A Father's Deed, a Son's Pain
When he quietly puts the letter down, a small spider crosses the living room floor. "Hey, Kevin, aren't you going to kill it?" Teresa asks, breaking the awkward silence. "No," he answers, without looking at her. "I'm not going to kill any more of these." With another letter—one from Jimmy Carter—he scoops up the bug and deposits it outside the sliding glass door.
The hostility that pervades the Hood household has intensified just as Dan, a Pan Am pilot, celebrates the 15th anniversary of the last commercial flight out of Vietnam. As portrayed in the commemorative NBC drama Last Flight Out, airing Tuesday (May 22), Dan helped smuggle a group of refugees, including Kevin, onto the plane six days before the city fell to Communist troops on April 30, 1975. According to the movie, which chronicles the experiences of several flight participants, Kevin's mother, a disfigured hospital maid, tearfully begged Dan to take her 5-year-old son to America. Yet several eyewitnesses present in Saigon say the script—which is based in part on Dan's self-centered, unclear recollections—significantly distorts the reality of his acts and Kevin's adoption. More tarnishing to Dan's heroic image than any factual discrepancies, however, is the resentment of the young man in his living room—his alienated, angry son.
Sitting only a few feet apart, Dan and Kevin never allow their eyes to meet. When asked about his memories, Kevin replies, "I don't remember anything. I don't remember my mother at all." He mentions that visiting Vietnam "has crossed my mind," but Dan jumps in and says it would be too dangerous for Kevin to return.
Thereafter, Kevin refuses to contribute much else to the conversation, but later, away from his father's watchfulness, he becomes more open. And he reveals that he does in fact recall a good deal about his homeland. "Certain smells and sights will trigger my memory," he says. He describes playing with a popgun, dropping a rake down a well, sitting in front of a raw fish on a table. "We lived in a peasant hut without indoor plumbing," he says. "It seems to me it was a big family."
Kevin says he remembers struggling to escape from the ambulance that would carry him to the airport for the flight out of Vietnam. According to several witnesses, he resisted so violently that two adults had to restrain him. As he recalls, "I threw myself against the window and saw my mother on her knees with her arms stretched out toward me, weeping for me, as we drove away."
He has never told Dan of these haunting scenes stored in his mind's eye. "I don't make it clear to him that I know a lot more than he thinks I do," he says. "I know what he wants me to say, and I say it." When Dan showed him his mother's letter inquiring about her son's welfare—a letter the boy knew about but had never asked to see—Kevin admits that "to know it came from my biological mother was very hard," yet his reaction was to "hide my feelings, to brush it off." Later he explains, "If you were taken out of your home at the age of 5, stripped of everything, you would learn to control your emotions too."
The entire story of Kevin's rescue is shrouded in confusion and conflicting stories. Dan, who was working as a Seattle-based flight engineer for Pan Am in 1975, headed to Vietnam on his own, he says, after he heard that a U.S. Air Force transport plane had crashed there, killing more than 125 orphans, many of them Amerasians, being flown out of the country for adoption in the U.S. Having previously flown military cargo in and out of Saigon, Hood claims he was asked to help get the surviving orphans out. Hood says he cannot identify who made the request, though he initially offered, then was forced to retract, one doctor's name. Moreover, almost all the children, it turns out, had already been safely evacuated by the time he left for Vietnam.
Friends and family members suggest an additional motive for the trip. Judy Kiley, 47, his wife at the time and mother of his daughters, Wendy, 23, and Kirsten, 20, says Dan "talked for a long time about adopting an Oriental boy. He went over there primarily with the idea of finding some kids." Hood denies this was his intention, but his older sister, Sandra Camp, says, "I remember it very vividly. He wanted to get one child for his family and one for ours. I know that Dan had always wanted a son."
Although various heroic feats attributed to Hood by the film are disputed by other participants, it is known that during his 48 hours in Saigon, Hood located and helped evacuate the mother and the cousin of Shelley Lao, a student at the school where his sister taught in Walla Walla, Wash. He also decided to assist two Amerasian children, Merrie Li, then 5, and Tony, 4, and a half-French nurse called Lan (she refuses to give her real name because of concern for her family in Vietnam), 22, and her younger brother.
Little Kevin, then named Tung, was in danger because his father was Korean. Phuc Luong, an anesthesiologist at the hospital where Tung's mother did odd jobs and now a resident of Orlando, Fla., knew the family well. "We worried because the Koreans had fought the Communists," he says. Hood claims that Tung's mother approached him and "knelt at my feet and begged me to take her son. It was the most moving thing I'd ever seen. There was no way that I could say no." Although the film portrays this moment as a somewhat impetuous action by Tung's mother, Henriette Le, a supervisor at the Saigon hospital who now lives in Upland, Calif., says the mother made the decision to part with her son with great reluctance. "She initially had no intention to give her boy away at all," says Le. "It was only her family who talked her into it." In any event, the day of the flight, Tung's grief-stricken mother gave up her child to be taken to America.
