Commencement Address

Commencement Address
College of Education and College of Liberal and Fine Arts
Tarleton State University
December 16, 2006, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon

President McCabe, family and friends, fellow faculty, librarians, the staff who work behind the scenes to help this place run smoothly and, most important, graduates. On this day in 1945, a four year old boy stood on the platform of the Johannesburg railway station in what was then called the Union of South Africa, waiting for the train that was to take his mother to Durban, the port city where his father was due to disembark, having sailed from Singapore where he had spent the previous three and a half years as a prisoner of war. Waiting on the platform was a woman, dressed in black from the neck down with an imposing veil covering all of her hair and a good bit of her face. She was a nun and, as it turned out, billeted with the boy’s mother in the same sleeping car compartment. Looking at this strange apparition the little boy asked, “What are you for?”

This afternoon, sixty one years to the day later, that boy, fast approaching the twilight of his life, stands before you to ask the question again. What are you for?

It is an innocent question, a simple one to ask, but hard to answer. For if your experience is anything like mine it is a question that will engage each of you for the rest of your life. For the past four, perhaps five, even six years, it is likely that your major pre-occupation was to “get out of here.” This afternoon you reached that goal, and we are all gathered to mark the occasion, the end of one phase of your life and the beginning of another. So now I ask you to ask yourselves, as you commence to take on the world: “What am I for?” I have a couple of suggestions for your consideration that may help you find some answers.

First, be for learning, always and all ways. You are off to a good start, having completed Baccalaureate Degrees, but don’t stop now, for there is work to be done. And always remember that learning is mostly about talking. I know this is not how we conduct things here at Tarleton, where people like me do most of the talking while people like you sit passively listening. It is a habit that is hard to break, derived from the days when there was a paucity of books. The lecturer would condense the information contained in them to deliver to the student, a most efficient means of conveyance, but not particularly effective. How many of us, once the final is over, remember anything from the lectures we heard, no matter how brilliant they were. Yet put us in a seminar, dedicated to the principle that the best learning takes place when people talk and then real learning takes place. So get into the seminar habit. Be a talker, whether at work or at play, in the office or on the shop floor, in the kitchen or around the dining table, at the end of the day.

Learn a language other than your own. This will increase your vocabulary, give you new ways to talk and therefore to learn and, most important, enhance your understanding of the world in which we live. Language is a key to understanding other cultures, the booming, buzzing confusion of this world, and understanding is what we lack most of all in these parlous times. This view is echoed in the title of a recently published book, What the Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat. The author, Louise Richardson, argues that the global war on terror is unwinnable because its fundamental premise, that terrorism can be vanquished by military means, ignores the lessons of history. Many years ago, in the midst of the cold war, which held my generation in its thrall far too long, the economist and Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling suggested in his book The Strategy of Conflict that if the world’s super powers, then the U.S. and the Soviet Union, would open up their borders to each other, they would soon learn the true motivation of the other and conclude that their respective commitments to building ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction was both futile and, in the end, unnecessary. Twenty or more years were to pass before the truth of this assertion began to be played out and, for a brief shining moment, it looked as though the promise of democracy spreading like wildfire across Eastern Europe, once dominated by Soviet military power, would be fulfilled. Then a new world of disorder began. The catalyst was the break up of Yugoslavia. A consequence was the unleashing of an ancient practice made all the more deadly by the use of modern technology, the tactic of terror, an asymmetric form of warfare, so very difficult for civilized people organized in nation states such as ours to deal with, never mind comprehend. Yet comprehend it we must, if order in our world is ever to be restored without losing something even more precious, our liberty.

As some of you know I am a child of empire, an empire upon which the sun never set. Well, it did, as it will on our empire too, one of these days. True, America is not a colonial empire in the ordinary sense, though we do possess some islands in the Pacific, managed by the Department of the Interior as virtual colonies. Then there is the matter of our westward expansion in the nineteenth century. Our predecessors called it Manifest Destiny, which belied the often bloody reality of conquest. And now our nation’s reach is imperial in its global commitments, both civil and military.

This brings me to the matter of your destiny, and my second piece of unsolicited advice. Always be a teacher. I am not talking here about teaching in its formal sense, though many of you will pursue careers in that honorable and vital profession. Instead I am advocating something broader, deeper, and more significant. I am urging you to become good listeners. For just as learning is mostly about talking, teaching is mostly about listening. Listen to the rhythms of life pulsing through your bodies and in the environment all around you, both natural and cultural. Listen to the music of the spheres, as the ancients described the rhythms of the cosmos. Most important, listen to each other, your friends and neighbors, of course, but your adversaries too. Because if you do I know that you will find they share the same aspirations as you, even though the path they choose to attain them is different from yours. I know the burden I have just put on your shoulders is a heavy one indeed, one that I have recoiled from more often than I care to admit. So to ease the burden a bit let me suggest one way that will help you down this path. Listen to the immigrants in our midst. They like you, if you are like me, or like your parents, or grandparents or great grandparents unto the nth generation, if they came to these shores at earlier times, have made America what it is today, a huge tossed salad in an enormous bowl. Be kind to them. Welcome them, not only because they are human beings like you, but because the future of this nation, which is to say your future and mine, will be far more secure if we can reclaim the spirit of optimism and possibility that was the hallmark of our country in the days before 9/11.

