The land was dry and strange this summer. All the way up Route 10 west from Little Rock was scalded brown. Ponds were reduced to puddles, rivers shrunk to mere creeks. The lakes receded from their banks like parched lips pulled back over desiccated teeth. Cows and horses huddled in the shade. At the side of the road in Havana, an abandoned bank building—its yellow bricks baking, the ivy covering its walls crisp and dead—looked like a monument to something lost for so long that it had become a historical mystery, like a jungle-tangled wat in Southeast Asia.
This is an article from the Dec. 12, 2011 issue
In times of drought, nothing flows, not even the air. Time itself grows sluggish. It's as though all movement is burdensome, the heat a living medium through which nothing passes easily. A pickup truck clattered up Webster Road near the town of Magazine, kicking up red dust in a cloud that hung in the air for milliseconds longer than seemed natural. Thong Moua stood at the end of his driveway and watched the dust settle slowly back to the ground. He would have been working his chickens, all 120,000 of them, if he still had chickens to work. The drought had been killing them, though, and he had no cool seals in his chicken houses, so the Tyson Company, for which Moua works, told him it wouldn't send him any more chicks to raise for slaughter until the heat broke and the rains came again. Moua still kept farmer's hours, but he did no farmer's work, because the land was dry and strange this summer.
Forty years ago Moua was a soldier in a war that few people knew about at the time, and even fewer remember today. He was one of the Hmong (pronounced mung) people in the mountains of Laos when the CIA came and enlisted them to fight against the North Vietnamese in a conflict that had embroiled most of Southeast Asia. Calling it the Vietnam War leaves you two countries short; one of them is Laos. Perhaps the Vietnamese have the right of it: They call it the American War. In any case, what remains true is that there are no mysteries about the U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. There are just truths we choose to ignore. The Hmong are one of those.
Now, on this scalded morning in western Arkansas, Moua waited for the return of his 16-year-old son, Charly. He was down the hill, on a football field. Practice had started at six that morning, because the school system wouldn't let the kids on the field any later in the day. The heat came down out of the mountains far ahead of the sun.
Charly rocked a kid in a pass rushing drill, and all of his teammates cheered. "It's fun," Charly would say later. "I like football because I can knock over bigger kids."
Thong Moua's son is a backup quarterback, a defensive back and a 2010 Arkansas state champion. He also is, against considerable odds, an American, and if it all seems like the settling of an ancient debt, that's because it is.
E-pah, go," said Skyler McElroy, laughing to himself. "They don't know what to do with that." McElroy, a senior tackle, is a likable galoot. At 6'5" and 285 pounds, he's hearing from colleges. He towers over Bobby Moua, Charly's 19-year-old brother, a senior guard who looks like half of McElroy. Bobby taught him ib phav, a Hmong word that McElroy thinks means one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two but at any rate indicates a delay, and they worked it into a line call for their blocking on a screen pass. "E-pah, go," McElroy repeats. "It means I wait a second and then go get the linebacker."
By the end of last season, when Magazine's J.D. Leftwich High beat Danville to win the state championship, Hmong players had given the Rattlers a distinctive personality that drew more attention than usual to Class 2A, which is composed of the smallest schools in Arkansas. There were six Hmong kids on the team, including seniors Long and Chang Yang, two gifted backs. Long was 4'11" and weighed 125 pounds if you leaned on the scale a little, and photographers were forever asking McElroy to hoist the two brothers up for novelty shots. Charly and Bobby Moua were the only two Hmong players left on the 32-player Magazine varsity for the 2011 season, although it was expected that Billy Yang, the brother of Long and Chang, would move up to the big squad once his freshman season ended in early November.
The Hmong players not only created an intriguing image for the Magazine program but also forced the coaches to radically rethink the physical configuration of a football player. Suddenly coach Josh Jones and his assistant, Doug Powell, had to accept the fact that someone 4'9" and 120 pounds, light enough to be carried like a sack of potatoes by one of his classmates, could be a powerful and efficient linebacker or could pick up two or three tough yards—or both. Even in a small school, this takes some effort.
"They were always in the weight room," Powell says of the Hmong. "Chang was 5'2" and weighed 115 pounds, and he benched 230 plus. They didn't do it just for football. They did it so they'd look good."
Billy Yang is not much bigger than his brothers, but both Jones and Powell see him as the heir to what has now become a tradition at Magazine. His arms and shoulders are thickly cabled with muscle. He is fast and, because of that, he hits with an impact disproportionate to his size. Isaac Newton would footnote the kid's game on sight. Jones and Powell see Billy as a fullback and a linebacker. "He could be the best one of them all," Jones says.
"I see myself as a fullback, mostly," Billy says. "I came down here from Minnesota when I was six because my dad got a job down here, and I got involved with little league football because my brothers played, and my cousins Charly and Bobby."
