HEAR NO EVIL
The early years were an unrecorded record for me – a remote and removed history of a distant past. If you have no memory worth mentioning, then it didn’t happen. Through Divine Intervention, I came through the early years relatively intact and unscathed; prematurely punctured eardrums my only permanent memento.
Except for the customary childhood chicken pox, mumps and measles, I became healthy as a horse – good to go and game for anything. I was five and ready to get on with it.
Five was a good year. For my birthday, I was taken for my first ride in a commercial airplane – a twin-propeller DC-3. Jets hadn’t been invented yet, a least not for civilian use. Father was unavailable so Madame-Mere flew with me to have lunch with my aunt and uncle and then fly back. I don’t remember much about the lunch but the flights were fantastic.
Since there weren’t too many children flying in those days, the stewards and the pilot made a great fuss over me. I got to go into the cockpit, sit at the controls and drink all the pop I wanted. Snacks were served on real china with crystal glasses, silverware and monogrammed cloth napkins. They did not offer me the complimentary in-flight 4-pack of cigarettes. Instead, they gave me two sets of pilot wings – one for each flight. I became a seasoned traveler. Tree forts were o.k., but this flying stuff was really nifty.
Five flew by in a flurry of flying, foreign visitors and nursery school. The only down side was nursery school. There was one boy who wouldn’t let me climb up into the coconut house. Every time I tried to climb the ladder to go through the door, he kicked at my head. Fortunately, his aim was no better than his disposition.
There was nothing else to do. I shinnied up one the stilts, climbed through the window and pushed him out the door. In the fall, he broke his arm. I was sent home from nursery school. Rusticated at five; it had to be some sort of record. A couple of weeks later, I was allowed to return. The boy never bothered me again.
Soon after I was returned to school the Ambassador of the Shah came with his wife for a visit. The Persians were proper, royally reserved, quiet but kindly. They should have been regal; he was the Shah’s first cousin and she came from a neighboring dynasty.
The Ambassador sported an emerald cut, emerald ring the size of a small shoebox which put even his wife’s baubles to shame. That ring really got my attention. He definitely had the bling thing going on. I made the obvious observation of admiration. I mean, what was not to notice?
In response, the Ambassador removed the ring from his finger and handed it to me. I took it to a nearby window to watch it in the sunlight. It sparkled spectacularly. With regret, I returned it. The Ambassador handed it back to me – telling me that it was mine to keep. In his country anything openly admired was automatically given. I thought that I had died and gone to heaven and immediately ran out to show off my hew treasure.
Madame-Mere, who had been chatting with the Ambassador’s wife across the living room by the fireplace, watched in horror as I headed for the hall. Social gaffes of this magnitude were major issues, even for five year olds.
Big bucks were on the table. The ring probably would have paid for all of my education plus the 15 years of forthcoming orthodontics. Heck, there probably would have been enough left over to buy a small country. Then I REALLY would be international.
Madame-Mere quickly cornered me in the kitchen and retrieved the ring. It took her the remainder of their stay to successfully affect the return of the ring without regal affront. Oh well, easy come, easy go. I did really like the Ambassador though. I would have gone uptown to the soda shop for him for anything. For some reason they never came back either.
Not surprisingly considering the environment, by 6 years of age I could name every country in the world and most of their colonies complete with capital cities. It wasn’t that I was a total geek. I still played cowboys and Indians with my friends, especially after Roy Rogers and Dale Evans came to visit; but my international interest was a terminal case. My favourite book was the World Atlas and somehow, I always found time to study my globe and read about foreign countries.
That was the year that the kind sister of the cola queen came with her husband, a Swedish Count for a long visit. They had visited before but I was too young to remember. The Count was a sometime business associate of Father’s and they both had been long time friends. At one time the Count had been responsible for the electrification of Belgium. Talk about hanging lights.
It was because of their close relationship that the cola queen had descended upon us. I later learned that Princess K. had warned Madame-Mere against the visit but Madame-Mere had not believed that anyone could be such a pain.
I could tell that Princess K and the cola queen were sisters, though they didn’t look much alike. They both had that royal aura and air about them. Princess K was everything her sister was not; that is, human.
