FROM WAR TO FREEDOM by Thong Ba Le
The New Life
I look at the row of terminals as I count money for the completion of a cash pick-up. The red light at terminal #6 is blinking, which is the signal that the cashier needs assistance. I stop counting, drop the money in the safe and step out of the office to go help the cashier. Some regular customers are waving and smiling and calling hello to me. There are many friendly and likable clienteles who live near this supermarket, which is located in the heart of Falls Church, near Arlington, which is also home to a large group of Vietnamese refugees.
I approve the check for the customer and thank her for shopping at Giant Food. As I walk away, I look outside to see if the snow has stopped falling. It is the month of December and snow has been falling for many days. The store is always very busy during a snowstorm; whenever the news channels forecast bad weather, people panic that they will run out of food. They rush to the store and empty the shelves of food and household items. The customers buy enormous amounts of eggs, milk, hot dog buns, fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, toilet paper, paper towels, diapers, pet food, bird seed, beer, wine and anything else you can think of. Even when the forecast calls for a light flurry, rather than an inch or two of snow, people still panic. The first time I saw this mad rush, it reminded me of the war back home when we had to stock up on fish sauce and rice, on which we survived for months.
I was hired to work for this supermarket chain at the end of 1975, when I had just arrived in Washington, D.C. Without knowing the habits and reactions, as well as the urgency of Americans, I admired their patience while waiting in long lines at the checkout counters. It was completely different from our impatience and our habit of cutting in line whenever possible. When I was in a food-line at the refugee camp in Wake Island, I had just turned my back for a moment and there was a person, trying to look very innocent, sneaking in front of me, just like that.
On that first snowy day, I was so impressed that when I trudged tiredly through the door of my simple home, I told my wife about these patient Americans. My wife was very surprised and she praised the native people highly.
Every night I came home exhausted and went straight to bed, my hands and feet aching from standing all day long at the checkout terminal without taking a break due to the lack of help.
Every morning when snow was falling, I woke up very early and ate the cup of noodles that my wife prepared for my breakfast. I would kiss my wife goodbye and grab my lunch bag, which usually contained a submarine sandwich, an orange or apple and a can of soda and left for the bus stop near my house. It was winter and the snow was falling steadily, the howling of the cold wind clearly audible. I remembered my philosophy of life that I had held for a long time, which I intended to use as a guideline for my life in this strange country. I always reminded myself that I came from a poor and miserable nation with more challenges and obstacles than this free and rich place and I still overcame them and my will to survive and to keep my self-respect was always foremost in my mind.
I remembered that I stated in my resume that the reason I wanted very much to have a job was because: "My goal is to support my own family so we do not become a burden to this society."
I believed that we left our beloved country for one and only one reason: to live freely in a democratic nation because we didn't want to live as slaves under the Communist regime in Vietnam.
My stubborn belief in my philosophy of life had been a part of me since I was in the Vietnamese Maritime Special Operations in the enemy's waters north of DMZ in the area called " The Black Sea Zone." That philosophy was my only hope when I had to hide for 26 days underground and survived the Communists who were searching for Vietnamese soldiers during the Tết offensive in my hometown in Huế City. And later, that philosophy of life became more meaningful and even stronger the night my country fell apart. I stood silently on the pier of the Naval support base in Nhā Bč, with sorrow in my heart and tears in my eyes as I witnessed the departure of the entire Vietnamese Navy fleet running away from an enemy who had not come to the nation's capital.
As I was walked to the bus stop, I kept thinking about my past sad experiences but I was truly happy with my own philosophy of life. Therefore I forgot the bitter cold and heavy snow that kept falling, but my teeth still did not stop shivering due to the blizzard. They seemed to chatter involuntarily. My wife was afraid that I'd catch a bad cold so she made me put on many clothes before I left for work. That day I wore a shirt, a sweater, a jacket and a big raincoat from the church. The raincoat was so big that it made my children laugh because it did not fit me at all. They thought that perhaps it belonged to a very tall and big member of the church. I did not want to wear so many clothes, first because I could not move comfortably and second because it made me look fat. But when I complained about it, my wife said in her sweet voice, "I already told you, dear, that it's very cold outside, but you won't believe me. If you are sick, I have to take care of you. Please wear more warm clothes, okay?"
At that time, I was mumbling under my breath, "My love, you only know what they said on television. You have not gone out there yet." But I had to agree with her as I was standing in the bitterness of the blizzard. It was so cold that the wind felt like a knife against my face. My skin looked frozen and my teeth started chattering once again.
To reach the store, which was located at Spout Run in Arlington, I had to change buses from the one close to my duplex. Therefore, in order to be on time for work, I had to leave home at least one and a half hours before I was scheduled to arrive. The last bus stop was about a mile from the store. As I was walking through the snow from the bus stop to the supermarket, I remembered the movie "An American in Paris," in which the actor Gene Kelly was singing in the rain. I imitated him and sang as I walked, but unlike Gene Kelly, I did not sing because I was in love. I sang in order to forget my sorrows, for the part of me that was gone forever, the warrior of the sea in the Far East. And then I thought about my philosophy of life and I raised my voice higher and stronger, to mix with the falling of snow.