As for relations with their non-Asian teammates, "You'd think there'd be all kinds of problems, but it's almost the opposite," says Jones, who's been coaching at Magazine since 2005. The Hmong have been central to the coach's general reclamation project. The high school is so small (about 250 students) that it didn't even have football for about a half century, until 1995. Jones brought along Powell, an old high school teammate and longtime assistant from nearby Booneville. Seven players showed up on the first day of practice. The football facility didn't even have lockers. The Rattlers went 0--10 that year, and they were 5--26 in Jones's first three seasons. Powell had to talk Jones into staying.
The two men have been together so long that they finish each other's sentences. Jones is the straight man of the pair; an officer in the Arkansas Air National Guard, he has done tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he runs beagles competitively. Powell is the blustery comic relief. It's he who's closest to the players, in the manner of every assistant football coach who ever lived.
Don't worry, he told Jones. There's a lot of talent in junior high. Powell had spotted the Hmong kids coming along. They were small but superbly conditioned and very quick. Stick around, Powell said. There's something here.
One day in 1972, government troops came to Thong Moua's village, Long Tieng, and told him he was a soldier. He was 13. He fought for three years in a stubborn, brave guerrilla action for which his people paid an almost unimaginable price. Some 35,000 Hmong soldiers died in battle, according to Keith Quincy, whose book Harvesting Pa Chay's Wheat is the best account of the war the Hmong waged on behalf of the U.S. That toll, Quincy points out, would be "comparable to America's having lost 16.5 million men in combat."
In 1975, when their forces were finally routed by the North Vietnamese, the Hmong fled into the hills and jungles, where almost a third of them died of starvation and disease. One of those refugees was Thong Moua, who spent nearly four years on the run until finally crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. "You stay in the jungle," he recalls, "because if they know you're a soldier, they kill you. If you go back home, they kill you."
Moua lived for a year in a refugee camp in Thailand. The Hmong fighters had been promised that if the war went sour, they'd be repatriated to the U.S. Like so many things about that time, that promise had a sell-by date. Only a few thousand Hmong were repatriated. The rest stayed in the camps, and life in the camps was nightmarish, in part because the Thai government didn't want the Hmong there, but also because some Hmong leaders involved themselves in the drug trade. Fortunately, charitable organizations, especially church groups, stepped in and sponsored the movement of thousands of other Hmong to the U.S.
A church group placed Moua in Rhode Island, and then he moved to Massachusetts, where he worked factory jobs and where Charly was born. Moua stayed there until he heard from his uncle that Tyson was offering land and farms for the Hmong to work in Arkansas. The Hmong were farmers, and chickens had a special place in their culture dating back through the millennia. (An ancient Hmong legend credits a rooster with having saved the world.) Moua moved his family to Magazine six years ago and set up his chicken houses. His sons enrolled in school, and they began to play football, the way other Hmong children had before them.
What Jones and Powell were seeing in Magazine was the impact of the second wave of Hmong immigrants to Arkansas. The first had come in the early '80s, when nearly 300 Hmong were resettled in and around Fort Smith. Most of them found low-paying manufacturing jobs, including work in chicken-processing plants. They were vehemently opposed to the concept of welfare; according to a 1984 report sponsored by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Hmong phrase for welfare was "no arms, no legs." Consequently, when word got around Hmong communities in the U.S. in 2004 that Tyson was offering them the opportunity to run their own poultry farms in Arkansas, many jumped at the chance to live their own lives on their own land in a place where many of them already had relatives living for more than 20 years.
This second wave of Hmong residents was more visible than the first. They were also more easily integrated into the community; their English was better than that of their predecessors, and most of their children had been born in the U.S. To some extent they were already Americanized. Among other things, they knew what football was.
"I started noticing them in about fifth grade," says Ryan Chambers, Magazine's quarterback and the MVP in last year's state championship game. "I noticed Long and Chang [Yang] then. What I noticed first was that they were really fast. Then I noticed that they were really good."
As the Hmong players came up through the system, Jones and Powell, to say nothing of the rest of the community, adapted to them as much as the Hmong students adapted to the high school. "They were typically quiet, and they were intensely respectful," says Randy Bryan, the principal. "One of the big adjustments we had to make is that in their culture, it's considered very disrespectful to make eye contact. You'd be talking to a kid, and he'd be looking down, and your instinct is that he was being disrespectful, but it's just the opposite."
Andy Moua, Charly's eldest brother, was the first Hmong player on the Magazine varsity, a three-year starter and a versatile athlete who played a number of positions. His cousin Jay Moua came next. He especially delighted in tormenting Powell. "One time he had everybody here convinced that he was moving to Tulsa," Powell recalls. "He didn't even show up the first two weeks of practice. Someone finally said to me, 'Coach, he's not in Tulsa. I saw him downtown last night.' I called him and said, 'Hey, get to practice.' They brought fun, is what they did."
Jones says, "They'd get on each other. If one of them screwed up, they'd Hmong him pretty good. I don't think they ever did it to an official, though. They're pretty respectful that way."
