Bending the twig


"People shouldn't have to do that," a six-year-old boy thought to himself. Eighty-three years later he still feels the same way.

It is generally believed—and surely is true—that early childhood experiences help shape a person's later life. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree…

In the spring of 1927 my father, a master teacher, was considering two offers: one to chair the Classics Department at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, the other to accept the headmastership of a boarding school on the other side of the world, Brent School in the Philippine mountain town of Baguio.

He was certain the New England school would be the better choice for his young family and was close to accepting the offer, but my mother was an adventuresome spirit for whom an exotic world was a powerful attraction. She was certain her little son would benefit. Guess who won?

So began a life for which I've been forever grateful, often astonished at the turn of events.

Most memories (if they exist) of leaving the United States at such a young age are fragmentary and trivial; only a few remain in sharp focus.

In early summer of 1927 we traveled by train from New York City to Montreal, but by which route? I vaguely remember the train stopping briefly at a town whose name was spelled out in whitewashed stones on a bank near the station. Could it have been St. Johnsbury? This town once had such a marker and archival photographs showing it are oddly familiar.

Over many years in the Far East we occasionally returned to the U.S. for a month or so, always traveling by Canadian Pacific ship and transcontinental train between Montreal and Vancouver. C.P. liners, gleaming white with tan funnels, were favored in the Pacific, although the American Dollar Line and Japan's NYK liners were close in size and comfort.

Sailing from Vancouver our initial voyage was aboard the RMS Empress of Asia, one of two coal-burning sister ships built in Scotland for Canadian Pacific in 1912. Our First Class cabin was Victorian in décor, dark with a single porthole. The first days at sea I remember being seasick and finding small comfort in my gleaming brass bed. Later I ate in the children's dining room under the supervision of a governess and played in the children's playroom under similar watchful eyes.

Before reaching Manila, the usual ports of call after Victoria, B.C., were Yokohama, Kobe, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Unremarkable memories exist from repeated visits to each over the years, but certain scenes from that first trip remain emphatically clear.

Long before atmospheric pollution was a matter of concern, coal-burning ships like the Empress of Asia spewed thick black clouds into ocean skies. Down in the ship's bowels 150 Chinese, Malay and Hindu crewmen labored day and night stoking the fires to maintain pressure in the big boilers, working non-stop under the supervision of British and Canadian officers. After ten days at sea (the time it took to go from Vancouver to Yokohama), the coal supply ran low and refueling was necessary.

This first leg was a long haul and Yokohama had no coaling facilities, nor did Kobe, the next stop. Nearby Nagasaki did, however, so after the usual traveler-oriented visit to Kobe with time ashore for sightseeing, the ship moved 50 miles to Nagasaki where passengers were not allowed to get off. It was there during a pause in the three-week trip to Manila that a scene was permanently etched in my mind.

The Empress of Asia tied up to a huge barge from which two long plank gangways reached into a pair of open doorways low in the ship's hull. The barge itself seemed to be a floating mountain of coal.

We passengers went to the promenade deck to look down on what went on.

The swaying, rail-less gangways supported an uninterrupted stream of men, each bent almost double from the weight of an enormous basket heaped with coal. The basket’s weight was partly supported by the sharp curve of a man’s back and partly held in place by a broad headband around his forehead. The men lurched up the flexing planks murmuring and gasping until they disappeared inside the ship. Relieved of their loads, they trotted back down the other gangway with empty baskets to be filled again.

Under floodlights at night it was a surreal scene. Each man, utterly black with the coal dust that covered him, followed his predecessor with hardly any space between them. They formed a silent procession like an unbroken column of black ants.

Until my bedtime, I kept returning to the promenade deck. Looking down, I grew puzzled and disturbed, seeing what I'd never experienced or imagined in my short American life. How could men be required to do such work, I wondered; why did they want to, or have to? I remember thinking over and over:“Men should not have to do that.” With a child’s uncertainty, I hoped I never would.

I did not mention this to my parents, but kept inside the belief that humans should be more than ants under the command of overseers who yelled at every stumble and error slowing the pace.

How this affected my later years, I don't know. But early on I realized humans possess an innate dignity that servitude must not suppress.

I never again saw this process in real time, although a few years ago while watching a television program containing archival footage from the past, a brief scene showed a ship being coaled in just such a fashion in some other Far Eastern port. During a century of steam, refueling in one form or another had been necessary throughout the world wherever large coal-burning ships put in. In stentorian tones the television commentator expressed his outrage that such human exploitation could have been possible. And yet at an early age I was witness to this very thing.

Another distressing memory from that first trip, experienced again during my early travels to different Chinese cities, was a shameful situation existing in Shanghai. Colonial privilege was common and expected throughout the Orient in those days, but it could be carried too far.

After the Boxer Rebellion was suppressed in 1901 by a large coalition army from many nations (led by the Japanese) the eastern portion of China came under the control of a dozen different countries. Various European nations, Russia, and Japan were awarded"concessions" of territory and cities throughout China (these were in addition to other concessions granted Great Britain and France a half century earlier). Because Shanghai was a major port, concessions in that city were especially well known to the outside world. The United States did not to have its own concession, but along with Great Britain and a few others jointly managed the International Concession, which seemed, however, to be more British than anything else.