I do not mean to minimize this event. It was cataclysmic in every way, shaking the confidence of our nation to the core of its being and teaching us in shattering ways that we, the world’s only super power, are just as vulnerable to the forces of evil as “the least of these my people.” But what lesson have we learned? It is still far from clear to me, but I fear the possibility of a renewed closing of our minds along with the closing of our borders. The building of walls, the deployment of troops, the actions of some cities and the proposals of our state to make life more difficult for those immigrants whom we dub illegal, on the assumption that these measures will make us safer. Perhaps they will, but at what cost? Consider this. It is commonplace for those on the other side of the fence, those who favor minimal restriction on immigration to echo the admonition of the apostle Paul who once said “where there is no law, neither is there violation,” to cite the many jobs performed, often by illegals, that simply would not get done if they were all shipped back to where they came from. And speaking of illegal behavior, have you ever noticed how routinely “we the people” of this great state and nation flaunt or outright ignore the “highway code?” These rules are law and their violation is illegal. Imagine what the country would look like if every driver who committed an illegal act was deported? Pretty soon only the very young and the very old would be left. Certainly you can dismiss the idea as the product of a mind weakened by years of toil in an ivory tower. But I have a very practical reason for urging you to think seriously about immigration. We need immigrants not only to come, but to stay, to contribute to the continued growth and prosperity of this nation. And you especially need them to help you shore up our soon to falter Medicare program and our eventually to falter Social Security system, unless of course you are prepared to birth a lot more babies than you have been birthing of late.

You and your generation are simply not reproducing at the rate of your grandparents. Meanwhile, their offspring, the baby boomers, will soon be in line behind me drawing on these funds in ever increasing numbers while your generation, depleted as you are by changing lifestyles and different choices will be faced with ever bigger bills. A rational immigration policy that conserves our fundamental values and does not needlessly and cruelly divide families could be the salvation of our nation. And if none of this persuades, let me remind you that our president, wrong about so much, is right about this. We need an immigration policy that welcomes strangers and makes them friends which, unless I am very much mistaken, is also a precept of the faith which so many Americans proclaim, in word, if not in deed.

So there you have it, two thoughts for today, which I hope will inspire you to think bigger thoughts and take bigger actions as you proceed down the path of life. I have enjoyed this brief time with you, even though I did all the talking and you did all the listening, reversing the advice I have just dispensed. But that is the way of things in the academy. There is a form to follow; we all have our appointed roles. Mine is about to end, others will perform theirs, and then you will be free to go on your way to celebrate. Before I stand down, however, I want to share another story with you, an immigrant’s story, told by one whose ancestors came to these shores before there was any law other than the laws of nature and of nature’s God. She was a Cherokee, an elder who was talking with her grandchildren about life. She said to them.

“A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf represents pride, anger, fear, greed, envy, arrogance, and indifference. The other wolf stands for humility, temperance, justice, courage, faith, hope, and love. This fight is going on inside you and inside every other person too.” The children were silent for a while, and then one of them asked her grandmother, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee woman replied, “The one you feed.”

Congratulations graduates. It is time for me to say Au revoir, Hasta luego, and, as the Amandabele say in faraway Zimbabwe, Hamba gahle, Go well, and may the sun always enlighten your path wherever it leads.

Jeremy Curtoys
Professor of Political Science

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Taming the Dogs of War

An Address to the Faculty and Students of TarletonStateUniversity

March 6, 2002 

Opening Remarks

I was born in 1941 on the edge of empire, an empire on which, it was once said, the sun never set.  But in the end it did. 

Now I stand before you close to the edge of another empire, different in structure and political alignments, but just as far-flung and far more powerful than its predecessor.  The American empire is a commercial empire; its possessions are multi-national corporations that dominate the world’s economy as surely as its dollar is the foundation of the world’s currency.  When Greenspan speaks, the world listens.  And I wonder, as Benjamin Franklin once did, if the sun will continue to rise on America, blessing her with wealth and power and opportunity beyond the imagination of ordinary men and women, or if it is beginning to set on this great experiment in democracy.  One can never be sure about such matters when in the midst of change, rapid, mind boggling change, but there is no time like the present to reflect on what brought us, the mightiest nation on earth, to the cataclysmic event of September 11th 2001; a day when a handful of suicidal zealots commandeered 4 civilian jetliners, slamming two of them into the most potent symbol of our commercial empire with devastating effect.  These musings prompted me to write a letter to our president, expressing some of my deepest fears for the future of our nation.  Yes, it is my nation too.  For I am a citizen, like all of you gathered here tonight, not by birth but by adoption.  And, as the father of adopted sons, I can tell you that there is no stronger bond, transcending even biology, since its foundation is faith. 

An Open Letter to the Honorable George W. Bush, President of the United States of America 

Dear Mr. President, 

It is with considerable trepidation that I write you this letter.  My resolve was galvanized, however, when I heard your speech to Congress on the state of our union.  I am awed by your single-minded pursuit of your goal to extirpate all perpetrators of terror wherever they may be found, to bring them before the bar of justice.  To bring Osama bin Laden, Muhammad Omar and others who are a part of their coterie and circle, to face their accusers alive, if possible, dead if not.  At the same time I am dismayed by the rhetoric of frontier justice, an artifact of myth perpetuated by Hollywood movies, rather than a careful examination and analysis of world history.  The rhetoric escalated when you lumped the secretive and paranoid rulers of North Korea, the maniacal ruler of Iraq and their erstwhile enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran, as an Axis of Evil.