Disguised as patients, Hood's seven charges, none of whom had exit papers, passed through an airport checkpoint and were safely loaded on Pan Am's last flight out of Saigon, on April 24, 1975. Hood himself traveled as a passenger. The plane, crammed with 463 riders, landed outside Manila, then Hood and his group proceeded to Seattle. Shelley Lao's relatives were taken in by friends, Merrie Li was adopted by Hood's sister and Tony by a Washington couple. Lan and her brother lived with the Hoods until she married the following September (Dan gave her away at the wedding).
Though Tung was cared for and quickly adopted by the Hoods, who renamed him Kevin, the distress suffered by his mother in Vietnam did not end. A few months after the flight, a family friend wrote Hood that Kevin's mother wanted her son to be sent to relatives in France. When Dan received the letter, says ex-wife Judy, "He just became terrified that he'd lose that boy." He subsequently made little effort to inform Kevin's mother of their whereabouts, though he claims he answered the letter she sent directly to him in 1976 and sent a picture of the boy in response to the second letter she sent, in 1985. Henriette Le and her husband, Giao, say they tried to help Kevin's mother track the Hoods down for years. "The mother of that child has been writing everywhere," says Giao. "All she wants to know is whether he is still alive and whether he remembers her." Adds Henriette: "Kevin was her only source of life."
The peaceful family life Kevin's birth mother probably envisioned for her son never materialized. In 15 years, he has moved 11 times—to California, New York, Michigan, even Jordan—as Dan took a succession of different flying jobs. As Judy says, "That boy's life has been anything but stable." Kevin remembers, "Dad's job would force him away." Strained by Dan's work schedule, the Hoods' marriage fell apart in 1980, when Kevin was 10. Judy, Kevin and the two girls moved to Michigan, where Judy married John Kiley in 1984. Kiley "tried to be fair to me, but I was a snob to him," admits Kevin. "I resented him." By March 1988, mother and son were fed up with each other, and Kevin moved to Marlton, N.J., to live with Dan and his third wife, Teresa (Dan had a second marriage lasting only a year).
Dan says he's "partly to blame" for Kevin's troubles, "because I couldn't always be there when he needed me. I should have given him a better shot at his teenage years. I don't know that I could have done much more for him than I did, bringing him out of Vietnam."
For a few months, Kevin says, living with his father "was Utopia. Dad devoted a lot of time to me. We'd have barbecues on the porch, watch TV together and just talk. It was the best time I've ever had with my father." But in August, Kevin's happiness was shattered when Dan decided to move back to the countryside, to Carnation, Wash., where they now live. The move soured the relationship and seemed to allow Kevin's long-suppressed anger to boil through.
"The day we started the move was the day we started arguing," he says. "My dad was selfish. He knew I wanted to stay in New Jersey. He loves the country, and I don't blame him. He thought I'd get used to it out here. But I don't like it." Kevin says his new high school in nearby Snoqualmie, the setting for TV's Twin Peaks, "was a real redneck place. I was one of two Asian students. I closed up to the world. I didn't care about school or friends."
Before graduating, Kevin was accepted into the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. "All my life, all I wanted to do was be a chef," says Kevin. "When my dad found out, he did everything he could to help me. He went out and found the very best school and helped me get accepted." With characteristic contrariness, however, Kevin then refused to attend when Dan said he could pay only half the $10,000 tuition, since he was already putting two daughters through college. "If he's not going to go all the way for me," says Kevin, "then I don't even want to go half way."
Kevin is now taking data entry and real estate classes at Bellevue Community College and waits tables at a local restaurant. Like many other 19-year-olds, he remains uncertain of his career plans. He appears to both seek and scorn his father's approval. "I won't ever be his true son," he says. "I've adopted American culture, but I won't ever be what he expects me to be."
In Washington, D.C., those aboard the momentous last flight have gathered to screen the upcoming TV movie. At first, Kevin is typically morose. "I've been schlepped here with my father," he says. "It's my father's excitement, not mine." In the theater, he does not even sit with Dan and slumps in his chair until the final scenes. Then, as the film shows his weeping mother handing over her child, he suddenly sits up straight, leans forward and studies the screen. He does not cry, but afterward says, "It was so emotional, so intense. After it was over, I felt like I could hit something for the first five minutes." Kevin indicates that the film may help heal the alienation that has developed between father and son. "I understand more about what my father has done for me," he says, adding later, "I don't like him, but I love him and what he did for me. I know that whatever I do, he'll always be my only father."
As Kevin stands alone, overwhelmed by his emotions, Dan approaches him and says, "You know, I do have your mother's address. You can have it if you want to." Pondering a reunion with his mother, Kevin says, "I want to help get her out. But I want to wait until things come together for me more. I want to go to her and show her what I've become."
—Jeannie Park, Priscilla Turner in Seattle and Washington, D.C., bureau reports