Tran Van Thah was so excited and so happy that only the seat belt kept him from jumping up and down right in the car. He was in America at last, the real America—Camp Pendleton didn’t count. That had been just one step in their long journey and no more the real America than was the jet flight from Saigon.
Seated between his mother and his grandmother on the back seat of their sponsor’s car, he was speeding along the highway on his way to a new home and a new life. He was well aware that their being here was not all luck. It was because of his father’s skill as a construction worker that Mr. Hudson had decided to be their sponsor. It also helped that they could all speak English.
“That’s the Columbia River, Thah,” Mr. Hudson explained.
“Yes, sir,” Thah answered.
“I’ve read about the great Columbia. It is even mightier than I pictured it.”
Thah’s father laughed. “When a Red Cross worker at Camp Pendleton asked Thah what he needed, he said, ‘A book about the Pacific Northwest.’ He got it, too, and read it from cover to cover.”
Thah wanted to ask whether the many boats on the river were for fishing or for pleasure. But the two men were talking about construction now and he couldn’t interrupt. It was a beautiful June afternoon with not a cloud in the blue sky, and there were flowers everywhere, even on the trees. The car soon turned onto a long bridge. Thah saw ships below him and a white-peaked mountain etched against the distant sky. “Mt. Hood,” he said softly.
Mr. Hudson heard him. “That’s right, son. And now you’re in the state of Washington.”
Mr. Hudson left the bridge, drove through a small city, and stopped by a little white house. “I hope you’ll be comfortable here,” he said, unlocking the front door and handing the key to Father. He showed Thah how to turn a dial on the wall to bring in heat. He told Mother that there was food in the kitchen. “I’ll pick you up in the morning,” he said to Father. “We’ll take Thah to school and then I’ll show you our layout. You’re registered in the seventh grade at junior high, Thah. Are you all set to go tomorrow?”
“I am most eager to go,” Thah answered, bowing politely.
Thah turned up the heat, and Mother and Grandmother prepared the evening meal—good, dry rice with luscious bits of meat and vegetables stir-fried in oil. Grandmother even unpacked the chopsticks so they no longer had to jab their mouths with sharp forks.
That night Thah fell asleep, warm and full for the first time in many weeks and looking forward to his new American school. When morning came, however, he felt less confident. Will my classmates like me? he wondered. Will I be able to do the lessons?
Mr. Hudson led the way to the office of the principal, who was expecting them. “I’m glad you came to our school, Thah,” he said. The boy and his father bowed low.
“I’m honored, sir,” replied Thah, hoping that his voice didn’t betray his feelings.
As the morning wore on, Thah came to several conclusions about American schools: the teachers were kind, the work was easy, the students were noisy, and the halls were endless. He no sooner became interested in a class when a bell would ring, and everyone would jump up and hurry to another classroom, without so much as bowing to the teacher. He was dizzy from consulting his class card and looking for room numbers. The building was huge and the students were so tall that he felt lost in a forest of giants. Long before noon he became hungry.
At last a louder and longer bell sounded, and students stampeded from every door, nearly knocking him over. “Hello, Thah,” said a friendly voice above him. “I’m Kent Jones, your big brother.” Thah looked up at a smiling red-haired boy with a sprinkling of brown freckles across his nose. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to show you around. The dentist kept me two hours longer than I counted on. Come on, let’s go to lunch.”
Thah liked Kent. It is a good idea for a school to find big brothers for new boys, he thought. Thah was so hungry that he even liked the strange American food in the cafeteria. “You didn’t get anything to drink,” said Kent when they had found a place to sit. “What would you like?”
“Something very cold, please,” Thah answered. “I am so thirsty.”
“Okay,” said Kent. “I’ll see what I can do.” A few minutes later, he was back with a cup of ice-cold water. “Got it from the teachers’ dining room. Your good manners really made a hit with them. They’d give you anything.”
After lunch, Kent said they would go outside for PE. Thah was glad they would be together, but he wondered what PE meant. Later he decided that the P was for play. The E remained a mystery. They went outside and played a game with a small hard ball and a club called a bat. The object was to hit the ball hard and run fast. Thah was a fast runner, but they wouldn’t let him run until he hit the ball, and he could never hit the ball. It was the most frustrating experience of the day. He was on the verge of tears when he heard a piercing whistle, and the boys started back inside. Kent didn’t go. “The coach wants to see us,” he explained.
