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A Thanksgiving Story: Memories of Those Gone Too Soon

By H. Clark

Fall TreeAll the leaves of the deciduous trees around my neighborhood are changing color, reacting to fall, and already falling. Looking out of my bay window at one tree across the street, I admire the true beauty of its golden leaves, falling ever so gently in the soft autumn breeze. I stepped outside for a brisk walk to feel and enjoy the new season. The morning air is so clear, so cool, and so calm. I like to step on the coppered brown leaves just to hear the crunch. The fallen leaves and the chill in the air remind me of Thanksgiving. Time for me to remember, to give thanks to my family, and friends, for all the experiences and the good things that I have been given.

I am intrigued by what I remember. I have difficulty remembering a lot of people’s names as if they were wiped out in my mind, save for the times, the places, and the people. I am convinced we are all meant to be at specific times in specific places to meet with specific people. Everything had to work in its order, almost like clockwork.

When I was still in high school, I wrote out a wish list. Seeing Paris, Rome, Venice, and seeing the world were on it, so were running through a poppy field, driving my own white car, saving someone’s life, marrying to my true love, and many more… The list grew with the passage of time and I got to mark much off my list.

Saving someone’s life would sound impossible, so unlike me. I doubted seriously if I could ever mark it off my list, so I choose the easy way out by donating blood to the American Red Cross on occasions. I also worked long and hard to sponsor my family, my mother and sisters, to join me in the U.S. All of my younger sisters didn’t speak English when they arrived. To their credit, they all have graduated from college with a degree, unlike me, in the U.S. One has now been working for NASA for thirty years with the astronauts, another in the high-tech field, and the youngest in accounting. According to them, I saved their lives. I’m blown away.

I thought after high school, I would join my friends to study at the Paris-Sorbonne in France or at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, but that didn’t happen. I took all the prerequisite English classes in the evenings after work in preparation to further my education at the University of Michigan out of all the possible places. It was recommended by the school I attended, as they had certain core curriculum affiliated with this university. I had my diploma rolled up in my hands, but didn’t get to go there either. Such is my fate. I am really destined to be in California.

I feel very fortunate to live in California.  One obvious reason is I am destined to live in a state that is home to the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the wonders of the world.  Growing up in Viet Nam, I never thought for a moment that I would see it one day, let alone see it almost every day. I was puzzled at first sight that it is painted red instead of gold.  Another reason has to be that California shares the Pacific Ocean with my homeland.  The Pacific Ocean gives me a sense of warmth and security that I am closer to my native home than living in anywhere else in the world.  I find the views of the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay most captivating, as they are often laced with fog, creating a romantic mood in this most European of American cities.  Adding to my amazement, I learned that there are over 200 languages known to be spoken and read in California.  It has more than 100 indigenous languages, making California one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world.  Never had I imagined that my new life would begin in such a wondrous place.  Is it but fate, an invisible hand that determined my past, and with it my path here?

Going back in time in the spring of 1969. It was the beginning of a new year and the beginning of an eerie time period of my life. It was because some curfews were in full effect. At the time, I was living with my family in Bien Hoa. Before my father died, the town was a haven. It was a place where only happy memories existed for us, but suddenly everything changed.

When curfew was enforced, it upset everybody’s normal daily routine and their normal pace. My life suddenly had to be regimented. My daily routine changed, instantly and instinctively. I developed specific patterns for everything I did. I never veered from my route, not to and from work, not to and from school in early evenings. There was an atmosphere of haste and frenzy as if people were suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. You could almost read panic in people’s faces. They franticly rushed to get home early in the evenings. And then DEAD SILENCE until dawn! Each household was required to have a family picture ID booklet for a headcount and was required to show it to the military police during a home search, which often seemed random and often at night. You can get the picture.

Friends and Pretzels

It was very hard to hear news about someone who had just lost a family member, or a relative. It was much harder to accept the assertion of grief hearing news about the loss of your own friends. You don’t believe it for weeks on end. You just learn to live with it. But tell that to the suffered.

One notable day, in 1969, a Vietnamese coworker of mine, who commuted every day from Sai Gon, was talking about having kidney stones and how painful it was. He was an easy going, cheerful guy. He loved to tell stories with humor that often made us laugh. He didn’t show up for work the very next day. The story told was that in the night before, he went next door to watch TV with his friends during the curfew and when he tried to take just a few steps back to his home, he was shot dead by the police. Just like that, we never saw him again! He was an interpreter to the advisors, not yet married, and not yet 30 years old.

