Our grandmother genuinely loved Mike and I. We were her darlings, and I upstaged Trevor here, in that I was able to assume the lead role. She was lonely, and could be somewhat critical of others, especially Pappy. She married only once, which ended in a cold divorce. Afterwards, she lived a solitary life in which she worked, maintained her home, and grumbled about people and things of which she had little control. She had one child, our mother.
I learned much from her though. She taught me hygiene, manners, grammar, and integrity. I have always been grateful for those lessons. She did not know it, most likely, but she taught me some things about love. I say, merely, that I loved grandma, although I could never understand from what enigmatic, shadowy psyche she dredged her motivations. If it is mostly one’s own decision to be happy or not, grandma too often chose not. Still, she always found happiness by the presence of Mike and me. It was time, however, for us to return to Texas, and I am sure that it saddened her immensely. She took us to the train station, and Trevor and I rode the train back to the Lone Star state; two young boys by ourselves.
The new house in Texas was nice. It was in a small, older development area with abundant pecan trees and nice yards. It was a brick home with three bedrooms, a garage that had been partially converted to a bedroom, a den, a nice back yard, and a fireplace. There was breathing room, and even though Trevor and I had to share a bedroom, nobody felt overly cramped. In the fall there was a plentiful supply of pecans, and during the winter month there was a crackling fire. It does get chilly enough to have a fire during the North Texas winters
We entered high school in my junior and Trevor’s senior year. High school in Grand Prairie was much different than that in Ohio. In Columbus we were the Polar Bears, in Texas we were the Gophers. Polar Bears walked to school or took the bus, nearly every Gopher had a car; there was no public transportation in Grand Prairie. There were old beater pick-ups, shiny new coups, VW bugs, and a select group of hot rods. This was a small town where teenagers cruised the A&W on one end to the Dairy Queen at the other. Mike and I had to conspicuously walk for a while, until we got work in a local pizza parlor. It wasn’t long before Mike bought a car; a big boat of a Chrysler Windsor, with a push button transmission, a large 392-hemi engine, and it was pink. We called it the Pink Panther, naturally. Pappy never drove.
James had just moved to town from Tennessee, and become a Gopher. He drove a ‘55 Yellow with white top Chevy Nomad station wagon. There was also Byron
, who drove a bulky, red and white Buick 6, and Jack whose ride was a sleek, black Chevy sedan that would glide like a shark through the school parking lot. On a remote strip of highway south of town we soon determined that James and Jack were contenders in the quarter mile, but for any distance the Pink Panther was hard to beat. I believe that it had the largest production engine for its time, and with the distance to build up speed, Mike could out run everyone. That was no consolation south of town, however, where the Chrysler and the Buick sat like tanks reconnoitering the distant terrain for Vikings from Arlington High who might be on the prowl for Gophers. Meanwhile, the Chevys dragged.
Mike, James, Byron, Jack and I cruised through the school year gradually securing pole position in the Gopher community of automobiles and cheerleaders. We were no different than anyone else who became known as much by a car as by a name. I wasn’t yet driving, and rode shotgun, which presented a freedom of hand movement that, if I were not careful, could launch my identity faster than I was prepared to defend. Anyway, winds of change were forming over the prairie.
At the end of the school year, Mike graduated. He was offered the opportunity to live with Uncle Joe, in Washington State. He would have the chance to pursue college, and was imagining himself a marine biologist. Uncle Joe was of grandma’s lineage. He was a surgeon, and marine biology was indeed an honorable pursuit. Mike and I were about to experience a significant distance between us. That had never happened before, and the anticipation of what it meant to each other was a nebulous rumination of separation, where in images of mother, and Pappy, and grandma, and the Ringo Kid, and Marshal Curley Wilcox all began a slow-motion whirlwind through time.
Something unexpected also came to pass. James lived in a small apartment with his father, who drank excessively and listened to George Jones. Shortly before the end of the school year, his father died. James had no family nearby; his mother had died some years ago. Our mother compassionately received James into the family and the house. Everett was sympathetic and indulgent, but – understandably – never achieved rank as a father figure for James, or for Mike and I. From then on James became known to us as Brother James.
