A Lot More Than Meets the Eye (Memorial Day Update)

Remember my article about my dad’s service in Vietnam? Specifically this line: “He told me more than once that what he did was highly classified, that it would never be known or recognized by the US government, that his participation in the Vietnam conflict … would never accrue to him in terms of a rank promotion or medals, because it was all top secret.”

Not long after that, I discovered yet another box of documents I’ve had for more than twenty-five years. (I’ve been busy, yo.) Inside was (among other things) what I’d call his HR file, basically. His personnel file, with all his annual job reviews, recommendations for promotions, and a list of all the jobs he did and where he was stationed and when. It’s a not-insignificant stack of papers stapled together, most of it written in military-ese. Here’s what a civilian version of it might look like.* (I added a couple personal items for historic interest.)

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29 Mar. 1948  Jim enlists Missouri National Guard; Detachment A, 231st Air Service Group
1 Jul. 1948      Jim appointed Pfc. from Pvt. (Natl Guard)
1 Sep. 1948    Jim appointed Cpl. from Pfc.
1 Aug. 1949    Jim honorably discharged from Natl Guard; starts college at USC fall 1949
26 Jan. 1950   Jim and Doris marry in Columbia, SC
Spring 1951    Jim completes fourth semester at USC
11 Oct 1951   Jim taking classes at St. Louis University; Fall term
16 Feb. 1952  Jim enlists in USAF and receives orders to report to Lackland AFB, SATX
25 Apr. 1952   Jim is awarded American Spirit medal
8 July 1952     Jim is A/3C at Moody AFB, GA
19 Aug. 1953  Jim is written up as Wing Airman of the Month, Moody**
17 Mar. 1955   Staff Sgt. Jim is honorably discharged from USAF (enlisted side)
18 Mar. 1955   Jim is commissioned 2nd Lt., graduated from OCS.
20 Sep. 1956  Jim completes primary pilot training at Hondo AFB
10 Oct. 1956   Jim is stu. off., pilot training, Vance AFB, OK
12 Apr. 1957   Jim gets his pilot’s certificate
14 May 1957   Jim is student officer, pilot training, Randolph AFB, SATX
17 Jul. 1957    1st Lt. Jim is discharged from Air Force Reserve
1 Sep. 1957    Jim is helicopter pilot, Sewart AFB, TN (TAC)
2 Nov. 1958    Jim is helicopter pilot, Ernest Harmon AFB, Newfoundland (SAC)
25 Aug. 1959  Jim flies Gen. Estes to inaccessible fishing spot***
29 Feb. 1960   1st Lt. Jim recommended for promotion to Captain
12 Jul. 1960    thank-you note from USAF Chief of Staff, Washington DC
18 Oct. 1960   Jim admitted to U of Maryland, distance courses
11 Mar. 1960   Jim accrues 1 class at U of Maryland, Military Law, B-
16 Dec. 1960   Jim accrues 2nd class at U of Maryland, Military History, A
10 Mar. 1961   Jim accrues 3rd class at U of Maryland, Military Logistics, A
11 Jul. 1961    Jim transferred to Hq 5th Bomb Wing, Travis AFB (SAC)
28 Apr. 1962   Jim moves to KC-135, Travis AFB, CA (SAC)
Jan. 1964        Capt. Jim is recommended for promotion
Oct. 1964        Capt. Jim is recommended for promotion
3 Nov. 1964    Jim is in 924th air refueling squad, Castle AFB, CA (SAC)
Feb. 1965        Capt. Jim is recommended for promotion
30 May 1965   Jim is aircraft commander qualified
Jun. 1965        Capt. Jim is recommended for promotion
1 Jul. 1965      Jim becomes KC-135 flight simulator instructor pilot, Castle AFB (SAC)
7 Aug. 1965    Capt. Jim TDY in Southeast Asia, returned 5 Oct 1965
Jun. 1966        Capt. Jim recommended for promotion to major
Jun. 1967        Maj. Jim recommended for promotion to “permanent major”
1 Jul. 1967      Jim is KC-135 instructor pilot, Castle AFB, CA (SAC)
Jun. 1968        Maj. Jim highly recommended for promotion
Mar. 1969        Maj. Jim highly recommended for promotion
1 Apr. 1969     Jim starts requalifying on helicopters at Castle (SAC)
Mar–Jul 1969   helicopter pilot conversion training, Sheppard AFB, TX
Jul. 1969          second TOD in Vietnam at Udorn
2 Aug. 1969     Jim arrives at Udorn, Thailand (PACAF)
15 Sep. 1969   Jim at Udorn, Thailand (PACAF)
16 Dec. 1969   Maj. Jim “highly recommended” for promotion
16 Dec. 1969   Jim awarded the Air Medal for meritorious achievement****
24 Dec. 1969   R&R Hawaii with his family
Feb. 1970         return from Southeast Asia
30 Mar. 1970   Jim is flight simulator instructor Castle AFB (SAC)
18 Apr. 1979   Ceremony for Jim’s Air Medal, Castle AFB
15 Dec. 1970   Maj. Jim specifically recommended for promotion to lt. col.
4 Jan. 1971     Jim is flight simulator instructor Castle AFB (SAC)
10 May 1971   Jim is flight simulator instructor Castle AFB (SAC)
15 Dec. 1971   Maj. Jim recommended for “immediate promotion” to lt. col.
30 May 1972   Jim is flight simulator instructor Castle AFB (SAC)
28 Apr. 1972   Jim is awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal
31 Jul. 1972    discharged (ret.) from USAF, Merced, CA

