Of Distant Wars

Thinking of Vietnam. Vietnam. It clings to me, a shadow. Like a shadow, it disappears when you turn to look at it.

See, it’s like this: once upon a time, when Bill Clinton stalked the planet and we were all making buckets of money, I wrote a play called “Waiting on Sean Flynn,” which was about American reporters perched upon the rooftop bar of Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel in 1975, the central dilemma being: Saigon’s about to fall to the North Vietnamese, should the characters split with the rest of the Americans or stay on to witness history. The forward motion of the play is illuminated by flashbacks to the main character’s (Lee) experiences in the company of Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn’s son who became a respected that photojournalist and disappeared in Cambodia in 1970, his fate never firmly determined. The flashbacks increasingly recede back in time until the last one, just before the play’s climax as Saigon begins its fall, goes all the way back to Lee’s first experience in the field (a pretty neat plot structure, I thought, but hard to explain).

Besides talking and corresponding with a bunch of wonderful, generous people who either covered the war or served there, I read stacks of books on the subject and saw pretty much every film, good or bad, about Vietnam, including documentaries. I immersed myself in the subject, which is what writers do, especially when their imagination has been shanghaied. Sometimes the depth of art is merely a reflection of the quality of obsession. I know more about Vietnam than anyone need know, and, let me tell you, unless you have drenched yourself in that deep water, you don’t know and don’t want to know; and yet I know nothing about it compared to the people who were there. It’s all writerly imaginings. And the wounds, the mental pictures, some of which are rather too stomach churning to share, dear readers, are entirely self-inflicted.

When Iraq was gearing up and it was clear war was inevitable, I went to lunch with a colleague who was firmly convinced the cause was just, weapons of mass destruction, transform the Middle East, all the other utter bullshit she’d swallowed, setting the hook deep, and I just looked at her with calm, hazel eyes while inside churned the most nauseating contempt, summed up as: you don’t know what you’re talking about, you don’t know the cost, your self-righteousness is beneath contempt, and yet you’re innocent…you motherfucking civilian.

But that’s past, and now only a dark, charred rind of memory remains, which amounts to nothing, just as my words at the time, which were measured, were ineffectual, gnats to be batted away from clouded eyes.

And now…how many years and deaths later…we ease toward a resolution, and though Baghdad is not Saigon, and history follows similar but never perfect patterns, I find myself back on the rooftop of the Caravelle. In the distance, small arms fire. And flames shimmering in the night. And I know that the days to come hold dry throats and tears. Dry throats and tears.

So I’ve dragged out my metaphoric flak jacket, oiled up the dried, stiff boots, and jacked a round in the chamber, the reassuring clack, and I’m shopping “Waiting on Sean Flynn” around to theatres again, one more time into the cyclone. There seems renewed interest–a number of theatres are considering it, I’ve even had a few seek me out, and Neanderthal Acting Company (can’t beat that name) in Detroit will produce the play in March. That pleases me, but it’s not a pleasure without pain.

In the desert wind, Yeats’ voice whispers, too faint to be clearly understood. Just enough to shiver the spine.

About Steve Patterson

Steve Patterson has written over 50 plays, with works staged in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Tampa, and other U.S. cities as well as in Canada and New Zealand. His works include: Waiting on Sean Flynn, Next of Kin, Farmhouse, Malaria, Shelter, Altered States of America, The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Grandamnus, Bluer Than Midnight, Bombardment, Dead of Winter, and Delusion of Darkness. In 2006, his bittersweet Lost Wavelengths was a mainstage selection at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival, and, in 2008, won the Oregon Book Award (he also was an OBA finalist in 1992 and 2002). In 1997, he won the inaugural Portland Civic Theatre Guild Fellowship for his play Turquoise and Obsidian. View all posts by Steve Patterson

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