Palm Sunday 1975

Today is Palm Sunday. I remember celebrating the day in Saigon in 1975. It was already clear to me then that Saigon was going to fall to the North Vietnamese even though it was more than a month before the final collapse. The city had changed drastically since I first arrived in 1962. And it was losing its bustle as the encroaching communist forces polluted its environs. Here’s my description of the Palm Sunday church service in Last of the Annamese:

They went to church by cab. While Molly was rehearsing with the [church folk] group, Ike ventured out into the streets. Nice neighborhood, nicer than Yen Do. Lots of money here. Narrow lanes with high walls topped by spikes or barbed wire. Pastel villas rising above with graceful balconies now enclosed in mesh to ward off grenades and broad windows taped against shattering from explosions. Odd that no one was on the streets. The mongers with their noise makers and high-pitched calls had disappeared. No women in ao dai carrying parasols hailing cabs. It was too quiet.

By 0945, he was in the chapel. There was Molly to the side of the altar in her somber purple, bigger and louder than anyone else in the folk group. They were still practicing as worshippers drifted in. They sang something discordant about death, ending with the refrain, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Sunlight streamed through the perforated walls. Uncomfortably warm. The stink of the city, strongest in the spring heat before the monsoons washed away the accumulated sludge of the dry season, rolled through the church. Ike loosened his collar, mopped his forehead.

As Monsignor Sullivan came up the aisle toward the altar, the group sang “Watch one hour with me.” Ike recognized the words, from his long hours in the Baptist congregations of his childhood, as a paraphrase of Jesus’s words in Gethsemane, asking his disciples to stay with him as he died. Was the church aping daily life?

The Gospel recounted the crucifixion. The text was brief, blunt, and direct.

As perspiration rolled down Ike’s back, the Mass finally ended. Monsignor Sullivan and his troop of mixed-race altar boys came down the aisle toward the entrance while the folk group intoned yet another desolate hymn. Ike blocked out the words. He’d had enough.

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