When i was six i took my first airplane ride. My entire immediate family came along, as well as an older cousin. We were so excited we kept talking about the excursion for days in advance, and I could hardly sleep the night before. A white mosquito net covered my small body and blurred my half-asleep vision. Waking and turning, I tried to count the different cricket sounds through the night; their cadence rang in unison like a kinetic, unseen symphony. In the distance, faint explosions occasionally interrupted the cricket chirping but didn’t silence them. Just like the people in my neighborhood, the insects were used to war. On most nights I would sleep right through the detonations. On this night I wished I knew what the crickets were saying.
I wasn’t alone. My mother lay nearby, and my sisters slept in the same room; that’s the way it was in our country. Families lived together and slept together. Our grandparents had lived with us until they passed away in 1969, within a year of each other. But little did we know that one day the Vietnamese diaspora would sprinkle us all over the world; we would all have our own houses.
Summer vacation had begun and we were heading for the low mountains of Da Lat, some 200 miles north of Saigon, to cool off for the day. When I was growing up, we hardly ever had any family vacations, so this would be a rare treat.
Because the countryside was dangerous, especially at night, for us air travel was safer—and we knew the pilot. That day the rain came and went, washing away the red clay on the pothole-filled dirt road leading to the airport. At the airport we moved among airplanes worth millions of dollars, yet we only had to step outside the gate to see a country mired in poverty. Our driver had dropped us off near an old, yellow half-cylindrical aluminum hangar from which we watched dozens of planes taxi-ing for takeoff and landing. We weren’t at the civilian passenger terminal. We stood on the military side of Tan Son Nhut Airport, one of the busiest in the world in 1970.
We boarded a World War II–era C-47, the military version of the DC-3, a reliable, twin-engine transport. On its fuselage was the South Vietnamese national insignia, a white star on a blue disk surrounded by an outer red ring, with red and yellow side bars. A national vertical yellow flag with three red horizontal stripes was painted on its rudder. The other passengers included families of military men, some in uniform. After a quick safety briefing by a crew member, we sat quietly on the red canvas seats usually reserved for airborne troops.
As the plane lumbered down the runway and took to the air, I looked out the window while gripping my mother’s hand. She was also holding my older sister Thi, who sat on her other side. I could barely make out smoggy Saigon receding beneath the wings. Soon green rice fields and grass-roofed villages appeared. We were flying low enough to see tiny farmers and their water buffaloes dragging wooden plows. Growing up in the city, I had only seen buffaloes and fields in newspaper photographs.
After about fifteen minutes, the pilot in the left seat motioned to me to come into the cockpit. I unbuckled my belt and stumbled up the aisle, nearly tripping over the rollers on the floor. He picked me up and placed me on his lap. I could smell his signature Aqua Velva after-shave lotion and sweat. I hesitated to touch the controls even as he assured me that it was all right to steer the plane. He smiled to the copilot as I cautiously reached out and slightly pushed on the steering column.
There in front of me was our beautiful country. Tall, sharp mountains guarded deep green valleys, and the brown Mekong River wound sinuously through its delta to the sea. Large thunderclouds were scattered throughout the skies, ready to strike lightning and dump rain on those below. The plane was buffeted by the stormy air. The hazy countryside appeared so peaceful. But unbeknown to me at that age was that our people, of the north and south, had been at war for almost two decades, the two sides supported by opposing superpowers. They had to choose sides or, unfortunately for many, face the wrath of all.
The pilot was my father. He had become one of the most experienced pilots in the VNAF. He pulled out a cigarette and turned his head to the left to blow the smoke out the small, sliding cockpit window. He hoisted me up by the waist so I could see over the nose of the aircraft. It was dizzying to be staring straight down at the ground as it moved underneath us.
We landed and spent the day in Da Lat. The return trip took nearly two hours, but I could hardly wait for us to land so I could go brag to my friends. I was hooked on flying that day. It would take another twenty years before I would become like my father, soaring over the plains of Texas, serving my country as a military aviator.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Sense of Duty by Quang Pham. Copyright © 2005 by Quang X Pham. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.