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As you can see, the second tour of duty in Southeast Asia that we discussed in the previous article is confirmed on this list (1969–70) but the first one—the one I remember so vividly—is not. The file just jumps from July 1965 to July 1967. (I have speculated that that tour of duty was late summer or fall 1966 to late spring 1967; he was home by the time I broke my left ankle in late September 1967.) There is one little hint in all those job reviews about a field promotion to major, and then in June 1967 there is a recommendation for promotion to “permanent” major.

There is mention, in August 1965, of a temporary assignment to Southeast Asia, just sixty days long. Daddy went “TDY” all the time, though. (Spain, for example. I remember that trip vividly also—because he talked a lot about it; it’s why I’ve always wanted to visit Spain—and yet it is not on his official records either. Why?) If this temporary duty corresponded with my being thirteen years of age, I would assume that was the first “tour” I’m remembering. But I was only twelve that year. So I am convinced he did a longer assignment the next year.

Why? Because I didn’t just imagine that I got a driver’s license at age thirteen so my father could go to Vietnam. It was an enormous undertaking, the meetings, the letters, the signatures, the learning to drive, for heaven’s sake. It’s one of the founding family legends of my early life. My siblings remember it too. (Now, of course, my reaction is What in the hell were they thinking, turning a thirteen-year-old loose with a car?)

But the bottom line is my family was in a meltdown because they were going to send Daddy to Vietnam and Mom could no longer drive, and I was informed we were working with the state of California to get me an early, “family emergency” driver’s license, and I saluted. Yessir. Of course.

I also didn’t dream up a whole different set of photographs he took himself on that first tour, with different crew members, a different headquarters, a different billet. Those photos (slides, actually) are physically in my possession. And there’s the fact that my father told me the story of his exploits in Southeast Asia would not be in his records.

There are other things I can fill in now that I’ve looked at the file. During the second tour he flew helicopters. I remember it, and I have the photographs. But it’s also on his personnel file: in April ’69 he began requalifying on helicopters at Castle AFB and then more training in Texas. He did none of this requalifying in 1966. No, I believe he may have participated in the bombing of Laos. (Remember at Christmas 1965 President Johnson promised a bombing halt on Vietnam—which turned out to be a redirection of USAF bombing at Laos, instead.) And other highly classified activities I’ve mentioned previously.

Here’s more from the file—this from December 1969, the middle of his second tour—his biannual review:

Major Clarke has developed into a highly skilled, exceptionally proficient helicopter pilot. He has flown over 100 hours on 17 combat missions in the CH-3E helicopter. Many of these missions involved direct contact with hostile enemy troops and were flown deep into enemy held territory. Major Clarke, through calm aggressiveness, outstanding leadership and professional competence has been responsible for an outstanding record of mission completion and personal accomplishments on these important helicopter bat missions, demonstrates his outstanding proficiency and steadfast devotion to duty. In addition to his flying duties, Major Clarke has performed in the additional duty as the Unit Historian. He personally interview crews to gather pertinent data on missions of unusual or historic nature, documenting many pages of classified narrative. This document is continually being used as a source of information for the commander when briefing higher headquarters on the accomplishments of this unit. Major Clarke is a dedicated, sincere, professional officer. His ability to make accurate decisions under extreme stress and pressure is noteworthy and has been reconized by his fellow pilots. Major Clarke is an outstanding officer with a vast growth potential and professional supervisory capability. I highly recommend that he be promoted well ahead of his contemporaries. Major Clarke is presently serving a tour as a combat crew member in Southeast Asia.
16 December 1969

This came right in the middle of his second tour of duty. And it made me remember a photo. It’s a promotion photo or a commendation photo. My son’s in the navy, and I’ve seen plenty of these types of photos in recent months. In fact, I’d sent this commendation folder to him.

