I was terrified! From somewhere deep inside, there was a presence, a deep-rooted sense that my ultimate fate would be to die in a rice paddy — if I went to Viet Nam. My family and my community had instilled an equally deep sense of patriotism in my psyche. My father was a World War II survivor. My sister's father died in the Philippine Islands in the same war. My size and lack of street smarts left me out of the "survivor" category and more towards the "victim" role. My birthday came up at number 65 in the December draft lottery of 1969 and when I started college in the summer of 1970, I was classified 2-S, student. Those factors gave me significant incentive to study, not to mention the mental images reported by television and LIFE magazine. The photograph that was later known as "Reaching Out" made me nauseous; I couldn't look at it for years. It's still a disturbing image.
Girl by the Road at Night by David Rabe begins with Joe Whitaker's visit to the Washington Memorial amidst anti-war demonstrations on the mall. He had difficulty maintaining his focus and experienced no enjoyment from his last stint as a tourist because of the piece of paper in his pocket. It was a neatly folded copy of his order to go to the war. "Fingering the shape of the papers outlining his fate beneath the cloth of his jacket, he is bewildered by the power of the document," and then, "How can paper move him? Incredibly, his hand is shaking." For me, it's 1969 again, and I feel his terror. Can I deal with the fear 40 years later? I can't put the book down.
Another storyline develops as we meet Quach Ngoc Lan, who is Vietnamese. What could a girl who stands by the road at night in 1969 be other than a prostitute? These two characters are destined to meet. When and for how long will the two stories merge — and will they diverge?
We come to know each character by hearing their thoughts and observing their actions as Rabe puts us in the story with poetic prose that creates vivid mental images using brief interactions and short but meaningful conversations. We don't need all the details. We are there. We know what happens next. We know how the story ends. We keep reading to experience the emotions of the characters and learn something of ourselves. A third party character has learned and taught her children that manners require that a decent person conceal news of misfortune whenever possible. Her manners disquiet the reader.
The story challenges my conscience. Could something like this happen to me today? How would I react? Are my morals intact and do I have the strength to act out my spoken convictions? In my heart, I want to be reassured, to have my mind put at ease, even if what is kept from me is very bad.