Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Toward the end of December, we said goodbye to Chip. We were leaving him for a semester alone in the Englisches Institut boarding school, where he had been since September. I guess my parents imagined that a boarding school experience would strengthen a boy’s character. I felt that they were frightened of his growing interest in the opposite sex. (There was a mysterious, dramatic event with a girl named Susie in ninth grade, and secret parental meetings to which I was not allowed to listen.) Perhaps they hoped that living with a bunch of non-American guys would rein him in for a bit longer. Still, I thought it was a hard thing for him to have to do, to stay in Germany while we left. And he didn’t get the benefit that I did of that trip “the rest of the way around”. It turned out I was right, and Chip did suffer some envy about missing that return trip.

We left Heidelberg and flew to Athens. What a contrast! It was warmer there, and I felt out of place in my German school girl dresses, practical, heavy leather shoes and thick winter leggings. We met a man there Momma and Daddy had known in post-War Germany, Rene Chenoux-Repond, and his wife. We toured the Acropolis with him, and saw the real Parthenon. (I’d already visited the replica in Nashville.) We went shopping and I bought a shawl and a couple of charms for my charm bracelet. When, as a ten year old in California, would I ever have occasion to wear a shawl? Never, but I thought it was feminine and romantic. Then we flew to Cairo.

This was my first real experience with poverty. I was stunned at the elegance of the short downtown blocks with their tourist hotels, and the extreme poverty that surrounded those blocks. It was obvious, looking out the windows of taxis and the hotel, that most of Cairo was hideously poor. We took a tour of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Each of the three of us got on our own camel (Yes, there’s a picture of that!) and each camel had its own driver. They separated me from Momma and Daddy and kept hollering “Baksheesh! Baksheesh! Give me dollar!” I kept explaining, “I have no money! I’m just a kid!” “Dollar, dollar!” the driver would yell, and I would say, “Sorry! No money!” I was truly afraid that he wouldn’t let me off the camel because I couldn’t pay him, but we finally got to the pyramid and I flew back to my folks.

Now we started climbing up inside the pyramid. This was exciting. What kind of treasures and mysteries awaited us? It was steep and narrow, we had to bend over, even me as a ten year old, and our footing was supposedly aided by little strips of wood attached to the floor. Finally, we reached the top, and…it was a square, stuffy, empty room! A pretty huge disappointment after that climb. “Where’s the treasure?” I demanded, and it was explained to me that the treasure had all been taken to the British Museum in London! Shocking.

Another day in Cairo, we were escorted upstairs into a shop in the Suq (the marketplace, all narrow crowded streets, much like the Old City in Jerusalem). There we were presented lots of perfumes, essential oils in fancy glass bottles. I didn’t like any of them enough to want them, for which mercy I’m sure my dad was grateful. That day in the Suq was the first day I saw yet another seamy side of poverty.

There was a little boy who was literally walking on his hands, and begging. He passed right by me, and as he did, I was able to see that he had full-length legs and feet. He had appeared to be an amputee from the front, with the bottom of his robe a flat and hardened square that dragged the street as he slid along on his knuckles. It occurred to me that someone was making him beg, appearing to be disabled, and he really wasn’t. I don’t think I would have come up with such an idea on my own; maybe it didn’t come from me.

From Cairo, we flew to Haifa, Israel. It was a beautiful harbor, and we stayed in a hotel or pension on the hillside above it. I remember walking with Momma and Daddy and seeing a gorgeous sunset over the Mediterranean. The air there felt so good, much like California air, and it felt clean and civilized after the bustle and dirt of Cairo.

An unpleasant incident happened in Haifa. Daddy and Momma and I were all staying in the same hotel room, and there was one bathroom connected to it. I had forgotten to take my clean clothes into the bathroom with me, and when I had taken a shower, I called out to Momma and asked her to please bring me my clothes. She laughed and said, “You come on out and get them yourself.”

“No, please,” I asked, “I’m embarrassed in front of Daddy.”

