published Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

Mystery of missing Chickamauga man takes Texas turn: It started with a simple drive to the grocery store

Pong Xayravong, left, sits with his two children, Cole and Chase, inside the Chickamauga, Ga., Buddhist monastery while telling the story of finding his missing father, Khampheng, right, in Texas, one day after he went to the grocery store and did not return.
Pong Xayravong, left, sits with his two children, Cole and Chase, inside the Chickamauga, Ga., Buddhist monastery while telling the story of finding his missing father, Khampheng, right, in Texas, one day after he went to the grocery store and did not return.
Photo by Tim Barber.

By the time Pong Xayravong went to bed on Feb. 8, his father had been missing for two days.

Khampheng Xayravong had left the Chickamauga, Ga., Buddhist temple that is his home to drive to the local Bi-Lo for a few groceries. That should have taken about a half-hour.

Since then, nothing.

Pong and his family had searched everywhere, along roadsides, through parks and Hamilton Place mall. Nothing.

He told himself his father ran out of gas somewhere, or maybe he was just lost. Adding to Pong’s worry, Khampheng, 68, had shown signs of memory loss recently. Plus, the Laotian immigrant can barely speak English.

Pong turned in that Saturday night still wondering where his father might be.

Then, at 3 a.m. on Feb. 9, Pong’s wife Katie Xayravong’s phone rang. On the other end, a police officer.

We found your father-in-law, the officer said. He crashed his car.

“Where is he?” Katie asked the officer.

Flower Mound, Texas. Thirty minutes outside Dallas. Twelve hours from the Xayravongs’ Chickamauga home.

“Whoa,” Katie said, turning to Pong. “Do you know anyone in Texas?”

Pong didn’t. He had no idea why his father would drive west. He also didn’t know how Khampheng got there. He still doesn’t, not entirely, not exactly.

He never will.

Pong, 42, says he has offered his father a place to stay, but Khampheng doesn’t want it. For the past three years, he has lived with two monks at Watbuddhamanodham, a Buddhist temple at 364 Davis Road.

Khampheng likes having more time to meditate. Plus, he feels needed there. He cuts the grass, prepares the temple for ceremonies and runs errands.

His trip on Feb. 7 to Bi-Lo should have taken about 30 minutes. But eight hours after he left, Khampheng was still missing. One of the temple’s helpers called Pong.

For three hours that night, Pong and his cousin drove up and down U.S. Highway 27. They expanded their search the next morning, and Katie filed a missing person report with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office.

Pong stayed positive. He tried to stop himself from thinking that his father got mugged or, worse, kidnapped. He told himself that Khampheng was out there somewhere, alone and confused, waiting to be found.

Yeah, Pong thought. That was probably it. That made sense. Though Khampheng had not been diagnosed by a doctor, for the past couple of months he had shown signs of a fading mind.

Over and over, he asks the same questions. Sometimes, when he’s doing chores, he talks to himself. He didn’t used to do that.

But Khampheng had never been lost, not like this.

Pong couldn’t call his father. He had wanted to buy him a cellphone, but Khampheng refused. He doesn’t know many people who speak his native language, Lao. So who was he going to call? If he needed to reach Pong, he could just dial from the temple’s land line.

Now, Khampheng has a flip phone, just in case. But he still doesn’t have much knowledge about how he ended up in Flower Mound.

He remembers being in Rock City. And he remembers thinking that he needed to get back to Georgia. And he remembers seeing some body of water — a pond, a lake, an ocean, something. But other than that …

“I don’t know,” he said. “I saw the license plates: TEXAS, TEXAS, TEXAS.”

The trip felt like it lasted four hours. In fact, it was now 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 8 — more than 38 hours after he left the temple.

Khampheng was scared, and tired. He weaved through the roads, crossing into the opposite lanes, then cutting back. The Flower Mound Police Department received calls from people who reported a drunken driver.

Heading north on U.S. Highway 377, Khampheng glided into the southbound lane. He kept going, kept drifting, kept steering left. He guided his car all the way across the wrong lane, into the grass. He continued farther left, finally sliding his car into a ditch.

When officers responded to the scene, they realized the driver was not drunk. He was bewildered, but they couldn’t communicate with him.

“The officers did the best they could,” Flower Mound police Capt. Kurt Labhart said. “Anytime we get in a situation like that, we have to improvise.”

Pong moved to the United States in 1981 with his parents and his younger sister. They fled communism in Laos, where government officials shipped family friends to concentration camps. The Xayravongs came to North Georgia looking for freedom, and Khampheng took a job at the Synthetic Industries textile plant.

The family has been subjected to racism from time to time, though nothing oppressive. Pong has heard people at the mall spit slurs at him as he walks past. He doesn’t get angry. Those people are just uneducated, he tells himself.

But Flower Mound. When Pong realized how far away his father was, he at first worried. Khampheng’s English is similar to that of a small child. What if the officers gave up trying to help him? Or what if they tried to take advantage of him?

They didn’t. Officers took Khampheng to a hospital to get checked. Then, they put him in an apartment at a local retirement community. All the while, a sergeant continually called Pong, keeping him updated as Pong bought a plane ticket and flew to Dallas that night.

“They treated my dad like he’s one of their own,” Pong said, “like he was their dad.”

When Pong arrived in Flower Mound, he found his father waiting for him, safe but confused. He told Pong he didn’t understand why he was there.

“Is it close to Florida?” he asked.

“You’re probably about 16 hours from Florida,” Pong replied.

Then, they got in the car and drove home. Khampheng is now back at the temple. Pong said his father is welcome in his home, but Khampheng still wants autonomy.

Pong will allow that, for now.

“He says it won’t happen again,” Pong said. “I’m going to wait and see.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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