Thursday, June 30, 2011

A TCK Goes to Church

From the time they married in 1951, my parents were members of the Episcopal Church.  Mom had been raised more or less Southern Baptist, and Dad Presbyterian.  They decided to split the difference and join a new church.  Dad, in his later years, became a lay-person (for those not schooled in the church lingo, he wasn’t a priest but was able to serve communion to the parishioners) and was active in his men’s group.  One of my favorite stories about him is at a meeting where the priest asked the group to answer the question “Why are you a Christian?”  As they went around the circle, men responded with the usual, “To serve others” and “To follow Christ”.  When it was my dad’s turn, he answered “Accident of birth.”  There were gasps and raised eyebrows.  He just shrugged.  It was the truth.  

 From my early days, the church was an integral part of our family life.  There are pictures of me as a baby at my baptism, of me standing in the foyer of the church in Shreveport, and others of my sisters in their choir robes.  In the 1960s women still had to cover their heads in the sanctuary, (relics of the Catholic church from which the Episcopal church sprang, perhaps?) and I can still see my sisters in their tiny lace veils.  In Tokyo, we attended St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.  Many of our family friends were church folks.  In Connecticut we went to a beautiful New England stone church with a Norman belfry. 

In our first stint in Baton Rouge, we started going to Trinity Episcopal Church on Stanford Avenue (and continued going there when we moved back).  The building was over-the-top contemporary, with sleek lines and blonde wood.  Typical late 1960s, early 1970s architecture.  It was here that I was confirmed in 1973.  The bishop made the sign of the cross in holy oil (felt more like Vaseline) on my forehead, and I was an official Episcopalian.  In those days you didn’t take communion until you were confirmed, and as a child I would kneel at the communion rail with my arms crossed over my chest.  The officiant would come around and say a blessing with his hand on my head.  It was an exciting transition into the adult world after my confirmation, and I could participate in the actual communion rite.  Eating the little bread wafer and sipping the wine from the elegant silver chalice was a mystical experience for me.  Today children of all ages are allowed to take communion, a change that I don’t really like; there was something monumental about that rite of passage.  But who am I to judge?  It’s not like they asked me …

Gotta love those Whiskeypalians!

 When I became a teenager, cynicism set in.  Going to church became a boring ordeal.  Kneeling for the endless prayers made me feel faint.  Singing 15 stanzas of hymns was excruciating.  There were screaming matches on Sunday morning as we frantically dressed, trying to beat the clock.  (Nothing worse than traipsing into the pew after the service began). I did not want to go to church; but it was non-negotiable.  Resentment and rebellion was brewing.  I began to notice how all the ladies were dressed to the nines, and it seemed to me that church was just a great big fashion show.  And what’s with all the genuflecting?  Bowing as you crossed in front of the altar?  It seemed silly to me.  My mom had signed me up for the choir, and I guess that was fun, seeing as I could hang out with my friends.  It was kinda fun to sit in the choir up at the front, and to wear those flowing robes.  But none of this was enough to keep me connected to the church in a meaningful way. 

In Manila, we attended Trinity Episcopal Church (Trinity seems to be a common theme in my life, and I ended up going to Trinity University for college.  Surrounded by the Trinity!!)  The rector was an interesting fellow: he was Belgian, having originally come to the Philippines as a Jesuit (Catholic) priest.  He taught at a school in one of the outlying provinces and one of his students was a beautiful young Filipina.  They caught each other’s eye (so the legend went) and that was that.  He left the Catholic church (which forbids priests from marrying) and became an Episcopalian priest (who can marry; it’s not called Catholic “lite” for nothing).  They married and had several beautiful Eurasian children (one of which I dated for a while, but that’s another story!)  His name was Father Dimanche, which means “Sunday” in French.  Ironic, non?  He had a beautiful French accent, which made the boring sermons a little easier to listen to, I can’t deny it.

My dad was instrumental in building a columbarium at the church.  A columbarium is a building like a mausoleum, in which the ashes (rather than the body) of the deceased are interred.  It was a huge project, and I think Dad was involved in the design and the implementation of its construction.  It was a big deal, and there was a huge party after the dedication ceremony.  I have a silly fantasy of returning to the Philippines some day with my dad’s ashes and having them stored in the columbarium that he worked so hard to build.  My mom was a faithful member of the altar guild, starching the linens, polishing the brass and silver.

