©Robert Pressnall, 2015

©Charlene Leung, 2015

Crossing the unseen bridge is the means

By which we go from the known world

To the unknowable. – Stella Coe


Lately, without warning, memory cascades from darkness through a triangle of blue sky.

Ah ha, said Janine, tapping the cover of Time magazine and the cameo photo of an Asian man with a regal bearing and indecipherable grin.

That’s him, I replied.

This is the father I have yet to thank? she asked. The Binh Trach who saved your life during the war?

My savior, my tormentor and my teacher all rolled into one, I said.

Whoever gives you life should be regarded as one of your parents, Janine commented. It’s a Buddhist notion.

Then you must be one of my mothers, I said, slipping two fingers between the buttons of her blouse.

Brad! Janine laughed and batted my hand away. She read the photo-caption aloud: A Vietnamese For The Millennium, and thumbed the pages. You sure this is Colonel Trach?

I’m afraid so.

Janine sat at the kitchen counter engrossed in the article while I gazed out the window below the shadow of a gray-white ceiling. I’d pulled the magazine from our mailbox that morning and my feelings still flip-flopped from disbelief to inevitability.

On the one hand the article exalted e-Colonel Binh Trach as a bridge between North and South, East and West; on the other hand it denounced him as a throwback to colonialism, an individualist who flaunted convention. One commentator labeled him money with a conscience, a contemplative man of action, ruthlessly kind.  Another condemned him as a moral wrecking ball, a philanderer, a megalomaniac.

We had the same man in mind.

Janine looked hard at me. You never told me, she said, that your Colonel was raised in a Buddhist monastery before he joined the Vietnamese army. I don’t remember that.

There’s a lot I haven’t told you, I said. Colonel Trach entered the monastery at the age of eight, a child prodigy. When he turned eighteen in the early ‘fifties, his younger brothers were conscripted to fight in the French-Indochina War, and Trach volunteered to take their place, to save the family farm. Then the Americans invaded and he stayed on for twenty years.

The hairs on my neck bristled.

Brad, you’re shaking, Janine said.

I’m fine, I said. I opened the refrigerator door, pulled out ingredients for dinner and lined them up on the counter: fettucinne, mushrooms, sausage, marinara sauce.

From monastery to military to California. Wow! Janine picked up the magazine with both hands and shook it vigorously, the sound of pages fluttering like the wings of pinned moths.

Twelve years earlier, on Valentine’s Day, 1973, I’d surrendered to Colonel Trach after ground fire downed our extraction helicopter, killing both pilots, the door gunners and four of my team, two of us left. I looked into Sergeant Bloom’s eyes, flickering like coals in a matte of ash and grease, his teeth white as bleached bone. We were it and team leader Bloom would charge the enemy if he had his way.

I shucked my weapon in the dirt and turned my palms up. Bloom’s eyes dimmed and his finger scratched the trigger of his ’16 but he followed my lead as we marched toward the tree-line, arms raised, guts exposed, boots lifting and falling like marionettes. Our voices, Chu-hoi, chu-hoi, squawked like parrots. I surrender! I surrender! North Vietnamese Army regulars, pointing AK47s, emerged from behind elephant-eared shrubs and signaled us to stop. Sergeant Bloom shouted repeatedly, Swear to God! his staccato voice like firing blanks.

A dozen NVA soldiers surrounded us. Bloom still held his ’16 overhead. A soldier yelled at him and an officer at the tree-line ordered us, in English, to kneel.

Swear to God! Bloom exploded again. Whether his epithet expressed devotion or incredulity they were his last words.

A single shot and I flinched. Bloom bumped my shoulder as he fell and lay still next to me, the earthy odor of his blood swelling my nostrils. I kept my eyes fixed on the flattened elephant grass in the landing zone.

Swear to Buddha, I whispered. The hot muzzle of a rifle jammed my temple.

Hai! barked the commanding officer. What swear?

The young NVA soldier who’d shot Bloom lowered the rifle from my face. The senior officer who’d confronted me in broken English was giving an order, not asking a question, and I was on the spot. I was not Buddhist – didn’t even know what they believed in – but I was not Christian, either, even if I’d attended Sunday school as a kid. As a teen I’d merely adopted the knee-jerk quip when fellow high school students or army buddies said, Swear to God, by responding, Swear to Buddha! My warped sense of humor, no biggie.

