It was a blazing hot day in August of 1971. Sweaty air conditioners were working overtime, filling the streets of Manhattan with an unrelenting drone. I was in the elevator of my apartment building having just returned from physical therapy. There were four other people in the elevator – an exterminator, a mid-twenties hippie chick I knew only as “Rain”, elderly and bitter Abe Samuelson and a very pregnant Asian woman I didn’t know. Abe made a point of moving away from the Asian woman, spitting out the words “savage gooks!” Abe usually wisecracked about my missing arm but today his vitriol was directed elsewhere. Ignorant man.
The doors closed and we began our slow ascent. Old buildings, temperamental elevators and a heatwave – a bad combination. Somewhere between floors 3 and 4 the elevator jolted to a stop. Before Abe could utter a curse word the elevator churned back to life, coughed a bit and stopped again with an ominous screech. Except for a few groans no one said anything. I pushed the alarm button and reached for the elevator’s emergency phone. Halfway through my call the electricity went out, the AC shut off and my phone connection died. Blackness engulfed us and it started getting uncomfortably warm.
Abe started cursing and banging the walls, all the while ranting “goddamn fucking dinks – I hate them!” The exterminator was praying in what sounded like Haitian Creole and Rain softly hummed “Let It Be”. I tried unsuccessfully to pry open the doors and reminded everyone that at least part of our emergency call went through so help had to be coming. It was then that I became aware of low guttural moans coming from the Asian woman and in Vietnamese she gasped that the baby was coming.
I asked exterminator man if he had a flashlight, which he did. Turning it on he handed it to me and everyone calmed down a bit. Amazing what a little ray of light can do. The pregnant woman eased herself onto the floor; I told her I understood Vietnamese from my days as a medic in Nam. I said my name was Jack; her name was Thanh. We talked softly as Abe carried on about his son who died in Vietnam – “And for what?? This slant??” he screamed. The exterminator became more agitated and Rain sat by him holding his hand.
Thanh told me she married an American soldier in early November 1970 and he brought her back to live in the U.S. with his parents. After two weeks he returned to Vietnam; he was killed November 21st in Operation Ivory Coast. Thanh soon learned she was pregnant. Relations with her in-laws became strained and she moved in here with her cousin. As we sat quietly I thought of that November day. I remembered a soldier flung himself on me as I worked in the MASH unit. He was blown to bits while I only lost my arm. Could that have been Thanh’s husband?
Suddenly Abe stood up and screamed racial slurs at Thanh. The exterminator sobbed while Rain sang to calm him. I yelled for everyone to “shut up!” And that’s when we heard faint voices.
“Anyone in there?”
“Roger that! We’re down here!” I shouted and was rewarded with a resounding “HUA!”
Haltingly the doors were pried open and a rescue ladder was lowered into the elevator. Abe headed straight for the ladder; I blocked the selfish bastard’s way.
“The pregnant lady first.”
Gingerly Thanh made her way up the ladder and was rushed to the hospital. The rest of us climbed to safety.
Call it crazy intuition but I had to get to Tranh.
NAR © 2020