Thanh Le tells his story 30 minutes at a time, one morning after another, sitting in the front office of his shop on Q Street.
It’s the only half hour he has in his busy life, before Tam's Auto Repair opens for business.
We sit and talk, the door open to let in summer, a framed photo of the pope and fading Husker football schedules staring down at us.
I call him Tam.
Most of the customers who visit this shop in the shadow of the revitalized Antelope Valley -- Union Plaza on one side, NeighborWorks townhouses rising on the other -- call him Tam, too.
He’s not Tam.
It’s his daughter’s name, the 57-year-old mechanic tells me on our last visit. “Easier to pronounce.”
Thanh and Lang have four daughters. They have five grandchildren with one more on the way.
Thanh has owned this shop for 25 years. He tore down the house that came with the land. He built three bays and hired two mechanics and paved a big parking lot that is filled with cars ready to be worked on, or driven home.
He operated a smaller shop before this and worked at a meat-processing plant before that and lived with his family back in Vietnam before that.
He remembers the day in 1975, after days on a ship sailing away from Saigon and the North Vietnamese Army, hearing the voice on the radio.
“President Ford,” he says. “He said we could come to America.”
* * *
We start in Vung Tau.
The city where Thanh grew up with his parents, his four brothers and two sisters.
The owner of Tam’s Auto Repair sits on a tall stool wearing his gray and blue work uniform, his black hair cut short.
It’s a few minutes after 8 on a Tuesday morning, but the clock on the wall says it’s 1:30. A customer drifts in the open door.
“We open at 8:30,” Thanh says. “Come back later, please.”
His father was a carpenter, a woodworker. His mom sold groceries from the side of the road.
They weren’t rich, he says. They weren’t poor.
“I’m going to school. I’m helping my dad do the carpentry. We were very happy.”
They were faithful Catholics and Thunh belonged to a troop of boys -- like scouts -- who played and sang together.
He was a teenager so he didn’t think so much about the war, even though it was the backdrop of his days -- the constant whir of helicopters and airplanes overhead, the American soldiers who passed, tossing chocolates and candy.
Even though his older brothers were in the South Vietnamese Army and Navy, even though his turn would come soon.
“By that time, I was already registered,” Thanh says. “At night, after 11 o’clock, I took turns walking around with a gun to guard the village.”
Even before the Fall of Saigon, people were fleeing to Vung Tau, a port city 45 miles away. They came on crowded barges without food and water.
“I have that image all my life,” Thanh says. “The children were dying and people pick up the bodies and bury them.”
* * *
Thanh’s family was lucky.
On April 28, 1975, his brother secured them passage out of the country. It was a Sunday and they’d just returned from Mass. Thanh’s older brother was in the Navy and knew of a ship in the harbor where families were gathering.
It was providence, Thanh says, that everyone of them was home when the time came.
“Somehow we all gathered at the house," he says. "I think it was God's plan. I do.”
They left everything behind and joined 15 or 20 families with dozens of children.
Out at sea, bombs fell around them. They had no food and only a trickle of rusty water and no place to go.
A bigger ship picked them up and a day later they got the news the South had surrendered; the Viet Cong were taking over.
“We cut the anchor and go to the Philippines.”
When they arrived, they learned President Gerald Ford had authorized select American cities to accept Vietnamese refugees.
But first, a C-130 transport plane flew them to Guam, where a tent city had been erected for the flood of people. Thanh remembers the flight, his family and 100 others seeking asylum.
“They put you in there and there were no seats,” he says. “We lay down like a fish, side by side.”
Thanh looks at you with his eyes wide. He laughs.
“That’s the way it was.“
* * *
They landed in Florida and then Michigan and, later, Louisiana, where Thanh learned English and graduated high school and went to college for a year.
“I couldn’t find a job,” he says. “My brother said, ‘Go to Nebraska, they have a lot of jobs.’”
On his first day, Thanh applied at Square D and Alpo and Farmland Foods in Crete. They all called back: When can you start?
