ngày 21.12.14

Translated by Mai Tran

Deep in my thoughts while driving, the ringing of my cell phone startled me and shook my hands.

– Hi Daddy, it’s PQ here!

I was so happy to hear my son’s voice, the son from so far away.

He was just home a couple weeks ago for his cousin’s wedding.

Children, though adults, are always babies to their parents!

– How are you, son?

– I’m very well, dad. I’m a martial art guy, and a soldier, dad! His laugh got me to burst out laughing with him. He usually answered that way each time he was asked about his health. According to his mom, he got that humor from me. And also according to his mom, and perhaps to all the moms on this earth, any behavior, good or bad, of their sons – like hanging out with friends, more playing than studying, smoking, alcohol drinking – is inherited from their dad.

– Any news, or you just call to say hi?

– It’s both, dad.

– Anything serious, son?

– I am filling out my papers for Iraq! There is a form that requires your decision as I fill it out. The question is, “if I died in action, do you want the family to take care of the funerals, or you want the Army takes care of it with its own rituals?”

I felt a big lump in my throat and a sudden, sharp pain in my chest. I knew this was a standard form for all military men, but the emotion still shook my hands as I was writing out my son’s words. Though I was there myself, on the edge of life and death in the combat zone years ago; though I knew that my son, sooner or later, would be going to Iraq, I was still saddened and worried.

With questions such as, “are you worried that your son is in Iraq?”, I just calmly said, “Worrying doesn’t make things better; should accept whatever happens to a soldier’s fate” or “been there, in a more violent, more cruel war, and wasn’t even worried!” What I said was simply to keep the good spirit of his mom and his young siblings, to cover up the anxiety of the father in me in other people’s eyes. How could I not be worried? Perhaps being there myself would be less stressful! And my father! Each time a father’s role was put on the test, I was thinking of my own father. I have only one son in the army; my parents had three, and two other sons in the age of military service at home. How much I think of and love my parents now! In those years that I was still in school, my two older brothers in the army, many times I caught the worried look on my mom’s face when she listened to any news about fierce fights in combat zone where my older brothers stationed. And my father, always showing his calmness and courage, had spent long nights alone in the back yard, a cigarette between his fingers, looked in the dark and sighed heavily. Oh, dad, how much I feel your worries, your sadness and understand your helplessness at this very moment!

– Dad! Dad, do you hear what I’m saying, dad?

– Uh, uh… I… I don’t know. I was trying to find words and make some sense of the conversation with my son while my head was almost numb.

– There is one of two choices, either the family will take care of it or the army will do everything.

– I don’t know what your mom wants; as of me, I… I want…

A dark thought was flashing through my mind. What if… one day… Oh, my God! That’s horrible! What should I do? What could I do? I should take care of it. I should see him, look at his face, for the last time!

– I think … perhaps … the family should take care of it!?

– Is that your decision, dad?

– I really don’t know, son. Can you wait so I can get mom’s decision? I feel like crying!

– Would you hold on a minute, dad? I’ll ask my Sergeant if I can answer that question later, okay dad.

– All right, you ask him. Meanwhile I call mom and talk to her. I’ll call you back.

– Okay, dad.

I hung up the phone, still dazed with emotion! I called my wife at her office, recounting the dialogue between father and son. She quickly said, “there is nothing to think about, if our son were sacrificed in duty, then let the army do whatever should be done, we don’t really know what to do!” I wanted to share with her my feelings, my worried mind, but stopped short as I should try my best to act like a man of the family. I suddenly thought of my mom, and put the “life style, the way of thinking” of my parents in parallel with my wife’s and mine. My wife is very much like my mother. In other words, they both are braver, more courageous than their husbands! I sighed in consent and acceptance. Perhaps God has arranged in such a way that in a marriage one spouse would complement and support the other! I called “the soldier” back, told him about our decision to let the army “do it” and asked him when he would be leaving.

– I can’t tell you that, daddy. It’s confidential!

– Then, how do we know when to come and see you and send you off?

– You don’t have to, dad. Besides, I was just home two weeks ago.

– But… your kids’ sister and brother want to see you before you leave since you’ll go for a whole year.

– Then, may be, you and mom and the kids should come to Colorado by the end of September. That’s all I can say, nothing more!

– Whoa! That’s in two weeks! But, that’s ok. I decide that the family will come to visit you for a few days the last week of September. Would you arrange your schedule so you can spend some time with us?

– I certainly would, dad. This evening, I’ll email you the direction to my place.

