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The King of Gonzo War Journalism and I - PART 2David Victor MacMillan for Salem-News.com
Dodging bullets with the world's most famous living war photographer in Vietnam.
(HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam) - If you missed part one in this two-part series, please visit this link.
My relationship with Page had begun two years before in Saigon or, as the North Vietnamese like to call it, Ho Chi Minh City, a name which has never quite stuck with the locals who still prefer to use the traditional name. Page refers to the city in its rapidly developing form as a “syphilitic whore”.
One of my earliest in-depth introductions to the story of Page and Flynn was via Ian Carter and the Flynn Society Indochina, a kind of secret men’s organization.
It was a loosely formed gang of men hopelessly hooked on Asia and all its mythological elements lead by Keith Rotheram one of Asia’s most colorful, passionate and swashbuckling businessmen/playboys who is also a dead ringer for Errol Flynn, and a collector and historical researcher Ian “Carts” Carter.
Carter is one of the more pure cats I have met in my travels. He loves Elvis, Khmer rock and roll, marijuana and red wine, and absolutely hates cigarettes (his father was a throat cancer survivor) which has always been somewhat of a constant point of contention between him and me due to my own cigarette smoking.
Carter is a collector of Flynn films and documentaries and started the organization as a way of making sure that Sean’s and Errol’s legacy survives.
He started the gang so he could organize screenings of Flynn films in South East Asia.
I met Carter when I first returned to Vietnam optimistically in mid-2006, carrying a U.S. Army duffle bag full of clothes and the promise of a job as an operations manager for a company called International Security and Protection, all for the meager sum of $600USD per month. Not much compared to what I was used to.
Carter first mused his understanding of Sean, Dana, Tim and the Frankie’s House crew’s adventures during an epic chill session fuelled by beer, red wine and marijuana.
Frankie’s House being the legendary journalist share house in Saigon where Flynn, Stone, Page and many others lived at and partied together between assignments during the height of the war.
Carts explained all of these stories and anecdotes he had been told by his friend Tim Page.
He also explained to me the latest update by Jeffery Meyers on the long search for Flynn and the details and theories Carts had developed through his research into Flynn’s disappearance.
The story wasn’t new to me, though. I had heard about as a child when my great grandmother Georgina had read a newspaper article about Sean Flynn going missing many years before in Vietnam, and that he had been declared dead sometime in 1984. I remember watching Errol Flynn (already a hero of mine) movies on Sunday afternoon on Australian television. The link to Sean was already established for me many years ago.
Vietnam had a strange and mostly unspoken place in my family’s collective psyche. My mother’s family are from the Queensland outback, and three of her uncle’s had served in Vietnam. My grandfather’s youngest brother Nick, who was a tracker and forward scout in the war, had been found dead on a deck chair at a friend’s houses after drinking himself to death at a young age. Nick had obviously seen a lot of shit and lost many friends in combat in the Long Hai Hills. The sorrow which haunted him proved to be his undoing, something which even today is, understandably, a touchy subject in my family.
I had heard from a young age horror stories of Vietnam and the evil people who were as cunning as rats and liked nothing more than killing white guys who loved freedom. Though there was never any mention, though, of the long independence struggles and the crimes that had been perpetrated under colonialism/neo-colonialism.
I was too young to know Nick, but he was always a curiosity to me. All that was left of him was an army locker at my grandmother’s house where grand-dad had stored miscellaneous war souvenirs and bits and pieces of his bush gear. It was a no go zone, but when my grandmother would take an afternoon nap and my grandfather would go down to the local pub to work on drinking himself into oblivion, I would sneak a look at these amazing relics.
I used to smell his OZ scrim bush scarf, or “sweat rag” as the Aussie servicemen ever so creatively referred to it, and bask in the masculinity of its odor, redolent of Mekong delta mud, sweat, blood and probably some tears.
From the moment my grandmother told me about the Sean Flynn story, Flynn and my uncle Nick melded together in my fantastic imaginary realm, both became a part of a fascination with Vietnam. Although I didn’t know so at the time, this was a portent of my many years in the country, marrying a Vietnamese woman, learning to speak the language fluently and having a daughter to the tribe.
