“Dad doesn’t deserve to be in the army!” complained my 18-year-old sister, Sarah, to my mom.
“He’s strong and smart and brave,” countered my mom in a strong, bold tone. “He was born for the army.”
“But he’s also tired and quiet and faithful!” Sarah shouted, not sounding very confident. “He doesn’t belong in Vietnam!”
“He’s fighting for our country,” my mom answered, her usually loud voice wavering.
“Now, let’s not be selfish. It takes sacrifice from both the soldiers and the families to win a war.”
My mom, a loud and happy singer is the bravest person I know, other than my dad. She enjoys art, and is positive and talkative, but ever since my father left to fight in the Vietnam War, she had seemed much more tired and stressed out. My dad is a clever man with a kind heart, willing to give his life for his country. He enjoys writing, and has written us twice, even though he’s only been in Vietnam for a week. And although he’s a bit quiet, he has the courage to put his life on the line in Vietnam.
My 18-year-old sister, Sarah, ever the popular girl in school, is both intelligent and charming. She is short with long, dirty blonde hair and often wears a frown. When she’s in a good mood, she’s fun to be around, and she is unbelievably patient, but she’s also bitterly sarcastic and obstinate. She, for some reason, is the person most saddened by my dad joining the army. She’s been forlorn and moody for the past week.
I am the 11-year-old Rebecca Brown, a smart and perfect girl. Okay, I am exceptionally smart, but I’m not perfect. I am happy, energetic, and a prolific reader and writer, but I am also hopelessly forgetful and impatient. Unlike Sarah, I have three close friends at school, and am unbelievably tall for my age. I am loud like my mother, and I like to sing, too.
And Thi, an 11-year-old Vietnamese girl staying with us, has become part of the family, and we treat each other like sisters (not always a good thing). She shares a room with me, and has found astonishing intrigue in American lifestyle. A shy and quiet girl, An Thi is both shorter than me and smarter than me, which gets on my nerves. She likes writing letters, especially to her father. She is easily bored, but easily entertained, too. She is from North Vietnam and has been living with us since her father joined the army, and is now fighting as a Viet cong. And although our fathers are enemies, An Thi and I are learning to become friends.
The four of us live in Florida, at the place right between the panhandle and the pan. It is currently hot and wet and moderately painful to step outside into the humidity. Our life is joyful and upbeat, but also gloomy as we wait for our father to return.
“Support peace, bring our troops back!” a muffled voice outside our door noisily chanted. It was Sarah’s voice! Puzzled, I dashed into the sun-bathed front room and gazed out the window. I stifled a gasp when I beheld Sarah stomping up the stairs to our front door with her carpool, holding anti-war signs and chanting. Sarah knocked on the door and they stopped. My mom, wearing an apron, a chef’s hat, and a huge frown, opened the door.
“Hey, mom!” Sarah declared, smiling nervously. My mom just stood there, one hand on her hip, the other hand holding a spatula. She looked down at Sarah, subtly shaking her head.
“Mom,” she repeated, forcing herself to laugh. She was in one of her good moods, but was preparing to produce an onslaught of teenage rebellion.
“Sarah,” my mom scorned. Sarah’s carpool, who drove her back from college, waved goodbye and wandered down the steps, knowing it was the time to leave. Sarah stepped into the room and spoke when her friend had left.
“Something needs to be done about the war,” Sarah justified, her smile vanishing and being replaced by a defiant frown.
“And whose job is that?” my mom queried sternly. I cowered back, ready to run to safety.
“We can’t just let our men get drafted like that! Something has to be done about it,” Sarah retorted, ignoring my Mom’s question.
“But that isn’t your job! It’s your job to be a student, not a riot causer.”
“Something had to be done-”
“Something other than that-”
“We needed a protest-” “Listen to me!” my mom raged. “You may think you are supporting peace, but riots only cause more violence! You could have been killed! You’re grounded for your foolishness. I hope you learn wisdom before you get hurt!”
Her anger explosion had come so unpredictably. I hadn’t found the time to exit the room before she was done yelling, and before Sarah had begun to cry.
“I only wanted to help!” Sarah sobbed. “I only want the war to end! I only want peace!”
She rushed out of the room covering up her face, and I followed her all the way to her bedroom, where she shut the door right in front of me. I immediately burst into my room to see An Thi’s reaction. Flinging open the door, I found her leaning over a table, yellow pencil in hand, scribbling words on a paper. The moment she heard me enter, she flipped the paper over and covered it up.
