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.