I truly believe that every day we bump into and interact with extraordinary people. Individuals whose life stories humble us. Yet, they rarely mention their pasts to those around them. Sometimes it takes years, even decades, for details of their lives to tumble forth. There are times when they die and their own children have never heard their tales. This is particularly true if you grow up in central Iowa where hiding your light under a bushel basket is part of the fabric people grow up with.
One of the most amazing people I have ever known I met when I was in early elementary school. I can still remember as if it was yesterday. My school teacher nervously introducing one of her sons as my new classmate. As a little kid, adults often act strangely for reasons you cannot quite grasp. For most of us sitting at our desks, he was just another kid. The second he kicked the red rubber ball a country mile in our kickball game at recess, he became the most popular kid in school!
If you saw her on the main street of my small town, if you blinked, you might miss her. If she weighed more than 70 pounds that was being generous and half of it was probably hair. I am sure that when her family attended church, it was difficult for her to see the pastor in his pulpit over the heads of the large Norwegians that sat in the pews in front of her.
As a kid, one of the best moments of the year was when you were over at her house and she made her wonderful cookies. It was a challenge to figure out how many cookies you could scarf down before, in a voice barely above a whisper, she would let you know that you had eaten too many.
Every year my little community has a festival celebrating our ethnic heritage. People don their Norwegian best, wave red-white-and-blue Norskie flags and celebrate, well as much as a bunch of Scandinavians can, all things Viking. There are even people who will tell tall tales of eating lutefisk and how they survived.
A VIP is picked to be the parade’s grand marshal. It is always someone who has made the community proud over the years. I have always felt that my friend’s mother should have been named the grand marshal years ago.
Her family and her very presence have changed the town for the better. She has numerous grandchildren who have attended the military academies, one of her sons is a police officer, another is a community leader in Des Moines, someone who the most powerful politicians in America come hat in hand to, and all of her other children have graduated college and are stalwarts of the places they reside. Her family represents every ideal America aspires to.
But no one has probably thought about asking her to be grand marshal, not because of her diminutive size or quiet disposition, but maybe that she does not look Nordic. She is one of the Tai Dam people that Gov. Robert Ray heroically took into Iowa during the chaotic aftermath of the Vietnam War. A time when a Democratic president and a Republican governor were willing to work together to do what was morally right. Her name is Em Quang.
The story of her family’s flight to America is harrowing, truly terrifying! For anyone who has ever been blessed to hear it, it is a of tale that you could imagine as a big screen epic that would have audiences on the edge of their seats with their hearts in their throats. Most of us, if we went through half of what she experienced during that excruciating journey would roll up into the fetal position. At one point she was informed that if one of her children cried out in the darkness, she would have to end their life to save the group.
The funny thing is, this tower of strength, this wisp of a woman who we should all admire, after all that she has been through, the only time she broke down was in my little town. She had walked up town and become lost returning home. It was too much, just overwhelming. A strange new world with such strange people in it. It must have overloaded her senses. She was lost. When asked what happened next, she said she looked up and there was the church steeple. She knew she could use the steeple as her guidepost home.
We all become lost at some point in our lives and it is terrifying. We look around and are seemingly a million miles from where we should be. It is a world we don’t understand and it is overwhelming. Yet, if we find that steeple, keep focused on it, we can somehow find our way home. We just have to pay attention to that guidepost. They are a teacher, a parent, or a person like Mrs. Quang. They are all around us, often unheralded, and they show us the path we need to take us home.