The setting for PALACE DOG came directly from my experience as an English Language Instructor in the Palace Dog Program in Vietnam in the early 1970’s. Like Michael, the main character, I joined the Air Force to keep from being drafted into the Army and thus keep out of Vietnam. And like Michael, that wasn’t how it worked out.
As I was writing the book, I began to feel like one of Michael’s friends there, sort of a silent fellow palace dog invisible in the backdrop of the barracks and school. I have hundreds of photographs I took while there—at the school, in the barracks, at the zoo, in downtown Saigon—and that helped my memory. I had noted the dates and names and places on the photos. Also I had kept a pocket calendar that was useful in reminding me of events that happened while I was there. And my family and several friends in the US gave me letters I had written while over there. All of this helped me to piece together the background and setting for the story.
As I was writing the story, I listened to the music I remembered from when I was there. Hearing Cher sing “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” I vividly recalled walking between our barracks and the dining hall with the sound of that song blaring from behind the screened barracks walls. When I heard Simon and Garfunkel sing “Cathy’s Song,” I found myself in the MACV Annex USO club early one morning after being on the night shift of the Perimeter Defense Force. Some of the songs found their way into the story, but there were many others that did not, but they were equally important in helping capture my time there. It was definitely a case of “The Song Remembers When” (as Trisha Yearwood sang years later).
The story of Michael and Thao is fiction. It is not my story or the story of anyone I knew. But we had shared experiences and they are in the book as a blend of fact and fiction. Some of the things that happened, such as the friendly fire episode, were made up.
Likewise, the final part, the return to Saigon in 1975 as it was falling, was something I did not directly experience. I have a close friend who was there at that time and was able to help some Vietnamese friends get out. He was kind enough to provide me with the detail of what that was like and I used my imagination to work out what might possibly have happened when Michael returned to find Thao. I also used THE VIETNAM WAR, AN ALMANAC (published by World Almanac Publications) for some specific detail I needed that I may not have directly experienced.
I began returning to Vietnam in 1991. At that time, much of Saigon was the same as when I had left almost 20 years earlier, and that helped revive the memories and places.
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The cyclo had bumped across the bridge, following the curve in the road, then moved quickly down the final straight stretch, past houses and shops, past rows of trees and walls and occasional open spaces, past vendors who lined the street’s edge selling gasoline in glass bottles. Motorcycles, Lambretta mini-buses packed with people, cream-and-blue Renault taxis, pedestrians with baskets and boxes—all crowded the street. Noises, smells, and smoke came from everywhere, and as the driver increased his speed, I smiled, gripping the metal frame tighter and pushing slightly with my feet as the moist wind rushed around me.
Speeding through the streets of Saigon, wearing the green Air Force-issued jungle fatigues, my life of a year ago seemed unreal.
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