The so-called Operation Babylift out of Vietnam . . . is an appalling continuation of the overwhelming American arrogance that has made Vietnam a tragedy for our country.... Will no one stop to wonder how we are so sure that a Vietnamese child will be happier growing up in Illinois or Alabama than in Vietnam?
A Chicago newspaper columnist wrote those words on April 10, 1975, the day that 4-month-old Bui Hoai Chau arrived in Los Angeles at the peak of Operation Babylift, in which Americans adopted about 1,000 Vietnamese orphans during the frantic weeks before South Vietnam fell.
Bui's arrival was as frustrating as the war itself. Jerry and Glenda Vance, the Thousand Oaks couple who had adopted him, spent a full day combing Los Angeles International Airport trying to find their baby, who adoption agency authorities had promised would be arriving from San Francisco that morning.
The Wrong Orphan
But the first Vietnamese orphan the Vances found was the wrong one. Another orphan, adopted by a New Mexico couple whose name was also Vance, had been mistakenly flown to Los Angeles, they were told. While the New Mexico Vances flew here hurriedly, Glenda Vance cared for their baby and worried about where hers might be. Just six days earlier, she remembered, an Air Force cargo plane carrying 226 Vietnamese orphans had crashed near Saigon.
It got worse: When the New Mexico Vances arrived and looked at the baby Glenda Vance was holding, they realized that it did not match the snapshots of the child they had adopted. Whose baby was this? Days later, Glenda Vance would find out that the mystery baby was coincidentally the one adopted by close friends and that the New Mexico Vances' baby arrived in the right place on a later flight. But for now, life boiled down to a series of frustrating calls to the adoption agency and treks to different terminals, chasing down false leads.
Not until late in the day did the answer surface: Bui had not been flown to LAX. He had been sent to Burbank Airport, and the nurse who accompanied him had taken him to her home in Sunland. She was waiting.
The Thousand Oaks Vances hurried across town in rush-hour traffic. I hurried behind them in another car, trying to write a newspaper story about the whole mess.
Finally, just before the sun set, we walked through the nurse's front door. The Vances saw the infant lying quietly on a small plastic crib on a couch, and Glenda Vance broke into sobs.
"Oh, that's him, Jerry!" she said. "I'd know him anywhere."
The Vances' other children, 10-year-old Glenn and 4-year-old Forrest, clustered around the crib curiously and Jerry Vance looked down at his third son and grinned.
A long time passed, and I wanted to see Bui again.
This time, earlier this month, he was easier to find. All I had to do was pick the correct undulating street in an attractive part of Thousand Oaks.
The Vances' front porch has prominently displayed wooden plaques with the names of each of their children. Bui's name is Lane Jerome Vance, and there's a newer arrival, Fawn, adopted from a Korean orphanage in 1978.
Almost everyone, including his teachers, calls Lane Vance "Kiki."
"It means 'small child' in Hawaiian," his mother said. "We started calling him that and it just stuck."
Kiki weighed four pounds when the Vances first saw him. His head was covered with boils and he had a tropical skin rash and shrapnel in his back. "His baby teeth came in and then crumbled. We had to have them capped," Glenda Vance said. "But by the time he was 2 or so, I saw he could speak and he was intelligent. . . . It's been wonderful. We have been blessed."
Kiki, who had just shaken off the last effects of chicken pox, came into the living room of the Vances' sprawling house, wearing a dark-blue pullover sweater, white jeans and sneakers. He has a full haircut, with bangs over the forehead. His eyes are wide, intelligent and bright. He is painfully shy. His English sounds like any other kid's, and he has the attributes you'd want in a fourth-grader: a favorite subject in school (social studies) and a career goal (veterinarian.)
The Chicago columnist's yellowing essay criticizing Operation Babylift warned that the Vietnamese orphans "will grow up outsiders in a land not their own."
Glenda Vance thought about that suggestion for a moment. Earlier, I'd asked how Kiki was fitting into American society, and she'd answered easily: "I don't think he's one bit different. A kid is a kid is a kid."
But now we were talking about the future. She measured her words. "So far, so good, and I have every hope and every faith that time will take care of itself."
Kiki's oldest brother, Glenn, now 20, heard the same question. He seemed to resent it.
"He's my brother," Glenn said. "He always has been."