A WINE DINNER WORTH REMEMBERING
Take a look at this photo (above). Tell me where you think it’s from. No cheating. I’ll provide the answer at the conclusion of the column.
Earlier tonight, Marieta and I had the great pleasure of attending a special four-course wine dinner at a local restaurant here in Las Vegas. But this wasn’t a wine dinner like all the rest. We were seated with a couple, aged in their late 60s.
The gentleman and I got to chatting. Somehow, the topic of the Vietnam War came up. We engaged in a spirited conversation about the masterful Vietnam War television series, produced by Ken Burns, on PBS. By the way, this is must-see television for anyone who has not seen it yet.
During the course of our friendly conversation, the man revealed that he served two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was stationed at Da Nang in 1968 and returned again in 1971. He was assigned to a U.S. Air Force unit that provided routine maintenance on fighter jets.
Initially, the man was somewhat reluctant to talk about his memories of the war. But inquisitive (nosy) as I am, I was riveted by this moment — what amounted to a front-row, first-person account of one of the most transformative events in all of American history. How fortunate I was to have this rare opportunity. I wasn’t about to let this chance to learn more pass me by. And so, I pressed on.
The man stated that he arrived in Da Nang in early 1968 at the tender age of 18. He had lied about his age and joined the Air Force at age 17. His very first night in Vietnam was the Tet Offensive. For those unfamiliar with Vietnam War history, the Tet Offensive was a surprise attack that caught the American military totally off-guard and was arguably the shocking turning point of the war.
I listened intently over the next two hours, privileged to be given this, such a rare gift. As we talked, or I should say — as he talked and I listened — the man became increasingly more open and willing to talk about the many experiences that had haunted him for nearly half a century. It will take me some time to digest all the perspectives he shared with me, some of which were very troubling to hear. Perhaps I shall write about them later, if appropriate. I don’t know. Perhaps some things are best left unsaid.
But what really struck me at one point during our conversation was when I sought to give the man an “out,” allowing him to escape my inquisitive and perhaps annoying curiosity and enjoy the evening with the rest of the 30 or people assembled in the room sipping on Pinot, Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Sangiovese. Indeed, I casually tried to change the subject at this point, thinking my captive might leap at the chance to leave those painful memories of Vietnam behind. But instead of taking the easy bait, the man wanted to talk — more.
I have a tear in my eye and a tremble in my wrists as I write this now, a few hours later thinking about the next thing the man revealed to me.
“No one ever asks me about my time over there. It feels good to talk about it.”
Wow. Just, fucking wow.
Here I was, thinking I was blessed to be able to gain a new perspective from his insight, and yet he was on the opposite side of the table, convinced that my empathy was in some small manner — therapeutic. He thought I was doing him the favor. I’m having trouble writing now.
For another 90 minutes or so, I heard stories and memories and events and perspectives that opened my eyes and broadened my knowledge about what thousands of good men (and women) went through — both over there then and back here later.
I won’t give the man’s name because he insists he’s a private person. But I suspect there are many, many more veterans like him harboring memories that deserve and must and demand to be shared, real pain and emotional conflict that merits the soothing salve of a kindly ear, a gentle nod at the right instant, and a genuine but simple expression of gratitude.
I wonder how many others are out there now, tight-lipped, sitting in silence. How many others of this war and that war and all the wars we’ve fought and continue to fight didn’t get the chance to sit down at a wine dinner and speak about what they saw and what they endured and how they survived the madness. Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Why don’t we ask questions and why aren’t we listening?
Yes, the wine dinner was exceptional, but then most of my wine dinners are great. But this one was of Grand Cru of an exceptional vintage, two souls de-cantered into one.
How blessed I was to have the opportunity to share a dinner with a Vietnam vet, and listen and learn.
Finally, the answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph is — the photograph shows Da Nang, Vietnam. This is a photograph of Da Nang, formally one of the largest American military installations in South Vietnam, as it looks today.
Times do change. Places change also. What should not and must not ever change is our curiosity for history and insatiable compassion for others, even strangers.
This was an evening I shall not soon forget.