There was a student at the university where I taught German. He was an aerial photo analysis expert during the Vietnam War or, as the Vietnamese say, the American war. His job was to guide B-52 strikes on villages and troop concentrations in Laos and Cambodia, strikes which had been forbidden by the US Congress. He had been instructed to target villages where crops had been planted in straight lines, this being an indication, according to higher moral authorities, that the villagers were communist. He began to vector the bombing runs as far away from villages as he could without being caught by his diligent superiors. He also turned to heroin for relief from thinking about the people he had already blown to pieces in the Arc Light attacks, where each time a five square miles of terrain was obliterated by the B-52 bombing pattern. Eventually he refused to serve and was imprisoned and served time in the US military prison, and then came to my state university from San Quentin Prison, whereupon he was elected the student body president and went on to receive many honors. For many years he was the president of the Vietnam Veterans’ Restoration Project, a veterans’ organization which built eight medical clinics in Vietnam. The US Veterans Administration never recognized his disability claim for post-traumatic stress syndrome. After hearing him talk about his war and post-war experiences, my love and I ate at a local Chinese restaurant. While waiting for our food I wrote the bulk of what follows on paper napkins.
The Down from A Thousand Geese
My Great-Great-Great Uncle Chu Li was half Chinese, half English—the son of an English merchant and a warlord’s daughter. My relatives continued to marry non-Chinese to the extent that you would be hard pressed to see any Asian ancestry in the contours of my eyes.
Chu Li ran away from home because, he said in letters to those who were born after him, there was more cruelty there than there was down on a thousand geese. His grandfather, the warlord, sent out searchers and warned them that they would die if they did not find Chu Li.
Meanwhile, Chu Li wore a disguise and sat on the bank of a great river, thinking about the beauty of the world and the pettiness of human beings. One day the warlord himself came to cross the river. While the group waited for the boat to ferry them over, the warlord asked the young man sitting on the bank if he would care to be one of his soldiers.
The young man, who was Chu Li, answered, after some thought: “If I declare my loyalty to you, what obligations will you have to me?”
The warlord waved his hand impatiently. “I will give you one ten-thousandth of what I earn in a year, plus food and shelter and rice wine enough.
“But will you care for me like a grandson?” Chu Li asked.
The great man waved his hand dismissively but did not leave. “A grandson obeys his grandfather. The burden of respect rests on him. Therefore, that is how I would treat you.”
“You mean, Your Lordship, you would never walk with me beside a great river, holding my hand, teaching me wisdom and how to laugh? You would never show me which pomegranates to pick and how to eat them?”
“You are to be my soldier to help rule my country, not a soft mother’s child who eats pomegranates all afternoon.”
“What about my mother, if she were to pass?”
“If she were pretty with breasts and hips, I would order her to show her respect by lying with me with her legs spread so that I could show her my power and domination.”
“Your lordship,” said Chu Li, “I do not think I would want to be the grandson of one so powerful, so impatient, so unwilling to learn.”
At that the warlord raised his sword and struck Chu Li on the shoulder with the flat of the blade, sending him rolling in the dust of the riverbank.
When the boat crossed the river with the warlord, who was Chu Li’s mighty grandfather, a cable broke and the boat turned over and sank and all the horses and men were drowned. Only the warlord still swam above the waves. Chu Li entered the muddy water and swam to him and held him by the beard like a goat. The water had washed away Chu Li’s disguise, and so his grandfather recognized him.
“I will throttle you like a goose when I have you in my hands again, you impudent mother’s boy!”
At which, Chu Li let him go.
“Why are you drowning me?” shrieked the warlord.
“I am not drowning you, old man,” said Chu Li. “I am only obediently not interfering in my punishment, so that you may be unobstructed in your absolute right to choke out my life.”
At which the warlord hissed: “You will die by my hand,” and sank beneath the waves, heavier than the wet down from a thousand geese.