In Search of Tiger Phong
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Tom Callahan, an ex-Marine, knows a flimflammer, a bugiardo, a poseur, a gasconader when he hears one. In late August 1996, he met the former Green Beret Earl Woods at Tiger’s pro debut in the Greater Milwaukee Open. “I took him for a complete blowhard,” Callahan later wrote. “Starting with his son, everything about Earl Woods was far-fetched.”
Tiger had seven tournaments remaining on the PGA Tour that year to win enough money to secure his playing card. “Giving Tiger seven chances to win a tournament,” Earl said, “he’s going to win one of them.” He won two. In the next major, Tiger won the Masters by 12 strokes and was voted 1997 PGA Tour Player of the Year.
But questions about his father remained. He was a decorated war hero who couldn’t remember what years he served. He said his best friend was a South Vietnamese soldier named Tiger Phong who went missing at the end of the war. Years later, when Earl had a son who he knew would be “more famous than Gandhi,” Earl named him Tiger to honor his old pal’s memory, so that one day Tiger Phong back in Vietnam would read about the world-famous Tiger Woods and find a way to reconnect with Earl.
If that story were pitched to Hollywood back then or even Netflix today, it would be tossed back as preposterous. So we sent Callahan to Vietnam in search of the Original Tiger. Weeks went by. We thought he wasn’t coming back. Then came this story, published in October and November 1997. —Jerry Tarde
On the last day of 1975, the day after Eldrick Woods was born, Tiger Woods was born when his father gazed into a maternity glass and saw both the future and the past.
*"Don't worry, Woody," Colonel Phong told Earl in a hushed voice, "I've never lost an advisor yet." *
"'I'm glad to hear it, Tiger," he whispered back, "but I damn sure don't want to be the first one."
Tiger Phong and Earl Woods were deep in Vietcong country, exactly where, only Phong knew. The two-jeep caravan of the two light colonels from Phan Thiet was a familiar convoy throughout Binh Thuan Province, where Phong was the Deputy Province Chief for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and Woods was more than just his U.S. advisor.
The Americans were pulling out. "I got to go," their commander said. Phong's troops were supposed to take over the fire base, but they were overdue. It was sort of a preview of the coming years.
"That's all right, we can defend it ourselves," Phong asserted.
"What?" Woods said.
"You take this cover, I'll take that. My driver can man the third flank, your driver the fourth."
"Tiger, this is ridiculous."
Phong smiled at his friend. Yes, war is certainly ridiculous.
Before taking his position, Woods retrieved an M-79 grenade-launcher from the jeep and set it down in a row with his M-16 rifle and .45-caliber pistol. For three hours, he sweated.
When the ARVN forces eventually showed up and Colonel Phong finished grinding their captain into a fine dry powder, Woods radioed for a helicopter.
The chopper hadn't flown 50 yards before they were under fire. The VC had been there all along. "Wham, wham, wham, wham, wham!" The rounds shot up through the floor of the helicopter directly between the two colonels. As they twirled out of range, Woods said, "Tiger, you crazy son of a bitch." Colonel Phong just laughed.
Later they had a drink in Earl's quarters, "The Blue Room," their mission central and private retreat. More than one drink. It was Phong who had organized the preposterous paint job—ceiling included—that gave the room its identity. It was Woods who nicknamed him "Tiger," an expression of admiration but also irony.
Not all of the South Vietnamese soldiers could be called tigers.
The two were closer than friends, brothers. When they weren't fighting side by side, they were playing tennis or tricks. Woods schooled Phong on the rudiments of jazz; Phong gave Woods philosophy. They laughed a tremendous lot, lest they cry a tremendous lot.
But this was a quiet night. Aretha Franklin was singing on the record player. Phong was retelling his dream of being a schoolteacher someday—he looked like a schoolteacher already. The thing he wished most for his children was just an absence of helicopters.
Woods was thinking of that afternoon in the artillery field: When the Americans left, the Communists should have stormed. Why didn't they? He should be dead. Why wasn't he? Then, and forever, he told himself over and over, "There has to be a reason."
These events occurred sometime between Aug. 15, 1970 and Aug. 13, 1971, I found out on my own. Earl Woods couldn't narrow it down to a decade, let alone a year. He seemed to have no idea when he was in Vietnam, either the first time or the second, which I found impossible to believe. Nearly everything he said, I found impossible to believe, starting with:
"Giving Tiger seven shots at [winning] a tournament, he's going to win one of them."
It's a quaint recollection now, but you have to remember that on the late-summer day in 1996 when Tiger Woods turned pro—the day I first en-countered his father in Milwaukee—everyone was wondering whether Tiger could earn enough prize money in the last seven weeks of the PGA Tour season to avoid qualifying school.
Even more preposterous was Earl's explanation for naming his golden child after Lieut. Col. Nguyen (Tiger) Phong. "I knew, instinctively knew," he insisted, "that my son was going to have fame. Someday, my old friend would see him on television, read about him in a newspaper or a magazine, and say, 'That must be Woody's kid,' and we'd find each other again."
Give me a break. The runaway story of Tiger Woods needed a fresh element, but a missing war hero was a bit much. Frankly, I wondered if there ever was a Colonel Phong.
Everything about Earl Woods was outsized and farfetched. He hadn't been just an Army Colonel; he had been a Green Beret. He claimed to have taken some of his Green Beret training in the Arctic, where the temperature was 40 below zero and the wind was howling at 40 to 50 knots and the tires of the 2½-ton trucks were cracking like walnuts and when he blew his nose icicles came out and all 10 of his fingers were frost-bitten.
He wasn't merely a Vietnam veteran; he was a recipient of the Vietnamese Silver Star. Yet he didn't know when he was in Vietnam. I went to Cypress, Calif., to press the conversation.
"Your second tour, was it before the Tet Offensive?" I asked.
"No, it was after Tet," Woods said, "late '60s, early '70s, I would guess."
I was a Marine of no note, who fought the great war of Quantico, Va., never coming any closer to the Mekong Delta than the mock villages on that sprawling installation, where if you touched anything red you were "dead." But I remember the exact date in 1967 when I was sworn in, and I remember the precise minute in 1968 when I left Quantico with a wrecked knee. How can a man forget when he was in Vietnam?
"Do you know when you were in Thailand?" I asked Woods. (Earl met his second wife, Kultida, in Bangkok. Her Buddhism reeled him back into fatherhood at the age of 42. She required a pregnancy, "and I don't shoot blanks," he said with typical shyness.)
"I was in Bangkok between tours," Earl said. "Wait a minute." From one of the cardboard boxes in the living room, he plucked a mahogany campaign stick, a gift from his men. Its tarnished metal plaque read:
"Bangkok, 1968." "I was in Bangkok in 1968," he said.
That day in Cypress, most of the family furniture had been moved out. The little house, a museum-to-be, was giving way to the mansions. We sat on the bed in Tiger's little-boy room, plastered as it had to be with posters and decals and buttons and playing cards of Luke Skywalker of the Jedis and Charlie Joiner of the San Diego Chargers. On the wall above the bedpost, a yellowed newspaper clipping detailed all of Jack Nicklaus' milestones: "First broke 70 at the age of 13 ... " Tiger was clicking them off one by one.
On the TV in his old room, Tiger was shooting 63 at Pebble Beach in the AT&T Pro-Am. "I played in that tournament a few years ago," I told Earl, "with a pro you never heard of, a nice guy named Tommy Moore."
"New Orleans guy," Woods said.
"How do you know that?"
"Tiger played him once."
He knew everything about Tiger and nothing about himself.
I returned home to a message from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. My Freedom of Information Act request had been granted. Earl Dennison Woods served in the Republic of Vietnam from Feb. 12, 1962 to Feb. 24, 1963, and from Aug. 15, 1970 to Aug. 13, 1971. Everything else, with the possible exception of the nasal icicles, was true.
Giving Tiger seven shots at winning a tournament, he had won two of them.
That's when the search for Tiger Phong began.
In every office, there is always one person who gets it, if you can wait out the others. At the Vietnam Embassy in Washington, D.C., the first one who didn't get it was a third secretary for economics affairs named Nguyen Van Quyen, who knew that 63 percent of the Vietnamese people were surnamed Nguyen (pronounced Win). "Nguyen Phong," he declared with unfettered delight, "is Smith, Joe." (In search of Joe Smith.)
The one who got it was a younger man, the first secretary for press affairs, Le Dzung. Figuring duplicity to be our common language, I feigned interest in Vietnam's budding golf culture, with emphasis on a new Nick Faldo course located (handily enough) in Earl's and Phong's old theater of war: Phan Thiet. I also had a casual curiosity about the fate of a lost soldier unheard from since before the fall of Saigon.
Across a long, lacquered table, Le Dzung studied the visa request and the itinerary: Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), Phan Thiet, Dalat, Nha Trang, a few other burgs picked for the melody of their names. Then, for a moment, he studied me.
"Mr. Callahan," he said, "were you in the military?"
"I was in the Marine Corps."
He glanced back at the list.
"Add Hanoi," he said softly. "I have a friend there, Mr. Nghi. He could help. Here's his number. Have a nice trip."
Fax to the office: LEFT NEW YORK 4:30 P.M. THURSDAY. ARRIVED SAIGON 4:30 P.M. SATURDAY. EIGHT-HOUR STOP IN HONG KONG. FEET SO SWOLLEN BY LONG FLIGHT COULDN'T GET SHOES BACK ON. TAKEN FOR A HOLY MAN. HAVE BEGUN.
Flocks of motorbikes sailed through Ho Chi Minh City, banking and honking, on a Sunday morning. Some hauled cargo—chickens in cages or snakes in bottles—but most carried extra passengers, limber girlfriends primly sitting sidesaddle or entire families melted together in a wad. The happiest sight of the morning was a father, mother, son, daughter, baby daughter and baby doll, a sixsome on a Honda.
I laughed out loud and so did Thanh and Thuy. Thanh (pronounced Han) was my driver. Thuy (pronounced Twee) was his sister. Neither of them had ever heard of Tiger Woods.
Before heading to the city center, Thanh had taken me to meet his mother at her storefront flower shop, where you could also buy butter cookies and talking alarm clocks. In her sunsuit, Thuy had looked to be about 13. But after changing to come with us, she emerged as a 26-year-old woman in a lovely spring dress. It was Thuy's suggestion that we start at the Pagoda of Vinh-Nghiem, requesting Buddha's help.
While Thanh waited at the car, Thuy and I bought incense on the steps and walked slowly past three giant gold Buddhas into a darkened room filled with miniature picture-graves eerily lighted by flickering candles.
I had expected to be armed only with Earl's 26-year-old memories and two interesting police sketches—"That's him!" Papa Woods had shouted to the L.A.P.D. artist—of what Phong looked like then and what he might look like now. But, amazingly, in the days leading up to his son's heroic Masters Tournament, Earl went rummaging through those boxes again and found two Polaroids of himself and Tiger Phong.
Using the aged drawing, Thuy and I fashioned a matchbox monument and offered a prayer to Lady Buddha that just one man in this hall of spirits was still alive.
"Why Lady Buddha?" I asked her on the stroll back to the car.
"Because you will need a thousand eyes and a thousand hands to find Mr. Phong," she said.
Next, Thanh wanted to show me the Cu Chi Tunnels. He was having a hard time understanding that I wasn't a tourist. To let him down gently, I agreed to drop in at a museum, where, believe it or not, we met Edwin Newman.
"Have you been here all this time?" I asked the former CBS network correspondent, who laughed and introduced his wife. They were on a cruise and had come ashore just for the day. "I was here in 1962," Newman said. As I outlined my quest, his sweet wife took her husband's arm the way a wife might hold tight to an old fireman at the clanging of a bell. "It sounds like a good story," Newman said with a sigh.
Outside, on the lawn, several exhibits gleamed in the sun, including an Air Force F5A tactical fighter, a Huey helicopter, several machine guns and rocket launchers, even an old French guillotine, whose grimness was scarcely relieved by a photograph of its final honoree, an abnormally short fellow with an understandably put-upon ex-pression, Hoang Le Kha. "It not Mr. Phong," Thanh said dryly. I liked Thanh.
Just 44 now, Thanh was a boy soldier at the end of the war, something of a mascot to the Americans before that. He loved the Americans, almost everything about them, but especially their hot dogs and tuna-fish sandwiches. Thanh's father was killed by a VC mortar shell. Thanh fought in Laos and Cambodia, but he wasn't an important fighter. When the war ended in 1975, he spent four days in a Communist re-education camp in the South. Only the big shots went north—and stayed.
Some of them were back and work-ing as cyclo-drivers (bicycle rickshaws) on the neon boulevard outside the Rex Hotel. For a couple of days, Thanh and I showed our pictures to the raggedy battalion and listened to their accounts of former glory.
