My First Trip

In the way some teenagers are obsessed with music and others with sports or a particular hobby, I was fascinated by the world.  During World War II, American armies in Europe or Asia headlined the news every day, and I think it was the limits of my own world that made these distant places so intriguing.  Gas rationing and only one family car limited my travels to the three miles between our farm and school.

A Bing Crosby song of 1948 captured my dreams:

            Far away places with strange sounding names, Far away over the sea

            Those far away places with the strange sounding names are, Calling,  Calling me

            Goin’ to China or maybe Siam,  I wanna see for myself,

            Those far away places I’ve been reading about in a book that I took from a shelf

Finally, during Christmas holiday in my freshman college year, Dad planned a long-anticipated family trip.  Seven of us packed into our Chevrolet sedan for the trip, first to visit family in Houston and then on into Mexico.

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Not the houses I knew

The camera I received for Christmas would capture the exotic sights, and in my diary, I recorded events day by day. “January 6: South of Laredo we went through an area of cactus, sagebrush and mesquite. The grass between these plants was so bare you could hardly see it.  In the very scattered villages, we found many adobe huts made from mud blocks, often with thatched roofs, of leaves taken from one kind of cactus. …Several miles out of Laredo, we saw a faint blue outline of a mountain range to the left.  This was our first mountain and I was very thrilled at the sight of it.”Folder001_00001A

folder001_00002a.jpgDespite more than a few hardships, each day was exciting. We only had time to go as far as the Tropic of Cancer to get me back to my college in Missouri for the start of second semester classes, but it was still almost too much to absorb.

The concluding sentence of my diary said it all:  I love Mexico.

In fact, I would have loved any destination outside the rural Midwest, but Mexico was a great beginning in my exploration of  faraway places.

 

 

A Christmas Memory

We all knew that, if there was a Santa, he was likely to miss our house.  After Dad sold the newly harvested corn and soy beans, I heard my parents worrying whether the money received would cover loans that had sustained the family through the growing season.  Our food came from jars Mother preserved from our summer garden, supplemented by a weekly fried chicken.

1-img195     The year was 1936.  I remember exactly because my youngest sister, Mary, who was born in 1934, was an active two-year-old.

I was eight, and already knew there was no Santa Claus although I joined my parents at pretending for the sake of the three younger ones.  You see us in this picture.  No one had asked what we wanted for Christmas.  The year before, Santa brought us each an orange, and we hoped for a similar treat this year.

A school bus picked Larry and me up and carried us three miles to the school that served the community around Oakwood, Ohio.  Like many other families, we did not have a car.

When I arrived home on one chilly day as winter approached, I was disappointed not to find Mother in her usual place in the kitchen.  Calling, “I’m home, where are you,” brought a faint answer from upstairs.  In a moment, Mother appeared, flustered and out of breath with a vague explanation of taking care of things upstairs.  When I went looking for her on another day, she was in the attic, again “taking care of things.”

We hung our stockings on Christmas eve, with some confidence they would be filled with candy and cookies Mother made, and perhaps a precious orange.  Mother made all our clothes, so under the tree, I might have something special she had stitched while I was at school.

On Christmas morning, we raced down the stairs and stopped in our tracks at the marvel we saw.  Surrounding the tree were wonderful, brightly painted creations we could never have imagined.  My name was on a doll bed, painted a bright blue, complete with straw-filled mattress and quilt, exactly the right size for my doll. Helen had a rocking chair for her doll.  Mary had a cart with two big wheels and a handle to pull, and Larry had a regular wagon with four wheels—all made from familiar scraps of lumber and paint we recognized as left over from another use.   We also found dresses and jackets that Mother had made, but they were not such a surprise.

Although I have received lovely gifts in the many years since that Christmas, I can’t remember a Christmas morning that brought greater joy.  Even as young as I was, I recognized the love bound up in the bright blue doll bed.  In a house without electricity, Mother’s days were filled with work, but she had managed—with some help from Dad—to  make a joyous Christmas at a time when such moments were rare.

