Tag Archives: “Waiting on Sean Flynn”

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.

 


Samples from the Other Side

The Splatterverse now includes excerpts from some of my plays, in case anyone wants to do some casual reading.

Rather than pick the most dramatic points in the works, I thought it more interesting to find moments that caught the flavor or spirit of the play, the characters, or the situation. If nothing else, I hope they’re vaguely entertaining:

 


Another Shade of Dark

My plays have never been known for being especially frothy. Blue is, apparently, my favored color–in clothing, language, and music. I suppose that reflects my outlook. Humor, however, serves an an antidote to the blues, on-stage and in life, so I try to find it even in the heaviest work. Another requisite in tackling the serious is to do it very, very well. I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in that, but, believe me, I have tried. Serious themes deserves the best, and I’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering if I’ve done the work justice.

The last few years, I’ve largely focused more on the fantastic: plays exploring the psyche or utilizing magic realism or alternate realities, and I’m turning, also, to exploring the human condition through our relations to the arts, of late writing about music and photography. But, for a good number of years, I was known as the “war guy.”

That is, I wrote a series of plays–four in all–about war and its aftermath. Three explore the subject through the characters of journalists: Waiting on Sean Flynn (Vietnam); Liberation (Bosnia); and Depth of Field (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and 9/11). Reporters, serving as our eyes and ears during conflicts open a breathtaking, immediate window into war narratives. Plus I used to be a reporter–never a war correspondent, though (I get asked)–and I have great admiration for those who put themselves at risk to the show the world the cruelties of which we are capable. They’re also damned interesting people, which makes them fun to write about.

Flynn and Liberation have been successfully produced multiple times (and Liberation has been published by Original Works Publishing). Depth of Field remains in progress. I’ve finished a number of drafts, but I still haven’t quite cracked the code on that one. I haven’t given up, either.

The fourth play, Next of Kin, stands as a sort of coda to the trilogy, shifting the focus from reporters to soldiers and their families, whose vital stories I felt remained somewhat unaddressed by the other plays. Next of Kin, looking at Iraq, is also the most contemporary work. It’s a good, strong play, I think, which had a very successful staged reading last year with the splendid folks at Portland Theatre Works; I’m currently shopping the premiere to theatres around the country.

Though I never planned it, the plays developed their own arc. Flynn asks why we’ve come to war, and whether we should stay or go? Liberation, acknowledging we’re trapped in war, asks how much do we sacrifice to tell the story? Depth of Field asks whether, after surviving war and paying the price, why return. And Next of Kin asks what we do and who we are when its over.

Writing these plays has been, I think, a substantial, unique accomplishment. (I have kind of a dream of having them collected in a single volume someday. Maybe it’ll happen, though it’s hard to say, given the state of both theatre and publishing these days.) I didn’t set out to do it: it just happened. They’ve made me a few bucks along the way–not very much. But they have rewarded me, however, so richly in terms of experience, introducing me to people and places I’ll never forget (and never want to, even when the memories are ghastly).

They’ve given me a chance to work with brilliant directors, actors, and designers on a subject that seems to bond artists they way soldiers and reporters bond in the field: everyone knows this is a serious, important issue that demands our best, and the subject tends to strip away our bullshit because, let’s face it, it’s about living or dying, killing or being killed. When you work like that, you get down to the core of your collaborators, exposing who you really are, and it’s one of the primary reasons I have such deep affection and admiration for those who work in this tough, sometimes ephemeral business. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn to like your colleagues, and they become your friends; if you’re really lucky, you’ll come to love them.

The plays have also afforded me some of the most intense audience interactions of my career. During ther performance, the theatre feels beyond electric, the air supercharged. Total strangers, speaking to me after shows, have told me stories they may have never told their families. After a performance of Liberation, a Bosnian woman told me how she walked, barefoot, away from her hometown as its men and boys were being systematically slaughtered. And then she thanked me for having the courage to tell the truth. Never, ever have I felt so simultaneously honored and humbled. That moment remains a treasure I will carry to my end.

Finally, this subject has allowed me to talk to and exchange letters and e-mails with with veterans and war correspondents, which has been worth every minute of sweating through the work, worry, and heartache that comes with making theatre.

I feel these plays have deepened my soul. When I pick up the morning newspaper and read so-and-so many have been killed or wounded wherever they’ve been killed or wounded this day, the pictures and feelings that come to my mind may be different than yours. Not better or worse, just…different. If you have a heart, you can’t write about war without it changing you, and you can’t write about war effectively if you don’t have a heart. Sometimes I think it’s damaged me, you know? Just a little. Knowing a little too much about the worst humans can be and the most terrible things that can happen to us. Whatever I’ve learned and kept inside, It’s nothing compared to those who have been there, and it’s paid me back more than I could ever imagine.

This Memorial Day, as we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I just want to take a moment thank all those who have served–and those who have reported the world’s self-inflicted catastrophes–for putting your very lives at risk. That’s it. A small and quiet acknowledgement that’s but a pebble in the ocean compared with your experience. With a special thanks, from as deep as I can reach, for those who have been so gracious to share your best and worst stories with me.

Here’s to the day when all our work becomes obsolete.


Sean Flynn and Dana Stone Still Missing in Action


Well, the forensics have been run, and it looks like the bones recently discovered in Cambodia were of “non-caucasian” origin. In other words, they were probably those of some of the one million people killed by the Khmer Rouge when Nixon and Kissinger had their Excellent Adventure in Cambodia.

Here’s reality:

War reporters pay tribute to Cambodia lost

To Stone and Flynn–gents, goodnight and travel well.

