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Henningsen: Remembering Malcolm Browne

09/12/12 5:55PM By Vic Henningsen
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(Host) Malcolm Browne, a legendary journalist whose reporting from Vietnam won the Pulitzer Prize, died last month. Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen was his neighbor and has these reflections.

(Henningsen) Cider pressing on our road in Thetford will be more subdued this season and maple syrup will lose some of its zest now that Malcolm Browne's no longer around to share the experience. He delighted in gatherings where friendships grew as we reaped nature's bounty.

I met him a dozen years ago, soon after we came to the road. I knew his Vietnam reporting, especially his horrifying photos of the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk whose 1963 protest against the U.S.-backed Diem regime in South Vietnam became an enduring visual memory of that tragic era. And I had just finished reading William Prochnau's excellent Once Upon a Distant War, a study of American newsmen in Vietnam in which Malcolm figures prominently along with David Halberstam and Neal Sheehan. Later, I read Malcolm's own Muddy Boots and Red Socks and got the rest of his adventurous story: being shot down not once, but three times; learning how to walk through mine-fields; risking everything to get his Vietnamese colleagues out when Saigon fell.

Malcolm's fierce reporting gave the lie to "spin doctors" everywhere. An equal opportunity offender, he irritated the U.S. government and angered a variety of authoritarian regimes that detained or expelled him when death threats didn't work. One of the youngest reporters in Vietnam he was, at sixty, the oldest war correspondent in the 1991 Gulf War, where he was slightly wounded in a Scud attack. For almost forty years, Malcolm covered crises and conflicts around the world, taking occasional breaks for stories on topics as varied as trekking in the Himalayas and hunting Nazis in Argentina.

Malcolm trained as a chemist, becoming a journalist only when the Army reassigned him from driving a tank in Korea to working for Stars and Stripes. As a science reporter late in his career he traveled to Antarctica so often, it's said, he got a commuter discount.

He was a true scientist in that he never lost his capacity for wonder. An almost childlike enthusiasm for discovering how things worked joined a passion for objectivity that gave his journalism extraordinary precision and clarity - whether about the inner dealings of a corrupt regime or the mechanics of a supernova.

Here on the road, though, he was just Malcolm, an eager participant in neighborhood affairs, an occasional balloonist down in Post Mills, and a discerning judge of local cider and syrup.

After cider-pressing last fall I drove him home in my vintage 1955 MG. Typically, we had the hood up for a lengthy examination while Malcolm discoursed about gear ratios and other details of post-war English sports cars, prior to strapping in for a full speed roar down the road. His Parkinsons had been pretty bad that day, but he laughed all the way home.

In late August family and friends buried Malcolm Browne on the lovely Thetford hillside where he watched so many bright dawns - a restless seeker after truth, come home at last.

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