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For Vietnam Vet Barry Huntoon, a Never-Ending Story

February 16, 1988|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

PARADISE, Calif. — A television glows in the dimly lit living room of the Huntoon household, and 15-year-old Tran Thi Tuyet Mai watches transfixed as a daytime soap opera plays out a typical story line: agony and ecstasy, hope and sorrow, tears and laughter.

Every so often, Barry Huntoon glances at the screen, but he cannot focus on the dialogue. He is too consumed by his family's real-life drama, the one in which he may or may not be Mai's father.

Huntoon Convinced

Just four months ago, it seemed there would be at least one happy ending to a war that had meant so much sorrow for so many. After seeing Mai's photograph in Life magazine and noticing an uncanny resemblance to himself, Vietnam veteran Huntoon was convinced that he had located the Amerasian child he fathered in 1972 and had almost given up hope of finding.

His obsessive search, her miserable childhood, their touching reunion and nightmarish trip through a morass of international red tape, followed by their new life together in this small central Californian town, made news worldwide.

Mai moved in with Huntoon, his wife, Laura, and their three children, discovering spaghetti and American slang. NBC planned a TV movie. "It's like she's always been my daughter," Huntoon exulted. What no one expected was that the story would have a sequel.

Two weeks ago, the State Department informed Huntoon that, after repeated interrogations, a Vietnamese woman claiming to be Mai's mother had denied that Huntoon was the child's father.

The disclosure, the 36-year-old salesman said, was more than just a shock. "I don't accept it. No, I really don't," he said, giving his first interview since being told. "There are too many things that point the other way.

"Nevertheless, I am in a real dilemma."

He denied reports that he knew all along he wasn't Mai's father. Or that U. S. officials were considering charging him with assisting in a fraudulent entry into the country. Or that he misled journalists to clinch a big-bucks Hollywood deal. "We have sacrificed so much time and money," he insisted, "that if anybody would do this to get a movie, he should be put in a psychiatric ward someplace."

Bruce Burns, the San Jose attorney who was instrumental in helping Huntoon find Mai, said he'd had a premonition something else lay ahead. "I guess I felt in the back of my mind that just bringing Tuyet Mai to the United States would not be the end," Burns said.

"It's like the never-ending story," he added--one in which there are questions Huntoon still can't answer.

Painful Questions

If Mai is his daughter, how can he prove it? If she isn't, what should he do? Should he undertake another emotionally and financially draining search? Or does he put the war behind him and accept Mai as a substitute for the offspring he'll never know?

"Oh, don't ask me those questions," Huntoon beseeched, his voice hoarse with emotion. "Just don't."

It is mid-afternoon Friday, and the household is strangely silent. Laura Huntoon has taken her three children into town for lunch, and Barry Huntoon is baby-sitting Mai. Scattered around the rooms and sticking out from under the sofas are Cabbage Patch dolls and glow-in-the-dark Hula Hoops. But Mai is interested only in the TV. "She's a typical teen-ager," Huntoon complains like a typical parent. "She'll watch TV even when the sound's not on."

Unshaven and disheveled, Huntoon seems trapped in emotional quicksand. A fleeting air of calm comes over him when he gazes lovingly at Mai. "The thing is," he says, "ever since we got together, even since I gave her a hug, I knew she was mine. There's no question in my heart. Zero.

"And if you ask her there's no question, either. We both felt a tremendous bond."

Supporting Evidence

Huntoon goes through a mental list of the evidence. First, Mai was the correct age. Huntoon, who had been forced to leave Vietnam without his pregnant girlfriend, Tran Thi Tuyet Nhung, knew that his child would be 15. Mai's name was similar to Nhung's. She was found selling peanuts in the same seaside town, Vung Tau, where Huntoon and his girlfriend had lived.

"See this building in the background?" Huntoon says, holding up one of the Life pictures. "I slept in this building when I was in Vietnam. It's on the same beach I was on when I first went to Vung Tau."

When a local family found Mai, they sent word that her mother was dead and that she was being cared for by another Vietnamese woman. "I didn't know who this lady was," Huntoon explains, "but the fact that I also heard that Nhung had died led me to believe that maybe this was the child. I had to go with what I had."

Later, a French television crew discovered that the woman taking care of Mai claimed to be Nhung, "even showing where we had lived," Huntoon says. "But the (French) video was terrible, and so, looking at her, I didn't think that she was Nhung."

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