The Decent And The Indecent

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - October 26, 2005
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The moist summer air was more sticky than usual on that endless Sunday afternoon at Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, North Vietnam. My tiny, grimy towel was slippery from sweat daubed from my heat-rashed body sprawled wide on the concrete slab to catch the slightest movement of air. My mind was lost somewhere between prayer , planning or pain, but ever conscious that feeding time must be near. The twice daily rice and thin pumpkin broth came earlier on Sundays so the kitchen guards could be done with it and relax with their families in the prison yard for a few extra hours.


I sensed more than heard the opening of the eight inch square hatch across the little barred window in the heavy wooden door. As I looked up, my eyes met those of the “Green Hornet,” the boy guard whose teacup handle ears held up his olive green hat with the red star above the brim. “G.H.” earned his monicker by frequently bouncing from wall to wall in the cell block trying to intercept the messages he knew we were tapping from cell to cell. He never did. We had a code name for every “V” in the system and “Green Hornet” was downright complimentary compared to most.

As the prison regs required, I stood up before him and “bowed” as slight a head nod as I could get away with. He simply looked at me, oblivious to my infraction and apparently deep in thought.

In characteristic Asian style, he motioned me toward him, fingers pointed downward and with a little pulling motion. He carefully checked the vacant passageway, first left then right, pulled his wallet from a pocket, and opened it for me to see through the narrow bars a frayed black and white photograph of a Vietnamese girl about his age. He pointed to the girl, then back to himself, and then back to the girl, anticipating my reaction.

I pointed to the picture, “Mai! Mai!” (Beautiful! Beautiful!) A hint of a smile betrayed his usual sternness.

Then with both hands, “G.H.” traced in the space between us the graceful curves of a woman’s body, then pointed to me with a questioning shrug. I nodded my head, then pointed to my wedding ring finger, then with my right hand stair-stepped down indicating my four children, saying and their ages in Vietnamese. He nodded with appreciation.

I pointed to him, then to the girl, then to the same ring finger, shrugging the question back to him. He got it instantly, shook his head then waved his hand around in the air to indicate our environment which I took to mean the prison, the city, the country, and the whole damn war: “Are you kidding me? How could anyone get married when there’s this war goin’ on?” Suddenly someone entered the cell block from his right, and the hatch slammed closed leaving me with the image of his pretended scowl.


As I stood there processing what had just transpired, I realized I could just as well have been talking to a sailor in my squadron back on the USS Kitty Hawk, the aircraft carrier from which I’d flown my doomed flight. “G.H.” and I had had this conversation based upon our commonality and not our differences.. We both hated the war that was keeping us from the life and the people we longed for. And although our skin color was different and our eyes weren’t shaped alike, we laughed and cried the same, our hunger and thirst were the same, and our love and longings were the same. How could I hate this man? I could hate his ideology, Communism, because I had seen it’s evil. But I couldn’t hate this man with whom I shared such basic humanness. I realized further that this was only confirmation of the values upon which I had been raised; ie in the eyes of God, there is only one race, the human race!

The first book I read upon my return from prison to normalcy was holocaust survivor Victor Frankle’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankle was even more discerning than I in his assertion there are actually two races, “the decent and the indecent.”

Many of us fondly remember the talent and wit of one of Hawaii’s premier entertainers, Al Harrington. Al use to say; “You know, I’ve traveled the world over. I’ve entertained white people and black people. I’ve sung before red people and yellow people, and I’ve played music for brown people. But you know, the best thing about Hawaii? Everybody’s beige! And you know, the best thing about beige? It goes with everything!”

How can there be the prejudice and the hatred we see around us?

How can there be the separation and differences we bring upon ourselves?

And more importantly, what can we start doing about it?

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