I remembered Germaine when I met her in the Time-Life office in 1968. She was a Vietnamese stringer for Life, NBC and Reuters . . one of the few women working as such. She was brassy, tough, bright, many faceted, fascinating. As the oldest child she was supporting her family at that time (her father being ill and unable to work). She'd worked as a nurse, parachuted into combat 20 times, taught herself English. She was considered unapproachable. No dates. She had no time, with eleven mouths to feed. I had the feeling, too, that she looked down on me. I was older by two years but she seemed to think I was a child. Maybe, to her, all men were children involved in frivolities like war and politics while the women ran the country. That was a common Vietnamese attitude.
We first came to know each other during Tet, 1968. We worked together in the shell-ruined streets of Hue, Danang, Saigon. We worked well together, almost as equals. After seeing me work in the field she seemed to respect me. What had it taken to impress a woman like this, to whom fighting was as natural as going to the office?
Gradually, I came to know her family, to understand its closeness, its binding concerns. In a small, cool, dark room in the back of the family house on Truong Minh Giang street I smoked opium with her father and he talked about the old days in Hanoi when he was a rich entrepreneur with a furniture factory, a gold mine, a coffee plantation, when he worked as a commissioner of police for the French colonials.
All that ended in 1954 with the country's fall. Now the family lived in Saigon, at first on Germaine's wages alone. Eventually Bernard, now 34, (four years younger than Germaine) would become a teacher, Albert, now 32, would become an economist, Rene, now 29, would be a teacher in Can Tho, and Long, now 20 and the youngest, would join the Navy. Gabrielle, now 36, would marry well, a colonel in the Air Force. Far better than I knew at the time, in fact, for without the colonel's pull I never would have been able to evacuate the family.
Thinking about it as the plane circled Honolulu airport in the dark, I had never really questioned the family's need to leave. Others were staying, certainly, including Time's Vietnamese reporter Pham Xuan An, but who was I to decide what these people should do? I was helping because they feared for their lives, because in any case it seemed their right to choose. I was helping because I love Germaine.
Honolulu airport at midnight. The old familiar layover in the damp night, this time for the last time. My mission has picked up an odd counterpoint, a Goyaesque troop of misshapen longhairs who say they too are on their way to rescue Vietnamese. Wearing backpacks, they flit across my speeded perceptions like a flock of blackbirds. They are not quite right. Something seems askew with them. One is wall-eyed, another is on crutches. They are strangely out of proportion, awkward, yet terribly earnest. Their concern seems misguided, misplaced. As I sit on the hard bench in the buzzing, tropical night, one of them plays a guitar, one chord, over and over.
Now we're nearing Guam. They fill the plane with talk, hold lunatic conferences in the aisles. They clutch the latest papers, talk about the headlines with their strange misguided concern. They made a lot of friends in Vietnam, one tells me, when they were there for a few months in 1967. A few months! So they'd like to help out now.
I thought I was badly off with only $200
in my pocket and no idea if the family
was still in Saigon, but these people have no money at all and apparently
haven't seen their friends for years.
The China Airlines flight into Saigon is the last commercial flight, as it turns out. There's no special feeling as the plane circles. It's 1 p.m. April 26. It's quiet. When the plane lands and the door unseals, the hot air feels like my natural element.
But Tan Son Nhut has changed since I was last here in 1972. Then it was a beehive: helicopters, C-141s, Caribous, fighters. Today the commercial plane seems the only visitor. Inside, too, where the cramped rooms used to brim with GIs, ARVNs, CIA, construction mercenaries, hawkers, journalists and pickpockets, there are only a few officials.
They are not friendly. Moving like molasses,
they go through my papers and draw
away for a conference. They take me to a small room. Am I being
detained? I think back on friends who have been incarcerated here
for days, people like Tim Page, adept at yelling and screaming and
throwing his weight around. He was finally
released. But those were the old days.
What might happen now, with the country crumbling like stale French
bread, is anybody's guess.
But there is a difference, very subtle. A strange, subtle silence in the middle of the familiar noise. I move quickly to a taxi and give him the old directions: 11174/42A Yen Do street." We drive through the hot tamarind lined lanes, past the sandbagged villas where the generals lived. A girl in a white Ao Dai, riding a Honda, draws level with us in the shade and looks at me. I find I can't look back. There's a new feeling between me and the driver, not fear. Guilt is closer. The American and the Vietnamese; one stays, one goes.
The family house. As I walk down the lane from the main road I can hear Germaine's mother shouting "anh (big brother) Dick. Anh Dick." Up the familiar steps and in the door. Albert seizes me, kisses me on the cheeks. We embrace.
Through an incredible stroke of coincidence and luck the family is all together in Saigon. Three days before an underground friend had told them he would try to help. Gabrielle and Rene were in Can Tho at the time and would still have been there if he hadn't called them. There would have been nothing I could do.
So we make plans. Suddenly it seems terribly urgent, almost the last possible moment. As we talk, the family tells me that the General Assembly is debating whether or not to ask Huong, the president of less than a week, to resign. The huge Bien Hoa military base 15 miles from the city has fallen. All highways to the city have been cut. Enemy troops have been reported in the suburbs.
There will be 12 of the family going: Germaine's 62-year old mother, her brothers Bernard (but not Bernard's wife, a South Vietnamese by birth, who has decided to stay), Albert, Rene, his wife and two children, Long and her sister Gabrielle and her three children. Gabrielle's husband, Colonel Ba, has elected to stay at his base in the delta.
The most serious problem will be to get on the air base. The family tells me that security guards at the various gates have been unpredictable and ill-tempered, reluctant to admit any Vietnamese, even with the necessary clearance papers. But Gabrielle suggests she call the base as the colonel's wife and demand an official air force truck to take them out at five the next morning before the curfew lifts. The truck should have no problem getting through, and if it does, Gabrielle always has her airbase pass to flash.
For the first time, I feel it's going to work. Early evening now and I leave the family to their last minute preparations . I will make my own way to the base in a battered Time-Life Mini-Moke auto, itself a veteran of years of war, several shootings, theft by helicopter and countless Thunder Road rides.
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