My years at Mossard


My Years at Mossard

Dung Anh Tran
Memoirs of an alumnus of Mossard School,
Thuduc, Vietnam
(Edited by Tim & Christine Tran)

For my children and grandchildren.
Trần Anh Dũng



Mossard, my Destiny

      When I was ten years old, my parents sent me to Mossard, a Catholic boarding school located in the district of Thuduc, about ten kilometers North of Saigon.
My father was a school teacher. Every day he rode his mopeds to the provincial public primary school, teaching second grade. When my brother Tuan was six years old my father took him and me to school to provide some relief to my mother who was so busy taking care of our two younger siblings.
      Starting school at an early age I completed primary education when I was only nine, too young to be qualified for the entrance exam to the public high school. Therefore I had to stay at the 5th grade for another year. In the following year, at the age of ten I was still not old enough to go to the public high school. As a stubborn kid I flatly refused to stay in primary school for another year in spite of the strict order of my father. Feeling so bad for me, my aunt Tuat convinced my father to send me to Mossard, a private French school run by the De La Salle Brothers.
      Two years earlier my brother Tuan failed the entrance exam to Mossard. However, he passed the tests to the provincial public high school. I think that his failing was due to not having enough proficiency in the French language. I had better luck than him because I received French tutorial prior to the entrance exam. That summer my cousin Paulette completed her education in France and returned to Vietnam. She volunteered to teach me the French language for the exam.
      On the exam day, my brother Ton took me to Thuduc by bus. At that time he was attending Taberd High School. He was an ex-student of Mossard. When Ton was attending Mossard my parents never took any us to see Ton there. We were a large family and we lived too far from that boarding school. That day was my first time at Mossard.
      Upon arriving at Thuduc market we walked to the school instead of taking the three-wheeler bus. As we walked past the Military Music school on the right hand side the road became a little uphill. Reaching the Thuduc Catholic church on the left hand side Ton pointed me to my future school which stood next to the church on a wooden hill. The iron gate of the school looked formal and dignified, opened to an entrance paved with granite stones of a size that was a little bigger than the brick. From the outside I saw a marble sign inscribed with the words, “Ecole Mossard” (Mossard School) hung on the right post of the gate. Walking past the gate I saw two huge three-story buildings painted in light yellowish color.
      As we arrived so early, Ton led me to the préau (covered playground) to wait for the opening time of the exam. As we were waiting I saw a priest coming from another building located a distance away. Ton then took me to the priest, said hello and introduced me to him. I noticed that he addressed the priest as “Frère” (Brother) instead of “Père” (Father). At that time all I knew was to bow my head to greet a priest having a gentle face with a bald head and wearing a black habit. After the priest walked away Ton told me that he was a monk, not a priest, who was Brother Sébastien, the Brother Superior of the Junioriate at the building where he came from.
      I was so lucky to pass the entrance exam to the 5th special grade. I did not remember who was the monk who administered the written exam but the oral exam is still vividly in my mind. The monk asked me questions in French that I could not understand because I was so nervous. He then smiled and told me to calm down in Vietnamese with the Northern accent. Thanks to that smile I could then answer correctly most of his questions for the oral exam. A month later when school started I found out that the monk was Brother Jules, the school assistant principal who was the toughest Brother at Mossard.


My First Prayers

      When school started at the end of summer 1960 I began my boarding school life, away from home for the first time.
      As I crossed my arms and bowed my head, saying goodbye to my grandfather in the morning of the day I left home, he affectionately touched my head, told me to be a good student and gave me one hundred piastres as pocket money. It was so gratifying. It was well beyond my needs as my parents also gave me twenty piastres. What was I going to do with the extra money in the boarding school? For each of the next six months my grandfather gave me one hundred piastres. I saved them up and asked my brother Kiet to buy me a wrist watch branded Cytas for six hundred piastres. That was the first wrist watch I ever had.
      I was in the 5th grade especially reserved for those students like me who transferred from the Vietnamese curriculum to the French one. Mossard had three dormitories. One for students of grades 1 through 3. We called it petit dortoir (small dormitory). The other for students of grades 4 and 5. High school students slept in another dormitory. I did not belong to the small dormitory but my uncle Be asked the Brothers to assign me to a bed next to his son’s. Tam joined Mossard for the first time like me. He was in the 2nd grade and he might need my help.
      During the first week I felt a little isolated as my classmates were all new to me. The teachers are all men, monks and some non-monks. The monks wore black habits with a white rabat below the neck. They looked alike to me therefore I couldn’t tell who was who, except my own teacher.
      (During my years at Mossard, I didn’t see any woman at school. Monks, teachers, school employees including cooks were all men. There were a few females living in the employee quarter, a row of townhouses at the foot of the hill, by the swimming pool. Among them there were a couple of young girls whose story I would tell later in another chapter.)
      As I couldn’t tell who was who in the black habit I had the chance to know a dear Brother who later made a difference in my life.
      In the evening of the first day at Mossard I saw a monk having a gentle face with a bald head. I immediately bowed my head to greet him because he looked like the monk whom my brother introduced to me on the exam day. On the next day, I met the same monk again in the playground and I bowed my head to greet him. When I bowed my head to greet the same monk for the third time on another day, he walked toward me, asking:
      “Why do you bow your head every time you meet me, son?”
      I hummed and hawed for a moment before answering him:
      “I ... I remember meeting you on the exam day and my brother took me over to greet you.”
      Upon hearing my words, the monk looked so surprised, saying:
      “Son, it must be a mistake as I have never met you before.”
      “Well, um ... I thought you were Brother Shea Chen. I’m sorry.”
      The monks had a good laugh, then he said, nicely:
      “Oh, you must have seen Brother Superior Sébastien of the Junioriate. I am Brother Sa ... lo ... mon. And, Sébastien is pronounced as Sé ... bas ... tien, not Shea-Chen, my dear.”
      During the following week, I met Brother Salomon every day as he was the on-duty supervisor of the small dormitory.
      As Mossard was a christian school we students said prayers before and after classes and meals.
      Every night before going to bed we stood in front of St. Mary’s grotto and said prayers. Upon waking up we also said prayers. I was from a non-christian family, practicing ancestor worship even though once in a while my mother went to a Buddhist pagoda. Several times a year we celebrated the anniversaries of the death of close relatives. Each time my father told us to kowtow in front of the ancestor’s altar. Near my grandfather’s house there was a small hermitage owned by the brother of my great-grand father who passed away a long time ago. Every evening my brother Tuan had the responsibility to go over to the hermitage and burn incense at the altar. Once in a while I did this on behalf of my brother.
      I had never known any prayer, said any prayer in my life.
      Before I took the entrance exam at Mossard, cousin Paulette taught me French, not Catholic prayers in French. My brother Ton neither taught me any Catholic prayer nor told me what to do or not to do while in school. I guess he wanted me to discover them, learn them on my own and to take good care of myself while away from home. If this was true then I owe a great deal to him. The experiences I got from those years living under the same roof with the De La Salle Brothers and with friends from whom I learned the basics of mankind: survival, compassionate, love and respect. They helped me a lot when I later faced with the real world. They even saved my life in some near death circumstance during the Vietnam war.
      On the first few days at Mossard I imitated other students in making the Sign of the Cross and saying prayers after them. The prayers were in French; I did not fully understand them but I just kept my eyes closed and repeated after the others without fear of embarrassment at all. One evening as I stood with friends by Brother Salomon saying prayers before going to bed I noticed that he looked and smiled at me; but, as an innocent kid I went to bed, unconcerned. In the next morning, Brother Salomon stopped by my bed and gave me a handwritten note including three prayers in French and Vietnamese: the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Doxology. He told me to learn them by heart and to see him if I had any question.
      Those were the first prayers of my life.
      Those were the prayers that I continued to say after leaving Mossard and during the years of war. Those were the prayers that I said when I was in misery, in fear, in circumstances between life and death. Those were the prayers that I said when I met God again and became a christian. Yes, in those times I never missed my thought of my dear Brother Salomon.