“What?” she questioned, grinning at me as if nothing had happened.
“Sarah’s grounded,” I solemnly answered.
“I know,” she acknowledged. “But I agree with her.” She had apparently heard the conversation. “We shouldn’t have a war. It isn’t helping anybody, it’s only putting our people in grave danger.”
Today is October 21, 1963, and we miss you terribly! Mom is doing fairly well, but she is incredibly stressed out. Sarah, me, and even An Thi have been helping her. Unfortunately, Sarah got involved in anti-war riots at college, and she is grounded for her foolishness. Now, she can only leave her room for classes. At least she was not hurt. At school, she’s super happy and outgoing, but at home, she hardly says a word. She misses you so badly, all she wants is for you to come home!
An Thi is a living puzzle that I have yet to put together. She’s ultra-curious about the American lifestyle. I can tell, because she won’t get her eyes off the television! I always find her writing on a sheet of paper, which she never lets me look at. I know that she writes many letters to her father, but she has spent hours writing on that one sheet of paper. It can’t be just a letter, because she’s been writing it for a week, and hasn’t even filled up the page. Any ideas on what it could be? I’m too afraid to ask her, because she may think I’m too nosy.
As I said, Mom is doing well, but she has so much work, it makes me nauseous! There are endless loads of laundry waiting to be done, and piles of dishes in the sink. The floor is dirty, in spite of An- Thi’s efforts to sweep it every day. She’s a huge help.
School is going well for me. I got another A on my spelling test on Friday! I just wish I could have more time with my school friends, instead of with An Thi. They have been asking me over to their houses, but Mom made me turn down their invitations because of An Thi and the endless housework. I got a new haircut on Monday, so now my hair is a few inches above shoulder length. I got in trouble yesterday for forgetting to put the dishes away, and my punishment was teaching An Thi new English words, as she is just learning the language. What a punishment! My mom wouldn’t admit that it was a punishment, she just told me that it was a fun job. But An Thi is uncooperative and quiet, which makes it nearly impossible to teach her English. Forgetfulness is a habit that I am determined to break so that I don’t get any more punishments!
Tell us how it is in Vietnam. Is the weather good or bad? Are the Viet Cong really as resourceful as people say they are? Do you have to use napalm?
We miss you! We are praying for you! Please come back soon!
I miss you too, Becky! Today is November 2nd, the three-week anniversary of me being in Vietnam. Climate-wise, North Vietnam in the summer is about as bad as Florida! The temperature was in the nineties, and the wet season made it humid and rainy. Rivers snake throughout the country from the monsoons, and I have had to ford many. I have been journeying over rough terrain for the entire time that I have been in Vietnam, and I am slowly but surely getting used to it. I have many new friends from Vietnam, and unfortunately, a couple of friends who have died.
There are many dangers to fighting in Vietnam. I have, by now, trained my eyes to look for the mines that the Vietcong have planted all over Vietnam. Stepping on them would be a sure death, and we don’t want that! The Viet Cong are stupendous at aiming guns, even the low-quality ones that they use. They can also aim and throw grenades like there’s no tomorrow! They often wander dangerously near the area of our camps, looking for the tiniest flicker of light to shoot at. Lighting any type of fire at night is banned, for the safety of everyone.
I have, unfortunately, had to use napalm. Because the U.S. Government wants to kill them off before they can be replaced, their only choice is to burn out the villages and countryside with napalm, killing Viet Congs and civilians alike, leaving many of them injured, too. I don’t think it was the best choice, in fact, it wasn’t a good choice at all. Why not just withdrawal our troops? That would end the violence and death. Besides, I would like to get back to my family!
I am glad that you three are helping Mom with her work. She is so blessed to have you as her children (and children’s friend) and I am blessed to be your father. Tell Sarah that I agree with her about the anti-war riots, but that I think she should still avoid them. Tell her that it’s for the safety of her and her friends.
I love you all and miss you so much! I promise that every time you mail me, I’ll mail you. I can’t wait until I get to come home to see you again. I promise, I will come back soon, just you wait! . Don’t worry about me. I am safe and sound in the Hands of God, no matter how treacherous the battlefield. Love, Dad
I woke to the disturbing sound of pencil on paper. Cracking my eyes open, I was barely able to view An Thi hunched over my desk, once again scribbling on her paper. It was early in the morning; the sunlight streaming through the window was hardly enough to write by. With a sigh, I swung my legs out of bed, landing on the ground and rubbing my tired eyes. With a start, I remembered the school assignment that I had been given on Friday. Today was Monday. It was due.
