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The Man From Saigon

A Novel

The Man From Saigon by Marti Leimbach
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It’s 1967, and Susan Gifford is one of the first women correspondents in Saigon, dedicated to her job and passionately in love with an American TV reporter. Son is a Vietnamese photographer anxious to get his work to the American press. Together they cover every aspect of the war from combat missions to the workings of field hospitals. Then one November morning, after narrowly escaping death, Susan and Son find themselves the prisoners of three Vietcong soldiers. Helpless in the hands of the enemy, they face the jungle, living always with the threat of being killed and the slow realization that their complicated relationship is the only thing sustaining them both.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; February 2010
ISBN 9780385529877
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The Man From Saigon
Author: Marti Leimbach
The first shots came as they were flying northeast toward Danang. Over the terrific noise of the engine and rotors, she could hear a pinging sound, something like coins being lobbed against the metal where she was sitting. It wasn't particularly loud anddidn't sound remarkable or worrying. For many minutes she sat stiffly in the nylon seat of the helicopter, the wind rifling across her trouser legs, sending her field jacket back so that she could feel a button pushing against her neck, being aware of manythings, but not of the pinging sound, the bullets directed at her, at all of them, as they spun above a canopy of jungle.   She had much to distract her from the pinging: the roar of the engine as the chopper skimmed over the tops of trees, the throbbing of the rotors, the explosions of fire from the door gunners, the effort she made to keep from being sick. It was awhile beforeshe even thought about it. She only registered the gravity of the sound because she felt a force behind her, a sudden pushing in of metal as though a fist had pressed the fuselage of the chopper inward, feeling mildly uncomfortable and new. The place wherethe metal had bent was low on her back, just above her belt. Had the bullet passed through the side of the chopper, it would have found a home in her right kidney. When she reached back to check that it was not her imagination, that there really was a small,convex lump behind her, she felt the hot metal at the same time as a rising panic, a kind of insistence from inside her that she respond to the assault, as involuntary as a sneeze.   It may have been that her body knew even before she clocked it in her mind that they were being shot at, that they were being hit. When she realized the sound she'd been hearing was of bullets meeting the skin of the chopper, she found she had to controlherself as she might a bucking horse, staying focused, intent, sitting out the ride as the chopper dipped and swerved, as the pinging sound seemed to dissolve all others, so that it felt to her that the volume had been turned down, that the whole of the earthwas silent, except for this one noise. She felt a kind of last-minute, hopeless panic, her life opening before her. Not her life passing year to year in a flash as it is said to do at such moments, nothing like that. Only where she was, and that she'd had achoice some time back, not now, and that she'd made the wrong choice. It was a feeling of being trapped and desperate, of having been cornered by her own mistakes.   She did not look at her colleague, her friend, Son. She knew he did not like being so close to American marines, that he did not like this particular route into Danang, flying over the jungle. There were always VC there, cloaked by the jungle's thick canopy,willing to take a few quick shots in case they got lucky. Son had warned her, but she did not take it in. Now she could not bring herself to look at him. Nor did she watch the door gunners or turn to see the pilot. In fact, she could not see properly; everynerve seemed to focus inward at the terror brewing inside her.   If she'd had the presence of mind, she'd not have blamed the enemy, nor the pilot, nor command operations, not even the war itself for what was happening, for what more might happen. She would have cast the blame on her own poor judgment for getting onthe chopper in the first place. For every small, seemingly inconsequential decision that had led her here, to this place, right now. Under fire, she found it hard to breathe or swallow or make a noise. More than anything, she wanted to run, which was of coursenot possible, and the fact that she could not run, that she was caged and airborne and entirely at the mercy of whatever would happen next, was almost unbearable.   She wrapped her hands over her head, over her eyes. She stared down at the floor and watched as a bullet made a mark there, a little rise of hot aluminum not far from her foot, and she wished she'd followed the advice she'd read about traveling by helicopterin Vietnam, which was not only to wear a flak jacket but to sit on one as well.   