My memory began when I was ten. The year was 1978.
School was out. It was the beginning of summer vacation. It was a peculiar day that day. My mom called us in to have dinner. I was reluctant from having to wrench myself from a game I was playing with the neighborhood kids. What game? That I couldn’t remember. I think it was “it”—as in “Tag! You’re it!”
I grudgingly came inside and took a quick bite—literally one bite—of the fish fillet that mom had made. Until this day, I wish I had eaten that meal completely, down to the last morsel. I regretted not having done so. It is the one thing in my life that I can definitely say I regret not having done when I had the chance. It was the last meal I had that my mother cooked. I did not have another from her until four years later.
I ran back outside to rejoin the other kids. Before I was able to avoid being “it” by challenging the “it” kid to a dual of Paper-Scissors-Hammer, one of my older brothers called us back. He announced we were going to the beach for ice cream.
Now, if there was anything in a Vietnamese kid’s life that would be better than life itself, this was it: ice cream. One does not just casually “go have ice cream.” It is more rare than a blue moon, and more cherished than any toy imaginable. One drops everything at the sound of “ice cream,” and nothing else matters.
What was more exciting and odd at the same time was that we had to dress up, put on proper clothes and sandals (I normally didn’t wear any. No respectable kid would wear sandals—the platform callus under his feet served the purpose). But, hey, it’s ice cream. I would do anything for ice cream.
Nha Trang was reputed for its beaches. Rightly so. I used to walk along the coast to get to my grandparents’ house. It was a more circuitous route to kill time, or to avoid a mandatory noon nap. Whatever unknown reasons it was for little boys to want to meander, I loved taking that route. I was always fascinated and awed by the relentless waves. When the ocean wasn’t angry, the pristinely calm and clear water was luring. I used to wonder at the life beneath the surface. I was also afraid of it. It seemed deceptively shallow, but I knew better. It was deep, very deep and swallowing.
So to the beach the family went. And, yes indeed, ice cream we had. It was beyond good. I can still taste that memory every time I have a French vanilla scoop with a sprinkling of nuts on top. I don’t remember whether I had a cone or a cup. I never got that far.
I was so engrossed with this rare treat that everything around me was nonexistent. My little nimble tongue darted back and forth, savoring every lick. I did realize though that we were taking a stroll on the beach in smaller groups. We were intentionally divided. It wasn’t the usual casual stroll with the whole family together. I was with an older brother and a couple of siblings around my age. It’s funny that I have no recollection of which siblings with whom I was grouped.
Our stroll was purposely being steered closer to the edge of the ocean. I playfully skirted the fuzzy line where the water met up with the sand. I pretended to keep my feet dry as I kept an eye on the fizzy foam in the evening light, nimbly avoiding the waves.
Time was irrelevant for me. I wasn’t sure how long, but I felt it wasn’t long. There were some dots missing in my connection as to what occurred next. When reality returned, I no longer had my ice cream. Suddenly someone with much strength and force grabbed me by the collar of my fresh shirt. I was lifted from the ground and hurled onto a hard surface. The sound of the impact of my body hitting it was familiar. I landed in a reclining position, facing down. This change of ground under my feet was jarring, and it smelled familiar. I know it. It was wood and it was the indelible smell of seawater and oil, seeped in by the years of hot subtropical sun.
Another reality hit. It was like a game I used to play with myself. While standing at the bus terminal across the street from my house, I would plug both ears with my index fingers. With quick, repetitive in-out movement of my hands, I can hear a discordant aural reality. This was what I was experiencing, and my hands were nowhere near my ears. There was clamor all around me as more sounds of hollow thumps were heard, sounds made by bodies hitting against the wood surface.
“Keep quiet! Keep quiet! Stay down! Everybody quiet!” A low frantic but commanding voice ordered. I knew the person. I knew to take his order seriously.
I withdrew. I lay motionless and silent. I felt someone landed next to me. I stared up at the dark space in heaven. The few stars that were out didn’t comfort me. I felt small. I felt uneasy by the unsteady surface under me. Then I felt more scared of the ocean. I was snapped back to reality…
“Go! We have to go! They’ve uncovered us! They’re coming!” Someone shouted. “Go, now!” He ordered. The hollow thumps stopped, replaced by the sound of the roaring engine.