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‘The Deer Hunter’ Came to Town on a Cold Night in Denver

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by Jack Hawkins

Released in Los Angeles in 1978, The Deer Hunter was already becoming a legendary film by the time it hit “flyover country” a few months later. I was between girlfriends, a gung-ho “seventies copper” usually “drunk on adrenaline” from the endless barfight calls (or still depressed over the fall of Saigon only three years earlier), when I stood in line, alone, at the largest cinema in Denver, waiting to buy my ticket.

The line was composed mostly of other veterans. You could spot them by their olive-drab jeans and field jackets; some wore boonie hats adorned with their unit pins, others just wore skeptical expressions, some with that classic “thousand-yard stare” in their jaded eyes, some no doubt “actors” just playing the part, living the fantasy, others deadly as a two-step krait viper, the real thing. It was February, and it was cold, the skies a gun barrel grey, threatening to unload on us with a shitstorm of snow pellets.

The movie left me numb. After it was over, I heard grumblings from other vets about the movie sucking worse than an open chest wound in The ‘Nam. One man was laughing about Robert DeNiro wearing a green beret and a beard at the same time – with Class-A’s sporting an Airborne unit (Screaming Eagle) combat patch, no less; another said he wouldn’t screw Meryl Streep with his buddy’s pecker and couldn’t understand why anyone would “fight” over her.

Film poster for The Deer Hunter

To me, The Deer Hunter was a masterpiece, however. I felt like it had been made just for ME. It left me in a daze, shell-shocked without mortars. The opening half set in a steel mill town (not unlike my hometown, a hundred miles to the south), as Mike, Nick and Stevie psyche themselves up for their coming adventure in Vietnam; the second half more a homage to Saigon despite all the jungle combat scenes.

There was raw, stock footage of real military policemen from my old unit – the 716th MP “Gunfighter” Battalion – fighting with some unruly GI’s below a prostitute’s balcony window on Le Loi Street where the main character, Nick Chevotarevich, decides against sex because her baby begins crying in a crib against the wall. (I’ve inspected that footage a dozen times after a buddy claimed one of the MPs was the spitting image of Yours Truly, but for the life of me, I don’t see the resemblance – except for the MP armband and helmet, of course and maybe the cocky confidence of an Army copper with a disdain for drunken grunts in from the field and eager to mix it up with the Symbol, in Saigon anyway, of Uncle Sammy’s Green Machine!)

Instead, he fixates on a plaster elephant at a sidewalk vendor’s stall on the street below – we knew them as Buffy’s, for sale everywhere back then – and I flashed right back to the endless bars of Tu Do Street, 1972, and nearby Nguyen Hue – fragrant with a thousand flower stalls – the busy boulevards running off Hai Ba Trung past the U.S. Embassy, into the urban jungle rising on both sides of Phan Dinh Phung with concrete spires, schoolgirls clad in gossamer-thin blue and white ao dais, (Google it to appreciate the beauty of such a sheer blouse over silk pantaloons), walking hand-in-hand past the Catholic basilica with its majestic twin towers, then Thanh Mau Street, and the isolated three story apartment building behind ten-feet-high stucco walls topped with concertina wire and shards of broken glass the builders had purposefully embedded in a layer of cement along the top to keep out burglars and the VC…a lone guard with a shotgun standing ever-watchful at the entrance kiosk who everyone called “papa-san,” (I just called him “Pops”), his ever-present aviator sunglasses – a gift from some MP, for only MPs and cahn-sats and their families or manois (girlfriends), lived in this building, hiding his eyes, worn whether it was day or night, an un-lit Blue Ruby cigarette dangling from his lower lip, looking more like some sinister cao boi gangster than our own private security guard who’d been around since Christ was a corporal, as the Old Timers who’d worn the 18th MP Brigade combat patch since 1965 liked to say.

Hai Ba Trung in Saigon

He would salute me – a mere enlisted man – but I would always whip him a casual salute back with a respectful nod before proceeding up the three flights of stairs to my refuge from the streets of Saigon, to the gorgeous policewoman patiently waiting for me, who I’d trade “cop talk” stories with while she dished out plates of scrumptious steamed rice and thin cubes of meat spiced with bits of onion and slices of pineapple and shrimp, the room now filled to bursting with a sweet scent of this shapely master chef who happened to wear a gun and badge, (an aroma I would remember the rest of my life, that would flash me right back to Saigon decades later while working the streets of Little Saigon and Chinatown in Southern California whenever I walked down the Bolsa Strip in Westminster or Broadway in Los Angeles), and we’d drink from either lukewarm bottles of “33” (ba-muoi-ba) beer or dented cans of Coca Cola so old you had to open them with can openers or P-38’s, (because flip-top cans had not been invented yet). 

