AND A VOICE TO SING WITH -- A MEMOIR
I was on tour on the East Coast in 1979 when Jeanne and I hatched the idea of sending the Sixth Fleet into the South China Sea to pick up boat people.
We went to Washington, D.C. At my request, I was introduced at a cocktail party to the then Undersecretary of the Navy, a softspoken man who seemed to have no problem dealing with the fact that I was Joan Baez, antiwar activist.
"What would it take to put the Sixth Fleet into the South China Sea to rescue boat people?"
"Orders from my boss."
"How would one go about getting those orders?"
"Why don't you ask him?"
That evening I spoke with Ginetta in California.
"Why don't you geev a beeg concert for dee boat people on dee White House lawn?"
Well, not the White House lawn, I thought, but perhaps a concert close by, and a candlelight march to the White House.
It took only a few days to plan the concert at the Lincoln Memorial July 19, 1979, and arrange for permits for a march. I wrote a letter to President Carter, which was delivered to him by hand, explaining that the march was not in any way a protest, but rather a show of support from the American people who would back him in any humanitarian effort he made on behalf of the boat people. I suggested sending the Sixth Fleet out on a rescue mission, and then invited him to the concert.
He didn't come, but the concert was attended by ten thousand people. When it ended, we marched to the White House carrying lit candles. We prayed at the gates, then I went back to the hotel. I got to my room just in time to turn on the television and see Jimmy Carter come out on the White House lawn, hoist himself up on the inside of the great iron fence, and announce that he would send the Sixth Fleet into the South China Sea. I called the navy undersecretary to see if it was true, and he said it was, and that the President would call me the next morning at around nine o'clock. He did and we exchanged mutual congratulations.
Later, in October 1979, we returned to Washington, D.C., and with the aid of Eunice Kennedy Shriver organized a fund- raiser. The evening ended up taking place in the twenty-four-hour period that Ted Kennedy was expected to announce his candidacy for president. We panicked at the thought of our evening for the boat people turning into a Teddy for President rally so I called Chip Carter and asked him to come stand next to me all evening, which he, bless his heart, was kind enough to do. The pictures in the paper the next day were all of Ted, Chip (wearing a Carter for President button), and me. We lost money at the fundraiser, but created a lot of talk about boat people.
Laos had been invaded by Vietnam, and thousands of people were walking or swimming their way "to freedom." Cambodia was still suffering under the Khmer Rouge, who were thriving in the ruins and chaos the U.S. bombs had left. The Laotian and Cambodian "land people" were not yet considered "news." Jeanne and I decided to go to Southeast Asia and visit Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugee camps. Perhaps we could bring attention to their plight.
We flew to Thailand and from Bangkok we took an overnight train, filled with refugee workers, journalists, and television crews to northern Thailand. The press was coming north to the Hmong refugee camp where I would visit and sing a concert the next day. The Hmong were Laotian hilltribe refugees who had escaped into Thailand.
The doors and panels of the sleeper were dark mahogany, and the lighting shone from old fixtures and ancient glass. We squeezed past each other in the hallways, imagining Ingrid Bergman sitting in one I of the private Pullmans, smoking and dreaming of Humphrey Bogart. After I'd had enough drinks and still not found a Humphrey Bogart, I retired to the lower bunk of Jeanne's and my cabin, and slept to the rattling and thumping of the oriental mystery train. Waking at dawn, I dressed, left the cabin, and stood in the hallway gazing out at a red sun rising over rice fields already being worked by farmers and oxen. The fields were indescribably calm in the faint morning mist, and I watched the sun turn yellow and then white, and become too bright to look at.
We bounced over the hills in a crowded van, sweaty and hungry, listening to the Thai driver's tape of Joan Baez singing "Kumbaya." He showed me the cover of the cassette. It was a photograph of an oriental girl with long black hair. I supposed she was Thai.
"What's the writing say?" I asked.
"Says, 'Joan Baez Greatest Hits.'"
"You're kidding me!" I said incredulously, wondering who was collecting the royalties.
As we neared the camp we came to a group of people at a crossroads, our own film crew among them. They hailed us over excitedly.
