Hanoi—1968

Attachez vos ceintures, s’il vous plaît.” “Fasten your seat belts.” The hostess, plump, blonde, French, brown-eyed, in a light-blue smock, passed through, checking. It was funny to find a hostess on a military plane. Like the plane itself, loaded with mail, canned goods, cases of beer, she was a sort of last beep from the “other” world behind the mountains in Vientiane. Born in Hanoi, she had been making the run from Saigon with the ICC—Poles, Indians, Canadians, of the inspection team—six times a month, weather permitting, for thirteen years, practically since the Geneva Accords.

As the ICC plane, an obsolete non-pressurized Convair, circled in the dark above Hanoi, waiting to get the OK to land, out the window, by stretching against our seat belts, we could see tiny headlights of cars moving on the highways below and then the city all lit up like a big glow-worm. In Phnom Penh, at the North Vietnamese Delegation where they issued our visas, they had prepared us for this surprise, but it remained a surprise nonetheless. I thought of the Atlantic coast during World War II and the blackout curtains we had had to buy on the Cape—a Coast Guard order designed to foil enemy submarines. When the Convair taxied to a stop, it instantly doused its lights, though, and the hostess held a flashlight for the boarding officials to examine our papers. But then the airport, brilliant white and blazing with electricity. “You really don’t have a blackout!” I exclaimed to the delegation from the Vietnamese Peace Committee who had come to meet us, with bouquets of snapdragons, pink sweet peas, pale pink roses, larkspur, and little African daisies. A Japanese author and a journalist from a Tokyo paper were receiving bouquets too. The Vietnamese did not know the word, blackout, and I tried couvre-feu. They dismissed the term, curfew, with laughter. “Passive defense!” In fact there was no curfew of any sort in Hanoi—except the little bell that rang at eleven o’clock nightly, closing the hotel bar—though there was one in Saigon. It was only when the sirens blew that the lights of the city went out and the cars and trucks halted and waited for the All Clear.

On the way from Gia Lam airport into the city, we had our first alert—a pre-alert, really, given by loudspeakers; the pre-alert means the planes are sixty kilometers away; it is not till they are within thirty kilometers of the center that the sirens scream. Suddenly, still deep in the countryside, the driver braked the car; he had heard the pre-alert on his radio. He turned off the engine. I sat in the back seat, holding my bouquet in my lap and feeling quite apprehensive. On March 17, two days before, the much-feared swing-wing F111AS had appeared in Thailand; there had been pictures of them in the Bangkok papers. The driver got out of the car. “He is looking for the shelter …

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