Annamese

I’ve posted several blogs about the title, Last of the Annamese. One way to understand the title is that it refers to one person. Another is that it denotes a people, the residents of An Nam, the old name for Vietnam. As I mentioned earlier, I deliberately used to name “Annamese” in both senses.

What I left largely unsaid is that the novel is about the destruction of a people. With the defeat of South Vietnam, the culture that was An Nam, which means “peace in the south,” came to an end. The gentle, sweet way of living that characterized the non-communist Vietnamese died along with the people whom the North Vietnamese killed or captured.

Late in the story, Chuck finds the South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh sitting in his garden in the rain. Thanh points to sky and says that heaven is weeping. As he says, An Nam is no more.

Sparky

I’ve mentioned the character of Sparky several times during this blog. It’s time to devote a post to him.

Sparky and Ike, a Marine captain working with the Marine guards at the embassy, are housemates of Chuck Griffin, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese. They are provided a rented villa to live in on Yen Do Street in Saigon because they are willing to face hazardous duty in Vietnam after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Sparky’s nickname derives from his mental dullness, especially his slow uptake and forgetfulness. The moniker is also a reference to his blond-red hair which is never under control. Like Ike, he is married, but his wife awaits him in the world (i.e., the U.S.). Like Chuck, he is an analyst in the Intelligence Branch at the Defense Attaché Office located at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon. He, Chuck, and their boss, Colonel Troiano, are the last three at the office after all others are sent out to safety as the North Vietnamese close in on Saigon. They are evacuated under fire as Saigon falls.

All the characters in the story find Sparky likeable. He’s down to earth but, unlike Ike, not earthy. More than once, he manages to keep Chuck out of trouble and even saves Chuck from harm by restraining him when he tries to take on South Vietnamese army guards at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital. He’s steady, reliable, humble, and devoted to his work.

Sparky, like so many characters in the book, is based on men I worked with during the final days of Vietnam. Were it not for their quiet service and dependability, I wouldn’t be alive today.

People Who Buy My Books

Yesterday, I was at the Kensington Day of the Book Festival selling my books. I started paying attention to the kind of people interested in my work.

On the four-foot table, I laid out three of my books, two reviews of Last of the Annamese, and the two newspapers that have done cover stories on me. I was surprised by the number of people that stopped by the table and read an entire newspaper article or a review before speaking to me. Then they questioned me about the books and my time in Vietnam. A good many wanted to know what “Annamese” means. Most ended up thanking me and moving on, but some bought a book, almost always Last of the Annamese.

The folks not interested were the most obvious—they walked by apparently without noticing me. They were teenagers and millennials and young couples with children. I particularly enjoyed watching the latter because as I get older, I’m more and more charmed by children. The parents sometimes noticed my smiles and chuckles. Mostly they just passed on by.

The people who showed interest were almost invariably those in the last half of life. We seniors and near-seniors seem to have in-built affinity that draws us to each other.

A fair number of women, usually in pairs, stopped to ask about my writing and my past. They were intrigued by my story—granted, an unusual one: thirteen years on and off in Vietnam as a civilian spy working under cover—but then thanked me and headed out.

It is the men who showed the most interest. Somehow they sense a kinship with me. They are drawn to one of their kind with a story to tell.

But in venues like this one, the group most attracted are veterans, both men and women. They spot me as one of them and want to express the bond we veterans always feel for one another. Most of the time, the vets tell me their stories of where they served and what happened to them. If they were in Vietnam, we compare notes on locations and units, talk about the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the south Vietnamese fighting force, and often reminisce about the beauty of Vietnamese women. If they buy one of my books, I always give them my business card and ask them to give me feedback after they’ve finished the book.

I wish that young folks would read my work. My sense is that they could learn not to repeat the mistakes we made when we were younger. I’m particularly pleased that a young German woman has read my books and regularly corresponds with me. Her English is far better than my German, and the story of Vietnam, all new to her, is especially intriguing.

For reasons I only dimly understand, the experience of talking with others at book fairs is satisfying. Writing is a lonely occupation, always done, out of necessity, alone. My guess is that communicating with other human beings in a literary milieu slakes my thirst for companionship.

The American Legion and Last of the Annamese

As noted earlier in these pages, I am a proud member of the American Legion. Some other members are reading Last of the Annamese; some have finished it. They’ve told me how personal the story is to them. They understood how Chuck, the protagonist, felt. They agonized along with him.

In a very real sense, Annamese was written for veterans. These men and women are my brothers and sisters. We share experiences the rest of Americans are spared. We have bitter memories that won’t leave us in peace. We know what it is to lose a buddy under fire. We know without being told that we are alive because somebody else died in our place.

