Thursday, December 16, 2010

Joan Baez and my Oriental River girl

Oriental River, South Vietnam 1968 photo by Mike Marcellino, copyright 2010

Joan Baez and the Girl in the Oriental River

by Mike Marcellino

Twenty-seven years after I left the Vietnam War, after serving for a year 1967-68 as a U. S. Army combat correspondent and photojournalist, On August 20, 1995 I found myself seated in a campfire chair talking with Joan Baez, just as I would the girl next door.  I had listened to Joan's albums, attended concerts, one at the former Front Row Theatre with a moving circular stage.  I reviewed that concert for Sun Newspapers.

Darkness had set and it was quite outside Joan's tent in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park south of Cleveland where she had
performed for a Heritage Series Concert.  I thought back to listening over and over to "banks of the Ohio" my favorite Baez song.

As I worked as an aide to then Mayor Michael White,I came armed with  a proclamation, honoring Joan not only for her voice but her courageous opposition to the Vietnam War and support for human rights, all at great risk to her career.

Rather than an M-14 rifle, I carried to the concert a harmless treasure of seven hand printed black and white photographs I had taken of children caught in war.  One of the photographs shows  a young Vietnamese girl, smiling as she climbed out of the Oriental River balancing on a 155 mm shell casing and holding onto barbed wire.  It was June 1968, the year the TET offensive by the VC and North Vietnamese regular throughout the country never seemed to end.  I was following battery of 155 mm howitzers manned by the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 11th Artillery of the 23rd Artillery Group, my home base.

Again, I was in the middle of nowhere, alone and as almost always, without a weapon (or a toothbrush).  But I had my notebooks, pens and cameras to record it all in stories and photos for Stars and Strips, the Army Reporter and other publications. 

It was a bizarre scene in a bizarre war, one where the battle cry was often "The End" by The Doors.  It was hot and it appeared the nearby Vietnamese village had come down to the Oriental River for a swim, right in the middle of a war.  I was tempted but didn't join them in the murky river.  Nearby was a camp of the 5th Special Forces called Tra Cu, 23 miles west of Saigon.  I think they called this the Second Battle of Saigon.  We won both battles, as we did all the battles but lost the war as it was a civil war and the South Vietnamese leaders weren't very popular and the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong weren't about to ever give up.

I walked up to the door of the Special Forces hooch (a primitive house made of concrete block, wire screening and a tin roof).  A gruff looking sergeant told me to go away; it seems Special Forces isn't interested in publicity.

Joan Baez's first album, 1960, Vanguard (Wikipedia)

I knew the one she would pick, the young Vietnamese girl  climbing out of the Oriental River.  I hope Joan still has it. (I have a museum quality, hand printed framed version still, along with the other six, that includes U. S. Army artillerymen, the 33rd South Vietnamese Rangers on a search and destroy mission, an elite unit, and other children coping in war.
I always wonder what happened to the girl from the Oriental River.

i knew joan baez
by mike marcellino

i knew joan baez
joan baez.
i knew she would
her little sister.
joan baez
i knew she would
this one.
she had a choice -
bobbing 155 mm shell casing
on the Oriental River,

no number
rung sat zone
south, southeast of Saigon
the delta hell on earth,
special forces
i knew joan baez
joan baez,
i knew she would pick this one,
like her little sister -
joan baez,
i knew joan baez.
i knew she would pick this one.
copyright Mike Marcellino 2010

Here one of my favorite songs of Joan Baez that fits the story pretty well - "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (written by Bob Dylan).  This is a beautiful recording.

The official website of Joan Baez