MARY NELLE GAGE as told to Larry Engelmann
"OH, I'D LIKE TO TAKE HER TO A WARM PLACE SO SHE DOESN'T HAVE TO DIE THERE."
I grew up in Texas. I entered Loretto Heights College here in Denver and went to school for four years. Then I worked at the National Student Association in Washington, D.C. for a year. Then entered Sisters of Loretto in Colorado and was a postulant for nine months and then entered the novitiate in Kentucky.
When I first explored the possibility of entering a religious community I said specifically I wanted to work in an orphanage. And the people said, "Well, that's not why you enter a religious order, to work in an orphanage. And in fact when you enter an order you have a vow of obedience which you means that you do what someone else tells you to do. So that would not be an appropriate mind set to come into the community."
So then, in a sense, I sort of put it aside, but always had that thought in the back of my mind.
After I had entered the order, I taught school for five years. At that time I wasn't really aware of what was happening in Vietnam. Not really. All I knew was what I saw on the news on television or read in the newspapers.
I heard in early '73, about February, that Susan McDonald was thinking about going to Vietnam. So during our Easter vacation I went down to the mother house where Susan was living and somewhat casually, although seriously from my point of view -- I thought it was really kind of hopeless, but I was sort of driven to say it anyway -- "Is there something that someone without any kind of medical background can do there? I'd love to come and help."
Then six days after Susan arrived in Vietnam she wrote me a letter and said, "There is so much work to do, get your shots, get your visa."
Well, I guess in my own heart, I didn't have any hesitation or fear about going to Vietnam, but when I vocalized what I was going to do, the expressions on other people's faces and the things that they said to me then caused me to go through a rather wrenching process, because there were some people in our community who said, "You're intending to perpetrate the ugly American. You are going to a place for work without knowing the language, without your willingness to take time to go and study the language and the culture." And my friends here were saying, "Gosh, we don't want you to go away." And my family was just appalled. See, at that time my brother was about twenty or twenty-one, and for my dad, the greatest thing was to keep my brother out of combat and then here his daughter volunteering to go to Vietnam.
Of course my mother had talked to someone who had said, "Oh, Saigon, the Pearl of the Orient." She had these visions of what I was going to see, some kind of Oriental dreamland. But instead I found it was just devastated and very depressed looking, and clearly a poor country at war.
The two people whom I had met prior to my arrival there, Susan and Rosemary Taylor, were there to meet at Tan Son Nhut Airport and were clearly very happy to have me come. They gave me flowers and were just real jovial. I was right away struck by "My Gosh, it's so hot here, how can you breathe?" When I saw the facilities in Saigon, I thought, "I don't know how I'll ever be able to adjust to this." I remember a woman with one of those bars with the baskets on either side hanging off her shoulders and one of those conical hats, shuffling along this dirty dusty little roadside and I'm thinking, "Oh, my, this is an entirely different world." This is not what someone would describe as the "Pearl of the Orient" by any stretch of the imagination.
The first place we stopped was one of our facilities that later was called "Rat Haven" but was still the place where the older children lived. They were like, four, five, six, seven and eight.
At that point there were probably about sixty children there. The name of the house at that time, in 1973, was Allambie and the facility was extremely inadequate, particularly with regard to being able to wash and dry clothes. So the minute we got out of the car and started walking towards the gate and into the compound there, I caught this amazing stench of urine -- and I thought, "Oh, no, I can't even breathe here, how can I live and work here?" But pretty soon, within days, you are immune to it. And other people come in and say, "Oh, my, doesn't this smell get to you?" And you respond, "What smell?"
There was not adequate clothing for the children, not because we didn't have it, but because we couldn't stay on top of the laundry and get the things dry during the rainy season. Some kids were always running around without pants on -- just about what you would expect to see in a very poor orphanage.
But our places were hotels in comparison with the way the rest of the kids in the countryside were living.
When I arrived in Vietnam, at first I think I did have some fears that were not realistic. The second day I was there one of the other women who lived in the house at New Haven with us, Peggy Hammond, a physical therapist, was feeling bad and wanted to go out on the street to look for some wine. And I had not been out of the house yet after I had arrived from the airport and I said I would go with her. She's walking quite rapidly and my thought was, "Peggy, you have to slow down. I have to watch for snakes and land mines and you're walking so fast."
