September 9, 1971
The Air America pilot began his descent into Wattay Airport by easing back on the throttles that controlled the two twelve-hundred-horsepower engines on his C-47 Skytrain aircraft. The control tower at the airport had given him clearance to land using a straight-in approach to runway 31. An anxious but tired Mark Knight sat in the jump seat between the pilot and the copilot. He was coming to the end of a grueling journey from Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, DC, to Vientiane. The embassy flight that carried him from Andrews to Saigon by way of Tokyo and Manila took over twenty-six hours. Luckily, there had been a bunk bed behind the cockpit of that aircraft, a military version of a Boeing 707, and the crew had let him catch a few hours of sleep between stops. He then caught the Air America shuttle in Saigon, which flew him over Cambodia and the eastern part of Thailand on the 530-mile hop to Vientiane. Finally, this four-hour flight was arriving at its scheduled destination.
As the C-47 continued on its glide path to the runway, Mark could see the city of Vientiane out of the right-side window. The main street was a French-designed boulevard that ran from the Mekong River to the northeast section of the city. Somewhere down there was the American Embassy where he would meet the next day with Ambassador Stansfield and the CIA station chief, Everett Cheadle. Knight was ready to get his feet on the ground and begin his mission.
The C-47 pilot had logged several thousand hours of flight time in this workhorse of an airplane. He made a perfect landing with barely a thud to let the occupants know that they were back on land. Following orders from the control tower, the pilot taxied the airplane to the Air America terminal on the south side of the runway. When the engines had been shut down, Mark shook hands with both pilots and scrambled off the plane as quickly as his stiff legs would allow. His bad knee was a little sore, but by the time he got to the door of the terminal lounge, he was walking normally. He made his way to a ticket clerk sitting behind a small counter in the otherwise empty lounge.
“Hello. My name is Mark Knight, and I was told in Saigon that there would be a car waiting for me here to take me to my hotel. Do you know if the car and driver are here?”
“Oh, you Mark Knight?” the agent asked as she came to life. “Yes, yes, Mr. Mark. You sit, and I get driver for you. They here. They ready. You sit; you sit!”
Mark threw his duffel bag and briefcase on a table and sat in a banged-up chair. The agent got on the phone and spoke in animated Lao to someone at the other end who, Mark assumed, was responsible for getting him to the Lan Xang Hotel, where he would spend the next two nights. The two Air America shuttle pilots stopped to chat as they passed through the lounge. “If you aren’t too tired tonight, you should join us and hit a few of the nightspots. Vientiane is a jumping place these days.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Mark said. “I’m pretty jet-lagged, and I have a big day tomorrow.”
“OK, just keep us in mind if you get bored. We’ll probably start the night at the Purple Porpoise. It’s usually packed with CIA guys in from Long Tieng or other garden spots out in the bush. From there, we’ll hit the Green Latrine or Monica’s for a few more beers. The highlight of the night is the nine-o’clock floor show at the White Rose. The dancers there smoke cigarettes and fling Ping-Pong balls with their pussies. You gotta see this!”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’m in the mood for any smoking pussies tonight, but I appreciate the invitation,” Mark laughed, shaking his head. “You guys have fun and stay out of trouble.”
When the pilots left, Mark began to assemble his thoughts on the meetings he would have the next day with Stansfield and Cheadle. He was pulling some notes from his briefcase when two people entered the passenger lounge. The first was a young Lao man in a white shirt and dark pants, but it was the second who caught Mark’s attention. Based on her petite stature and relatively light complexion, she appeared to be a low-country Laotian, not a Hmong. She was wearing a sinh, the long, tubular skirt routinely worn by Laotian women. It was a beautiful blue with gold markings. Her blouse was gold with similar markings in blue. She wore a traditional sash, which went over her left shoulder and attached at her right hip, and stylish heels that made her look two or three inches taller than her actual height. She had striking brown eyes and jet-black hair that was pulled back and secured by a colorful barrette that allowed the hair to drop straight down between her shoulders. She carried herself with dignity and grace, and she was walking straight toward Mark.
Stopping a respectful distance away, she put her hands together in a prayer-like fashion and made a slight bow, greeting him in the formal manner used throughout Laos and referred to as a nop. “Sa-bai-dee, Mr. Knight.”