My father and me in 1958, one year before I joined Mossard


My Homesickness

      Our 5th special grade was a little overcrowded with about 40 boarders, semi-boarders, day-students and a few novices of the junioriate where the classroom was located. We walked twice a day on a road about 100 meters long paved with red rock from our school to the junioriate. There were two volley ball courts and one basketball court on the right hand side of the road, and a grove of meranti trees on the left hand side.
      At the end of my first week at Mossard, my uncle Be came over to pick up his sons (Canh who was in the 6th grade and Tam) and me to spend the weekend with his family in Gocong province. The following weekend I stayed at school. Then on the next Saturday my aunt and uncle Manh took me to Saigon for the weekend. En route to Saigon my aunt asked me if I missed home. I couldn’t help but to cry, feeling so homesick and pity for myself. My uncle smiled, telling me to be good at school and assuring me that he would bring me back to Tayninh for a visit the following month.
      The truth was that I missed home just a little during my first week in the boarding school. I was so happy to be able to play soccer with friends every day after school because the field was right there. In my hometown, the soccer field was a kilometer away. Once in a while my parents would allow my brother and I to go to the soccer field by ourselves, borrowing the ball from the Youth department and playing soccer for a couple of hours. That did not fill our yearning for soccer at all. For me, the pièce de résistance of Mossard was its swimming pool. Students could use it almost every day, half an hour each time. On Thursday afternoon and weekend we could use it for a few hours. In my hometown, the swimming pool was a few kilometers away. Due to the risk of drowning my parents wouldn’t allow my brother and me to go swimming by ourselves. We snicked out a few times to have swimming lessons with friends at the swimming pool and at the river by our house and each time we got spanked by our father for disobedience. Therefore, we did not dare to go swimming any longer.
      Then, how could I get homesick while having so much fun at the boarding school?
      Homesickness finally came to me after an “event” that occurred during my second weekend at school. Since joining Mossard I stayed in the shallow area of the pool to learn how to swim from other students. That Saturday afternoon I decided to see how good was I at the deep area. Being precautious I asked guys swimming around that area before trying it myself. They told me that it was only shoulder-deep; therefore, I jumped freely into the water. Upon knowing that it was deep beyond my height I struggled to be afloat but someone kept pulling me down, letting me swallow so much water before pulling me out of the water. This is only a trick played on me, a new kid on the block, by some old timers. It was true that I was so afraid of being drowned that day but I resented them for doing that more than scaring of death. I did not report the incident to the Brother who supervised the swimming pool that afternoon for fear of being called a sissy by them. I was really angry at them but I could not do anything against them and thus I wallowed in self pity. That night I covered myself under the blanket and cried. I felt so desolated without my mom and dad and my dear brothers by my side and I understood for the first time in my life the meaning of homesickness and how dreadful it was.
      However, the feeling of self pity and resentment faded away really fast as I was in that age of carefree, being so busy with school and with soccer more than being sad. I made friends with those who let me drink the pool water that Saturday. Almost three years after that day we became some of the well-known trouble-makers at Mossard.


L’air Est Un Gaz

      Passing the entrance exam did not mean that I would easily adapted myself to the French curriculum. I had in fact a hard time keeping up with my school work during my first year at Mossard. Brother Nivard was my homeroom teacher. He taught French and some other subjects. He was a devoted teacher in helping us, students who were still not learning well the French language. Brother Frédéric, our Arithmetic teacher, was a talented artist. He painted a huge and beautiful portrait of the patron saint decorating the altar for the open-air mass on Saint John De La Salle Day.
      On every last Saturday of the month Brother Superior Bernard, the school principal who was a Frenchman, came to every classroom and read aloud the grade report along with the name of each student, starting with the top of the class. I was always at the bottom third of the grade report. My biggest challenge was French. The title of the very first chapter of my Natural Sciences book, L’air est un gaz (Air is a type of gas), is still vivid in my mind. The chapter consisted of a few sentences but it took me a while to apprehend them. Self-confidence is another challenge for me because I felt so inferior to friends who were doing so good in class.
      At the end of the school year I went back to my hometown for the summer. My father took me to my uncle’s house for a tutorial class in French. My uncle Minh recently retired from his job as the principal of the provincial primary school. He offered some French classes for some additional income to his pension check. I do not remember which class I was in, probably the 7th grade of the Vietnamese curriculum, but my French competence was well above my classmates’. During the first session I found that most of the questions my uncle posed to the class were not so challenging. I would wait until the class failed the question before raising my hand to give my answer. After class my uncle told me to wait for him as he would have a personal note that he wanted me to bring home for my father. My father read the note from my uncle, happily smiled and told me that my uncle assigned me to a higher level class. He did not say anything else and that made me curious about the content of the note. Therefore, on the next day while my father was taking an afternoon nap I took a peek at the note and found out that my uncle spoke highly of my progress in learning the French language. This note not only helped lift my self-esteem but it also made me a little overproud of my “frenchness” at that time.
      (I’d like to take a little break from the memoirs to share my feelings about the subject of children and praise. It seems to me that the generation of my parents in Vietnam did not praise their children for fear of backfire such as the kids becoming arrogant. I clearly remember the above incident whereas my father smiled and looked happy, but he did not praise me at all for making good progress in school. For years I kept asking myself, “Why did my uncle not directly commend me for doing good in French?” I wonder if he knew that I had gained self-confidence and my school work was becoming much better in the years that followed, thanks to the comments that I had to sneak in and read from the note that he sent, for your eyes only, to my father.
As I grew up, learning from the above experience, I tended to often praise my children and students for their well behavior, for doing a good job, for their innovation and compassion ...)



“A Good Teacher is Like a Good Mother”

      I once got a fever so I was not able to go to classes during my first winter at Mossard. The Brother who supervised the dormitory that week advised me to see the nurse at the school clinic during the day.
      While I was at home, my parents took care of me, giving me medicines, checking my temperature and preparing soup for me whenever I got sick. That morning I was sick and by myself but I did not feel bad yet as I was exhausted due to the fever, sleeping like a log in my bed until someone woke me up. I opened my eyes, seeing that the sun had risen and the dormitory was empty while Brother Salomon was helping me getting up. He then gave me some pills and a glass of water for my fever. I took a sip of water and found that my taste was bitter and the water was cold. At that time I suddenly recalled that my mother always gave me hot tea to take with pills; therefore, I gave the glass of water back to Brother Salomon, saying with no hesitation, “My mother always gives me hot tea for pills!” He looked at me, seemed a little surprised then he said, ‘Wait for a few minutes, my child.” As I was lying down on my bed I saw Brother Salomon boiling water for me using an old electric coil springs and ... I missed my mother so much. However, I felt bad about myself just a little because I think that the love Brother Salomon was giving me was not less than the love I got from my own parents. After I took the medicines, Brother Salomon asked me to pull my shirt so that he could check my temperature from my armpit. I told him, not being shy at all, “Brother, my mother always takes my temperature anally.” Upon hearing that, Brother Salomon laughed so loud and he said, “It’s good enough by the armpit. You are no longer a baby, my child!”
      It took two days for me to recover from that cold. During those two days, Brother Salomon gave me medicines, brought me milk for breakfast and soup for lunch and dinner to my bed, just like my mother. There is an old saying in Vietnamese, “A good doctor is like a good mother.” In my opinion, “a good teacher is like a good mother.” And, Brother Salomon is truly a good teacher.


