When Saigon fell to the communists in April 1975, Quoc Pham's mother tried to protect the South Vietnamese naval officer by burning all of his uniforms in front of the family's home before the North Vietnamese arrived.
Soon there was a string of bonfires down the street as other families did the same.
Retribution found Quoc and his neighbors anyway.
Quoc spent years in the Reeducation Camps of Vietnam, nearly dying of starvation and illness before he managed to escape and pilot a boat through the South China Sea into the shipping lanes. He and his young son, Hung (Tom), along with 53 other Vietnamese boat people, were rescued.
Quoc was one of nearly 2 million interned in the camps. Countless people left behind also suffered deprivation and death from 1975 to 1985 in what the South Vietnamese still call "The Ten Dark Years."
"The World Looked Away: Vietnam After The War," by Dave Bushy, (Archway Publishing, $25.99, ISBN: 978-1-4808-5236-5) is Quoc's detailed account of what happened to him and others after those last gut-wrenching photos of South Vietnamese people dangling from helicopters in a desperate effort to escape as the Americans evacuated and the communist victors raced toward Saigon.
In a telephone interview from California, Quoc says he decided to tell his story for himself but also for the thousands of others who experienced it as well -- some of whom did not live to speak out and some immigrants who find it too painful or face a language barrier when talking with their grandchildren.
Quoc says he thought the book might be a little too intense for his 11-year-old grandson, but his daughter let him read it. Her son had been asking why he looked different from his American classmates and why his family had immigrated.
"If you relate something, it will bring up the bad memory ... but I wanted to tell the world how we were treated by the victors in the war. They treated us worse than animals," says Quoc, who describes in the book how guards intent on humiliation would let the water buffalo use the local watering hole first so prisoners later had to bath in muddy, soiled water.
As an author, Bushy knows to stay out of the way and let Quoc's story unfold as he lives it once again in the telling. If there is a need for clarification, Bushy does it with footnotes at book's end. The book, self-published with Archway Publishing, also has an index and a list of Vietnamese names of people who appear in the pages.
The result of this approach is a stunning immediacy, as if the clock were turned back.
Readers are in the little house watching Quoc and his wife of five years, Kim-Cuong, agonize over whether he should leave his family and flee the country to avoid retribution. We are there in the Long Khanh re-education camp when Quoc first sees a fellow prisoner forced into a Conex storage container for trying to escape. It took four guards to wedge him in.
You may have to set the book down for a little break after reading Quoc's vividly detailed account of removing the stingers and then eating live scorpions because they offered lifesaving protein to starving prisoners.
But we also see the miracles, such as when a struggling Kim-Cuong managed to send a bottle of potassium tablets that her husband had requested in a rare note. As lifetime friends and lovers, they tried not to worry each other: he never told her he would have died without the mineral; she never told him the new regime had confiscated nearly all of the family's assets. She, their children, his parents and other relatives were slowly starving.
Quoc's story emerged in 3 1/2 years of conversations in video calls from Quoc's home in the Little Saigon section of Santa Ana, California, or in person at meetings near the Eastham home Bushy shares with his wife, and sometimes book editor, Lisa.
"He laid it out in a very sequential way. He became the master storyteller," Bushy says.
A pilot who had been chief operating officer at Cape Air and then worked for JetBlue before becoming a coach for executives, Bushy had no experience writing a book and never expected to write one.
Here's how it happened:
Hung, who now goes by Tom Pham, decided to be a mariner like his father, Quoc, and his grandfather, Xuong. He graduated from Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 1994 and returned to work there. As he got to know his new boss, Capt.Tom Bushy, Pham talked about his life. Bushy, then vice president of the academy's marine operations, was fascinated and thought others would be too. He immediately thought of his twin brother, Dave, to pen the story.
"To me, it was divine providence that brought us together. My brother was the instrument of that," the author says.
Massachusetts Maritime Academy president, Rear Adm. Francis X. McDonald, arranged to have Quoc, Tom Pham, author Dave Bushy and retired T.S. Kennedy Capt. Tom Bushy visit the campus at 1 p.m. Thursday for a public talk and book signing. (At 1 p.m. Friday, the group will visit Titcomb's Bookshop in East Sandwich.)
"This powerful story has a wonderful connection to Massachusetts Maritime Academy," McDonald says. "It's a story that really hasn't been told. The American side of the story has been very well-documented, right up to the pull-out, but I haven't seen much about what happened afterward."
Bushy, 47, says of Quoc, 72, whom he now considers a friend and confidante, "He's a very genuine person, and he transcended the difficulties he went through. He found faith and he found hope and he found a new life. I think part of the reason he told his story is to let other people know anything is possible with hope and faith."
-- Find Gwenn Friss on Twitter: @dailyrecipeCCT ___
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