Sunday, March 30, 2008
It was a magical place. Snowcapped Kanchenjunga dominated the horizon when the peak shed its clouds. In spring, magnolias and rhododendrons coated the hillsides with color. Monkeys lived right in town. We rode rough little ponies instead of taxis. I went to a school named the New School, but I left India in 1946.
Fifty years later, I went back to Darjeeling with some of my old schoolfellows. Our leader approached the lady behind the desk of the Windamere Hotel and told her we were the New School party. She exclaimed, "But we expected children." One of our gray-haired number told her, a little sadly, "We were children then." But after that, Darjeeling took us to its heart as if we had never left. And Kanchenjunga shone on the horizon as if for us alone.
WashingtonA French Connection
We were Parisians, but my family had a vacation home in a village in eastern France. It was there that in March 1945, after Patton had liberated the region, I met my future husband, an Ordnance Corps lieutenant. Two years later, after many visits on leave from Nuremberg, where Harold had been transferred, we spent our honeymoon in our house. I did not go back until 1953, when my husband was sent to Korea, and I came home to Mother with three children and a fourth on the way.
Five years ago, now a widow, I went back by myself, driving through the lovely French countryside and visiting my little village. Our house, no longer ours, was still there, and the villagers were still curious about the girl from Paris who had married "the American."
HagerstownD¿j¿ Vu All Over Again
It was a trip to New Jersey, and a friend and I decided to stop at my childhood home. I approached the homeowner, who was washing her car, introduced myself and asked if I could take a picture. We realized we had the same first name. The car she was washing was the same make as mine. As we chatted, I learned that our sons also had the same name. She was a second-grade teacher, the same profession and grade that I had retired from after 32 years. Then it came out that we were both widows.
We walked over to the car my friend was waiting in and as the two of them started to chat, they realized that they knew many of the same people from Long Island. Finally, the woman said, "I have to go inside. This is giving me the chills." I wish I had pursued the answers to so many more questions, but it's more fun to think that they, too, might have meshed.
RockvilleControl and Chaos
Thirty years ago, when I first visited Portugal, the country was just escaping conservative dictatorship. As a student, I befriended locals who warned me away from certain conversations. Unless I regularly professed my love for Portugal to strangers in trains, buses and taxis, I could never return, it was said. Worse, I could end up in a state prison, its lowest cells underwater at high tide.
Last year I returned. The people still greeted an American with glee. But conservatism had truly fled. Where crime was once nonexistent, thieves now robbed train travelers. Occasionally, burned-out abandoned structures gazed vacantly on the road. Lisbon was hosting a weekend celebration for gays and lesbians. A pop concert was staged in the main square, the very place where the Inquisition once burned its victims. The neat, clean world of neo-fascism had yielded to the messy confusion of freedom.
WinchesterThe Marches of Time
"Guide right!" "No one goes through the band!"
It was as if I'd just heard the words yesterday, not 30-plus years ago. I was in Indiana marching with almost 500 alumni of the Purdue University marching band to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the "Block P," the first band formation ever made. Worries about aging muscles and marching were pushed aside as I reconnected with friends I hadn't seen in decades. A 7:30 a.m. rehearsal on a dark drill field proved that both mind and muscles quickly remembered the routine. For one weekend I was 21 again, reliving the thrill of being on the field at halftime, once again playing "Hail Purdue" and having the crowds cheer.
I might not have done it in 30 years, but it won't be 30 more before I do it again.
FairfaxAncient History, Modern Girls
I've been fascinated by the way girls are treated in Pakistan since I was a girl myself and traveled there to visit extended family. Still, I never quite understood their predicament until I stepped inside a madrasa in Quetta in 2005. "I realized that there was nothing for these girls," the local imam told me. "When the madrasa opened, I convinced the men -- mostly of Afghan origin -- to allow their girls an education."
An encounter with these young women was like reliving ancient history. Behind the iron gates, girls as young as 8 memorized the Koran; they also mended clothes and cooked their own food. "Don't you want to see life outside the school?" I asked a young teacher. Her response still stings me: "Of course we have desires, but we learn to suppress them."
FairfaxVetting Your Life
I grew up in southern Oregon. The closest town (Murphy, pop. 650) was five miles away. It had a general store with everything you could need, from a butcher's counter to outdoor supplies -- beaver traps, anyone? -- to hay and animal feed. A potbellied wood stove provided heat. Best of all was the glass-fronted candy counter with rows of penny candies. Murphy also had a small doctor's office, manned by my father. I was born there.
I went back a few years ago after both my parents had passed away. The general store was now a garishly lit convenience store. Where aromatic bales of hay were once stacked was a shelf of R-rated videos. But babies continue to be born in my father's old office. Not human ones, though. A big sign says, "Please Unload Livestock Around Corner," with an arrow pointing the way. I tell my little boy that Mama was born in a veterinary office for farm animals.
WashingtonA Farewell to Arms
In December 2006, my wife, Rose, and I traveled to Frankfurt, where we had both been stationed in the Army after marrying in 1983. The Army's significant presence had ended with the Cold War, and we wanted to see if anything remained of our newlywed haunt.
The apartment we had lived in had been torn down, replaced by a high school. The headquarters where we had worked still stood, now converted to Goethe University's main academic building. The armed guards and checkpoints were long gone, and wandering the building freely felt surreal. Our favorite restaurant -- a small Greek place -- was still in business, so we stopped for a romantic dinner. During the meal, Rose remarked, "It's sad. Before, we were young. Now, we're the oldest people here." It seems that over the years we've changed as much as Frankfurt.
Joseph W. McKinney,
Brandy Station'If Life Is Long, We Will Meet Again'
From 1969 to 1971, I was a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching math in Sarawak, on the northern coast of Borneo. For two years, I lived at a rural school with students from Malay fishing villages, Chinese shops and Iban longhouses. Later, while raising my own family, I often recalled slogging through the jungle, bathing in the river, learning to live with no electricity.
When I returned to Sarawak 30 years later, I didn't know what to expect. Had modernization spoiled the wonder I had known? Many things had indeed changed. The main road, once dusty dirt, was now paved. Almost everyone had electricity. Once, everyone in town had known me. Now, almost everyone had been born after I'd left.
But the important things remained. The village people welcomed us warmly, my son was shown the Malay way to bathe and eat, and the longhouse was still the Iban community's focal center, even though many people had moved to the city. When I first left Sarawak, both Malays and Ibans said, "If life is long, we will meet again." When I returned, people said to me with a smile, "Life is long."
CroftonA Persistent Illusion
I went cross-country in a Chevy van when I was 18 years old and just out of high school. It was 1974, and I remember visiting national parks, the Badlands and a certain ramshackle tourist attraction in South Dakota. This last was called Cosmos and billed itself as "the strangest location in the Black Hills," where balls and water rolled uphill, the laws of nature and gravity went berserk, etc.
Twenty-six years later, I had an opportunity to take my husband and three boys, ages 7 to 15, on a cross-country trip with a similar route. Yep, Cosmos was still there. The boys weren't as impressed as I was -- until, that is, my youngest was placed in the "truth chair," a contraption suspended from the wall with no visible means of support. When asked if he ever fought with his brothers, he answered "no" (obviously a lie!) and the chair tilted him out. Sure, it was some kind of visual and kinesthetic illusion, but my sons' fascination with the Cosmos was as real as mine had once been.