About what the motorcyclists
see on the fields in Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau
In the morning after many
cups of coffee and Vietnamese cigarettes, Hellmantle was jittery from the
volume of coffee intake so he again popped betel nut and chewed until his teeth
were bright red. The visit to Dien Bien Phu was much more personal for
Hellmantle, D'Aqs thought to himself. He knew so much about the battle and all
the details surrounding the death of his grandfather Dane Hellmantle that he
needed to take the edge off. His face crinkled in bitter distaste once again
when he chewed it. After drinking more coffee his teeth were orange when he
"Don't give me that look.
I'm master of my own vessel and I can do whatever I want in this country.
You're not my mother. Nor are you my chaperon. You are my squire who is still
getting his motorcycling legs. I need to look out for you on these roads, so it
behooves me to have a calm state of mind."
"I didn't say anything."
"No, of course you didn't.
But you looked at me like I'm crazy. We're on an archaeological espionage
operation, an important one at that, so I don't want your shadows casting
second thoughts on our holy quest."
"I know from experience that
he who sticks his head in a beehive will get a face full of honey," he replied.
He didn't say it but D'Aqs now had a guarded trust and an undeserved
supernatural faith in Hellmantle, perhaps because he had taken them this far
without as much as a scratch on him. He looked at the redness spreading around
the cut on his throttle hand.
"I like honey," said
Hellmantle. "Besides, I would have preferred something else but God brought
that man with the betel to our table so who am I to disagree with providence?"
It occurred to D'Aqs that he was acting the tole of the mother. Why should he
confound this man in front of him who so obviously had belief and serendipity
that appeared to override injury or misfortune?
D'Aqs patted him on the
shoulder as if saying ‘it's all right,' but Hellmantle jumped back at the
contact. Looked at him like D'Aqs had crossed a line. He took a deep breath as
his cousin spoke thus:
"It's going to be kind of
hard today for you seeing where your grandfather died and all, so just stay
loose with it all." Hellmentle showed no emotion at this. Instead he put on his
sunglasses so D'Aqs wouldn't scrutinize him. They sat in the shade at the hotel
café and watched the day heat up from under slow turning ceiling fans, planning
their day with the map outstretched on the table.
Dien Bien Phu was a small little town
with a main street that seemed to have only motorcycle mechanics and garages.
Hellmantle didn't waste any time following the map to the battleground. It was
a strange sight seeing the artillery still strewn across the field a hundred
feet from the main trench. Three big machine guns were still there, broken and
battered but a testament to the history that had taken place here nearly fifty
years ago. It was what made the sight so eerie, as if the battle had just ended
last week. Hellmantle squinted under the glare of the sun looking for the
remnants of French Legionnaires that had been lost on the field, but there were
none to be found.
Parking his bike, he walked
out onto the field and then stopped. The deep-green hue of the grass matched
the weathered military green of the guns that had failed to keep the Viet
Minh from overtaking the French forces fighting to the last man. The
50-meter trench was still exactly as it had been during the battle. The field
fell away to a wooded field below but there was a ridge to the north that had
been where the Viet Mingh hid. The trench was locked off so he couldn't
open the door and walk in the trench. Just as well because Hellmantle could
sense the spirits still stirring around the trench and it might be unwise to
tamper with them. It was more than enough standing on the battlefield.
on the motorcycles, they followed the road a hundred meters or so until they
found some graves. They dismounted and together checked the tombstones
carefully but did not find one with the name Dane Hellmantle.
"He only had two-and-a-half
months left in his five-year commitment to the Legion before Grampa was killed.
It saddens me that my father never had the chance to visit his father's grave,"
said Hellmantle, who was now emotional. He watched the birds flying from tree
to tree all around them.
Hellmantle walked dejectly
to a large memorial in the middle of the cemetery where a French flag waverd in
the wind. D'Aqs followed.
way!" he yelled, standing in front of the memorial. He pointed at the list of
names etched into the marble monument. They both scanned the names to find "H"
where they saw the surname Hellmantle.
it is!" said D'Aqs, leaning over to read what was inscribed beside
"Hellmantle, Dane G:"
Take this sword: its brightness stands for
its point for hope, its guard for charity. Use it
"Do you know what that is?"
"No," D'Aqs replied.
"That's the Knight's
Hospitaller Rite of Profession Oath."
"Are you sure?"
"Need you ask?" Hellmantle
took out his flask filled with Jamieson's Irish Whiskey. "To the Great Dane,"
he said. "May you never be forgotten. Salut." He took a swig and handed
it to D'Aqs. It was still early for a drink but he held the flask up in a toast
to the Great Dane.
respect, to my great uncle I never knew but whom I respect. Salut."
Swigged, held in a gag, and handed it to Hellmantle.
the Great Dane's identical twin," he said, drinking again. "From one twin to
"Looking out to the
battlefield I can feel it. Imagine the hundreds who parachuted in to
save their countrymen."
no supplies or ammo, dropping into almost certain death." The wind stirred and
the birds fly overhead in flocks.
"It's like there are
restless spirits here," said D'Aqs, spooked.
"I thought if we found his
grave then I would have closure and want to have a drink."
"So it was worth lugging
that bottle here." They both had another drink from the flask in front of a
sign that read: "Battle of Dien Bien Phu, May 6, 1954."
"Do you have
"Not sure yet. I'll let you
know when we get back to Hanoi." D'Aqs, who had compassion for those who
honored the dead, left him there to have a private moment.
"Grampa, I don't think I
ever told you I loved you. I wanted to say it now. I hope you can hear me."
Just then a hummingbird appeared in front of him, stopped mid-air flapping its
wings, and looked at Hellmantle. He raised his flask and drank. The hummingbird
hovered, the fluttering sound crisp, and then moved closer. "And in
acknowledgment to the pain he had from losing a twin. We share that. And that
comforts me." Another toast. When the hummingbird darted off, he experienced a
new emotion, one that he could not put words to. He wondered if it was elation,
or a deeper comprehension of what religion was to a man, his heart fluttered
with the rapidity of hummingbird wings, a feeling he embraced and knew would
never leave him. Without a word he left the site of the Great Dane's bones
feeling uplifted, and having a new appreciation for the mystery of the