School’s Out and the War Is On
"Hole in the Wall," a prose debut by An Pham
School’s Out and the War Is On
The Hole in the Wall
It was 1968 and three days after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. There was supposed to be a festival for Mau Than, The Year of the Monkey. The food was prepared to welcome the New Year, where the festivities would have begun with fireworks at the zero hour of the first night of the lunar calendar. The next day families would have been busily criss-crossing the road in their new clothes to visit their elders to pay respects, but there was none of that. The dead needed to be buried. The damaged homes needed to be repaired. The adults were resigned to the fact that the war had reached a new turning point and the fighting was no longer limited to the jungle, but entering towns and cities. It could be anywhere now.
While the adults were busy with their grim tasks, we still had not gone back to school, leaving us to seek the comfort of friends. We crawled out of our homes and assembled in groups. My friends and I decided to walk to the church on a high hill, erected for the whole village to look up to. This was where the cross was closest to heaven. The churchyard was the biggest open area of the village, and we heard this was where the most fighting occurred. It was a steep hill for small kids like us, but we walked up at least once a week for the holy mass on Sunday. When other kids saw where we were going, they joined us.
The air felt dry, with the monsoons still more than two months away. The grass was all shriveled up on the pedestrian dirt road beside the “American Route 1” paved road for military vehicles. Each step we took stirred up a cloud of dirty cement powder that stuck to the sweaty bare skin exposed between the straps of our flip-flops.
There were cartridges from spent weapons on the ground. Here and there bullet holes punctured the walls of houses. We learned to recognize the small holes shot from the ground, the bigger holes from tank guns, and the holes in roofs created from the guns in helicopters.
We’d heard some people had died, but they were not direct relatives, so there was little concern in our young minds. No outside playtime had been enforced for a few days and this seemed like an eternity, even with all the holiday treats we enjoyed. We gathered not with the intention to play but rather, acknowledgement of the friendship that bonded us as survivors of mutual hardships. This war had been going on our entire lives, and even before we were born.
As we walked, hands gripped hands and arms wrapped around shoulders in quiet solidarity. We listened to stories of who did what, at what time, and how we woke up to gunshots mistaken for fireworks. We only understood later it was a surprise attack.
After a while, being children, we started paying attention to the litter on the dirt road. The new litter had many more shiny objects than usual. There were copper spent cartridges of M16s and M79s and bigger cartridges from machine guns on tanks and helicopters.
Finally we reached the churchyard. There we stumbled upon an unexploded grenade from an M79. It was about the size of a mangosteen and must not have rotated enough times in the air to trigger the explosion.
We were very curious about the object but also cautious about the unknown power of any weapon. Although we’d never heard of a bullet with the ability to explode after leaving its cartridge housing, we were still careful, staying far away as we threw rocks at it.
From small rocks to bigger ones we took turns trying to hit the grenade. No one had achieved the goal of a direct hit. After a while the object presented itself as less mysterious and as my turn came again I decided to walk closer to take a look, rock in hand. As I came closer I dropped the rock, and instead of picking it back up, on a whim, I picked up the grenade and threw it. At seven years old, I threw it as hard as I could over the large cement structure of the priests’ tomb, maybe twenty yards.
There was a flash of light, a tremendous boom, and then smoke and dirt blasted through the air. As the smoke cleared, a hole in the base of a brick wall appeared, surrounded by a burnt edge. We panicked and ran away from the crime scene. I strained to take in enough air as the hard beating of my heart cried for help on the long run home.
Our little game became the biggest news in the village. By now all the kids had told many different versions of the event. My version was still formulating in my mind during my parents’ interrogation. I hoped to dodge responsibility for the explosion and the cost to fix the damaged wall, which happened to be my uncle’s.
My parents’ angry mood was tempered by the fact that I was still alive. Having thrown a live grenade was nothing in comparison to the Tet Offensive, and so was viewed as minor mischief. My parents smoothed out things with my uncle behind the scenes without my knowing the details.
Later, as an adult, I would think about my dumb luck: That my throwing didn’t cause the grenade to rotate enough to activate the explosion until it was twenty yards away and that the priests’ tomb had been high enough to block the fragments of shrapnel from hitting me and the other children. Whenever I search for answers to what the war meant in my own life, behind a smoke screen, the hole in my memory is like the hole the grenade blasted. It feels like nothing, a void with undefined contours and untouchable depths.