Then within a matter of a couple of days I really did laugh at myself, because I thought the things that I was afraid of were not what should have been feared.
My very first assignment was going by myself in a taxi with a 35 mm camera over to one of the hospitals, Clinic St. Paul, to take photos of little babies whom the maternity clinic had called us to know if we would accept responsibility for them because they had been abandoned. But we did not have space at New Haven, so we in a sense, kind of boarded them at Clinic St. Paul until we could arrange for more beds and space and what have you at New Haven. Rosemary needed those photographs for the children's records and then ultimately to be used for passport applications. So I went over to take photos.
I did things like this, helping Susan around the house, supervising the child care staff, going and getting supplies at the other house where we had kind of a warehouse, taking care of people who came to the door, taking care of children.
Then within a couple of weeks, Rosemary needed to make a trip to the United States and she wanted processing for children to continue, so she took me on a twenty-four hour marathon to show me every office that she did business with and what we needed to do at certain places, the police station, and the various embassies and the photocopy and the two lawyers offices, and all this kind of stuff. And she went over all of the forms that she worked with on each individual adoption.
So then I started working on that.
When I first arrived we had three houses, the original one was To Am or "Warm Nest". Then opened New Haven and Allambie -- it's an aboriginal term --Rosemary's Australian.
So there were three and then in November of 1973, the children who had been at Allambie were moved to the new Allambie which was close out to the airport -- a marvelous facility, it had a swimming pool, a big yard with grass, place for us to build open air type classrooms for the kids to have crafts, school, and plenty of rooms and kitchens. It was just grand.
Then what had been the old Allambie turned into more like a warehouse, pharmacy and guest house and office and that's what we called Rat Haven because when the kids moved out, then the rats took over and until we got that somewhat cleaned up it was over run and then it was only occasionally visited.
We were always working and I felt like we were overwhelmed. We just managed. Making the numbers and statistics come together was impossible. In the rainy season, was when the dryers never worked, and there weren't parts to be found to fix them. Then as soon as you sort of seemed to get on top of that, then there was a crisis with formula not arriving, and then if the formula arrived, then we didn't have money to buy the amount that we needed. Then once we had that it was an epidemic going around and children were dying and people were devastated by that. And then there were problems with somebody in the Ministry of Social Welfare saying that we were not doing necessary investigation of the background of the children. You were just skipping from one thing to another.
I remember very early on one night at New Haven, after the regular staff was gone, the night staff was on and there wasn't somebody real sharp on the kitchen crew of the night staff and the gas for the cook stove ran out, and Susan and I are in this place behind the stove trying to get this new canister of gas hooked up and for some reason she didn't wear her shoes when we went in there. So she's barefoot standing in this water and these cockroaches are crawling on her feet and she's saying, "This is the most unfair place I have ever lived."
But generally, one person would still be objective enough to be able to stand on the fringes and help you laugh with it, or relieve you of it or have enough energy to go and get a Coke and have you sit down and just talk to you. There was usually one person around who could sort of take care of others.
When I first arrived we had excellent working relationships with the vice consul, Lauralee Peters, at the American Embassy. A very smart woman, compassionate, but not a bleeding heart. And knew her stuff and could advise us what to do and help us when certain things were problematic.
Later after she was transferred out in June of 1974 we had two other persons in that office who were not nearly as sharp, not nearly as concerned. So then it became much more frustrating. Our dealings were primarily with Lauralee in the vice consul's office and then rarely with the consul general. Other persons in the State Department we really didn't have that much to do with.
Some months after I was there, five or six, then USAID began to flex its muscles and wanted to be in control of what was happening with inter-country adoptions and to know more about agencies' interactions with Vietnamese orphanages. All of that sort of thing. And they wanted to give us US government aid because so many of the families and persons in the United States who were helping to support us felt like, "My gosh, I'm paying taxes and they're going to support welfare projects all around the world. They should be helping this one that I'm very interested in." Yet I don't recall every being visited by anyone from Congress or the Senate. Never saw them.
USAID had an awful lot of bureaucratic red tape that Rosemary was allergic to, so she felt like you could get a whole lot more done without having to go through all that Mickey Mouse.