And then the pinging stopped. She waited for it to begin again, but there was no sound. She heard the chaos of voices and gunfire, wind and rotors, loud and relentless, hammering at her skull, but the pinging was gone. She felt something inside her shiftand she was able finally to look up, scanning the faces of the others. She looked at Son. His black hair stood straight up, a result of sweat and wind. He tried to smile but his mouth was dry and taut so that all he managed to do was squint and meet her eyeswith his reassuring gaze. One of the gunners was intent on unjamming his gun, the other so pale she thought for a moment that he would faint and fall out of the open door. His shirt was wet, as though someone had poured a bucket of water across his chest, andshe watched as the wind dried it little by little, all signs of the terror of the last few minutes quietly disappearing.   Someone began to laugh. The pilot whooped and the gunner with the jammed M60 suddenly opened fire at no particular target. They had flown through it; they had won this moment. It wasn't long before they could see the sands stretching eastward toward theSouth China Sea, the chopper landing safely in Danang. They trotted out, inspecting the fuselage for dings, for all those little holes that meant bullets. She walked around the helicopter, finding the area outside where she'd been sitting, looking up at thedented metal, the pocket where she'd felt the heat, the sharp splinters of metal beginning to fracture. The others were pointing to more serious breaks in the chopper, but she stared only at that one place where the bullet hadn't quite broken through. Nothinghad come of it. She would tell herself this thin truth for many days: while in the shower at the press center, while standing in line at the USO for burgers, while drifting off in thought when she was supposed to be interviewing someone, she would insist thatnothing had happened. The bullet had fallen back through the sky; the chopper had touched down like a giant trembling bird; everything ended the way it ought to have, with them safely on the ground, the heat gathering around them as the rotors slowed. It wasa July afternoon and the air was still.   Shall I take a photograph? Son asked her, nodding up at the chopper, at the scar in the metal that held her attention. It seemed so innocuous now, the bullet hole, like the head of a lion mounted on a wall.   She told him no, the words coming out quickly, perhaps a little too loudly, as though he'd asked for something inappropriate and personal. Then she said, I didn't mean to sound like that. Take the picture. Go ahead.   He brought the camera to his eye, framed the photograph, adjusted the focus, and released the shutter. They walked together across the airfield with their packs and cameras, and she suddenly ran forward and was sick on the dirt by the fence line. Son waited,then carried her pack for her.   You might one day want it, he said. That picture.   She was wrung out of emotions. She felt places in her body that were like bruises, the result of clenched muscles. She shook her head and wondered why anyone would want that photograph. Why would they keep such a thing? But she did want it, not then butmany months later when she was packing for home. It was among the few mementos she took with her.     A month earlier, in Saigon, a guy had given her a mimeographed pamphlet written by another reporter, the pages stapled together, corners curled, the title stamped across the front in capital letters: Handbook for Newsmen in Vietnam. It was written duringthe years when the war was still young, a small affair with none of the sense of increasing disaster that hung about it now. Its author mixed practical advice with his own idiosyncratic observations about the locals, warning reporters never to travel withoutID papers, for example, and that the Vietnamese will always tell you what they think you want to hear. Nobody spoke much about the handbook; everybody read it and pretended they had not. In fact, the reporter she borrowed it from made a point of saying he didnot want it returned.   They were in a bar, a group of other reporters around them, enjoying the air-conditioning and the darkness that contrasted with the extreme light outside. She had arrived exhausted into Tan Son Nhut airport sixteen hours earlier, the plane diving towardthe landing strip as though it meant to bury itself there. She'd never been to Asia, or covered a war. Now she found herself in a bar that might as well have been in New York or Chicago. She didn't know what to expect. She felt a little disoriented. The chatterof the reporters confused her; she couldn't even figure out what they were talking about--this infantry, that unit. Drinking did not help, but she certainly was not going to sit in the bar surrounded by men drinking Scotch and order a ginger ale. The reporterwho asked her to meet him said he had something for her, and that something turned out to be a copy of the handbook. He gave it to her along with his business card, his home number handwritten on the reverse side.   