Red Clay Ashes
The morning of April 29, 1975
“The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising.”
The woman shot upright in her bed, her body still drenched in sweat, the ancient wooden ceiling fan that circled above her head offering nothing more than an annoying and unwelcome rattling sound but certainly no cooling relief. Her sleep that night and all the ones before it was nothing but an endless cascade of troubled restlessness as she tossed and turned back and forth on her all too tiny bed.
Life anymore felt like a tableau to the woman, one in which she was no longer a part of, no longer living in, but rather one that she was watching with acute detail and perhaps even fascination from the outside, from somewhere far, far away from the place that the world knew as Vietnam.
Just as she was about to tell herself that she must have been dreaming, that she had imagined hearing those words, “the temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising,” the unmistakable sound of a past she no longer claimed filled the apartment, “White Christmas,” the song that would forever link Bing Crosby and Christmas together.
And she knew then with the utmost certainty that it wasn’t a dream. For to hear the words of that timeless Christmas song sounding in her small apartment on the other side of the world, in a land where such things as freshly baked gingerbread and Douglas firs were as crazy and unimaginable an idea as a man walking on the moon had once been, she knew then that it was all over. That the final act was being performed and very soon the curtain would be coming down for good, one final time. And there was nothing she could do about it.
Saigon-The American Embassy
Early morning hours of April 30, 1975
“Lady, if you don’t get your fucking ass on this helo in the next 10 seconds I’ll personally hand you over to Charlie as soon as he gets here for being so stupid,” the young Marine staff sergeant screamed at the woman, his words surprisingly clear considering the deafening sound of the Huey’s rotors which were furiously spinning precariously close to them. Along, of course, with the screams and wails and every other conceivable noise a human being was capable of producing from the hordes of people that were vying to get onto the waiting helicopter and the Marines who were attempting to board them in as orderly a fashion as possible considering the circumstances.
For a brief moment the woman stared at the staff sergeant and he at her, the latter waiting almost expectantly for her to say something back to him, even to defy his orders. He looked to be no more than 20. His skin and face still had a youthful, almost angelic look to them; it was only his eyes that betrayed an advanced emotional age well beyond his living years. A haunted and wearied soldier in a boy’s body, a sight as common to her as the smell of the omnipresent nước chấm, fish sauce, that she had even come to love after all this time here.
But she said nothing. Just as the American military had given up its fight here two years earlier, she knew she had to give up hers. That it was time. That he was never coming back. So she placed her hand in the staff sergeant’s outstretched one and found herself being roughly pulled up into the Huey and barely a second later, felt it lifting off from the roof, slowly ascending into the night sky.
The woman became impervious to everything around her--the other passengers, a mixture of Americans and South Vietnamese. The latter were fleeing in advance of the North Vietnamese Army, which by all accounts was at the gates to the city by then, ready to mentally conquer and destroy their fellow countrymen for having been on the other side during the war, the wrong side.
When she looked down at the embassy’s courtyard and saw the hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people still there, all scrambling this way and that, an image that brought to mind ants on an unattended piece of watermelon at a summer picnic, she wondered how many would make it out? And how many more would be left behind, their fate almost certainly already decided upon from their connection to the Americans.
And then she wondered if one of those scrambling ants down there was him. That if at this very moment he was telling the Marines on the ground that he too was an American, that they needed to let him through and let him board one of the helicopters before it was too late.
But the Huey turned direction then, heading towards the South China Sea, where the fleet of U.S. Navy ships awaited the evacuees, heading away from the final bastion of what had once been the Republic of Vietnam. And so her last image of Saigon, the city that had birthed her identity, the only place she had ever really thought of as home, was nothing more than a blackened canvas interspersed with shooting red fire balls, presumably from an exploding ammunition dump. The curtain was coming down but America was damned if Charlie was going to get its cache of ammunition.
The woman knew one thing--she would never be able to hear the words of “White Christmas” without reliving the sheer heartbreak of this day.