“Quick, send me a photo of of that folder I sent you guys,” I texted mywonderful daughter-in-law. “What was I thinking? I need the dates and the occasion.”

This is how I remember my father. He was forty-one years old, in his prime. (happy sigh)

Here’s the other side. Note that he received the award on 16 December 1969, but the ceremony happened on 18 April 1970, after he came back to us. By then his total was 37 combat missions, 168.3 combat hours. Dear God, we are so lucky he came back to us.

So that’s interesting.

The bracelet he’s wearing in the photo is interesting too. His “Vietnam bracelet,” my sister called it. He wore it day and night when he returned; it must have had some talismanic importance to him. Probably only another pilot from that period and place would understand it. But I was shocked to see it in an official photo. Wouldn’t it have been against regulation? I’ve googled around and the answer is: Maybe, maybe not.

Finally, I’ve read every single review recommendation. No one ever had a bad word to say about my father; he was always recommended for promotion “well ahead of his contemporaries” (USAF verbiage). I can understand this: he was a man who never did a half-assed job. He was charming. He was ambitious. So why was he “passed over” for the one thing he wanted, after giving so much of himself (and his family!) to the United States Air Force? I’d honestly like to know.

When my sister and I were discussing our father’s military service, particularly in Vietnam, she asked me about his being passed over for lieutenant colonel and that being the reason he got fed up and decided to retire. I’d forgotten that part of the story but as soon as she said it, I remembered. He was pretty disgusted. And disappointed. And he left.

Upon reflection, it seems to me that we kids, we knew the simple story of what was going on, but there was often a lot more that they were shielding us from. And yet as hard as some parts of it were, I still remember my childhood as happy, and even my current contemplation of what was will not change that.

But what really happened to us during the 1960s? What did my dad really do during his service to the United States of America? And why didn’t the US Air Force promote him?

Looks like a FOIA request is in my future. (sigh) I was hoping to answer all the questions by going through these papers, but they’ve just raised questions—about Daddy and about the stories I’ve been telling myself for years.

* It’s important to note all the enlistments (Missouri National Guard, Air Force Reserve, then, finally, USAF) were to avoid being drafted into the US Army, which was heavily involved in the Korean War at the time  (1950–1953). Jim had other plans (law school, for example). But he wanted to fly planes; he told me that many times. He’d watched Mom’s brother do it.
** I have the newspaper.
*** He was a first lieutenant ferrying generals—one of them the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force—up to a fishing spot few humans could reach. In the thank-you note that arrived from Washington DC later, mention is made of Jim giving up his weekend to do this nice thing for them. No mention is made of his bringing his sixty-seven-year-old father-in-law, J.I. Hopkins, along on the trip. J.I. was even then sick with the leukemia that would kill him two years later, but he was visiting us that month and he loved to fish. It’s my understanding that a good time—a quite jolly time, in fact—was had by all.
**** “… while participating in aerial flight in Southeast Asia.” It’s remarkably vague, isn’t it.

Piecing Together a Memorial (Day)*

Sometimes you don’t know what you know until you start trying to piece your history together, y’know? It started with an email from my sister, Jill. I’m the oldest, and generally remember the most.

I know we went over this already. But I can’t remember our discussion. Easier to ask again. Which two years was Dad in Vietnam? Like 66 and 68 or 67 and 69? Also, what was the name of that group he was in? Jolly Green Giants? My friend’s dad was in Vietnam twice during roughly those years and he was a Green Beret. It’s 11:30 pm your time … hope you’re sleeping good. xoxoxo

I’d been “home” (to California) last summer to visit a dear friend who’d been unwell, and due to manuscript deadlines I’d only scheduled a flying visit to my sister, who lives about two hours from where we grew up. When I arrived, we’d realized we had thirty-six hours, so we started talking a mile a minute. Not sure how we got on the topic of family history, but it was a fabulous conversation. I took notes. (Another blog post for another day.) There are things I know, things I no longer remember, things I don’t know because I wasn’t present, and things that Jill knows because she was present.

Like the story about Daddy leaving for his second tour of duty in Vietnam, which I knew nothing about. Daddy was in the house, no doubt giving last-minute instructions to Mom and me while he waited for his ride from the base. Jill was sitting on the front porch, weeping. And my boyfriend drove up. (This would be Joe, later my husband and father of my only child.) When Joe saw Jill, she says, he sat down beside her and put his arm around her and tried to comfort her. Jill remembers him being so kind to her that day; she told me she’ll always be grateful to him for it. (I say this because, you know, it’s fifty years later and I don’t see Joe through my teenager’s rose-colored glasses anymore. But I’m delighted that she tells me this story and I make a note to call him when I get home and thank him.)