 

Judging from the applause you received on that line the idea is very satisfying to the majority of Congress and seemed to go down well with the population of the country.  But I worry when the majority is overwhelmingly in favor of something, especially something as abstract as an axis, whether evil or benign, since the majority is so often wrong.  More problematic still are its roots.  The megalomaniac World War II leader of Italy, Benito Mussolini, coined the term axis to describe the union of Italy, Germany and Japan then fighting against the alliance of Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the US.  Surely he is a poor model for an American president to emulate.  For its part, the concept of evil, reminds us of Ronald Reagan’s depiction of the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire, rooted in the imagery of the movie Star Wars.  David Frum, your speechwriter, who put evil and axis together, is a fine writer.  His book Dead Right, neatly encapsulated the parlous state of the right wing when your father was president.  But in describing Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an axis of evil, he was dead wrong.  In the first place this coupling runs the risk of joining forces that were not joined before, thus making the task of diplomacy more difficult than it already is.

 

There is also the problem of evil itself.  Who are we, mere mortals, to decide who is and who is not evil?  Is this not God’s business?  Didn’t his son warn us not to judge lest we be judged?

 

Then there is the matter of harboring terrorists and statements such as “if you are not for us then you are against us.”  The British could well have said that during the height of “The Troubles,” when Irish terrorists, members of the provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army, were planting car bombs in London, activities funded by Irish-Americans in Boston and New York.  Did the British threaten us with lethal harm if we did not give up the bankers who helped finance these acts of terror?  Absurd, of course, but those in whose countries terrorists are harbored are not necessarily terrorists themselves and to hold them hostage for the evil acts of others is just as reprehensible as the acts themselves.  It is the cycle of attack and retaliation that needs to be broken if we are to rid the world of terror as a means to political ends.  But how do we reach this goal?  If I were in your shoes this is what I would try to do.

 

I would use the office you hold, the “bully pulpit,” as a predecessor of yours once called it, to proclaim the cause of peace in place of war, of reconciliation in place of revenge, of diplomacy in place of violence, of aid that builds in place of aid that destroys.  A tall order, you will say, impossible for a president sworn to protect the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  In the short run you are right.  You had to respond as you did in the aftermath of September 11.  But in your State of the Union address you went further, raising the stakes in a way that could unleash terror on a scale beyond imagining.  So I beg you, Mr. President, tame the dogs of war.  If the dogs of war cannot be tamed, then chain them before they drag us into a maelstrom, which drains the blood of our youth and wastes our treasure.

 

The apostle Paul once said, “From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.”  America is the richest country on earth.  What then will we do with our wealth?  I have three suggestions to offer for your consideration.  I am recommending three policy changes, two internal one external that if followed consistently will free up resources.  These resources could then be used to provide aid overseas on a scale not seen since the end of the second world war when, after bringing Japan and Germany to their knees, America provided the aid to rebuild.  This time, however, if we play our cards right, we could build without first having to destroy.  The suggestions that follow may seem crazy.  My only fear, however, is that they are not crazy enough.

 

First, I would abandon our war on drugs.  In thirty years all we have succeeded in doing is to corrupt our judicial and law enforcement systems, clog our prisons and destabilize the governments of countries like Colombia, without having any appreciable effect on consumption at home.  Herbert Packer predicted this outcome when he wrote The Limits of the Criminal Sanction, a book that should be required reading for everyone involved in the war on drugs, from the Drug Czar down.  No doubt drugs have and continue to fuel terrorism, but the spigot will not be turned off until the demand dries up.  In the absence of serious effort on the demand side, interdicting supplies only serves to drive up the price, making it more profitable for those willing to take the risks involved in dealing and supplying drugs.  In other words, by interfering in the market we make it more profitable for the criminal element we are trying to suppress.

 

Second, I would urge Americans to confront our greatest national addiction, our appetite for oil, especially in its refined form.  With only 6 percent of the world’s population we consume 25 percent of the world’s oil, over half of it imported from overseas.  I do not know for sure, but I am willing to bet my last dollar that petrodollars find their way into the pockets of Al Qaeda cells as surely as narcodollars do.  But here again our response seems to be “give us more SUVs,” which the automobile companies are happy to supply at premium prices, protected by a loophole in the Clean Air Act.  Two solutions come immediately to mind.  If every American car owner were voluntarily to cut back their driving by 10 miles per week, one less quick trip to the grocery store would do it, we could reduce national consumption by roughly 3 billion gallons of gasoline per year.  (Assuming 110,000,000 personal automobiles getting 20 mpg on average).  Reducing consumption at home would reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, cut off some of the funds that find their way into the hands of terrorists, and reduce emissions that contribute to air pollution and global climate change.  The oil companies would suffer a loss of income, as would the vendors of gasoline, but the nation as a whole would benefit in return.  Asking Congress to send you a bill imposing a carbon tax would be an even better idea, but one that both they and you will probably reject out of hand.  Yet many economists, are strong advocates since it would put the issue square in the laps of consumers and allow market forces to regulate consumption.

