Vietnam Love Story
12/23/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
An hour before the scheduled arrival of the woman of his dreams and the son he has never met, Nicholas Rock, 35, sits in a lounge at the Seattle airport watching Monday Night Football. He stares vacantly at the television screen, oblivious to the Redskins-Giants game, replaying instead old memories of Vietnam: the nights he and his buddies got stoned and watched tracer fire in the distance while doing combat with giant cockroaches in their bunker, the evening he nearly drowned diving into a jungle stream after a drunken party, the time he smuggled a bottle of premium whiskey out of the PX as a gift for the family of his girlfriend, Kim Loan.
Sipping milk to calm his nerves, Nick wishes he could stop thinking about Kim; it will only upset him now. For more than a decade he has been waiting for her to join him in the United States, and as he counts down the minutes toward their reunion, the tragedy of all that lost time oppresses him. The very fact that Kim, 33, and their 14-year-old child, Chinh, are about to arrive at last invokes all the buried anxiety of 14 years. "I wonder about the chemistry and whether the rapport will still be there with Kim," Nick says. "Most of all, I worry that Chinh is in for one hell of a shock. For him, coming here from Vietnam is going to be like landing on Mars."
Nick knows what that is like. On May 1, 1970, when the door of his transport plane opened at Bien Hoa, the base north of Saigon, Pfc. Nicholas Rock found himself suddenly awash in sweat, blasted by the intense tropical heat. From that moment he hated Vietnam—hated the weather, hated the war, hated most of all being a world away from home. He fell in love, as a lot of the guys did. Pham Thi Kim Loan, a sweet, shy village girl from a Roman Catholic family, seemed to bring a breeze from home to that desolate place. She understood him, and with her he was not lonely. He proposed marriage. Kim said yes, but, following the orders of the day, the Army said no.
Most GIs with Vietnamese lovers left their promises behind with the war. Nick could not, though with alcohol and hashish and other forms of anesthesia, he tried. When finally the haze of four postwar years had cleared and Nick resolved to act on his vague plans to return to Vietnam as a civilian and marry Kim, the Communists had overrun South Vietnam and the likelihood of getting her out—or even getting a letter to her—was negligible. Nevertheless, Nick Rock, now a government clerk, began a campaign to find Kim that would in time take on the character of an obsession.
And now Northwest Orient flight 689 has landed, and as Nick watches the passengers disembark—his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his faded blue jeans—there is a look almost of torment on his face. Then he sees them, the tension is broken, and he throws open his arms. As they reach him, he drops to one knee and pulls them both into a tight hug. Trembling, Kim buries her head in his shoulder. "Don't worry, Kim," he says, stroking her long, black hair. "You're free. You're free."
Then young Chinh, bundled in layers of winter clothing and clutching a small suitcase containing most of their belongings, breaks away from their embrace and steps back, staring at his father in bewilderment.
For years Nick was haunted by a recurrent nightmare: He is fishing at a secluded spot in the forest when suddenly Kim and Chinh appear on the opposite bank of the stream. He tries to wade across the water to join them, but he can't make it and he wakes up shivering in a sweat. "I'd wash my face and try to go back to sleep," he says. "But my damn pajamas would be soaked, and my insides would be churning so bad that I'd stay up all night. I'd stare for hours at pictures of Kim and Chinh or reread old letters."
Back in Vietnam, Kim had dreams too—most often that she was meeting Nick's father and other members of the Rock family in a big rambling house filled with laughter. But there were bad nights for her as well. Once, after watching a romantic movie on television, she dreamed that she saw Nick on the street in Saigon with his arm around a beautiful blonde. "I got mad," she remembers. "Then Chinh shook me and said, 'Mom, wake up. What are you crying for?' "
Kim needn't have worried. A brooding loner since his boyhood, Nick never showed much interest in being a ladies' man. The second eldest of nine children, he was up before dawn each morning to do chores on the family's 200-acre dairy farm in Amherst, Mass. and then raced home after school to work late into the evening. Square dances and outings to the ice-cream parlor were allowed, but Nick's father, Frank, and his mother, Marion, discouraged any more exotic pleasures. "It wasn't the usual Leave It to Bearer childhood," says Nick's sister Sue. "We were brought up so strict, Nick was always kind of like a little old man."
When he graduated from Amherst High School in 1969, he wanted to go on to college. But the family was farm-poor, and his draft card said 1-A. So Nick enlisted, hoping by that gambit to be spared service in Vietnam.
He was sent to Vietnam anyway, in April 1970, and though he believed in the principle that a man should serve his country, he was terrified. In fact he was among the lucky ones, landing a rear echelon job, in a military shopping complex at Long Binh, which kept him out of serious danger during his entire tour. As a supply clerk, his only combat was with officers who tried pulling rank on him to raid the supplies of beer and liquor or with GIs who got too fresh with the Vietnamese women working under his supervision as cashiers.
