A man saw my name tag today and asked, Are you Lao?
I said yes and smiled
because it’s rare to meet someone who can pick out Lao names.
He said he once hired a man to do the work of 8,
who never complained and never let him down.
Another worker asked, “Why did you hire that Chinaman?”
My new friend set him straight:
“First of all, he ain’t no Chinaman. He’s from Laos.
And he fought on our side in ‘Nam, so you best show him respect.”
He told me to paint melted Vaseline on my boots (“to keep them dry”)
then asked if I had any family in America who fought in the war.
Are they still alive? Did they escape?
His tone was urgent, almost…pleading.
And then this man I didn’t know –
this man who pays my wages by paying his taxes;
who only wants to smoke cigarettes and retire in peace –
this man cannot ask me that question without his lips pursing,
drawn tight in a thin line,
as he looks past me, eyes filling with tears.
I don’t know how to respond. I finally say:
Yes. My father’s brother, but he has passed on.
And in my mind I see a picture on my family’s altar
of a man I once knew, the spitting image of my father,
so much alike that I grew up thinking it was him.
This man’s brother was a Marine, killed in Vietnam.
He said it like it happened just yesterday.
I wanted to ask him if he knew about the bombs.
The tears were almost spilling over, so I didn’t ask.
He took a puff from his cigarette and started to walk away.
He told me I was doing a great job and I,
stumbling for words, thanked him for his service.
“Oh, I never served,” he said. “I just made things for them.”
There was a deep silence in the space between us,
a heaviness in those words that tugged at my heart.
He couldn’t – wouldn’t – look at me.
I didn’t know whether to get back to work
or stand there
or offer him a hug.
He waved his cigarette hand in the air, almost dismissively,
and as he turned said, in a quieter voice,
“War is a terrible thing.”
After this encounter, I called my father and asked him about his brother, Khammoune (affectionately known to me as Loung Moune.) It turns out that three of my uncles (Khammoune, Loung Lay, and Loung Phoui) had all served in the King’s Army.
Khammoune, who had been a soldier since 1945, was a high-ranking C.I.A. informant during the Secret War in Laos. He helped them flush out the Viet Cong. He could not have known that, before the end of the war, his beloved home would be bombed more than any other country in history.
He escaped to America in 1976, the year after the monarchy fell to the Communist Pathet Lao. Loung Phoui, already living in Florida, sent for his brother. Eventually, Khammoune resettled in Colorado with his family.
The last time I saw Khammoune was in 2001, the year I graduated from high school. Mom bought me a ticket to Colorado as a graduation gift. I met some of my cousins for the first time and saw some amazing mountain landscape. But the one sight that lingers with me most is that of my uncle, my beloved Khammoune, old and stooped, watching me eat rice with steamed cabbage and spicy tomato sauce in his tiny kitchen.
I miss my childhood buddy.