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|Publisher:||Tyndale House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Kim Phuc Phan Thi travels to hundreds of events every year around the world. She has received numerous awards and recognitions for her commitment to global peace and reconciliation. These include six honorary doctorates for her work in supporting child victims of war around the world through the nonprofit organization KIM-Foundation International. Kim and her husband, Toan, have two grown sons, Thomas and Stephen, and live in the Toronto area.
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TRANG BANG, VIETNAM
WAR? WHAT WAR?
I am a girl of eight, skipping home at the end of a typical school day, having completed the kilometer-long trek with a few other village kids and, on occasion, my brother — Number 5. In large families such as ours, numbers are easier to remember than names. I am Number 6. We make our way along the dirt path that has been carved through the overgrown fields, our progress only interrupted by a heavy-burdened cow being driven by a farmer eager to get his bundles of fresh vegetables or grain to town, or by a rich man seated high atop a motorbike, eager to remind the rest of us of his wealth.
As I emerge from the dense canopy of trees and set foot onto the giant cement patio that my father poured with his own two hands, I marvel at how much of the ground is covered. Such a thing is a rarity in my village and a not-so-subtle declaration that we, too, have found wealth. I am thinking nothing of weapons systems and strategic advances, of tactical zones and attempts to seize, of the Easter Offensive and waning United States support, anything even remotely related to war, save for my persisting curiosity over those distinctive tire-tread sandal prints my grandma points out some mornings. Viet Cong fighters have made yet another middle-of-the-night raid through my family's property, most likely in search of rations — bandages and medicines, I am told, or else rice or soap.
It was always at night that they came, creeping about the jungle in their black pajamas, silently avoiding South Vietnam's gaze. They would emerge from the elaborate tangle of underground tunnels they had dug in order to obtain supplies or to deliver verdicts to local villagers who had refused to comply with their demands. "We have a message for you to deliver," they would say to my eldest sibling, Loan (Number 2), on many an occasion. (There never is a "Number 1" in South Vietnamese families. We are a quirky bunch, I agree.) Loan — Hai, we called her — had been trained as a schoolteacher and was one of the few literates among most of the adults in our area, thus making her a prime puppet for the conveyance of dissident decrees. Her allegiance, of course, was to the South, but she knew better than to stand her ground. She valued life, as we all did. With resolve summoned, she would clear her throat and read the decree.
"You are hereby informed that, as penalty for failure to assist Viet Cong's efforts in this, our civil war, you shall suffer imminent death," she would be forced to say to one neighbor or another. I cannot imagine having to choke those words out, but my sister did.
Because of the pavement surrounding our home, my brothers and sisters and I would head over to Grandma's house, a five-minute walk away, to take in the fresh prints. She and Grandpa still had a dirt perimeter around their house, and oh, the imprints we could see. "Look! Look there!" my ba ngoai would implore us, pointing at the muddy, rutted ground.
My siblings and I — there were eight of us total, nine if you count dear Tai who died as a little baby — would ooh and ahh in wonder, the mythology ever expanding in our minds surrounding these warriors from our beloved South Vietnam homeland who had had the audacity to join forces with armies from the North. I imagined massive armies of soldiers having traipsed through in the dead of night, even though, in reality, it may have been a small band of eight or ten.
Of course, we kids were merely playing off of the adults' explanations and reactions to all goings-on related to war, for only my very oldest siblings Loan and Ngoc had any context for such things. Our enthusiasm for the discussion waned as quickly as it was stirred. After all, who had time for talk of battlefields and air strikes when there were games to play, books to read, and a tangle of guava trees to climb? How I miss those beloved trees.
During my growing-up years, to step onto my family's property was to enter a charming countryside paradise, a refuge brimming with sufficiency and splendor. Whenever my closest friend, Hanh, walked home from school with me, I would drop my book bag at the gated entrance, scale like an energetic monkey one of the forty-two guava trees that outlined our home's perimeter, select two of the plumpest, ripest guavas from the citrine clusters dotting the limbs, and sink my teeth into the first while tossing the second down to Hanh. We both would giggle in satisfied delight as guava juice trickled down our chins. Literally, my name, Kim Phuc (pronounced "fook"), means "golden happiness," and that is exactly how life was — bright, cheerful, holding unparalleled value. I loved my days and my years. (The "Phan Thi" portion reflects my family's surname, and in my homeland, that "last" name actually comes "first." For years, I did indeed go by "Phan Thi Kim Phuc," eventually shifting to the current construction to simplify things for Western audiences.)
