Location: Jefferson, TX
Published in: Carolina Country Magazine, South Ocean Review, Writers Choice Literary Journal, Creativity Magazine, New Beginnings, Calliope, Story Bytes
THE SECOND BIRTHING OF YOUNG TIM
I was the stocky little captain. He was the small and frail one, looking like he had missed most of his meal calls or had drank excessively of bad goat's milk. But Bobby Pottsmith was the only other white kid anywhere around. So we became friends by default---like waking up after washing ashore together on an island beach---one having matches and the other a pocketknife.
It was June of 1949, and we had settled in Bandung, on the island of Java. Indonesia was in upheaval, as was much of the Far East after the war. My father was there to help provide structure and order to the beginnings of the fledgling Indonesian Air Force. It was just a haphazard collection of airplanes---mostly a few P-40C fighters and Douglas C-47's that had surfaced from here and there after the destruction of Japan was complete. My father was to be their mentor, their instructor---providing American leadership and training to eager young Indonesian pilots.
He had been one of the storied Flying Tigers, and a survivor of numerous 18,000-foot forays over the Hump, that portion of the Himalayans between India and China. It had been a glorious and adventurous time---and one that had been vital in the protection of the Burma Road.
His work life was swashbuckling, and his home life was absentee. I spent my days with a Babu, which was a combination cook and housekeeper-nanny. Outside there was Supulua, the full-time gardener that doubled as a daytime security guard. At night, the security watch continued with another armed guard who rang a small gong on the porch each hour on-the-hour, a kind of cymbal-bleating all's well. I wondered many times why he did that---no one heard it once they fell asleep. Perhaps it was for his own
consolation---like pinching oneself in reassurance.
When my father would come in at night, I was either already asleep, or preparing my lessons for the tutor the next morning. He would ask the Babu about the day, and she would render what was almost a formal report. When she then retired to her portico room for the night, he would stop by my bedroom for a minute---usually for a clumsy "hello-how-are-you," or more often just a glance and a smile that seemed to suggest that the Babu's review had been accepted without issue.
On weekends, I would see a little more of him. Most of the officers and pilots who were part of his staff would get together at our house and watch 16mm movies that came by rental subscription from the States. The movies were mostly westerns, but with a few Tarzan episodes now and then. The group of men and their wives would converse about the things going on in America, and they would cook lamb and pepper sate on a wood-fired grill, with a special peanut-butter and curry sauce, and corn-on-the-cob wrapped and grilled in banana leaves.
Most of the same group would show back up on Sunday morning at eleven for the makeshift church service. One of the pilots had once been a missionary, and he took leadership of the somewhat-inattentive throng. They would sing from a copy of the Methodist Hymnal---to the chinky and irreverent accompaniment of a banjo. It was a paradox---seeing those same hands clutching Bibles that the night before were two-fisting the many bottles of Chinese beer.
That's when I met little Bobby Pottsmith. He was Dutch, but spoke surprisingly good English. His point of reference in life, though, was completely Dutch---he had never been to the United States, and until recently had not known any Americans.
Like so many others I had met in Asia, he believed that everyone that lived in Texas slept with cows and horses, had dozens of oil wells, and fought Indians by day and night. His judgement of that part of it was harsh---about how we had stolen our country from the peaceful natives, and immediately began the process of killing them off so they couldn't tell. Then we tried to make it seem okay, he said, by honoring them with their portraits on our five-cent pieces and on cigar boxes, and naming Arizona for them. Other than that bit of knowledge---and I wasn't sure about the Arizona part---he had only seen postcards depicting the Statue of Liberty and the Rose Bowl. That was the extent of his knowledge of America.
He certainly looked my stereotype Dutch. He had a shock of almost white hair---combed backward and looking like that brush that barbers use to whisk away freshly clipped hair. He had a prominent scar across his nose, and he could bend it almost flat to his face---it had been broken from the glass globe on a falling light fixture.
All he lacked was a jimmy hat and some button-suspenders to complete my image.
We were in the same grade, and when school started, we both attended classes in the library of our home with the daily lessons supplied by mail from The Calvert Correspondence School. A tutor would arrive at eight in the morning, and we would study until two, then an hour of reading, and school was out for that day.
The tutor used the opportunity for some cross-culture examination. Bobby would tell about Holland, and I would talk about Caddo Lake and East Texas. It was diverse dialogue---me with stories about water moccasins, copperheads, and alligators, and Bobby describing the land of no snakes whatsoever. He would diagram and explain the function of the windmills---something I had always thought were only for posing with tourists and Kodak cameras.