“That’s silly,” she said, and after more protests from me, she made me cross the room with him there, and only a towel to cover me. I was so ashamed. It seemed strange, looking back on it years later, but it was one more incident where my extreme modesty revealed itself. Once she had made me take off my swim suit standing outside in the doorway at a motel, with nothing to put on and no shielding, because she didn’t want the floor of the motel room to get wet. That had humiliated me as well, and having to change into a swimsuit at the local YMCA locker room, when she took me for swimming lessons, had been very uncomfortable. I had the same feeling this time…no mercy for my feelings, just her mocking my scruples.

We traveled over to the east from Haifa and stayed on the shore of the Galilee in Tiberias. We visited a real kibbutz, and they explained to us their communal lifestyle. We ate in their dining room, and I was introduced to tangelos. I remember thinking how strange it must be to be taken away from your parents and live with all the other kids in a dormitory, even though your parents are living right nearby.

I was moved to know I was in the place where Jesus lived and walked, on the lake where he taught. I was reading some religious-themed novel at the time, to get myself into the proper mindset. Was it Chastain’s The Silver Chalice? Or maybe The Robe? I just know that I felt, “I can’t get close enough. I can’t feel the spiritual feeling I’m trying to feel here.” I tried to stay in a reverent place inside myself, but I was frustrated. From the Galilee, we traveled down south to Jerusalem.

Momma and Daddy knew, or knew of, a family living in Jerusalem, and the family showed up at our hotel and sat with us in the lobby for an hour or two while the adults conversed. I think we weren’t close to them, and I think we didn’t have a very nice time getting together with them. There was relief when it ended.

It was pre-1967, so there was still the Mandelbaum Gate and a no man’s land dividing the city. We crossed over on foot, and went into East Jerusalem. I remember the Damascus Gate and the Shuk, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre inside the Old City. We went to Bethlehem, and to the Church of the Nativity. It seemed crazy to me that people would bow and kiss a piece of marble where Jesus was traditionally supposed to have been born. I hated all those churches! They were so dead, so ornate and full of gilded things and candles and incense, and I knew that they were not the real deal. When we arrived at Gordon’s Garden Tomb, outside the Damascus Gate, I believed that was the true site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It felt so right.

We flew from Tel Aviv to New Delhi on Christmas Eve, and for the first (and last) time I got air sick. I was miserable, and those were still the days of excellent airline cuisine. They wouldn’t let me eat the Christmas Eve dinner (which was Western style with cranberry sauce, no less) because they were afraid I would throw up again. When we arrived at the hotel in New Delhi it was nighttime, and we all went to bed. I had never been in a room so dark. No light shone anywhere, even from under the door to the hallway. We hung our socks on the doorknobs for Santa, and I tried to sleep.

Daddy got whatever bug I had caught, and he felt sick and stayed in bed all the next day. Momma and I decided to go to the hotel restaurant for Christmas Day lunch, and unfortunately we ordered curry. It was so hot that neither one of us could eat another bite after the first few, and we were not the kind of family that would waste food or spend money ordering a second meal, so we had no Christmas lunch that day. The next day, we had our own tour guide and a car, and we were taken to many historic sites and government buildings. My main impression was that many buildings in New Delhi were red. The guide was a very controlling, imperious sort of fellow and I recall our not liking one another. When I realized that we were half a day away from the Taj Mahal, which I had read about, I begged and begged Daddy to let us go there. I thought if I could get to the Taj Mahal I would feel this illusive feeling I was longing for. To be in New Delhi and not be allowed to go there – so near and yet so far! It was not on the schedule and we couldn’t afford the extra time or money to do it.

In New Delhi the American Embassy was holding an open house holiday reception for all the expatriates. The Embassy was beautiful, the face of the building a white latticework of marble or some other white stone, and the interiors large and grand and clean. We met the Ambassador and his wife, ate hors d’oeuvres, and Momma and Daddy chatted with various folks. Being a guest at the Embassy made it seem pretty special to be an American.

