|Apr/May 2001 • Fiction|
I was the stocky little captain. He was the small and frail one—-looking like he missed most of his meal calls or drank excessively of bad goat’s milk. But Bobby Pottsmith was one of the few white kids around. So we became friends by mutual dependence—-like waking up after washing ashore together on an island beach—-one having matches and the other a pocketknife.
It was late spring in 1949 when I joined my adventurous father in Bandung on the island of Java. Indonesia was in political upheaval—-as was much of the Far East after the war.
I left the States with a sense of trepidation but I never looked back at the skyline as the Pan Am Clipper swept me into a Dallas starlit sky. I was as close to being an orphan as the dictionary allows—-my parents divorced when I was still in infant diapers. My mother was not part of my life—she was making a home somewhere in Alaska with her third husband. My father was mostly an absentee dad. He flew his airplanes all over Asia and came in and out of my life like summer colds. Now he wanted me with him again.
I held no grudges toward my parents. My grandmother got me through my early years and taught me the values I held on to for life. I learned about sensitivity and honor. I cried over squashed turtles in the road and praised God for the peas on our table.
My father came to Bandung to provide structure and order to the start-up of the fledgling Indonesian Air Force. There was almost nothing to work with. They had a haphazard collection of airplanes—-a few P-40C fighters and Douglas DC-3,’s which surfaced from here and there after the destruction of Japan was complete. My father was hired as instructor and mentor—but mostly he was there to instill confidence in the young Indonesian pilots. There was world respect for American air supremacy after World War II.
My father was one of the storied Chinese National Air Corporation (CNAC) airmen. He was a survivor of numerous 18,000-foot forays over the “Hump”—- the tallest range in the Himalayans between India and China. It was an adventurous time—-and heralded as a task vital to the protection of the Burma Road. When my father took on the Indonesian Air Force assignment, he brought ten other flyers of fame with him. They were a collection of ex Flying Tigers and CNAC Hump pilots—daredevils to the man.
While my father’s work life was swashbuckling, his family life was withdrawn and cold. I spent my days with a “Babu”—-a combination cook and nanny, and a tutor who rode to my house each day on a bicycle. He was paunchy and red-faced, and claimed to be an exiled prince from the era of the Russian Czars. His name was Rosilov. The name sounded authentic but the bicycle seemed to give him away.
Then there was Nampat, who had been given the Christian name Eddie. Eddie was the gardener who doubled as our daytime security guard. At night, the security watch continued with another armed guard that we nicknamed Bluto after the Popeye character. Bluto walked the perimeter of the house continuously, and rang a small gong on the porch each hour—-a kind of cymbal-rattling “all’s well.” I often wondered why the gong was necessary—-after all, we were asleep most of the time and didn’t hear it. Perhaps it was for the guard’s personal consolation—-like pinching oneself for reassurance. Hearing the gong or not, it was reassuring to know Bluto was there.
My father explained the dangers he faced. There were Communist sympathizers who did not wish to see President Sukarno succeed with his military plans for the new government. Indonesia had been recently freed from years of Dutch Colonial rule—-and many competing groups sought to take control of the country as it struggled to get on its feet. Indonesia was a ripe pomegranate—with vast oil and rubber treasures and a peaceful population with a strong work ethic. The competing political elements had one thing in common—-a strong dislike for Americans. My father reminded me often of the attitude I was to maintain:
“You’re a long way from Texas, kiddo—-and it’s their country, not yours.”
When my father came home at night I was either preparing my next day’s lessons for the tutor or I was already asleep. He asked the Babu about the day’s events—-and she rendered what was almost a formal report. Then my father usually stopped at the door to my bedroom. It was usually for nothing more than a whispered goodnight—but more often just a quick glance and a smile that suggested the Babu’s review had been accepted without issue. Sometimes I pretended to be asleep when I wasn’t—just in case the Babu had added a P.S. to her report.
On weekends I saw a little more of him. Every other Saturday, most of the pilots and families on my father’s staff got together at our house to watch movies. The movies came to us via a rental subscription from the States. They were mostly westerns and Tarzan films, with a cartoon thrown in now and then to keep the pilots from snoring. There was always a current American newsreel in the shipment, and my father saved it for last.
During the movie, Eddie usually cooked goat and pepper sate on a wood-fired grill—basting with his special peanut-butter sauce. On the side he prepared curried corn-on-the-cob, wrapped and grilled in banana leaves. When the meal was over and the coals had turned to a useless gray, the pilots discussed events from the newsreel. They spent hours fiercely arguing small details about U.S. politics. “Washington’s misplaced postwar affection for the Ruskies” seemed to command center stage.
