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Vietnam's Shadows Are With Us To This Day

By StevenWinn, San Francisco Chronicle

Thoughts on Oakland Museum's Exhibit

Midway through "What's Going On? -- California and the Vietnam Era" at the Oakland Museum of California, visitors are invited to take a seat in a DC-8. A small cross section of the airplane has been installed in the exhibit space to invoke the charter flights that took soldiers, volunteers, government officials and refugees out of Vietnam.

"We flew into darkness, and we started approaching the coast of California," says Jan Wollet, a World Airways flight attendant, on the show's audio guide. Wollet is describing the first, unauthorized "Babylift" flight. That operation eventually transported thousands of war orphans, ailing children, Amerasian offspring and others given up for adoption. Wollet remembers securing the cabin as some of the older children began chanting, "America! America!"

It was a brilliantly clear night over the Golden Gate. "Every single star in the heavens" was out. And then, as Wollet recalls the plane looping over the bay and turning back toward Oakland to land, her voice chokes. "Oh, God," she manages, "it was so spectacular."

Several minutes later in the audio guide, Kim Eschenmann reads a letter written by her Vietnamese birth mother. "Please find someone to give baby Loan for me," wrote Nguyen Thi Dao. "I will be indebted to you forever. And please think of me and Thu as dead." Eschenmann, who was adopted and raised in Orange County and later searched for but never found her birth mother in Vietnam, is overcome by tears before she finishes the letter. "For my baby," her mother sent this wish: "I hope she will find lots of good luck."

It is a strange and powerful sensation to sit in those bright red airplane seats today, with their old-fashioned reclining mechanism and ash- coated trays in the armrests, and listen to these stories. Vietnam is the narrative that never ended. For veterans and refugees, film directors and presidential candidates, the war remains charged like no other with potent ambiguities and unresolved pain. Almost every tale that's told about it has, in a way, a present-tense component.

Writing in the "What's Going On?" catalog of essays and photographs that accompanies the new Oakland show, Khuyen Vu Nguyen discusses the erasure of South Vietnam from the "cartography of memory." Not only has the Republic of South Vietnam ceased to exist, except as a history book footnote, she argues, but its memory has been systematically repressed from the American conscience. What Nguyen sees as a Freudian act of collective forgetting may have been instrumental in healing the psychic scars of American veterans.

"Operating within the restrictive framework of cold war politics and postwar guilt," she writes, "American social and intellectual discourse over the nature of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam generally neglected South Vietnam in its narratives. It is usually agreed that the corrupt and oppressive nature of the government made its defeat inevitable."

Paradoxically, as Nguyen points out, the long-delayed and hotly contested Westminster memorial required the South Vietnamese themselves to "screen out" details inconvenient to their own version of events. Thus women, Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian and other Southeast Asian soldiers are omitted.

"Everyone wants to think there is only one truth about Vietnam," says Charles Wollenberg, who co-edited the catalog. "But there are multiple truths."

Curator Marica A. Eymann offered a game smile as she stood near the entrance to the show recently. "We wanted a tug and pull," she said. "Everyone has something to say about Vietnam." One remark that lodged in Eymann's mind came from a veteran she interviewed, who described a collective "grieving process" for the war. For all the Hollywood movies, novels and poetry on the subject that have poured forth, Eymann added, "I'm not sure we've ever had the wake."

Arranged as a time-line thread, the Oakland Museum show leads through the Vietnam War chronologically, from its Cold War bomb shelter artifacts to a post-war epilogue of poetry book jackets and war toys from the 1980s. Along the way, "What's Going On?" stresses the high-contrast experience in California -- the Free Speech Movement played off against the rise of Ronald Reagan, the centrality of the state to both the munitions industry and the antiwar movement.

But the show doesn't really offer a historical corrective or re-accounting of Vietnam's importance to California and the country. That much is factually apparent: Some 260,000 Californians served in Vietnam, according to John F. Burn's catalog essay; 5,800 of them died. The impact of the Vietnamese diaspora, as Andrew Lam writes, is enormous and evolving; the 2000 census found a Vietnamese population of about 500,000 in California.

Instead, with its Life magazine covers and neatly folded P.O.W. pajamas, hand-written protest letters to Dow Chemicals ("When you stop making napalm we will start using bathroom cleaner") and portrait of an ardent Jane Fonda and long-haired vet Jon Voigt as her wheelchair-bound war vet lover on a "Coming Home" movie poster, the show reflects the war's web of overlapping storylines. The controversy about the content and balance of the exhibition confirms the complexity of any Vietnam narrative. So will the responses of visitors bound to be unsettled or aggrieved by inclusions, exclusions, emphases and perceived agendas.

But the essence of "What's Going On?" -- of the Vietnam War's perpetually active residue in the culture, for that matter -- can't be found in the objects arranged and labeled in vitrines and wall displays. It's in the voices of people who were there, who lived and died through it, who suffered and go on living the war. Vietnam is our most absorbing oral history.

Here's Bonnie Baird, on the audio guide, remembering the day her older brother was killed. She was in school in San Jose: "My teacher had come to me and said the principal wants to see you. I was in my sixth-grade class, Miss Dooley's class." A neighbor was waiting in the principal's office. "And I knew, " Baird continues. "Somebody was dead.

"And I remember after that feeling really uncomfortable with everybody because everybody was always saying, you know, 'Sorry about your brother.' I didn't know what to say so I remember saying, 'It's OK, you know, it's OK.' But it wasn't OK. And it would never be OK. For 35 years, it wasn't OK. That day, my whole life changed, you know."

Steve Winn is the Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic. San Francisco Chronicle. August 30, 2004. Excerpt posted with permission of the author. Updated based on email from Kim Eschenmann.