October 27, 2001

A mother's unflagging patriotism


VENTURA, Calif. - The sight of a flag once brought tears to Kimmy Schaefer's eyes.

She saw it in a newspaper written in a language she did not understand, but the photograph needed no translation. It showed the Viet Cong banner flying over the bridge near her home in a suburb of Saigon.

The date on the paper was April 29, 1975; Saigon was falling to the forces of North Vietnam. Then 17 years old, she had been whisked to the Philippines from South Vietnam hours before by the American military officer who married her aunt. He saw to it 10 members of her family were airlifted to freedom. Her mother, father and two siblings had to be left behind. All Kimmy had to her name was the shift dress she wore. In the rush to evacuate, she left barefoot.

As the cargo plane took off over Vietnam's emerald fields, she looked down and thought, "I will never see this country again."

As one door closed, another opened. She came to a new country she loves more. She learned the language. She attended a public university. She married Tim, an American and a software designer. They raise two kids in a house near the beach in Oxnard.

And now the sight of another flag brings her joy. It is the American flag she is sewing to honor her country and the educators at the school where her 5-year-old son, Matt, attends classes.

Her patriotic project came out of the despair of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The violence and devastation triggered flashbacks to her childhood in a war zone. "I know what it is like to be living in Afghanistan today," she said.

So this slender ball of energy bought enough fabric to make a flag measuring almost 9 by 14 feet to hang in the school cafeteria.

She decided to tailor it to the school she loves. Instead of painting straight red stripes, she had 147 students dip their hands in red paint and press them to the fabric - one next to the other. She displayed a photo of a teacher in each of the 50 stars. Conveniently enough, there are 50 faculty members.

Her enthusiasm for the project has been irresistible. School administrators allowed her to roam the campus freely, collecting the students' hand prints.

Connie Sedacca, of Nautilus Covers in Oxnard, sewed on the fasteners for the stars, waiving her usual labor fee.

Schaefer herself doesn't tally the hours or the dollars she's put into the project. It is a small price to pay. "I can never thank God enough that I am here in America," she told me.

On Monday, the flag will be put on display at the school.

It will remind all who see it what Schaefer learned in her life's journey: America is the great red-white-and-blue hope of the world.

Copyright 2001 Scripps McClatchy Western Service