AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 14

The cell is built of hewn rock with a concrete ceiling. Its floor is a framework of iron bars soldered together, forming little squares that a prisoner cannot get through. Under the floor is a tunnel filled with water that can be connected with different outlets. Rats, toads, cockroaches and all kinds of insects populate the tunnel. In the rainy season, the water is up to the cell floor. In the dry season, the water subsides, and the tunnel is muddy, filled with mosquitoes. The steel door to the cell is only large enough for one person to enter. The prisoner sleeps on this iron framework. He urinates and defecates into the tunnel. There is no toilet paper in the cell. There is no regular time for bathing. The prisoner will get a bath only when the guard feels like it’s time to bestow that blessing on him. The prisoner also has to keep discipline to be entitled to that privilege.

James Fisher has been thrown into this cell because he “didn’t cooperate with the re-education process.” He has refused to write what he believes is contrary to the truth. His captors were pampering him for a while before punishing him for his decision not to betray his country. James will not betray his country. To do so is to betray his ancestors, parents, relatives and friends. Doing so is like alienating himself from his nation, and wherever he goes or lives, James would never forgive himself for that. James Fisher wants to be a man of integrity, truthful to himself all his life. “Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” James cannot say “Yea” on the things that his conscience says “Nay.” And he’s determined to carry the cross in his quest for righteousness.

The cell has no air vents. The only source of fresh air comes from a cave in the tunnel. It seems like there is more carbon dioxide here than fresh air. James is wearing a prison uniform. His hand and feet are no longer bound in handcuffs or chains. The guards deliberately forget to give him a blanket or a mat. James will sleep on this frame of iron bars. Twice a day, they open the door to give him a bowl of plain rice and a cup of water. If Ly Ba So prison is considered hell, then James is now in its third cycle. This third cycle is more comfortable that the second. Here James only endures the cold at night, and doesn’t have to suffer the burning heat of day. There is a terrible foul smell in this cave, but James has gotten used to it. James Fisher, the truthful soldier, has no idea about the mystery of the game of ideology, which doesn’t aim at causing its victim to die of hunger or thirst. It only wants him to go through extreme hunger and thirst. It doesn’t want a person to die. It only wants him to be afraid of death. Its purpose is not for its victim to collapse, but for him to be exhausted. The people who run this game are clever enough not to push their victim against the wall, so as not to incite any violent reaction. They know when it is the right time to shed some rays of hope into the heart of the desperate prisoner. The secret of the game is to make its victim crave for food to survive; and for survival’s sake, the person may have to become a coward, ready to do or say whatever his captors order him. James’ captors know very well that they cannot let him die. They are still expecting him to write a statement condemning the leaders at the White House and the Pentagon. Chi Mai has studied his file carefully. She knows that as a Christian, James will never commit suicide.

James hasn’t been able to sleep at all. Day and night, mosquitoes are surrounding him. The hungry rats don’t give him a break either. They bite his fingers and gnaw at his toes, causing him to scream out with terror. James cannot lie down or even sit. He has to stand up most of the time, using his hands to fight away the mosquitoes, and stamping his feet to drive off the rats. James has no sooner ceased to be afraid of man’s punishment that he begins to fear these mosquitoes and rats, which harass him constantly.

One night, James reaches down to drink from his cup of water. Something rough irritates his throat as he swallows the water. James crushes a rough little creature that clings to his arm; he puts his hand to his nose and realizes it is a cockroach. James knows he has swallowed a live cockroach. He suddenly feels nauseous and tries to cough it up. He coughs and coughs, but the poor creature doesn’t come out. It has been moved to his stomach. James is terrified. He has the feeling that its toxin will cause his body to contort, and he will die a painful death. The moment of waiting for death to come strains his nerves. James screams. But the crisis gradually passes. There is no reaction in his body. James is still alive. The American soldier is still alive although he has swallowed a live cockroach. Man’s survival instinct is one of the wonderful things that God has created. James has discovered that truth and is no longer afraid of rats and mosquitoes. Overcome by fatigue due to lack of sleep, James lies down on the iron frame and falls asleep. He completely ignores the mosquitoes hovering and the rats gnawing at his toes.

His cell is probably near where Vietnamese political prisoners are held. James is awakened by the clinging sound of the metallic bar used as a gong. When the bullfrogs stop croaking, the first round of clinging sound tells him it’s morning. The second round of clinging announces noon, and the third round lets him know it’s evening. After the third round is the time for the rats and cockroaches to wreak havoc. James believes the sound of the metallic bar has an air of hatred in it. It reminds the prisoner of the punishment he is enduring, and of the bleak presence of death around him. How bitter they are, the memories being brought back by the sound of that metallic bar! It intensifies his feeling of loneliness, and makes him miss his family more. How sad it is, the sound of the metallic bar at this prison camp in Vietnam! It is even more heart-rending than the tolling of the bells announcing death. James would rather listen to the bullfrogs croaking. He wants them to croak all day and all night to drown the sound of the metallic bar.