To visit friends in the International Concession we passed Huang Pu Park with its polo grounds near which I was told a sign had once proclaimed that Chinese and dogs were not allowed entry without permission. How could this be, I wondered? Weren't we in China? (The story behind this sign is convoluted in both fact and legend.)

Another vivid recollection during our first visit to Shanghai: as we left the pier, a British aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes (one of the first in the world, commissioned in 1923, therefore only four years old), started backing astern and almost collided with our ship. Alarms rang and officers rushed us to the opposite side. Apparently the two vessels missed one another by only a few yards. Before this happened, I had a chance to get a good look at the Hermes, a strange sight to a boy with its lopsided superstructure and elevated flight deck hanging over the stern. Many years later while serving in Naval Intelligence during World War II, I came across a dispatch saying the Hermes had been sunk off Ceylon by the Japanese carriersSoryuandHiryu. She couldn’t have put up much of a fight with her thin skin and antiquated Swordfish biplanes.

To get anywhere conveniently in a Chinese city one took a rickshaw pulled by a man (often barefoot) trotting between hand bars, for taxis were few, and cars weren't commonly available to non-residents. In Shanghai’s International Concession most of the police force consisted of Sikhs from India: bearded, turbaned, fierce-looking men armed with stout truncheons. When a Caucasian rode in a man-pulled rickshaw, the Sikhs beat Chinese pedestrians out of the path, usually aiming at heads. When I first saw this as a little boy, I was terrified. In subsequent years I remained deeply distressed by such mindless brutality.

The same policing didn’t occur in Hong Kong, a British Crown Colony. Nevertheless the colonial situation impressed me. My parents became friends with an English couple who lived on The Peak, a mountain enclave reserved for the elite. They had three sons in my father’s boarding school in the Philippines, no doubt the chief reason we were invited to their luxurious villa. We were met at the dock by their special rickshaw, unlike any other I have seen. It was huge with six-foot wheels and seated three or four abreast in the high padded seat. To climb aboard, you had to use a couple of built-in steps. The vehicle was pulled by a team of four Chinese in blue and white livery (they were known as“coolies”), with a relief team of four others in uniform running alongside. The mountain road was steep and teams had to change without breaking stride. Out in front a head member of the team shouted to make way and, I think, rang a bell as he did so. Pedestrians scattered with our approach, but no heads were broken.

Hong Kong was memorable in another way. Over the years whenever we stopped in Hong Kong en route to Manila aboard a Canadian Pacific liner, armed Royal Marines boarded the ship and were posted on bridge, bow and stern 24 hours a day. In 1927 they were the first armed men I had ever seen. They were on guard against attacks by Moro pirates who, despite sailing in fast outriggervintas, had successfully boarded steamships. The marines stayed aboard when we reached Manila and returned to Hong Kong where they debarked to wait for the next ship of British registry.

In subsequent years ambivalent and conflicting views emerged in this American youngster trying to make sense of a Far Eastern world that was now his home. In the 1920s and 30s, the United States was emerging from a brief colonial past that later was referred to as our empire-building phase. My father’s school, closely affiliated with the Episcopal Church, had as chairman of the Board of Trustees the American bishop of the Philippines. Diocesan affairs between the native and American divisions were ethnically and racially separate. Brent School’s student body and faculty were exclusively either American or British, while grounds crew and kitchen staff were Filipinos and Chinese. No Asians of any kind were enrolled as students or employed as faculty. While this was accepted as de facto and was the rule to play by, it never affected my father; he remained as egalitarian in outlook as when we first arrived. His acceptance and befriending of others, no matter their race or ethnicity, at times was viewed askance by the American Old Guard.

But what did this state of affairs mean to me? 

The twig was being bent in ways I later came to regret. The years we lived in the Philippines I grew up in a society defined by class. Economically and politically dominant (but generally beneficent) Caucasians lived apart from the Filipinos and other Asians. My playmates were white middle class Americans—others of different origin or ethnic background were absent in this remote mountain town of Baguio. 

Not long before both the Chinese and Filipinos had been at war with the Western world. In China it had been the Boxer Rebellion, in the islands it was the fierce Philippine War, a four-year Vietnam-like conflict that Americans at home learned little about, preferring not to know its cost in lives and matériel. Both these Asian peoples had been defeated and for the time being both were subservient to Western dominance.

I won’t get ahead in my story here, saying only that later when we moved from the Philippines to Imperial Japan, I had an instant comeuppance as it became apparent that at best we were tolerated as“guests” in a society that considered itself superior to anything we could offer. At the worst, we weregaijin, or barbaric foreigners. We American youths were looked upon with degrees of amusement and irritation, sometimes downright hostility. We weren’t anywhere near the top of the totem pole.

The tactless bend in the twig from earlier days soon straightened out—although a kink remained as an uncomfortable reminder of unwitting bias in the past. But the better values that came to a boy in his formative years endured.