STORY AND PHOTOS BY RICHARD BRUMMETT
Long ago and far away the twenty-year-old version of me was learning to drive. Stale old news, except my first motor vehicle was an M48A3 tank and the driving lessons took place in the Quang Tin Province of Vietnam. Three hours behind the steering wheel of a tank at Fort Knox were not enough to overcome growing up in New York City where teenaged males had no need to drive. This rendered me easily the worst tank driver in the squadron. And ignorant as well. I puzzled over terms like “transmission.” After much thought I concluded it must be the part of the radio that transmitted voices.
Somehow the year passed with my platoon and the local civilian population suffering no accidental deaths at my hands. There was the matter of that USMC deuce-and-a-half on Highway 1, but it really was not my fault. Honest.
In 2006, after retiring as a small town postmaster, I had the time and means to see if I could make some contribution to reconciliation between old enemies. My first effort was a total bust, ending with an interpreter, a government social worker, and myself being run out of a former VC ville. A first in my life.
The second ville I offered to adopt turned out to be more receptive as it was Catholic. They told me: “The tanks would shoot at people but never hit anyone. The helicopters killed a few people but not too many. Now, would you like some tea?”
So here is the deal I dealt to the unsuspecting Vietnamese:
Every spring, I told them, villagers all over America celebrate the start of the growing season with a Chocolate Ceremony. The eldest farmer takes a ceremonial American Chocolate Hatchet and strikes the first blow upon a five-kilo (eleven-pound) chocolate bar. A lesser-status villager then breaks up the bar and distributes it to the children.
The children have a very important function in this ceremony. If they do not eat and enjoy the chocolate, the cold winds could come back and damage the rice.
Total donkey dust, of course, but the chocolate is real.
Over the past eight years the ceremony has evolved. Chocolate ice cream made its appearance in 2015. After a nearly two-hour drive in 90-degree heat we arrived with ice cream that was too hard to scoop. We overdid it with the dry ice.
Last year saw the first of the Big Foot Races. It is only in the northwest corner of my homeland, I explained to the children, where such events are a part of the Chocolate Ceremonies. The Indians there have told us of a tribe of giant women and men who roam the dripping rain forests. Known as Sasquatch to the Indians, other Americans call them Big Foot. But, just as in Vietnam where you always refer to Mr. Tiger or Mr. Elephant, you must use the honorific Mr. Big Foot. To honor Ong Chan To, the children in teams of three race in his feet.
As the years passed more and more children showed up for the sweet fun and the five-kilo bar and the Chocolate Hatchet no longer cut it. Commissioning a ten-kilo bar for 2017 and obtaining an American Chocolate Axe to deal with the heftier chocolate bar was clearly indicated. A regrettable error was made in the calculations, as that bar weighed in at 12.5 kilos (27.5 pounds) The children, however, did not complain.
All of the above is great fun, but it is only an overlay to the Dragoon Scholarship Fund I established. This effort started in 2010 as informal help to an elderly couple. A daughter lost her mind; her husband abandoned her and the children. The old couple was left with four young grandchildren and a crazy woman in the back room.
A neighbor mentioned the costs of education in Vietnam. Seeing an opening, I asked if help would be accepted. It would be, and so I gave the old couple an arbitrary amount per child. After two years I felt that my help ought to be professionally directed. So I got on my motorbike and made the rounds of the nonprofit charitable organizations in Da Nang. I found one with a lean administrative overhead and a tight focus on Da Nang and Quang Nam province: the Children of Vietnam. The founder lives in North Carolina and the executive director in Virginia. A small bilingual staff runs the office in Da Nang.
This organization administers the Dragoon Scholarship Fund, which has slowly grown to help nearly fifty children. A donation provides a child with a school uniform, books, fees, and tutoring if needed. If a child lives more than two kilometers from school, a bicycle is deemed necessary to get home quickly for chores and study. A simple desk and light is provided so the child has a place of his own to keep books and papers. While these are one-time expenses, tutoring can be ongoing. All of this flows from an average of $143 a year per student from kindergarten through high school.
If a donor intends to assist a child throughout her education they will know her name, see her face each spring, and receive her yearly grades.
One-time donations are welcome and will be used to shore up any weak points in the program. The donated funds do not, however, finance the fun. Donations go to education only with a small administrative expense.
VVA Chapters 165 in Bellingham, Washington, and 201 in San Jose, California, and individual VVA members support twenty children. The balance comes from diverse others.
Those who feel moved to join in this project may contact Nancy Letteri, the Executive Director of Children of Vietnam, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 434-964-6376.
Donations may be made at www.childrenofvietnam.org/dragoon Please specify the Dragoon Scholarship Fund.
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