Where is Pham-lỷ-Täi?

The word “pen pals” was recently in the news.

In the 1960s, students were taught U.S and World History. Long before the days of personal computers and the Internet, we high school students were encouraged to expand our perspective by becoming pen pals with other students around the world.

Of course, back then, the phrase “pen pal” literally meant using a pen to write, preferably in cursive or some reasonable facsimile.

Perhaps it was through the Weekly Reader that I first exchanged mail and photos with a gorgeous blond girl from Denmark. But by far the most memorable, and longest lasting pen pal relationship, was with a student from Saigon (later renamed Ho Chi Minh City.)

Pham-lỷ-Täi was a Vietnamese school boy with precisely written English. He told me that he and his family were Catholic. They lived in Saigon where his father worked for the South Vietnamese government, if I remember correctly.

As we wrote, we exchanged bits of national culture. He sent me a tall doll of a Vietnamese woman in long silk dress and hat (the Asian conical Nón lá). But as the years progressed, our written conversation turned more serious, towards the growing signs of war.

In 1964 as I was nearing graduation from Shawnee Mission East High School, in Prairie Village, Kansas, there were thousands of U.S. advisers in South Vietnam. The August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident had not yet happened, so while Pham-lỷ-Täi was uneasy, outright hostilities had not yet broken out.

However, about the time I left home for college in September, the letter chain was broken, and fighting began in earnest.

As history revealed, the war did not end well for either American and allied troops (Australia, New Zealand, and other forces), or the people of South Vietnam. Democracy was crushed. For well-educated Christians in government service, the consequences were more dire.

Communists seek out the best educated and most pious people, and kill them. That is what communist revolutions invariably do. Indeed, it is a sobering exercise to research the numbers of national citizens killed by Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. There were literally millions of citizens killed in each communist revolution.

I was in Army training in 1975 with a Cambodian officer at the beginning of the genocide of the Cambodian people by the Communist Khmer Rouge. Our class of American Officers urged the young man to stay in the country, fearing he would be killed if he returned home. But sadly, out of duty to his nation and to his family, he refused to stay in the U.S.

There is no doubt that his skull is one of the many skulls found in Pol Pot’s killing fields.

Pham ly Tai’s fate was less certain. Did he take up arms to lead the defense of his country? Did he perish in combat? Did he perhaps escape by boat, like my family physician, Dzung Nguyen, did as a child?

Was his family perhaps given diplomatic escort out of Saigon on the last American helicopters out?

I don’t know. If anyone does know, I would greatly appreciate hearing, one way or the other.

However, my fear is that like my Cambodian officer friend, duty kept Pham-lỷ-Täi home to face the onslaught.

For a long time, I had forgotten about my old pen pal. However, many decades later I was on a Taiwanese airline, Eva Air, headed to Taipei and eventually, Bangkok. This particular Eva Air flight had an odd Hello Kitty theme, inside and out. It catered to children. Strangely, I found myself surrounded by youngsters from Vietnam returning from Los Angeles and Disney World during their summer break.

In the seat next to me was a young lady from Ho Chi Minh City, and across the aisle were her female classmates. She no doubt noticed I was an American male of an age which could have placed me in Vietnam during the war. Apparently, that worried her. So, as the flight leveled off at altitude, my seatmate broke the ice by asking in her best English only one sentence.

“Are you mad?”

Seeing real concern in her eyes, and sensing a memory of things she might have heard about the war, I answered, “No, I am not mad.”

There were many more things I could have asked, such as, “Are you mad?” But her English was faltering, and my Vietnamese was non-existent. What I was thinking at that point was far too complex to speak simply. So, my answer, “No, I am not mad,” was the only way I could answer her curious question.

For sure, I could not be mad at a child who was not even alive during the Vietnam war. She and her friends had nothing to do with what happened to her countrymen, and ours.

From a different perspective, I wondered how my friends who were in combat in Vietnam would have answered. But I suspect, being good men and women all, they would not have held a grudge for half a lifetime. War is hell, but only the Communist leaders directed the killing of those who opposed them, for political purposes. The children are innocent.

I thought about telling that girl, maybe fifteen years of age, how I used to have a friend in Saigon, a boy about her age. If Pham-lỷ-Täi lived, perhaps he would have a granddaughter about her age. I wished, insanely I suppose, that the girl in the seat beside me was one of his granddaughters. If so, then I would know he survived.

But, for some reason, I did not ask her.

It’s strange the things you think about when crossing large oceans.

Once in Taipei, I was pleasantly surprised to see my former seatmate with her school friends looking my way, all smiles and giggles. They seemed to be pleased to meet an American of my generation who was not mad at them.

Of course I was not mad at a child. I never could be.