So that was another frustration, trying to balance out the amount of assistance. We were privately funded, the money raised by Rosemary and others. Organizations in the United States, Belgium, France, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Australia and Canada, were the places from which we were getting our support. In the United States there were a couple of different groups. I think the one from whom we got the most financial and material assistance was Friends of Children, which is still operating in Connecticut. Locally in Colorado, an organization called Friends of Children of Vietnam, with whom we were registered as an inter country adoption agency, provided a great deal of support also.
Then there were local chapters of Friends of the Children of Vietnam in Arizona, Missouri, places like that and then local groups of adoptive parents would have yard sales and cake sales and all that kind of stuff.
Despite all the difficulties and frustrations, I came to love Vietnam very very much. And I found the people very warm, and friendly, and caring.
While there was a war going on, and we were constantly reminded of it, at the same time I had a feeling of being far more secure there than I would have felt in the United States. Many times I would be in places at night from where I would need to go home. And I thought absolutely nothing of standing on the street corner and looking -- I don't know what the look is, but you kind of radiate a view -- and people say "Oh, look, here's somebody who needs a ride home." And having men on motorcycles come up with home we couldn't exchange hardly a common word, but I would be able to communicate to them where I needed to go and would negotiate a price and I'd hop on and off we'd go. Of course there's no way I would ever do that in the United States.
We didn't have good cooking facilities so it wasn't really possible -- and we really weren't into somebody taking care of us -- so we just sort of tolerated things and longed for people who would come and say, "We'd love to take you out," or"we're going to send Meals on Wheels over." But of course it never happened.
I guess I would have to say it was good hard work, but every day, every moment of every day was so different with different challenges, opportunities to meet so many different kinds of personalities, some of whom drove you up the wall, and to be involved in something that was so crucial to precious lives that without the combined efforts of so many persons of good will would have been lost to this world. I wish now there would somehow have been an opportunity to do a diary, because I can think of hundreds of things that were -- everything was the first and only time it happened. You never learned a skill you could use again. Every day you had to figure out a new set of resources to meet the challenges. But with people to support you and glad that you were there to do it and in the midst of a lot of squabbling adults to go into the nursery and pick up a child who was so eager for attention and who would respond with love in the eyes. It was all worth it. It was all worth it.
But Margaret used to say, it was just a salvage operation and as soon as the government could take care of itself and then begin to take care of the needs of the people, then we wouldn't be needed any more. I don't ever remember thinking ahead very much. To think about what the task was at the moment was hard enough. To try to imagine what was going to happen in the future was impossible.
The fall of 1974 had been very difficult because Susan had left New Haven for several months. Because I had been there and sort of knew the system then we were having various ones come and in a sense were relieving Susan until I was sort of the continuity there. I had gone for quite some time without a rest, so when Susan came back and things were sort of on an even keel as far as staff went, I was grateful to have a chance to go for a rest. Rosemary hated public contact. She preferred to do the work and not all this hail-fellow-well-met business that needed to be done with groups who were supporting us. So she was delighted that I would be willing to go and do the PR with some of these groups around the U.S.
That was not difficult for me, too, but I was glad to do it. So I came back to the United States.
I brought with me five orphans -- four babies and a child who could walk. I do remember very clearly when we arrived in Paris, I think the flight must have been late so everybody just hustled off the plane like mad and I think the crew was exhausted. So they got their things and they were walking off, and the folks who were supposed to help get the babies and the bags off and we're standing there just at the door to the plane, and I said out loud -- these kids didn't understand what in the world I was saying -- "Well, I guess you'll have to grow up in the Paris airport because there is no way I can leave you here while I run down the New York flight, and I can't carry all of you and all the bags. So I guess we just stay here the rest of our lives." And at that time you're so tired you're crazy. Couldn't they see I was clearly incapable of going on another moment?
And so this man appeared and said, "Do you need some help?" "Oh, yes, do I!" I said. Then we got off that plane and onto another and continued on our way.
Several weeks later in the U.S. on the six o'clock news I saw the pictures of the provinces or provincial capitals falling, and then the next day I was telling audiences, "It costs this much to support a child for this long, and these are the donated items that we need and this is how much cash we need."