Most of them claimed to know Colonel Phong, but Asian politeness, the inclination to say yes, was working against us. An especially toothless and desolate member of the old brass promised that, if I returned to his corner around 1 a.m., he'd produce Colonel Phong. Thanh's eyes turned phosphorescent. "Please, Mr. Tom," he pleaded in the car. "He's a liar." We didn't go back.
I played nine holes the following morning at Golf Vietnam, where a perfectly named new manager, Ian Fleming, was expected. Just before we crossed the Dong Nai River on Highway 1, a billboard of Lee Trevino popped up incongruously, advertising the new sport. Seven holes of a Trevino design were in grass, but the completed course, a Taiwanese creation, was suitable enough. Although one hole had a tree smack in the middle of the fairway, this represents no difficulty for some of us.
I was playing only to cement my cover. The office had received a fax from Le Dzung's friend in Hanoi, Luong Thanh Nghi, instructing me to check in at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ho Chi Minh City, where "a guide/interpreter will be assigned to help you realize your program."
As I had not received the message personally, I decided to take Ollie North's advice and ignore it. "If you accept their 'keepers,' " North had warned on the telephone before I left, "then you'll only see what they want you to see."
Incidentally, when I brought up Earl's maddening memory gaps, North's reaction was interesting. "That would make me believe him," he said. "There are almost two kinds of Vietnam vets, the guys who hang around The Wall [the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.] in camouflage jackets welcoming each other home, the pothead marauders, the rear-area heroes; you know, the Oliver Stone version. Then there are the guys who go on with their lives, who don't try to remember things, who don't think about it all that much, who never go to The Wall. Has Earl been to The Wall?"
"Yeah, you can't go to that Wall without crying."
On the road to Phan Thiet, the scooters thinned out considerably in favor of oxcarts. The sea of baseball caps made way for straw conical hats. Thatched hooches of Zippo-lighter memory appeared. Rice paddies cropped up, complete with water buffaloes. We were really in Vietnam now.
"Do you drink coffee, Mr. Tom?" asked Thanh, swerving to keep the gray Mazda on the bad road.
"No more than eight cups a day."
"Vietnam coffee very strong. Before we come to Phan Thiet, I buy you cup coffee."
Facially, he resembled the jockey, Jorge Velasquez, Alydar's old driver.
I took that as a good omen. Thanh wore a turquoise necktie that he never took off because his car-rental service company fined the drivers if they were ever seen without the tie. He smelled of a sweet oil that he carried around in a small green Shaliimar bottle and occasionally sniffed.
"How long were you in the re-education camp, Thanh?"
"What was it like?"
"I won't talk about that, Mr. Tom."
"Could you take me to a re-education camp?"
"Mr. Tom, I would never go back there."
And he was there only four days.
I was sitting beside him in the front seat, and he turned and shot me a look that I cannot fully describe. It seemed to say, "Who are you to ask me that? Where do you get the nerve to bring that up to me?"
We rode along in silence for a long while until Thanh broke it.
"Do you like shrimp?"
"I don't like it." Then he laughed. We both laughed. We were friends again.
"I think I need a little shot of green stuff," I told him, and he gave me a sniff.
As Thanh had promised, we stopped at a cafe, about four hours out, for iced coffee, blacker than half-past midnight, dripped from a pewter cup into a shot glass and then poured into a tall glass filled with chipped ice.
"Should I be concerned about this?" I asked Thanh.
"It's good ice," he said.
After we had drunk most of the coffee, hot green tea was poured on top. We sat back in the toy lawn-chairs, with which every Vietnamese cafe is supplied, and smoked two of Thanh's "555" cigarettes. For the first time in years, I was dabbling in nicotine. Then, after a fifth hour on the dusty road, Thanh delivered me to the Pan Sea Resort.
Fax to the office: AFTER A LONG DRIVE, I HAVE ARRIVED AT THE SEA AND CHECKED INTO A WEEK-OLD HOTEL WHERE I AM THE ONLY GUEST. FORTY PEOPLE ARE EXPECTED BY THE WEEKEND, I AM TOLD. BUT, FOR NOW, I WALK THE YARD LIKE HESS AT SPANDAU.
I awoke to a telephone call from Mr. Nghi in Hanoi, followed by an ominous fax. He wondered why I hadn't checked in at Ho Chi Minh City. I wondered how he knew where I was. I apologized for the "mix-up."
"It's not easy to get information on Mr. Phong," he said. "There are 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs. Very difficult problem. We have contacted authorities in Phan Thiet. He was in education camp maybe 10 years—I think, less than 10 years. Many people believe he is in some other country now. America, Australia, Canada or someplace else. Most of them are in America now. It is time to concentrate on the golf."
"Is it 'education' camp or 're-education' camp?" I asked.
"Stop showing the pictures on the street," he said.
"It's useless and very sensitive. It can be dangerous."
"I'll be careful."
"We can't be responsible for your safety anymore."
"Were you ever responsible for my safety?"
His pause gave me the chance to change the subject.
"Let me ask you something," I said. "Have you ever heard of Tiger Woods?"
"Certainly," he said. "The golfer. The Masters."
Mr. Nghi knew everything.
The fax read: "It is very nice to talk with you this morning but we are really disappointed that you tried to ignore our advice." He listed the rules I defied, concluding, "and, furthermore, we could show you more evidence. Therefore, this is a kind of violation of our regulations on press activities taken by foreign journalists in Vietnam.
"However, taking into consideration of the fact that this is your first visit, to show our good will, we let you continue to work in Phan Thiet as scheduled but you should first contact with local authority (Mr. Ky in foreign office) for getting guidance and assistance and concentrate on writ-ing about the activities of Phan Thiet golf course."
After responding with an incredibly disingenuous fax ("Please do not be disappointed in me ..."), I collected the pictures and headed to Mui Ne, where Thanh and I hit our first pay dirt.
But before that we went on TV—Thanh's idea—at least, I think we did. "You can reach more people on television," he pointed out. "I'd like you to know," I said, "all Americans aren't this dumb."
At the one-watt station in Phan Thiet, an attractive female program director had me hold up my exhibits for the camera like the newsworthy mute that I was.
"What are the chances of that going out?" I asked Thanh as we left.
"Thirty percent," he said.
Mui Ne is a fragrant fishing village near Phan Thiet, as pungent from nuoc mam (decomposed fish, layered with salt, perfect over rice) as Hershey, Pa., is from chocolate. At our fourth or fifth stop, the father of the hut dispatched his daughter on her scooter to fetch a neighbor named Trinh. "Trinh's husband was a major," he told Thanh in Vietnamese. "He is in America now. Maybe Trinh knows something."
When the daughter returned, her fender was sagging under a moonfaced woman in a conical hat and yellow pajamas. She had the smile of a jack-o'-lantern. Even before dismounting, Trinh glimpsed the photograph in my hand and exclaimed: "Colonel Phong!" She was the first one who said his name before I did.
Trinh knew Phong well but never found out what became of him; she said her husband might know. Trinh's husband had survived the reeducation camp and emigrated to America. "I don't understand America," Trinh said.
"I understand here. Besides, I have too many coconuts here."
She scooted off again and came back with a 1992 snapshot of her husband and their son at what appeared to be a high-school graduation in Bat- on Rouge, La. I didn't want to accept the photo—Trinh kept kissing it goodbye. But I think she felt it sealed my promise to call her husband and say she "very miss him." She handed me his number in the States along with the name of his landlady (at least Trinh and I hope she's his landlady).
Enchanted by the drawing of Phong The Younger, Trinh traced its lines delicately with her finger. She ran her whole hand over Phong's glossy photograph, murmuring something tender to Thanh. "She say Colonel Phong was always very popular for her."
But when she came to the sketch of Phong The Older, Trinh started to cry. "Vinh Phu," she said softly. "Vinh Phu."
I asked Thanh what that meant. He shook his head.
Encouraged anyway, we moved on to city hall looking for Mr. Ky, who popped the bubble.
'Mr. Phong is dead," said first Huynh Quoc Tuan and then Pham Hong Ky, whose business cards described them as "Bachelor of English—Expert in External Relations" and "Foreign Relations Expert of Binh Thuan Province." They laid out the doilies, the teapot and the tale.
"How did he die?" I asked.
"He died in 1986 after 10 years in re-education camp," said Mr. Tuan, who did all of the talking.
"I asked how he died."
That was all, except that there was a witness, an old woman, who didn't wish to see me. As I left the building, a third man (without a card) took my elbow and steered me out the gate and around the corner to an idling car, where a grandmother was shaking.
Without introductions, she said through the passenger-side window, "Mr. Phong deserted in 1974."
"He wouldn't desert," I told her. ("Not hardly," Woods said several weeks later when I got to this part.) "Mr. Phong's family needed him," she said.
"How many children did he have?"
"He had at least three children," I said.
("A wife and, I think, three children," Earl had said in one of our first conversations. "I don't know how many boys, but I remember one boy very well.")
"Where is his wife now?" I asked.
The engine coughed, and the woman slipped away.
"Do you believe her?" I asked Thanh after a few moments. "Yes, I do," he said. "Do you?"
I didn't know what I believed.
"Thirty percent," I said.
Fax to the office: THE WAVES BEAT ALMOST TO MY DOOR AT PAN SEA. IT'S VERY BEAUTIFUL. AT NIGHT, SMALL SQUID BOATS STRUNG WITH LANTERNS DOT THE HORIZON. THE EFFECT IS OF SMALL FIRES ON THE SEA. I HAVE LAID IN A SUPPLY OF "TIGER" BEER. I'M DRINKING TO TIGER TONIGHT.
For the next few days, I played golf at Ocean Dunes, the Faldo course in Phan Thiet, in easy view of a solitary observer I imagined to be a member of the secret police.
On the first day, fledgling caddies, both girls and boys, staged a rousing tournament. Here was a segment of Vietnamese society that had emphatically heard of Tiger Woods.
General Manager Cliff Friedman, an American expat, handed out the prizes: $4 and a cap, $6 and a T-shirt, $12 and an umbrella. ... A smashing time was had by all, but especially Thanh, whose windshield was splintered by a falling coconut. He had to drive all the way back to Ho Chi Minh City, and I had to hire a substitute off the street, a larcenous character named Choa.
The assistant superintendent at Ocean Dunes—a handsome course, by the way—was a genial chap everyone called "Kit." Kit could barely stand to look at the water. In 1980, when Kit was 16, he was a boat person. After their engine sputtered out, he and 49 others bobbed in the sea for four silent, black nights.
Thai pirates eventually towed them to Malaysia in return for everything they owned. Kit ultimately made it to Los Angeles, where he lived for a number of years in "Little Saigon." But, missing his family, he flew home. Now he was something of an Angeleno out of water.
"What do you miss most about L.A., Kit?" I asked him one morning at breakfast. He thought it over earnestly before answering.
" 'Three's Company,' " he said, referring to the TV sitcom, "only because it's easy to understand even if you have no English. Real hamburgers. Pizza. Prime rib. Cable TV. Stand-up comedy. Kim Basinger. Julia Roberts. 'The Rockford Files.' The Laker Girls ... "
This was the day I met Hoa, who would be such an important part of the search. A "hoa" (hoo-waa) is a type of Vietnamese flower, and so was she. In fact, I called her "Flower." And she could play golf. Her playing partner, a fast-food sales rep from Ho Chi Minh City, could sing. That was Peto, who wasn't Vietnamese. After we finished our round, Flower, Peto and I went to lunch and Flower told her story. I sat up straight when she said, "Vinh Phu."
Flower's father was born in 1929 (the year of Tiger Phong's birth) in Ben Tre Province in South Vietnam. At 17, he joined the resistance movement against the French, attending agricultural college in Hanoi before going to work on a state-run sheep farm in Vinh Phu Province.
Flower's mother was a simple farm girl from an isolated village in Vinh Phu. Her name was Lien. When Lien was 14, her grandparents sought to marry her off to a wealthy planter in settlement of a debt. She ran away to a larger town in the province, landing as a laborer on the sheep farm. At 19, she married Flower's father.
A son was born, followed by a daughter. But the third pregnancy had a complication: a different sire. Flower's father forgave Lien, but Lien could not forgive herself. Five-year-old Flower went with her father to his new university job in another province. Flower's mother and brother remained in Vinh Phu, where Lien also became a teacher, of primary school.
The war would chase Flower and her father out of the university town deep into the jungle, where, when Flower was 11, a North Vietnamese Army soldier stopped in for a drink of water. It turned out, he knew Vinh Phu. Furthermore, he had heard of a teacher named Lien. Flower begged him to carry a message to her mother.
One year later, the soldier returned with a reply. "It was a map," Flower said, still excited by the memory. "She showed me the way home."
When the war ended, Flower was 13 and back with her mother in Vinh Phu, where they had reason to know a re-education camp was hidden in the trees. Flower's auntie worked there, and a cousin, on her father's side, was imprisoned there. Flower was a Civil War child right out of Chancellorsville.
