• The Richest Gift

The Richest Gift

A story for Lonely Planet's Christmas Special

"What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part.
Yet what can I give Him?
Give my heart."

I was still quite a young GI, but I had had a full combat tour in Vietnam, and that was more than enough, when in the Spring of 1975 I was sent back in as a member of the expeditionary force tasked with extracting the South Vietnamese government, their dependents, and many thousands of fleeing civilians. All was disorder on April 30, and our efforts were reduced to ad lib and impromptu, and I just didn’t want to be the last to die in a useless war. In the chaos of bringing people to boats to be sent down river to safety I saw a young boy of about six. He had been separated from his family and was crying, rather softly in the noise and tumult, as war children will do. As we hurried to the docks I scooped the boy up, hoisted him to my shoulder and he clung to my neck instinctively. His name was Duk.

I kept him close to me throughout the day and into the night as the North Vietnamese army prepared its final assault on the city of Saigon, and we made our way to a ship of the US 7th fleet lying offshore. There the boy and I stayed together, eating and sleeping and recuperating on the weather decks until late the next day when his family was located on another ship. I carried Duk down the accommodation ladder to a whaleboat. And I felt the need to give him something, a gift of some kind, something of me. I had nothing else, so I took off my cap and placed it on his head. He gave me a little soldier’s salute, and I sent him reluctantly off to his future.

Fast forward 15 years. At a company Christmas party, by fate or by breathtaking coincidence, I met a young man who turned out to be “the boy.” Duk was an inch taller than I, dangerously handsome, and he told me that he had just graduated from Stanford University. And that my cap still hangs on the wall in his room. I’ve never had a richer gift.