I looked at James’ father’s lifeless face at the funeral. There was more life in one of Pappy’s papier maché masks than in this face. But, in this face there was reality. This was my first direct experience with death. I had seen it at the theatre, and it was more and more gradually creeping into daily television. It was in mystery novels, and in those eerie detective magazines that grandma would read, then hide under the mattress or in dresser drawers beneath her underwear. But those images were not death, rather reproductions of the atrocities of life. Life had left this face.
I have always had a keen interest in spiritual matters. My time spent in church was more than choir and youth fellowship. I listened as lessons of life, responsibility, commandments, God, Christ, suffering, death, and after death were preached. By faith I accepted these concepts, always instinctively understanding that as I mature, they will as well.
In all of mankind’s infinite wisdom there has never been discovered an adequate understanding of death. Religion, theology, psychology, medicine, literature, art, music, and business – all these can only reach that moment of dying. After one’s death, the living can only seek a balance between reality and faith. Our concepts of what will happen after death are only reflections of our understanding of life. In my heart I firmly believe that there is life after death. That life, however, is categorically not the same as this life. It is not meant that we know that existence, rather that we understand this one. Our actions in this life prepare us for passage, even if, as some attest, it is passage into oblivion. To conquer death, one needs only to die.
The approaching distance between Mike and I, and the immeasurable distance between Brother James and his father, were to bring back thoughts of the past and the future, and of Pappy. James must live without his daddy; it was fixed. Was Pappy yet alive? Would I ever see him again? Passion for life seems to exist in the divergence between the absolute and the virtual. I had hope. Perhaps only famous and infamous persons must drag the chains of their death throughout history. This was not James’ father. Mike moved on Washington and began using his middle name, Trevor. James and I began our last year of High School. Life went on.
Brother James got a job with me at the pizza parlor. We lived intertwined in work, school, and home life. He began to immerse himself in the restoration of his car. My wheels were turning inward as I moved more and more toward my creative side. I befriended thespians, artists, singers, and guitar players. Eventually I purchased my first vehicle, an old VW Bus.
This was an exciting time for young guitar pickers. Music was powerful and exploded with meaning. Bob Dylan, The Byrds, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Donovan, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Buffalo Springfield, and so many, many more were setting the stage for the Summer of Love. Hippies were popping up everywhere like magic mushrooms. There was a movement in the air, and I could feel it.
I got together with some other budding revolutionaries and we played music; and grew our hair. We got a few gigs around town in small venues. We got in trouble in school for growing our hair, and staged a small protest in response, and were given some leeway, over our ears and just over the collar – early Beatle cuts. We went to concerts and saw some greats. We went to small local clubs and got to know some of the rising stars, Stevie Ray, Bugs, Mouse and the Traps. I bought some wire-rimmed John Lennon glasses and started dating a lady that looked like Cher. My intrinsic talents to sing, make music, and perform were filling me with a lust to find my part in this incredible happening. Then it was upon me – the Summer of Love. So, also, was graduation.
There was another scenario developing ominously on a distant horizon. We were escalating in Vietnam. The draft was seizing boys and forcing them to become men, soldiers, paraplegics, and corpses. Shortly after graduation Brother James was served notice and enlisted in the Navy. Byron was drafted into the Army. Jack went to college and was deferred, but later became an officer in the Navy. Mike, now Trevor, was in Seattle rebelling, infuriating Uncle Joe, and staying one step ahead of the devil. I had made it through high school, but there was no money at home, and indubitably no scholarship for dreamers with mediocre transcripts. I do not know how she did it, but grandma came through. She had finagled my way into Ohio State University as a state resident. Once again, I was going to ride the train to Ohio – this time quite alone.
I stepped off the train in Columbus with shoulder length hair and a couple weeks growth of beard. Grandma was there to meet me. She looked at me rather perplexed for a moment, then asked me,
“Where did you get the old timey glasses?”
I was rather taken aback, as you can imagine. I was expecting a more dramatic reaction. Later that evening she asked if I intended to shave. Sure, I was willing to do that. She never mentioned my hair, and I was surprised.
She had prearranged everything at school. I had only to go through the motions – sign papers, attend orientation events. Ohio State campus was a small city of tens of thousands of students and faculty. It was not altogether new to me. Grandma lived only a couple of miles away, and the Olentangy River ran into the Scioto River near campus. This was well-explored territory by Trevor and me. I did not know my way around the educational facilities, however, and I had not explored too much without Trevor’s bold vanguard. But I was a young man now, and the ubiquitous energy here was contagious. I signed up for twelve hours, just enough for deferral from the draft.
Next, it was time for me to get a job. I had much to do, and perhaps I could find Pappy. I was now confident enough to perform some personal enquiries. I would start with Emerson Burkhart. I knew that I could find information about him, and could at least begin there in my search for Pappy. I was going to need some cash. I applied at F&R Lazarus downtown, and got a position in the display department warehouse.
I found the grand old house where Emerson Burkhart lived, on Woodland Avenue. As I stood out front looking at the place, covered with ivy, and the weeds still growing as wild as Emerson’s imaginative spirit, I felt a hot and cold exchange of the past and the possible. Pappy, Mother, Trevor, and I had spent a lot of time in this large brick home. I remember that Trevor and I once decided to count the rooms, there were over twenty. It had been ten years since I had seen or talked to Emerson, although Mother did receive a couple letters from him shortly after we had settled in Grand Prairie, letters that I have to this day. I was unsure how to approach this.
Burkhart was unconventional, to say the least, outspoken and animated, with unruly hair and penetrating eyes. His house was filled with paintings. Paintings hung everywhere, and were stacked along the walls two or three deep in places. This renowned artist did not paint the ordinary; or I should say, he did paint the ordinary, except that it was the daily moments and places that ordinary folks would not see, or would avoid seeing. Junk yards, rusted old automobiles and trains, a dead animal lying in the weeds, a corpse in the city dump, or a corroded piece of metal pipe with the sunlight dancing on it. He had a macabre sense of realism that, along with his exceptional talent and superior understanding of light, distinguished his work. Furthermore, he had an uncanny ability to apply paint to canvas. His paintings would often conclude in thick mountains of texture that added a third dimension to his work, which when viewed at close range resembled indistinguishable abstract sculpture, and when viewed at a distance transformed into masterpieces capturing a place in time.
I recall that Trevor and I would sleep in one room where there were no curtains, with paintings of a cadaver, withdrawn old houses amid winter trees, landscapes of barren fields or forests or forgotten cemeteries, and portraits of people unknown to us, each one of them watching us. The moon would shine through leafless, winter branches as they scraped across the window like bony fingers. Two white Russian wolfhounds would move about almost supernaturally in the yard below. We would lie together covered by a genuine wolf skin, mesmerized by the panorama, and unsure whether to be frightened or inspired.
Life was difficult for Pappy and Mother in those early years. Trevor and I were less than a year apart in age, and two little boys can be exhausting and expensive. Pappy was an artist, writer, singer, performer, and generally a vagabond soul that was searching for his niche, and not often finding work. An entertainer, unemployed. I recall that Emerson once gave him a typewriter to facilitate his writing. Pappy wrote industriously, but his handwriting was nearly impossible to read. Mother was a very talented artist as well. She would work with Burkhart on portraits; she would begin them and Emerson would finish them, and they would share the revenue. Accordingly, we would spend many hours at this unusual abode.
Emerson’s wife Mary Ann adored Trevor and I. Perhaps we subrogated her biological children that made it only as far as within her heart. She often watched over us as Mother or Pappy attended to personal concerns. I don’t remember her well, but I can, to this day, feel her tender presence anywhere that Love abides. I understand now that Emerson Burkhart always had a weakness for the ladies, yet I can say for certain that he deeply loved Mary Ann.
Emerson liked us boys also. He was cleverly playful with us. Folks spent a lot of time in his kitchen, where hot coffee brewed incessantly, paintings filled the wall space, and he would tell stories, or philosophize, or simply absorb the mundane. Burkhart had a conspicuous Adam’s apple, which he could suck in, and for a moment it would disappear. As we gathered in the kitchen he would pretend that he would swallow a buckeye, and it would appear lodged in his throat. We could touch it, and it certainly felt like that buckeye. We believed him, and no matter how many times he did it, he had a convincing way of fooling us each time.