Ian, or Carts as he prefers to be known, invited me to become a member of the Flynn Society Indochina. Its other main member was the man who would share international media infamy with me, Keith Rotheram.
At the time Keith was little more than an entrepreneur, bar owner and kiwi fashionista, who took pride in his uncanny resemblance to Errol Flynn.
Keith was going through some hard times; he had been reduced to an aging, lost playboy who divided his time between his wife on the Gold Coast in Australia, his bars and Vietnamese model girlfriends.
But what Rotheram sometimes lacks due to hedonistic ways, is more then made up for in spirit and passion for life. (over the years although we have clashed we have grown to become good mates)
I started to read and collect anything I could on Tim Page and Sean Flynn in a quite obsessive manner. I also found out that Page now called Brisbane home, and he was an adjutant professor of photography at Griffith University there.
I wanted to contact him but didn’t know how to approach the situation. It wasn’t until a few months later when I was held captive, beaten and tortured in a robbery attempt by a bunch of Mekong delta gangsters- that some internal or external force had spurred me to take that step.
But exactly how did I end up in such a perilous situation in the first place?
I had been given the unenviable job of firing a large chunk of our company’s security personnel, guys who had gone bad and pulled off an inside burglary on one of our main clients, a furniture factory in the Binh Duong Province.
These bandits nearly killed me in an ambush they orchestrated to get to the ten thousand United States dollars in salary money I was escorting with a recently retired veteran of PC113 (the elite Vietnamese police unit) criminal investigation detective and ex-Viet Cong war hero, whom I knew affectionately as “Ba Phuong”. After I was captured, the ensuing torture lasted for a few hours.
The money we were transporting was earmarked to pay our personnel who were working at delta outposts too remote for bank transfers of wages.
The final notice of termination of employment and payout for the Binh Duong staff were catalysts for a bloodbath. I could have escaped this gang-f*ck, but some kind of moral conviction convinced to do the right thing, so I went back in to save Ba Phuong.
I thought maybe we could just walk out. Wrong. As we headed for the door, the accounting girl who accompanied me with Ba Phuong nervously handed me the briefcase of cash. Right about then I was belted in the mouth and had a Heineken bottle smashed over my head. Next, a makeshift shiv narrowly missed entering between my ribs by two centimeters as I back peddled from the beating. Thinking back on it today, I wonder whether it was pure luck, sheer instinct or a combination of both that saved me.
The next hour was like a scene out of the film Zulu. We were stuck in the bedroom of a shanty house with the “natives” smashing the bricks in and trying to kill us. Meanwhile, “Ba Phuong” and the accountant were trying desperately to call reinforcements from Saigon or Bien Hoa, but both their mobile phones were low on battery charge.
To our initial relief, the local police finally arrived. They instructed Ba Phuong to come out, reassuring him that everything was all right. The order of release was to be: Ba Phuong; the accountant and finally me.
The cops lied.
Instead, Ba Phuong was released and the corrupt local cops let the gangsters lock me in the room and give me a good working over. I certainly wasn’t going to give up, and decided that if I was going to die I was going out with a fight. I spent quite a few hours being beaten while refusing to hand over the money as they attempted to wrestle it from my grip.
To make it all the more chilling, the whole group looked like a bunch of crazed demons, inflicted as they were with pink eye, which had spread through the basic peasant accommodation that my penny-pinching company had supplied them.
I was eventually saved by my tactical security squad who were at the time stationed at AMATA industrial estate in Bein Hoa Province. They arrived in a Mai Linh taxi a couple of hours late, and resolved any argument about me and the cash leaving in one piece with baton strikes to the face or knee of any disagreeing parties.
After that scrape with death, I felt direct empathy towards Flynn and Stone at initial capture.
I then emailed Tim Page the following (the fatalism I had recently acquired is very evident in the text).
A year later I stumbled half drunk into Sheridan’s Bar and was approached by my friend, German documentary film maker, Peter Schied.
