Life’s Journey

My dad’s youngest sister, my aunt Betsy, came home from the hospital in a Christmas stocking because she was born just before the holiday. Occasionally, you may notice that some hospitals still do this around Christmastime. Every time I see photos of babies in stockings, I always think of my aunt.

Being born one month after Christmas — in my case January 24 — gets you nothing! Like most of you, I came home wrapped in either a hospital- or gift-blanket. My dad, and most of his other siblings, didn’t come home in anything at all. They were born at home.

Today, when a newborn leaves the hospital you must have a car seat properly installed so that the baby can be transported safely. I’m sure the drives home for all parents – in what must feel like the longest trip of their lives — are cautious ones. Of course, it’s not so much the trip; it’s the cargo.

A friend of mine, Jason, didn’t come home in a Christmas stocking, hospital- or gift-blanket; he didn’t travel by car; and he wasn’t the only cargo. He and 408 other orphans (300 under a year and a half old) traveled by plane from Vietnam to the United States in cardboard boxes, makeshift bassinets, and some simply rested on airplane seats.

In total, between April 3-26, 1975, approximately thirty-five-hundred babies traveled 7,000+ miles.

Like the babies you see pictured here, they were part of Operation Babylift, an evacuation operation at the end of the Vietnam War, just weeks before the fall of Saigon. Most of the infants were slated to be adopted to waiting U.S. families.

An overwhelmed nurse said she didn’t sleep a wink during the 30-hour flight. Another said that she constantly used a flashlight “to see that rib cages moved with the breath of life.” Transporting and carrying for babies on what must have been the longest flight of their lives wasn’t easy. What made matters worse was the tragedy of the first flight of Operation Babylift, which crash-landed, killing many of the passengers, including 78 children.

A nurse on the plane Jason was transported on remembers a “somber sense of uncertainty.” In fact, one of the flight attendants announced, “In view of the circumstances, I feel that it would be appropriate to ask Dr. Dunlap [the on board physician] to say a prayer for our safety.”

Each child had a white ID band to match-up each with awaiting parents. Many of the babies suffered from diarrhea (due to the changes in formula), chicken pox, and respiratory problems. Unfortunately, some didn’t survive.

At the time, there were three west coast processing centers, one in Seattle, Washington, two others in California. Jason’s parents, Michael and Jeanne Williams, drove from Santa Clara to Seattle to pick him up. He was 13 months old; pictured here with his mom. (The Williamses would adopt a daughter, Amy, into the family a short time later.)

He says that his parents were quintessential American parents. Both immersed themselves in the lives of their children. Jeanne was president of the boosters, and like her husband, Michael, was involved in their children’s extracurricular activities: ballet, football and baseball.

Jason says that his parents were amazing. And while his parent’s parents — Pennsylvanians — were a part of a generation that had little tolerance for mixed families, Jason says that they loved him and his sister unconditionally and without reservation.

His mother Jeanne always wanted grandkids — even stockpiling Disney DVDs for the day one would arrive. Sadly, she passed away in 2006. And 13 years later (just a few months ago), Michael followed.

Last February Jason’s own son, Austin, curiously began asking about his grandmother. Jason explained that his grandmother had passed before he was born, but that she would have loved him so much. At Austin’s request, they went to go see where she was buried at Mission Cemetery in Santa Clara. Jason said he hadn’t gone to visit because he thought it would be too difficult, but figured it was a good idea to visit with his son for the first time.

During the visit he said that his son asked a bunch of questions, and in Jason’s words: “It was perfect.”

Today, Jason — an avid outdoorsman — often takes his five-year-old, Austin, with him to explore all that nature has to offer. In some ways it’s the beginning of a second love-filled journey, years apart from, but closely resembling the one that began on a tarmac so many years ago.

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