I never thought this would ever happen to me. I’m kind of an average guy, quiet, introverted. For starters, I’ll have to give you a little background on how all this went down.
Remember those times in the military or your job during the summer? You’d be sitting around with your buddies and one of them would start out with “This ain’t no shit” and you knew the rest of the story was gonna be BS. Well, I’ll skip that ’cause this really did happen to me.
First the history. I was in the Army at the time and divorced, stationed at a large installation in Texas and had custody of two young kids. I was dating a cute Vietnamese girl that I had met a few years earlier. In March of 1974 we decided to get married and be a family. By the Spring of 1975 I figured I was not going overseas again, since I would be retiring in 1976. We decided to buy a house, I’d never owned one before, even though I was in my late 30s. We found a new 4 bedroom and got moved in in February 1975.
Then things started happening, quickly. The war in Viet Nam was really heating up, the communists were headed south, towards Saigon, where my wife’s relatives lived. We were glued to the TV, no cable news back in the old days so every night we watched with anticipation as the war drew nearer and nearer. Then panic mode! The North Vietnamese army was on the outskirts of Saigon! We had no idea of what could or should be done but knew that we had to try something. The end was inevitable and closing quickly, tanks were everywhere, panic in Saigon.
About the 24-25th of April we send telegrams to the US Embassy in Saigon, listing the names and ages of all the relatives and told them we wanted to sponsor them in the US. By that time there was chaos in VN, there was no functioning government and the embassy was a mad house, scrambling to get the Americans out. You’ve seen the end play out on TV hundreds of times, of the helicopters lifting off the roof of the embassy.
We were heart broken, my wife in constant tears, not knowing what had become of her family. A few weeks later, like two or three, a phone call from someone at Camp Pendleton, CA telling us that someone wanted to talk to my wife. It was her brother! And her mother! And her sister! And her sister! And lots of nephews and nieces, some that she had never seen.
Now the plot thickens. My wife’s uncle was Port Commander of Newport, Saigon, and a navy captain. As the war closed in and panic abounded he sent word to his own family and my wife’s to get the hell out of Dodge. Her brother rounded up the whole family, got them to Newport and the uncle got them on one of the last ships leaving Saigon. Her uncle stayed, even though his own family had left, to try to help others . He finally got on the last ship leaving the port.
OK, now all of my wife’s family are at Camp Pendleton, processing the necessary refugee paper work, getting medical exams, etc. I was talking to Pendleton explaining that we would sponsor my wife’s family. They explained that there were quite a few and we said we would take them all. We learned there was 14 in all but we wanted all of them and they agreed. Now what?
First thing is to figure out what we needed. I started building beds, including a couple double bunks, a double bed for my new brother-in-law and his wife and moving them into place. As it turned out there were 2 boys about my son’s age and 2 girls about my daughter’s age. Step cousins, so it was time to share bedrooms. The married couple and their 2 little boys would get a bedroom, the other 6 people would move into the double garage, I had wired it and finished out the front with windows, curtains and a door, rugs on the floor, TV and AC. Not great but not Pendleton tents either.
Finally the big night, a Friday, when the new people would be arriving. We had two cars and a neighbor came with her station wagon to the local airport. As we waited the newspaper people and TV cameras showed up. What the hell is that? My 12 year old had alerted the media, unbeknownst to me. The plane arrived and the relatives started getting off, my wife hadn’t seen her family for close to 10 years. They kept coming and coming until 14 had finally got on the tarmac, there was joy in Mudville!
We got them loaded in the cars and back to my house so we could take inventory. The kids were scared, they had no idea what was going on, they’d been on the ship for many days and a few weeks at Camp Pendleton. Somehow, the first beds had been assigned. I don’t remember but I’m sure there was food to eat. They were the first refugees to get to Temple, TX.
It was June and kids were not in school. The next morning’s front page ran pictures of shy little bewildered Vietnamese kids. We were getting the 15 minutes of fame, on TV, the papers wanted more interviews with the people, my B-I-L spoke some English plus my wife interpreted so we sat and did the interviews.
A phone call the next morning from someone asking if anyone of the newbies was looking for a job and
could he donate some outgrown clothes? He suggested the company he was at and a couple days later I took the oldest nephew down to apply and he started working, less than a week after arrival. The following day, on Sunday, the school superintendent came by, all upset, because the youngsters would be in his school district and they didn’t speak English. I told him not to worry. Wife’s sister was soon working in a couple weeks as well.
OK, here’s kind of a thumb nail sketch of the new folks. All references relate to my wife.
