A Glass of Lemonade

A Glass of Lemonade

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

A Glass of Lemonade

It was 1980. I was fifteen years old.

We were docked at a harbor in Chu Hai, a village just outside Saigon. The pounding of our hearts nearly drowned out the motor. There were 120 of us inside the cabin, our bodies lying on top of each other. Ten dozen people, all with one dream: freedom.

Freedom from oppression. Freedom from the communist regime. Freedom, even if it meant our lives.

Capture meant imprisonment in the brutal labor camps, never to be seen again.

I knew that fear. Last attempt out, one year earlier, they nearly got me. I hid in a rice field till dark before sneaking onto a bus back home. Even so, I only avoided detection because my clothes looked like the yellow khakis of the government soldiers.

We kept still as the boat slipped out in the middle of the night. Thailand, our destination, was just hours away, yet it was also an eternity. I thought back to when I hugged my family goodbye just a few hours earlier. They could only afford passage for me, their eldest son. Suddenly it hit me: even if I made it, I might never see them again.

The tension inside the cabin was thick, our breath clinging to our skin. We were still under fire. Armed soldiers manned the peninsula. It would be an entire day before we were completely beyond detection.

We had enough food for two days; a satchel of rice, some milk, two steel canisters of water. We couldn’t drink the ocean water because the salt would dry us out. The dirt and rust inside the canister turned the water orange. But it was all we had. I pretended it tasted like my mother’s lemonade. I could not have drank it otherwise.

Once beyond detection, we could relax—at least, mentally.

The weather is very humid in Vietnam; add 120 bodies inside a cabin half that size, and you’ll know how suffocating it was. Things got even worse that night: we hit a storm. Raging winds and monstrous waves terrified us for two straight days. The stench of our own waste and vomit made breathing unbearable. I climbed on deck to get some air. I felt a small object zoom past my head. Suddenly a surging wave knocked me right back into the cabin. I passed out. When I came to, the woman holding me said I was lucky. “That wave roll behind you,” she said, “you land in the ocean.”

I closed my eyes. When I was little, my mother reminded me every night that God never stops watching over us. Maybe that’s what he was doing now. Bad as things were during the storm, they were nothing compared to what faced us were we ever caught.

The storm had barely passed when another disaster set in. The captain had lost his compass in the storm—maybe that was what nearly hit me two nights before. Not only were we hopelessly off course, we were out of power, and out of gas.

We were devastated. Our worst fears had come to pass. Only instead of a brutal death at the hands of the government, we would wither away under the merciless sun.

We drifted aimlessly for days. Sometimes we’d see a vessel on the horizon, but we could not signal for help. Our flare gun was also lost at sea. Though we were easier to spot during the day, no boat stopped to help. Maybe we were too far away. I hope that’s true. I hate to think anyone could sail past a boatload of dying people and still do nothing.

Our food was gone. Our bodies were so dehydrated, our clothes stuck to our skin, for some, they stuck to the bottom of the boat. Though the ocean was filled with sharks, many of us jumped overboard—not to swim, but simply to let the waters soak through our skin.

Some women drew water from the ocean and mixed it with sugar, but we could only have a cupful because of the salt. We were all starving and thirsty, but it was hardest on the children. One nine-year-old boy drank all the water when no one was looking. He died that night; we wrapped him in a blanket and buried him at sea. We took his death hard. His father was an American soldier; he would have been treated well had he made it to the United States.

Though we were resigned to our fate, we tried comforting each other. My friend Don asked me, “If you could have just one thing before you die, what would it be?”

I didn’t want much. If I couldn’t have my family, perhaps a reminder would do. “A glass of lemonade,” I answered. “That would be heaven.”

We were sitting on deck later that night when I noticed a glorious blaze on the horizon. I poked Don in the shoulder and pointed: “Giah KHoan! Giah KHoan!” We spread the word, and soon the boat was brimming with hope and anticipation.

We’d spotted an oil rig.

Some men used wooden planks to steer us closer, but soon gave up because the current was too strong. By morning we had one choice left; swimming for it. Even that was a long shot. The waters were shark-infested, and the ship was several miles away.

Three men volunteered. The first man never returned; either he drowned or the sharks got him. The second man gave up after an hour because the current kept pulling him back. The third man, a fisherman, swam diagonally so that eventually the current began pushing him toward the rig. Though he had to stop several times because of leg cramps, he finally reached the oil rig twelve hours later.

They picked us up the next morning, our eighth day out of port. Our lips were parched and bleeding, our skin bruised and infected, our stomachs swollen. We couldn’t eat anything solid, so they made us rice soup. I’ve never had a more delicious meal in my life.

We were alive. We had survived. The ship would take us to a refugee camp in Malaysia; from there, we would eventually be allowed into America. Our dream of freedom was finally at hand.

I was naturalized in 1990. I studied engineering at Rutgers University, and have owned my own business since 1991. My family is very proud of me.

Those eight days were frightening, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. Yet the perspective that experience has given me on life itself has made it worthwhile. My path has not always been smooth; occasionally I still experience some prejudice, and, like everyone else, some days at work are very stressful. But even those kinds of pressure seem like nothing once you’ve come that close to death.

My mother was right. God never gives us anything we can’t handle. I could lose my business tomorrow, and it wouldn’t really matter. I know I’m a survivor, and that in itself makes me a success.

And every time I drink a glass of lemonade, I remember that.

Ed Robertson, Vincent Luong and Mary Gardner

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