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The Americanization of Kimberly : 'Double Dads' Adopt Saigon Orphan; She's Assimilating Nicely

May 19, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Suzanne was an early choice for a name until a Vietnamese pilot, in horror, said no. It shortened too easily. It suggested a second name and a sleazy slip of the pun. Given her nationality, he said, the kid could be stained for life . . . as Suzie Wong.

Kimberly became the replacement. That, an American captain said, was gingham and June Allyson with a fine, wholesome, mid-Ohio prettiness to it. Kimberly, added a Vietnamese major, also abbreviated pleasantly to Kim. If Yen were added, you had the Vietnamese for Golden Swallow. Perfect.

A Squadron Vote

Yet at the orphanage in Cholon she was called Cookie. Family names on her birth certificate should be part of any new identity. Would the Suzie Wong thing be settled by splitting and abridging Suzanne to Sue Anne? Each preference led to another combination that progressed through several beer calls to a squadron vote.

And that's how Nguyen Thi Ngoc Kimberly Sue Anne Kim Yen Cookie Elliott was named and came to America.

She was only 9 months old when Dave Elliott and I adopted her. Now she is 20 and living in Dallas. We, her double dads, call her Kim.

Television, radio, magazines and movies have hammered and upended Kim's thoughts this month. Cronkite broadcasting from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. My city . Time magazine and its cover story: Vietnam Ten Years Later. My country. More publications of that classic, symbolic, belly-tugging photo by Nick Ut of children running screaming from the napalm strike on Trang Bang. That was 1972 so they would be about my age now -- if they're still alive.

Then there was a movie: "The Killing Fields."

"All that killing and all those people suffering and it just put me back to 'What if I were there?,' " Kim said. "Or, 'Boy, am I lucky.' It all goes back to the same thing, the if-I-was-there-type-thing."

Kim was at home in Oak Cliff, south of Dallas, after school. She had a couple of hours to talk before a part-time shift at the Video Exchange. That's one of three jobs cramming whatever time is left from her political science and criminal justice studies at Mountain View College.

We rooted around the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and explored any temporary imbalance of her duality. American by culture, Vietnamese by nationality. Kim said her sadness and reaction to current, widespread images and commentary of Vietnam is typically American. No more than that. No less than human. Then she thought more about it:

"It probably does move me differently than just any American because I could have been one of those dead babies or children out there. I was looking at Time magazine and all those kids just running around, the napalm, and, yeah, that could have been me.

The Bottom Line

"I wouldn't say that it (Vietnam) is my country. The United States is my country. But that (Vietnam) is the country I was born in . . . (so) the thing that hits me the most is that, yeah, I could have been dead. I'm very lucky. That's just the bottom line there.

"Or I could still be back there trying to get out."

Vietnam. Mid-1965. The war was relatively palatable then. Enough people believed the noble cause, that the United States was containing communism. Winning was more of an acceptance than an argument.

I was a correspondent. Dave Elliott was an adviser flying Skyraiders with the 522nd out of Tan Son Nhut. It was a Than Phong (Divine Wind) squadron whose pilots wore black flight suits and lavender scarfs celebrating a flamboyance established by a former commander, general then prime minister now Huntington Beach resident Nguyen Cao Ky.

A Shared Mission

Dave and I became brothers through an affection for airplanes, Vietnamese beer, sports cars, Thai beer, leather dress boots, Australian beer, steak and potatoes and even French beer. We shared his final mission, the 110th, and bombed the bottom out of a Viet Cong swimming hole near Phuoc Binh. It seemed a suitably inconsequential moment upon which to launch formation (over Japanese beer) of the Unemployed Fighter Pilots Assn.

Our closeness left no doubt that Kim would be adopted by two fathers.

Actually, the adoption (an insistence of Dave's wife Betty Alice--one combat tour, she said, in exchange for a brass coffee table and a baby daughter) was under way shortly after Dave arrived in Vietnam.

I entered the proceedings at about his sixth month of legal labor. Such timing effectively settled the division of parental responsibilities. Dave (senior claimant by virtue of the original request, his earlier rotation date home and the existence of a wife and two young sons in Phoenix) would receive custody of Kim and the bills. I (single, somewhat nomadic and certainly undomesticated) would get regular snapshots and unlimited visitation.

Not that any other arrangement would have worked.

Because Kim, you see, picked Dave.

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