The US Air Force dominated all our lives, really, so we talk a lot about it. Where we lived, what happened there. When my father reached the end of his life in 1992, he had a second wife. So unless we’d taken momentos (stuff, yes, but also papers, photos, things that would help us to piece that history together) from the home—a house he bought when I was in kindergarten—while he was alive, those things were lost to us unless the second wife decided to give them to us. (Which she mostly did not. It is probably best if I don’t think too much about it.)

We have been meaning to ask the government for his records, but that hasn’t happened yet.

But we started piecing the story together today, with my sister’s email asking what years he was in Vietnam. I clicked reply and began to write.

“I don’t know that we know specifically yet,” I said. And then I remembered: I’ve been going through the boxes of ephemera that I do have, and I have this. I was astonished when I found it a few weeks ago.

When you travel to certain foreign countries, you have to acquire vaccinations, and you tuck this little booklet in with your passport.

Never forget to look on the back. Look at that! R&R = rest and recuperation.

“Well, wait,” I wrote. “I can extrapolate one year because on his vaccinations booklet, there’s a stamp that reads R&R Hawaii and the date is 24 Dec 1969. So his second tour of duty would have been ’69–’70. I’m guessing the first would have been ’67–’68 at the latest, but maybe earlier.”

And then—bing! it was like getting a text message in my brain—I remembered one of the biggest events of my life: I got my driver’s license at age thirteen. My mother was sick, you see (this truly is another post for another time), and was no longer able to drive. And yet the US Air Force was implacable: Jim Clarke had to go to Vietnam, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Why? They were running short on helicopter pilots. You see, it’s actually harder to learn to fly a helicopter than it is to fly a plane. The training period is longer. And Daddy was qualified to fly them. So he had to go.

But how would we manage without him? Easy (not): Jamie would get a driver’s license. And so I did. They had to jump through a lot of hoops to make this happen, including get permission from the governor of California (Ronald Reagan). My God, what a pain in the ass all that was.

“I would have turned thirteen in 1966, turned fourteen in May 1967,” I wrote. “I was already thirteen when they were working on the driver’s license thing. So it’s possible he went to Vietnam the fall of 1966 and returned in 1967.” It’s not a fact, yet, but we have somewhere to start.

She was wrong about the name, and I jotted down two other phrases in my notes, since I no longer trust my memory. Jolly Green Giants are helicopters. I looked them up, and continued my email: “I’m guessing he flew the 1959 version in Newfoundland* and the 1967 version in Vietnam. That photo I have of him (you’ve seen it on Facebook) with a rifle on his hip and a helicopter in the background, that’s a Jolly Green Giant.”

This image was not from his slides. Someone else took this photo and gave it to him; it did not come to light until after his death. It is one of my favorite photos. My dad hated guns, wouldn’t have anything to do with them. So in this photo it’s clear he is striking a pose, so to speak. You can tell by the grin on his face, which I know to be a sarcastic one.

I kept writing: “He flew others, of course. He flew the kind that had the bend in the middle and two rotors. And there’s that yellow one he’s climbing into down in Texas (where helicopter school was). Those photos are among the slides that Gerry scanned.”

Randolph AFB, San Antonio, TX

“When I was guessing a name, two came to mind: Flying Tigers and Air America,” I wrote. “But Flying Tigers were fighter planes/pilots, associated with WW2, and they were volunteers. This does not mean some part of that group’s ethic and name didn’t get revived in Vietnam.” I was googling and adding the links to the email, so Jill could look them up too. Flying Tigers are definitely mentioned in association with Vietnam, but I still didn’t think that was it.

In fact, I wasn’t sure that the name of his squadron had ever been told to me. It was classified, and Daddy was a by-the-book kinda guy. “I’ll come back to Air America,” I wrote, and then continued with what I knew:

I know he did different things in Vietnam, and I don’t know what during which. For one, I know he flew into the jungle at night and picked up downed US fighter pilots. (Like that movie BAT-21. Although I think those guys are Army. I could be wrong, however.) I know he was stationed, at least during one tour, in Udorn, Thailand. (And had a girlfriend there.) I know he transported Vietnamese women and children, whole huge helicopters-ful of them. That’s in the slides. He told me more than once that what he did was highly classified, that it would never be known or recognized by the US government, that his participation in the Vietnam conflict (never “war” for him) would never accrue to him in terms of a rank promotion or medals, because it was all top secret. And: HE HAD TO VOLUNTEER FOR IT. (For the missions. That he was in Vietnam wasn’t voluntary. He had to go.)

