In the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary, there’s an episode which is called “Things Fall Apart,” appears to center on an incident of violence during the January, 1968 Tet Offensive that produced one of the most unforgettable images of the war. This image still produces intense reactions. Indeed, this photo was back on the front pages after that Ken Burns episode.
And I have something to say about that.
Not commentary, exactly, or film criticism. More of a footnote. A real-life footnote. It’s not in Burns’s documentary, and I’ve changed a name or two. But what follows is as true as when I lived it. I’ve called it “The Secret Life of Pizza,” and the connection to Vietnam will be clear enough in short order.
Prudence Randall– Pru to all of us — was never my girlfriend. But we had strong connections anyway. For one thing, we were both trying to be writers, and specifically reporters. Journalism isn’t an easy field to break into now, and it wasn’t any easier in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1971. So we commiserated a lot back then about arrogant editors, the great news stories that got away or fizzled, and about how broke we were most of the time.
That year, the biggest news story of all was the Vietnam War. It was at its height then, killing hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Vietnamese every month. It also produced one blockbuster news story or photograph after another. Most were shocking: our troops burning villages; massacres of civilians; and our planes spraying millions of acres with a weedkiller called Agent Orange, so toxic it’s still maiming Vietnamese children born fifty years later.
One of the most famous news photos was on the front page of the New York Times: it showed a Vietnamese general named Nguyen Ngoc Loan, commander of the national police, shooting a Communist rebel in the head on the street in Saigon, the capital city, during a big street battle. The picture won a Pulitzer Prize.
I don’t think any of us who saw that image has ever forgotten it: the rail-thin general gripping the snub-nosed pistol, the defiant prisoner’s teeth clenched, his bushy black hair standing up straight and unvanquished even as the bullet smashed into his temple, the blood spray just starting at the camera-frozen instant of death.
I didn’t really want to go to Vietnam, but we still envied those hotshot writers and photographers who flew around the world, covering the really big stories, while we were stuck writing up local antiwar rallies and chasing school board scandals.
Pru and I also had babies in common, one apiece, tho hers almost never happened. Pru’s live-in boyfriend Hal was a quiet, sweet guy, who had dropped out of college and was on the way to becoming a carpenter, tho I don’t think he realized it at the time.
He just knew he was hopelessly bad at the intellectual pretensions and palaver of most of the rest of us who lived in the shadow of Harvard, which spread from a jumble of plain red brick buildings a mile or so away. That difference of outlook was a source of continuing but low-key tension between him and Pru.
So when Pru turned up pregnant, it was both an accident and a problem. The accident was easy to figure: birth control worked almost all the time. But almost isn’t always. The problem was that even covering local news stories kept us on the go and away from home a lot. And while Pru liked my wife Tish, who was then mostly taking care of our daughter, Pru was determined not to give up journalism to spend several years changing diapers and being captive to a schedule of nursing, naps, and toddler tantrums.
Which meant she decided to have an abortion. In those days, abortion was still outlawed in most of the country, including Massachusetts. But just a year earlier, it had been made legal in New York state. So what was a crime in Cambridge could be done freely in Albany, a three-hour drive to the west.
At her stage, it was supposed to be relatively quick, or so we had been told. A kind of vacuum cleaner would suck Pru’s uterus clean, leaving behind only a small jar of bloody mush.
Of course, Pru agonized about it. She talked to me, she talked to Tish, she talked to her other friends. I was not a fan of abortion, then or now, but agreed that in the end it was up to her.
One morning she and Hal climbed into their old Volkswagen Beetle and got on the Massachussetts Turnpike, New York-bound. We figured they’d be back in a day or two.
But that night an unexpected knock came at our apartment door, and there stood Pru. Her curly ash blond hair was mussed from the long drive. Her thick glasses were smudged. Her dimpled smile was sheepish. “I couldn’t do it,” she said simply. “We got to the clinic parking lot, and I couldn’t go in.” She had made her choice. Behind her stood Hal, quiet as ever, looking relieved.
Then she cried. Tish cried. I even got a bit misty. And in due time, Pru’s son Abe was there, along with the diapers and the nursing, the naps, and the toddler tantrums.
Pru stuck it out for a little over a year. But about the time Abe, a bouncy redheaded bundle was walking, she pulled her reporter’s notebook from the shelf where it had been languishing, and went back on the news beat.
Soon she landed a fulltime gig on a small suburban paper. She was still covering obscure local stories, but it was a real job, a foothold on the ladder of journalism. And she paid Tish to take in Abe, who spent most of his weekdays with our daughter.
Every morning when Pru kissed Abe goodbye, that little scamp, would shriek and sob, as if she was leaving him amid a pack of ravening wolves or thirsty vampires, astutely adding to the load of guilt she already carried. Then as soon as the door closed behind her, he would take a deep breath, wipe a hand across his drippy nose, and run gleefully off to join our daughter. That routine kept up until he was ready for kindergarten.
Then the wheel turned and we lost touch.
It was several years later when Pru called me out of the blue. A lot had changed by then, but much had not. I was living outside Washington DC, writing freelance news reports, still broke most of the time. I had a second daughter, and a different wife.
