Voices From the Other Side

Poems drawn from talks with the Vietnamese who built the Ho Chi Minh Trail

LARRY ROTTMANN is a veteran of the Vietnam War who now teaches Vietnamese Literature at Southwest Missouri State University. He is also director of the O. F. Kenworthy Southeast Asia-Ozark Project, a group that promotes cultural and educational exchanges between people in the American Midwest and Vietnam. The Southeast Asia-Ozark project also provides humanitarian support, and has collected English dictionaries and textbooks for Vietnamese students, produced a documentary for classroom and commercial television use.

Larry Rottman has been in Vietnam five times since 1987. On a recent trip, he met with retired general Trung Tuong Vo Bam and other Vietnamese veterans in Hanoi. During the war, General Trung was responsible for the construction and supervision of the Troung Son Strategic Supply Route (the Ho Chi Minh Trail). The poems printed on this page are part of a collection ``Voices from the Ho Chi Minh Trail'' that grew out of Mr. Rottman's conversations with people who worked on the trail.

Trung Tuong Vo Bam Gets a New Assignment From Uncle Ho in 1959

``Bam, build me a supply road by hand from Hanoi to Saigon; with five main North-South routes and twenty-one East-West branches. Even though it will be an elephant-sized project, keep it hidden. And when it's complete, report back to me.'' The Ho Chi Mihn Bird

They said I was too old for battle. Too frail for heavy work. But I could whistle bird calls, so they sent me down the trail to be a Ho Chi Minh bird.

The bombs and chemicals had killed or frightened off all the birds whose notes cheered the soldiers. So, I'd hide in the forest as convoys passed, and sing all the happy songs I knew.

I started whistling in 1963, and by the Liberation, I could be 357 different birds. I got malaria, my hair fell out, and I was wounded four time. But I was a Ho Chi Minh bird every day for thirteen years. A Porter on the Trail

In 1966, when I started down the trail, I carried a copy of ``The Poems of Walt Whitman'' in my rucksack.

I am not a learned man, and I know only two poems by heart: ``Kim Van Kieu,'' and ``Song of Myself.''

I would read as I walked from North to South, and back. I could share ``Kieu'' with anyone, but had less opportunity to discuss ``Song'' with my comrades.

Still, I drew strength from Whitman's poetry, and optimism too. He wrote, ``All goes onward and outward...,'' and ``To die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.''

I wondered how a nation that gave birth to Walt Whitman, could also produce napalm and Agent Orange.

He wrote, ``This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is, This is the common air that bathes the globe.''

One day, near Khe Sanh, we captured a G.I. I was excited, and asked him about ``Song of Myself.'' But the American said he'd never heard of Walt Whitman.

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