Vespasian Hylle – Saigon ‘75
Saigon ‘75. We’re kicking over the ashes of March. Today’s a Tuesday. Maybe, a Monday. Four days and four nights scavenging news-takes. We run. We hide. Can’t sleep or stay long in one place. Limping into April, days and nights fuse together. On the city’s boulevards ism-god is down from North country hunting the Buddha-Christ. We hear it in sing-song whining, taste it in murky air, and we know it in thunder under our feet.
Northeast, red-orange lightning flares across the morning gray-black sky. Morning sun? Or’s that the last of Ban Me Thuot City? Don’t want to know. Yesterday, on Highway-1, a ragged South Viet colonel yells down to us from a slow-crawling armored personnel carrier: “Da Nang, fini. Qhui Nhon, fini. Nha Trang, fini.” Today, along Saigon’s Cong Le Avenue and Le Loi Street, we record burning shops, charred G.I. bars, shot-up churches, blasted mansions and crumpled tin sheet shacks. We hear explosions, sirens, screaming people, shrieking animals--and everywhere, South Viet green uniforms running.
A Friday, couple months ago, my bureau cables to shut down my sound tech assignment after advising to leave the country ASAP. If I stay, I’m on my own. But if I stay, they’ll buy whatever footage I can get my hands on. Later that night, I’m on a bar stool hunched over warm beer under a feeble kerosene lamp in a G.I. dive on Tu Do street. From a shadow, E.K. Persival drags up a stool next to me and cuts the deal: He works the video camera, I sound-record his takes for a 50-50 split at a Bangkok news film auction after the smoke clears. He says his stuff will go for five hundred per take--unedited blood shots, mainly. That’ll put ten thousand in my hand. So, damn straight, I take the job. Sealing the deal, Persival’s 90-proof breath slithers up at me: “Okay, kid. You’re on.” Then, he leans in close with fierce blood-shot eyes and tells me to watch for Hylle while we’re out there. Hylle? Oh, yeah, I know the talk about Hylle, the TV network star correspondent. On the ground or in the air, he’s got bullet-proof credentials from Saigon’s Supreme Command. I figure Persival’s hot to hitch a ride on Hylle’s Huey-1B network chopper. So, yeah, go for it, my gut tells me. Check my passport and Bao Chi press tag. And trust Persival. Do the sound jobs and we grab a ride out with Hylle, and, later, my 10-thou’ in the yonder world away from Vietnam. Not to mention my name in the news business back in ConUS. Well, maybe.
As for Persival. That’s E.K. Persival. He’s a once-upon-a-time national network camera jock. These days, he’s strictly freelance, usually for bottom feeder news orgs. Name brand press people tisk him off as a burn-out. Scrawny, stoop-spined, with silver stubbly jaws, and mongoose eyes. He slugs warm Chivas, regularly, from a beat-up metal flask, but never misses a filmable take on that antique 16 mil Bolex camera he uses. Behind him are about 14000 hours of prime clips he cranked in SEA. When the booze talks, he claims he’s pushing 50. That’s a crock. More like 50-plus a hell of a lot. With a trace of almost-respect infecting their recall, TV prissies grudgingly admit to Pers’s takes at Dienbien Phu, An Lok, Khe San. And Tet ’68 when the South Viets almost got their asses completely shot off. Damn. Tet ’68. That’s when network pro E.K. Persival fades out and freelance Persival belches up from the bottom of a shot glass in a back-water Cholon bar.
These days, all over South Vietnam, I follow in his tracks. I see him sing-songing with rice farmers, back country villagers, and city dwellers. And I hear him parlez-vouz-ing ruptured French in South Viet government offices. Pers knows the turf. He lives in shredded Levis, while the rest of him is a sweat-stained brown field jacket. Each side pocket on that jacket bulges with a 16-mil film can. One’s used up. One to go. And not a blackmarket mammasan is around to sell him another. Suits the hell out of me. That’s the last of our stash--the Amen can. It boots us into short-timer status; now, we taint the air with iffy radiations.
This morning, squatting like a field peasant, Persival’s setting up a shot of the Buddhist cemetery across the narrow black top street. He steadies the camera to his squinting eyes, checks f-stops. Around us, the city’s busting open. Up and down Hai Ba and Le Loi, Saigon’s Iron Ring Defense is melting down. I watch scurrying troops, shop-keeps shouldering crates, prune-faced grannies under straw bonnets, howling dogs, squalling kids, orange-wrapped monks, mini-skirted short-time girls. Scattering for cover, they hobble, some ducking and puking. All are terminally freaked with wild eyes and jacked open mouths sucking down 20-year comeuppance cordite.
