An Unforgettable Birthday
A birthday is usually a happy occasion to celebrate, but for me it is a day that I always want to forget, because I left my birth country on my twentieth birthday.
I had planned a big party to celebrate my birthday to make up for the year before, as I was busy studying for my graduation examination, an important examination that I had to pass if I wanted to go on to college. My birthday celebration would have been a reunion for all my old high school friends and we would have had a good time.
I did not have a chance to celebrate my birthday because we had to leave the country. In March 1975, the American government decided to withdraw from the Vietnam War, a war that costs them many lives and much money. U.S. military forces were ordered to return home. My father was working as an Area Specialist in an intelligence unit directly under American advisors. Before my father’s commanders left the country, they assured my father that he would be taken to the States because the nature of his work, but they could not tell my father exactly when, so we just had to be ready at anytime.
We left our house a day before my birthday. I still can remember it clearly as if it had just happened yesterday. It was late in the afternoon. My mother and I were in the kitchen preparing dinner. Suddenly, we heard brakes screeching in front of the driveway so I went out to check. My father rushed in; his chauffeur was still in the jeep. He told us that the situation was getting serious and his office was evacuated today. He was to report to the headquarters immediately. Before he got to the door, the phone rang. A man on the line asked for my father so I handed him the phone. I did not hear what the person at the other end said, but my father replied, “Yes, Danny, training center, in fifteen minutes.” Then my father turned to my mother and me, “It is time.” I saw my mother’s tears running down her face. I jumped upstairs to get my younger brother and sisters. It was time for us to leave.
My father took the driver’s seat. His chauffeur quietly sat in front passenger seat, holding my brother on his lap. My mother, my sisters and I squeezed into the back of the jeep. My father drove so fast that he passed most of the red lights along the way; policeman just looked on, because my father’s jeep carried a special license plate.
We got to the meeting point just before the front gate was locked. Danny, one of my father’s advisors, was waiting impatiently in front of the gate. He yelled at my father when he saw us, “Hurry, pick up your papers, the buses are leaving.” My father jumped out of the jeep, followed Danny inside the processing center. A few minutes later, my father came back out with the documents (our passports to the States). My father gave the keys to his chauffeur and held the man’s hands really tight. They both tried to hold back their tears. His chauffeur had been with my father for a long time and now they had to separate. The chauffeur shook my father’s hands, “Good luck, Mr. Ly, remember to come back.” My father replied, “I will. If you could, find a way to get out of here.”
Danny rushed us to the bus. Along the way, he explained why we were going with him today. He was supposed to leave last week with other advisors in the compound but he had to wait for his wife, Kim, to persuade her mother to go with them. When he reported to the headquarters this morning he got the bad news about the office and received the order to wait for my family.
We left the meeting point by the back gate. We were on our way to the airport. The buses passed through all familiar roads I had known. I looked out the tinted window to see if I could find any changes in my dear city. I wondered if anyone noticed that we were leaving the country. But my heart was broken to see people around us still calmly minding their own business. They seemed to ignore these humongous buses full of people that were passing by.
We got inside the airport by the back gate, adjacent with the air force base. We would be leaving on a military aircraft. The last plane had taken off just an hour ago, so we would have to wait for the next trip in the morning. That night, I could hear the bombs and the rockets roaring from far away. People around me whispered that people from “the other side” were just fifty miles north of the airport and our armed forces were fighting hard to stop them. The airport was one of the targets for the bombing, as people from “the other side” were trying to disable all transportation means. We were all anxious about the news, some people even talked about leaving the airport to go back home. I could not sleep the whole night.
An ugly, dark-green hunter colored, military plane came to pick up our group early the next morning. We were boarding through the back doors of the plane. Danny had priority because he was the only American officer in the group, and his wife was pregnant and almost due. We came along with Danny so we were able to board the plane before others and I was able to find a seat next to a window. There were about thirty seats along both sides of the plane. No chairs in the middle, so people got on the plane after us had to sit on the floor. However, nobody dared to complain, as this was already a great opportunity to get out of the war zone early.
Looking at the plane full of people, I started to worry. I was so scared. I was about to leave my country, a place I was born and raised in. I was going to a strange place and did not know what would happen. I had just finished high school, entering in to college; I had no skills and did not even speak the new language. My brother and sisters were younger than I. My mother was simply a housewife and my father was the only means of support, but he was getting old. What can we do at the new place? I looked at my father, and he looked at me. I felt like he was murmuring: “I know you are scared, and I am too, but you know what my job was. I cannot stay. Nobody can live with the Communists. So many people lost their lives and properties to them in 1954 when they took over the North. We have to leave. America is a promising land; hopefully we will have a better chance there.”
I could feel that the plane slowly taxied out to the runway. I looked out the window and all the buildings were moving backward. It was chilling; I was leaving my country, on my birthday and did not know if I would ever come back. Then the plane jerked, and we were lifted above the ground. I looked around the plane and everybody burst out crying.
Mai Ly (1976)