Saigon, Viet Nam, November 1969
The alarm was set for four a.m. I slept with the light on to make sure I would not sleep too soundly. Hardly sleeping at all, I dozed off and on in my bunk on that hot humid Saigon night, mindful that I had to be up and at the flight line on Tan Sohn Nhut Air Force Base before five, to catch my early flight to Nha Trang.
The assignment was routine. My camera bags, on the floor beside me, contained my shaving kit, sixty rolls of Ektachrome, thirty rolls of Black-and-White, two Nikons, and my personal Canon. I had even shaved the night before so I could leap out of bed and, in the time it takes to throw on a set of fatigues and boots, I could be out the door. I was always early, preferring to sit and read my book rather than panic about being late.
I had weird dreams that night. I kept dreaming that the alarm was going off and that I was trying to get up but could not move. Then I dreamed that I heard it ringing, and reached over and hit the off button. But that was just a dream.
The next thing I knew, I awoke with a start! 7:30! What? The sun was out and the mamasans were clanging and banging washpots outside the hooch. "Oh God, no!" I wailed to myself. Now what? Failure to Report, Dereliction of Duty, AWOL ... who knows what?! Oh God, courts marshal for sure, or at least an article 15 or some such judicial punishment for those who don't show up for duty. My heart sank as I slowly and silently dressed, hearing funeral dirges in my brain.
Dragging myself out of the hooch and past the company headquarters, I felt an eerie absence of all military life. Just the ubiquitous mamasans squatting over big tin and plastic tubs of sudsy water, ceaselessly chattering in Vietnamese while washing the jungle fatigues of the G.I.s at Davis Station, my home.
Even the motor pool was quiet. "Where is everybody?" I pondered. They are probably all hiding because they know there is a criminal – a lawbreaker in their midst – and they are afraid to be seen with me ... going to my execution at the headquarters, known simply by its then-codename, White Birch.
I sat on the "hitch-a-ride" bench just outside the motor pool to see who was going my way. Finally, the skinny motor pool sergeant from Tennessee, whom I knew, pulled the jeep up to the stop with a screech. "Headin' to White Birch, Tom?" he asked cheerfully. I climbed in, mustering my bravest smile of thanks for the lift. Apparently the news of my malfeasance had not really reached the motor pool yet after all. Good.
I rode in the open jeep in silence as the sergeant talked about the new camera he had just bought at the B.X. (Base Exchange). Everybody enjoyed talking to me about photography, as I was the official headquarters photographer. I mumbled mindlessly about f‑stops and shutter speeds or something long forgotten in the haze of fear and trepidation.
We arrived at the small parking lot at White Birch. The military police checkpoint was the next hurdle. But the two guys on duty, who knew me well, had already put my regular badge #273 on the counter with my photo pass. I was one of only three people in the headquarters allowed to carry a camera in or out of a top secret classified area. The sergeant didn't go in, but disappeared somewhere into the parking lot to deal with a recalcitrant jeep, no doubt.
Past the zigzag of bunkers to prevent Viet Cong terrorists from storming the headquarters, I pulled open the first of two big steel doors that were touted as able to withstand a direct grenade, mortar, or even rocket hit. Unlikely the latter – but it was definitely like entering a vault. Passing through the second steel door was always a shock, as the bright, hot, humid Saigon morning gave way to the dark cold blast of frigid, air-conditioned, processed oxygen of the windowless bunker in which we worked.
The long corridor with its shining, green linoleum length of floor was as empty as a tomb. My footfall echoed even as I tried to make it down the long hallway unnoticed. Years later, when I first heard the term "The Green Mile," I flashed on that moment. No one was there! I heard the tic tic tic of typewriters and the whirring click click of the teletype machines sputtering in the background, but saw no signs of human life. I walked the green mile. At the end, I turned right, then left, then right again, as always.
The Dutch door entrance to the graphic arts department was open at the top, as usual. Thus far, I had seen no one anywhere. I poked my head in. Everybody was there, each at his station or drawing table working in uncharacteristic silence. With a deep sigh and then a big breath I opened the bottom half of the door and walked in, shutting the door with a thud.
As if this day was not weird enough to start with, what happened next was surreal. Everyone looked up. Then everyone froze in place, like in one of those movies where the narrator steps out and talks directly to the audience. All eyes, like saucers, simply stared at me. My heart was pounding. Finally, Jim from Philadelphia sort of whispered:
"I missed my flight," I blurted out awkwardly. "I mean, I did set the alarm and all ... but ...
Before I could even choke out my excuse, they all poured out from behind desks and drawing tables, and engulfed me in bear hugs and slaps on the back and shoulders, with all manner of totally out-of-character behavior. This is one weird day, I thought.
"You missed the flight?" They were delirious. What had they put in the water cooler that morning? "You actually missed that flight?" They were all laughing in a most peculiar way – a nervous, spooky laughter – like they had seen a ghost.
Stan from Seattle ran across the hall to get our sergeant, to announce my return. He walked in, ashen. "You missed the flight?" he repeated.
"I missed it," I said. "But it was totally inadvertent ... I trailed off. Something was wrong here. Everybody went silent.
"You haven't heard?" my sergeant from Alabama asked in his southern drawl ... "You really haven't heard?" he asked again incredulously.
"That flight was shot down this morning."
Territorial Enterprise reprint, 1988