I was hired by Giant Food, Incorporated for a Management Training Program; I would be groomed to become a general manager of one of their stores in the future. On my first day, I reported to the store manager, who seemed very surprised when he saw me juggling a big brief case that contained books and manuals and a lunch bag filled with sandwiches, oranges, a coke. He shook my hand in a friendly manner and told me that his boss, the district manager, had informed him that he was designated to train me at his store. I would be in the "on the job training" management program, and once a week I was to attend classes at the Company Training Center located in Greenbelt, Maryland to implement what I learned at the store level. I also enrolled in different management courses such as Business Administration, Marketing, Business Law, Effective Communication and Accounting at Cornell University's Home Study Division to enhance my knowledge and to improve my management, leadership and communication skills. In order to fulfill those requirements, I would have to rely on my own transportation, which meant that I had to buy a used car.
That first morning, after showing me around and introducing me to the store's employees, the general manager assigned as my first duty to help a young porter clean the store. During the first three hours, we both mopped and cleaned almost every room and alley, including the restrooms, in the store. My back was sore from the constant bending and my hands were tired from handling the mop. I remembered a time when I was a Midshipman in the Naval Academy, more than 15 years ago, when I complained of the hardships I had to endure when the Master Chief Petty Officer punished me for not mopping the ship deck properly. Later, he finally taught me how to let the mop do its job by twisting the handle and using the mop head to clean, instead of using the strength of my arms. This was the first time I had to mop a big area like the supermarket since I graduated from the Academy. Standing and watching me do the cleaning, the African American porter was so surprised and admiring of my dexterity with the mop, he just stood there without helping me, saying "wow...wow," over and over.
Three months went by with me doing the same thing every day. I cleaned the floors early in the morning and when the bakery trailer came, I went outside to push stacks of bakery goods inside and helped load breads onto shelves. As soon as the store opened for business, I was the first cashier to check out customers. I felt that the Americans in that store were very racist, particularly the ones who worked in the front office. I had been hired as a management trainee and they were to train me in Accounting, Customer Assistance and Marketing at the store level, per the instructions of their supervisor. But even after three months, they still had not handed me the keys to the front office, never let me inside to learn how to do a cash pick-up and never taught me how to answer the customer phone line. I decided to report what was happening to my District Manager when he asked me what kind of progress I had made in the previous three months. I told him the truth and soon after, I was transferred to store located in Rockville, Maryland. Shortly after my arrival at this store, I was handed the keys to the front office and started my role as front-end assistant. I was in charge of managing the store at night. I was very proud of being able to utilize my leadership, administrative and management skills that I learned from my experiences during the Vietnam War as a senior Naval Officer in the Vietnamese Navy. The only thing that did not please me was the long commute from my house to the store. The drive was truly an adventure when the weather was bad and there was freezing rain and icy roads. Sometimes when I drove, my car would run over a sheet of ice and skid. I would feel a strange sensation traveling from my neck to my hips and I would know that whether or not I hit the brakes, I would still run into a ditch. So after many accidents, I did not like snow at all.
In 1963, when I came to Seattle, Washington with the Vietnamese crew to receive a Landing Ship Mechanized (LSM), HQ406 that was transferring from the United States Navy to the Vietnamese Navy, I visited Mount Rainier, a beautiful snow-capped mountain with its peak piercing the blue sky. I took many pictures and sent them home to my wife. In the attached letter I wrote to her that I wished that she could have been there at that moment to witness the beauty of the snowflakes floating in the air and to hold a freshly packed snowball. The first blizzard we ever experienced occurred in the winter of 1975, only months after we arrived in the U.S. The storm that produced too much snow lasted for days, and when it finally stopped, my wife took my youngest daughter grocery shopping at a supermarket within walking distance from our home. They slipped and fell many times on the ice and snow; later that night, my wife rubbed her bruised skin and said, "It is so nice to watching snow from inside the house but it is not fun when we have to walk on snow-covered roads."
Keeping in mind my pledge to not become a burden to the American taxpayer and a problem to the society, as well as to keep my self-respect, I decided to find a job so that I could support my family. And at the end of August 1975, two weeks after we arrived in Washington D.C., I got my first job in America. I found a job as a waiter at a country club in Arlington. Actually, I was a "busboy," one level below a waiter. I learned that a waiter took the orders from the customers and then gave the orders to the chef and then served the food once it was ready. A busboy's responsibility was to take the plates to the kitchen once the customers were finished eating and cleaned the table.
It was so difficult for me to explain this "complicated procedure" to my wife that she locked herself in her room. She thought that once again, I was not telling her what I really did during the day, like when I worked in the Vietnamese Maritime special operations. I couldn't convince her that I was telling her the truth this time until I showed her the black bow tie and my white shirt and name badge with the name of the Country club printed on it. Then she held me tightly, kissed me and whispered in my ear, "I am so sorry. Because I saw you leaving early and coming home late recently, I thought that you had met your American counterparts who worked with you before in the "Force" and that you planned to return and liberate our home land!!!"
I thought then that my wife was so innocent if she believed that I was still capable of doing such a great thing. But after emotionally kissing her back, I realized that she thought she was being truthful. More than anyone else, she believed in her heart that I was her true hero. But things had changed with our exodus and I, her heroic husband, was temporarily unable to exercise my capabilities and skill. Even so, she knew that with my determination and willingness to work hard, before long, I would soon find a suitable job and a prestigious position in this society.