To the Vietnamese in Bien Hoa at the time, and maybe even today, “pretzels” was a tongue-twisted, brand new word, and was especially problematic because it was used in plural. The letters and the combination of letters such as ea, j, sh, w, and pr, z, el, and words ending with s, as in pretzels, are non-existent in Vietnamese.

I remember I had a friend who had very pretty icy blue eyes, like the earliest ice on the lake, when it’s so thin the color of the water still shows through. He was an American advisor. One day, he brought to work a one-gallon size of “pretzels” in tin can ,to share with us in the office. I remember the wonderful fresh aroma as he opened the tin can. It was my first introduction to pretzels. They were the thinly sticks kind, a tad longer than the size of the matches, with buttery flavor. Of course, I like them more than anyone else in our group! I have always been a big eater, love to eat new, foreign foods. I especially like to eat the banh mi crusty baguettes. I might be the only one Asian who loves bread more than rice with breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

I had been a very shy girl in my younger years. I rarely talked. It might be because I was surrounded by family members who are witty so I was more a listener. After my father died, I clammed up even more. I was in my grubbiest clothes and was mopping the kitchen floor on one particular instance of my self-imposed silence, I look so different than my pretty sisters that my mother’s new friends mistook me as an adopted daughter, or a poor relative, or a maid. I didn’t find the remarks funny, didn’t mutter one word. I kept on mopping. I surprised the visitors; they may have thought I was a deaf and mute kid, but that didn’t matter. However, I felt a little insulted, entertained at the same time. After the visitors had left, I told my mother “next time, tell them I am a maid and they would believe it, undoubtedly.” I, after all, looked the part. It became an inside joke in the family.

I remained subdued for a period of time after my dad died, but I recovered slowly and partially. I wanted more pretzels, so badly that the devil in me said not to miss this chance to “speak up.” I asked my friend, the American advisor, to buy one-gallon can of pretzels, just for me, so that I wouldn’t have to share it with people in the office, and HE DID!

Besides the interpreters, I was the only one in the office who was able to pronounce pretzels for the first time and that was just the day before. All others, the typical older folks, failed miserably, which made all of us laugh. I still remember when he saw me on the following day, he teased me by whispering “what happened to the can of pretzels?” My listening skill in English then was not quite adequate, so I didn’t catch the word again as he spoke it so effortlessly and kind of fast for me. I had to ask him to say it again. Ahhh! Pretzels!!! I was embarrassed, but confessed I had eaten all of them last evening, watching “Lost in Space” on TV. One of my other favorite TV show was “The Wild, Wild West.” I was imagining myself enjoy watching those TV episodes and eating a lot of pretzels in the days to come. I love eating popcorn, too, but pretzels won, I think, because it was new to me in that particular time. Despite the war, life was good, I thought! Little did I know then it was the last time I had the pleasure of eating pretzels, the only kind I like, in Viet Nam, or seeing my good friend ever again.

Later in the evening of that day, he went to a party with a group of friends at a hamlet and was ambushed. It was reported a bomb was planted by the Viet Cong under the table where he and his friends sat. Many were wounded, and as I understood, he was the only one killed. I might be wrong; there could be more than one killed, but our friend was dead! We were in total disbelief when people described how bloody the place was in the aftermath. Only his shoes were found, and they were brought in to the office. And I saw them. It was so gut-wrenching. We all cried our eyes out and mourned for days. I thought of the pretzels he just bought for me. He was so alive just yesterday, and then he was gone! I was the youngest in the office, a teenager, so anybody who was over 30 then was really old to me. Looking back, he was still very young, barely in his 30’s. My boss mailed his shoes back to his family in the U.S. Those were the saddest days of my life, after the loss of my father. A U.S. compound in Bien Hoa near where he was ambushed was renamed after him.

In 1970, I left USAID in Bien Hoa to go to work for the USO in Sai Gon on Nguyen Hue Street.

My Brush with Death

It was in 1972 and I had been commuting to work in Sai Gon for two years. Around 6 a.m. one morning, my grandpa had been up, reading the newspaper and drinking his coffee. I said my goodbye to him, gave him a hug and left the house. From my house, I had to walk past the old USAID building, and then less than one block beyond it to the bus station. Normally there would be people around, as early as 4 a.m., like vendors setting up shops as well as others such as myself, walking to the bus station. It was a quite safe area. We had never heard of any crime reported before. The police headquarters is just right across that main street of town.