Episcopalians are sometimes jokingly called “Whiskeypalians” because they subscribe to the notion that Jesus turned water into wine at the Wedding at Canaan, and therefore, we should drink lots and lots of wine (and other potent potables!)  At a church bazaar that we had once, there was a ring toss game.  Throw the ring on the bottle of booze and you get to take it home!  There were many many liquored up parties at my parents’ house that were church functions.  There were lots of soirées at the church: a Mad Hatter party (cute pictures of grown-ups wearing huge silly hats and holding up cocktail glasses).  The youth group sponsored Shrove Tuesday pancake dinners.  For some reason the awkwardness that I felt at school disappeared when I was at church.  I felt empowered, like a leader.  I was voted the president of the youth group.  We had lots of pool parties at each other’s houses, and took trips to the beach.  But that’s all it was for me: one big party.  The actual meaning of the church was secondary (or even tertiary).

So serious.

 For some reason I was chosen to be the first female acolyte in the Philippines.  That’s right.  I was a pioneer in church gender equality.  I felt very important carrying the cross, lighting the candles, and helping Father Dimanche out during communion.  I appeared to be serious and pious.  Unfortunately it was all a sham; I used to sneak out during the sermon and smoke cigarettes behind the sanctuary.  On the days when I supposedly taught Sunday school, my friend Sharon and I would walk down the road to a little sari-sari store and drink soda and smoke.  We would innocently return to the church as the service ended, no one the wiser.  I still sensed a lot of hypocrisy in the church, probably mistakenly, with the ladies in their fancy clothes and hats.  When I left for college, I stopped going to church and never looked back. 

To be continued … 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

20 Interesting Facts About Japan

20 Interesting Facts About Japan

The tsunami happened three months ago, and the mainstream news has stopped reporting on it, but there are still a lot of people who are homeless and suffering.  The most striking news article I read recently was about elderly engineers who are volunteering to go into the high-radiation areas of the nuclear power plant.  Read about it here.  What a country!

Inflatable Shark Among 300 New Species Discovered in Philippines

A treasure trove of hundreds of new species may have been discovered in the Philippines, including a bizarre sea star that feeds exclusively on sunken driftwood and a deep-sea, shrimp-eating shark that swells up to scare off other predators.  Read the full article here ...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Embracing the Bicultural Identity

Great article about growing up in another culture.

Embracing the bicultural identity | The Japan Times Online

Leslie Lorimer at her office in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture (Barbara Beyer Photo)

(Too) Close Encounters of the Buggy Kind

Warning:  A Blog Post that is not for the faint of heart.

If you like National Geographic like me, you’ve probably seen all kinds of bugs and critters from around the world.  There’s the amazing Coconut Crab from the South Pacific … and the giant centipedes from the Dominican Republic.  And who doesn’t love the prospect of driving over migrating red crabs on Christmas Island?  Let’s all give one big collective shudder .. right … NOW!
Ewww .... just ewww!

Birgus latro

Gecarcoidea natalis  120 MILLION of these guys live on Christmas Island!
My dad took SCUBA diving lessons at our house in Manila.  Our house was nominated as the class location because we had a pool.  On the first day of class, I overheard the instructor informing the group that there were 39 species of man-eating sharks in the entire world.  And every one of those species could be found in seas around the Philippines.  I seem to remember half the class getting up and leaving, but I may be mistaken. 

"Who you lookin' at?"
At night groups of Bufo toads would congregate in our back yard.  According to our gardener, these toads would emit some kind of neurotoxin when they were threatened.  Letting our miniature schnauzers out at night became tricky, as they thought the toads were little doggy appetizers.  The first time Sheba got hold of one, we feared for her life and waited for her to collapse into seizures.  For some reason though, the toxin didn’t bother her.  Then again, Sheba had a cast iron stomach and could eat broken glass and rocks without batting an eyelash.  It became a daily occurrence with her, and we knew she had gotten into a tangle with one of these guys when she came inside with her beard covered in slime.  (Gee I hope no one is eating breakfast right about now!)

The dreaded and feared Filipino Giant Shower Cockroach (shown actual size!)

