Guns, Roses, and Wars

Family 1974

Most of us know it as the Vietnam War. On the other side of motherland, it’s known as the American War. Two sides of the same coin can whisper millions of harrowing tales. Some are told as immigrant stories, while others are told as war stories. This is a tale I would have stored in my memory as just another story among those millions. Mine is not unique, I believe. Mine is not more important, nor more compelling. We all suffered trauma in one form or another. And we are here now, doing our best, as we all do, to toil the daily grind of life in America. But had it not been for the encouragement of those who simply stated, “Thao, you need to write”, this tale might have never been told. Thank you to those encouraging friends. I tell this for the woman and the man in this story who will never understand the depth of their sacrifices. I don’t think they’d understand because for them, it was not a choice. It was thrust upon them by the motivations of political power structures that they, nor we, may never truly understand. It’s not because we don’t have the capacity to do so, but rather, it’s because we are in the dark. Governments and their puppets work undercover as secrets of war and plundering are best kept in the clandestine shadows, hidden from public knowledge. In the lines of Guns ‘n Roses, war “feeds the rich while it buries the poor. Your power hungry selling soldiers in a human grocery store.” The war machine affects us all. This is the story of one family, among millions, whose lives were catapulted out of their homeland by the power machine of war.

In the darkness of April 30, 1975, a South Vietnamese air force pilot was in a frantic search for his wife and child. He completed his last mission, a supply drop from his C-130 Hercules, and he had to find them because he knew the end was near. Mother and daughter were hiding in a hangar at the Tan Son Nhat airport. What or who they were waiting for, they did not know for sure. Where they would run to next, they did not know at all. They’d already run from Can Giuoc, the mother’s countryside hamlet battered by Operation Concordia, and they’d already run from Saigon, a cityscape in ruins from gunfire and bomb blitzes of the Tet Offensive. It was the two of them, baby girl in her Mama’s arms, waiting with a crowd of other women and children. Although it was near midnight, baby girl’s Mama could not sleep. She had not slept the night before. No one sleeps when running from death. She squinted her eyes toward the opening of the hangar, and she could see the flashlights flickering. She heard the recognizable voice calling to her in desperation. He’d found them, but there was no time for explanation. He grabbed their one small suitcase of belongings, and she wrapped baby girl tight in her arms as they sprinted out of the hangar and onto a jeep. Baby girl was tired and sleepy. She was recovering from an infection and had no strength to even muster a cry.

The jeep had several other passengers, and as it sped towards a haphazard row of C-130 planes on the runway, a thunderous flash of fire burst in front of it. The passengers jumped from the jeep to escape the blaze. Mama leapt with baby girl in her arms. The jolt of a hard landing on her knees stung in the moment. As she rolled to her feet, she felt the hard blow of her husband throwing his body on top of her and baby girl, taking the shrapnel into his back and arms. There was no time to feel the physical pain nor to assess the wounds. They got up and just kept running. By now, the columns of fire blazing around them lit up the runway. All the planes were fueled, and it seemed they had a choice of which one to board. But in an instant, a hail of fire rained on one of the planes, combusting its nose. In what seemed to be a counterintuitive move, Baby girl’s Father led them toward the burning plane. Those who ran in the opposite direction were soon enflamed by a direct hit. There was no time to feel the emotional pain nor to assess the dead. Had baby girl’s Father not made that split second decision, this story would not be told today. He figured the area of the burning plane, once hit, would be less likely to be hit again.

They made it on to an in-tact plane along with roughly 300 passengers. The air inside the cargo plane was dense, filled with the reek of blood, sweat, and tears. Baby girl was hungry and thirsty, but she was too tired to cry. Her eerie silence and pale skin worried her Mama. Her Father’s pilot buddy noticed her sickly face, too. He pulled a grapefruit from his bag, peeled it quickly, and squeezed the juice of life into her mouth. She began to move once again, and her Mama cried in relief that her baby girl was still alive.

