Wind: 40 Years After the Fall of Saigon

Fall of Vietnam HelicopterThe empty streets. Stunned faces. The last helicopter swings over the trees. And Saigon, for a moment, stops. A city that never stills. The Americans have gone, taking but a few Vietnamese with them. Left behind, men and women who had worked with and lived among and fought with and fought against and loved and hated the Americans. That ends, leaving a space between waves…running over sand. Drawing patterns that last but an instant.

What was that like? That stillness? The wreckage, the debris. People wandering. Stealing things they couldn’t possibly use, just to have something left. And the North Vietnamese, rumbled along the city perimeter. Not everyone was sorry to hear them. Others were beyond terrified.

April 29, 2975. Forty years ago today, and Saigon was no more. It would become Ho Chi Mihn City. The streets got new names—as did some people. Hotels and bars and restaurant took on new owners. But, in truth, Saigon never ends. You can no more snuff it out than you can Paris or Cairo. Only the Americans had gone.

In the weeks, months, years to come, America would turn away. Turn inward. Deep. It would take years before we turned back again. Oh, within a few years the films began—marvelous, harrowing films: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Coming Home. Really though, they focused on the height of the American war, during the mid to late Sixties, and some of that was already a decade ago. But displacement, bewilderment, loss: for some time, those things would be too painful to revisit. Except for some determined to rewrite history. Sad news for them: history would not change, and new wars would not refute the old.

The helicopters. That soft whop-whop-whop. It still catches the ear. Such an indelible sound from the time. Coppola used it so evocatively in Apocalypse. So tied to the era. In a way, they wrote the final chapter, fading from the Vietnamese skies and arriving in swarms, commandeered by terrified South Vietnamese pilots, who crammed them full of their families and flew out over the ocean. Not even certain where the fleet sailed: they just flew west until the fuel ran out. Some found the ships (some certainly did not), landing where and how they could. The flight decks grew so crowded with aircraft that sailors had to shove choppers over the edge of the aircraft carriers. They would hang for second, rotors turning as through trying to catch air, before they fell, hit the water, and vanished.

I watched it. Not even knowing what I was looking at. Me and my dad—a World War II vet. He was a journalist, I was one in training. We couldn’t look away from the television, except to briefly glance at one another. I’m sure my face was stunned; my father’s was stone. My mom stayed away, working in the garden—her way of dealing with grief. I didn’t know enough to even feel the loss. To me, it was a fantastic news story. History, right in front of you. I felt something, but I didn’t know what. I think I’ve spent much of life trying to figure it out. Years later, as a writer, I dove into it—maybe too deep for my own good, at times. Some things, learned, cannot be revoked. Hell, I still don’t know anything. I read some books, talked to some vets (always a gift), and did some heavy imagining with some incredibly gifted artists, who gave me a lot more than I ever gave them. But, in context, with those who were there, it’s nothing. I haven’t even lived. Even if I had, Vietnam’s a moving target: it not only changes with each person—it changes as each person does.

Doesn’t everyone have a war story? Whether they’ve served or not. War enwraps us, becomes a touchstone: a clue as to where we are, who we are. Age divides us. Young men and women who served—or remembered—World War II looked at that war in a very different context than those who nervously watched their draft numbers—or those of their husbands, brothers, sons—during the Sixties. If you were below 30 (or thereabouts), you learned you couldn’t believe things. What you heard, saw, felt. You not only began to question the government—not a difficult stretch, after a certain point—but you began to doubt your parents, relatives, and their friends. All the people who, for so long, had been mentors, trusted advisors. Who had loved us. Now, you’re weren’t so certain they did. And the reverse was true.

Some who lived through World War II spoke movingly of the era’s camaraderie, even if they wouldn’t discuss the ghastly reasons for rearranging their lives. Those who lived through the crucible of Vietnam spoke of a different camaraderie: a dividing into tribes—for or against, served or ducked or protested, saw combat or a desk. And those were not static categories. The young man jacked for war by movies and fantasies could well come home to stand with protestors. Like that was easy.

When it was over—for America—the tribes never really came together again. There’s always been a split here between left and right, for reasons that fill thousands of books, and it might take another generation or more to as least partially repair that rupture, if indeed it can be bridged. Maybe World War II was the anomaly and division has been the actual nature of those supposedly united. For a country that worships liberty, we’ve spent a good part of our history throwing chains around one another.

