Today’s short trip was very moving.
I was sitting at the Saigon airport, waiting for my flight to Phnom Penh. In some ways, it hasn’t changed much. The waiting room (gate) for the flight was in the exact same place that I waited in 1973, 74 each time I flew to Cambodia. I got to know it pretty well then. I remember waiting there four times back then. When it was time to board, they would lead us out onto the tarmac in a single line (at least it was supposed to be a single line), weaving around the equipment and climbing the stairs into the waiting plane.
Today we went out and boarded a bus that took us out to climb the stairs. The plane was parked further away now. As I got to the top of the stairs, it was suddenly warmer than it had been. I had a flashback to that day in April, 1973 when I arrived for the first time from Korea.
I had spent ten months of a twelve-month stint in Busan teaching English and Bible at our language school there. They asked me to come to Cambodia to be director of the school. All its staff were finishing their stint and preparing to leave. They needed someone to start from scratch and carry on. I turned it down twice, but they kept asking. Finally I got the message that it was God who was asking.
Here I was after a three-day puddle-jumping trip. From Busan to Hong Kong. I stayed the night there at our hospital. I really enjoyed walking the streets of Hong Kong – especially the open-air markets. It’s a great way to get a real sense of who the people are. Then the next day to Taiwan. Once again I stayed at our hospital.
When the plane finally stopped at the Than Son Nhat airport in Saigon, I was apprehensive and excited. I had heard the name of this airport for years on the news. It was the airport for the U.S. forces traveling into and out of the country. It was a military airport. I asked myself “how will this be different than if I had come as a soldier?” The fourteen-month experience gave me a deep appreciation for our fighting men and women, and for our country.
Standing from my seat and walking through the smoking section. Yes, planes then had smoking sections – or maybe more accurate, they had non-smoking sections. Not that it mattered. When people smoke on a plane you sit in smoke in all the seats. I approached the door. I wasn’t ready for what I would experience. Coming to the entry/exit, I was hit with a tremendous blast of heat. I could feel the pressure like someone had shoved a mattress at me. “Welcome to Southeast Asia. Have a great year.” And I did.
The biggest difference is that this is no longer a military airport. Parts of it are new. And there is a domestic airport next to it. That may have been there before, but I never used it so I’m not sure. There was only one vestige of the military airport. I went into the mens room across from the gate. It had a window to look out, so I did. Parked behind the building was an old WW2 folding wing plane (pictured). I was surprised to see it, and thankful for the window.
This feels like a pilgrimage. I feel so blessed to be able to come. I left 47 years ago, just months before Pol Pot ravaged the parts of the country that had held out while I was here. Perhaps it will give me the chance to put behind me some of the ghosts of friends who lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge soon after my departure. Whatever the case, I may write about it. I didn’t intend to write this much today. Must have been cathartic.