Remembering a war that helped shape baby boomers

Of the many things that shaped our baby boomer generation, the war in Vietnam is principal. Which makes it worth some reflection, which is what Dick Pirozzolo of Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Michael Morris of Savannah, Georgia, have done in the new novel they have co-authored. It is “Escape from Saigon,” the story of April, 1975, the final month of the war. They tell their story through the lives of those caught in the besieged city: Lisette Vo, a television network’s first Vietnamese-American correspondent, who has returned from covering the crash of the C-5 transport flying orphans to safety, and Sam Esposito, a hard-hitting reporter from The Washington Legend. 

“You look like crap,” Sam exclaimed the minute he turned toward Lisette, who had taken the bar stool next to him. She usually affected a calm, perfectly composed demeanor off camera as she did when she was doing a standup for NBS-TV. But now her blouse was filthy, her hair was sweaty, her shoes caked with mud, she didn’t even look like the Lisette he had known since he met her over ten years ago.

Dick Pirozzolo (left) with Michael Morris and their new book about the storied city in South Vietnam that was once called Saigon.

“You really know how to put on the charm,” Lisette responded halfheartedly.

Sam looked at her again, “Yeah, but you still look like crap . . . So what’s wrong?”

“I can’t talk about it right now.”

“Okay,” Sam said as he turned slightly away and went back to sipping his drink.

“Sam, it was horrible.”

“This sounds like talking about it,” Sam interjected.

“I mean, I’ve seen dead soldiers but not this, Sam, the dead babies from the crash. They were strewn about the rice paddies like a discarded collection of dolls. To keep them safe, loadmasters strapped them into the lower flight deck in these little cardboard carton bassinets. Then the plane bellies in. The embassy put the count at seventy-eight.  Seventy-eight babies died in the crash, Sam! They never stood a chance.”

Jean Paul placed Lisette’s gin and tonic in front of her. “Something stronger, Jean Paul,” Sam asked. He returned with two shots of Jim Beam and slid them over to Sam and Lisette.

The old French-built Continental Palace in Saigon.

“Sam, there were three hundred people on that plane. Those kids are dead now. They were orphans, mostly children of GIs and their Vietnamese girlfriends. They were all mixed race, they never had a chance before the crash, and they wouldn’t have had any kind of life in Vietnam. And now this! Plus the embassy people—my God, we saw some of those people every day. They were our friends. And the eleven crew members. All dead. Dead, Sam! Fucking dead.”

“And the survivors?”

“Huh?”

“Survivors? Were . . . there . . . any . . . survivors?” Sam asked again.

 “Yes, Sam. There were survivors. You’re the one who always looks at the dark side of everything that happens in this country. Now you want to switch and see something positive in all this? Okay, two hundred people survived. They’re flying the orphans to the Philippines. They’ll make it to American or Australia. They’ll be adopted. They’ll have lives . . .”

“You survived, didn’t you?”

Saigon in the 1970s.

While Sam’s version of a pep talk didn’t help much, the tear he wiped from Lisette’s cheek did. For the first time in a long while Lisette had shown some vulnerability. Sam liked it, but he didn’t linger in the moment.

“Come on, let’s take a walk by the river, you can see the stars from there. It always makes me feel better,” Sam said, touching Lisette’s shoulder. As he motioned her toward the exit, she turned toward him and kissed him.

“I don’t need the stars, Sam. I need you.”

Lisette grabbed Sam by the hand and dragged him down the hallway leading to the Caravelle Hotel lobby, where an elevator was waiting. As soon as the door closed and the car reached the third floor, she flipped the switch to Out-of-Service. Lisette wanted Sam  now. She wanted to feel alive, connected, and she wanted to be rid of all the death she had seen that morning. She wanted it out of her, out in a single burst of passion. 

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