One small step for man, the death of a friend and the visions of a poetic Vietnamese prophet – author Hugh Lunn takes us back to the Vietnam War where the loss of his colleague and mate Bruce Pigott brought with it an appreciation for the gift of a long life.
Fifty years ago my Saigon roommate and friend – Melbourne journalist Bruce Pigott – was gunned down and killed, aged 23, while reporting on the Vietnam War. Ever since then, whenever something wonderful or amazing happens in my life, I think of all that Bruce has missed since 1968.
Like when humans landed on the Moon the very next year.
Bruce’s ambition was to become the correspondent in Indonesia for Reuters, the international newsagency. Instead, Reuters sent me after Bruce’s death.
At that time Indonesia was taking over the western half of New Guinea where men still worked with stone axes – and my job was to report what happened in that so-called “Act of Free Choice”.
The only way to get around what is now called West Papua was by ship or air. On the night of July 20, 1969, I sat with three Papuans on the bow of a ship as it ploughed through the equatorial waters. In their hands were their tools: axes they had made from a smooth black stone bound by vine into a hollowed forked tree branch. These axes were to me aesthetic and precisely proportioned, but to these men, they were simply a necessary part of their daily life, and my money was of no use to them in exchange.
We listened to a portable radio, and I related to them what was being broadcast – man was walking on the Moon! As they looked in wonder to the sky, I pondered if they would believe it. Until one said: “This is the most exciting thing that has happened in my life,” and the other two nodded enthusiastically.
He fingered the cool, sharp stone and replied: “Because it shows that one day we will be able to go to the Moon too.”
I sent that story off to Reuters in London by Morse code – the only communication available – and weeks later received a message from Head Office scrawled in ink: “The best damn Moon story of the lot.” Instead of stirring happiness, I wished Bruce Pigott had been there.
It was the same feeling when the Berlin Wall came crashing down in November 1989, another unexpected, liberating event for humankind that Bruce missed. In fact, it happened the same night that I launched a book on my Brisbane childhood Over the Top with Jim. Bruce Pigott, a sensitive writer who was profoundly mourned by his mother and father, would never experience the immense pleasure of honouring his parents in print as I did with mine, Fred and Olive.
Nor could he ever have imagined mobile phones sending stories and photos and film instantly around the world: in Vietnam we had to dictate our stories over a radio-telephone – pressing a button on the handle when you wanted to talk; and letting it go when you wanted to listen.
During 1967-68, Bruce and I became close friends with our Vietnamese reporter Pham Ngoc Dinh who warned us: “Very quick and easy to be killed in Vietnam” and lamented “Vietnam always too short of fortune tellers”.
It was Dinh who explained that the Vietnamese venerate their elderly and worship their ancestors, visiting their graves each year. Thus, they found our Aussie convict heritage a source of endless fascination. “That why we call Australian people Uc Dai Lois: People from land of great interest.”
At first Dinh couldn’t get a handle on Bruce: pale, boyish-featured, tall and thin, who walked with the slow gait of an ageing Gary Cooper in High Noon. “Bruce keep quiet all time,” said Dinh, who was a few years older than us. “He speak slowly. He look sad, not laughing, like Buddhist monk.” Dinh had never before struck a reporter who stayed away from the girlie bars that lined the main Tu Do Street — Bruce preferred a quiet drink at La Pagoda where, instead of bar-girls, the speciality was draught beer.
Dinh opened the large worn-out dictionary on his desk searching for a word to describe Bruce and announced – with forefinger in the air – “Venerable”.
But in Saigon the Venerable Bruce found love.
Educated at the best Saigon French schools, Miss Nga, 21, dressed like a western businesswoman, but was from a traditional Confucian family. Bruce confided to Dinh that he wanted to marry Miss Nga, or, as Dinh put it: “Take her to Melbourne and explain her Digger customs.”
At night Dinh and Bruce would sit outside our office and look at the park opposite while Bruce asked questions about Vietnamese customs. Dinh told Bruce: “Very difficult for Confucian family girl marry you. Easy for bar-girl but not this girl.” The consent of her parents was vital because in Confucian society rebellion was the worst sin.
So Dinh became the go-between and finally Miss Nga went to him and said she wanted Bruce reassured that marriage could happen – and Dinh looked up the words and told lovelorn Bruce: “She love you exactly, truly, already.”
Then late one night in the Reuter office Dinh approached me with a sombre look. “Gunsmoke,” Dinh said, “Miss Nga think Bruce should be banker, not reporter. Too dangerous. Ooooh I agree: too dangerous for him.”
What’s going on, Dinh?
“I worry they want two children. But Miss Nga face show she marry at high age.”
Well you could be wrong.
“And her face show unlucky to marry young.”
You’re worrying about nothing.
“In Vietnam, custom say people look like Bruce not living too long… Die very young… I know that myself.” Dinh consulted his dictionary and looked up and said aloud, “Mel-an-ch-oly”, then almost whispered, “Bruce not long live man.”
I laughed it off. “What about my face Dinh? What’s gonna happen to me?”
“You are trouble-maker boy!” he scoffed. “You all the time move quickly… even you hit by one artillery shell you not die. That reason I call you The Gunsmoke.”
Bruce was killed three months later and Dinh showed me a stanza by the country’s most famous poet, Nguyen Du:
One watches things that make one sick at heart
This is the law: no gain without a loss,
And Heaven hurts fair woman for sheer spite
Six years after the fall of Saigon in 1975 Dinh got out of Vietnam. Reuters asked him if he wanted to go to the UK or the US, but Dinh replied: “No. I want go to the land of the Uc Dai Loi.” Because, as Dinh told me when he arrived in Sydney: “If your friend die his soul follow you and look after you.”
Now that I am 77 years old I can see the Vietnamese are right. Knowing now that a long life is a great gift, when the big stories break I sit back and imagine Bruce’s soul watching from somewhere beyond the moon.
Hugh Lunn’s Over the Top with Jim was the biggest selling non-fiction book of 1991, and his Vietnam: A Reporter’s War was an Age Book of the Year. Image copyright: Hugh Lunn