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.


Worlds Changed

Simply, to get it out of the way:

I started the car, turned on the radio, and NPR said the World Trade Center had caught fire. I kind of rolled my eyes, thinking of the car bomb that had been set off in the parking garage a few years before. By the time I got to the freeway onramp, I’d learned it had been struck by a plane, and I shook my head, said out loud: “What a hard-luck building that’s become.” By the time I got to work, I understood the extent of my understatement. A couple hours later, when both tower had fallen, I realized I understood not at all.

Not long after, a co-worker was the first I heard say “from now on, everything has changed.” Which felt like the truth, but made me uneasy. I wondered if I wasn’t in denial–there certainly was an element of that: but I couldn’t help but feel that world had and would abide, blithely indifferent to the ants crawling across its surface. I do remember thinking with grim certainty, drawing, I suppose, from what I knew about war and politics, having written of both, that, down the road, someone would be on the receiving end of a shitstorm.

But the “everything has changed” refrain haunted me. For myself, it was dramatically true: on September 13, 2001, my mother had a stroke which left her partially paralyzed, and began a long, slow slide that ended with her death six years later. My September 11th seemed to last a decade, though it’s nothing compared to those who lost someone in attacks. I’m still sorting out how much that changed my world.

In that, though, I find the truth and fallacy of “everything’s changed.” The World Trade Center attacks injected a before and after into our narratives, regardless of who we are and what we believe. It was not the world that had changed–though it would, politically and economically, in ways we’re still paying for–but our worlds, those of each of us. September 11th served as a cue ball. It struck the rack, and the balls cracked and spun out unpredictably. The trajectory of the game changed, as happens when history shifts.

Still, we continue to be the same mass of contradictory intentions: never saints, but seldom entirely sinners. I admit to feeling a certain satisfaction that Osama Bin Laden ended his journey with bullet through the eye. It’s a feeling akin to knowing Hitler faced that instant when he faced the gun he held to his head and knew he would pull trigger: badly played cards led to an inevitable conclusion. These people never seem to learn from each other, but, when you’re on that kind of an ego trip, you apparently believe you really are exempt. That or you’re so committed to your destiny that somehow it all makes sense to you.

That we can be so flawed sombers us. That others–firemen, policemen, soldiers, doctors, and war correspondents–can risk their lives (and sometimes lose them) in service to others helps balance out the darkness, though all of them have their individual rationales for their actions and do not always live up to our highest ideals. Still, they try, and they are to be recognized for putting the greater good beyond their own. I certainly don’t think I could do that; so I try to observe, not judge.

It’s very difficult to resist, but I think it’s valuable not to let nostalgia for those moments when we all stood to together blind us to our shortcomings–that it’s as important to remember that we’re as likely to make mistakes as we are to succeed. But it doesn’t hurt to take a moment to recall the instant we all ceased to be civilians.

Though nothing pleases most soldiers more than they day they can take off their uniforms, they often miss living in comradery, not mired down by “civilian bullshit” (even if they’re mired down in military bullshit, mostly consisting of officers and paperwork…and the possibility that they might be killed any time). Life during wartime can take on a startling clarity, which tends to fade the farther one gets from the sounds of bombs and small arms fire. It may not be the reason why one volunteers for hazardous duty, but it can be a reason why some people come back to it. I’ve had a little taste of it, covering a couple exciting stories or delving into the lives of soldiers and war correspondents, and it’s seductive. When you’re running around with a camera, you feel a little invulnerable, even though you’re chasing something that can easily snuff you out.

After ten years of sorrow, blood, and fury, what have we learned? That, under duress, we can love one another. Or at least feel compassion and a common humanity. It’s a shame that we need a Bin Laden or Hitler to remind us of it. Since we have paid a very high price for that insight, it’s worth hanging onto when we’re bogged down in our particular bullshit flavor for that day. Taking off forever feels a little spookier, and a smooth landing feels a little sweeter.

Everything changes, except for a few things that make everything worthwhile.

Bombardment, Episode 10: Orange Dust Obscures the Sun

Splattworks continues its presentation of Bombardment, a two-act drama by Steve Patterson. The author will attempt to post an installment each day, but, if events intercede, installments may occur a day or so apart. So please be patient.


ARETHA: Well! I must look a horror, playing tag with death, and then tangled up with the like of you. Draw my bath. And not so hot this time! Nearly scorched my skin loose last time. Can’t have loose…. It isn’t is it? Do you see loose skin, Carmelita? Can you see my skin’s on tight?
CARMELITA: I can’t see, ma’am, that a thing has changed.
ARETHA: Relief! Change is so disquieting. Must gather oneself. So much to do, you couldn’t possibly imagine.

ARETHA tries to rise, but she’s too weak.

ARETHA: Carmelita. My legs. There’s something wrong with them. Are they supposed to bend this way? I can’t stand. Carmelita, I can’t stand! Help! Help me! I’m so. . .alone! Mr. Corno–
CARMELITA: Corno sleeps.
ARETHA: You. Of all people. Could be cruel to me.
CARMELITA: I have been taught so well.
ARETHA: You don’t under…. I can’t…trust. Everything’s a cross, double, triple-cross. Was it always thus? Why? What happened? This can’t be what we…. I don’t understand. I’m so small.

CARMELITA hesitates, helps her to her feet. ARETHA clings to her. CARMELITA brushes her hair back.

CARMELITA: Once, this face was kind.
ARETHA: Was it? I can’t…. It seems like a nice thing. To be way. But, too, it feel dangerous.
CARMELITA: Right now, face to face? This seems like danger?
ARETHA: Well, no. Of course. Yes. A little. Perhaps much. I’m getting littler, Carmelita.
CARMELITA: It’s as safe–or dangerous–as you choose to make it.

Pause, and then ARETHA melts into her. They hug, rocking back and forth, and, in a burst of exuberance, genuine joy, spin around until they trip over CORNO.

ARETHA: Corno!

ARETHA drops to her knees. As CARMELITA narrates, ARETHA reacts to her words.

CARMELITA: First is disbelief. Refusal to accept. As if doing so prohibits tragedy. “I can’t believe it.” “You must be joking.” “Tell me you’re joking.” This stage can last the rest of your life. Second is numbness. Stupefaction. Your arms are stupid. Your legs are stupid. Your toes and fingers forget how to work in concert. Your skin dries, cracks like burnt paper. Your chest shrinks, a buckskin drum rattling rice. Scent of oysters in the wind. On the horizon, orange dust obscures the sun. Third, there is anger.

ARETHA rises.

ARETHA: You did this!

[To be continued]