“An Thi, I need that desk,” I hurriedly affirmed, gripping the back of the chair with one hand and accidentally slapping the other hand down on top of her paper. I struggled to hold back my anger and frustration, but it began to bubble over the top.
“You don’t need it,” she replied, forcefully tugging the paper away from me and suppressing a bitter frown. “When I was living in Vietnam, I didn’t even have a desk.”
“But I need to do schoolwork here!” I retorted, picking up my backpack, swinging it over my shoulder, and slamming it onto my desk. “You are so lucky,” she answered, wistfully nodding. “I didn’t have school, either.” “An, please. I have to!” I pleaded. “My name is not An, it’s An Thi,” she remarked. “Don’t call me An.” “It’s my desk; please get up so I can do my homework,” I urged a bit harshly, unzipping my backpack. “In Vietnam, I didn‘t get homewor-” “Stop!” I cried. “Stop talking about Vietnam. You’re in America now. It’s different here! Can’t you just let me do my work?!”
An Thi stared up at me for two unbearably long seconds with her shining brown eyes, a frown stretching across her face like a scar. Then, before I could comprehend what was happening, she raced out of the room, paper in hand, probably off into the bathroom. Surveying the room, I realized that I had won. I could do my work on the desk.
Later that day, after the awkward dinnertime was over, I entered my room to find An Thi writing on her paper, but this time on the floor. She didn’t even look up at me. I got into bed without changing into pajamas, pulling the covers over my face and closing my eyes. I was ready to fall asleep, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t get a certain image out of my head, the image of An Thi staring up at me, right before she ran out of our room. I couldn’t forget about her eyes that gazed at me, frantically blinking. I couldn’t forget about the tears that stood in them. I couldn’t forget about how she was about to cry.
I sat cross-legged on the floor of my room, silently doing my homework while An Thi sat facing the wall on the opposite side of the room, writing on her sheet of paper once again. She had been this way for over an hour, hunched over her paper, bending her neck in a way that should not have been comfortable. Both of us refused to use the desk. My mom, who had just gotten a job, was still working, and Sarah was still at school, so it was just An Thi and I. The house was as still and silent as a ghost town. Suddenly, An Thi broke the silence. “What rhymes with ‘hurricane’?” she inquired. “I don’t know, I’m not an expert poet,” I spitefully retorted, not looking up from my schoolwork. The room was too quiet. I couldn’t wait for Mom and Sarah to get home, even if they got into another argument. I had decided that silence was far worse than shouting. Giving up on doing work in complete quietude, I resorted to studying An Thi’s pencil. It zipped back and forth at an astounding speed, until she stopped, leaned her head back in thoughtfulness, and then started up again, this time writing even faster.
“What could it be?” I wondered, not taking my eyes away from her pencil. The garage door abruptly began creaking open outside, then it stopped and I heard the footsteps of Mom and Sarah echoing throughout the near-silent house. “We’re home, and Mom got the mail,” Sarah joyfully cried in the direction of my room. “Anything from Father?” I exuberantly shouted, throwing my schoolbooks aside and bursting out into the house. I ambled into the kitchen, where my mom stood leafing through the mail, examining each letter. “I’m looking,” my mom slowly said. “Ah.” Her voice dripped with confusion. “It’s from the NVA.” “Perhaps it has to do with...” I whispered, looking around to see where An Thi was. “I’m here,” An Thi quietly stated, standing ramrod-straight in the doorway. “Let me see it.” My mom handed her the letter, nervously staring at it as An Thi tore open the envelope with shaking hands. She closed her eyes, gulped, then opened them and began to read the letter aloud in a shaking voice. “Dear An Thi, We are sorry to inform you about the death of your father...” Her trembling voice trailed away, and her wobbling hands let the paper drop to the ground. For a moment, she was too petrified to cry, and then the tears came. “An Thi, I’m so sorry--” I began, but she had already dashed out of the room, covering her face, stumbling with every step. Then the tears came for me, and I couldn’t suppress them. I didn’t want to. Sarah, leaning on my mom’s shoulder, was crying too, along with my mom. She patted Sarah’s back and shed tear after tear, shaking with every ragged breath. But her tears were not only for An Thi and her deceased father. They were also for my father, fighting in Vietnam, in extreme danger every minute of the day.
