I’ve mentioned in passing in this blog my membership in the American Legion. I am proud of that membership. I qualify because I am a veteran, but I had finished my military service (army) before I went to Vietnam the first time as a civilian undercover signals intelligence operative providing support to army and Marine units in combat. During my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam, my cover was most often as a member of the unit I was supporting, so I passed myself off as an army soldier or Marine. My respect for the men fighting at my side grew over the years. So these days, when I attend an American Legion function, that respect and my feeling of brotherhood with other veterans is stronger than ever. I’m honored that these fine men and women accept me as one of them.
This year, for the second time, I’ll be participating in the American Legion Flea Market Extravaganza. I’ll be selling my books at a table surrounded by other legionnaires and vendors who support the Legion. My brothers-in-arms will be on all sides of me.
One ironic twist of fate is that the commander of my American Legion post, Ed Hall, crossed paths with me during the aftermath of the fall of Saigon. Ed, at the time a brand-new Marine second lieutenant, was with the Marines aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the 7th Fleet. I escaped under fire by helicopter to that ship on the night of 29 April 1975 after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon. The story is recounted in Last of the Annamese.
I have four grandchildren, ages seven to nine. I wonder sometimes what they’ll come to know about their grandfather as they reach adulthood.
The eldest, a little girl named Rhyan, knows the most about me. She attended my presentation at the National Security Agency (NSA) about the fall of Saigon. Marine General Al Gray was there and also spoke. Rhyan was lucky enough to meet him. She asked her mother if she got it right—General Gray saved grandpa’s life? Yep, her mother told her, that’s right.
But the other three were too young to attend the presentation. They presumably know nothing about my history.
One of the sad things in my life is that my children—and therefore my grandchildren—live far enough away from me that I rarely see them. My best hope is that someday the grandchildren will read my books and articles. My novels and short stories are, of course fiction. But all of them, especially Last of the Annamese, are autobiographical and historically accurate. And my nonfiction article, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon,” lays out in detail what happened to me during that cataclysm. It was reprinted twice after its original publication (most recently in the Atticus Review— http://atticusreview.org/bitter-memories-the-fall-of-saigon/).
So the historical record is there for my grandchildren when they’re old enough to understand. I’m comforted.
I was faintly shocked to realize that some grandparents living today weren’t even born when Saigon fell. And more and more, the story of the Vietnam war is considered history rather than part of current events. That makes me an historical figure rather than a member of today’s society, even though I’m very much alive and kicking.
I keep running into readers who tell me they had yet to come into the world or were in grammar school or high school in April 1975 when I escaped under fire during the fall of Saigon. Last of the Annamese is, in some quarters, referred to as an historical novel.
Most interesting to me is the difference in attitude between those who were mature during the Vietnam war and those born after it was over. Those who remember the war as part of their lives often recall their opposition to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and while they learn from my experiences, they still tend to view me something of a war monger.
Millennials, especially people in their twenties, lack any sense of hostility. Instead, they are very curious about how the U.S. got involved in the war and why. They know little or nothing about what happened during the war and nothing at all about the fall of Saigon. They are my most disquisitive readers.
And yet, the young, unlike us aging veterans, have never experienced combat or lived in a war zone. They are largely unmoved by my grisly tales of fights to the death. They have no frame of reference, nothing comparable in their lives. Older folks, especially veterans, don’t need to be told. They already know what I’m talking about.
To that ever-growing population of younger readers, I am a personage from long before their time who lacks the good taste to be dead. That makes me something of a oddity.
Maybe so. But I like that better than being dead.
Navy corpsmen serve as medics for U.S. Marines in combat. One of the two corpsmen I wrote about earlier told me that he was assigned to 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, based at Chu Lai. His reference to Chu Lai brought back memories.
When I first arrived in Vietnam in 1962, Chu Lai didn’t exist. It was created by the U.S. Marines in 1965 when they needed an air base. I first heard of it that same year.
I remember thinking the name was odd. It didn’t sound like Vietnamese. Vietnamese place names all have meaning. Ha Noi, for example, means “lake in the middle.” But Chu Lai didn’t seem to mean anything, and the Vietnamese pronounced both syllables of the name with a level tone, as if it were a foreign word.
