With the refugee paperwork system apparently breaking down and the base being mobbed, daily by desperate Vietnamese, things are too unpredictable to chance being seen in the truck with them. At least to begin with, they could be more unobtrusive without an American.
Six of us who add up to more than 30 years of war coverage in Vietnam have dinner at Ramuncho's in front of the misshapen statue of two Vietnamese soldiers that has come to be known as the National Buggery Monument: Time bureau chief Roy Rowan, who was at the fall of Shanghai, Cathy Leroy, a prisoner of the North Vietnamese in 1968, Dave Greenway of the Washington Post, Mark Godfrey of Magnum and Dirck Halstead of Time. We talk about the fall, how far away it is. The end. And we watch each other.
After dinner I drank wine with Greenway in the garden of the Hotel Continental, then I drift upstairs and have Cambodian Red in Godfrey's room. Walking past the louvered doors the numbers ring in my head the names of friends who'd stayed there: 11--Keith Kay, CBS, 5--Zalin Grant, Time and New Republic, 39--Bob Shaplen, New Yorker, 7--Siestas with Germaine. Inside, the ceiling fans, the patterned tile, the taped window panes. Outside, the curfew--as if it were ten years ago.
No sleep for 52 hours. I go to the Time office and sit with a long time friend, Pham Xuan An and talk about the war. An works for Time Magazine and we always suspected he worked for the Viet Cong also. I ask him in the elliptical way of the Vietnamese: "Will my family and I be safe if we stay behind"? His answer is , "probably" (years later our suspicions were confirmed. He was a Colonel in the Viet Cong). At 3a.m. I lie down in the dark and switch on the radio...Armed Forces Radio, who knows where from?... 3a.m. had always been the time of rockets in Saigon, although there hadn't been any in years. I waited, wide awake.
A rocket makes an unmistakable soft explosion, a swish followed by a fragile, thin-shelled crump. My watch reads 4 a.m. Is the noise in my head? Or are there really rockets in Saigon? And no doubt panic as in Hue, Danang and Nha Trang. My mouth tastes like metal and I think: what if I have to choose? In the end, I knew, I could get on the last helicopter and fly like some immortal comic-book figure out of the collapsing city. The family could not. They were only Vietnamese. Of course I could choose to stay: the honorable course. I wouldn't have to bug out. But even as the rockets fall I can't imagine the actual moment, how I'd act. Would they be watching me if I left? Would we be able to see each other's faces, each other's eyes?
The terrible question remains moot, for now. At 6 a.m. the curfew is lifted and a rush of adrenaline washes me absolutely clean. Godfrey cranks up the Mini-Moke and we putter out to Tan Son Nhut and through the main gate with no problem. How easy it is for an American to save his own life.
We spot eight of the family nervously waiting about a half mile inside the base gate, the easiest to get through. The two other gates, like the steps of purgatory, become progressively harder. The family had come out in two shifts with an M-16-toting friend of Colonel Ba's, also a colonel. Where are the four others? Somehow, Rene, his wife and two children missed the ride and won't be out until 8. It's now 7. 1 have an hour to worry about them.
The colonel takes half the family to the second gate, at the Defense Attache Office compound, which we must get inside to have the papers processed. Godfrey and I take the other half. As the Vietnamese police at the gate hesitate ominously, we simply barge on through. The U.S. Marine guard grins and says "Good luck," as we go by.
But the colonel's car is stopped. I run back through the gate waving my White House press pass at the guard. It has the U.S. seal on the back and looks very official. I wave it in his face and yell "Chinh phu, chinh phu (government, government). That and the M-16 on the Colonel's passenger seat seem to convince him. He waves the car through.
I have been told the police sweep this
compound regularly of the Vietnamese
that seep in constantly in spite of the guards so I settle the family
under a banana tree in a far corner where hopefully they'll be unobtrusive.
By this time Rene and his family are probably outside the main
gate. Godfrey takes Gabrielle with her special base pass to find
The processing center does not open at 9, when it is supposed to, and about a thousand people, Americans and Vietnamese, mill in the compound. Some Vietnamese have been waiting for days, infiltrating the gate, getting swept out and infiltrating again. In the past few days, as pressure increased and people became more desperate, infiltration has become an art form.
At 10:30 when the U.S. embassy people finally appear and unlock the center door, the pack of people behind them on the wooden stairs is so tight I can hardly breathe. A second flight of stairs, at the other end of the second floor walkway, collapsed the day before from the weight of the pack.
Inside the room, the only clear spaces are around the desks. They hand us forms, we fill them out. We wait. I have a strong feeling, suddenly, that this is it. If we don't make it today, if somehow our momentum is blunted, we will never make it at all. Old survival instinct. Already, I seem to be bogging down, slowing, stopping. The officials say they have forgotten their stamps.
Time passes, who knows how much. I notice a door with a no-admittance sign. Official-looking Americans are going in and out. I barge in, show the man at the desk my press pass and say I want to interview him. We look at each other: a vignette from Fellini, insubstantial, unreal. He nods. Fine, he says, but only on background.