Careening into my room, I flung open the door to find a sobbing An Thi holding her paper in her hand, clutching it with all her might. She didn’t seem to hear me stumbling in. It was about five minutes after An Thi had received the letter. After a few seconds of standing there, staring down at her, I spoke up. “An Thi, I’m so sorry,” I breathed, not moving a muscle. Suddenly, after she stopped crying, she looked up at me. Her tear-stained eyes blinked to hold back more tears. “For what?” she quietly croaked in a voice that I did not recognize. “I’m sorry that I didn’t understand,” I acknowledged. I didn’t need to say any more for her to understand what I meant. “I’m sorry that I was rude.” she answered, wiping her eyes, then motioning for me to come closer. “I want you to see this.” She held the paper up, as if to coax me to come near. Intrigued, I cocked my head and stepped closer, sitting down on the ground and facing her. “Ever figure out why I got so mad at you for calling me ‘An’ instead of ‘An Thi’?” The memory popped into my mind, and I shook my head no. “The name Thi means ‘poem’ in Vietnamese,” she began. “And that means a lot to me because...well, I’ve found interest in poetry.” She held the paper out to me. “Take it.” I gently took it from her and read one of the poems:
Unmoving ground is not my port, My harbor, not the sea, I won’t be bound to this great earth Where worries trouble me. The sky is where I wish to live, Above the hurricane, Beneath uncharted outer space, Away from hurt and pain. A carefree world is what I seek, My treasure is not war, And though my effort is extreme, I am what most ignore.
Astonished, I looked up at An Thi, who was suppressing a grin. “I was going to send it back to my father, but he...” “I know,” I answered, handing the paper back to her. “It’s okay.” Although she had only known about his death for a few minutes, I figured that it was the right time to ask about him. “What was your father like?” “Well, he was a generally strict father, and he was angry most of the time, but I loved him like...a father.” Her eyes began tearing up again, and she wiped the tears away. “Most of his anger was from stress. He was extremely hardworking and brave, and I thought he would--and could--never die.” Eyeing the desk, she remembered yesterday and began talking again. “I cared so much about your desk because we were poor. We were living in a rural area, and his hard work in the fields didn’t give us much money. So he joined the army, and sent me to America. I ended up with you, and, of course, I don‘t have any home to go back to....” “Maybe we could adopt you!” I declared, jumping up, about to run to my mom. “Of course not, you can’t even stand me,” she responded. I almost heard her laugh. “Well, before, I thought I couldn’t,” I answered. “But now, you’re actually becoming my best friend.”
“Are you excited for your first day of school?” I excitedly asked An Thi as we cheerfully skipped down the road on the way to her first real day of school. It was November 22nd, 1963, the day that An Thi was finally ready to go to school. She had learned enough from my mother to go to school with me, and what’s more, she didn’t have to worry about leaving school to return to Vietnam. Because the country was too dangerous to return to, and would be for a long time, we were in the process of adopting her. She would be living with us for the rest of her life. “I’m excited and nervous at the same time,” she responded, laughing and slightly widening her eyes. “What’s it like?” “I’ve already told you a thousand times!” I chortled. “But I want to hear it again,” she implored with exhilaration. “I want to know all about life out of Vietnam. I am going to be living in America, am I?” “Yes,” I willingly acknowledged, and told her about school once again. Before we knew it, it was 12 o’ clock. An Thi had, so far, learned a ton about life in America, and she was enjoying her first day of school more that we had expected. Overall, the day had been running smoothly until it was almost lunchtime. We were filing out the doors to get to lunch, when a loud, crackly voice on the loudspeaker startled everyone in the hall. “We are disappointed to tell you that President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated on his way to Dallas, Texas. All students are dismissed.” We did not happily rush out of school like any other day of being dismissed early. We simply stood there in the hall, confoundedly studying other’s faces as countless questions buzzed in our minds. “Why was he assassinated?” “Who will be President?” “How can the best man in America die like that?” Still dumbfounded, An Thi and I eventually left, hand in hand. We rode the bus this time, our minds too full to walk all the way home. Although An Thi had never been on a bus before, she dealt with the experience keenly and there were no mishaps. We were both in horrible moods, and for three reasons: One, the President had, of course, been assassinated. Two, I hadn’t received a letter from my father in a long time, and three, An Thi’s first day of school had been ruined. Now, when she thought of the first day of school, she would think of the President dying. It would not be a joyful thought. We arrived at our bus stop so fast it startled me. An Thi and I trudged all the way to our house, our feet dragging with every step. My entire body was heavy with worry, for the future of our country, and for my father. He hadn’t mailed me since November 5th, and I had been expecting a letter from him for two weeks. I didn’t dare imagine what could have happened to him. When would he be coming home? Would he be coming home at all?
