Fiction in Name Only (6): Al Gray

More on the facticity of Last of the Annamese: I first ran into a Marine officer named Al Gray early in my years in Vietnam. He was a captain when I first met him. I learned later he had been an enlisted man who finally made it into the officer ranks. I’ve told before in this blog how Al saved my life when Saigon was falling.

In Last of the Annamese, I show a Marine colonel named Macintosh saving the life of the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, as Saigon falls. Macintosh is not Al Gray—he lacks Gray’s greatness as a leader. But the portrayal of Macintosh’s behaviour just before the fall of Saigon, when he appears at Chuck’s office door, is a description, masquerading as fiction, of Al Gray’s conversation with me:

Left alone with the piles of incoming, Chuck . . . . read and sorted, munched on crackers and olives [the only food he had left]. He had to stay rational until midnight when he’d waken Sparky to relieve him. Fighting roiled just north of them, and the North Vietnamese had begun an offensive in Long An and Hau Nghia Provinces on Saigon’s western flank. News reports from Phnom Penh told of public beheadings of former Cambodian government officials. The Intel Branch had been put on comms distribution for SPG traffic. The “special planning group,” code-named Alamo, had quietly activated the forward evacuation operations center, even though the Ambassador still hadn’t approved.

The bell at the door to the exterior corridor startled Chuck. He yanked the Beretta from the holster and went to the entrance hall. Through the peephole, he saw a middle-aged American man in an oversized Hawaiian shirt of iridescent orange and gold overlaid with neon-blue palm trees. Beneath it were cut-offs and bare legs ending with tired feet in flip-flops. The face was somewhere in Chuck’s memory, but it belonged to a different context. Chuck’s weary brain struggled to make the image slide into the right frame of reference. Then it kicked in. Macintosh.

Chuck disengaged the deadbolt and opened the door two inches. Macintosh raised his hand in an open-palm wave accompanied by a silly grin.

“Hi, Griffin. May I come in?”

Chuck looked past the colonel into the empty corridor, opened the door enough for Macintosh to sidle in. Chuck closed the door and bolted it.

“You look like shit,” Macintosh said. “You should be taking better care of yourself. There’s a war on, you know.” Macintosh lifted his hands and turned in place. “Like my outfit? It’s all the rage in the islands. Ambassador won’t let the advance evac personnel dress in uniform.”

End of quote. I had never before seen Al Gray out of uniform. I didn’t think he owned any civilian clothes. He returned a few days later, this time in full combat uniform with his Marines, flying in from the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea far enough out that it could not be seen from land. He got me on a helicopter that was nearly shot down once airborne. But we made it and flew out to the fleet.

As I reported earlier in this blog, I don’t call my rescuer Al any more. That stopped when he became Commandant of the Marine Corps. Now I call him “sir.” He is the finest leader I’ve ever seen in action and a man I am privileged to know. All Marines know who Al Gray is. He’s as much a hero to them as he is to me.

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