Third, I would abandon the proposed missile defense system, concentrating our national energies and treasure on intelligence gathering, human as well as electronic, counter-intelligence and preparation for irregular actions such as are now taking place in Afghanistan.  Clearly, even as we work for peace, we must be prepared to defend ourselves from the depredations of anyone who wishes to do us harm.  But the costs that are certain to be incurred in the pursuit of a missile defense system, which may or may not work, are likely to be out of all proportion to the dangers it is designed to avoid.  Much better to keep the ABM treaty in place, pouring the money saved into the countries that we perceive as threatening us, killing them, as it were, with kindness.  This will be a long, torturous process.  There will be considerable opposition to it at home.  It will be enormously costly in both political and monetary terms.  There will be waste and mismanagement of funds, and the outcome is far from certain.  However, we will, if this course is followed, be able to say to the world that we fulfilled our obligation as the mightiest and richest country in the world to the least of these, our brethren.

 

Mr. President, if by some chance this letter reaches your desk and you read this far, I thank you.  I love my adopted land no less than those who were born here, but I fear for our future if we think peace and harmony can be achieved by mounting preemptive strikes against countries we perceive as rogue nations.  Such policies were repudiated a generation ago.  Time and patience brought down the Soviet Union, not missile power.  Please don’t let the humiliation of September 11th cloud your vision.  Please don’t let the armchair warriors persuade you to send our youth into battle without inviting the American people to engage in a thorough, thoughtful and patient debate.  And if, in your judgment we must go to war against another nation, for example Iraq, I beg you to ask Congress for a declaration of war and the taxes to pay for it.  Please don’t defer the cost to future generations as all your predecessors have done, pretending that we can send guns overseas and still have butter at home without cost.  We have only recently emerged from the long nightmare of the Vietnam era.  Please don’t plunge us back in.

 Yours truly, 

Jeremy Curtoys

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A Time for Tea

            My mother grew up in comfortable circumstances in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Her father, an executive with the Iron and Steel Corporation of South   Africa, had built a house in the northern suburb of Parkview, a stone’s throw from the Johannesburg Zoo.  The house with its back to the street, faced south and opened onto a verandah that overlooked an acre of lawn interspersed with herbaceous beds and shrubberies.  On one side there was a hard surfaced tennis court which was used regularly by the family and their many friends whenever the weather was conducive, which it was almost all year.  To run the household, my grandmother employed several African servants.  There was a cook, a houseboy, a charwoman to do the laundry, and a gardener.  The cook and houseboy both lived in servant’s quarters at one end of the house, while the gardener and charwoman came daily from one of the African townships, called locations in those days.  My grandfather also employed a chauffer, a Norwegian immigrant, who lived with his family in another part of town. 

            The household was run with clockwork-like precision, resembling the PBS series Upstairs Downstairs, except for the fact that both the family and their servants lived on the same floor, albeit at opposite ends of the house.  Every morning at sunrise each member of the family was greeted by a gentle knock on their bedroom door announcing that a tea tray was waiting for them.  This was no mere mug of hot water with a tea bag suspended in it.  Each tray had its own teapot, covered by a cozy, accompanied by a cup and saucer, a small jug of milk and a bowl of sugar.  Breakfast was served in the dining room at eight o’clock.  On the sideboard was an array of cereals in airtight glass containers, a bowl of fruit, a loaf of fresh bread and a toaster.  Both tea and coffee were on hand at breakfast time with hot milk for the coffee drinkers.  A cooked breakfast could be ordered from the kitchen with eggs, bacon and sausage common fare at breakfast time.  My mother liked her egg soft boiled, eaten in its shell with a bone spoon.  Another family favorite at breakfast time, especially on weekends, was kippered herring, imported from Scotland, where both my grandparents were born and grew up.

As the old grandfather clock in the hall struck eleven, the tea trolley was rolled into the drawing room by Jack, the houseboy.  It was time for elevenses, a big event at 3 Westcliff Drive.  Gracing the trolley was the silver tea service, a wedding gift from their parents, and the Spode china cups and saucers that were grandmother’s pride and joy.  Always included with elevenses was a variety of edibles which often included flap jacks, pancakes the size of a silver dollar.  These were the special creation of mother’s maiden aunt, who lived with the family.  Elevenses was also a popular time for entertaining guests, and friends would often drop in, assured of a warm welcome at that time of day.  When tennis parties were arranged for the morning, elevenses were served in the garden.  A light lunch was served in the dining room at one o’clock.  Then at four it was time for afternoon tea.  This ritual was usually performed on the verandah in good weather, or in the drawing room if it was raining or too cold to sit outside in comfort.  If guests were invited, sandwiches and a sponge cake would accompany tea.  As the sun set pre-dinner drinks were served in the study, a spacious room across the hallway from the drawing room.  Here my grandfather, by then home from work, presided.   My mother remembered dinner at eight in the dining room as a happy time when the entire family gathered to share their day.   

