Dan Cherry was on a flight out of Ho Chi Minh City with his new Vietnamese friend when he noticed the ring on the other man's left hand. It was gold with a blue stone inset.
It looked like a typical American class ring.
Cherry wondered where it had come from, but he was reluctant to ask. He and Nguyen Hong My had just become friends — and it was a fragile friendship, to say the least.
Cherry is a retired Air Force brigadier general who once served at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. During a four-minute dogfight over North Vietnam in 1972, he shot down Hong My's fighter jet with a sparrow missile.
In 2008, he tracked down Hong My with the help of a Vietnamese TV show. The former enemies met and became fast friends. Soon after, they boarded a commercial flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hong My's home in Hanoi.
But now the ring on Hong My's hand raised uncomfortable questions for Cherry.
Was it a trophy of war?
A trophy taken from a dead American?
• • •
After a while, Cherry couldn't stand it. He had to get a closer look at the ring. He asked Hong My if he might examine it. Hong My obliged, holding his hand up.
Cherry, 71, could make out "1972" and the name of a high school etched in the gold. He thought it said "Macklin."
The men didn't share the same language. So it may not have been surprising that Cherry couldn't bring himself to ask how Hong My, 65, got the ring. Cherry didn't feel he knew Hong My well enough to open that door.
"I was afraid it might be a sensitive issue with him," Cherry said.
But he told a friend who was with him to unobtrusively look at the ring to see if he noticed anything Cherry had missed. An idea was forming in Cherry's mind.
• • •
When Cherry returned from Vietnam, his attention moved to other things. But he couldn't forget the ring.
Cherry still knew nothing about the ring's history when Hong My visited the United States at Cherry's invitation in the spring of 2009.
Cherry thinks it was at the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In in Lakeland when he nervously broached the topic of the ring. He asked Hong My through an interpreter: How did you get it?
It didn't seem like a big deal to Hong My. He said he bought it at a Vietnamese jewelry shop. Cherry later learned his friend bought the ring in the early 1980s.
Hong My simply enjoyed wearing gold jewelry. The ring had caught his eye. Hong My knew nothing of its original owner.
Earlier this year, Cherry decided he had to know more about the ring's history. So he sat in front of his computer at his Bowling Green, Ky., home and typed "Macklin" in a Google search.
Soon he found that he had misread the name of the school. It was Mackin Catholic High School in Washington, D.C. Mackin was an all-male inner-city school that closed in 1989 after it was merged into a larger school.
Then Cherry started working the phone.
What he discovered was encouraging. Mackin wasn't big. The class of 1972 contained just 93 students. More than 30 years had passed, but Cherry thought the numbers were on his side. He was sure he could find the ring's owner.
He talked to officials at the school Mackin was merged into — Archbishop Carroll High School, also in Washington.
Cherry called the principal. Then he talked to Carroll's director of alumni affairs. Cherry obtained a copy of Mackin's 1972 yearbook, leafing through its pages and gazing at the young faces as he tried to imagine which student might have owned the ring.
• • •
Cherry tracked down and spoke to a handful of Mackin graduates. None, unfortunately, could identify the ring's owner.
Some of the school's students were poor kids who wouldn't have been able to afford a class ring. Even so, Mackin graduates felt a fierce pride for their school.
Many spoke of the "Mackin code." Honesty. Integrity. Honor.
"If you did something wrong, you would be told, 'A Mackin man wouldn't do that,' " said 1972 graduate Richard Bennett. "We all carried that into adulthood."
Cherry visited Washington to meet with a handful of Mackin men. One was Eugene Johnson, who became as intrigued by the mystery as Cherry.
"How did this ring get to Vietnam?" Johnson said.
School pride was so strong, Johnson said, that he felt sure the ring would have been lost, not sold. The rings were important mementos to students who could afford them.
A Mackin man, Johnson said, wouldn't willingly part with one.
• • •
Cherry ran a list of 1972 Mackin graduates through the rolls of those who died during the Vietnam War. He was surprised that he could not find a single match.
On March 3, Cherry wrote Hong My a letter.
"I wanted to ask you a personal question that I have been thinking about for some time," Cherry began. "I remember the American gold ring that you wear. At one time it probably belonged to an American soldier who was killed in the war."
Cherry told his friend that he wanted to find the ring's owner.
"If I am able to find the original owner, or the owner's family, would you be willing to give the ring back to them? I know it would mean a lot to the family of the American soldier . . . It would be a wonderful gesture of friendship and reconciliation on your part and would strengthen the bond between our two countries."
Cherry had the letter translated into Vietnamese, and then he signed it Anh Dao — cherry in Vietnamese.
Later, in a telephone call, Hong My didn't hesitate. He would gladly give up the ring.
• • •
Hong My visited Cherry in the United States last week. Cherry had hoped to find the ring's owner by then, but he didn't.
Cherry sent a list of 1972 Mackin graduates to the Department of Defense about two months ago. He wants to see who served in the military. It's his best hope of finding the ring's owner, and perhaps his last.
Cherry still hasn't heard back.
His reunion with Hong My brought him some closure with the Vietnam War. Cherry said he is sure such closure would be as important to the ring's owner.
"The return of the ring might allow somebody to let the war go, to move on," he said. "And if the owner's dead, it will mean a lot to his family. It's a symbol of the life of its owner."
And if Cherry never finds his man, he hopes to see the ring put on display at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington.
Like the story of his reunion with Hong My, Cherry thinks it can provide students with a link to the past and show them that remote events affect the lives of people just like them.
And it shows, he believes, that sometimes a ring is more than just a ring.
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.