*Please read the AN at the bottom of the chapter afterwards. It has background information on both the story and the events surrounding it.*
My father and my two uncles all gathered in Saigon, at our house. They sat together around the table in the parlor, three small glasses and a bottle of alcohol set between them. I watched, peeking around a corner, as they all raised their glasses in a solemn manner.
"Tomorrow, the North invades. Let us drink, and celebrate our last night together as a family." They tilted their head back, downing the first shot simultaneously. Dad picked up the bottle, filling the glasses again.
I could see my mother watching in a similar manner as I, quietly seething with anger as they repeated their actions in silence.
It was later, after my uncles had gone, that she stepped up to Dad, who lay on the couch. I had thought he was sleeping, though I was proved wrong as Mom approached him.
"You can stay here to die, but I will not! I won't let our children die!" She cried, at which Dad merely rolled over in response, turning to face the back of the couch. Mom stamped her foot in frustration. She cursed at him, yelling the whole time, and I shrunk back as she did so. "We're going to the naval base!" She finally declared, preceded by an explanation of something I didn't quite understand.
It was at this that Dad sat up, looking at her incredulously. "You can't get in there without me." He replied.
Mom stopped, turning back to him, hands on her hips, and huffed. "Then get your lazy ass off that couch! We're leaving!"
Without Mom, I don't think I would be here now.
They gathered us up that evening, leaving everything behind. I was only eight, my sister nine, and my two brothers six and four respectively. We left everything behind, abandoning our home, our belongings... our family.
We arrived at the base after night had fallen, Dad ushering us towards it when our barely visible surroundings were suddenly illuminated in a harsh brightness, the wind picking up as a foreign sound cut through the otherwise silent night.
The metal body of a helicopter hovered over the area, a light shining down on us, illuminating the naval base.
It sat there above us for several moments until I could hear the clicking and firing of firearms, and the gunshot that rang through the air. It continued in repetition, deafening as little bits of metal rained down on us at terrifying speeds I still had yet to fully comprehend.
Without a second of hesitation, Dad scooped up my brothers, one in each arm, and ran for the bomb shelter that sat only meters away.
Around us, people were screaming, dying. They fell, twitching, before ceasing to move at all, red crimson pooling around them, illuminated by the artificial light of the helicopter.
When Dad realized we weren't moving, he turned around, already so far away. "Run! If you don't move you'll die! Run!" He cried, his voice cracking from the sheer emotion. I had never seen him so desperate before. My father, the proud, strict, strong Admiral. I had never seen him so scared. "Run now!" He shouted again, but no matter how I willed it, my legs refused to move.
Tears streamed down my face. I wanted to move. My legs were shaking so badly though, my heart hammering so loud, that I couldn't summon enough courage.
Still people screamed, clutching wounds in their legs and arms and sides only to go silent as another bullet found them. Some fell silently, others went down in a stream of noise, both voluntarily and involuntarily made. Eventually, however, they too were silenced.
I didn't want to die.
A warm hand found its way into mine, clutching reassuringly despite the trembling. Through the tears and harsh light above I could see my sister.
Always the braver one, she yanked on my arm, dashing forward. I stumbled after her, but like a domino effect, I too found the will to move, racing with her towards our father.
I gulped down the cries of the dying, the blood-stained air as I moved towards safety.
I didn't want to die.
We waited in that base for a long time, my short-lived dreams plagued by nightmares, despite having heard and seen things like this for most of my life. It was the dead of night, long past midnight when I was woken again by the shaking of my father's firm hands.
He pulled us up, almost hastily, guiding us out of the base and towards the beach, where a boat was supposed to be waiting to take us to a larger ship out on sea. I stumbled as I ran beside my siblings to keep up with my parents' fast-paced steps. We didn't get to eat dinner, and I hadn't eaten anything since a somewhat late lunch that day.
