My coauthor and I are often asked, "Where did the characters in "Escape from Saigon" come from?"
Pat answer. Aside from famous political and military leaders whose names remained unchanged in the novel, such as Ambassador Martin or South Vietnam President Thieu, the characters were created out of whole cloth. They are no more real than Saigon-based journalist Thomas Fowler or CIA operative Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s Vietnam War novel, The Quiet American,
But the creative process is complicated. Some characters, though bearing no resemblance to actual people, were inspired by snippets of my experience in Vietnam over the years. So I thought it would help to pair a scene in Escape from Saigon, to one of those experiences to illustrate how real life can evolve into fiction.
The incident occurred when I returned to Vietnam years after the war had ended and visited the Cu Chi Tunnels; the subterranean labyrinth of passageways, offices, barracks, hospital, and conference rooms where the Viet Cong were hold up until they emerged during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
During the visit our group sat down in one of the tunnels’ conference rooms for a briefing by a former Viet Cong officer who had lived there during the War. He explained how they subsisted for years, mostly on a root similar to cassava. During the briefing he told us, “We used everything the Americans brought here. If a parachute fell to the ground, we used it for mosquito netting, if a bomb didn’t explode we turned it into a new weapon, we forged metal into everything from bayonets to cooking pots.” He went on, “When we camoflaged the tunnel entrances with leaves and undergrowth we added bits of fabric from American Army uniforms to throw the MP dogs off their scent.”
During the briefing, I realized that he spoke perfect English but with a distinct New Jersey accent. When I asked him about the accent he told me, “I learned English from Armed Forces Radio and TV. Like I said, we used everything the Americans brought here.”
Here is how I played out that real life dialogue in a verbal exchange between our hero, war correspondent Sam Esposito and his North Vietnamese source who called with a news tip for him and his friend Lisette Vo, of NBS-TV.
The Cu Chi Tunnel incident was recast in the novel as an argument over baseball.
From Escape from Saigon - a Novel
“Sam, we’ve done it. We did our job. It’s over. We can go home. You and me. Today. We put on our clothes, walk out the front door and catch a ride to
Tan Son Nhut. We’d be on a flight within the hour. It’s that simple. What do you say Sam? Let’s go home,” Lisette implored.
Sam caught himself smiling broadly over the thought of leaving without a moment’s hesitation, skipping the heartfelt goodbyes and vows to keep in touch. He wanted to be with Lisette. But then a thousand obstacles crowded his mind. He hadn’t been back to the world in ten years. Where would he, they live? Would The Washington Legend want him? But mostly he thought, would covering Washington politics or writing ponderous editorials bore him to death.
All the while he absentmindedly caressed Lisette, and when his eyes met meet hers, it brought him back to the present. He now wondered, am I ready for another go? But just then the phone rang. He fumbled for his glasses and put them on as he clumsily reached for the receiver.
“Ha, ha, Ong Esposito! You and lady friend have good time?” came the voice on the line. “This your friend from the North.”
“Christ! Don’t you guys have anything better to do than follow reporters around? Who the hell is this?”
“You remember me? This is your news source I gave you a big story tip at the Cyclodrome a couple of weeks ago.”
That got Sam’s attention. “Lise, give me something to write with, quick!” She fumbled around until she located a ballpoint pen and hotel stationery pad and handed them to Sam.
“Yes, I remember you now. What—no more secret meetings? Now you call me? Brave North Vietnamese fellow talking to a decadent American?”
“Your friend Captain Trung, he wants to say good-bye to you. He gives me instructions. Be at Tan Son Nhut before dusk. Hide outside the fence west of the runway. Take your TV friend with you and tell her to bring her camera. Trung promises to have a present for her, a special show for Walter Conkite, your American uncle you call him Uncle Walter!” Sam covered the mouthpiece and turned toward Lisette.
“Hey, Lise!” he whispered. “He’s got a news tip for you that he says will get you on the NBS Evening News, maybe then Cronkite will know who you are!” Sam then added incredulously, “How is it that these fuckers know so much about us and what we watch on TV, and we don’t know shit about them?”
To prove his point, Sam asked the caller, “Hey, asshole—who’s a better pitcher, Catfish Hunter or Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee?”
“Catfish Hunter or Bill Lee. Who is the better pitcher?”
“Of course, Catfish Hunter, he win Cy Young last year. But I still root for Red Sox!”
“How do you know this shit?”
“I listen to your American baseball on Armed Forces Radio and TV.
Learned English, too, from your guy who say ‘Goood Morning Vietnam,’ and DJ Chris Noel—she is one hot babe!” The caller hung up.
Excerpted from Escape from Saigon - a Novel, by Michael Morris and Dick Pirozzolo, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2017. All Rights Reserved. For more information about this Vietnam War Novel set during the final days of the War. please visit www.escapefromsaigon.com.