October 5, 2013
Thank you to all who are responding to the question we, along with the International Storytelling Center, are asking at their upcoming festival, October 4-6, 2013, in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Early responses are already coming in for our question:
How might the art and power of storytelling contribute to global peace and collaboration in a troubled world?
Shortly before my Pop died, I was working on a play with a Christmas theme. I’d had him over for dinner and just offhandedly asked, “Well, Pop, you got any Vietnam Christmas stories?” not expecting an answer, because he rarely talked about his three tours in Vietnam.
What happened next in the story he shared allowed me to understand the true, life-saving power of story, and how because of story, I did not become an orphan during the TET offensive, when I was born and his life was saved— all because someone knew his story.
It was November of ’67 and Pop was in Quin Hon, Vietnam. A Refrigerated ship pulled into port– the kind that holds lots of food. My dad and his buddy Bobby Noble had the task of “inspecting” the ship. They loved that job, because infractions on refrigerator ships were quickly and magically fixed with a supply of turkeys and steaks. My dad and Bobby found enough infractions to provide a feast. They didn’t bring the food back to the other guys at the base. But– it’s not as bad as you think. My dad was Catholic, and there was a Vietnamese priest there- they called him Father Paul because his real name was hard to pronounce. He spoke English, and Dad would go see him sometimes. They’d share stories about their lives, what it was like for each of them growing up. Dad showed him pictures of my mom, my sister, and talked about the upcoming birth of their new baby, which would happen pretty soon. Father Paul ran the orphanage, and my dad would often bring candy bars and other things there, and sometimes play with the kids. On this day, Pop and Bobby took the food to Father Paul at the orphanage, so the kids, who usually get nothing but rice every day, could have Christmas dinner. In fact, it was enough food for several weeks.
Dad remembers going up the hill that day, carrying the load. He would always call out to let Father Paul know not to worry, but he forgot to this day and he heard father Paul call out. “Ai do! Day la nhung gi? Who’s there? What’s this?”
Pop just shouted up to him, “Xin Chao Cha! Hi Father! It’s Magic Turkey. Give me a hand.” And Father Paul and a few of the older children began taking the boxes into the gates of the orphanage.
Father Paul of course asked, “How is your wife, and the new baby?”
“No baby yet. It’s due in a couple of weeks. Maybe it’ll be a boy this time.”
Of course, they were talking about me.
Father Paul tells him, “When you hear, you come tell me. We’ll celebrate with a steak dinner. I save this one for you.”
Pop replied, “Will do. Gotta get back to my unit. Merry Christmas.”
The orphans and Father Paul had a real feast that Christmas. A few weeks later, there was a huge Offensive by the Viet Cong. The TET Offensive. Dad’s unit was getting hit from all sides. The Viet Cong surrounded the village, even came to the orphanage gates. Father Paul held them off with nothing but a 38 caliber pistol. The Viet Cong soldiers saw him defend the children and left the orphanage alone. My dad survived the offensive. He went up the hill to check on Father Paul once fighting had let up.
Pop called up as usual, maybe not as loudly. “Xin Chao Cha?” and Father Paul appeared. “It’s good to see you safe, father. I heard you had visitors.”
Father Paul met him and said, “I held them off with pistol.”
“That rusty old thirty-eight?”
Father Paul stood firm and explained, “They will not come onto property without a fight from me. Come, I show you why.”
“I know Father, the children. I told you before, I can’t bring any of them home. I just had another baby, two weeks ago. The Red Cross couldn’t find me. Just found out today. What a world to bring a kid into, huh? So you don’t need to show me…”
Then Father Paul cut him short—“Look down hill!”
Pop said he stood speechless for a minute when he realized what he was looking at. “That’s…my unit.”
The Viet Cong thought, and dad thought, that Father Paul held off the soldiers to save the children. Father Paul knew the Viet Cong wouldn’t hurt the orphans. But he also knew that the orphanage sat on a hill with a clear view to dad’s location. The Viet Cong could have completely wiped out the platoon. My dad had been kind to the orphans. He also knew Pop had a child at home and another on the way. Father Paul wanted to return the kindness, so Pop’s children would not be orphans, too. For every small gesture of peace, a miracle happens. For every small story shared, understanding and possibility is created in this world. Because a story was shared in a far off land, in a different culture, during a time of war, I got to grow up with a mom and a dad, and two more brothers and another sister, who then gave me 20 nieces and nephews, and 3 great-nephews. I owe my family, and my father owes his life, to a story.