Tell us the story again?”
I remember those warm summer nights, lying next to my aunties. Some of us would be on a mattress on the floor; the others, the lucky ones, got the bed. There wasn’t enough room for three aunties and four nieces in the attic room with the sloped ceiling. But I was warm and comfortable, sleepy and secure lying beside them.
“Again?” one auntie would say. “But you already know it.”
My sisters and I would plead. “Please? We want to hear it one more time.”
And one of them would give in.
“It was a warm night, like this one. . . .”
My mother, her siblings, and her parents were in their home. It was April 30, 1975, a warm evening in Saigon, South Vietnam. This night would become known as the Fall of Saigon and the end of the 20-year-long war for Vietnam. My mother’s family had just finished dinner when a loud explosion blew out the windows at the back of the house.
My grandmother had worked for 20 years as a translator and administrative assistant at a branch of the US Department of Defense. Her office coordinated intelligence shared between the US Army and the South Vietnamese military. She was recognized as a hard and loyal worker. Her boss, an American, had assured her over a period of weeks that when the time was right, he would send word about where to go with her whole family. “Don’t worry, Rebecca. We won’t leave without you. We’ll make sure you are taken care of.”
But she had not heard from him in days. She did not know that he had already left the country, leaving her and her family behind without so much as a telephone call.
Now, with her family sprawled across the floor, their ears ringing from the blast, my grandmother decided: It’s time to go.
With explosions shaking the street and homes nearby, the family scrambled. My mother and her siblings each packed a small bag of essential items. Outside the house, they could hear chaos. Bombs were exploding, taking down shops, houses, and people. They ducked low, making their way from ditch to ditch, crawling toward the airport. It took them all night to get there.
At dawn, they arrived at the airport security gates. My grandmother showed her papers to the guards, telling them her boss’s name. “He told me he get us out,” she said in broken English. “He tell me my whole family can come.”
The guard shook his head. “I’m sorry. Your name isn’t on this list.”
“Please!” my grandmother begged. “I work for you, for the Americans. They will kill us all. Take this.” She grabbed from her bag the gold jewelry and small items of value she had taken from the house. “Please,” she said. “Take all of this.”
The guard took all of it, then let them through the gate.
Somehow, my mother’s family made it to the evacuation point. There, thousands of other Vietnamese waited to board helicopters that would fly them to ships. They were permitted to take nothing. They stood, waiting, emptyhanded, nothing to show for their lives, with no idea of what was to come.
As my mother and her family neared the front of the line, soldiers were barking orders, trying to fill each helicopter to maximum capacity. My grandparents and uncles urged the girls to get on the first available chopper.
“No!” my aunties and my mother cried. “We cannot separate!”