Body Count

March 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

lavang_1They are gentle men, courteous, willing, courtly even. I invite them to sit in a chair and I bow to them, a greeting they return. I take their hands one at a time and rub lavender oil into each palm. I rub my own hands together and invite them to do the same. Then I hold my palms in front of my face and breathe. They mimic me, usually gasping a bit with the effort to please. I mime breathing slowly and deeply. The lavender is meant to calm the nervous system and maybe it works. What works for both of us is my hands on their hands.

Sometimes they show me where it hurts. Usually it is neck and shoulders. Sometimes lower back. I trace the line they show me and reassure them that I will tell the doctor. Sometimes when I open their palms for the oil they clutch my hand and squeeze it. I look into their eyes.

Then I take a different bottle, an oil mixture called Valor, and kneel in front of them. My knees protest. I am as old as they are and feeling it. But I kneel on one knee and take their feet. Usually they are wearing plastic scuffs, which they kick off as soon as they understand what is happening. I trace a line of oil along the sole of the foot once, twice, three times. The foot is usually dusty, sometimes calloused. I wish I had warm water but what I have is oil and my own hands. I trace the lines and then I hold the foot for a moment, saying a wordless prayer.

From my station they move to the chiropractic table. I gesture for them to lie face down so that John can do what he can in a few minutes’ time to realign vertebrae, unknot muscles, ease aches. We all see old bullet wounds or the tracks of shrapnel. Their backs have been exposed before, when they were crawling through the jungle.

John always asks them, through our interpreter Anh, where they served. There is excitement when it is discovered the first man fought at Quang Tri.

“Mark!” John calls. “Quang Tri!”

Mark comes over. I gesture to him as I look at the man and say “Quang Tri!”

They understand. They look at each other with wonder and delight. They want a picture taken, arms around one another. Then that man moves to the table and when we ask the next one where he served, once again it is Quang Tri. Again Mark is summoned. Again the recognition, the arms around shoulders, the pictures. I return to work bowing, anointing hands and feet. Around me I hear the questions. Again I hear “Quang Tri.” It becomes an invocation.

Mark was at Quang Tri only a short time, at the church at La Vang. His foxhole was in a grove of trees which we found, beside a line of sculptures called “Stations,” strange figures that presided over years violence. Two days after he was pulled out, his unit was overrun. There were 16 casualties, eight killed. Some of the men who are here today for treatment fought later, in 1972 or 1973, but for some the years overlapped.

I speak quietly to Mark. “It is hard,” I say, “not to think about who might have been where on which day.”

He waves it away with resignation and acceptance. There is no point in thinking that way. The dead are dead. The veterans all have suffered and on this day they meet one another in friendship.

I return to my job, holding the next pair of feet in my hands, praying for the man’s children, my children, the next generations.

“How many today?” someone asks on the bus.

“All the ones who are staying there,” is the answer. “We treated 60 NVA today.”

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