Con Son Island is infamously known for its “Tiger Cages” published in Life magazine in 1970. The abused and tortured prisoners who were shackled in literal tiger cages were nowhere in sight when the 300 passengers stepped foot on the island. It was nearly 3:00 a.m. The women and children were told to stay while baby girl’s Father and the other men planned to return to Saigon for the next battle move. Before they completed their plans for a return point of landing, they were radioed by their commanders to remain on Con Son. Within hours, dawn had set upon them, and they received orders not to return. And just like that, it was over. It was the end. They lost the war. They lost their country. The sinking feeling in their stomachs was born from swallowing the bitter pills of anger, grief, and disbelief that only refugees fleeing destruction in their homeland can understand. Throughout human history, there are too many who understand. And like those many, all they had left was their will to live. They disrobed from their pilot gear, changed into the civilian attire stuffed in their bags, and left their guns and other weapons behind. The women, like baby girl’s Mama, were relieved they would not be separated from their men. But their relief was swirled among fear, confusion, and worst case scenarios in their hearts and minds. Baby girl’s Mama thought of her own parents and seven siblings as her eyes fixated on the streams of crimson on her pants that flowed from the bloody gapes of her kneecaps.

They made contact with a flight landing operator in Thailand courtesy of the country’s “gentleman’s agreement” with the U.S. government. Under the deal that began in 1961, over 80% of U.S. airstrikes on North Vietnam were conducted from these bases named Royal Thai Air Force bases. By 1975, the operations on these bases were receiving planes that carried refugees like baby girl and her parents. They were processed there and shuffled on to a refugee camp in Guam through Operation New Life, a program sanctioned by and financed through the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975. They were fed and housed in a tent among thousands of other tents which came to be known as tent cities. After processing for resettlement, baby girl and her parents were told they would be going to America via Eglin Air Force base in Florida. It was there that baby girl’s Father made contact with a sponsor, a widow from Randolph Air Force Base in Texas who befriended him and his Vietnamese unit buddies when they trained there in 1968. She took in the family of three along with all the young men in the unit.

It was an attic, but at least it was shelter. It was stable, and it was home. Baby girl stood at the window staring outside at the neighborhood sisters Verle Anne and Verle Lynne. A truck pulled into the driveway, and baby girl’s Father hopped out of the bed. He said good-bye to other men whose faces, like his, were weathered from the hard pressed Texas sun. His 12 hour days on a watermelon farm were enough to live on for now. His pilot logs were rubbish in the burnt garbage of war’s aftermath. Without the logs, he had no proof of flight hours, and therefore, no documentation that he could fly a plane. His airline pilot job would never transpire. Instead, watermelon farmer, construction laborer, machine operator, and finally machinist would line his resume. Baby girl’s Mama spent her days caring for her and cooking meals for the Vietnamese refugee men who had no wife, mother, sisters, or female presence in their new lives. She also took on a part time job cleaning homes in the neighborhood. She walked everywhere – to the homes she cleaned, to the grocery store, to the dollar store, etc. with baby girl in tow. Baby girl walked with small but hurried steps to keep up with her Mama. Mama, even today, tears up at the memory of baby girl’s blistered and bleeding feet. Baby girl never cried nor complained when the metal buckles of the donated shoes that were two sizes too small dug into her tiny but swollen feet. When Mama saw the wounds, she lifted her child and carried her, pushing past her fatigue to make their destination. As the days went on, it was harder and harder to hold baby girl. Mama’s pregnant belly was getting too big. She thought she was further along than she really was because she didn’t know there were twin girls swirling in her womb. Baby girl eventually would have to keep walking on her own. She was tough enough to make the walks with Mama, but the occasional sounds of sirens in the streets sent her dashing under the bed. Her Mama knew the sounds of war scared baby girl, and she worried she would always be a frightened little girl.

At the end of 1976 they moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where baby girl’s Father found a new job through one of his pilot buddies who was taken by a sponsor family there. The identical embryos were now babies, and they were taking up Mama’s time. Left to her own devices, baby girl learned some of the hard knocks of life in the projects of Knoxville. It was here that she learned the sting and aches of kneecap wounds, like her Mama before her. A black girl in the project apartments was baby girl’s first friend. She owned an original Big Wheel, and she was nice enough to let baby girl ride it. She even pushed her along because her legs couldn’t extend far enough without her butt scooching up into the front of the seat into the front bar, which made for an uncomfortable first-time Big Wheel ride. The movement of a bike was something baby girl enjoyed. She relished the speed and the air whipping in her face. She relished it a bit too much and didn’t slow down when she approached the concrete slope heading downhill. She thought it might be fun to go downhill. The concrete did not forgive the skin on her knees as she tumbled out of the Big Wheel and into the pavement of the apartment parking lot. The crumbles of the concrete pebbles dented into her palms. She brushed off the debris and ran home, leaving the black girl and her Big Wheel at the bottom of the hill. Mama was not mad at her, but it must have triggered the memory of her jump from the jeep because Mama held her very tight and cried.

