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MILLION PERSON PROJECT: Dear Uncle John

As the curator of The Million Person Project, an international project about love, globalizing relationships and supporting change makers, Heather Box is on a journey to Vietnam, South Africa and Uganda working alongside and chronicling her experiences with those fostering awareness on international climate change. This is just one of her powerful stories as a special contributor to STARK, about what compassion, global community, hope and connection can do for the human spirit across the globe.

Words & Photos: Heather Box

I don’t know what I expected; I guess I wished I’d see a ghost or something. But as I rode through the small villages on a motorbike, with my arms around Julian’s stomach, I just watched the vast and overwhelming beauty fly by: the rice paddies, the water buffalo, the school kids racing each other on their bicycles. I’d yell to them as we passed: “My name is Heather, what’s yours?” One of the kids would shout his name back and then say, ‘Nice to meet you!!’ As we drove off, I could hear their hysteria from talking to a foreigner in English.

I passed dozens of streams, that day, and as I passed each one I’d wonder if that was the one that my uncle had died by. One of the members of his platoon told us he died by a small stream. The beauty was breathtaking, it was serene. It was almost impossible to imagine the horrendous violence that happened right there on that dirt. It was even harder than impossible to imagine my uncle, looking like me with his small chin, laying there in the fields… writing about it makes me sick.

It just makes me feel so mad, like that cold hands, light-headed mad, that he had one life to live and had to bare witness and be a part of such a violent, dark part of our human capabilities.

I wanted to stand on the edge of the road, snap my fingers and bring all the dead bodies back to life, even if it is was just for a few minutes, so they could call their family and tell them they love them. Maybe they could tell them where they are. Because just dying by a river, in an unknown land, leaves families with this overwhelming emptiness and nothing to grab on to.

That is why I was there. I guess I am trying to throw a spec into that nothingness for my Dad. It breaks my heart to think about my 22-year-old Dad and his best friend Doug driving down the empty Los Angeles highways, to the train station at 3am, to meet my Uncle’s body returning from Hue Vietnam. As my Dad was driving away from the train station, he made a commitment to himself to go back to Vietnam, to see where his brother had died. Now, 42 years later, I just don’t know if he will, so I turned that commitment into a family mission, and decided to take it on.

With my Grandpa’s spirit in my heart, and my Dad and his brothers and sisters in my mind, I took all the different maps they had sent me, some from war books, others from Satellite maps and went out searching for something.

I wandered in the sandy fields, kicking dust and snapping photos. Julian said, in his weird, formal/something sad happened voice, ‘Want to say something to him?’ I did. My Mom had said I should tell him “hi” and I thought it would be weird to come all this way and not say anything in case he could hear me, or had been waiting for someone to return. We got back on our bike and rode down a narrow road, across a small bridge, past some very confused farmers and got off down by a stream.

I guess I just wanted to tell him that my Dad loved him, my Grandpa was so proud of him and missed him until the day he died. We always miss him at the family reunions, and Carolynn and I are so curious about him because, supposedly, he was the serious, straight-laced one in a family of eight wild hippies.

As I collected dirt in a film canister, I could hear the water buffalo bathing in the stream beside me. They were cute. With my hands in the dirt, I wished for my uncle’s peace. I wished that for my uncle because I had a reason to feel that connection, he’s my family. He looked like me and probably had all the same mannerisms as my aunts and uncles. But looking over at the old Vietnamese man, who was resting in the shade by the bridge, I wished for the people he lost too. It was really hard for me to take my hands out of the dirt. I could feel that there were so many brothers and sisters out there in the world who wanted the ones they lost to have peace too. I just kept wishing for them, over and over again.

Makes you really realize that war never ends and the spookiness, loneliness and pain of people dying and suffering, in that way, lives on for generations. I am sorry for the unborn nieces and nephews who will be on some similar mission in 30 years from now, in Iraq or Afghanistan, looking for some semblance of a reason for the pain they see in their parent’s eyes.

I guess my hope is that me going out there, putting my hands in the dirt, can help my family heal a little.


Heather Box is a journalist and founder of The Million Person Project, an international project that supports global change makers on environmental policy issues, like climate change. Support her project, HERE

Images courtesy of Heather Box.

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