A Vietnamese Father's Pilgrimage to Mount Rushmore, 40 Years After Saigon
Five minutes either way and they might never have met. If left to sheer coincidence, they probably wouldn't have. Then again, this was no mere happenstance, but a pilgrimage of soul and destiny. A divine and urgent appointment with history, some forty years in the making. Forged of mud and blood and Napalm and memories scattered on a smoky wind, hovering above rice paddocks and misty jungle canopy. A meeting of men set in motion by the grinding wheels of obstinate forces on opposite sides of the world, generations apart. All, torn and tattered by the horror of war. Fire and gristle. Bodies, souls and hearts in need of mending. And on a clear August day in South Dakota, mended men, brought to pay respects in a place reserved for whispers and hallowed thoughts and Presidents, carved in stone.
For 74-year old Luu Van Truong of Vietnam, this visit to Mount Rushmore was no tourist's junket, but a reverent observance of a place that for years has filled his dreams with mystery and wonder. Just days into his only journey to the United States, Luu wants to see the place where three of his eight children held their hands in the air and became U.S. citizens, I do solemnly swear. The magic place of dreams. He has heard the stories by phone and choked tears of pride on the day it happened in 2002. But twelve years later, he is here in person and wants to pay a father's respect. Gratitude is the only righteous course for a grateful heart, and as a devout Vietnamese Catholic, Luu is grateful and obligated to a fault. Grateful not just to see the monument and the mountain, but to bask in the spangled essence of a nation where three of his eight children found lives and futures and prosperity, safely distanced from the violence and privation of their childhood in postwar Vietnam.
Grateful for a father's sacrifice, well spent.
Even now he can see them crying. Ragged and squatting. Desperate and dirty. Eating moldy potatoes and boiled yucca root and fermented fish after the war destroyed most of his country's rice crop and tens of thousands starved around them in the wreckage of a fractured nation.
Even now he can see them screaming. As Vietcong enforcers hauled their beloved father away after the fall of Saigon to a filthy prison where abuse broke his body and pneumonia nearly killed him before his pitiable condition convinced his captors to send him home to die.
Even now, he can see them weeping. All of them. Five of eight children, placed on airplanes and scattered to the west. Two to Australia. Three to the United States. Propelled by a father's stoic sacrifice and a mother's silent hope that the agony of separation would yield better lives for them in places of free air and abundance. The truth was painful and clear. The only way to keep them all alive was to let some go away. Far away. Forever. He would have sent all eight of them if his heart could bear it. If his wife's mind could bear it. But none of them could. Family is the world, entire. And so, three would stay. Five would go. It was all that could be done. Night after night before their departure there were too many tears for sleep. One by one he had visited their rooms, wrestling against himself and his desperate rescue and fighting the urge to beg them not to go. If they changed their minds, they could stay, he said. If they were too frightened to leave, they could stay, he said. They could go when they were older, he said. He would miss them. He would always love them. He was proud of their courage. Never forget that I love you, he said.
Yes, daddy. Yes, father. Yes, Bo.
At five o'clock morning Mass, a final prayer for covering and protection. God guard them and guide them. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, Amen. They understood the broken message within a father's broken heart and felt the deep love that had shattered both. He wanted them to stay. He wanted them to go. There could be no turning back. Goodbye was the only way. America would mend the pieces and bring them together again, someday. Only in America. America. The magic place.
And finally, he was here.
Surrounded by three daughters and his American son-in-law, visiting holy ground at the Shrine of Democracy, to render sacred offering of thanks for hopes realized and prayers answered. Eight children on three continents, healthy and well-fed and smiling in their good lives of hard work and reward. All entrepreneurs and land owners, business owners and investors, laborers and housewives. Swathed in Burberry and Louis Vuitton and Rolex, Mercedes, Toyota and Land Rover. Pizza Hut and Starbucks and McDonalds and Olive Garden and Levi. Crunchy granola and warm apple pie with ice cream. The material trappings of wealth and security so far removed from their impossible beginnings in that faraway place of danger and deprivation. The freedom to pursue life and happiness and that, more abundantly. A sacrifice well spent. A father's broken heart mended and then mended, again.