While she had previously seen me, I had no memory of her. She had been surprized to learn of my international addiction and was even more surprized when I dragged out my atlas, plopped down beside her and pointed out her principality. Assuming that I had had parental participation in picking out her former homeland, she wordlessly queried Father. He shook his head in the negative. Since she and the Count had not been able to have children of their own, Princess K had had very limited experience with little people, most of it with the cola queen’s offspring. Therefore, she was pleasantly surprized that we had all turned out moderately well-mannered and behaved. Obviously following the cola queen’s kids had not been the hardest act to follow.
To confirm my international proclivities, Princess K questioned me closely about foreign countries and their capital cities for quite some time. Since she had been in most of them it was not a difficult task for her. She was astonished by my answers and counter questions. Even Madame-Mere was proud of my conduct.
From that time on, Princess K and I became best buds. She had been so many places and met some many people that I would sit enthralled and listen to her descriptions and stories for hours. Her accent was pretty nifty too.
The following year I turned 7 and Madame-Mere enrolled me in the Around the World Club. Designed for children, the Club produced monthly a forty-odd page booklet with paste-in pictures covering a specific country. It was nice and I enjoyed them but I didn’t want to have to wait sixteen years to get the complete set. Well it was better than nothing.
Having conquered the countries and their capitals, I set out on a quest to learn and memorize every foreign flag I could lay my hands on. It didn’t take long; there weren’t that many readily available. I badgered Father to bring me back flags from his travels. He did his best but I was still short by about sixty or so. Having little success on the home front, I took matters into my own hands and wrote to Santa. He would know where to get the flags. I gave my letter to Madame-Mere to mail.
Unbeknownst to me, Madame-Mere gave my letter to Father who sent it to New York City instead of the North Pole. Princess K came to the rescue. She tracked down the appropriate fellow at the United Nations and marched into his office. She explained her quest, pointed to a three-part standing rack painted sky blue with the white UN emblem holding flags of every member nation sitting on his credenza and told him that she wanted one. He told her that they were not for sale but were exclusively for certain members of the UN. She never did tell me what transpired, only that she ended up with his exclusive set off his personal credenza.
That Christmas, Santa left a complete set of UN member national flags with an official United Nations holding rack under the tree. I was totally stunned and ecstatic. It was the best Christmas ever. By New Years’ I could point out any one of the ninety-two flags and identify the correct country. My international addiction was growing by leaps and bounds.
The next year I turned eight. Having nailed the countries and capitals and learned their national flags, the next thing on my agenda was to memorize every county’s boundaries and bordering countries. That took a while. After school, after homework and chores, I would pull out the atlas in the library and start tracing each individual country’s national boundaries, draw in the rivers, lakes, oceans and/or mountains, ‘X’ and label the capital city and list the neighboring countries. By repetition I finally became able to draw, freehand, a reasonably recognizable map of most every country in the world. To further this endeavour, I began to collect maps.
Since Santa had performed so well before I asked him for wall size maps of every continent except Antarctica. To make matters worse I wanted them with washable finishes with hard backing so I could take them down off the walls and work with them on my floor. At least the maps were pretty available.
When Christmas rolled around that year I did get my maps, which was great except for the fact that I had to wait weeks until they could be formally framed and finished with a kid-proof washable glaze. It was hell waiting for the finished product. At least Princess K’s help had not been needed. My parents had been able to handle that request themselves. No telling whose maps Princess K would have purloined. Random or planned, I was born and bred an internationalist. It was never to change.
The next year was the red banner year of all red banner years. I turned nine and started traveling internationally for the first time. The first foreign trip was to Europe. We sailed from New York on the S.S. United States, the newly commissioned flagship of the American Lines. There were only two caches of kids in first class, Dr. Jonas Salk’s and us. The majority of the stewards were Italian. They were super nice and super attentive. We were spoiled rotten and enjoyed every minute of it.
Five days later, we sailed into Le Harve, France. Everyone came up on deck to watch the docking process. It was a bit spooky for me. On both sides of the channel, ships of all shapes and sizes lay scuttled and abandoned, only their superstructures visible above the waterline. Not one of them flew a flag. It looked like a nautical graveyard. I had heard talk about World War II – something major that had happened in the past. But to see tangible proof of its devastation was a real eye-opener. After all, the war had ended over a decade earlier.
After watching some of the passengers troop off the ship and disappear into the customs sheds, we again set sail, crossed the Channel and finally docked at Southampton, England. After much ado and more commotion, we finally disembarked and cleared customs. In a cavalcade of cars, we made London our first night and lodged at the Savoy Hotel.
