Sunday, November 18, 2012

Get Out Any Way You Can

After I finished "Born Under an Assumed Name", I found that Sarah Taber's father, Charles, had written a short book about his experiences in Vietnam before Saigon fell to the communists in 1975.  He had been the part of the CIA there, running a propaganda radio station called House Seven.  When it looked like the fall was inevitable, he realized that all of his Vietnamese employees (KIPs ... or "Key Indigenous People" in CIA-speak) were in very real danger.  Charles Taber wasn't about to leave them behind.  We all know what happens to collaborators in war.  

Against incredible odds, Taber arranged for the evacuation of more than a thousand people, the employees and their families, to a remote island off the Southern coast of Vietnam, Phu Quoc.  They camped at a former US military base there.  Over several days the people had been ferried to the island on American C-47's.  Tabor negotiated with an American merchant ship, the American Challenger, to take the group to safety to Guam and Hawaii.  Of course it wasn't a matter of the folks showing up at the dock and sauntering on board.  In the middle of the night, a Landing Ship Utility or LSU had to make three trips out to the ship, anchored five miles offshore, carrying more than 500 people at a time.  

An LSU (Landing Ship Utility)
The book is short, but is filled with suspense and danger.  Out of radio communication with Saigon, Taber didn't know moment to moment if the scheme would play out.  There were road blocks at every turn: A signature needed by an absent Vietnamese official; trying to 'sneak' 1300 people to a beach under cover of night without arousing suspicions of the local authorities; fitting 1300 people on the open decks of a freighter.  There was another refugee camp near the base where the CIA employees were encamped.  There was a real risk that if the refugees at that camp caught wind of what was happening, there would be an uncontrollable panic, much like what had happened just a few days earlier at Da Nang Air Force Base.  Somehow, miraculously, Taber pulled it off.  I wonder how many other stories like this one have been lost in time?
We were living in Manila when Saigon fell.  Most of my memories of the time are of the news coverage of the American POWs landing at Clark Air Base near Angeles City, on their way back home.  Pictures of elated families rushing to meet their loved ones are seared permanently on my brain.  We heard of the "Boat People" who threw themselves at the mercy of the sea to escape their fate in Vietnam.  Too many of these poor souls met their end in the ocean when overloaded boats sank, or were overrun by pirates, the women and girls raped and killed.  Unspeakable things happened to these people. In our cushy American lives, can we ever relate to such desperation?  I think not.  

One of my dearest friends from the Philippines, Lisa Andrews, arrived in Manila for the fall semester in 1975.  Her father had been with the Asia Foundation in Saigon, and was the commencement speaker at our graduation in 1978.  Lisa's brother David was my date to the Christmas formal in 1977.  Neither spoke to me of their experiences leaving Saigon until just the other day. 

My friend, Lisa Andrews.

 "Actually, Dave and I were on the last commercial flight out of Saigon on April 3, 1975. He and I flew to Guam for an overnight alone and then went to San Francisco to be with relatives. David was overjoyed to be in the US with everything 'American' and easily blended with our cousins. I had a horrible transition having left my first boyfriend (I never saw him again ) and my very best friend in the whole world (she and I are still in touch). The most devasting realization was that NO ONE wanted to hear about Vietnam. There was a resounding negative sentiment in this country about the US involvement in the war, since the country had fallen to the "Communists" the loss of American lives had seemed in vain. The US media portrayed a very different perspective than we had known, which consequently has left me jaded since. The documentary featured on PBS showing the Fall of Saigon is a small camera lens of insight into the magnanimous event that occurred. There was absolute hysteria in that city and that sense of forboding stayed with me for years, even after we moved to Manila. David and I finished the school year in an American public school. It was hard to transition from the Phoenix Study Group in Saigon, where I did homeschooling with a few other high school kids. The group remained close knit and has a Facebook page called Phoenix Study Group.  The most memorable aftermath of leaving Saigon was the profound loneliness that following because NO ONE (including adults) understood the journey other than those of us who had been evacuated as a Third Culture Kid. The irony is that in my adulthood, I have met several people who have similar stories....leaving Iran, leaving Cambodia, leaving Pakistan (my dad and his second family experienced that after 9-11).  The most serendipitous part of leaving Saigon is that my brother had a Vietnamese best friend. The parents were law professors in Saigon and my dad facilitated their 'departure'. Years passed and lo and behold, Koi, Dave's pal, is my mom's cardiologist here in California. Truly amazing!!"
I don't know how much warning the Andrews family had that they were going to be evacuating Saigon.  (Remember Lisa and David at that time were around 15 and 14 years old.  Flying out on the last commercial flight.  Alone.)  Like the teenagers at Tehran American School, they left in the face of a revolution.  No quiet talk at the dinner table from dad, "We're moving again!"  It was a matter of life and death.  It was "Get out any way you can."  Sudden grief ... like a sudden death, not a long lingering one.  A traumatic amputation.  

As I dig further into what comprises the soul of the Third Culture Kid, I find that there are too many untold stories.  Usually we are reluctant to share these stories, either because they are too painful to revisit, or we are certain that no one wants to hear them.  Who in the world would ever relate to us?  We're all too familiar with that "glazed over" look in our non-TCK listeners when we start reminiscing about the past.  It is only by sharing these things with each other that we can put the sadness and the grief in their proper place.  Not to put them behind us, or to negate them, but to acknowledge them.  

David Andrews and yours truly at the 1977 Christmas formal.
I am reminded by my own mother who, when I start talking about my hurts from the past, keeps asking me why I can't let it go?  Why can't I go to Home Depot, buy a ladder, and get over it?  (She's so funny!)  It's because these things are a part of our identity, our history, our very souls.  It's not possible to put it behind us, because it is who we are.  When we talk about it today, the hurt of the past is very much in the present.  However, along with the pain there are flashes of joy and amazement.  There is realization that our lives, while often filled with challenges, were unique and, on so many levels, blessed.  Start sharing folks.

Lisa today with her husband Mark, and two of our classmates, Fouad Assad and Steve Assad. 


Anonymous said...

Great Job..well written!

Liz said...

Thank you, A. Nonymous. Your name sounds familiar ... :)

Michael Erickson said...

I just discovered your blog and this article. Thank you for writing it. Lisa is my friend and we were high school classmates at the Phoenix Study Group, the Saigon school. There were around 30 high school students (more than a hundred kids in the lower grades). The high school students took correspondence courses from the University of Nebraska. We were called the Nebraska Group. It was the internet that made it possible for students (and a few teachers) to reconnect as a group. We were scattered all over the globe after the evacuation. I think most of us retained contact with only a few former classmates. Since our school ceased operation, there was no school to go to link up with alumni. The internet provided the means to locate former students and teachers (decades later). By the way, the Facebook group is not limited to former students and teachers of the school.