Field of Dreams
|Dan Rather Vietnam 1966|
I actually went to Nam three times...twice as a freelance reporter and the third time for NBC News in 69-70. The first trip was to do what are called “home-towners” or short interviews with military types which were sold to radio/tv stations in their hometowns.
My second trip was more interesting albeit unfruitful money wise.
I initiated the first one hour daily program from a war zone in history.
I took my handy Uher portable recorder where none had gone before and taped a couple of hours a day until I realized the so called “syndicator” back in Miami wasn’t placing any of the shows. So...nobody got to hear these fascinating hours at all but it was fun doing them.
On the way over I stopped off in London and stayed at the Savoy Hotel. Over priced and unimpressive for me...despite its reputation.
The next day I took my tape recorder down to Trafalger Square...famous for a lot of speakers and pigeons. As I began interviewing Britishers about the Vietnam War for my first program I was interrupted by a London bobbie. The Cop wouldn’t let me continue. So much for free speech in Trafalger Sqaure...for Americans anyway.
The next day I landed in Rome and stayed at the Hilton (much more to my liking). That night...with an early flight to Vietnam the next day...I decided to “see” Rome via taxi. I took the first cab in front of the hotel and offered the driver a hundred bucks to give me the grand tour for a couple of hours. He spoke good english which was a plus and I got the check everything out...without the daytime crowd problem. It was different...but enjoyable. And nobody picked my pocket!
Early the next morning I boarded a German Lufthansa flight leaving Rome and bound for Bangkok, Thailand. We landed to refuel in a couple of interesting places...only one of which we were allowed to deplane and check out the airport gift shop. The first stop was Dar Es Salaam deep in the middle east and as we walked from the plane to the door of the terminal...there were fatigued clad soldiers with big guns watching us. The attractive stewardess walking beside me whispered: “We’ve never landed her before...My god I think they’re going to shoot us!”. Eventually they did let us back on the plane.
Our next stop, just as daybreak arrived, was in Calcutta, India.
It was a fast refueling stop so I only saw India from the sky. And from high in the sky it was most appealing but very misleading. You saw lush green fields...lots of rivers and water...but you couldn’t see the multitude of humanity for which that country is famous.
Arrival in Saigon was interesting. I had been warned by some experienced Vietnam travelers that I must be prepared to ‘grease palms” to even get through customs. Turned out to be true as I had some radio equipment with me which was subject to much discussion. So I took the official aside and slipped a couple of twenties into his hand. It worked.
Dan Rather had just arrived for CBS news and he sat for one of my shows. We did it high atop the Caravelle Hotel in downtown Saigon but about halfway thru the interview the reel to reel tape began sticking....because of the heat. So Dan calmly took his finger and helped me keep the tape going while we finished off the hour. So just envision Dan Rather doing that...it’s pretty hilarious! Of all the correspondents famous and not yet famous I met while in Nam, Dan was one of the nicest. I ’m sure to this day he probably remembers that interview...not for what was said but for the magic “tape saving” he did.
I recorded another hour show in the very busy control tower at Tan Son Nhut airport....actually the busiest airport in the world during the Vietnam war. As I was interviewing the air traffic controllers I noticed they were having trouble communicating with income planes. Later when I listened to the playback I found the reason.
The Germans made those little Uher recorders so powerful that my tape recorder was the culprit. In fact the pilot’s conversations were so strong on the tape I had to dump the show. Thank heavens I didn’t cause any planes to crash!
After taping a show up north in Danang...I caught a late flight that arrived in Saigon after the nightly curfew was in effect. A couple of MP’s were kind enough to drive me into the downtown area but I still had to walk about ten blocks to my hotel. as I turned off one of the main roads to get to my hotel I heard some strange animal-like noises. A light from one of the buildings revealed that just in front of where I had to walk were hundreds...maybe thousands of rats. It seems they like to take over the city after the curfew starts. well...this is a scene right out of Hollywood.
I clapped my hands...yelled as loud as possible and stomped my feet for sure...to scare off enough of the little buggers so I could finish the last block to the hotel. Something one never forgets!
Ok...so how does a guy from Stillman Valley, Illinois...or thereabouts get with NBC news?
Well...I got beat running for Congress by John B. Anderson of Doonesberry(sp) fame....and then I burned my folks house down!