James is taken to Chi Mai’s office again. This time at night. She no longer offers him Winston cigarettes and Coca-Cola. The honeymoon has come to an end.

– “How is it going, James?”

– “What do you mean, Ms. Chi Mai?”

– “Can you sleep well?”

– “Yes, I sleep well.”

– “Is that so?”

– “Yes, I always tell you the truth.”

– “I don’t think the rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes, and bullfrogs there let you have a good sleep.”

– “On the first night, they did bother me. But gradually, the mosquitoes stop stinging me, the rats no longer bite my toes, and the bullfrogs lull me to sleep.”

– “James, are you telling a fairy tale?”

– “No, I’m telling the Vietnam story, a story from a solitary confinement cell built in a rock cave. I have swallowed a cockroach. At first, I was frightened and thought I was going to die a painful death. But nothing happened. I am still alive even though I swallowed a live cockroach. May I tell you my impression?”

– “Yes, you may.”

– “The insects and pests in Vietnam are very compassionate.”

Chi Mai suddenly turns pale.

– “What are you implying?”

– “I only express my sincere feeling. I agree with you when you said we Americans were too crazy about sanitation, and that we didn’t know how to endure suffering. I think that when our people suffer as I have, they will no longer be afraid of it. There are a lot of things we Americans can learn.”

Chi Mai thrusts out her lower lip.

– “The first thing you should learn is to be reasonable.”

James looks at her.

– “I’ve always been reasonable.”

She grins.

– “Are you ready to write down what I’m going to read to you?”

James stands up and looks straight at her.

– “Ms. Chi Mai, sorry I can’t do it.”

The guard takes him back to the rock cave. He has no sooner lain down than the door opens. A guard uses his flashlight to shine on the floor while another is prying open the lid on the iron floor. They order him to approach the opening, and push him down the hole. The guards make sure that James has risen from under the water before they close the lid, lock it and leave his cell.

James is in the water tunnel now. The water is up to his chest, and the smell is terrible. It’s a combination of stagnant, muddy sewage, urine and feces; James’ own waste included. His hair and face are soaked with the stinking water. James has to use his fingers to comb his hair, and wipe off the stinking water on his face while closing his eyes tight. He has been thrown to the fourth cycle of Hell. His feet are bogged down deep in mud; his two hands are busy fighting off insects, rats, and water snakes that are trying to climb on his body. James feels as if he is floating in darkness. Half of his body is surrounded by the cold, nauseating water; the other half is drifting. It is at this moment that James understands more about his lot as a human being.

James has ceased to struggle with his two hands. The water tunnel is completely silent now. Darkness is immense. All the pests have returned to their caves and nests. The bullfrogs have stopped croaking. Crickets have ceased their chirping. James has the feeling that insects are not only compassionate but also can sympathize with the suffering of a human being. While insects can sympathize with human beings, the latter are callous to the misfortunes of their fellow men and always create new games to torture one another. Doctrines, ideologies, war, hatred prisons, punishments are their toys. James believes these toys have depraved mankind, and that it is these toys which have led mankind away from their real home. At last, mankind destroys their own souls because they have failed to show respect to their Creator. The more technical progress that is achieved by mankind, the farther they are driven from the road of morality. Mankind invents machinery to control their fellow men. Gradually, they lose their human nature and turn themselves into machines. Then cruelty starts to take root in their hearts and souls. Man is no longer the reed that Pascal defined. People have become the tools of blind ideologies and deaf technology. James remains a true human being God has created. A true human being does not change, whether he lives in comfort or suffering, in a heavenly life or in hell of prison. James is still standing in the desolate, stinking marsh of life. He stretches out his arms to both sides. In this pitch-dark tunnel, nobody sees him except God, who is looking down at him from above the iron frame floor. James feels that if America has committed any sins or wrongdoing, he is willing to suffer on its behalf; just like Jesus Christ died on the cross to take away the sins of the world. James thinks his fellow Americans need to look deep into their souls. He closes his eyes, and dozes off while still standing in the water tunnel. His body remains in the narrow world, but his soul has reached a new height, where people forget all trivial, base things, and live to love one another.

James opens his eyes when he hears the sound of the metallic bar announcing the beginning of a new day. He is still standing there with his arms outstretched. James is surprised to realize he is alive. He sees a light shining over the dark water tunnel. The light, to him, is like a peaceful river amidst a rough sea, a safe path in a burning forest. The light must come from the inlet of the tunnel, where prisoners get their scanty fresh air. James hears noisy footsteps on the iron frame floor. A flashlight is turned on. One guard opens the lid and throws down a rope ladder. James holds on to the ladder and climbs up, step by step, with difficulty. The guards take him to his room. They let him bathe and give him a new prison uniform. James no longer worries about any misfortune or suffering that, according to Chi Mai, is waiting for him. Isn’t it true that when a person has suffered too much, he gets used to it and suffers no more? And when he has experienced extreme fear, he is no longer afraid of anything? If that is true, every game of ideology will mean nothing to him.

—> 15

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