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Saigon: The Photo Finish

The day Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, Al Jones, drinking Seagram in a tiki bar across from the old pink Customs House in Saigon, beamed himself aboard a chartered Braniff 707. "Cream or sugar, sir?" The mini-skirted flight attendant pulled up her snack cart, a coffee urn in her hands. Al smiled. Home again. Simple joys. T-bone steaks grilled on the patio. Citronella candles left lit. A new Grand Prix, lemon yellow, parked by the basketball hoop. Could he return to his old self? Quivering inside, Al tapped the glass rim with his thumbnail for a refill.

At the same instant, Sheila Cambridge walked in.

No time for invitations, she came straight over. Her blonde hair fell loose from under the Australian bush hat. Before straddling the barstool, she dropped her bundles to the pitted linoleum floor: cameras, tripod, film cans, flashbulbs, maps, binoculars, portable typewriter, trench knife, and a canteen. Winking, she fished out a pack of Viceroys and the Dunhill gold lighter from her purse. Her blouse, a gauzy violet, was cropped above her shoulders.

After lighting up, she proffered her right cheek. "Hi, Big Trouble." she rasped, the smoker's cough fortified by the nicotine. "What are you doing here?"

"I hopped down from Da Nang." Somewhat flustered after the kiss, Al noted the new master parachutist wings pinned to her hat. To qualify, you were required to survive twelve jumps at 12,000 feet.

"Mm-hmm, I see. Now who are you with?" To talk, she dangled the Viceroy from the corner of her lips. "Kansas City Star," he replied. "Ever bump into Hemingway?" She wanly smiled at her humor.

"Believe it or not, we beat the pants off the same typewriter," replied Al. "Despite that, my columns still suck air."

Sheila pointed the toe of her pump at the scarred typewriter case. "I keep telling my editors half of these damn keys are broken." They both laughed.

Outside, the traffic droned by -- bicycles, autobuses, pedicabs, and motorcycles. Mimosa, jasmine, and bougainvillea perfumed the French provincial boulevards. Sweethearts rendezvoused on acacia-shaded benches. A Buddhist nun scurried by. Saigon, Al understood long ago, was a news city teeming with love and death. However, too many treks through Asian forests and a recent encephalitic bout had whittled him down to britches and breath. Even a hot shower in Saigon, once a reward after days beating the bush, left him feeling dirty and peevish. Lately, somewhat sheepishly, he'd been filming staged fire bombings, eye candy for Morley Safer's Six O'clock News segments. The previous Christmas, God help him, he had covered Bob Hope, Jill St. John, and the entire USO tour. All told, Al's grand journalistic career now lay well behind him. His new passions were to be tennis and orchids. "I sold mine," Al announced, relieved the words didn't sound regretful or morose. "So, permit me the pleasure to buy you a beer."

"A Black Label would be divine." Hiking up the tail of her blouse, Sheila polished the lens. Her midriff gleamed, brown and taut. She muttered, "Look, cut the bullshit. What's up, really?"

"Like I already said, my stint's up." Al's stare floundered in her features clouded with disbelief, then a hue of irritation. He stifled a memory of them starting out in the photography racket together, green as grass in 1945, and stringers on hospital ships during the Allies' grisly waltz toward Tokyo.

Steve, the Filipino bartender, hummed by to refresh Al's glass but was waved off. Sheila blinked her heathery lashes, waiting.

"My flight lifts off in a bit. I best shake a leg." Fumbling to deal out dollar bills for the tab, Al nuzzled off the barstool.

"Nothing outbound till tomorrow." Sheila's truthfulness smacked him right between the eyes.

Angry, Al turned the tables on her. "Who are you with now, Ms. Cambridge?"

"Al, don't be a prick. Anyway, it's National Geographic. So, that's it, huh?" Her tone of disappointment and disdain was evident.

Embarrassed, Al averted his face. "Yep, that's it for me."

"Hand over any Ektachrome film, then. You won't need it." Her prickly sarcasm, despite the wry smile, for a moment stung his professional pride, what he'd thought was used up.

