I glanced in my side-view mirror as a line of police cars and motorcycles tore by me, filling in the left turn lanes as they wove across the wide lanes of Imperial Highway, and a loudspeaker command “Pull off the street, pull off the street now”, filled the cab of my camper truck.
My heart skipped a few beats as I looked in my rear view mirror at the backs of the two men sitting stiffly on their haunches inside the camper shell.
I pulled to the curb, and once again heard, “Pull off the street.” I glanced at Ahn sitting next to me. She was faced forward and motionless.
Before we could blink, the figures of two armed guards, with rifles pointed, filled the side windows. I rolled down the window and said, “Wh-what do you want?”
“We told you to pull off the street.” “Why didn’t you follow orders?”
“I didn’t understand what you meant.”
I could see the back door of the cab lift up and two more men with rifles pointed at the men inside who had automatically raised their arms. Just as quickly as they came the men retreated while barking one last order to, “Pull around the corner.” I finally understood and complied.
We parked around the corner and I quickly ran to the back and lifted the door. Tran and Thanh, the brothers of Ahn sat like statues. Their hands hugging their knees and their eyes rounded and still. I said, “Are you okay?” When they didn’t answer I knew they weren’t going to. I closed the back door and we left for work at a construction site a few miles away.
Neither Ahn, nor her brothers spoke the rest of the day. They worked like robots and ate their lunches with heads bowed.
I left them at their doorstep after work, but didn’t go in as I normally would to greet the rest of the family. I waved and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” They nodded.
I heard on the evening news that Mondale had come to town with a motorcade. He was there to visit L.A., because he was going to run for the office of the President of the United States. I think most of us have forgotten about you already Walter, except those of us who were traumatized by your pompous entry. Next time, please take a cab.
The two brothers and the sister who worked for me were also friends of mine. Our church had sponsored them in the early 1980’s, after living in Camp Pendleton California after they fled Vietnam during the Communist takeover in 1975.
I was asked to volunteer to help the family adapt to California culture. The entire extended family all lived in a two-bedroom apartment. There were three brothers, a sister, and sister-in-law, the mother and father, and grandparents. One of the brothers was married to the sister-in-law and they had a one year old baby. So, ten people in one household.
The oldest brother was the cook and he would invite me over when they had barbecues. That was definitely the best Vietnamese food I have ever tasted. Barbecued meat thinly sliced and tender that was wrapped in mint and then lettuce leaves and served with savory bowls of noodles. They laughed at my attempts to sit on the chair on my haunches and slurp the noodles directly into my mouth.
When we went to work at a construction site the brothers, Tran and Thanh, would gather scraps of wood to make furniture for the family. They made me a very intricate table with an attached display shelf from the wood. I kept it for many years.
I took Tran and Ahn to a mall one day. Tran wore shorts and Ahn wore long black pants and they both wore flip-flops. They walked with hands clasped lightly behind their backs. They didn’t enter the shops, but instead stayed close to the rails away from the shops and just glanced sideways with eyes wide as they walked past.
One day Tran asked me to go with him to the laundromat. He brought the families clothes in a drawstring bag. He asked me how to use the machines.
“You put your clothes in the machine, then you put the soap in the slot for soap and it mixes in when the machine turns. The last thing you do is put your coins in the coin slot and push it in.”
He looked puzzled. “You put water in. You wash like this.” He held a piece of clothing up and rubbed it together.
“Oh no, you let the machine wash them. The agitator swishes them around in the soap.”
I knew how difficult it was assimilating into a culture that was so different then theirs but I think understanding how we spoke was the biggest hurdle. They were fast learners and good friends. Eventually they moved to an area where many other Vietnamese had settled.