The last time I saw my father Jack Spackman, known here for literary purposes as the Big Baxter, was December 2002 in San Francisco. It was a turbulent time in US history, the country still reeling from the attack on the World Trade Centre and Fox News relentlessly banging the drum for war against Iraq. While Americans were focused on a new conflict I was reminded of one of their old ones, thanks to an old one-eyed Vietnamese man I sat next to on the flight over.
I wasn’t thinking about war or terror as I boarded the EVA flight from Brisbane. I was humming about flowers in my hair and looking forward to seeing my dad for the first time in five years.
On the second interminable leg of the journey from Taipei I was joined by the Vietnamese man, one-eyed and with a really ugly old scar down his face.
I don’t think he’d ever flown before and he certainly had no concept of personal space – to the extent that he would put his drink down on my little table, a crime which increases in severity exponentially with the length of the journey.
He was very friendly and we spent a lot of time nodding and grinning at each other, in spite of the intrusion. As an Australian I was a bit conscious that it could well have been one of my lot that did for his eye, so what was a bit of table territory grabbing after all?
The entente cordiale was tested when he fell asleep and his head dropped comfortably on to my shoulder but we sorted it out peaceably.
It was when we approached San Francisco that the trouble began. He simply did not know what to do with the immigration card. He spoke no English. Gestures were failing. I called the stewardess.
She spoke no Vietnamese. He spoke no Mandarin. The only relevant French I knew went something along the lines of “Monsieur Bertillon. Il est douaniere. Il travaille a Orly, le grand aeroport de Paris,” which didn’t seem worth contributing. Eventually she found a passenger who could help and that seemed to be the end of it.
Until we were heading through the gates at San Francisco, queuing patiently to prove that we weren’t terrorists. There were a couple of marines standing by ready to shoot us in case we were, when my friend ignored the queue and blithely barrelled past us all.
There was the ominous sound of a weapon being cocked and a little boy marine, his voice cracking slightly, telling him to stop right there, sir.
I’ve never had the slightest faith in the American military to bring a cool head to any situation and I’d have thought my old Vietnamese mate would be similarly cautious, no doubt having had more experience than I in these matters.
My own impression was formed one night in the back bar of the Godown in the basement of Sutherland House in Hong Kong when an American sailor got more than a little agitated at a couple of questions about his ship, parked in full view in the harbour.
“Well how do you know it’s a US ship? Why are you so interested in how many guns it’s got? If you keep asking me these sensitive questions I’m going to have to call the military police.”
Silly young pup. American ships had been pulling up in Hong Kong’s harbour all through my childhood and we always knew of their arrival well in advance.
Not by ringing the US Consulate of course, which regarded the information as ‘Top Secret,’ but by heading to Wanchai where just about every bar and tattoo parlour had a blackboard planted outside it with lists of all the American warships expected in port over the next two weeks, and a warm welcome to all who sailed in them.
But it’s one thing to brush off a paranoid young defender of the free in a Hong Kong bar on a Friday night, quite another to confront him on home soil during a full terror alert.
My Vietnamese friend just grinned and nodded and waved his passport in a friendly manner while soldier boy got more and more panicky until his mate came over to add his expertise to the situation.
I felt responsible. This was my table buddy after all. So I went over and grabbed his arm, told the soldiers he didn’t speak any English and was fine, I’d look after him. I steered him back to the queue, the pair of us grinning and nodding and gesturing the whole time.
When we got through to the meet and greet there was no sign of my dad but out of the corner of my eye I saw my buddy put his bag down in the middle of the crowded floor and head off into the yonder.
‘Oh crap,’ I thought, ‘he’s going to set off a bomb scare now.’ I hovered around his bag until he returned, told him not to leave his bag unattended (in what I hoped were internationally recognised gestures) and then thought, ‘Hang on, I haven’t seen my dad for five years.
‘What am I doing putting all this energy into some weird old guy when I’ve got a weird old guy of my own to worry about?’
I walked off to a spot as far as away as possible and waited for my dad, resisting the temptation to keep checking on a fellow stranger in this strange land. I hope he got away okay. In his favour, he was yesterday’s enemy. Americans were gearing up for a new fight.