Weekly Reading Reaction #3: "The Billion Dollar Skeleton"
Author: Phan Huy Duong
The significance of this story reflects a Vietnamese author's perspective on the plight of the American families of soldiers who were killed and/or missing in action. After the war was over, many of these American soldiers who lost their lives were simply buried and their remains were never identified and sent home for a proper burial, and more importantly, for closure purposes.
This story symbolizes the stereotypical "rich American" who has the power and unlimited resources to go to extremes to accomplish his goal of finding his son's remains and returning them home for burial in the family plot. It was to his advantage that the Vietnamese government did not interfere with his mission due to their custom of worshiping their ancestors and respect for the dead. They honored his wishes even though not everyone agreed with them.
This story is told by using exaggeration in describing another painful chapter for Americans regarding the Vietnam war, bringing to light the many soldiers missing in action and their remains still being unaccounted for. Billionaire Richard Steel represents the powerful drive and anxiety suffered by parents whose instincts would also be to "move mountains" (if they had unlimited funds) to obtain their sons' remains and have them returned home in order to bring necessary closure to their lives.
What I find admirable is the lesson in humanity Mr. Steel learns from the frail old man who kept his son's remains for all those years. When he achieves his goal and his son's remains are presented to him, Mr. Steel realizes the significance of the price of humanity vs. things money cannot buy is worth the billion dollars he put into the search. He has the remains cremated and then brings back the American/Vietnamese "Unknown Soldier" – which I interpret as being symbolic of the two sides coming together.
This is comparable to other stories, namely "Tony D," because it deals with conscience and values held by both sides. It is significant that both stories are written by Vietnamese writers because they show empathy felt towards Americans whose sons' remains are still unaccounted for. What is shown to be important in both of these stories is that respect for the dead is more important than all the money in the world can buy.
I recommend reading "The Billion Dollar Skeleton" because I found it to be an escape into the world of the fantastic – to be able to accomplish the "impossible" provided there is unlimited resources to accomplish that. The question that comes to my mind as I was reading it is: If I had access to all the money and resources in the world and the freedom to do anything I wanted with it, what "impossible task" would I want to accomplish with it?