It seemed like a paradox when some of the pilots and their families returned the next morning for Sunday Services on our veranda. Our worship was a study in the range of human resonance—-hearing the same voices quoting scripture that the night before were praising the manliness of two-fisting bottles of Chinese beer.
One of the CNAC pilots had once been ordained in the ministry. He did his best with his hung-over and inattentive flock. We sang from a Methodist Hymnal accompanied by music from a somewhat irreverent-sounding five-string banjo.
I met Bobby Pottsmith at Sunday Services. Despite his good English, Bobby was otherwise completely Dutch. He had never been to the United States, and until recently had never met any Americans—-let alone a Texan.
Like other non-Americans I met in my travels, Bobby believed everybody from Texas kept cows and horses in the house, had dozens of oil wells, and still fought Indians day and night. His judgement of our relationship with the natives was harsh. He said we stole our country from the peaceful Indians and began systematically killing them off so they couldn’t tell anybody.
Bobby said, “Then you tried to make it seem okay by honoring them with portraits on your five-cent coins and cigar boxes—-then naming Arizona after them.” Other than his Indian theory—-and I wasn’t sure about the Arizona part—-he had seen postcards of the Statue of Liberty and the Rose Bowl. It was the sum total of his knowledge of America.
Bobby was my stereotyped Dutch boy. He had a shock of white hair that looked like the brush that barbers use to whisk away clipped hair. All he lacked was a jimmy-hat and some button-suspenders to complete my image. A bright red scar ran down his nose and he could bend the nose to one side almost flat to his face. Bobby said that a falling light fixture had broken it. Somehow that red nose-stripe looked appropriately sickly—I figured everybody in the area of the Norwegian Sea kept permanent colds.
Bobby Pottsmith and I were in the same grade, and we both studied from the same texts for U.S. accreditation. We attended classes in the parlor of our comfortable home with lessons supplied by mail from a correspondence school in Maryland.
Bobby and I nicknamed our tutor the “White Russian” after a favorite CNAC cocktail-call. He arrived precisely at eight in the morning and we studied his lessons until two in the afternoon. Then we endured an hour of silent reading while he napped. School was out at three. As if a maestro’s finale, Rosilov always closed his folio with a clap and left us like a late-departing train. He wobbled down the long gravel driveway on his bicycle—-with a quart of cold water in his canteen. His predictable mannerisms seemed like they had been scripted for a stage play.
Rosilov only changed his ordered agenda when he wanted some personal entertainment. To get something started, he asked Bobby to tell about Holland, and for me to talk about Caddo Lake and East Texas. It was diverse dialogue—-me with stories about alligators, frog-gigging, and plump water moccasins, and Bobby describing his land of no snakes whatsoever. Bobby drew diagrams and explained the function of windmills. I was surprised to learn that the windmills actually did important work. I always thought they were only for tourists with Brownie cameras who wanted to prove their whereabouts when they intruded vacation slides on their neighbors.
Once we exchanged stories of lore. Bobby talked about the boy who plugged the hole in the dike with his finger and saved Holland from the Great Flood. I told a story of two Caddo Indian brothers who were banished from the tribe for fighting. The twin brothers became namesakes for two later settlements—-Nacogdoches, Texas, and Natchitoches, Louisiana. I told him that today the two towns are distanced apart by exactly one day’s ride east and one day’s west of the Sabine River. Bobby said he thought he heard my story on a Lone Ranger episode on the radio. I was sure he hadn’t, but I think it’s possible that my history teacher might have stolen the idea from the time Ruel Henry and Tommy Weaver got expelled for fist fighting in the cloakroom.
Bobby had seen movies of Indians, so he could relate to my Sabine River story. I had more trouble—-I couldn’t visualize a dike high enough to hold back an entire ocean. Besides—-the whole idea of a swamp turned into farmland was strange—-including the farmers. My only image of Dutch people was a kid wearing big wooden shoes—like the trademark portrait I saw on a Dutch Boy Creamed Wheat label. How could anybody be comfortable in shoes that didn’t flex at the arch? Wouldn’t they just float away in those flooded fields? Give me my Sears-Roebuck tennis shoes—-termite proof and never needing to be varnished.
