We used a sampan to make our way from the bridge at Dong Ha in Quang Tri, the northernmost province of what used to be South Vietnam, to Cua Viet, the spot where the U.S. Navy kept its PBRs and other watercraft back in the day. Of necessity, of course, we had to travel some water that I hadn’t traveled for 40-some years.
Nothing looked the same. I mean, nothing. Indeed, in a way (and I am speaking only for myself here, not Jim or Bill) it felt almost like I had never been to this part of the world before, like it was absolutely new. It was only the mountains, and particularly the flattop profile of Dong Ha Mountain where I and the rest of Charlie Company, 1/11th Infantry, spent Christmas of 1969, that dominated and anchored the scenes we saw.
I gotta tell ya—sampans are not especially comfortable, at least until you figure out that you should sit in the bottom of them instead of languishing precariously on one of the several thwarts. The dimensions of these highly efficient boats are interesting, by the way. Our sampan was about 30 feet long, maybe 4 feet wide, and she drew, according to our interpreter Mr. Phouc, something like 3 feet. So instead of a 3-to-1 length-to-beam ratio, which is fairly common, the ratio for our boat was more like 7-to-one or even 8-to-1. Long and narrow tends to boost speed and efficiency, it seems. .
Just east of Cam Lo Bridge, we stopped our boat—the silence was a tad deafening, once our ancient Chinese diesel was turned off—so I could enjoy a short stint of flyfishing, probably most favorite sport of all time. While it’s arguable that the act of flyfishing might be considered less than serious, particularly in the midst of what you might call a grave errand, I saw it another way. Years and years ago, I had flown across the waters of the Cua Viet armed to the teeth—the old PBRs had 50-caliber machine guns, most infantryman were outfitted with M-16, grenade launchers, LAWs, hand grenades…you name it. I counted it as a major triumph, coming back to the same waters to do something quite different, something quite peaceful.
But here’s the odd part. Although I was certainly sure that the trip up the Qua Viet had not affected me in any appreciable manner—oh yeah, there was nostalgia, and maybe a little sadness—I found it impossible to join the fly I’d chosen for the event with the tippet material at the end of my leader. You use what’s called an “Improved Clinch Knot,” and I simply could not tie it.
Why? Well, I wasn’t shaking—that was not the problem. And I’ve tied the knot in various parts of the world with very little trouble—I’m pretty good at tying it, really. So the reason I simply could not do what I have done a million times before remains a mystery that I am still thinking about.