The following year they moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Baby girl’s brother was born there, and Father David baptized him and gave him a Western name. He would be the only sibling among the four of them with an “American” name. They lived in a one-bedroom place on the second floor of a wooden exterior duplex. Baby girl would skip along down the wooden stairs to play with her friends. On an icy afternoon, she saw her friend slip on one of the steps and tumble down with a soda bottle in her hand. The bottle cracked, and a shard of glass lodged itself in the girl’s eye. The blood was thick and dark. Baby girl ran upstairs screaming to her parents. Her friend would lose her eye. The American doctors were nice enough to give her a glass eye for free since her refugee parents had no money and no medical insurance to pay. Baby girl’s Mama made her promise that she would go down the stairs slowly and never carry a glass bottle. Baby girl really liked going to pre-school in Cedar Rapids, but she remembered Mama’s words and her friend’s bloody eye so she never rushed down the stairs to catch the school bus. She liked riding the bus, even if it was in the cold. She liked learning, even if she had to learn while wearing the same outfit twice a week. She liked school so much that when Mama kept her home because she was sick, she would cry. There was only one time she didn’t cry because she had to stay home from school. The night before, she did not sleep well because an intruder broke into the bedroom where Mama was sleeping with all four babies. He pried the window open, but it was a hot summer night, and the large, square, metal fan Mama placed in front of them was also in front of the window. He knocked over the fan, alarming Mama who then screamed when she saw a pair of large and strange eyes staring at her. Baby girl’s Father was sleeping in the living room and ran in to the bedroom, ready to confront the intruder. The lucky stars were out that night, and the intruder jumped out the window, down the ladder, and ran off into the darkness. The police came that night. Baby girl understood some English by then. She remembered the policeman told her Father to put glass bottles by the windows so that if a intruders were to try again, they would knock the bottles over. It was a makeshift poor people’s version of an alarm system. But the glass bottles reminded baby girl of the bloody eye. She was afraid to sleep in the room, but she was even more afraid of an intruder. She would have to sleep in the room anyway because it was the only one they had, but she stayed far away from the glass bottles that acted as alarm system.

By the time they moved to Houston, Texas, in 1978, they still couldn’t afford a real alarm system. But they didn’t think they’d need one. Baby girl’s Father landed a good job as a machinist at Lynes, Inc. Baby girl’s Mama got a job sewing newborn tees for a contractor to the city’s hospitals. Through her meticulous work, an ophthalmologist hired her to manufacture his surgical eye patches designed for cataract surgery patients. It would launch the family into a place where immigrant entrepreneurs might dream of. The house they bought was in a modest working class neighborhood with four bedrooms and two baths. Baby girl got her own room, the twins shared theirs, and baby brother got his. Baby girl no longer rode the bus because she could walk to the nearby elementary school every day. It would seem they were on the path to a life rebuilt for happily ever after. By the standards of the American Dream, they had made it. But the struggles had only just begun. Refugees will always be foreigners who straddle the multi-layered cultural artifacts of two worlds. Baby girl’s life would be filled with strife from the underpinnings of racism, sexism, classism, and all the other ugly -isms that are part of American life. You’d think that making it out of war together would bring a couple closer, but baby girl’s parents were under the duress of life in America. Extended family issues crossed transnational borders and seeped into their daily lives. Often, baby girl’s Father would wage his own battle against the women’s movement tide that was slowly washing away his patriarchal privileges, and his socially learned instinct was to preserve his privilege. Baby girl’s Mama suffered tremendously under the patriarchal extension of her husband’s siblings who later made their way to America. It is why to this day, baby girl is distant from those “family” members. She witnessed the familial tornadoes that wreaked havoc on her parents’ lives and her own upbringing. It was never a quiet household. But in the bustle of homemade culture wars, there was also the hustle of a family trying to make their way in this new land. They worked their asses off. They always paid their taxes. They took in strangers, clothed them, housed them, fed them, and without hesitation, shared whatever they had. They went to church. They tithed. They played volleyball together. They ate dinner as a family almost every night, and they had loud parties filled with dancing and singing almost every weekend. They were social and so beloved by their circles of friends that when their daughters married, the wedding guest lists toppled past 750. Life has been beautiful, but not without its moments of darkness. With the good comes the bad. It is the balance of the yin and the yang. Every rose has its thorns.