No...I mean literally. We lived in an old stone house on one of my Dad’s three small farms in Northwest Illinois...and I was alone there in the winter of 68 after I lost the Congressional race.
I needed to stoke up a fire to keep warm and made the mistake of using some flammable fluid which spilled out onto the floor and whosh...up it went!
So...I’m a firm believer in the “bad luck-good luck” syndrome and a couple of weeks after all that bad news...I got a call from NBC News Chicago...drove over to the Loop and went to work as a writer/editor for Floyd Kalber, Jim Ruddle, Bud Dancy and a bunch of others at NBC News in the Merchandise Mart. The highlight (or low light) of my few months with NBC News in Chicago were the riots of ‘69 on the west and south sides. We could watch the fires from the windows of the Merchandise Mart. Also...I got a real education about the liberal media...watching writers editing film to make Mayor Dick Daley look bad! But that’s a whole ‘nother book.
30 Rock calls
It didn’t take long for the honchos in New York to call me in because of the two earlier freelance trips on my own to Vietnam. I auditioned for the main NBC News radio correspondent slot by writing a five minute newscast and reading it into a mike as they listened in NYC.
So...I had burned down the house...got beat by Anderson...and within six months I was an official NBC News Vietnam war correspondent! There must be some category of psychology that has a term for this “bad luck/good luck” syndrome but I only had one semester of that subject at Bradley University earlier...and sat next to All-American basketball star Bobby Joe Mason (later with the Harlem Globetrotters) and we talked basketball instead of the subject matter...so I don’t know. By the way...Chet Walker...later a star with the Bulls sat in front of me in English. Nice guy too! Bradley was big in basketball!
New York City
NBC wanted me to fly in to the New York and spend a few days getting acquainted. Also I had to get a new passport and all the damn shots again since it had been over three years since the last bunch.
It was quite a thrill being at 30 Rockefeller Plaza for that three or four days. I watched the guy who sits at the big desk ordering crews all over the world to catch planes (or charter them) to go cover breaking stories.
One day I noticed a lot of the tv monitors were tuned to an alternate channel where actor Paul Newman was visible going up and down a flight of stairs. Constantly.
Turned out he was taping a show in one of the NBC studios on the floor below and all the females at NBC news had discovered they could watch him do his thing. It was better than a soap opera. I think they also could have watched the rehearsals for Saturday Night Live that went on all week...But I only saw a cast member or two at the small restaurant down on the lobby level when I took a lunch break with my radio boss Russ Tornabene and his buddy...Edwin Neuman.
I couldn’t believe I was lunching with Ed Neuman...and more than once. Ed is the only newsman, I think, who was ever invited to host a Saturday Night Live show. Spending some time, informally, in his presence was one of the great thrills of my life.
And then came David Brinkley. I spent my afternoons hanging out with the Huntley-Brinkley folks in their office. Chet Huntley was on vacation...so Brinkley, who normally does his end of the cast from Washington had moved to 30 Rock for the week.
He invited me into his office (no more than a large cubical with a desk and old fashioned typewriter) and lit up one of his constant king sized Salem cigarettes and said in that clipped Brinkley tone...”so Major...you’re going to Saigon”...and I replied in the affirmative...sitting straight up in my chair in awe of the audience I was being given.
`He took a long drag on the smoke and got a kind of a twinkle in his eye. “You know, Major, you ought to go over there and be the first peace correspondent in the war. Tell it like it really is.”
I thought about it for a moment then replied that I really wanted to stay longer than a couple of weeks. Which was probably the length of time it would take to replace me if I did that.
I don’t know if he was serious or not...but we chatted for a few more minutes and then I let him get back to work on his evening news script.
Later, I observed Brinkley typing quite a bit and inquired of Les Crystal...the producer of the H-B report if Brinkley actually wrote the whole show. He said...everything but the film intros but he checked them out too.
“Do you ever edit David’s stuff?” I ask.
“Are you kidding” Crystal he laughed. “ I’d rather edit God!”!
But Crystal was worried about a piece of footage being used on that evenings’ newscast. Seems there was a shot of a woman with a see-through blouse...and the shot was a required part of the story so it couldn’t be dropped. When I saw Les the next day I said...”well how did the shot go?”
“Not one call” he said. No stations or viewers called to complain. You never know.