We flew from New Delhi to Bangkok and were met at the airport by a family we knew from Pepperdine, Mert and Bob Davidson, and their three kids. They had lived as house parents in Baxter Hall, the boy’s dorm at Pepperdine, and I had played with the kids before they moved here. Now they were missionaries in Bangkok, and getting ready to move up north to Chieng Mai. They were sweet people, and I felt at home with them. We also heard about Ken and Ruth Rideout, their fellow missionaries, but they were out of town at the moment. (I met Ken in Nashville thirty years later.)

That night there was some sort of fair or carnival that the family had planned to attend, so we all went with them. I thought it was hilarious that the Thai young people were attempting to imitate American rock ‘n roll bands! Different groups were performing on stage as we all mingled around in a big outdoor gathering place. There were different foods for sale and I ate some chicken on a stick called satay.

The next night the grownups went somewhere and left me with the Davidson children and a Thai adult babysitter. I mistakenly thought, when she lit an incense coil in our bedroom as she put us to bed, that she was burning incense to an idol or a demon, and it scared me. It was hard to go sleep on a mat on the floor in such a strange place, with that mysterious incense burning. The next day I found out that the harmless coil burned all night to fend off mosquitoes and other insects. We didn’t do any sightseeing there because of our friends, and that was a shame, because I had been trying to imagine Thailand ever since I was five and performed in the King and I.

From Bangkok we flew to Tokyo. Even in 1963 it was a huge and bustling city, with New York-style skyscrapers and jillions of cars in the streets. There were tons of neon lights and billboards and signs. Extremely commercial, after the poverty and countryside we had seen in the last few places. We stayed in a tall hotel (I loved the gray stone bathroom, it was so tiny but modern and convenient), but we were met the next day by Brother and Sister Bixler, old friends of my parents, who took us to their apartment in another huge, cold building. They had a beautiful picture hanging on the wall over their couch, and I commented on it.
Sister Bixler said, “Oh, now I must give it to you.”
“What? No, you can’t do that,” I protested.
“You must understand that when you praise something in a Japanese home, the host is duty-bound to give it to you.”
“Oh, no, I’m so sorry!” I said, and she didn’t force it on me after all. I had learned my lesson.

The next day, we went with the Bixlers to a school they had helped to found or run, and met a lot of little Japanese kids and teachers. Then on to Ibiraki Christian College, north of Tokyo, where Terry and Susan Giboney were serving as missionaries. Remember Terry Giboney, my very first college boy crush at Pepperdine? I must have been six or seven. He was blond and tall and he noticed me. Now I was all of ten, he had married Susan, and they lived in Ibiraki and worked at this tiny Christian school. There was some kind of program that night and the adults all went, and I stayed in the Giboneys’ apartment and read. They had the first electric foot warmer I had ever seen, and even though I kept my feet tucked inside it, I couldn’t get warm. Japan was cold, and their house was cold, and it was between Christmas and New Year’s.

Next day Terry took us to a Japanese restaurant and I discovered that I really didn’t like Japanese food. I liked American/Chinese food and Polynesian food (I had a favorite Polynesian restaurant in L.A. called Tai Ping), but Japanese food held no interest for me. The exception was shrimp tempura. I’ve never had such good shrimp tempura anywhere else – it was terrific, light and crunchy and not greasy at all.

My idea of glamour had been evolving over the years, and one of the many experiences I felt would be glamorous would be to stay at a Hilton Hotel. That was the top of line, in my mind, and I kept asking Daddy if we couldn’t please stay at a Hilton somewhere along this trip. On our plane ride from Tokyo to Honolulu, I wondered about this. It would be our last stop, our last chance to stay at a Hilton. Had he heard my heart? (I wasn’t remembering that all the arrangements had been made months before with the travel agent, and he wouldn’t be able to easily change our plans while on the trip.)