 The tile in my bathroom shower was speckled brown and beige.  You know, that attractive 1970’s faux-marble stuff that matched perfectly with the lime-green shag carpet and the harvest gold appliances?  I remember the first time I had an encounter with a creature in there.  I might add at this point that I am almost legally blind, nearsighted to the point of wearing coke-bottle-bottom glasses.  One time I got into the shower, not really paying attention to anything other than the task at hand, when I noticed out of the corner of my (nearly useless) eye, one of the brown speckles in the tile starting to skitter across the wall.  I leaped out of the shower faster than you could say “Filipino monster-sized cockroach”. 

The commode in my bathroom was strategically placed so that a person who might be using said commode could observe a small hole in the floor between the wall and the baseboard.  On many occasions one could see a pair of antennae peeking out said hole, as if the owner of the antennae was casing the joint.  If the antennaed creature sensed the presence of a human being, he would quickly retract his feelers.  It was quite unnerving, seeing as you were somewhat trapped in this position, and unable to bolt if Mr. Cockroach decided to make a run for it. 

But the “pièce de resistance” critter experience came when I enrolled in English horseback riding lessons at the stable down the street.  (Never knew what a "gymkhana" was until I was forced to participate in one!)  My mom kitted me out in the most fashionable jodhpurs and leather boots.  The leather boots were extremely tight (as they should be) and required a pair of “boot pullers” that attached to flaps inside the boot to get them on.  Once the boots were on, however, it required the help of another person to get them off.   (I think you can see where this is going!)

Boot puller.

One afternoon, I was dressing for my lesson.  With great difficulty I pulled on my boots.  Immediately I felt something squiggling in the foot of one boot.  It took me about a nanosecond to realize what it was, and yet another nanosecond to realize that I couldn’t get this boot off by myself.  I hopped screaming through the house trying to find someone to get me out of my predicament, the poor creature being crushed by my foot squiggling more and more frantically by the moment..  The more I jumped and screamed, the more he squiggled.  We were both trapped by each other’s mortal fear.  Me: a giant cockroach, he: a giant human foot.  My mom finally appeared, thinking I was being attacked by Godzilla himself (I may as well have been!) and after several unfruitful tugs, got the boot off.  The cockroach fell out of the boot and skittered away, probably to tell his gazillion relatives living in my shower about his brush with death. 

"The big foot .. it was THIS BIG!  I thought I was a goner!"

And I don’t care, Mom, that I am 500 times bigger than they are.  I still hate them and will run 1000 miles out of my way to avoid them.  At least the bugs in the states are not Godzilla-sized as they are in the Philippines!

Coffee: The Greatest Addiction Ever

Who knew the Finns were the biggest coffee drinkers in the world?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Extraordinary Religion

My mom read my piece on Kate Webb, and reminded me of another time Kate came to our house:

Re: Kate the UPI correspondent: After we had met her, through Caro and Leon, one day the doorbell rang there in Makati, Forrrr-bess Parrrrk*, and when I opened the door, there was a blood spattered Kate Webb. Her face and blouse were covered in tiny dark red splotches, and I was afraid that she had been injured. But no, she had been covering one of those super-religious events they have in the Philippines, around Easter. She had been very very very close to the person enacting the role of Jesus carrying the cross to Jerusalem, and as he was lashing himself, accompanied by more lashings from the crowds lining the street, the real blood had splashed onto her. All she wanted was to wash her face, and have a relaxing cool drink of something—maybe calamansi juice** (Scotch ?)—I don’t remember.  Just another footnote to the most interesting things that happened to an ex-pat living away from the U.S.A.

Photo: Aaron Favila/AP

I had heard about these rituals … never saw them.  In many areas in the Philippines some of the more devoted followers of the Catholic church would reenact the crucifixion.  They would walk barefoot through the streets of the village, flagellating themselves bloody, and then submit to actually being nailed to a cross.  One hardy soul promised to have himself “crucified” every year, in return for his wife’s safe delivery through a difficult childbirth.  Similar reenactments are performed in New Mexico, although there the penitents are tied, rather than nailed to the cross.

Of course, it’s hard to see pictures of this.  My first reaction was horror, naturally … but in a small way I was impressed with the depth and the strength of their devotion.  Many people do all kinds of things to find God, or to become closer to God.  Maybe this is their way of earning forgiveness for their sins.  Who are we to judge how other people practice their faith?  People fast, they handle snakes, speak in tongues.  They walk miles and miles in pilgrimages and wear special clothing.  Expressing religion is so different from culture to culture. 

