kill him. We did not get back until almost midnight. He was immediately picked up by another team to head out towards the ambulance. On my way back, I was so exhausted and slipped and fell into a pond. It was pretty deep; I swam right back to the bank and picked up by the team. I changed immediately when I got back to my spot and they let me sleep that whole night because I was on that mission the entire day before, otherwise I would have to guard another three hours at night. Each night we broke the guard up into four shifts. The first and last shifts were always preferable because it did not interrupt your sleep, but they normally last about an hour longer than the middle shifts. We were told to be careful to conceal our silhouettes, as when we moved, we would be targets for the snipers. I usually sat motionless against a big tree with the safety of my gun off for three hours straight. Every now and then, somebody would signal and come by to make sure that we were awake. All those long marches and climbs in the jungle and mountains, the fear and the boredom both physically and mentally overwhelmed me at times. On more than one occasion, I had thought to end it all. But the thought of my family had prevented me to do the silly things.

During the monsoon seasons, the mountains of Central Vietnam were particular colder because of the constant rain that would last a month at a time. Most of the time, there were no shower, just continuous drizzles for days after days. We wore our clothes as soon as we washed them so that they dried faster on our back. In one spot, there were three of us staying in a small clearing up on a hill covered mostly with trees and bushes. There were Sergeant Ta’nh, a Northerner, in his forties, Ma^ng, a kid from the South, who lost his right thumb, but was dragged into the service anyway and me. From our location, our main water supply was a creek, about half an hour to forty minutes walk. Every few days, we took our plastic water containers down, filled them with water and balanced them on both ends of a stick on our shoulder on our way back. The creek was about twenty to thirty feet wide; it was with running clear water. Due to its clarity, we could tell that its depth varied at different spots. At the crossing we were at, it was just knee deep all the way across. On other occasions, I walked along it and found that there were pretty deep spots. We filled our water containers, washed ourselves and sometimes harvested some fish. We all stood behind big pieces of rock on the bank, watching for a school of fish swimming upstream. As soon as it passed by us, we threw a small piece of rock in front of them and at the same time we slowly released a grenade into the water, behind the fishes. As soon as they were scared by the pebble, they turned around and heading downstream towards the grenade. Right after the grenade went off, we ran down stream, positioned ourselves there and used our helmet to shovel the stunned fishes over the sandy banks. Sometimes we got four sandbags full. We shared them with the other squads and we would have fish for days afterwards.

            Wherever we stationed, we set up booby traps at nightfall and dismantled them in the morning when we woke up. We were always radioed before any unit plan to go through our locations, just making sure that the area was cleared. The booby trap was real simple and deadly. We used an empty C-ration can, punctured four holes at the bottom, and tied a stick about four to six inches tall on its back. It was then planted solidly on one side of the path, concealed in the bushes. We pulled the pin off a grenade and stuffed it into the empty can locking its spoon in there. We tied a fishing line to the grenade and string it across the path and tied the other end to some branches or a piece of rock and made sure the line was taught. The idea was when somebody walked on the path and kicked the wire, the fishing line would pull the grenade out of the can, without its pin, the spoon would jump and it should explode next to the person. An instant kill guaranteed. We definitely took turn to do this. When dismantling them in the morning, I normally squatted on the top of the hill, prayed and looked and spotted clearly the line and the environment before I made a move. Very carefully, I approached the grenade, clutched it tightly, pulled it out of the can and stuffed its safety pin back in, bent it into the locking position then collected the fishing line and wrapped it around the grenade. The corporal set this up on a rainy day wearing his pair of flip-flop. When he turned around trying to walk back up the hill, he slipped and kicked the wire.

The plain of Quang Tri was a totally different landscape. I did not believe that I saw any trees at all. There were just barren hills, small bushes and may be some tall grass. Over time, we moved around that area a few times too. When we were first mobilized there, we were replacing another unit. Our truck column took the National Route 1, (The Highway of Horror). I saw all kind of stuffs left behind on both sides of the road by a column of population who were massacred by the Northern Vietnamese Army (NVA) artillery. The population tried to run away from the advancing forces when they jumped the parallel
17 in the beginning of 1973. There would be no legitimacy and satisfaction for the NVA to take over a piece of land without its population, therefore the communist forces discouraged the people from leaving by shelling indiscriminately the main highway where people were heading south.

