The Press-Telegram

Sunday

Long Beach, California - February 28, 1999

Tom Hennessy
Staff Columnist

Linh Vo: Walking, talking Vietnam memorial

DOWNEY - CALIFORNIA

After school, the boy would run to the place near his house where helicopters took off and landed. One of the American pilots befriended the boy. "He would give me money to buy us Coca-Cola and tell me to keep the change. He wanted to share his loneliness. I know that now." Linh Duy Vo thought it discourteous for a child to call a GI by his name. So he dubbed the pilot "Papa-san." It was fitting. The pilot had become something of a stand-in for Vo's Vietnamese father. "The war had taken away my father. He was never at home." One afternoon, the pilot was not at the accustomed place. Seeing Vo's puzzled look, another pilot made a shooting noise and pretended to fall. The message was clear. Papa-san was dead. "I went home and buried that news inside me. He had been like my father. He had loved me." The war rumbled on. There were other Papa-sans. Hundreds of thousands of Papa-sans. And in time Vo came to call them by a different name. He called them "Daddy".

. . . . Sitting in the living room of his Downey home, Vo dispenses mostly conservative viewpoints in whirlwind doses; now moralizing over Clinton's indiscretions, now damning the Westminster merchant, now praising his heroes, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the Americans who fought in Vietnam, the ones he collectively calls "Daddy".

"I owe my life to the American who gave me his. I love him no less than my birth father. Every five years, I try to go to the Vietnam Wall in Washington. This is my pilgrimage. I do it for those who gave their lives for me. My American Vietnam vet Daddy is on The Wall - more than 58,000 names. Each name is a flower. I have named the flower 'Honor'."

Poet in a new land

When Vo arrived in California on May 2, 1975, the day after the fall of Saigon, the U.S. acquired a budding poet. (A lab technician at Downey's Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center, Vo, 42, also dabbles in art and sculpture.)

"When I get up suddenly at three a.m., my wife knows I am writing poetry." (He and Monique have three children, Tammy, Tan and Trung.)

Vo's signature poem, "Dear Daddy," was written by him in 1987. One verse reads: "He came to Vietnam from America/Where the Statue of Liberty stands/Helping the South stop the North/From stealing the precious piece of lands."

While that may not ring with the meter of, say, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Vo's poetry nevertheless touches veterans of the Vietnam War. When Bob Caldwell of Williams, near Sacramento, died last fall, a copy of Vo's book of poems was buried with him. Caldwell had been a helicopter pilot in the war.

"Dear Daddy" has been displayed at the Vietnam Wall and beside the three-quarter size "Moving Wall" replica, at Washington's Smithsonian Institution, in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, and at the American Revolution battle site in Lexington, Mass. It is inscribed on a bronze tablet at a veterans museum in New York City.

(Another Vo poem, "Patriotism," is bronzed on a small monument beside the entrance to Downey's Ward Elementary School. A third, "Healing," is about the occupant of the Oval Office. The opening letters in each line spell out: William Jefferson Clinton.)

Vo has put some of his poems into a book called, appropriately, "Dear Daddy". The book recently prompted the wife of a Vietnam Vet to send Vo a note which said in part:

"My husband had a hard time reading it ... because of the emotions of the poems and the truth. He, too, was so touched by your expression of love for America. He gave up a part of his life with the loss of his leg in Vietnam, but he would proudly do it again."

Virtual brother

The Long Beach chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America has made Vo an associate member. Says chapter president Max Stewart, "I met Linh at Westminster some years ago when the Moving Wall was at the City Hall. He gave free copies of his book to Vietnam vets, and got to know a lot of our members."

The admiration is mutual. When VVA members recently demonstrated outside Tran's store, Vo E-mailed Stewart, "You appeared like a knight."

Vo creates e-mails in as prolific a fashion as he creates poems. "E-mail is my canvas," he says.

His electronic messages are the sort Nathan Hale might have sent had the Internet been around during the American Revolution. In a recent one, he said, "If I can pay back to this land with my own life, I am proud to do so without thinking twice."

Of his past in Vietnam, he says, "The memory still lingers. I lost everything. I lost even contact with my family."

But the plus side of Vo's ledger is large. "America has given me a homeland," he says. "For that I am indebted. And I will live the rest of my life honoring my Vietnam veteran, my Daddy."

 (My thanks to Tom Hennessy for his reprint permission)

                

    

 

An Excerpt

The Boy in the Poem

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