Pers pulls them into his lens. I shove the mic pole over their heads and yank the audio input towards zero just as the crowd noise kicks the decibel scale wide right and savages my eardrums under my headset. The mic I fumble when a rocket blast somewhere out there kicks me to the dirt. Find cover. Hunch it till I can’t hear people screams or bawling animals or growling engines or sputtering gunfire. Right down to my bone marrow I’m tired and scared. And don’t give a damn who knows it. Damn right, scared. Not just hyped like a year ago when I take my first excited blast of Vietnam sun. I’m straight out of sound-tech school, my news agency slaps a sponsor card in my eager hand, and plane tickets and expense account. Eight thousand plus miles later, fresh off a Pan Am 747 at Tan Son Nhut airport, I meet up with the outfit’s two man news crew. The whole country is our coverage. A month later, the North Viet invasion rumor hits the streets. Next I know, that antsy camera jock and pink-fingers correspondent jump on a USAF C47 heading permanently outbound. Now this.
The amp cable’s cutting into my shoulder when I struggle to my feet. Part of me wants to plead with Persival. No. Damn it, I want to scream at the little shooter I’m quitting the gig. Anymore, this war is too goddam close to torching my brain, getting more personal by the celluloidal inch. But I pull back. Just can’t mess with the money-maker. His footage--our footage-- is going for five hundred big ones per. History’s buying. And I’m in for ten thou’ so long as I keep the sound-tapes and myself alive.
Besides, Pers isn’t reachable. He’s watching, listening through the camera’s eyepiece. Right now, he’s focused on a scene across the narrow street near the Buddhist Cemetery. Under a rusted brown Gate of Heavenly Peace, an old leathery faced Viet geezer--white beard, toothless gums, fluttering hands--is stooping over market baskets. Those’re jammed with swollen brown fish corpses and U.S. K-ration cans. The old guy’s hawking the stuff to all comers and fisting up dollars. Persival groans “No. Goddammit, no”. The camera lens rotates out witnessing the ground spurting dirt chunks around the old man’s brown feet. And the lens rotates back as those spurts chew a path up the whitebeard’s ragged gray pants and shirt--‘till his wrinkled face blows apart.
Collapsed to my knees, I see-feel blooded-yellow sludge spatter my boot. Right there, my so-called professional detachment implodes. To hell with Persival and this psycho fever for blood shots. And to Hell with History. I just copped my sayonara di-di to Saigon. Got to save my alien skin. I’ll crawl. I’ll run, humping for the big white embassy with USMC gun muzzles covering my back. Ten-thousand reasons for staying? All of it flushes down a mental sewer just ahead of that mucousy roll of pappasan’s brain slipping off my boot and wriggling into the red-brown earth. “That’s news,” they’ll tell you. “Essential reality of war,” so they’ll say. And we’re feeding on it. Again, I reach out to Persival. But he shrugs me off and swings his camera upwards towards the smoking brown sky. His craggy face is sucked onto the eye cup, tracking a glossy black chopper battering the air about 25-plus meters over our heads.
Painted on the chopper’s ebony belly there’s a gold circle with a bright red lightning bolt slashed diagonally over it. And “NewsAm-One International” in huge black letters. Got to be Hylle, Vespasian Hylle, NewsAm-One TV’s prime time shaman of the neatest war footage that money buys. He’s fame-hungry, in his 30’s, and grabbing it all in the Vietnam warbiz. “Cu Chi’s Child Warrior Heroes” in ’73, “Napalm Salvation over Binh Tok” ’74-- just a couple fearsome exclusives he V-taped and flashed unedited to network newsdom back in the 6 O’clock world. His stuff comes packaged for easy chair TV viewing--beginnings, climaxes, and conclusions.
Only problem is, in Saigon none of that’s possible.
Behind the eyepiece, Pers mumbles to his camera and locks onto Hylle’s chopper hovering on a down-blast of swirling smoke. Out the co-pilot hatch, the deep-tanned all-American appears. He’s sporting aviator mirror-shades, brown bush hat, and red neckerchief. I swear I smell after shave. On a metal clipboard clutched in a black-gloved hand, he’s jotting notes. Hylle, baby, no sweat. Let the press jocks piss and moan about your slimy talent for over-ripe news stories and your connections with max-voltage sources. Hell with ‘em. Bring that flying orca down here and all’s forgiven.
