Friday, February13, 2009
Vet visits CCHS, reflects on era of Miss Saigon
This week, in preparation for Miss Saigon, the upcoming winter musical at CCHS, a veteran of
the Vietnam War visited the high school to help the students understand the mindset of the American soldiers.
Retired Colonel Dominic Ingegneri, promoted four times, accompanied by a slideshow of fuzzy pictures featuring natives of the Vietnamese jungles, explained how he had been recruited into the army at the age of 20.
Ingegneri graduated from CCHS in 1967 – “It still looks the same!” he joked – and attended a college in New Mexico for a month before calling it quits. To him, college was “the most boring thing I’ve ever done.” A few parents in the audience laughed nervously at that.
At the time, the military was offering a shorter term of service if the soldiers signed up instead of waiting to be drafted. Ingegneri, looking for adventure, signed up right away.
“I was lucky,” he admitted to the audience. “I went to missile school, then language school…and there were no missiles to launch, so I had no job to do.” Ingegneri, surrounded by war stories of the ferocious Vietnam jungles, was afraid he would be moved into the forces there. But Lady Luck prevailed, and a spot opened up nearby at an air base. His new job was to organize the takeoff and landing of all planes and helicopters from the Da Nang air base. The slideshow included pictures of cargo planes equipped with machine guns, as well as the type of plane Senator John McCain was shot down in. If an aircraft failed to return to the base, Ingegneri was in charge of sending out a search and rescue party.
“They’d radio us, so-and-so going out, and sometimes they didn’t radio back,” he said somberly. “Sometimes we’d hear them on the ground, and then…nothing.”
Yet not all of his memories are sad. Most of his service was spent in local Vietnamese villages, helping the villagers survive in the tough conditions. Ingegneri fondly recalled the rapport he had established with the natives. The soldiers were given a special discount on cigarettes, so Ingegneri, who has never smoked, bought his packs for a dollar each and sold them to the local women, who could sell them for ten dollars each.
“They liked the Americans because we kept them safe, gave them jobs,” Ingegneri explained. “They didn’t like the North Vietnamese, because they had killed their families and bombed their homes.” The military of the United States was working on forming a civilian corps made up of Vietnamese villagers. The Vietnamese were taught how to fend for themselves in the rough times, including how to fight if their villages were attacked.
Ingegneri said his biggest culture shock was the amount of poverty in the villages he and his comrades visited. “The average Vietnamese didn’t want the war, and just cared about surviving.” Ingegneri received the impression that the citizens he was interacting with, the poor and suffering, were the ones who took the brunt of the war.
The slideshow was mostly comprised of pictures of the native Vietnamese, including “mama-sans” who frequented the markets with their “baby-sans” tagging along. The audience cooed as images of toddlers and babies carried in slings stared out from the screen. Other children rode pet water buffalo or chased each other between houses made of plywood with tin roofs. Women, their teeth and hands stained black by betel nuts, grinned at the camera from under their pointed straw hats.
Pictures of scenery also dotted the slideshow. “It’s a beautiful country,” said Ingegneri. “It’s just like Hawaii.” The jungles in the photographs are lush and green, and flowers bloom among the ferns.
“I’d love to go back someday,” Ingegneri added wistfully. “I’ve heard now that you can go on scenic bike tours of Vietnam. I’d love to see the country again.”
One might think that a Vietnam soldier would like to forget about his time of service, but Ingegneri has fond memories of Vietnam; also, the attitude about the war has changed with time. “I couldn’t walk down the streets of Concord,” he said about his return, “because of the negative reaction.” Now he can tell his story to a group of interested and sympathetic students who are doing their best to portray this moment in history.
As to the play itself, Ingegneri had very little to say against it. Miss Saigon, which follows the love story of an American G.I. and a Vietnamese prostitute, seemed to Ingegneri to be very accurate.
“There were bars all over the base,” he said when asked to comment on the opening scene, where a gang of Americans are inside a racy Vietnamese bar. “So if you were bored or angry or thirsty, you’d go down to the bar.”
It was also true, according to Ingegneri, that the play’s premise of a young Vietnamese left behind while her true love, a G.I., leaves for America was also very real. “[The Americans] never ended up bringing [the Vietnamese] home, because the military and the government didn’t allow it. It couldn’t be done.”
He also commented on the huge, hulking piece of metal resting in a corner of the auditorium: the front of a real helicopter, to be suspended from above the stage. “The helicopter’s amazing,” he said. “It does bring back a sad memory, though. A man named Ricky Frank was shot down in a helicopter like that.”
As one last favor, he showed the students who are playing Marines how to stand and salute like real Jarheads. The boys were told to stand up straight – “Chins up, stomachs in, chests out!” – and to salute – “Elbows out!”
“My daughter always told me I was the prettiest Marine she’d ever seen,” he said, grinning, “but these guys beat me by a mile.” ∆
Box office information
Miss Saigon show dates are February 27, 28, March 6 and 7 at 7:30 p.m.; March 1 and 8 at 1:30 p.m. at the CCHS auditorium.
There is an open dress rehearsal on Wednesday, Februaury 25 at 3:30 p.m.
© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito