Father and son are lost to each other for decades, the only clue to finding each other in the postmark of an aged letter between lovers.
1972 Sgt. Maj. James A. Miller II
There was nothing like it - the cavernous feeling in his heart. 42-year-old Sgt. Maj. James A. Miller II of the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army dragged all of his five foot 9 inch two hundred and some pound frame out of the small bar. A short distance from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport, James stopped outside the bar and just listened. The airport hummed with arriving and departing planes. There was no absence of sounds from the crowded street in front of the bar where dozens of bicycles bounded around speeding Vespas and pedestrians in the morning commute. If only the cacophony could erase his friends' words which echoed over and over again in his ears. Try as he might, he could not make the words go away.
“Your wife and son, they die already. So sorry, my friend.”
It was not the answer James wanted to hear after a long day of running around. Stationed in Nha Trang and Pleiku, James had begged a short trip to Saigon to track down his wife, Phan Kim Chi, and their son, Nhật Tùng. Married on May 21st in 1967, the two had lost touch when he had to return to America to nurse an injury he received during the Tết Offensive. Once he arrived in Saigon, he had gone straight to the house on Hai Bà Trưng street only to find the house empty. Then he had wandered all over Saigon trying to find anyone who could possibly know the whereabouts of his wife and son. His last stop was a small bar in the outskirts of the airport where he questioned a mutual friend.
The darkness in his heart expanded, enfolding him in grief. With his unshed tears bursting inside his chest, James held his breath and closed his eyes as the heat of the midday sun beat down on him, reddening the back of his neck, each cutting blade of sunlight prickling him, filling him with a pain so deep he didn’t think he had a tweezer long enough to ever dislodge it.
1967 to 1990 - Jimmy
He was their Christmas gift. Born December 25th in 1967, Jimmy’s mother, Kim and his father, James, had adored him. From birth, Jimmy’s anglicized features, his square jaw, his strong hooded eyes, and his lighter complexion drew the attention of Vietnamese children and adults. Jimmy, himself, had no awareness of how different he was until he attended school.
Kids pointed at him. They made fun of him, called him names.
It didn’t matter that he was at the top of his class, it didn’t matter how hard he worked, harvesting and selling seafood and vegetables at the market for his family, it didn’t matter that he was a quiet and thoughtful boy.
“Go back to your country,” they said, “You’re not part of us.’”
Jimmy was lucky. He had his mother. He had his grandmother. And he had his mother’s husband, his step-father. They all loved him, treating him no different than his younger brother and sister. But the words still hurt. His difference was hard to hide. Standing at 5’11”, he towered over everyone and no amount of slouching could change this.
With his angular good looks, his hooded dreamy eyes, and his chestnut brown hair, Jimmy had no problem convincing the U.S. consular officer in the late 1980s that he was the son of an American. He even whipped out a picture of his father that he carried in his pocket to prove it. The picture was taken on his parents’ wedding day. Once placed in his wallet, he has never removed it.
Under the Amerasian Homecoming Act, Jimmy arrived in the United States at the age of 22 in 1990 with his family with nothing more than lint in his pockets and a life-long dream of one day meeting his father.
Upon arrival, he contacted the Red Cross. He handed them the dog-eared picture and his father’s name and information. The Red Cross merely shrugged their shoulders, barely putting any effort into a search. They relieved themselves of the responsibility the minute Jimmy posed the question, no doubt assuming for both parties that the young American who had picked up a Vietnamese “girlfriend” while on tour probably wanted nothing to do with his offspring.
The Red Cross claimed, “There are too many men by the same name.” With a long road ahead of him to earn his American credentials (a G.E.D. and citizenship status) and a job so he could help support his family in their new country, Jimmy secured his dream somewhere between his heart and his soul.
1994 Sgt. Maj. James A. Miller II
James sat with a heart so heavy he could hardly stand to carry it around with him inside his chest. How many times had his heart been hurt over and over again throughout his life? Beside him, Nancy sat, the two of them on a rickety wooden swing that could benefit from a few sprays of lubricant oil, their heads meeting, forming a heart in the space between their necks, a space filled by James’ son, James A. Miller, Jr. II. It had only been several months since James had laid to rest his son from his first wife, a woman he was married to before he met Kim in Vietnam. At 35-years-old, James Jr. had lost his battle with AIDS.
