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.  

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