I stood looking at this majestic old house at 223 Woodland Avenue, and tried to script my opening lines. I didn’t know what to say, really. Just, remember me? Trevor? Pappy? Mother? It was of no consequence, as when I did proceed, he was not at home. I would try several more times in the next few months, and he would not be there any of these times. I knew that he often traveled to faraway places; perhaps he was on one of those journeys. It was my loss. This was a unique man, and he may well have known how to find Pappy. As it turned out, word of Pappy would come from a most inadvertent source.
I started my new job as a helper in the display department for a large department store. I would do whatever directed to do, carry, build, store, rearrange. I worked out of the display warehouse, several blocks from the main store. It was a large, old brick building with three floors, the first two being a mixture of holidays, and the third filled completely with Christmas. What a wonderful place for a creative imagination. There were groundhogs in top hats, hearts and arrows of all sizes, presidents, leprechauns and shamrocks, imitation flowers and shrubs, Bunnies and eggs of every color, mothers and fathers, flags and stars and stripes galore, pumpkins, witches, black cats and Indian corn, turkeys and pilgrims, Santas and reindeer, Christmas trees, snow covered gingerbread houses, toy soldiers, wrapped packages, hundreds of ornaments of all sizes and shapes, and lights. Lots of lights!
The fellow in charge of this huge treasure chest of props was Ted. He was an amiable person that liked to smile. He and I got along well, and his grin spread contagiously to my face. Of course, the surroundings were also integral to that happy gleam in my eyes. I looked forward to going to work, but, most unfortunately, not to going to school.
College had quickly become an extremely difficult task. Tedious, repetitious classes – some with a television screen for an instructor and as many as a couple of hundred students. It seemed insensitive and unrealistic. Mark Twain was once quoted as having said, “Don’t let school interfere with your education.” I naively saw no personalvalue in these sessions. I would rather go to work, and afterwards go to Larry’s Bar to participate in philosophical conversations, or go to the North Heidelberg for some folk music, or have a few beers at the Hungry I. Mark Twain was prolific, and I reckon that I could find a quote that would have advised me to knuckle down and prepare for a future, if I had wanted to. I was idealistic, however, and knew that an artist was judged by the degree of his portfolio, not by his portfolio of degrees. As a result, I was not doing well in school. Grandma was disappointed and expressed here concern in a way that made life at home as undesirable as a stale college classroom.
I requested more hours at work, and began to miss classes. I spent more time at Larry’s, or the North Heidelberg listening to or playing folk music, than studying at home. I met Marilyn, a lovely hippie girl with hair like Mary’s of Peter, Paul, and Mary, who was doing very well in school, but concurred with me that a free man could be successful without a formal education. The gap between what I was expected to do and what I wanted to do was widening. Except at work
Ted gave me more hours. As the Christmas holidays approached there was an abundance of work in preparation for the spectacular displays that were a part of the commercial thrust of the season. He had acquired temporary assistance of a middle-aged man from another department withing the store. He, Ted and I started bringing out Christmas, piece by piece, and moving it all to the main store. As I talked with this other fellow – I don’t remember his name – I came to find out that he had known Donn Fought. He knew Pappy from having sung in some of his haunts. I was elated! Maybe I could find my old man, finally. I would have to call Trevor and tell him; maybe he could fly here for a stirring reunion. However…
“I think that Donn moved to California,” the conversation continued. “He was a very creative person. I think that he had an opportunity to do something in the movies.”
No, he had not kept in touch with him, knew little about him otherwise. No, I wouldn’t call Trevor. Pappy was gradually becoming as formless a myth as was Buck Star. I took this in stride, but I did not relinquish faith.
Christmas and New Years passed. I did poorly in school, and registered for the spring quarter taking only nine hours – no draft deferral. I eagerly accepted more hours at work. Grandma and I strained for neutral consensus. I started singing folk music with Marilyn. The Tet Offensive began in Vietnam. My personal greetings from Uncle Sam arrived in late February. I enlisted in the Navy.
I don’t have to explain to anyone who has served in the military how completely one’s life changes as soon as they arrive at boot camp. Only a short while after my head was sheared, and I was fitted with ill-fitting uniforms, and assigned to a company of “squirrels”, four students gunned down at Kent State by the National Guard. OSU students went berserk. There was a dreadful riot with busses overturned, storefronts destroyed and set on fire, people clubbed and arrested, and the pandemonium was only a sign of things to come at university campuses, and elsewhere across the nation. But I heard nothing about that at the time. I was in boot camp struggling to endure my newly abrasive environment. It was good that I was not still in Columbus, as I am not a good revolutionary. I am a quiet man and can appreciate structure. And I would have structure imposed upon me twenty-four hours a day for the next several months. There would be no word of the outside world except for what was received in letters, and my mother and grandmother were the only persons that wrote. They encouraged me to do well, and everything else was fine.