When I visualize the world’s religions, I see an enormous quilt, of red, purple and gold satin, different squares of rituals and practices all interlocking and connected to each other.  I see idols and statues, stained glass windows and silver goblets.  I smell incense, smoke, wine and fruit.  I see different races of people woven together in a common purpose: worshiping their god or gods.  I sometimes sense as much or more devotion in the eyes of a Buddhist monk in his bright orange robes or those of a Shinto priest in his starched vestments than in any evangelical Christian or Orthodox Jew.  If everyone claims that he or she is right, who is the ultimate decider?  In the afterlife is there a big “I told you so” moment?  Who knows?  Having seen, heard, smelled and tasted so many other cultures, this Third Culture Kid is not capable of believing that any one religion is right or wrong with any degree of certainty.  If someone’s way to God is through being nailed to a cross, then so be it.  We all wander on a different, winding path.

*Filipino pronunciation of Forbes Park, our subdivision .. no vowel is left behind.
**A very sour lime.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Must-Read Books for TCKs

Need some "light" summer reading suggestions? Yeah, I'm gonna haul "The Odyssey" to the beach along with my towel and my sunscreen. I really enjoyed the movie "Empire of the Sun" (and a glimpse of a very young Christian Bale in his acting debut) and keep intending to do the right thing and read the book. Check out Denizen Magazine's list of books we Third Culture Kids really must read.

10 must-read books for TCKs

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Denizen Magazine

A plug for my favorite online magazine for TCKs.  The graphics really capture what being a TCK looks like!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Adopting the "Perfect" Child

This article popped up on my newsfeed this morning.

Adopting the perfect child | & The Charlotte Observer Newspaper

Our daughter, Melanie, was adopted from Kazakhstan in 2004. She was born with a unilateral cleft lip & palate. We didn't set out to adopt another child, much less one with a "special need" (as they are called in adoption lingo). We had adopted her older sister, Lisa, from Kazakhstan in 2001. We had no philanthropic motives about "saving" a child from a loveless life in an orphanage; we just wanted a little girl. We had briefly considered a "special needs" child (is any child free of "special needs"?) but thought at the time it would be too disruptive to the family. (Shoot, any adoption or new baby is a disruption, no matter what!) However, when our adoption agency posted a picture Melanie on their website three years later, I was sunk. Even though she had a gaping hole in her face, I could see fire and personality in her eyes. I thought about how a little girl should have a sister. I sent the picture to my husband and instead of a "what, are you NUTS? FIVE CHILDREN?" I got a "Let's think about it." I had read about cleft lip & palate, and it seemed to be a reasonably "easy" thing to fix, a no-brainer, no big deal.

Before I knew it, we were on our way. The early posts of this blog recount our trip to Kazakhstan in October of 2004. Melanie's lip had already been repaired in Kazakhstan, but her palate remained wide open. Four months after we got home to North Carolina, she went into surgery. She has had two more surgeries since then, (one involving a piece of her skull grafted onto her upper jaw) and has had braces since she was four. When she first came home, she couldn't talk, obviously, and we taught her sign language with the help of her speech therapist. (I can handily sign the word "bullshit" -- NOT one we taught Melanie!) Before long, she was chattering and talking like a normal kid. In fact, sometimes, I wish she would just STOP talking for five minutes. Just five minutes! I'd pay her for some quiet time. It's almost as if she's making up for the lost years when she couldn't talk. By now we've borrowed talking time from the next decade. Special need, my eye.

Is there such a thing as a perfect child? Our oldest son was diagnosed with Aspergers' Syndrome when he was 10. It has affected him socially and academically, but he is a generous, big hearted boy (man, now) who wouldn't hurt a fly. He has come to terms with his "differences" and has held a great job for almost a year now. When we first thought about adopting Melanie (Colin was 14 at the time) he said, "I say go for it, Mom. It will teach us kids responsibility." But in a way he is less of a special need than his so-called "normal" siblings.

