The smoke ceremonial incense hung heavy in the air as more than a 1,000 Vietnamese refugees waited in Arlington's old Page Elementary School for the religious services and celebrations marking TET, the Vietnamese new year to begin.
But instead of the long-awaited appearance of the traditional dragon, in walked Arlington Deputy Fire Marshal Willis T. Swartz. He strode to the front of the auditorium, started surveying the sea of faces before him and then spotted a chained and locked fire exit. "Out," he shouted. "Out! Get out!"
Within minutes everyone was outside, but not without some hard feelings and misunderstandings. That a 6-foot-5-inch uniformed man could rush in and halt a religious service angered many, and the language barries (many speak little English) further complicated matters.
But eventually those Vietnamese who didn't leave (someone had announced the auditorium would be closed) were allowed back in, and the services and celebrations picked up where they had left off.
Several of the refugees there had arrived in the morning from as far away as Philadelphia and New Jersey. TET is the most important holiday in the Vietnamese calendar - a time when friends and relatives come together to rejoice in their culture and the security of their family.
This is the third TET since the fall of Saigon, and several of the people at the celebration yesterday morning remarked that it was the first time the Vietnamese community here seemed to be drawing together. No one had expected such a large crowd, and parking was congested. But, despite the furor and fears over alleged communist Vietnamese espionage activities, there was a genuine sense of celebration.
When the Venerable Thich Giac Duc, a Buddhist leader, made veiled references to the spy case in an address after his service (a Vietnamese and an American were arrested last week for passing secret documents to Hanoi) several people grumbled that this was not the time or the place to talk of such things.
Duc had emphasized the need for all Vietnamese to obey and respect the laws of the United States. "I don't ask them to be Americanized," he said afterwards, "just to get along"
Which is, of course, what many of them were trying to do. They understood that they were vastly overcrowded in the small auditorium, and few of the Vietnamese objected to the Fire Marshall's orders. What offended them was his manner.