I made it through basic training okay, and took two weeks leave to visit Mother and the family in Texas, then headed to Memphis for Navy electronics school. When I arrived at the airport in Memphis I was met by armed marines and placed on a bus with several other recruits. The bus looked like a prison bus, with bars on the windows. What have I gotten myself into, I wondered. As we drove through downtown Memphis, we observed militia and tanks at nearly every corner. It looked like a war zone. We were escorted to the base in Millington and placed on immediate alert. Hell, I had only fired a weapon several times, and that was in boot camp. They quickly took the M-16 away from me, realizing that I was virtually blind at a distance, and sent me on to fire control school. What did they expect me to do here? As it turned out, it was the day after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Memphis remained calm, while Chicago, L.A. and other cities rioted. I made it through electronics school okay, and shipped out to the fleet.
I was assigned to an air squadron, F-4B fighters. We deployed out of Alameda, California on board CVA-43, the aircraft carrier The Coral Sea – steaming for Viet Nam. I was going to war! I do not approve of war under any conditions. I enlisted in the Navy to see the world, not to participate in mayhem, and, of course, because I was obliged to make a decision as to whether I would serve my country or flee my country. I am a patriot by nature, and a sailor at heart. Pappy once bought me a “white hat” when I was a little boy, and I was mighty fond of that hat. For the Navy I was a natural. As for war, I didn’t know what to expect. Would I ever see my family again? Is this what mothers and fathers imagine for their children. I was not frightened as everything was moving so quickly, and I was full of wonder and anticipation. Would Pappy have been proud of me, or disappointed, or frightened? Did he serve in the military? I was a man, starched and tall. I wondered what Pappy would think.
The Coral Sea was based out of Alameda, close to San Francisco. San Francisco, what an amazing place, a collection of sights, sounds, smells, and activities that rivals anywhere on earth. It was all quite overwhelming, and I was ironically thankful that I had military structure as an anchor. Here was a Mecca of the hippie movement as well, and, although I do not recall any significant rioting in the city by the bay, political tension was always imminently possible. The municipality of San Francisco was well aware of the politics here, and made every effort to be all-inclusive. The Pacific Ocean, and ships, and trade with Asia are important aspects of this great city. The U.S. Navy has always played a vital role in the composition of San Francisco as well. There was a promotional campaign occurring between the Navy and the city at that time, and the Coral Sea was a focal point.
“San Francisco’s Own,” was the proclamation. That is how the Coral Sea was being touted. It was featured several times in the Chronicle, displayed in various strategic locations around town, and on a large banner draped across the “island”, or upper control area, of the Coral Sea. Coral Sea sailors had somewhat of a celebrity status in town. As we left the City by the Bay and steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge, the local TV stations filmed us as we were showered by hundreds of carnations dropped from the bridge above. It was impressive, but faintly portentous. We were, after all, sailing off to war.
The Pacific Ocean is magnificent! This was one of several times that I would cross this great span of saltwater and energy, and I would do it again and again if given the opportunity. The power of this great ocean exceeds any man-made force from ever before to ever more. We will not tame her; don’t even bother to try. She is supreme and free. It is easy for me to see the lure for seamen everywhere. Sailors are vagabonds, gypsies of the sea, happy only when being rocked by their great saline mistress. It is true that out to sea there is a refuge. Of the many old movies that Pappy would show us, I had other favorites: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Moby Dick, or The White Whale, and Mutiny on the Bounty. These were exciting epics that captured my attention, and never completely released it. If Pappy was susceptible to celluloid concupiscence, I am equally as vulnerable to the briny lips of mermaids.
In Southeast Asia we would carry out operations in the Tonkin Gulf, for periods of approximately 40 days at a time, then would come in port for a week or more of rest, relaxation, and maintenance, before returning to operations. Out homeport, away from home, was Subic Bay, in the Philippines. A cruise, or tour of duty, would last anywhere from seven months to a year. My first cruise was an eleven-month tour. Several times during a cruise we would visit other ports of call. For example, we visited Australia, Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong.