"Sorry, sold it also." Desperate to change the sore subject, Al peeked down the length of the bar. "Steve, snap us in a Polaroid? And two beers, please." His eyes settled back on Sheila. "How about one for the scrapbook, old girl?"

Hesitating a few seconds, Sheila, though still put out, shrugged her shoulders. "Why not?"

Steve swayed behind the bar, splashing his betel-stained teeth, bobbing his shaved head, and kneading his elongated fingers. "Yesh. Take clear picture, no shit. My Polaroid good camera. Yesh."

Al and Sheila mugged it, posing with their elbows crooked together. Steve squeezed off three frames, counted to ten, then peeled off the prints to dry beside the cash register.

Al's thumb, thick but deft, slicked off the pearls of perspiration clotting his forehead. "Steve, I hope we didn't break . . ."

The first scream sounded like a football fan's squeal after a touchdown score. Then the chorus of shrieks and trampling feet startled them. His glass clattering to the floor, Al sprinted past the jukebox with Sheila and Steve right behind him.

"Oh, sweet Christ," Al whispered. "Not another one." Running, he pointed ahead at the busy intersection.

The Buddhist nun, after nestling cross-legged on the asphalt with her fingers prayerfully entwined, had been doused with gasoline. A second nun carried a metal can and funnel. Two spent matchsticks clenched in her teeth had ignited the human torch. More explosions of intense orange flames were spiraling about the nun's torso still upright.

The blast of heat hit them. Gasping, Al covered his mouth, gagged despite the peppermint oil sprinkled on the fire by onlookers.

Saffron-robed monks encircled the burning body, chanting to Buddha's mercy. One child in tattered sandals gaped in stony awe. A rickety Peugeot staff car, windows opaque, clunked into a teahouse, its accordion doors ripped away. Mystified pedestrians hurled themselves to the cobblestones. Instantly, a local television correspondent, holding up a mike to the tape recorder strapped on his belt, sharply elbowed his way past Al.

Shoving back, Al grappled behind for Sheila. Yelling, the television correspondent skidded and stumbled backward on his one hand, the mike yet almost elevated in his other.

"Hold tight." Al coughed. The stench of charred flesh scalded his throat. He almost threw up. A student, distributing mimeographed political tracts, yanked up the correspondent by his wrist. Recoiling, Al knifed through the throng, craned his neck, and through the swarming shroud of smoke spotted Sheila.

Kneeling down, she aimed and adjusted her lens, began snicking the camera's shutter like a metronome. Slapping away Al's grasp, she wriggled on her belly into the inner circle, her camera extended forward at arm's length, shooting frame after frame. Distressed, Al stared. She was intoxicated, maybe crazy. From nearby, an ambulance's siren, shrill and absurd, sang out. The snapping fire sizzled. From the corner of his eye, Al caught Steve swatting a beggar out his lax doorway. A frenzied clamor billowed from the mob like steam from a boiler. Unnerved, Al could sense it building. He inhaled as if to flee. Without the camera perched to his eye, its lens trained on the grisly spectacle, he shriveled to a helpless spectator.

"Sheila!" he hollered. "Get back." He pounded forward, was pressed back. Set-faced ARVN soldiers scuffled along the sleepy arcade, bayonets rattled. A motorcade of jeeps careened over curbstones. Reinforcements bristling with tear gas grenades and jujitsu sticks scampered out, fanned out under the awnings. "The hell with it," Al muttered. Darting across the street, he ducked down a shortcut, briskly strode into the Mac Dinh Chi Cemetery. With old fears scraping a chill down his spine, Al shot a parting glance over his shoulder.

Already the ARVN soldiers, dispersed as a phalanx, had sent the monks and students scattering. With nightsticks, the Saigon police walloped the passive stragglers scrawling slogans across the embassy gates. Dinky yellow-and-blue Renault taxicabs were flagged down, pressed into service as paddy wagons. Elderly men with twig brooms were sweeping the glowing embers -- the heart a knot of char -- into disused ammo canisters.

