The 7.62×39mm round began its life at the Izhevsk Machinebuilding Plant in the Udmurt Republic of the Soviet Union in 1960. Molded and lathed from Kargaly copper and Cherepovets steel with a core of Chelyabinsk lead, it was one of over a million cartridges produced in its batch and intended for transshipment to front-line border troops stationed in East Germany, ready to be fired across the Iron Curtain at NATO forces at a moment’s notice.

However, the powers that be ultimately sent nearly the entire batch to Vladivostok in the Soviet Far East instead, where they were embarked on the Ulyanov, a merchant ship, bound for Haiphong harbor in Vietnam. There, the 7.62×39mm rounds, and the AK-47 rilfes for which they were manufactured, were presented to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a gift from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Transferred on the old French trunk line railroad to marshaling yards near Hanoi, the cartridge was issued to the 622nd Assault Battalion of the Vietnam People’s Army in July of 1967. When the 622nd Assault Battalion was ordered south to support the General Offensive General Uprising in January, the cartridge accompanied the unit’s quartermaster to a rural area near Hue. The quartermaster in turn issued it to a private from Vinh, who loaded it into a spare magazine the day before a scheduled attack.

The attack was a fiasco. The 622nd Assault Battalion was able to rout the ARVN troops occupying a barracks, but their lines were, in turn, infiltrated and destroyed piecemeal by a counterattacking force of ARVN Rangers backed up by American helicopters from Phu Bai Air Base. The private from Vinh was killed defending his commander, who had refused to call for reinforcements in hopes of advancing his career through a great victory. When the fallen soldier’s AK-47 was picked up by an ARVN Ranger as a trophy of war, the cartridge was one of three remaining in its magazine.

The Ranger returned to Hue and later was reassigned to Danang, where he grew disillusioned with the corruption and incompetence he witnessed daily in the ARVN. As a result, he quietly sold his equipment on the black market–the US equipment found its way to North Vietnamese purchasers, while the trophies of war he had accumulated were offered for sale to rear-echelon US personnel hungry for cheap souvenirs to take home. The AK-47, its magazine, and three 7.62×39mm rounds were sold to a cook from Memphis, Tennessee.

When the US troops in Danang were withdrawn beginning in 1973, the cook was able to get his trophies shipped home by paying a small bribe. For the rest of his life, he told stories about how he had “captured” the weapon and ammunition from a VC raiding party, never keeping the details quite consistent enough to feel his friends or family members. Around the time of the federal assault weapons ban in 1994, the ex-cook quietly had the rifle de-militarized and converted into a display piece. The remaining three bullets had their primers and charged removed and were converted into keychains, one for each of the man’s three now-grown sons.

The eldest boy received the 7.62×39mm round that had traveled all the way from Izhevsk. While he never believed his father’s stories of killing its original wielder with a steak knife, he nevertheless regarded it as a lucky charm and half-jokingly credited it with the success of his plumbing supply company in the Memphis exurbs. That luck came to an end in March of 2002, when a Northwest Airlines security checkpoint confiscated the keychain. Despite the owner’s protests, in the post-9/11 airport security hysteria the keychain was never returned.

Instead, it found its way into a storage unit onsite where seized items were kept. As was their wont, the airport baggage handlers often dipped into this stash for items of interest, and the Izhevsk cartridge keychain was picked up by a baggage crew chief in charge of loading and unloading Northwest 757s on the Atlanta route. He was one of the lucky ones who kept his job after Northwest was acquired by Delta in 2010 and the new owners gutted the former Memphis hub.

The round remains there today, dangling from the man’s clipped keychain, with no indication of its long and strange journey.

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Bernard’s infection was getting worse, and had become a gangrenous abscess. “I thought I’d gotten off lucky,” he kept saying; almost his entire battalion had been annihilated when the Vietminh took redoubt Eliane 2, and he had escaped to join Dubois in redoubt Isabelle with only a deep scratch from barbed wire.

“We all got off lucky,” was Dubois’ constant response. After watching the Vietminh overrun the last French positions around the Dien Pien Phu airstrip through their field glasses, the nearly 2,000 troops at redoubt Isabelle had attempted to break out to the west. The Viets had blocked the route east to Hanoi, and the river route from Vientiene in Laos was the only other safe haven for a thousand kilometers. The 2,000 men, their ranks swelled by stragglers from the overwhelmed redoubts to the north, were chewed to pieces as they left their fortifications.

By DuBois’ estimate, less than a hundred had made it through the enemy lines, a number whittled down over the intervening week by desertion or disease. And now, with roving patrols of Viets still hunting for them, the survivors had come to a place even stranger than the one they had fled: a vast plain strewn with enormous, empty jars.

Charles Voortrekker had lived his entire life in the small towns of the Alberta-Saskatchewan-Montana border; few could recall any family members (and even then it was a dim recollection at best) and he was known to react violently to intruders and any suggestion that he leave his hometown. Needless to say, the man’s sudden appearance–famished and sunburned–to the crew of a survey station on remote Kerguelen Island in the southern Indian Ocean was a cause for some puzzlement to many, Smithson most of all.

As Smithson delved deeper into the records, similar cases emerged. A gentleman who lived in and refused to leave the village of Gatteville-le-Phare, near Cherbourg in France, who was known to disappear for months at a time. Rescued by a New Zealand navy cruiser from a castaway hut on the desolate Antipode Islands; died before he could give an account of how he came to be there.

A Vietnamese woman who refused to travel inland or to visit relatives in America vanished, only for her body to be found in the Peruvian Andes.

A Hawaiian man who reacted violently when family tried to convince him to move off the Big Island. Vanished, only for some of his personal effects to turn up in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

The only thing they had in common? They were all antipodal points, on opposite sides of the globe.

You find yourself breaking away from the group, returning to Hoan Kiem in the center of town, gazing at passersby or the glass-smooth surface of the lake from a park bench.

The legends you hear from the locals speak of Emperor Lê Lợi, who the Golden Turtle God had given a magic sword to defeat the Chinese. After his victory, they say, a large turtle confronted the Emperor while he was boating and took the sword back until such time as it is needed again. That is why they call it Hoan Kiem, “Returned Sword Lake,” and descendants of that turtle supposedly still remain.

Like so many things, people said the turtles were only legend…at least until they made themselves known. One came ashore to die during the war, the year before Tet; you see it on display in the temple, a leathery giant over five feet long with no company in its gilded display case save a dehumidifier. People videotape other turtles when they appear, but none have been seen in years. You read an inset in your travel guide which claims that there may only be a single turtle left. Their kind lives to an advanced age; one may very well linger on, the last of its kind. Even if there were more, the lake’s edge is all hard cement, enveloped by the city of Hanoi.

There is nowhere for a mother turtle to bury her eggs.