Part 2 Trans Doh Nhut Joint and Taco Chop: Travels of the Prodigal Tran

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic
1975 was not a good year in a place soon to be once called Saigon.
A lot of folks who had been living comfortably, some lavishly, with lots of servants, departed suddenly and moved to far off places like Paris, France, to live comfortably, some lavishly, and deal with the hardship of not having as many servants.
As the conquering armies of the surging tide of Communism flooded into the last to be conquered areas of a place once known as South Viet-Nam, other folks, lacking the economic resources of the previously relocated, flooded to the ocean and into wind powered fishing boats and other barely floatables and thence out to sea where some were fished from the drink by American sailors and scattered about the decks or stuffed into the holds of steel ships and dispersed around the free world.
A lot of other folks who had been living more or less at liberty to do as they pleased, but couldn’t handle the air fare, suddenly found themselves being hauled before People’s Tribunes and sentenced to spend a few years standing on their heads in rehabilitation camps’ feces fertilized rice paddies.
For others, it was just another exciting season of "Starsky and Hutch."

Submitted: September 03, 2017

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Submitted: September 03, 2017

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1975 was not a good year in a place soon to be once called Saigon. 

A lot of folks who had been living comfortably, some lavishly, with lots of servants, departed suddenly and moved to far off places like Paris, France, to live comfortably, some lavishly, and deal with the hardship of not having as many servants. 

As the conquering armies of the surging tide of Communism flooded into the last to be conquered areas of a place once known as South Viet-Nam, other folks, lacking the economic resources of the previously relocated, flooded to the ocean and into wind powered fishing boats and other barely floatables and thence out to sea where some were fished from the drink by American sailors and scattered about the decks or stuffed into the holds of steel ships and dispersed around the free world. 

A lot of other folks who had been living more or less at liberty to do as they pleased, but couldn’t handle the air fare, suddenly found themselves being hauled before People’s Tribunes and sentenced to spend a few years standing on their heads in rehabilitation camps’ feces fertilized rice paddies.

Still others among who went down to the sea to escape were rescued by other Samaritans.  One of these others had come to Saigon less than a day prior as a not so young draftee in the conquering People’s Army of Vietnam. 

Tran van Chien was born in 1925 on the bank of the Red River in the Red River Valley, in a small rice farming village to the north of Hanoi.  His father, a master tailor and the grandson of Chinese immigrants, who themselves had been master tailors, made clothing for the surrounding villagers and French Colonialists. 

As a young man, he was apprenticed to his father, and he had learned his sartorial skills working with his hands and a foot powered 19th century treadle machine that his great grandfather had purchased in China. 

It wasn’t easy to be ethnic Chinese along the Red River but accommodations could be and were made.  Especially for good tailors who could produce the clothing styles of the Chinese Mandarins. 

Chinese Mandarin was the clothing style to be seen in.

After a while, his parents were able to buy their own land and built their own home.

As time went on, he found a good woman, married her and they raised good kids.

Life was good. 

Then, the Japanese invaded and occupied.

Things changed.

These changes became abundantly clear in his area when the invading Japanese beheaded two local village chiefs, just to get everyone’s attention.  They then drafted a number of the younger girls into service as prostitutes, and proceeded to strictly enforce the laws that they imposed.  It seemed to most that the penalty for all violations was death, and that the only thing that varied from sentence to sentence was the manner in which the convicted were executed.  Some were hung up from trees or various and sundry structures and beat to death, others were used for bayonet practice and still others, though much fewer in number, were simply shot.

The local Japanese garrison commander saw no training value in simply shooting Vietnamese trouble makers.

The Viet-Minh took to the hills and with the aid of U.S. Army OSS agents, took the battle to the Japanese.

At first, Tran avoided service with the Viet-Minh, but supported their efforts by providing them clothing and his services.  For reasons unknown to Tran, a group of Japanese soldiers one day killed his wife and children and most of the people in his hamlet.  He avoided death that day because he had been away, working on uniforms for the local Japanese commander. 

This event definitely undermined his “live and let live” attitude, but being a man of honor, he dutifully pieced together the uniform that he had measured the Commander for and then, having returned for the final fitting, slit the man’s throat as he was fitting the collar.  Then he turned the man and stared into his puzzled eyes as he died

Afterwards, he fled to the mountains and took up with the Viet Minh and a small group of American soldiers.