An Thi and I leapt out of the bus and began the short run home. I was overly eager to get home and check the mail. It was two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and I had a confident feeling that we would receive mail from my father today. I rung the doorbell and impatiently waited outside until my mom opened the door with a worried expression. “Any mail from Father?” I uneasily interrogated. “Come in,” she croaked, her hands trembling. “It’s a letter from the army.”
My stomach seemed to drop to my feet, and my excitement turned to dread. An Thi seemed sick, too. We both dragged ourselves inside and seated ourselves at the dinner table, where Sarah sat, patiently waiting for us to arrive. My mom picked up the letter off the table and struggled to open the envelope with shaking fingers as the air stagnated from lack of speech.
“I’ll do it,” I shyly volunteered. My mom handed me the letter, wiping frightened tears from her eyes. I ripped the envelope in half, and the paper dropped to the table. I stared at it for a second and gulped. “Open it,” Sarah urged, leaning forward, her face pale and her eyes wide. I opened it, in the process experiencing the gut-wrenching drop caused by a roller coaster. I took a deep breath and read the letter. “Dear Brown Family, I am sure that you will be delighted to know that your husband and father, Lieutenant John Brown, will be returning home in a short amount of time.”
In the blink of an eye, my trepidation transformed into pure joy. We all began cheering, even An Thi. We were engulfed in a complete euphoria driven by the thought of our father returning.
“Keep reading,” An Thi insisted. “Unfortunately, Lieutenant Brown will not be the same due to--” “Stop,” my mom beseeched, tears of joy forming in her eyes. She was unwilling to hear the rest of the letter. “I want to enjoy this moment.”
I closed the letter and rejoiced with them, all the time wondering why my father would not be the same.
My pen swiveled back and forth in curvy lines, forming small, twisty letters that danced across my paper. The date was December 2, 1963, and I was writing a joyful letter to my father, who could have still been in Vietnam. He could have still been in Vietnam, but I wasn’t positive. I stopped my pen, sat back, and read the letter to myself. Dear Father, I can’t wait until you come back! Are you sure when? What happened to you? When did you find out that you’d come back? I apologize for the onslaught of questions, but I’m super excited that you’re coming back! An Thi and I are doing well, and we even-- My thoughts were interrupted by a desperate-sounding scream coming from the garage. I couldn’t tell if it was An Thi, Sarah, or even my mom (who, being a singer, can sing and scream high) but it puzzled me enough to draw my attention away from the letter. I abruptly dropped the paper onto the ground, leapt up, and raced into the garage where Sarah stood hugging a tall figure wearing an army hat. All that I could do was stand there, dumbfounded, until he turned his face up and looked at me with the most delighted face I had seen in years. “Rebecca!” he cried. Of course, it was my father! I gasped and then ecstatically rushed forward to hug him. Unfortunately, he clumsily stumbled back a few feet. I eyed his feet and noticed a tremendous white cast that encased the lower half of his leg. “At last you’re home!” I chortled, letting the tears of joy cascade down my cheeks. “I missed you so much! Did you break your leg?” “I broke the bone once when a grenade exploded near me and threw me off my feet.” He turned his face down and gazed at mine. “I’m just so grateful that I’m alive!” “I’m glad you’re alive, too!” “Becky, go get mom,” Sarah loudly addressed, shooing me away. “Go on.” “Okay!” I lilted, racing into the house, my entire life taking on a new effervescent atmosphere. I burst through the hall, more worry-free and joyful than I had been in years. True, the war still raged like a hurricane in Vietnam, but Vietnam was countless miles away. I was overwhelmed by endless, undying gratitude for peace and freedom, the great privileges that came from living in the USA. I felt the heavy chains of worry vanish when father returned. I was free as an eagle soaring amid the radiant light of the sun, able to travel anywhere he wished without harm. The guns, bombs, and napalm couldn’t torment us, as long as we were all together here in America.