"It was always a challenge in the beginning," I reminded myself whenever I faced a sad or difficult situation, which was often. I always thought of my wife and my children, who depended on me and loved me so much, and the thought of them gave me the strength to overcome whatever came my way.
But regardless of my efforts, I was not used to the busboy position. That night, when I said goodbye to a young Vietnamese waitress who had married an American GI long ago and come to America before 1975, I was overwhelmed when she tipped me a dollar from her night's earnings. To this day, I still remembered this Vietnamese American waitress.
One dollar was not much, but her heart was so big and the love that shone in her eyes would never be forgotten. I would never see her again because that night, after I transferred buses twice and got home late, my wife suggested that I find another job that would better suit my skills. She also volunteered to go to work while I took care of our children, but considering my lack of experience with the children, as well as the fact that my cooking skills were limited to boiled eggs, we decided that I would find another job for myself and she would stay home. She had a big smile on our face when we agreed upon the decision and held our youngest daughter tightly.
Then luck knocked on my door and a few days after I quit my job at the country club, I was hired to work at Dart Drug, which was near my house, as a stock clerk. I could go home for a hot lunch with my wife and two youngest children. I worked hard at this job and continued to send my resume to banks, supermarkets, retail stores and hotels for a management position. I was disappointed to receive rejection letters from these companies with the words "We are very sorry..." in every one. They informed me that I was overqualified for the job. From time to time they called me in for an interview and sent me home after saying, "We will let you know in a couple of weeks," which meant that I would receive another rejection letter in the mail.
We rented a duplex in Arlington, very close to the career center, so my wife could take ESL and other classes. My neighbor was a Navy retiree and he had served aboard different types of ships in two wars, World War II and the Korean War. He was pleased and delighted to learn that I was also a sailor. When I first introduced myself, he said that when people talked about "sailors," they spoke of a certain kind of person who loved adventure, who chose the open sea as their lover and the sky, with the clouds overhead, their home. I treasured my friendship with him and his wife and I was grateful that they treated us with dignity, rather than as low-class refugees. I think they saw us, as we were, unfortunates who came to their land for the freedom, which we preserved in ourselves forever. Our neighbors were very fond of my youngest daughter who was three years old. They gave her candies and read her fairytales that she did not yet understand. Sometimes my wife was afraid that my daughter might bother the old couple, but they assured my wife that they loved my daughter's company because they did not have any children.
During the first week that we were living in the duplex, we were watching the news on television after dinner when I heard knocking at the front door. I was surprised to see my neighbor at the door, wearing formal clothes. I invited them in and the wife handed me a cake, saying that she had baked it herself. We served them green tea and the chocolate cake and they seemed to like that very much. After talking awhile, the old sailor pulled an envelope from his pocket and handed it to me. I carefully opened it up and we were filled with emotion when we saw, in the middle of a greeting card with the words that read "Welcome to America," a 20-dollar bill laying neatly. I tried to return the money and keep the card, which was more than enough, but he extended his hand and shook my hand tightly, looked into my eyes and said, "Please."
This humanity, along the changing of people's behavior during the fall of Vietnam made me wonder who were my true friends and whom could I trust. Who were ones who took advantage of the system and who were the ones who upheld honor? It was too confusing and too complicated to understand. With the defeat of an entire Army due to a lack of leadership from the South Vietnamese government, there were about two million refugees who had fled their homeland for only reason, to be free, and who settled around the globe in search of opportunity. While working and struggling to better their lives, they were more and more surprised to see things changing in the Vietnamese attitudes day after day. They were saddened to see that others had reversed their belief in the cause that forced them on their exodus.
For me, I was delighted that my philosophy of life that stayed inside my heart. I was proud of being able to retain my honor regardless of the burdens that I shouldered, now and forever more. I felt inspiration flowing through me, and like the last time, I sang while walking through the snow, only this time I raised my voice to chant a verse of my poetry:
" The changes in life
are sometimes followed by
the changes in style
but never in my mind"
A Journey To Remember
The United Airlines Boeing 747 began to taxi toward the runway of the San Francisco International Airport. From the left, the morning rays of the sun during the second week of May penetrated the small windows of the huge airplane. One commercial jet after another took off against the light wind blowing softly from the Bay. The fully loaded airplane that carried my in-laws, Doctor and Mrs. H., Minh and I was ready at the end of the runway, waiting for the order from the control tower to take off. On board the plane were passengers of different nationality, but mostly South Korean. All seats in the coach section were occupied. Over the intercom, the captain asked the passengers to fasten their seatbelts and then the loud roar of the four large jet engines of the airplane drowned out the noisy people. Under the power of the jet engines, the huge airplane pushed toward the azure sky above.
I sat near the window, holding the left hand of my wife firmly while the hull vibrated slightly. Then I felt as though an unknown force was lifting me off along with the big airplane. Light white clouds drifted quickly outside, through the wide left wing of the airplane heading for Seoul, South Korea. The plane circled once above the airport then headed out to the Pacific Ocean. I could soon see the shoreline of California below, under the wing, and white capped waves undulating in the blue water. According to the pilot, Capt. Clark, the non-stop flight to Seoul would take about 11 hours and 40 minutes at the altitude of 34,000 feet.
