Friday, August 17, 2007
WESTMINSTER -On a recent afternoon Jeon Je Yong sits at the dining table, eating plums.
Jeon is sitting an arm’s length away from Peter Nguyen, a man he rescued on the high seas 22 years ago.
LEONARD ORTIZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
On Nov. 14, 1985, Nguyen was stuck in a dinky fishing boat, bobbing on the Pacific Ocean with a broken motor, 96 people on board – many of them young children separated from their parents. They were all fleeing the Communist regime in Vietnam.
Stuck on a lifeless boat with no restrooms for three days, hope was scarce. Petrified eyes stared at the large, black storm clouds looming overhead.
To Jeon, now 67, that day seems so distant, ensconced deep in the past. And yet, he remembers the details of that day as if he were watching an instant replay.
The captain of a silver tuna fishing boat, Jeon had been specifically instructed not to pick up boat people. When he saw this boat and people waving for help with Nguyen at the helm, Jeon had to stop.
“At first it seemed like they were going away,” Nguyen said.
Then the silver speck reappeared on the horizon and the refugees on the broken boat leaped for joy.
“Well,” Jeon says in a matter-of-fact tone now, “we had to make a U-turn.”
Before making that turn back, however, the captain had to have a five-minute emergency meeting with his staff. Would they dare defy their company’s orders? Were these refugees worth his job? What was the right thing to do?
In Jeon’s mind, there was only one answer.
“I had to listen to my heart,” he says.
As his silver vessel neared the broken-down boat, he saw a young boy and his little sister holding hands on the deck, staring into the horizon.
That was it – that was the moment Jeon realized he’d done a good deed. What he didn’t realize was the price he would have to pay for it.
Peter Nguyen doesn’t just tear up when he talks about Jeon and that day on the high seas.
You can actually see rivulets streaming down his face.
“They are tears of gratitude,” he says. “If the captain had not rescued the 96 of us that day, I wouldn’t be here. The storm would’ve claimed our lives.”
As soon as Jeon rescued the boat people, Nguyen formed a relationship with the captain. Jeon invited Nguyen to his cabin and offered him some whiskey. It was the best whiskey Nguyen had tasted since the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
Jeon’s bosses who had heard about the captain’s defiance ordered him yet again to drop them back into the ocean on makeshift rafts.
Reluctantly, the captain ordered his men to make some rafts. He stood on the deck watching the boat people, talking in hushed voices and huddling close to their families.
Then, in a corner, Jeon saw a young mother. She was holding a tiny infant, barely two months old. There was no way that baby was going to make it on a bamboo raft on the Pacific, Jeon thought.
He ordered his men to stop making the rafts.
He’d rescued these lives and he was not about to toss them back into the water like some kind of fish. To have given these people the hope of life and then to shatter that hope seemed cruel to him.
Jeon knew there would be consequences the moment he hit the shore.
But he relished that moment, that surge of contentment that accompanies the knowledge that you’ve done something good.
When Nguyen came to America, he had three goals – find a job, write a book about Jeon’s good deed and bring his family to the United States.
He worked first as a legal assistant, then as a pizza delivery man. When that didn’t work out, Nguyen got an opportunity to test for a psychiatric nurse position at Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa. As it turned out, it was the perfect job.
Career and family took over Nguyen’s life. He had left his wife and children behind in Vietnam, safely tucked away in a hamlet on the mountains. He brought them to the United States. Now, all he had to do was write that book.
“The story was always in my head,” Nguyen says. “And the captain was always in my heart.”
Three years ago, he worked through one of his colleagues from South Korea and began his search for Jeon. On a trip to her home country, Nguyen’s co-worker located Jeon, who she found owned a mussel farm near Seoul. Nguyen couldn’t believe it and neither could Jeon.
Nguyen wrote an emotional letter to Jeon.
“I think you still remember captain, why you returned to rescue us,” he wrote in the letter.
Jeon was touched. He had saved the hand-drawn Christmas card Nguyen had sent him in December 1985 from a refugee camp in Pusan.
It was also through Jeon’s letter three years ago that Nguyen learned about what happened to the captain after he rescued the 96 refugees. He had been stripped of his position, fired from his job and remained unemployed for two years after which he was able to get another job and take over as captain of another ship.
“It was tough and scary with a family,” Jeon says. “But I never blamed my bosses for firing me. They did what they had to do. Just as I did what I had to do.”
Jeon and Nguyen had an emotional reunion in August 2004 when the captain flew down to Los Angeles. Last year Nguyen visited Jeon in Korea. Earlier this month, Nguyen accomplished his goal. He published a book in Vietnamese titled “The Ocean’s Heart” – an account of the captain’s brave and noble deed.
“It’s a lifelong friendship, a bond that’ll last for as long as we both shall live,” Nguyen says.
And that, says Jeon, is his true reward.