The following day, we headed for our English digs, a genuine 15th century manor, complete with a priest’s hole, sword stairways and secret passageways. The ‘court’ also sported a cricket pitch, putting green and full working farm. For an internationally indoctrinated nine year old with an overactive imagination, this was heaven on earth.
The inside staff was Italian, the outside English. Everyone had an accent except for Nanny and the American ‘governor,’ a male governess, who came along to keep track of us. Everything was old and English. Neither the wood burning stove nor the 8 to 1 bedroom to bathroom ratio bothered me a bit. Baths were highly overrated anyway.
I was assigned to the ‘Egyptian room’ on the opposite side of the house from my siblings. It was the last room before the servant’s quarters which made for easy getaways. Comfortable and cozy with a big brass bed, it was covered in Egyptian tapestries. One-eyed pharaohs and their retainers marched and hunted across the walls. It was like living in Tut’s tomb in ancient Egypt.
The floors had probably been installed at the same time as the pharaohs; they sloped - severely. I either walked uphill or downhill. Once I got used to it, it turned out to be quite handy. Anything dropped, lost, misplaced or ‘missing in action’ always turned up in the corner of lowest elevation. I only had to go to that convenient corner to collect the missing item. It was better than having my own maid; the room never scolded nor cared how many times I lost something.
By the late 1950s, the Cold War had heated up. Even I knew about this war. For the past few years in school, we had practiced protection from a Soviet nuclear attack by dutifully diving under our open-sided school desks. Like that was going to save us from fallout.
Canned goods and other carefully considered essentials had been strategically stockpiled in our Byzantine basement. On television and in the papers and magazines we had watched, read and cheered as East Berliners successfully made it over the Wall to freedom.
The Red Russkies were the bane of our existence; the nasty ninjas of our nightmares. It was a no-holds-barred race to the moon and for world domination. The Soviets were the bad guys. They wore the black hats. Everyone knew that, especially internationally indoctrinated nine year olds.
Mid-summer, the picturesque little village of Henley-on-Thames hosted the Royal Regatta. The grounds were green with a gently sloping lawn down to the bank of the river. The Buckingham Royals officially opened the Regatta with all the proper pomp that this circumspect circumstance merited. Crews, colorfully clad in what appeared to be 19th century swimming costumes came from Europe, Russia, America, and around the world to compete for top honours.
Since our governor’s Ivy League college was fielding a team we were especially keen on the competition. That we knew nothing whatsoever about the sport was a non-sequitur. His crews were taking on the Communists. This was a case of the good guys against the bad guys.
We were ticketed for the Royal Enclosure, a massive yellow portable pavilion with partitions running directly down to the Thames. Once inside the Enclosure, we found ourselves to be the only card-carrying “colonials’ in attendance. The hosts handed us our badges, pointed out the amenities and seating and made the suitable introductions. Everything was prim and proper with starched white tablecloths, shining silver and cut crystal. Everyone was appropriately attired and respectfully reserved. Conversation, conducted in subdued tones, accompanied the clink of champagne glasses. It wasn’t Ascot but it wasn’t far off. This was definitely not a typical sporting event, American or otherwise.
The Soviets struck out hard and fast, cruising ahead for most of the course. Then our team began to gain from behind. When they slowly overtook and then finally passed the Soviet team we completely lost it, cheering and screaming with total abandon.
Unfortunately, no one else did. There was no other cheering or screaming. Actually, no one raised their voices at all, though a couple of quiet ‘good shows’ echoed in the enclosure.
Madame-Mere was mortified; Father silent. Fortunately for us, the other attendees were in an indulgent mood. The British teams had also enjoyed a successful day. This had been our first English sporting outing. Unfortunately for us, no one had given us the rules of the road or explained that, “it just wasn’t done” – least of all within the confines of the Royal Enclosure. We did receive a few looks, but nothing was said. After all, we were “colonials” from beyond the Pale.
Oh well, our team had won anyway. Besides, the Russians had breached protocol as well when they ‘broke stroke.’ That ‘just wasn’t done’ either. According to the British, both inside and outside the enclosure, it was ‘bad form.’ Apparently, the Soviet faux pas surpassed ours; ‘one did not break stroke until after crossing the finish line.’
