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Dennis--a Pupil Who Remembers Vietnam

Times Staff Writer

They call him Dennis these days, a rambunctious 13-year-old who runs home from school each afternoon to race his dirt bike with pals, practices break dancing on the kitchen floor, watches too much TV and does too little homework.

Susan, 12, his kid sister, is giggly and freckle-faced, an “A” student at Gainesville’s Lyman Hall School who dreams of one day becoming a doctor. “Either that or I want to be Cyndi Lauper or a movie star,” she confided to a visitor the other day.

They sound like average American kids growing up in the all-American tradition. But Dennis and Susan Everton are only half-American and anything but typical.

Vietnam Airport Scene

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On Sept. 30, 1982, Dennis, then known as Nguyen Quoc Viet, and Susan, called Nguyen Thi Ngoc Loan, fidgeted nervously along with their mother, Nguyen Thi Sau, in the departure lounge of Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhut Airport, once a bustling U.S. air base when the metropolis was called Saigon.

The youngsters, whose American father, civilian aircraft mechanic Dennis Everton, died in an air crash during the Vietnam War, were about to fly to the United States as part of the first contingent of Amerasian children allowed to leave the country since the Communist takeover in 1975.

Since 1982, nearly 2,500 of the mixed-race youths, living legacies of the American military involvement in Vietnam, have been airlifted from Tan Son Nhut to the land of their fathers.

Although estimates vary widely, another 8,000 to 15,000 and possibly more are believed still to be in Vietnam, where because of their heritage, they are often shunned by pure-blooded Vietnamese who scorn them as bui doi-- dust of the earth. Many complain that they are denied schooling. Some live in the streets, hawking peanuts and begging to survive.

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Complaints From Hanoi

In the last few years, Washington has stripped away several bureaucratic and legal barriers that impeded Amerasian immigration. However, officials in Hanoi claim they are ready to expedite the departure of all the youngsters and complain that the United States is not moving swiftly enough to take them.

Dennis was a confused and frightened little boy the day he left Vietnam. Only two weeks before, Communist authorities had first told his mother to prepare to leave. But not until they reached the airport, where American television crewmen and reporters were waiting for them, did they find out for sure where they were headed.

As he walked from the terminal to the tarmac, Dennis wailed hysterically as he caught a last glimpse of relatives waving goodby from the observation deck. Moments later, however, anguish turned to awe as the impish youngster boarded a jumbo jet for his first airplane ride.

Barely aloft, he whipped out pen and paper and began a letter to two Vietnamese half-sisters who were not allowed to leave. “I’m going on the airplane and I don’t lack for a thing,” he scribbled in his native language. “Please tell everybody that this airplane has everything you would ever want to eat, including grapes, sandwiches, cold orange juice and cold water.”

Exercise and Junk Food

Such amenities no longer mystify Dennis, who, like many growing teen-agers, seems to have refined refrigerator raiding into an art form. The scrawny, 4-foot-10-inch, 77-pound kid at the airport has filled out on hamburgers, fried chicken, junk food and exercise, growing 8 inches and picking up 60 pounds, much of it muscle.

Although they understood no English when they left Vietnam, both children have acquired a full vocabulary and a distinctively Georgian drawl. Dennis frets about getting a “whuppin’ “from his teacher in school. Shy with strangers, Susan answers most questions with a curt “yep” or “nope.”

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For their first five months in the United States, the family lived in Sacramento, where they stayed with the parents of Nguyen Thi Sau’s late husband.

Then Sau learned that Giang Long Kiem, a man she had known from her childhood days in the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta, was working as a mechanic in Gainesville. She moved her family to this stately southern resort city 60 miles northeast of Atlanta to be with him.

Life here has been comfortable for Sau and her children. They bought their own two-bedroom house on the outskirts of town. They own four television sets, a videotape recorder and a washer-dryer. A new Toyota Cressida sits in the driveway.

Better Off Than Most

They are better off than most recently arrived refugee families, thanks in large measure to the $2,900 in insurance and survivors’ benefits they get each month from the U.S. government as part of the settlement in Dennis Everton’s wartime death.

Few Amerasian youngsters are entitled to such stipends. Unlike the Everton children, most are illegitimate, and many, even though they have been granted entry to the United States, do not know the identities or whereabouts of their fathers.

Adjustment to life in a new land has not been trouble-free for Sau’s family, however. The children are still trying to catch up on their schooling. Both are in the 5th grade--two years behind the normal level for a girl of Susan’s age and three years behind for Dennis. Last year, they had to switch schools because some children made fun of them and picked fights.

They yearn for the half-sisters they left behind and fear for the safety of a half-brother who was drafted into the Vietnamese army and is stationed in Cambodia fighting rebels.

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Despite his newfound comforts, Dennis says he still dreams of one day returning to his boyhood home, a place where he found simpler joys.

“I can see both sides of Vietnam,” he said nostalgically. “Sometimes I think of all the land and the pretty trees and the zoo. And at night we would walk around and there’d be lots of people on the streets. Here, nobody walks at night. They’re all scared they’ll get robbed or killed. I’d like to go back there--if they don’t have a war.”

Bob Secter was in Gainesville before leaving for Vietnam to cover the 10th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.


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