Remembering Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941 was a cold, blustery day in northern Ohio. That afternoon, my brother and I sat with Dad in the wagon as we rode back into our woods to bring in firewood for the winter. A few days earlier, Dad and a neighbor had cut down a tree and sawed it into two foot sections.  Now, Dad split those chunks of wood into firewood that would fit our stoves.  My job was to carry those pieces and stack them in the wagon, where the horses waited patiently. I was twelve, one day short of my thirteenth birthday.  Thinking of the next day, I wondered if Mother would kill a chicken for my special meal.  I knew there would be cake.  Yum.

We arrived home tired and hungry. Mother had bean soup simmering, and with our arrival, added wood to the cook stove to heat up the oven, and began to mix cornbread.  While I warmed my hands, Dad turned on the radio.

We heard, “planes destroyed on Hickman Field…battleships burning …waves of Japanese planes.” The announcer was almost hoarse from shouting.  We listened, mesmerized.

After a moment, Mother said, “What about Mack?”  Dad’s brother, Mack, was a commander in the Navy, stationed at Pearl Harbor.

Dad laughed, “This isn’t real. Don’t be like those who panicked over an invasion of men from Mars. Mack is just fine.”  Three years earlier, an Orson Welles radio production, “War of the Worlds,” appeared as a simulated news report of an invasion by Martians. Many who tuned in too late to hear the program introduction believed it was actually happening.

We relaxed, but still listened, glad it wasn’t real because it sounded horrible. To save the battery, Dad usually only turned on the radio for the news, but we all insisted that he keep this program on, so we could see how it ended.  When it didn’t conclude at the end of the hour, Mother and Dad exchanged glances.  Finally, Mother sank down at the table with her head in her hands.

Dad shook his head. “This will mean war.”

The next day, President Roosevelt addressed the nation as he declared war on Japan.  It seemed likely war with Japan’s ally, Germany, would follow.  A year earlier, concern over the war in Europe led to passage of draft registration for men up to age 35. Now Congress proposed to raise the age limit to 45. Dad was 36. Her face lined with worry, Mother asked Dad how she could possibly operate the farm without him. He tried to reassure her this wouldn’t happen.

They forgot my birthday.  I wanted to remind them, but that seemed selfish in this situation.

Introduction

When Muslims are seen as a threat and large sections of Syria, Iraq and Yemen lay in ruins, I treasure the symbolism of this photo I took during my years teaching in Bahrain: the towers of a mosque adjoining a Christian church.

The Middle East is the historic home of three faiths:  Judaism, Christianity and Islam, related, but different, all followers of the one God.  Over the last sixty years, events have stressed that tolerance, but these places of worship remain.

After the attacks on 9/11, when I became more aware of how little many Americans knew of this region, I wrote Crowded with Voices:  Thirteen Years in the Middle East.  I hoped to share my experiences and insights with readers who will never set foot in the area.  Citizens of a super power that regularly affects this region for good or harm bear a responsibility to understand and to support wise actions.

I transferred to Germany in 1989, just before the first Gulf War, but returned to visit friends in 2006.  In 2009, I extended my visit, traveling—by car—through Iran with two friends.

Events have shaken the area since I left my home there.  Bahrain and its neighbors have dealt with the second Gulf War, the rise of Al Qaeda, the Iraq War, the Arab Spring and the spread of ISIS.  Hundreds of thousands across the Middle East have died and even more have been displaced.  The future is uncertain.

I lived there during a more peaceful time, although tranquility—in Bahrain especially—was rudely destroyed by the Khomeini Revolution in Iran.  Those events in 1979 shook our school community as the Defense Department evacuated dependents of our teachers.  Those changes in Iran continue to roil the region and challenge our foreign policy.

When I received the call offering me a job in Bahrain, I did not know where that was. The person who called from Washington told me it was in the Middle East.  I had to look on a map to find where I would be going. My history classes—high school and college—concentrated on this country and Europe.  Since so much news has focused on the area, I hope Americans now are more aware. However, an article describing the latest violence is a very inadequate introduction to the lives of the people whose ancestors have lived there for centuries.

My interests are not limited to the Persian Gulf area.  I was teaching in Germany when the Berlin wall came down, and when East and West Germany came together.  During my years in Germany, I traveled extensively through neighboring countries.  These blogs will cover a lot of territory.  I hope you will enjoy the trip.