Saigon Dauphin is a prose-poem about American war guilt, based upon my trip to Vietnam in 1989. I then wrote my first editorial in the LA Times: Those Stumbling Blocks to Recognizing Vietnam Don’t Have to Trip US Now. Since I wrote several versions of the prose-poem, I decided to combine them in a kind of repetitive nightmare sequence.
Bare ankles, grass stained toes, long white cotton dresses, stained by green grass, skip across gravel streets. The two cobras with wrinkled skin tighten their serpent flesh around my arms and fix their ancient reptile eyes upon my eyes.
In broken English, with French accents, they tell me their story of how their American lovers had abandoned them the very night the helicopters hovered close to the earth, those days when the buildings caved in under mortar fire, when the Viet Cong stealthily re-entered the city, AK-47's and M-16's blazing.
They only want "a few dong," they say, for their story, for a plate of rice or noodle soup. I offer them two cups of Vietnamese espresso as the lights of the bar flicker on and off on and off…
“But I am no journalist, just a professor… but I would be happy to pay for a tour of the city, a tour of Ho Chi Minh Ville.” They agree to walk me out across the park.
There I am surrounded by the freaks of the past, young men and women who sleep under the trees, in T-shirts and American army caps. They hold pictures of their long-lost families for me to see. And a few relics left over from that Apocalypse Yesteryear. Their limbs are as thin as chopsticks; their skin, a métisse mix of black, white, or Hispanic, with Vietnamese.
One wrapped in beige head scarf claims I must be her father at long last returned to release her from this inferno where she sweeps the street from early in the morning to late at night. She has a black and white picture as proof—a stern officer in uniform standing at attention next to his American wife, who holds a young baby in swaddling.
Next to them is a short Vietnamese servant, whose childish eyes stare off toward a flaming barbecue. I assure the girl that it is not the case, that I am much too young to be her father. I then hand her a few dong—hardly a substitute for a trip to the land once promised…
It must be that soup that made me dizzy. For some reason, I could not think straight… after nightfall… after sipping those noodles in broth with thin slices of pork, spiced with lemongrass, vinegar, and red hot pepper. Maybe it was drinking glass after glass of snake blood and vodka—a manly drink that undermines manliness.
The flickering shadows of soldiers creep stealthily in the brush. It is curfew, time for all good Vietnamese and foreigners to go to sleep after a night of wild dancing with two wizened cobras whom the inhuman elements of wind and time have barely scarred. The two escort me to my hotel room; it is late night, too late at night.
The next morning, I remember nothing except my hangover, my wallet and soul emptied of a bit more than a few dong.
Grass stained toes; white dresses hang straight to bare ankles. Two snake women approach. The one on the right rubs my arm with silken skin; on the left, the other blows a kiss. My camera, wallet, passport, vanish. The nightmare appears to repeat itself, but the story is not quite the same.
My head spins unable to take photos of the [!!!] as it unfolds. My guide, still smirking in forced friendliness, is commanded to hand me over to a hunch-backed rickshaw driver. Sporting a Yankee baseball cap, the dwarf spouts out orders to his flunkeys. Like a fighter pilot shot down, they lock me in a tiger cage, and parade me through the streets of Ho Chi Minh.
Only the name has changed. Bell telephones ring from deep within the 1960s. Signs point the way to the airport in English; we take the opposite route. The people babble and jeer... incomprehensible.... as I pass through the open market of fresh fruit, dried squid, and plastic gadgets. "It was a cancer that gnawed my bone since birth," I swear, "not a V.C. booby trap."
I am paraded before the guillotine of the Museum of War Crimes. They stop to take my photo beneath the wreckage of a U.S. fighter jet. In the adjacent building lies an enlarged photo, a pyramid of Cambodian skulls. Elementary school students in red scarves form a semi-circle around me and sing songs of victory. "I only shot photos not people," I cry. "Even so, our blood stained your prints," they reply.
A frail woman-a beauty of the old regime once married to a French fighter pilot-sells post cards and stamps on the street. A younger, more haggard woman weeps, exclaiming that I had willed her all my leftover possessions: my stereo, my clothes, most of my belongings. She then had to sell them all to survive. A man with panther eyebrows approaches and whispers in my ear, "I fight with you: Kill V.C." and then disappears just as silently, still as deadly.
Almost identical sisters want to sell me their story, how their American lovers abandoned them, stones thrown at their children. They confess they've told the same story to journalist after journalist for a few dong, a few plates of rice. My pen, paper, camera, money, passport stolen, they pity me—I who once boogalooed with one who looked much the same on a lusty stint in Saigon.
My dauphin son sleeps somewhere on some park bench in the night, or in a tent down by the river, army cap and camouflage T-shirt, crew-cut—unlike the whole crew of rebellious American youth.
A young man calls out to me in what broken English he knows, "I American, You American. Same! Same!" He has a picture of a US army officer that looks nothing like me standing next to his wife. Next to them, a Vietnamese maid. “This was my mother,” he claims. I tell him that I do not know what he is talking about. He refuses to believe.
Others surround me; they are no longer very young men and women, dark-skinned and light. One with ghoulish freckles is wrapped like a mummy around the neck and forehead. His or her chattering teeth speak English better than the rest—except for Raymond who raps with a philly slang.
The rest look like any kid growing up in America, but with thin chopstick legs and arms... Not at all like my leg which is sturdier than bone—and that I have to take off so as to squeeze into position.
All promise to help me escape. And once I escape, I must fill out the bureaucratic red tape, the official papers, that will help them make their escape, the sons and daughters of servants and of bar girls, and spare-time girl friends and lost lovers. "We've been waiting for you for fifteen years," they cry, "fifteen whole years have passed and you no come!"
No tinsel-town liberator: I am forever trapped within this tiger cage.