“David do you remember how you told me you wanted to meet Tim Page?” he said to me in his thick German accent.
“Yeah man, I remember,” I said.
“Well, Tim Page, this is the young man who emailed you, David Macmillan,” Peter said as he introduced me to the camera and krama1 clad ghost in the shadows of the bar taking portraits of the local color.
“Hello, pleased to meet you and thanks for the email. Sorry, I have to go and drain the snake. Can you hold onto my camera for me for a minute?” he said to my amazement, as he put his Heineken beer down handed me his camera and limped towards the bathroom.
After that initial meeting, he and Peter invited me to “brekkies” with them at the Hotel Continental, made famous by Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American.
Page was exactly like the person I had read about: the leader of the pack, the type of guy that, if he likes you - makes you feel as if you have known him forever and have always been in his gang.
He told stories of the war and also asked me questions about my life. He waxed lyrical about how Saigon had changed in the years since he first arrived here as a teenager looking for adventure. The myth and the magic of being in Page’s presence left quite an impression on me.
He was leaving that afternoon, and after saying my goodbyes I walked out onto Dong Khoi Street and into the afternoon monsoon rain. It was Vietnamese National Day, and all I could think of was how amazing it was to meet the legendary Tim Page.
The next time I saw Tim was six months later, when he was in town to do a photo exhibition called War to Peace at top floor gallery of the Cantina Central, which just so happened to belong to my boss. I found Page and his wife at the bar, and he updated me on what he had been up to since last we met.
I was immediately impressed by Page’s lady, Marianne Harris, or Mau as she is known. She had recently returned from teaching photojournalism to the locals in Afghanistan; she had horrific lacerations on her hands caused by a taxi’s window glass which shattered after being too close
“I bet you sure are glad you got the f*ck out of there?” I said.
“No,” she replied.
“After that incident I wanted to extend my ticket to follow up a story about the Taliban firing empty mortars packed with heroine across to the other side of the Pakistani border. But that’s the kind of story only a man could pull off over there,” she said without a trace of fear or apprehension.
The night of the exhibition started off fine. That was until Keith Rotheram, the then-chairman of the Vietnam chapter of the Flynn Society Indochina, showed up late with his cronies in tow. He was blind-rotten drunk, and he and his mates were all off of their heads on ecstasy.
There was some kind of a nasty disagreement. Keith was pissed because Tim blanked him and his drunken crew. This was understandable, since Tim was busy at the time speaking to a client who was in the process of buying thousands of dollars worth of prints. In his anger, Keith pulled Page by the hair.
Now, Tim is a survivor and a tough old dude, but his days of fist fighting were officially over after a 105 mm shell converted into a landmine was remotely triggered in 1969, leaving part of his brain behind for eternity in a rice paddy in Cu Chi, Vietnam.
Page was clearly upset and nervous about what had happened with Keith, and withdrew to the balcony to roll up and smoke a joint. I followed him out to see if he was all right.
In the background, Keith was making a helluva racket. “You are a rude old bastard Page! You film me then won’t speak to me. You need a good smack in the head!” Keith decided to follow Tim out for a fight.
I took a draw on the joint that Tim had passed me, stood up and grabbed Keith’s face in my hand in a tiger claw and pushed him back through the door he had just walked through. That failed to stop Keith, so I picked him up by the back of his jeans and threw him down the staircase and out of the Cantina.
When I got back up to the balcony, Tim was loudly complaining about how the Flynn Society Indochina was nothing but a bunch of f*cked-up train spotters and losers.
The following day I spoke with Carts, Keith and the other members of the Society over their actions.
At the end of the exhibition Page had problems getting paid his cut and getting his prints back. I offered to be business negotiator, and collected the remaining prints and organized payment to him.
He left the country and didn’t really speak to me for a number of months until I went to Cambodia to collect some debts and prints for him. He was thankful, and even asked me to collect some prints from a magazine in Brooklyn when I went to Manhattan to put on a fashion show.
More time passed, and I didn’t hear from Tim for a while. I found out that that he was quite ill in Australia awaiting an operation relating to some old war wounds, as well as a hiatus hernia. I later heard from Peter Schied that Tim was recovering well after the operation and would be returning to Saigon for the Cepage show.