That morning was darker than usual, my sixth sense told me something didn’t seem right. There was nobody around that I could see. It was not a good sign. An eerie feeling came over me. I was going to turn right back home, a block and a half away, to ask grandpa to walk with me, but it was too late. There was no chance for that, because suddenly out of nowhere I heard quick steps behind me and they were getting closer and closer. I turned my head over my shoulder just enough to catch in the dark a silhouette of a soldier right behind me, carrying what seemed to be a rifle. I felt like a lamb trying to run, but I couldn’t run. I tried to walk faster, but my legs seemed like twisted soft noodles. I was carrying my small shoulder strap purse on my left side, so I quickly held the strap real tight with both hands, tried to bring it to the front, but the soldier was quicker. He grabbed my purse’s shoulder strap from behind and yanked it forcefully toward him. I tried to hold and tug it with all my might, moving forward and away from him, but he was much stronger. I fell backward onto the ground and he dragged me for a good few feet. I didn’t know just what to do. I knew my grandpa couldn’t possible hear me from a block and a half away, but the robber didn’t know that. I just wanted him to be aware that someone else besides me is awake at that time and could be nearby, so I screamed at the top of my lungs “Grandpa, grandpa, come out to help me, help me, help…” Those words seemed strange on the tip of my tongue as I never had to utter them before, much less scream.

By that time in the morning, I was hoping there would be somebody around, but there was no one when I wanted them. The sky was so dark, there were no stars, no sun, nothing but a dimly lit lamp post, and no help! My only chance was to continue to yell repeatedly “Grandpa, help, help…” so loudly that the soldier ran away, after successfully stealing my purse. I normally wore a dress, but on that particular morning I wore an ao dai. I thought that was supposed to protect me from the perverts.

The robber ran across the street and turned into a dark alley. What I didn’t expect happened. As he was running away, he fired back at least five or more shots at me with his riffle. Hearing the first gun shot, I felt numb as if it did hit me, and felt that my life was evaporating for a second. As short as a second was, I had the time to think in several thoughts that it was very important I must move around and that he was running away so chances were his shots might become less and less accurate. I felt more reassured with those thoughts. They gave me hope as the subsequent gun shots were fading out and away. I remember I also thought this can’t be the end of my life now, I was not done yet, NOT SO SOON. As I turned to my right, I still saw my way home, I still knew my grandpa was up, drinking coffee and reading his newspaper in the kitchen, and I still could think my dear life depended on me to run home. In the twinkling of an eye, in an infinitesimal fraction of a second, I quickly picked myself up, however it seemed like a slow motion, I scrambled toward home. I wasn’t quite sure that I was really still alive. It was like an absurd dream.

I ran home terrified, crying to grandpa. I remember his words until this day. “Did you call out for me? I’m so sorry I couldn’t hear you.” He gave me a big hug to console me. Then I told him about my purse and what I did the night before. It had a rectangle boxy like bottom. I had cut out a piece of brown cardboard approximately 8” x 4” and wedged it securely under the leather bound, rigid seams in the bottom, so it would look like the lining and part of the purse. It served as my secret place where I kept some extra money. My younger sister was getting married and had asked that I pick up the wedding invitations for her. She gave me $3,000 dong bac (paper $). I had put all that money in that secret place in the bottom of my purse under the cardboard.

During the struggle, all the buttons of my ao dai in the front were busted, it was ripped and ruined as I was dragged from behind. After I had changed my clothes, grandpa and I went to the alley that I described. By this time, there was enough daylight to see around, so we inspected the place where I lost sight of the robber. By chance, we found my purse in one of the bushes. The robber had emptied it out and thrown it away. All he came away with were merely a few items like a hair brush, a pen, some cash for the bus fare, and my ID card. I pulled the cardboard off the bottom of my purse and showed to grandpa all the money that was left intact. What a little relief! It was only $3,000 dong bac, but for us, it was quite a sum if we had to come up with to replace it. Having to apply for new ID card was such a hassle! It was my unforgettable memory of grandpa.

After that terrible incident, I was so traumatized that I needed to limit my commute. I lived with my godmother in Thi Nghe (a city located behind the Sai Gon Zoo) on weekdays and only came home on the weekends. This regimen lasted for the rest of my life in Viet Nam. I left Sai Gon in April 1975.