Such was my mother’s routine for the first twenty two years of her life.  Then one evening in late August of 1940 everything changed.  A thirty-nine year old electrical engineer on his way to Singapore disembarked in South Africa to tend to some business for his firm.  Sitting next to Evalyne at a dinner party arranged by a mutual friend, he was surprised to learn that she knew his brother well, though no mention of her was made by Nicolas when he had met Hugo on the docks of Port Elizabeth.  Three weeks later Hugo and Evalyne were married and sailed to Singapore.  The war was still a distant thunder a half a world away when they docked in Singapore harbor.  But within the next year, soon after I was born, the Japanese foes were advancing on the island.  On January 30th, 1942, Mother and I were assigned deck space on the Empress of Japan, a P&O Liner requisitioned by the British government to carry troops.  At first no one on board knew where they were heading, not even the captain.  Once clear of the island, however, he received orders to sail for South Africa, a lucky break for Mother and me, since she had a home there to return to.

Her joyful homecoming was tinged with deep sorrow and anxiety.  Evalyne’s beloved father had died while she was in Singapore and her husband was still there, locked up in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.  With no communication from him for more than three years, save for a single postcard she received soon after Hugo’s internment, she faced the future, not knowing what it held for her.  The only certainty in a world turned upside down by war was the daily routine of the household which proved a great source of comfort and stability.

At war’s end the family was reunited, traveling first to England then later, in the spring of 1947, to Argentina where Hugo was sent by his firm to represent their interests.  The job involved a lot of travel throughout South America and the Caribbean, so while Hugo was away on business Evalyne was left to cope with the complications of running a household in a strange land without the help that she had grown accustomed to.  By her own account she knew how to boil water, but little else.  However, that was all she needed to make a pot of tea, an essential start to her day and the foundation on which she planned every move.  Among her difficulties was mastering a strange language.  One day, returning from school, my sister and I found Evalyne holding our wire haired terrier Mickey aloft while admonishing her neighbor to be careful because she bit her dog.  “Stuff and nonsense,” she said emphatically, “he knew perfectly well what I meant,” though judging by the look on the man’s face, he was none too sure about this strange woman who had moved into the neighborhood.

All too soon the family was scattered once again.  Sheila, my sister, went first to attend university in England.  I followed two years later to finish my schooling.  For Sheila and I this was easy.  It is far easier to leave than to be left and we had the added excitement of new adventures to enjoy.  But for Evalyne this was very hard since our only time together from then on was during Hugo’s home leave which took place every third year.  On these visits much of the time was spent visiting friends and family, an essential for ex-patriots like my mother and father who were determined to keep in touch.  I have especially fond memories of these times as we drove the length and breadth of England.  Our days always began with early morning tea, no matter where we were, with friends or in a country pub.  Once underway, Mother’s antennae were soon scanning the horizon in search of a likely spot for morning tea.  In those days most pubs served tea and coffee from ten till eleven in the morning before opening the bar.  On the road again we’d drive for perhaps an hour before we had to stop for a pre-lunch beer.  After a picnic lunch, sitting on a blanket spread on the grass of a friendly farmer’s field, we’d be off again, though not for long.  It was soon time for afternoon tea and the search for a tea room, or a pub that served afternoon tea, began in earnest. 

When the time came to retire my parents considered England as a final destination.  In the end they settled in South Africa, partly because I was then farming in Rhodesia, but also because my father thought it more suitable for my mother since it had once been her home.  After his death, however, she moved once again to live with my family, then living in Texas.  We built a house with an apartment especially designed for her, a granny cottage as she liked to call it.  There she continued the habits of a lifetime at the center of which was the daily ritual of tea, first thing in the morning, at eleven o’clock and four in the afternoon.  So regular was her habit that we could tell the time by the clinking sound of tea cup on saucer which was invariably followed by an invitation to join her.  And so the days passed with the comfortable routines of a lifetime sustaining her through many changes and the untimely loss of the man she called the “mainspring” of her life. 

When her end came Evalyne was admitted to the local hospital.  On the last afternoon of her life two of our closest friends joined my wife Linda and me for tea in Mother’s room.  The hospital staff had very kindly turned a blind eye to our infraction of the rules and said nothing about the electric kettle we had brought in with which to brew a “proper cup of tea.”  Presiding over our gathering with her customary grace, Evalyne managed to drink her tea unaided while making sure that everyone was being taken care of.  The next morning around four o’clock the hospital called to tell us that Evalyne was failing fast.  By the time we got there she was gone.  A week later a memorial service was held in our local parish church.  The service was timed to end at four o’clock in the afternoon so the congregation could repair to the parish hall for a cup of tea, brewed in the approved way, as a final tribute to Evalyne, a dedicated tea drinker her entire life.

 May 13, 2011

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The Ride of a Lifetime

People sometimes say marriages are made in heaven.  Ours, however, was made in a Chevrolet, although I will concede that heaven probably played its part.  Here is the story of how it began.

            In the fall of 1970 I returned to UtahStateUniversity for my senior year after a summer harvesting peas and hops in WashingtonState.  Upon arrival in Logan I went see Hugh, the Campus Christian Fellowship Minister who very kindly allowed me to use his basement to store my stuff during my summers of migrant work.  As I was loading my car, Hugh casually asked if I had met Linda Hungling yet.  Thinking it a strange question, since I’d only just arrived in town, I said I hadn’t.  “She’s rather interesting,” he said heightening my interest considerably until he added, “She’s a nun.”  A nun!  Why would that interest me, I wondered as I scoured my mind for a polite rejoinder?  When none was forthcoming I simply said, “That is interesting,” before changing the subject.  We continued chatting a while, mostly about Hugh’s plans for the coming year, then I went on to open up my apartment.

