The Digital Journalist
Neil Davis: A Remembrance

by Ron Steinman

In the room where I do most of my writing, to my right there is a shelf filled with reference books. I have dictionaries of all sizes and kinds from America, Great Britain, France and Vietnam. There are at least three versions of Roget's Thesaurus. I have almanacs, books on language, history, quotations, mythology, etymology, the origins of language and the usage of language. Sometimes I refer to them merely by looking at them, though I do open them frequently to help me with problems of writing.

There is one volume that has traveled with me from Saigon to Hong Kong, to London, to New York, to Washington and back to New York: a worn Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. Its covers are tattered along the edges, its paper yellow with time. Scotch tape and memories hold the book together.

Soon after arriving in Saigon in early 1966 I slowly started to find my way as bureau chief for NBC News. Our bureau was in the Eden Building on Nguyen Hue Street in what many would describe as the center of the battered, fractious, noisy city. The Caravelle Hotel and the Continental Hotel were down the street, bracketed by the old Saigon Opera House, which in the fall of 1967 became the National Assembly. At the other end of the street stood the Saigon City Hall, a gingerbread pile that hardly anyone entered. The Rex Theater and Rex BOQ were across the street from me, as was JUSPAO where we went to briefings every day to witness the famous Five O'clock Follies, the daily military and diplomatic briefing.

Inside the dark recesses of the Eden Building - that squat architectural nightmare of a structure where NBC and The AP had its offices, and where there was also a small CIA-financed airline on the fifth floor where I lived - hidden far from the outside bustle, I would discover an unforgettable resource and a friend in Neil Davis.

I had earlier met Neil with a cursory handshake in my first week. He ran a bureau for a company called Visnews, a British consortium that supplied material to NBC News everywhere in the world. At that time Neil was also a stringer for NBC News in Vietnam, and he ran a stable, in the best sense of the word, of freelance film cameramen who were mostly Korean. I had an arrangement with Neil to provide me with footage from around the country. I gave him $50 and a 100-foot canister of 16 mm silent film - three minutes of film time - and a few audiocassettes. He gave these to his cameramen to use in their wind-up Bell and Howell Filmos. Their job was to shoot an entire story in the three minutes, and, surprisingly, many did. If they shot interesting and useable footage, Neil and his crews received another $100 for their effort, a sizeable sum back in those days. I often ended up with good action footage from these intrepid, fearless shooters who covered Korean troops along the coastal plain and the Australian troops in the swamps south of Saigon and below Vuong Tao. It was a worthwhile venture for my bureau.

This, though, is not about covering a story. Those memories are for others to recount. This is about a meal I had with Neil in his office three weeks after I arrived. His bureau in the Eden Building was several floors below my fourth-floor office. In the midst of all those important buildings and locations in my neighborhood, Neil had a small, insignificant room he shared with two Indian moneychangers - men by the way, who were necessary to the well-being of every foreigner in Saigon. A black curtain divided the office in half so the moneychangers could conduct their business in private.

Neil invited me to a 'welcome to Saigon' dinner. I bought a bottle of Algerian red in a local gourmet shop next to Air Vietnam and a few doors down from the entrance to 104 Nguyen Hue Street where we both worked. And, yes, several of those specialty stores actually existed despite the war. Early that evening I walked downstairs to dinner. In that cramped space, with the help of the Indian men, we dined on splendid chicken baked in clay, a fresh salad of lettuce from Dalat with oil and vinegar, succulent rice, Indian flat bread, cold beer and my red wine. The moneychangers served dinner. Then they joined us at the table to eat. We talked about everything but business. I learned something about life in Saigon, about war, about covering war, about economics and the economy. I learned that Neil was generous and kind, that he could laugh at a good joke, and was soft-spoken with a ready smile. I never once realized how brave he was in combat nor how strong his nerves were to allow him to cover stories the way he did, especially after he joined NBC News.

When the dinner ended, we sat and smoked. Cigarettes at 11 cents a pack at the PX made it easy to feed my habit of probably three packs a day. We relished the cold Heineken beer rather than the terrible wine. Neil paused between puffs and sips to make a brief welcoming speech. He handed me a gift. It looked like a book. It had the shape of a book. It felt like a book. I tore off the wrapping paper to discover the Webster's Dictionary I mentioned earlier. On opening the cover I found inside, front and back, a colorful and thick blue paper lining pasted on top of the book's inside covers. There were Chinese characters on the pages with two dragons in the front and three dragons in the back. Their wings wrapped around the dragons in a circle of swirls and cascading feathers. The dragon represents health and vitality, has the courage of his convictions, and is an idealist and a perfectionist. I am sure Neil knew about the inside pages. He may have ordered them himself. I never asked if he was sending me a message or simply decorating the book. In the end, it does not matter. All that mattered was the simple gift after a good meal in an unusual setting.

I last saw Neil in Vietnam in April 1985 when NBC, as most other news companies, returned to cover the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. We shared meals. We shared drinks. Then, as was so often the case, we went our separate ways.

With great sadness, we learned that Neil died on the streets of Bangkok on September 9, 1985, killed - many believe deliberately - while covering a coup against the then-reigning military dictatorship. Had he lived he would probably be doing what he always did, which was to cover the stories that interested him, that he believed he had to tell.

My memory of Neil Davis is in that dictionary, that first meal, and other meals I had with him. I wish we could have had more. The dictionary goes with me everywhere. It is a reminder of Neil's generosity of spirit, especially for the simple things we all desired, despite the difficulty of achieving them because of the complicated lives we led.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.