"There's a group of Laotians trying to get to shore. They've just swum across from Laos and the Thai border patrol is threatening to send them back or shoot them."
I asked who was giving orders, and they named some Thai colonel out at the camp. They would go to the river and try to inhibit the border patrol with their cameras.
When we arrived at the camp I asked to see the colonel. He was a short, fat, shiny man who was content in his position and well aware of the scene at the riverbank. He spoke English.
"It must be a wonderful thing to have the power over life and death, as you have at this moment," I ventured after we'd been introduced. I studied his smile and his eyes to see where his vulnerability lay. In his pride, no doubt, I thought.
"What kind of man would you say you are?" I asked him, and he laughed. I answered myself.
"Well, no matter. Whatever kind of man you are on other days, why not be a man of God today and give the lives back to those miserable souls at the river. As you know, they are at your mercy." He laughed again, and asked me if I was really so concerned.
"I am concerned enough to get down on my knees before you and beg for their lives," I said, and promptly knelt in front of him, embarrassing him enormously. His smile disappeared and he leaned over to grab my arm and help me up. A crowd had gathered around us. I wondered why I had been so impulsive, and realized it was because time was short. By now everybody in the group at the river could have drowned.
"Will you be coming to my concert?" I asked. "You must come. When I hear that all those people are safely ashore, I will sing a very special concert, and dedicate a song to you." I reached out for his hand and pumped it heartily. As I walked off, my knees were shaking. I did not know if I had succeeded in my mission, but it was time to leave the colonel alone with what I hoped was his conscience.
I had tea in a hut, and did a lot of press interviews. One of the network TV men said, from behind his humming camera, "You have been accused of getting involved here in order to create publicity for your record sales."
"Is that so?" I responded. You silly ass, I thought. You are out here at the end of nowhere, balancing fifty pounds of machinery on your shoulder, surrounded by enough human interest stories to fill an issue of the Enquirer, and you are asking me this stupid question.
"Ah, yes," I said. "I always come to the Laotian border to hawk my albums. Big market up here, especially in the camps."
The camp officials gave me a bright blue linen dress, handwoven, with a beautiful Hmong embroidered design on the bodice. I would wear it in the concert.
Thousands of refugees came to hear and see the big event, They sat in the dust, coiled with excitement, wondering who I was and why I was singing to them. I never knew how I was perceived, and therefore, how I was introduced in places like this. Laotians per formed wild dances of great seriousness, their expressions demanding respect from both their own people and the many strangers watching. We were accomplishing what we'd set out to do! We were getting the "land people" of Laos (they were called "land people" as opposed to "boat people") on the evening news, and giving them a good time in the process.
At dusk, we left the camp and stopped at a big house on a hillside to see the two hundred or so wretched souls who had swum the river from Laos. They were in shock, ill, cheerless, and damp. They wandered around in slow motion, or sat staring. Who knows how many had drowned on the way over? But here were some soggy survivors, alive for the moment, their lungs taking in air and pushing it out again. Someone was giving them food, which their stomachs would accept and digest, and then their eyes would close, and the tiny spark of hope, hidden in the ashes of their lives, would begin to glow, fanned mostly by the children, who, the next day, if it didn't rain, would begin to chatter and snoop around and finally laugh at something in their new surroundings. Perhaps the colonel slept well that night.
We met another colonel, this one thin and dark and smooth from the inside out, good-looking, but dangerously slick. We'd gone to a cocktail party in Bangkok to meet him, because he had a helicopter which we needed.
He liked ladies. He pulled down maps in front of a blackboard and pointed. "You want to go there," he said, and we smiled and batted our eyes and said yes, that's where we wanted to go.
"The only way you can reasonably get there is in a helicopter," he told us.
"What would it take to convince you to give us a helicopter for a day?"
He laughed. "You are a very famous singer, no?"
"Yes." A helicopter for a song, just as I thought. I sang him "Swing Low," and he sat there, pleased as punch. I should sing antiwar songs to the bloody Vietnamese, he said. He would get us a helicopter and a pilot to take us to two camps.