Spiritual Fasting

      Following the 5th Special grade I advanced to the 6th Preparatory grade. Our homeroom teacher was Brother Eugène. The curriculum was heavily focused on French and Arithmetic. Brother Eugène taught French and Mr. Triem taught Arithmetic. Our school days started with catechism classes for half an hour.
      During that school year, Brother Engène had a teaching method that was totally new to me. Some ten years later, when I had the chance to teach a class myself, I applied this method with some success.
      At the beginning of the month I would give students a test. Based on the test results I assigned the class seating arrangement. The student who had the highest score would have the first seat, and so on. During class I would ask questions to any student. If he/she gave the correct answer, the student kept his/her spot. If he/she failed then I would ask the next student. The student who answered the question correctly would take the seat of the one who failed. The seating arrangement was part of the month-end test score. This method forced students to be attentive in class. As I recalled this episode of my life I realized that this teaching method was “cruel” to the students. I wondered if they lost their “innocence” while they had to fight to gain or to keep their seat during the whole class period.
      There was another memorable “event” that I had with Brother Eugène during Lent that year. In a catechism class he taught us about fasting and assigned as homework to write our feelings about it.
      During the previous Lent, Brother Nivard taught us about fasting and its translation in French, “jeûne”. Then in the summer, as I mentioned in the previous chapter, I attended a tutorial class in French at my uncle’s house. During class my uncle had the habit of using a new word and explaining further into its meanings, synonyms, antonyms, adjectives, adverbs ... to help enrich our knowledge of French vocabulary. One day he explained the meaning of the adjective “jeune” (young) and asked if the class knew the meaning of the word that spelled like “jeune” with the mark of “^” above the vowel “u”. Of course, I was the only one in class who knew this word which was “jeûne” for fasting. My uncle also enjoyed criticizing the “pharisees” of his time. He told us that eating vegetarian dishes that were decorated in the form of a hen, a fish ... was not truly abstaining from meat and fish. He also said that we had to fast “spiritually” which was “Le jeûne de l’âme” in French.
      While working on my catechism homework that day I remembered the fasting story of my uncle and I wrote down the same idea. During the next catechism class Brother Eugène asked me to stand up and explain to the class the meaning of “Le jeûne de l’âme.” All I said was, while fasting we should not think of pork and beef. Brother Eugène explained further to us that spiritual fasting meant abstaining from bad thinking, bad action and bad word. As I’m writing these memories I wonder what Brother Eugène would have thought about me, an eleven-years old student who talked about spiritual fasting!
      I heard that, following the Communist take-over in 1975, Brother Eugène escaped from Vietnam as a “boat people” and he volunteered to serve in a far away and poor country in Africa. He must be retiring now. Brother Eugène devoted his whole life to the education of youth. What a remarkable life!


Les bons points

      During my first two years in high school (grade 6 and 7) Brother François was our homeroom teacher for two consecutive years. He was also our French, History and Geography teacher. Brother Vincent taught us Mathematics. Mr. Thoa was our Vietnamese Literature and History teacher. There were other subjects but I could not remember who the teachers were, except Mr. Tran Nghia Hiep who taught us English for about six months. During classes I would address him as “Mr. Hiep”, but outside classes he would call me “anh” (literally translated as older brother) because we were cousins. His father was the younger brother of my father. He was also a former student of Mossard.
      Brother François was also in charge of sports for the whole school. Therefore, he was popular among the teachers at that time. Most of us students liked him and gave him the nickname of “papa” (pops) even though he was a very tough teacher. He used to discipline us using fine rattan sticks. Friends told me that those rattan sticks were very painful if you got spanked. During my six years at Mossard I never saw him slap any student in the face. As I was afraid of being spanked I did not dare to violate any rule, except two instances where I barely missed the rattan stick of Brother François.

7th grade with Brother François in 1964

      During one of the choir practice on a Thursday evening, I played along with two other friends to intentionally disrupt the session. That evening Brother François taught us a Vietnamese hymn praising Mother Mary. When the class sang the last verse of the refrain, “Bà là ai?” (Who is that virtuous Lady?), we would sing a newly-invented (by us) additional verse, “Bà già tôi!” (My own mom!), trying to stir up some laugh from the class. That worked and, to our surprise, Brother François did not scold us. He simply asked us to sing the refrain again. When we did it for the second time, Brother François ordered the three of us to stand in front of the class blackboard. At the end of the choir practice, he went away and came back with his rattan stick. That evening, somehow I was not afraid of being punished but rather was proud of it. Looking at us Brother François shook his head and told us to return to our desk. Believe it or not, I think he could read our mind.
      There was another instance that I missed being whipped by Brother François. Each dormitory at Mossard had a huge shower room with about 30 shower-heads where the students took a group shower. As soon as each of us stood under the shower-head, the supervising Brother would run the water for a few minutes, then he closed it while we applied soap. After that, he would run the water again so that we rinsed ourselves. After a few minutes the Brother would blow the whistle and we had to vacate the shower room for the next group of students. That day, I had to take a longer shower because I fell in a puddle of mud while playing soccer. I ignored Brother François’ whistle and remained in the shower room slightly longer. When I walked out of the shower he pointed the finger at me.
      After the shower it was homework time in the classroom. While I was reading my text book, Brother François came over with his rattan stick and ordered me to come out to the veranda. He asked me why did I intentionally ignore the shower whistle. I tried hard to stay cool and replied to him, “Oui, mais ... mais ... propreté d’abord, cher Frère.” (Yes, but ... but ... cleanliness is above all, dear Brother.) I guessed that my poise and bearing at that time looked very funny. Once again, Brother François shook his head and told me to go back to my desk. I was so lucky!


      Brother François used his rattan sticks to discipline the students, but he did not use the teaching method of Brother Engène which kept the students attentive. He used bons points (reward cards) to encourage us to participate in class. Those were the reward cards with 1, 2, 5 ... denominations. When Brother François needed our attention he would pose a reward for the right answer. Of course, the wrong answer would cost us a reward card. Then, at Christmas, Easter and end of school year, he would auction items such as pens, notebooks, chaplets, etc ... that we could purchase using the reward cards. The items were inexpensive nevertheless they enticed us to work harder and at the same time created a joyful ambience.
      Brother François was the teacher who introduced me further to the Bible and the Gospel during catechism; to the works of Victor Hugo, Alphonse Daudet, Alphone de Lamartine during French classes; and to dream of adventures during History and Geography classes. My quest for spiritual matters, my craving for reading a book and my adventurous mind began in 6th grade with Brother François. This is the legacy that he left me with and no amount of bons points can pay for it.


The Chosen One

      Every year, about a week after Christmas and New Year holidays, we celebrated the Epiphany. Mossard had a special event where each student was entitled to a cupcake for desert on Epiphany Sunday. It was just a cupcake but we were all excited about it wondering who would have the fortune to pick the king’s one. There were three king’s cupcakes that were baked with a piece of candy inside. Mossard had three mess halls, one for each dormitory. The kitchen personnel secretly distributed one king’s cupcake for each mess hall. The student who was lucky to pick the king’s cupcake would be the king of Mossard for one day. Thus, there would be three kings: the small, the middle and the grand one. The “économe” Brother (the boarding administrator) would give a royal decree to the grand king to read to the people of Mossard, granting them a favor to celebrate the kings’ enthronement. The king’s favor that we normally got was an afternoon snack or a picnic at Mai Thon, a park owned by the De La Salle Brothers by the Saigon River where the Brothers’ retirement home was located. What we hoped for was a weekend trip to Vungtau (Cap Saint Jacques) where the De La Salle Brothers had a huge vacation house by the beach. In some years we kept waiting but there was no king’s decree announced at all.
      I was fortunate to pick the king’s cupcake while in 7th grade. The glamorous moment of being the king of Mossard faded away the next day; but I was so proud about it and in fact the feeling of being king is still with me even today.
      That January I waited and waited in vain, with no word from the Brothers about the king’s decree. Friends kept asking me about it but I did not dare to check with the “économe” Brother if we would have any treat for Epiphany. One of my classmates said, “Trust me! I’ve noticed that the Brothers would do something special for the Epiphany only if the king guy is a Christian from a rich family. Who are you, my friend? Forget it!” I had mixed feelings about this king business until Saturday. That weekend most of my friends went home; I stayed in because I just spent the holidays in my hometown. As I walked by myself near the meranti trees grove I met Brother Salomon. He headed towards me, saying, “Ah, toi, le choisi!” (Ah, you, the chosen one!) to congratulate me on picking the king’s cupcake.
      Since the day I “accidentally” met Brother Salomon, I became more and more fond of him. He taught me how to say prayers and took good care of me when I was sick. It turned out that Brother Salomon and I came from the same native place. He was born in Thala, a poetically famous Catholic village of Tayninh, my home province. I became more open to him asking him many questions about Catholicism, a topic that I found fascinating. He also asked me about the town and the people of Tayninh, including my grandparents, parents, and siblings as his village was far away from the town. That Saturday I had no reservation at all to ask him about the school’s policy on the celebration of Epiphany. Was it true that the school discriminated against non-Christian and not-so-rich students as my classmate had suggested? Brother Salomon explained to me that the Epiphany treat depended on the school budget. If there was enough money, then the students would take the trip to Vungtau. If there was no money left due to unexpected expenditure, then there was no treat at all. Brother Salomon then asked me for my opinion about the comment made by that classmate. Without any hesitation I told him, “Ça m'est égal car je ... je suis ... je suis le choisi!” (I don’t care because I ... I ... am the chosen one!”) Brother Salomon gently touched my head and said, “Oui, je sais, mon enfant.Tu es vraiment le choisi!” (Yes, my son, I know that you are truly the chosen one!)
      That was the reason why even until now, on every Epiphany Sunday I, an old man with grey hair, am still so proud of being the king of Mossard for one day.