He loved Americans and his notions of America.  Most of his understanding of America came from his association with the American OSS agents who had parachuted into Viet-Nam and fought against the Japanese with the Viet-Minh.  He was fascinated by their stories about Thomas Jefferson and the American Declaration of Independence.  He was proud of the fact that Ho Chi Minh had incorporated much of the American Declaration of Independence word for word into the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam that he read to the world on September 2, 1945.

He wasn’t sure of how it all got from praises of Thomas Jefferson to being bombed into the Stone Ages by the Americans, but he did understand that he didn’t like being drafted into the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and made an artilleryman, and he didn’t like the long walk south in the midst of American bomb strikes to Quang Tri Province, or the side trips into Thua Thien Province, or carrying the Soviet made 122 mm rockets from storage areas to launch sites.  In practical terms, what this meant was propping up oversized bottle rockets, developed by the Russians,  with any means available and launching them in the general direction of an American military base.  As he so often noted himself, sometimes they hit something, sometimes they didn’t but he always had to run like mad, after he fired them at the American bases, because American retaliation was almost always certain.  Memories of the time he completely missed the American base but hit the ARVN ammunition supply point over a mile off target and was treated to fireworks all night long. 

While the American counter attacks may have been almost always certain, they were not almost always accurate and any completely uninvolved piece of jungle or wayward water buffalo within two or three square miles of the launch site was subject to being blasted into the hereafter by American artillery or helicopter gunships, so there truly was no safe place to hide.

And, as fate would have it, he worked in the Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces where lots of American Marines and Army paratroopers had been stationed. Sometimes he would sit in tea cafes by the side of the road and watch the soldiers pass up and down Highway 1 in cargo trucks.

In the last few weeks before the fall of Saigon, long after the U.S. Marines had departed. As the People's Army of Vietnam moved south, so did Tran.  On the way south, he had felt strangely driven to get to the front of the marching columns and when they marched into Saigon, he was one of the first.  He felt a strange thrill watching the American helicopters lifting off the Embassy roof and passing over head and a sense of nostalgia about not being on one of them.

He was also one of the first to keep on going.

As he later told the story.  He got to the dock area and saw that people were climbing into boats and heading to sea.  He walked around a corner and into a group of fleeing ARVN officers.  They had discarded their weapons and were visibly fearful that he was going to kill them.  They offered a bag of U.S. currency in exchange for their lives.  He took it, a set of civilian clothes, and the ID of one whom he thought looked like himself.  Then, he changed clothes, ran back around the corner and jumped into a departing boat. 

That boat floated around the South China Sea for a week or so until a Brazilian flagged oil tanker coming out of the Strait of Malacca almost ran them over.  The ship’s Captain reasoned that because he was already behind schedule due to weather in the Indian Ocean and pirate activities in the strait and dropping his human cargo off in Brazil was just as good as turning back or diverting his course to drop them off in Malaysia or Thailand.

The tanker’s crew included a few Africans who spoke French and one Chinaman who spoke broken Mandarin.  Few if any of the other refugees spoke anything but Vietnamese and very few could read or write. 

The Africans and Chinaman befriended him and he was soon learning the skills and trade of the “Basic Able Bodied Seaman,” and before they arrived in Brazil, he worked out a deal with the Ship’s Master to stay on until they reached an American, Canadian or Mexican port, where he would “jump ship,” and be gone.

The defect in this plan was that he had never heard of Brazil or Mexico and had no idea as to where America was, or Brazil or Mexico for that matter, much less their location in proximity to America or how to get there from anywhere.

So, he sailed from port to port for three years, never leaving the ship, never knowing where he was but becoming increasingly suspicious of the various ships masters who promised to sneak him off the ship when they got to America.

Then, anchored just off a rocky coast line that smelled strongly of rotted fish, the ship took on a new crew member and it was the Chinaman who had befriended him when he was first rescued from the South China Sea.

The Chinaman listened to his tale of woe and then pointed to the shore and said, “That is Mexico.  That city over there on the coast is called “Ensenada.”  America is about 60 kilometers in that direction,” and pointed north.

“Make a left when you hit the beach.”

