Couple recalls escape from Vietnam

Scientists say a person's eyes dilate when he or she experiences an extreme emotion, such as fear or excitement.

That would explain why Vincent Pham's eyes stay swallowed up by his dark, wide pupils nearly the entire time as he recalls his family's escape from Vietnam to the United States in 1982.

That year, he experienced more of both emotions than most people probably have during their entire lives.

In the workroom of Ann's Alterations in Kannapolis, which he and his wife, Judy, bought five years ago (but left it named for its last owner), Vincent tells the story.

Sometimes his sentences dart quickly past his lips, trying to catch up to the memories rushing back.

Other times he uses the tools of his trade to explain what he and his wife went through.

A pincushion and basket of candies he keeps for customers become the sides of the road when he describes how he pedaled a bike to his parents' village during a wartime raid, with artillery flying over their heads. The blur of abandoned goods left by villagers caught off guard, the smell of the bombs, the sand in their eyes as he pedaled, all those memories return.

Only when the bell on the door rings, signaling a customer has walked into the shop, does his calm demeanor return.

Would Judy be able to stitch a torn purple princess gown in time for Halloween? Could Vincent sew a half-dozen merit patches onto a Boy Scout uniform by tomorrow afternoon?

Each time, Vincent answers "Yes."

They've had more difficult tasks before, such as escaping down a river with 85 other villagers under a bright and sometimes betraying full moon, babies crying, children whispering, parents hushing them. Many other boats had been ambushed by communist soldiers, who would lie in wait for escapees along the vine-laden banks.

To understand the desperate measures they would take, one must first understand the conditions at that time in Vietnam.

Under communist rule, said Vincent, nothing belongs to you. Everything is taken from the people and doled back in rations.

"Even a chicken," he said, "if you raise a chicken. If you want to kill one for family dinner, no way. They control that."

Escape attempts were not uncommon. Many would try, but the risks were great. Some made it out past the bullets, only to return after their boat failed them. When forced to turn back, they would almost certainly find their home and possessions confiscated.

"You lose everything," said Judy.

Many of those who managed to make it to the ocean would never reach the Indonesian refugee camp that meant freedom. Vincent's sister put her 5-year-old son on a boat, and he was never heard from again.

"The whole boat disappeared. Eighty people," Vincent said, sadly. "So many trips disappear like that."

The Phams' boat, purchased by 87 villagers who had squirreled away money bit by bit, was one of the lucky ones.

"We lie to them" when ordering the boat, he said of the communists. "We say we were going fishing. But really, we were going to escape."

Each week they would purchase a little gasoline and bury it in the ground. When the stockpile was large enough to fuel the trip, they loaded a 55-gallon drum of water and a few sacks of rice, then signaled for the rest to come.

"The children cry when we cross the creek," said Vincent, who prayed the soldiers would not hear them. "It was scary."

For seven days and eight nights, they ate dry rice. The water ran out mid-week. The two-liter bottle he had stowed in case of an emergency for their month-old son was stolen and drunk by someone else. To talk of that moment still pains Vincent.

"When the barrel empty, I go look for it, and it was gone," said Vincent, his voice strained. "So disappointing."

Their other sons, ages 2 and 3 at the time, saw the ocean around them and begged their father for water.

"If you know that's saltwater, you can't drink it. That's OK. You don't drink. You don't ask me. I don't feel bad," said Vincent, recalling the heartbreak of denying his children a scoop from the sea. "But the children, they don't know. They see a lot of water everywhere on the ocean. 'Why don't you give me some to drink?' "

On the seventh day, their children - like most of the passengers, hungry, thirsty and sunburned - lay down and moved less and less with each passing hour. Many of the adults, beginning to realize they wouldn't reach freedom in time, accepted their fate and waited to die, said Vincent. As he poured the last drop of fuel in the engine, he and Judy began to lose hope, too.

Not until they saw the far-off dusty beam of a lighthouse, illuminating the sky in rhythmic one-minute intervals, did they realize they were saved from death at sea.

They had been told that when they saw the lighthouse, they had reached Indonesia and their freedom.

As Vincent finishes his story, he notices a young man standing near the dressing room, his pants a few inches too long. He had stood as still as a statue, drawn in by the story, while waiting for his hem to be pinned.

Vincent apologizes for the wait, but the man will have none of it.

"That's OK," he said, his eyes now as wide as Vincent's from the story he just heard. "I don't mind at all."