The first time my father told me about Sean Flynn's disappearance, I felt as if a spider had walked down my spine. "Just gone?" I said, looking down at a picture that was taken of Sean hours before he vanished into the Cambodian countryside in April 1970 — a heart-stoppingly handsome young man on a motorcycle with thick sideburns and a battered Nikon around his neck. "Yeah," my father said in a papery voice that made him suddenly sound much older. "Just gone."
I was seven or eight at the time, and the story of Sean Flynn took fire in my mind. At night I would lie in bed and imagine the brave 28-year-old war photographer, the son of Errol Flynn, riding behind enemy lines. Suddenly the enemy poured out of the trees like bats and waved him off his bike with their guns. They tied him up and walked him away into the jungle, shiny green leaves closing like curtains behind them. It horrified me, but I couldn't stop thinking about it.
Sean Flynn and my father, Stephen Cutter, grew up together in Palm Beach; my father called Sean his best friend. I had never heard my father refer to anyone as his best friend — he tended to say he had "different interests" than most people in Palm Beach — so as I grew older, I bugged him for stories about Sean. I was told that in Vietnam Sean captivated everyone from grunts to Green Berets with both his gentle presence and his daring; that he saved soldiers' lives; that he loved Tolstoy and Jimi Hendrix. I was told that when he walked into a bar, "you could hear the panty hose snap."
For a long time, I prayed that Sean would be found. I had the idea that we could become friends and that he would help me understand my father, who had abandoned a much-photographed life in Palm Beach society in the early seventies and lit out in search of something I've been trying to figure out ever since. Last year I decided I would try to bring Sean to life. I called my father — he's now 67 and lives alone in a cabin deep in the Virginia mountains — to ask more questions, and a week later a package arrived in my mailbox; inside was an old manila folder, smudged with fingerprints, bearing the faded label FLYNN —SEAN.
Inside the folder were 40 years' worth of papers and photographs: letters Sean had written my father from Vietnam on tissue-thin stationery; pictures of my father and Sean as toothy, sunburned teenagers; yellowed articles from Harper's and Time about Sean's disappearance. There were bumper stickers that read WHATEVER HAPPENED TO SEAN FLYNN? Finally, there was a series of letters from VIVA, an organization dedicated to the POWs and MIAs of Vietnam, answering my father's repeated requests for information — letters that became more and more hopeless as the years went on.