Mark stood and made the same motion with his hands and his head. “Sa-bai-dee, jao sa-bai-dee baw?”
The young woman smiled. “Khoi sa-bai-dee, khawp-chai. Do you speak Lao, Mr. Knight?”
“Not really,” Mark replied. “I did live here for two years, in Long Tieng, and I picked up some phrases here and there. I’m quite good at swearing in Hmong, however.”
“Yes, I’m sure you could learn to do that quite easily in Long Tieng,” she laughed. “My name is Sysuvan Vannalath, but you may refer to me by my nickname, Nok.”
“Oh, yes,” said Mark, remembering that most Laotians have a nickname. “Nok means bird, doesn’t it?”
“Very good, Mr. Knight. That is correct.”
Her smile and gentle beauty disarmed Mark, and he fumbled with his words as he tried to determine her purpose for meeting him at the airport. “Are you here to take me to a hotel? Uh, I mean, are you going to drive me to my hotel…are you sure you have the right Mark Knight?”
The woman blushed. “Mr. Knight, I am a special assistant to Ambassador Stansfield, and I am here to escort you to your hotel. Tomorrow, my driver and I will pick you up and bring you to your meetings at the embassy. If there is any assistance you may need in performing your duties over the next two days, I will try to be of help.”
“Nok, please call me Mark. When you say Mr. Knight, I keep looking for my father.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Knight, but I have been trained by your diplomat colleagues at the embassy to address Americans in a formal manner, especially those I don’t know that well and with whom I will have a professional relationship.”
“OK, I understand that. I’d be happy to address you in a more professional manner if you wish. I could call you Miss Vannalath…or Mrs. Vannalath. Which one is more appropriate?”
Nok smiled again. “Mr. Knight, if that is the way a CIA agent determines whether a woman is married or not, it’s a very transparent ploy.”
Mark relaxed a bit and put on a sheepish grin. “You’ve certainly seen through my clumsy attempt to learn more about you, Miss Nok, but I look forward to getting to know you better over the next few days.”
“I also look forward to that, Mr. Knight.”
The driver picked up Mark’s duffel bag and moved toward the car parked outside the lounge. Mark grabbed his briefcase and followed Nok and the driver to the vehicle.
Mark and Nok sat in the backseat on the short ride to the hotel. When Mark asked about her fluency in English, she explained that her father had been a diplomat, and she had lived in London for four years as a teenager. Shortly thereafter, her family moved to the Laotian delegation in Paris, where she earned her college degree from Ecole Normale Superieure. After graduation, she returned to Vientiane, where the Laotian foreign minister introduced her to the American ambassador, who was looking for someone to help him navigate the language, cultural, and political differences between the two countries. Nok had now been with the embassy for nearly two years. Mark did the math quickly and figured she was about twenty-three years old.
When Nok questioned Mark, she avoided the purpose of his visit and instead inquired about his life growing up in America. She had only visited the United States once when she lived in London. Her school sponsored a field trip to Washington, DC, and it gave her a chance to learn about American history and government. Mark thought it interesting that, despite her poise and sophistication, she, like many Asians he met in Indochina, was most interested in American culture. She wanted to know if he knew any movie stars and how many times he had been to Disneyland. She assumed he drove a big car with fins on the back and an enormous engine, and she wanted to know if he had ever ridden a horse or worn a cowboy hat. She seemed a little disappointed that he had experienced none of these things and, in fact, had spent most of the last seven years in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
When they arrived at the hotel, the driver grabbed Mark’s duffel bag and brought it to the front desk. Nok got out of the car but stayed curbside. She shook Mark’s hand and assured him that they would be back to pick him up at eight in the morning. She explained that, although his meeting with the ambassador wasn’t scheduled until nine o’clock, this would give her a chance to show him around the embassy.
“I hope you sleep well, Mr. Knight, and we look forward to hosting you at the embassy tomorrow.”
The driver opened the back door of the car for Nok and then got into the driver’s seat and headed out into the chaotic traffic so common in the cities of Southeast Asia. Mark watched the car until it disappeared at the end of the street.
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