by Richard Sterling
At the beginning of a new year, Richard Sterling, author of The Fire Never Dies: One Man’s Raucous Romp Down the Road of Food, Passion and Adventure, remembers a small kindness he once offered in a time of war, and its surprising ramifications many years later.
I was still quite a young GI, but I had had a full combat tour in Vietnam, and that was more than enough, when in April of 1975 I was sent back in as a member of the expeditionary force tasked with extracting the South Vietnamese government, their dependents, and many thousands of fleeing civilians. All was disorder, and our efforts were reduced to ad lib and impromptu, and I just didn’t want to be the last to die in a useless war. In the chaos of bringing people to boats to be sent down river to safety I saw a young boy of about six. He had been separated from his family and was crying, rather softly in the noise and tumult, as war children will do. I scooped the boy up as we hurried to the docks, hoisted him to my shoulder and he clung to my neck instinctively.
His name was Duk. I kept him close to me throughout the day and into the night as the North Vietnamese army prepared its final assault on the city of Saigon, and we made our way to a ship of the US 7th fleet lying offshore. There the boy and I stayed together, eating and sleeping and recuperating on the weather decks until late the next day when his family was located on another ship. I carried Duk down the accommodation ladder to a whaleboat. And I felt the need to give him something, a gift of some kind, something of me. I had nothing else, so I took off my cap and placed it on his head. He gave me a little soldier’s salute, and I sent him reluctantly off to his future.
Fast forward 15 years to summer. At a company picnic, by fate or by breathtaking coincidence, I met a young man who turned out to be “the boy.” Duk was an inch taller than I, dangerously handsome, and he told me that he had just graduated from Stanford University. And that my cap still hangs on the wall in his room.
I’ve never had a richer gift.
Richard Sterling is the author of The Fire Never Dies:One Man’s Raucous Romp Down the Road of Food, Passion and Adventure and How to Eat Around the World. He has edited several books for Travelers’ Tales including Travelers’ Tales Food and The Adventure of Food.
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