We were getting loaded into a taxi at the airport and my ears perked up when my dad told the cab driver where to go. “The Ili-Kai Hotel, please,” he said to the man, and my heart sank. Last chance was dashed. I would never get to stay at a Hilton. Somehow I knew this was the only Really Big Trip we would ever make as a family, and the only time my dad was going out on a financial limb like this. We pulled up in front of the hotel, under a very tall, white pavilion, and the cabbie announced, “Ili-Kai”. But it said Hilton!! I couldn’t have been much more excited. Wow!! Daddy had heard my heart after all, and he had kept it a secret for so long, just so I could have the thrill of this moment’s surprise. He put up with my disappointment and harassment just so he could do this for me. I really took it in.

We went shopping, and Mom and I both bought Hawaiian muumuus. I was amazed that they used American money, and someone reminded me that Hawaii was now a state of the United States. I bought a charm for the “rest of the way around the world” charm bracelet I was building, this time a pineapple. And we ate supper at a tourist event, a luau feast, where I learned about one, two and three finger poi. Then we went back to our hotel.

It was the first time in four months that I had watched American TV. I was lying in the fold-away bed that they had rolled out of the closet, and enjoying the crisp white American sheets, and relishing hearing English, watching the Tonight Show with Jack Paar on the TV. He was sitting on his stool, cracking jokes like he always did, when the phone rang. It was the airlines telling us that our flight had been changed and we had to pack up and hurry on to the airport to catch the next flight out. So our Hilton experience was cut short.

Adolescence Encroaches

It was so good to be back in California, but it was obvious when I started back to school that I had changed. I felt much older than just four months. I had seen a lot of the world that no one else my age had seen. The globe that sat on the teacher’s desk meant something real to me. I had been to a lot of those countries! I could smell and taste and hear things in my memory, and those names were tangible to me.

I entered sixth grade at Lockhaven, and we had our first male teacher, named Mr. Bruce Murray. What a wonderful guy! We all had a crush on him, because he was young and he was funny and he liked us and treated us like individuals. He was actually going to school himself at Pepperdine and lived in Normandy Village with his wife. Sara Young babysat for them later on.

If you remember the Rodney King trouble in the early ‘Nineties in L.A., it happened very near that side of the Pepperdine campus, on Normandy Blvd. Normandy Village was the married student housing down at the west end of the campus. It was a series of two-story apartment buildings that had been thrown up as temporary Army housing during World War II and had never been torn down. Funny to think how many layers of paint some of those apartments must have had. The young married couples who were enrolled at Pepperdine lived there, and much later on, when we were in college, single friends of mine lived there when the dorms got too full.

Sara’s boyfriend Sam was one of those, and there was a whole gang of people I knew who lived there then. Butch and Cheryl Armstrong (Sam’s older sister) had an upstairs apartment, and they were famous for singing “Happy Trails to You” standing in the doorway as you headed down the stairs from visiting them. Judy Clark, Cuartor Wynn, John Nall, Gail Cosner all lived there.

Another couple named Chuck and LaNell Stovall lived in Normandy Village, and they were the first and only people who ever talked me into going camping. I went with them and a bunch of other single folks up the coast to Gorda, in Northern California. (I’ll tell about that later.) Once I was visiting Mike Johnston, a Pepperdine graduate in New Haven, Connecticut. He said, “You know that couple in L.A….” “You mean Chuck and LaNell,” I responded. Neither of us could believe that, out of all the couples in L.A., I had guessed right on my first try.

Anyhow, back in sixth grade, Mr. Murray decided that we should be reading and thinking about more than what the school told him to teach. So he asked some of us to be in what he called the “Special Reading Group”. He gave us assignments to read chapters from books in a series called Great Books of the Western World. We read selections from Plato, Euclid’s geometry, Montaigne’s essays, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and lots more. Once a month our group met at each other’s houses and discussed what we had read. We loved being in that group! It was the first time any adult had ever asked for our opinion and then waited quietly while we tried to state it.