Is being a Third Culture Kid a recipe for acceptance? Do we have an inherent capability to understand those with "special needs"? Are we more sympathetic to those who are labelled by society as "needy"? Maybe it was living in Manila, where the dividing line between poverty and opulence was striking. Outside our compound, surrounded by stone walls topped with broken glass, was a world of abject "neediness". Children were taught to approach cars at traffic lights to beg for money. Shanty towns existed not far from our luxurious homes, built in the mud, of scrap corrugated metal and cardboard. When a monsoon blew through the city, these shanty towns would be inundated by feet of water. Our maid, Pacita, would tell us about the waist-deep water in her home. I couldn't get my mind around her living that way, yet coming to work for these wealthy foreigners in their ridiculously over-the-top houses, with their fountains and their courtyards, being paid the equivalent of $40.oo a month, plus a bag of rice. The absurdity was not lost on me, even as a narcissistic teenager. It used to get under my skin when Imelda Marcos would order a sweep of these towns, knocking them down or building walls around them when a foreign statesman or celebrity would visit. No wonder the Filipino people finally said "enough!" to her shoes and her conspicuous consumption and ran her and old Ferdinand out of town.

Did all this make me more of a compassionate person? Probably. Did this have an impact on my desire to adopt? Perhaps. But all kids have "special needs". I don't claim to be any kind of hero because I adopted these girls. It was a selfish, basic desire to have a little girl (or two!) I'm embarrassed when people tell me how "admirable" it is that we adopted. It's hard to know what to say. I don't feel any more special than any other parent, trying to do the best for their children, but always feeling like I fall a little short on a daily basis. The fact that my girls came to our family through adoption is something that I sometimes forget, even though they are both Asian. They are just my girls. They fight with each other, and with their brothers, just like any other siblings. We are on the cusp of the teenage years, with all the ups and downs that entails. (Oh joy!)

I didn't set out to write a public service announcement on special needs adoption, but that seems to be how it has turned out. I hope anyone who has ever thought of adopting will see that a "special need" is not a big deal. I think one of the great things about being a Third Culture Kid is that having seen and felt and tasted so many different cultures we know that people are the same, no matter their ethnicity or nationality. Adoption may be a natural turn of events for many TCKs, as it was for me. The bottom line is, every child is perfect in their most imperfect way. I would like to think that all of us have a capacity to see beyond any "imperfection", and see them as what they are: they are us.

Friday, June 10, 2011

More Extraordinary People

In Manila, my parents entertained a lot.  Our house would sparkle with candlelight, polished brass and silver.  The maids had special starched “party” uniforms.  White linens covered the table, and hors d’oeuvres were passed on elegant trays.  The “bar” was a small table in the corner, stocked with every liquor known to man (and some unknown!)  Sometimes the parties would get raucous; one time I was stunned to find a bunch of naked adults in the pool.  My dad, to his credit, wasn’t happy … I could hear him outside yelling, “Okay, you’ve gone too far this time!” before hauling everyone out of the water.  A friend of my mother’s once went into the bathroom where my father’s pajamas were hanging on the door.  She came out wearing them, much to the delight of the party guests.  My dad, not to be outdone, went into the bathroom and reappeared wearing this lady’s evening gown.  Once my mother took a mango pie, topped with whipped cream, and teasingly threatened to put it in the face of one of her guests.  The guest (intentionally or not) put her hand under the pie and it ended up in my mother’s face.  Oh, the joviality!  The decadence!  It was crazy stuff to witness.

One time I noticed a lady sitting in a dark corner of the living room, not really participating in the festivities.  She was somewhat rumpled, a little unsteady, a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other.  She was a guest of Aunt Caro & Uncle Leon’s … one of Leon’s UPI colleagues.  She had short dark hair.  It seemed to me that she was there, but she wasn’t there.  I don’t even know why I took notice of her, or why the memory of her stayed with me. 

And I don’t know, either, why years later I realized who she was.  Her name was Kate Webb.  Not a Barbara Walters, or a Diane Sawyer.  But in my mind, she was a far better journalist than they were. 

Born in New Zealand, Kate moved to Australia at a young age.  Tragically, she lost both of her parents in a car accident when she was 18.  She put herself through college, studying philosophy.  She accidentally fell into journalism when she took a job at a newspaper as a typist to pay for a broken window.  In 1967 she ended up in Saigon with no job.  She had an old typewriter, courage and persistence, and before long she started submitting freelance articles to UPI.  She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and had several close encounters with danger, including once being accidently pushed into a minefield by an Army press officer. 

