Cooperstown Crier - Your Source for Hometown News - Cooperstown, Baseball Hall of Fame

Hawthorn Hill

March 9, 2012

Up On Hawthorn Hill: The past in the present

 Clichés abound about the value of photographs. Most are probably true at least to a certain extent. What I do know about an image is that it represents something of  the past that is not the pastitself. But that is the power of any image. It represents something that once was. The beauty of an image, revisited,  is that it functions as a catalystfor reliving in the present a past experience. My own view, one that I thank the Spanish writer Jorge Luis Borges for, is that all we ever can experience  is the present. The presentallows us to re-experience a past event or feeling as a recollection. Our recollections of the past can only always be approximate and are necessarily tempered by all that has happened to us since then.

Nonetheless, revisiting the past through images can be a profoundly moving journey, one that I have been on for several weeks now.

Over the past several weeks I have been scanning color slides and negatives taken over 40 years ago while working in Vietnam for the International Rescue Committee.

Our job was to help internally displaced refugees build new lives for themselves while the war went about its indifferent business around them.

Actually, its indifference all too frequently interfered with their lives with tragic consequences. But that is war’s way.

It is a merciless juggernaut that cuts down anyone in its way. I look at the faces of kids now much, much older, and wonder how things fared for them. I think of the many ironies that we confronted daily. Chief among them was our daily trek in the IRC jeep  to the First Air Cavalry base tocollect empty wooden rocket boxes. We would break down the boxes, load them onto the trailer, and haul them back to the village where they were used to build homes, furniture and pens for animals.

One of our proudest achievements was acquiring approval to send one of the villagers to Saigon to be trained as a carpenter  so that he could return andstart a training program for village youth. Another of those ironies is that when he came back home we used quite a few rocket boxes in the construction of the open air school and for quite some time they were the basic material for the kids to work on. One is reminded of the notion of turning swords into ploughshares. I have quite a  few slides of the school, kidsworking on projects, as well as the ceremonial gathering to celebrate its completion and  the start of school. I remember quite vividly giving in alltoo readily to invitations to have just one more sip of rice wine.

One slide that I have looked at over and over again is of one of my little buddies sitting astride the bamboo jungle gym that we built with a big, wide, contented grin on his face. I suspected then, and still believe now, that he saw it as a neat sort of perch on high from which he could survey his dominion. Kind of a human aerie. Over time, the kids started to scramble all over this strange contraption with unbridled glee. It was satisfying in many ways, but none the least of which  was that even the youngestchild in the village could experience a few moments of unfettered play in a world rife with interminably hard work and the daily consequences of manmade tragedy.

Among the many images is a series that records the day we took the village kids down to the river for a swim and picnic. Their beautiful faces shine brightly against the backdrop of the sundrenched, sparkling water. I did not need these images to remember their faces, to feel again the effects of their generous spirits. But as I sat here at my desk mesmerized by the images in front of me, I felt again the warmth of sun, savored the music of the river’s rushing currents, and heard again the laughs and spirited banter of kids being kids, kids surrounded daily by a war they had nothing at all to do with, a war that seemed as senseless then as it does now. We lost several of those kids some months later, the result of mistaken identity. I think often of them and of the lives that could have been. Lives cut short by unconscionable stupidity and  ineptitude. Read the news any day of the week and itis clear that not much has changed.

There is much about the past that I try to forget. But I will never forget the people of AnLuong.

They gave me far more than I ever could have given them.

1
Text Only
Hawthorn Hill
  • A farewell essay More years ago than I care to contemplate, I very sheepishly sent a column in fully expecting it would be rejected. Lo and behold, it appeared shortly thereafter and for almost twenty years now I have have written these bi-weekly columns, first under the heading of "The Timely Writer" for The Freemans Journal and, for the last several years as "Up on Hawthorn Hill" with the Cooperstown Crier.

    July 17, 2014

  • Writing in the age of ad hominisms This past week several readers of these columns have asked about my absence of late. The honest answer is that there are times when the well runs a bit dry and one’s enthusiasm for forcing words on to the page wanes.

    June 26, 2014

  • Robinson novels show grace, intelligence I have been reading the novels of Marilynne Robinson the past several weeks. She writes with such grace and intelligence that I find myself rereading sections several times over to savor their exquisite taste and, in some instances, to make sure I have grasped the meaning of what she has written.

    May 1, 2014

  • Giving aid to Cornell at my window For quite a few years now I have participated in Cornell's Project Feeder Watch.

    April 10, 2014

  • Birder admits he confuses non-birding world I often run into people who ask me what it is about watching and studying birds that birders like me find so appealing.

    March 20, 2014

  • Olympics spirit in need of repair It is time to rethink what the Olympics ought to be about.

    February 27, 2014

  • Late night drive stirs morning man It has been a long time since my last stint at the wheel in the wee hours of the morning. Several days ago the phone rang at 1 a.m. Never a good sign. Within minutes I was in the car heading for Boston. The sun and I got there at about the same time. Fortunately, the late night emergency that required the trip has resolved itself, all is well, and I was able to head back home the following day.

    February 13, 2014

  • Shopping is never fun, simple I am not a shopper. Quick ins and outs are what appeal to me. The sooner the ordeal is over the better.

    January 16, 2014

  • Wondering if Holidays are worth the stress

    January 2, 2014

  • Laziness must be overcome An essayist in a weekly magazine, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, characterizes the past year as exhibiting an uncommon penchant for laziness.

    December 19, 2013