I can still recall the date, May 19, 1977, because that was Ho Chi Minh’s birthday. The entire camp was taken out to the fields to clear away the elephant grass – to “compete with each other for Uncle Ho’s birthday.” The grass grew head-tall alongside the main road. As we dug up the ground with our picks, we could watch the villagers go by and see the Lambretta bus on its way from Long Khanh to Cam My and Cam Duong, south of Saigon.
I deliberately made my way to the grass right by the road where the bus passed because I knew this was the day that my wife, Thuy, was coming to see me. I had learned this the week before through a letter smuggled in a bag brought to me by friends who had come to visit the re-education camp. Campmates often used such opportunities as the working parties to meet secretly with their wives. While keeping a careful eye out for the guards, they might have a few minutes to talk with each other and pass along a little food
It was about noon then, and the sun was hot. A bus from Long Khanh stopped at the Cam Duong crossroads just in front of a small shop that sold drinks. Some of the passengers got off. Although they were a good distance away, I could make out Thuy in a brown shirt with a small basket in her hand. Even though I had known beforehand that she was coming, the feelings that rushed through me stopped me in my tracks and made me numb.
Thuy walked next to the trench dug beside the road during the war years. Her eyes searched the fields, and I knew she wouldn’t be able to pick me out from among the many men chopping grass there. I turned to look for the guards and saw one in a jungle helmet standing on a small mound overlooking the prisoners. With my pick trailing behind me, I crossed a little clearing and headed in Thuy’s direction, realizing I could not avoid notice by the guard on the hill.
When I reached a place near her, with only a short stretch of grass between us, she finally recognized me. She froze, and we simply stared at each other, too deeply touched to say or do anything, though it had been two years now that we had been separated.
A look of alarm came into her eyes. I turned around to see the guard coming down the hill. Tossing my pick aside, I ran up to Thuy, leaping into the trench below her. Thuy sat down on the edge of the highway. Her lips moved as she tried to speak. Once more she glanced fearfully up behind me.
“Here’s some food for you,” she said finally.
She pushed a burlap bag down into the trench. Then she took a package of Vam Co brand cigarettes from her pocket. One cigarette in particular she pulled out, saying very quickly, “There’s an important letter in this one. Be careful!”
I shoved the cigarettes into my pocket, asking, “How’s the girl?”
“Fine,” she nodded.
I reached up and touched her hand. “How about Mama? You okay? Try to keep going.”
“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “We’re all right. We have everything we need. My parents send us things from America. But you need to take care of yourself.”
Just then, there was a noise behind me. A friend from the labor unit whispered, “Quick! The guard!”
Thuy stood up. “I’ll come back,” she promised, moving hastily across the road back toward the crossing. I took the bag of food and was about to skip into the tall grass when I heard the guard shout.
“Get up! Give me that bag!” I stood up and carefully climbed out of the trench. The guard grabbed the bag, his eyes bulging. “Who gave you permission?”
Then he emptied out the bag before us. Two small cans and some plastic sacks with lump sugar, salt, and sesame seeds fell to the ground. Glancing around, I could see that all my friends had stopped working and were watching everything that happened. From far off, Cadre Binh, the commander of the camp guards, was running over. As soon as he reached me, he lashed out and slugged me in the face. I crumpled to the ground and received a hard kick in the ribs.
“Get up!” he barked. “Take off your clothes and empty your pockets!”
I struggled to my feet, pretending to be in great pain. As I slowly stood up, I tried to think of a way to get rid of the cigarette that Thuy had showed me. I took my time removing my shirt.
Cadre Binh turned to the guard, “See if there’s anything in the bag!” he ordered.
The guard opened the cans and dumped out their contents of dried meat, and he ripped open the bag of salt. While they were engaged in their search, I slipped the cigarette from my pocket and tossed it as far behind me as I could.
I removed my clothes and left them on the ground. Binh picked them up and checked them carefully along the hems and the pockets. He found the Vam Co cigarettes. Just then, I heard another guard call from behind me.
“Hey Binh! Look at this!”
The guard bent down to pick up the cigarette I had thrown away and which he had broken by stepping on. From inside the cigarette, he pulled out a thin piece of paper. Binh stomped over to him, snatched the paper from his hands, and read it. I grew anxious, thinking to myself, “What did Thuy write?”
Binh came back to me, his eyes wide in anger and amazement and his lips trembling furiously. Grabbing the gun from the guard, he pointed it in my chest, shouting, “You plot against the revolution?”
I thought fast. It would not have made sense for him to shoot me right then and there, so I set myself up in a defensive position.
This is a two-party story. Read Escape! Part II