The North Carolina air was humid, water weighing as much in the air as in the corners of his eyes. They gazed at the horizon as fireflies made their descent from the trees and between the grass blades where they had sheltered from the blistering sun. James retold memories with Nancy of his early years with his son - when he was in diapers, then later, the growing pains, the awkward teenage years. James laughed, he cried and Nancy comforted him.
The phone rang. It broke their reverie. James took a breath before moving to answer the phone.
Never one for small talk, right after James’ “Hello,” Trinh blurted out: "Are you my brother's father?"
James blinked in confusion. "Excuse me?" he asked.
"Are you my brother's father?" Trinh repeated, “I found you from a letter you sent to my mother in 1969.”
James exhaled. He couldn’t even picture the envelope let alone the letter he had penned in 1969 when he was 42 years old to his first wife, Kim.
Somehow, this young girl had held onto the letter all these years. Did that mean Kim was alive? Did that mean…?
He had sent it out from North Carolina on January 24th of 1969. Who knows when Kim had actually received it. He felt astounded. Mail to Vietnam during the war had been notoriously slow. He and Kim had written to each other while he was in the States recovering from an injury. Kim’s letters had taken two months to arrive at his doorstep. It seemed, sometimes, that his letters to Kim took an eternity to get to her. He never knew for sure if she actually ever received them. He often sent a copy to his friend and another one to Kim - just in case her letter got lost.
He had cherished the pictures Kim included with every letter of his son, Nhật, who was growing swiftly with every letter.
I am glad to see that Nhat Trung is a very big boy and he is a very handsome fellow. He is also very fat. He eats too much like his daddy. His mother is very beautiful. More beautiful now than when I was in Vietnam,” he had written.
Trinh, barely 17 years old, had been determined to surprise her sensitive 27-year-old eldest brother with an unforgettable wedding gift. She had spied him fishing out the decades old picture of his mother and his father on their wedding day from his wallet where the picture was always stored. Sometimes it seemed as if Nhật was trying to conjure his father just by staring at the picture.
That picture, in and of itself, was a miracle. When the Communist regime had swept through Vietnam, their mother, afraid that the Communist would massacre anyone connected to Americans, lit a match to everything - photos, papers, pictures. The things she couldn’t bear to destroy, the wedding pictures, the wedding invitations, pictures of them dancing together, their mother had carefully arranged in a photo album that she wrapped in plastic and buried, a time capsule to be uncovered in a future that was less threatening. But none of the items had provided Nhật and Trinh with an actual address for James.
The inspiration to search for James sparked in Trinh’s head when she started working for the library. A student at Shadle Park High School and a junior librarian, Trinh had gazed amazed at the amount of information at her fingertips for anyone that had a library card. Trinh ’s finger shook with power as she scrolled through all the names of library card holders, their addresses, their phone numbers available to her with a simple keystroke.
Excited and hoping for the best, Trinh investigated all of the letters that their mother had kept from the enigmatic “James A. Miller.” There was only one letter that was still in its original envelope. Trinh turned the letter over and over in her hand. Though the envelope had their mother’s address in Vietnam, there was no return address, only a postmark from Fairview, North Carolina.
Holding her breath, Trinh reached out to the local library in the city of the postmark: Fayetteville, North Carolina and cross-checked the library’s information with numbers she scrounged from the yellow pages. Within a short period of time, she was able to find one “James Arthur Miller” in Fairview, North Carolina.
“Here’s his phone number. We live in Spokane, Washington,” Trinh said to James at the end of their call.
Spokane? James felt surreal. For the past 22 years, he had carried the loss of Kim and Nhật like a silent anvil dragging at his feet, rooting his heart to his darkest days, the loss haunting him, stabbing him with an unrelenting remorse.
James turned to Nancy, wonder in his eyes.
“What?” she asked, brushing the soft blond wisps that had swept across the tears in her eyes.
