Alabama Vietnam Remembers

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From Saigon to Birmingham: Michael Lee Vann, the Mayor’s Son

-Submitted by Ruth Vann Lillian
Birmingham, Alabama
June 2017

I was seven years old when my parents asked me if I’d like to have another baby come to live with us. My sister, Cora Elizabeth, had died of Leukemia two years earlier, and the three of us were still bereft but trying to rebuild our lives. I thought the idea an excellent one and I was eager and impatient to have a new sister. A few months later, the Friends of the Children of Vietnam sent my folks a letter and picture. There was a little boy who needed a home, and would we be interested? I was not at all sure about having a brother, but in the end I was enthusiastic about this new addition to our lives.

My parents are both gone now, but as I remember my mother’s account, it took another year or so before all arrangements were completed and my dad, Birmingham City Councilor, David J. Vann, headed for San Francisco where he was scheduled to meet Mike’s plane. Then came a news report that a plane full of refugee children from Vietnam had crashed en route. My parents waited a whole day before finding out that it was another plane.

Mike’s plane had a rough trip over, stopping once in Guam and then again in Hawaii due to mechanical problems. Finally, several days overdue, the plane arrived and Mike was finally in his new and very proud father’s arms. Because Dad was running for the office of mayor, CBS news decided to cover the story of the adoption and a film crew traveled with Dad and Mike from San Francisco back to Birmingham, arriving April 17, 1975. Thirteen days later, Saigon fell.

Michael was abandoned as an infant and brought to the orphanage in late summer of 1973. A judge later selected the birthday, August 8, for him, which was two days before Dad’s, so we always celebrated their birthdays together. His legal Vietnamese name was Le Van Kim, and since our last name was “Vann”, my parents added another “e” to Americanize “Le,” and gave him the name, “Michael.”

It is not surprising that he would bond first with the other child in the house, and I claimed him quickly as my little brother. He was 20 months old, walking, actually running most of the time, but knew no English. He arrived severely malnourished with considerable digestive problems and still in diapers.

Mama recalled that his little legs seemed like toothpicks and his swollen belly looked, I thought, like he had swallowed a basketball. My parents had been told that he had suffered a severe injury to his left cornea, but they discovered early on that he could barely hear anything. Mike went through several surgeries his first few years, resulting in successfully grafted eardrums, which he got to abuse later with loud music during adolescence! Efforts to restore his vision were unsuccessful despite a cornea transplant. As in any adoption, there was a period of adjustment for all of us, but I remember falling deeply in love with this adorable little boy, and spending many happy hours with him. I also remember bossing him around and resenting having to babysit when I had matters more interesting to pursue. The chaos of my father’s mayoral campaign made an interesting blend with the building of our family, and Mike’s introduction to American life was frequently made in front of crowds and cameras. Dad, at 47, had his own little boy to kiss and show off, and took Mike and me everywhere as he campaigned around the city. My mother, who eschewed the public eye, was there to greet the tired and hungry Vanns when we returned. Michael turned 2 in August, and in November, my father was elected to the Mayor’s office.

A hyperactive child who had difficulty focusing, he exhibited athletic ability, and in spite of the blind eye, learned to play soccer, baseball, and tennis with proficiency. In fact, during his early 20’s he won the regional championship in his tennis division one year! He went to on to graduate from the University of Alabama and works today as a tennis coach in Washington D.C.

As a child, I was barely aware of the war in Vietnam until we started preparing to receive my brother. I did not understand until much later that my parents’ desire to adopt was not only born from the loss of my sister but also from the conviction that this was a right and productive response to the horror and suffering inflicted by the war. Ironically, because of that war, Michael brought light into the dimness of our home, and with speed and energy, he pushed us into a new life together and made us a whole family again. My parents adored Mike, and he and I are still very close. He is my brother, and my reminder that out of the most unspeakable, destructive atrocities life and love will still emerge victorious!