Updated: Nov 21, 2019
By Elizabeth Gracen:
If you're just joining this story, please start here with Part 1
If I Only Had Tom's Courage
The next stop along the Yellow Brick Road to the Hollywood Bowl was for a fresh manicure and ruby-red fingernails from an immaculate nail salon that I had spotted earlier in the week. The owners, Tom and his wife, Hannah, greeted me with the typical, "Hello, pick a color," banter employed at most salons, and as I sat down with Tom we quickly fell into small talk and danced around the topics of religion and politics as he took my hand and began to work his magic on my scraggly nails. However, within minutes I found myself, quite unexpectedly falling into a deeper conversation about a land far, far away—Vietnam.
I can’t remember how it started exactly, but Tom, a devout Catholic, slowly unfolded his past and told me that he had journeyed from Vietnam in a boat to land on the shores of the Philippines in 1989 to escape religious persecution. Along with almost a million other refugees, boat people such as Tom had left their country by any means possible between 1975 and 1995 because of severe economic sanctions and governmental policies. Many of them, somewhere between 200,000–400,000 did not survive the journey. As Tom painstakingly applied my red gel polish, he recounted the clandestine planning necessary to secure passage from Vietnam—hiding clothes, food, water, and money in various locations.
There was money paid to a handful of people he didn’t know and absolutely had to trust for fuel, the boat, travel, navigation—plus a fee to land ashore on the other side. The boat was crammed full with thirty ever-praying, ever-crying passengers, who begged and pleaded with their weeping captain to stay the course despite his moans to return to his homeland within hours of their moonless departure. There had been a leak in the plastic water sack, and they had to clean out a fuel bag to save what water they could. Tom lightly squeezed my hand and winced as he remembered the horrible, gasoline-tinged water that could have killed them.
Running out of food, they had rationed what was left, along with the water. They were in constant fear of falling asleep and tumbling overboard. There was unbearable seasickness and lack of sanitary options and a horrific thunderstorm they watched approach before it soaked them to the bone and rocked their tiny boat to near capsizing. But most of all, Tom recalled the total blackness and the overwhelming dread of being utterly alone in the vast ocean for six days and nights with no sign of land and a relentless sun. Their tiny compass in a bowl of water kept them on course until the stars provided guidance at night. Tom’s eyes lit up when he recalled their joy at the first sight of land. His voice went quiet as he told me of the gunshots fired by the Filipino military that kept them at bay and offshore upon their arrival. There was the internment camp and Tom’s yearlong role as a translator, and finally . . . his chance to come to America.
His wife, Hannah, escaped Vietnam shortly after Tom arrived in the Philippines. They were friends for many months before they both realized that Tom was not a priest, and Hannah was not a nun. They could be together! Finally, there was their trip to America where they have made a lovely life as hard-working, compassionate citizens of the United States since 1994.
A captive audience, tears in my eyes, I hugged Tom when he finished. I thanked him and told him how much I admired his bravery and determination. He was more than a survivor; he was the courageous hero of his own story. Tom just smiled, his eyes brimming with tears as he held up my hands to show me my glossy apple-red nails.
To Be Continued . . .