The tutor explained more about wooden shoes. He said they were actually also called “sabots”—-the root of the word sabotage. He said militant Dutch workers threw their shoes into moving machinery to stop factory production and protest low wages. I pondered that. It seemed like the barefooted ones would have been early suspects.
“Do you have a jimmy hat like that kid on the Dutch-Boy cereal label wears?” I asked.
“Do you wear a big cowboy hat like Tim McCoy and Tom Mix wear?” was Bobby’s answer.
The tutor reveled in our exchange. I know it lightened his lesson plan for the day.
After school, Bobby and I raced outside to find our kites. Indonesians were a kite-flying and kite-fighting culture, and Bobby and I got right in the middle of it. In trade for our discarded soda bottles, the native boys showed us how to make fighting kites from bent bamboo and rice paper, and how to arm them with glass-coated string. Making good glass string was a delicate process but gave the kite its fighting edge. The sole object of kite fighting was to cut opposing kites out of the sky—a sort of last-man-standing contest.
A twenty-foot length of string was stretched between trees. Pieces of glass—-usually soda bottles, were pulverized in a rock basin—with tools resembling mortar and pestle. The powdered glass was mixed with “caa,” which was a glue made from dried fish and the milky sap from rubber trees. The glass “poultice” was smeared along the string and allowed to dry. The resulting twenty feet of glass-coated string became the leader line for the kite. The cutting action was achieved by a quick jerk of the string when two kites crossed.
In a crowd of kite-fighters, the Indonesians always attacked Bobby’s and my kites first—-in a collaborative effort to rid us from competition. It was my first taste of racism—symbolic as it might have been, and being on the receiving end of it.
Once our kites were cut they sailed away on strong thermal drafts—sometimes a mile or more. Bobby and I gave chase—a salvaged kite could be fighting again that very day. Luck was seldom with us. Dogs or children usually got to the kites first, or they landed high in rubber trees or bamboo thickets. Less than half were salvaged.
In time, Bobby and I got better at kite fighting and eventually the Indonesians respected us as equals. But we had a secret weapon. We invented a superior glass string using our fathers’ empty whiskey bottles. The brown shards were thin and razor-sharp and the resulting string was treacherous. The Indonesians knew our string was different because of its color. A couple of times we caught them spying on our string-making operation and chased them away. We never shared the technology. Bobby once acknowledged he probably inherited a little “Yankee—-Ingenuity” from me. It bothered me the way he said it—-both words separated by a long pause. Somehow the word Yankee, when said alone, sounded more like a curse than a compliment.
My mobility was about to change. After six months of suffering and begging, my father relented and bought me an English Racer bicycle. Bobby already owned one and wore me out when I tried to stay up with him while chasing kites or exploring back roads. The few times he let me ride double I had to sit on the handlebars and risk getting pitched off. Every bump resonated through my rear like an unearned paddling, and the soreness lasted a week.
When my father bought me the bike, he issued a one-line warning: “Don’t let me catch you acting foolish. I better not see any change in your grades, either.” It was his trademark way of negative reinforcement—-a presumption of guilt before the crime was even conceived. But I was used to my father’s rules. They were always terse and usually threatening. I privately mocked him in falsetto: “If you do this or that Mister, you will hear from me—-otherwise, probably not.”
Bobby and I were elated. We spent all our free time on the roads around Bandung and once rode all the way to the resort town of Lembang. We saw temples, shrines, and ruins of old towns tangled in vines and choked by bamboo. The tutor added factual history to the things we saw, which gave them life and meaning. There was so much mystery and beauty to this country—-all that had been lacking was the bicycle to transport me into its lush and fragrant countryside.
Bobby and I became close friends. We packed lunches for our travels and stopped along streams or rocky cliffs to rest and eat. We shared more stories about our lives, our homelands, and families. Bobby taught me about his culture, the differences in education systems, and the close family structures of the Dutch—which I envied. We talked about our favorite foods—his was chocolate. Bobby said in Holland, chocolate was a daily staple—always plentiful and available without asking. Now I knew why he bragged about the Dutch way of life. I told him American boys were forced to suffer creamed corn and broccoli in order to earn so much as a solitary nugget of chocolate.
I told Bobby about a chocolate experience on board ship the time my father and I sailed from Hawaii to the Philippine Islands on a freighter.
“One day I found a five-dollar bill on the floor in the passageway. It was wet and crumpled and looked like it blew inside from the deck. I took the money to the ship’s store and bought an entire box of Hershey bars. I think there were twenty-four in the carton.” I could see Bobby was living my story with me. A line of saliva began to slide from the corner of his mouth.
