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LAUGHTER IN CHURCH IS A RARE EVENT. I am not referring to the polite titters that can greet the occasional sallies of pulpit wit, nor even the giggles that can follow a slip of the tongue by a minister or a reader. What I’m after is real hilarious humor that sets the table in a roar, splits sides in the pews, and convulses even the clergy. Any offers? Well here’s a story that might just win a prize in the ecclesiastical laughter stakes.
My story is set in Vietnam just a few weeks before the Tet offensive of 1968. Things were getting pretty hairy almost everywhere, but they were particularly bad in the most misnamed part of ‘Nam, the Demilitarized Zone. So your High Spirits columnist, in those days a 25-year-old war correspondent for the London Evening Standard, made plans to visit the DMZ in search of good copy. My plans went awry when MAC-V, the military assistance command headquartered in Saigon, suddenly decreed that no reporter could travel alone to the DMZ. Journalists must move together in pairs, went the new edict.
At that moment in the conflict, British war correspondents based in Saigon were not a large tribe, and I had no success in finding a traveling companion among them. So I cast my bread upon the waters of the U.S. press corps and caught a whale. At dinner one night in the British Embassy I met the late and great Joe Alsop. He was not only a legendary syndicated columnist from the Washington Post. He was also the strongest journalistic champion of the war, of the Pentagon, of General William Westmoreland, and anyone else who thought that victory was just around the corner for America in Vietnam.
Joe Alsop could have paired himself off with any reporter to get the necessary MAC-V passes to go to the DMZ. But there were advantages in teaming up with a 25-year-old Brit. I was no competition. It wasn’t just that I was a complete novice when it came to covering war. Even if a big story had broken and fallen into my lap when we were together in the DMZ, my London time zones ensured that Alsop’s reporting would always be on America’s breakfast tables first.
A second advantage was that I had no visible political hang-ups about the war. Alsop grilled me closely and bestowed on me the accolade that I was “obviously not one of those gone-soft-in-the-head-antiwar liberals.” That made me an acceptable companion in his eyes. An additional bonus was that a couple of senior American correspondents, Ward Just of the Washington Post and Arnaud de Borchgrave of Newsweek, had traveled with me on trips in the field and were prepared to give me their seal of approval. So after a certain amount of huffing and puffing, Joe Alsop agreed to let me be his junior bag carrier and we set off together for the DMZ.
Our first and only night on the DMZ was dominated by Murphy’s Law. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong. The USMC battalion tasked with showing the great Joseph C. Alsop how well the war was going soon found itself preoccupied with more pressing matters. Our camp came under attack on three sides from heavily armed NVA troops and from Vietcong guerrillas who mortared us mercilessly throughout the night.
When the battalion commander called in helicopter gunships called Puffs (after Puff the Magic Dragon) to get rid of the VC, the pilots got the coordinates wrong and showered our position with bullets instead of the enemy’s. It was a terrifying friendly fire episode, even though our casualties were light. You could hear the VC laughing as they resumed their mortaring.
In the middle of this mayhem the only sensible place for a couple of noncombatants was a foxhole. So Joe and I, plus a USMC sergeant who had been assigned to us as “Mr. Alsop’s bodyguard” (Joe was getting the VIP treatment), hunkered down together in a big foxhole. Unlike 20 or so Marines who left the DMZ the next morning in bodybags, we survived. More shaken than either of us cared to admit, we decided to move on to another battalion on Joe’s visiting list but getting there involved a two or three mile walk along a track to a point where we could pick up a helicopter. So off we set until about half- way down the track it opened out and took us through a sizable village.
THIS VIETNAMESE VILLAGE WAS the epitome of rustic tranquillity. With a little imagination it could almost be said to resemble one of John Constable’s paintings of placid English village life. Moreover, the idyllic scene that met our eyes had both a pastoral and religious flavor. For it was a Sunday morning and the entire population of the village seemed to be streaming into a small Christian church complete with cross and tolling bell.
Joe and I were weary and frazzled. One of us suggested that it might not be a bad idea to rest awhile, to join the Sunday congregation, and to give thanks to the Lord for having survived the previous night of horrors. So we entered the church and found a couple of empty seats. It was a measure of our shell-shocked disorientation that neither of us seemed to have realized that the service might not be conducted in English. To our total incomprehension, it was in Vietnamese. After a moment or two of whispering between ourselves, Joe and I hit on a formula for overcoming the language barrier. We agreed that we would do exactly what the man in the seat in front of us did.
Our formula worked well for most of the service. Whenever the Vietnamese gentleman in front of us knelt down, we knelt down. Whenever he stood up, we stood up. All fine and dandy until there came a moment when the pastor made some sort of an announcement. Our leader, the man immediately in front of us, stood up. Alsop and Aitken stood up too. The only problem was that we were the only three people in the crowded church who rose to their feet.
After a second or two of stunned silence, the congregation started to laugh. Boy, did they laugh! At first I thought their mirth was something to do with the incongruity of two large Anglo-Saxons in their combat fatigues standing alongside a small Vietnamese villager in his black pyjama suit.
But it soon became evident that this laughter had deeper wellsprings of comedy. For nothing I have ever done before or since in the way of making a joke, delivering a one-liner in an after-dinner speech, or acting out a slapstick charade has ever delivered so much as a quarter of the loud, prolonged, and almost hysterical laughter that the sight of our stand-alone threesome produced in that church. The man in front of us turned round and he promptly doubled up in hysterics too. The pastor also split his sides in merriment. Louder and louder grew the laughter, but Joe and I did not have a clue what it was all about.
Eventually the church calmed down, but Joe Alsop had his dander up. He had not enjoyed being the object of such derision. So as soon as the service ended he stalked round the congregation demanding, “What was that all about? Why the hell were you laughing at us?” Eventually an English-speaking villager came forward and provided the explanation.
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