By John Toth
One of the many things I like about cruising is that there is always someone with whom to strike up interesting conversation.
We know how to do that, maybe too well. We’re in the business of communications. That’s what we do all the time. But it’s different on a cruise filled with people from all over the country. We share our story and listen to theirs. It is often fascinating.
We were on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas recently to escape winter (which I think we’ll be doing on an annual basis), when we decided to get a late lunch.
We checked on the app and saw that the buffet was still open for lunch, so we rode the elevator to Deck 16 and were immediately met with dozens of cruisers who had the same idea that day – to eat a late lunch.
One thing I noticed about cruisers is that waiting in line is not a big deal. It’s not like you have to hurry back to work. People are friendly, polite and funny. They are on the ship to have a good time and relax. They are not stressed out from catching or missing a flight or worrying about the next staff meeting. They have time to wait and are in a good mood, especially when a piano player entertains them in the hallway, which was the case this time.
After a few minutes, we were ushered to an empty table right next to Kenny and Helen from Houston. The tables were close together, which is customary on ships, and it didn’t take long to become engaged in a conversation – first small talk, and as we progressed, some pretty interesting topics.
Kenny was a soldier in the South Vietnamese Army when Saigon fell in 1974 and spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp.
I was all ears as he described his ordeal. He was on the verge of starvation and saw several of his fellow soldiers die in the camp. He was one of the lucky ones who found ways to survive by eating whatever he could find. To the North Vietnamese, he was the enemy. They didn’t care whether he lived or died. Many died.
The way he described it, Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan and H.W. Bush presented lists of South Vietnamese soldiers imprisoned and kept pushing the communists to agree to free them. Kenny’s name was on one of those lists. He was in a group of prisoners freed in a deal hammered out by diplomats. A non-profit sponsor made it possible for him to immigrate to the U.S., where his new life began.
“I am very grateful to this country,” he said. “It’s the best country in the world.”
His past was so intriguing that I didn’t ask him many questions, just listened to the amazing story he was telling. Helen, his wife, added that one of his family members died while trying to escape Vietnam in a boat overloaded with refugees. He died the day before the U.S. Coast Guard rescued the single surviving person in the vessel.
Why did they take a life-threatening chance like this? For the same reason my mother took a chance to escape from communist Hungary in 1966, taking me with her.
I have written about this many times, but my story pales compared to Kenny and Hellen’s past. For us, there was no prison, no hunger, and we didn’t use a crowded boat to escape. We did it with falsified papers and a train ticket.
Now it was Kenny’s turn to listen. We told the same stories, but in different ways. We both came here for the same reason – to start a new life and live comfortably. In return, we contributed to the country’s economy and reaped the rewards.
The USA rewards achievement. There are no political slogans to chant, no need to belong to the party in power. All you have to do is work hard and take advantage of opportunities.
I shook Kenny’s hand as we finished lunch and departed.
There are thousands of Kennys who came here like he did and have made this country better. He just wanted a peaceful, middle-class lifestyle. He was not looking for a handout, just a chance. My mother and I weren’t, either. We never accepted a handout. We made it on our own, as did many Americans’ parents and grandparents, who also came here to seek a better life.
To me, Kenny fits the descriptions of a hero who survived against all odds and then found a country that welcomed him. As it welcomed me.
Yes, cruising can be really interesting. You never know who you’ll run into next. Kenny and Helen were a special treat. I hope they had a great cruise, like us.
A special shout-out to Judy Lowery of Lake Jackson, who works for American Realty. She stopped by while we had tea on the Promenade to comment on a jacket my wife, Sharon, wore.
As it turns out, Judy is an avid Bulletin reader. She also introduced us to Margarita Hagan. We engaged in a nice conversation. I love cruising, but I really love the opportunity to come across people who share their stories. It is very rewarding.