Still with me?

Next I googled Air America, and there it was, every bit of it, just as I remembered:

OK, Air America. Forget the goofy movie; not pertinent. Look at the Wikipedia intro: “Air America was an American passenger and cargo airline established in 1946 and covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1950 to 1976. It supplied and supported covert operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.”

Now look over on the right-hand side on the Wikipedia page. One of the hubs was Udorn. (Pretty sure you pronounce this “oo-dorn,” not “you-dorn.”)

This hits all the bases: run by the CIA (thus top secret), operating out of Udorn, helicopters, Vietnam, downed pilots, refugees.

Reference this paragraph: “From 1962 to 1975, Air America inserted and extracted US personnel, provided logistical support to the Royal Lao Army, the Hmong Army under command of Royal Lao Army Major General Vang Pao and combatant Thai volunteer forces, transported refugees, and flew photo reconnaissance missions that provided intelligence on Viet Cong activities. Its civilian-marked craft were frequently used, under the control of the Seventh/Thirteenth Air Force, to launch search and rescue missions for US pilots downed throughout Southeast Asia. Air America pilots were the only known private US corporate employees to operate non-Federal Aviation Administration-certified military aircraft in a combat role.”

I would have to study a lot more—and it would probably involve a FOIA request—to even contemplate his status with the USAF during this time. It may still be classified. Lots of unusual things went on during that time in American history, but there wasn’t a breath of it in our home. Just “top secret.” I may have heard “CIA” mentioned. But “that’s all I know,” I wrote to my sister. “And it’s more than I thought I knew when I started writing this. Love you.”

Since I started writing this—and stirring up memories—I took a look through the digital copies of my father’s slides. I kept running across photos that had clues, so I’d set them aside. Twice, buildings with a sign on them: Special Operations Squadron. What did I tell you? This was not a USAF operation. It was … ahem … extracurricular. No US flag anywhere. And look at that uniform with literally no insignia. Rank, yes, very discreet. But nothing else. That’s significant, I think.

The buildings had an unusual sign, an illustration, that seemed vaguely familiar: guy on a horse, clearly a reference to the historical Pony Express. (To us, Pony Express = mail but these pilots were delivering people.) And sure enough, I have a collection of Daddy’s plaques and photos, and there it was on a you’re-leaving-us plaque: “21st Special Operation Squadron, “Pony Express” / Udorn Thailand / July 69 – February 70.” So question answered about the dates of the second tour. There it was in my dining room, for heaven’s sake.

• • •

When he returned that second time, he was a different person for about a year, sitting in the living room, all up in his own head. I was a junior in high school and just really glad he was home, after months of not getting along with my mother and no daddy to run interference, as he did. So I don’t know if he was treated for depression, though it’s clear to me now that he was depressed. We thought of him as being tough, in control, but when Gerry was scanning the slides, he found sad little comments (in Jim Clarke’s handwriting) on the cardboard sleeves of the photos taken in Vietnam. One stopped him cold, and he took a photo and sent it to me: “Sometimes I cry,” it read. Indeed, sometimes he cried in the living room of our house in Merced, which was a bit shocking to us kids.

Daddy and his kids, home after that second tour of duty. It’s all good. He survived. We survived.

* This really should be a Veterans’ Day post, but I’m not willing to wait that long.
** Those three years in Newfoundland are also another story for another time. But he made some of his longest-lasting friendships there, and gained a reputation as a badass, even though to hear him tell it, all they did is “drop hay for hungry moose and rescue pregnant Eskimos.” At his funeral his friends told me he always did the last inspection on the “bird” before they went out, and that he tightened bolts with his bare fingers. Hyperbole, no doubt. I also heard quite a few stories about drinking at the officers’ club, which may or may not have been hyperbole. 🙂

And this is the helicopter he flew in Newfoundland.

Ken Burns and Me

Lots of people have been asking me about this new multiepisode documentary from Ken Burns. Have I watched it?

No, I have not. I like Ken Burns’s work. I’ve seen some of his documentaries, and I know he’s a talented storyteller. But I’ll need to be in a really happy place before I sit down and watch The Vietnam War, which aired in the last half of September 2017. Because, you know, I lived it.

Have I said this before? My father never carried a gun; he had a government-issued one, but it stayed on a high shelf in my parents’ closet. He was not a gun person; he was born in the city (St. Louis), raised in the city. He hated guns (because he knew what they could do), and was vocal about it, and about war in general. (He’d studied military history in college. He didn’t think war solved much.) He was a guy who loved people but thought humanity could think up some pretty bad stuff.