I was seeing the world, distant lands and unfamiliar cultures, and the experience was invaluable. This was not a multiple-choice exam from which answers are selected from distraught memories, cheat sheets or a stolen syllabus. This was a practical, worldly experience that teaches cultural differences and tolerance of those dissimilar. Education is a subjective art, the culmination of what one truly learns, not of one’s actions that results in a framed sheepskin on an office wall, and I ally myself with Mark Twain here. Do not misunderstand, I greatly appreciate the hard work and effort applied toward a college degree, and I am envious of those who are able to achieve that status. I do not, however, believe that it gives anyone the privilege to pass judgment on the millions of honest people of other degrees of life. If one has graduated from college at a university in their hometown, they are qualitatively under educated. Nothing will educate one more competently than to become a stranger in a strange land. I was always eager to go far into a foreign country and become as endemic as possible.
“San Francisco’s Own” had to anchor in the harbor at Hong Kong, as it was too large to dock. We had to take a ferryboat that would come to our ship several times daily and on-load sailors for transport to and from shore. Or, we had the option of taking one of the many water taxies that would zip around the Coral Sea like dragonflies. They would carry about eight persons, and were a colorful means of local transport, except when returning late at night full of drunken sailors being jostled about by the waves. Hong Kong was then on lease to the UK, and the British influence formed a welcoming balance between East and West. The great city was a marvelous place, and I would venture to declare it a sister city to San Francisco. I extend my condolences to the Pearl of the Orient, now that its free spirit has been compelled to return to Communist domination.
Hong Kong hustles and bustles at an expeditious pace, as commerce and pleasure interweave with lights, sounds, sights, tastes, and smells of Asia that have enchanted travelers for centuries. I was equally as drawn in, and two weeks in port was never enough. I ate in fancy restaurants or at two- stool shacks with sampan cooks. I shopped at fine department stores, or in small, narrow parochial shops that sold jars of anything, perhaps even the very souls of shanghaied sailors. I explored the main streets and some back streets where snake charmers allowed a dozen or more large black scorpions to crawl across their bodies. I saw gorgeous gardens and impoverished slums. I wanted to see the countryside as well.
I mentioned wanting to go into the New Territories, perhaps even to overlook Red China, and caught the attention of a shipmate of mine. His name was Mac. He and I had explored Monkey River in the Philippines together. He was up for it, so we did some research. Hong Kong is on an island off the mainland of China, which, along with Kowloon, an even larger city on the mainland, and the New Territories, was then included in the lease by Great Britain. We came across a touristy map of the area, which included a route by rail to the border of China. That town was off limits to American servicemen. There was, however, a bus route marked on this map that led to an overlook into Red China. We had no knowledge of this spot being taboo, so we decided to go for it.
We left early in the morning, caught a water taxi to shore, and then took the ferryboat from Hong Kong to the Kowloon Peninsula. At this time, enlisted men were not yet allowed to go ashore in civilian clothes, so Mac and I were in uniform – our blues, as they were called. The deeper into a foreign country a stranger might visit, the more conspicuous they become. This was accentuated even more so for us as we were wearing our cracker-jack suits. Accordingly, the farther into our journey, the more alien we became. We boarded the train in Kowloon and headed north toward Lo Wu. The train passed through small towns with names and signs that no longer displayed the British influence. Our map seemed less and less accurate as we proceeded. (I must note here, that my recollection of the geographical names in the area might be less accurate as I proceed, as well).
When we arrived at Fanling we departed the train to catch a bus to our destination. In very broken English a couple of taxi drivers offered us a free fare to Beijing, which, in very direct American English, we declined. We located the bus and pointed at our destination on the map to the driver. He nodded his head repeatedly, smiled, and waved us aboard.
The bus was full of young schoolgirls, and, not unlike us, they were all in uniform. Mac and I had to stand as the bus left the small village. Indisputably we were the topic of conversation, and many giggles. We did not require an interpreter to understand that. The bus proceeded on its route, continually stopping to let several girls off at a time, until there were only a few of them left. Suddenly, the bus stopped and the driver motioned to us, and spoke in Chinese. This was our stop. We stepped off the bus and it roared down the dirt road and evanesced into a cloud of dust into the distance.