Now the master is approaching, Thah worried. Will I be expelled for failing to hit the ball? Will I be sent to the primary school in disgrace, to study with the little children? “I’m so sorry, Mr. Coach,” he said, bowing, “that I’m such a bad PE player.”
“Don’t feel bad,” the coach responded. “I’ll put you in another class for now. Practice up at home, and when you’re ready to play, let me know.”
That evening while the family ate supper in their warm house, Father told about his day in the construction business. Mother and Grandmother told about their trip to the food store and how nice it was to get all the soiled clothes washed and ironed. Thah could hardly wait for the others to finish so Father would say, “Well, Thah, how was your day at school?”
When his turn finally came, he told all about failing to hit the ball. “Will you please help me, Father? Will you practice with me until I am good enough to get back in the game?”
Every evening after supper Father and Thah went to a vacant lot to practice. Father threw the ball, but not too hard, and finally Thah was able to hit it. At the end of the week he hardly ever missed. “Maybe soon I can tell Mr. Coach I’m ready for the game,” Thah declared.
“Tell him tomorrow,” said Father. “If you hit that ball any harder, it will land in Saigon.”
Some of the boys snickered when Thah came out with Kent for PE the next day. “Here comes the champ!” called one.
“You’re supposed to hit the ball,” teased another, “not just wave the bat in the air.”
“Cool it, you guys,” shouted Kent with anger in his voice, and they were quiet. Thah didn’t care. He knew he could hit the ball and hit it hard. He could hardly wait for his turn at bat. In the meantime he watched closely to find out where to run. Finally he was given the bat. On the first throw he hit the ball a mighty blow and ran to first base.
“Run! Run! Run!” yelled all the boys and the coach. Thah ran to the next base and the next. They kept on shouting and cheering for him. “Run home! Run home!”
Thah hesitated. Are they teasing me again? he wondered. You can’t run home in time of school.
“Run home! Run home!” called the coach, and Thah did. He ran all the way, stopping breathless at his own front door. It is a half holiday they gave me, he decided, for hitting the ball so hard.
He tried the front door. It was locked. So was the back door. Mother and Grandmother had gone shopping. Thah sat down on the steps to wait. How proud they’ll be of me! He sat there until he was hungry. This must be the day that Mrs. Hudson invited Mother and Grandmother to lunch, he remembered. He still had his lunch money. He would just go down to Burgerville to eat.
Thah carried his shrimp burger and paper cup of orange drink to one of the outdoor tables. It reminded him of the sidewalk cafes in Saigon. A mother with four children sat at a table, but most people ate in their cars. Presently a police officer walked over with his lunch and a drink. “Mind if I sit here, son?” he asked.
“I would be honored,” said Thah.
The officer sat down and unwrapped his sandwich. He looked at Thah and then looked at his watch. “You wouldn’t be playing hooky, would you?” he asked.
“I’ve never heard of that game, sir. Is it anything like baseball?”
“Well, the two could go together,” replied the officer, smiling. “Is school out early today?”
“School is still in session. I just won a half holiday.”
“For perfect attendance all year?”
“Oh, no, I haven’t been here that long.” Thah knew he should never boast, but the officer was so interested that he couldn’t help telling him the whole story. “I once won a half-holiday in Saigon for conjugating the most French verbs, but they didn’t make me run home. They let me ride my bicycle like I always did. Do you know why they made me run?”
The officer almost choked on his drink and had to wipe his mouth with a paper napkin. Thah could see genuine laughter in his eyes, not derisive laughter like the boys in the game.
“Yes, I know why,” he said at last. “I’ll tell you while we ride back to school to get your bike.”
“I had to leave my bicycle in Saigon,” Thah explained. “Will you please tell me anyway?”
“It’s like this,” said the officer, spreading out Thah’s napkin and drawing a baseball diamond on it with a gold pen. He explained what strikes, bases, hits, fouls, outs, and home runs meant.
“I made a mistake,” gasped Thah. “It wasn’t a half holiday. I am a truant. Please take me back so I can explain.”
“Let me explain first,” said the officer. And he did on a little telephone right in his patrol car. “And anyone who laughs at Thah gets thrown in the jug,” he warned before he hung up. Thah knew that was a joke and he could guess that jug was an American word for prison. Best of all he knew that he had made a hit with his new American friend who would go to bat for him any time.