I kill time between flights by dropping in on the airport duty-free tobacco shop, and the same thing always happens: a quick nostalgic reconnoitering of the famous cigar brands to see if--ah yes, there, in row 3! And there, row 5! And there, top row! Unopened boxes unlocking memories.
Montecristos, row 3, and I'm back a quarter of a century in room 208 of the Caravelle in Saigon after a day in the booby-trapped boonies of Vietnam. H. Upmanns, row 5, and I am rolling on the deck of the USS Glacier maneuvering between the threatening icebergs of Antarctica in the mid-1950s. Romeo y Julietas, top row; where am I? In China, 1972, watching President Nixon as Marco Polo standing on the Great Wall and endorsing it as a "great wall." All these fancy cigars remind me of a cigar I do not see: the old White Owls--are they still around?
Up until Vietnam, a cigar was a cigar was a cigar, with none of the special significance that the Montecristos were to later acquire. My first cigars were my father's, a long, long time ago. Those White Owls. Their aroma is still with me. I have a photograph of my father, smiling, that cigar in his hand mocking the Depression of the 1930s. It was one of his few luxuries--a gift to himself--and I marveled at the way his smoking a White Owl transformed him from an anonymous piecework wage-earner to a gentleman of leisure, smiling as though he didn't have a worry in the world. It was the best five cents ever spent.
My next cigar was very upscale, the Cuban H. Upmann, and it was quite by accident that I came across this famous Havana export that was celebrated in the best salons around the world. As a humble correspondent for The New York Times, I was covering a mid-1950s expedition to Antarctica that included the famed polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd. I don't recall if he smoked, but his son, Dickie Byrd--I think he was a U.S. Navy lieutenant--was also on the journey south and I clearly remember that he collected cigar bands. In any case, the PX aboard the USS Glacier featured a variety of domestic cigars, but the executive officer, as I recall, preferred Cubans, so H. Upmann went along for the ride. Buying a visa to an unknown world, I tried my first Upmann--and thought of my father's less mellow White Owls. This all took place pre-Fidel, so I could puff away perfectly legally as our ship deftly avoided embracing any of the icebergs looming around us.
And then, Peking in 1972, and my Great Cigar Leap Forward, to paraphrase Chairman Mao. As it happened, I was one of the CBS correspondents, along with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, who had the good fortune to be part of the press corps accompanying President Nixon on that diplomatic extravaganza to China and his tête-à-tête with the chairman. Yes, it was great that the United States and China were finally defusing tensions and talking détente. Yes, it was a stroke of genius that Washington was playing the China card against the anxious Soviets.
But to me all of that was a sideshow. What really transcended these strategic dimensions was the discovery that, in the lobby of my hotel, I could buy Romeo y Julietas fresh from Havana for $7.50 a box! Twenty-five of them! In tubes! Churchills! And at $7.50 a box, who cared about Sino-American relations, Mao and Nixon and even Henry Kissinger! You couldn't get them back home; this was post-Fidel now, and Havanas were on the no-no list of imports. But here, there were boxes of them, forbidden cigars in the Forbidden City. Conspicuous smoking immediately lit up the celestial heavens! I'd have one lit cigar between my lips, another tucked precariously over an ear, and I even tried to see whether I could balance one between my toes. I must have looked like a furnace with smoke floating out of three chimneys, and I wasn't the only such furnace on the reportorial landscape. If I could be assured that the statute of limitations has expired, I might even have a few additional confessions about whether any of those contraband Havanas made the journey back to the States.
But these are bits and pieces in my humidor of memories that go back eras. Cigars light up many memories for me, but Montecristos and Vietnam are the most vividly linked. Back then--I'm thinking the late 1960s--when the war was making casualties of us all, a Montecristo at the end of a scary day in the field helped me to journey from one world to another, from the violently surreal to the ordinary. I'd puff on my Montecristo stingily, make it last as long as possible, cigar smoke replacing cordite smoke, the comforting aroma conjuring up images of dinner jackets and brandy instead of ambushes and punji sticks.
For a few hours, I could escape the whole tortured landscape of Vietnam: the GIs, Viet Cong, ARVN, NVA, DMZ, napalm, Cu Chi tunnels, Khe Sanh, My Lai, the Delta, medevacs, body bags...endless images. So different from the outwardly serene and captivating images of my very first trip to Saigon in 1956 to cover the inauguration of president Ngo Dinh Diem, as well as the inauguration of deluded U.S. optimism. "Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong." Robert McNamara, wasn't it? Almost 40 years later; all those casualties later.
I was living in Hong Kong between 1962 and 1965, as Southeast Asia bureau chief for CBS News, and again, after an interlude in Paris, between 1966 and 1970. Those early years were a great assignment--and not only because I could pick up a box of Montecristo No. 1s for under $30. Asia was mine to roam, that great exotic arc of geography filled with a million stories, from the Philippines to India--no visas to China in those days--and I'd smoke everything from Tabacaleras in Manila to cheroots in Rangoon as I wandered the region, covering everything from coups d'état to abbreviated wars. Even romance!