Shot-up bloody rags. Splintered baskets. Smoldering tin cans. Gate of Heavenly Peace. Hylle scans a one-eighty of the street rubble. His mirror-shades zero in on Persival who’s adjusting a close-up on the chopper. Five seconds of watching, Hylle pops behind the windshield. And the black beast screams revs and shuffles into cloud cover. Behind the camera Persival’s jaw tightens. Tracking the chopper past the churning down-blast, he mutters a long throaty “You bastard”. Here’s Persival. There goes Hylle. And I’ve got questions. The right-now bitch is: a zillion pieces of civilization slicing through the air at us, yet, we don’t grab a ride out. Hylle and his chopper. Maybe, we deal the mover-shaker in on our film stash? We beeline to Bangkok and ten thousand big ones to help cushion posterity? But it all comes down to Hylle coming down in his chopper. Sure, big roger on that, alright.
Up Bach Dan Street, something humongous blasts a three-story building. Gunfire echoes back. Red flames and twisting black smoke spew into the sky. On his feet, Persival’s calmly cranking his camera’s spring drive. He eyeballs a snake trail through the stampeding mob, along a chopped up sidewalk and past a church front. That church. I hear angels in there singing “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Strapped to my back, the recorder rig takes on 200 pounds, while the mic slips around in my sweaty fist. I worry about my feet, my knees, my thighs, and my … No, best not. Don’t even think about those.
Pers watches the boiling smoke up the street. And he smiles. Silver-speckled jowls, broken gapped teeth, the little shooter is smiling. Ah, for chrissakes, I just can’t want this. Sweat dribbles down my back. Shaking, I watch desperate people rushing at us from the Bach Dan blast. Some glare at my gear, and Pers’ camera as if saying we don’t belong here. Passing by, their eyes plead “Hold back. Don’t record.” Fear and humiliation I sense coming at me. Persival pushes me into them. “Y’ green dumbass. Don’t you chicken out on me.”
I run. Bucking, zigzagging, my heart hammering in my chest. Past ox carts, taxis, trucks. I pass old folks, kids, caged animals. Underfoot, green-blue glass shards swish by. Just ahead a dog’s bloated carcass sprawls across the sidewalk; a blackened hand reaches out from burnt debris to pet that rigormortised muzzle. I jump over, keep running. On my left are small craters hacked into a courtyard wall. And I glimpse around, fearing somebody’s walking tracers at my back. Breathing comes in bursts. Gritty death-reek starts crusting my nostrils. But I don’t dare open my mouth. Pain sluices my innards. Two blocks later, the street widens. Now, there’re not so many people or vehicles or putrid fumes. Slowing to a jog I eat the air. Never mind the hot dampness. And just beyond the pulse throbs in my head, I detect faint thumping chopper blades above the smoke, somewhere close.
Dead ahead, a fiery building flings orange-red light into the street. Three or four uniforms--it’s okay, I recognize South Viet colors--dart in and out of the burning structure. They’re looters, army stragglers, maybe. In back of them fire rages, hisses, and pops. Corrugated tin sheets twist, creak, and crash to the ground. The clatter sends two looters scrambling from the building. Suddenly, we’re face-to-face. Up close, I see they’re long-haired, crazy-laughing teenagers--small faces under steel-pot helmets. Behind me, one of them squeals something in Vietnamese, then, the flick-flack sound of an M16’s charging slide. In front, a kid straggler with dead eyes sights in on my sound gear. He inspects the mic boom, gives me a crooked smile and nods. Over my shoulder, he shouts to the kid in back of me. Scared, trembling, I try to smile but I can only stammer “Bao Chi. Bao Chi”.
At my back, Pers barks Vietnamese to the kid stragglers. His words calm them as they slowly lower their weapons and start to step aside. Pers shoves me past them. “Just don’t run,” he tells me. We fast-walk towards the other side of the street where a burnt out GI troop truck is laid on its side. We leap over splintered wood and smoking concrete chunks and scramble for cover behind the hulk. Its underguts stink of scorched crankcase oil and burnt rubber. From the truck’s bullet-riddled cab, sweet-rot stench whiffs out to me. But, at least for now, behind this dead metal elephant, I can loosen my grip from my crotch.