We both had our fiction, or lore---his about the boy who plugged the hole in the dike with his finger, and me with my story of the two Indian boys who were sent away in punishment---namesakes for two settlements, Nacogdoches, Texas, and Natchitoches, Louisiana. I told him that today they still lie apart by one day's ride east and one west of the Sabine River. Bobby said he thought he had heard that one before. I was sure he hadn't.
Bobby had seen movies of Indians, so he could relate to my story easily. I had more trouble; I couldn't exactly visualize a dike. The only other references I had of his land were the image on boxes of Dutch Boy creamed wheat and those clumsy wooden shoes. How could anyone feel comfortable in them? Give me my Sears Roebuck tennis shoes---termite proof, and never needing to be varnished.
The tutor explained more about those shoes. He said they were called sabots, or klompens---and were the root of the word sabotage---when Dutch militant workers had thrown them into the gears to stop factory production as protest over something. I pondered that. It seemed like the barefooted ones would have been fairly early suspects.
"Do you have a jimmy hat like that kid on the cereal box wears?" I asked.
"Do you wear a cowboy hat like Tom Mix wears?" was his answer.
The tutor reveled in this exchange. I am sure it lightened his lesson plan for the day.
After school, we would race to 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 would show us how to make fighting kites from bent bamboo and rice paper, and how to arm them with glass-fibered string. It was a delicate process, but if performed correctly, would give the kite that fighting edge---the object being to cut
opposing kites out of the sky.
A twenty-yard length of string was stretched between trees. Pieces of glass---usually soda bottles, were pulverized in a rock basin---like a mortar and pestle---then mixed with caa, a glue fabricated from dried fish. The substance was then smeared along the string and allowed to dry. A sawing motion with this string would sever a kite from its loft and send it withering back to earth. So it was actually a battle of glass-string prowess and positioning, more than of kite design.
The Indonesians would always attack Bobby's and my kites first---in joint effort to drop us out of competition. It was my first taste of symbolic racism---and being on the receiving end of it.
Once a kite got cut, it would drift away, perhaps a mile or more, and we would give chase and try to salvage it for another fight. As luck would have it, dogs or children would get them first, or they would land high in rubber trees or bamboo thickets. Only about half were salvaged.
All in all though, we defended the honor of our two nations pretty well. But then, we had discovered some superior glass---the imported American whiskey jugs that our fathers donated to the cause were much better than mere soda bottles. The brown shards were thin and razor-sharp, and we kept them hidden from the Indonesians. Yankee treachery at its best, applied to the unsuspecting.
My mobility was about to change. After six months of suffering and begging, my father relented and bought me an English Racer bicycle. Bobby had one all along, and I had never been able to stay up with him when we chased after kites or went on Saturday explorations. My father issued this one-line warning: "Don't let me catch you acting crazy or not taking care of this bike." It was his trademark method of negative reinforcement, and the presumption of guilt before the crime was committed. It was like so much of our typically minimal interactions. If you do this or that, you will hear from me. Otherwise, probably not.
Bobby and I were elated. We spent all available free time on the roads around the outskirts of Bandung. There were sights that Bobby showed me that had up until then been out of reach simply because of my previous transportation deficiency. It was a newfound freedom---an awakening, and we savored every minute together.
We became better friends, and talked for hours about our homes when we would stop along our travels to eat our packed lunches. He taught me a great deal, the differences in education, the close family structures of the Dutch, and about the favorite foods he liked---not the least of which was an over-abundance of chocolate. He told me that chocolate was accepted as a daily staple, and was always available in quantity. I knew then, I would have liked the Dutch way of life. We Texan-Americans, I told him, had to suffer turnip greens or broccoli in order to earn even as much as a lusted-after Hershey's Kiss.
But I noticed Bobby had rotten teeth, looking a lot like rows of little brown stalagmites. I remembered my grandmother's warning about chocolates and pearly whites not being altogether compatible. But she also told me that if I lied, my nose would grow, and it didn't---so there was hope that Bobby's teeth were crumbly because of something else indeed---who knows, perhaps even broccoli.
One day we had ridden toward the little town of Sembulan, and at the crossroads leading back home, we split up. Bobby headed west, and I southwest, with a wager as to which of us would arrive back home first. Each put up his fighting kite as the prize.
I was in the highest gear, pedaling as fast as my legs could unwind, when I topped a small knoll. To my left was a Babu, and to the right was a small child, who she beckoned to come quickly to her. As the child crossed the road in my path, my front fender clipped her and she tumbled over and over in the road like a carelessly kicked melon. I stopped and dismounted, amidst the frantic screams of the Babu and the soft wails of the injured girl. I saw blood on my twisted front fender, and more flowing from the cut in her forehead.