Farmland was paying the most -- $5.85 an hour to run an electric knife trimming fat from pork bellies.
Thanh commuted from Fremont five days a week, sometime six.
“The first week I’m crying every night,” he says. “My hand is cramped from holding the knife, eight or 10 hours.”
And then it was payday, and he massaged away the pain. He met Lang in Crete, a refugee like him, working at Formfit, and their first two daughters were born there.
As the years went by, his wife encouraged him to leave Farmland, Thanh said.
“She said, ‘Are you going to do this for the rest of your life?’ There’s no future for me there.”
He tried the welding program at Southeast Community College in Milford, but it wasn’t for him. Auto mechanics was different.
“I got the hang of it. I like it.”
He graduated in 1992 and went to work for Branker Buick. But he saw a need in his community.
“A lot of people don’t know English, and they don’t know who to trust. Our own people trust us.”
He started in a small garage, and when his business grew, he went to the bank.
They told him no.
“They won’t give me a loan so I ask friends, little bit, little bit, little bit.”
He was surrounded by Vietnamese entrepreneurs. His sister-in-law ran an Asian market. His wife opened her own restaurant, Pho 27.
Every day over the lunch hour, he’d leave the garage and drive down North 27th Street. He’d change clothes and wait tables.
Seven days a week, year after year. No vacations. No holidays.
He believes God helped his family. He believes he wouldn’t have made it without his wife.
They have a nice house in the Highlands. They have money to help their church.
They don’t work seven days a week anymore.
“This is the land of opportunity,” he says. “But you get the opportunity only once.”
* * *
It’s another Tuesday at 8 a.m.; the clock still says 1:30.
Thanh’s youngest daughter is here. Like all of Thanh and Lang’s daughters, Nini graduated from Pius X. She’ll start college in August, but for now she’s working in the front office, answering the phone, helping customers. Like her sisters.
“My parents are really hardworking and they came here with basically nothing,” says Tam Le, the second oldest daughter and the repair shop’s namesake.
“When we were 12 or 13, we would come out to my dad’s shop and answer the phone in the summer,” she says.
They scheduled appointments and learned how to change oil.
Tam lives in Palm Beach, Florida now; her sisters Mia and Lan are in San Antonio. They all try to come home in the summer to spend time with their folks.
Their mom worked two jobs to put their dad through school, Tam says. When the repair shop opened, the hours were long.
“But they always made time for family dinners, even if it was 9 or 10 o’clock at night,”
They spoke Vietnamese at home, and Tam is teaching her young son the language, too. Her parents wanted to give them the best of both of their worlds, she says.
“We’re really proud of them and we look up to them. We hope to be them someday.”
* * *
A storm blew through overnight and the late June air is cool.
The shop isn’t open yet, but Thanh is helping an early morning customer, speaking English into his cell phone and then Vietnamese to the man standing beside his Toyota, in need of a part.
When he first started fixing cars, word spread through the factories, and Vietnamese customers flocked to his shop.
Now people just find him. A friend tells a friend who tells a friend. His customers are Vietnamese and Iraqi and Bosnian and American, like Mick Pierce, who's been coming to Thanh for years.
“He’s an amazing guy who does amazing work,” Mick says. “He’s fairly priced and he has compassion.
“And he has a pretty amazing story.”
Thanh became a citizen in 1981.
On July 4, there will be fireworks and a cookout for the Le family,and maybe time for some fishing, he says.
“I close the shop and celebrate, just like American people.”
* * *
It’s another Tuesday morning.
The office door is open, the bay doors are open, the concrete floors almost clean enough to eat off.
Thanh bends to pick up a rag and then they’re spotless.
He takes a seat on the high stool behind the counter.
He remembers a Life magazine from a lifetime ago.
A friend in Vietnam with relatives in the United States held it in his hand and the two boys studied it in awe, flipping through the oversized pages.
“We can’t imagine how rich that country is,” Thanh says. “We open one page and there’s an apple tree. I feel like I can smell it, I can taste.”
Being in America was like tasting that apple.
It was as good as his dream of what a country could be.