Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter
Still the Street Without Joy
Robert Flynn, San Antonio, TX
There is only one road north out of Da Nan to Phu Bai and Gia Le, and beyond Hue, Quang Tri, Dong Ha, Camp Carroll, the Rock Pile, Khe Sahn. Just north of Da Nang that one road passes through the mountainous Hai Van Pass that GI truck drivers used to call "the pucker factor." It is six and a half miles up to the pass, six and a half miles down and under the best conditions it took the tankers and sea-land vans of the military convoys an hour and a half o grinding through the hairpin turns, sitting ducks for ambushes. The first time you saw the Hai Van was from the back of a guntruck escorting a convoy. The day before a convoy had run into an ambush and the driver of the guntruck had been killed trying to get the truck's guns into position to take up the fire and permit the other trucks to escape. The crew was surly and clouds obscured the pass and a waiting ambush that never got close enough to hit anything, but you could not ignore the beauty of the waterfalls above and the ocean crashing on the rocky shore below.
Once a truck lost its brakes coming down from the pass. The bobtails that were supposed to push overloaded trucks up to the pass and then get in front to act as brakes as the trucks came down from the pass were unable to catch the truck. The driver risked his life running the truck into a rice paddy rather than driving the out-of-control truck through the village of Lang Co where carts, peasants and children crowded the road.
Another driver lost his brakes coming down the Hai Van and the heavy truck overturned on the shoulder of the road, high above the rocky shore below. When you saw him the driver was lying on his back beside the road, uninjured but so shaken he was unable to stand.
Vietnam is peaceful now and there are few trucks and even fewere cars on what the French called "The Street Without Joy." Neat concrete houses with tile roofs cover Red Beach, where once trucks lined up for a last check before attempting the pass. The old U.S. bases are but scraps of memories and metal: piles of rusting wire, crushed steel helmets, shells, casings, GI cans, airplane parts. At Phu Bai some concrete remains. Camp Eagle is barren and appears salted. Along the highway, artillery shells with fuses removed are occasionally used for mile markers.
You think you find Camp Baxter. There was never much at Camp Baxter and there is even less now. Even the name camp Baxter is gone. Back in the world most people never heard of it. Those who did have perhaps forgotten, but it was named for PFC Larry Baxter, of Pierce City, Missouri, who drove a truck carrying 5,000 gallons of gasoline. It wasn't a glamorous job, not the kind that brought promotions or medals. It was just a job that someone had to do. You don't know anything about Baxter. His race or religion. You don't know whether he was drafted or volunteered. You don't know how he felt about the war. Or about his country. All you know is what he did. Baxter's truck was hit by a rocket propelled grenade and set afire. Baxter could have jumped out of the blazing truck and saved his life, but that would have trapped the trucks on the road behind him. Disregarding his own safety, Baxter drove the vehicle through intense enemy fire and despite being critically wounded, drove the tanker over an embankment ensuring his own death but saving the lives of his comrades.
Baxter was posthumously awarded a Silver Star, not much of an award for one's life, but a camp was named for him. Now that too is gone, having had an even shorter life than Baxter. You don't have many heroes left. One by one they crumbled on feet of clay, and you have become too old or wise or eccentric to consider rock musicians, athletes or actors as heroes. Larry Baxter is one of your heroes and you will never forget, even though Camp Baxter is gone. Last summer you rode "The Street Without Joy" for perhaps the last time. The road passed quickly, impossibly fast. The Hai Van was sunny, beautiful. You felt a disappointment you were unable to explain. You had come to relive a feeling, to locate, pin down, maybe define a moment that did not come. Suddenly, in the Hai Van, you saw a truck bed that seemed to be in the same spot you had seen an overturned truck during the war, the shaken driver lying beside it. It was unlikely to have been the same one, but you were so startled you could only stare, frozen, unable to snap a shot, and had to make a return trip for the photograph.
On the return trip there were no clouds and a few trickling streams had replaced the waterfalls. A cheerful American talked of the glorious craggy coast, the picturesque mountain road, the exotic stone fortress that predated the French. He saw nothing, nothing, and you were filled with a rage you had not known for a long time. He knew nothing, nothing of what you knew, and he will someday be followed by thousands of tourists who will know no more than he knows. You wished for an M-16 so you could poke it into the point of his jaw just below his ear, so that for a moment he would know.
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