Early April 1975


By Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Tuyet could not remember a time before the orphanage.

She thought that all children lived together in a building with sleeping rooms, a play area, school, and chapel. She remembered sleeping together with the older girls on a wood-slat floor, without blankets or pillows. She would wake up each morning with marks from the wood slats on her cheek.

Tuyet would clean her teeth using her finger and salt. Day and night she wore a pajama-like cotton top and drawstring pants. The nuns would give each child a newly laundered set of clothing every three days or so.

In the morning, she would line up with the other girls. One of the nuns would rip bread from a giant loaf and give a piece to each child. Her meals consisted of fish, rice, plain water. There weren’t enough chopsticks to go around, so they used their hands.

The orphanage included boys and younger children—and lots of babies. At the age of eight, Tuyet was one of the oldest. She was expected to help out with the younger ones without being asked. It was her duty, but she didn’t mind.

Tuyet would see the older boys in class, when they played together in the indoor courtyard, and at chapel three times a day. The priest who said Mass was the only man she saw in the building, except for the soldiers.

The children stayed inside at all times; it was not safe outside. Tuyet could not remember ever seeing the sky above her head.

When she heard the whop-whop-whop of helicopters, Tuyet would hide. She couldn’t remember exactly what it was that she was afraid of, but when she put her fingers to her scalp, she could feel dents. She had a large burn scar on her back and another long scar under her chin. She couldn’t remember when the injuries happened, but it must have been before the orphanage.

Tuyet remembered the big door opening and American soldiers coming in with stuffed toys, spinning tops, and hard candy. The other children would crowd around the men, competing for attention and gifts. But Tuyet would hide. She wasn’t afraid of the Americans, but she had polio. Her left ankle was so weak that she walked on her heel. In order to move forward, she had to push her left knee with her left hand. She had calluses on her knee, because she pushed it so often. She was afraid that if the soldiers saw her foot and weak leg, they would take her to the hospital. And then the doctors would cut her foot open to try to fix it.

Sometimes she played with the other children—simple games with elastics and chopsticks. The children also made a long skipping rope by joining together many elastics. With her weak foot, there was no way Tuyet would ever be able to join in such a game. She could only sit and watch as the others skipped rope.

Some of the children were mean to Tuyet. One boy would crush lit cigarettes on her leg. But there was another boy who was friendly. They would play together as often as they could.

Before school started, Tuyet and the girls would line up. The boys would line up, too. There were even some children from outside the orphanage who came to their school.

Tuyet would sit at her desk, fascinated by the inkwell and fountain pen. She would draw patterns with the ink on paper. Like the other children, Tuyet also had chalk and a slate. She could draw or write something with the chalk, then make it disappear by rubbing it with her hand or a piece of cloth. She vividly remembered using the Vietnamese alphabet, although she couldn’t remember what else she learned. When she did well in her lessons, the teacher would paste a small gold star onto her work.

In another room, Tuyet and the other children would gather around the nun who sat in a chair. They would sit on the floor and memorize Bible verses.

The nuns were not always kind. Once, during naptime, Tuyet’s eyes were still open as she played with a lock of her hair. A nun came by and told Tuyet to close her eyes and sleep. Then the nun hit her on the fingers, hard, with a bamboo stick.

The nuns would play the piano and they would sing. Tuyet loved that. She remembered one particular night they called “Christmas Eve.” She didn’t understand what Christmas was, but the nuns gave each child a bowl of special soup instead of their usual meal. The children were allowed to stay up late. The nuns set up a screen and showed them an American movie. It was in English and the children didn’t understand the words. But in one scene, a white man and woman kissed each other, and Tuyet and the others giggled in embarrassment.

Another year on that special night, each child was given an orange.


Today, there isn’t much more that Tuyet can remember about the orphanage before her life changed forever. And although she cannot remember where she came from, Tuyet does recall two visitors from outside.

“A woman would come to see me. She would bring a young boy. I would sit on her lap for a while and then they would leave. Maybe that was my mother. Maybe the boy was my brother.

“After a while, they stopped coming.”

From Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War a non-fiction story by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, published by Pajama Press in 2011. Used with permission of the publisher.

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Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s novel Making Bombs for Hitler is the winner of the 2014 Manitoba Young Readers' Choice Award. Marsha’s nineteenth book came out in August. Dance of the Banished (Pajama Press, 2014) is a World War One love story spanning two continents.