I stopped to get a haircut today, but not at my normal barber.
There were a number of errands I had to run before leaving town for a couple of weeks, so I pulled into this strip mall where I’d previously seen a sign for a barber shop. I was relieved to see that there was nobody waiting for a haircut. Stepping inside, I noticed the area for the barber chairs was separated by a partition. Several people were gathered behind the partition that were of Asian descent. A man, who looked to be the patriarch of this group, motioned me to a chair.
I was feeling real good about this decision to stop and get my ears lowered at this barbershop since it meant I would be done quickly and could move on to my other errands. As I was settling into the chair, my eye caught a faded picture on the partition. What I saw caused me to pop back out of the chair to inspect this picture more closely. It showed two Huey helicopter gunships that looked a lot like the ones we used in Vietnam. Next to the picture was a certificate announcing the person so named had successfully graduated from military flight school. The barber stood behind me, patiently waiting. He then said in a quiet voice, “Vietnam.” I turned, looking at him, and said, “Are you Vietnamese?” He nodded yes.
As I returned to the barber chair we began a discussion. I mentioned I’d been in Da Nang working on F4s (Phantoms) and A6s (Intruders). I learned that this man had been a captain in the South Vietnamese Air Force. As I suspected from the picture, he flew the Huey gunships. These birds are one of the workhorse helicopters used extensively throughout the Vietnam War. Gunships are an armed aircraft (in this case a helicopter) which is used to support troops and provide fire cover. It is not an assignment for the faint of heart. Usually these birds had a .50 caliber machine gun that provided the fire power. Thus – a “gun” ship.
Having gained this bit of knowledge, I knew I was dealing with more than a refugee who had managed to escape to the United States. I asked him how he managed to get to the U.S. He said that he and his family escaped South Vietnam in 1976, a year after the fall of Saigon. He was, once again, a captain, only this time he was the captain of a small ship designed for the water. He, his family and others crowded onto the small boat and set sail. On the second day out, they were attacked by pirates who boarded their craft and forced them to give up all their valuables. They were fortunate. Many “boat people” attempting to escape Vietnam perished on the high seas. After four days and nights of sailing across the China Sea, they arrived in Indonesia. He went to work there to earn money so he and his family could apply for entry into the United States.
It was apparent that he is very proud of his children. I asked if they attended school in America. He assured they had and they had all graduated from college. He spoke softly, in halting English, causing me to have to listen very carefully. As I absorbed this man’s story, I could only imagine what manner of horrors and hardships he and his loved ones had endured in order to escape the clutches of Communist Vietnam. They simply wanted to make a better life for themselves and their children. No price too high; no sacrifice too great; no hardship too daunting.
Being as he had been a military man, I knew he’d know how to give me the right kind of haircut. After I paid him, I shook his hand and said, “My name’s Chuck.” He said, “Tao.” “Well, Tao,” I replied, “It may be thirty years late, but ‘Welcome to America!’”
He looked at me for several seconds through misty eyes. It was just one of those special moments that life offers you sometimes. As we looked at each other, it struck me that here were two men, born and raised in two uniquely different parts of the world, and yet we had a common bond that men share that have fought together. As I turned to leave, I squeezed his shoulder and said, “Thanks.”
Why did I say thanks? I thought about that as I climbed into my car. On the surface, of course, I was thanking him for the haircut. But the meaning of that thanks went much deeper. I thanked him because we had, without knowing it, served together for the cause of freedom. I was also thanking him because his life was an inspiration of perseverance and fortitude. And, I was thanking him for reassuring my belief that America is still the great beacon of freedom in a world that seems to have gone mad.
God bless America!