On the pretext of visiting her auntie, Flower set out with a friend of her mother's on a bicycle trip of 26 hard kilometers.
"We had to cross a few streams, not so deep but very wide, where we had to carry the bicycles on the shoulders. After a few hours, we finally reached the camp. My mother's friend didn't want to go in, so we say farewell. Standing in front of the gate, I hesitated and looked around before I came in. My eyes stooped as I looked at the prisoners working in the rice farm, and a few other groups were practicing marching."
She found her auntie, who took her to a hut near where the cousin was working and brought him there secretly. "He was so thin," Flower said. "It was so sad. I told him I was the granddaughter of his grandmother's sister and, though he never met my father or our family, we loved him. He read me literature he had written while he was in the education camp. The literature only talked about how he miss his family, his wife and children. He said it was the story of the education camp, the story of everyone there."
Thanh wasn't the only one with car troubles. On our way north from Phan Thiet, Choa wrecked his Toyota and killed a goat. A tattooed mechanic magically appeared and, without a word, began removing the mangled fan and punctured radiator. He and Choa pedaled away to a repair shop, returned, rejiggered and we were off again.
The milestones on the roadside were confusing. One signaled "Hue" in the great distance. "We aren't going to Hue, are we?" I asked Choa, who was in a quiet mood (still mourning the goat?). Another red- and-white stone read "Dalat." Despite the bent-grass greens at the Dalat Palace Golf Club, I had decided to skip Dalat. Finally, a stone said Cambodia.
"We are definitely not going to Cambodia," I told Choa. "We are not going to make the same mistake Richard Nixon and Francis Ford Coppola made."
Over just a couple of hours, the temperature and terrain changed drastically. Suddenly we were in Seattle. The dry heat of Phan Thiet, with its flies the size of small birds, had given way to cool evergreens.
Abruptly, Choa parked the car and left it. We plunged into the jungle, and I was back at Quantico:
*"Hurry it up, hurry it up, people," the sergeants rasped. In the movies, they were always portrayed as sadists. But they weren't sadists. In the ways that mattered, they were gentlemen, amazing little gentlemen—almost invariably little—able to open with a weak joke and then talk all day on interior guard or the M-14. They could run to the front, run to the back, and run to the front again on mornings so hot that an ambulance full of ice followed, and stragglers (defined as anyone more than 26 inches from the man in front of him) had to be tossed on the ice like fish.
It's good ice.*
"Slow down a little," I called to Choa, panting, "and try to make bigger footprints, will you?" I was attempting to step in his indentations.
Some of the trees grew so close together that we had to prop ourselves against one to squeeze by the other.
Several times we took off our shoes to ford streams. A little green reptile stood up on its hind legs and cocked its head with amusement.
"Shut up," I said.
An old cowardice was coming back on me. I wasn't afraid to die. I'm ashamed to say, I wasn't afraid to kill. I was afraid of getting other people killed. I was terrified of leading. Yet I signed for both the 13 months and the 13 men. When it didn't happen, I was brutally disappointed and tremendously relieved.
We broke out into the light again and climbed a tall hill. Beyond it was a valley, the lushest grass I'd ever seen, greener than County Sligo. Half-way down the other side, Choa sat on a rock and rested. It took me a moment to make out a conical hat floating in the paddy and then to spot a few other conical hats darting in and out of a forest off to the side. The men wearing them were foraging for thin sticks that were still thicker than their arms.
Was this a re-education camp?
Choa's eyes were alight with mischief. The rice farm was being worked, but no one was practicing marching. From my vantage of safety, as usual, I strained to make out the faces under the conical hats, looking for Thanh and Phong and myself, suddenly realizing that 30 years had gone by since I was 21.
A brief, awesome rain washed Ho Chi Minh City. Just that quickly, the monsoon season had begun. I was leaving the Omni Saigon for a farewell round of golf with Flower and Peto—Flower had sent her driver—when Thanh came by with two sprays of a white-and-wine blossom from his mother's flower shop.
"It's hoa," he said, "for Hoa."
"For Hoa from you?"
"For Hoa from you."
She offered to be my emissary in Vietnam. The office had called Trinh's husband in the States: All he knew was that Phong was still alive in 1975.
As we played golf, I caught Flower up on a few other strands, including some gleaned by a former noncom from "down the Delta" who was working as a hotel interpreter.
"As you know, this is a delicate matter," he said. "I don't want to be involved in these things. But I put out some feelers—casually, as if I'm not hunting for him—and this is what I found out:
"Colonel Phong was not deputy chief of section in Binh Thuan when the war ended. He had been promoted to province chief in Lam Dong just north of there. He definitely survived into re-education camp, and he definitely was sent north." That was all he knew, but it wasn't all he wanted to say.
"If Mr. Phong couldn't survive the hardship," he said, "that's it. You have to stop living then in order to live now. The Vietnamese people aren't bitter, not in the South. Everyone was tired of war, both sides. But the South fell so fast because we had a choice. The North didn't. They still don't."
He promised, "I'll find out more."
When I started to give him my address and phone numbers, he smiled patiently. "I am Vietnamese, you see," he said. "A letter abroad is subject to censor." I gave him Flower's numbers and my thanks.
By this time, I had a lot of messages out in bottles floating in the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea. Flower encouraged me to toss a few into the Potomac and Mississippi as well.
"Is it possible," I asked her, "that Phong could be in America and not know he's the inspiration for Tiger Woods?"
"Possible," she said.
"But wouldn't he look for Earl? Of course he would."
I planned to place an ad in Vietnamese newspapers in the U.S. Flower cautioned me to frame it gently.
"If there is one worrisome word," she said, "no one will answer. Think of the softest possible memory and tell that."
I thought of "The Blue Room."
Thanh and I shot pool that night in a delicious dive. The following morning, he brought his sister, Thuy, the angel of the Pagoda, to our last breakfast. She carried roses.
They drove me to the airport. "I don't want to say goodbye," I told Thanh at the curb. "Then say, 'Hen gap lai,' " he said.
" 'See you again.' " I wasn't just starting to understand Vietnamese, I was starting to understand Earl Woods:
"I was just back from leave one time. 'I'm going to punish you,' Tiger joked. 'You left me.' That's how Phong said he loved me. We went down into the underground bunker for dinner. The officers were passing around barbecued ribs. I was helping myself when Tiger took the plate out of my hand. 'Do you remember that little yellow dog?' he whispered. 'Oh, Tiger,' I said. 'Welcome home, Woody.' "
Fax to the office: LAST STOP, HANOI. I'M ONLY GOING THERE, BASICALLY, TO GET ARRESTED.