But I did remember a Vietnamese boy I knew a long time ago. He seemed to be a natural leader, a potential politician with strong ethics, a young man who would face death to save his country from communism.

So, I still wonder, what happened to my pen pal, Pham-lỷ-Täi?

In February of 2021, I came across the movie, Ride the Thunder- A Vietnam War Story of Victory and Betrayal. To my taste, the acting is a bit melodramatic, but I do believe I have a better understanding of what might have happened to my friend. If he and his family had not been killed outright by the Communists, he might had suffered a fate worse than death, Communist reeducation camps. The movie and book has been praised for telling the brutal truth. And apparently, the most compelling truth is revealed by  Major Le La Binh, a South Vietnamese officer who after the war was held in those “reeducation camps.”

Sadly, that newly revealed ending of the Vietnam war does not bode well for my friend, Pham-lỷ-Täi.

The Day the Gorillas Were Stopped at our Door

I think one of the reasons I enjoy my grandchildren so much, and vice versa, is because they know  they won’t always get a serious answer from me. They sometimes call me “silly”, but they do so with a smile. Silly is fun.

Children will assuredly get an answer to any question they ask me (within reason). However, that answer may be weighted more on the side of creativity and fantasy than on reality.  They understand that, and delight in it. My instincts tell me that there cannot be too much fantasy during the playtime of young children.

As for my choice of an answer, it’s not at all a conscious decision to alter reality. I simply abhor an uninteresting answer, to anything.

Case in point: My five-year old found two bottles of the popular foaming adhesive, Gorilla Glue, next to our back door. “What are these for Granddaddy?” Gorilla_glueBD070901053L6_tcm10-18065

Well, the stock answer would have been that I was gluing adapter ends to some polypropylene drainage gratings, and the Gorilla Glue would hold nicely until I could embed the gratings in concrete.

But I sincerely believe that if a writer can build on a play of words, he should. In fact it’s almost an obligation of adults to pass on an appreciation of the joy of words.

So my answer to her was as follows: “I use Gorilla Glue in case gorillas come into our backyard to scare us. I’ll run out into the yard and glue their feet down.”

That answer was very well received.

“Why is one bottle white and one bottle brown?”

“Well of course the white gorilla glue is for white gorillas, and the brown is for brown gorillas.”

Silverback Gorilla at London Zoo, Wikimedia Commons
Silverback Gorilla at London Zoo, Wikimedia Commons

“Let’s go try it!” she yelled almost ecstatically.

Looking out the window I saw no gorillas, or any other animal wild or tame. “Well, I think the gorillas are hiding from us now.” Thinking like an adult, I didn’t want her to be disappointed.

“No they’re not. We’ll just pretend,” she said with a sly wink that seemed to say, You do remember how to play, don’t you?

And with that the five year old  sprinted outside, paused at a spot where the threatening gorilla hoard was standing, and squirted pretend glue on pretend feet. She was fearlessly immobilizing at least six gorillas, and by my reckoning, three were white, and three were brown, because she selected just the right bottle for the proper gorilla.

As proof of the effectiveness of her defensive strategy, no gorillas entered our house that day.

snowwhite
Snowflake the Gorilla, Wikimedia Commons

Now, to be fair to all gorillas, I do plan to take my granddaughter to the zoo one day and explain to her what an intelligent and peaceful, and threatened, species gorillas are.

And then I’ll probably explain the real reason Gorilla Glue is named as it is. Gorillas undoubtedly use it to glue their nests together so gorilla babies won’t fall out of the trees at night.

Gorilla_nest (1)
Gorilla night nest. Photo courtesy of Jefe Le Gran, Wikimedia Commons.

Makes perfect sense to me.

 

 

 

The Magic of a Perfectly Proportioned Body

running
Click on the photo to go to the source link.

I was challenged to a race by a five-year old little girl. If I was not so amazed by the outcome, I would be humiliated.

When I say little girl, I mean really little, like 38 pounds and about three and a half feet tall, with spindly arms and skinny legs. She was a little wisp of a child, and so I thought it funny that she would challenge me to a race around the yard.

After all, in my day I used to be a reasonable sprinter. I was not on a track team, but I was one of the fastest in my college gym class. My only concern was that I would have to hold back and pretend to let her beat me so she wouldn’t break down in tears. You know, pre-kindergarten kids have pretty labile emotions. They cry a lot.

As it turns out, they also laugh a lot.

 Together we chose where the race would start and end, and before I knew it she was off, giving herself about a five-yard head start before telling me to start. Fair enough I thought; the puny child deserves a head start.

