The Wall

In the 1970’s and 80’s I was living and working in Berlin. And occasionally in those years I would make a wrong turn while looking for an unfamiliar address and end up facing The Wall. It was always disarming. I was living an ordinary life – except that I couldn’t walk, bike, or drive out of the city without running the East German gauntlet of checkpoints, blockades, and restricted rest stops. Life seemed normal enough – get the kids to school, go to work, shop at the local supermarket, hang out in trendy bars and cafes, and run in the Grunewald with the wild boars. That part was a little sketchy sometimes, but for the most part it seemed like a normal life. Then there was The Wall.

Right now, I’m sitting in an American espresso bar across the street from the US Consulate in Saigon watching the traffic ebb and flow as 6 million motorbikes move people around in some sort of system that I still don’t understand though I’ve been observing it for 2 1/2 years. Things look normal but, like The Wall in Berlin, the Consulate is a reminder that everything here is not entirely normal. The Consulate sits where the US Embassy did on April 30, 1975. That date marked the fall of Saigon and the chaos as thousands of Americans and South Vietnamese struggled to exit the city as the NVA was entering. I’m about a block from the site where the last helicopter lifted off a building with people hanging onto the skids (taken just after the one above).

The NVA stormed the Embassy grounds and destroyed most of what was there. By then the Americans and some of our loyal friends were safely aboard ships of the Seventh Fleet lying off the coast. I have friends here who have never seen family members since that day. I have one friend whose mother left him to go back and get another relative. The people at the airport put him on an airplane for Guam and the mother never made it. 17 years later, he got a call, routed through Canada (there was no contact between Vietnam and the US). It was his mother. Neither he nor his mother had any idea if the other was still alive until then. He was in college at San Jose State and his mother was running a tour business for the government. They are reunited now and he runs his mother’s successful private tour business. Good story. But, not all of the stories are that good.

The Embassy grounds were repatriated in 1995 when Vietnam re-deeded the property to the US. The Consulate was rebuilt and diplomatic relations between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the United States resumed. I attended a ceremony celebrating 15 years of those relations last year and listened to speeches by diplomats of both countries extoll the virtues and successes of this relationship. As someone in the State Department recently said of Iraq “mistakes were made.” The diplomats here didn’t say that. I did.

I feel privileged to be part of the reconciliation process, but I keep running into The Wall, whether it’s in Berlin, Saigon or Jerusalem. Maybe someday I’ll make a wrong turn in Baghdad and see The Wall.

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