S


Flynn


A couple days ago, the news broke big that a couple investigators may have found Sean Flynn’s remains in Cambodia. As quickly as the story arose, doubts began. Tim Page, Flynn’s close friend, expressed his doubts, backpedaling began, and conflicting reports arose. The bones are headed for a forensic laboratory. Perhaps we’ll have an answer. Perhaps not. Here’s a link to one of the better stories on the discovery (by the very talented journalist Tim King, who’s put in his own time in war zones):

Sean Flynn’s Remains Possibly Found in Cambodia

It’s fitting somehow, this blurring, part of a story with so many reflections, fading memories, wishful thinking. What we do know is that in 1970, Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn’s son, was working as a photojournalist covering war in Cambodia along with fellow photojournalist Dana Stone. They sped down a road on red motorcycles, and they never came back. The rest is hearsay.

I learned about Flynn and Stone from Michael Herr’s brilliant book “Dispatches.” Years later, I had a sudden idea for a play juxtaposing Flynn’s story with the fall of Saigon. The result was a two-act drama, “Waiting on Sean Flynn” which went on to be produced in Chicago, Portland, Tampa, and Detroit. Though not readily apparent, the title was a play on “Waiting for Godot”; like Godot, Sean never returns.

Flynn’s sudden reappearance in the news has left me conflicted. I never knew the man—he disappeared when I was 10 years old—though I’ve spoken or corresponded with many who have known him. (And thanks again, to all of you, for sharing your time and stories.) But, in writing a play, you immerse yourself, creating a world in your head that feels, tastes, smells real, and it does you a strange kind of damage. You come out the other side changed. Some plays more than others.

“Waiting on Sean Flynn” was one of those plays. The world it created became so real to me that sometimes I pine for it. I find myself missing Flynn, which makes no sense at all, but the sense of loss and grief is real, a credit to the power of the imagination. Whatever I wrote is but a wisp of smoke compared to the accounts written by those who were there, such as Page, Herr, and Perry Deane Young, who wrote the very good “Two of the Missing.” Their Flynn breaks my heart, but it’s my Flynn that twists inside my chest when I see those familiar pictures of the handsome young guy in the boonie hat. That’s the trade-off you get for the gift of, for a moment, opening the doorway.

I hope the remains turn out to be Flynn’s or Stone’s, for the sake of their friends and family. But my Flynn will never be found. He’s forever riding that motorcycle down that road. He always disappears in a barrage of explosions and smoke.

And then the lights fade.


Why do we stay?

My friend and colleague, Ami Sallee Corley (a superb actress who’s played the leads in my plays “Waiting on Sean Flynn” and “Delusion of Darkness” at Tampa’s Jobsite Theater), has been invited to begin blogging on the arts for Tampa’s Website “Creative Loafing.” Her first column asks a question that I think artists in Portland…and in Minneapolis, Seattle, Austin, etc., can identify with, which is: when it’s so tough to make a living from your art in your community, why stay?

Why do we stay?

(Possible Answer: It’s Tampa. The cigars, of course.)

Next weekend, representatives from the Dramatists Guild are coming to Portland to hold a Playwrights/Theatre Town Hall Meeting, and this may well be a pertinent question to ask, given that they have members in communities across the country and are privy to this dilemma and the many ways artists have found to address it.

Steve


The Actors in My Head

I’m occasionally asked what else I do in theatre—as if writing and producing plays isn’t enough. More specifically, people want to know if I act. No. I do not. And there should be many, many people grateful for this decision. I have directed and did okay, but I’d much rather leave that work to people who are trained, capable, and actually enjoy having everyone entrust their artistic integrity in their care. But I do not, should not, could not act. Not with a cat, in a hat, or in a black box.

There are, however, a whole troupe of actors living in my head, and they come out regularly (and under scale) when I write. That is, when I’m writing a play, I not only see a stage in my head, but I see actors playing the parts, and I feel like I’m all those actors playing those parts, and, when it’s going very well, the difference between actor and character and myself disappears; so that I’m actually the people in the play experiencing the events in the play as though they’re real. This is called putting your borderline personality disorder to work.

But it can whack you once in awhile. In my play “Waiting on Sean Flynn,” there’s a harrowing scene that still freaks me out when I read it or see it performed where one character nearly gets shot in the head and then reacts afterwards with stunningly savage violence. I remember writing it in a very nice coffeehouse with tasteful art on the walls and windows looking out on a perfect summer’s evening, with all the pretty, happy people walking by, flirting and showing their very attractive flesh. And there I was hunched over a notebook, probably with my eyes locked in a thousand-yard stare, hunkered down on a hot LZ (landing zone) and jamming a .45 into the mouth of a Vietnamese soldier who’d just been holding the same gun to my head seconds before. No wonder I’ll occasionally look up from writing to see someone watching me fearfully; without knowing it, I’ve been glowering at them like Billy Bob Thornton in “Slingblade.” “I’ll have another espresso, uh-huh.”

After writing that scene, I was sweating and feeling like I couldn’t get my breath. My cashier seemed to be yards away as I paid my bill and speaking from some place that muffled her voice. I walked the streets of Northwest Portland with this sense that all these people, laughing and having fun and trying to remember if they had tucked condoms in their purse or wallet, had absolutely no idea what had just happened, that I’d just nearly been killed, just nearly killed someone, and that maybe I wasn’t entirely—heh heh—in my right mind. I spent the next couple hours sitting alone on my front porch and listening to The Doors.

“Waiting on Sean Flynn” had a reading in L.A. earlier this year, and I heard back from the director that one actor said he’d “give his right nut” to play that role. Oh, dear actors: be careful what you wish for.