April 21, 1975 12:00 PM

Four days after he and 56 other children had been taken from a Saigon orphanage and shoehorned into a hastily arranged World Airways charter flight to California, the slender 9-year-old Vietnamese refugee stepped off a jet in St. Louis. Warily scanning the crowd at the airport, he searched for Terry Buhr, the 31-year-old housewife who had chosen him for adoption last fall. Then, suddenly, his caution vanished. Grinning with recognition and relief, he rushed past the gawkers and the television cameras and hurled himself into her arms. Nearly 8,000 miles from the land of his ancestors, Nguyen Van Nga had come home.

Last week, as thousands of U.S. families pleaded for the chance to adopt Vietnamese orphans, the little boy who is now David Nga (pronounce nah) Buhr had already embarked on a new life. How David, at his age especially, would adjust to life in Missouri, to the shock of a new family, a new home, a new school, new customs—in short, a whole new life—was a worrisome matter. And David had plenty of company: About 2,000 other Vietnam orphans, uncertain and frightened, poured into U.S. homes over a week’s span. With dosages of patience and love, the prognosis looked good, but only time held the real answer.

David’s own chance at a new life began last November when Mrs. Buhr, the wife of a Xerox technician in suburban Arnold, Mo., volunteered to fly to Saigon to escort adopted orphans to their waiting American families. The Buhrs had already adopted two Vietnamese children—Amy and Andy, both nearly 3 years old—and had no intention of taking any more. Then, while visiting an orphanage operated by the Friends of Children of Vietnam, she met the boy the nuns had named David. “I thought he was cute and I started playing with him,” she recalls. “And he seemed like a sensitive boy.” Mrs. Buhr took him shopping, then to lunch. The next day they went shopping again. “Then he started getting aloof,” says Terry. “He would pull away from me. We were having such a good time, but he thought I would leave and it would be over. Then I bought him a pair of sandals and he broke down and cried.”

By then, there was no way she could leave David behind. When one of the nuns at the orphanage asked David if he would like Terry to be his mother, “he just couldn’t stop smiling,” she remembers. “I explained that I had to ask my husband, Ken. But David said he was happy to wait.”

At first her husband was stunned. “She really knocked me off my feet,” says Buhr. “I wondered if we could afford it, and then there was the language barrier. I worried whether he could adjust without severe emotional problems. When I felt reassured about that, we went ahead.” Almost as soon as the decision was made, Terry learned she was pregnant. Their fourth child is due in the fall.

The Buhrs’ first two Vietnamese children were sickly and undernourished when they came to the U.S. as infants, but Amy Mong-Huyen Buhr and Andrew Ly Thanh Buhr since have become secure and exuberant. They were bursting with excitement at the airport, and later the two trailed at David’s heels as he explored his new home, flicking on the TV, experimenting with a Pachinko machine in the playroom, then leafing through a J.C. Penney catalog. After only 10 minutes he and Ken and Andy were sprawled on the floor, piecing together a train track. “It’s the parents who have to adjust,” says Terry. “The kids just fall right in.” That night, delighted to be sharing his room, Andy slipped out of his own bed and snuggled in with his new brother.

The next day the Buhrs took David to a shopping center where they bought him clothes and a basketball. Gorging himself on tacos and Cokes in a cafeteria, he slathered on a hot sauce (similar to a popular Vietnamese fish sauce) and gave his tacos a liberal sprinkling of pepper.

From a Vietnamese student at a nearby university, who acted as translator, the Buhrs learned that David had lived at an orphanage in Danang before being taken last year to Saigon. He remembers nothing of his family and little about his pre-orphanage past. Although he is still a bit shy in his new surroundings, his reserve is fast falling away. Among his favorite American pastimes: picking up the Buhrs’ telephone, saying hello, and dissolving into good-natured giggles.

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