Wednesday, August 08, 2007

In Praise of Famous Men

Let us now praise famous men, and their fathers that begat them - Ecclesiasticus

During our brief vacation in Florida -- where we went to see my wife’s brave sister, Sandy, recovering from a bout of cancer – we were able to reconnect with Dick D’Avanzo, an old and true friend.

Several years ago, when I was writing columns exclusively for the Journal Inquirer of Manchester, D’Avanzo had called and asked if I could come over to see a letter he had received from a young boy then in a prisoner of war camp in Thailand. The camp was full of the human detritus of the Viet Nam war. The Khmer Rouge occasionally would raid the camp, forcibly impress into service the young boys and rape the young girls.

The letters D’Avanzo had received were written by a boy whose family had made it from killing fields, across the perilous Mekong River, into one of the border camps. The letters were, in the precise sense of the term, pitiful, all of them written in English in longhand with a pen on rough paper.

The boy was just then entering his teens. He and his family, tradesmen before the area became prey to rival communist states, had been middle class entrepreneurs. The whole family spoke English speckled with a French accent, in addition to several other foreign languages. The family had been robbed, dispossessed and sent to a reeducation camp sometime after President Nixon’s “Peace with Honor” conclusion to the Viet Nam war, which featured dramatic photographs showing bodies dripping off American helicopters rescuing them from the roof of an American Embassy. Drip, drip went the bodies; it was like watching holy water splashing into Hell. The grey haired father of the family had bribed his way across the Mekong into the camp. His family was safe, poor but intact. The father and mother were old. They would die in the camp. Three daughters and a boy rounded out the family.

This was the conversation I had with D’Avanzo after I had read two of the letters:

“Look, Dick, I’ll do anything I can to help you… but…”


“But you won’t be successful. You just won’t.”

How could he know what he was up against?

It took D’Avanzo years to get the family out. In the course of his efforts, he made dozens of trips and pestered scores of bureaucrats in the camp, the American embassy and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The columns -- Chris Powell, then on the editorial page of the JI kept demanding more and helped us in other ways -- were partly responsible for involving others in the effort. When the United States refused to accept the family, D’Avanzo got them a house in Canada. He also adopted three young camp children, one of whom entered high school a year early and graduated a year early, so persistent in her studies was she.

And so it happened one July that D’Avanzo called me and asked if my wife Andrée and I could come over to Bolton Lake to celebrate the Fourth of July, as John Adams once put it, “by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other...” It is a shallow patriotism that does not like fireworks.

“The family you have saved will be there to meet you.”

This was an exaggeration on D’Avanzo’s part. I wrote a several columns on the family, now languishing in the paper’s morgue, for the Journal Inquirer. But he did all the work. The meeting went off well, and I was able to say to these people who had suffered so much, “Welcome to America,” in a setting of bunting and fireworks that lit up the starry night sky like a constellation of exploding angels.

After the fireworks, Andrée and I moved to the Gazebo, where we had hoped to sit and let the peace of the water surround us. D’Avanzo had built a gazebo about the size of a small garage that ran out onto the lake, and in its chapel-like shelter on this quiet July night sat the remnants of three other families D’Avanzo had plucked from the Hell of the prison camps.

“A great man,” said one of them of D’Avanzo in his faltering English.

Years had passed, and now we were on our way, after visiting Andree’s sister, to re-engage, to re-embrace the past.

“To meet a friend again after a long absence,” says an old Greek proverb, “is a god.”

D’Avanzo hadn’t changed at all: Still that world conquering smile, that open and honest face; still an ardent foe of adversity; still the best of what is best in Italian men – steadfast, loyal, daring and loving.

The new house he had built in Vero Beach had been assaulted by a hurricane, the walls of it rippled by fierce winds. Other houses in his area had not been spared. Workmen tearing down the houses after the first hurricane had piled the debris forty or fifty yards from his mailbox.

And then the second remorseless hurricane hit. The wind, like some multi-armed fury, picked up the debris and pitched it at his house. And so he was forced to rebuild from the ground up. The new house we visited was, as far as possible, hurricane proof. But with Mother Nature, dripping in tooth and claw, one can never be certain.

He and his wife Maria were living for the time being in a condo.

“When will the house be ready for you two?”

“If everything goes as it should” – here he shot me smile drenched in irony – “another month. But you know how it is with contractors: You stretch them out on a time line to do the work, and then if one of them for any reason begs off, the whole thing collapses.”

“Like a French soufflé.”

“Right, or a house hit by a hurricane.”

“Two hurricanes.”

“I hope you and Andrée don’t mind the condo.”

“I came here to see you. And now we are together.”

He was happy. I could see that.

He took us to the ocean. With the wind ringing in our ears, he asked me, “Do you remember (Name), one of my daughters?”

“I remember her, very bright, I recall.”

Yes, that’s her. I have a story to tell you.”

“After she had got out of the camp…”

“After you had got her out of the camp…”

He shrugged it off.

“Yes… then.”

Now in freedom, he said, she wrote to a young boy she had met there in the camp. Of course, there was no question of romance. Marriages among these people were arranged, and her’s was so arranged. But she held back. She just wanted to make contact with this boy, because they had shared a time at the camp and she wondered about him in her mind. So, letters went across the sea. They might as well have been put in bottles, because there was no assurance he would ever receive them. Time passed. She was being pressed to marry as arranged by her family and the family of another boy she now met for the first time. She liked him, but there was no spark there to ignite her interests. More time passed. She busied herself at college, and one day came home to find a message on her computer. It was from the boy in the camp. It said, “I have received all your letters. Please respond. I am here, in the United States.”

“There were dozens of messages, all frantic: please respond, please respond.”

“You are going to tell me something good now?”

“Very good. She married that boy.”

It could have happened otherwise. It is lethargy and weariness that holds us back. D’Avanzo, after all, could have done nothing except sigh at the receipt of those letters from the camp. This would have been almost enough, because the task that lay before him was nearly impossible. No, it was impossible. The Vietnam War had ended. People had begun to pick up the rag ends of their lives. And in Asia all the orphans of war -- plundered and murdered and brutalized -- had been locked away out of sight. Pot Pol, his hands red with blood, was still active in the area. The Khmer Rouge regime, removed from power in 1979, survived into the 1990s as a resistance movement in western Cambodia from its bases in Thailand. It was all out of sight and out of mind when those tortured cries from a young boy in camp, like a July firecracker, pierced the frightening stillness.

And now more cries – please respond, please respond, please respond.

And the response leads to a marriage.

It is enough to make one believe in happy endings. But none of it would have been possible without D’Avanzo – to this day grateful for the slight and almost unnoticed blessings of the day.

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