Monday, September 15, 2008

Echoes of the Mekong

There's been a lot of talk about heroes lately. I recently lost one of mine. He wasn't famous or anything. But he was someone I really admired. He was a writer and a historian and a Captain in the U.S. Navy. His name was Peter Huchthausen.
I first met Peter during a visit to my parent's house on Frye Island in Maine. Peter had a house there too. He had just written a book called Echoes of the Mekong. My parents had read it and they both loved it. They sent me a copy because they thought it would make a great movie. I was living in New York at the time and had recently begun to concentrate on writing screenplays. I read the book and I loved it too. I decided to meet Peter and ask him if I could adapt it into a screenplay.
I'll never forget our first encounter. Peter arrived in a small motorboat, which he moored at a small dock at the end of the road near my parent's house. He wore a black fishing cap and a windbreaker and had the ruddy face of a seafaring man. I greeted him and we walked up the road to my parent's house. By the time we got to the driveway we had already reached an agreement about the screenplay. We shook hands and that was that. In all the years I knew him we never needed a more formal agreement than that handshake. I knew right away that this was a man I could always rely on.
I went back to New York and banged out a first draft of the script. It was an amazing story of courage and hope in the face of the horrors of war. Peter had served as captain of a river patrol boat on the Mekong River during the Vietnam War. One afternoon, he and his crew rescued a badly wounded young girl named Lung. She had lost her leg in a 'friendly fire' incident -- meaning she'd been shot by an American gunship. Peter brought her back to his base where he and some of the other sailors arranged for her treatment and rehabilitation. When she was well enough, they sent her to school. During the Tet offensive, however, the school was bombed and Lung was forced to flee for safety. Peter tried to find her, but she was lost in a sea of refugees. Peter left Vietnam without knowing her fate.
Lung's life after the war was filled with hardship and danger. Due to her association with the Americans, she was considered a traitor by the Communists who were in power. She had to live as a fugitive to avoid being sent to a concentration camp for "re-education." She fell in love with another fugitive and became pregnant, but he disappeared before their daughter was born. Lung vowed that her daughter would have a better life and hoped for a way to make it possible. One of the few possessions she had kept with her since childhood was a photograph of her and Peter. She managed to get a copy of the photo into the hands of an American journalist, who got it published in Stars and Stripes, the armed forces newspaper. When Peter saw the picture and accompanying story, he was overjoyed. He contacted the journalist and the two of them arranged for Lung and her daughter to come to the United States.
I wanted the screenplay to remain as true to the book as possible, because I felt that the plain facts carried tremendous impact. There were numerous instances where both Peter and Lung showed great strength and faith and I wanted to honor their story. I had never done an adaptation before, and certainly not one where the story was true and the author was someone I knew. I sent Peter the script and made arrangements to meet with him back up on Frye Island.
When I met with Peter for our first 'script conference' I was prepared to be told that I had gotten everything wrong and completely screwed up the story. What did I know about being in the middle of a firefight in the Mekong River? Or having my leg shot off? Or watching a comrade die right before my eyes? Or fleeing from my town as artillery shells exploded all around me?
To my surprise, Peter was very pleased with the script and had very few criticisms. I remember one in particular, when I had referred to the sound of the "waves" lapping against the side of Peter's river patrol boat. He corrected me, "there aren't waves in a river, there's current." He made a couple other such corrections, mostly technical things, then he started showing me some of the photographs from his time in Vietnam. Including the one of him and Lung that served as Lung's passport to freedom.
Many of the photos were of Peter and his buddies, some of the naval base and some were just pictures of the extremely beautiful country where so many terrible things had taken place. Every once in a while, Peter would look at a picture and point to one of the people in it. His voice would grow hoarse and his eyes glassy as he told me how and where that particular man had given his life. As I watched him describe the battles he had fought, I realized that a part of him will never return from that place. And even though he survived the war, he lost something very precious that people like me tend to take for granted. He lost a part of his soul.
Maybe that was why it was so important for him to try and help at least one young girl get through the war without being destroyed by it.
Peter left Vietnam after questioning the ethics of a covert operation his crew was involved in. Captured North Vietnamese soldiers were being rearmed and sent back into the field as paid assassins in the service of the CIA. They received a certain amount of money for each human ear they turned in, indicating the number of 'kills' they'd scored. The trouble was, you couldn't really tell one ear from another, and sometimes the assassins would just kill whoever they found, including civilians and South Vietnamese soldiers. When Peter reported this information to his superiors, he was told to 'walk away' -- the project was an overall success, so don't rock the boat. Soon after that, he was transferred.
For a time, Peter served on an aircraft carrier patrolling the South China Sea. Periodically, the ship would encounter boats filled with refugees trying to escape the war. One of Peter's duties was to investigate the boats and offer them what little assistance he was allowed. He scanned the faces of the refugees, wondering if he would ever find Lung among them. He never stopped thinking about her, despite the gulf of time and distance between them. In just a few months, they had forged a bond that crossed the boundaries of age and language and culture. They had made a real human connection in a time and place where humanity was in very short supply. That connection also kept Lung going during her years as a fugitive.
When they were reunited, one of the first places they went was the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. Lung wanted to say thank you to the people who had given their lives for her freedom.
I met Lung and her beautiful daughter Trang at Peter's house on Frye Island. Knowing what she had been through to get there, it was almost unbelievable to see her in person. When I saw Trang, who was born on the dirt floor of a thatched hut while mortar shells exploded a few hundred yards away, it was like witnessing a miracle. The two of them looked at Peter with adoration. He was their saviour. But in a way, they were his saviours, too. Because despite all of the brutality and violence and terror he had witnessed, knowing that he was able to help give Lung and Trang a better life gave Peter something truly meaningful to hang in the balance.
When he said goodbye to his men before leaving Vietnam, Peter told them, "Don't lose sight of your humanity, because that's the only thing that's going to get you through this." I think that's what makes Peter a hero to me. It's not just bravery in the face of fear that counts, but also bravery in the face of doubt. Sometimes we are asked to put aside our basic values in order to serve a 'greater good'. We are told that the end justifies the means. That our enemies do not deserve our understanding or compassion, or humanity. It is at those times, more than ever, that we need to hold on to our values. Because it is at those times that our values will serve us best.
That is what a hero should do. That's what Peter did. And I miss him.