A World of Difference : Product of Two Cultures and One War, Amerasian Danny Larson Stands Out as Much for His Heritage as His Talent
It’s not really a secret, yet few people know much about Danny Larson, a junior quarterback on the Birmingham High football team. Only a handful of his classmates and just a few more teammates are aware of his heritage. And those who are insist it makes no difference.
But Larson is a pioneer of sorts, a rare breed who reflects recent U. S. history. As an Amerasian of Vietnamese extraction, he is among a tiny group of Americans who are just now coming of age in a new land.
Amerasians, the offspring of U.S. servicemen and Asian women, number about 100,000 globally, according to various estimates, and 20,000 of those are of Vietnamese origin. More than 5,000 Amerasians have come to the United States since the United Nations instituted a departure program from Southeast Asia in 1979 as an alternative to the travails facing the so-called “boat people.”
The State Department estimates that 10,000 to 15,000 Amerasians remain in Vietnam, but estimates of the number of people like Danny, who arrived in the United States before the 1975 fall of Saigon, are mere guesses.
The number is not high, according to Bruce Burns, a San Jose lawyer who founded Amerasian Registry, which aids Amerasians in the United States and helps unite U. S. servicemen with their Amerasian children in Southeast Asia.
“You’re not talking thousands,” he said. “I know about a dozen myself, and I think the number is about a couple of hundred.”
Because the numbers are so small, when an Amerasian steps into public view, he draws attention.
“I don’t feel I’m carrying the fate of Amerasians,” Larson said. “I just want to get out there and play.”
Larson will make his second start at quarterback tonight against Canoga Park at home. Birmingham opened the season last week with a 22-20 loss to University despite an encouraging performance by Larson. He completed 8 of 23 passes for 170 yards. One pass was intercepted, but he also threw two touchdown passes, including a 73-yarder to Diallo Frazier.
Birmingham Coach Chick Epstein calls Larson his best player but admits that he might be playing him out of position. As a sophomore, Larson was an All-Sunset League defensive back. Epstein compares Larson to former Birmingham players Harold Hicks and Lyle Pickens, each of whom played professionally.
“Danny may not be as quick as those two, but he’s every bit as good,” he said. “I had to move him to quarterback because he’s our best guy and we just don’t have the numbers this year.”
With a roster of 32 players, Epstein has his smallest team since he took over the Braves’ program in 1979.
“I feel so bad and discouraged by the lack of numbers because I’ve got a great athlete at quarterback,” Epstein said. “I saw that Danny had good grades and it’s my philosophy to get your brightest, best athlete at quarterback. He’s the type of kid we want to lead the team.”
Larson, who carries a 3.5 grade-point average, is a quiet leader, calm and clear-headed in the huddle, according to his teammates. That comes as no surprise to his father Ron, a jet-engine salesman who first went to Vietnam as a 23-year-old soldier in 1967.
“My kids have been a little more quiet and not quite as rowdy as other American kids because of their mother and the Oriental influence,” Ron said. “But they’ve always been into everything like other kids.”
Larson is just glad to have his son around. For a time in the early 1970s, it seemed that he would never be able to bring his children home.
Larson grew up in the San Fernando Valley and was drafted into the service in 1966. He was trained as a helicopter repairman and requested duty in Vietnam. He spent a year in Chu Lai, north of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), and finished his hitch in Texas.
He met Trang Nguyen during his tour of duty and it was that relationship that prompted him to return to Vietnam in 1970 as a civilian mechanic with a U.S. firm. He sought her out in Da Nang and they spent the next 2 1/2 years together before he decided to return to the United States.
“I wanted her to come with me then but she didn’t want to come. It was a tough decision for me to leave her,” he said.
Larson, who left behind two children, including the infant Danny, lasted only five months in the States. When Trang changed her mind about leaving, he returned to Vietnam and the two were married in 1973. But leaving a war-torn country facing imminent takeover by communist troops was no easy task.
“We had to pay everyone off to get all the paper work done,” Larson said. “Everybody had their hand out. We had to pay the Vietnamese to get birth certificates and our marriage certificates or they wouldn’t move.”
Larson worked under a deadline, knowing the closure of the U.S. consulate in Da Nang was also imminent. If he was forced to move to Saigon, he feared his problems would mount. He managed to stay about two weeks ahead of the pace and finally left the country in 1973 with his family, which by then had grown to three children. The Larsons’ fourth child was born in California.
“It was a frustrating and scary time,” he said. “The longer you stayed, the more you felt like you’d never get out.”
Danny Larson has heard the stories of his family’s flight to this country, but he was barely more than a year old when he left and has no memory of Vietnam. He doesn’t remember his grandmother and speaks no Vietnamese.
He is proud of his Asian heritage and longs to return, but no family trip is scheduled. U. S. civilians are allowed to travel to Vietnam, but because the two countries have no diplomatic relations, arrangements are difficult.
“I’d just as soon not have them go over there,” Ron Larson said. “They might not let them leave.”
For Danny, thoughts of his Asian past are always tinged with sadness. Although his father avoids watching movies about Vietnam, Danny has gone with his friends to see “Platoon” and other films about the Vietnam War.
“I felt sad that everybody was dying,” he said. “Seeing the Americans die, and they’re a part of me, and seeing the Vietnamese die, and they’re a part of me, it felt like I lost twice. I wish the whole thing had never taken place.”
Larson immediately grasped the irony of that statement. If not for the war, he would not exist. He smiled at the thought, for his life in the United States has been a good one.
Few Amerasians his age have enjoyed a middle-class upbringing in suburban America. He was raised on Little League baseball and he also stars for the Birmingham baseball team as a center fielder. A college education is all but assured and, with a little luck and two strong years at Birmingham, he might earn an athletic scholarship.
“With my name and the way I look, nobody believes I’m Asian,” said Larson, a solid 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. “I’m proud of my heritage and I’d like to see what the country looks like. But I’m very American. I know it was tough leaving Vietnam, but we’re lucky to be here.”