THE BOY HUONG doesn’t have a mouth where his mouth is supposed to be. It is a hole, a very wide one where lips have been shaped from scar tissue to run all the way across his face. Twenty-one operations in two years have done that. Yet it’s only the beginning. The boy Huong is taking it all pretty well. He lives in Southampton in Bucks County now, which is a long way from Vietnam where he lost his mouth.
He was just 16, American age. In Vietnam, where things work in different ways, it would have been the 17th anniversary of his birth. In Vietnam, though, where things work in different ways, it might also have been the second anniversary of his death.
In the 23rd year of our lightning campaign in Vietnam, the boy Huong lost both his parents. They weren’t soldiers and they weren’t Viet Cong, they were farmers and they were dead. There are no reports on how they died. The body count sheets just list numbers.
The orphanage was in Danang. The boy Huong took it well. Being without parents is not a novel thing in Vietnam. He made friends at the orphanage, but he was still a shy 14-year-old, known to go off by himself. One morning when the sun was shining he got up early and went for a walk alone. He kicked at the dust in the fields that used to be fertile. He picked up a small object and shook off the dust. It felt hard as he squeezed it in his bony fingers. It was a strange toy because it didn’t seem to do anything. He wanted to make it work, so he put it between his teeth and bit down very hard.
The explosion blew away his teeth and his lips and destroyed half of his chin and part of his tongue. There is a lesson for all you parents in this. Don’t let your kids pick up blasting caps left behind by careless soldiers.
The boy Huong has new parents now, Lydia and Leon Carlin of Southampton. They give him love and a good home and food and clothing. But Bui Ngoc Huong, his full name. still likes some touches of home.
“One morning,” Lydia Carlin remembers, “Huong came for breakfast wearing a very used pair of dungarees, one of the half dozen things he had brought from Vietnam. ‘These,’ he explained in a language neither Vietnamese nor English, but wholly human, ‘are the pants I was wearing the day I was hurt.’ Then, with pantomime and a few words of English, he showed how he picked up the percussion cap and attempted to unscrew it with his teeth. Then the explosion, then his agonized contortions on the ground, and then the blood.”
FOUR YEARS AGO, Lydia Carlin was listening to a late night radio talk show. The man being interviewed was Dr. Herbert Needleman, a Philadelphia psychiatrist with the strange idea that a small group of American professionals could help save the children of Vietnam. What Lydia Carlin couldn’t see on the radio were the pictures that Herb Needleman brought with him, pictures taken in Vietnam of the war’s children, their faces melted away by napalm and white phosphorous, their bodies busted by bombs. Read the rest of this entry »