Another reason for Page’s return was to organize with Schied a documentary that Page was to be starring in and narrating. This was to be about Sean Flynn’s expedition to Papua New Guinea, the year before he went missing, in search of another famous missing son, Michael Rockefeller. He also wanted to try and re-open the Flynn disappearance investigation.
It was during this visit that Page and I became very good friends.
Which brings me back to the day of my heart attack.
I headed up the wrong side of the road due to my lack of bearings after my Mumtaz lunch in search of Page’s hotel. After a kilometer and a half of having people scolding me for doing what they do themselves in Vietnam, i.e. ride up the wrong side of the road, and riding face first into the glaring afternoon sunshine.
I finally found Page’s hotel went to the desk and got them to call his room and tell him that I had arrived.
Page limped out of the hotel, as he always does, and took a photo of me before he then got on the back of my motorcycle.
A lot of the time I spent with Page revolved around us riding around Saigon on my rocket red Honda Joker mod scooter.
With Page on the back snapping away with his camera working on increasing his “stock” photos, shooting the random and gonzo world of HCMC, and me trying to get us through traffic jams and massive congestions.
One of the fondest memories of our motorcycle adventures was the time we were stuck in a human mass of motorbikes which were backed up and jammed tight for about a kilometer across the whole of central Saigon.
Without giving Page the heads up I jumped the gutter with him on the back and sped up along the pavement singing a mock Beach Boys tune “Side walk surfing side walk surfing wooeeeiiohhh” , Page was on the back shooting away in his photographer zone cracking up at the moment in his trademark chuckle, as I worked my along gutters and sidewalks amidst the thousands of frustrated victims of the traffic jam.
Every time that Page arrived in town I used to go and pick him up at the airport, and then pack his heavy Australian camouflage bags and camera equipment on my bike.
And then Page and I would chuckle about how weird we both looked on the heavily loaded motorcycle as we moved through side roads and twisted alleyways along the Romantic River (Romantic River is a local joke a sarcastic name for the polluted, black and stinking river which goes from Da Kao ward in District 1 and out towards Tan Son Nhut Airport) downtown to his hotel where we would have an “attitude readjustment” (Page speak for smoking weed) before I would then accompany him and assist him with his business.
We headed from his hotel across town to the Press Café. We tried to contact Peter, but there was no answer when we called him.
Tim told me that Peter had been hitting him up for a loan of $200USD of a night to spend on whiskey and hookers, and that he also owed him over $1000USD for prints.
We were desperate to contact Peter because we were set to go to Papua and start shooting the documentary in only a matter of weeks. Tim was getting increasingly frustrated with Peter’s erratic behavior, and the fact that he had showed no solid planning for a film project.
When we finally contacted Peter at 5:00 p.m., he promised in a hung-over voice to meet us at Cepage in an hour.
In the meantime, I took Tim to the boutique I was then managing – a propaganda gallery and urban fashion label called Dogma. Tim wanted to see my homage to Flynn – a life-sized mannequin of Sean which bore an uncanny and haunting likeness of the Son of Captain Blood. Tim posed me next to the mannequin, and he took a picture of the “virtual” Sean, himself and me in the reflection of my motorcycle mirror.
“You can see what I’m not doing here, young David, and what I am doing at the same time, obviously,” he chuckled in his usual cryptic and mischievous way.
“Yes, I do. But I don’t know if it’s asking for bad voodoo, mate!” I replied.
“Ha ha, it’s alright mate, no issues!” he smugly replied.
We then moved on to Cepage and awaited Peter’s arrival. Tim mentioned that he really needed to have a serious talk with Peter about his behavior, and was questioning whether or not it would be too much of a risk for he and I to follow Peter on the expedition.
“He doesn’t f*cken know that he’s walking into an ambush, that the claymores are laid, and I have the clacker in my hand, that there is no escape,” Tim said as he chain smoked and drank coffee.
“Aren’t you burning bridges doing things that way?” I replied.