“My son, Jimmy, is alive!!!” James declared. Nancy couldn’t help but smile at the brightness in her husband’s face. She had never seen him or any man look quite that happy. He almost looked like an inflated helium balloon that was about to fly away if she didn’t catch him.
“What are you talking about?” It took James about 10 minutes to recap the entire conversation to Nancy. He threw in a few tidbits about Kim and how devastated he had been when he believed them to be dead. Nancy connected with Jimmy’s story immediately. She too had a similar path as Jimmy having been the daughter of an American serviceman who had rendezvoused with her German mother. She had never known her father.
James took a deep breath, brushed back his hair and straightened his shirt as if his son could see him through the telephone line. Then he sat down and dialed the Spokane number.
1994 - Jimmy
Trinh hung up the phone, her heart pounding and she dialed her brother’s phone number.
“Promise me you won’t go out today,” Trinh said.
“Why? I have a lot of things to do,” Jimmy teased her.
“A long lost friend is going to contact you.”
“What ‘long-lost-friend?” Jimmy asked, running memories of childhood friends through his mind.
“Just wait by the phone,” Trinh said. Jimmy shrugged, hung up the phone, and putted around the house finishing random chores and preparing for his upcoming wedding to his girlfriend, Quyen. Ever since he had set his wedding date, his younger sister, Trinh, had been adamant that she was going to give him a gift he would never forget. He had a light chuckle about it and shrugged. It was enough for him that his family was safe and happy and in his life. He had forgotten all about Trinh’s proclamation.
Distracted by household chores, he had also almost forgotten his promise by the time the phone rang.
“Nhat Trung?” a man said on the line. Jimmy scoffed at the mispronunciation of his name.
American accents always placed too much lightness on the “a” of his name, failing to give it the hard punch that the Vietnamese tonal mark demanded. And the caller had added an extra “r” to his middle name.
“I’m sorry sir, you have the wrong number,” Jimmy said. Though he mostly went by “Jimmy,” his official records were still in his Vietnamese name. Being plagued by telemarketers who butchered his name was a common nuisance. Jimmy promptly hung up.
On the other line, James shook for just a second, partially from excitement, partially from fear, once again, that maybe…he shouldn’t get his hopes up. James dialed the number again. This time, he tried another tactic. He flooded Jimmy with questions.
“I want to talk to Jimmy,” James said, sounding a bit more rushed than he wanted to.
“This is Jimmy.”
“Your mother's name is Kim, right?" James asked.
“Yes,” Jimmy said, hesitating, still wondering why the telemarketer was so persistent.
"Your uncle is Marseille?”
“Is your aunt Phương Dung, the famous singer?"
It was Jimmy’s turn to be confused. Not many people knew so much about his family, especially about his aunt who was a popular country music singer when he was just a toddler. His aunt had been busy most of his life raising her eight children in Australia. Who was this stranger on the other line who knew so much about his family? He wondered.
James caught his breath, pausing, not sure how he should phrase his next words. Then he just dove right in. Better just to come out with it.
"Jimmy," he said, "I have something to tell you. I am your dad."
Jimmy was stunned.
And skeptical. He asked the older James to send him a photo of himself. James followed up the picture by trucking himself and Nancy in a camper from Fairview, North Carolina to Spokane to deliver himself to Jimmy.
The day James was scheduled to arrive, Jimmy paced around the house, and wiped the dinner table for the third time. He was anxious and excited all at once, unable to contain himself. James and Nancy lumbered through Washington State, Nancy in the passenger seat with a map of the state, her finger tracing the line of the highway while James drove.
They had driven several days, stopping off for a few hours at a time to sleep and nap, trying their best to bridge the distance between two far away points on the map and in time. James pulled off the highway when he knew he was closing in on Spokane to ring Jimmy.
Jumping into his car, Jimmy drove to the gas station near his house where he resumed some more pacing. A part of him was still skeptical, still wondering if this man was truly his father.
When James’s long camper pulled into the gas station and James hopped out of his car, Jimmy beheld the man whose face he had carried with him for 27 years. There was no doubt the minute he saw James that he was looking at his father.
