His name was Kim Kuan. He was born July 19, 1952 in Seoul, Korea, the son of a Korean woman and an American GI. For some unknown reason, his birth mother placed him in an orphanage in Seoul when he was six or seven years old. Looking back now--as an adult, and an elementary school teacher--that seems particularly horrifying to me. I don't know why his birth mother was compelled to give him up-- and at an age where he would understand that he was being abandoned. I don't know whether her parents forced her, or a prospective husband who would not accept an illegitimate son of mixed parentage. I can only imagine that it was a searing heartbreak to everyone involved.
In 1960, my parents adopted Kim Kuan. He was eight years old. While some might think it foolhardy to adopt an older child, my ever-optimistic parents were willing to take the chance. They had taken in many foster children, before starting their own family; they believed they could not have any more children, and they wanted a son.
I was six years old and my adopted sister was seven years old when Kim Kuan joined our family. He was a bright, sweet-natured, happy boy who loved clowning around and making people laugh. When he arrived, he spoke absolutely no English. Even at age six, I was amazed at how quickly he learned a new language and how he fit comfortably right into our family. I now believe that is a testament to the loving, generous people that my parents were at that time.
Kim Kuan was re-christened James Jay Huber. He liked to be called Jim, Jimmy J, or Sunny Jim.
There were a few cultural differences that needed to be addressed, at first. In Korea, as in many Asian countries, boys have more status within the family, and in general their needs and wants come first before the girls (or at least that was the case in traditional Korean families in the 1950s-1960s). It took a long time for my parents to convince Jim that my sister and I were his equals in every regard!
Jim in his Cub Scout uniform, 1961
Life rarely proceeds on a straight course, and our family changed dramatically in just two short years. My parents had another baby of their own--a son. We sold everything and moved to a huge alfalfa farm in Eastern Washington. But there was some kind of legal irregularity with the purchase of the farm (I was six, so I really didn't understand the circumstances). After only nine months, my parents were forced to relinquish the property to its previous owners, and lost all the money that they had invested in it. It was a devastating turn of events.
There is no way that my mother could have foreseen that just a few years after adopting Jim, she would be raising her four children alone. I doubt that kind of scenario had ever crossed her mind--never in her wildest dreams. Unfortunately, there was nothing in her upbringing that prepared her for dealing with that contingency. For nearly ten years, we barely survived. The words "abject poverty" come to mind, when I think of those years. We learned what it was like to go without both the necessities and comforts that others take for granted.
Me and my siblings, in more prosperous times.
But life goes on. Circumstances change. Children grow up, and begin to make decisions on their own. And so, just a few months before his seventeenth birthday, my adopted brother Jim convinced my mother to allow him to join the Army. She signed the papers giving permission, and he was out the door, starting his own life.
This was in 1969. Right after boot camp, Jim was sent directly to Viet Nam. He worked mainly in supply depots, and did the usual two year tour of duty. To my knowledge, he did not ever see combat, which is a blessing. The only other bright spot in this story is that with the Army's help, Jim was able to visit his birth mother in Seoul. But he never spoke about the experience, at least not to me.
I saw Jim a couple of times in the months after he returned from Viet Nam. He was his usual sunny, good-natured self, and I always enjoyed seeing him. But truth to tell, he had bonded more with my sister, who was also adopted, and preferred to spend more time with her.
And then I was off on my own, living in another city, working my way through college. So we drifted apart.
In 1972, a rather spectacular car crash put Jim in the hospital, and there it was discovered that he had a particularly aggressive form of cancer. Within a matter of months, he was diagnosed as terminally ill.
James Jay Huber, my adopted brother and Viet Nam veteran, died on March 10, 1973, four months before his twenty-first birthday. Right after his death, Jim's CO tried to convince my mother that she should demand an autopsy, and that Agent Orange might have been the cause of his death. But in her grief, she just couldn't face it.
Jim lived with us for only thirteen years. He gave his life-- not in battle-- but likely as a direct result of his service to the United States.
© Betty Tartas 2010