Forty-one years ago today, September 9, 1972, I stepped off a Pan Am 747 Clipper from San Francisco onto the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon and into a new world. And what a new world! The long taxi ride from the airport to Ben Ham Tu Street in Cho Quan, where I was to stay with a Vietnamese family, the parents and siblings of my Vietnamese tutor back in Washington, D.C., was a mix of new sights, sounds , colors, and smells that I can only describe as sensory overload. Most of these sense impressions have ended up, in one form or another, in my short story collection, LOVE BENEATH THE NAPALM, but to a twenty-three year old with very little experience outside the borders of the U.S., they were, to use a shopworn cliché, exotic indeed. And they had all the freshness of everything that is new and hopeful. Even when I plunked down my bags in the foyer of my “host” family’s (the Nghias’) house along the Chinese canal and found to my horror that the letter from their daughter announcing my arrival from the States had not yet arrived, my spirits remained undaunted. The Nghias very graciously, if in a somewhat bewildered fashion, took me in and absorbed me into their family for about a week or so, until I found a small apartment to rent near some of their in-laws.
One of the pages from an old passport (attached to this blog) tells a sadder tale, that of my last departure from Saigon. Not on a 747, but in the belly of an Air Force C-141A, bound, the evening of April 23, 1975, from Saigon to Guam. The passport page is stamped “Den” (Arrival) on April 22, and I had the customary 7-day visa allowing me to stay until the 29th. It is a story for another day how I was able to slip into Saigon on the 22nd and leave (without an exit visa) on the 23rd. It helps to have connections. What I remember most about that last leaving, aside from the fact that I had three young and somewhat frightened Vietnamese to shepherd to a new home in America, was the fact that the engines of the large contingent of air force jets which had flown into Saigon for the last evacuation were kept revved up for immediate departure (as the North Vietnamese were even then on the outskirts of the capital and had already rocketed the airport several times), and those engines made a horrific noise. And when we took off, shortly before dark, the C-141 rose in a very steep climb to evade any missiles the North Vietnamese might have thought fit to send after us. But, fortunately, “All’s Well that Ends Well,” as somebody rather famous once said, and we made it safely to Guam, Camp Pendleton, San Francisco, San Diego, Kansas, and then, for two of us, Iowa and Paris, all in the course of two weeks or so. I only wish that the last going had been as joyful as the first coming. But the memories are good. All good.