A Matter of Contrast: Two Trips to Vietnam by Richard Kirshen

A special “S/he said to me” for a forthcoming book

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I once lived an interruption of my real life long ago, in a land far away. I grew up in a somewhat idyllic situation in Miami, Florida where I knew not from the word dysfunctional. My formative years were spent in a semi-privileged situation. I lived and went to school in Miami, but spent the off-season in my family’s summer home on the beach, south of Boston. I loved it. There was little stress, a very liberal parental upbringing, and a home consisting of mom and dad, three younger sisters and myself.

After graduating high school I attempted college. I was in and out for a year and a half, before the dreaded letter came. It was from the Selective Service System informing me that because of the fact that I was carrying less than what they considered a full load in college, I had become eligible for the draft. I immediately decided that allowing myself to be drafted into the Army during a full scale “conflict” (as the Vietnam War was referred to in those days) would not be the wisest decision of my life.

I enlisted in the Navy the next day, presuming that the worst that could occur was that I would be on a ship twenty miles off the coast lobbing fire support to a place where I could neither see nor understand the consequences of such actions. It didn’t quite work out that way.

After spending one year of sea duty on a ship home-ported out of Yokosuka, Japan, I was sent to Navy Dive School in the Philippines. I became officially certified as a US Navy Diver. I was then sent to a few specialty schools, and then to the Republic of Vietnam. For a while I served as a diver, making numerous and varied types of dives in numerous and varied bodies of water; over three hundred dives to be a bit more accurate.

The Navy, though, decided that since the attrition rate of River Boat crewmen was substantially higher than that of divers, and since I was a qualified boat coxswain, in addition to a diver, changes would have to be made. I was sent to the Mekong Delta region in the southern part of the country and was delegated to being a river patrol boat captain. The events that took place there, for the next nine months contributed to the scariest, most horror filled, most inane, and, admittedly, the most self-satisfying era in my life.

Skip forward now, about forty years to 2013. My wife and sister talked me into going back there again. This time, though, on a five-star luxury river cruise boat for a two week cruise up the Mekong River, through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. After much heated and debated conversation, I reluctantly agreed and went on this return journey.

When I returned, I was asked by many who knew of my past, “So, Richie, how did your two trips to Vietnam differ?” At first I thought it to be a joke, or at the very least a rhetorical question. After all how could one compare being a tourist to being a combatant in one of the most tragic of all wars? They were asking me to compare five-star meals and pleasant day trips, to C-rations and being shot at every day. It was at that point that I decided to write a book comparing the two trips. I alternated, for the most part, from chapter to chapter, comparing and contrasting my trips to many of the same places during two such disparate expeditions. I added photos from both eras and true, factual stories from the two tours.

My book, “A Matter of Contrast” ended up being in the neighborhood of 60,000 words with numerous photos and recollections. Writing the book over the course of a year brought back various memories that would have been long forgotten were it not for the fact that my mother and sisters had saved all the letters and correspondence I had sent during my original trip to Southeast Asia.

That small conversation with my wife and sister led to a project that culminated in what was for me the most satisfying project of my life.

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