Dinner at the Fall of Saigon – April, 1975
They were hungry at the Fall of Saigon
At the mouth of the Soirap river I stood on the fore deck and watched the sun come up on the last day of the long conflict the Vietnamese have come to call “the American War.” It was to be the Fall of Saigon. It was the most beautiful dawn I had ever seen before, or since. Still air hung warm and moist and soft. A thick, creamy quilt of cloud lay along the coast and the rising sun painted it red, orange and yellow. The colors blazed and constantly changed their patterns: mixing and moving and dancing majestically as though they were Heaven’s own fire. To the East of the clouds the sea lay quietly glassy and blue. The jungly hills that stood to the West were the greenest of green and they formed a dam that held back the fluid cloak of clouds so that we could watch the sun paint them a while longer. It was gloriously beautiful, and deceptively peaceful.
By degrees the painting vaporized and the last story of the war began. The scene opened when a lone helicopter streaked in at low altitude from the direction of Saigon. Coming over water it circled the command ship U. S. S. Blueridge, steaming just off shore. Orbiting the ship, the bird climbed and fell several times and its tail wagged back and forth as though the pilot were in a dither. Crossing the ship’s bows a second time it ran out of gas and fell into the sea. It sank quickly, and if its passengers were not drowned they were run over by the Blueridge’s fat prow.
Soon another helicopter appeared. Then six, then a dozen. Then I couldn’t count them all. They were everywhere and their roar filled my ears; out on the weather decks we couldn’t even hear alarms or commands and had to communicate with hand signals. All the choppers were all low on gas. Those that ran out stopped in midair, wobbled for a moment as though they were wounded birds struggling for flight, then went down. Left and right they fell out of the sky, crashing into the water, their rotors beating it into a froth until the sea swallowed them. They sank astonishingly fast, taking their occupants to the bottom as often as not. We launched boats to rescue those we could. They were precious few and coxswains reported sharks and pink water. Those choppers that stayed aloft were lining up one behind the other to land on any vessel large enough. They began to land on our deck, and to my surprise they were carrying mostly women and children and old people.
During the chaos of the day we went ashore to gather up people. Again they were mostly women, children and old folks. Some were deserters, and by now there were a few “spooks”: CIA men wearing dark glasses and clutching briefcases; some people from the CIA’s front company Air America; even the families of Vietnamese President Thieu’s bodyguard. But mostl were civilians, non combatants: women, children, elderly.
We took the people to ships, any ships: fighting ships, cargo ships, support ships, any kind of ship that had room for them. Some of them were wounded. Some were still bleeding. And a number had died. Many were alone, while some were with families, or pieces of families. They stood at the lifelines, clutching all that they now owned and stared mutely to landward as they embarked on lives of exile. Some wept. Some were too tired. Others were too scared.
On that day we gathered up more than one hundred thousand fleeing people. They huddled on the weather decks of every vessel in the fleet; exposed to the sun, the rain, the wind and their enemies whom they still feared would pursue them. And they were all hungry.
I would have thought that the loss of homeland, family and future had killed their appetites, but they hungered deeply. Maybe it was a hunger that expressed another kind of emptiness. Maybe their stomachs were in sympathy with their souls. I don’t know, but they begged wearily for food.
Navy cooks are trained to expect sudden increases in the number of mouths they must feed. Ships will sink and their crews and passengers need rescue; soldiers and marines might need to be picked up from the beach; natural disasters call for relief efforts. In all such cases people need to be fed. Towards the end of the long day I noticed a smell from the galley of a rich stew. The navy recipe book calls it “El Rancho Beef Stew.” It’s common for GIs to bitch about the chow they get but the U.S. Navy feeds fairly well; its beef stew isn’t bad. We liked to call it “El Rauncho Beef Stew,” but it isn’t bad. When they took their care with it, it reminded me of something my own grandmother would have made. I’ve heard other men say similar things about it.
Two by two the cooks came up from the mess deck carrying great pots of stew and the thick aroma hung about the ship like a cloud. They ladeled it onto trays and passed it to the hungry people. The spooks took theirs quickly and ate with gusto and were restored. They even asked for more. But the Vietnamese merely picked at it, hungry as they were. I watched a pretty lady, tall and slim and fashionably dressed take her tray and sit down on a bollard next to the lifelines. She took little tiny bites and drew deep sighs in between. Now and then she glanced to landward for last looks of home. Then she looked back at the stew and I thought she would weep. Bravely, she always took another tiny bite and repeated her longing glances. All the Vietnamese seemed to catch the same mood. The more they ate the bluer they became.