I eventually found out that the name wasn’t Vietnamese at all. It was the Chinese rendering of the name of U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, commanding general of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. I knew the term c’hu lái in Chinese (出來) meaning to appear or to arise. Turns out those were the characters used to transliterate General Krulak’s name.
As a primary Marine base, Chu Lai is familiar territory to Chuck Griffin, the retired Marine who is the protagonist of Last of the Annamese. Its abandonment as South Vietnam falls is duly reported toward the end of the book.
Chu Lai still exists today. It is a seaport and industrial area with an international airport. I wonder how many Vietnamese living there know the origin and meaning of the city’s name.
Through it all—my thirteen years of trundling between the U.S. and Vietnam on covert missions, my time in combat, my survival of the fall of Saigon, escaping under fire, my still-classified work after 1975—my devotion to music never flagged. I still play the piano (I now have a Steinway grand, thanks to my daughter, Susan) every day. I play Mozart more than any other composer. I’d play more Bach, but much of his music is simply too difficult. Also in the mix are Satie, Beethoven, and Chopin.
Writing has always been my major vocation, but I dallied with theater, dance, and music before I accepted the judgment of my Muse and returned happily to telling stories. It’s clear to me that my fascination with languages and love of music have served me well as a writer. My novels and short stories show the steady influence of my work in languages other than English, but music rarely appears in my stories. I believe that its absence is explained by the inapplicability of the logic of music to writing. The thinking inherent in music applies to no other endeavor, and the ratiocination of no other pursuit is applicable to music.
For all that, learning to think in multiple systems of logic has helped my writing immensely. I’m especially grateful for the contribution of music. Even if it hadn’t helped, I’d be thankful for the beauty and peace music has introduced into my life.
Growing up with an alcoholic mother and a father in prison, I had a hard scrabble childhood. Told I wasn’t very bright and would never be able to go to college, I turned inwards and depended on myself. Three things delighted and fascinated me: languages, writing, and music.
I taught myself French and Italian as a child, the first two of seven languages I would eventually be proficient in. I started writing stories when I was six. And I fell in love with music.
One Christmas I received a record player as a gift and bought the cheapest LPs I could find in a Payless Drugstore—knock-off labels offering performances copied from foreign radio broadcasts. I taught myself to play the piano, practicing on instruments at school and in churches.
As a teenager, I scraped together the money to buy an ancient upright. I played by ear but eventually taught myself to read music. When I graduated from high school, I went against the advice of the school counselors and applied to the University of California in Berkeley where the tuition was $58 a semester for California residents. At first I majored in drama, then switched to music. By the time I graduated, I knew I didn’t have the talent to be a first-class composer. Immediately after graduation, I enlisted in the army, was sent to language school for Vietnamese, and my career as a spy began. It lasted thirty-five years before I retired as early as possible to write fulltime. One result of that career was my novel, Last of the Annamese.
Two developments precipitated my escape from a sense of isolation after the fall of Saigon.
One was the discovery that I wasn’t the only person to suffer the aftermath of combat. Not only that, but reacting to the horrors of battle with shattering memories was a healthy, normal human response. Rebounding without shock was unhealthy; not rebounding at all was sick. Combat sickens healthy people and leaves the sick unmoved.
And there were lots of us from a variety of wars. None of us wanted to talk about what we’d witnessed and participated in. That’s the nature of the disease. For many years, I couldn’t talk about my experience because my presence and work in Vietnam on and off for thirteen years was classified. To this day, I still can’t talk about some events. It’s not because they’re classified; it’s because I can’t control my emotions.
But I learned that we veterans didn’t need to talk to help each other. Each of us knew what the others had been through. Most important, we found that we were not alone with our brutal memories. We were a band of brothers and sisters, ready to help one another.
The second development was the gradual declassification of my work in Vietnam. By the beginning of 2016, I was free to discuss what had happened to me while supporting army and Marine units in combat before 1973 and what I had experienced as the head of the covert NSA operation in Vietnam after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1973. I could tell the world what had transpired during the fall of Saigon and how I escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city.
Now I can publicly own my status as a veteran of the war in Vietnam. And I can hear and savor the words I so ached for: “Thank you. And welcome home.”
I still cry when I hear them.