And someone would ask, "Well, do you foresee that your operation will continue when there is the new government?"
And I said, "Oh, there won't be a new government. We're in Saigon and they're already on the plans for a negotiated settlement whereby the Third Force will occupy the part of South Vietnam that is north of Saigon and the Thieu government will still control Saigon and the Delta area. Oh, yes, we will be continuing."
One of the Vietnamese sisters, Sister To Thi Anh, who had studied in the United States and knew some of our sisters through her work with Carl Rogers, lived in Saigon and was sort of a contact for us. So we'd go over and have a nice meal with her or she'd bring us a sack of avocados or something over to the house. And that January, before I came back to the U.S., she came and visited with Susan and myself and said that she had just returned from a meeting of all religious up in Hue with the Bishop of Hue. He had said that there will be this negotiated settlement and we need to know which religious will continue to stay in their places and which ones will feel that they need to go to Saigon or the Delta area.
So I just thought, "Well, To Thi Anh is so smart and she has this inside information so of course that's what is going to happen."
But what I saw on television bothered me. At first I viewed it rather casually -- yet, with some degree of amazement, because we didn't have television in Saigon and we didn't get newspapers and magazines, and even if we did I don't think we would have had time to look at it. We weren't tuned in to the reports that came out of Vietnam. So it was kind of amazing to me to see pictures of that country and what was going on when I thought, "Golly, I live there and I didn't know all this stuff was happening." Or, "Oh, yeah, that does go on. I sort of am removed from that."
Then during that Holy Week those last days of March and when things were just absolutely falling apart everywhere, I watched the World Airways flight from Danang, and it was suddenly like, "This can't be happening. I don't understand why this is happening, because just a few weeks ago my impression was that the government and the military of South Vietnam were so determined and so strong, how could they just turn and run away?"
In early April I was in San Francisco and a friend of mine who had come to California to help out with our work was having some serious emotional problems and had really cracked at approximately the same time that they were loading the C5A. She started complaining about how Susan and I had gotten her involved with the orphans and it was something that was illegal and wrong and very serious, and how could we have done this?
And I was thinking my previous contacts with her had always had been that she had a clear, so if she is saying this, then it would have to be true. Then I'm all perplexed. I can't figure out how with this limited amount of time that she had been in contact with our work in San Francisco as we were preparing for children to arrive, how is it that she'd suddenly gotten this information. And where did it come from? I just couldn't figure it out.
She had really gone off the deep end. And she got worse and worse and then all of a sudden I began thinking, "No, this is not normal behavior." The things that she was doing and saying, somehow it got through to me that this was not right. So I find myself traveling around the city in an ambulance with her as we try to find a hospital with space in their mental ward.
Finally they had to take her by force in one place because she was resisting so badly. And hospital personnel were saying to me that I had to go outside this hall, because I should not see this and she should not remember me being part of this. That was so awful to me.
So then I went back to the house and went to sleep for a while. And then when I woke up and walked down the steps and I heard one of the nuns talking on the telephone -- she was on the telephone and I heard her say, so distinctly, "I will try to keep that from Mary Knell as long as I can."
And my first thought was that the friend I had just taken to the hospital had committed suicide. I was sure that was what it was and I walked into the room and said, "No, you can't keep it from me. You have to tell me what happened."
She was still on the telephone and she said, "I have to go now." And she hung up the phone and she then took me by the shoulders and took me into the tv room and said, "There's been a terrible accident."
There were pictures of the crash that night on the news.
I just remember crying and crying and wanting to know who was on the plane and who was okay. And wanting desperately to be there.
I learned later that Susan and Rosemary and Peggy Hammond were not on the plane. But Margaret Moses, a Sister of Mercy and Rosemary's good friend -- and mine -- had died in the crash along with the children.
It's hard to explain my feelings, now. I think I would perhaps liken it to maybe a boxer who has gone nine, ten, twelve, fourteen rounds, and you can just barely move, then somebody pulls you up by the arm and just socks you in the face. You just see stars.
I remember so many times in Vietnam, the house that we lived in was one of those French villa types that had so much stone in it. All the stairs were stone and there were children upstairs and downstairs, and we had these balconies, and on several occasions Susan and I would remark to each other that it was an absolute miracle that we don't have more terrible tragedies happen with children falling down the stairs or catapulting over the balcony, or terrible accidents happening on the street with cars.