Let me know when you get back, he said. I'd like to hear how it went. He was maybe a dozen years older than her, the beginnings of gray in his hair made his head appear to shine. He looked as though he felt a little sorry for her. He regarded her as onemight a younger sister, even a child.   She smiled. You don't think I'll last two weeks, do you?   He was taken aback, though he tried not to show it. I didn't say that. Anyway, it depends on where you go.   She laid the handbook on the table next to their drinks. So where did you go? she asked.   He brushed the question aside. You'll notice how slim it is, the handbook. That's because you really can't tell people what they need to know. But read it anyway. Definitely read it.   He smiled. He explained that he was leaving for New York the following day and all he could offer by way of good advice was for her to go home now. Or at least soon. It's hard enough for a man, he said. Though being a woman will have one advantage. You'llbe the first on at the airstrip, that's for sure.   She nodded. She didn't know exactly what he meant and yet she felt to admit this would embarrass them both, so she filed the words away in her head: first on at the airstrip.   The drink came to an end. The man smiled and then looked right at her for a single, long minute as though trying to memorize her face.   I'll be fine, she said. It was odd that he should be so concerned. It made her nervous--not about him but about where she was, what she was doing. These were the earliest hours of the earliest days, long before bullets or chopper rides, before anythingat all. She said she'd be fine but she had no way of knowing if this would be the case. She hadn't really thought there could be any other outcome, until now.   He took a deep breath. You're awfully young, he said, or maybe it's me. I've gotten old here. He finished his drink in one swallow. Then he stood, shook his head as though to push away a thought, and flicked his ash into his empty glass. She extended herhand to shake his, and he took her fingers, drawing her forward and planting a soft kiss on her forehead. He nodded slowly, then turned away, holding a hand up at his shoulder as he went. He left the handbook on the table for her as one might an old magazine,disregarding entirely the warning in the pamphlet's introduction that the contents were confidential.     She read that she must bring a canteen, poncho, zinc oxide, a hat, malaria pills. Never to go out with any unit smaller than a company. Bring pencils as well as pens because pens dried up in the heat and pencils broke or needed sharpening. Halazone, iodine,chlorine. She was told by those around her to be careful; some even recommended that she not leave the ever-tightening boundary of the city. In the hotel's narrow bed, she passed her first sleepless jet-lagged nights with the handbook across her knees, scanninga flashlight across the words on each mimeographed page. In the middle of the night, just upon falling asleep, she would suddenly jerk awake, asking herself frankly how on earth anyone thought she could do the job of a foreign correspondent, a war correspondent,because she was quite sure she could not. She told herself it was normal to feel this way, that everybody must have their doubts. Then she doubted that, too.   She discovered it was hard to function in Saigon. The electricity didn't always work. The water came out rusty from the taps. She drew herself maps, wrestled with the foreign money, drenched her clothes in sweat trying to get used to a climate that seemedfrom another planet entirely. One day she saw schoolchildren file past a dog that had died outside the school gates. The children walked over the stiffened legs or hopped above the bloated body. One of the boys got a stick and hit the dog's ribs as though itwas a pinata that had failed to burst open its sweets. A few others stood around, watching. Then another kicked the dead body. She went back the next day and the dog was still there, most of it.   She had plenty of time to read the handbook because she found it impossible to sleep. The traffic was like some background record that kept repeating itself: screeching tires, honking horns, exhausts backfiring, and engines that moaned and spluttered underthe slow poison of inappropriate fuel. That ended shortly after curfew at eleven, but then there was all the noise from the assortment of odd guests at the hotel where she stayed. Some nights they arrived drunk from clubs, speaking at the tops of their voices,playing music, or kicking a soccer ball down the halls. Fights broke out between the drunken ones and those who had regular jobs that required early rising. It was not unusual to hear an argument conducted in three different languages, and once in a while itgot physical.  

From the Hardcover edition.
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