Rare Orchids shares a saga set within Vietnamese history from 1940 to today, from the perspective of four generations of women named Lan (orchid).

by Dean Adams Curtis
Copyright 2022

Acknowledgements: A Story With Many Muses

Vietnamese Paphiopedilum

Mother told me this blank book of paper was for me to write my diary, or poetry, or whatever I wanted to write. Then she died from the fever. For the last two years this book has been at the bottom of my bottom drawer. Then, this morning, I pulled the drawer all the way out and turned it over on my bed. The book is bound in pink leather, which is what drew my attention to it. I was searching for a pink saffire necklace that Mother had given me on my fifteenth birthday. It belonged to her mother, her grandmother, or both of them. Father had said the necklace's saffires were the same color as the pedals of a rare orchid that he was searching for, worrying that it was already extinct. Last year he found his orchid. Today I found my necklace and this book. Later today, Father is going to announce his success at cultivating the orchid in captivity. Since Mother is gone, I am the hostess. So that is all I am able to write, for now. I suppose I should have written down the date before I started this scribbling. It is January 20, 1940.

I am back. I decided to write a few more words before changing into my white blouse and long pink dress with the daring slit Father hates and pink saffire necklace that Father loves. I should tell you that the name of the rare orchid Father was looking for is the Vietnamese Paphiopedilum. He called it by its Latin scientific name, Paphiepedium vietnamense. He was so obsessed with the rare orchid that he named his only daughter, me, your lonely diarist, after it. Father always made me feel very special to have such a fine and rare name, though it was a bit long for the other children to say and for daily usage. Thankfully, Mother always called me, Lan, for short, a Vietnamese name meaning orchid.

AAARRRGH! My uncle can be so annoying. Today was Father's event. Uncle should not have used it to make one of his political speeches. Father did not say anything, even when Uncle handed out leaflets with inflammatory writing by Nguyen the Patriot. Some patriot that guy is. They say he lives like an artist in Paris, where he can be as free as a bird, while here in Vietnam, we, his people, are occupied by the French.

Father's way is to avoid conflict. I am always the one who has to stand up for our interests with merchants and those we hire to help us. Of course, I understand Father always has his mind in the clouds, up on some mist-wrapped mountainside, imagining, I suppose, that he is peering between wet foliage at some saffire pink orchid pedals. I just wish he would come out of the clouds once in a while, such as to usher Uncle out the door.

A quarter hour later, I was the one who had to put a stop to Uncle's verbal cascade, as Father had wandered into a wing of our orchidarium with one of his botany buddies. My unexpectedly loud and sharp excusing of myself for interrupting, led to my giving Father's final refrain about our gifts for our guests, none other than the featured Paphiepedium vietnamense orchid that Father and I had cultivated.

Having heard me, Father had returned to the party. Seeing him, I had pulled back a curtain and revealed a long table with fifty young potted paphiepedium vietnamense. The gasp of the gathered group was a delight. All were immediately congratulating father at once. Of course, I saw that they were congratulating as a decorum device to get to the sample orchids as quickly as possible. The orchidarium and the table of potted orchids both cleared quickly. Uncle left along with the guests, orchid in hands. When he passed me, his eyes barely flickered at mine. I felt his anger at me for interrupting him.

Blood? Yes. My bloody fingers write this now. Our guests were long gone and the day had almost gone, when loud, urgent knocking rattled our strong wooden door. Was it Uncle? What had he forgotten? Or was it one of our other guests? The botanists could get pretty passionate when they had a point to make, but I thought it unlikely one was worked up enough about an idea to return to us with such fervor. As I neared the door I could hear more than one voice but could not hear what was being said. I was tired from the long day and paused a few feet away from the door, almost turning around in retreat to hope whomever it was would go away. But then the pounding came again so intensely I worried that our door would be damaged. I strode forward angrily and unlocked it. I was immediately swept back and thrown aside into a sitting room by a wave of uniformed male bodies shouting in French, that reeked of stale cologne failed at its job. I was manhandled but they were not there for me. As I lay on the sitting room floor with barrels of three Legionnaire rifles pointed down at me, I saw them drag Father past and heard them shoving him out the door.

For what seemed forever, I was prevented by rifle barrels from rushing after Father, but as the Legionnaires withdrew from our house I dashed from it. A trio of dark green trucks with beds cloaked in green canvas were already driving away. All I could think of to do was to run after the French leionnaires, shouting that they had made a mistake, that my Father did not do anything. But the soldiers in the trucks kept rolling, oblivious to my shouts, furthering their distance from me. Nonetheless, I kept after the trucks until they passed through an ancient, badly-deteriorated archway that heralded the entrance to the Nature-nestled community near Hanoi where Father and I had found perfect for the orchidarium.

Then I saw a horror that made me gasp but seemed to choak my scream. Hanging from the entry side of the arch was a blood soaked corpse of a Vietnamese man. Rolled papers had been stuffed into its mouth and grotesquely, into eyeless eye sockets. I compelled myself to step closer to the corpse. I saw the rolled papers were Nguyen the Patriot leaftlets. Then, I identified the shirt I saw on the corpse. It was Uncle.

