Doc Gonzo: White Christmas is Playing

It is time to race for the helicopters.

"This is the last message from Embassy Saigon."

-- Final line of the final cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam, at 4 a.m. April 30, 1975.

It's the holiday season, so I thought I'd share a little-known history story about one of the most beloved Yuletide songs of all time, Irving Berlin's White Christmas.

In the waning days of the Vietnam War, American combat troops had long since left South Vietnam, but many U.S. civilians and U.S. government officials, along with their families, remained. They stayed behind because they now had Vietnamese family, owned a local business, worked with the Saigon government or some corporation. Many just loved exotic South Vietnam. The reasons to live in Saigon, once the Paris of Southeast Asia, were myriad and the war had seemed stable, and often far away, for some time.

By April 1975, with the South Vietnamese military on the ropes in the face of a renewed communist offensive, and the American Congress cutting off vital supplies, including ammunition, it was evident to everyone that the time was nearing to leave before the communists seized the remaining free portions of the country.

The idea of remaining behind after the fall of the south didn't appeal to many Americans, especially because they knew the communists had summarily executed thousands of people after briefly occupying Hue City in the 1968 Tet Offensive.

So Americans increasingly looked to the U.S. embassy for guidance as the communist noose tightened around Saigon, the southern capital. With an assault on the city looming, something would need to be done to alert the remaining Americans to get to the U.S. embassy for final evacuation, by helicopter to the U.S. fleet waiting offshore.

Many left as April progressed toward May and the fighting neared. With no hope for victory, Americans, other Westerners and their Vietnamese families and friends fled to neighboring countries, to the Philippines or the United States.

A simple plan was devised to notify those who remained: American Radio Service Vietnam would broadcast that "the temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising" followed by White Christmas as the signal that the final evacuation was under way.

The announcement and song came early on April 29, 1975.

Oddly enough, when the song was played, it wasn't the well-known Bing Crosby version. It was a variation by Tennessee Ernie Ford, according to Chuck Neil, who was part of the radio team, in "Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam."

By the next day, the final chopper had lifted off the embassy rooftop, and the communists had toppled the non-communist south. The Vietnam War was over.

What, you may ask, does all this tiresome historical exposition have to do with the Cleveland Browns? Simple. This time of year is when White Christmas fills the airwaves and it reminds me of that time in our history. And the mass exodus by panicked people abandoning doomed Saigon could be the simplified historic model for fans deserting the crumbling Browns.

Cleveland Browns Stadium anymore is a barren wasteland where fans have long since given up, and the few remaining diehards quickly make for the exits when the opposition yet again dismantles an outmatched Browns team. The mood in the stands is heavy-ugly and tempers are on edge. Fans, yet again, are left with a helpless feeling as the team disintegrates. Embarrassment, anger and frustration rule, so the stadium is drained until only the old-school reactionaries like myself remain.

This team is simply outclassed in every aspect of the game. I'm far from sold on Terry Robiskie keeping the head coaching job, but I did see a better game-day coaching performance from the entire sideline last week. The botched clock management, blown timeouts, late play calls and other assorted nonsense from Butch Davis' recent tenure was absent Sunday. That could be because the Browns really were never in the game. It also could be a more crisp management scheme by Robiskie. It's too early to tell, and he's got four more games to audition.

On the field, the story remains the same: A crippled franchise simply is without playmakers. The occasional great play or solid series is eclipsed by simply not being able to match-up, talent-wise, with a team like New England. Robiskie is playing a chess match with nothing but pawns.

On the bright side, the Browns continue to play hard, even if they are incapable of winning. This team isn't good, but it has more spirit and long-term value (backups getting experience now) than, say, the 1990 or 2000 teams. That's little consolation after the team has surrendered 100 points in two weeks and stumbled to a 3-9 record that shows little hope of evolving into anything but 3-13. Things could very well get worse as the year limps to an end.

The rest of this season is merely the equivalent of preseason games. They are going to be sloppy games played by men who will very likely be on the bench, another team or out of the NFL in 2005.

The only enjoyment at this point, barring a victory, is going to be finding a diamond in the rough from the players forced into action now, and the speculation about who will be hired to fill the general manager and coaching jobs. Oh, and a quarterback controversy is now in full bloom, since the team didn't have enough distractions.

Four more weeks, then the nightmare is finished.

In the meantime, the temperature in Cleveland is 105 degrees and rising.


Former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernies Insiders each Thursday. His Christmas list includes items that, because of decency standards, can't be listed here, but we can say they are illegal is most states. Write him at

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