Pru had long since parted from Hal, who had moved to Maine and settled into becoming the fine carpenter he was meant to be. Abe lived mostly with him. And Pru was definitely a reporter. Still based in Boston, she was coming to Washington to work on a book. It was to be about abortion, which was now legal everywhere — or rather, the book was about the right-to-life movement, which was determined to make abortion illegal again.
She would be there in a few days, and wanted to catch up. Which was great, but left me wondering. I was the Washington reporter of the two of us: Washington, the nation’s premier center of media, power and glamour. I wanted to show her something of that, but the truth was I was still a rookie there: I didn’t know any powerful people. I wasn’t invited to the parties the local glitterati were always throwing for the powerful and glamorous, plus some media hangers-on. So I’d have to find something else to show her, something offbeat. What could it be?
The Washington Star came to my rescue. The newspaper had recently run a story about a Vietnamese refugee, one of whom was a former general, who had come as a refugee to America after his army (and ours) lost the war to their Communist enemies. He was, it said, now running a restaurant in northern Virginia called the Three Continents.
The man’s name seemed familiar. So I did some checking– and yes, it was General Ngoc Loan, the one from the world-famous front page execution photo. I looked up the exact address in the phone book, and drove past it to be sure.
Pru was suitably impressed. There was nothing like this in Boston. But The Three Continents wasn’t much to look at: a storefront in a minor exurban strip mall, with a sign that said it served French and Vietnamese cuisine — and pizza.
When Pru and I walked in, it seemed to shrink even more: half a dozen plain white formica tables, and only one other couple seated there. The ex-general, the former commander of Vietnam’s huge national police force, stood behind the counter wearing a white apron, alone except for a silent woman working in the kitchen. He spoke Vietnamese to her, and heavily accented English to us.
Pru pointed to something Vietnamese on the menu, with rice and vegetables. But as I’m a coward about strange new food, I ordered a pizza: pepperoni, extra cheese. As Mr. Ngoc went to work on them, his back to us, I watched him: timing the bubbling pies in the big oven, sliding them out, then picking up a long sharp knife and deftly hacking them into large, uniform slices. General or not, he knew what he was doing with pizza.
By the time he brought the food, the other couple had finished, and we had the place to ourselves. While we ate, two people came in, picked up boxed pizza orders, and left. The food was good enough, but business was not exactly booming.
Pru was a fine, canny interviewer, and when he came to refill our drinks, she gave him her best dimpled smile and asked in a convincing, innocent-sounding, but completely fake tone how he came to have a business here in Virginia.
He rubbed his slender hands on his long white apron, which was spotted with crimson stains from pizza sauce. Then he smiled back, and said something about the fortunes of war. Pru smiled again, and in a few minutes, he had pulled up a chair, and Pru had drawn him out about those death-filled years, his service in the national police, and then smoothly brought up the matter of his resemblance to the man in the famed execution photo.
If he detected her artifice, he didn’t let on. Just nodded: yes, that was him. Then he shrugged. “It was war,” he said, indulging our coddled ignorance of that harsh reality with no hint of rancor.
“But how do you get past all that?” Pru pressed. “It must have been a terribly traumatic experience.”
Another shrug. Then he looked down at the white tabletop, put a forefinger at one edge, pulled it straight across the surface, like the knife across a pizza. “I drew a line,” he said. “All that is over there, in the past.” He pointed to the left of his invisible line. “Now I am here.” He indicated the other side, the Three Continents side, quiet, rich with cooking smells, but mostly empty.
Afterward, Pru agreed that I had managed to show her something unique about Washington, something journalistic which the movers and shakers downtown had only barely noticed.
She went on to finish her book, following her reporter’s path. I did too, writing articles and books of my own, and had more kids, four in all. Neither of us became famous, but we kept busy. And while we had missed out on Vietnam, there were more new American wars to cover, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and I ended up covering a couple of them, from what seemed like a safe distance, but really wasn’t.
These new wars have likewise produced millions of refugees, survivors struggling to reach and then survive in strange lands, hoping to draw their own invisible line between an unspeakable past and the supposedly safe present. Only this time, the ranks of those refugees also include thousands who were born here, and had worn American uniforms.
I learned from close up how our new wars have taken many of our own sons and daughters, brothers, sisters and friends, refugees and made them strangers, to themselves and others, in their own homeland. And for too many, the unspeakable past keeps leaking across that line, and fouling the present for them and their families.
General Ngoc Loan made pizza in Virginia until the early 1990s. Finally, cancer did what the long war in his homeland hadn’t: it brought him down.
Now Pru’s son Abe is in his forties, and she and I have something else in common: we’re grandparents. I wonder if she ever looks at these new little ones and sees the shadow of a New York clinic parking lot. But never mind about that.
I gave up eating wheat and bread a few years ago. But I still like pepperoni, and when confronted with pizza I scrape off the cheese and toppings. Often the chunks come streaked with thick red tomato sauce, and I think, that looks a lot like blood. And sometimes in my mind’s eye there’s the ex-general in his apron with the scarlet stains, standing next to the picture from the Times’ front page, in that war-torn Saigon street. And I wonder: is there really a solid line between them? And does it separate the images, or connect them?
And where are Pru and I in that picture? And not least, my friends, where are you?
Copyright (c) by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.
This post was originally part of a series of “Dog Days” posts . . . .