Kim Loan was one of those: a pretty 18 year old in the PX whose family had fled North Vietnam in 1954. Two years before she met Nick, a bus in which she was riding hit a Viet Cong mine. She spent the next year in the hospital with grave leg wounds and left with a disfigured foot, a limp and a poignant self-consciousness about her injuries. "Somehow I felt immediately drawn to Kim," Nick says. "She was slender, had long, black hair and seemed very delicate. Unlike some of the other girls, who were always trying to get GIs to buy things for them, she did most of the giving." Kim thought he was different, too. "The other GIs could be crude in the way they teased us," she says. "He was more gentle and had respect for Vietnamese people. I liked that."
In a few months the relationship was serious; Nick and Kim would sneak off a couple of times each month for rendezvous at his barracks or her apartment. "She didn't want to let her friends know because she was worried they would think of her as a bad woman," Rock says. "Meanwhile the guys were razzing me, saying, 'Nick, you can't be serious! She's just a gook. She's not worth it. Why don't you get yourself an American chick?' "
Despite the teasing Nick decided in August 1970 that he wanted to marry Kim. One afternoon, while she was in the cashier's cage at the PX, he asked her. "She thought at first I was kidding," Nick says. "She kept saying, 'You're not playing with me, Nick? You're not just saying this?' There were customers at her window who were starting to get impatient. Then it was kind of like silence. She was crying, and I didn't know what to do. Finally she opened the door to her cage and we just held each other."
"In the back of my mind," Kim says, "I wondered, does he really want to marry me, or is he just terribly lonesome because he's in a foreign country? I really loved him and hoped that one day I could be his wife. But I just couldn't believe it would happen."
A few weeks later Rock was called in for a talk with Sgt. Maj. Charles Robinson and Capt. Mark Williams, his immediate superiors in the Army chain of command. "They were both hammering at me," Nick remembers. "Robinson said, 'You know, we had a guy here a while back who married a Vietnamese girl, and this command went through hell getting that straightened out. It took a lot of time. It cost a lot of money, and we don't want to go through that again.' Then Williams started in. He said, 'Think about what it will be like when you get her to the States. You know how women love to gossip. Imagine her in one of those sewing circles in New England and think of how they will talk behind her back. They'll call her a gook. They'll call her a dink. Do you want to put up with that?' "
When Nick said he might elope, he was threatened with court-martial.
Kim and Nick continued to date until he left Vietnam, but their remaining times together often ended with tears. On Mar. 18, 1971, the day before Nick left Vietnam, he saw Kim for the last time. "I was stroking her hair, holding her, saying 'Believe me.' She said, 'Sure, GI, you'll be back.' She probably felt it was just another story from another soldier. But she said she would wait for me."
Nick was sent to Schweinfurt, West Germany, where he was a clerk for the MPs. It was then that his commitment to Kim began to waver. "I promised her I'd write every week, but I was lazy as hell about it because I'd started using hash," he says. "Still, there was nothing I could do until I got out of the military."
The letter Kim wrote to him saying she was pregnant never reached him, and, sensing displeasure in his failure to reply, she never wrote of it again. To avoid embarrassing her parents, Kim moved out of the family home in Xuan Loc to live temporarily with relatives 20 miles away. "In Vietnam a girl who gets pregnant without a husband can bring great shame on her family in the village," she says. "I had always taken good care of my parents, and they loved me very much. But they could not accept the fact I had let myself down in this way."
In March 1972 Kim agreed reluctantly to marry an old school sweetheart. "I didn't have much feeling for him," she says. "Nevertheless he went to my parents and pressed his offer. My parents said to me, 'What are you waiting for? Nick will never be able to return to Vietnam. But this man loves you and is willing to take care of your child.' I thought Nick had forgotten me." Three months after the wedding, her husband, Do Tien Zung, a second lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army, was killed when his Jeep ran over a land mine.
On April Fool's Day, 1972, Nick received his discharge from the Army and returned to Amherst. By then his parents were divorced, and his father had lost the farm in a bitter probate dispute with his relatives. "I walked back to the barns and fields and they were empty," Nick says. "It was strange remembering how I had driven a particular nail and how it bent. Everything was so familiar, and yet it had changed completely." So indeed had he: After a boyhood spent on farm work and a young manhood spent on war, the only thing Nick wanted to do was party. "I just had to go out and have fun," Nick says. "I collected unemployment for a while. Then I thought, 'What the heck, I can go to school, get a two-year degree, and then I can go back to Vietnam with a good job.' I really believed that." He wrote Kim of his plans, and she sent back a short letter saying only that she had stopped believing his promises.