The Call to Serve

      During my first two years at Mossard, I had a few classmates who were “Nghia si” (a type of Christian cub scouts). They wore uniform on festival days and they occasionally went camping and hiking. I thought they were cool. However, I preferred to wait and later join the JEC (Jeunesse Etudiante Chrétienne in French or Young Catholic Students in English) movement because the “Nghia si” group was for kids while JEC had similar activities but it was reserved for high school and university students.
      Upon reaching the 6th grade I asked my parents for their permission to join JEC. I used my savings to pay for the uniforms which included a light blue short sleeves shirt with snap buttons on the front pocket for attaching the JEC badge, a blue navy short pants, and white tennis shoes with knee high white socks.
      The JEC’s motto is “Vietnamese Students! Serve!” but I did not understand what it meant to serve when I was a new member. Brother Dominique was in charge of the Mossard’s JEC group. We were organized into teams, one team per class. Once a week, after dinner, with the guidance of Brother Dominique we had a team meeting discussing our weekly activities and upcoming events. We learned from past activities for self-improvement. Due to those weekly meetings some Mossariens thought that we were “spies” for the Brothers and they called us “hunting dogs.”
      Being a JEC I had the chance to go camping several times, take trips visiting other De La Salle schools, and assist the older JECs from the Saigon Medical School in providing health care to the poor in the city. I also did volunteer jobs such as working as a school librarian and participating in some school-related campaigns. I gradually understood what it meant to serve, knew how to work in harmony in a team environment, to engage myself in leadership duties and especially to take responsibility.
      Later in real life I had the chance to work for some government agencies and private companies. Over the years I was given the opportunity to run several projects of significant importance. In many instances I had to work very hard for those projects and I thought that it was due to me being born in the year of the buffalo (Vietnamese people believe that those who were born in the year of the buffalo would have to work hard like buffaloes in the rice fields). However, I realized that it was due to the spirit of serving that I seized while being a JEC in those years at Mossard.
I sincerely thank Brother Dominique, Kham, Hung, Tuong, my senior JECs and Vien, Dang, Thanh, Tan, my fellow JECs for all their teaching and helping me to become a server as I am today.


The Rocks of Brother Bernard

      We were the first students at Mossard to learn about Modern Mathematics. It was taught by our homeroom teacher, Brother Julien, in 8th grade. Brother Julien was also in charge of the school entertainment. He rented a movie for the whole school each Sunday evening. He was the first Brother who broadcasted pop music at Mossard, giving us the chance to enjoy songs by well-known artists such as Johnny Halliday, Sylvie Vartan, Françoise Hardy and Adamo from France; Paul Anka, Elvis Presley and the Ventures from America; the Shahows and Cliff Richard and the Beatles from England. This was truly a “revolution” at Mossard because students were previously not allowed to listen to “love” songs in school. Some of our friends secretly brought along pocket-sized AM radios from home. After dinner we would get together and listen to radio programs such as the “by request” foreign pop music and Da Lan which was a program broadcasted by the government for members of the armed forces. Its host was a mysterious woman named Da Lan which literally meant “the orchid of the night.” While listening to the radio we would carefully watch for the playground supervisor. If he was around we would turn off the radio or move far away from him. Otherwise, he would confiscate the radio if he caught us listening to it. The school library had a stereo and a turntable with classical music albums but none of us cared to listen to.

8th grade with Brother Julien

      That year our new French teacher was an elderly Brother from France. I couldn’t remember his name as he spent only one year at Mossard and then took an assignment at Ecole Miche in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We heard that he volunteered to teach in Cambodia for the rest of his life. He was an excellent teacher who helped us significantly improve our competence in French that year. We had an interesting episode with this Brother.
      For some reason he picked Tuesday afternoon to teach us French grammar. In Vietnam it was hot and humid in the afternoon and thus, most of us were too sleepy and too bored to learn grammar. The school had a huge bird house, home of hundreds of pigeons raised by the kitchen personnel. That afternoon, while the Brother was delivering his grammar lecture there was a pair of pigeons that landed on top of the rail of the veranda, just a few feet away from the class window. They started courting and ended up mating in front of our eyes. The Brother stopped his lecture, followed the direction of our eyes and found the pigeons who, at that time, had done mating. He surely knew what was going on and drove them away. Since that incident, the Brother stopped teaching French grammar in the afternoon.
      We also had a pleasant episode with another French Brother. It was Brother Superior Bernard, the school principal. That year he was our Natural Sciences teacher. The text book has a couple of chapters about rocks. Brother Bernard brought to class a box of his collection of rocks for our observation. The rocks were unmarked but Brother Bernard knew the name of each rock. Upon completion of the lecture of a type of rock he gave the rock to one of the students in the front row who would take a look at the rock and pass it to the next student. After the second learning session on rocks, Brother Bernard gathered all the rocks and he looked a little surprised when he found out that there were more rocks that could be fit in his box. As he realized the reason for more rocks Brother Bernard smiled and quietly removed the rocks that we had intentionally added to his collection. The gentleman attitude of Brother Bernard made us feel so guilty for having such a joke on him, a respectful school principal. I wonder if there was any such incident with the Brother Superior in the history of Mossard.
      That year, the year of 8th grade, we were no different than the innocent rocks of Brother Bernard. None of us could ever tell that in a few years later the rocks (we once were) wore out so fast due to the turbulence of life and war.
      However, I myself believe that the rocks of Brother Bernard’s collection have never changed due to any circumstance, especially in our memories.


The Devils, the Ghosts and ... the Pupils

1.

      During my first year at Mossard Brother Etienne and Brother Marie were our playground supervisors. Despite their old age (I believe they were in their eighties) students often tried to irritate them in the naughty way.
      We discovered that Brother Marie had a lazy eye during one of the homework sessions. A classmate of mine (I think he was Luong Le Chuan, if my memory serves me right) was caught chatting in class. Brother Marie scolded the chatter but his eyes were aiming at the guy who was sitting next door. This guy said, surprisingly, “Je ne fais rien, cher Frère.” (I didn’t do anything, dear Brother.) Brother Marie replied, “Je ne te parle pas!” (I’m not talking to you!), while his eyes were directed to the next guy. This vicious circle ended after Brother Marie pointed his finger at the chatter. We annoyed Brother Marie a few more times and eventually got bored making fun of his lazy eye.
      That year Brother Etienne was so frail that he had to use a walking stick. Nevertheless, he still served as a playground supervisor. We gave him the nickname of “pa tin”, after the French word “bâton” (cane). He took care of the landscaping at St. Mary’s grotto. If we came close to the grotto and attempted to pick flowers he would use the cane to chase us away. As Brother Etienne moved around very slowly, some students would run for a short distance and then stop to make gestures to annoy him. One day while we were lining up for shower he came over and pointed the kid who teased him. Yes, he was tough monk.

2.

