Rural Vietnam, 1954
Chi and Family
Chi was inconsolable. Her father, Viet, had left with her baby and would not be bringing her home. Chi’s mother tried to comfort her. “Your father will leave Linh with an orphanage. They will love her and care for her. She’ll be adopted and grow up healthy and happy.” The woman sat on the bed beside her sobbing child and brushed the hair from her eyes. “We cannot keep her. You know that.”
Chi was only 16 when she had fallen in love with a French soldier. He had promised to marry her and take her home with him, but he had lied. He quickly abandoned her when she told him she was pregnant. Chi’s father had been furious. It was bad enough that she had gotten pregnant, but after the baby was born, it was obvious the child was not pure Vietnamese. The color of her skin was quite unusual. Not white, not black, not yellow.
Chi’s father was horrified. “A dark-skinned Frenchman?” he yelled. “What were you thinking?”
“I loved him,” Chi wailed. “I—I thought he loved me.” She took a ragged breath. “He told me he loved me.”
“This child has no future here,” Viet told his daughter.
Chi knew her father was right. Mixed-race people had no rights in Vietnam. Only pure Vietnamese were allowed to attend school or hold a job. Chi didn’t care. She told her parents, “I will protect her and take care of her.”
For the next six months, Chi rarely left home. She and her mother doted on the baby, and Chi had begun to think her father had accepted Linh. She was wrong.
One night as Chi played on the floor with her daughter, her father told her, “It’s time for Linh to go. She cannot stay here any longer.”
Linh crossed her arms and looked up at him. “No,” she said. Chi knew defying him was unacceptable, but what choice did she have? She would not give up her baby.
“I will take her to the orphanage in DaNang. They will find her another family.”
Chi jumped up. “No!” she wailed.
Viet pointed at the baby and said sternly, “She will make your life extremely difficult.”
“I don’t care,” Chi screamed, making the baby cry. Chi picked up Linh and held her close. “I will never give her up!” She turned away from him and ran from the room.
Viet was shocked at Chi’s outburst and defiance. He shook his head and told his wife, “Linh’s presence is changing her. The baby must go. I will not let her destroy Chi’s future.”
Later that night when Chi and Linh were asleep, Viet gently took the child from her mother. He told his wife, “I’m taking the baby to the orphanage in DaNang.” Chi’s mother tried to dissuade him, but Viet’s mind was made up. “The child is better off at an orphanage. They will find her a home.”
Two hours later, Chi awoke and discovered Linh was missing. She knew immediately her father had taken her.
“She NEEDS me! She is just a baby!! MY baby!!” Chi pleaded with her mother to tell her where her father had taken Linh.
“I’m sorry, Chi, but this is how it has to be.”
Viet had every intention of leaving six-month-old Linh at an orphanage. He had ridden his motorbike, baby strapped to his chest, to DaNang and found Saint Mary’s House of Hope Orphanage, but the door was locked, and no one answered. He knew the nuns were there, but perhaps because it was the middle of the night, they ignored his banging. He had taken the child while Chi slept. Otherwise, she would again have tried to talk him out of it. He was not a heartless man, and he loved his daughter. However, he simply could not allow Chi to be saddled with this child who was destined to have a difficult life and, by extension, would make life hard for Chi. It was better this way, he told himself. But no one answered his knocking. Frustrated, he turned away and headed back to his bike. He decided he would wait until sunrise and then knock again. Viet had just settled in to wait when he noticed a teenage girl approaching him.
“Hey, mister, are you looking for a good time?” the girl asked. Although she smiled at him, there was no joy in it and her voice held no enthusiasm.
He looked at the girl. She was very thin and wore a dirty, ragged dress. Her feet were bare. She was a street child—no doubt abandoned by her family for being something other than pure Vietnamese. She was offering her body to him in exchange for money or food.
He shook his head and turned away. Then he had an idea. He turned back to her and asked, “Where do you live?”
