I recently visited the Palette and the Page, an art shop in Elkton, Maryland, that sells my books and many objets d’art, to prepare for a showing next month. A discussion with the owner led to my retelling of one of the stories about my years in Vietnam. I’ve told it here before, but it’s good enough to return to:
In the late summer and fall of 1967, I was working as an NSA civilian under cover supporting the combat operations of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the western highlands of South Vietnam, along the Laotian and Cambodian border. One night I was in the tent that housed the military signals intelligence team I was working with. I was poking a communications paper tape of a report, to be sent out at flash presence to command elements of both the division and the brigade, that an enemy attack was imminent. All of a sudden, I heard the alarm siren. We were under attack. My analysts bolted for their combat gear and took off for their positions on the perimeter. I wasn’t prepared. We were up on a hill, not on the battlefield, and I hadn’t foreseen that we’d be attacked. In short, I didn’t have a plan. So I slipped on a flak jacket and a helmet and went on typing. The GI assigned to guard the tent watched me in disbelief.
The lights went out. I heard the incoming artillery rounds, a sound like a child screaming, distant and indistinct. Then came the concussion of the first round impacting. It brought to mind my earthquake days in San Francisco—the tent lurched; my ears rang; dust fell on my face. All there was to do was sit there in the dark and listen to the incoming rounds, my stomach turning inside out, and wait. Some rounds hit so close that I was thrown from my chair onto the dirt floor.