Before long, she proved her mettle and became the Cambodian Bureau Chief for UPI in Phnom Penh when her predecessor was killed in a Viet Cong ambush.  In April of 1970, she and five other Asian journalists were taken hostage by the communist forces and marched for 23 days through the jungle.  They tied the six together and took their shoes away.  When the dead body of a young woman was found, it was reported by the New York Times that Kate was dead.  She wrote a book about her experiences called “On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong.”  The book is terse and factual, almost as if she is telling the story in the third person.  The fear is ever present; at times she seems convinced that her death is a foregone conclusion. 

It is harrowing and difficult to read.  Surviving something like this is inconceivable for a mortal like me. 

And if Kate’s being kidnapped by the Vietcong wasn’t enough, she went on to cover the Gulf War, the unrest in East Timor, a civil war in Afghanistan (where she was kidnapped by an Afghan warlord, beaten and dragged by her hair through a hotel) and was the first journalist to announce the death of North Korea’s Kim Il Song.  Kate finally retired in 2001, and she died in 2006.  Her obituary and a story about her in the New York Times can be found here and here.

Kate wasn’t the only one: women named Tad Bartimus, Denby Fawcett, Jurate Kazickas, Edith Lederer, Ann Bryan Mariano, Anne Morrisesy Merick, Laura Palmer and Tracy Wood also covered the war in Southeast Asia.  Each one of these women was an extraordinary person whom history has overlooked.  A book called “War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam” is a gripping read.  What shaped these women?  I feel a mixture of admiration, envy, and amazement.  I can’t imagine. 

The word “hero” creates a picture in everyone's minds.  But my picture is a little out of the ordinary.  It is a picture of a quiet, dark haired woman who sat quietly in my parents’ living room.  She wasn't participating in the festivities of the party, but quietly observing, much like she did in her professional life.  She lived and worked so that the world would know the truth about war, and would know that our enemies are not really that different from us.  She risked her life, looking death in the eye, but never claimed the limelight.  All so we would know.  In my own little way, I’m trying to do the same for her.  

Rex Navarrete

Very funny Filipino comedian takes on Manny Pacquiao ... he also does a very funny routine about a company called SBC Packers ... (google it!) It's a little off-color for my "family" blog ...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Extraordinary People

I recently wrote about brushes with famous people.  Those who have run into celebrities can relate to that rush of adrenaline when you realize that the man in the gray slacks next to you is CARY GRANT!  Recently I was in the small town of Henley-on-Thames, England, in line at Starbucks.  (Is there a country in the world that doesn’t have a Starbucks?)  I glanced behind me to see a very tall man with dark curly hair, realizing at the same instant that it was David Hasselhoff.  He was there with his crew filming an episode of his reality show.  He is really, really tall. 

Upon reflection, I realized that in my life as a TCK, I also ran into ordinary people, probably unknown to most, who lived extraordinarily extraordinary lives.  Folks who worked behind the scenes, who risked their lives, who were witnesses to history, and who passed into the great beyond with very little fanfare.  Like the heroes in the World War II books that I love to read, and whose lives I could never hope to emulate by even a fraction, I want to remember these "ordinary" people, so that their lives and their work, won’t be forgotten.  I feel very insignificant compared to them, but for a small instant, I brushed up against them, and I feel strangely honored.

Leon Daniel is a man that you probably never heard of.  “Uncle Leon” as I knew him, was married to a consummate Southern Belle from South Carolina, named Carobel Calhoun.  “Aunt Caro” and “Uncle Leon” attended our church, Holy Trinity Episcopal, in Manila.  My mother and Aunt Caro became good friends, probably because of their shared bawdy sense of humor and love of entertaining.  Their house in Bel Air Village was, like ours, a museum of their lives, their having lived in India, Thailand and points beyond.  You see, Uncle Leon was a reporter for United Press International, one of those wire services that competed with Associated Press, in providing news and photos from all over the world.  Whenever I read my parents' Time Magazine, I noticed the little symbols beside the pictures, either “UPI” or “AP”.  Like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, UPI and AP were standards in journalism. 