Swear to Buddha, I said quietly, staring at the commander’s boot tips. The soldier who’d shot Bloom rattled his weapon and shouted, but the officer was patient, encouraging, a teacher’s voice, and I began to hope. NVA regulars walked out to the LZ and stripped my team members of rifles and rucksacks, went through their pockets. The chopper popped flame and roiled gusts of black smoke. An AK47 locked and loaded behind my back and I closed my eyes. Fuck!

I knocked the saucepan of simmering marinara off the stove accidentally and it crashed to the linoleum, splattering sauce onto my shoes and pant cuffs. Shit! I dropped to my knees and scooped the pan, spreading dishtowels and sponges on the floor, while Janine watched.

A second gunshot, then silence. A hand gripped my shoulder and pulled me up. I was instantly blindfolded, guided a hundred meters through dense jungle, then stopped, and the blindfold taken off at the entrance to a six by eight foot underground cell. In halting English, Colonel Trach said: You all-America boy. Buddha save you. Then he pushed me into the cave.

The Colonel remained poised in the open door, the daylight at his back. In exchange for my life, he told me, he wanted something… he wanted to speak American-English, a language he considered key to his, Vietnam’s, and the world’s future. Also to the Buddha and to world peace. America was losing and withdrawing, he said, as if the outcome of the war were a foregone conclusion. He was offering me a chance to prove myself, to teach him English.

And if I fail? I said.

He drew a finger across his throat.

Janine was still absorbed in the magazine, but I felt far from peace. I mopped up the sauce on the floor and started over from scratch, my torso and limbs vibrating like tuning forks. Carefully, I added sauce to the sautéed veggies, sprinkled herbs and set the ingredients to simmer. I poured myself a second glass of wine, wondering where the first glass went. I sliced my finger with a cleaver but no blood appeared. Just the sting.

Judging from the photographs in Time, Colonel Binh Trach had not lost his kingly bearing or trickster smile. Other Vietnamese were cited: Ho Chi Minh and Quoc To Hung Vuong, respective grandfathers of liberation from colonial rule; Thich Nhat Hanh, the exiled Buddhist priest-activist who led programs in France to heal Vietnamese and American war veterans; Bao Ninh and Le Ly Hayslip, females who’d authored stories from both sides of the war. Ex-General Binh Trach – he’d been promoted after I left the country – was the new item, the old warrior, the child monk, the dark horse, the invisible hand. He weighed in opposite the saints, or did he stand among them?

During the American War, as he called it, I’d known Binh Trach only as a Colonel in the black uniform of the North Vietnamese Army but now he’d crossed the Pacific in a three-piece suit and set up shop in my home state.

It made no sense. It made perfect sense.

I smelled the sauce burning on the bottom of the pan and Janine dropped the magazine and jumped up, lowering the flame and taking my spatula. Quite an article, she commented. You didn’t tell me Binh’s family was killed when President Nixon bombed Hanoi.

I looked out the window. I forgot that, I replied. 1972, right before I became a POW.

The article says he lost his wife and three children, so I’m reminded of our daughter, Janine explained. She set the spatula down and rested her head on my shoulder. I said nothing. She straightened and we embraced in silence. The previous week we’d observed the first anniversary of our baby’s death at one month of age.

I think about her, Janine said, whenever I hear about lost children. And it goes both ways. You lost your dad when you were sixteen and it changed your life.

You bet, I said. Cutting classes, insulting teachers, tuning in, turning on, dropping out of school. Protesting the war. Getting drafted. Becoming a prisoner of war. And a college grad on the G.I. Bill. I learned to burn bridges.

And then we met! Janine exclaimed.

Yes we did, I said, cheering up. After my dad died and I searched for life in the midst of death – war – and I found it. Colonel Trach helped me. But now I’m more interested in where love might lead. With you. Alone together.


©Robert Pressnall, 2015

Bob Pressnall began writing this story when he was originally BAWP’d in ’86, and he continued writing it as BAWP co-director in the early ’90s when he had no student papers to read. After that he set it aside for 20 years, and completed it as a novel after he retired. The novel is about 100,000 words. He is in the process of locating an agent or publisher. In 1980 he started one of the first 8th grade English-U.S. History core classes in the area, and he retired in 2011.

3 Responses to “The Unseen Bridge by Robert Pressnall”

  1. jane juska Says:

    Do you want the name of my agent? email me if so. Good to see that Colonel Trach is still with us.

  2. Peggy Hesthcock Says:

    Bob, wonderfully written. Congratulations on a fine piece and good luck with the publishing.

  3. judybebelaar Says:

    HI, Bob, Great piece. How about reading at Expressions in October, with Sandra Anfang? It’s October 11 at 3.


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