The only problem was, when I started running I found I was not closing the gap. Her tiny feet, with a diminutive stride, were eating up the yard at least as fast as were my much longer legs; maybe faster. Not being a trained runner she couldn’t resist looking back at me, laughing gleefully as she continued her headlong charge. I just knew she’d trip when she looked back, but yet she didn’t stumble. If anything, the distance between us was increasing.

Apparently I’d gotten out of practice.

I saw my chance to cheat — and took it (experience counts for something). As she ran behind a car parked in the driveway, I cut through a small garden and slid between the car and house, almost bowling over her startled father.

I’m sure she was shocked when I suddenly appeared just ahead of her, but exerting her champion-like dominance of the sport, she grabbed my shirt, pulled me back and shouted forcefully, “Get behind me.”

I obeyed of course, pleased by my outwitting of a five-year old, but not really wanting to teach her that cheating pays. So I let her win.

As I bent over with my hands on my knees, panting hard, I begged for mercy when she said she wanted to race again. I wouldn’t stand a chance the second time.

Being both a biologist and a physical scientist, I have marveled at the anatomical design of young children. They are perfectly proportioned for survival. For example, they are no match for a wrestling match with older kids or adults. Their weight and muscle mass is too small, and they understand that. Yet when it comes to running away from other kids, or adults, or wild animals, they would seem to fare pretty well. The amount of muscle mass for their weight is surprisingly well balanced, resulting in an amazing ability to sprint.

I would also have to conclude that my muscle mass to body weight ratio is no longer ideal  — by a long shot. Therefore when she next challenges me to a race I may be tempted to say, “How about a game of scrabble instead?”

Would that be cheating?

 

 

 

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The birth of our first child was a moving experience. Sometimes I forget just how moving it was until I hear a song my wife and I used to sing to our infant son.

He’s grownup now, with a child who will soon herself be grown up. So much has happened in our lives and my children’s lives that it is easy to forget how young parents feel about the creation of life. But something as simple as a song can bring it back, almost as powerfully as if we were reliving it anew.

In college I picked up the guitar and probably spent more time playing it than I should have. But it was an exciting time to learn guitar music, thanks to the popularity and talent of folk singing groups like Peter, Paul and Mary. I bought and played as much of their music as I could, and well remember a live concert in Atlanta, Georgia. I was enthralled.

As it turned out, my guitar playing helped attract the attention of the girl who eventually became my wife. When our son was born, and we first laid eyes upon that child, that song, The First Time, seemed so appropriate. In fact, for us, it still does.

I’ve never heard it played for an infant, or a young child, but it is entirely fitting with the exception of one word. (We sang, “Kissed your face” instead of “kissed your mouth”).

By the time our son was born, there were two popular versions, the Peter, Paul and Mary version of the Scottish original, and the fabulous Roberta Flack version. Both of those versions are made available here.

If you have a baby on the way, or a young child at home, listen to the lyrics and the melody and see if you don’t agree with us that this music evokes an emotion difficult to express in any other way.

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[youtube id=”Go9aks4aujM” w=”600″ h=”500″]

 

 

 

Is Your Local Ball Pit Safe for Children?

http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bestand:Ballpit.jpg

I sat on the edge of a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheeses, calipers in hand, measuring the diameters of a random sampling of plastic balls within the pit.

I suppose I stood out, an officious looking adult wielding a precision instrument in a place designed for fun. So much so that a father attending his child asked me what I was doing.

I was measuring the ball sizes. I explained that if the balls were too small, and a child became covered with them, then the void space around the balls, the contorted empty volumes that represented places where air can be exchanged, would be too small, making breathing difficult. That made sense to the father, and he seemed pleased that I was looking after his child’s safety.

A child is almost completely covered by balls. A single hand is sticking out, and part of a face can be seen.

Contrary to the way it seemed, I was not a corporate inspector for Chuck E. Cheeses. I was also not a government inspector. But I was curious, gaining information for ideas I was developing about the breathing resistance imposed by particles of various sizes. I was acting, as it were, as a free lance scientist investigating flow through porous beds.

Consider the circumstance where a person is forced to breathe through a mass of balls, as in the illustration below. You can see, better than in the case of the ball pit, that if the balls become too small, or smaller balls fill in the void spaces between larger balls, then the person would be at risk for suffocation.

copyright John R. Clarke.

Advertisements for balls sold for ball pits point out the safety advantage of larger balls for children under age 3. The smaller children are obviously more susceptible to tunneling deeper into a pit of balls, some which may piled to two feet or deeper depths.

Balls of 3.1 in. diameter are touted as being ideal for three-year olds, whereas other popular sizes [2.5 in. (65 mm), 2.75 in. (70 mm)] are not. The 3.1 in. ball is almost twice as large, in terms of actual volume, as the 2.5 in. ball.

Click to enlarge.