Colorado in fall was beautiful! Interstate 25 North-South with twists and turns connects the city of Denver to the army base Fort Carson in Colorado Spring. More than 100 miles spread along hills and mountains. Many hillsides were covered with golden leaves! Fall made its presence in the cold morning air, in the clear blue sky with sheets of white clouds wandering through the thin silky sun rays, in mountain tops speckled with snow. From the warm, sometime oppressing hot weather of Houston to the crisp, cold air of Denver, from the flat land of Texas to the gorgeous hills of Colorado, how much I enjoyed this scenic drive and the beauty of the fall that fit my romantic soul, that my greedy eyes could embrace all, but the snowy winter.

I had lived for a short time in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in Nashville, Tennessee. The snow had chased me out of these places and I ran without looking back to the warm sun of California like following an invisible calling. Perhaps it was a true calling to meet my wife. Like a flow of a river, life and work had brought my family to Houston, Texas for more a decade, a tenth of a century. Yes, I must use the word “century” as the ups and downs of my life seem such a long endurance.!

– Dad, do we need to check the map,why is it so far? My daughter asked.

– According to your brother’s direction, it’s still half hour to get there.

Though we just had him home recently, the entire family was very anxious to see him, especially the two youngsters. The two brothers and their sister are very close since their childhood. If one got into trouble, the two others tried vehemently to defend him or her. Like my own brothers and sisters, any of us is willing to sacrifice for the other siblings. Perhaps this family tradition had trickled down to my children.

I stopped the car at the security post at the entrance to the base. We were asked to get out and opened all doors, the hood, the trunk and suitcases. After 15 minutes check, we were let in with the instructions how to get to my son’s place. Another ten minutes driving, we arrived at a compound of a 4-story building. My son and his friends, male and female, were at the parking lot to greet our family.

The car door just opened, my two kids rushed out and embraced their older brother as if they haven’t seen him for years! I was saddened about the long months ahead… an entire year when my beloved son is in the combat zone, with all the dangers awaiting him. And very quickly, flashing through my mind were my own battlefields years ago, my soldier friends, some survived, some gone forever. Many unknown heroes and their families in the brothers- against-brothers war! Millions left their mother land, dispersed around the world, like errand souls. And more than fifty thousands American soldiers, who shed their blood, breathed their last breath on a strange country, no enemy to them. I turned away to hide my tears!

Some very young Asian female soldiers were present. When asked, I was told they are Korean and Chinese Americans, living in the same building with their male counterparts but on a different floor. They will also be sent to Iraq on the same flight with my son. How could this male-female co-habitation go peacefully, without incident, I was wondering. In the Tan Son Nhat military base in old Saigon, female soldiers were living separately, but numerous romantic and dramatic love stories still flourished.

– Do you guys have any “trouble” when staying in the same building like that? I asked.

– Nope. We have tough rules, daddy.

– Yeah right! I doubted.

– That’s true, dad..

– All right, kid. I believe you!

My son’s friends invited my family to dinner then went their own way. We had to wait in the parking lot as we were not allowed into his building to help him with his personal belongings that won’t be needed at his new destination. After half hour, my son carried two large suit cases to our car and we headed to our temporary lodging. Our family will be staying at the house of a close friend’s daughter in Colorado Springs, that I consider as my own niece.

– Hey, Phat, PQ’s unit will be deployed to Iraq beginning of next month. My family and I will be in Colorado to see him before he’s leaving. Give me Thao’s phone number so I can call her.

– How long PQ’s gone?

– One year.

– Yeah, same as Hung, Thao’s husband. He’s also gone for a year. Don’t worry, my man, the situation is not as bad as the media sounds like.

– I know. Same as the Vietnam war! Our defeat was caused by those gadflies, and the “living-room-politicians,” especially the chicken Democrats.

– Would you tell PQ I wish him a safe trip!

– Yes, I will.

– Okay. You can stay with Thao. Her house is near the military base. She live in that huge house, too big for herself. Thao told me that PQ often came and had dinner with her.

– Sure, I’ll talk to your baby girl about that.

His baby girl Thanh Thao has the same age as our refugee years. At the end of April 1975, the one year old girl with hair tresses, fat cheeks and a pair of round, black eyes, crying and clinging to her mom, following her dad out of the military compound amid the enemy’s gunfire. With a doctorate degree now, she has a good job, lives alone in a big house and each day is waiting in suspense for news from an army lieutenant husband in Iraq, thousand of miles away in a land where friends and enemies look alike. My heart aches thinking of the soldiers’ wives and their hard life in my old country. Thao, at least, has a comfortable life, a nice house, a well paid job, and lives in a rich, free, and secure country.