I can still see her tiny cooking table

I can still see, in my mind’s eye – with crystal clarity – her tiny cooking table with its hotplate, her stand-alone closet with her colorful ao-dais on one side, her white and tan cahn-sat uniforms on the other, her family alter against one wall, with its statute of a jade Buddha rising above black-and-white photos of dead relatives, joss sticks splayed from a tiny ceremonial cup of red porcelain, wisps of incense rising in silver curls to the ceiling where our “pet” lizard reposed in a corner, uttering its guttural mating call from time to time that always made me laugh because it sounded uncomfortably close to a human voice calling down to us, taunting us with “Phuc you!” over and over, the way Charlie sometimes did during a firefight… (You ‘Nam vets out there know exactly what I’m talking about – I can see you nodding your heads now!)

We would sit out on the balcony, flares floating over the neighborhood, blue mist rising from the Saigon River nearby, staccato echoes in the distance from automatic weapons fire, as we waited patiently for the lone, solitary 122-mm rocket Charlie would lob into the heart of the City of Sorrows nearly every evening between midnight and 3AM – where it came from, nobody knew, (usually the fields of elephant grass alongside Tan Son Nhut airport between Fort Hustler and the ARVN compound)…where it landed, someone always found out the hard way, but in a seething city of three million, the odds were against it crashing down through your rooftop and ceiling as you made love under an uncaring, orange crescent moon until pre-dawn and the Town Without Pity began to finally cool down a bit. That was my Saigon, and The Deer Hunter brought it all back to me.

MPs in Vietnam

No one left the theater as the movie ended with Mike and Linda, Steven and Angela and the rest toasting a round of drinks to Nick – who’d stayed in Saigon until the Fall and only made it “home” in a casket. “Here’s to Nick,” DeNiro’s Michael Vronsky character toasts the memory of their dead comrade, their shot glasses all clink in tribute, a semi-drunken salute as the others respond, almost in unison, “To Nick…” and the haunting theme song “Cavatina” begins, John Williams’ mournful guitar breaking the tense silence, and the end credits began to roll. 

I saw no one leave their seats until the song ended, the last of the credits rolled by, and the screen went dark. Some remained seated, as if still mesmerized by what they had just seen, as the rest of us slowly started trudging up the long, carpeted “hill” to the exits, most of us smelling of buttered cinema popcorn, some of dried vomit.

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As the blinding white panorama beyond the lobby’s floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows announced the arrival of a heavy Colorado snowfall, (while we had all been in the dark, tropical fantasy of “Vietnam” mere moments earlier), we all groaned in unison. I did not want to venture out into that freezing cold blizzard and drive the ten miles north to Thornton’s 84th Avenue exit, for it would be mostly uphill, a black ice nightmare.

Half of us turned around and walked back toward the double doors beyond which the giant blank screen waited for the next showtime. An usher tried to stop the veterans in front of us: “You must buy another ticket!” he was yelling in a panic, but he was thrown aside like a larcenous shoeshine boy in a Saigon back alley and the manager ran up, saw our no-nonsense faces, and muttered, “Let them in, let them in. No one else will be coming out in this snow storm anyway….”

Later that night, I sat down in front of my electric typewriter, glanced out my townhome’s second floor window at snow-clogged Coronado Parkway at Riverdale Road, (the latter snaked up through the boonies on the edge of town like the Mekong River through the jungles outside Saigon), the blizzard still raging across Adams County. I inserted three layers of paper separated by two sheets of carbon, (that may confuse some of you youngsters in the audience!), and I began to peck out, word by word, using only my forefingers, although I was fast, once timed at 70 words-per-minute, (like most cops who’ve written a million words in Incident Reports and Crime Face Sheets in that manner across the world for decades), memories of my days and nights in the Pearl of the Orient, both good and bad. 

