How does one choice impact the trajectory of our lives?
The compound effect of our choices often takes time to be revealed, the influences so seemingly small.
And then some choices are more pivotal, singular, instantly decisive.
Nineteen year-old Loc Le paced the dark beach late one night, eyes straining to see anything in the watery abyss. The plan was already going wrong.
He walked up and down the shoreline, quietly convincing himself he was there at the right time, on the right day. This was his second attempt to catch the boat, and to avoid detection he had to go alone.
He found the house where the escape was coordinated. But when he spotted police hiding nearby, he knew not to approach. “They waited to catch people who contact the person in the house.”
A small boat was supposed to pick him up and take him to a bigger boat. But where was it?
He waited. And waited.
“I cannot go to that house, so I don’t know where to go. I just think, ‘What can I do now? No one I can contact with.’”
Somewhere in the night, he hoped his father, step-mother and half brother had reached the big boat, and that they would be re-united soon.
They were all running. Away from Vietnam and communism. Into the unknown. Toward freedom.
It was 1979, and a few years had passed since the North defeated the South. When he turned 18, Loc was awakened in the middle of the night and forced to join the army. He wrapped up a few clothes and was put in a police car to report for military duty. He could feel his freedom slipping away.
Not long after, he escaped from the army for the first time. When he was caught, he was put in solitary confinement for one month. Months later, he was assigned to guard duty at the Vietnam-Cambodia border. His family didn’t know where he’d been sent. But his father searched through jungles, asking after his son, and eventually found him.
“I don’t know how he found me,” said Loc. “Only love can do that.”
Loc and his father told his superiors a story that Loc’s mother was ill, and he needed to go home.
Was that true, I asked?
“No! It’s not true at all. To survive under the communists, you cannot tell the truth.”
And his family fought to survive. His father had been a captain in the army for the South. Loc’s older brother, also a soldier, had been killed by soldiers from the North when Loc was just 12 years old. Loc’s paternal grandfather had also been killed, simply because he was working for French people and learning to speak French.
“You’re looking for the boat, right?” The voice came from a fisherman on the shore.
Loc said yes.
The fisherman said he would point him in the direction of the boat, but only for money. Loc had no money. None.
So he unclasped his necklace and gave it to the fisherman. “I said, ‘Tell me, where is the boat?’”
The fisherman pointed to a faint light far in the distance, a boat floating in the darkness on the South China Sea.
“That’s the boat that’s going to leave tonight,” he told Loc.
But how would he get there?
He walked back and forth until 2:00am, searching for a solution, searching for the small boat.
“Then I heard the dogs start barking.” It was the police patrol, and they were moving toward the shore.
“At that time, I have to make decision. If they catch me, they going to put me in jail because I escaped from the army. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.
“Now, the season is life or death. So I say, if I still have some life, I have to take it!
“So I start to swim.”
His emotions surface and the gravity of the situation is written on Loc’s face as he recounts the story.
“And I am not a good swimmer. But I swim. I swim. I swim. I swim I don’t know how long. And I reached the big boat. They pulled me up, and I passed out.”
The Big Boat
The big boat was just 12 feet long and three feet wide. When Loc finally regained consciousness, he was told he could go above deck to get some fresh air. It was then he discovered he was one of 38 people aboard that small wooden boat.
“And I see my father there! Oh, what joyful! I see my step-mom. I see my half brother. Oh, I am so happy.”
No sooner, news came that the boat had no food supply. The supply boat never came. “But they had to leave. So we have no food. We just have three gallons of water containers. For 38 people.”
A plan was quickly set to ration the water, using the small caps of the containers as serving sizes.
“We have three water caps. So, one at 10 o’clock, one at 12 o’clock, and one at 3 o’clock. Each people have three caps of water per day. No food.”
They went three days like that, in an overcrowded boat on the open sea, with only three caps of water per person per day.
Add to that, there were no experienced seamen on board. “No compass. No map. The captain, well, we call captain, of that boat: only thing he knows is that the sun rise and sun set.”
On the third day, they found a small damaged boat floating on the sea, and when Loc and other men climbed aboard, they discovered another container of water. Rusty water. “But who cares! I know I can survive a few more days with that much water in my body. So I drink and give to them and they drink it!”
The Philippines was the nearest destination, said Loc, but still they saw no land.
“We’re all exhausted, so we say ok, now we need to pray,” he said. “We need to pray something miracle happen.
“The next morning, around 8 o’clock, we see the cloud coming toward our boat. Maybe some rain!
“We get the tarp. Maybe some rain! Maybe some rain!
“And raindrops! The miracle thing. The raindrop! Oh, raindrops. We tried to lick the water on our hands. We tried to hold it in the tarp. Only for one minute, and that’s it. Then it stopped.”
And he stopped. He grew quiet and wiped his eyes. Finally he spoke.
“We survived on that rain.”
On the eighth day, they met a cargo ship from Holland, and while the crew couldn’t take them on, they gave everyone food and water. They also said they were close to the Philippines.
At around 6pm, they saw land. “Thank God that we see the land! Then the Philippine people, they get out, and they carry us to the land!”
He was free.
“As long as I feel free, that’s all I need. I didn’t feel fear of unknown. I can adapt. As long as I have freedom, it’s up to me!”
Living Free, One Day at a Time
I asked Loc if that was the hardest thing he’s encountered in his life.
Through quiet tears, he answered, “Yes. Everything after that easier, yes.”
To describe his journey from the Philippines to America and to making a life here as easy would be a gross misstatement. It was hard too. But his family, freedom, faith and self-reliance were strength enough for the journey.
“Until you lose it, you don’t know how precious your freedom is. Nothing better than freedom. Nothing.
“If you have freedom, and if you have your will, then you will make it.”
And he has made it. Now 54 years old, if you were to visit his southern California business for dry cleaning, or alterations, or shoe repairs, the treatment you’d receive would feel less commercial and more familial. For 24 years, Loc “Peter” Le has had Knott’s Cleaners. He greets people warmly, asking about their families, their lives.
Peter’s own family consists of his wife Sunny and their teenage daughter Angelle. His father, Vien Le, is now 87 years old.
More than 30 years since their escape from Vietnam, his father still talks about that journey. “He just reminded me,” said Peter, of the day their prayers for rain were answered. “Last Monday, I took him to see the doctor. He just remind me again, that a miracle happened to us.”
Peter continues to live his life with an intense appreciation for freedom and the opportunities it allows.
“The man dignity does not matter what kind of work you do, but how you do the work. Do it with pride.”