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The Magic of Music Amid Babylift

By Shirley Peck Barnes, author of the The War Cradle, a riveting account of Operation Babylift in Vietnam 1975.

Compassion mixes with confusion when the children from Operation Babylift arrive at the Continental Care Center in Denver, Colorado."

"They're here! They've finally come!" a staff member said excitedly. The high pitch of the children's voices drifted down the open stairwell, cementing our sense of exhilaration. "These are the children who were on Daly's maverick flight out of Saigon!" she exclaimed.

Together we ascended the stairwell into a large upper lobby. We could see children everywhere, scurrying about uncontrolled. A few were laughing and frolicking as they explored their new surroundings, but most were tiny children, crying and showing their irritation and displeasure. It was easy to see they were tired, frightened or confused. Perhaps all three...

The entire scene was bedlam. There were more than sixty children in all, each one in need of something .. someone. A handful of adults, who could not speak the language, tried desperately to respond in various ways. For the moment, there seemed to be no sense of organization - just an attempt to do something - anything. The mass confusion was commonplace to the children who were all too familiar with the experiences of neglect and survival in Vietnam. There was no parent to discipline them. Some were out of control. Considering they were confused, afraid and in cultural shock their behavior was understandable.

Each moment was a drama unfolding. Walking down the corridors, open doors revealed infants asleep or crying in their cribs. They tugged at the rails, sucked their thumbs, and one desperate toddler banged his head against the crib in frustration. Others were being soothed in the many rockers interspersed along the hallway, which often presented a navigational challenge.

Mattresses lined the floors of the rooms and displayed rumpled sheets. In one area, innovation older children had already assembled several mattresses to simulate a trampoline and took turns running and jumping onto them.

Toys that had been acquired and stored in a linen closet, awaiting the arrival of the orphans, were now scattered everywhere. Tricycles and red wagons raced through the hallways. All the volunteers were too busy to pay attention or were too sympathetic to detour any of the action. With every kind of toy and food to pacify the orphans, it was like Christmas.

Then, there were some children who weren't interested in any of it. They displayed an almost abnormal composure and sat quietly along the walls, seemingly engrossed in coloring books. That is, until the sound of clicking heels approached.

"American mother?" Their little faces lit up.

This same confusion was to be repeated hundreds of times in the next six weeks.

The following morning, as second group of airlift children arrived. The scene was repeated, but this time the noise and straining voices were even louder; they could be heard on the sidewalk outside.

The third and fourth days produced the same state of confusion. More volunteers appeared, but rather than temper the situation, it became more chaotic.

Nothing, simply nothing, could calm the atmosphere. What the children were longing for, the staff could not provide. They simply wanted their mothers, their own mothers - not these people with strange faces who could not speak their language. The bad behavior of children renders a stranger helpless. Something had to be done.

The piano in the corner was inconspicuous, though it beckoned like a magnet. Remembering the French influence in Vietnam, I sat down at the piano and made an amateurish attempt at playing "Frere Jacques," the French tune that was not only a primer for American elementary school children, but surely familiar to children the world over. It was a gamble that paid off.

For a few moments the music went unnoticed and was drowned out by the children's cries. Then I banged the keys harder and opened the top lid to expose the sound board. At first, there was little response. Then slowly, the background noise diminished and the sound of little voices permeated the room. Smiles erupted... "Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, dormez vous.."

It came in a few weak strains..then within moments, a room full of children were singing loudly and joyfully.


The magic that overtook the room was miraculous. Dozens of little brown eyes were now dancing with happiness and they began milling around the piano. Occasionally, a little finger would reach out to touch a key. The sadness that enveloped the room only moment before was all but forgotten. When the song ended, I turned facing the children and began to applaud, hoping they understood my gesture to mean "approval."

They gleefully began clapping themselves.

The ice was broken.

"Amen," I thought to myself.

A young girl of 15, who understood the magic of music, came to my place at the piano and began to play Vietnamese songs. Within seconds, the youngsters scrambled to stand beside her and in unison every child in the room became alive.

The international language of music had not only diffused the earlier scene of bedlam, but transcended all barriers and became a communication to soothe pain.

Shirley Peck Barnes is the author of The War Cradle