In my novel, Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck, regularly spends time with orphans at Cité Paul-Marie, an orphanage in Saigon. He is particularly fond of a tiny crippled Amerasian boy to whom the nuns have given the French name of Philippe. Chuck calls him “Pipsqueak,” and the child, trying to repeat the sound Chuck makes, calls Chuck “Pee-kwee.” Chuck’s housemate can’t see how Chuck can stand to be with the misshapen children whom he calls as “manglemorphs.” But Chuck finds them deeply moving and does all he can to make them smile.
Neither the orphanage nor the orphans named in the novel are real, but both are based on fact. During my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam, I regularly spent time with the mixed-race orphans, fathered by American GIs with Vietnamese women, at a real orphanage run by Vietnamese nuns who spoke only French and gave the children French names. Where the children came from, how old they were, and their reals names remained a mystery. I suspected that the nuns didn’t know the children’s origin, names, or ages. These were helpless infants whose parents had abandoned them or had died in the war.
I was devastated by the 4 April 1975 crash of first flight of Operation BABYLIFT, a program sponsored by President Ford to move as many orphans as possible to the U.S. before the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon. Seventy-eight orphans were killed in the crash. I expressed my grief by attributing it to Chuck in the following passage from late in the novel:
“Chuck remembered the feel of Philippe’s tiny body pressed against his chest. Pee-Kwee. He forced himself to contemplate the unbearable—Philippe suffocating in the airless cargo hold and then crushed by the plane’s collision with the earth. Chuck welcomed the grief. No one else would mourn the death of the Amerasian ‘manglemorph’ whose real name nobody knew.”
As Chuck asks himself early and again late in the book, and as I ask myself: Do all memories have to hurt?