Just then, out of the rice fields, with hoes raised high, came a group of eight to ten young men, rushing toward me. I mounted my bike and sped away, fearing for my very life. They ran after me, brandishing their tools and shouting words I did not understand nor care to have translated.
Once home, I hid the bicycle in the shrubs and went into the garage, where the fury of my panting would drown out the sound of the all's-well gong. But indeed, I knew it was not all's well.
From my hiding place, I saw Bobby come up the driveway. He was sure he had beaten me home. He stood around for about ten minutes, picking up bits of gravel and tossing them at the hanging gong. He kept looking at his watch, and then, as if about to be late for something, he left---looking back over his shoulder several times as he made his way slowly down the driveway to the gate.
He had been gone about ten minutes when two Jeeps crackled their way up the gravel and stopped at the front walk. One was my father, the other man I did not know. They walked to the hedges and took the bicycle out of hiding. They both examined the front fender---my father smelling his fingers after scraping off what I knew to be blood.
They came inside. I cringed as I 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 start looking for you." It was a stern command---like the time I accidentally killed our pet parrot, Gus, with a misguided missile from my slingshot---then tried to hide the bird in my socks drawer.
The fear of my father coming looking for me was balanced on the scale against what would 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 could see that there was an Indonesian Air Force uniform standing there. It housed a tall man of about thirty, with a look on his face that was a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Count Dracula, as he bared his fangs to approach 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.
I rode with the stranger back to the scene. It was the longest ride I ever took. I had visions of the hoe-wielding firing squad that was surely waiting for me. By now they were rested I thought, and their blows upon my body would be all the more brutal, bolstered by their second wind.
I hoped my father would give my slightly damaged bicycle to Bobby, and would give the kite to him too, even though he lost the race. Yes, perhaps my father would know to do this, in the absence of a written will.
We drove into a driveway and parked. Rows of hoe-men were standing there at attention, awaiting the Colonel's signal to attack. We brushed past the rice-soldier gauntlet---with all eyes fixed on me. Claiming individually 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---probably hadn't been closed yet by the coroner, I thought.
The very tall Colonel spoke good English. "You must kneel before little Tujur and kiss her wound---you must then apologize to her for your deed and for leaving her in the road with no assistance from you."
I did those three things. Her eyes shifted and focused on my face---a definite sign of life. She was so angelic, so little, and I had to quickly look away from the cut and scrape that I had delivered across her delicate features.
"You must to look at her," said the Colonel, "and see what you have done with your riding carelessness. If she forgives you with a smile, all will be forgotten. If not, you will serve your crime from today and forward." The word forward was the first clue that what might be in store for me might be short of a terminal sentence. Maybe the hoedown would be called off?
"I am so very terribly sorry," I said, then said it again. "I was so afraid of the many farmers, I just ran away. Please forgive me, please." Then I closed my eyes and prayed. What if she doesn't understand English and can't smile even if she wants to, I anguished. What if the cut and abrasion somehow had severed her facial ligaments and she could never smile again? My life and future rested on a potentially impaired single facial expression. Outside, hoes were in ready. Had they lit torches yet? Mobs always have lit torches.
Tears were streaming down my face and she leaned over and wiped them away with her tiny hand. Then, like a wild orchid opening itself to bloom, a smile crossed her face. It became a grin.
"Okay," she said---a perfectly beautiful English term I was glad she had somewhere learned.
No further words were spoken as the Colonel and I drove away. The legion of farmers was walking back to their fields largely disappointed, with their hoes now reluctantly positioned at-ease.
When we arrived at my house, the Colonel placed a hand on my shoulder---a shoulder that was quivering like that fruity gelatin we so rarely got from the States.
"Go. Learn from this that 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 sin." I thanked him as I crawled out of the Jeep like a crimson serpent, and I could not look at him for my red shame.
Inside, my father was quietly eating his supper, and I slid into my place at the table. My fork shook like a loosening autumn leaf in the wind. I didn't even know what was on my plate. The short-wave radio was playing a soft sound from the American Music Network. It truly seemed its thousands of miles away, like my heart.
My father was silent. Just once, I thought, say something. He did not. We never spoke of the incident again.
I knew then what it was like to face one's life-consequences all alone. I would tell Bobby of it, so that my friend could learn of these things without actually suffering them.
And then, with newfound humility outweighing my unclaimed victory in the race we had run, I gave him my fighting kite wager.
-- First Published in Calliope --