Dum Spiramus Tueblum (While We Breathe, We Shall Defend)
War and courage parade arm-in-arm. Then again, war and cowardice slink off together, too. This is a story from the Vietnam War. It’s not about charging entrenched machineguns or crawling under fire to reach a wounded buddy. But it’s courage, nevertheless.
As autumn frost drains green chlorophyll from the leaves, uncovering their bold reds or powdery yellows, so courage is a catalyst for character. Courage does not emerge; it reveals. It calls one’s underlying nature to step forward. Or, sometimes, it challenges him or her to stand firm, a quiet bravery without citations, an unflinching dedication to mission.
One March afternoon in 1969 I was on the deck of a Chinese junk listening to the water clop against the wooden hull and enjoying a breeze that blew toward the South China Seas. The junk bobbed rhythmically with twenty other boats tethered to the Phan Thiet wharf. At sunset, Paul Dettman and I would sail for Phu Qui Island fifty-two klicks and twenty-four hours away to reconnoiter that sandy speck so tiny and remote the Hueys refused to go looking for it because the ocean winds were strong and they might run out of fuel before finding it.
The boat beside me rocked with the wake while its crew loaded bagged rice, cans of diesel fuel and blocks of ice into its hold. Its engine grumbled softly, its battened sail furled. Painted on the prow was the Yin-Yang, the eternal opposites entwined in twisting drops -- copulating, begetting and obliterating all in turn. The frozen symbol forever swirling: woman-man, wet-dry, dark-light, passive–active, life-death. Nature’s perpetual motion machine.
Among the burlap sacks, stinking tarps and rope coils a woman squatted, nursing her infant. She wore black pajama bottoms and a coarse brown blouse, pulled open to expose her breast for the child. She held the dirty rag covering her head like an awning above the baby’s naked body.
The boy looked fat, healthy and happy. The pudgy fingers dimpled her sagging breast, his perfect mouth greedy about the nipple, the ruddy cheeks sucking hard.
Her cheeks, too, were red – but not with health’s glow. She was young enough to bear a child, but there was nothing youthful about her. Her jaundiced flesh stretched tightly across her brow before running like ratlines from the shrouds that were her cheekbones. Her eyes, afloat on bloody rims, stared dully toward the wharf and shops and the muffled breakers beyond.
Suddenly, she began coughing and convulsing. Her thin chest bowed while she struggled to breathe through the inflamed bronchial tubes and lesion encrusted lungs. Seeming to notice the child for the first time, she laid him gently on the deck. Accustom to this ritual the infant did not cry, but instead rolled on his blanket and smiled up at the tropical sky.
Trembling, she took a glass vial from her blouse, bit off the top, and drank the green fluid. Even where I sat, amid the drying fish and engine oil, I smelled the odor of mint. Her coughing ceased and the woman, motionless except for her wide and darting eyes, paused to assess her condition. Satisfied she would yet live (for awhile anyway), she began clearing her airways by bracing against the gunwale and hitching like a vomiting dog.
Having hauled the streaked sputum from its passageway, she gathered it behind her teeth, leaned over the side and spat. The glob pancaked out, undulated a few seconds, then fluttered beneath the tinted waves like a great crimson insect and disappeared. Looking both amazed and exhausted, she watched it go.
Returning to the child, she cradled him, settled the nipple between his gums, and recommenced her wait. From one bosom came life and death – eternal, perpetual, forever bound. Yet even before impending death, life is served.
And the junks, acknowledging, nodded knowingly with the lapping water and accepted.