I had followed Miss Yen down the Pacific Coast Highway for about 20 minutes when she turned onto a gravel drive and headed down toward the beach. We came to a parking lot with a variety of cars ranging from her sleek Mercedes to faded, dented pickups loaded with building materials. My rental Ford stood out in its corporate personification. A sign saying Crystal Cove was hand painted and nailed to a building adjacent the parking lot.
I parked the behemoth Ford in the last remaining spot and struggled to get out of the narrow space. Miss yen watched, amused. “You were thinner when I last saw you,” she said, commenting on the obvious.
Several years of sales lunches had packed on a few pounds. Miss Yen, by contrast had filled in a bit yet was still trim and athletic. She held her running shoes in one hand and a pair of flip flops in the other. I had only dress oxfords. “You can stay above the tide line,” she said looking at my feet.
We waked past some cabins toward the beach. It was a pleasantly warm afternoon. I thought I might take off my shoes and roll up my pants. “There are tide pools and the locals dive for abalone. It’s become a staple here at the cove,” she said as we turned north up the beach. She stopped at Cabin 6, sat on the porch and traded her sandals for the running shoes and left them on the stoop.
We started south along the beach toward Laguna. A few cabins farther on we stood and looked out at the blue expanse of ocean. I wondered if Miss Yen thought of home on the other side of the Pacific. Neither of us spoke for several minutes, just listening to the surf and the universal sound of crying gulls.
We walked on, My shoes filled with sand and I stopped, sat on a rock and took them and my socks off. She walked on ahead a little, then turned back and said, “It’s such a beautiful place. I come here often. I like to look at the sea and dream.”
“Of Viet Nam?”
“Sometimes. But more about the future. The place is inhabited by old beatniks and a few young painters. Laguna’s just down the beach. It’s been an art colony for years. I keep an eye out for good art. It just feels right. Maybe someday I’ll open a gallery.”
“So when we left the Oyster Shack, you were going to tell me why your people thought the end was near.”
“I was? That seems so far away. Can’t we talk about something pleasant in the here and now?”
“How bout that later, over dinner, maybe. Now I want to know how you got here. To America, I mean.”
“All right. It’s a story I’ll have to tell eventually, I suppose.
“We knew Nixon had been elected promising to end the war and then he started up the Veitnamization program and then you showed up to teach ARVN how to fix Radar. And by the end of ’69 the American’s anti-war movement had grown so much. And we knew it was just a matter of time. We knew the Americans wouldn’t stay forever and like I told you at the time we depended entirely on the Americans. So father began moving the shipping offices to San Francisco. We already had a broker there but still it took over a year.”
“So he put you on one of his ships for the States?”
“Not so simple. There was the issue of a permanent-resident visa and American bureaucracy. Father couldn’t wait to get me away from Saigon. So he sent me to Paris and I started graduate school at the Sorbonne. I was 24 and had a degree already but it was an easy way to stay in Paris. Father and Madame followed later and stayed until they could arrange visas in the US then moved to San Francisco. After Saigon fell they applied for political asylum.”
“So you just got off the plane in Paris one day and then lived in a hotel or what?”
“No, no. I was an undergrad in Paris too. I think I told you that way back when. Father sent me there when I was seventeen. He bought a huge apartment from an old woman whose family had owned it for a hundred years. It was an investment and the arrangement was that she and her adult daughter could live there till she died and so could I. She and her daughter were still there in ’70. It was like ready-made family. So that was where I lived. It was next to La Manufactures des Goblins and it was three metro stops from school.”
“Why was your father so anxious to get you out of Saigon? When did you come to San Francisco?”
“I followed in Ho’s footsteps with graduate studies in Southeast Asian political history,” she said dodging the question.
“I was a child born of war and I studied the art and politics of war, not because I wanted to make war but I wanted to know what I was part of; von Clausewitz, Kissinger, Sun Tzu and all that. Then, later, I was struck by Picasso’s depictions of WWI which were tres horrible; It was no longer abstract. No longer words on a page. And I had to accept that my experience of war was not abstract, it was a part of me as much as my blood is and are the French and American Wars in Viet Nam. Unbelievable bloodshed. So much war is depicted in 20th Century art. So I switched to art history. I wanted to get away from war. And Paris is the perfect City for Art history, unless you’re Catholic, which I am, in which case maybe it’s Rome. But I was captured or at least captivated by the impressionists so I stayed in Paris.”
“Obviously you left eventually, Miss Yen. What’s not to like about Paris in the seventies?” I asked innocently.
“You can drop the Miss Yen and just call me Agnes. You’re not the signal instructor and I’m no longer the department secretary. Besides, when I married I took my husband’s name, Bau.”
“Bau? There was a Bau in the first radar class. He and his wife invited me to dinner. They were both very nice. He was a sergeant. Very smart. Near the top of the class. Spoke good English too.”
“Tranh left Saigon before you came. I didn’t know him then. Not till later at Berkeley. Anyway we were rather familiar once, shall we say. You and I. Though you did call me Miss Yen then. What was that about?”
“I thought it proper and I didn’t want to slip up around the office and seem too familiar.”
“Oh Thomas, Thomas, Thomas. All these years you thought you had been sly? Major Toms knew what was going on. So did Bell and Pigeon. I think only Phil hadn’t figured it out. He kept pestering me at work. You didn’t see it because you were teaching the class.”
“How did you fend him off?”
“What makes you think I did?”
“Well as I recall you were obviously not too keen on him in public. Like when we came to dinner that Sunday. Or was that just for your father’s benefit?”
“No no. I am just teasing you. I had nothing for Phil. He was so full of himself, I could hardly stand it. He wasn’t too keen on you either. And I don’t think it was jealousy over me.”
