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Bobbing Message at Sea Alters Viet Refugees' Lives : Note in Bottle--a Ticket to Freedom

April 26, 1985|LAURIE BECKLUND | Times Staff Writer

Midway through a 1979 Christmas cruise on their way to Hawaii, Dorothy and John Henry Peckham of Whittier drifted away from their bridge game and joined in another shipboard activity: tossing bottles into the Pacific with their names inside in the hope that someone would find them someday and write back.

Little did they expect that one of the wine bottles that had been dropped into the sea that lazy shipboard afternoon would alter the lives of a family of Vietnamese boat people traveling on a very different sort of voyage more than three years later.

It was March 4, 1983--Peckham's 70th birthday--when his wife found an Aerogram in the mailbox. It was addressed to her, and posted from Thailand.

Floating Mailbox

"We have received a floating mailbox by a bottle on the way from Vietnam to Thailand," the letter read. "We tried to find freedom. . . . We received the box at a direction southwest of Songkhla Beach about 15 kilometers. Now we send a message to the boss and we wish that you will answer us sooner. Both English and Vietnamese are acceptable."

It was signed, Hoa Van Nguyen.

Today, more than five years after the Peckhams dropped their bottle into the Pacific, they will meet the man who picked it up 9,000 miles away off the coast of Thailand. That first letter led to correspondence that, in turn, led the Peckhams to help sponsor Nguyen for immigration to the United States.

"What impressed us so much about this fellow was that he was escaping from Vietnam in one of these rickety, shallow river boats and he saw this bottle and used the dollar bill Dorothy put inside it for postage to send us a letter, rather than using it for all the other things they must have needed," said Peckham, a Los Angeles attorney.

Sponsorship Decision

"So, we eventually decided to sponsor him and his family to come to the United States."

Hoa Van Nguyen, 31, a former South Vietnamese soldier who apparently picked up English from American servicemen, is scheduled to arrive at Los Angeles International Airport this afternoon. With him will be his wife, Joang Kim, 27, their year-old baby, and Hoa's brother, Cuong Van, 17.

When they meet, they will be strangers. But the Peckhams have come to learn about the Nguyens through a long series of letters that described their sojourn through refugee camps in Southeast Asia.

That first letter that Dorothy Peckham's bottle had prompted sent the couple scurrying to map books just to find the location of Songkhla Beach, Thailand, in the Gulf of Thailand.

"We calculated that it was almost 9,000 miles," she said. "It traveled through all those Pacific Islands, the Philippines--all over! You just wonder how it got there, quietly going through all those storms during three years at sea. How come it didn't hit a reef or a boat or something?"

A spokeswoman for the Royal Viking Line, the cruise line on whose ship the Peckhams had been traveling, said Pacific currents often carry bottles to far-flung spots, including Australia, Japan and Singapore. "But never to a Vietnamese boat person as far we know," she said.

Second Letter Arrives

After the Peckhams wrote back to Nguyen, they received a second letter indicating that their bottle had meant far more to the boat people than they could have imagined.

"We thought it was kind of a fun ending, rather than just having some dumb idiot find it who would have used the dollar inside the bottle for a couple of beers," Dorothy Peckham said. "But when we got his second letter back, he told us that from the minute they saw the bottle, they felt it was a prayer answered, that this bottle was somehow their way to freedom."

Nguyen was single and traveling with his young brother at the time he found the bottle. Shortly thereafter, he made his way to a refugee camp.

"He would tell us about the refugee camps he was in--he was in three camps during the time we were writing each other--and with each letter, we would learn something new," Dorothy Peckham recalled.

Soon, she said, they received a wedding picture of Nguyen with his new bride, whom he had met in a Thai refugee camp. Nine months later came a picture of a new baby. Finally, there was a request for help to immigrate to America.

The Peckhams contacted the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and were referred to the Catholic Welfare Bureau of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which resettled about 1,800 Vietnamese refugees here last year.

Refugee Status Granted

The family of four was granted refugee status in February. Loc Nam Nguyen, assistant director of the immigration and citizenship division of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, himself a Vietnamese refugee, said he is now seeking a job for Nguyen in his preferred field of auto mechanics.

Co-sponsoring the family's resettlement with the bureau and the Peckhams are the Peckhams' neighbors in Whittier and the St. Bruno Catholic Church. An apartment is waiting for them in Echo Park.

"We've got the apartment ready with cooking utensils, curtains and bedding and things," Dorothy Peckham said. "I guess we're ready for them. But I haven't the faintest idea what to say when they come.

"Welcome to America? I guess that's the thing to say."

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