And then and there, it happened. Another appointment with history. Shadowed beneath the stoicism and stone of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln, a mended father finds himself standing and surrounded by other men. American men. Grizzled and graying. Sunburned and stalwart. Some in frayed denim and military patches. Others in leather and bandanas and faded fatigues. Fellow pilgrims on a veteran's motorcycle reunion. They've heard him talking and laughing with his children. They've heard him speaking the musical language of a country full of memories and visions and nightmares left behind, but never forgotten.
They know he is Vietnamese. They press in.
An honorable man and children from a place where young American men went to die and their brothers returned home empty and in need of mending, too. Men, broken and mended, just like him. The American son-in-law makes introductions, all around. The youngest daughter translates. John and Tom, Marines. Bill and Don, Navy. Steve and Jerry, Infantry. Doug, Sam and Ron, Special Forces. Guys, meet Luu Van Truong. Imprisoned two years by the Vietcong for giving help to the pro-American resistance. Battered and almost killed. So sick they let him go home. Expected him to die, but he didn't. Sent most of his children to the western world for a better life. Hated like hell to see them leave. Loved them too much to let them stay. This is his first visit to the United States. First time to Mount Rushmore. He wanted to see the place where his children became part of America. The place where it all began. The magic place.
Even now, the father can see them crying. Pulling his wiry frame to their burly chests for hugs and tears and clapped backs. Engulfing his hand in theirs for firm handshakes and posing for photographs.
We fought for you. We honor you. We would have died for you.
Men in POW/MIA t-shirts sharing tears and stories with the miracle pneumonia man, prisoner of war, released to die by the Vietcong. Telling him they did their best for him and for his people. Telling him they would have done more, but couldn't. Telling him where they served and how long. Telling him they had done all that they could.
Damn VC. Damn rules of engagement. Damn Agent Orange. Damn political war. At least we made it here. At least we made it back. At least your children made it out. Five of them, you say? One-way ticket, not knowing if you'd see them again? How'd you do it? Don't know if I could. Best father there ever was. No doubt about it. Good man. Damn right. Great man. You bet.
In that moment beneath a sunny-blue South Dakota sky they are brothers, sisters and pilgrims, one and all. Human souls welded together by the smoke and fire of helpless struggle. Rippled lives on history's ocean, set in motion by tidal forces of ideology and crushed by the tectonic, malignant hatred of ambitious men, long dead. With leaking eyes and a voice choked to a rasping whisper, the Vietnamese father thanks the American soldiers for their service, years ago. He thanks them for their kindness, here and now. Let's have some ice cream, he says. Maybe some iced tea or a cool drink of water. Protectors and defenders with good hearts and loving eyes. Stubborn and undimmed sojourners on a mutual journey. Time to leave. Say goodbye.
Even now, he can see them waving. Waving a hero's farewell through tears of joy and reunion and remembrance. Goodbye, my friend. Goodbye.
We fought for you. We'd do it again. Damn right.
A mended father, freed prisoner and welcomed hero, waves back at them. Waving from the magic place of stone cathedral and humanity's shared struggle for liberty. Waving back through years of misty history to a younger version of himself, surrounded by the smoke and fear of an evil time; a young man and refugee children scattered to the western winds and borne on silent prayers to unseen sanctuary. Ripped asunder, rescued and reunited. Safe. Secure. Serenely blessed.
Goodbye, good friends, goodbye.
The long, last, mended evidence of a father's sacrifice, well spent.
Biographical: Shad Olson is a political columnist, Emmy-winning television journalist, syndicated radio host and fiction author from Rapid City, South Dakota. He currently works as nightly news anchor and investigative reporter at KNBN television in Rapid City.