Josh Selig asked if I would retell a story for his blog, which I first related to him as we shared tales of our global adventures in the kids business over a leisurely seaside lunch at MIP.
In 1997, shortly after the United States reestablished diplomatic relations with Vietnam, I was sent to visit the first animation studio in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
I was already a seasoned traveler having visited many of the far corners of the globe, but was extremely excited to explore what seemed like a very forbidden and exotic place; having grown up to images of Vietnam as a warzone, the jungles afire with Napalm, and the streets back home full of protests and anger.
There are many memorable stories from this adventure, but one in particular stands out. A local host escorted me out for a day trip to Cu-Chi, about two hours North of Saigon. Cu-Chi is home to a network of tunnels which served as the Viet Cong’s base for the Tet Offensive during the war. My host had friends in the Vietnamese Army who were in the process of preparing the Cu-Chi tunnels as a future tourism site. They were eager to give this “Big American” a look at their view of the conflict.
I entered the underground maze through a camouflaged tree-stump hatch; and for a moment felt like I was in an episode of Hogan’s Heroes. Once inside, I knew this was no sitcom. I could immediately feel death and terror hanging in the air. There were short tunnels which turned abruptly, and long tunnels that narrowed. These were designed to be difficult for broader American Soldiers with heavy packs to navigate as they chased the Viet Cong who were fleeing to the rivers. They were also difficult for this “Big American.” As I crawled through the thick, damp, blackness, the walls and my claustrophobia pressed down on me.
The narrow tunnels occasionally opened to larger rooms which were lit dimly for our safety. Pits filled with bamboo and metal stakes lined the edges, designed so American “Tunnel Rats” would fall in and bleed out. The harder my lungs pulled for air, the deeper I inhaled the musty taste of death.
By the time we finally surfaced I appreciated sunlight, open space, and fresh air in a whole new way. My host and his friends had not finished with the “tour”. They took me to an open field where they blew up a live cow with a bazooka for laughs. Then provided captured AK-47s and M-16s for target shooting. They expected me to be thrown back by the kick of the shots, but this “Big American” held my own and even impressed. This was a huge release of energy after the intensity of the tunnels.
At the end of the day, over tea and tapioca, my newfound “army buddies” gave me a keepsake. A classic Zippo lighter that they had picked knowing I was an American animation producer. It was clear that this had belonged to a fallen American Soldier. Holding it, some 30 years later, I felt a tremendous connection to this person. But where I choked on the fear of a tamed tunnel and playfully brandished machine guns, this young American faced real dangers. Standing there, contemplating new animation partnerships with this country, I couldn’t help question the senselessness of that war or any war.
This “Big American” and all I had worked to accomplish felt small and trivial. There I stood, staring at Mickey Mouse etched on the lighter, the connector between me, my newfound Vietnamese friends, and the spirit of a young man I had never met. The inscription read, “IT’S BEEN A TOUGH YEAR. LIVE IT UP! WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE HELL ANYWAY.”
Happy New Year.