On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
A Gift From a Samoan to a Vietnamese to a Dying American G.I.
The following account is a bittersweet memory of the days when the Footloose Forester and his soul mate Thu were living in Honolulu. He was an East-West Center grantee in the Food Institute and attending the University of Hawaii as a graduate student in The College of Tropical Agriculture. She was a seamstress who learned her skills from her mother in Viet Nam. We were a family on both sides of the Pacific. Mom had lived with us in Saigon and came to live with us in our tiny apartment on Olohana Street in Honolulu. Both Thu and her mother sought out jobs making Aloha shirts within two weeks of our arrival in Hawaii. Neither of them had any intention of staying at home and watching TV.
Shortly after we moved to Olohana Street, we became acquainted with another East-West Center grantee, Dick Wills, and his wife Leah. They were our next-door neighbors; both hailed from the Middle West (Illinois). He was studying Chinese History and was an avid student. Dick Wills was also a returning GI who was wounded in Cambodia during the Viet Nam War. He mentioned that our troops were not acknowledged as being in Cambodia, and our involvement on the ground there was not mentioned in the media.
We knew others who were East-West Center grantees or their spouses; and we often got together for social events; or took the same classes. Bill Cable was one of them who was also enrolled in the Food Institute and in The College of Tropical Agriculture. His wife Ledi was a Samoan whom he married on the beach in Western Samoa where he had been a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher before coming to Hawaii.
So it was that Ledi Cable gifted Thu with a bolt of richly colored Samoan cloth, hand-painted with tropical themes. The gift was in the finest tradition of the East-West Center, formally known as the Center for Cultural and Technical Interchange Between East and West, whose stated goals also included interchange with peoples of the Pacific. Ledi, the Samoan wife of fellow-American and classmate Bill; and Thu, the Vietnamese seamstress wife of the Footloose Forester, became fast friends. Although Thu made most of her own clothing, the beautiful robin's egg blue material given to her by Ledi Cable stayed in a drawer for more than two years.
Typical lavalava patterns of Samoan design
In the meantime, Dick and Leah Wills came to be our next door neighbors on Olahana Street. Less than a year after they arrived, it was discovered that Dick Wills had terminal cancer, associated with his war injury. It was a delicate issue since the military authorities did not want to advertise about a soldier’s wound gotten on the ground in Cambodia.
Arrangements were made for him to return to the Mainland for chemotherapy, but we all knew that Stage 4 cancer was very late in the game. In the days before their departure, there was much whispering going on between Leah and Thu, and more than a few garments were passed in and out of backdoors. When they boarded the outbound Boeing 747, Dick and Leah Wills were wearing matching hand-painted Samoan attire - he in Aloha shirt and she in a full-length muumuu. That beautiful gift of hand-painted cloth, from Samoan Ledi, to Vietnamese Thu, to dying American GI Dick Wills was a very special gift, indeed.
This is the kind of story I want to remember. My Bengal Tiger was a giver all of her life and was one of the many reasons I loved her so.
About the author
Some of the most beautiful cloth in the world can be found in Samoa but also in Vietnam and Cambodia. I remember these colors and when I think about the way they looked on the indigenous people it reminds me of fonder memories of my time there. What a nice gift in such a tragic situation.
Thank you, Golden and Tom. That tragic situation so affected me that it was one of the few stories I committed to print in 1974. So much went unexplained at the time, but Dick Wills did show me the long scar below his rims and merely suggested it was a result of hand-to-hand combat. He was not one to make things up.