Return to Bien Hoa

In December of 2010, I returned to Bien Hoa with my mother. It would be my first and last trip to Viet Nam with my mother who is now too old for travel. I was overwhelmed with mixed emotions and the memories of over four decades ago. Unlike in Sai Gon, the places I once knew in Bien Hoa remained the same as if I never left it. I had to remind myself I was in a different time, and along with it, I have changed to an older and wiser me.

It has been a long time ago, but the years seem to have just flew by me! I still remember specifically the times, the places, and the people, walking through Bien Hoa. Here was where I met my Santa in December of 1968, a few steps from there had no traces of the street robbery, it was just a street beneath my feet, and it was here where I had the honor to meet with my friends whose young lives were gone too soon. I still think of them and imagine how wonderful their lives could have been. As a young kid back then, it was hard for me to fathom the war, life and death. I had been waiting for a long time to return to this place I called home, filled with bittersweet memories, so with huge emotions and teary eyes, I lingered there for a while in silence, retracing the old, familiar path. Time seemed to stand still in that moment. The images of the past are grayish, yet remain starkly clear in my mind. I am forever thankful that my own life was spared in the darkness of one early morning in my youth.

I’d love to hear what you are thankful for, if you’d like to share in the comments below.

6 comments to A Thanksgiving Story: Memories of Those Gone Too Soon

  • Mike McNally

    Many thanks to you and all the other Saigon Kids. I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  • Kathy Connor Dobronyi

    Thank you for sharing your stories. You had many hopes, dreams, sorrows, and successes in Viet Nam.

    Although you love pretzels, how horrible for you to learn of your friend’s death. I am glad you did not wait to ask him for the pretzels. You shared your gift of language with him; he shared a special food.

    I hope with the telling of your stories, your heart will heal. You have survived, but I believe pieces of ourselves carry the pain in our lives. Telling these stories help to ease the pain. Sharing them affirms our ability to survive.

    It is brave of you to share them with us. I feel very honored.

    • H.Clark

      Dear Kathy,

      Thank you very much for your kind words; I am honored.

      I am counting my blessings and have a lot to thank for. I am very grateful. My life looks nothing like what I had expected for myself, but it has turned out to be so much more than I ever could have imagined. It is great.

      Huong

  • Kathy Conor Dobronyi

    I wonder how many have had lives turn out the way they expected. I certainly haven’t although I did become the teacher I envisioned when I was a child. Of course, I never thought I would be teaching high school students, but the challenge was too compelling and a heck of a lot of fun.

    • Kenneth R. Yeager

      When I graduated from Dalat School in 1963, I had no earthly idea what I wanted to do with my life. West Point was an idea but being the dummy I am, that idea dropped out pretty quick. I did manage to get into a university but that didn’t last too long as studying took too much time from partying. Since the VN war was in full swing, the Army beckoned but since I didn’t want to be drafted and wind up in the infantry, I joined. Two years, nine months and 11 days later I was on my way to being a police officer, BUT I had identified viable employment with the Department of State which worked out two years later. Thus, I entered the Foreign Service where I remained for 32 years.

      Was any of this planned….no, or certainly not by me. At no point did I ever have a clue as to what I would like to do professionally. My main thought was to be gainfully employed. Living outside of the US, there was no access to career counselors or any sort of program to help guide one into a desirable profession. Sure, I considered the Army until I was a part of it and that killed that idea. Being a cop was a ploy to get out of the Army 90 days early under a then existing program. I did learn skills in the Army which I was able to apply to gain entry into the Foreign Service and used them for eight years before moving into a different career field where I more or less stayed for the next 24 years although even during that period I hopped from administrative to computers, back to admin work and finally into contracting, the last being the most enjoyable.

      Despite my lack of a good formal education beyond high school, I do possess a fair amount of common sense (my wife might question that at times) along with reasonable intelligence. I possess no natural skills but I can type so that helped.

      Looking back, I was lucky in my working life. A nice clean job in the Army as a communications specialist, two years of police work, drawing my gun once but never firing it at anyone (Thank God), and then into the Foreign Service where I earned a decent salary and in the end a reasonably good pension with health insurance. All with just two years of college behind me and even that was a just barely. One can’t do that today so yes, I have been very lucky.

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