“I took the box of candy bars up to bridge deck and wedged myself into a corner near the smokestack, then ate the entire box. By the time I got back to main deck I was vomiting over the ship’s side.”
Bobby was rolling in the grass with laughter. “Did your father find out?” He asked.
“I never told him,” I said. “I didn’t need any lectures just then. I just needed something to settle my stomach. It swelled and hurt like the time my friend Terry Weeks dared me to eat a double-handful of green plums. But that night at dinner Dad noticed I didn’t eat. I told him I was seasick but I don’t think he believed me. We were already forty days out to sea and all the early “sea-legs” sickness had long since passed.”
When Bobby was rolling around laughing I noticed his really rotten teeth—-looking a bit like rows of little brown acorn shells. I remembered my grandmother’s warning about chocolate—about its being the worst thing in the world for teeth. But she also told me that if I lied my nose would grow—-and it didn’t. There was hope that Bobby’s teeth were all crumbly because of something else—hopefully broccoli.
It was a boring Sunday morning. The pilots and their wives had repented on our veranda, and had vanished to wherever they went after church. Bobby and I decided to ride south to the little town of Sembulan. On the way home we decided on a wager. There were two roads back, one through the rubber forests, and another that wound along the rice paddies. The bet was who would arrive at my gate first, and the loser would give up his fighting kite as a prize. On the count of three we took off on our separate routes. I felt a decided advantage since my bicycle had three speeds instead of two. And Bobby looked milky white that day—sniffling and rubbing his red bulbous nose on his sleeve.
I traveled in highest gear, pumping as fast as my legs could wind. I had just come down a steep hill at high speed and had to lean into a sharp curve. Flooded rice fields flanked both sides of the road, and crops were being tended by a group of farmers. On one side of the road was a Babu, and on the other side was a little girl playing with a kick-ball. As I approached, the Babu called the child to her. As she crossed my path, the bicycle clipped the girl hard and sent her tumbling in the road like a melon skidding off a truck. I stopped and dismounted—-amidst frantic screams from the Babu and the soft wails of the injured girl. I saw blood on my twisted front fender and more was flowing from the cut in the little girl’s forehead.
Suddenly out of the rice fields came a group of six or eight farmers—-rushing toward me and brandishing hoes. I jumped back on my bike and sped away—-fearing for my very life. The men ran after me, raising up their tools and shouting words I did not understand. Their fanatical shouts soon dissipated—-as their cries mingled with fresh wind and the drumbeat of my runaway heart. I raced for home like it was a finish line at the Olympics.
Once safe at my house, I hid the bicycle in the shrubs and went into the garage, where the fury of my panting could have easily drowned out the sound of Eddie’s gong. I lay on the floor and closed my eyes. The concrete was cool—-it caused me to draw my knees up to my chest tight enough to cause discomfort. Where was Eddie? I feared he might discover my bike.
There was noise in the gravel driveway. I looked up and saw Bobby getting off his bicycle. He turned and faced the gate—-expecting me to come up the driveway any second. He was sure that he beat me home. Bobby sat on the grass for about ten minutes, picking up bits of gravel and tossing them at the gong. He kept looking at his watch. Then, as if late for something, he left—-looking back over his shoulder twice as he made his way back down the driveway to the gate.
Bobby had been gone about five minutes when two Jeeps crackled their way up the driveway and stopped at the front walk. One Jeep driver was my father—-the other man I didn’t know. They walked right to the hedges and took my bicycle out of hiding. I saw them looking at the front fender and gritted my teeth so hard I thought one cracked. My father rubbed his fingers together after scraping off what I knew to be blood from the bicycle. Then he wiped his hands on his khaki pants in a way that reminded me of the disgust he held for excess grease on the brake gear of his airplanes.
They came inside. I cringed and slid further behind the stacks of empty soda bottle cases stacked beside our Morris Minor town car.
“Tim! Tim, I know you’re in the house. Come to the living room now. Don’t make me come looking for you.” There was sternness in his voice—-like the time I accidentally killed our pet parrot Gus with my slingshot—-then tried to hide the bird in my underwear drawer.