Thanh Thao’s father was my buddy the very first days of our military life. Both of us enlisted the same time, served in the same unit, took the same foreign language class, assigned to the same squadron, and played in the same volley ball team. At his wedding, I was his best man. When Saigon collapsed into the enemies’ hands, we both ran for our lives, stayed in the same refugee camp, and were sponsored by the same church. We both started our first job working for a construction worker whom we met at church the first Sunday mass when we were out of the refugee camp. Then we both became farm workers for some time. The only unsimilar thing between the two of us was perhaps that Phat had a family and I was a single guy wandering around alone for a long while. Life took us into different direction then brought us back to live not far from each other. I don’t know how much he loves me, but I love him and consider him one of my own brothers. And little Thao, I care for her tremendously as she is the living image of the ups and downs of our refugee life. Each time I looked at her, a movie filled with joyful memories as well as days of hardship was unraveling in my mind.

Before my trip to Colorado, I phoned Thao and was told that she’d be in Houston for a wedding during the time we were in Colorado Springs. But Thao insisted that we’d stay in her house for all the convenience it offers, especially “it’s right next door” to the military base and “free of charge!”

– And by the way, uncle, you would give me a big help, an important one!

– What is it, dear?

– I just got a new lawn, would you open the sprinkler and water it for me, and my potted plants, also?

* * *

From the military base to Thanh Thao’s house, it was a good half hour drive, and she said “it’s right next door!” From interstate 25 to the east, construction developments are sprouting along the way with multi-story buildings, large shopping mall, and housing subdivisions, especially at Carrefour of large main streets…

We arrived at Thanh Thao’s home, a beautiful, brand new house with still fresh painting in a new subdivision. Entering the foyer, I found a hand-written note on the counter:

“Dear uncle and auntie, when you are here, I’m on my way to Houston for my friend’s wedding. I’m so sorry not to be at home to personally greet you and my cousins. Please make yourself at home. Please consider my home as your own. I just got some new sets of towels and toiletries in the bathrooms intended for your use. The fridge was already stocked with food and the necessary groceries for you so you have the time to enjoy with your family and especially with PQ. I also got you, uncle, some beer. No cigarette as I don’t want to encourage you with this unhealthy habit. Don’t worry about my lawn and flower beds around the house as I already asked my neighbor to take care of them. If you felt “jobless” (a happy face winking here) then you have to negotiate with the old man next door! I ‘m just asking you to water the plants inside the house. Have a happy stay!

Your little girl, Thao”

I was very touched by her thoughtful care, and felt a tremendous love towards the little girl that I’ve watched growing up to be a successful young woman, Her house was furnished and decorated with simplicity and good taste. PQ said he has helped her with his artsy ideas…

We discussed with the kids about dinner and what we would be doing for the night. We decided to spend the time at home for comfort. After dinner, PQ and his friends including four female soldiers and all my kids gathered in the large but cozy living room to play games and drink beers without restrain. This joyful scene reminded me of my soldier’s years in VN decades ago. The kids continued their fun until the first hours of the next day. Some left to go home; some stayed and slept in the living room.

Early morning, I tried to get the kids up to take advantage of the beautiful morning. While PQ and his friends discussing through cell phone about the plan of the day, I went out and watered the yard. A middle aged white man next door came by and asked if I were Thao’s uncle. He said he came to water the lawn but I already did. We strucked a friendly conversation and he kept praising Thao with nice words that made me so proud of her.

I finished breakfast in the kitchen. Moments later PQ’s friends came and all decided to join other friends at the entrance of interstate 25 and go to Six Flags Park in Denver. I looked up at the clock: It was almost 12 noon! My wife and I were very happy to let the kids decide where to go, what to do so they could have the most fun before PQ’s departure.

Four cars fully loaded headed for the freeway. After almost 100 miles drive, we arrived at the park at 2 pm. I suggested to my wife to drop the kids there for their fun time. They would call us to pick them up later. I called .NguyÅn Mai, NguyÅn Minh Hoàng, Ðoàn Sáu, my friends of life-and-death-together from old days that I haven’t seen for so long; they would be happy with our surprised visit. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any of them but their voice mail, so my wife and I drove around town to visit Denver.

