It was a small clearing in a cane field, just outside of Thon Ba, a small hamlet in Vietnam.
Hattie Ford, a retired Kalamazoo math teacher, stood in the field and looked around. Considered the what-ifs.
It was the 50th anniversary of when her life changed forever. Army First Lt. Deane Taylor Jr., Hattie's first husband, was shot down from a helicopter and killed right on this very site on Jan. 15, 1969.
Hattie met Deane in 1964 when both were freshman at University of Georgia. He dropped out at the end of the school year. "School wasn't for him," Hattie said. Deane had other plans, aspiring to be the best salesman in the family's wholesale home-accessory business in Atlanta.
Instead, he got drafted.
Hattie and Deane married in June 1967. Trained as an Army helicopter pilot, Deane left for Vietnam in November 1968, two months before he was killed.
His death was devastating for Hattie. She became a widow at age 22.
And now Hattie was in Vietnam to pay tribute to Deane. By her side was Jim Ford, her husband of 43 years who arranged this trip.
Also with Hattie: Two former members of the Viet Cong, including the man responsible for Deane's death. The Fords' Vietnamese guide and translator helped find the men by asking around in Thon Ba for people who remembered a helicopter crash in January 1969. It was a small enough village that, fairly quickly, someone who knew someone led them to these men.
The men led Hattie and Jim to a small lane off the main road toward the river.
The group walked to the clearing. One of the men pointed to the place where the helicopter went down. Through the translator, the man in the blue shirt said low rain clouds that day forced the craft low enough for the Viet Cong to shoot it down. After the helicopter glided into the field, the man said, the three American crew members were shot and killed and the aircraft was burned.
"He did not say that he did the shooting and I did not ask that, specifically, but I am reasonably sure that he did," Hattie said.
No apologies were offered for Deane's death. "That was war and it is past. We are friends now," the other man said through the translator.
Much has happened in Vietnam and with Hattie over the past half-century.
After Deane's death, Hattie said, she "felt so incomplete, so unfinished. Deane and I had been married only a year and a half. We had just begun to lay a foundation for a life together, for a home and a family. And not even the foundation was complete. I wanted more time."
But she also recognized she was just one of many whose lives were torn apart by war. She picked up the pieces and got her teaching degree at University of Georgia. Found a teaching job in her Georgia hometown, and lived in a mobile home she parked on her family's tobacco farm.
Five years after Deane died, she met Jim, a law student at University of Georgia.
He was different from Deane. Quieter. More cerebral. A Northerner who grew up near Ann Arbor. Like Deane, Jim was a military pilot in Vietnam. Unlike Deane, Jim fiercely opposed the war and thought Americans had no business being there.
They married in 1975, and moved to Kalamazoo after Jim finished law school and took a job for The Upjohn Co. They've lived in Kalamazoo ever since. Jim eventually went into private practice. Hattie worked as a math teacher at Loy Norrix High School. They raised three children, and now have seven grandchildren.
It's been a very good life. "My world has expanded far beyond anything I could ever have dreamed," Hattie said.
Last summer, Jim and Hattie began talking about a trip to Vietnam. Hattie wanted to see where Deane died. Jim was curious to return to the place he last saw 46 years ago. Finding out exactly where Deane died took months of research on Jim's part, which included tracking down the Army incident report and locating a Vietnam War-era map that showed the Army's geographic coordinates.
In many respects, Hattie and Jim say, their January trip was more emotional for Jim than Hattie. "For me all these years, Vietnam was frozen in time as a war-torn, dirt-poor country," said Jim, an Air Force pilot in Vietnam from 1970 to 1973. "It was pretty emotional for me to see the transformation."
During the trip, he asked numerous Vietnamese how the war affected their families. Hearing about one war widow's struggles, he burst into sobs. "I didn't realize how much baggage I was carrying around" as a result of the war, he said.
Jim specifically arranged the trip to be in Thon Ba on the 50th anniversary of Deane's death. They hoped to find someone who remembered the crash.
"What we didn't expect was to find the man who remembered it in detail because he was the one who shot the crew and burned the helicopter," Hattie said. "And there I stood with him on the spot where all that took place 50 years ago to the day."
It was, both Jim and Hattie said, surreal.
Later than night, Hattie wrote down some thoughts.
She was feeling "neither grief nor sorrow and certainly not anger," she wrote.
What she did feel was gratitude. Grateful for the two Viet Cong soldiers "who put the past in the past and helped those who once were the enemy to have a moment of special remembrance," she wrote. Grateful to Jim for arranging the trip, "truly a labor of love." Grateful for all the blessings in her life.
The trip provided some closure, Hattie said.
"I was able to be in the place where Deane spent his last hours and pay tribute to him," she said. "The Vietnam War was horrible. War is awful. People suffer. It's part of our history. But it also is the past."
Julie Mack is a reporter for MLive's Public Impact team. She is a 1981 graduate of Michigan State University, a journalist for four decades and has been based in Kalamazoo since 1990.
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