First and foremost, I remember the beetle. It was bigger than any beetle I'd ever seen, even in Baghdad, where I was only ten and the beetles looked bigger than Tonka trucks. The one crossing the dirt path in front of us was black and shiny and had horns advancing, before him like a Viking helmet. I bent over him and saw the spiky details of his brittle legs, and shivers went up and down my back like snakes. The camp officials gave me a dead one to take with me, and I was delighted, but had to throw it away after a week because it began to stink.
I was tired to the point of fainting, but stayed on my feet and went through the formalities of meeting people, listening to their private horror stories, always wondering what to say when they were finished talking. It was announced, as usual, that I was a famous singer, and that I would perform for them. The children gathered around expectantly while I wracked my brain for a ditty that would amuse and cheer them. "I Love My Rooster" was my most successful rendering. It is filled with animal noises: I love my sheep, Baaaaa. I love my cow, Mooooo, etc. I felt like an idiot, but managed to get the children smiling, and in the end, tumbling over themselves, grabbing onto each other's elbows for security against the mad foreign lady, giggling in their parakeet voices, their black eyes on me and their attention on my stupid but marvelously entertaining song.
We repeated the routine in the next camp, taping grim and ghastly stories of flights from tyranny, imprisonment, torture, and death. The children were always there defying pain, defying death, defying hopelessness. The children, always ready for a tomorrow, even when all was lost.
In the second camp we got word of Cambodia's hemorrhaging borders. Thousands of people were pouring into Thailand that very evening. They were sick and starving, some of them half-dead. We left the second camp and bartered with the pilot to take us to the Cambodian border. He called his superiors, who said no, but the no did not sound final. We persisted. The pilot continued to protest, but flew toward the border and dropped us off. We managed to get a car to the checkpoint where we were told we could go no further. It was dangerous, they said; Vietnamese soldiers occupying Cambodia were firing rockets toward the border. We nagged, strings were pulled, calls were placed. A lovely man from the State Department who spoke Thai and whom we'd met at a cocktail party went to bat for us. The border police shrugged as we walked past the checkpoint and toward the hills.
The dirt road was suddenly filled with scrambling photographers. Just as suddenly, we could see people all along the side of the road and far into the bushes, lying down and hunkering on stumps. Some were making lean-tos out of bits of cloth, others were cooking something in tin cans over makeshift fireplaces. A boy lying by the roadside caught my eye and I went over to him. He didn't move, though his eyes were open. He was very dark and very thin; his clothes were rags and he was coated with layers of dirt. I squatted down beside him. When I looked up it seemed as if all these people were moving in slow motion. In contrast, the photographers were racing to and fro, hunting for a story. As I watched in dumb shock, two Japanese photographers tripped over each other, chattering like magpies, barely missing stepping on the boy's head. "Son of a bitch!" I shouted and jumped up, ready to physically hurl them away. "Stop! Just stop! Get out of here!" They backed off a few paces, filming me, of course, and I got control of myself. We needed a story of the little boy on the wires, not a story of an impetuous star chasing a Japanese photographer into the bush.
I got up and grabbed Jeanne by the arm. "Who can get this kid to a hospital?" I mumbled frantically.
She singled out a young man who worked for Reuters. He came over, squatted down, smoothed the boy's forehead, went "Tsk, tsk" and picked the boy up in his arms. He walked only a few feet before he was surrounded by Thai soldiers pointing their guns at him and telling him, in Thai, not to go anywhere with the boy.
''This little boy is very sick. I'm taking him to the hospital," was all he said, and without hesitating, he turned around and trudged down the road with his dark and listless cargo. They surrounded him, all shouting at once, but he said he was very sorry, he didn't speak Thai, and kept walking. The little boy watched and listened to the two strange languages being spoken and shouted over his head, and never moved. The soldiers angrily pointed their guns at the renegade and his prize, but gave up in exasperation as he strode away from them. We all kept watching, and the photographers kept taking pictures.
I stood in a ditch chatting into a CBS camera, with my back to the hills and the border and the slow-moving exodus from the "killing fields," the phrase made famous as the title of the film about the fall of Pnom Penh and the ensuing devastation. A rocket exploded nearby. I nearly jumped out of my skin but immediately recovered my composure: sounds of war generally ensure a story on the evening news.