Downtown Denver is like any downtown of large cities in the US: tall buildings, beautifully decorated shops, large streets, lots of traffic. The marvelous weather attracted large groups of walkers, strolling leisurely under the gorgeous sun, which was like a thin, gigantic sheet of canary yellow silk floating through large green branches of trees lining the streets. A soft breeze caressed my face and blew in the air some safran-color leaves that came rested peacefully on the ground like a perfect painting of nature. 16th street in downtown is such a beautiful street, with electric cars running on the sides of the street, and a park like in the middle with lots of shady spots from tall, large trees. It was bustling with people taking a promenade along the many kiosks selling souvenir cards, gift items, artistic jewelries like in Las Vegas, downtown San Francisco or the French Quarter in New Orleans. A rock band offered cheerful music, adding a nice note to the animation of the area. Passers by dropped in the box appreciative coins and dollar bills and smiles to the street musicians.

We walked a few blocks, enjoyed the crowd and admired the paintings. We stopped at a café packed with customers, ordered a cup of coffee, and sat lazily at a table near the door to look at passers by. I felt so relaxed, so peaceful! If every day life could be as such, there would be no stress, no stepping on each other’s toes, no fighting in order to survive!

We drove back home at almost 9:00 pm. PQ took his siblings out with friends and we stayed home to watch TV. I would prefer taking part in the kids’ activities since PQ will soon depart for Iraq for the entire year. But I knew the kids would enjoy each other more without the presence of their parents. A crazy idea that the worst could happen to PQ one day flashed through my mind and made me really nervous!

The kids came home after 1:00 am. They apologized to us, still awake waiting for them, and went to bed. Though I usually felt asleep easily, I just turned and tossed in my bed, obsessed by the imaginary battlefield thousands of miles away where my beloved son would be exposed to storms of gunfires and other dangers in a strange land.

I must have drifted into sleep not for long then it was already day time. The kids were still in bed. I went out to the yard to water the lawn, my heart heavy with complex feelings. I thought of my own parents who didn’t have a day without worrying about their three sons in three different killer-combat-zones! I remembered my dad who sat silently and stoically all day long when the news reached home that my older brother had died and heroically paid his debt towards our country. I felt goose bumps all over my body, my eyes clouded with tears! Were those tears for the spirit of my dad, or were they actually for me?

* * *

No matter how much you want to hang around, the time to say goodbye to the soldier has come! PQ asked a friend to drive him to the airport so he could say good bye to us before we boarded the plane to go home. But, at the airport I had to return the rental car, then rushed to the gate so not to miss my flight, and PQ had to involve his friends to follow us to the airport. Why much a do for not much a farewell, only to prolong the pain of our separation. I tried to analyze and explain that to PQ and he reluctantly embraced and kissed us good bye!

The sun rays were of a canary yellow tone and soft like a very thin sheet of silk nonchalantly posed on top of bushes along the freeway. It was so silent in the car we could hear a pin drop! Through the mirror, I looked at my two young kids sitting in the back seat and I saw tears in their eyes. My wife was very calm and I would like to think she had more courage than I did at that moment – I felt my heart melting. The 100 mile stretch that I drove up and down a few times seemed much longer now, and we all knew why!

The American soldiers had left the Vietnam combat zone in pain, sadness, and humiliation more than three decades ago. I hope my son and hundreds of thousand American soldiers would not be betrayed and sold off cheap by the living-room-politicians, or the irresponsible media at home. I hope they all will come home soon from Iraq in the glory of victory and the pride and joy of the whole nation.

Translation by Mai Tran

Translated by Hương Cau Cao Tân Canada

I was driving and thinking vaguely on the way to school when suddenly the ringing of the cellular phone startled me and caused me to sway the driving wheel:

– Daddy, oh Daddy, it’s me, PQ!

I was happy hearing the voice of my long-distance son despite his recent homecoming trip on leave to attend his maternal auntie’s male cousin’s wedding a few weeks ago. No matter how grownup the children are, they are still children in their parents’ eyes, who need to be cared for.

– Are you healthy?

– Yes Daddy, I am very healthy, I know martial arts and I am an Army guy!

He burst into laughter, making me laugh along. He often replied to our inquiries about his health in such a manner. He had a sense of humor similar to mine, as his mother would say. According to her, a mother, who is like any other mother in this life, any bad habit of the children is genetically inherited from the father, for example, his habit of over attachment to friends, of being hooked in games, of smoking, and of drinking…

– Are you calling just for a hello or is there something to tell me?

– Both, Sir!

– Anything important, son?