My parents — Nu and Tung are their names — raised more than one hundred pigs at a time, selling piglets off as they matured, and on any given afternoon, chickens, ducks, swans, dogs, and cats roamed the two-plus-acre grounds with those pigs, as though the lot of them owned the place. In addition to the guava trees, we grew bananas, and I distinctly remember multiple occasions when my siblings and I would gorge on an entire bunch as soon as they were ripe, for the simple reason that they were there and we were hungry. There were coconut trees and durian fruit trees, and the grapefruits we grew were as big as my head and sweeter than any I have tasted since. Nearly every night my mother brought us surplus vegetables, chicken, and rice from her noodle shop in town, served with a side of fresh fruit. We ate well every day, like the royalty I believed we were.
In actuality, "royalty" would not be a fitting description of the life my family and I lived, but relative to our surroundings, we were well off, indeed. I attribute our former status to the back-breaking labor of my ma. Even before my parents were married, my father could not help but notice Ma's delicious noodle soup. In 1951, soon after their wedding, an idea was hatched.
"Your soup is so good that I believe people will pay you to eat it," my father told my ma, who was all too eager to put his theory to the test. She quickly gathered her small mud oven and the necessary ingredients — pork and anchovies, spices and herbs, vegetables, noodles she made by hand — and squatted rent-free in front of a kind local storeowner's shop, her vat of soup ready to dish out.
By the time my parents had saved up enough money to move out of my grandparents' home and purchase a place for themselves, Ma was able to stop squatting in the market and rent a soup stall, complete with tables and stools. She had an official sign that hung above the modest structure: Chao Long Thanh Tung, it read, which referenced both her specialty — chao long, the pork-and-rice porridge Ma used as her soup's base — and her husband, Tung. Business began to boom.
Within seven years, Ma was able to purchase not only her stall, but the two stalls that flanked hers. She increased seating capacity to eighty people, she replaced bamboo furniture with carved wood, and she capitalized on the era's influx of American soldiers, all hungry, as it seemed, for good soup. To keep up with demand, my ma would rise long before dawn, often after only two or three hours' sleep. She would silently slip out the back door, careful not to wake her snoring children, and she would make her way by fire lamp to the market to purchase ingredients for the day's soup.
She would return home late in the afternoon or in the early-evening hours, tend to the chores of our farm, manage the business side of her shop, see to it that the family's laundry was done, and then put us children to bed. Indeed, Ma was busy every moment of every day, but even in the spare seconds of deep night, when she would allow me to cuddle into her side as she at last lay down for sleep, my emotional well would be filled to overflowing. She was safety and security for her adoring little girl.
My father was also a wonderful cook who prepared food on handmade barbecue grills he formed out of mud. He'd fuel them with charcoal and kindling, and then lay white fish that he had caught on top, searing them to absolute perfection. While the fish was sizzling, he would toss whatever vegetables were available into a stir-fry pan, making even our most meager meals possess a special flair. While my dad was a tender man and a gentle disciplinarian, my relationship with him lacked intimacy, owing to his prioritizing Ma's increasingly profitable noodle shop and the juggling of both Viet Cong and South Vietnamese soldiers' demands over frivolities such as playing with one's children. As a wealthy member of our village, warriors looked to him to supply even more of their needs, which was a daily burden for my dad. His goal for his family was survival, one which, miraculously, he achieved.
My great-uncle lived with our family and took care of us kids when Ma and Dad were gone. On sunny days, I would head for the book nook I had created in the trees, where I would devour pages from Te Thien Dai Thanh — in English, The Monkey King. At mealtimes Great-Uncle would holler my nickname — My, meaning "beautiful," which had been bestowed on me by my grandmother — in order to pull me away from my book and to the lunch table, where rice and grilled fish awaited. But rather than making my whereabouts known to him, I would just grin there in my secret reading spot, sinking deeper into the pages I held. When Ma came home from work, she would scold me for having refused food all afternoon long, even as, unbeknownst to her, I had made meals of fresh, delicious fruit most days in my treetop perch.
When I did leave my book nook, it was generally for mischief. Between the two houses that sat on the property — a large entertaining house, as well as my family's smaller-structured residence — was a cement courtyard connecting them. It was a lovely, relaxing place, and often my great-uncle would doze off there in the hammock for an hour or two following lunch.
A favorite pastime of mine was waiting until he was deep in sleep, evidenced by his rhythmic snoring, and then sneaking up next to him with a pouch of salt and a spoon in hand. I would load up that spoon to overflowing, pour the entire sum into his open mouth, and then run off as fast as my legs could carry me, screaming delightedly with every step. "My! My!" he would holler behind me, his restful nap having been disrupted once again. "Myyyyyy!"
On especially sweltering days, Great-Uncle slept in the hammock without a shirt on. Number 5 and I would hunt down a tube, pour very cold water into it, and then slowly drip it into the sleeping man's belly button. More shrieking. More chasing. More fun.
Eventually the heat would be tempered by violent rainstorms that were prone to erupting without notice, and each time those welcome drops fell, my siblings and friends and I would rush to the cement courtyard in our bare feet, wait for the slab to be completely wet, and then hydroplane around and around and around, laughing hysterically with each lap. My childhood was everything a childhood should be: carefree, cherished, whimsical, provisioned, enjoyable, abundant, alive. I could not possibly have known that all of that would change, and in the blink of an eye.