Mother, early 60s, widow, no real work experience
Brother, about 36-37, medical doctor, 2 kids
Sister in law, brother’s wife, 36-37, also a medical doctor
Nephew, brother’s son, 5 years old
Nephew, brother’s son, 4 years old
Sister, about 37-38, air traffic controller at Tan Son Nhut, 6 kids
Nephew, 19, VN Air Force
Niece, 17, student
Nephew, 14, student
Niece, 13, student
Niece, 11, student
Niece, 10 student
Sister, 15, student
Elderly lady, about 60-65, mother of brother’s wife
After 1 month brother and family (including wife’s mother) drove to CA in a VW beetle that we had bought for them. I explained that they had to drive at night in the desert because of the summer heat.
Now we are down to just 9 new relatives. The summer passed, kids watched TV, were learning a little English but not too much.
School started, 7 new kids plus my 2 all got on the bus. My son and daughter got them into their classrooms OK, small country school. After a few days niece 11 came home crying ’cause she couldn’t understand the teacher but she was kicking butt in math. Another month or so teacher asked niece 13 where she lived, niece said Texaco and all the kids laughed, she came home and told her brothers and sisters and they laughed as now all were learning English pretty fast. Birthdays were a frequent and new event, a cake, a couple presents, and the kids were well on their way. Boys were throwing the football around in the front yard, girls were shooting hoops in the driveway. Mother was watching wrestling on TV and doing what she could around the house. Meals were non stop, it seemed. The wash machine and dryer never shut off.
At Christmas time the niece 10 and 11 wanted a talking doll, as did my 9 year old, they were happy little girls. Everyone enjoyed their first American Christmas, all kids were doing well in school. On Jan 1st Sister and 6 kids moved into a low rent apartment only a couple miles from us but they were on their own. Mother and sister 15 stayed with us another 2 years.
Now let’s take another look after nearly 44 years and see what has happened.
Mother passed away about 20 years ago, having lived in a nursing home for many years after a stroke.
Brother and wife passed their CA exams, worked as doctors in the Indiana prison system, until retiring and moving back to Orange County, CA. Brother developed Parkinson’s and passed away about 10 years ago. His wife retired, teaches piano pro bono. Nephews 4 and 5 graduated from Tufts U as dentists, practice in Orange County.
Sister worked at Texas Instruments in assembly, then retail until retirement, moved to FL. Her kids, nephew 19 had a variety of jobs, got cancer and died at about 50. Niece 17 graduated med school, practiced as a pathologist, retired a couple years ago at about 58. Nephew 14 dropped out of high school, got a GED, graduated Iowa State with a BS in Chemistry, got a Master’s in Public Admin, works for the VA in FL. Niece 13 joined the AF, became an Air Traffic Controller, went to Civil Service as a n ATC at Sea-Tac, retired with 30 years. Niece 11 got a BS in Computer Science from UTexas and ran later into serious mental health issues. Lives on the street in Dallas, did a little time in the pokey for fraud and spent a stint in a mental hospital. Niece 10 dropped out of school, banged around for awhile, got her life in order, went to Dental Hygienist’s School and now is Top Gun at a big clinic in Mpls.
Sister 15 got a math degree, maybe UTexas, not sure, teaches at a private school. Her husband was a cop, drowned while his wife watched. They had been married only a couple years and she has never remarried.
S-I-L’s mother died in CA a number of years ago, maybe 10-15. So, let’s see, we have 9 youngsters that arrived in 1975. All married, mostly to Americans. 9 divorces (a couple were divorced twice), 1 widowed, 1 street person, 1 died, 2 single (divorced), 4 presently married. (Only 1 is on his only marriage). At this time in their lives most are doing well, minus the bag lady. Her family has tried to help her but the schizophrenia can’t be beat. One day she’ll be a Dallas statistic.
Oh, the uncle that helped them make their getaway. His own family didn’t know he had escaped for several months as he had ended up in Guam. He and his family settled in Virginia and he worked in DC for a contractor until his retirement and ultimate death. My wife got to see him and his family before he died.
If there is something good from the VN War, at least for me, was that my wife got her family back. We had an exciting time watching those kids mostly succeed, not without a lot of effort on their part. The Catholic Charity, Caritas, had allocated $400 per person for resettlement. I kept meticulous records of expenses, sending in the receipts every couple weeks. I would buy the groceries, divide by 18, take off 4 shares for us and Caritas would send a check for the other 14. As people left I would update the figures. I can’t remember how it all worked out but we wanted the new folks to have the leftover Caritas money. I think there may have been some residual for them to use later.
Well, Penthouse, that’s about the end, not the usual ending to a Penthouse letter but a Happy Ending anyway.