      Instead of ringing the electrical bell Brother Jules always blew the whistle to notify us the end of recess time. They say, “You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles ...” but I think that Brother Jules’ whistle blew a thousand miles, as it was steady and long. Since we dreaded returning to class after recess, upon hearing his whistle, we comforted ourselves by joking that “ba ro” was saying his “curse.” We nicknamed Brother Jules “ba ro” because his face had traces of scars possibly due to chicken pox when he was a child. Oh, how disrespectful we were!
      I did not have the opportunity to attend any class of Brother Jules but I learned from him a habit that helped me a lot later in life. For Sunday Mass Mossard students wore school uniforms consisting of white pants, shirt, and old-fashion wide light blue necktie. (The school uniforms were later changed to navy blue pants, white shirt and narrow dark blue necktie.) Therefore, after mass and breakfast we went back to the dormitory to change to our casual attire. When I was in 6th grade, my bed was near the bedroom of Brother Jules. Going back to the dormitory on Sundays I would hear English lessons from Brother Jules’ bedroom. He was learning English on his own using a phonograph. Four years later while I was in 10th grade at Taberd High School, large number of Americans came to Vietnam. I realized I needed to improve my English since I would have to deal with them while serving in the armed forces, working for private companies, or for government offices in the future. At that time, my parents were not doing well financially due to the escalation of the war. Therefore, I did not dare to ask them for their support in taking additional English lessons. I decided to follow Brother Jules’ example by learning English from the Saigon radio and newspapers. I translated selected news from Vietnamese into English and then watched for the English version that would be aired on the radio the next day. On my own I practiced my spoken and written English that way. I never thought that two years later, due to the Tet offensive in 1968 I had to drop out of high school and looked for a job to help support my parents’ large family. Thanks to my French background from the years at Mossard and self-taught English, I landed a good job. Thank you, Brother Jules for being a good role model.

3.

      When I was in 7th grade Brother Jules got an assignment at a different De La Salle school and Brother Agilbert took over his job as assistant principal. Brother Agilbert had big shoes to fill because he was not as tough as Brother Jules towards the students. His whistle was not as impressive as Brother Jules’. On Monday mornings when the whole school gathered to sing the national anthem, Brother Agilbert blew the whistle in front of the microphone. It was not as loud as Brother Jules’. When he first started his new job, Brother Agilbert played the national anthem on the phonograph with a wrong rpm setting twice so we had to start the ceremony all over again. Therefore, students gave him the nickname of “ga chet” (dead chicken). Although that was naughty, it did not mean disrespect. Every time he lectured us on our behavior, we stood in silence and listened to him attentively.
      There were two events where I was at fault with Brother Algilbert. Both times he generously forgave me. One Saturday I forged my father’s signature to get a weekend pass. Brother Agilbert rejected the letter and told me not to repeat it again. The second time was when I had the pass to go to town on a Sunday. I joined Nghiep, a classmate, for pho (beef noodles) at a restaurant. We decided to share a one-litre-bottle of beer. Since I am allergic to alcohol, my face was still red when I returned to school. Seeing my red face, Brother Agilbert pointed at me and told me not to drink again. I chose to ignore his warning. A few weeks later I stole a bottle of wine from home and brought it to school. I wrapped it with brown paper and camouflaged it as a bottle of soy sauce to fool the Brothers. However, “God did not let the bad angels go free.” While enjoying the wine with friends in the mess hall, my face turned red and that made Brother Agilbert suspicious. He came to our table and asked if we were consuming alcohol. Playing it cool, I pointed to my glass and said, “Vous voyez, c’est le sirop.” (You see, it’s syrup.) During those days, water mixed with pomegranate syrup was the favorite drink of the students. It looked like red wine. Brother Agilbert took the bottle and unwrapped it. I had no choice but to admit my “crime.” As a punishment I stood under the school’s flag pole during recess for one week. However, I was still lucky because Brother Agilbert did not notify my parents of my drinking problem in school. From that day on I stayed away from alcoholic beverages until the day I left Mossard.
      While Brother Agilbert was generous, he also judged me once incorrectly. My cousin Son who just joined Mossard was three grades behind me. His parents ran a company in Saigon and were very rich. As Son was new to Mossard, his mother asked me to look after him. On a Thursday afternoon when school was off, his parents came to school for a visit in a luxurious American sedan and asked me to join them in the parking area for cupcakes and refreshments. That evening, when we lined up for shower, Brother Algilbert reminded us of the school’s policy that students were not allowed in the parking area unless to meet their parents. He also said, “Today, one of you was in the parking area begging for food.” As my cousin’s car was the only one at the parking area that afternoon, there was no doubt in my mind that Brother Agilbert had labelled me as the “beggar” since he was unaware that Son was my cousin. I was upset about this incident and I did not tell Brother Agilbert the truth. I harbored grudges towards him until the day I left Mossard.
      This is just what I recalled about a hapless moment I had at Mossard. It has by no means diminished my love and respect of Brother Agilbert and all the brothers and the teachers at Mossard who spent their entire lives serving the youth of Vietnam.

4.

      If someone tells stories about a Catholic school without mentioning how the school celebrated Christmas, then they would miss an important part of the storytelling.
      In my first year at Mossard, on the Saturday before Christmas each of the boarders was given a lottery ticket for a Christmas gift before going home for the holidays. I was so lucky to win a toy that was considered “high tech” at that time. It was a tin skating clown run by batteries wired to a controller. The clown skated in circle and could occasionally raise its hand and leg. It was so cool! Some of the guys came and proposed to exchange it with less valuable toys; but I was pretty smart and was not lured by their enticing words. I kept it safe in my arms to bring home and play with my brothers. That was my first ever Christmas gift. As I’m writing this episode of my life, some fifty years after, I still recall the happy memories of that day. Thank you, my De La Salle Brothers.
      Amongst a few friends who attended the same class with me for six consecutive years were Nguyen Tan Phuoc and Luong Le Chuan. They were talented in drawing pictures. Their fathers were art teachers at the School of Arts of Binh Duong province. When I was in 6th grade our class won the championship in the school’s competition in classroom decoration for Christmas. Phuoc and Chuan drew glass window pictures on cardboards for us to cut and apply crêpe color paper. We hung those pictures in the classroom windows. At night when we turned on the classroom lights, they looked real and beautiful.
      The following Christmas, upon hearing that the other classes would do the windows, we decided to focus on the manger scene to convey the humility of the Holy Family. My semi-boarder classmate Nguyen The Hung brought in a bunch of thatch that bore the smell of cow pat to use in building the manger. Our class presented to the school the Holy Family living under a poor thatch-roof house lighted by an oil lamp rather than with strings of colorful electrical lights. That year, we once again won the competition.

5.

      My classmate Nguyen Tan Phuoc was a talented artist, but he was also a trouble-maker. He had the nickname “Khi dot” (ape) because he was skinny with long arms and legs. (I don’t feel it’s fair to talk about the nicknames of others while not mentioning my own. I was nicknamed “Dung voi” - Dung the elephant - because I was big relative to my classmates.) There was one time when Phuoc climbed into all the dormitory restrooms, locked all of them and messed up the water tanks so that water would flush all night long. The next morning none of us could use the restroom. The entire dormitory suffered a week of no shower. The other time, Phuoc climbed over the rail of the veranda to sneak into the Brothers’ dining room and stole snacks for friends. He was successful only once. At the other time, he got caught by Brother Albert and had to stand for a week under the flag pole during recess.

6.

      Tang Khai Hoan was also a trouble-maker in my class. Hoan was born in France and joined Mossard after just returning to Vietnam. His bed was at the front row of the dormitory, a few feet away from the rattan armchair where the dormitory supervisor sat and said the rosary every morning before the wake-up time. Hoan complained that in the morning he had the urge to pee but he wouldn’t want to get up to go to the restroom because the supervisor was sitting nearby. He said, “Je dois faire quelque chose.” (I must do something.) What “something” meant was that one morning Hoan got up well before wake-up time and daubed the rattan chair with toothpaste. Returning to his bed, instead of going back to sleep, he waited for what would happen next. Brother Romain was the dormitory supervisor that morning.
      As soon as he sat down on the rattan chair, Hoan couldn’t help but giggled. Brother Romain was so surprised that he used the flashlight to check around and found out that the derrière of his black habit was tainted with toothpaste. I wondered if Hoan got whipped for that but for sure he had to stand under the flag pole during recess for the next few days.

7.

