Airborne adoption center

THERE are a variety of ways to deliver a baby. One is to be a consular officer at the American Embassy in Seoul and - in exchange for a free airline ticket Seoul-Chicago-Seoul - deliver Korean orphans to their adoptive parents in the United States. I needed a week in Boston but couldn't afford the air fare - which is why I happened to be sitting at the back of a jumbo jet with three tiny Koreans.

The tiniest was a baby girl a policeman had found abandoned near a garbage heap in Seoul. Like the 11 other children who boarded at Seoul's international airport, she wore a plastic bracelet giving her name (Sing Li), her date of birth, and the name and address of her adoptive parents.

We were spread out in the last two rows of the plane - three children to an adult. The other escorts, a minister, a kindly-looking homemaker, and a young man studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were Koreans. I was the only American.

My three charges and I were strapped into adjoining seats at the side of the plane. To my left, lying quietly in his plastic carrier, was a baby boy whose face reminded me of a miniature faun.

I sat in the middle holding the baby, Sing Li, in my lap, while on my right was a two-year-old girl with exquisite features - and the agility of a Taekwondo black-belter. Whenever I turned my attention to the baby she tried to take a poke at her.

The plane descended into Tokyo's Narita Airport to the accompaniment of howls and shrieks from its smaller passengers.

The stopover lasted only an hour. There'd been few passengers from Seoul to Tokyo, but now the plane was full. It took off amid renewed wails. The passengers in the back third of the plane twisted themselves around to glare at the children's escorts. A few of them began to wander to the back for a look at the children. Between bottles and diapering I explained to anyone who asked that they were being delivered to Chicago for adoption.

A young woman with a boy about seven years old stood gazing down at three children playing in the aisle. ``Look at their velvety little faces,'' she murmured. ``Faces like pansies. Can you see it?'' she asked her boy. ``Their faces look just like pansies.''

The boy looked gravely down at the children. ``Could we have one?''

``Maybe they'd let us borrow one.'' She looked inquiringly at me and the other escorts. The four of us agreed she could. ``Which one would you like?'' I asked her.

They ended up taking two - a toddler with a face more like a good-natured jack-o'-lantern than a pansy and a little girl who'd begun to cry but stopped when the woman picked her up. When several more of the children were carried off to be entertained by flight attendants and passengers, I was left with the luxury of just one child.

``They'll all want to adopt orphans when we finish this trip,'' said Kung Woo, the young escort from MIT. It was his senior year, he told me, and his fifth orphan flight. One flight had been to the Netherlands, all the others to Chicago. ``Americans adopt more children than anyone else,'' he mused. ``Why do you suppose that is?''

``I wonder if it's because we're such die-hard optimists,'' I said. ``I keep thinking of the people there in Chicago - the people waiting for these children. They're optimists. They've no idea what these kids look like, what their mental capacities are. And yet they're willing to bring them sight unseen into their own lives. Into just about the closest relationship one person can have to another.''

The last part of the trip was the hardest. The children had been confined for hours in cramped spaces, and were past being comforted. They cried. Choked, with exhausted sobs. They slept and woke and cried again.

I worried over the impression these tired little parcels of humanity would make on their new parents. I so wanted the parents to be reassured, to feel good about them. Right from the start.

When we landed, volunteers from the adoption agency helped collect the children's belongings and arranged everyone, children, escorts, and a couple of the flight attendants, into a procession. Each adult had a child. I was carrying the delicate, faun-faced boy, his tiny body limp with weariness. Behind me came the minister with Sing Li in his arms and then Kung Woo carrying the sullen-eyed, ever beautiful two-year-old. The children were too tired to cry.

My own weariness evaporated as I stepped out of the plane into the walkway. Now that we were here, I was too excited to be tired. As I stepped into the waiting room I was blinded by a blaze of flash bulbs.

``Maybe you'd better hold the cameras until later, Mr. Krueger,'' the volunteer called out. She guided us into a side area filled with people. ``As a matter of fact I think this is your baby.'' Still blinking from the lights, I looked up at the man and woman standing before me. They were tall and deeply tanned, and looked as if they'd spent their lives plunging into swimming pools.

Handing his cameras to his wife, the man held out his arms.

``His name's Chang Il Sung,'' I said, handing him the baby.

``Not now it isn't,'' said the man.

``Oh? What will you call him?''

``Adam. Adam Krueger.''

His wife reached over and touched the baby's arm. ``Good heavens, he's tiny, isn't he?''

``Yes, maybe you'd better take him,'' said the man. ``I'll get pictures of you leaving the building with him.''

We said goodbye. I stood for a moment watching the faun-faced boy disappear down the long, wide corridor.

Already there were others leaving the room. The two-year-old was being swung up - without protest - into the arms of a man wearing an Army uniform and the gold cross of a chaplain. I hoped his prayers would be effective.

But Sing Li was still unclaimed. The minister paced restlessly about with her. ``If you like, I'll take her,'' I said. He handed her to me with obvious relief and hurried off.

I looked down at the baby. She was awake but not crying. I held her close, swaying from side to side in a rocking motion until a smile formed on her lips. When I looked up, a young couple was being led toward us by one of the volunteers. They walked slowly, hand in hand, with a hushed expectancy that reminded me of kids being led into a room for their first glimpse of the Christmas tree.

``Yes, this is Sing Li,'' said the volunteer, checking the bracelet. ``This is your baby.''

I smiled and started to tell them what a sweet disposition the child had, how good she'd been throughout the long, hard trip. But something in their faces stopped me, something that told me this was a moment of supreme importance in their lives, that silence would be more appropriate. Gravely, wordlessly, I turned to the woman and handed her the child. The volunteer walked away leaving the three of us standing huddled together.

Later we said many things to each other. They said they hadn't expected the child to be even half so lovely. I said that she had the disposition of an angel. And then they said - and have said many times since - ``Thanks for delivering our baby.''

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