An afternoon walk
There was a dirt alley not too far from our house. One afternoon, aunt Sung took brother Vinh and me for a walk in that alley. We had to walk by the Japanese soldiers who occupied the only villa and some of the houses in the neighborhood. The soldiers looked serious with stern faces, long rifles and swords. They talked but like they were yelling to each other. Two Japanese women in their colorful kimonos walked by them hastily into the villa.
I didn’t know to whom that villa and those houses belonged before the Japanese soldiers moved in. Later in life, I learned that many residents in the area had left the neighborhood to seek refuge in the countryside when Americans bombers started to drop their load over Japanese targets in Saigon. The armies of Japan occupied Vietnam in 1940 but allowed the French to continue to govern the country. Japan surrendered to the Allied in August 1945.
The dirt alley branched out several narrow passages. Vinh and I followed aunt Sung into one of those. We walked along the smelly sewer line covered with cracked cement blocks. We didn’t have to walk far. There were rows and rows of banana trees in the open field next to the vacant homes. Aunt Sung cut down a couple of bare plants. She trimmed the leaves off and took the trunks home. Once we got home, she used a knife and trimmed the trunk in a way to have 5 or 6 flaps on its topside. She was careful not to cut the flaps completely off. The inner end of each flap was still attached to the plant. The flap looked like the upper part of a duckbill. Using my left hand, I would lift the plant to shoulder level and parallel to the ground. Then with my right hand, I raised the cut end of each flap to form an angle just a little above 90 degrees between the flap and the plant. Finally, I used the flank of my right hand and slashed it against those flaps. There were several consecutive “bop, bop” sounds. It was fun, but the flaps of my rifle didn’t hold long enough; they fell off one by one.
The almond tree and the shelter pits
In front of our house to the left was a big tropical almond tree. It was perhaps 40 feet tall with a huge trunk and leg-sized roots that ran atop the ground. It had large leaves and not very showy flowers. The leaves turned red, and then yellow before falling. The tree produced green egg-shaped fruits two times the size of my thumb. I used to crack open its hard shell with a rock and ate the tiny white stuff inside that was juicy like the meat of the coconut. It was under the shade of this tree that I played, argued, fought, and made peace with my playmates. The tree must have been my eye and ear-witness several times over during my childhood.
Not too far from that almond tree was a huge mound. Underneath the mound was a big hole in the ground that was covered with pieces of wood and about two feet of dirt on top. The pit provided a bomb shelter to the family. About May 1944,...