Marilyn and I went to the Pepperdine library to read from the books. They were kept in a huge room called the Reading Room that had lots of long tables and lots of heavy chairs that slid under them. It would echo a lot if you talked or scraped your chair leg on the floor. I loved how cool and quiet it always was in there. The windows were big and tall, but too high up to see out of. Marilyn and I felt very serious and sober about our Special Reading Group assignments. Mr. Murray really knew what he was doing when he gave us that challenge.

Sadly, my tendency to become easily scared gave me a lot of trouble one night. It was a Special Reading Group evening. We were sitting around the circle in someone’s living room, and Mr. Murray was describing the death of Socrates. He told how Socrates had driven Athenian leaders crazy with his “gadfly” questioning of their activities, and all his questions had finally made them want to shut him up. He had been given hemlock, a poison, to drink, and he chose to do it, knowing that in a few minutes he would be dead.

This story gripped my imagination. When I went to bed later that evening, I began to see faces coming at me in the dark, dead faces, and the screaming, angry heads of the Athenians who hated Socrates, and I began to imagine I was going to knowingly drink something that would mean my death, and how horrible and desolate that must feel, and I could not go to sleep.

I didn’t realize at the time just how deeply I had identified with Socrates. I too was someone who felt that my presence was a nagging irritant, and my own semi-conscious fears that my parents would prefer to get rid of me, combined with demonic suggestions along those lines, may have been what was harassing me in the dark. Just that once, I got up in the middle of the night and asked my parents for help. They didn’t know what to do for me, and sent me back to bed, where I lay awake the rest of the night. I stayed home from school the next day, for lack of sleep, and my dad called Mr. Murray and told him he had no business stirring up the children in such a way.

Mr. Murray took us on our best field trip ever. He wanted us to study the tide pools at the beach, and he hired a bus to take us there. KFWB-Channel 98 radio was playing “Going to the chapel and I’m gonna get married…” and “Blue Velvet” and we all sang along. It was so exciting to walk around on the rocks and peer into the tide pools, trying to identify the little creatures that I never before knew could be found there.

Mr. Murray noticed each one of us as an individual, and that was an amazing thing. On my report card he wrote, “You have a bubbling personality.” Marilyn made fun of it, but I was proud because I felt like he thought that was a good thing, if perhaps irritating at times.

I believe it happened during sixth grade, but it could have been earlier or later. I see myself riding in the back seat of someone’s car on the way home from school. I was always reading, but this particular book was changing something inside of me. I was awakened to the reality of racial prejudice. Ever after this experience, it was what I think of when I hear the phrase. I was reading a paperback novel about the first black girl to go to an all white school. The book was written in such a style that the reader identified with that girl, and went with her through all the emotions of fear, hurt, confusion, anger, dismay. Just because of her skin color, she was hated and her life was endangered. I became a Freedom Rider in my heart. I wanted to DO something about racial prejudice and I certainly felt the burden of sorrow that the victims of prejudice were suffering.

Sometime in the ‘Sixties I was in Nashville visiting my dad’s mother. Nannie walked into the den where I was watching TV, I think with my cousins Ronnie and Bonnie Kay. The Mod Squad was a popular TV show at the time that featured three people in the twenties, a white girl and guy and a black guy (with a “natural” – what we called long hair picked out into a big halo-like mass of frizz). Nannie glanced at the TV and commented, “What is that white girl doing acting friendly like that with a black boy?” And I responded, “What do you mean, Nannie?” She said, “She shouldn’t be spending time with a black boy like that. You wouldn’t do that, would you?” I truly did not intend to hurt or shock her, I was just telling the truth, but I was offended at the rejection I felt she was putting on the black guy. “Nannie, I would marry a black man if I loved him!” I declared.

Another time, my mother’s mother was concerned about new neighbors who were moving in next door to her. She had lived in the same house in Nashville since my mother was a child, and the neighborhood was changing around her. “What am I going to do about these new neighbors?” Grandmommie asked my parents. I responded, “Take them a cake!” This was not the expected response for the dilemma she felt she was facing.

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