We had a productive and amazing time on a short four day trip to Texas and Oklahoma the last weekend of September. First stop was visiting Trong's brother Peter MacArthur outside Dallas, a development called Trophy Club. This part of suburban America had construction and architecture harkening early 20th century English family houses. A former priest, Peter and his lovely wife Lisa turned us on to some oversized Texas hospitality. They also have a number of "kids," who all come from different parents.
After interviewing Peter, we left early early the next morning and drove three hours north to Oklahoma City, where two more of Trong's brothers and an uncle reside. The latter, Reverend "Tony" Bao, is 95 years old and played an instrumental role in escaping with the family from Vietnam on April 30th. At one time, he spoke perfect English and French, in addition to Vietnamese. A recent teeth extraction left his English less recognizable, but the few words he spoke in that language could have fooled us. Trong remembered him as a well-spoken, tall, noble gentleman - having not seen him for probably 15 plus years -, quite different from his life now, relegated to a wheelchair in a nursing home. He still had his wits about him and could talk on endlessly.
We interviewed Trong's oldest brother Cuong, one of the most gentle persons you'll ever meet. He lives a relatively simple life, with hopes and dreams of going back to Vietnam one day and being a missionary. The Catholic blood strongly courses through the veins of many members of the Nguyen family.
After Cuong in age comes Thanh "Joseph," who we had a difficult time tracking down. Trong also hadn't seen this brother in over 10 years. Having implored his parents and siblings to reach out to Thanh, before leaving on the trip, no one could get a hold of him by mail, phone, hook, or crook. We decided to just show up at his house. After two different attempts without anyone answering the door, we luckily saw, in the backyard of his neighbor's house, an older Asian man pruning branches in a tree. Remembering that Thanh's in-laws lived next house over, we asked him if he knew whether Joseph was home. Indeed, Thanh was just sleeping he said. Sure enough, third time knocking, this time the back door, two beautiful girls and the long lost, sleepy brother came to the door and greeted us. We practically forced him into being filmed, and he was a great sport! He remembered a good amount, and also told us that his hobby was collecting Vietnamese music and movies. His daughters were so sweet and well-behaved, and we all went out for pho with them the next evening.
During the interviews with the brothers, a man named Raymond Hendrie came up several times. He was always mentioned with the deepest respect and gratitude. Hendrie was a restaurateur who was instrumental in helping the Nguyen family get on their feet when first arriving to America, by giving Trong's parents and four siblings jobs at his buffet restaurant Hendrie House. Having already planned on visiting Enid, Oklahoma, where the family first lived in the states, we agreed that it was important to also interview Mr. Hendrie. Peter had come on the little road trip with us, and was able to get in touch with Raymond, who kindly granted our wish.
On the way out to Enid, another 80 miles north of Oklahoma City, we stopped by a few antique stores and flea markets, hoping to find some vintage cowboy boots (David) or old school Air Jordans (Trong). We drove along, passing a number of fracking rigs along the way. Entering Enid, our initial stop was the first house Trong's family lived in, on Pine Street, a few blocks from the Lincoln elementary and Emerson junior high schools where the children attended.
The house was gone, and only an empty lot remained. Flanked on the right side was a new bed and breakfast, and to the right a nursing home - the same one that oldest sisten Hang "Ann" worked at during her teenage years. It felt a bit strange being in the town, 31 years later. Everything looked familiar and yet nothing seemed to carry any overbearing emotional weight, as might be expected. We drove a few streets further to West Oak street, to the brick house the family bought later on. It was still there.
The house number was no longer visible on the gabled facade, but it was instantly recognized by Trong. The brick seemed a brighter red and a white picket fence had been erected to the side, apparently the cottage next door had been purchased by the present owners and torn down to make extra yard. Trong could remember hanging out on the porch with childhood friends, and seeking shelter in the house's basement during tornado warnings.
Before seeing Mr. Hendrie, we took a random detour to the railroad tracks, having seen a large mill and terminal building from a distance. It was a fantastic abandoned area, with way too many Kodak moments and spots to speak of - and too little time to linger at. But a nice little break, nonetheless.
Mr. Hendrie no longer owned Hendrie House, which during the 1980s oil boom was a big thriving restaurant. Now he managed a more modest eatery that was attached to the Ramada Inn. Named Raymie's, the restaurant is still a family business where his wife Patty and daughter Jennifer continue to help out. The chef Elizabeth had been working for Raymond for 44 years. She and the family still keep in touch with Peter, and they fondly remember working with the Nguyen family. Raymond was exactly as everyone described, giving, honest, generous, and just an A+ human being. Among other things, he recounted how the restaurant lost some business in the mid 70's, whereby a few patrons complained of Vietnamese people working at Hendrie House. Keep in mind the war had recently ended...