A cloud that had nothing to do with the weather settled last week over Maui Vietnam veterans and Kula's farming community. Hang Nicholls died of a massive stroke. She was just 59. For everyone who had ever met her, the sun was gone.
First things first. Her name is pronounced Hahng with the "g" forced to the roof of your mouth and then swallowed. She tolerated with good humor those who pronounced it without the "g." She would smile and say nothing when jokers made her name rhyme with "bang."
Meeting her, it was difficult to comprehend how she had lived in the shadows of war and being married to a carnation farmer with a strong personality sometimes warped by symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. She was always sunny, gentle and considerate of all those around her.
This was a woman who spent all of her teen years confronted almost daily with the horrors of her country being torn apart by a war fought by the United States, North Vietnam and the insurgent National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (Viet Cong). Saigon was home. She was 13 when her husband-to-be, a gung-ho warrior at the beginning, climbed off a 707 in 1965 to be greeted personally by Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in the Republic of South Vietnam.
Hang Le was the second of six children. She was educated and became fluent in French at a convent school. She was a secretary for a French company when the course of her life was changed in 1991. She met Stuart Nicholls, a Kula farmer.
It was Nicholls' third trip to Vietnam as a civilian. He loved the Vietnamese and his ghosts were not as restless in the company of those who understood what he and other U.S. soldiers and Marines had gone through. It
took Stu two years to get her out of her homeland. There were no diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Hang Le and Stuart Nicholls were married on Maui in 1993. Although wed the day after the holiday, they celebrated their marriage on each Veterans Day "so I wouldn't forget the anniversary," Stu said ruefully.
Two decades of hard labor followed. Hang not only took care of Stu and the house but worked in the fields. When he was laid up due to a hip replacement, she worked alone to keep the farm going.
Ed Tanji, a Viet vet himself, remembers a joyful woman who "looked a lot younger than she was. But her feminine appearance also disguised who she was. Stu and Hang were always down at Jennifer's Saigon Cafe for the New Year celebrations . . . she loved to boogie . . .
"It'd be easy to stereotype her as a party girl," Tanji wrote in an email. "But when she grabbed my hand to drag me out to dance, I realized she had the rough, callused hands of a working farmer. She worked hard, played hard. Like so many of the Vietnamese who fled after 1975 looking for a better life, she was more than willing to work for it."
Stu and I were working on his book, "Thunder Road, the Journey Home." That involved a series of visits to her home. Hang was always in the background, fixing and serving heavy pupu. At one point, a health problem kept me from eating much. On a later visit, she was visibly relieved when she heard my appetite was back to normal.
Hostess duties fulfilled, Hang would sit and listen as Stu and I argued. She'd chime in with an occasional observation that was always on the mark. Her fluency in three languages made me feel a little stupid. Stu admitted she had an active role in getting the book written. "She knows English grammar better than I do," he said.
I was always running out of cigarettes. She never failed to give me a few of her Marlboros to tide me over. She'd watch as I tore off the filters. At a Kahului restaurant, we went outside for a smoke. She watched me crumple my empty pack, went to her car and produced an unopened pack of unfiltered Camels. She'd taken note of my brand and had purchased a pack in case I needed it.
As I write this, gray-bottomed clouds block the sky over Kula. The sun is gone. Services for Hang L. Nicholls will be held at Ballard Family Mortuary today. Visitation at 9 a.m., services at 10 a.m., burial at noon in Maui Veterans Cemetery at Makawao. Family and friends will gather afterward at the Kula home she filled with love and laughter.
It won't be the same.
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.