Now, we’re farther away from the fall of Saigon than our fathers were from their war when the first Marines shipped off for Da Nang. Beards and ponytails have a lot of gray in them. Once overwhelming new singles, flashing with brilliant, fresh sounds and ideas—they’re oldies. Crazy books people fought over are standard fare in college. People look upon peace signs and doves as quaint artifacts, not as a button that once could get you worked beaten to hell. Wars get old too, the rough edges get sanded down, sanitized. Unless you’re in select company. Get in the right space with the right people, and the blood’s still fresh. It’ll never dry.

And in Saigon—forever Saigon—the girls in ao dais still ride their bicycles up the wide boulevards, and they smile behind their hands at old men who cock their heads and pause whenever they hear a helicopter.

 

Put Down the Weston, and No One Gets Hurt

SometimEmpty Buildinges, before a photo shoot, I’ll grab something like B&W Magazine and just look at the photographs: randomly turn the pages and let my gaze float. Away from the house, I might arrive a little early and look through photo.net on the phone. It’s kind of like a runner doing stretches or a musician playing scales. I sometimes think of it as “tuning up the eye.” I start seeing regular life as images. Maybe it lights up the brain’s photo neuron pathways.

For one thing, you start seeing the world in shapes—a triangle here, a rectangle there—and the relationships between them. The empty space becomes a shape of its own. Like Miles Davis, you start playing the space between the notes. And you start to see tones. You look at scenes to spot that 18% gray for the camera’s meter to latch onto—especially important if you’re using a spotmeter. (I find that my Canons read more like 12% gray.) A frame begins drawing itself around the everyday. Once you begin seeing that way, it’s sometimes hard to shake.

In almost any art, it’s vital to experience the work of others. If you write plays, read plays (or reread favorites). Play guitar? Listen, even if the guitarist works in a form that leaves you a bit cold. The country Telecaster picker can teach the Ibanez-wielding shredder a few things and vice versa. Take photographs? Look at pictures. Lots of pictures. All the time.

A point comes, however, to put down the book or magazine or close the website. Obviously, if everything you shoot comes out looking a bit too much like your favorites, it’s at least best to look at someone else’s work. Sometimes, though, it’s best not to look at anyone at all. The tank fills. In fact, particularly if you’re feeling stuck, it’s best not only to put away the big Weston collection but to stop looking at photographs altogether. Just for a stretch. Do something else. Anything else. Maybe not go to the movies (as they’re moving photographs), but go for a drive. Listen to music. Dig in the garden. Go for a walk and leave the camera home. Let the photo brain take a rest. The same goes for whatever art you’re engaged in.

A few art forms lead themselves to this. One of the things I like about writing for theatre is that it takes two forms. The first comes when you’re composing, whether that means conducting research or actually putting down words. The second comes when you have a production or reading, and you collaborate with a director and actors. You get the introvert and extrovert time. Even so, really making a concerted effort to stop thinking about your form, much less practicing it, not only can make you happy—it can keep you sane.

That is, we kind of get locked into our art. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially when you’re facing a deadline. Other times, it’s a symptom of the artist’s obsessive side. People often ask me how I can write every morning before work. They praise my discipline, but, really, it’s a mixture of habit and bloody-mindedness: I can’t think of anything else. And my brain’s become so conditioned that it starts coughing up ideas around 6:00 and won’t let go until I shake some words loose. (It’s worth noting that some of those dedicated writing hours are spent staring into space and sipping coffee to kick the brain into working order; other mornings, I just give up and read something: the brain’s hung up its gone fishing sign.)

This won’t necessarily be easy, especially if you’re locked in deep. If you practice multiple arts, whether professionally or as a hobby, working in another form can distract the mind—shiny, shiny!—and give your overworked gray areas a breather without going into total withdrawals.

Strangely enough, the tension you may feel not working on your chosen art may be a good thing. It’s a sign that your unconscious mind is throwing its weight around, churning under the surface. Because, realistically, you’ll never stop working. It’s just not going to happen. You’ll start dreaming about it. You’ll experience intrusive thoughts that will make you want to run to the pen or the camera. But if you can get to the point, where you’re not in acute discomfort and you’re enjoying something else…like life…finally returning to your form can bring more than relief. You might find that you’ve improved. That you’ve been able to do something that, previously, you could not, whether it’s automatically spotting that 18% gray or playing a guitar riff that’s been eluding you.

Though a seeming paradox, sometimes you have stop to progress. You have to give your unconscious time to run. Often, it’ll surprise you. If nothing else, you’ve had a break, a little vacation from the Effort That Never Ends. And that’s never a bad thing.