Jones and Powell had to adjust to the fact that, as hard as the Hmong players worked, football did not mean as much to them as it did to the other kids on the team. The Hmong kids seemed just as happy to play soccer in games among teams drawn from their huge extended families. Occasionally this took them to Hmong festivals in Oklahoma or Minnesota for weeks at a time.
"They have a different sort of outlook on what's important," says Powell. "These kids play because they enjoy playing, and that's it. Not only that, but they like to look good." Hmong players favor vivid colors. Last season Jay Moua took the field in chartreuse cleats. "We kept looking out there and thinking that somebody threw a flag," says Jones.
By all accounts Mi Yang, the older sister of Long and Chang, was pivotal in the assimilation of the newer Hmong families into the life of Magazine and its high school. Mi threw herself into high school as though she'd wandered out of a Disney Channel musical. She was elected homecoming queen. She played softball for Powell, although she told him at first that she wanted to be on the team but not play (which briefly baffled him), and she skipped a state playoff game so that she could go to her senior prom (which completely confounded him). Her popularity made her an unofficial ambassador from the Hmong community to the rest of the town.
"I thought it was very important for the Hmong students to get their education and to work hard, because of what our parents had to do to come here from Laos," says Mi, now a senior at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. "When I first got to Magazine people were unfamiliar with our culture and didn't know how to respond to it."
Last year Mi watched in delight as her two brothers became local celebrities. The Rattlers began the season with a game at West Fork. They noticed that someone had written on the Internet that Magazine had to be kidding, trying to win with tiny Asian players—or, as Jones puts it, "words to that effect." That, the coach added, "was the only time I ever saw them all get mad."
They beat West Fork 6--3 and then reeled off 13 wins in a row, most of them by preposterous margins. (In one three-game stretch in midseason, the Rattlers outscored their opponents 130--8.) Chambers and his twin brother, Cory, were a formidable passing combination, and Jones used the Yang brothers as both speed and power runners: Chang rushed for 425 yards and eight touchdowns and scored twice more on pass receptions, while Long ran for 456 yards (9.1 per carry) and five TDs and scored another four times on passes. "Long," Jones recalls, "used to run just like a hummingbird."
His ninth-grade season finished, Charly Moua moved up to the varsity in time to back up the Chambers twins at quarterback and to join the kickoff and return teams. "It was exciting," he says, "because they were already winning." Moreover, Jones and Powell noticed that Hmong parents were showing up at the games. "We didn't see them very much before," Powell says, "but as the year went by you'd see them at the end of the field."
The Rattlers stormed into the state playoffs and beat Strong, Carlisle and Magnet Cove to qualify for the championship game in Little Rock. By now Long and Chang and the rest of the Hmong players were legitimate high school football stars. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published a long piece on them illustrated by a photo of Skyler McElroy hoisting the Yangs on his shoulders. In the title game Magazine forced five Danville fumbles, returned three of them for touchdowns and cruised to a 48--20 win. Chang ran for a 25-yard TD that sealed the victory.
Noon, torpid and still, came hammering down on the low, dusty hills. Thong Moua stayed inside, because it was too hot to work, and he had no chickens to tend anyway. He showed a visitor his clippings. A picture of himself as a soldier, impossibly young and grim. Proclamations from the U.S. Congress and the Massachusetts state legislature in recognition of his and the Hmong's service in the Vietnam War. He talked about waiting for Tyson to bring him more chickens, so he could work again. "They said a month, six weeks, whenever it gets cool," he said.
He thought things would be all right. Hope has been dearly earned in this shady little house. Moua talked about people he once knew. Some of them died in the war. Some were slaughtered when it ended. Some of them died in the deep jungle, and some drowned in the Mekong, because the Hmong were mountain people and didn't know how to swim. Some of them died in the camps. Moua survived. He is here. His son, on the floor playing video games, is a quarterback and a defensive back and an American.
Moua started going to the games last season and continued this year. Magazine ran off 10 straight wins for an undefeated regular season. Billy Yang, the leading rusher on the junior high team, moved up to the varsity for the last game and had six tackles and a sack on defense as Magazine went to the state semifinals, where it stalled several times in the red zone and lost to Junction City 9--3. Charly Moua, a sophomore, played backup quarterback, halfback and defensive back, scoring two TDs as a rusher and two as a receiver, including a 50-yard score in the Rattlers' 41--6 win over Hampton in the first round of the playoffs. Bobby Moua, a senior, started for the third straight year and was an all-conference offensive lineman. The next generation of Hmong players is still in grade school, but Jones and Powell are watching them closely. Meanwhile, Charly, who just turned 17, and Billy will be back, and Jones says Charly should be the Rattlers' starting QB.
"I don't really know why I play," Charly said. "I like to run, and everybody wants to be on the team, you know? There's a tradition now here with the Asian kids, and the parents are really behind us, and we try to do well, because of all they went through to get here."
He was looking down at the floor as he said that. When he finished, he looked up right at you, dead in your eye, and he smiled.