09/17/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
It was a gray and drizzly Saturday morning as we drove out to Falls Church, Va. to pick up Nguyen Cao Ky, former Premier of South Vietnam, and his wife, Mai. Now 54 and owner of a liquor store in Southern California, Ky wanted to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and was staying at the home of former General Cao Van Vien, onetime chief of staff of the South Vietnamese Army. Cao greeted us at the door in his robe and slippers. He had apparently slept in the living room, having surrendered the bedroom upstairs to the Kys out of respect for the former Vietnamese leader.
Ky spent the drive to Washington telling a long story about courting Mai—how he once commandeered an American-built A-1 bomber and flew after her. At the time Mai was a stewardess for Air Vietnam, and as Ky jockeyed alongside her plane, he rocked his wings in greeting. The Air Vietnam pilot panicked and asked Mai to appeal to Ky over the radio to stop. "There was nothing he could do about it," Ky recounted delightedly, "because I outranked him."
The story was interrupted by our arrival at the Memorial. We got out of the car and walked through the rain without talking. I was worried about the reception Ky would get if any hostile veterans recognized him. He was immediately spotted by two vets, but their cordial greeting plainly cheered him. They told him where they had fought in Vietnam, and he thanked them, firmly clasping their hands as he said goodbye. We continued toward the Memorial, that imposing black granite slab with the names of the dead etched in its shiny surface. Ky said hardly a word but placed a bouquet of flowers alongside a tiny American flag left by a previous visitor. A group of Vietnamese kids spotted him and started to follow at a distance. Gradually some other people recognized him and snapped pictures. I don't know if Ky saw them or not; if he did, he said nothing about it. At one point his wife became slightly annoyed when she stepped in a puddle, splattering her white stockings.
After 10 minutes, Ky turned to go. Back in the car he resumed the story about chasing Mai in the A-1, picking up precisely where he had left off. Mai's radioed plea finally worked, and Ky peeled off toward his base in Saigon. But once over the airfield, he had to be talked down. Laughing, Ky said he had not been checked out on the airplane and had no idea how to land it.
During the 20-minute drive back to Falls Church, he did not mention the Memorial again.