We were told that our positions would be very close to the NVA (Bo^. Ddo^.i). How close? When I just got there and took over a position from a departing unit, I asked one of the guys where were the NVA? He pointed out to me at a few guys who were squatting in the distance, just about less than fifty yards from where we were. The location was a plain with some small hills. There were no trees at all. The whole place was pockmarked with bomb holes with the sizes of the ponds. Some were of pretty good sizes; as wide as small swimming pools, results of the 500lb bombs. After a few weeks of rainy days, they were all filled with water. We designated which one was for consumption and which one for bathing. These depressions were all normally deeper than the height of a person. There were actually two sets of barbed wire separating us. Between the barbed wires were the landmines. Ceasefire was actually in effect there. I could not see it, but the Tha.ch Ha~n river was behind the NVA. I had never been so close to them. For the first few days, I slept with my boots on. Over time, we engaged in conversations over a cup of coffee or tea in the late afternoon. We also tried to exchange cigarettes. There were some spots where we were close enough to throw cigarette packs to each other. We gave them Capstan or Ruby. What we got in return were some lousy quality product from their sides. If you stopped drawing on their cigarettes for about 30 seconds, they extinguished by themselves. I asked them why? They said that the cigarettes were designed purposely like that so that not to waste any tobacco (sic)! Each one of their cigarettes consumed about a quarter of my matchbook. Not before long, they sent in some low level propagandist. I noticed that when one guy talked to me, there was always another guy hiding in the bush listening in (part of the ‘threesome unit’ in which if one is at fault not being reported in times, all three would be responsible). I told him to jump out and join in the conversation, he slowly moved away from his position within the bushes and the tall grass into another position harder for me to see. It was so funny! When they talked to me, I discovered that they learnt those lines by heart. If I interrupted them in the middle of their discourse, they had to re-start from the very beginning of the paragraph! They told me that they learnt that last month, the workers of some manufacturer in Bie^n Ho`a demonstrated against the owner because they were mistreated. I told them to open their eyes and watch democracy at work and asked them if the workers in the North were not happy, would the government allow them to do the same? Their responses were their workers were always happy so there was no need for demonstrations. Nevertheless, sometimes we had pretty friendly exchanges about lives in the North and the South in general. At times, they were trying to test us by throwing a pack of cigarettes quite short of the concertina line on our side and into the field of landmines. They just want to see if we knew how to navigate through the minefield. We told them that we were not stupid.

We cooked two meals a day with the same kind of food most of the time. We always have a soup of xu xu (or xu ha`o) with the dried shrimps. I did not really care. When you were hungry enough, then even a simple meal would always taste good, especially with some crushed hot peppers. We started out to receive one C-ration pack each week; then twice a month and later, it became a monthly thing. We were told that the headquarters were running out of them. But every time when I could get back to town, I could buy them from the marketplace; there were plenty of them. Somebody stole them and sell them to the black market. On a few occasions, some of the guys caught snakes; they chopped it up into pieces and sautéed it. I got a piece and did not particularly like it; those guys did not even care to skin it. Everyone knew how to cook rice in an ammo box or sometime in a helmet (extra helmet for cooking). We brought the water to a boil then we dumped in the washed rice and kept the lid closed. When it was almost cooked, we diminished the fire at the bottom and put some of the burning charcoal on top of the ammo box so that the rice would be cooked evenly. I remembered I dreamt about a can of Coca Cola. If I had a can, I told myself, I would burry it in the mud for a few days just to keep it cool. At the beginning of the month, when we got paid, people always had a few packs of cigarettes. By close to the end of the month, we used to walk around with a can collecting the left-over cigarettes buds that people dumped on the ground and tried to survive until the next pay day.

We must have stayed in that same area for a few months. When we got there, it was totally dry except for the few large bomb holes. We were in need of dry wood to make the fire for cooking, so a few of us scouted around the area. On one occasion, we found a collapsed wooden bunker, shaped like the character V upside down; we started to dig into it to pull the wooden pillars out, suddenly I saw a human foot popped out of the rubble. The type of sandal still on the foot indicated it was an NVA. We left that place as fast as we could. We stayed in that location through the monsoon months. The sky was always grey and it rained incessantly, and finally the whole area was flooded. We got stuck on the hills. Before the flood, at least we could still see those ponds. When the plain was flooded, there was no way we could tell. But we still have to travel to the outside at least once a week for the supplies. There, normally four of us went with empty backpacks. We picked up the rations for other hills nearby too. They would come to us later when we got back. We would strip ourselves all the way down except for the shorts, and barefooted for easier walking and just in case we fell into those ponds we could manage easier. Someone had to play the scout and everybody else followed behind. The depth of the water varied from stomach to neck high. We carried the supplies on our heads. Very often, all of us were victims of the leeches. When we
got to a high spot where we could take a break, we would use a cigarette to burn the leeches off our body. All I needed to do was to touch each one of them with a burning cigarette; they would fall off from my body almost immediately. They were all over, even on my most intimate part. We just had to get used to it. The invisible ponds could also be so dangerous. There was one guy who had a few days of leave, left the company in the morning, disappeared and never reached the units on the outside. A few days later, we discovered his body when it floated to the top. When he left, he wore his entire outfit, had his heavy backpack on. When we found him, his rifle still strapped to his neck! His backpack must have slipped out somehow. He must have fallen into a pond and drowned.