            A week or two later I got a call from Hugh.  He was planning a project he thought would interest me.  He had invited Linda along with several other students to discuss his plan, asking me to give her a ride when I came.  On the appointed day I drove over to her apartment, only to find she had gone out for the evening.  None of the three girls she roomed with knew where she had gone or when she’d be back, so I went on to the meeting by myself.  Then one morning, as I was climbing the steps of Old Main on my way to class, I noticed an attractive young woman going in the opposite direction.  She was chatting with a friend.  Was she the nun, I wondered?  She wore neither a habit nor even the hint of a veil, but was dressed conservatively with a blue cape draped around her shoulders and as she passed, she smiled.  I’d see her periodically during the fall quarter after that, but never talked to her. 

Late one afternoon in early December I noticed my department head’s office door was open.  I popped my head in to see if he had read the paper I had left with him earlier.  Jae invited me in and as I entered, I saw the young woman I had often seen on the steps of Old Main, sitting to one side of his desk. Turning to her he asked, “Have you called Jeremy Curtoys?”  When she said she hadn’t, Jae responded “well, here he is.”  And so it was that I finally met Linda Hungling.

Now it happened that Linda was spending Christmas with friends in Los Angeles and had organized a ride with a fellow graduate student.  Knowing this, Jae, who was keen that I go to the University of California at Los Angeles for graduate school, hoped that I could be persuaded to interview there if I had a way to get down.  Hence he had suggested that Linda give me a call.  Linda agreed to ask Hiro if he still had room for another rider.  After exchanging telephone numbers and chatting a while, I left Jae’s office collecting my paper on my way out.  The next evening I got a call from Linda.  Hiro was delighted to have another rider, until he heard my name.  He was expecting Linda to recruit women, not another man.  We discussed the situation and as we talked another possibility began to percolate in my mind.  If Linda helped me to find other riders, I said I would consider driving my car down to LA.  That way I’d be free to go on to U.C. Berkeley, where I really wanted to go for graduate study, once my interview at UCLA was over.  This was a rash proposal since my ’58 Chevy Biscayne was well past its prime; although it still ran well, I could not be sure for how long.  However, Linda thought it a fine idea, and so it was arranged.  We’d ride to Los Angeles together with whomever we could find to join us. 

On Thursday December 17th around four o’clock in the afternoon Linda, her roommate Sharon and I headed down the road.  At St. George in southern Utah, we dropped Sharon off at her home.  Then it was just us, the nun and I, driving through the night to The City of Angels.  And as we drove we talked.

“What brought you to Utah?”  Linda wanted to know.  As I told her my story I found myself revealing more than I had ever revealed to anyone before.  I was at a crossroads in my life.  I knew from whence I had come but was uncertain about where I was going.  For her part, Linda was the ideal traveling companion.  She was a sympathetic listener, which encouraged me to share my hopes, fears, and dreams without reservation.  I was coming to the end of my story around midnight when we reached Las Vegas.   Neither of us had eaten since noon that day, so we pulled into the first all night restaurant we came to near the highway which happened to be a Denny’s.  An hour or so later we were on the road again with Linda behind the wheel.  It was my turn to ask the questions. 

“I’ve told you my story, now tell me yours,” I said, as we got underway.  “What do you know about me?” she countered.  “Well, I know you’re a nun.”  I couldn’t see the expression on her face, but judging by the way her hold on the steering wheel tightened, my disclosure came as a bit of a shock.  However, far from being a conversation stopper, it opened the floodgates of her memory as she told me her story with the same candor that I had shared mine.  Like me, Linda was also at a crossroads.  The life of a nun had not come up to her expectations and she wanted out.  But when she thought about the move, doubt set in.  She had come to Utah to contemplate her future, while at the same time honing her skills as a social studies teacher.  Would she remain a nun, or was it time to relinquish her vows?  As the sun rose behind us and we pulled into the parking lot of the apartment building in PanoramaCity where her friends lived, I got the answer.  “I’m staying,” she said, “at least for now.”

The story would have ended then had Linda not urged me to come in to meet Mary and Lou about whom I had already heard so much.  Mary was a nun when she taught Linda in the 8th grade, and they had remained very close ever since.  After leaving the convent Mary continued to teach.  One summer, while attending a workshop for experienced teachers in Los Angeles, she met Lou.  He was wandering around taking photographs of the college campus where Mary’s workshop was held.  Mary, who never knows a stranger, started the conversation. Before the summer was out, she had a job with the Los Angeles Schools which Lou, thanks to his many contacts, helped her secure, and they were married.

They were expecting us, so were not surprised by our arrival at around seven in the morning.  Mary greeted Linda like a daughter and the warmth of her greeting spilled over onto me, enveloping us both as she led us into the apartment.  Lou was more reserved than Mary, though no less welcoming.  They would soon be leaving for work, but before they did, Mary took Linda on a quick tour of the apartment, including the kitchen where she pointed to a variety of breakfast foods that we were welcome to.  Then, turning to me, Mary said I was welcome to spend the day there to rest before driving out to La Puente where I was due to stay over the weekend.  Once they were gone Linda and I crashed, she on Mary and Lou’s bed and me on their couch in the living room.  The next thing I remember was Mary coming home around four in the afternoon.  After a quick cup of tea, I took my leave.