“No, I’m not burning any bridges, only amateurs burn their bridges, I’m satchel charging the mother f*ckers like a professional,” Page said.
Peter finally arrived looking hung over, sporting geeky, large-framed reading glasses and a lamb-like afro. He walked straight into a huge lecture by Professor Page, and I can tell you one thing for sure, Page certainly knows how to lay his claymores correctly.
Things quickly got out of hand, and they started arguing loudly, trading personal insults. I thought it best to let them have it out, so I separated myself from the situation.
When they had calmed down and the matter seemed resolved, I came back and asked whether or not they were ready to go and get something to eat, my shout.
Luu had gotten off work early and wanted to catch up with me for dinner, so Tim, Peter, Luu and I decided to meet at the Nepalese restaurant across the road from Cepage to enjoy a meal together, probably not the ideal meal for one whom just had a heart attack earlier the same day.
But I was downplaying and ignoring my health problems and being the Queenslander “She’ll be right If your not dead you not too bad off” male about what had happened.
Luu was downtown shopping, something made me think she finished work early specifically to come and check on me to see how I was fairing after my early morning heart turn.
Page, Schied and I settled down at a table and went through the menu awaiting my wife’s arrival. The mood was very strange considering both old friends Page and Schied had just had a barney, the root of which was the issue of taking responsibility and recent lifestyle differences, but Tim was concerned that we were about to go to make a film in one of most remote area in the world with a director Page didn’t think was in condition enough to survive it.
Tim was also recently sober and was at a point where he was almost completely recovered from his alcoholism and was being how we all are when we go through this process; a little high and mighty and suddenly very judgmental of drinkers. Peter is the old school adventurer type who drinks and womanizes like the best of them.
Peter had also recently spent time in recovery himself from a broken kneecap, Page was suspicious about whether or not it had healed properly and didn’t think that drinking and partying until late at night would help the recovery process.
Luu arrived, and gave me a peck of a kiss.
Her presence lightened the mood as we sat down and made small talk awaiting our food.
Tim spoke very politely to Luu, asking her general questions about what she was doing and if she liked the food, being the gentleman that he is.
Peter sat in the corner quietly brooding over the conflict that Page and he had just been through and pecking at his food.
Page said that he had to go and get some sleep due to an early start in the morning flying out to “Phnompers” (Phnom Penh) to organize a photo exhibition he was due to be hosting.
After the meal I asked for the bill and paid it, refusing to let Tim kick in. He initially argued about it, but then relented and thanked me for being a gentleman.
As we were leaving the restaurant, we noticed a commotion outside. There were thousands of motorcycles pouring through the streets celebrating Vietnam’s victory over Singapore in the Asian Cup soccer.
The town was suddenly a sea of drunken motorcyclists flying their Vietnamese flags, beeping their horns and shouting in the glory of the moment.
Tim got on the back of Peter’s motorcycle and Luu got on the back of mine.
“This looks f*cken crazy man, there must be a million of ‘em out here on this street!” I commented. Tim just looked at me in a gonzo kind of way in agreement, concentrating on the confusion and snapping pictures.
We made our way slowly, heading towards the intersection behind the New World Hotel. I needed to get there to turn off to Chinatown, and Peter needed to drop Tim at his hotel.
We approached a heavy traffic jam. Sensing an opportunity, I rushed the red-light to escape the gasoline and exhaust asphyxiation of the revelers. I had just gone through the light in front of Tim and Peter, when I heard a gunshot go off behind me, which I assumed was a celebratory firecracker.
I saw two motorcycles speeding up behind us.
“What the f*ck! Are they crazy or what?!” said Luu.
I decelerated, and then a speeding bike cut across my left side.
Another bike came up right behind my right side and I saw a muzzle flash in my rearview mirror, heard and felt the bang go off near my head, and heard a bullet zip straight past Luu and my ear.
In the commotion of the huge traffic jam, two gangsters on a hotted-up motorcycle were in pursuit of someone who, most likely, had tried to welch on a gambling debt incurred from betting on the wrong soccer team. And I had accidentally ridden into the firefight!