Over the course of time, I, baby girl, found my own way to wherever I am now. One of the roads less taken by those around me is the path of work centered around social justice. Looking back on 41 years in America, there are many heroes and heroines among these stories. But among those honored in the stories of 41 years, I’m disappointed in the typical Vietnamese American coverage of it. If it seems to be an act of throwing shade on shared images of the Flag, the candlelight vigils, the grainy photos of the last days, and the other overplayed themes of the war, then those who perceive it as such are limited in their scope of what the mainstream media would like us to put out there. It is disappointing that very few in the Vietnamese American diaspora have mentioned the death of Reverend Daniel Berrigan. He passed away at age 94 on April 30, 2016 – the 41st anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Reverend Berrigan was known as the radical priest. To me, his work is inspiring, not radical at all. Berrigan was a staunch activist against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He was imprisoned for burning draft files in a protest against the Vietnam war. He, along with other anti-war protesters, entered a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, in May, 1968, and removed records of young men about to be sent to Vietnam. They took the files outside and burned them. Reporters were given a prepared statement by the Reverend and his group stating, “We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men but because they represent misplaced power concentrated among the ruling class of America. We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.” This was a powerful statement then, and it resonates with me now. As a Vietnamese refugee, those words claim my heart for his bravery to call out the injustices of the war. As an American citizen, those words claim my spirit for my own courage to call out the injustices of misplaced power concentrated among America’s power elite. It is with fierce conviction that we must carry on the spirit of Reverend Berrigan. I don’t know if Reverend Berrigan ever listened to the music of Guns ‘n Roses, but if I ever meet him in the afterlife, I hope to share a cup of tea with him while we listen to Guns ‘n Roses “Civil War” together –

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.
Some men you just can’t reach…
So, you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it!
Well, he gets it!
N’ I don’t like it any more than you men.” *

Look at your young men fighting
Look at your women crying
Look at your young men dying
The way they’ve always done before

Look at the hate we’re breeding
Look at the fear we’re feeding
Look at the lives we’re leading
The way we’ve always done before

My hands are tied
The billions shift from side to side
And the wars go on with brainwashed pride
For the love of God and our human rights
And all these things are swept aside
By bloody hands time can’t deny
And are washed away by your genocide
And history hides the lies of our civil wars

D’you wear a black armband
When they shot the man
Who said, “Peace could last forever.”
And in my first memories
They shot Kennedy
An’ I went numb when I learned to see
So I never fell for Vietnam
We got the wall of D.C. to remind us all
That you can’t trust freedom
When it’s not in your hands
When everybody’s fightin’
For their promised land

And
I don’t need your civil war
It feeds the rich while it buries the poor
Your power hungry sellin’ soldiers
In a human grocery store
Ain’t that fresh
I don’t need your civil war

Look at the shoes you’re filling
Look at the blood we’re spilling
Look at the world we’re killing
The way we’ve always done before
Look in the doubt we’ve wallowed
Look at the leaders we’ve followed
Look at the lies we’ve swallowed
And I don’t want to hear no more

My hands are tied
For all I’ve seen has changed my mind
But still the wars go on as the years go by
With no love of God or human rights
‘Cause all these dreams are swept aside
By bloody hands of the hypnotized
Who carry the cross of homicide
And history bears the scars of our civil wars

“WE PRACTICE SELECTIVE ANNIHILATION OF MAYORS AND GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS
FOR EXAMPLE TO CREATE A VACUUM
THEN WE FILL THAT VACUUM
AS POPULAR WAR ADVANCES
PEACE IS CLOSER” **

I don’t need your civil war
It feeds the rich while it buries the poor
Your power hungry sellin’ soldiers
In a human grocery store
Ain’t that fresh
And I don’t need your civil war
I don’t need your civil war
I don’t need your civil war
Your power hungry sellin’ soldiers
In a human grocery store
Ain’t that fresh
I don’t need your civil war
I don’t need one more war

I don’t need one more war
Whaz so civil ’bout war anyway?

 

4 thoughts on “Guns, Roses, and Wars”

  1. Wow! I think this is just the beginning of a book I hope to see published. Am looking forward to having that book in my hands … later this year???

    Like

  2. With each reading/story, I am in awe doc. You are truly a gifted writer and your story is unique and important. You definitely got a fan (me) who truly admire all that you have done for your family, friends, and community. I would not be surprised if you get the Nobel Peace Prize. You are truly amazing doc.

    Liked by 1 person

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