I felt the cordite lining my throat

Outside, a siren yelped – some rookie playing with his Wail and Hi-Lo, too, as three TPD units raced past below my window, chasing some drunk Thorntonoid on a speeding snowmobile down the middle of the snowpacked street, their red, white and blue overheads throwing beautiful beams through the fog and heavy snowfall. In my head, I saw all the gunjeep chases along Hai Ba Trung, down into the Saigon docks, bullets flying in both directions, the captain upset with us later because we couldn’t agree on the routes the pursuit took in our handwritten “long forms” and after-action report, probably because ten units participated in the hot pursuit and gunplay while only three notified Waco (Dispatch call-sign for the MP Headquarters in Saigon), that they were involved.

I returned to my desk, rubbed the teakwood elephant statues guarding the blue-toned eight-by-ten photo of Her, sat back down, resumed typing. It was only a short story, and I “juiced it up” with other eight-by-tens, these black-and-white crime scene glossies I’d brought back with me from the Far East, now so close again I could feel it, smell the muggy scene of a swirling breeze coming in off the South China Sea, the cordite from all the gunsmoke lining my throat like the black licorice from my childhood, taste the big city smog of Saigon on my lips, then, after my 12 hour shift, taste HER cherry-blossom lips instead, waiting with anticipation to see if that lone, solitary rocket descended on OUR apartment house, on OUR little patch of the planet at 541 Thanh Mau Street – an address I will never forget although I’ve lived at thirty places in both Asia and America since, most just fragments of time in my memory now.

I sent the story off to a military magazine and they published it, asked for more. A year later, a different magazine gave me a big raise and a monthly series in which to vent my frustrations over the Fall of Saigon. They called it “Saigon Beat,” and I used the pseudonym “Jonathan Cain” because the police brass were not amused by the bloody, bordering-on-obscenely violent articles the news media maggots were starting to ask about.

Mementos of Vietnam

A few years later, I was burned out on night-sticking cowboys every swing shift at the Wild, Wild West Nightclub, (they came from far and wide just so they could brag they fought with the legendary Thornton Thumpers of North Metro Denver), but not on writing about the endless bar fights in Saigon’s so-called Soul Alley, or at Mimi’s Bar or the Queen Bee, or Reilly’s Deep Dive on Truman Key.

Soon, I’d written enough episodes to fill a book, so I did just that… and sent it off to every major publisher in the country. They all seemed to despise Vietnam veterans, I soon found out – most of them elitist East Coast snobs, protected by their bodyguards, never in their isolated lives having heard a shot fired in anger. They certainly were not going to take a chance on the autobiography of some young, uppity street cop in the Mile High City who already had a reputation for punching out magazine editors in Boulder, Colorado when he wasn’t getting drunk with them or their ilk at Lucy’s Tiger Den in Bangkok, where all the Old Asian Hands told war stories all night long and bragging rights went to whoever won the arm wrestling contests judged by the One Eyed Madame Sawang, or just mud wrestling with the topless Go-Go girls released at closing time from their bamboo cages suspended from the ceiling. 

“Saigon Commandos” are born

Frustrated, I was about to chuck the manuscript in the fireplace when an editor in New York called. He’d been an MP, too, “back in The Day,” Michael Seidman confided in me.

“Sadly, we don’t publish non-fiction,” he told me, “but expand on your manuscript, add in even MORE sex and violence every fifteen pages or so, and I’ll give you a four book contract. How does that sound?” They wanted to call it “Saigon Patrol,” because my working title “sounded too much like something about World War II paratroopers,” the crusty old publisher, Walter Zacharias, twenty years my senior and not convinced my book would sell, maintained.

I insisted on my original series title, however. “The Vietnam veterans out there will know it’s NOT about World War II,” I assured him. “Trust me on this….” 

“If you play your cards right,” another editor cautioned, “this series could go forty books or more. Just don’t start playing Russian Roulette on us,” he grinned. I showed some teeth in response, but we were not smiling about the same things…

Well hell, that sounded like money in the bank, Mikey, and the “Saigon Commandos” series was born. By Book No. 9, Hollywood began taking an interest. Unbeknownst to me, filming even commenced in the polluted urban chaos that was Metro Manila, (my New York City publisher telling Producer Roger Corman the author was psycho, nowhere to be found, had “gone native” in Thailand “…or died in a shoot-out in Little Saigon, according to his buddy, Art Bell,” who possessed signed copies of all my books and erroneously declared me dead one cold winter’s evening on his late night talk show), but that’s another story for another day…

Jack Hawkins is a longtime writer for Soldier of Fortune

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