As spring gave way to summer in 1972, the war in Vietnam regained some of the momentum it had lost following the Tet Offensive, a major military turning point four years prior. Back then, in the spring of 1968, communist forces had attacked the American embassy in our capital city of Saigon, which enraged both US and South Vietnamese leaders alike. I was only five years old at the time and did not know that these events had unfolded or what they meant for my family and me. The significance of Tet would reveal itself years later, when retribution was leveled in my hometown. For now, in my protective bubble, the war was "over there," far, far away from here, and thus far away from me.
If I had been paying closer attention, I would have recognized that my family was beginning to receive more and more guests across those late-winter and early-spring months. I called our visitors "forest people," for they always arrived from the heavily treed area to the northeast of our village, the mountain region that was proving to be a perfect hideout for Viet Cong rebels. I had never seen the forest people's villages myself, but as I got older I would come to understand that as the war stretched farther toward the Cambodian border, additional families were being forced on the run as refugees, their homes having been destroyed by bombs.
As a young child, I did not know the reason these people were surfacing; I knew only that my ma and dad would take them in, give them small plots of land on our property to call their own, serve them home-cooked meals of pork and cassava, of sweet potatoes and organic fruit. Our guests were provided a sturdy stepping-stone for a time — weeks, or sometimes months — on their journey toward wherever they were headed next.
The cause of the forest people's heartache was a military initiative called the Easter Offensive, which occurred in March 1972 and saw communism advance to within one hundred kilometers of Saigon. They were serious about unifying Vietnam under their political system, and regardless of how many troops it cost them to reach their goal, they were prepared to pay that price. "You will kill ten of our men, and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it," revolutionary communist leader Ho Chi Minh had said to his opponents nearly three decades prior — a battle cry that rebel fighters still embraced.
I did not understand these things at the time, but my parents certainly did. Did they know that there would be fire and terror, agony and death to suffer? They did not. But they knew that trouble was brewing. And they feared that it was coming for us.
The morning of June 6, 1972, I woke while it was still dark outside to my ma's voice urgently whispering my name. "My! My!" she said. "Come, we must leave."
That's strange. Ma is always gone by now to tend her noodle shop. "Why have you not gone already?" I asked her through the fog of unfinished sleep, to which she said, "Shh, My! Quiet. You must ask nothing, child."
I would later learn that the Viet Cong had been at my house all night. Their troops, malnourished and disheveled though they were, had arrived just after midnight, intent on occupying my family's home for the purpose of digging further tunnels that would position them closer to the main road. At the sight of them en masse, no longer a stray band of rebels here or there, my ma knew that our village was now unsafe. But where to take her family? Immediately, she thought of our temple, just on the outskirts of the village. It was close enough to allow her access to our home, in the event that she could return to care for our animals or gather up additional possessions, but far enough away to hopefully ensure safety until the war passed.
Excerpted from "Fire Road"
Copyright © 2017 Kim Phuc Phan Thi.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: War, and Peace vii
Map of Indochina, including North and South Vietnam and surrounding countries x
Prologue: In Pursuit of Smooth Skin xiii
Part I A Body Ablaze
Chapter 1 War? What War? 3
Chapter 2 Soldier's Orders 25
Chapter 3 "Too Hot! Too Hot!" 27
Chapter 4 The View from Inside the Morgue 33
Chapter 5 Alive, If Not Completely Well 41
Chapter 6 The Curse Called Different 49
Chapter 7 Getting Out 59
Chapter 8 The End of War, at Last 67
Chapter 9 Beginning Again 71
Chapter 10 Leaving, for Good 81
Part II A Life Exploited
Chapter 11 Hot News 89
Chapter 12 No More 95
Chapter 13 Going to My New God 109
Chapter 14 Perils Left and Right 117
Chapter 15 Help When I Needed It Most 125
Chapter 16 Beloved Bac Dong 131
Chapter 17 An Unwelcome Tangent 137
Chapter 18 Nothing Left for Me Here 149
Chapter 19 This Is Progress? 155
Part III A Peace Pursued
Chapter 20 The Honeymoon Is Over 175
Chapter 21 Miracle upon Miracle 181
Chapter 22 Go, God, Go 195
Chapter 23 Forsaking All Fear 203
Chapter 24 Eight Pounds of Perfect 209
Chapter 25 He Makes a Way 217
Chapter 26 A Time to Forgive 225
Part IV A Story Redeemed
Chapter 27 Reunited 239
Chapter 28 Protected All Along 261
Chapter 29 More Pain to Get to Less 279
Chapter 30 Baring My Scars 291
Chapter 31 Peace at Last 299
Epilogue: Holding Fast to Hope 305
About the Author 317