– Yes, I am preparing the paperwork for the trip to Iraq! There is a form requiring your decision before I can fill it out. The question is if I died, would you want our family to take care of the funeral or let the Army arrange it according to their tradition?

I was astoundingly choked! It felt as if someone had stabbed me in the heart with a sharp object despite that was only normal paperwork procedure. Yet I was strongly touched, even at this moment when I am writing these lines of my conversation with my son. Despite my having had lived on the brink of death in that old war those years, and despite the fact that my son, sooner or later, would participate in the war in Iraq, I still felt worried and sad. When my friends asked me if I were worried when my son went to Iraq I would calmly lie, “what can I do, I have to accept that when he joined the military…” I even ventured further to say that since I had been involved with that old war which was much rougher and crueler than this one, I was not afraid!! The reason I was saying as such was to stabilize the mentality of his mother and siblings and to hide from everyone the obsessively frightening feelings a father had, yet that was impossible not to worry! It was better and less worried if I were involved in the war myself!

I suddenly remembered my father; whenever I am struggling with a father’s responsibilities I am then reminded of my father! I had only one son in the army, while my parents had three already joined and two in draft age! I felt tremendous love for my parents! I remembered my years of studying while my two brothers were in the army, I saw my parents’ worriment whenever they heard about the news of fighting on the radio at places where my brothers were stationed. It was especially my father who always appeared firm and strong in a spirit of endurance and acceptance. But then it was in the deep night when I incidentally caught sight of my father who sat smoking in the veranda with his eyes looking towards the distant horizon and sighed long sighs full of worries of a divided mind and of obstacles.

– Daddy! Daddy! Are you listening to me, Sir?

– Uh, I… I… I don’t know. I hesitantly answered while my mind was frozen with the numbness of worriment.

– There is only one choice between two options; either the family takes care or the Army will do the whole bid!

– I do not know what your mother wants; if it’s up to me then I would want that…

In my mind terrible ideas started flashing… what if my son… someday… Oh, no, it would be so terrible… What should I do? What should I do? I myself would have to care for my son; I would have to see him… for the last time then!

– I think perhaps we let our family take care of it!

– Is that your decision Daddy?

– I truly don’t know, my son! Would you mind waiting to hear your Mom’s opinion? – I was choked with words and felt like crying!

– Daddy, wait for me a moment so I can ask my Sergeant to see if I can submit my decision to them later, please Daddy?

– Yes, you ask them then, meanwhile, I am calling your Mom and ask for her opinion and I’ll call you back, OK, son.

– Yes Daddy.

I hung up feeling dazed! I called my wife at work and related our father-and-son telephone conversation to her. My wife immediately said that there was nothing to think about; if my son dies on duty then let’s allow the army to take care of the matter since we would not know what to do! I was intending to share with my wife all the dividing ideas and emotions I was having but decided against it because I had to try my best to fulfill my position of being the pillar of the family. I suddenly had a notion to compare the “lifestyle and thinking” of my parents with ours as a couple… and I realized that my wife’s character was not much different than that of my Mother, i. e. both of them were firmer than their spouses!

I let out a long sigh of acceptance, thinking that perhaps Heaven had predestined that one person would complementarily support the other in their living together! I then called my soldier son with the decision to let the army take care of the matter and asked him when he would be going.

– I cannot tell the family because of the confidentiality of the army!

– So how can Mom and Dad and your siblings come to visit and say goodbye to you?

– Mom and Dad and the siblings need not to toil that much since I just went home two weeks before!

– But your younger brothers have wanted to visit you before your departure because you will be gone for a whole long year before your next return!

– If so, then I think all should come to Colorado sometime at the end of September. I can’t say anything further!

– Whoa! Then we have only two weeks to go! But it’s alright, I’ve decided that the whole family will come to visit with you for a few days in the last week of September. Please make arrangements so you would have time to be with the family for a few days.

– Yes, I am sure that I could get the permission! I will send an email with directions so you would know the way to my camp.

How beautiful Colorado autumn was! The North-South Interstate Freeway no. 25 windingly connected the Denver City to the Fort Carson Army Camp in Colorado Spring. It consisted of more than 100 miles of varied elevated hills and mountains. There were many hillsides and mountainsides full of brown leaves! Autumn was visibly present in a cold misted morning where the sky was in deep blue color and where strips of white clouds were floating leisurely in the golden sun rays as fragile as thin silk. There was white snow dotting the tops of high mountains. And there was in my mind the comparison between the harsh hot climate of Houston and the cool air of autumn of this place; and between the plain, flatness of the soil of Texas and the poetic hills and mountains that were spreading expansively before my hungry eyes. Perhaps my romantic spirit and dreaming mind were more suitable to these landscapes and weather, save the snowy season.

