One of my neighbors in Ngu Xa was Mai Van On. He lived in a lake¬side shanty—his home as long as he could remember—with his wife of forty-two years, two unemployed adult sons, and several grandchildren. The house was small and dark with no electricity or running water. On had retired from his factory job on a pension of $18 per month, enough to barely eke by, and except for one day in October 1967 he had led a cau¬tious, uneventful life.
On that eventful day, On was working with the volunteer militia guarding True Bach. The dike road on the lake’s western shore was lined with antiaircraft batteries. When they began firing and the Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) screamed skyward, locked on to the sil¬very images of approaching U.S. warplanes, On dove into a bunker. He hated such raids. They terrified him, and sometimes he would shake for an hour after calm had returned. One of the missiles struck the right wing of a plane piloted by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander John Mc¬Cain. The Skyhawk fighter-bomber plummeted into the lake, 100 yards from where my apartment building now stood, followed moments later by the parachute that carried the semiconscious McCain, the future Ari¬zona senator and Republican presidential candidate.
“I still don’t know why I did what I did,” said On, a frail, paper-thin man of more than eighty years. He stroked his wispy Ho Chi Minh beard as though that might help him offer a plausible explanation. “Sometimes you do things without thinking. It has nothing to do with being a hero or a coward. You just act, not thinking if you’re doing right or wrong.”
Before he knew it, On was in the water, clinging to a bamboo pole and paddling toward the injured pilot, who was tangled in, and weighted down by, his heavy gear and was in danger of drowning. On, with several others, pulled McCain to shore. An angry crowd poured out of the small brick homes once owned by Ngu Xa’s bronze casters and beat McCain with rifle butts and sticks. “Please don’t kill him,” On pleaded with the mob. “He is nearly dead already. We must turn him in.” The frenzied shouting dulled to a murmur. The crowd backed away and the police ar¬rived to cart McCain to prison, where he would spend five years as a pris¬oner of war (POW).
On had gathered up the rope from McCain’s parachute. He could think of a hundred uses for it in his home. As the police were leaving, one of the officers turned back to claim the rope. “It belongs to the state,” On remembers him saying. At the factory On’s fellow workers accorded him a hero’s reception, applauding him enthusiastically as he took his place on the assembly line. But his fame was brief. A few days later, when Hanoi officials discovered McCain was the son of the admiral who commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific, and thus an important bargaining chip—“the Crown Prince,” they called him—Ngu Xa’s security forces began claiming credit for the capture. They even had the rope from McCain’s parachute to back their claims. And after the war, as McCain’s political fortunes grew and he became a leading advocate of reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam, numerous Hanoi residents began taking credit for saving the U.S. senator, apparently hoping for a reward from Washington.
Mai Van On sighed and poured another cup of tea from his Thermos. “I never wanted compensation,” he said. “I just wanted recognition as a patriot. But life is life. Everything happens for a reason. Consider: I save an unknown pilot. He becomes a famous man and leads the way for America and Vietnam to become friends. If I had let him die, would we still have become friends?” He paused, offering no answer.
Taking my arm to steady himself, On walked with me through Ngu Xa’s maze of sidewalk markets to what had been McCain’s target three blocks away: a coal-fired power plant. Inside its high stone walls on this day there was a buzz of activity. Workers were hurrying to convert the plant to an electrical facility before winter’s arrival. As we walked, On told me about the thrill of meeting McCain in Hanoi some years before. On, who had dressed in his only suit for the occasion, was so on edge with excitement that he showed up an hour early. He remembers McCain being a “very fine, wonderful man with a good face.” He still keeps the fifty-cent Senate key chain McCain gave him as thanks for saving his life.
“What’s done is done,” On said. His life was not greatly changed by ei¬ther the war or the war’s end. He remains poor. He worries about paying his $2 monthly rent. He would like to buy his wife a new dress. He thinks life has treated him fairly. “I never hated Americans, only the American government. But the war’s past now. It belonged to my generation, not my sons’. I never regretted saving Mr. McCain, though a lot of people wanted to kill your pilot that day.”
Much to my surprise, On hugged me in farewell. I walked on alone. It was still early, but the marketwomen had already arrived from the coun¬tryside, lugging their produce in large baskets attached to wooden shoul¬der yokes. They were hunkered along the curbs, surrounded by neat stacks of tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and flowers. An old woman I saw every day pedaled by on her bicycle, clanging her bell and calling out, “Bread. Warm bread.” Behind her pedaled a pint-sized newspaper boy named Hung, announcing the day’s headlines over an amplifier attached to his bike’s handlebars. I saw the familiar figure of a gaunt peasant in sandals and a conical hat carrying her bathroom scale, which she would occasionally set on the pavement in hopes a passerby wanted to know his weight. She told me if she earned 7,000 dong per day (about fifty cents U.S.), her time had been well spent.

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