During my many years in Vietnam, the monsoons caught my attention. I learned early on that it was better to avoid the downpours if possible because they were so intense. But they were also brief, rarely lasting more than a few minutes. My memory is that during the monsoon season (mid-May to early November in Vietnam), the heavy rains occurred only in the afternoons. More than once, I was drenched by them while I was at the market in Chợ Lớn (which means “large market”), Saigon’s Chinatown and the site of the Bình Tây (“western plain” or “western peace”) Market. I was so struck by the sight of the street market turned into haze by the concentrated downpour that I bought a painting, now hanging in my living room, that captured that unique view.

Only much later did I come to understand that “monsoon” refers not to rainfall but to a wind blowing part of the year from one direction alternating with a wind from the opposite direction. I gather that it only occurs in south and southeast Asia and the Philippines.

The term, monsoon, first appeared in English in the 1580s. Back then it meant “alternating trade wind of the Indian Ocean,” from Dutch monssoen, from Portuguese monçao, from Arabic mawsim, “time of year, appropriate season” (for a voyage, pilgrimage, etc.), from wasama “he marked.”

I can’t say that I pine for the monsoons. I found them unpleasant. But when I recently came across a reference to them, I felt an intense yearning to recover the feelings of those years in Vietnam. They were some of my best years, the years of my youth, spent in assisting U.S. forces with signals intelligence. They began when I was 25 and ended when I escaped Saigon under fire at age 38.

Those years shaped the rest of my life.

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