Duke Truong's Freedom Ride

A precocious refugee from Vietnam sought a fast track to the American Dream. He found prison instead.

"It was a way to calm us down," Duke says. Instead of going to Grandma's house, the Truongs were about to board a 35-foot-long boat with about 100 other refugees, hoping they wouldn't sink or be noticed by Vietnamese soldiers.

"You really couldn't trust anyone during that time," says Duke. "Your neighbor could be your worst enemy."

It was raining, Duke remembers, when his family rendezvoused with the others at the stealthy location along the coast. With enough provisions for about a week, the boat people, as they would become known in the international media, headed out to open sea in their small overloaded vessel. It wasn't long before the motor blew out from the strain. Twice during the trip they were assaulted by pirates who took their supplies and small valuables, such as gold and diamonds, items that they had hoped to use to start a new life.

The Truong family, Christmas 1993, with Duke at the far right.
Courtesy of Alice Freel
The Truong family, Christmas 1993, with Duke at the far right.
Retired teacher Alice Freel believes her friend Duke was railroaded.
Steve McVicker
Retired teacher Alice Freel believes her friend Duke was railroaded.

"We were lucky," says Duke. "Because a lot of people were killed [by the pirates]. They'd rob you, then drown your whole boat."

Out of food and water, the expedition was luckily discovered by the crew of a navy ship -- Duke doesn't know from what country -- who gave them provisions and directions to Thailand. But instead of reaching Thailand, the group drifted southeasterly across the South China Sea and made landfall in Malaysia. There they were put into a refugee camp, where they remained for about a year.

They watched as their friends were sent off to make new lives in places such as Canada, Switzerland and West Germany. As Duke was turning seven years old, he and his family were packed up and sent to the United States, the place they had dreamed of going. In the fall of 1979, after stopping first in California, they finally reached their destination: Houston. Their new home was a small space in Allen Parkway Village, the decaying public housing project which at the time had not yet met with the wrecking ball. Duke recalls being more impressed with some of the inhabitants of his new country than with his accommodations.

"I'd never seen anyone with blond hair and blues eyes," says Duke. "It amazed me."

Although he spoke no English, Duke was immediately enrolled at Pugh Elementary, where he was faced with either learning the language or being left behind. His inability to speak English caused him to have self-esteem problems. Duke was determined to overcome that barrier, and he credits the school's music teacher with helping him quickly learn the language through rhymes and songs.

"When the American students would laugh at me," says Duke, "I would work hard to say it right the next time. I came to speak English better through peer pressure. It was a way to communicate with other kids. When I couldn't communicate with them, I couldn't play with them. Back then, Star Wars [computer games] were popular. And to play with their Star Wars, you had to speak good English."

Duke soon got a handle on his new language. With the help of an old classroom-size blackboard reclaimed from the junkpile, Duke began teaching the new sounds to his younger siblings. They became so fluent that they began to irritate their mother, Hoa, who forbade them to speak English at home. Duke's mother worked at a Vietnamese bakery, where she made egg rolls. His father was employed as a welder. Despite his mother's initial aversion to English, Duke says both his parents eventually encouraged their children to embrace the American way of life. Their father, Tony, even allowed his children to become naturalized citizens and to take American first names. For example, Duke's name was originally Duc. (Ironically, the one Truong child who was born in the United States elected to keep his Vietnamese name.)

Though discouraged in their own home for a time, the Truong children soon found an alternative venue to practice English: the central Houston Public Library, their portal to new worlds and adventures.

Allen Parkway Village in the early 1980s might have been a step up from the structure the Truongs had occupied in Vietnam, a thatched hut with a sand floor, but it wasn't much of one. Their small un-air-conditioned APV apartment, located in the shadows of downtown's glistening skyscrapers, had gone to seed long before the Truongs' arrival. As in Vietnam, where the family had to tread carefully around neighbors, the Truongs soon realized that they also needed to exercise caution around their new APV-area neighbors, some of whom were drug dealers and gang members. Sometimes bullies would chase Duke and his siblings, or steal their money or backpacks. To escape the problems and dangers of the housing project, Duke and his friends explored the downtown tunnel system. They also delighted in the sanctuary of the downtown library: It was beautiful, at least to them. It was air-conditioned. It had elevators to play on. And of course, they could also check out books at no charge.

In 1984 Duke and his siblings and friends enrolled in a summer book-reading program at the library after learning that they could get certificates for free hamburgers if they finished a certain number of books. But soon they were reading simply for the pleasure of escaping, at least for a time, from their own miserable surroundings. That summer Duke read 109 books -- more than any other child in the program. His love of reading did not go unnoticed. A librarian contacted The Houston Post, and reporter Bonnie Gangelhoff (also formerly of the Houston Press) was assigned a story on the young refugee. Gangelhoff spent a good deal of time visiting the Truong home and following the kids on their treks to the library. Her subsequent article appeared in the October 4, 1984, issue of the paper's Sunday magazine. Twelve-year-old Duke was featured in the cover photograph, sitting barefoot in front of his recycled blackboard reading a large hardback copy of Return of the Jedi. Although he was smiling, he recalls being apprehensive about talking with the reporter.

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