We were so fortunate.
And then, to have so many wiped out so fast, it was like, "That's right, they have said it all my life, and I tried not to believe it and now I believe it -- there isn't any justice."
My faith was shaken. And I was perplexed and probably even angry that God would inspire us, encourage us to work so hard for something that then in the crucial moments it is yanked away. Those particular lives, especially. And also the opportunity to continue to try to do something for so many others we had not yet reached was gone.
When I learned of the crash I knew I wouldn't be going back to Vietnam, because the word was that the next, we had to get a commercial safe plane to go and bring the rest of our people back. I began working on that and knew that there was so much to do -- to have a place for those people, and especially the babies, to come to where they could be cared for.
And soon there were no more commercial flights going back anyway.
A large group arrived the very next day on a Pan Am flight. I met them at the airport.
I don't remember watching the fall of Saigon on television. I was too busy. Military transport planes came out on the 24th, 25th, and 26th. When those occurred we were getting a hundred children a day several days in a row.
I guess in terms of it coming back with an impact, I went to the Philippines in about 1978 to see about doing similar work for another organization, and the whole time I was there I was constantly amazed at how similar it seemed to Vietnam -- but the smell in the air, the look of the sky, and then even the way houses are constructed, all of that brought it back to me, so dramatically.
I was taking it all in willingly and yet with some trepidation because I remember thinking, "Oh, when I go around this corner I'll be back in Saigon again and everything will be okay." When I go around the corner, Margaret's going to be there. I've gone back and I've got it back all now!"
And then when I came back here, people asked me about it, and I just dissolved in tears. When I was there I thought I could do this, I know how to operate and I know what this is like. When I got back here and people asked me how it was, I could not talk intelligently. I just cried about it and said it was too much like Vietnam, I couldn't stand it.
I think some of coming to terms with what all of this meant really didn't happen until the summer of 1981. I had a chance to make a long retreat. I was in a program to prepare for final vows and I think that was the first time that I really could go deep, that I had the time and the energy and the willingness to go deep and to be able to talk about it without either needing to run away or being devastated by tears.
For years I was resentful at how selfish we Americans often are and at what people around me were perpetuating as "life", which was so meaningless and so enmeshed in so much materialism. That bothered me a great deal. When we were in Vietnam there was one day a week when we did not have electricity because they simply didn't have the facilities to produce enough power for everybody in all sections of the city to have as much as they wanted, or even in a sense, as much as they needed. So every section of the city had one day of the week in which you had no power. It was okay. We managed. We knew it was coming, we filled up every possible container with water. We knew that before six o'clock in the morning you had to brush your teeth and you couldn't flush the toilet until after six. All those kinds of things you know are going to happen so you prepare for it and its okay.
When I came back here and was just being bombarded with all kinds of things that used electricity that other people are prevented from having in order to carry on necessary functions, not luxurious functions, but necessary ones, and finding people thinking, "Well, we have it so we might as well use it." You get caught up in it so easily. But I think I was able to see simplicity of life in order that everybody on the globe may have a fairer shake.
And I think I was resentful that a work that was so gratifying was taken away.
There's nothing more gratifying than presenting to a family who has longed for a child, a baby. Wow, to be part of that is really special. The opportunities to meet so many different types of people from all over the world and to know that there were some things that we had in common -- that's just phenomenal. At the time I felt like, "I have to give, give, give, all the time. Tend to this, give to that." But knowing that it was for a good reason and now feeling the rewards that have come to me from that experience -- there isn't any way that I can work until my dying day to repay the gift that I received from that experience in Vietnam.
You see, I had always wanted to work in an orphanage. I don't really know why. And in Vietnam, I got my chance to do that.
The one story from when I was a very little girl that my mother says I always wanted her to read again and again was "The Little Match Girl" by Hans Christian Anderson. She was left all alone striking those matches, and I think there must have been something about her plight that made me keep thinking, "Oh, I'd like to take her to a warm place so she doesn't have to die there." And that sympathy for the homeless and orphans just stayed with me and led me to Vietnam.