A problem awaits a child if the ball pit has poorly sorted ball sizes, especially a mixture of larger and small balls. As shown in the figure to the right, well sorted balls provide a porosity (airspace for breathing) of over 32%, whereas a mixture with balls fitting into the void spaces between larger balls can reduce void space down to about 12%. That would not be a good plan for a ball pit.

It also is not a good plan for the Namib mole.

The Namib Golden Mole is found in one region of Namibia because of the peculiar characteristics of the sand in that area. The sand grains are surprisingly homogeneous in size, and as the illustration to the right shows, similarly sized particles have a relatively large porosity. For the mole that means that when they burrow deep into the sand to escape blistering noon day heat, they will not suffocate. They can breathe through the sand.

If the sand were of mixed grain sizes, which is more typical of sand dunes, then porosity would be low and the mole would not be able to burrow deep enough to avoid the African heat without suffocating.

So, quite unexpectedly there is a connection between the uniform size of plastic balls in a ball pit and the survival of a mole in a far away African desert.

You never know where scientific curiosity will lead you.

As will be shown in an upcoming blog post, the topic of breathing through porosities in packed beds is relevant to diving with rebreathers, or breathing through chemical absorbent cartridges in gas masks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dictation Software – Not for Kids

Contributed by Dragon Boy to http://the-dragon.info/

We have a new game at our house. It’s called, “See What Dragon Speaking Does with the Diction of a Four-Year-Old.”

It’s endlessly entertaining.

It’s my son’s doing, really. I was complaining about how unhealthy it was sitting at a keyboard for seemingly endless hours writing, rather than getting up and moving around. I was considering putting my computer on a treadmill and walking while writing. His response was clever; use dictation software while walking.

That was an idea well worth considering. Fortunately my phone allowed me to download a free copy of Dragon Speaking, and I started experimenting with it. It’s amazingly accurate, and inserts commas, quotation marks and other punctuation as requested by the speaker. It works well with my wife and I, but when our four-year-old granddaughter visited, I learned something about Dragon Speaking that I had not known. It’s not for children.

There is apparently something about pre-schooler speech that the software is not programmed to handle. For instance, “I want an Oreo” became “I want to pick her up”. “I want a doggy” was transcribed as “I can like key time.” “I speak English very good (sic)” became “I ain’t English family game.”

Really?

It seems that the four-year-old spoke better English than the dragon did.

It was pretty weird watching a smart phone write “ain’t” with the proper punctuation for a very improper word. But of course if I were writing a novel about real people, that word would undoubtedly come up quite often, sad to say.

Nevertheless, my initial surprise spurred me on to a semi-scientific study of the phenomenon. (Some might call it a pseudo-scientific study, but the word pseudo is a considerable slur for a scientist, so I ain’t using it.) My plan was to speak a sentence into the phone to confirm that Dragon Speaking would correctly interpret it, then my granddaughter would say the same thing. The results were hilarious.

Under the “Actual” column, below, are my words as translated into text on my phone. The only error, if you could called it that, is when I meant “Sidney” it spelled “Cydni” which is of course identical from a phonics perspective. Under the “Transcribed” column we have the software’s interpretation of the four-year-old’s speech.

Actual                                                             Transcribed

I love flowers.                                                 I laugh laugh.

I like Hello Kitty.                                            I like Atlanta can’t.

Feed me cookies.                                            Can’t are you.

Give me pancakes.                                         Call me home.

I like Cydni (sic) the giraffe.                        Are you guys don’t.

I like school.                                                    or my school

You like the sky.                                              You bye.

I like Octopus.                                                  or I can

And one of the most complete but inexplicable translations:

Daddy is here to pick me up.                         Are you feeling Okay?

A preschooler using an iPhone.

No sentences were included in this listing if we adults did not understand completely what the child was saying. Apparently our brains are much better at interpreting kid-speak than are Dragon brains.

In case you haven’t been around a four-year-old recently, this is what PBS Parents Child Development Tracker has to say about the speech of four-year-olds. “The language skills of four-year-olds expand rapidly. They begin communicating in complex and compound sentences, have very few pronunciation errors and expand their vocabularies daily.”

In other words, four-year-olds may speak with a child’s accent, if you will, but their speech is well-developed in both content and complexity.

Mind you, this posting is not intended in any way as a slight towards the producers of Dragon Naturally Speaking. I have, after all, the free iPhone version of the software. Perhaps if I weren’t too cheap to pay, I might discover that the full version of the software does a better job, and in my judgement even the free version is brilliant. Nor am I poking fun at the speech of children. What I am doing is pointing out a free way to keep your child or grandchild entertained. They seem to find it every bit as amusing as I do.

My granddaughter simply says, laughing, “Silly phone”.