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December 12, 2011
In the west Arkansas town of Magazine, one sure way for boys from the immigrant Hmong community to assimilate is to put on helmets, cleats and shoulder pads
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December 12, 2011

How To Become An American

In the west Arkansas town of Magazine, one sure way for boys from the immigrant Hmong community to assimilate is to put on helmets, cleats and shoulder pads

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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.

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."

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