Looking at the world my kids are growing up today and reflecting on my own time at those same ages, no wonder we have such a wide gap. Those supposed to be the prime years of my life. Lost and wasted. But I learnt to appreciate everything a little bit more, value any relationship that I got. However taking everything into considerations, I was damned lucky, I came out unscathed. A lot of other kids at my age were not so lucky. How many had perished in that war altogether from all sides? How many families were devastated? When the memorial wall for the American Vietnam veterans was inaugurated, I cried. Where is the one for us?




December 27, 2006 Posted by | Stories | Leave a comment


Christmas 2005
Lawrence Tan

I used to love stories and fairy tales
Villains, heroes and magic spells
Knights, horses, dungeons and dragons
My secret world of illusions

Then came music, rhythms and lights
Friendship and the endless nights
Wines and songs, tears and laughter
Cool nights and warm get-togethers

It was just all Spring and Summer fragrances
I only knew love and games of innocence
But in the end, to me it was revealed
You were the only thing that was real

What is the color of the ocean, this morning?
I’ll tell you all about my feelings
Eyes closed, hoping not the somber grey
Hands clasped, with all my heart I pray

What is the color of your heart, this evening?
I might surrender my soul and everything
Is it by chance the color of love, pulsating red
To which I would be grateful, in love and glad

Christmas is already right around the corner
My time was helplessly stolen, I now wonder
It was just here! Looking back with longings and regrets
Time seem to fly by, wish it can slow down instead

And soon we are at the threshold of the New Year
Just another one like all others, it is no longer clear
Where had I been and what had I done
All the last thirty years, I am still gone

Like a good wine, I am aged
My mind still clear, but my heart still dazed
Since when it had been addicted
To the melodies of love and the heart-broken lyrics




December 27, 2006 Posted by | Poems | 1 Comment

A Walk On The Beach

Summer 2003
Lawrence Tan

In memoriam of Monique Lee,


It had been a while since I felt that death had never seemed to be so possible and so real, especially when it happened to someone so close to you and at such a young age. The feeling of loss is so overwhelming. The sorrow still lingers. I composed this piece while our whole extended family vacationed together in a rented beach house in Nag Heads, North Carolina a few years ago. As you can tell, it was not written for Monique specifically. She was there with us at the time when I jotted down these lines. Every time I read these lines, I can’t help but thinking about her.

           I woke up before six this morning and changed quickly into a more appropriate attire for an early morning walk, putting on my pair of long pants and a turtleneck just in case. I was not sure how it would be like out there on the beach. My brother-in-law was already out at the door with Lambmy, his dog. Except very few cars that occasionally passed by, the street was basically still asleep. We crossed the street, walked about a block and turned onto a public access path towards the beach.

          The path actually took us to a good size wooden structure that housed the public facilities such as restrooms and a set of outdoor shower stalls. Beyond the public house, the path continued and crossed over a small sand dune proliferated with wild grass and onto a set of wooden stairs down to the beach. As we approached the public house where the ocean was still hidden from view, the august orchestral symphony of the rushing and crashing waves can already be heard.

          Hanging above and behind us, the moon still can be seen, fading and retreating by the minutes, making way for the promising sun for another bright and warm day. The sun was still nowhere to be seen, but just like a stroke of a brush, its aurora had already painted a small strip of the horizon with a comfortable bluish color. The beach, normally stretched for miles, was quietly covered by a thick fog. The visibility was just about five feet. As we proceeded onto the beach towards the ocean and its continuous thunders of the crashing waves, I was suddenly taken over by a sense of awe, submission and fear. It reminded me of a tragic journey along the coast of Vietnam which seemed like a lifetime ago…

          Except for the crashing waves, there seemed to be hardly any soul around yet. We walked about a quarter of a mile heading towards North. It was such a strange and eerie scene as the silhouettes of a few early risers started to appear and disappear in front and behind us. As the fog started to dissipate, the outlines of the beach houses on the hill started to appear to the West. Except a few plastic bottles, the beach was relatively clean. The high tide deposited sporadic traces of the fine seaweeds about at least twenty feet away. I also noticed a lot of traces of busy creatures all over the sand. My brother-in-law told me that the crabs came out and were very active at night. By the traces, I could imagine that there was a whole nocturnal gathering of busy crabs there every night.

          On the way back, as the fog started to clear up some more, we saw the tiny sandpipers rushed into the receding waves, trying to feed on whatever carried in from the ocean. Then like a constant and repeating game that they had perfected, they amused themselves by quickly evading the next incoming rush of the water. Along the way, I had saved three lives. A crab that got turned over on its back, it looked like it had been in a violent fight and lost one of his two large legs. Two tiny silver fishes washed ashore, one looked like still jumping around trying to get my attention and fight its way desperately back to the waters, the other looked more subdued. Nevertheless, I threw all three of them back to the waters. Some credit towards my children…I hope.




December 27, 2006 Posted by | Stories | Leave a comment