During the trip, the flight attendants would serve two big hot meals and snacks. The menu was available for passengers to choose their preferred dinner, either a steak or chicken. The airline offered a varied selection of wine and provided soft drinks, coffee, milk, and tea continuously at the counters onboard. The beautiful and young flight attendants were courteous and pleasant and made passengers feel very comfortable.
My in-laws, Minh, and I had decided to take this trip to visit our newborn granddaughter, Le Thanh Thuy Linh, the first daughter of our son Le Ba Dung and his wife, Duong Hoang Lan. Both mother and child were doing fine and stayed in the hospital in Seoul, South Korea for one week to recover and would move to their new village on the day we arrived in Seoul.
The sound of music through the headset kept me awake for most of the flight. Dinner was served on plastic trays with dinners that were previously frozen. I was not too hungry, therefore I did not enjoy very much this kind of so called "airplane food." After the dinner, my in-laws and Minh tried to get some sleep beside me. Passengers moved back and forth except when occasionally forbidden by the Captain as the airplane flew through rough pockets of air in the atmosphere. Time went by slowly, I felt uncomfortable in the small seat and tried a sitting position that could help me to relax on this long trip. I had not flown for this long a trip since I came to the United States of America in August 1975. During the last 25 years, 22 of those, I worked almost all the time and did not travel. Three years ago, I decided to take early retirement from my job and devote my time to write. From time to time, Minh and I took trips to visit our son Tri and his family in San Diego, California. Minh also traveled back to Vietnam to visit her 81-year-old mother in Hue on 1996.
The onboard movie started the second show after the Boeing reached the northern route and began to change course to the south-southwest, toward the Korean peninsular. I had not seen the James Bond movie, " The World Is Not Enough," since it was released and shown at my neighborhood theater now kept me awake for another two hours.
The last snack was a Japanese cup of instant noodles. I held the covered foam bowl and wondered how that cup of noodle would be prepared and served. As if reading my thoughts, a flight attendant pushed a cart toward us and poured boiling water into each passenger's bowl of dried noodles. "It was so neat," I said to myself. Hot cups of Japanese noodles served aboard a famous American airline instead of hamburgers or ham & cheese sandwiches. That was not a complaint but rather a compliment because I felt better after enjoying the hot soup and I was sure that other Asian passengers felt the same.
At about 1545 PM local time, the Boeing 747 touched down at the Kimpo International airport in Seoul, South Korea. Passengers got off the airplane, went to the baggage conveyer belt area to pick up their baggage, and then lined up to go through Immigration. The agents looked so cool, checking the paperwork that the passengers had prepared in advance aboard the airplane. Then we went through the Customs gate and to the waiting room where our son was waiting for us.
We were so pleased to see our granddaughter for the first time and hold her in our arms. She was so cute and adorable. The little baby looked like her father, but she had her mother's nose.
The first morning in Seoul was sunny and cool. My in-law, H. and I decided to explore the small shopping quarter in the neighborhood by walking along the streets nearby. I also wanted to stretch myself a little after having slept on the floor Korean style-with a mattress of course. This was the first time I did this since I was in Vietnam.
The air was less humid than in Virginia and made us feel good. The stores on both sides of the two-lane street reminded me very much of Saigon before May 1975. They were tiny; family operated shops, homemade bakery stores, small food markets, and general merchandise places. Automobiles moved hurriedly, drivers blew the horn at the restless ones, so very like the traffic back home.
I did not see any beggars nor homeless people on the streets. Young men in coats and ties or dark suits talked on their cellular phones while they walked. Young girls in dresses or pants and blouses also strolled with the cell phones pressing to their ears. School children were in uniforms that were very neat and colorful.
This was the first image that came to my mind. I liked to observe local people so I could imagine how they lived and to what kind of society they belonged. The standard of living of a country that slowly recovered from the Korean War in 1950-1953 and the economic hardship during post war period was so impressive. It was apparent through the well-grown foods in the fields and by the polite and courteous citizen whom I met during the days after.
During the afternoon, the cool air blew from the direction of the river that flows through the heart of Seoul. The sunshine did not bother the five foreigners looking for a BBQ restaurant. We walked back and forth in a small shopping area next to the Royal Palace where we had just finished a guided tour. We were exhausted after trying to locate the restaurant and we were unable to ask anyone due to not knowing the Korean language. Perhaps he noticed the way we were looking through the windows of restaurants on both sides of the street, a tall Korean who said that he spoke a little English, signaled us to follow him. He pleasantly guided us, stopped by many restaurants, and asked the managers if their stores served BBQ. After about ten minutes of checking and pointing he finally found a nice BBQ restaurant for us, said goodbye and left.
In the days after, Minh and I decided to stay home and take care of our granddaughter while my daughter-in-law and her parents went sightseeing and shopping. I finished my two short stories in English: "The Task Force Sea Tiger" and "The Journey of Destiny" in ten days while enjoying the company of Thuy Linh during break times. She was growing beautifully and had gained over one pound in a short time
He had gone; a complete stranger that we happened to encounter on a street, but that normal Korean citizen already marked his action and his hospitality on my Web site. He had spoken of the fineness of his country on behalf of his people to me, a Vietnamese-American who was a visitor of The Republic of South Korea. What he did to us that afternoon was much better than the trained, paid tourist guides who tried to show us the special places of their country. Because I would remember that "stranger with his big heart," rather than the picture of the old monuments.