Crouching, Al zigzagged through the uneven queues of shell-shattered tombstones, his Hush Puppies pumping noiselessly on the dew-sodden grass. A U.S. Marine guard aloft in the whitewashed stucco turret hitched up his pants leg, leaned on his automatic weapon, and nonchalantly smoked. Half-expecting gunfire at any second, Al squatted to snatch his breath. At the back wall, he cut and wheeled behind the alleyway. Squinting, he scanned the next block over for his hotel, a former colonial mansion of ochre with red trim once the palace of an ogreish mandarin.

The louvered green shutters in the lobby were latched. It was fully dark now. Al slipped up the carpeted steps to his room, dodged inside. The double bed was faux brass. An ice chest stacked with bottled Orangeade sat on the nightstand. A hi-fi pilfered from the main PX in Cholon grazed in the corner like a yak. With only a flimsy door chain for security, he braced the gray Naugahyde chair under the doorknob and untied the bundled bamboo shade.

"Jesus, I'm completely out of it now," he thought while shutting his eyes. His heart, never an athletic organ, thumped between his gums.

Sheila was fearless -- reckless even. This war, this world was hers. She was its anthem. Someday she'd nail a Pulitzer Prize for Photography, easy. She'd freeze on Kodak film a single hairy moment of their shared modern history. Still, danger lurked in their line of work. Fact was, the way Al figured it, long gone was the best bullet stop. Simply put, he ached to clear head and forget he was ever in this place. Cut his losses and go home before he changed his mind.

Nearer to dawn, Al thrashed awake from loopy dreams that starred Felix the Cat chasing him through the rat alleys of Hoboken. The ashtray was cluttered with cigarette butts, a half-empty Orangeade bottle rolled underneath the bed when he trailed his toes to the puncheon floor. His superstar camera, a French model Argus 1000X, on the hi-fi glowered. His teeth, sunk in a mayo glass, grinned back at him. Al's cab driver en route to the Saigon airport was jazzed up, excited to know an American. They were buckled inside an ancient red VW bug, clattering over potholes and brushing back beggars with their palms flat out.

"Yours a great country or what?" the cab driver asserted in pidgin English.

Al vented cigar smoke out the cranked down window into the fine cold drizzle. "How so?" he knew to ask, mostly out of politeness.

"To shoot a man to the moon. What a great country, no shit," the driver gushed.

"I wouldn't know anything about that, pal," answered Al.

Later, on the Army transport plane to Okinawa, the piping hot Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee tasted fitter to Al than did the Tang sipped by Neil Armstrong rocketing home through space.

* * *

The morning after landing in Kansas City, Al quit the Star, returned the feckless typewriter to Hemingway. When the Star publisher informed Al that his letter of resignation was unacceptable, Al suggested he could fly up a horse's petunia. To get by, Al sacked green groceries on the Jersey shore, ran a fireworks stall, drove cars through a car wash, and operated a forklift in a cellophane plant. He made it a rule to keep his mouth shut, his mind open, and life pretty much flowed. Now and again, he'd unearth the Argus camera to cradle amid his lap as if it was a rueful chalice. Sighing, he'd carefully stash it back deep inside the footlocker.

Then, one sultry summer afternoon, a few months after he'd arrived Stateside, the lead headline on the car radio was about a baby's skeletal remains. They had been found in the attic of a rowhouse previously owned by four old ladies who'd largely kept to themselves. The last had died at 104 years old. The next story, though, really grabbed Al by the balls:

This morning when American Marines moved toward a cane field surrounding a village held by Viet Cong near Hue, South Vietnam, veteran war correspondent Sheila Cambridge was mortally wounded in a land mine explosion.

Al parked the V-8 Ford almost clipping a mailbox, jammed the gears into park, and slumped his forehead to the steering wheel. His eyes squinted, his palms pressed over them.

So, he cried there for a while. The Polaroid in his billfold, the one Steve had taken, didn't soothe the spasms of grief and guilt. Sheila had been a consummate pro, and she deserved better, war or no war.

By now, Al realized he was returning to Vietnam. He was. In the spirit of Sheila Cambridge. For better or worse, he'd be there until the end, watching and waiting like a horseshoe crab on a beach, ready to capture the photo finish in Saigon. It would be, Al bet, more cathartic for one and all than any ordinary moonwalk.

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