“Yeah, Phil considered me a Cretan. Beneath him. And it really bothered him that I was Team Chief. But I out ranked him so that was that.”
“But about Paris in the seventies,” Agnes continued. “There was a lot of tumult that even the tourists saw. It was like the states, with war protests and anti-imperialist demonstrations left and right. Police knocking students on the heads. One day the founder of the Black Panthers came and delivered a speech to us students about international solidarity; about how theirs wasn’t just a fight for black rights in the states; about how we were all in this together. He mentioned Ho and how the war was a manifestation of Western imperialism and how Ho was making a good fight against that. It was Bobby Seal and he was out of jail and avoiding the FBI. It was a rousing speech. He was from Oakland.”
“So you became a communist and followed him to Oakland? That seems unlikely.”
“No. No. Not like that. I was intrigued by his message but by that time I had Tommie so I couldn’t just pick up and leave on a whim.
“But in ’73 I’d finished a masters in Art History and I begged father to let me come to UC Berkley. I came on a student Visa. Graduate work at the Sorbonne will open many doors. I designed a PhD program studying the depiction of war in art and was accepted. So as you Americans say, the rest is history as it were. Father’s San Francisco office was open by then and my uncle managed it. He’s a French citizen and had been in the US for years. My father ran the European affairs from Paris. We just had the dock crews and a couple of freight brokers in Saigon by then. So I’ve been in San Francisco since then.”
“God, I wish I’d known that. So you have a daughter that was born in Paris? She’s at school here? What about your husband, you haven’t mentioned him.” I hadn’t seen a ring on her left hand.
“He’s was killed. For some of us the war didn’t end in ’75. I didn’t want to marry an ARVN officer in Saigon but in the end I suppose it wouldn’t have made much difference. I met Tranh at Berkeley. He had been an officer but his family helped him resign his commission and sent him there to school in ’69, a year before I left for Paris. He just took his time in school stayed after he graduated in ’75 applied for asylum.
“We were married in 74. Then in late 75 he was approached by one of the intelligence agencies to go to Cambodia. I didn’t want him to have anything to do with that but it seemed his asylum status depended on his cooperating with them. Tran told me that the CIA needed a native-speaking presence in Cambodia. Father tried to use his contacts to intercede but failed and if they insisted that if the State department didn’t fill the vacuum after the American pullout, various mercenary groups would. I was a delicate balance and they needed to keep the communists from taking over. There was a group of American Special Forces veterans, VVOA, I think, who were mercenaries, soldiers of fortune, funded by wealthy, conservative American civilians. Ever hear of them?”
“No, but I was once approached by a mercenary organization.”
“Summer of 75 or 6, one. I don’t remember for sure.”
“Really? for Cambodia?”
“No, I’ve stayed well away from Southeast Asia.”
“Anyway, CIA was afraid the mercenaries would upset the political balance and wanted their own people in. They told the state department to shut out the mercenaries. I was pregnant when Tran left. I never saw him again. Word came back from Langley that he’d been captured by the Vietnamese communists in Cambodia and was tortured and killed. I miscarried.”
“And you never remarried?”
“It seems seemed so pointless; trying to make an american-style family. The war. All the death. All the disruption. Loss. I couldn’t bear the thought of another loss like Tranh.
So Tomasina is my focus, my anchor. She’s a good kid. Vivacious like I was at her age, before the war took its due. But I still fee lost sometimes, drifting.
“Some days, even all these years later, I still feel I’m drifting on the tides. No particular direction, just washing up on some beach and if I don’t like it, pushing off to drift some more. For a while the political scene in Berkeley was a philosophical anchor. But then it took such a violent turn. The Panther offices in LA being shot up and then rumors of an attack on the Oakland office. And then there was that business with the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapping Patrica Hurst. Was I next? I wasn’t high profile but my father was wealthy. I’d just had enough chaos and war by that time. More than enough. I didn’t need to play at war, I’d lived the real thing. And fighting un-winnable battles against an unbeatable adversary just wasn’t my bag, as we used to say. The left here did not have Ho’s organization skills nor those of the French left and it was impossibly fractured and riddled with moles. And besides, it was very anti-bourgeois and I’m nothing if not bourgeois.”
“Yet you’ve lived in The Bay Area all this time? I wish I’d known that.”
“And what would you have done had you known? Rushed into my arms? That would make for a saccharine Hollywood movie script. Or maybe a variation on one of the coming home movies they’re so fond of these days.”
“I dunno, Maybe I’d just have written you a long letter.”
“You said you did that twice already. You think third time’s the charm maybe?”
“Yes, I do. You were telling me something important to you before I interrupted,”
“Yes, it is important. I had been drifting. I gradually retreated from Berkeley after I defended my dissertation and found a nice place in The Avenues, went to work for father, found a good private school for my daughter and settled in.
North Beach is charming and has great Jazz clubs, one called the Keystone Corner. The house pianist is this tall woman I’ve become friendly with. She has lightening fingers and they get great acts from all over. There’s City Lights Books, which is very reminiscent of Paris. I can lose hours in there. It’s a hold over from the intellectual beat era of the fifties. One of the beat poets owns it. Have you been there?”
“Um yes. City Lights is a sort of pilgrimage for me. I tried catching up with the beats but I’m too young and hopelessly lame. I went to a retreat at the Naropa institute in Boulder once but I was a week late; so I just went to the institute bookstore and called it good. So much for my attempts at being a beatnik.”
“And then across the street is this great cafe that serves authentic Italian food. The whole of San Francisco is like that; unique shops and street scenes. Quirky people leading interesting lives, pursuing art and music and poetry, writers, actors. It’s what I imagine Paris was in 1900.”