Somebody, I don’t know who, hollered to the cooks, “Hey, these people don’t eat beef stew. In fact I bet they don’t even eat beef. They eat rice. Why don’t you give ’em some rice?” In a short time two beefy cooks hauled a stewpot full of steaming white rice up to the weather deck. When the people saw it they quickly lined up for it in good order and reverential silence. The cooks gave them each heaping mounds, and the people smiled relief and bowed slightly as they recieved their portions. I saw a man in a torn, dirty flight suit put a fat spoonful into his mouth and just hold it there, as though it were a kind of communion. An old man ate with his hands, running his fingers through the rice like a farmer testing good soil. And the pretty lady sat down on her bollard again and eagerly mixed the stew and the rice together, and she fed well. A very simple meal she had; but it gave her solace and was enough. The cooks served the people rice with every meal for the next several days they were in our charge.
On that last day of the war I ate a great deal of El Rancho Beef Stew. If the refugees’ stomachs were in sympathy with their souls, so was mine. I felt sharp sympathetic pangs of homesickness for them. Pangs that made me feel the need to reach out for something from home, something elemental, something primal, something that would connect me body and soul with all that I am and have been and come from. I needed the food from home.
I think that for every eater there is a food from home. There is some food, often a few, that are of and from the place we call home, that our bodies have long assimilated and our souls have anchored themselves on, and will always help to restore us when we are far away and feeling lost or alone. To feed on them is to suckle at the breast of one’s homeland and be one with her again, if only for a while
After days or weeks at sea or in the field soldiers and sailors begin to talk about memorable meals at home, what their wives and mothers cook best, and what they will have as their first meal upon returning. Through countless such conversations I never heard anybody long for Duck a l’Orange or Tournedos Rossini; no “made dishes,” elaborate concoctions or elegant entrees. The food from home is simple, prepared with the easy grace of untold repetitions. At home it is always offered up with love, assurance, promises of continuity, faith, reaffirmation. It makes strong again the bonds with family, history and culture and the soil whence they all came. The Indians of the American Southwest attach religious significance to their food from home, corn, and they believe that to eat it plain is to commune with God. The peoples of Asia have long had similar attitudes towards rice, and the Egyptians have revered their unbuttered loaves of wheat bread for four thousand years. The Jewish Passover feast, the Seder, takes its participants to an ancient spiritual home with simple dishes set around the plain unleavened matzo.
For most of us the food from home is heavy and stays long as a presence in the belly and the mind. I know of no one who can take comfort in lettuces, bean sprouts or water cress. It has to be substantial and offer something to the teeth, be big in the mouth and warm going down. It is often a carbohydrate; heavy starches have a sedative effect on most people and help promote a sense of well being.
For some people it is something sweet: layer cakes, made by mothers on Sundays or holidays; cookies warm from the oven and heavy with the orchidian scent of real vanilla; dark and chewy brownies, or something else very chocolate. The sweetness helps to chase away the bitterness of the moment. It awakens the child, takes one back to another place and time; takes one home for just a little while. And the magic work of chocolate, whether it works upon your own self or not, is a phenomenon we have all observed. Its Latin name is apt – Theobroma: God’s Food.
For me the food from home can be a simple stew made the way my grandmother would make it. Or fried potatoes and the venison chops that speak to me of the Pacific Northwest timberland where I was a child. Being from California I take great solace in the deep red wines of my native state and always carry two small bottles when I travel. Their bouquets carry their home address, enabling me to identify the individual counties where they were grown. The distinctive aromas of the California soils billow up from the liquid and I am instantly transported to Sonoma, Napa, Monterey or my own Mendocino. On the ship or plane that brings me home I plan my first meal after arrival, the same one every time: a cheeseburger, french fries and a draft beer served in a sawdust bar and grill where the juke box plays Elvis, Chuck Berry or Hank Williams Sr.
Mark Twain speaks to us all in A Tramp Abroad longing for the food from home. Throughout Europe he hungered for the taste of America. The grandest cuisines of France and Italy, at first interesting became ordeals, and every mealtime he thought of yet another dish he might have if he were home: “Imagine a poor exile…and imagine an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better land and setting before him a mighty porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuiness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy, archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender yellow fat gracing an outlying district of this ample county of beefsteak; the long white bone which divides the sirloin from the tenderloin still in its place; and imagine that the angel also adds a cup of American homemade coffee, with the cream afroth on top, some real butter, firm and yellow and fresh, some smoking-hot biscuits, a plate of hot buckwheat cakes, with transparent syrup. Could words describe the gratitude of this exile?”
Yes, Mr. Clemens, I think so. And I know a hundred thousand Vietnamese who think so, too.