Where courage dwells
Annie and Cai
Niagara Falls has existed for about 10,000 years. Long before the first Europeans set eyes on the famous cataracts. The falls were formed at the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age when the melting of the glaciers sent enormous amounts of water over the Niagara Escarpment, hydraulically carving the falls.
It would be October 24, 1901 before the first person went over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survived. And, remember, it was assumed by most that such a venture was not survivable. Anyone attempting this would be treading into unknown territory – with a gruesome death the likely outcome.
By 1901, Annie Edson Taylor was in dire financial straits. For most of her life and by today’s standards, Annie would have been considered middle class. Having had a successful career as a schoolteacher and coming from a family of means, Annie never imagined being penniless and out on the streets.
But, there she was, taking odd jobs wherever she could find them. Her only child had died as an infant, and within a short period of time, her husband died, as well.
The tragedy only grew in scope when she invested the last of her wealth in a risky scheme proposed by her clergyman. She lost all of her money, and if that was not enough, her house burned down.
Desperate, Annie had read an article about Niagara Falls and decided that she would be the first person to go over the falls in a barrel. She imagined that if her feat was successful, she would travel the world telling her incredible story to ward off poverty in her old age.
She did survive her plunge over the falls with only minor injuries. But things did not progress as she had imagined – not even close.
There is one thing about Annie that I have not revealed yet. And this “thing” would determine the outcome of her daring feat that no woman, or man, had hitherto dared to attempt.
Annie turned 63-years-old the day she crawled into that wooden barrel and allowed the current to sweep her over the falls into the tumultuous water below. (The average life expectancy for a woman in 1900 was a mere 48.3 years.)
When the barrel was rescued and brought to shore, a disheveled old woman stepped out. She was not the hero figure thousands of people came to see. There was a palpable sense of disappointment.
Her manager, immediately sensing this, concocted a plan that would financially benefit him, but leave Annie out in the cold. He stole her barrel and proceeded to benefit from Annie’s stunt.
Afterward, he traveled with an attractive young woman posing beside the barrel as if she was the one who had ridden it over Niagara Falls. After her daring ride, Annie spent what little money she made to hire a detective to find her barrel.
She wrote a memoir and posed beside her recovered barrel, hoping to make enough money that she could live a comfortable life, but by this time, other daredevils had the spotlight. She risked her life doing something people thought was suicidal because she didn’t want to be destitute.
Her glory and fortune were stolen from her by a despicable man. She died April 29, 1921, just as she feared – penniless and institutionalized.
We cannot merely glance at someone and determine their mettle. Don’t attempt it; you’ll be wasting your time.
When I first met the slight woman I would get to know as Cai, I thought her to be meek and harmless. I made this presumption because she was barely five feet tall with a voice that sounded remarkably like Minnie Mouse.
But I was wrong, terribly wrong.
We became friends and met each Sunday at a Chinese restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, for dim sum.* As the months passed, I learned that the North Vietnamese had captured and imprisoned Cai in an infamous prison camp in Ca Mau, South Vietnam.
Of course, the communist government preferred to call Cai’s place of detention a “re-education camp.” Please don’t imagine a summer camp on a lake with canoes. Physically and psychologically tortured, she walked away from the dreadful experience unbroken.
She had worked for the Americans and didn’t manage to get out at the end of the war. She finally reached the U.S. in the late 1980s after languishing in a refugee camp in Bangkok for 18 months.
But, beyond that, I knew little more about this diminutive woman.
Several years later, Cai asked me to attend a dinner and dance with her in Washington D.C. It was indeed a gala affair and was one of the few times in my life I allowed myself to be convinced to wear a black-tie ensemble.
There were several hundred people there – a mix of Vietnamese and Americans –including several people from various government agencies. One man from the State Department knew Cai from his days in Vietnam. We hit it off, and at some point in the evening, he invited me out to the veranda for a cigarette and scotch, and I was happy to oblige.
He, we’ll call him Dan, asked me what I knew about Cai, and I told him the few facts she had shared. He laughed and said, “Yep, that’s Cai, as modest as they come.”
Trusting that I would not bring it up to Cai, he told me there was a hell of a lot more to that tiny woman than meets the eye. She had made two successful escapes from the prison over three years.
Both escapes were a success in the sense that Cai made it to the coast, where a boat arrived in the middle of the night to take desperate South Vietnamese people out of the country – for a fee, of course.
On her first escape, she made it to the boat with money provided by her family in Saigon. Nothing is free, especially for the destitute.
There was a 14-year-old girl who arrived just as Cai was about to board the refugee boat. It turns out that the girl had lost her money en route. She couldn’t pay the captain.
Knowing what would happen to this young woman when finally captured, Cai gave the girl her money. She walked back to her torturers and turned herself in.
Her next escape got her on a refugee boat where she paid with gold that her mother had sewn into a raggedy jacket.
The thrill and relief of freedom didn’t last long, though. Somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand, Thai pirates attacked the refugee boat. The pirates raped several of the younger women. One of the pirates held a rusty handgun to Cai’s head, demanding money and jewelry.
She told him steadily and calmly that she had given it all to the captain. Before walking away from Cai, the pirate pulled the trigger. The gun failed to go off. Undeterred, the brutal man walked to a group of women huddled in the boat’s stern.
He began roughly examining the inner thighs of the women, young and old, pinching the flesh any place he saw a fresh scar or stitches. He found what he was looking for on a young mother holding her baby.
The ruthless bastard demanded a knife from a younger pirate. While the baby screamed and the mother held him tight, the toothless pirate slashed away at a scar, finally releasing into his filthy hands’ several emeralds and diamonds. The mother remained stoic during the entire incident, holding the child to her chest.
Once the pirates had taken everything of value, they removed the outboard motor from the refugee boat. Then they set Cai and her fellow passengers adrift in the motor-less boat. They drifted for several days with no food or water, until finally coming ashore on an uninhabited island.
Finally, on the third day, a United Nations ship out searching for “boat people” brought the refugees and crew onboard. They were fed and treated for injuries. After rescuing more refugees, the UN boat took them to a refugee camp in Bangkok to await sponsorship from friendly countries.
After 18 months, a family in Chicago sponsored Cai. As with most Vietnamese, she was not a burden for long. Cai took night classes in computer programming at Harry S. Truman College and worked at whatever job was available during the day.
Six years later, Cai bought a modest home in Columbus, Ohio, and became one of my colleagues.
Dan did not provide all of these details, but over several years Cai told me the whole story. And she did so without shedding a tear. She was, without a doubt, the most courageous human – man or woman – I have ever had the privilege to know.
Some years later, I was writing Cai’s story in a coffee shop in an upscale part of Columbus. Two well-dress- ed, bejeweled and manicured women sat at a table beside me.
I was writing about Cai’s experience with the pirates. I noted the agony, pain and bloodshed of these refugees who had endured so much to get to the point of escaping Vietnam, only to be delivered more suffering by predators of the high seas.
At that moment, I tuned in to what the two women were discussing. One apparently had a garden tub in which the jets weren’t working. The other woman tried to console her grieving friend, who then remarked, “I don’t know what I will do, Stephanie. They can’t fix the tub until next week.”
Clearly, we do not all live in the same world!
* Dim Sum is a uniquely Chinese way of dining in which carts of delicacies and festival foods are wheeled right up to the diner’s table. The diners select their dishes directly from the cart.