With his back against the truck’s upright front axle Pers slips down, cradling the camera in his left arm. His dark squinty eyes loosen. He’s hurting for sleep. Yeah. Sweet mother sleep. Ten seconds later, his head inches slowly downwards. When his jaw drops open, he pops up and cocks an ear over his shoulder to read street racket. From his jacket pocket, he struggles out the flask and feeds on a long shaky pull at warm scotch. Watching him propped against the truck’s twisted steel, I get the notion he’s just as bent and mangled. But he’s a survivor. And he’s pulling his 5’6” bone rack upwards to eyeball for filmable.
From somewhere near the burning ruin comes a sound mix: juvenile laughter mingled with high-pitched whimpers. Peering through a rusted hole at the truck’s rear, I see her. She’s on a four-wheeled cart, sprawled on rag piles that are spread on top of ordnance crates, red gasoline cans, and boxes marked “Danger-Explosives”. Black hair splashed over her face, the Vietnamese woman looks to be in her 40’s, so make that 24 or 25 in actual years. I watch her shaky hands working food fragments to her mouth. She lifts an arm over the ARVN corporal’s head, savages a piece of something--bread, maybe?--and shoves it in. A shred she pulls from her teeth and drops it to a half-naked, mud splattered kid sitting on the ground next to the cart. The kid’s, maybe, a 10-, a 12-year old. With both hands, the kid grabs the food, smashes it to his mouth and steadily gazes through black zombie eyes at far away nothingness. As I watch, that kid’s eyes begin to talk to me about the earth’s insanity and about that ARVN corporal’s jack-hammering ass on the woman’s convulsing belly.
Laughing and chattering not far from the cart, three stragglers hunker around a camp fire with steaming brass pots cooking. Weapons and helmets and ammo belts litter the smoldering ground all around. By turns, each straggler glances up to the cart. Somehow, for a few seconds, a creepy stillness takes hold as if someone squelched all human sound. But all at once, that silence shatters when the woman screeches just as the corporal gives out a snorting grunt. And the kid cries “Ma Ma”--a long wailing howl that rolls along the ground and reaches behind the truck, then knifes into me. Up from the camp fire, another straggler swaggers towards the cart. He’s holding a fist of steaming food--probably rice. Babbling down to the kid, he puts the rice in the woman’s open hand. Then he yanks his belt buckle. His right hand pushes a crate out of his way. His left caresses the woman’s thigh. And when he nudges himself closer, I duck my head. In my chest … a malignant growth.
Don’t think. Not a goddam word. And, Christ! Don’t ask it. You’re here, you mindless bastard for the bucks and the credential. Now, find a way to live through this.
Persival sets up his camera. He checks for lighting and pans the flaring fire in the blasted building. His breathing slows as he sucks in and eases out like a treed sniper squeezing off a kill. The son of a bitch wants the shot to be LIFE cover perfect. In my head, I’m begging him to crank the goddam shot, now, right now. Don’t wait. Get it over with. Shoot it! A 12-minute rape scene. Got fire and smoke for background. Gawky punks hunching up for sloppy seconds. Yeah, real life drama. Folks back in the real world’ll love it. Crank that obscene black box, will you, Persival, before this load in my gut detonates! Damn that kid’s eyes.
But Pers isn’t shooting.
In the gray overcast, chopper rotors buffet the air. Pers lowers the camera when we spot the black machine waddling down from the smoke then wavering aloft about twenty meters. Out the co-pilot side, the metal clipboard appears. This time, that clipboard slashes towards the burning building, the cart, and the South Viet stragglers.
Come on, Pers. Deliverance just spitting distance away. Deus ex fricken machina. On eely legs, I struggle to put ground under my boots. But my body doesn’t answer. Now, the recorder rig is crushing me. I’m floundering on all fours, tangled in cable. Over my shoulder I see Pers next to me, then straddling over me. When I try to push away, he shoves me down until I taste sour dirt. Heaving and gagging, I roll over against the truck’s under-structure. Pers is in my face, holding his index finger across his lips. Then he touches that finger to my forehead between my eyes and playacts a pistol shot and waggles his head towards the kid stragglers. Easing, I fall back against the recorder box and I hear Pers whisper “Shut the hell up.”