My father was a US Air Force pilot (he enlisted during the Korean War, to avoid being drafted into the army). He went in as an enlisted man but was noticed as officer material and went first to OCS (Officers’ Candidate School) and then to pilot training.

My mother, who was crippled from polio when she four (one gimpy leg, always walked with a limp) was diagnosed with MS when I was six or seven (this would have been ’59 or ’60). When I was ten, she could no longer sign her name (too shaky to write). They barely knew what MS was back then, much less how to treat for it. So I became the joint signatory on my dad’s checking account and wrote out all the bills. Why? Because Daddy was on-7-off-7, because he was in SAC (Strategic Air Command—the guys who run to the planes when the sirens go off). He wasn’t always there to take care of those things, so I, the oldest child, did. I did the family grocery shopping and wrote checks for them. (Another ordeal, since in theory little kids don’t write checks, right?)

At that time Daddy was flying KC-135s. (These planes are for in-air refueling; I did not appreciate how dangerous a task this was until years later when I saw the movie Air Force One, such is the innocence/ignorance of youth.) But he had flown helicopters when he was—and we were—younger. Now, the Vietnam conflict had been going on for some years and they had lost a lot of helicopter pilots. Helicopters are hard to learn (longer training period), hard to fly—much, much harder than a plane. So Uncle Sam started rounding up people like my dad.

Jim Clarke. The best there ever was.

The year I was thirteen we learned he was to go to Vietnam—a thirty-nine-year-old with a sick wife and three young kids—so I had to get an emergency driver’s license, because by that time my mom couldn’t drive either (too shaky). This was unheard of; it was a MAJOR ORDEAL for that to happen. But it did happen, and I began doing all the family driving at thirteen while Daddy was in Vietnam the first time. I carried a gasoline credit card.

Daddy did a second tour, right near the end of the war. He took photos (slides, Ektachrome) during both assignments. A few years ago G took all our family slides—40+ magazines of 36 slides each—back to Dublin to put them through a professional-grade scanner, then color-corrected them and loaded three sets for each of us kids. Lots of these were growing-up family stuff but there were a few magazines from Vietnam. We’d seen the family stuff many times. We’d never seen the Vietnam stuff. It was eye-opening. Heartbreaking. He wrote captions on the slide-carriers, like “Sometimes I just cry.”

He was stationed in Thailand and flew into Vietnam, low, under the radar, at night to pick up downed pilots. Extremely dangerous. He also evacuated women and children from active war zones. It is a miracle he came back to us, twice. But after the second time he was done. He’d intended to stay in the Air Force longer, but he left after twenty-three years. He was never the same after Vietnam. (Although as a human, he was magnificent.) That first year after his return, he sat in the living room and stared at the walls a lot. He cried sometimes.

Meanwhile, of course, those of us back home got to see “live from Vietnam” reports every night on the six o’clock news.

Anyway, I have not yet looked at the slides, much less the Burns documentary. Vietnam profoundly affected my family, and I have been burdened with the unpleasantness of it my entire life. Maybe later.

You Don’t Have To Be Angelina Jolie

If you missed this news, my niece Marisa and her husband Tim (and their young children) are expats living in Vietnam, where Tim works for an international resort hotel company. Marisa has many Vietnam stories to share. This one will knock your socks off … (Oh, and don’t forget—you can click on any photo to enlarge it!)

You Don’t Have to Be Angelina Jolie

I just returned from a short trip to Siem Reap (which literally means “defeat of Siam”), the ancient capital of Cambodia. For most of us Americans, Cambodia isn’t your typical “top 10” vacation spot (unless perhaps you’re Angelina Jolie), but we live only a short flight away and it’s easy to get to and from Vietnam, so we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to go.

Siem Reap airport reminded us of an airport you would find on one of the Hawaiian Islands—the planes land on the tarmac and the building is a small indoor/outdoor A-frame structure with a warm welcome. Cambodians have embraced the masses of tourists that come there each year to see Angkor Wat, a Buddhist temple complex that dates from the early twelfth century. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; this year 3.5 million people will visit and by the year 2020 they expect 7 million visitors.

Angkor Wat is the main reason we were there too. We wanted to see the temples.

And really, the temples are stunning, but this post isn’t about them. It’s about our visit to Tonlé Sap Lake, which, we would learn, is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia. It is home to some 1.2 million people who are majority ethnic Vietnamese living in extreme poverty.

