Can't Sleep

From Even Rat Pups Laugh Once in a While

American tank in the forest of Cu Chi, Vietnam.

American tank in the forest of Cu Chi, Vietnam.

Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved by the author.

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Departing Custodian: Mr. Stuart

Arriving Custodian: Mr. von Grawbadger

Dearest friend and confidante,

As you know, because I told you on my return from my vacation in Vietnam a few years back, these days in the forest surrounding Cu Chi tourists are given the opportunity to climb aboard a destroyed American tank. I have not told you however that at that site I volunteered to snap photos of a number of couples and families that chose to avail themselves of the opportunity. To their delight, I took my responsibility of recording the event seriously. I framed photos from many unsettling angles, my two favorite being from right at the end of the cannon toward the happy family on the tank and from the turret, looking down at the subjects, who I posed with their bodies facing forward but their faces turned back to me. For the second angle I asked the other tourists mill about in front of the tank. One I posed popping up from a nearby tunnel entrance.

I imagined myself being a photographer from LIFE magazine.

I framed photo after photo of tourists smiling as though their mount of the tank represented some sort of conquest until I had captured every last tourist there. I had become quite popular with the tourists for flattering them in vacation images composed with much creativity and imagination.

When at last I’d snapped every one of my fellow travelers in images I hoped would really capture the spirit of the place, one of them kindly offered to take my photo. I handed him my camera, feeling a little sick.

As you know, I try not to be a hypocrite. If all that smiling in that place had sickened me, I should have covered my face with grime and sweat, thrown on a pith helmet taken from one of the nearby dummies, grabbed a gun from the firing range where you can shoot a Kalashnikoff for a dollar a round, stolen a cigarette from my guide and dangled it from my lips. But we had run out of time for dressing me up in period touches. So in my photo I am a merely a grim civilian who appears not to be having a very good time in Vietnam, maybe for feeling the weight of a responsibility. Not so grim as to appear as though I’d just witnessed my best buddy shot through by one of the milling tourists or my home with my children sleeping in it blasted to smithereens by a shell from the tank. But grim enough to satisfy me.

Anyway …

Vietnam was your war. Maybe it’s just as well I failed to dress up in the way I wanted to at the time. You would have regarded the photo as a maudlin tribute in which I pretend at knowing anything of the horror you experienced there. I bring all this up only because I was reminded of the tank today at a moment I caught myself smiling at the scene of a little tragedy I’ll tell you about someday when we meet, perhaps at a holiday party or other soiree, in the unlikely event we are both mistakenly invited.

The children at our school would be fascinated to learn that we once prosecuted war with methods so primitive and barbaric as to bring its combatants so near to one another, if any of our generation dared to show it to them.

They might also find it quaint. I’ll ask one of them.

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