Only on background. The vignette, amazingly, does not dissolve. As I sit down I see the magic stamp on his desk. My God. The room whirls. I play my role, asking questions as if I know what I am doing, nodding wisely. He plays his. Abruptly I stand and tell him I have to get back in line or I will never be able to get my family out. Unless he can help. The vignette freezes. We watch each other. He looks at my completed form and then at me. Am I sure all these people are my dependents? Slowly, slowly his hand moves toward the stamp. I am caught in the tableau. Bam!...he uses the stamp.
Incredibly, after stamping the escape papers, our interview continues of its own accord.
I'm back out under the banana tree with the precious papers. I wave them. Germaine's mother, smiling calmly, takes a cold face towel from somewhere and pours a little Old Spice on it. Calmly, she hands it to me.
Meanwhile, Rene and his family have made it inside. Gabrielle's ingenuity had worked again. She called the base motor pool and ordered a truck sent to the main gate for them. She went off in it while Godfrey waited with the Mini-Moke inside the gate but outside the processing compound. He watched the truck leave, stop, pick up Rene, turn, start back and then BLOW UP.
Geysers of water spouted from the radiator, floods of oil from the crank case. Inside the cab he could see Gabrielle's hands moving, waving. The truck came on through the gate like a Texas dust devil. Nobody wanted to get close enough to stop it. They all jumped into the Mini-Moke and once more negotiated the gate into the processing compound.
The family's intact at last, on paper, signed, stamped and ready to be delivered. Godfrey leaves: a heartfelt goodbye The thirteen of us walk from the shade of the banana tree through the final gate to the inner compound where we are manifested on U.S. Air Force evacuation flight 202 to Guam, one of' 30-40 leaving through the day. We are the last ones to be evacuated, although we do not know it. In a few short hours the airport will be rocketed, killing two U.S. Marines, and shut down for good.
There is a deserted bowling alley up against the wire separating the final compound from the base and I park the family here in the dusty gloom to wait for our flight. Outside, pressed against the wire, Vietnamese, four deep, watch silently. They will be staying. They have no money for bribes, no connections, no comic-book Captain Marvel American to help. What do they see? I can't look back. For the first time in my life I can take no pictures even though my equipment is ready. Their fingers push at me through the wire.
At dark., finally, our flight is called. The 150 passengers board buses and we drive out through that dense and silent crowd. No one talks. We drive in convoy to the waiting airplane.
We are the last bus. As we arrive on the tarmac I see Vietnamese military police lined up on each side of the loading ramp, arbitrarily pulling draft age men out of the line, draft age men like my brothers in law. Falling through a cold, quiet second of space, I remember what I'd almost forgotten: this is Vietnam, right up to the bitter end.
All right. Germaine's mother will play sick and 20-year-old Long will help her on the plane. The other three brothers will grab children and hold them in front of their faces as they run to the plane. The bus pulls up. I'm out first, standing in the corridor of police, trying to block their view. Long's off now, sauntering, sightseeing, completely out of role. Behind him my mother in law, in tragicomic pantomime, plays hers to the hilt, limps, moans, clutches her head. They're in. Now the three brothers running with the babies.
And, marching down the long corridor as
if to my wedding, I'm in last.
The family decorates our house in Bethesda now like potted trees, uprooted, fragile. They exist officially only on the I-94 forms I pilfered on the way through Guam. In the bureaucratic vernacular, they're "temporary alien residents." They don't even have alien registration numbers, much less Social Security numbers. The morning after their arrival Bernard, the oldest son, handed me a small, leather bag. In it was the entire family fortune, $1,400 in U.S. dollars and $400 in gold they'd carried out sewn into underwear. I was head of the family now, he said, and this was mine to do with as I pleased.
Only by sheer luck are they even out of
the long, drab refugee pipeline that
starts with Tent City in Guam where the paper shuffle has buried
entire families for weeks. The magic I-94 forms just happened to
be handy. So was a sympathetic immigration
official. Journalist friends saved
them from up to three months of orientation classes, security clearance
investigations, various kinds of briefings and debriefings in Camp
Pendleton, California. We arrived at Dulles 5 p.m. Wednesday, April
30, 1975, 12 hours after the fall of Saigon and 144 hours after I'd
left Washington. Our reunion with Germaine
was as calm as my departure.
From Bethesda they wander downtown. So few police. Such order: people stop when the light's red and go when it's green. They've rubbernecked around the White House, the Capitol Building, the National Gallery of Art, like any old lady from Dubuque. They've made some small beginnings. Bernard and Albert have volunteered to help the D.C. public school system with refugee children. With their training in French they have applied for teaching positions with the Archdiocese of Washington. Rene, his wife and two children have applied for resident status in France. And there is a corner station down the street where they might work pumping gas.
There are sixteen people in our house now, but Germaine's cooking keeps the food costs to $25 a day. Travel for the evacuation cost $4,000. The great Immigration and Naturalization paper chase was going to cost about $2,000 in lawyer fees until that service was offered free by a very involved man. Meanwhile other gifts came pouring in: clothes, food, money and housing. And to complete the parley, Colonel Ba flew to safety at the last minute and is here with us now.
When the morning paper comes the family doesn't look at headlines first. They search the pictures out of Saigon for the faces of their friends.
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