I’d lived in short times in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in Nashville, Tennessee… but the snow had caused my running away for my dear life from those places to the sunny state of California as if I had been led by an invisible voice to later meet with my wife. Then as life had unfolded itself, its physical manifestation had turned us into the “cowboys and cowgirls” of Houston, Texas for more than a tenth of a century! Yes, the term “century” was needed to closely describe the vicissitudes of a person’s life!

– Daddy, would you need to consult the maps, Sir, you seem to have driven for so long and so far already? My daughter asked.

– Your brother’s instruction says that it takes about half an hour more to reach the camp.

Despite his recent homecoming visit, the whole family was anxious to meet with him again, especially his two little siblings – they had been very close to each other since childhood. When one was scolded then others would try to defend him. Like all my siblings in our separate families, everyone was willing to sacrifice for others’ sake. Perhaps this was the reason for the children to live orderly, following family traditions.

* * *

The car stopped at the guard booth in front of the camp so that the military police could inspect all incoming and outgoing vehicles. They requested everyone to leave the car and leave everything open, from the engine trunk to paper and luggage compartments.

After a 15-minute inspection, they allowed us to freely go after showing us the way to the place where my son was stationed. Another 15 minutes of zigzagging driving had passed before we stopped in front of one of many rows of 4-story apartment buildings. My son and his friends, both male and female, had assembled and greeted us in the parking lot.

When the doors of our car opened, the siblings immediately dashed forward and embraced their brother so enthusiastically as if they had not met together for a long year! I was melancholically touched thinking about the coming year for my son would be living for a whole year in the firing frontlines with so many dangers and so much climatic hardship awaiting him! I suddenly felt melancholy remembering the old battlefields, old friends who had gone or survived, and the anonymous heroes and heroines and their families in the ferocious civil war, who, at the end of the war had suffered the separation. Like water buffaloes being strayed from the flock in vast numbers, millions of people had had to leave the homeland to live in strangers’ land in diaspora! I felt my heart heavy thinking of some fifty thousand American soldiers who had fallen down for the sake of an unfamiliar country to which they had borne no hate until their friends and relatives fell down. I was so overwhelmed with emotion to the verge of tears that I had to turn away, pretending to look at the camp’s surroundings until I felt calm again.

Noticing that there were some very young Asian-looking female soldiers, I inquired of this and my son informed me that those were Korean and Chinese-American citizens who had shared the same buildings with their male soldiers but lived on different floors. They would also go to Iraq on this mission. I wondered how both genders could “live in peace” together? I remembered that there were also female soldiers in the Tân Sơn Nhất military encampments before but they were living in separate quarters yet there were also many heart-wrenching love stories! I asked my son on impulse:

– Isn’t sharing living quarters presenting any “trouble” at all son?

– No problem Dad, the rules are very strict!

– Yeah right! I appeared quite doubtful.

– What I say is true!

– All right… I… believe you!

My son’s friends dispersed after accepting the invitation for dinner with our family. Following my son’s advice, we waited for him on-site since we could not get into the dormitory even just for helping him tidy up his personal belongings so he could send back home through us what he did not need or use. Half an hour had passed before he reappeared with two full suitcases. We then headed straight back to our temporary accommodation. Our temporary place in those Colorado Spring days was the home of one of my very close friend’s daughter.

* * *

– Hey Phát, PQ’s unit is transferred to Iraq next month, and my family will go to Colorado to visit him before his departure. By the way give me Little Thảo’s telephone number and we will call on her for a visit!

– How long is PQ going for?

– One year!

– Yeah, it is the same with Hưng, Thảo’s husband, who had to go on duty for one year! Don’t worry, man, the situation is not as bad as what the media says!

– I know! Our Vietnam War was the same! We lost because of those devils, of those greedy politicians, and especially because of those chicken Democrats!

– Please send my well wishes to PQ for me!

– I will relay the message!

– Yes, your family stays at Thảo’s home for your convenience. Her house is close to the camp and is spacious with no one living there except her. I heard her say that PQ sometimes comes to have dinner with his sister.

– OK, let me talk to the little girl!