Nick dropped out of a program in hotel administration at the University of Massachusetts after a year and took a minimum wage job in a brush-manufacturing plant. He tried to put away whatever money he could, but with his father out of work and the family in financial hardship, that wasn't much. "I used to take my wallet to bed with me so they couldn't find the money," Nick says. "Finally I got drunk one day, listened to some music and read all the old letters from Kim. I realized if I didn't get away then, I never would. I decided I had to go back to Vietnam. I had to fulfill my promise."
After recovering from his hangover the next day, Nick packed a suitcase, left a brief note for his father and bought a $164 one-way ticket to San Francisco. Jobs were difficult to come by, and he collected welfare for some time before landing temporary work as a government clerk. Living hand-to-mouth in a $165-a-month boarding house, he put off writing to Kim until he could offer her some concrete hope that he was on his way.
A year after he had left home, in March 1975, Nick's family forwarded a letter from Kim that had been sitting unopened in Amherst for several weeks. In it Nick learned for the first time that he had a son. "I am waiting for your letter," Kim wrote. "Do you still think about the Vietnamese girl you left behind?" Nick immediately began strong-arming his family and friends for the money he needed to go to Vietnam. But by the time he had got his visa, it was too late. The war's endgame had begun. On Apr. 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the Communists.
"I went through a whole quart of whiskey that night," Nick says. "Come sunup, I went to a Catholic church down the street. I had put on a suit, but I'm sure I reeked of alcohol. I waited around in the back of the church because I wanted to make a confession. In the end the priest didn't show, so I just headed home and went to sleep."
After the Communist victory, Kim was allowed to keep her job teaching elementary school, her father stayed on as the high school principal, and gradually life in the village of Xuan Loc returned to a kind of normality. Chinh helped his grandparents tend the large garden and their dozen pigs and joined in the preparation of the evening meal. Chinh was always at the top of his class in school and—perhaps because he inherited his mother's looks and has no obvious Caucasian features—suffered none of the prejudice that afflicts some Amerasian children in Vietnam.
Chinh first learned about his real father when, as a toddler, he asked about a picture in one of his mother's scrapbooks. The more he learned about Nick, the more he wanted to know. "He always asked a lot of questions about his father," Kim says. "Sometimes he'd see a picture of an American and he'd say, 'Does my father look like that?' Or he'd ask, 'Why can't my father come to Vietnam?' "
Emotionally shattered following the fall of Saigon, Nick spent weeks contacting refugee camps and agencies in the hope that Kim and Chinh might somehow have managed to escape. He also kept writing to Kim at her parents' address, but the letters came back month after month stamped "Service Suspended." All the while, Nick relived his regrets daily. "I was tormented," he says. "I thought about the good times and the bad times, the what-ifs: I should have done something sooner, I wish to hell I'd been smarter, and of course it is all my fault. I kept thinking Kim must despise me."
Finally, in August 1979, after four years of futile correspondence, a letter from Nick got through. "One day I was talking with a candy vendor on the street," Kim remembers, "when she pulled out a letter and asked if I knew the person to whom it was addressed. It had my name on it, but with an old street name that had been changed since the war. I was shocked." The next day Kim traveled to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and sent Nick a cable saying that she and Chinh were alive and well.
"I ripped open the telegram and jumped for joy," Nick says. "I ran down the street, and I got past the first light before I suddenly realized I didn't know where I was going and I was going to be out of breath if I kept up that pace."
By that time a trickle of Vietnamese had begun to enter the United States and other Western countries under the Orderly Departure Program run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. But since the U.S. and Vietnam had no diplomatic relations, the application process was a bureaucratic morass. At Nick's suggestion, Kim submitted the necessary papers, but she, like thousands of Vietnamese, began looking for other ways out.
In July 1981, Kim paid a boat owner about 10 ounces of gold to smuggle her and Chinh out of Vietnam from Ben Tre, some 75 miles from Xuan Loc. On the night before their departure, Chinh could not stop crying. Kim asked him if he wanted to stay behind. "No, I want to see my father," Kim remembers him saying, and after dusk the next day they joined 60 other people on a small junk. After 15 hours, a few hundred miles out in the South China Sea, the boat engine suddenly stopped. "One of the old ladies had brought along eight cans of drinking water, and someone mistook them for cans of gasoline," Kim says. "The owner was trying to repair the motor when another fishing boat spotted us and alerted the authorities." Kim, Chinh and the others were imprisoned, but all the women and children were released after a month.