On our third day in Siem Reap, after we’d seen all the temples, Tim and I headed out to see one of the “floating villages” on the lake. Our hotel concierge had recommended it and it sounded interesting, so there we were on our tuk-tuk (an auto rickshaw) with big smiles on our faces, headed down a dirt road to the lake.

On the way there we saw the usual things that you see living in Asia. Lots of motorbikes, men sleeping in hammocks, people eating street food, and so on. But there were things that were different too. Different than you see in Vietnam or Thailand.

The extreme poverty is heartbreaking.

The extreme poverty is heartbreaking.

The wooden houses were very small (I’m talking 100 square feet) with as many as eight or nine people in some of them. Most all of the children were barefoot and naked—as young as two years old, playing right on the side of the road. Some were jumping rope or wrestling with their sisters and brothers and some were playing with garbage. But the kids were smiling and waving as we drove by. I waved back and half-smiled but my heart broke at the same time. Watching these kids, I couldn’t help but think of my own two children at home, nearly the same ages.

About thirty minutes later we arrived at the lake. A young man named Thanh greeted us and escorted us to a cashier. We paid $20USD each for a one-hour private guided boat tour around the lake. We hopped on board the wooden boat with Thanh and two other local guides and headed out onto the lake.

American tourists, so far still smiling.

American tourists, so far still smiling.

Thanh had grown up on the lake in this particular village where we were about to go. His father was Vietnamese and his mother Cambodian. His father had passed away when he was six. Thanh and his mother had moved to town with the help of a good Samaritan, a British man who years ago had visited the lake and paid for him to go to school and learn English. Because of that good fortune, Thanh now makes enough money as an English-speaking guide to live in town and take care of his mother. Thanh is twenty-one years old, and that stroke of luck seems like a miracle to him.

Our tour guide, Thanh, and Tim.

Our tour guide, Thanh, and Tim.

I could tell by the way Thanh spoke that he had a deep understanding and connection with the people and life on the lake. “There are around 150 families living in this particular village,” he explained. “They are too poor to live in town.” I thought, Poorer than the people we just drove past? Is that possible?

Thanh explained how these people lived on less than one dollar a day, how they were often hit with typhoons and malaria, and how there were over one hundred orphaned children living at the school on the lake because their parents had perished while fishing. I couldn’t even fathom it. By that point my half-smile was gone and I was overcome with sadness. I was in disbelief.

Soon we arrived at the floating village. It was astonishing—there was so much life going on! Mothers washing their laundry, kids playing and swimming, men fishing, grandparents resting, babies nursing, and all inside small wooden boats no bigger than my king-size bed.

Mothers washing laundry …

Mothers washing laundry …

… with children nearby. Note the baskets thrown up on the roof.

… with children nearby. Note the baskets thrown up on the roof.

The wooden boats had small stoves with fires burning in the back where women were cooking and boiling water so they could eat and drink. There were no toilets, no sinks, no showers on these boats. Some were bigger than others but all still small. Really, really small.

I tried taking it all in. I couldn’t have even imagined that this community existed, that people actually lived like this. I know it sounds naïve, but I am not. I promise. I live in Vietnam, which is undeveloped and rife with poverty, but this … this was new to me.

Laundry hanging out to dry.

Laundry hanging out to dry.

This level of poverty was new to me.

This level of poverty was new to me.

As we cruised around the lake, we photographed the people and their way of life. Using boats they would travel between friends’ houses, or move their fish from one location to the next, or go to the local “watering hole,” where philanthropists had provided safe drinking water for them. Here these people were, just going about their daily life. I saw one man washing his hair and brushing his teeth over the side of the boat in the lake water and another taking care of his business just a few feet away. And there we were, just watching. I felt helpless.

Just going about daily life.

Just going about daily life.

Locals use boats to travel between homes and shops.

Locals use boats to travel between homes and shops.

And then, not a moment too soon, Thanh asked us if we wanted to help. “Of course,” we said, “tell us how and we will.” He took us to the community market where we could by rice to donate to the local school. A local Cambodian man runs the small market from inside his tiny boat where he gives back to the community 35 percent of what he makes. This man, who probably makes $5 on a good day, gives back 35 percent of what he makes! I was inspired.

Shopping.

Shopping.

We spent nearly all of the money we had brought with us and bought 90 kilograms of rice (about $90USD). As my husband loaded the two sacks of rice onto our rented boat my eyes filled with tears. Why didn’t we bring more money? I thought. Surely, we could do more. For goodness sakes, the shop owner gives 35 percent. The tears were streaming down my face now. I couldn’t stop myself from crying.

Poverty is a way of life.

Poverty is a way of life.

I cried.

I cried.

