Duke University Alumni Magazine


At the summit of Hai Van Pass: from left, Diana Nyad, world champion long-distance swimmer; Vietnam veteran Wayne Smith; Tour de France champion Greg LeMond; the author; and Vietnam veteran Pat Craney
Photo: Allen Wicken M.S. '74

The challenge: Bike 1,200 miles in sixteen days, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), with a team of veterans from both sides of the Vietnam War.

anuary 1968 was an anxious--and interesting--time for undergraduates in the Class of '68. In my case, it was at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Graduation was just four months away and, in addition to the usual anticipation that precedes a major milestone (in our case, commencement exercises featuring King Olav of Norway, no less), we also had the Vietnam War raging at perhaps its fiercest level. Graduate school was ruled out, its student-deferment status having been eliminated a few months earlier by the Johnson administration.

An "invitation" to report to the Army, followed by an "invitation" to journey to Vietnam, seemed a real possibility for me. The Army's bidding, which I could not easily refuse, came two and a half years later. But the expected trip to Vietnam did not happen for thirty years. It was a far more positive experience than it would have been three decades earlier; in fact, it was one of the richest experiences of my life.

During my senior year, many of us were busy amassing education credits and scheduling student-teaching experiences in anticipation of a "deferrable" teaching career immediately after graduation. Concordia's education department asked me if I would be interested in doing my biology student-teaching as part of an experimental program in an all-black high school in Richmond, Virginia. It didn't take long for me to recognize this opportunity to witness, and participate in, a current of great social change in America that was not, directly at least, affecting many in northwestern Minnesota. In March, I returned to Concordia to finish the semester, just a week or so before the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo: Allen Wicken M.S. '74

The winter of 1968 launched me into two years of teaching, followed by two years in the U.S. Army (fortunately, at the Army's environmental medicine research facility near Boston), two years pursuing a graduate degree in physical therapy at Duke, twenty-one years of physical therapist practice and raising a family in Maine, and the last three years at American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

Among my responsibilities in the practice and research division is representing APTA's "corporate partner" relationship in support of World T.E.A.M. Sports (WTS). T.E.A.M. stands for "the exceptional athlete matters." This nonprofit organization was created to encourage, promote, and develop opportunities in sports for all persons, especially persons with physical disabilities.

About two years ago, the board of WTS and representatives of corporate-partner organizations such as APTA set the ambitious goal of bringing together a team of able-bodied and disabled veterans, from both sides of the Vietnam War, in a physically challenging event--cycling 1,200 miles in sixteen days, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). When Steve Whisnant, the executive director of WTS, called me in August of 1997 to invite me to be one of about fifty team members, it took a nanosecond for me to say yes. I saw an opportunity to experience a place of great significance to my generation and to bring together people from different cultures and different physical abilities in a context of emotional and spiritual healing. I also saw an opportunity to challenge myself physically in a spectacular setting.

No matter how much I read about and researched Vietnam, during my four months of training on a mountain bike and stationary-bicycle ergometers, I did not come close to preparing myself adequately for the encounters I was about to have. The journey started the day after Christmas at Vikenhjem ("Wicken home" in Norwegian), our lakeside cabin in the western mountains of Maine (we Minnesotans consider it a birthright to have a place "at the lake"). Since moving to Virginia in 1995, we have spent each Christmas at this cedar log retreat, our family touchstone. I flew to Los Angeles to meet with the other team members and the support staff. A long flight to Hong Kong was followed by a Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi.

We arrived at the Hanoi airport late in the afternoon. We were now in a country that seemed mired in the technology of decades past: Much of the countryside was being farmed using practices similar to those used centuries ago. But there was a more striking image--three disabled veterans huddled together in a corner of the small terminal, gazing out at the Republic of Vietnam military aircraft on the tarmac, tears rolling down their faces.

Surreal is the only word I could find to describe our trip, complete with military escort, into the heart of Hanoi. (Through the length of the trip, we were accompanied by a film crew; the result, Vietnam: Long Time Coming, by the production team behind Hoop Dreams, aired nationwide on NBC in late December.) It was dusk before we really got going. Customs routines, loading our gear, and the general mayhem of getting organized into the prescribed caravan for the journey to the city took at least an hour. A storm had passed earlier and dark, low, swirling clouds were obscuring the nearby mountains we later found to be visually enchanting. We passed rice fields being cultivated by peasants directing their slow, methodical water buffalo. As we began to enter Hanoi, those sights were supplanted by more familiar traffic jams --though defined by bicycles rather than cars.