The following day was a Saturday.  I spent it with the family who had kindly offered me accommodation until Monday.  They were complete strangers who had taken me in simply because their nephew, a friend of mine at UtahState, asked them to.  For their generosity I was very grateful.  However, we had very little in common, so I was at a bit of a loose end that day.  Imagine my delight when that evening the phone rang and it was for me.  Linda was on the other end of the line.  Would I like to join her tomorrow for lunch, she wanted to know?  She had friends who lived in Banning about a hundred miles east of Mary and Lou’s apartment, and since La Puente was on their way they could easily swing by to pick me up.  Naturally I said I would be delighted to join them.

The drive from La Puente to Banning took about an hour, during which time I learned more about Mary and Lou’s story while Mary quizzed me about mine.  Our conversations continued over lunch with Linda’s friends whom she had met at an experienced teacher’s workshop in Utah the year before.  Then, seemingly out of the blue, Mary turned to me and said.  “You know, Jeremy, how little room we have.  But you’d be most welcome to spend the night with us tonight.  We are very close to UCLA and after your interview tomorrow you could be on your way to Berkeley.”  I thought it a fine idea, but said I was not sure I’d find my way back to their apartment.  “I can show you the way,” said Linda brightly.  So Mary and Lou dropped us off to pick up my car and we drove on together for the second day, and as we drove we talked. 

Somewhere between La Puente and PanoramaCity I wondered out loud if Mary and Lou would mind if Linda went with me to Berkeley.  “I know they won’t,” she said without hesitation, and she was right.  Mary approved enthusiastically while Lou merely smiled.  I promised we’d be back in time for midnight mass on Christmas Eve, to which Mary added, “then we can celebrate Christmas together.”  Thus it was that on our third day together we were once again on the road, this time Berkeley bound.  As we drove, the conversation begun three days earlier continued.  Then it happened.  A gloriously impossible idea bubbled to the surface of our minds simultaneously, enveloping us with glorious possibility.  If we were married, we could continue riding together for life.  There were obstacles to be cleared, but none of them were insurmountable.  We both had degrees to complete and Linda would need to be released from her vows.  We also wanted to be sure that the impulse of the moment would last, so we agreed that we needed a cooling off period to be sure our decision was the right one.  At first we planned an August wedding at Linda’s home.  But youthful impetuosity combined with some very practical considerations caused us to move the day to a Saturday in March which coincided with Spring Break.  On that day, in the home of Linda’s friend Darcia, in a ceremony witnessed by close friends, with Hugh presiding, we were married.  Our ride of a lifetime had begun.

June 8, 2012

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A Childhood Adventure

 

To drift is to be in hell, to be in heaven is to steer.

                                       George Bernard Shaw

 

 

As a boy I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina with my mother and father and half sister.  My father, Hugo, was an electrical engineer representing a British company that manufactured switchgear for power stations, mines and oil fields.  My mother, Evalyne, was a stay-at-home Mom.  Sheila, my sister, 9 years older than me, had completed high school and I was attending an elementary school in Buenos Aires.  In 1951 Hugo was due for a refresher course at the company head office at Hebburn-on-Tyne in England.  Accordingly the plan was for him to fly over early in the year for the six week course, with Evalyne, Sheila and I following later for the vacation period of Hugo’s home leave.  As often happens in life, however, this plan unraveled before it could be set in motion.  A letter from my uncle Gavin, then farming in Rhodesia, advised Evalyne that if she did not return to South Africa, her childhood home, she would not likely see her mother or her aunt alive again.  Thus it was decided that Sheila would fly to Santiago de Chile to stay with her mother and stepfather and Mother and I would sail to Cape Town, South Africa and from there travel to Johannesburg to be with Grandmother Grace and Great Aunt Jenny.

Mother and I boarded the MV Tegelberg, a cargo vessel operated by the Dutch merchant marine company, Royal Interocean Lines, which in those days plied the waters between Buenos Aires and Yokohama, Japan, stopping along the way to take on and disgorge cargo in ports along the east coast of South America, the southern tip of Africa, and the East Indies, including Java, Sumatra and Singapore.  We took the first leg of the eight week voyage landing in Cape Town in late February.  The voyage over was uneventful and largely forgotten.  It was our return, after the death and burial of Grace and Jenny and the settling of their affairs was completed, events from which I was completely sheltered, that is etched in my memory almost sixty years later.  Mother and I were booked on the MV Straat Soenda, like the Tegelberg owned and operated by the Royal Interocean Lines, but at 8,000 tons half its size. We boarded in late May; fall in South Africa and Argentina, when the Cape rollers, as the subsurface ocean currents were called, are at their best, which is to say worst from the point of view of passengers prone to seasickness.  Mother was unaffected.  She was a “good sailor,” as she never failed to point out to me proudly, always adding that there was no shame in being sea-sick since the greatest sailor of all, Admiral Nelson, was often sick at sea.  Whether this was true or not I do not know, but it was cold comfort to me.  However, by the third day out the seas were calmer and so was my tummy.