We planned to throw a dinner party and invite all friends of Dung and Lan in Seoul. The party, celebrating the birth of our adorable and beautiful granddaughter, was held on the second weekend of our visit. Doctor and Mrs. H. and Minh prepared delicious Vietnamese food. Fifteen guests came to Dung's house to celebrate and enjoy the food. I was so impressive with their company. I confessed to our guests of my admiration of what that I had experienced in the last two weeks of my visit here. The hospitality, the politeness, and the well-organized society of a nation, the high standard of living and the proud people that had the same situation with our country but overpassed ours in all areas.
During the last week of our visit, the grand parents of Thuy Linh took advantage of the visit in Seoul to go shopping and sight seeing with our new Korean friends. The lady who had helped Lan and Thuy Linh from the beginning was also our guide and Dung's chauffeur was also very friendly and helpful to us. We treasured the friendship and the hospitality that they so pleasantly and sincerely gave to us.
Furthermore, I must admit that the way the Koreans ran and managed their businesses surprised me a great deal. As a General manager of a big supermarket for almost 21 years in Washington Metropolitan area, I always believed that service with care and with a human touch was one of the most important factors to succeed in business. In Korea, every store and business provided excellent and courteous service. Their well-managed and clean stores also contained plentiful young uniformed clerks, ready with their pleasant bows and welcoming smiles on their faces to greet customers. While the owners of supermarket in the US limited the number of employees to save labor cost that in turn cut down the service of well deserved customers. Here in every aisle, in every section of the department, there were nice employees waiting to assist their clienteles.
We went to the Hyundai department store in downtown Seoul. At the gate, several young and pretty girls dressed neatly in gray uniforms, directed traffic while bowing at us as our car passed by. The indoor garage was huge and well organized with ten of young men talking on cellular phones and controlling the parking area, ready to assist the customers who drove in and out of the crowded garage.
Sale prices of merchandise were high here as compared to the prices in the US. Imported products such as sunglasses, cosmetics, leather goods, and luggage were more expensive as expected. Minh checked the price of a hat that was similar to the hat she was wearing. To her surprise, it was 100 US dollars more than the hat she bought six months ago at the Macy's Department store in Springfield Mall, Virginia. A large fruit basket was listed at about 120 US dollars and a ten-yellow small fish package cost almost 100 US dollars. We all agreed that we preferred to shop in the United States and kept our money to spend there when we returned home. However, for our eldest daughter Thanh Nhan's upcoming 40th birthday, Minh bought an imported gold necklace for a reasonable price.
After spending a great deal of time and some money in the Korean department store in Seoul, we departed for a well-known mushroom restaurant located in Kimpo City, 30 minutes driving time from downtown Seoul. This small remote town was located in the south and about 40 kilometers from the DMZ. During the drive to the town, our young woman driver told me some aspects about South Korea with which I completely agreed-from the high price of an apartment to the pride of being a South Korean.
We passed the suburb area with rice paddies on both sides of the narrow two-lane road. The peasants were working in the fields like the Vietnamese. Further in, there were poor old houses standing next to the trash dunes under the sunshine. We were aware that this was the other side of any society. However, the Koreans did not show this in the streets of Seoul; I could not tell the difference between poor and rich people while I walked along the roads over here. I did not observed many foreigners either on the subway or on the avenues. The English language was not understood in the stores and US dollars were not excepted for the products.
I felt sad when I compared the current conditions of Vietnam under Communist regime to this country. Vietnam's economy relied on foreigners and people spoke broken English every where. It was completely opposite than what it had been before and was moving in a corrupt and desperate direction. The Koreans seemed to be very distinct from the West and they proudly kept their culture, custom, tradition to their own goodness. I truly admired them for that.
We arrived at the mushroom restaurant in the countryside west of Kimpo International Airport. The service again gained my respect and the food cooked with a variety of mushrooms that I saw in the US Supermarket. It was served fried and boiled on low tables. While sitting on the floor and enjoying the hot and spicy meal, we had the opportunity to look around and outside the wide-open windows. The barbwire fences along the riverbank reminded me of the war in Vietnam.
The guide told me that the South Koreans built the fences to guard Seoul from the infiltration of North Korean Communist soldiers. A tunnel called the "Third Tunnel" was discovered in 1978. The North Korean Communist created this tunnel to prepare for future surprise attacks through the DMZ. Again, the remembrance of the wartime of my life brought sorrows to my heart. I no longer tasted the delicious beef that was frying on the skillet.
That night, I began to type the first line of this memory when everyone in the house was sleeping. The house was as quiet as the emptiness in my soul. This was the first time in the last 25 years that I was in a place so close to my Motherland. It made me think of my past in a lonely night in a strange town. Yes, it was true that it took only over five hours of flying from Seoul to Hue, my dearest hometown, the same length of time for a flight to get to San Francisco from Washing D.C.
The last day in Seoul went by quietly. Minh and I took a walk to the nearby Supermarket to buy Beef and pork to cook "Bun Bo Hue"- Beef Noodle soup, Hue style for Dung who loved it very much. That soup had reminded us of the famous restaurant that served Bun Bo Hue in our hometown, Hue City.