Aunt Caro and Uncle Leon had a young tow-headed daughter, Lillian.  They had also taken in their 14-year-old nephew, Robert, who, as I heard it, having wandered a little from the right path in his youth, would hopefully benefit from a year abroad with his aunt and uncle, sending him back onto the straight and narrow.  Caro and my mom thought it would be “cute” to host a little party for me and Robert, to get to know our classmates.  Picture a group of misfit freshmen in high school, gangly and not-quite-sprouted teenagers.  We swam and awkwardly socialized.  At one point someone turned out the lights for a round of spin the bottle, but some of the girls shrieked that they "weren’t allowed!” I think my mom and Aunt Caro, who were sitting in the living room, watching us through the window, put the cabash on that activity.  Robert and I fell into “puppy love” and dated until the family moved to Hong Kong in December of our freshman year.

Joined UPI in 1956 and spent nearly four decades reporting on domestic and foreign events including the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war,and the Gulf war in Kuwait. One of the last reporters to stay in Saigon after it fell to the Communists, he explained his motivation saying, "I had to, the A.P. correspondent was there." Daniel retired in 1993 as foreign editor. 

Uncle Leon was a quiet, scrabbly man with a gravelly voice.  His hair was greying, his eyes haunted. His face was a grizzled picture of a life lived hard.  I knew he had been in Vietnam, reporting on the war.  I remember him preferring to stay in the background, quietly smoking cigarettes, as Carobel flitted and socialized in the foreground.  Caro had beautiful red hair, long red fingernails and a southern accent that could slice through butter.  Her dresses were colorful and tropical.  She was the antithesis of Leon: she was gregarious and always laughing.  They were frequent visitors to my parents’ parties.  I never knew the story of how they met, but they struck me as an unlikely pair: the intrepid newsman traipsing all over the world into war zones and the delicate steel magnolia from South Carolina. 

Aunt Caro told us the story of leaving Thailand.  As they were moving out of their house, packing their belongings, she found what she thought was a big, black rubber brick in a closet.  She showed it to Leon, who immediately recognized it as a block of concentrated heroin.  Apparently a former UPI employee who had stayed with them on the way to who-knows-where had stashed it in their house.  Leon knew that the penalty for even possessing such a thing would have been a death sentence, and they panicked, not knowing what to do with it.  They ended up burying it deep in their back yard under cover of darkness.  Scary stuff.

It wasn’t until I was older, and the internet came into being, that I really learned who Uncle Leon was.  He never bragged about his exploits, but as I read about them years later, I was stunned that he had seen so many things, survived so many near death experiences.  The last time we saw Leon was the summer of 1978, when I lived with our friend Judith in England.  Mom arrived at the end of the summer to take me back to the states.  We had heard through the grapevine that Leon and Carobel had been posted to London.  We were on Fleet Street (the home of British journalism) one afternoon, and happened to pass by the UPI offices there.  Mom, on a whim, decided to go in and ask about Leon.  Amazingly, he was in his office, and came out to greet her with a big bear hug.  We spent an evening a few days later visiting with them at their country home. 

Uncle Leon died in 2006, and I could never sum up his life any more skillfully than Lewis Lord did in his obituary, published on March 22 of that year.  I’m sure you will be as amazed at what an extraordinary life this man lived, and as impressed as I am.  I am honored to have known him.  I didn’t know him as well as Carobel, but my life and his intersected, and my life is enriched because of it.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Ship

The MM Dant ... the ship we took to Japan in 1966.  And here is a photo (taken by my mom) of us debarking at Yokohama.  I am the little one with the BOAC bag ... wonder why we were all dressed up?

We were one of two families on the boat.  The other family were missionaries heading to Japan.  They had two small children.  It was very, very hot on board; I don't think there was air conditioning.  We used to sleep with the port holes open to catch the breezes.  The lifeboat drills scared the beejeepers out of me.  I thought we were going down.  They lowered the lifeboats almost to the water, and I was terrified at the thought of having to get in it while the ship sank.  They rang all the alarms and blasted the horn (is it a horn on a ship?) while I stood, in my too-large life jacket, shivering and frantic, with my fingers in my ears.

Every night at dinnertime a man walked around with a little xylophone thing to announce the mealtime.  They served tongue at one point, and me being the brave epicurean that I was, I ate it.  

I remember the smell of fresh paint.  Flying fish would accompany us, leaping and diving before the prow cut through the water.  Seeing a pod of dolphins was a rare treat.  Above all, I remember the deepest blue of the Pacific Ocean, incomparable, and the smell of the sea air and foam.

Another view of the ship