The ship carried only 12 passengers, the bulk of its space being devoted to cargo.  We were lucky to get berths on board, since ships of this size did not have doctors on board and company policy forbade them from carrying children under the age of 18.  However, it happened that one of the passengers was a physician.  We later learned that he was also a writer who wrote the well known Doctor books in the 1950s under the pseudonym of Richard Gordon, with this cruise on the Straat Soenda an opportunity for research. A few years later he published his second book, Doctor at Sea, which like its predecessor, Doctor in the House, was a best seller in England.  We were all ignorant of this fact at the time, which is exactly what he intended, but ‘Doctor Gordon’s’ presence on board made it possible for Mother and I to travel home on the Straat Soenda, which paved the way to undreamed of adventure for a nine year old boy like me.

I was the only child on board and as a consequence, I had the run of the ship.  Within a few days, no part was foreign to me.  When I thought it time to check on the engine room, down the companionway I went, oil rag in hand, to check the bearings of the propeller shaft, though at sea the propeller is called a screw.  This most important task was performed every four hours round the clock by a crew member, but the Chief Engineer, no doubt the father of sons, suggested it would be a good task for me to perform when I came down to his domain.  There was method to his suggestion, since it took me a good twenty minutes to accomplish and kept me away from other parts of the engine room where I could really get into trouble.  I was careful, however, not to touch any part not authorized and to stay clear of the diesel engines, the size of small houses, or so they seemed to me at the time, that drove the vessel and all its parts, including the generators that provided electricity for the safety and comfort of all on board.  Being in the bowels of the ship and smelling of oil and diesel, there was no natural light in the engine room and all the air was drawn in from the surface through massive vents.  So it was not long before I would surface to see what was happening on deck.

The routines of a ship are invariant.  Early in the morning, before all but the most insomniant of passengers were about, the decks were swabbed with sea water, a job reserved for rookie seamen on their first voyage or, if all were experienced deck hands, then for the ones who signed up last.  On RIL ships these men were all from the Orient: Malays, Chinese and Indonesians.  The Stewards, from Chief on down, were all Chinese and the officers Dutch, a practice that no doubt was a legacy of the colonial era, only recently past in the Dutch East Indies, where command was the white man’s burden and obedience the legacy of the brown.  As a passenger and as a young boy, I was oblivious to these distinctions and immune to the ship’s hierarchy, since I could and did roam freely all day long wherever the spirit led me.  Had I been more reflective I would no doubt have been aware that I was enormously privileged:  sleeping in a first class cabin in my own bunk, eating in the dining saloon where only the Captain and his senior most officers ate with the passengers, free to come and go as the spirit moved, but I was a child and the immediate was all that engaged me. And it was time to attend to the bridge.

The bridge on a ship is hallowed ground.  No one enters without express permission from the commander of the vessel, and this is rarely given.  It was my very good fortune to make the acquaintance of the radio officer early in the voyage.  He took an interest in me and invited me to his aerie, adjacent to the bridge where he could be reached at a moments notice by the captain to pass on any information that might need to be urgently conveyed.  Most of the time, however, the seas were calm and there was not another ship in sight, so the radio officer had time on his hands.  This he freely shared with me, getting me interested in the arcane details of radio transmission, instructing me on how to make my own crystal set, a project I always intended to embark upon once we were home, but never did, and teaching me the rudiments of Morse code, still very much in use at the time.  I have long since forgotten how to make a crystal set and am incapable of communicating in Morse code even though my life depended upon it.  But one thing I have not forgotten is the thrill of going onto the bridge.  On my first visit to the bridge, I learned that every officer took his turn on watch, a four hour stint, which meant that junior officers generally got interrupted nights of sleep since they drew the night shifts.  The coxswains likewise took the helm for four hours at a time.  They, like the other crew members, were mostly Indonesians or Malays, but all spoke English.  Indeed, English was the language of the sea.  Even though the Straat Soenda flew under a Dutch flag and was built in Holland for a Dutch Line, the controls by which the bridge communicated with the engine room and the rest of the ship were all labeled in English and communication concerning the sailing of the ship among officers was likewise always in English.

In the middle of the bridge, which commanded a 360 degree view of the vessel and the sea around it was the helm, a wheel made of wood with spokes at roughly 12 inch intervals all around its circumference, which controlled the rudder that steered the vessel.  On a particularly calm day, in mid ocean with no ships in sight, a lone albatross circling overhead, the captain asked me if I’d like to take a turn steering.  “Yes please, if I may,” was my immediate response.  But first I must have some instruction.  So the coxswain on duty at the time made room for me on the platform there to observe his every action for a while.  It looked easy enough.  The course was set and my job would be to hold it, not allowing a greater variation than one degree to the left or the right of due west on the compass.  When the needle strayed to the left, port in the language of the sea, I was to turn the wheel to the right, steadily but firmly till the ship was back on course.  If the ship veered to the right, starboard on a ship, then I must turn the wheel to the left.  It took me five or ten minutes to get the hang of it, with the coxswain hovering nearby in case I panicked.  But once I relaxed my grip a little, dropped my shoulders and got into the rhythm of the thing, the coxswain stepped down from the platform and there I was, where the azure sea met the cerulean sky, steering 8,000 tons of steel towards South America.  It was a thrilling and unforgettable experience.  For a brief, shining moment I was in heaven. 

 8 May 2009

 

Word Count

 

Total:              1793

Text only:       1759

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