      The students of Mossard also had vile tricks such as this one that I will recall. At the end of each swimming session the supervisor would blow the whistle and everybody had to vacate the swimming pool. On that day, although Brother François had blown the whistle, a student remained in the pool. It was my classmate Thuong “Ca lo.” It turned out that someone pulled off Thuong’s swimming trunk and did not return it to him. Someone discovered that Thuong was circumcised and gave him a nickname which literally meant “exposed private part.” Thuong did not dare come out of the pool. Instead of scolding us Brother François pretended to turn his head to a different direction. When he looked back at us someone had already returned the trunks to Thuong. He put it on and got out of the water. We then changed our clothes and got in line to return to the dormitory as if nothing had happened. Since that day we never played such trick again. I admire Brother François for remaining cool and understanding that day.

8.

      Living in an all-boys environment, we missed the charming girls but were also shy of them in high school. Mossard had a couple of school musical and play programs during the year. A few blocks away from Mossard, there was a Catholic school run by the nuns, the Notre Dame des Missions. Once in a while the Brothers would invite the Notre Dame students to come over and enjoy the program with us. I remember the first time they came in uniforms walking in double lines. Each group had a nun supervisor close by. In spite of the presence of the nuns, as soon as the Notre Dame girls showed up we all yelled cheerfully to welcome them. That evening, when we got in line for shower, Brother Agilbert scolded us and said that we mooed like cows and barked like dogs. However, we continued to welcome our guests from Notre Dame that way whenever they came to Mossard.
      While in Mossard I wondered why the nuns never invited us to Notre Dame for their school programs. We once came to Notre Dame, uninvited. Two of my friends, Manh and Dang, had sisters attending Notre Dame. Through this connection some of us became pen pals with some of the girls at Notre Dame. After a few correspondence and exchange of pictures, we decided it was time to see them in person. After Sunday mass and breakfast, Mossard high school students were allowed to go to town by themselves until noon. That Sunday, instead of window shopping or enjoying a nice lunch in town, we walked over to Notre Dame. As soon as we passed the school gate and saw the girls waving at us from the windows in the second floor, we felt so excited. We then followed Dang and Manh to the window of the school office where they asked the nuns’ permission to see their sisters. We were told to wait but to our surprise, a few minutes later a side door opened and a pack of dogs came out. We ran as fast as we could to the street. Next Sunday, Brother Agilbert signed our passes to town but he warned us not to go to Notre Dame again; otherwise our passes would be revoked. I guess the nuns must have reported our trek to the Brothers. Oh, they were worse than the Brothers.
      The charming girls also appeared at Mossard every Saturday afternoon and on Sundays when parents came over with their daughters to visit or to pick up their sons. During those times students were not allowed to be in the parking area in front of the buildings. However, “La loi, ce n’est pas la loi.” (It’s the law, but it’s not the law to us.) Some of us broke the school rule and hung around the parking area to watch the girls and try to get their attention. When I was in 8th grade, I fell in love with a girl who had a younger brother two years my junior. It was not until three years after while in my junior year at Ecole Pasteur that I had the chance to meet her at Thien Phuoc (a Catholic school run by nuns in Saigon) and took her home on my motorcycle every afternoon. That puppy love did not have a happy ending. Therefore, “she’s always in my mind for my whole life.” (“Whatever might happen” poem by Nguyen Bac Son.)
      As I mentioned earlier there were a couple of charming girls living in the Mossard employee quarter, a row of townhouses by the swimming pool. Once in a while, as we played basketball at the court by the junioriate, we saw girls in their ao dai (Vietnamese traditional dress) at the foot of the hill. That made some of us astounded while discussing and praising their beauty. Until one afternoon, after a basketball game we took a break sitting on the steps of red rocks leading to the foot of the hill. We accidentally saw one of the girls taking a bath by the well in front of the townhouses. She wore big pants that she pulled up to her neck. She drew water from the well and took her bath, unflustered, undisturbed by our presence at a short distance away. She used one hand to hold her pants and the other hand to apply soap and then flush with water. We quietly watched the “fairy bath” and we couldn’t help but felt aroused. Suddenly, we realized how bad we were and how indifferent she was (She could also be treating us like kids.) Therefore, without a word to one another we walked away. Since then, we no longer talked about those charming girls.

9.

      Brother Albert was the hometeacher of the 6th Preparatory grade, but when I got there he had become the boarding administrator. We privately called him “Brother Le Van” because he had the habit of addressing students with the surname of “Le Van.” My full name is Tran Anh Dung but he always called me Le Van Dung. He spoke French with a funny accent just like the old men from the South. That year the basketball and soccer teams of our class won the school championship. Brother Albert praised us, saying, “La classe de 5è s’est taillée la part du lion.” (The 7th grade gets the lion’s trophy.) while stressing the word “taillée” and making it sound like “tai de” (literally meant carrying the goat). It was really hilarious but we did not dare laugh at him.
      Brother Albert took care of the Nghia-Si group. He was also in charge of the school’s musical and play programs. The year I first joined Mossard, I was in a higher grade but allowed to stay in the petit dortoir to be close to my cousin Tam. Brother Albert picked me to assist him in renting books to students. During midday break he rented out comic books such as Tintin, Lucky Luke, Les Schtroumpfs ... to raise funds for the Nghia-Si group. Thanks to this job I read all the series of French cartoons without paying a cent. During my six years at Mossard, I was picked by Brother Albert four times to participate in the school programs. I was a dancer in a Russian musical. I played the role of Prophet Isaiah in a Christmas play and a factory worker in the “Vietnam House” play. I also belonged to the school choir singing the “Hoi Trung Duong”, a famous song about the three main rivers of Vietnam. As I’m writing these sentences I feel not only happy but also so proud of those performances.
      In 2008, during a visit to Vietnam I stopped by Mai Thon to see the Brothers. Brother Albert was about 90 years old but he was still tutoring students in French. Upon knowing that an old student came for a visit he left his student in the classroom to see me and talk with me cheerfully for a while. Brother Albert was such an active teacher!


One Hundred Percent

      The 9th grade was the top grade at Mossard. There were only 21 students in our class. We were working very hard for the Brevet (Short for BEPC - Brevet d’études du premier cycle du second degré – French first cycle Secondary school diploma) exam which took place at the end of the school year.

9th grade - 1966

      Since joining Mossard, once in a while before the get-up time, I woke up to the running sound on the street, along with the singing of the South Vietnamese famous Infantry marching song:

With the repeating sound of horses galloping ...
The heroic troops march through smoke foggy wind ...
(Author: Van Giang)