'I was very furious with you," said Mr. Nghi, who I figured deserved a shot at me. "I was responsible for you. Every day, my superiors asked, 'Where is Mr. Callahan today? What is Mr. Callahan doing today?' I couldn't tell them."
Like the officers back at the Washington embassy, Nghi was far too young to be the face of an old enemy. I let him finish his tirade and then started anew.
"I think Colonel Phong was jailed near Bien Phu," I said, misspeaking (probably crossing wires with Dien Bien Phu, the local French Waterloo).
"He was not," Nghi said.
"Pardon me," I corrected myself.
Nghi looked very unhappy.
"What are your first impressions of Hanoi?" he asked, changing course.
"Grayer than EastGermany; bad concrete, like Moscow; more army helmets than Saigon; fewer ball caps and smiles. Saigon looks better prepared for business."
"Yes, but I promise you, the millionaires in Ho Chi Minh City are from the North, and most learned their business skills in the former Soviet Union."
I had a good comeback for that, but decided to let it go. We parted with smiles and handshakes.
"Tiger Woods," he said craftily. "It should be an interesting story."
On the way to the airport, I paused for a haircut at an outdoor barbershop, a line of evenly spaced rubber trees with stools at their bases and mirrors nailed to their trunks. Five trees, no waiting.
A few weeks later, a garment worker named Phan Pham was at home in Stanton, Calif., listening to "Little Saigon" radio, when someone mentioned a newspaper advertisement involving Nguyen (Tiger) Phong, Earl Dennison Woods, and a blue room. Pham telephoned the station.
"Not Nguyen," he told them. "Yes, Nguyen," they said. "No, no."
They hung up on him.
Two days later, Pham was reading the paper and saw the ad in question, including a photo of Colonel Phong and Colonel Woods. Of course, he remembered them well. He could still picture them at tennis and at tea. Only Woods, who nicknamed Phong "Tiger," ever called him that to his face. But Pham and the other lieutenants used the term privately, because it fit so well. "He got a hot temperature, a really hot temperature. He a wild fighter, and has to do everything perfect."
Phan Pham was less flamboyant, but stubborn, too, and meticulous. In the re-education camps, many prisoners ate worms and bamboo tips. But Pham cooked his. When people asked how he survived his six-year sentence, he said, "I looked to details, and I ate everything."
He dialed the number in the ad, and, reaching a recording in Connecticut, left this message:
"I am Captain Pham [his ultimate rank] in California. I know you want find Colonel Phong. I know him. You want know him, call me. I tell you Colonel Phong." Pham left both his home number and the number of the factory where he and his wife stitch clothing.
Then he phoned his former military driver in Phan Thiet. Was anyone still in touch with Colonel Phong's old driver—what was his name—Ba U? That's right, Ba U. Yes, they knew where to find Ba U.
Finally, Pham rang his daughter, also in Phan Thiet. He wanted her to go to Ho Chi Minh City to look for a family. Of course she dropped everything and went; he was her father.
With Ba U at the wheel, a secondary expedition began.
Meanwhile, I had returned Pham's call. All I could make out was that Colonel Phong died in Lang Son. I scanned the map for Lang Son. It was right next to Vinh Phu.
At the U.S. Open, I bumped into Earl Woods for only a few seconds.
"Do you remember a Captain Phan Pham?" I asked. He nodded slowly and said, "You know, I think I do."
I was making plans to go to Stanton when the phone rang late one night. It was a neighbor of Pham's, Dwayne Nordstrom, who didn't speak Vietnamese but would try to help.
After we talked in circles for a while, I asked what I thought was an idle question, and the door to the vault sprang open.
"By chance, does he know Colonel Phong's middle name?" (If the surname and the given name are common, the middle name, the ancestral name, can be distinguishing.)
Nordstrom relayed the question.
"Tiger," I could hear Pham reply.
"No," I laughed, "that's a nickname.
I mean, his real middle name."
"Dang," Pham said.
"Nguyen Dang Phong?"
"Name not Nguyen! Name not Nguyen!" Pham fairly screeched.
His name wasn't Nguyen?
"Vuong," Pham said. "V-U-O-N-G."
Vuong Dang Phong.
I didn't know whether to cry or laugh. So, as usual in those situations, I laughed. All this time, I had been looking for Joe Smith in vain. Earl had the wrong surname.
When you think about it, though, it was an easy mistake. Earl always called him "Tiger." The men always called him "Colonel Phong." And almost everyone's name was "Nguyen."
"Pham has found a phone number in Ho Chi Minh City," Nordstrom said. "I'm not sure whose number it is, but I think he's saying his daughter found it. He's afraid to give it to you.
He's worried that a call from the States might be dangerous."
After a war, there isn't much left for the losers to lose. They already have the lowest jobs and the least hope. But they haven't lost everything yet. They still have their fear.
"If I promised to have someone in Ho Chi Minh City make the call," I asked, "would he trust me with the number?" The answer came back yes.
I faxed it to Flower. At 3 o'clock in the morning, the phone woke me.
Alarm bells were ringing."Oh Tom, oh Tom," she said, actually, sang, "his picture is everywhere. I've been to the house. Wait.
Wait. Say hello to his son, Trung."
Was I awake?
"Hello," the voice said, "I'm the first son of Mr. Phong, Vuong Dang Trung." His next few words I was too dumbfounded to hear. When I faded back in he was saying, "After 1975 ...
"After 1975, my father was put in re-education camp in Lang Son and Hoang Lien Son Province. He died Sept. 9, 1976. Ten years after that—1986—the government inform our family. He was buried in the jungle near the Chinese border. We found the marker in the long grass. I don't know how. A miracle, maybe. Most markers were made of wood and were rotted. His was made of concrete. They say he die of illness. We brought his bones back."
The light-headedness was gone and the lightheartedness, too. Shadow overtook the moment. Phong had been dead for more than 20 years. He died just eight months after Earl Woods gave his name to a son. Colonel Phong was 47.
Saigon fell on April 30. For 39 days, Colonel Phong hid out in the village of his birth, Trang Bang, in Tay Ninh Province. But, as the Communists were closing in, he slipped back into Saigon to be with his family for one week before surrendering June 15. One by one, he kissed his nine children goodbye: seven sons, two daughters, one of the daughters adopted when her father was killed in battle.
