“Daddy, Up in The Sky”
By Jackie Bong-Wright
Last Time Father and Son Waved Good-bye
“Daddy, up in the sky” said 4 year-old An, pointing his finger upward. “His balloons for my birthday in new house next week,” An continued. He was running around the house holding a bunch of half depleted balloons his father had bought for him, and waving the American flag with the other hand. His father, Khang Nguyen, 41, was the only Vietnamese to die on the fatal day of September 11, when American Airlines 77 crashed into the Pentagon like a fireball from the sky. It left only the ashes of Khang Nguyen and the two hundred other heroes who perished for their country in the attack.
Wearing a military jacket with patches depicting American flags and logos that his father had bought for him at the Pentagon mall, An was still expecting his father to celebrate his birthday when the family moves into its new house in Fair Oaks, Virginia, next week.
An pointed out photos of his father sitting next to him with signs of Happy Birthday number 2 and number 3, but number 4 was nowhere to be seen. His mother, Tu Nguyen, was too distraught to celebrate his fourth birthday. She murmured with sadness that she was not going to enjoy the new house they had dreamed of together. Their dream was coming true a week too late. “What am I going to do in that cold empty house without him?” she asked.
Tu said that the day of the crash, while she was seeing off An at the school bus in front of the house, Khang suddenly ran out and waved to his son. He called out for An to say good bye to daddy while the bus was driving away, a gesture he had never made before. Was it a presentiment, Tu wondered? It was the last time father and son would see each other. Now, An was still waiting for his father to come home and play with him. Together, they were to have opened the books and video games lying silently in a corner of the living room that his father had bought in advance for his birthday. An did not yet realize that his father was gone forever.
Surviving in a Free Country
Tu recounted that she came to the U.S. with her parents and two sisters in 1986 as refugees. The five of them worked in a shop assembling computer boards for two years before she went on to study English and to graduate with a computer sciences degree. She then married Khang, an electrical engineer, who was a systems administrator for a private contractor to the Navy. He went to work each day at the Pentagon, and had just moved two weeks before to the newly-renovated Navy C wing. Tu herself was also working for the Department of Defense, at the Defense Information Systems Agency.
A week before the attack took place, Tu had had a car accident, and her car was completely smashed. Fortunately, she suffered only light burns, bruises, chest pain, and soreness. Although she was still in therapy, she went back to her office on the fateful Tuesday: too much work had piled up the days she was absent.
During that day, Tu tried to call her husband at the Pentagon, but it was impossible to contact him. In the evening, when he did not come home, she thought that he must be caught in traffic. That night, she went from one hospital to another looking for him. Different Pentagon staff people called her during the night, but had no clear information.
It was when Tu went to the Pentagon the following day and saw the huge mound of smoke and rubble where her husband’s office had been, that she knew he could not have survived. This was confirmed by the Pentagon that afternoon when Khang’s name appeared on the list of over a hundred missing people. Tu learned that any remains would be sent to Dover Air Force base in Delaware for identification. She was asked for dental records. Khang’s mother was asked for blood for a DNA test.
The shock of Khang’s death, coupled with the pain from the car accident, kept Tu in tears the first few days. Now, she felt totally numb, without any feeling. She was also confused at times. She had found herself talking to her husband the other day, she said, trembling with emotion. She realized that she
had become a widow at 38, with a 4-year-old boy.
Fortunately, she is not alone. She moved in with her parents, who along with her sisters and extended family, are taking good care of her and An around the clock.
Ready to Defend the U.S. Flag
What to do next? Her first duty was to go to the Buddhist temple for a memorial service for Khang. Some friends suggested that she then go back to Vietnam to avoid danger and seek safety. Would she? Never, she declared. Having lived under the Vietnamese Communists for 12 years, Tu remembered that her family and other South Vietnamese non-Communists were treated very badly, especially during the years her father had been put in prison. She was so grateful to the U.S. for providing her and her family the chance to live in peace. And if America went to war with the terrorists, she choked, she was ready to fight in whatever way she could to defend the U.S. flag as long as the struggle did not involve harming innocent people or become merely a vehicle for vengeance.
Tu would continue to work hard for the U.S., she said, now her first country and no longer her adopted land. Her husband’s sacrifice for the United States had given her a new and stronger bond with all Americans. She looked now at the flag with a different eye and more meaning than before. She also wanted to participate more actively in civic endeavors and to play a role in the human rights and social causes the U.S. espoused. She would call upon Vietnamese Americans to register to vote and do their duty as well as exercise their rights. She said that Khang had hoped that their son would volunteer to serve in the army when he grew up, both to benefit from the discipline and also to show gratitude towards his country of birth. To honor Khang, she wanted to continue life in that same spirit.