      Those were from the cadets of the Thuduc Academy for reserve Infantry Officers who were running on Hoang Dieu Street, passing by Mossard. While lying on my bed in the dormitory, I thought of the war and hoped that it would end upon my leaving of Mossard. However, the situation worsened following the coup d’état on the All Saints’ Day of 1963. During the first few years of 1960s, some of my schoolmates had to take leave of absence for the funeral of their fathers who were killed in combat. I myself saw exploded vehicles lying by the road side on my way home during the holidays. On those trips the traffic was interrupted many times due to the Communist blockage and I kept wondering if I could make home or back to school in time. I also saw the worrisome expression of my parents when they were hearing the sounds of mortar fire at distance and when they were talking about the battles from different places. While we were well protected within the fence of Mossard we still felt the effects of the war.
      We were merely 9th grade kids but we already talked to one another about the potential of being drafted. We all felt that we had to pass the first-level baccalauréat (junior high school diploma) to at least meet the qualifications to enter the Thuduc Academy for reserve Infantry Officers in case we were drafted. Some of us already talked about transferring to the Vietnamese curriculum, skipping some grades to obtain the high school diploma earlier and be able to attend universities with the draft deferment status. It was well known that French school students had the better chance to pass the Vietnamese high school diploma with the C option (Foreign languages, Literature and Philosophy weighted four times more than Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Physics & Chemistry in the C option.) Therefore, the Brevet exam was not very important to us. In spite of those things, we all worked very hard in 9th grade. I would say that our 9th grade was the most uneventful and the most memorable class of our high school years at Mossard. Why? Was it due to the Brevet exam being the first challenge of our life? Or, was it due to us being more mature in response to the threat of the war?
      That year Brother Bernard went back to France and Brother Raymond returned to Vietnam to become our new school principal. He was also our French and homeroom teacher. Brother Julien continued to be our Modern Mathematics teacher. He also taught us Physics and Chemistry. Mr. Mung was our Vietnamese Literature teacher. I do not remember the names of other teachers. Maybe it was due to the fact that we had more focus on French and Mathematics. We also paid more attention to Vietnamese Literature because Vietnamese was our first “foreign” language and it had a higher weight in the Brevet exam, where we had to take both oral and written tests. We did not care much about English because it was our second foreign language. It had a lower weight and it was a test that we would take alternatively with Natural Sciences. At the testing time the examiner would open a sealed envelope and announce which subject that France’s Department of Education had chosen for the Brevet. That year, our guess was that they would pick Natural Sciences because French people did not like Americans much. We were right. They had selected Natural Sciences. When the examiner announced the pick the whole classroom cheerfully applauded.
      To prepare for the Brevet we took hundreds of sample tests ourselves. As for me I made up about 10 subjects for the French essay test. I wrote the essays, polished the sentences and fixed the grammatical errors the best I could. Nguyen Tung Thanh, a classmate of mine who was the top student in French, helped me a lot in studying for this part of the Brevet.
      There was a hilarious story about the preparation for the exam. For the oral test of Vietnamese Literature we had to pick 10 Vietnamese articles or poems that the examiner would choose one and ask us questions about it. Luong Le Chuan, one of funniest guy in our class, selected “Đĩ già đi tu” (The old whore who joined the convent) poem of the famous poet Ton Tho Tuong for the exam. He learned every word of this poem, translated it into French in preparation for the exam. He thought that the weird title of the poem would catch the eye of the examiner and he/she would pick it for the test. After we took the oral exam, I asked Chuan if he was tested with that poem, he answered with a smile.

      All 21 of us passed the Brevet exam and then, we left Mossard ... forever ...

      About a month later the five of us who were close friends at Mossard, Thanh, Dang, Nghiep, Vien and I, came back to school for a “thank you” visit to the Brothers. We met Brother Raymond, Brother Julien and papa François.

Back to Mossard, summer 1966

      Only a month had passed, and Brother Raymond did not recognize me. He looked at me and kept saying, “Méconnaissable! Méconnaissable!” (Unrecognizable! Unrecognizable!) Yes, I lost weights due to lack of sleep during the time I prepared for the Brevet and I was simply gaining them back. But, I could be heavier due to multiple celebration parties with friends or due to me being well fed by my mother at home.
      Meanwhile, papa François looked different to us. He had long hair in lieu of the military short-cut style he had for the last six years. He told us that he was preparing for his trip to France for higher education.

Back to Mossard, summer 1966

      As for Brother Julien, he kept smiling and looked very proud of his students. We broke the record. In the history of Mossard we were the first class who passed the Brevet one hundred percent.
      After the visit we walked around Mossard and laughed along the way while recalling many of the good old stories of ours. However, deeply in our heart we quietly said “goodbye” to our beloved school. Nghiep was the only one among us who was at Mossard since first grade. I asked him if he would join Mossard if he could start his life all over again. He said, “Yes” with no hesitation at all. We were quiet with our own thought after hearing Nghiep’s answer. I would say that Dang, Vien and Thanh had the same answer as Nghiep. As for me I would certainly choose Mossard.
      With the Brevet diploma in our hands we were proud of our first success in life but we were still childish for thinking that way. None of us would think that in such a short time of three years later many of us were in military training at Quangtrung or Thuduc or in an outpost somewhere in the country and we were listening to Hung Cuong singing:

“One hundred percent curfew, my dear ...
There is no pass this evening ...”
(A South Vietnamese soldier song by Vu Chuong)


“Horse Wagons of the Bustling Past ...”

      After twenty three years living in America I took my wife and our two sons to Vietnam for a visit so that they had the opportunity to see my birthplace and to know my relatives.
      In flight from Hongkong to Saigon, Cathay Pacific airline gave each of us passengers a gift which was a document certifying that we were taking one of the last flights from Kai Tak airport. Starting the next day this airport would be closed for good. It would be replaced by a newer and state-of-the-art airport. That day was July 5th, 1998. I thanked the flight attendant for the gift and told her, “Today is also a special day for our family.”
      “Let me guess. Oh, I know. I believe today your family returns to Vietnam for the first time, right?” She said after giving us a beautiful smile.
      “Yes, but you are half right.” I replied while rubbing Luc’s hair. Then I told the flight attendant, “Today is also the birthday our son Luc. Does Cathay Pacific have something special for him on his birthday?”
      The flight attendant shook Luc’s hand, wished him a happy birthday and said that she would check with the captain.
      When the airplane started to make some preparation for landing at Tan Son Nhut airport, the same flight attendant stopped by our row and said that, with my permission, Luc could come to the cockpit and watch the touchdown. That was the birthday gift Cathay Pacific had for him. As Luc looked so excited about the experience that he was going to have I forgot all the danger that could happen during landing and nodded my approval.
      That day Luc was 16 years old. Where was I at that age? I asked myself that question and the answer was ... at 16 I was preparing for the Brevet exam and I would be soon leaving Mossard. As I was looking out the window of the airplane, the images of my old school and friends came back vividly to my mind. Almost every evening at Mossard, after playing soccer we hung out around the field, telling one another the jokes of the day while waiting for the shower time bell. Once in a while, over the sky there was a jet with two engines by the tail (probably the French-made Caravelle jet) passing by, preparing to land in Saigon. Each time I saw that airliner I always wished that someday I would be on an airplane, travelling to many places in the world.
      At that time I suddenly thought that I could be flying over the Thuduc sky. That thought made me look carefully at the landscape below, trying to search for Mossard. I thought that it wouldn’t be difficult to find Mossard as it had three buildings, a soccer field, three basketball court, four volleyball courts and a swimming pool, not including the junioriate. But, the sky is so vast and the land is boundless. How could I find my old Mossard?
      I closed my eyes. The last view of Vietnam once again came back to my mind. On the night of the evacuation, when the Chinook carrying us refugees took off from the roof of the American Embassy, I tried to record the last images of Vietnam through the shadow of the U.S. marine who was pointing a machine gun downward by the window of the helicopter. I saw thousands of my fellow Vietnameses inside and outside the American compound hoping in vain for the evacuation. The next image was the cathedral of Saigon. At that time it was still dark, I tried hard but I could not see my Taberd senior high school. I looked at my wrist watch. It was 3:45AM. That day was April 30, 1975.
      The airplane jerked a little when landing. I was startled, not believing that I had returned to my old country.
      Upon leaving the Tan Son Nhut airport we went to my hometown Tayninh on the same day. While in Tayninh, I took my wife and sons to the family graveyard for a visit, then to see quite a few relatives at their homes. After that I planned to take my sons to the provincial primary school to show them my old classrooms, but I couldn’t make the visit because the school block was off-limits to civilians as it had become part of the communist party provincial compound.
      A few days later I took my family to Saigon for a visit. I chartered a cab to go places, showing my sons parts of the city where I had so much memories.


      (Note: This is the marble sign that was removed and damaged after 1975. Nguyen Thanh Dung (RIP), an old student of Mossard, found and saved it. The picture was provided by two other old students, Nguyen Quoc Dung and Hoang Anh Tuan. Courtesy of www.lasanmossard.org).

      We stopped by Taberd. My old senior high school was still there but it had become a pedagogy college that belonged to the government. I no longer saw any Christian Brother in their black habit like in the old days. I asked the cab driver to take us to Thuduc. Arriving at Mossard, I stood motionless in front of the gate, looking at my old school and feeling a deep sorrow in my heart. The school now had a new and strange name. The marble sign inscribed with the words, “Ecole Mossard” was no longer at the gate.
      On the next day, I met Dang, an old Mossard classmate, and asked him for information about our old teachers from the Mossard and Taberd years. Dang told me that the communist government had confiscated all the Christian Brothers’ schools in Vietnam. The Brothers now lived in the shade that used to be the bicycle parking spot. We took the cab back to Taberd where I met Brother François. It was a very emotional visit as we recalled the good old days and told each other our own stories following the fall of Saigon. Brother François told me that he and some other Brothers were put in jail for five years; Brothers Julien and Vincent had gone to God; Brothers Jules and Salomon (he was almost 90 years old) were living in Ban Me Thuot province. Brother François gave me their address and I promised myself that I would come and see them on my next Vietnam trip.

