From Kim’s Adoptive Father

Kim requested his adoptive father write about his adoption. These are his memories.

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The Kim Story by Geoff Catford

Throughout the whole Vietnam War we had virtually done nothing but react in a very conservative and supportive way to the “All the way with LBJ policy”. I suppose we also subscribed to the “Domino Theory” in the belief that everything should be done to combat Communism in SE Asia before the red tide swamped our shores.

We used to sit in horror watching street anti-war protests led by Prof Medlin of Flinders University and loudly tut-tutted at the long hair and disorder emanating from that direction.

After some time, however, we grew as tired as others about the situation which just did not seem to be working out as we had predicted. We longed to do something to be involved with helping alleviate some of the suffering that daily assaulted our sensibilities on TV and the other media.

As distasteful as it was, we actually felt in many ways we had been wrong and in an attempt to rectify matters without compromising our integrity by selling out to the doctrinaire leftists, we decided to become involved in activities that would help towards creating a practical solution, if not a political one.

All of this took place at a time in Victor Harbour when our lives were being equally challenged, from another quite different source. It was a time when local churches were discovering something more about the dynamic of the Spirit of God. Our form of Christianity was a rather cold, intellectual assent to doctrine supported by a long list of churchy activities. When some of our friends began to display qualities of character, purpose and joy that they attributed to God’s Spirit being released in their lives, we were strangely attracted. To cut a long story short, we eventually discovered the reality of this experience for ourselves. Instead of it becoming a rather selfish spiritual indulgence, we felt God encouraging us to share in His compassion by reaching out to work with Him in alleviating a hurting world that He loved more than we did.

Kim’s arrival into our family can be directly attributed to the out workings of a touch of God upon our lives.

Stories appeared at this time in the “Woman’s Weekly” about the first small group of Vietnamese babies who had been brought to Australia. Considerable controversy broke out as to the legality and appropriateness of such an action. And we can only say that our hearts were strangely warmed by the plight of such children as these. In fact, we were individually and privately burdened to take the “risk” of putting our own comfort on the line and to actually become involved in the whole situation.

Eventually my wife, Jan, revealed she had a very strong “impression” that we should make our lives and home open to one of these rejected and suffering children. To her surprise I confessed to a similar conviction and so we launched out with an action plan. This was unique for us because we had always been ideas people who spoke about justice issues in the abstract but never actually DID anything practical. To move us out of our intellectual inertia was truly a modern day miracle.

Many things then began to transpire. Firstly, we made an application to the South Australian (SA) Welfare Department to become adoptive parents. This involved interviews and home visits and eventually we were approved to adopt but were challenged by the Department to consider taking an Aboriginal child. We indicated our willingness to consider this but they calculated at least a two year wait for this to eventuate. Meanwhile there were Vietnamese children dying and in danger at that very moment and we did not wish to wait around indulging in bureaucratic paper shuffling political correctness whilst these little lives were at risk.

Having been given approval to adopt, the Department informed us we were now on our own. The question was, however, where to turn?

It so happened that on one of our return trips from Adelaide to Victor Harbour we pulled up to buy “NEWS” from a paper boy. On the inside was an article on the plight of Vietnamese refugee children supplied by Barbara and Tony Dudman who obviously had a great and compassionate heart for the plight of these children. At the end of the article was a phone number by which interested people could contact them.

Eventually we made contact and joined with several other families, including Dr John Nichols and his wife, in forming the SA Adoptive Families Association.  It was such a relief to find we were no longer alone in this difficult quest.

Eventually contacts were made with agencies in Vietnam including Rosemary Taylor who was being assisted by Margaret Moses, a former colleague of mine in the SA English Teachers Association. However, the situation was so critical from their point of view that they preferred to expatriate their children to USA where clear and efficient communication lines were firmly established. They just did not have time to enter into the logistics of establishing new lines of communication with Australia

Contacts with World Vision were made but these too did not prove to be fruitful. And then one day Tony Dudman informed us that he had contact with a woman called Rena Briand, a French journalist, married to an Australian serviceman and living in Vietnam.  Whatever her background, this woman of great bravery had a heart of compassion, and had endangered her own life many times in seeking to negotiate the rescue of these little victims of war. Traveling at times under an assumed name to preserve anonymity she had contact with various orphanages and had already negotiated the release of many children in critical need.

Her request to our families was to provide her with a photo of ourselves and our children together with a brief statement about ourselves. Using this as her guide she made her way to the Sancta Maria Orphanage where she began long negotiations for the release of what she felt were appropriate children to her care.

She reported that when entering such establishments many of the children had turned their backs to the outside world and were suffering severe emotional deprivation. In the case of Ha Van Tuan (whom we subsequently named Kim Tuan), he evidently made very sure that he flashed her his most winsome smile and made sure he was noticed.

We have often said subsequently that if Kim has a motto in life it surely is “I will not be ignored”!!

Rena, who had been asked to locate a girl for us because their plight seemed more acute, subsequently told us that when she saw Kim for the first time and looked at the photo of our staid middle class Catford family with its 3 neat little girls, she said to herself, “This family needs this kid!!” She later shared in hindsight that she hoped, “We would not wish to sue her”.