Damn, Pers is crazy--really doesn’t want a way out. Miles and months of blood shots tracking the war shut him down. Warlust has him. He likes the blood, fire, noise. Sweet Jesus, that kid. And that woman. Okay. Okay. Grab a deep breath. Hold back. Got to game the boxman. Gut to the ground, I raise up a bit and watch from the rear of the truck. And I wait. When it’s time, when those kid-soldiers cool down, when Hylle shows up, when Pers locks on to a take, I’ll shuck off my sound gear and run to that Huey.
Across the street, Hylle’s chopper lands about twenty meters from the stragglers. When the rotor blades coast to slow-twirling, the ARVNs start grabbing up their gear. Chatter-laughing to each other, they’re expecting a lift-out. As the dust and smoke swirl away, they see Hylle trudging the smoldering ground and coming at them. He’s raving and definitely pissed off. The stragglers freeze. Watching from the truck, I can hear Hylle shouting in Vietnamese and English.
An explosion erupts somewhere a couple blocks away. Everybody ducks. When the stragglers look up, Hylle’s right there eye-to-eye with them. He’s agitated. In a hurry. Shouting, he points his clipboard towards the smoldering building. A straggler picks up a machine gun and sets up. Another straggler with an M16, Hylle grabs and yanks him down next to the machine gun. Shaking his head, Hylle looks around, then points at the four-wheeled cart and motions to the other stragglers to bring it closer. But they hesitate when seeing the woman who’s still laid out on rag swatches. She’s sobbing and burbling and her head’s wobbling, mechanically, side-to-side.
Frantically, Hylle waves his hands, ordering them to get the woman off the cart. To one straggler, he mimics grabbing the woman’s shoulders, the other her ankles. Shrugging, the stragglers grab the woman from the cart and drop her over the side. Her sobbing and head wobbling stop. Next to her, her kid crouches; a wad of bread dangles from his mouth. He holds the woman’s hand and watches the cart rumble away towards Hylle and the stragglers. Six feet to my left, I hear Persival snarling: “You son-of-a-bitch.”
A blast close-by, then another. Loud crumping echoes and a warm gust roll in. Hylle seems panicky. He tells the stragglers “Lock and load.” Arms folded over his chest, he turns towards the chopper. From the darkness of the cargo bay, a foot-long camera lens extends pointed at the stragglers, the cart and Hylle. I watch. And I figure now’s the time. Yet, not so fast. First, check Percival. At the truck’s front axle, he’s on his knees cranking the camera’s spring-drive. When he notices me, he leans back and gives me a fierce look. I’m not buying. I jump up, shake off my sound gear, and step away from the truck.
And that’s when my memory starts fading to black.
Hylle setting up a news-scene, yeah, I remember. The kid screaming, beating his fists on Hylle’s leg. Hylle back-handing the kid. The kid crawling away. Now, he’s holding up a weapon-- a peculiar looking pistol with an over-sized brass barrel. The kid stands up; the weapon quivers in his fists. He points it up at Hylle’s back. In front of Hylle, the stragglers are scrambling to get away. That’s when I yell “Hylle!Hylle!” Furious, Hylle jerks around. The kid stumbles backwards. He’s falling; the weapon fires. A puff of white smoke in the cart. Then spurting red flames. Sparking-flaring explosions. Skin-searing heat blast. Ear stabbing noise. In a split second, all slam into me just before I lose light.
I’m floating in quiet, dark, beautiful emptiness that lasts and lasts.
A minute? hour? Later, pain’s prickling in my head. Pain in my ribs, under my armpit, and across my back. Motion, I sense motion. Persival’s got my right arm over his shoulder, walking me away from the truck. I can’t lift my head, so I watch the earth hobble by under my boots. Smoldering rags, helmets, splinters, burnt shards; then a small section of jagged black metal with gold and red paint. Next to me, Persival’s words: “Got to get to … embassy. Evacuation. Marine choppers on the roof. Bangkok.”
For a heartbeat, the pain pulses deepen. Something I sense just ahead on the chopped up ground. No. No, I don’t want to look. But I’m helpless. I have--I need--to look. My eyes are wet, burning, straining to focus--and I see the charred head of a 10- or maybe, 12-year old kid--slopped in ooze and dust. A shank of something scorched dangles from his twitching white teeth. And I hear his wide black zombie eyes reaching up to talk to me about the earth’s insanity.