“Papa” François and me at the De La Salle Maithon retirement home in Saigon in 2012

      After saying goodbye to my old teacher, I couldn’t help but whispering a few verses from a poem that I learned from Mr. Mung, the Vietnamese Literature teacher of my last year at Mossard. The poem was written in the 18th century by a well-known author, Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, in remembrance of the old citadel of Thang Long (the old name of Hanoi.)
...
Lối xưa xe ngựa hồn thu thảo,
Nền cũ lâu đài bóng tịch dương,
...
Cảnh đấy người đây luống đoạn trường ...
...
Horse wagons of the bustling past
Autumn leaves on saddening paths
Splendid days of magnificent palaces,
Sundown light on foundation collapsed
...
Old friends, old places
Oh, sorrowful fate ...

      (It’s only my attempt to translate the verses into English according to my understanding of the poem in Vietnamese. It’s by no means representing the poet’s view.)


It Was Not Just a Dream

      “If we travel to Ban Me Thuot do we still have to go through Dalat like the old days?” I asked my brother who lived in Vietnam.
      “Ah! brother, you are so naïve.” He replied, jokingly. “The war is over, my dear brother. From Tayninh we would go to Chonthanh and from there we would take the national road # 14 to go straight to that province. Oh, nowadays it’s called Buon Ma Thuot.”
      “Ba or buon, ma or me, it doesn’t matter to me. How long does it take to get there?” I asked.
      “About 350 kilometers. Why do you want to go there? Visiting an old flame?” My brother asked me, jokingly again.
      “Yes, it’s more than one old flame, OK! They are my two old teachers. Are two days good enough for a brief visit?”
      I asked my brother such questions because we only had two weeks of vacation for our trip to Vietnam. Excluding the travel time we did not have many days visiting the country. I was too busy with work to take an extended vacation.
      “Yes, it should be fine. If we leave around three or four o’clock in the morning we would arrive at Buon Ma Thuot around noon. We will spend the night there and return the next morning. It would be enough time for you to pay a visit to your old teachers. The road is pretty decent so you won’t be so tired. You two and the kids will have the chance to see the sceneries of the highlands ...”
I asked my brother to rent a car with a chauffeur so that we could leave for Ban Me Thuot the next morning. Upon knowing that it would be two days on the road, my wife and sons preferred to stay home visiting relatives.
      My brother’s estimate was correct. We arrived at Ban Me Thuot a little after twelve noon. After lunch, I asked the driver to take me to the address (133B Phan Chu Trinh street) given by Brother François a couple of years ago.
      It was almost 40 years since the last time I saw Brother Salomon but I recognized him right away. While his face had some wrinkles, his head still had some white hair left. He had the look of a frail old man. I told my brother to leave me with my old teacher and to return to pick me up in a couple of hours. Then I walked closer to Brother Salomon, crossed my hands and bowed my head to greet him.
      “Dear Frère, how are you doing?” I said to him.
      Brother Salomon looked at me. His eyes locked on my face like a bright beam for a short while then it vanished.
      “Sir, who are you? Why do you call me Frère?” He asked me.
      “I’m Dung, your old student. I attended Mossard from 1960 to 1966 ...” I replied.
      “Are you Nguyen Tien Dung who was my student at 2nd grade or the other Dung ... Oh, I have so many students with this same first name. I’m sorry. It has been such a long time. I vaguely remember you ...”
      “Dear Frère, I’m Dung, a native of Tayninh. I was once known as ‘Dung Le Choisi’ at Mossard. I was in the 5th special grade but I slept in the petit dortoir ...”
      “O my God! I remember you now, my son. Dung, why ... what are you doing here?”
      “I came here to see you, dear Frère.”
      “O my son, I am so ... so happy to see you. Sit ... sit down. Where do you live? Who ... who gave you my address?”
      Brother Salomon took my hand and led me to a wooden bench under the shade of a tree nearby. We took turns sharing the stories of our lives and talked about the good old days. Brother François had told me that since Brother Salomon was no longer allowed to teach, he devoted his time to prayers and farming. Therefore, I teased Brother Salomon about being a professional in raising pigs and rabbits and in gardening. Brother Salomon told me about the trees that he planted and animals that he raised ...
      Later on in the day my brother arrived to pick me up. While shaking Brother Salomon’s hand and saying goodbye I secretly put some dollar bills in his palm as a gift to the De La Salle Order. Brother Salomon held my hand and squeezed it hard as if he did not want me to leave. I then asked him to say with me the prayers that he had taught me years ago:

“Notre Père, qui êtes aux cieux
Que votre nom soit sanctifié.
Que votre règne arrive ...”
(The starting sentences of the Our Father in French)

      After we completed saying the last prayer, the “Gloire au Père” (the Doxology), Brother Salomon looked deeply into my eyes and asked, “Son, after so many years you ... you still remember those prayers ... Have ... have you gotten baptized and became a Christian yourself ?”
      I looked at my old teacher’s gentle eyes and slowly nodded my head. His eyes sparkled like the North Star. He embraced me, trembling and said, “Oui, je sais, mon enfant. Tu es wraiment le choisi!” (Yes, my son, I know that you are truly the chosen one!)
      I was startled, overwhelmed with emotions. That was the same phrase that Brother Salomon said to me years ago. It was that Epiphany day where I won the king’s cup cake and was the king of Mossard for one day. I held my old teacher in my arms and rested my head on his shoulder until I felt a cold wind blowing a few golden leaves through my legs. I then noticed that the dollar bills that I had just given him were amongst the leaves. I immediately released myself from Brother Salomon to run after the dollar bills. I tried to catch them with my two hands, yelling, “Frère! Frère! The dollar! The dollar! It’s blowing away!”
      Suddenly I felt that someone was shaking my shoulders. I woke up and realized that I was in my own bedroom. My legs were cold because the comforter was somehow displaced. I might have kicked it off the bed.
      “You must have a bad dream, my dear. What did you see that made you yell that loud?” My wife asked me while squeezing my shoulder.
      I recalled the dream, saying in a low voice, “I dreamt about travelling to Ban Me Thuot to see Brother Salomon, my old teacher, after so many years. Before going to bed I checked the De La Salle’s website and found out that Brother Salomon had passed away. Last summer I planned to travel to that province in the highlands to see him during our family trip to Vietnam, but we could not make it because I was so busy with my job. It’s too late now ... Oh, I felt so bad ...”
      “I think that the dream is due to the bad news that you read from the web. But, why ... why did you yell, something like ... dollar ... dollar ... blowing ... blowing away?” My wife asked.
      “I saw the dollar bills that I gave Brother Salomon were suddenly blown away and I tried really hard to catch them. Oh, my dear, I ... I think that I now understand the meaning of my dream. Maybe ... It could be that Brother Salomon came back, in my dream, to open my eyes and let me see how devoted I am to my job in my pursuit of making more and more money ...”
      My wife held my hands for a while to comfort me. Then she said, “My darling, I ... I’d like to tell you my feelings about this subject a long time ago but I haven’t had the chance. You fly away from home so often for your job. I understand that you love your job but we are so lonely without you at home. There have been many Sundays that we went to church without you. I think that it’s so demanding. Perhaps it’s time for you to reflect about your job. Maybe you should consider another job that would allow you to be home with us more often ... Now, let’s say a prayer for Brother Salomon before we go back to sleep.”
      As I held my wife’s hands, my heart was filled with happiness. I mumbled a few words to Brother Salomon, thanking him for his kindness, then I started the Our Father, mindlessly in French, “Notre Père, qui êtes aux cieux ...” but it was suspended by a squeeze by my wife. I was startled and began, saying the Our Father again, this time in Vietnamese, “Lạy Cha chúng con ở trên trời ...


Dung Anh Tran
Winter 2013


MyYeasrsAtMossard

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