We headed over to the school where classes had already dismissed … but the kids who lived there, who never left there, who have no parents, were still there. The boat was more like a barge and probably the biggest in the village. It consisted of three classrooms and a living room, I guess you would call it. This is where the kids slept, just there, on the floor.

The kids were playing games and hanging out, just like any other kids would after school. Some were dancing, some were playing marbles, and some were just quietly sitting in their desks.

Orphans playing after school.

Orphans playing after school.

We unloaded the rice and brought it into their kitchen area, which was just a couple pots over coals. It was enough rice to feed all of the students three meals a day for the next week. A Vietnamese man runs the school and lives there with his wife and kids. He didn’t speak any English but the expression on his face was enough for us to understand how grateful he was.

A kitchen.

A kitchen.

Soon enough all of the kids were coming up to us and posing to take pictures while throwing out peace signs and big grins.

Posing at the school.

Posing at the school.

Kids are kids, wherever you go.

Kids are kids, wherever you go.

What will her future be?

What will her future be?

One approached me with a bucket of candy he had gotten from a small boat located directly next to the school that sold the same type of things you find at a gas station convenience store. I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to do. Thanh said, “Buy the small bucket of candy for $3 and give it to the children.” I fumbled through my pocket and pulled together the money and gave it to Thanh. Suddenly, the kids went crazy! They were dancing and laughing and jumping around. As I gave out handfuls of candy the children swarmed me. All those little hands waving in the air trying to get my attention. It was overwhelming. It was like I was a superstar, like I was Angelina Jolie.

Swarming for candy.

Swarming for candy.

Handing out the candy.

Handing out the candy.

In that moment, I thought about my own kids, my own happiness, and about how it was so easy to give. How every day we could do so much more. How thousands of other children were living on that lake. It doesn’t matter if you are rich and famous, or just an average person who works for a living … there is always more you can do to help others. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to help these kids, even if it was small. I looked over at my husband; he was smiling and laughing, and now, so was I.

An Expat Voice

I’m so excited to introduce you to my niece, Marisa Ryan, a girl-next-door American who grew up in Carson City, Nevada … and is now living the expat life in Vietnam with her husband, Tim, and their two young children. Here’s Marisa:

Everything Can Change

Tim and I were just going about our daily Las Vegas lives when we received a call from Tim’s boss, David, that would change everything! This was in mid-February 2012; I was six months pregnant and our dream house was just partially remodeled. We had a plan.

Oh, how that plan changed!

The next week at dinner, David told us about a fantastic career opportunity for Tim—to open a new casino resort on the beaches of Vietnam as director of food & beverage. At the time, I don’t think Tim or I could have pointed out on the map exactly where Ho Chi Minh City was, but we knew it was an opportunity we couldn’t turn down. We did a bit of research and quickly prepared to move across the world. This opportunity wasn’t going to wait.

We had no idea what was in store for us—nor could we even imagine what it would be like to live in Southeast Asia.

Six weeks later Tim, our two-year-old son, Conrad, and I boarded our flight. After twenty-four hours we landed in the hot, muggy weather at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. We were scared and excited all at the same time. Driving from the airport to our hotel we tried to take it all in—the traffic, the motorbikes, the hammocks, the street food, the people. It was like nothing we had ever seen.

The first three months brought many ups and downs. We welcomed our precious baby girl Simone Viét, struggled with culture shock, discovered the privileged life of being an expat, worried about how Conrad was adjusting, and dealt with lots of uncertainty that surrounded the opening of the resort and Tim’s job. We soon found our stride, met great friends, traveled to exotic locations, and fell in love with Vietnam.

The Ryan family — American expats in Vietnam. (Photo © Tim Ryan.)

The Ryan family — American expats in Vietnam. (Photo © Tim Ryan.)

It’s a great story, don’t you think? And while Tim’s been busy opening a luxury hotel (the Grand Ho Tram Beach Resort), Marisa—a fashion industry veteran—has started a small clothing company called Native Grace Fashion. Marisa and her business partner Brandy were often going to the fabric markets get things made for themselves, and thus another career opp suggested itself: it is very affordable to have manufacturing done in Vietnam. So Marisa and Brandy came up with the concept—resort wear, bathing suit cover-ups, and so on—scoured through markets for fabric, hired a pattern maker, made samples, and then went to factory. I’ll let Marisa tell you that story sometime.

So stick around! Marisa has a lot of fascinating stories about living in Vietnam … and visiting Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bali, Singapore, Bangkok, the Vietnam Central Coast, and other interesting locations I may never see. (Next up: a weekend trip to Cambodia.) Tạm biệt (good-bye) for now!