Friday, August 31, 2012


By Scott Payne

I was on my aching old knees last week, using a hand sander to tweak spots on the deck that the drum sander couldn’t reach. It was hot, boring and painful, the perfect work to stir the treasure house of one’s memories.
The stirring came as I ran that juddering tool back and forth, back and forth over one stubborn stain around the head of a sinker nail. I had hammered the damned nail into the deck 20 years ago and its head had shoved wood grain into tiny arches. Accented by stain and weathering, that distorted wood grain formed a perfect almond-shaped Asian eye looking up at me through the sweat puddled in my glasses. The shining nail head was a twinkle in a brown pupil.
Well the eye, the muggy heat, the dripping sweat and the baking sun flooded me with an unbidden and discomfiting memory.
Instead of working on all fours beside our hostas, mental time warp had me trying to inch stealthily again through undergrowth beneath the forest canopy, glancing down for trip wires, up for snipers and peripherally for whoever shouldn’t be there.
It was so real I turned off the sander and just knelt a minute.
I had sighted the eye through a gap in the brush. It was a beautiful, wide, brown sloe eye in the profile of a tanned young face. He was peering across my intended path. The sighting pumped my adrenaline.
We both fired. He missed.
Fire broke out all around, ripping leaves and vines, smacking trunks. Bodies crashed the brush as everybody dove to Ma Earth. Soon, the distinctive, punching AK-47 rattle died away. The enemy had cleared out.
A senior sergeant gave me an approving nod. “Now don’t go second-guessing it.”
I didn’t. I merely felt huge relief. Winston Churchill put it beautifully. “Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at without effect.”
But that eye, that beautiful eye, has stayed with me.
Unlike most of my comrades, I really liked Asians. Not the communists, but Asian people -- Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese. And that affinity has made me speculate about the young man with whom I traded gunfire.
I call him Nguyen, (pronounced “Ngwen”) the family name borne by six out of ten Vietnamese. My glimpse -- or maybe my imagination -- tells me his face would light up in laughter. I wonder whether he had a girl or wife and whether he sired children. If so, his grandkids would be young adults now. And I suspect they all have great big gorgeous eyes too.
He looked too young to be a father. But to us round-eyes, Vietnamese in their 20s look as if they’re 15.
My memory flash took only a minute. But before I buckled back down to the sanding, I dwelt on Nguyen for some time -- maybe a story coming on.
I’m just sorry he and I never met again or can meet again. I think it would be fun to introduce myself.
See, I’m pretty sure my shots missed him too. 


Stephanie Michels said...

Glad he missed, and I hope you missed, too! Isn't it odd how the mind works and can trigger a memory from some unrelated thing or event. Thanks for sharing this memory of a very different time and place.

~ marti

Patricia Kiyono said...

Thank you so much for sharing, Scott. Your perception of "the enemy" changes so much when he has a name. And I'm sure Nguyen has memories of that time, too.