Much later when I was doing a talk show in Philadelphia David Brinkley jumped to ABC (he told me he couldn’t stand CBS) and began his “This Week” show but for some strange reason it wasn’t going to be carried by the Philly ABC affiliate. When I found out I got David on my show and I started a campaign which quickly resulted in them taking his Sunday show. It was important to him as Philadelphia was the 4th largest TV market in the country. He was forever grateful to me.
NBC News flew me first class to Tokyo and then to Saigon. On the leg out of Japan I had my first taste of Kobe Beef. Never in my life had I tasted anything as good. Beef just melting in your mouth...no need to even chew. It was the first time I ever ask for seconds of airline food!
To this day I’ve never been able to find Kobe beef in any of the places I’ve been. And I’ve eaten in some of the finest restaurants in the world. What a shame.
My NBC news corespondency got off to a bad start. Upon arrival in Saigon there was no one to meet me at the airport. This was not a big deal because of my experience in Saigon earlier...but it should have given me pause because of the breakdown in the “protocol” of not greeting a new reporter.
I made my way to the NBC News office and a somewhat surprised staffer immediately contacted the bureau chief who wasn’t around... who blamed the whole thing on New York. I found out later that a new boss was coming in shortly so the whole Saigon bureau was in a state of flux.
I settled in at a nearby hotel which wasn’t too bad...and no rats to traverse to get to the front door.
My reports were fed to New York via phone line at 7AM and 7PM each day...seven days a week. During the balance of 1969 and 1970...I had more stories broadcast by NBC Radio news on the hour than any other correspondent before or since. On any given day New York would run from three to five or more reports from me...ending with “Stan Major...NBC News Saigon”. My parents were very proud...and I was making a lot of money based on reports aired on the network. NBC brass wanted to keep me off the books (more or less) and paid me as a “freelancer’. This way they retained the regular their budget and I made more...lots more money. In fact I twixed them a couple of times that I was making way too much money...but they messaged back that it was correct and “don’t worry about it.”
Shortly after I arrived in Saigon the bureau got a new boss. The new bureau chief shall remain nameless for reasons that will become painfully obvious in the next pages.
The guy (like the rest of us) had his watch ripped off his wrist by the infamous “Honda mafia” dudes. Saigon had a bunch of them...guys doubled up on motorbikes who would rip the watch off your wrist as you were being rick-shawed down the road.
We soon learned to trade our expensive watches in for a Timex..no expansion band please.
Well..the new boss was livid about losing his watch.
So angry in fact that he ordered all three tv correspondents and crews...about nine staffers in all with cameramen and soundmen to be dispatched to several key places where known watch thief's operated. He wanted to catch the culprits on film. So...the whole war stopped on the tv side for a couple of days while they staked out the roads and bridges in Saigon on behalf of this guy’s bruised ego.
They never did catch anything on film, of course. We had some good guys there...like Kenley Jones and Robert Hager who wasted their time on this and were obviously embarrassed by it.
I didn’t cover much on the TV side. Because as radio correspondent I had to meet the two circuits seven days a week so I was land-locked in Saigon most of the time. If there was an interview or story in Saigon that needed both tv and radio I would cover it which allowed Hager and Jones and others to roam the war zone for their stories.
I soon learned how the Pentagon got its points across by using the media. I was assigned to interview a General...but with the proviso that during the TV interview I ask him one very specific question which had been planted by the Pentagon with someone in New York. So, about halfway through the interview I dealt him the planted question...he answered...and I made the Huntley-Brinkley report on NBC-TV that night.
Another interesting facet about NBC’s coverage of the war lay in the fact that I was told right off the bat after arriving in Saigon that each time I fed the circuit (reported stories to NYC) which was twice a day...seven days a week...I had to include a war story i.e. something about a battle somewhere and causalities. This was tough at times because some mornings there just wasn’t anything to report. But I would scratch around and rewrite something from the day before or perhaps write a short piece about a possible engagement forthcoming...just to give the impression there was still a war going on.
I never really found out the “why” of this rule at NBC News Saigon...whether it was New York inspired or just a local edict. There are two possible answers here:
a. The brass in New York wanted an anti-war slant a couple of times a day and the best way to get that was an increasing American causality count. (see Iraq coverage)
b. The local bureau wanted to insure their continued full staffing so what better way than to pretend there was a big battle everyday.
Take your choice.