The time finally came for us to say goodbye to Dung, Lan, and Thuy Linh. It was a journey that provided plenty of souvenirs. I remembered what my elementary teacher used to tell me-" You will learn a lot when you travel." It was true this time for me. I had learned many good things from people of Seoul who were so courteous with their hospitality and friendship that I would always treasure. I had seen the progress of a post war nation that could be a model for Vietnam to follow; unfortunately, it did not happen.
I also realized that there was no place like home, even a home that was my second country. I sincerely believed that I like to live in the United States of America and I loved the American who had given me my second life.
I thanked my new Korean friends in Seoul for their friendship. But I was grateful to the Americans for the cozy house in which to live, a good life, and the wonderful opportunities that my children and I had taken advantage of to make life better for us.
Most of all, I thanked the people of the United States of America for the freedom that was like the fresh morning air that we breathed in at the start of every new day.
The old sailor wakes up very early to prepare for his fishing trip at sea. The sun has just risen above the palm trees behind the backyard, and the morning fog is still floating at tree level like white smoke. In the distance is the beach and to the right of his house is the pier, at the corner of the inlet. His boat is moored there among the other boats that belong to the retirees and the few people who still work nearby.
The Old Sailor
Most of these people own vacation homes here and come from time to time to go boating and fishing and to stroll along the beach on beautiful mornings like today. They normally come for a week or two and then leave and hire local people to care for their boats and to maintain their houses during their absences. The old sailor has met these middle-aged and younger couples on many occasions while preparing his boat at the pier, readying his equipment for his trip to the sea. They all are very pleasant and he has gained their camaraderie after many conversations with them.
He has been retired for more than a year. Because of his high blood pressure and stressful job, his health was suffering and he heeded his doctor's advice and took an early retirement. Since all the children have grown up and moved out, he is enjoying this golden time with his wife. About six months ago, they bought a house in this small seaside resort and moved their boat here, as they like to be near both their children and the beach.
The old couple has picked this place in which to spend the rest of their lives because the seascape resembles the old coastal area at home and it is beautiful and very quiet. This place reminds him of old times in the Navy. This inlet is somewhat smaller but the scenery is similar, with palm trees and rocky edges all around and seagulls gliding through the azure sky searching for food that is plentiful in the clear blue water.
He prefers to wake up very early in the morning so he can watch the sun rising from the horizon, a magnificent scene he joyfully observes as often as possible. Many old friends, when they hear of his retirement, urge him to move to the West Coast to be close to them. They say that the weather in California is warmer, the climate is more comfortable and that living in California makes them feel closer to their homeland. The old sailor writes to his friends and thanks them, but he jokingly tells them that he would not be able to watch the sun rise in the morning and only to see it set if he lived there. He smiles and thinks of their disappointed faces as they read his letter. But they might agree with him that "the sunrise is the symbol of the energetic source of nature, the sunset is the end of living spirits."
After many years in the war and struggling for a living, he has often asked himself what is the origin of life; destiny and war had maneuvered him to many challenges and had affected his married life. Until now, the question that he has asked himself and has carried with him for almost sixty years has still not been answered satisfactorily to his questioning and uncertain mind.
From time to time, looking at himself in the mirror, he sees that his hair is becoming grayer. Time has gone by so quickly, as quickly as water flows from the river to the sea. He remembers when he would will time to pass, counting the hours one by one. Now the days rush by in a blur. Everything has changed and nothing is the same as the last forty struggling years. He feels sad in old age. He has tried to find the answer to his question about the beginning and the creation of the universe and living creatures and of his own existence. Sometimes he is affected by old beliefs and they follow him still: the theory of evolution of the universe and the reincarnation theory of Buddhism. These theories have affected him since he graduated from high school and joined the Navy. Later, on some occasions, he alters his beliefs about destiny to comfort himself and to explain events in his life or to find a solution for important tasks relegated to him. And now, after deciding on this new environment for the rest of his life, he once again wants to find the answer to his question. However, he is not so sure about the conclusion that he has drawn regarding "what" had created him since the beginning. Even so, he feels more relaxed and seems to be ready, awaiting his vision.
He waves to the dog that is waiting at the fence, her tail wagging eagerly. The old dog knows that she will be going on the boat. The sailor unchains her and goes into the warehouse to get his fishing gear, two fishing rods and an ice chest.
His wife usually accompanies him on fishing trips because she also likes to fish. Today, however, she has decided to stay home to sew window curtains and prepare meals for their daughter and her family's visit that weekend. He has promised to bring her a few good fish so she can steam them for the upcoming weekend. Before he left, she reminded him to take his pills for high blood pressure and to be careful and not overtax himself. He smiles and thinks that she worries too much about him; he is still younger than she thinks.
On his way to the pier, he meets his neighbors who are also on their way to their boats. He ties his dog up outside the bait and fishing gear store and goes inside to buy a can of bait and a bag of ice, exchanging pleasantries with the owner before going to the small-boat landing area.