James was older, a little bit more gray, a few more pounds around his belly, but still the same man in all of the pictures that Jimmy had poured over all of his life. The soft angles of his face were the same, the square mouthed smile, the broad forehead of the Irish. James recognized himself immediately in the young man standing before him.
Both men were speechless.
James took a tentative step towards Jimmy, Nancy close behind him while Jimmy leapt across the gas station towards his father, his height lending him wide strides towards the man he had waited for his entire life.
The moment they were within arms reach, James pulled Jimmy into an embrace. Neither one of them had words. They just held each other. Silent. Speechless, their grip on each other so tight neither one of them could hardly breath.
Finally, Jimmy broke the silence.
“I missed you,” he said, “I love you, dad.” Jimmy was surprised that the word didn’t even sound awkward when he said it. It had been the first time he had ever said it to a person. All his life he had only used the word to reference a man who was nothing more than a frozen image to him.
“I love you too,” James said, choking.
For the next ten days, James and Nancy visited with the family and Jimmy dragged his father all around Washington, taking them sight-seeing around Spokane’s humble tourist spots.
By then, Trinh, who was very self-congratulatory at her feat of reuniting the two men, had gone onto Washington State University. Jimmy took James and Nancy on a two hour road trip to see Trinh. The drive gave the two men time to reconnect.
James shared stories about Vietnam.
“I went looking for you,” he said, shaking his head, “they told me you and your mom were dead.”
It was a story James had already shared with him in a letter, but Jimmy listened anyway. It was a memory that had haunted James for decades, that still seemed to pluck at him, filling him with regret. Underneath the retelling of the story, his words echoed with “if only I had found you then.”
The Tet Offensive had hit 100 cities in Vietnam a few months shy of a year after his wedding to Kim. The war that had been isolated in a smattering of warzones became localized as the Communist staged attacks throughout South Vietnam, some contained in a matter of hours while others raged on for months. In the maelstrom of it all, James had been injured and medevaced back to the United States to recover. The unreliability of communication systems between Vietnam and the United States resulted in the family becoming separated from one another. By the time James had been able to return to Vietnam in 1971, nearly two years later, he had ran into countless obstacles trying to find Kim and his son.
October 10, 1994 - Jimmy
It was a simple thing. A short letter, a signature, a notary. Then it was done. The DNA was not enough, the 5 foot 11 inch frame that had always made him stand out was not enough - not even the soft brown eyes that misted in the morning sun. It would only feel complete if he carried his father’s name too. He would become the fourth man to carry some rendition of the name - “James Arthur Miller.” The first and third were men he’d never met - his grandfather and his half-brother. Four men, all tied together. Nhật, now “Jimmy Arthur Miller,” would be reminded of his father everytime someone said his name.
They did it during one of James' trips as he crossed the country several times for the next two years to spend time with Jimmy. Jimmy examined the notarized letter proudly, eager for the next steps that many Americans found mundane, changing the name on his driver’s license and other legal documents.
“You should be a U.S. citizen from birth!” James declared one day, eager to advocate for his son. It had taken Jimmy five years since his arrival to finally get his citizenship. Passing the U.S. citizenship test was the last step of many that started with the moment Jimmy had cracked open the G.E.D. study guide when he first arrived to the United States.
“I went and spoke to a lawyer,” James continued.
Jimmy chuckled, “Dad,” he said, pausing, enjoying how easily the word rolled out of his mouth. So few Amerasians would ever have the opportunity to call any man their father.
“I don’t want to be U.S. president, so don’t worry about it,” he laughed.
September, 1995 to September, 1996 - James
When Jimmy welcomed his first born, Justin, a year later in September of 1994, James, once again, traveled across the country to stay with the family for a month. In those thirty days, James and Jimmy spent as much time together as they could as James commuted back and forth between his hotel room and Jimmy’s house.
A year later, James made the trek again to celebrate Justin’s first birthday. James was present when Justin took his first steps. Jimmy felt his heart swell as he watched his father swoon over his son’s wobbly steps, his fingers snapping picture after picture of his grandson.