From camp to camp, Phong's wife, Lythi Bich Van, followed desperately, never catching up. By the time she reached Song Than, he had been transferred to Long Giao. Before she made Long Giao, he was shifted to Long Khanh to Thanh Ong Nam to Govap to infinity.
For the first year, his letters came home. He wrote lovingly of his family but increasingly, heartbreakingly, of his favorite foods. The children read them together and wept. He had been a hard father, but they forgave him a few smacks. At a weekly family briefing, each child had been required to express the positives and negatives of the week. It amused them if among his own negatives he listed a tennis match lost to Earl Woods.
"I remember Mr. Woods very well," said Trung, who would have to be told who Tiger Woods was. "I'm 40 now.
I was 13 or 14 then. One time Mr. Woods showed me a photograph of his daughter. 'She expensive to feed,' he say. 'But if someday you can afford to feed her, you can marry her.' I remember a time he took moving pictures in front of our house. Another time, he gave my father a painting of a tiger with a big head. 'How are you, big tiger?' it say. Every day my father look at it on the wall and laugh and smile. We burned the painting in 1975.
We had to burn everything that was American. My mother cried."
Where was she now? (Get ready for this.)
"Tacoma, Washington," Trung said. "Since 1994, she and two of our brothers and one of our sisters live in Tacoma."
Photo of herself and Phong.
At an apartment complex called Lakeside Landing, in a light rain of the kind Tacoma hardly notices, the search for Tiger Phong ended.
His widow, Lythi Bich Van, answered the door wearing blue woolen pajamas and brilliant red house-slippers. She had round, blurry eye-glasses and a sweet, gummy smile.
Although she spoke almost no English, she knew why I was there and welcomed me inside. As her youngest son, Phuoc, explained, they had received an excited call from Ho Chi Minh City.
Phuoc said, "My brother Trung say to me, 'Do you know Tiger Woods?' I say, 'Oh, he's very good golf player. He won the Master contest.' Right? Well, Trung say, 'He's the son of our dad's friend. He named for our dad!' 'Oh, wow!' I said. Then when Tiger Woods came on TV, I showed my mom. 'Tiger!' she say.
She was very glad to see him. She thought he looked very nice." While her son translated, Lythi Bich Van recalled the tiger painting Earl Woods had given them. Her memory was that they had left it in Lam Dong (the Delta noncom had been right about the promotion to Lam Dong) when the world fell apart. "I went to all the prisons," she said through Phuoc, "but I just stood outside the gate."
Phuoc had his own memory of 1975.
"I was 6," he said. "Every time my dad came home from work, I'm the person who took off his shoes. He gave me a cookie or candy. I still remember the day he say goodbye to us. Before he left, he cry and he hold us. He touched my head and just say, 'I'll be back.' "
The death certificate that arrived 11 years later indicated that the "criminal Phong," the "lieutenant colonel of the puppet government," was buried in the hills of Cay Khe in the province of Hoang Lien Son. According to the document, he died of a heart attack.
"I don't think so," Phuoc said. "I think he died for being a tiger."
Two of the sons found the grave and dug up the bones. They recognized the shirt the skeleton wore and the blanket cuddling it. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, the children washed the bones while Lythi Bich Van cooked all of her husband's favorite foods, and they prayed that his soul could come home and eat all of the things he loved. Then they buried him in his home province, Tay Ninh.
The unmarried children emigrated with their mother momentarily to New Jersey, then to cooler weather in Tacoma. The married ones could not. Five families, including seven grandchildren, share a small house in Ho Chi Minh City and work butchering meat and selling fabric dyes.
Huynh Thi Tu, the adopted daughter, is the only single one left behind. She was packed for Tacoma when U.S. immigration discovered she was not a blood relative and rejected her application.
"It's sad," Phuoc said, "because she is the one who would have stayed with my mother, who now is alone all day because we all have to work and go to school. I package newspapers. My brother packages salmon.
"We all really love our mother, you know. She held us together when friends, relatives, they went away, when nobody know us anymore because the government hate us so much. My mother made us survive."
As Lythi Bich Van refilled the tea glasses, her eyes glistened. She was only 61 but looked older. "Sometimes now she calls me by the wrong name," Phuoc whispered. But she saved her family.
The rain had stopped. They walked me out into the sunshine. "Hen gap lai," I called to Phuoc, but it was Phong's wife who answered.
"See you again," she said.
On my way to tell Earl, I reflected on the journey, beginning in Cypress, in Eldrick's old room, winding through Washington, D.C., Saigon and Hanoi, spinning along the presses of the Vietnamese newspapers, coming out in Tacoma in the rain. I wondered about the old woman in the car in Phan Thiet.
Was she somebody's mother pressed into service to get rid of the Yank?
I thought of Trinh and her husband far away, and Kit missing "Three's Company," and Phan Pham reading his newspaper. "The Blue Room" advertisement fetched only one other pertinent response, post-marked Washington, D.C: "Lieutenant Colonel Phong call Tiger was death in the re-education camp (jail) at Hoang Lien Son Province, North Vietnam (north Hanoi 200 miles). I have no information about his family. Thanks for friendship and good luck to you. [Signed] Major Cu Van Phan, 230th Battalion Commander."
The generals and colonels were in Camp 2, the lesser officers in Camp 1. "I lived in the Camp No. 1," said the major, "but one day both camps were working the same area, and his friend told me, 'Phong died three days ago, after he got headache, cause high blood pressure. Suddenly, he fell down and he died few minutes later.'
That's all I know how he died. In the re-education camp, 12 percent died—that's the Communist way. I lost about 25 pounds."
Especially, I thought of Thanh and Flower, the most valuable players. "I am honored to tell you," Flower said, "that I love my country. My father is a Communist. Mr. Phong—and you, too—are my old enemy. But all that is ended."
I thought of Colonel Phong and Tiger Woods and really hot temperatures and wild fighters and perfectionists. For all his world acclaim, it's somehow pleasant to think that, in a way, Tiger Woods comes from a place where almost no one knows him. Finally, I thought of Earl Woods, who named a child "Tiger" in the expressed hope, as he put it, "that my son would be as courageous as my friend." From the psychological warfare of early practice sessions to the military-style debriefings after junior matches, the boy was brought up as a tiny Green Beret, a killer who liked jazz.
"Phong would be totally flabbergasted by Tiger, completely blown away," Woods had said when I returned from Vietnam and told him as much as I knew then. "He would view him as his own son. He wouldn't know a damned thing about golf, but it wouldn't be necessary. He would be so proud and so happy."