We veterans are often silent with each other because no words are needed. The bond is there. Each of us knows that we put our lives on the line for one another and would do it again.

In our common grief and pride, we love one another, but we’re not sentimental enough to use the word “love.”

Matti Friedman and Pumpkinflowers

I learned yesterday that Matti Friedman, author of Pumpkinflowers, will be in Washington, D.C. next month. My editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books gave me Matti’s email address, so I sent him a message asking to meet him.

Last year, I reviewed his new book, Pumpkinflowers, drawn from his time in the Israeli army defending a hill called the Pumpkin. In radio communications with the troops’ command post, they used the cover term “flowers” for those wounded in combat. By extension, “pumpkin flowers” are those damaged by the operation.

After the completion of his military service, Friedman returned to the Pumpkin under the guise of a tourist. He found the Pumpkin deserted. His reaction: “For a time this hill was worth our lives, but even the enemy seemed to know that now it was worth nothing at all. That seems like a universal lesson for a soldier.”

I started my review of the book with these words:

“This book hurt. I think it will hurt anyone who has seen combat. It brings back memories we try to bury. It makes us realize that war is hideous wherever it occurs and that a combatant’s unspeakable experiences are universal. We never talk about them. Maybe if we did, we’d find out that others, in other wars, other cultures, other nations across the earth, have gone through the same gruesome ordeals. And for what?”

That was my question after the fall of Vietnam. For what have we done this? Or as Sparky puts it to Chuck in Last of the Annamese, ““Did it have to end like this? After 58,000 American military dead, at least a million Communist soldiers, and who knows how many million civilians? Chuck, what the hell have we done?”

Matti wrote his story in Pumpkinflowers. I wrote mine in Last of the Annamese. My sense is that he and I share the bitter cynicism and hurt of combat veterans. That makes him my brother. I hope I have the good fortune to spend a little time with him.

Who Is the last of the Annamese?

Who Is the last of the Annamese? A reader, part way through the book, just asked me that.

I want the readers to decide for themselves the answer to that question.

Early in the story, South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh decides that he and his people should be called Annamese (based on An Nam, “peace in the south”) rather than Vietnamese (drawn from Viet Nam, “trouble makers in the south”, as the Chinese called them). The name An Nam evokes the old, peaceful country before the conquerors from the north invaded.

As the reader proceeds through the story, the title could refer to different characters. I know how I want the reader to decide the answer at the end of the book, but I don’t control readers, and I’ll be happy with their answers.

If you’ve finished the book and would like to offer your answer to the question, “who is the last of the Annamese?” don’t post it here in the blog. That would be a spoiler. Instead send it to me at tomglenn3@gmail.com.

Book Promotion: The Writer’s Curse

I wrote earlier in this blog about my addiction to writing. I’m asked periodically how I find time to write. My answer is that it’s the other way around: I have to find time to do things other than write.

All well and good until the publication of Last of the Annamese. That event brought an appreciation for an activity called promotion, consisting of presentations, readings, and book signings. Lots of them.

Granted, promotion activities only come once or twice a week. The worst I faced was four in one week. But they all demand preparations and travel time.

Preparation includes practicing. Presentations require the most rehearsing. I go over the material I’m presenting three or four times before each appearance so that the delivery will be smooth and devoid of slip-ups. The presentation I do most often is on my living through the fall of Saigon and escape under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets. The full story of my working under cover in Saigon was declassified at the beginning of 2016, and I’ve now done the presentation more than forty times. Nevertheless, I have to practice before each.

I also do a presentation for writers on fiction craftsmanship. That requires more practice because I do it less often.

Then there are speeches and talks. Veterans and active duty Marines enjoy my stories and regularly ask me to speak.

Even readings from Last of the Annamese need preparation and practice. I never read from the printed book—too many chances for mishaps. I always print out what I’m going to read in 16-point typescript and rehearse several times.

The only events that don’t require practice are book signings. For those, all I have to do is sit there and try not to look glum.

For every public appearance, I have to look my best. Where appropriate—which means nearly always—I wear a suit and tie for presentations and readings. That means keeping my clothes clean and pressed, my shoes shined, and my beard and hair neatly trimmed.

Travel is a big time consumer. The furthest away I’ve gone for an appearance is to New Jersey, the closest twelve miles from home. I generally have to arrive thirty minutes to an hour in advance of the scheduled event, and don’t leave until well after it’s completed.

The net result is lack of time, especially for writing. In some ways, this blog is a God-sent because I have to write for it most days, whether I have time or not. So I get to do some writing every day. But my novels-in-the-works are suffering from neglect. I literally have no time to spend on them most weeks.

Maybe things will improve during the summer. My calendar for August is actually blank. But then the pace picks up in September. I’m already booked for a series of events up to December.