I remain impressed, and somewhat puzzled, by the enthusiastic response we received in virtually every meeting with the Vietnamese during this 1,200-mile journey. From our point of view, they had every reason in the world to be hostile to and suspicious of a group of Americans. We never saw it. We did see that the Vietnamese are a resilient, hard-working, admirable people, capable of a determined optimism even in the face of very limited economic resources.

Preparatory team meetings, mountain-bike and hand-cycle adjustments, government-sponsored functions, and cultural events filled the two days in Hanoi before the start of the ride on New Year's Day. The event that was most significant to me as a physical therapist was our visit to the Bach Mai Hospital. Quite spartan by U.S. health-care standards, the hospital was partially destroyed by bombing during the war. The Vietnam Challenge sponsors, in conjunction with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), presented the hospital's rehabilitation department with a check for $200,000 to establish a prosthetics (artificial limbs) and orthotics (bracing) service. There is an acute need for these services in Vietnam: Landmine explosions continue to maim and kill each year. The VVAF was instrumental in establishing the international landmine ban agreement last year; they were, in effect, co-recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for this humanitarian effort.

By the afternoon of December 31, we were all getting quite eager to climb on the cycles and start riding. Greg LeMond, three-time Tour de France cycling champion, was part of the team. He is on the World T.E.A.M. Sports board of directors, as is another member of the team, world-record-holding, long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad. It was a collection of people different in many ways, but united in purpose--and adventurous enthusiasm.

Photo: Allen Wicken M.S. '74

The day before the starting ceremonies near Ho Chi Minh's tomb, government officials announced their interest in having the U.S. and Vietnamese veterans, together, place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown North Vietnamese Soldier. This proved to be a difficult request for a number of war veterans. Not having served in the war zone, I felt I had not "earned" a place in the discussion. Most of the veterans decided to participate; and the entire group unanimously voted to include me in the ceremony. I did not realize until that very moment how much that affirmation would mean to me.

Dawn on New Year's Day in Hanoi was beautiful. A light rain had fallen overnight, and the sky was clearing in the east, providing rich, saturated colors everywhere. The anxiety level was high for everyone, especially the veterans, as we drew to within minutes of the starting ceremonies. Each of us fumbled around with many small details that all of a sudden seemed very large, very important, and all requiring a satisfactory answer or solution simultaneously. Do I have enough air in my tires? Where did I put my cycling gloves? Where is the support van with water for our bottles?

The signal was given for the veterans to assemble at the Unknown Soldier's tomb. Paralyzed veterans, seated in their handcycles, were carried up the steps. Handicapped accessibility provisions are virtually unknown in Vietnam. Two veterans--one American, one Vietnamese--carried the large yellow-and-red flowered wreath to the base of the memorial. Then each of us was asked to place an incense stick in a sand-filled brass urn at the center of the marble-columned structure. Ho Chi Minh's tomb and a large Republic of Vietnam flag, red with a yellow star in the center, were visible between the columns. Blind, able-bodied, and physically-disabled veterans, some arm-in-arm, stood together in common cause while wracked by conflicting emotions.

After the obligatory speeches (this was to become a bilingual, daily event for the next sixteen days) by local officials, an impressive performance by young martial-arts students, and a drum-corps send off, we were on our way through the maze-like streets of Hanoi, which were lined all the way with thousands of cheering, waving, smiling citizens and their children. For the next hour, our police-escorted caravan of cyclists and support vehicles threaded its way toward Highway One, the irregular, crowded, noisy, dusty, narrow, sometimes barely passable strip of interrupted asphalt that would lead us to Ho Chi Minh City, 1,200 miles to the south.

As challenging as the road surface was at times, I enjoyed virtually every mile. Granted, it was continuous physical work pedaling a bike all day in mostly sunny 85- to 95-degree heat, but a bicycle can be very forgiving. Plus, I had little time to think about the physical demands. There was too much to see, hear, and absorb, and for me, the surroundings proved endlessly interesting.

