Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Part 1: In the Beginning

In principio erat verbum
et Deus erat verbum in terminus ero vox...
- John 1:1

But we see now through a glass darkly, and the truth...and the truth we see in fragments..."
- from The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

We went to Bali, Indonesia when I was 7. At least that is where the ship was headed when we got on board in San Francisco. I don’t remember my parents telling me we were going to Indonesia. I do know that I couldn't bring much, which is just about nothing when you are a kid. I had this large Panda bear in whose lap I used to sit when I was a toddler. I remember freaking out when I saw him chunked in the trash when we were packing. This was a pattern I had grown quite familiar with over the previous 6 years whenever we moved. My stuff in the trash, Dad’s stuff in the packing crates.

didn’t move from Iowa to Bali right away, first, in 1964, we moved to Ithaca, New York (and then later to New Haven, Connecticut). There my parents attended missionary orientation centers for one year. They took sociology, anthropology and language classes at Yale and Cornell. They took psychiatric evaluation tests and had sessions with a psychiatrist to determine if they were crazy. He must not have been very good because both my parents passed with “excellent” marks.

I remember riding a bike with training wheels up and down the sidewalks. There was this enormous grassy meadow where we would fly kites and
Guillow’s balsa wood glider planes. Dad would take me to the corner store to buy the planes, comic books and Matchbox cars. At Easter they had a huge Easter egg hunt on that same meadow. I was totally amazed that someone would place candy and money in plastic eggs and leave them lying around. I gathered up quite a pile, but then my brother started to cry because he only got two. Dad yelled “Share your eggs with your brother!” I tried to give him all the hardboiled eggs, but Mom came over and started dividing everything up “evenly”. Somehow I ended up with mostly hardboiled eggs, Keith got more chocolate and the money “disappeared”. That night Keith first threw up a chocolate river and then filled his pants with something that looked like Hershey’s but didn’t smell like it. Payback is a bitch.

That summer I went to a genuine summer camp, Echo Ridge. I learned to swim and generally had lots of fun. One of the camp counselors looked like Sgt Carter from the
Gomer Pyle show. He was mean and yelled a lot. He was always screaming “get out of the deep end!” and “quit touching that!” One day after we had been playing dodgeball, we were marching back to the cabins and as we passed the pool there he was floating on his back with his eyes closed. A big pink target. I was at the end of the line carrying the ball. The next thing I knew that ball was flying through the air, over the chain link fence and hit him right on the stomach. Such a lovely sound. He went under and came up sputtering and yelling “who did that!?” But by then we had already marched on by.

I don’t remember leaving Ithaca a year later and traveling to San Francisco. Nor do I remember boarding the SS President Cleveland. My first memory is of crawling into my bunk, and in the wall pocket finding two small model ships some other kid had left behind. We were all sea sick that night, even Dad the ex sailor and we hadn’t even left the harbor. But within a few days we found our sea legs and life on board turned out to be great.
For the next 3 weeks we would be at sea. Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and then Indonesia. Nothing to do but sit back, relax and enjoy the sights, the food and cruise ship entertainment. This part of the trip permanently spoiled my parents; the taste of not having to mind the kids was in their mouths.

They took full advantage of the daily childcare provided by the staff of the SS President Cleveland. Every morning they eagerly handed us over and we gladly went. There were activity classes, games and movies for the kids. I remember watching "Old Yeller", "Davy Crockett", "The Nutty Professor" and "The Absent Minded Professor". There was shuffleboard and a swimming pool on the ship and no matter what side of the pool you were on the waves kept hitting you in the face.

My brother provided daily drama. One day a week my parents had us kids to watch and in their self absorbed manner set Keith down for a moment. He immediately wandered off and sometime later it occurred to my parents that they were supposed to have two kids not one. Mom was running around screaming and waving her arms “Where’s Keith? He’s fallen overboard!” Horns blasted, deck hands were scrambling all over the place peering over the sides. The railings were ridiculously low and if you were short like a kid you would just go right under the rails. How they never lost any kids before that I’ll never know. I just stayed away from the railings on the main deck. I don't know how long they spent circling that spot on the ocean or how much it cost to turn the ship around. If you are wondering who was supposed to be watching Keith – it wasn’t me, I was only 7. And that is how come I only have three brothers.
We had fun and exciting stops in Hawaii, Japan and then we got to Hong Kong, which is where Keith (yeah, unfortunately they found him sometime later sleeping under one of the lifeboats) left my favorite ruby red Matchbox No. 32 Jaguar XKE in the taxi.

This is because my father said
“Let your brother play with your car!”

My brother was born to make me miserable and my father was his accomplice. Born with bowed legs, he wore metal braces on them to straighten them up. He was some strange
mechanical robot crawling, then walking about. Like some medieval torture device, every night they were tightened a notch or two. This caused some pain and he would cry every night before bed. At a very early age he learned that the squeaky wheel gets the grease; he whined and cried into getting his way with my parents. Exasperated by his constant need for attention, my Dad frequently pawned him off on me. Dad would do just about anything to shut him up. One time my father gave him chewing gum (why would you give a 1 year old chewing gum?) which he chewed till it was nice and sticky then he slapped it on the back of my head. Dad shaved just that part of my head, a little round bald spot, which is how I went to my first day of kindergarten.

We went to visit a friend of my parents and they had a big old bell on a tripod. My father said
“let your brother ring the bell first” and yellow jackets swarmed out, ignored Keith and headed straight for me and my face. Later when we got home Dad said “Let your brother shut the car door!” and before I could get my fingers out he slammed it on my hand and it latched shut. It took about an hour for Dad to pry the door open with a crowbar.
And then there was the time a few years later in Baguio when my father said
“take your brother with you on your hike!” It was December, it was cold and my brother promptly jumped into a fast moving creek. He hated water and never wanted to go swimming, so I guess he did it to spite me. I watched as he went swirling away down stream and I thought “well, that’s one problem solved.” But then I thought of my other, older, bigger problem and wished he had ignored my brother's whining. I knew somehow this all would be my fault. So, after some deliberation, I jumped in to save him. As we walked back to the house cold and sopping wet I pondered the story of Cain and Abel and the meaning of the words “my brother's keeper”.

This sea voyage was our introduction to the myriad of different cultures of Southeast Asia. This Japanese song was a big hit back in 1963 and I used to play it on the stereo even though I didn't know what the words meant. Whenever I hear it now it reminds me of Japan, Hong Kong and Manila of the 60's.


  1. Great stuff Mark. Love your writing. What a fun, entertaining, and poignant start. Do keep it up please.

  2. Wow! What a brilliant beginning you've made. The loss of that cuddly panda must have been vast. I look forward to reading more to discover how you found ways to even the score with your brother and father.

    Congratulations, Waldo, and welcome to the blogosphere.

  3. i enjoyed every word...left me wanting for more...

  4. Bravo! Kudos! Mazel Tov! and all that good stuff.
    Brilliant start indeed. Will be staying tuned.

  5. Ditto from another 3rd-culture kid & blogger. Looking forward to reading more of your memories!

  6. tell us when you first slugged Keith.

    looking forward to reading about your Baguio/Brent experience.

  7. c'mon, c'mon - I want to know what happened next!!! keep the great stories coming please!!

  8. fantastic stories, Waldo !!!