Five Years Later

U.S. OSS officers Peter Dewey and Archimedes Patti and team fly over Vietnam near the China border.
Storyboard artwork by Dean Adams Curtis. All rights reserved.


A big no-no on secret missions is to write down your thoughts in a reporter's notebook. But that is how I have trained my mind to think. I am talking to myself. Your brain is keeping its wits about it. It is what you have been trained to do. Office of Strategic Services training has instilled it. Take no notes. If captured be carrying no evidence. Remember everything that happens with vividness so as to report on it up the chain of command. I wish I could write down what I am thinking right now, to expel some of my nervous energy, but instead, I think as if writing. I remember pudding-faced and ponderous Professor Ferrill, my Yale teacher, quoting Freud's ideas about our Id, Ego, and Super-ego, three distinct and interacting agents in each person's mind. Like I am cataloging my psych learning, I remember that Carl Jung, who Freud mentored, and who then was a rival of his, was a reporter for our collective unconsciousness. He certainly was a reporter of his own unconscious. His journey stuns me. A friend of mine who writes for The New York Times Magazine told me that between appointments with patients, after dinner with his wife and children, whenever there was a spare hour or two, Jung sat in a book-lined office on the second floor of his home in Zurich, Switzerland, and induced hallucinations that he called active imaginations. Jung wrote, "I knew that I had to let myself plummet down into them." He also wrote that he found himself in a place that was as full of creative abundance as it was of potential ruin. Jung believed he was traversing the same borderlands traveled by both lunatics and great artists.

Ho Chi Minh

"Dewey!" It was Archimedes. I had dozed off.

Ahh, I remembered, we were about to plummet down from a plane into enemy territory on a journey that might have been dreamed up by a lunatic, but for the fact that it was Archimedes and my plan. We were going to Ho, just so you know. He wrote to drop in. We said we would. Thus, we arrived at where I then stood.

Archimedes was reading from his Bible. "Ready?" he asked me, not looking up, sensing that I was looking at him. I did not have a moment to answer as the red light came on, warning us all that our jump zone was nearing. Archimedes stowed his good book and stood, then looked each of us in the eyes and checked our parachutes were on properly. Of course they were. This was not our first rodeo. We had all just graduated from the hell of Office of Strategic Services covert warfare, fighting against the Nazis in North Africa and Europe.

As Hitler's military was finally pushed back into Germany, we were sent to the Far East to continue fighting against the Nazified Japanese militarists who had forcefully grabbed an empire for themselves and their emperor.

Part of that empire was French Indochina. A year before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had moved in, unopposed, throughout the entirety of French Indochina from the mouth of the Mekong River in the South to the headwaters of the Red River in the North. President Roosevelt, along with American allies, had then slapped an embargo on oil and other industrial raw materials going to Japan. Thus, the military, men just seventy years from the centuries old Samuri traditions, seventy years during which civilians had managed the affairs of state, saw their dreams of being a regional colonial power slipping away. Rather than renouncing such asperations and the Nazification that had occured, as Roosevelt and his advisors had hoped, the Japanese militarists had taken the course we all know they took.

I stood at the open side door of the U.S. Flying Tigers plane, a C-47 troop transport. My mind kept repeating the 1945 date. It was a technique I had adopted on my first night drop over North Africa, a mantra enshrining for myself the date I would possibly die.

After Archimedes's backpack disappeared from in front of me, I focused on the Vietnamese landscape of mountains and river valleys. I reassured myself that our best intelligence showed only limited Japanese occupation force operation this far up North, as the area was controlled by the Vietminh, a well-organized force of Vietnamese independence fighters who were led by the colorful and intelligent Ho Chi Minh.

Moonlit jungle treetops and glistening rice paddies passed below as I watched Archimedes leap toward them. I leapt from the plane's open portal toward a narrow valley sculpted with rice paddies amidst mountains of northern Vietnam, up near its border with China. Our secret mission's goal was to join forces with Ho's Vietminh to prepare for a possible Allied attack against the Japanese facists who controlled Vietnam.

In Hanoi, U.S. OSS officer Peter Dewey is watched by Japanese Naval Intelligence officer Imai. Storyboard artwork by Dean Adams Curtis. All rights reserved.

In Hanoi's Hotel Metropole, U.S. OSS officer Peter Dewey says good-bye to Vietminh Propaganda Brigade leader Lan Nguyen before his departure to Saigon. Storyboard artwork by Dean Adams Curtis. All rights reserved.

Outside Hanoi's Hotel Metropole.

Next installment: "Meeting Ho" and all future installments are available by email only.
[Send email for free prepublication installments of Rare Orchids. Next: Oct. 31, 2023.]

For additional historical fiction about this era investigate...
Sukimoko - by Dean Adams Curtis