She gave him another sad smile, thinking he had changed his mind. She pointed and said, “We have a camp just over there. I have my own tent. We will have privacy.” She grabbed his hand and tried to pull him toward the camp where she and several dozen other orphans lived.
He removed his hand from hers. “No, thank you. But—uhm—I can bring you food and money if you will take my daughter’s baby. Her name is Linh.” He removed the sleeping child from the sling on his chest.
Without hesitation, the teen took the baby and held her close. “Where is her mother?”
“Dead,” Chi’s father lied. “She died in childbirth. My wife is sick, and we cannot take care of the baby any longer. I was trying to leave her with the orphanage,” he said, waving his hand toward the building, “but they won’t take her.”
The girl frowned but nodded. “I will take care of her.” She knew all too well the risks this little girl would face. Khanh had taken her in when she had been abandoned by her own family, and now she would take this child. It was a vicious and seemingly never-ending cycle.
Viet gave her what little money he had with him and thanked her. He promised to return soon with rice and vegetables from his farm.
Song nodded, doubtful that she would ever see the man again.
Photo: manhhai via flckr. Used with permission by creative commons license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Cam Ranh Bay 1962
Eight-year-old Linh was outside behind the Yankee’s Dream washing sheets in a large tub of soapy water. She knelt on the hard earth and scrubbed the fabric trying to remove a stain. Linh had worked at the Yankee’s Dream for as long as she could remember. As a toddler, it was her job to crawl on the floor of the bar after it closed looking for anything of value. On a typical day she would find a few half-burned cigarettes whose tobacco could be salvaged and some dropped coins. On rare occasions she had found paper money that had fallen from a drunk patron. She had a small bucket that Song would place around her neck, and she would deposit anything that looked promising into it as she crawled along. As she got a little older, she was relegated to the kitchen where she was taught to sort vegetables and wash dishes. Eventually she was tall enough to reach the stove without standing on a box, and she began doing more of the cooking. These days she also did all the laundry. During business hours, she had to stay out of sight of the customers and was not allowed near the bar or the working girls like Song.
Mr. Ong was not kind to her. He told her, “I have no use for mixed-race trash if they can’t entertain the paying customers.”
Song was popular with the G.I.s, and so Mr. Ong treated her reasonably well. His attitude toward Linh was markedly different, and he never hid his distaste for the young girl. He complained about her constantly and frequently yelled at her. If she didn’t do something exactly right, he would punish her severely. Linh grew to be fearful of the man and avoided him as much as possible.
Linh had finally gotten the courage to ask Song the question she had been thinking about for a while. She had begun to suspect that Song was not her real mother. Or maybe it was just a hope. If Song wasn’t her mother, then maybe someday her real mom would come back for her. But after talking to Song last night, Linh knew now that would never happen.
Late the previous evening, after Song had finished working, they were snuggled together in bed. Instead of asking Song for a story, Linh had said, “I know you are not my mother.”
“How do you know that?” Song asked, surprised. “I have always taken care of you,” Song said matter-of-factly without any sign of anger in her voice.
“If you were my mother, I wouldn’t call you by your first name.”
Song laughed. “I guess that was a mistake on my part.” She sat up and grew serious. “I suppose you are old enough now to know what happened. At least I can tell you what I know. It isn’t much.”
Now Linh sat up and looked at Song expectantly. Song took a deep breath and told her about the man on the motorbike. “He said your mom had died and that your grandmother was very sick. He knew he could not take care of you and tried to leave you at an orphanage. I don’t know why, but they wouldn’t take you. He didn’t know what to do, so he gave you to me.”
“My family didn’t want me?” Linh asked softly.
“Oh, no! Your grandfather loved you very much. He just couldn’t take care of you. I promised him that I would. At the time, I was living in a homeless camp with many other orphans. He moved us here because he thought it would be better for you.”
“Mr. Ong is mean,” Linh pouted.