Escaping the Enclosure, we went off to visit our winning team. Our governor led the way. Father followed sedately, pausing to chat along the way.
A number of white canvas tents had been erected close to the water. Each team had their own tent which housed their boats on racks. Most of the tents were clumped together with much coming and going among them. One tent however was removed from the rest, the flaps shut. People in dark suits stood around its perimeter.
Since our governor knew some of the crew members we received a warm, Ivy League welcome; raised voices and all. After a month overseas, it was great to hear a bunch of American voices excitedly exchanging greetings and congratulations. The crew was kind, taking the time to show us around while they tried to explain the differences between skulls and diamonds and other stuff I didn’t understand. It was a good day.
The day got even better. Sometime later, Father ambled into the tent and watched while we finished up with the winners. As we said our goodbyes and walked out of the tent, Father announced that he had a surprise for us; he had made arrangements for us to meet the Soviet team. As we headed towards the solitary Soviet tent my brain began banking off the walls.
I didn’t know what to expect. These people wanted to destroy me, my family and my country. They were obviously the bad guys. We were the good guys. We wore the white hats. We were the ones saving the world that they were trying to destroy. What would they be like? How would they look? Could I tell them apart from normal people?
As we approached the Soviet tent, the people on the perimeter approached us. Father said something in a language I didn’t understand. They receded and we proceeded.
Father entered the tent first. I initially hung back, but then decided that this was not the time to be separated from Father. Not knowing what to expect, I shot into the tent and made a beeline for my Father. Safely behind him, I peered around his legs to get a gander at these guys.
It was a major let down. These guys were decidedly human in appearance. They didn’t look like ogres or monsters. No horns, no tails, nothing weird. Just older people who looked normal. A couple of them actually smiled at me.
An interpreter came forward to Father and the conversation commenced. Unintelligible comments and questions in equally unintelligible languages flew about the tent as more people joined our group. It was rather confusing, really. It seemed like we were the center of attention instead of the other way around. They appeared just as curious about us as I was about them.
One of their crew members spoke a little English, not as well as the interpreter but I could understand him. Being by far the shortest in attendance, I was busy looking up, trying to figure out and follow what was going on. This man bent down, smiled and offered me his hand. I took it and shook it. He asked me if he could show me around. I quickly agreed. He offered his hand again and off we went. He smiled a lot as he talked to me. My visions of ogres and monsters vanished. Not too many twenty-something year olds bothered with nine year olds, regardless of their nationalities.
To make matters more confusing, he told me that he had a little brother my age. I could tell that he really liked his brother. He knew all about nine year olds and asked all the right questions.
For the life of me, I could not conjure up a nine year old ogre, especially this guy’s little brother. This Soviet-American thing was a lot more complicated than I thought. I’d have to sort that out later; this guy had the niftiest accent I had ever heard. We talked about everything and nothing. He was really nice. As much as I had enjoyed the excitement and electricity in the American tent with my fellow countrymen, I ended up preferring my alone time with the Russian man, my country’s supposed enemy. He sure didn’t seem like one. Boy, this was confusing.
A few weeks later, we were packed up and prepared to hit the road. This time we were heading north, back to the original stomping grounds of Father’s family in Scotland. The pilgrimage began in London, so we were piled into the cars and driven to Victoria Station. There we entrained for the overnight trip to Edinburgh. We all had roomettes and mostly Scottish stewards, who were super. Now there was a dynamite accent.
Based in the Scottish capital, we spent a week or so traipsing around the countryside. The day we went to Dunbar was glorious, surprizingly sunny with a cool breeze off the North Sea. We admired the almost thousand year old church and wandered the remains of Dunbar castle which Cromwell had righteously remodeled in 1650. After satisfying his genealogical itch, Father spent the rest of his time duffing his way through the holy lands of St. Andrews and Gleneagles. I tried my hand at Highland dancing and was allowed to order my first sets of kilts. It really was like returning home.
After jaunts to Wales and France we finally packed up permanently and headed back to America. This time we flew. To make certain that the family was not totally wiped out in case of a plane crash; we split up into two groups. Father, one other sibling, Nanny and I made up one group. We boarded in early afternoon. The plane was state-of-the-art; a 4 propeller, PAN AM stratocruiser. It had the seats upstairs and a lounge downstairs, like an inverted 747. After the five course dinner, served on monogrammed bone china with matching crystal and silverware, we were adjourned downstairs to the lounge while the grownups had coffee and cordials. My traveling toys accompanied me. I had learned from past experience that with grownups coffee and cordials could take a while.
