Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Events That Shape Our Lives

Disclaimer:  This post has nothing to do with beading or jewelry making, but it is one of the most profound experiences of my life and certainly contributed to shaping who I am today.

Last night I was listening to NPR and they were doing an expose on the US's last days in Viet Nam and the evacuation efforts.  The story brought back memories of the part I played in that evacuation effort.  It was 1975, I was in high school, my dad was in the Army and we were living on the Presidio Army base in San Francisco.  I should also mention that my dad served three tours in Viet Nam so I was very familiar with the war.

I don't remember how I heard about it but I became aware of the fact that hundreds of small Vietnamese children had been evacuated and were being brought to the Presidio in a plan they called Operation Babylift.  There was a need for workers to help tend to the children until they could find foster homes for them.  I had a Red Cross card from a recent babysitting course and decided to give it a shot.  I was 16 at the time.

The building was HUGE --could have stored an airplane in it.  I don't recall what it had been used for, but Harmon Hall was quickly turned into a temporary shelter for these small kids.  No one really asked me any questions.  They took one look at my Red Cross card and showed me where to check in.  I think I may have held my thumb over the part about the babysitting course. 

I could never, ever explain in words what that place was like.  Imagine a huge empty room with hundreds of mattresses lined end to end on the floor and a child on every mattress (actual picture below).  We were assigned to oversee one or more mattresses and make sure the children were cared for.  These kids were scared to death.  They had no idea what was happening to them and didn't speak a lick of English.  There were interpreters to help but there were so few of them, we were pretty much on our own to try and communicate with the children.  The kids were supposed to have come from orphanages however many had notes on them from parents who had forced their children on to the evacuation helicopters in hopes of saving them from what was to come in their country.  The notes all had the same basic message - "Please take care of my child."

Operation Babylift Presidio
Operation Babylift - Harmon Hall, Presidio, SF
  On my first shift, I was assigned one little boy to watch.  He was about 5 years old and terrified.  I could write a book on what it was like to care for him, get him to eat food he had never seen before, get him to pee in a bottle so they could test his urine, comfort him when he cried for his mother (he was one of the kids with a note pinned to his shirt).  Eventually, a placement home was found for him and he left the building.  I stayed with him for about 36 hours straight.  After that, I went home and got some sleep.

The next day, I went back again and this time was assigned to watch 3 orphan children.  Two sisters and a boy who they had taken under their wing.  Too many stories to fit here but suffice it to say, there was a very interesting dynamic between the 3 of them - one was most clearly the authority figure and the other two would not do anything without her OK.  When it came time to place them, the kids were split up.  I will never forget the screaming, kicking, and hysteria when they came to take those children.

I will never know what happened to those 4 children I looked after but I do think about them from time to time and hope their lives turned out OK.  At the time, I was not really old enough to comprehend the situation.  Now that I am a mother myself and much older, it breaks my heart to think of what those kids went through.  I am positive that the experience has made me a more compassionate person, especially when it comes to children.  I also understand all too well how war can have such a destructive influence on the innocent.

Like I said, this has nothing to do with jewelry but the story has been weighing on my mind since the radio show last night and I wanted to share.  Do you have one or more experiences that left a mark on your life?