She subsequently sent us his photo showing a bewildered looking little lad with surprising rolls of fat around his neck, and we were smitten.

Before release could be secured, we were required to send a reference from a Catholic priest in Australia assuring the Orphanage of our suitability as adoptive parents. This was gladly supplied by Father Peter Monopoly of Victor Harbour and forwarded to authorities in Vietnam where the intercountry adoption was arranged to go through the Vietnamese courts.

There followed quite a correspondence from Vietnam courts and lawyers who sent screeds of documents which we had translated into English. The local manager of ANZ in Victor Harbour (Bob Parker) was also very helpful when we were required to forward various sums of money for court costs. A firm of lawyers in Waymouth Street in Adelaide were also most helpful in arranging legalities this end.

Eventually Kim was formally adopted and placed in a crèche where we supported him for the months before his arrival here in Australia. There were still great difficulties in arranging transport out of war ravaged Vietnam, so Rena arranged for Kim to be taken out to spend weekends in the home of a Doctor Lan who had spent some time studying medicine in Sydney. We paid for necessities such as real milk to be supplied for Kim whilst in her care and she wrote regularly to us, telling of his teething problems, his attacks of scurvy and other growing up incidents. We are greatly indebted to this good woman for the love and care which she offered our son whist he was at such a vulnerable stage of his life. Having heard nothing from her since the fall of Saigon, we assumed that Dr. Lan had not survived that event. So it was a great joy in 2005 to have located her in California USA, still practicing medicine and to thank her again for all she had done for us.

Eventually in November 1973, a group of 10 children were assembled in Saigon ready for transportation to refuge and adoption in Australia. How indebted we all are to Tony Dudman who offered to go on our mutual behalf and bring all 10 back on his own. He said that as an air traffic controller he was used to dealing with a multitude of activities at once in a stressful situation.

Several times he wired us from Vietnam advising of immanent departure only to follow up with yet another annoying delay. But then the day came with the announcement that they had actually departed on a Singapore Airlines flight for Melbourne – arrival time unknown.

A very excited Catford family drove to Adelaide on November 25, 2017 and spent the whole day greeting every arrival at Adelaide Airport from Melbourne. But still no sign of Tony and his tribe.

Eventually we were informed about 6pm that because of a lightning airport strike in Melbourne, there would be no arrival by air. Instead the babies were to arrive the next morning (November 26) on the Overland Express at Adelaide Railway Station. So it was home to Grandma McKirdy’s at Rosslyn Park for the night and a very early start the next morning to greet the express at 8am.

Will we ever forget the exhausted figure of Tony Dudman staggering up the platform clutching some earthenware pots that he had somehow managed to purchase in the midst of his duties, calling out, “I need ten mums and I need them now!” And there in a carriage, packed side by side like little sardines, were the ten babies dressed in a weird assortment of clothing that had been supplied for them by some kind friends who had cared for them during their protracted stay in Melbourne.

There was Kim, resplendent in an ill-smelling red track suit, with a typical “haunted” refugee baby look on his face, baring a set of blackened stumps that were his baby teeth and sporting a neat little crew cut eventuating from his recent brush with scurvy all over his body.

The remarkable thing was that when Jan took him in her arms he just clung there like a little Koala and would not let her put him down for many days. He really staked his claim to his territory proclaiming, “I have arrived. I think I will stay here!”

Jan managed to peel him off for long enough to give him his first bath in Australia when we took him back to Nana’s. The remarkable thing was that once we took him home to Victor Harbour after a check out at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital he really thrived once the effect of penicillin hit. Almost immediately his skin cleared and he became a picture of very vigorous health. Noticeably taller than the other children, is it any wonder that he was known in the orphanage as “The Lanky Yankee”.

Who knows what damaging impressions were imprinted on Kim’s young mind as a result of all his early experiences? All we can say is that his life would appear to have been graciously protected from the worst ravages that haunt so many.

The only early indications we had of difficulties were his fear of a bath and washing.  Maybe this is natural for all male babies or maybe it brought back memories of the only protracted human physical contact he had in Vietnam, when he was held under a tap once a day for ablutions.

He also showed an inexplicable fear of planes in general and helicopters in particular.  They obviously reawakened deep fearful experiences from his past. Other than that, he remained a healthy, strong willed, loving yet determined child who regularly registered his presence by emptying all of the contents from his wardrobe and drawers into the midst of his bedroom floor to express his disapproval at being sent to bed.

His mother’s tendency to hold long phone conversations was also an affront to his desire to be the centre of attention. He solved this very neatly by one day taking the sharpest of our carving knives and running up the passage with it blade first in his mouth!!  This sure got his mother’s full and undivided attention.

After all our negotiating and disappointments, what a blessing it was eventually to see him settled in his play pen on that safe spot in our lounge room where we had prayed for so long that he would eventually lie. Safe and secure at last, having escaped from the pain, suffering and death that had surrounded him for all of his brief life.

You may call all this circumstance but we see it as the gracious and sovereign hand of God snatching him out of danger and delivering him into our thankful hands.

I doubt that we would have had the courage to start on this venture had we known the enormous difficulties in translating a warm fuzzy idea into the stark reality of Kim’s eventual presence with us as a member of our family circle. But step by step the way just opened up.