“I don’t think your grandfather knew that,” Song said as she brushed the hair from Linh’s face. She had often regretted moving them to Cam Ranh Bay but wasn’t going to say that to Linh. “I know you don’t like Mr. Ong, but it is better than being homeless.”
Linh just nodded, disappointed that no one would ever come and take her away from Mr. Ong.
Photo: manhhai via flckr. Used with permission by creative commons license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
DaNang, Vietnam, October 1970
Eighteen-year-old Alessi Augustini—Augie to his buddies—had guard duty. He stood in the guardhouse at the perimeter of his base and stared into the blackness in front of him. He was supposed to be watching for Charlie, the derogatory name most Americans used for enemy soldiers. Instead, he was thinking about the conversation he’d had with his mother less than a year ago. He was thinking that he should have listened to her.
“You are going to graduate at the top of your class. You should go to college! Take the deferment!” she had begged him.
Augie had been adamant. He wanted to go to Vietnam. He told her he wanted to fight for his country. In truth, he wanted to emulate his father. Joseph Augustini had himself been only 18 when he and 150,000 others stormed the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944. He had been a first-generation Italian-American and eagerly enlisted to fight for his new country. Augie’s father had survived the war and was awarded a Silver Star for bravery shown during D-Day and its aftermath. Although he always downplayed his actions, he was a true war hero to his son. Augie envisioned his own D-Day adventure and hoped to live up to his father’s reputation. Instead, from his vantage point, this war seemed to have little opportunity for glory. He spent his days loading Agent Orange onto planes so that the herbicide could decimate the landscape of this beautiful country. Now, as he stood guard watching for the enemy and hoping they wouldn’t attack, he fantasized about saving his fellow countrymen if they did. In his mind’s eye, he could see his father’s pride as they pinned a medal on his chest.
The minutes ticked slowly by, and his thoughts turned back to his mother. They had finally agreed that he would not enlist, but he would also not request a college deferment. His fate was in the hands of the draft. He remembered the day he and his friends, all high school seniors, gathered at Sam’s house to watch the lottery. A dozen of them crowded around the big, new color TV console. Sam’s parents had bought it for the family for Christmas. That was why the boys were there—no one else had a color TV. Augie had never even seen a color TV. He sat on the floor, leaning against the leg of the couch. They watched as the man on TV reached into the gigantic bowl and pulled out the first capsule. He broke it open and read the date, “September 14th.” He and his friends exchanged glances. No one had that birthday. One down, 365 to go.
He didn’t remember the next few dates that were called out, but he remembered one of his classmates letting out a groan after the third or fourth birthday was read. His birthdate had been called, and he would be drafted. Most, although not all, draftees ended up in Vietnam. Augie had been jealous. He wanted his birthday to be called. He closed his eyes and may have even said a prayer. He opened his eyes just as the man read the date on the eighth slip of paper he pulled from the bowl. September 7th. His birthday. For the sake of those around him, he pretended to be disappointed and scared. In truth, he was elated. He was certain he would be a war hero like his dad. He desperately wanted to make the man proud.
In January, the conscription notices began to arrive in mailboxes all over the country. As expected, Augie and several of his classmates received their notices. Because they had not yet graduated high school, they were given temporary student deferments, a status known as 2-S. Almost before the ink was dry on their diplomas, their status changed to 1-A, meaning they were “ready to serve.” As he had hoped, Augie was sent to Vietnam. He was inducted into the U.S. Air Force and would join the maintenance crew stationed at the air base in DaNang.
Now, standing guard, Augie was frustrated. He had been in-country almost two months and had never even left the base. How could he be a hero if he never got to engage the enemy? He shifted the rifle on his shoulder and tried to focus on the darkness in front of him. He couldn’t see shit. Charlie could be 3 feet in front of him and he wouldn’t know it. He could be shot at any moment and would never even see it coming. He frowned. This wasn’t at all what he had envisioned. He should have listened to his mother.
Photo: AP Photo/Van Muoi uploaded to flckr by manhhai. Used with permission by creative commons license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ (AP Photo/Van Muoi)