On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Heroes We Have Known
Chau and Hahn
Telling stories about other people is fraught with risk. One risk is that they might be offended that something you have said might not be true; another risk is that something else that you wrote about them, although true, may lead to embarrassment—theirs or yours. Finally, if the teller of tales about others doesn’t get the story right, there is the risk that others might not lend credence to the story itself, or to the writer. Novelists get a pass; after all, novels are not predicated upon the truth. Writers of non-fiction; however, are judged upon the veracity of the story. Their standing among writers is partly based on their personal integrity.
There is no secret that the Footloose Forester has a lifelong striving for properly identifying and categorizing heroes, in various walks of life. There are numerous true heroes among us; and the Footloose Forester takes pride in those he has known, personally; even more so than such popular heroes as celebrities or sports stars. His personal heroes have always been sources of inspiration and reflection. Good character and steadfastness in action are two of the qualities that his personal heroes possess that set them apart from others whose character traits may only be presumed. For example, at one time the Footloose Forester counted Lance Armstrong as a sports hero, based on his years of rigorous training and winning performance as 7-time champion of the Tour de France. But his years of lying to the media, and to his devoted public, devalued his accomplishments and diminished him as a person.
So… the seeking, the keeping and the valuing of real heroes has as much to do with the other person as it does with a prideful Footloose Forester who admittedly needs real heroes in his life. Fortunately, he does have several real, genuine flesh and blood heroes whose lives have enriched his own. This chronicle is about two of them that he and his wife Thu met while the Viet Nam War was still going on.
Chau and Hanh were sisters about whom we had learned tidbits of information from their aunt, who was a resident in the apartment building next to ours in Honolulu. She was a retired translator (Vietnamese to French) at the United Nations in New York. Although she was living alone at that time, she had agreed to sponsor her refugee nieces before the impending fall of Saigon. Their own father, a retired colonel in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) gave up his own seat on one of the last flights out of Saigon, so that both of his daughters could fly out to freedom in the United States. He was, at that time, the Manager of Air Viet Nam in Saigon and presumably might have exerted more influence to secure a seat for himself. We were told, however, that all seats on those final commercial flights out of Viet Nam were fully booked and that he volunteered to stay behind.
So it was that as we awaited the arrival of the Pan American jet connecting from Guam, Thu and the Footloose Forester already knew that Chau, the older sister, had completed an undergraduate degree in pre-Law in Saigon, and that her younger sister Hanh had only started college in Viet Nam. Both of them spoke very little English. But we will never forget their wide smiles and girlish giggles as they emerged from the arrival gate at Honolulu International Airport. It was our privilege to drape them with fragrant leis that are part of a Hawaiian custom extended to new arrivals.
Chau always played the role of big sister and looked after Hanh, even though they both moved in with their prim and somewhat stern aunt in the apartment building next door. Chau was engaged to be married at that time, to another refugee whose sponsors were located in New Jersey. After her marriage she asked her sister Hanh to go live with them in New Jersey. Chau’s new husband Thanh was a perfect gentleman who understood the frustrations of two young ladies who had to answer to their demanding aunt. After all, Chau was only 22 and the bubbly-spirited Hanh was only 18. So, after a time during which we got to know them, Chau was off to New Jersey where Thanh had been offered a job through the support organization that had facilitated his escape from Viet Nam. Hanh followed about a year or so later. There was enough time in the interim to help both of them get part-time jobs in Honolulu; and to learn the depths of their cheerfulness. We knew that we would always be friends because the selection process was a two-way street.
Enough time, as well, for Hanh to enroll as a scholarship student in Hawaii’s Chaminade College and complete at least two full years. Then the details about developments became fuzzy. Chau, then Hanh, had said their good-byes and departed for a new chapter of their lives in Dayton, New Jersey. As if there were a grand theme being played out, not long after Hanh departed, the Footloose Forester was offered a teaching job at Rutgers University, not more than 15 miles from Dayton. That is when we re-connected and where the saga about the young heroes continues.
Chau and Thanh had secured full-time jobs, thus were relatively secure. When Hanh showed up, she wanted to continue her education, something that is very important in Vietnamese culture. She was accepted at Rutgers and received transfer credits for the two years at Chaminade in Hawaii. We never learned how they managed to pay for college while learning to adjust to life in the United States. But they did adjust, and quickly.
Hanh graduated from Rutgers with a B.S. in Chemistry. Seemingly without breaking stride, Hanh soon earned a Master’s Degree at Rutgers, this time in Organic Chemistry. There must have been a master plan in the works; for it was not long before we learned that Hanh had been accepted at Princeton to pursue a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry, with a specialization in petrology.
It is only his speculation in the recounting of actual events, but the Footloose Forester sensed a bit of jealousy between the young sisters. Hanh was developing into a chemist in demand, complete with a full scholarship to Princeton; and Chau was stuck with the demands of a full time job at the American Standard porcelain factory and her duties as a wife at home. So, Chau decided to attend night school and earn her Master’s Degree.
For earning a Master’s Degree in Business Management at Rutgers—at night school; and for being a model worker during the day; a loving big sister; and a devoted wife always; Chau is one of my heroes. And for arriving in the United States as an 18-year old refugee who spoke no English, then earning college credits in Hawaii; B.S. and M.S. degrees at Rutgers; and a Ph.D. Degree in Organic Chemistry at Princeton; Hanh will always be one of my heroes.
There is a sequel to this tale of the striving of young heroes who happened to be refugees from the Viet Nam War. A few years later, when Thu and the Footloose Forester were visiting with Chau, Thanh and their new son; and when Hanh was visiting home from her research chemist’s job in Oklahoma, we were delighted to meet a man who had been released by the Communists, after 5 years, from the prisoner of war camp at Khe Sanh. He had been an ARVN colonel during the war, thus was a prime candidate for re-indoctrination to the glories of communism. And as a prominent civilian and Manager of Air Viet Nam when South Viet Nam fell, Chau’s and Hanh’s father was also imprisoned at Khe Sanh, where he spent several years. It is not known if he survived.