Nick was horrified when he heard about Kim's attempted escape and urged her not to try it again. In the meantime he launched a relentless letter-writing campaign, asking congressmen, senators, State Department officials, refugee agencies, Vietnamese bureaucrats and even the Vatican for help with Kim and Chinh's case. "All the time I kept hearing, There are no diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. There is nothing that can be done.' The U.S. says it's up to the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese say it's up to the U.S. I spent hours putting those packets together—Xeroxing, collating. I kept thinking, 'Thank God for word processing.' Then when I sent the letters out, I used to grit my teeth and say, 'Here's one more, you mothers.' "
Finally, last October, a delegation of New York State legislators, led by Vietnam Veterans activist Greg Kane, raised the case with officials in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and extracted their promise, as a "humanitarian gesture," to expedite the departure of Kim and Chinh. Still, until they actually left Ho Chi Minh City for Bangkok on Nov. 7, Nick could not believe his nightmare was finally ending. "I held my breath until I knew for sure they were out," Nick says. "Then I got so hyper I had to hold myself down. Everything that happened before was going through my mind—all the hurt, all the things I hoped would happen and didn't. It was strange. I was starting to get angry."
The night before leaving Vietnam, Chinh cries for hours. His mother and grandparents try to comfort him, but before long they are crying, too. Kim's father dries his grandson's tears and tells him to take care of his mother and study hard. Then he turns to Kim. "We brought you into this world, and you have been a loving and faithful daughter," he says. "Now you must start a new life. You must do all you can to make Nick happy, because you will never find another man like him."
On the Air France flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok, Kim wonders how she will seem now to Nick. "It has been 14 years since I saw him," she says. "Then I was a young lady. But now I am a very old lady, an ugly girl." For Chinh, who has never flown on an airplane before, the newness of everything helps him forget the sadness of leaving his grandparents. He runs his fingers over the slick pages of the airline magazine, plays with the light switch and recliner control at his seat and then stares out the window in wonder. He says almost nothing, just a few words in Vietnamese, which his mother translates: "Everything is so big...I've never seen anything like this before." When asked what he expects his father to be like, he says, "I only saw him in a picture, but I think he will be a giant."
When he steps off the plane in Seattle, Chinh recognizes Nick immediately, and after the initial shock of meeting his father for the first time, he utters the English greeting he has learned: "How are you? I am fine, thank you."
There is little sound sleep in Nick Rock's home that night; Kim is up all night with Chinh, who has tried without success to cry himself to sleep. Then, at dawn, when they look out the window of Nick's two-bedroom apartment, they see magic—snow. Chinh is bedazzled as he tries to catch the flakes, only to see them disappear in his hand. During lunch at McDonald's, he looks bashfully at a group of rambunctious teenagers at the next table, taking special interest in one boy's red sneakers. Later, at the neighborhood Safeway, it is Kim's turn to be amazed. One glance down the first aisle, and she steps back in shock. "Wow!" she says. "Too big. Too many things. It's my dream."
During the next 10 days, the snow is relentless, and Kim and Chinh are homebound. While rummaging through the closets one day, Kim comes across some women's clothing and is furious. Reticent about confronting Nick directly, she writes him a note and waits two days for him to find and read it. "Aw, honey," he says, taking her into his arms. "Those were donated to us by somebody at work."
Chinh spends hours of each day just sitting in a chair, quietly crying. He writes long letters to his grandparents, asking them how they are and reminding them to take good care of the pigs and his three chickens and telling them of the cold and the snow. In late afternoons, Chinh stares out the window waiting for his father to come home from work. Each day Kim preps him with a new English phrase to try out on Nick. Today's lesson is "Hi, Daddy."
Nick is both pleased and a little surprised by Chinh's attempts to win him over. "I keep looking for signs of any anger or resentment toward me, but I can't find any," Nick says. "He smiles every time I say something."
Though they cannot exchange even the simplest thoughts in words, Nick and Chinh sit for hours together in an armchair watching videotapes: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Police Academy 1 and 2, Tank and Revenge of the Nerds. Many of the movies were taped from network TV showings, and the characters on the screen appear to be wearing DayGlo clothes.
One night, aware that it could be strange for Chinh but weary of watching the same old shows over and over again, Nick loads Missing in Action 1 in the VCR. Kim is confused. "Is this really Vietnam?" she asks. "No, honey, it's just a movie based on wishful thinking," Nick says. During the sex scenes, Chinh blushes and turns his head away. But when Chuck Norris is slogging through the jungle, Chinh is riveted to the screen. "That man is going to get killed," he says to his mother, and sure enough out pops a booby trap. Chinh is delighted as Norris narrowly escapes death again and again, and Nick—thrilled to see his son so animated—starts talking back to the screen himself. "Hey," he shouts at Norris. "I hope you're not wearing Aqua Velva, or Charlie will smell you for sure."
Nick laughs at his own joke and sits back contentedly. For the first time in years he can think about Vietnam without rancor or remorse. The war's last battle is behind him, and the challenges facing Nick and Kim now are on the home front: finding their son a school that has a Vietnamese tutor, preparing for a wedding sometime after Christmas and looking for a house. For Chinh, a stranger in a strange, cold land, the future is more uncertain. His battles are yet to be chosen, his enemies as yet unknown.