There’s an iconic image that many of you have probably seen. It’s a shot taken from a distance; a small helicopter is landing on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, and like ants, a line of people are climbing a steep, narrow staircase up to the highest section of roof where the skids of the helicopter hover two feet above the asphalt. The people trail down the ladder and around a corner, and one gets the impression there are hundreds left, pooled somewhere in the embassy compound hoping for a lift out. The helicopter is a small one—MB-22B Osprey—and it’s hard to imagine more than half a dozen will be able to fit.
This was 1975. I was ten years old. The North Vietnamese had made their way south and surrounded Saigon, destroying the airport to the west, and edging into the city on tanks and foot. The only way out was by helicopter. The U.S. presence had stayed put, hoping the situation would improve, but it didn’t. The evacuation was a desperate one: military and their families, embassy officials, journalists, and as many Vietnamese as possible.
Minus any superstition, I think there’s an element of prophesy in things that we don’t always recognize: world events, the patterns our own lives develop over time. The Bible says that we are God’s “workmanship” (Eph. 2:10). In Greek, “workmanship” is translated as “POY-ay-mah”, which is where we get our word “poem”. It makes sense to me that God would intend events and situations around us to be triggers, jogging our memory awake much in the way the Bible does when we hear the story of Joseph’s brothers bowing to him in a dream, or Hosea forgiving his hopeless, unfaithful wife for the umpteenth time. People live, people die, but it seems to me there’s far more meaning embedded in stuff that we frequently only give a cursory glance.
In a novel I wrote some time ago, one of the protagonists wakes up from a coma on a hot summer day—July 3rd—after a bunch of people prayed. A few years later Rick, me, and every person who ever knew us prayed that our son would wake up after going into septic shock. He did, and I remember, in somewhat of a daze, thanking God as I sat in the ICU. The date was markered onto his chart in large, black letters: July 3rd. I’m not sure of all the reasons God did this, but I know it was meant to encourage me. His providence. The whole horrifying thing was a stanza in a much larger, and very beautiful poem.
In Saigon, as pilots rallied, flying evacuees out to ships not built for airlifts, men pushed the spent, fueless helicopters into the sea to make room for more of them to land. People hung over the edges of railings and waved them in; mothers, children. One man, after dropping off his family on a ship, hovered over the ocean, unbuckled his harness, and jumped, somehow able to swim away as the helicopter blades struck water and broke apart, the massive aircraft sinking down in one swallow.
Helicopters and rank became obsolete. Physical things didn’t matter anymore. The point of it all was the people, the souls. And if you watch films of these events, what is most striking isn’t the ditched machines and the U.S. ambassador’s shoulders hung in sorrow, it’s all the faces; everyone looking up, hopeful for a ride out or that a loved one will be on the next helicopter, lifted out of a burning city.