I hiccuped softly in fear as the quiet, before interrupted only by our footsteps, was broken sharply once again by the sound of gunfire. Dad pushed us back in alarm, squinting in the dark night.
"Stop!" He shouted, holding up a hand firmly. "Stop firing! We are friendly forces!"
When the shooters had eventually complied, he pushed us forward again, at which I reluctantly followed my sister towards the men guarding the boat. We piled in, with help from my father and the other men, and they pushed off.
The waves were choppy, the wind howling on and off as the small floating object bounced through the dark waters. The larger boat wasn't too far out, taking us only a few minutes to reach it. I craned my neck to look up at it as we approached, the large vessel easily being as tall as some of the bigger buildings I'd seen.
It was dark, though that may have been because of the time of night, and had an almost menacing feel to it. Ladders hung off the sides, swaying in the breeze. There were dozens of other boats around us, similar in size to our own, people clambering off of them to reach for the old rungs that were attached to the ship.
My eyes, probably still red-rimmed from earlier, were wet anew as I watched people climbing. People would reach for the next rung when their feet or hand would slip, perhaps due in part because of the wind, and their grip on the ladder would be nonexistent entirely.
They fell like dead flies into the ocean, some crying out as they did so. My hands shook, already sweaty from the general heat and humidity, as they cried out for help. Several struggled for a short while before the waves crashed down, silencing them. Others, the ones who didn't know how to swim, simply sank into the abyss.
Dad gained my waning attention with a firm voice as he beckoned us closer, to make sure we heard him clearly. "When you climb the ladder, hold on tightly. As tightly as you can, and don't look down."
I followed one of the other men in the boat, following Dad's advice as I did so. My shaking hands clutched each rung close to me, as close to my body as physically possible as I climbed, taking only brief, precious seconds to wipe off the sweat that formed.
Out of the corners of my eyes, and sometimes even from above me, I could see people falling. Falling to their deaths.
I clenched my eyes shut, feeling above me for the next rung and grasping it firmly, desperately as I climbed slowly, trying to quiet the sobs that threatened to escape. I didn't want to die yet.
I kept climbing the ladder, climbing up towards the next rung... towards the top of the ship... towards a new country... towards safety. And hopefully, towards a warm home.
This week, forty years ago, my mother escaped Vietnam the night Saigon fell. She was eight years old. Her father was an Admiral for the South Vietnamese army. Had her mother not insisted on their escape the way she did, she and her siblings would have died that night.
The boat that would leave for Cuba and eventually would lead them to the US was situated out in the middle of the ocean, leaving at night, because had they left from the port they would've been swarmed by people trying to leave.
This wasn't an uncommon occurrence, Vietnamese cramming themselves into boats and planes in order to escape, many falling to their deaths. Those that didn't make it out of the country were sent to concentration camps. Many of her friends were forced to work at these, most younger than twelve years old. For soldiers, many were arrested. If their rank was high enough, as both my grandfather and great-grandfather's were, they would be executed.
That said, the only reason they could board the boat at all was because of the position of my grandfather. On April 30, my mother's grandparents-both of which were as close to her as her own parents-and many of her cousins, aunts, uncles and friends were left behind that night along with their home and belongings. There are countless people that both she and her family has never seen or heard from again.
Before the war, they were very well off, considered rich even, with both her father's position in the army and her mother's hard work, managing three successful stores at once. She had a large house she lived in, a chauffeur that drove her to and from school, and many toys and books that could keep her entertained. When they left, all that success and fortune was abandoned as well.
This is a true story, one I have heard many times throughout my life, though how accurate it is I cannot say. I don't think I can ever truly replicate or do justice to the stories I've heard or the experiences my mother and her family has had.
This is a tribute to my family, both those who did and didn't escape and survive, as well as to the other survivors. Most importantly, this is a tribute to the people who didn't survive. Both those who were shot down, those who fell from the boats trying to get to freedom, and those who died defending what they believed in. And to those people... Thank you.