Page and Schied were back at the cross lights watching it all unfold.
The bike on my left crashed at the following set of traffic lights, and the bike the gangsters were riding jumped the gutter. The gunman pushed himself off the back of his bike and started to walk towards the other bike wreck with pistol in hand.
The gangster grabbed the man, kicked his legs out from underneath him and put the gun to his head. It seemed he was about to execute the guy then and there.
Luckily, due to the major chaos caused by the multitude of the soccer revelers, and the serendipitous fact that there was a police station right by the traffic lights, there was an increased police contingency on the corner. The gunman was disarmed and apprehended before he got the chance to pull the trigger.
Luu and I were in absolute shock as I quickly darted through the traffic to avoid exposure to any more possible shooting. I cut a block and arrived heart pumping from the major adrenaline hit at Tim’s hotel. I ran up the two flights of stairs and pounded on his door.
It was obvious Page had only moments before gotten back into his room.
“Yeah, I saw everything. I was right behind you, you are lucky,” he said. I could see from his eyes that he was spooked by what had just happened.
“Did any of the bullets hit your motorbike?” he asked.
“No, they didn’t,” I replied.
“What a shame! It would have looked quite cool, and been a good story to tell,” Page mused.
I burst into laughter, breaking the tenseness of the mood.
“I can always shoot a hole in it myself and pretend that it happened in the shoot-out,” I said.
“Staged bullet holes don’t look nearly as artistic as the random kind. Now, you look after yourself now mate, okay?” Page said. I thanked him, wished him best of luck in Cambodia and said my goodbyes.
Luu and I got on my bike and headed through the millions of lights in search for our home in Chinatown, still in a state of shock. We stopped and pulled up by the side of the road to avoid the insane traffic for a moment.
“Maybe it’s time to leave Saigon, baby. We need to get out of here before it’s too late. It’s f*cken insane. We almost got shot by some f*cker with a Tokarev.” Luu thought I was making sense.
There is definitely some truth to the Winston Churchill quote that Dana Stone was known used to prolifically spout: “There is no greater feeling to be shot at and for the bullet to miss”.
Luu and I returned back to our apartment, showered and made passionate love for hours in the shadow of a blue halogen night-light. Being two lucky people in a city of ten million inhabitants to escape death by a lead slug does something to bond you together, if only for a night.
In hindsight it also makes me wonder why the bullet missed me. Later, when everything between us was going to go to sh*t, and also during the lonely nights away from her after our initial separation and divorce, I sometimes cursed God that the bullet missed me.
Page and I would have other great adventures before our public falling out in the media, but I will always remember his influence on me fondly, during the important formative years which changed me from an overweight, alcoholic, commercial artist into an M.I.A. Hunter and adventurer myself. Written by Dave Victor MacMillan, edited by Blair Denholm
Australian born David Victor MacMillan, 29-years old at the time of this writing, has been living in Vietnam for 8 years. He is a commercial artist, designer, ex- front man of Australian Punk/reggae band Scarred Hope, ex-nurse, actor, martial artist, security expert, stylist, some time bodyguard, veteran resident of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and a tracker and investigator who specializes in Missing Person cold cases. Dave has been on the trail of Sean Flynn, Dana Stone and all of their other missing journalist colleagues in Cambodia for the last three years and led the team responsible for the highly controversial attempt to recover Flynn's remains in Cambodia in March 2010.
Dave says steadfastly that he won't stop until he finds Sean Flynn's remains. "I have been given this Indiana Jones tag because I do things differently." He sure does, beginning each day at 5:00 a.m., riding up to 120km through rubber plantations and bandit country looking for leads. And while on a dig, he doesn't mind using his North Queensland gruff to get the team motivated. "I call my workers slack bastards if they cant keep up with me and dig all day long."
He says he has always been fascinated by Sean's disappearance since he was a child, adding that he was a cult-fan of Errol Flynn and a founder of the Flynn Society of Indochina on Facebook. "Most of the other members are just in it for the hell of it but my interest is far beyond that," he says. "I came to Asia because I want to solve this mystery."
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