If I get another book published between now and then, I’ll have to stop writing altogether.

American Clothing in Vietnam Before Saigon Fell

in Last of the Annamese, Chuck dresses in Marine utilities—what the army calls fatigues—when he travels to the highlands with Colonel Thanh. Until 1974, I did the same. I dressed in the uniform of the combat units I was supporting. My purpose wasn’t comfort; I was a civilian signals intelligence operative under cover working with a combat unit in the field. As long as I was in the fatigues or utilities, the enemy wouldn’t realize that a spy was in their midst.

When I returned to Vietnam to head the NSA covert operation in 1974, U.S. troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam. So while I still had fatigues and occasionally wore them for trips to the field, that was for comfort and convenience, not to mislead the enemy.

My predecessor in Saigon had required the NSA employees under cover there to wear dress shirts and ties, even though other U.S. civilian agencies in Saigon allowed open-collar short-sleeve dress shirts with no jacket or tie due to the climate. I immediately changed the rules so that my guys would look just like every other American bureaucrat in town. My men loved me for freeing them from having to wear ties in the tropics.

When we were evacuated during the fall of Saigon, my two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end and I were dressed in our standard uniform—short-sleeve shirts and slacks. But we’d been holed up in our office for more than a week while the North Vietnamese pushed their attack on the Saigon. We’d had little to eat and almost no sleep and hadn’t been able to bathe for days. And we’d been wearing the same clothes the whole time. We were rank, but that was the least of our concerns.

After I was evacuated to a ship of the 7th Fleet in the South China Sea, I was able to eat and get cleaned up, but I still had no other clothes than the ones I’d worn for days while we were stranded at our office. We finally sailed to the Philippines, arriving in mid-May, and I immediately booked a flight for Honolulu. The senior NSA official in Hawaii—the man who’d been my predecessor in Saigon—met my plane. Instead of asking how I was or congratulating me for getting out alive, he took one look at me and said, “You can’t be seen around here looking like that.”

I still shake my head in wonder at a man who couldn’t grasp that my two communicators and I cared less about how we looked, and even how we smelled, than about getting out alive.

Spring in Vietnam

Spring begins in Vietnam, particularly in the south, in late January or early February. Its arrival is announced by the Têt celebration on the first day of the lunar new year, as narrated in Last of the Annamese. Spring lasts, in the southern third of Vietnam, until May or June. With summer comes the monsoons characterized by brief downpours like open fire hoses several times a day followed by overwhelming heat.

Spring, for the Vietnamese, is a happy time on new beginnings. The weather, by Vietnamese standards, is fresh and cool, only rarely getting much above 95 degrees—if my memory is correct. And the Têt holiday is by far the biggest festivity of the year. Flowers, the symbol of spring, are everywhere during Têt.

The onset of the monsoons signals the end of spring and the beginning of the grueling summer. My sense is that the Vietnamese do not greet summer joyfully. The monsoons were especially unwelcome in 1975. They began early, on 29 April, the day Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

Preference for the Northern Dialect in Vietnamese

In Last of the Annamese, I write of the refusal of South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh to speak the northern dialect of the Vietnamese. That was, and still is, the preferred speech for native Vietnamese speakers. And it is the favored form of Vietnamese for the elite and educated, rather like the New England accent in English among Americans.

Thanh is of peasant stock. His people were muck farmers from central Vietnam. He detects phoniness and false airs among his superiors. He is determined to remain faithful to his forebears, the ordinary people who were the bedrock of Vietnam. He insists on speaking their language, just as calls his country An Nam, peace in the south. Hence, Annamese.

I spent the full year of 1959 at the Army Language School, later called the Defense Language Institute, at the Presidio of Monterey, California, in intense study of Vietnamese—six hours a day in the classroom plus two hours of private study every night, five days a week, for a full year. I was submerged in the language. Over time, I came to speak, think, and even dream in Vietnamese. All but one of my teachers were native northern dialect speakers. I spoke as they did.

The northern dialect is more precise than the central and southern speech. Its six tones are sharply differentiated, and its pronunciation is clear and exact. The other two dialects use two tones interchangeably and slur pronunciation so that some words spelled differently sound the same. For that reason, nearly all Vietnamese radio broadcasts I’ve heard stress the northern speech.

Besides, to me at least, the northern dialect is beautiful to listen to. The tones give the language a musical aura, and the sharp, clear pronunciation reminds me of the sound of small bells.

Among the other Americans I knew who spoke Vietnamese, almost all adapted their speech while they were in South Vietnam. I never did. And to this day, when I am speaking to native Vietnamese, they often remark that my northern dialect is more pure than theirs.

My preferences notwithstanding, I see Thanh’s choice as the right one. He was faithful to his heritage. I admire his strength and courage.