I am friends with a man named Lee who escaped from South Vietnam in the 1970s.

I met him in the 1990s when I flew from upstate New York to San Angelo, Texas.  Lee had flown from California to install a new version of software for a system I was there to train users on.

San Angelo is not the center of the world.  At least it wasn’t then.  Maybe things have changed, but I doubt it.  Their city limits signpost indicated a population of over 80,000.  As I drove into the “city” on a quiet Sunday morning in my rental car, I remember asking myself, “Well, where are they?  Where is everyone?”

They had a billboard along the highway advertising their annual Rattlesnake Roundup.  I was not there for the actual Roundup where they do all things rattlesnake, but I did eat my one and only entree of fried rattlesnake at dinner one night during the week I was there.

Dare I say it?  Tasted like chicken.

I stopped at a convenience store before checking into my hotel to pick up a 6-pack.  No.  Sorry.  Blue laws.  After unpacking my bags in my modest room, I went down and asked the clerk at the front desk what there was to do in town.  She smiled.  “Not much really.  There’s a mall you can walk to if you want.”

The mall itself was slim pickings, but they did have a run-down multiplex that was showing 4 different movies.  So I burned away the rest of my lonely Sunday by going in succession to all 4 of the movies which at least got me through the afternoon and evening.  Then I retired to my room.  Thank God they had HBO.  I watched more movies.  Even the ones I didn’t want to watch.

I don’t sleep well anyway, but it’s even harder for me when I’m traveling.  I fell asleep sometime during the wee hours.  I would have jumped from my window well before that, but I was on the 1st floor.

I drove to Goodfellow Air Force Base early Monday morning and that’s where I met Lee.  We shook hands and clicked immediately.  Lee was smart.  Congenial.  And he was funny.  Back then, his accent was still pretty heavy.  He pronounced Doug “Duck.”

They have a restaurant in San Angelo called Zentner’s Daughter.  At that time, they bragged about having a steak on the menu that was so large, it hung over parts of the platter they brought it on.  I can attest.  If memory serves, it was 32 ounces.  And on my first visit, I did in fact attempt to eat one.  I got pretty close for a little guy.

Lee approached me at work on Tuesday.  “Duck.  Let’s have dinner tonight.”

Since Zentner’s Daughter was pretty much the only game in town restaurant-wise, we agreed to go there.

It was a dinner that changed my life.

We sat and talked for hours.

When it was over, I had tears in my eyes.

Lee told me about his life in Vietnam.  But he also schooled me about America.

Lee came from a large family.  And when Saigon fell in 1975, the only hope of survival for many was escape.  There were multiple hookups in the middle of the night, meeting nefarious characters promising passage.  Lee and others proffered handfuls of scraped together cash, only to have their hopes dashed when the boat was not sea-worthy, or just didn’t show up at all.  But finally he made it onto a boat that was jam-packed so tightly with refugees, they had to stand up pressed against each other because there wasn’t room to sit.

Their voyage wasn’t just days.  It was weeks.  Starvation rations.  Sweltering conditions.  Unrelenting exposure to the elements.

Lee volunteered to be a person that stood up above the rest on the rim of the cargo pit.  His job was to lift people up from the crush, one at a time.  All day and all night.  Each person he hoisted up was allowed 15 minutes to breathe freely, with some sips of water thrown in.  “Sometimes, I would lift one up and they were…”  His voice trailed off with the memory.

Dead.  They were dead.

“And then…I would have to…”  He made a motion of tossing a human being off the side of the boat and shook his head with a deep sadness.  “And that was that.”

Their journey was fraught with peril.  At the 17-day point, they drifted to an island where they were threatened and turned away.  It was another 5 days before they were flown to California.

Lee had a sponsor in the states.  An address written on a crumpled piece of paper.  You had to have a relation stateside or they wouldn’t let you in.

Lee settled in.  He worked 3 jobs, learned English, and went to school to get a degree so he could work in the field of computers.  He became an American citizen.

I asked him what his first impressions were of America.

He pointed to the salt and pepper shakers on our table, lined up against a bottle of ketchup, a bottle of A-1, and a container of sugar packets.  “I walked through the airport and we had to pass restaurants where you had condiments on every table.  And I thought to myself, ‘What a place this is where they give things away like this for free.’  I couldn’t believe it.”

He added, “I looked around me and I thought ‘You can be anything in this country if you’re willing to work hard enough.'”

Then he leaned into me.  “But most important is freedom.  I came from a place where you couldn’t always trust your family and relatives.  You have no idea what freedom you have.  You can sit around your dinner table and criticize the president.  You can talk about anything.  In Vietnam before I left, if you dared to speak out, one of your own relatives might turn you in.  A knock would come in the middle of the night, and soldiers would take you away.  And you’d never be seen again.”

That night we drove back in a shared car to the hotel.  Texas weather can be freakish and it certainly was that night.  Halfway back, we encountered a storm.  Rain suddenly hammered down.  Lightning flashes.  Thunderous thunder.  I flipped the wipers on and black smeared the windshield in gritty swipes that within seconds forced us off the road.  The car was getting seriously pelted and I managed to slowly guide us under a flimsy roof overhang attached to a Podunk gas station.

We got out of the car and realized it was literally raining mud.  Yeah.  Mud from the sky.  In thick heavy dollops.

A guy getting gas and an attendant stood under the covering with us.

The attendant grinned.  “Yeah, you don’t see that very often.”

Often?  Damn.  I’m thinking to myself, “Why are you even seeing this at all?”

The mud drops eventually filtered to regular rain and we were able to drive to the hotel, the downpour rinsing the dirt off our car as we went.

It’s been a while since I met Lee.  We see each other rarely because we live on opposite coasts and we don’t travel in the same circles anymore.  But each time I see him or we speak on the phone, it’s like there’s been no gap.  We just pick right up.  He loves my family, and he especially loves it when Judy makes broiled salmon.

Lee saw America as a land of opportunity.  He’s now the head of a major software division.  He’s happily married.  He personally has helped others come to America where they have prospered and loved this country as much as he does.

And nowadays, whenever we speak, we are much closer to Doug than Duck.

I love America.  And its freedom.  Its opportunity.  Its inherent generosity.  America is not without its problems.  Aberrations are a natural fallout of a free society.  But more importantly, we should remember this country boasts hundreds of millions of people from all walks who would give you the shirts off their backs in times of need.

In my particular case, the gift of freedom was the luck of geography.

You can call it fate.  You can call it providence.  But my chance dinner with Lee where I was reminded what freedom really means?

I call that the geography of luck.