A Toy for Jack

By Judie Schaal

It started innocently enough. Grandchild asks grandmother for toy. What grandmother wouldn’t go to the ends of the earth to satisfy the whims of her grandchild? In this case, however, the end of the earth was Vietnam, and the toy was a gun.

My good friend, Sue Rielly, has a daughter, Maggi, who moved with her husband to Vietnam in 1996. Jeff was to become pro/manager at a golf course in Dalat, a beautiful mountainous area northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Their supposedly brief assignment to this Asian country had been extended by six years, and the family nucleus had been increased by two delightful children, Rielly and Jack.

In the fall of 2002, Sue and I, along with another friend, planned to take a trip to Vietnam to see Sue’s daughter and family and to tour the country. A few weeks before our departure, I received a phone call from Sue. “Judie,” she said, “The airlines allow us each two suitcases to bring aboard the plane. Would you mind packing all your belongings in one suitcase, so that I can use the other one to fulfill all the requests my daughter has for items she can’t find in Vietnam.” I readily agreed, but after I hung up, I began to wonder if it was me Sue wanted on the trip or just my suitcase.

Excited with the anticipation of traveling to a strange foreign country, I boarded a plane on the East coast and flew to Los Angeles, where my friend lived. We would spend a few days there and a few days in Tokyo before heading to Vietnam.

Sue’s husband joined us in preparing for the trip by finding us nifty new suitcase locks which used combinations instead of keys – one less thing to worry about he surmised.

And then Sue hit us with the bomb shell. “By the way, I almost forgot to tell you that little Jack wants a Toy Story Woody gun and holster set for Christmas. I stuck it in one of the suitcases.”

Toy guns. Hmm! 9/11 was just a year before. Hmm! They’re just toys. I guess it’s okay. Hmm!

Off we went to the LA Airport with our scandalous luggage in hand. But, unbelievably, all went well. We checked in, processed our luggage and headed for the Japanese Airlines Business Class Lounge. Not so fast! We were only there a short while when a JAL representative came looking for us. We knew what he wanted. He wanted me. All six baggage tickets had been put under my name. Sue looked at me. I looked at her. “Thanks, Friend,” I said, “I hope you will come visit me in jail.”

We retraced our steps to the JAL check-in desk where we found three ominous looking attendants and one tagged suitcase. Our predicament might have been solved easily except that the “nifty” lock that Sue’s husband had bought for us would not open. As shifty eyes watched us, we sat on the floor of the airport trying every combination we could think of. No luck! When we finally asked for help, a nearby JAL employee simply poked a screwdriver between the teeth of the zipper and the suitcase opened easily. With two-way zippers, one can easily zip either way to close it again. We thought we had secured our luggage.

The Woody guns passed inspection. One down, two to go!

We spent several days touring Tokyo with Sue’s son, Mike, who was living there working for International Management Group. Then we were off to the Narita Airport for our trip to Vietnam. This time Sue showed the guns to the airline personnel who okayed them before she put them back in the suitcase.

The flight to Communist Vietnam was uneventful. When the plane landed, we gathered our things together and proceeded to the terminal. We were met by stern looking men in olive green uniforms with red shoulder boards. I became very uncomfortable as these no nonsense officials scanned the crowd with dark beady eyes. We all sighed our relief when they finished checking our passports and directed us to Baggage Claim.

However, my apprehension increased dramatically as we neared security. Those guns were still in the suitcase. I became more nervous when I remembered that I had signed an entry form which included two sentences that could definitely apply to our “contraband.” Line #2…“Important prohibitions…a. Children’s toys having negative effects on personality development and Line #5…Passengers bringing in goods that are banned from import and export will be handled according to Vietnamese laws!”

I could see the three of us being detained indefinitely in a cold sparsely furnished room with one of those beady-eyed policemen grilling us under a bare light bulb.

To make my apprehension worse, the day before I left home for this trip I read in our local paper an article about Don Duong, one of Vietnam’s top actors who was labeled a traitor and put under house arrest the previous month by the Ministry of Culture and Information. Authorities seized Duong’s passport after viewing the Vietnamese War film, We Were Soldiers in which he acted along with Mel Gibson. The Cultural Ministry had recommended that Duong be prohibited from leaving the country and banned from acting for five years.

Now I’m thinking, no sparsely furnished room, but instead big iron bars!

The six suitcases started moving down the conveyor belt toward the scanning machine in what seemed like infinitely slow motion. I tried not to look at the others as I was sure my expression would betray my mounting terror.

However, to our amazement, all six suitcases made it through security…with no bells, no gongs and no whistles going off. Unbelievable! We hurriedly grabbed our bags and walked as fast as we could to the exit, hoping none of those beady-eyed policemen would grab us.

I knew one day we would laugh about this situation, but at that moment all I wanted to do was deliver the toy to Jack and disappear to the ends of the earth.

About this writer

  • Judie Schaal Judie Schaal lives in Murrells Inlet with Gary, her husband of 50 years. She has written for On The Green magazine, the Sun News as a tennis columnist and is currently copy editor and photographer of a local color 28 page newsletter.

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