Jeanne was walking toward me, her eyes wide and filled with tears. "There's a baby back there, Joanie. I swear to God it's dying, right there in the mother's arms. Can't we do something?"
In fact, the baby was dead, and there was nothing to do.
I put my arm around her as we bumped along in a van in silence to a nearby village, where we went to sit with our film crew, friends and reporters. In the middle of drinks that were slowly bringing us out of shock, the lovely young man from Reuters popped his head into the bar and announced cheerfully that the little boy was doing fine: he had eaten four meals since his arrival at the hospital.
Back in Bangkok, we ran into a friend on the street.
"You gotta come over to Peter Collins' apartment tonight! There's this guy from The New York Times who's been looking for his Cam bodian friend for four years, and he's just found him! It's sort of a miracle because we all figured the guy was dead. He's been in the jungles for months, living on tree bark and stuff ..."
I will never forget Sidney Schanberg and Dith Pran, sitting to gether on a couch in a room filled with press and embassy people. Neither of them talked much. Sidney is shy and Pran kept covering his mouth with his hand because his teeth had rotted badly from malnutrition. We could not know the journey of Pran, nor the agony and guilt of the American who'd left Pnom Penh when his friend could not, nor their joy at this bizarre reunion. We could only sense the profound tenderness of their friendship which had survived the four unspeakable years of the killing fields.
Jeanne and I sat in the beautiful bar of the hotel called Lenox Hotel on the left bank of Paris; sunk way down in overstuffed chairs, drinking vodka tonics and talking about our lives and what we had just witnessed in Southeast Asia. Jeanne had her legs up on the coffee table. She was wearing my old brown leather Ferragamo boots, which I gave her. She'd shined them up so they looked brand-new.
There we sat, still numbed by our experiences in the camps and at the border, discussing what we could do when we got home to continue the work we'd begun with the refugees. I still had a spirited group of people actively trying to keep up with the responses to the open letter: we called ourselves Humanitas. I could tell by the way Jeanne's foot was wagging back and forth that she had something on her mind. We were getting a little drunk.
"How would you like a director for Humanitas?" she asked.
"How would you like a director for Humanitas?"
Under Jeanne's directorship, and working together with KRON-TV and the San Francisco Examiner, Humanitas launched a fund raiser for Cambodian refugees that raised a million and a quarter dollars in ten weeks over Christmas of 1979. After the first major organizing meeting she hung up her real estate license, and then made two more trips to the camps to oversee the expenditures of the money we'd raised. Every penny went directly into nutrition, food, and medical programs. I know, because she took the money herself, and if she didn't see programs she liked, she created them, like the one for lactating mothers and children under five which we co-sponsored with CARE.
When the campaign was ending, Jeanne's sponsored Vietnamese family arrived in San Francisco.
Janny Thai, her husband, Cuong Huynh, and her brother, Minh Thai, had sold everything they owned and crammed themselves with forty-six other people into a fifty-foot boat which would take them away from Vietnam and into the unknown waters of the South China Sea. With Janny was her eight-year-old son, Tai, who was frail and sick. The night they left he had a fever of 103. They, and the other people in their party, were among the lucky ones who eventually made it to a camp alive. We had met them during our visit and Jeanne had decided to adopt them.
When they arrived in California they stayed with her. For the first few days they huddled under blankets, shivering. No matter how many clothes or blankets we piled on them they could not stop shivering. Jeanne turned the heat up and put extra heaters in their room, but they still shivered. Despite the shivering, Janny's brother had a job within forty-eight hours, and her husband was working within one week at a Chinese restaurant. Soon Janny was working, at the local junior college (ESL program) and Tai was a tiny new member of a Sunnyvale elementary school.
Six years later in January of 1986 the family took Jeanne and me out to celebrate their new status as naturalized citizens. Tai is of average height, cute, a good student, combs his hair in a sort of waterfall, speaks Cantonese and English but no Vietnamese, and has changed his name to Andy. He calls me Auntie Joan, and he still remembers the rooster song.