Although Thanh Thảo was called “little girl” but she had lived the full years of a refugee’s life. At the end of April of 1975, the one-year-old girl with two tails of braided hair and full puffy cheeks along with a pair of round black eyes was fearfully crying while clinging tightly to her mother who was laboriously following her husband on the road from their residential compound amid the sounds of exploding bombs and flying bullets coming from the enemy’s direction! That girl was now a talented Ph.D. and wife of an Army lieutenant, who was longing for her husband’s news from the distant Iraqi battlefields where it was very difficult to tell friends apart from enemies! Knowing Thảo’s situation had helped me to understand and respect more the wives of those soldiers of the old days. At least Thảo still had a comfortable home to live in and a safe job to do and was living in a rich, free, and safe country!

Thanh Thảo’s father and I had been close friends since the day we both enlisted into the military. We joined the military at the same time, studied at the same military academy, attended the same foreign language courses, studied at the same flying schools, were commissioned at the same flying division, and had the same interest in volleyball. When he got married I was his best man … then we had evacuated at the same time, stayed in the same refugee camp, had the same sponsors, started the same first job in this country as part-time helpers for a renovation contractor whom we had met after the service at the church on our first Sunday outside of the refugee camp – and then we had worked together as farmers in an American farm under the scorching sun!

The only difference was Phat has had a family while I was still living aloof wandering here and there for quite a long time! So many times we had been together then separated, and now live close to each other in the same city! I did not know how much he loved me but I did know that I loved him as I did my blood brothers! I loved Little Thảo tremendously because she represented so much of the vicissitudes of our lives in diaspora. Whenever I looked at Thảo it was like there was an old movie projector running noisily showing many film sections full of memories and sad or happy times of those periods!

Before my departure day for Colorado, I had called Thanh Thảo on the phone and been informed that she would be back to Houston to attend the wedding of a close friend while we would be in Colorado Spring; nevertheless, she persistently requested us to stay at her house. Her house was spacious, convenient, close to PQ’s camp and very much suitable for family activities and furthermore, was absolutely free!

– Uncle, if you stayed at my home that would help me in a very important matter!

– Which matter my dear?

– You could help open the sprinklers for the newly laid grass and water the flower pots I have just bought!

* * *

It took us nearly half an hour to drive from the military camp to Thanh Thảo’s house yet it was regarded by her as “being close”! The road was more than ten miles long going eastward from the interstate freeway number 25 and had a strong indication for development by the presence of multi-story buildings, of large shopping centers being built especially at main crossroads; there were new residential sections taking shape, scattering everywhere in alternately vast fields along the roadsides on either side of the road. We finally came to Thanh Thảo’s home, a spacious house that still smelled of new paints, in a newly built subdivision. On entering the house we immediately saw a handwritten note on the kitchen counter which said:

“Dear Uncle and Auntie, I am sorry that I cannot stay to greet you two and the children because there is a wedding of a close friend which is impossible for me not to attend! I hope that you and the children will have a happy stay here. Please regard this house as your own. I have just bought new bath towels and some necessities for your use; the foods in the refrigerator in the kitchen are bought for you and the children. I have intentionally bought some beer for Uncle but not cigarettes because I do not want to encourage you to smoke as it is harmful to your health. I have asked my neighbor to look after the grass and flowers around my house, but if Uncle is concerned about having nothing to do then you can discuss with him (a drawing of a face with a smile and winking eye)! I just simply ask Uncle to care for some flowerpots inside the house. Wish you all a great time together.

Your niece Thảo”

Having finished reading the note, we were touched by the niece’s meticulousness and loved her tremendously more! Her home looked tidy and organized. It was simply decorated yet was very artistic. I commented on this and PQ said that he had a share of opinions on it.

After the discussion about dinner with the children, we decided to stay home to allow the children to have moments of acquaintance and relaxation. After dinner, they all gathered at home in large numbers including four female soldiers, and then they played group games and enjoyed hearty beer drinking. These activities reminded me of my friends of that old soldiery life! Only until late into the night did they “break the line” and arrange to meet again the next morning. Most of them left for home and only a few of them slept over, lying scattered in the living room.

When morning came, I urged them to get up to get ready for the day’s planning. After breakfast, PQ and his friends continuously discussed by cellular phones about the day’s planning while I was watering the grass and flowers. The neighbor came over to talk to me and asked if I were the uncle of the owner. He said that he had intended to come over to water the grass but realized that I already had it done. He was a middle-aged white man who talked friendly and continuously praised Thảo, making me feel proud of her.