The "no-discernable-rules" approach to traffic management allowed for a continuous study of disparate vehicles and their cargoes: aged trucks and buses loaded inside and often on top with far too many people, ducks, chickens, cages of dogs (destined for dinner tables somewhere, I am sorry to report), produce, building materials, or sometimes all of the above, in or on a single, over-worked vehicle. Peasant women shouldered huge loads of everything from crockery to caged ducks balanced on each end of a six-foot, bamboo pole, evenly divided by their shoulder fulcrum. Their rhythmic, determined cadence pointed to years of hard-working practice at conveying goods to and from the local marketplace. Countless Honda motor scooters, horns beeping almost constantly, sometimes carried entire families, or occasionally one somewhat nonchalant fellow with an adult pig caged in a wire basket strapped crosswise on the rear fender.

Bicycles, all of which appeared to be at least thirty years old, were propelled by the elderly, by children, or by young women made elegant in silk au dai, traditional Vietnamese garments. "Work" bicycles, meticulously loaded and balanced in logic-defying arrangements with everything from mountains of pottery to large bundles of rice, were pushed from the side by their determined owners. Throw in an occasional water buffalo or cattle-drawn cart, and you have one of countless interesting 100-yard segments of Highway One.

All of this was in the context of a lush natural environment. The first few days, the so-called "dragon's tooth" mountains were constantly gnawing on the western horizon. South of the DMZ (the old "de-militarized zone" separating the country into warring halves) were views of enchanting segments of white-sand beaches. Were it not for the obvious problem of too many people trying to carve out an existence in this varied geography, I would be tempted to describe the country as absolutely blessed by nature. We seemed to have people always in view over each cycling shoulder, even in the countless glistening, water-filled, rice paddies on every tillable acre we passed.

Beyond the scenery, we were absorbed with trying to stay somewhat organized amid the various competing conveyances; the task of trying to stay adequately hydrated by draining the frequently filled water bottles while simultaneously trying to ignore that ache between the shoulder blades; or trying not to pay much attention to the "comfort" level of the bike seat.

When the route became particularly challenging, our "really tough" teammates--paraplegic handcyclists and amputee cyclists--got going. It seemed inappropriate for me to think about how hard I was working. One young female teammate from Hanoi never failed to impress me: An above-knee amputee, she used what we in the U.S. would describe as a somewhat ancient prosthesis. She pedaled up mountain passes and endured our two 100-plus mile days with no expectation of special consideration or assistance.

We did find it necessary to fashion an "assist device" for our handcyclists when we encountered long, arduous hills. There is far less muscle mass in the arms, compared to the legs, from which to coax that extra push to conquer mountain-pass switchbacks. Each handcycle frame was soon equipped with a four-foot, sturdy, wooden pole or tree branch projecting vertically from behind the cyclist's seat. As the handcyclists gradually slowed going uphill, a bicycle-mounted teammate could ride alongside, grasping the stick to provide an "assist."

As the ride progressed, getting closer to Saigon by an average eighty-mile increment each day, our various personal goals gradually melded. This growing unity of purpose was something felt by every one of us. It was becoming more evident that the Vietnam Challenge had been growing in importance to the Republic of Vietnam government, the country's news services, and to many people in the rural areas. Friendship, camaraderie, mutual understanding, and abilities--not disabilities --were being demonstrated each day.

A phrase used by World T.E.A.M. Sports, "we all ride on the same road," seemed fitting. Cyclists' personal accounts and impressions, as well as daily pictures of the ride, were being sent to schoolchildren worldwide each morning on the Internet via the Asia Society's website, and hundreds of newspaper and television accounts were broadcast in the U.S. and around the world.

The Vietnam Challenge ended on the steps of Reunification Hall in Ho Chi Minh City on January 16, 1998. Our tired yet exultant team rolled through the same gates communist tanks entered the grounds of what was, in 1975, the Presidential Palace of South Vietnam. What a difference a few decades, and a few people with vision, can make. Vietnam veterans Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and U.S. Ambassador Pete Peterson, himself a P.O.W. for six years in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison, accompanied us on the last day's ride from Vung Tau.

Impressions from those past sixteen days, and from the war years of the Sixties and early Seventies, raced through my mind as I stood arm-in-arm with two of my Hanoi teammates. In front of the old palace, we listened to Kerry, Peterson, and other Vietnamese and American dignitaries as they articulated the significance of some sweaty cyclists on Vietnam's Highway One. It was an affirmation of a human drive to succeed that can triumph over old enmities.

Wicken M.S. '74, a physical therapist, is the associate director of the practice at the American Physical Therapy Association.

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