There was silence. Except for a couple of dogs in the distance barking in Cantonese, it was a daunting silence. There was no town here, only a dirt road leading up a hill. There was a crooked sign that suggested we were near our destination, but we had three directions from which to choose, and the sign was at such an angle that perhaps we could also choose to advance into the sky, or stick our head in the sand. The logical choice was up the hill, not from where we had come, nor to where the bus had vanished. There were some people on the distant landscape, bent over in rice fields as if in a painting, painted a hundred years earlier, and fixed in a stooped pose never to stand straight again. Mac and I did not say much – our remote circumstance addressed us loud and clear. We were somewhere in China, nowhere in China, where English was not spoken, and if they did notice us, they did not stand to acknowledge us. It was early afternoon and, except for the fact that we recognized each other as we stood there in our pressed and spotless blues, we were no more extant than a couple of grains of rice somewhere on the continent of Asia. We laughed nervously about our predicament as we walked the path to the top of the hill.
At the hilltop there was a small pagoda, similar in size and purpose to a back yard gazebo in the West. Here also was an old Chinaman dressed in historical attire, lovely silks and sashes, silk pillbox hat, tall clogs, and a thin, white beard extending downward about eight inches from his chin. Now, this fellow could speak English. He could say,
“Picture, five Hong Kong dollar.”
I guess that is all that he could say in English, but he could certainly say it, many times over. I cannot say for sure if he could speak Chinese, as he never did. We took many photos of him, paying him each time, and attempting to explain our quandary, and perhaps find a solution.
Afternoon was turning into evening, we were in the middle of nowhere, and we did not know how to get back. We took some photos of the fields and rivers in the distance, assuming that it was red China, then more of our host, never hesitating to pay him. The exchange rate at that time was six Hong Kong dollars to one American bill, and that was not too much to pay for a friend indeed.
Mac and I discussed what we were going to do. We could start walking back the way we came and hope that a bus would come along, or we could stay and hope that this old man’s family came to pick him up, and we could then communicate our predicament to one of them. The latter seemed as unlikely as walking back seemed promising. There was also the possibility that we would be abducted by aliens, and that was as probable a solution as any available to us. We laughed, more nervously than ever.
Then we heard it. It was a distant clatter at first, but coming closer and closer. Everything that I have read about alien vessels suggests that they do not make a sound. This could only mean that someone was coming up the road. As the sound got louder it became obvious that it was a vehicle. Mac and I were sure that Old Chinaman’s family was arriving, and we could only pray that someone could speak some English. Then, in a whirlwind of commotion and noise, it roared around the crest of the hill, puffing, and throwing gravel everywhere with the fervor of a great dragon, and came to a stop
Silently, for a moment, it sat there. Then the door opened and out they came, with cameras slung around their shoulders, and chattering volubly. It was a tour bus replete with tourists from the U.S. And, to complete this irony, they were from San Francisco! They had come to Asia to watch the San Francisco Giants play the Tokyo Giants in a baseball game, and had taken advantage of their time overseas to also visit Hong Kong and the New Territories.
We wasted no time in identifying ourselves as proud crewmembers of “San Francisco’s Own,” and became instantaneous celebrities. How on earth did we get here, and we told our story. Everyone laughed enthusiastically, including the Old Chinaman, who was posing, and pointing out over the horizon while exhibiting a more complete repertoire of English words by saying,
“China… China…picture, five Hong Kong dollars… China”
Mac and I laughed with earnest passion, as our tensions untied, and we thanked God for a miracle. We rode the bus back to Kowloon with the boisterously friendly group from the city by the bay, from where we caught the ferryboat back to Hong Kong Island in time for a couple of stiff brandies before taking a water taxi back to the Coral Sea – “San Francisco’s Own.”
Hong Kong was a vibrant city, full of life, activity, wealth—and poverty. I am interminably dumbfounded by the curt distance from a wealthy man’s pockets to a poor man’s struggle. It is a bridge rarely crossed that connects that historical, spiritual gap, and, as Pappy might stammer, well patrolled by the spirit of Robin Hood, the prince of thieves, or Song Jiang and his 108 bandits.