The fear of my father coming after me was balanced on the scale against what might be waiting for me if I went. I chose what seemed to be the lesser of two sure things. As I entered the living room, I saw my father sitting on the rattan chair near the glass-jalousie windows. Next to him on the sofa was a man wearing an Indonesian Air Force uniform. The man was about thirty—-with a look on his face that was a cross between Abraham Lincoln’s honor and Count Dracula’s lust. I felt the chill of bared fangs approaching my white-fleshed neck.
“This is Colonel Joseph,” my father said. ”I believe you have some business with him and his daughter. Go with him and face your music.” With that bit of sentencing-without-trial, my father left the room.
There was no conversation as I rode with the Colonel. It was the longest trip I ever took. I metered our distance from the panorama of the Jeep’s side mirror. The palm trees dissolved behind me in painful slow motion. I closed my eyes to visions of the hoe-wielding farmers that were surely waiting for me. By now they were rested—-and their blows upon my body would be all the more brutal—-bolstered by having caught their second wind.
My dreams were vivid. I hoped my father would give my damaged bicycle to Bobby for the parts—-and my kite too—-even though Bobby lost the race. Yes, perhaps my father would know to do this—-in the absence of a will.
We turned into a driveway and parked. Two rows of hoe-men were standing there at attention, awaiting the Colonel’s signal to attack. I maneuvered through the rice-soldier gauntlet—brushing against their sweaty arms and feeling their ire flowing over me like hot caramel. The farmers looked me up and down as I squeezed between them. Individually claiming specific body parts—- I figured.
Inside was the Babu and what I perceived to be the lifeless body of a small girl wrapped in a blue and gold sarong. Funeral shroud? But her eyes were open! Her eyes probably hadn’t been closed yet by the coroner—-sometimes it’s necessary to put coins on eyelids to weight them down. Coroner out of pocket change, I guess.
The Colonel sliced through the awful silence with his broken English. “You must kneel before little Tujur and see her wound—-you must then apologize to her for your deed and for leaving her in the road with no concern and assistance from you.”
I knelt at the side of her bed. Tujur was indeed alive! Her eyes shifted from their blank stare and focused on my face. She was so angelic, so little, and I turned my face away from the deep cut and the swollen blueness of her forehead. I had spoiled her delicate features like a mad painter destroys his half-finished art.
“You must look at Tujur,” said the Colonel, “and see what you did with your riding carelessness. If she favors you with a smile, all will be forgotten. If not, you will serve penance for your crime from today and forward.” The word “forward” was the first positive sign of the day—it implied I might be looking at something short of a terminal sentence. Maybe the hoe-down might be called off?
I leaned down close to Tujur’s face. “I am so terribly sorry,” I said. “I was afraid of the farmers with their hoes—-I just ran away. Please forgive me—-please.” Then I closed my eyes again and prayed. What if she doesn’t understand English and can’t smile even if she wants to? What if the cut somehow severed facial ligaments and Tujur might never smile again? My life rested on a potentially impaired single facial expression. Outside, hoes were in ready. Were there torches yet? Mobs always carry lit torches.
Tears were streaming down my cheek and Tujur leaned over and wiped them away with her tiny hand. Then, like a wild orchid opening itself to bloom, a smile graced her face. The smile became a grin.
“It’s Okay,” Tujur said—-a perfectly beautiful English phrase I was thankful she learned somewhere.
The Colonel and I left the house with little Tujur sitting up and being fed warm broth. Again—-no words were spoken as we drove away. The farmers were walking back to their fields largely disappointed—-with their hoes reluctantly positioned at-ease. They would have to settle for a lesser snake than me that day.
When we arrived at my house the Colonel placed a hand on my shoulder—-a shoulder that was quivering like the fruity gelatin we sometimes got from the States.
“Go. Learn from this. A man is responsible for everything he does by his own hand. You cannot run from the marks you leave on life—-you cannot heal what sins you cast upon innocent others. You can only beg forgiveness and not repeat the deed.” I thanked him as I slithered out of the Jeep like a crimson serpent. I could not look at him for my red shame.
Inside, my father was eating supper and I slid into my place at the long teak table. My fork shook. I didn’t even know what was on my plate as I spooned a substance into my tongueless mouth. I could only taste the sting of worthlessness.
The short-wave radio was playing symphony music on the American Radio Network. The sounds were a thousand miles away.
My father was silent. Just once, I thought—-say something. He did not. We never spoke of the incident again.
Now I knew what it was like to face life-consequences alone. I told Bobby about it the next morning—-so my friend could learn from my mistake without suffering the same pain and anguish.
And then, I gave him my fighting kite wager.
|go to forums|