WINTER HAVEN, Fla. – Danny Graves’ mother, Thao, didn’t like the idea of returning to Vietnam.
Thao and Graves’ father, Army sergeant Jim, had beaten a path out of the country just before the fall of Saigon in Oct. 1974.
“It took awhile to talk her into going back,” said Graves, who is trying to win a spot in the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen. “She thought if she went back, they might try to keep us there.
“She considers herself an American. She didn’t see any reason to go back. I guess when she left, things there were pretty nasty. She didn’t realize that times have changed.”
The Graves’ trip home in late January is a baseball story, at least to this extent. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund paid for Graves to initiate a project that will educate Vietnamese children about baseball, a sport that is non-existent there.
“We dedicated the first baseball field in Vietnam,” Graves said. “A couple of hundred (high-school aged) kids came out.
“Baseball is now going to be part of the phys-ed programs in school.”
The visit became an opportunity for HBO, whose cameras followed the Graves every step of the way. Viewers can see the results at 10 p.m. on Tuesday on “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”
The focus of the trip took a different turn once Graves convinced his mother to come along. It was a chance to see her brother and sister for the first time in 31 years.
It gave Graves his first opportunity to see the country of his birth after he and his parents fled. At the time, Graves was 14 months old.
“I didn’t find out about all that until now,” Graves said of his family’s hurried exit. “But my dad (who died in 1999) got word that Saigon was going to be overrun, so we packed up and left.”
Graves knew little about the early months of his life or conditions in South Vietnam. Neither of his parents talked about it. Although he learned to speak Vietnamese as a child, he and his brother Frank abruptly stopped speaking the language, more or less in self-defense.
“One day we just quit cold turkey,” Graves said. “The other kids kept teasing us, saying we were talking Chinese.”
At the time, Graves was a pre-kindergartner; his brother three years his elder. Both boys had lots of questions that went unanswered.
“My parents would never talk about Vietnam,” Graves said. “And they never gave a reason. But I understand now that there were a lot of bad memories.”
The heartache and hard times of living in a country torn to shreds by a protracted war melted away on the return trip.
“There were a lot of things that made me happy there,” Graves said. “We got to see the apartment where we lived.”
Thao had no trouble remembering the address. In the intervening years, the residence had been divided in half.
“The door was padlocked on one side, because nobody was home,” Graves said. “Over there, they don’t have regular locks like we do. They use padlocks.”
Vietnamese officials briefed Graves about street life in Saigon. They cautioned against wearing jewelry around the neck or wrist that could be ripped away by thieves.
“I wore my stuff and nothing at all happened,” he said. “There is no crime there. The police don’t wear guns or night sticks.”
There remain few broken buildings in Saigon to remind people of the war, but thousands of live artillery shells, bombs and land mines dot the landscape.
“They said there is 300 tons of ordnance still there,” Graves said. “We were in this village, when a live shell had blown up someone’s house. They are gradually defusing or exploding all this stuff, but it’s taking a long time to do it.”
Graves was reminded that America is still regarded as a place where people can make a fresh start.
“We were standing around in this village, and a lady holding a baby came up to my mother,” Graves said. “We asked how old the baby was, and the woman started following us around.
“As we were getting on the bus to leave, she asked my mother if I could take the baby with me. She wanted her baby to have a better life.”
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