When Chris Scott was 5 years old, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.
He didn't really know what was going on then. All he knew was that there were no white people in his neighborhood or at his church or at his school, and that was the way it always had been. He knew that if he ever saw a white person he had to say "yes sir" and "yes ma'am" and keep his head down and not do anything to attract attention. But he slowly began to realize that some people, people he knew, were working to change that.
Church was always his favorite part of the week. He loved the music and the dancing, but most of all, he loved listening to Reverend King. Even though he didn't always understand what he was saying, he knew that his words were important, and Chris felt like he spoke with the voice of God. Chris decided that when he grew up, he wanted to be a preacher just like Reverend King.
When Chris Scott was 12 years old, he went to his first demonstration. The police attacked the demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses. His parents decided not to take him to a demonstration again.
When Chris Scott was 14 years old, his father was beaten and arrested for trying to register black voters in Mississippi. They passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but it didn't seem like things changed very much. Even though Brown v. Board of Education had passed over a decade ago, Chris still went to a segregated school. White people still looked at him with anger and suspicion. Chris wondered if things would ever really get better.
When Chris Scott was 18 years old, Reverend King was murdered. Chris was devastated. Then, just a few weeks later, he was drafted to fight in Vietnam. He didn't support the war. Reverend King had always advocated nonviolence, and war was violence. Besides, didn't the Negroes and the Vietnamese have a common enemy - the whites? But he couldn't afford college, and therefore he couldn't escape the draft.
He tried to look on the bright side. This was his chance to be a hero, to make his family proud. After all, he was an American too. And what did Americans do? They fought for freedom. He was sure that God had a plan for him. And so he said goodbye to his parents and his siblings and his high school sweetheart Ellen and shipped off to Southeast Asia.
The military was the first desegregated organization he had ever been a part of. He knew that things were different up north, and they were different in Vietnam too. He served alongside whites and Hispanics and Asians and even a few Native Americans. But the whites took their attitudes with them. They tripped him in the mess hall. They threw moldy food at him. They called him "boy", "coon", and "nigger". In order to avoid them, Chris stuck with the other black soldiers as much as he could. One of them, John Thomas, became his best friend.
Chris eventually landed the relatively safe job of driving for the embassy in Saigon after the previous driver was killed. He settled into his new routine, becoming numb to the horrors of war.
When Chris Scott was 25 years old, he met Kim.
The war was almost over, America had lost, and the troops were about to ship back home. The news couldn't have come soon enough. Chris hated Vietnam. It was too hot and too muggy. The food was bad. He had seen too much death and destruction. And then he met Kim.
The Vietnamese didn't care if you were white or black. As far as they were concerned, all Americans were the same. And as far as most Americans were concerned, all Vietnamese were the same. But Kim was different. He couldn't put his finger on it, but she seemed somehow more innocent, more untouched by the war. How had such a sweet girl ended up in a seedy dive like this? he wondered. He wanted to save her. But he was just one man, and she was just one woman, and it was so easy for both of them to get lost in the in-between. And when Saigon fell, that's exactly what happened. Chris screamed as the helicopter carried him away, thinking he would never see Kim again.
When Chris returned to America, things had changed. He could walk into a white-owned business and expect to be served rather than have the police called on him. But he had also changed. The war left the same scars on so many soldiers, no matter the color of their skin. For all he knew, Kim was dead. He never told his family about her. They wouldn't understand. They all told him to just get on with his life. So, not knowing what else to do, he proposed to Ellen, and she said yes.
He still had nightmares. He called out Kim's name in his sleep. He felt overwhelming guilt that he had lived while she, and so many others, had died. And then, when he was 28 years old, he attended a veterans' convention with John and Ellen. There he learned that Kim was alive and had a son. His son.
Bui Doi, they were called. The children of Vietnamese women and American GIs. Most of them were lighter-skinned than full-blooded Vietnamese, but some were darker. Tam - that was the boy's name - was darker.
Chris and Ellen went to Bangkok to meet Tam. The boy was not safe in Vietnam. His mother's cousin had tried to kill him. Chris wasn't sure Tam would be much safer in America, as he would be considered black at first glance. But Tam would be part of the first generation of African-Americans to grow up without segregation. His life would be better than his father's had been. And wasn't that what every parent wanted for their children?
Chris had to see Kim, to apologize for leaving her. When she saw him, a huge smile burst into her face, as if she had seen the sun for the first time in years. But the smile instantly vanished when she saw Ellen beside him and he told her that they were married.
Before Chris knew what was happening, Kim had taken out a gun and shot herself. She died in his arms, and he did his best to comfort her, assuring her that he would take Tam back to America with him, to live the American dream.
The American dream. That was what Kim had died to give Tam. That was what the Engineer, whose French father had left him behind in Vietnam, was determined to achieve. Chris had always thought that the American dream was only for white people. But now it seemed within reach, for both him and his son.
Chris went to seminary and eventually achieved his personal dream - becoming a preacher. He knew he would never be as great as Reverend King, but he kept him in mind with every sermon he gave. Reverend King had had a dream, an American dream. He had a cause - that of civil rights - and now that cause had been won. Chris decided that his own cause would be that of aiding Vietnam veterans and their families, especially the minorities, the ones who fell through the cracks. He wanted to make sure that America would never get involved in such a senseless war ever again. But he reminded himself that at least one good thing had come out of that war: Tam.
Between growing up in the Jim Crow South and fighting in the Vietnam War, Chris sometimes had trouble believing in an all-powerful, all-loving God. He often asked God why He allowed such terrible evils, but he never got an answer. Yet despite everything, he still believed.