When we returned upstairs, the seats had vanished. In their place were curtained berths, like those on a Pullman railway car. We bunked down for the night. Even the steward checked in on me after Nanny and Father had done their duties. They had returned to the lounge.
About 2:00AM we were awakened. We had arrived at Keflavik in Iceland for refueling. It was cold and dark, but rather exciting all the same. We deplaned and stretched our legs for a bit. The scent of the Atlantic Ocean filled my lungs. After a while, we re-boarded and I headed back to bed, with my traveling toys in tow.
In the morning, we once again were adjourned downstairs to the lounge while the stewards reversed the process and restored our seats. A multi-course breakfast followed. Afterwards, we returned to the lounge to watch the herds of reindeer and caribou run across the coastal plains of Newfoundland as the sun began its morning climb.
Twenty hours after leaving London7 we arrived in New York. I had just completed my first international flight. One more 4-hour domestic flight put me back in the Heartland, ending my first international jaunt. I was terminally hooked. International was the best of all things.
We all headed back to our various schools and activities. The eldest went East for his first year at boarding school. It was pretty routine but a little different with one sibling gone.
Father traveled more and Madame-Mere volunteered more. Sometimes she traveled with him or went to our place in Alabama with her friend. That meant fewer houseguests but more time with Nanny. I continued to pour over my atlas and draw maps.
The following year I began my camp career in Colorado High in the Rockies next to a real live, rather real dead ghost town. We lived in genuine covered wagons, slept in sleeping bags, sat around camp fires, told ghost stories and only had to bathe once a week. During the day we hiked, rode, swam, fly-fished, played volleyball, attended real live rodeos and panned for gold. At night we dug up old cemeteries looking for the gold nuggets which were always to be found in the dead miner’s boots. Sometimes we went snipe hunting. It wasn’t international but for America, it couldn’t get much better.
But actually it did. It took two days by train to get there. It got even better. A bunch of us all went to the same camp so we all took the same train. It got better still. No parents traveled with us. We were flying, rather training it solo.
As we entrained, everyone’s parents shamelessly bribed the stewards to insure that their little loved one wasn’t thrown off the train in Kansas for misconduct. We weren’t thrown off but probably should have been. It’s amazing what fourteen kids can get into without parental supervision. In retrospect, I doubt sincerely that the stewards were justly compensated. They were super and probably made sainthood on our trips alone. God had to be watching; no one was ever lost or seriously injured. It had to be divine intervention.
The next year was similar to the previous, only number two also headed East for his first year at boarding school. I became an only child for nine months of the year. That was real different. The holidays were grand though grossly unfair. My siblings got three to four weeks off for Christmas and again for Spring Break. I was lucky to get a week. They also started school later and got out earlier than I did. That they attended classes six days a week instead of five did not enter into my calculations.
Something was significantly wrong with the world and I began to covet the day when I too could head East. To make matters worse, there were all sorts of foreigners at their school. Imagine foreign houseguests 24/7. I was green with envy.
The year I turned 11 was much like the previous. Both siblings were away at boarding school in the East. Father traveled and Mother volunteered. I went to school, played with my friends, studied my atlas and did the normal stuff that kids do.
Church was the same old, same old. We read stories from the Bible and then discussed them – to death. Either I wasn’t getting it or there wasn’t much going on – or perhaps both.
Actually, I liked Nanny’s church better. She was devoutly Catholic. Her church had all sorts of serious stuff that mine didn’t. The place was positively cluttered with things. There were statues, banks of candles, alcoves and a humungous cross with a sagging Jesus hanging on it. It was rather gruesome.
Periodically, I would go with Nanny when she went to Confession. She would give me a bunch of pennies and tell me to go down and light the candles. While she confessed, I lit. Figuring one penny per candle, I had the entire bank of candles going by the time she returned. Then she explained; all the pennies were to go for one candle. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
I didn’t notice God there either, but I wasn’t really looking all that hard. Then again, I had never gone with her to Mass; maybe that was when He showed up. It really wasn’t that important anyway. I guessed that God was doing His thing. I was doing mine.
After all, I was a child. I wasn’t expected to know that stuff yet. I assumed that it would come later, after childhood.