Do you remember that shy socialite from New York planning to marry the handsome chogyal (king) of Sikkim in Gangtok, in deepest Asia, in 1963? Do you remember Sikkim? Gangtok? I had cabled CBS New York, saying this was a great human-interest story we couldn't afford to miss, Asia and America tying the knot, blah blah blah. Heady days, those. The foreign desk back home bought it, and off we flew. It turned out to be a fabulous bash complete with Buddhist monks blowing 10-foot prayer horns and invoking the blessings of the gods. Did the chogyal pass out cigars? Too long ago to remember; I'm sure I brought my own. But I do recall borrowing top hat and tails from one of the VIP guests, no less than U.S. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith, so that I could be properly attired for a wedding stand-upper in the foothills of the Himalayas. Style, toujours le style!
Think of it: in that era before Vietnam seized all our days, we could get on the evening news with a story about love! But once Washington decided that the future of "the free world" depended upon who won in Vietnam, once GIs began pouring into Danang and Saigon and Cam Ranh beginning in 1965, the rest of Asia vanished as a news story. Asia, off the screen, erased overnight, more than a billion people suddenly gone; now it was Vietnam, appropriately shaped like a question mark, its destiny uncertain. Now it was dominoes, and would they fall.
So, beginning in 1966 and for almost four years, I'd fly out of Hong Kong every other month, on 30-day assignments, shuttling to and from the war, from the early days of gung ho to the later days of quagmire and, watching from afar as a State Department correspondent in Washington, to the final humiliating day of America's escape by helicopter. Through all those years, death never took a moment out for R&R. The KIAs kept piling up, and those trips to Saigon left me with the feeling of being a voyeur of killing, an accountant of death, waiting waiting waiting for the inevitable finale. Vietnam filled my life: the challenge to catch--and report--the maddening reality of what was taking place. And I also counted off those interminable 30 days, day by day.
How did I make it through? Well, here's the secret, declassified at last: I would buy a box of Montecristo No. 1s at the Pedder Street tobacconist in Hong Kong. I'd like to think that if only the good people in Havana who made Montecristo had known about my Vietnam problem, they'd have packed 30 to a box instead of 25. To fill the gap, I'd also buy a box of Cuban Henry Clays. Back in Saigon, in my room at the Caravelle, I'd bless the boxes in a ceremony attended only by me, during which I would incant some mumbo jumbo that miraculously transformed the cigars into a calendar.
The Montecristos were given the place of honor; each cigar symbolized one day in Saigon, and I'd limit myself to one a day, and only one a day, no matter what. The collapsing ash at the end of each cigar meant one less day in Vietnam. When all 25 were gone, the empty box proclaimed that I was now down to my last five days and a "wake-up," as they said in Vietnam. Five Henry Clays, and I'd be on my way back to my wife and small daughters in Hong Kong! Hallelujah! So in the late 1960s, with the number of GIs in the country climbing to more than 500,000, with casualty lists of 500 a week, the trinity of my life was predictable and repetitious: the month, the war, the Montecristos coming to the rescue. Try to think of it as a way of hanging on to a bit of sanity in a Vietnam scenario that sanity had abandoned.
I have a photo of myself that makes me squirm with embarrassment: in a combat helmet and life-preserver jacket, aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer shelling the coast of North Vietnam--and there I am with a cigar jutting from my mouth, surveying the scene, observing death en route. I know it was war, killing on both sides. Yet I can't look at this photo now, 30 years later, without seeing that cigar as a kind of theatrical macho. If the war had won the country's support as something noble instead of as a deadly sorry-about-that, the response would have been different. Instead there was a murderous emptiness about it all, a war that was written off even before it was officially ended, as if everything had been robotically programmed, and could not be stopped. The war was dayless, monthless, yearless--a timeless monster into which I out of private desperation had introduced my own measure of time.
All these years later, whenever I find myself in an airport, I make a nostalgic check at the tobacco shop to see how much more expensive my memories have become. Last time I was in Hong Kong, about a year ago, Montecristo No. 1s were selling for HK$3,125 a box--or about US$400.
But whatever the price, Montecristos always trigger poignant memories: endless Vietnam, the war exploding in the jungle, flares lighting up the night sky, bodies on the battlefield sometimes only a taxi drive away from the Caravelle, and me, desperately trying to escape the marathon horror of it all by smoking my way through my very own calendar.
Bernard Kalb is a former correspondent for The New York Times, CBS News and NBC News and is now a panelist for the weekly CNN program "Reliable Sources." He also moderates global media programs for The Freedom Forum and is co-author with his brother, Marvin Kalb, of two books: Kissinger, a biography, and The Last Ambassador, a novel.