The morning fogs seem to disappear as he unties the lines and begins heading out to sea. A red buoy with a light on top is undulating in the waves as he steers his boat past. Beyond the float is a black wooden column standing high above the water--this used to be the tie up location for the large boats. On top of the wooden column is an old nest with some branches and leaves moving back and forth in the breeze. A seagull has just landed to rest on the column and the gray-white bird looks at the passing boat, unconcerned. It is accustomed to boats going in and out of the inlet.
The old sailor's boat passes below the town's main bridge. It was built very high above the sea level so that boats could pass under it easily. In the distance there is a railroad bridge that is as high as the main bridge. The two bridges connect the two sides of the inlet. From time to time, a train with many cars passes by. The whistles and the sound of the engines remind him of his hometown, of the many times everyone in his family was awakened in the early morning by the sound of the train's whistle as it passed by his parent's home.
He checks his position on the map and then steers his boat toward a green buoy. Once he passes it, the boat begins to roll a bit. The sea is calm, the wind is blowing softly and the familiar smell of the sea makes him forget everything that he has left behind. He relaxes, takes a deep breath and exhales. He feels a wonderful stream of fresh air mixed with the vapor of the sea penetrate his very soul. He closes his eyes to delight in the smell and a feeling as sentimental as the love between two high school sweethearts. The feeling has brought back memories of his past journeys at sea. He takes a look around him; the sea is so immense, a vast stretch of color, the blue of the sea merging with the azure of the sky. He thinks that if there were no rosy clouds drifting on the far horizon, no one could recognize the boundary between the sea and the sky. Before him, nature appears as a blue carpet spreading endlessly into the horizon. The white lines decorating the carpet are white-capped waves that seem to have been drawn by an angel who has used a magic pen to magnify the beauty of the universe. He recalls a verse from a poem written in 1848 by Cecil Francis H. Alexander that he has memorized:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all.
He whispers these words and maneuvers his boat to the right side of the beach, toward the sea to an area located about 5 nautical miles from shore. He has read the local newspaper to find out in which area black bass are gathering at this time of year. Every season has a different current and each brings different schools of fish searching for food. During this season, there are large schools of black bass that come very close to shore to find the small fish and shrimp that live under the seaweed. These bass like to travel in very large schools, so if the old sailor finds the right spot, he might be able to catch as many bass as permitted by the local authorities. The reason for limiting the number of bass caught by fishermen is to help preserve this endangered species.
The sailor thinks about the laws back home and is saddened. There are countless laws, too many laws that only serve the regime and their government, increasing their powers over citizens who have suffered far too much in the last 24 years under the dictatorship of the Communist party. Here the laws serve to protect the freedom and the rights of the people, including the pursuit of happiness. The word "freedom" does not mean that all citizens can do anything they wish, but that they can do anything that does not violate the freedom of others or that might endanger the national security of the country. It is a little difficult and complicated for him to understand, but the democratic system has worked and been willingly implemented by the people.
He has reached the area that he prefers. He stops and shuts down the engine and lets the boat flow with the ebb tide and roll slowly in the waves. He marks his position on the navigation map and prepares to catch the line. He ruffles the old dog's fur while she prances around him joyfully. She is excited but is used to this kind of activity, so she does not disturb his fishing preparations. This intelligent golden retriever has been with him for seventeen years, since he got her from a Mexican family who could not have a pet in their new apartment and had to give her away. She is a faithful companion who will accompany him in his retirement and for the rest of his life, so she is always allowed to tag along whenever he is outdoors.
He opens the bait can, puts a worm on the hook and casts the line. He pulls the line back in so he can check the direction of current. After adjusting the balancing weight that hangs above the hook, he casts the line to the left of his boat.
The sound of waves against the vessel's hull is clear because it is so quiet all around. From time to time the wind blows, causing a piece of canvas hanging on the wheel to vibrate soundly. The sun has reached eleven o'clock high. The sunbeams pierce the gray clouds and create a spotlight of color, illuminating the area beautifully, as though it is a shining crown above the head of Buddha in a shrine.
The old sailor feels peace in his soul and is very happy that he has made the decision to live in this area for his retirement and the rest of his life. He remembers the day when they first moved to the new house, among strangers, away from their children and no Vietnamese people nearby. His wife often complained because she missed her children and grandchildren very much. But after a short time, she got use to the new and quiet life with her beloved husband, with whom she is very in love and to whom she has been married for over 39 years. It helped that the children visited fairly often, bringing their children to visit their grandparents on weekends. She began to like living in this place and enjoyed the outdoor activities with her husband, the old sailor.
He grows vegetables in a small garden, including Vietnamese water cress, or "rau muống", basil and herbs, and some lemongrass to flavor Hue beef noodle soup,"bún bō Huế," his wife's famous and delicious dish. He has also recently built a landscaped pond with golden fish swimming in the water that runs down through marble rocks and small "bonsai" trees. Their next-door neighbors seemed unfriendly when they first moved in, but after a couple months, they are friendlier and see each other on a regular basis. The neighbor's wife often makes cakes for them and the husband visits the old sailor in the evening; they sit by the pond to drink beer or watch football together while their wives talk about the latest episode in their favorite soap opera.
The fishing rod suddenly is bent and the old sailor pulls it up strongly. He feels a weight vigorously pulling and shaking the line and then he sees air bubbles spraying over the surface. Under the blue surface there is a black shape of a medium-sized fish struggling back and forth in the deep water, about seven meters from his boat.