When I had finished having breakfast with my family for quite a while, a number of PQ’s friends started to gradually come, and some of them arranged to meet with us at the end of the interstate freeway number 25. When everyone had gotten into their cars I looked at my watch: nearly 12 o’clock at noon!!! We had reserved the prerogatives for PQ in the hope that he and his friends and siblings would have a good time together while we were here so we did not offer any opinion despite PQ’s consistent asking for opinions from us. They finally decided to visit Six Flags Park in Denver.

Then the four cars cramped with people had to drive in line for the distance of nearly one hundred miles! It was close to two in the afternoon when we arrived! I suggested to my wife to let the children go by themselves and that both of us would be sightseeing the town until the time they called us for pickup. I telephoned Nguyễn Mai, Nguyễn Minh Hoàng, and Đoàn Sáu who had been my friends-until-death and whom I had not met for a very long time but, regrettably, one was working far away and I could only leave a message for others.

The streets of Denver were very much similar to those of any other large city in the USA! It meant that they were crowded with cars and people in shops during weekends. The golden sun rays were like thin silk threads; light winds blowing, brown leaves from rows of trees on the roadsides successively fell in the sunshine. A beautiful, living painting in the making. The weather was so superb that people were jostling in their walking in the streets everywhere. Especially on the straight-as-a-ruler 16th Boulevard where electric trains were running on either side of the street and the areas in the middle were like mini-parks full of cool shades from surrounding tall trees and buildings. Kiosks had been built where artifacts and decorative jewelry were displayed and sold like those in Las Vegas. There were also mobile bands that gaily performed, attracting a number of fans the same way as the streets of San Francisco or the French Quarter in New Orleans. Pedestrians sometimes dropped grace money into collection boxes!

We walked along for a few blocks, jostled a bit for fun and watched the artist’s painting. We finally sat in a large coffee shop on the roadside crowded with people to order a cup of coffee and to watch people walking to and fro! I felt very calm and peaceful in my heart! If somehow life could go on like this then people would have been able to forget about time and the harsh struggling of life and how good that would be!

It was nearly 9 pm when we got back home. PQ asked for permission to allow his siblings to go out with him and his friends and we stayed home to watch television. We actually had wanted to share the happiness with the children in all of their activities, especially at the time when we were about to be away from PQ for a long year. There was a terrible idea that sometimes invaded my heart and made me feel stunned – but I thought that letting the children socialize together would always be better for them with the absence of the parents!

The children went out, returned later than 1:00 am, and saw that we had been waiting for them so they apologized and went to sleep. I tossed and turned in my sleep even though it had been easy for me to fall asleep. As I was continuously thinking about our separation from him for a long time or about the risks associated with the battlefields in a totally strange country where bullets spared no one, I felt tremendous love and compassion for him…

I had slept for a short while and woke up at dawn. Seeing that the children were sleeping still, I went to the yard and turned on the faucet to water the grass. My heart still felt heavy! It pained me again when I remembered my parents who had been worrying about their three sons in three different harsh battlefields! I recalled the moment when my father appeared totally exhausted and numbed for a whole day when he received the news of my oldest brother’s death while on duty! I suddenly shuddered panicking and was moved to tears! It was not clear whether it was the love and longing I had for my father or an undefined love I had for myself!

* * *

Regardless of how much we wanted to delay it, the time to part with the young soldier had come! PQ had asked his driver friend to follow us to the airport to bid us farewell; but since I would have to return the rental car when I reached the airport and then I would need to hurry to check-in through security gates for boarding in time and so on, all these things would have rendered his farewell bidding into meaninglessness. Furthermore, the road was long and it was bothersome for his friend to follow PQ in his car! I analyzed the situation as such and PQ sadly bade goodbye to the family!

The sunrays were still like thin, golden silk threads spreading onto tree bushes, making the autumn more resplendent on the hillsides! It was dead quiet inside the car as each one of us was busy with his or her own thoughts. Through the rear mirror, I could see PQ’s sister and brother who appeared to have tears swelling in their eyes! My wife kept quiet and said nothing. I subjectively thought that she was much stronger than I as my heart was as soft as jelly! The one hundred-mile road which I often frequented a few times, needless to say, seemed longer than expected!

More than three decades ago, American soldiers left the Vietnamese battlefields in pain and in shame; but I prayed that my son and hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who were facing death every day would not be sold down the river by theory politicians or by the irresponsible actions of the media groups. I hope that the soldiers would come back from Iraqi battlefields in the glory of a victory and in the pride and joy of all the citizens./-

Translated by Hương Cau Cao Tân, British Columbia, Canada