Later that night, after thanking the Chinaman profusely, he collected his savings of about $100 for three years of labor, donned an individual flotation device, lowered himself over the side and was immediately swept southward by the current.  Two days later, he struggled ashore over sharp volcanic rock, climbed a steep volcanic cliff to a north-south highway and started walking north. 

He worked his way north to Tijuana, telling people he was Chinese and getting odd jobs in Chinese restaurants, and then across the peninsula to Mexicali.  In Mexicali, he got another job working in a Chinese restaurant, but the owner didn’t believe he was Chinese because of his accent, so he told him the truth.  There he learned that if he walked west around Cerro Centinela, a bone dry mountain of rock in the bone dry desert west of Mexicali, and didn’t die in the process, he could simply walk into America.  The American border patrol didn’t patrol much in that area because there was not much foot traffic that survived the trek across that part of the desert.

Then, one morning, he was walking along the border, less than a mile from the Calexico official port of entry, fully intent on eating breakfast in the downtown Mexicali area when he found himself looking through a hole in the fence.

He ducked through the hole and didn’t stop running until he hit Main Street in Calexico.  He didn’t know that he was on main street, but he had a pocket full of American money and he knew a café when he saw it so, he went inside and through various hand signals, had his first American breakfast—pancakes and eggs and bacon.  He thought the pancakes strange but the eggs and bacon had merits.

He wandered around town until he came across a Chinese Restaurant that was owned and operated by an actual Chinaman.  He explained that he was from Vietnam and was looking for America.  The Chinaman assured him he was in America and offered him short time employment washing dishes and other scut work.

He really disliked washing dishes and the food was foreign it wasn’t that foreign.

As he worked, he learned more about a place called Los Angeles and decided to go there.  He also learned about a place called San Francisco.  The restaurant owner assured him that both cities had large Chinese populations and recently had been attracting lots of Vietnamese immigrants.  Tran figured that if he could get to one, and didn’t like it, he could look for the other one.  He was confident that sooner or later he would find a place in America to settle down. 

To call home.

To live in peace.

On a very cold morning in March, he found himself standing in a dirt lot, near a railroad with many people who were dressed much more warmly than him, watching a barefoot woman selling burritos and tacos.  The people who were buying them were getting into the backs of open trucks and he surmised that they were the field workers he had seen while trudging north from Calexico.

He tried to speak to her in Mandarin and then Vietnamese but she spoke neither.  He spoke nothing else.   He was thinking she had responded in Spanish, like a Mexican, but he wasn’t sure.  So he simply stood silent, watching her pass out burritos and tacos and take in money from a bunch of friendly people who seemed to like her.

She handed him a refried bean and chorizo burrito and he ate it.  He was very hungry and he thanked her for it, profusely.  She looked like his actions had confused her. 

He didn’t want to hurt her feelings or give the impression that he was ungrateful.

He hadn’t drank in more than a day and he tried to motion to her to indicate he was thirsty.  She gave him another bean burrito.  Their fingers briefly brushed and their eyes locked on each other.  He didn’t know what it was but he was suddenly dizzy, so he ate the burrito.

Later, after the breakfast rush and the field workers were all loaded into the buses or onto the truck, she took him to a rundown building that opened off and alley and gave him a few gallon jugs of water.  He drank half of one of them immediately.  She then walked him a few kilometers to a plastic lean to on the banks of a foul smelling river.  The lean-to was tiny but relatively clean and dry. 

He stayed the night there that day and night,  It certainly was more comfortable than a spider hole in Quang Tri Province.  The next morning, very early, she returned to fetch him.  He accompanied her to the packing sheds and helped her carry her tacos and burritos from the kitchen in the run down old building off the alley.

After a few days of this, she took him back to the rundown building, gave him some old but clean clothes and opened a closet door for him.  Inside was a concrete mop sink on the floor with a plastic curtain hanging from the ceiling.  She also handed him a bar of soap and a towel and closed the door.  Afterwards she walked him back down to his luxury accommodations on the river.

Life went on like this for a few weeks, and then one morning, after he was in the shower, she opened the closet door and stepped in naked.

Neither spoke a word that that the other could not understand, but, after that, he never slept in the plastic lean-to again.

 

 


© Copyright 2020 Eddie C Morton. All rights reserved.

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