We were still dancing on the edge of the past tense then, but Earl wasn't fooled. "Tiger and I dealt in realities," he said. "He was a professional soldier, like I was." After a quiet few seconds, Woods whispered, "Boy, does this ever hurt. I've got that old feeling in my stomach, that combat feeling."
I felt a little of that myself. Maybe you have to feel a little of it before you can let it go.
The Epilogue: A down payment on a dream
How are Xiu and Be? Do they grow up? How are all our children? Please don’t let them go too far into the countryside. Because, after a war, munitions are everywhere. Do they go to their grandmother’s home? Please don’t let them swim, either. To the children: All of you must try to study hard at school. Trung, Phu, Chuong, Quang, Minh and Duc. Tu, please help your mother and family. I miss you all very much. I always dream, and in the dream I saw you, honey, and our children. I also saw my father two times, and, maybe, it’s a good sign. Remember, I belong to you.”*
—Vuong Dang Phong (March 27, 1976), from a letter home, his last.
Tiger Phong had been dead for exactly 21 years and two days, but the man who named him and the man who was named for him had been in mourning for less than two weeks.
It was a bright Thursday in Southern California. Earl Woods, Tiger Woods and Tida Woods were all together again in the little house in Cypress. Except for a clutter of Mercedes-Benzes overflowing the driveway, the place hadn’t changed much in the year and a few weeks since Tiger Woods turned pro and changed everything.
The family was gathered—the golfer had come from his home in Orlando— for a “reunion” with three people they had never met, who were being flown in from Tacoma, Wash.: Lythi Bich Van, the 61-year-old widow of Tiger Phong; Vuong Dang Phuoc, 28, Phong’s youngest son (whom he used to call “Xiu”); and Vuong Bich Ngoc Thi, 31, the youngest daughter, always “Be” to her father. Another son stayed behind in Tacoma. Five more sons and a daughter continue to live in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.
Xiu and Be were 6 and 9 when Colonel Phong of the South Vietnamese Army kissed his nine children one by one and surrendered to the Communists. Fifteen months later, on Sept. 9, 1976, Phong dropped dead in a concentration camp (the Vietcong euphemism is “re-education camp”), officially from a heart attack, primarily from hunger.
His family was not informed until 10 years later. His friend, his “brother,” his comrade in arms, his U.S. military advisor—Army Col. Earl Woods—of course was not informed at all. In a complicated search propelled mostly by luck, a writer found the facts and the family. The pages of the story were delivered first to Earl Woods, who read them for himself and reeled for two days.
In a reversal of roles, his famous son comforted him by telephone.
“Tiger was taught at a very early age,” Earl said, “that it was all right for a male to cry, to have feelings and to let them out. I cried like a baby for two days. It just kills me that Phong starved. Life isn’t a blissful ride to glory. It’s a painful process. Endure, survive, move on. ‘I know, I know,’ Tiger kept saying. ‘It’s OK, you have to move on.’ I didn’t give him that name lightly. ‘I know, I know.’ His psyche is full of Tiger lore. The concept evolved within him. It’s been a subtle assumption of responsibility. I imagine he will understand it even better when I go.”
The son said, “I always knew there was another Tiger. I didn’t know him as Tiger Phong. I just knew him as Tiger One.”
Did he feel a connection? Does he feel one?
“A stronger one than I can explain,” he said. “From all I hear, I’m exactly like him.”
In Phan Thiet and throughout Binh Thuan Province, the descriptions of Phong conveyed to the writer were always the same. Phong had a fiery temper. He had an electric smile. He was a perfectionist. He was arrogant. He was insistent. He was annoying. He was fierce. He was frightening. He was good.
“The three of us,” Tiger said, motioning toward his father across the room, “are the same. I have a worse temper. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. But Pop used to get mad, too. Things had to be done right or he could be pretty unhappy.”
For a moment, Tiger held his eyes on Earl, and then went on: “It’s like, 26 years ago, he lost his brother, a piece of himself, and he’s just finding out how it happened. You have to understand, they saved each other’s lives. They talked to each other every day, about absolutely everything. It’s closure, but it’s hard.”
Tiger wasn’t just being a dutiful son, the suspicion beforehand. When Lythi Bich Van and her children arrived, he proved that. Beyond generous, he was gentle.
Earl and Phong’s wife embraced as though they were not seeing each other for the first time, as if they had known each other (not just of each other) in 1971. Xiu and Be sat on the couch, and Xiu translated for their mother. Lythi Bich Van spoke no English but understands more than a few words, her eyes showed. They gleamed.
Hours flew by. The three of them smiled and laughed as Earl told war stories, light on the war, heavy on the nuoc mam (Phan Thiet’s lethal fish sauce, just the mention of which establishes a sweet familiarity).
“It’s hard to keep from crying,” Xiu said later, “hearing how much he loved our dad.”
Eventually, Earl couldn’t keep from it. He started apologizing for not knowing of his friend’s suffering, for not being able to do anything about it. Xiu got up and went to him and put his arms around him.
“In our New York days,” Tida Woods said aside, meaning before their son was born on Dec. 30, 1975, “Earl went to one of those agencies that try to locate people. Years later, through the service, he tried again. But nothing could ever be found out. The records were all destroyed. As years went by, he talked about Tiger Phong all the time. ‘He was a bitch in combat!’ he’d say. But I think Earl came to know in his heart that he was dead.”
Earl was desperate now to help Phong’s family. Did they have a car? Yes, they had a car. Only one car for the four of them? They didn’t want another car, thank you. They didn’t want anything. They were just happy to meet him. He pressed and they squirmed. Finally he urged them to consult the others, both in Tacoma and Ho Chi Minh City, to try to think of anything he could do. Through her son, Lythi Bich Van said that her only wish was for the family to be together again.
“We’re going to see what can be done about that,” Earl said.
Small memories were detonating around him like smart mines. “Whoa, whoa!” he said at the mention of a tiger painting, his gift to Phong that he had forgotten. “I just got a flash of it!” he said. “A Bengal tiger! It was gorgeous!”
But the most surprising flash involved a bankbook.
“On my last leave, I remember now, Tiger gave me some money. He had saved a little bit of American money. I can’t remember how much. He asked me if I would open a bank account for him in the U.S. I did. I went back to Vietnam and gave him the book. He held it up proudly, like it was proof he would end up in America someday.”
Earl couldn’t remember which bank, or, for that matter, which city. But Tida thought she knew. In fact, she sounded sure. So the search isn’t over yet.
In a bank vault somewhere, a down payment on a dream has been compounding for 26 years.