" Wow!!! ... This is a big fish ... it must be at least 7 or 8 pounds," he says to himself while retracting the fishing line and moving the fishing rod toward the stern in an effort to pull the fish in his direction. The fish struggles and moves up and down, trying to get off the hook, but more she fights the more deeply imbedded the hook becomes. Hopefully she will tire quickly. The old sailor is carefully reeling in the line and handling the rod skillfully to keep the fish from getting loose.
After more than 10 minutes the battle between the old sailor and the fish is about to come to an end. His arms are tired and the fish is still fighting for her life. The old sailor thinks about his daughter and her two children who will visit him this weekend and he continues to use all his strength in the fight. Finally the fish gives up and stays stillÖthe victory now clearly belongs to the old sailor as he holds a net and pulls the line close to the boat. He holds the fishing rod with his left hand and scoops the bass out of water with the net.
He joyfully watches the fish that lies without moving, breathing slowly on the deck. This is the kind of black sea bass that he used to eat in Chinese restaurants, steamed with green onion and gingerroot. Its flesh is tender and delicious. He cautiously removes the curved metal from the fish's mouth then holds it up high. He is so pleased to have won a trophy from this competition. Suddenly, looking into the watery eyes of the fish, he feels sorry for the poor helpless creature. A strange sensation, a sad emotion courses through him and for a moment he thinks about the reincarnation theory. Then, without hesitating, he holds the sea bass with both hands and tenderly lowers her into the water, letting her swim away. He continues to observe the fish until her shadow gets smaller, disappearing into the dark blue of the ocean. The boat is still floating on the waves, moving toward the shore with the high tide. He puts the fishing rod into the steel pipe on the hull on the starboard side of the boat and gets the thermos that keeps his favorite green tea warm. He pours the tea into a white porcelain cup. The golden insignia of the United States Navy and the Officer's crest were printed on both sides of the cup. On top of the picture of the eagle holding two anchors was the word "CO-Commanding Officer," his tittle when he was in the Republic of Vietnam Navy. This cup was a gift from his son,
a Navy Officer in the United States Navy who graduated from the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, from the class of 1992 and served on board a US Cruiser (CG) in Mediterranean sea.
The green tea that he is drinking is a brand name, "Thiết Quan Âm", imported from Vietnam for its good flavor. He takes a sip and the weak, bitter taste reminds him of a long ago morning, when his father, who always woke early, would prepare himself a pot of the most famous kind of tea, "Tra Tam Hỷ". The sweet memory of that wintry morning, the rainy season that lasted for months in his hometown suddenly comes back to him while he is alone in the middle of the vast ocean. He feels tears running down his cheeks. He becomes emotional when he remembers anything, including sounds, music, landscapesÖanything at all that might bring back memories from his childhood and his time in the Navy. Sometimes he wants to drop everything and just return to his homeland, but he is afraid that things have changed and that those changes might erase his precious memories from his mind. Therefore he decides to keep his beautiful past in the bottom of his heart and take these precious souvenirs with him when he dies.
He stands up and gets the bag of dog food and gives the dog two bone-shaped biscuits. He looks toward the shore shaping its dark shadow at the end of the boundary of water, where his wife is probably preparing dinner for both of them. His boat is following the wind and flowing with the tide to that direction. He smiles when he thinks that he has to explain to his wife that he released the fish due to his belief in the right to live and to be free. He knows that she will understand and agree with that. Besides, more than anyone else, his wife has always comprehended his actions and has gone along with his decisions before and especially now.
The wind blows in his face and a strange vision suddenly comes to him. What he sees in front of his eyes and around him is a vast blue screen of water, far away is the horizon at the starboard of his boat and a little further are the pink clouds shaping strange pictures of unknown animals. In the furthest distance is the immense and boundless universe, from which the beginning and the existence of the cosmos and the world had taken place after the "BIG BANG," the universe's biggest and most forceful explosion. And over there, also the finish of the journeys of mankind, living creatures and things that had been created by this "BIG BANG".
All of a sudden, it seems that the old sailor has just found the answer to his life; he is so happy, he wants to yell very loudly; he wishes to cheer noisily for himself and to tell his dog, his old friend, about his wonderful discovery. All his life, all of the struggling, fighting, surviving and heartbreakingÖ was to prepare for his journey to return to the beginning which had created him.
The universe that created all living creatures, the existence of the world, all beautiful things, mankind, was only a hypothesized calculated revolution. The commencement is the finish and the end is the beginning of the next period and so on without end because the conclusion of this period is the initiation of the following one.
He is so excited and wants to return home immediately so he can tell his beloved wife about the answer to his quest. He suspects that she will be delighted to hear about this discovery. A great emotion is rising up inside of him.
The sun is already rising to its zenith at twelve o'clock high. The boat is undulating and surging, bobbing with the tide in the direction of the far shore and the white clouds are flowing in the azure sky; the old sailor slowly closes his eyes. He hears somewhere, in the air, the famous words of General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers in South East Asia who defeated the valiant military forces of Japan in Pacific. MacArthur, who also stopped the aggression of the Red Communist Army in Korea and was a graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point once said:
" Old Soldiers never die, they just fade away".