The news of Premier Nguyen Cao Ky passed away brought back a long time passing.
In my youth, the sound of hovering helicopters was as common as street vendors’ chants.
On the war’s last day, ambassador, flag, ground-keepers, pilots and anything that moved, tried to get out to International Waters . Buses, barges and yes, choppers.
Lone pilots angled and abandoned choppers, then swam for aircraft carriers.
Their last sortie. (Years later, I met a man in New Orleans who found work as a commercial pilot for an oil company, transferable skill set I would say).
But on that fateful day, the choppers chopped the seas. One helicopter force-landed and hit our barge’s sandbagged wall. The loosed blades then flew wildly toward our ship, the USS Blue Ridge. I lied head down but eyes glued to the scene of action. That same barge had been our home for the previous 24 hours. Floating barge and flying blades was my brush with war and death.
Words circulated that many, VP Cao Ky included, went to Guam, where they had erected tents for refugees. For us, who ended up in Wake Island, we spent a purgatorial summer (“Do you know, where you’re going to” theme from the Mahogany). One of our folk singers sang for free to keep up our morale. She just came up short of singing “by the river of Babylon…there we sat down and wept”.
Not sure that was fitting or insulting. After all, I have spent the last three decades and a half trying to live down deserter’s guilt.
On a recent trip to Vietnam, a drunk at the table even screamed in my face that I was no longer a Vietnamese.
The burden must have been heavier for those who had invested more in the conflict (Cold War, but hot spots) e.g. the likes of Premier Cao Ky.
Occasionally, the two sides – reconciliators and extremists – were still at it.
We should put on the Holllies’ He Ain’t Heavy.
That’s how it will end. And how everything eventually ends, with time. My narrative just happened to be accompanied by the sound of choppers normally associated with Vietnam. One thing VP Cao Ky showed us and the world, was that, despite the hefty death toll and billions of dollars spent on bullets and agent Orange (later, he was resettled in Orange County), one still needs to live out one’s life, flamboyant or faced down. Army divisions used to distinguish themselves by various colors of their scarfs (red for paratroopers, green for Green Berets, so it’s not unusual for pilots and stewardess to pick their colors as well).
When you are near death on a daily basis, the least you can do for yourself is to look in the mirror, and say “not today”.
That today finally came for him, at age 80, and as fate would have it, resting in peace near South China Sea. But for many of us, “band on the run”, we live on to be memory keepers, story tellers and hopefully history-makers. It’s interesting to note that the younger generation tends to be more careful and conservative (model minorities) while their predecessors lived their lives in flying colors (go on YouTube, and click on any bands of the 60-70, like Chicago), least of which, a purple scarf, from a former Vietnamese pilot. Band on the run. Leader of the band dies today. The music, however, plays on. War and Peace. Dogmatism and pragmatism. Man and machine, romantic and robotic, pilot and chopper, laid to rest at Vietnam War epilogue. For me, not today. Not yet.
Someday, they will excavate in the South China Seas, and find hundreds of choppers, one of which without blades. Further excavation on the outer ring will find millions of skulls (boat people). They are all there, hidden underneath, but, still served as reminders of the long Cold War that took its heavy toll both in men and materials (choppers).